Smart sprinkler controllers: 'The future of irrigation'

Thursday , June 02, 2016 - 6:11 PM1 comment

OGDEN — Nobody wants to be “that guy.” You know, the guy whose sprinklers are watering the lawn in the pouring rain?

Still, if your residential irrigation system is on some sort of automated timer, odds are good that, at some point during the summer, your sprinklers and Mother Nature will decide to lay down a little moisture at the exact same time — and usually when you’re away from home, so you can’t hit the rain delay button on your system.

So then, what’s a conservation-minded homeowner to do? Go get yourself a smart irrigation controller.

Smart irrigation controllers are like the common automated sprinkler timer. On steroids. A homeowner inputs a number of parameters for each watering station — things like the kinds of vegetation, soil types, the slope of the landscape, the amount of shade or sun — and the controller does the rest. Using a Wi-Fi connection, it monitors local weather data via the internet to determine when and how much water to apply in each part of the yard. Some smart controllers also use soil probes or rain sensors to better monitor a yard’s microclimate.

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Tage Flint, general manager and CEO at Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, stresses that education has always been the key to conserving water. 

“What we’re finding is that the more educated the water user is, the more efficient they are in their water usage,” he said.

To that end, the district is hosting a free Spring Garden Fair — which will also include information on smart controllers — on Saturday, June 4, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Learning Garden, 2837 E. State Road 193, in Layton.

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Flint says new technologies are helping to boost water conservation. For example, when a homeowner installs a smart controller, it generally makes an immediate difference.

“What we’re seeing is that, almost overnight, we’re getting a 30- to 200-percent reduction in water use,” Flint said.

Kelly Kopp, a professor of plants, soils and climate at Utah State University, in Logan, has been focusing much of her research on these new controllers.

“I do think that the future of irrigation is going to focus on technology,” Kopp says. “And smart irrigation controllers are a big part of that, with huge potential water savings.”

Kopp estimates that typical homeowners are irrigating twice what they need to.

Flint points out that, in Northern Utah, homeowners typically irrigate six months of the year. And during those six months, 67 percent to 70 percent of all residential water is applied outside.

“Every time a sprinkler system cycles through, that’s thousands and thousands of gallons of water,” he said.

Brad Wardle, director of marketing for Utah-based Orbit Irrigation Products, in North Salt Lake, says most people just need help when it comes to tending to their landscapes.

“We overwater — plain and simple,” Wardle said. “People don’t know how to water; it’s a guess as to how long they need to do it.”

But a smart controller can take much of that guesswork out of irrigating.

Orbit recently entered into the “smart” market with its B-Hyve Smart WiFi Sprinkler Timer. While some companies sell their controllers for $250 or more, Wardle says Orbit purposefully sells it at around $100.

“It was a deliberate decision to price it where people could afford to save water,” Wardle said.

That’s the idea behind the rebate program Weber Basin Water Conservancy District has been running for the past four years — make conserving water affordable. The district, partnered with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, offers rebates to residents purchasing smart irrigation controllers.

“We rebate half the cost of the controller, up to $150,” Flint said.

Darren Hess, assistant general manager at Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, says nobody really wants to overwater.

“They just want their yard to look nice and green,” he said.

Hess has been running comparison tests on six or seven smart controllers — from major players in the field like Rainbird, Rachio, Skydrop, Orbit and Hunter. The tests started in December, and should be completed by the end of August. Although Hess says it’s too early to make any recommendations, he has some early observations. It appears that a couple of the controllers are being overly conservative and not watering enough, and one controller is overwatering, according to Hess.

“What we’re looking for is a controller that comes closest to watering 100 percent of a landscape’s needs,” he said. “Anything more, and it’s wasting water. Anything less, and folks are unhappy. And in the end, we have to have happy customers who are happy with the look of their landscapes.”

In her research, Kopp has found that smart controllers “definitely save water, which is fantastic.” On the other hand, many tend to cause “negative plant physiological impacts.” Translation? They don’t water enough to keep plants thriving.

However, once one of these smart controllers is “dialed in,” it really can save water and keep the landscape happy, Kopp said. But a smart controller isn’t a substitute for a smart homeowner.

“You actually have to get out and look at your landscape occasionally,” she said.

Britney Hunter, an extension assistant professor in horticulture at the Davis County USU Extension Service, says she’s “pleasantly surprised” at how affordable these smart timers are, and just what the technology is capable of.

“As long as a smart controller is setup correctly, it should be able to save a lot of water,” she said.

Indeed, Hunter said if everyone in Davis County replaced their irrigation timer with a smart controller, the average home would save 8,800 gallons of water annually. Nationwide, that could translate into a savings of 120 billion gallons.

“It really adds up when everybody does their part,” she said.

Hunter also recommends a water check — a free, one-on-one assessment of a homeowner’s irrigation system.

Smart irrigation controllers are still relatively unknown; Wardle estimates less than 5 percent of all residential irrigation systems use these new sprinkler timers.

“The future is not yet here,” Wardle says.

But it’s coming.

“People want one less thing to think about — to worry about,” Hess said. “And, they really don’t want to be that guy watering in the rain.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

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