Demystifying smart controllers

Learn how to make internet-connected devices work for both you and your clients.
A Rachio smart controller with a smart phone and the words "Demystifying Smart Controllers" over the graphic.
(Photo: Rachio)

Smart irrigation controllers are key to finding new ways to improve efficiency in water use while also improving results for clients. As water restrictions increase across the country, a smart irrigation controller can make the difference between a staggering utilities bill and a healthy landscape.

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But as technology advances, the options can feel complicated for both homeowners and contractors alike. Finding the right smart controller to fit the situation can seem like a challenge but these tips from product managers and industry experts can help clear the air.

Be smart about controllers

Today’s smart controllers are adding advanced connectivity options, according to Sergio Ramos, product marketing manager, irrigation and lighting software at The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota. He says the ability to not have to be physically present to adjust irrigation settings can really add up in reduced time spent driving to client properties and checking systems.

“The obvious feature is convenience and time savings,” Ramos says. “The ability to control and manage irrigation systems using a mobile device or website means that you can get more done or receive critical system information without the need to be physically present at the site or in the office.”

But if clients are antsy about the prospect of completely upgrading a system or spending the money on a technology change they don’t fully understand, it’s important to remember that a smart controller doesn’t have to be a full commitment to get results, Ramos says.

For any smart devices, make sure the strength of the Wi-Fi signal is capable of reaching and communicating effectively. Look out for obstructions in the area that can weaken the overall signal. (Photo: Orbit)

“Smart control is not an all-or-nothing proposition,” he says. If budget or timing is a factor, some manufacturers have standard controllers that can be upgraded with smart capabilities when the need arises. “This allows customers the flexibility to add features or wireless control at any time.”

Many smart controllers offer the user the ability to simply not use the connected aspect of the product and use the tactile dial or physical interface, so the flexibility to level up to a smart controller is one that can come with time. While the controller won’t provide the enhanced efficiencies that the client could expect from a connected system without those abilities, it can be helpful to have the option while still providing basic services.

Contractors should look for controllers that have the obvious features but also consider some more basic features that are essential for a well-functioning, efficient system, says Joseph Tsai, founder and CEO at Aeon Matrix, Cupertino, California. “Controllers are often designed with cost in mind, which may result in smaller sizes with fewer features, such as surge protection,” Tsai says. “To ensure the safety and quality of a controller, it is important to check for certifications like UL. It’s also important to have on-
device buttons just in case you need to run your zones when the internet is down.”

Installation considerations

When it comes to installing smart controllers, the difference between an unconnected controller and one without an internet connection isn’t too much of a divide. The key factor is the strength of connection at the location where the controller itself is installed, whether the smart controller is connected via Wi-Fi or cellular service.

When building a Wi-Fi network, remember that the signal is sent out in a similar style to televisions or radios from a single source called the Wireless Access Point. Most devices available to contractors will transmit at 5Ghz, which allows for a higher transmission of data.

Devices that send at 5Ghz have a maximum reach of about 200 feet. Similar to how Wi-Fi signal weakens inside a home the farther away a phone is from the source, that reach of 200 feet degrades significantly over the distance. Also similar to that home setup, the more physical objects between the source and the intended receiver, the faster that signal will break down.

Will Upton, director of pro at Rachio, Denver, suggests doing a simple test to ensure the necessary coverage is there to operate the controller.

“Before you start the process, one of the biggest things is to go to where the original timer is or where you’re going to put the timer and check to make sure that you have about two bars of Wi-Fi,” Upton says. “Usually, if you have about two bar signals and you can see that you’re logged into it the network, then you should have plenty of bandwidth to run any smart controller.”

Just as with any irrigation system installation, a map of any Wi-Fi sources and repeaters installed on the property will go a long way toward making maintenance or future upgrades run smoothly. Installers need to make sure this information along with any network access information is stored securely, as it contains clients’ private information.

(Photo: Rain Bird)

Upton adds that in some instances, the client might feel more comfortable with the installer using the client’s phone to set up the system so the installer does not have to gain access to the client’s network credentials.

Beyond testing the site’s connective-friendliness, another consideration that end users should keep in mind is security. Make sure the client is aware that the servicing team needs to be notified anytime there are changes in the network’s access if the customer is supplying the Wi-Fi network.

Upton says that it’s essential for the installer to make sure that the controller is properly connected to the end users’ network to ensure ease of use and give the users confidence to operate the controller via their smartphones. He says this is one of the big benefits of smart controllers: People know how to use an app but might be intimidated by the traditional tactile setups of normal controllers.

Before you start the process, one of the biggest things is to go to where the original timer is or where you’re going to put the timer and check to make sure that you have about two bars of Wi-Fi.
– Will Upton, Rachio

“That contractor, being a pro, should be able to get that unit online for that homeowner,” says Upton. “That’s one of the reasons why they’re there. Once it’s online people are more able to use an app and trust an app much more.”

Properly installed and functioning, the capabilities of smart controllers can make a difference in a company’s business strength and in terms of helping conserve resources, Upton says.

“I don’t care what manufacturer it is, it if you adopt it and you learn it, it drives efficiencies and drives money into the bottom line, and it increases your routing and scheduling, decreases footsteps, decreases everything and then puts data stamps on when you were there as a contractor,” he says. “People don’t have to be home. It’s kind of a game-changer.”

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Luke Reynolds is the content editor for Irrigation & Lighting and can be reached via email.

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