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April 10, 2017 -  By

iS516977562cloud-wifiIrrigation manufacturers offer details to help contractors become more comfortable with Wi-Fi-enabled irrigation controller technology.

Irrigation technology continues to evolve rapidly. And while this trend ultimately improves systems’ efficiency and performance, technological advancements can leave some contractors in the dark about how to best incorporate them into their businesses.

A recent Irrigation Association (IA) webinar focused on the growing popularity of Wi-Fi-enabled irrigation controllers and the advantages and opportunities this technology brings to the landscape irrigation market.

Wi-Fi-enabled controllers draw information from data stored in the cloud via a client’s Wi-Fi signal and determine a lawn’s precise watering needs based on real-time weather events. Presenters Stuart Eyring, president of Hydro-Rain, a manufacturer of professional irrigation and low-voltage lighting products based in North Salt Lake, Utah, and Chris Klein, CEO and co-founder of Rachio, a manufacturer of smart irrigation controllers based in Denver, discussed the basics of Wi-Fi controllers and how the technology can improve water efficiency.

Q: How do Wi-Fi irrigation controllers work?

Chris Klein (CK): A Wi-Fi irrigation controller leverages the homeowner’s Wi-Fi network to connect to the cloud. When you think about the cloud, there is nothing mysterious about it, it’s just computers running somewhere else. That’s where a lot of the process and scheduling takes place, and then that information is sent back down to the controller. The cool thing about having a Wi-Fi controller is that you can have access to it through an app on any device you want—a desktop computer, mobile phone, tablet, etc.—and they all communicate with the same computers in the cloud.

Q: Have you seen examples of Wi-Fi controllers being used to upgrade older systems?

CK: Yes, this is happening at a rapid pace. Eighty-five percent of our customers are replacing working controllers, and it’s just as easy as replacing any other controller.

Q: How do you program Wi-Fi controllers?

Stuart Eyring (SE): In terms of programming, the smartphone apps dramatically add to the ease of which programing is done—it’s much better than programming a typical display controller. But there’s a difference in comfort level in terms of where the user base is coming from. There is a transition point to getting people comfortable with this.

Q: Traditional smart controllers had their own weather instruments on-site, but Wi-Fi controllers now have access to millions of weather stations. How do they get evapotranspiration (ET) information?

CK: We use a variety of weather data providers and run them through equations to get ET. This process is getting more and more sophisticated. The other cool thing is homeowners can choose a weather station, which promotes continued engagement with their irrigation system.

SE: In our case, we use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service database in the U.S. Internationally, we use a database out of Norway. But it actually can be very helpful to have a rain sensor at the location, as well, because it can improve reliability.

Q: So you can add other sensors to a Wi-Fi controller?

SE: Yes, we’ve seen an increase in the use of sensing devices like weather stations and moisture sensors on-site that improve the quality of data.

Q: How accurate are a Wi-Fi controller’s weather tracking capabilities?

SE: There are potential issues within a climate or a microclimate. There is always the risk that a weather event close by was picked up by a weather station but was not observed on the actual site where the controller is. That is why it’s important to choose weather stations that best represent the homeowner’s area. As we move forward, we will see a greater proliferation of weather stations that will make data better. But the addition of the on-site sensors that we talked about can help compensate for inadequacies.

Q: Wi-Fi tends to be a weak signal. How far away can you get from the controller and still have it work?

CK: That depends on the router at the home and its location, as well as what the house is made of. But typically you can get about 100 feet away from the router. The best way to check is to walk out with your phone and get a feel for what the Wi-Fi range might be. We don’t have a ton of Wi-Fi range issues, so I wouldn’t get hung up on this issue. Most homes have 10 to 20 devices hooked up to their Wi-Fi, so most homes are equipped for this.

SE: If range were an issue, Wi-Fi extenders (can extend the range) and are relatively inexpensive.

Q: What happens to the controller if it loses the Wi-Fi connection?

SE: The majority of the data is kept in the cloud, but there is a basic operating program that’s stored on the actual controller. While the controller won’t typically make any adjustments based on environmental conditions while in that mode, it will continue to run. When the connection is reestablished, the adjustments will begin again. This is typical across manufacturers.

Q: How do you protect security in terms of Wi-Fi and passwords?

SE: Security definitely can be a concern to a homeowner when they allow someone access to their network. But there is a difference between a contractor connecting to a homeowner’s network and connecting through the cloud. In an ideal case, the homeowner is giving their contractor access through the cloud rather than through a peer-to-peer network. The homeowner is sharing an access code through an app that would allow their contractor to control the system through the cloud but not have access to the homeowner’s network.

Q: How can smart Wi-Fi controllers save water?
SE: The biggest opportunity in the area of water savings is to eliminate the set-it-and-forget-it mentality. It’s very common to see a controller set to the same schedule year after year, so there is a large opportunity to save there.

CK: With Wi-Fi controllers, the main point is getting the scheduling into the cloud. The smart controllers and their related apps encourage high engagement rates with homeowners. For example, 95 percent of our customer base uses the app on a monthly basis, 75 percent of them are interacting every two weeks and 25 percent are interacting with it daily. The customer is really involved.

Q: What happens if I buy my controller today and in 60 days it’s out of date?

CK: Updates to the firmware and the app happen automatically, so customers always have the latest and greatest version. In terms of hardware, who knows what will happen in the future, but as of now, our Generation 1 and 2 products work the same.

SE: In most cases, you won’t even know the firmware has been updated unless you go in and look at it. And if you’re not getting updates on a regular basis you should be nervous. Just like a smartphone, there are periodic updates that can include things such as new security features. To have high confidence in the company that’s providing this service, you should see frequent firmware updates because it means they are paying attention. If the system is automatically being updated, you won’t have to go out and buy another model unless there is a big hardware change. Then, the model will be constantly improving automatically over time as manufacturers make things work better.

Q: What are the business impacts and opportunities that can be enjoyed by contractors venturing into this arena?

CK: There is a great opportunity to impact a contractor’s business by having a number of connected customers. Step one is giving the customer a product they want and a product they love. By installing that product and working with them you have a connection with them—and it’s a sticky connection, more so than emails and flyers. You can stay in touch, the homeowner knows where to go for help and it presents an opportunity for customer retention.

Q: What about support? How do you help contractors when they are stuck?

CK: We have a dedicated contractor phone line and can be reached through email and chat, too.

SE: We have noticed that there is really more upfront handholding required, but once the controller is installed and operating, support requirements go down because of the ease of the interface and how intuitive it is. Getting started can be challenging, but once contractors get the hang of it, it’s really very easy.

illustration: ©istock.com/JackyLeung

Emily Schappacher

About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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