Irrigation Technology on the Move
Smart Water Application Technology comes of age.
By Lyn Corum
In 2002, irrigation technology was on the verge of entering the digital age. Doug Bennett, conservation manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), recalls a conversation with a colleague earlier in 2001, lamenting the lack of progress in improving irrigation scheduling. Innovative fringe companies, he says, were making smart controllers, but they were struggling to survive.
“The big manufacturers had no idea of the water challenges in the US and how to work together,” says Bennett.
Instead, manufacturers were monitoring legislation—both state and federal. He describes the legislation as being “like anvils coming out of the sky.” Government and water agencies didn’t have anything in common with manufacturers, and communication was not effective.
Then, at the Irrigation Association (IA) conference in New Orleans in 2002, Bennett and others organized a meeting with 10 major manufacturers and 10 water agencies, which, collectively, served a total of 20 million people. The purpose was to discuss issues of common interest. The invitation to manufacturers was, “We need to talk to you about doing irrigation more effectively,” says Bennett. He notes that the discussion produced a lot of preconceived notions about what each group was doing, such as “If you changed rates, customers would use less water.”
As a measure of interest in the industry, “A roomful of people watched us talk”, states Bennett, and out of this, the Smart Water Application Technology (SWAT) protocol was created to test and rate smart controllers on their performance. Since then, major manufacturers like Toro, Irrometer, Hunter, and Rain Bird have come out with better products, he says.
A low-water-use landscape managed with Irrometer's technology
Mike Baron, national specifications manager for water management products at Toro, agrees that this was a pivotal time. It focused manufacturers’ attention on customers being able to get rebates, thereby spurring product development to capture an expanding market. Today, says Baron, “If, as a manufacturer, you want your product to qualify for rebates, you have to get SWAT certification. Otherwise, without it, it puts you at a business disadvantage.”
Since ET Water’s self-adjusting Smart Box controller was the first to get a SWAT rating of nearly 100% effectiveness in September 2005, another 20 weather-based smart controllers from an additional 14 manufacturers have been rated. Sensor-based smart controllers have been tested since 2008, and six manufacturers have had eight controllers rated.
ET Water, headquartered in Novato, CA, continues to advance its development of controllers. The weather-based Smart Box uses a proprietary Web-based technology to automate the scheduling of sprinkler and drip irrigation. It is installed on a new system or replaces an existing controller. ET Water released Smart Works in 2005, a faceplate panel that replaces and upgrades the electronic panel assemblies in many traditional commercial controllers. The company’s newest product, the Hermit Crab was introduced at the December 2010 Irrigation Show.
The Hermit Crab plugs into a conventional controller via its remote control access port. Pat McIntyre, ET Water’s CEO, says the Hermit Crab has a capacity of 48 stations, or the maximum of the convention host controller.
Dr. Diganta Adhikari, research associate at the Center for Irrigation Technology located at California State University, Fresno, is an expert on smart controllers. “In the past two years, we have seen these controllers getting smarter and smarter,” he says. “Some controllers can handle 32 zones at a time, and they could become powerful enough to control and work with 64 zones. But, none the less, they all need human intervention and fine-tuning from time to time to obtain maximum efficiency.”
Controllers Ring Up Cell Phones
Along with the technology advances has come the marriage of smart controllers and the information revolution. Manufacturers have been adding application software to their smart controllers, making them much smarter as the market has become more competitive. Controllers can now be linked to cell phones, as well as PCs. The next advance will be soil moisture and evapotranspiration technologies joined in one controller, according to leading industry figures.
The availability of wireless technologies now means wires don’t have to be laid out across the landscape. Rain Master introduced the first Internet-based irrigation system to the industry in 2003, allowing weather-based controller performance to be monitored by Internet-enabled PDA, laptop or desktop PC, cell phone, or even the iPhone. Problems such as broken sprinklers or valves can be identified remotely and reported. The next development, according to Baron, will be when installers or maintenance contractors can troubleshoot, making repairs remotely from the Internet.
|Photo: Dr. Adhikari
Test setup for testing weather-based smart controllers
Homeowners can log directly into the Internet or a third-party website and check on their soil condition, Adhikari says. “In the near future, with wireless communication, municipalities could have the capability of turning off controllers in an area, if conditions warranted that action,” he notes.
Some manufacturers are developing smart phone applications, which allow a farmer to remotely view the status of his fields. Applications using the webcam and accessing flow meters are also becoming available, Adhikari says.
Warren Gorowitz, vice president of sustainability and conservation at Ewing, a national distributor headquartered in Phoenix, AZ, says more than a half-dozen companies offering Web-enabled software attended the Irrigation Show in December 2010. He says the software is working, and the iPhone has simplified tasks.
|Photo: Photo: Dr. Adhikari
Adhikari checks soil moisture readings reported by sensors over a period of time.
In November 2010, ET Water announced the Quick Draw iPhone and Smart phone application. It is a mobile Web application for commercial landscapers and property managers to remotely manage and control irrigation water use on a broad range of smart phones and wireless devices along with the iPad and other tablets. Users can turn on and off any station from their mobile device, including valves during system checks.
Other Technology Developments
Beyond smart meters, the newest technologies making waves, according to industry executives interviewed, are the Toro precision spray nozzle and the Hunter MP rotator nozzle, both designed to improve water efficiency, and the Hunter Solar Sync, a sensor designed for installation and programming simplicity.
Ewing was the first national distributor to partner with the Walla Walla Sprinkler Company in 2003 to bring the MP trajectory rotating sprinkler nozzles to the market. The product line was acquired by Hunter Industries in 2007, and Ewing continues to promote the MP Rotator. It can be retrofitted to any pop-up spray head body. Once retrofitted the system uses less water than conventional sprayheads. The rotators will emit multiple distinct steams of water at one-third of the rate of sprayheads, allowing the soil to more efficiently absorb the applied water.
Gorowitz predicts the new emphasis will be on retrofitting and renovating conventional irrigation systems. Evaluating a landscape first is new and reflective of the change smart controllers have created. Rebate dollars have incentivized consumers, especially in California. It all goes back to training and education of practitioners, he continues; education levels are improving and maintenance practitioners are getting better.
What Is a Smart Controller?
For those just being introduced to these technologies, smart controllers estimate or measure depletion of available plant soil moisture in order to operate an irrigation system, replenishing water as needed while minimizing excess water use, according to the IA’s SWAT committee.
Weather-based smart controllers create irrigation schedules using evapotranspiration; rainfall and solar radiation taken from local weather stations; and combining this information in an algorithm with historical weather patterns, specific landscape factors including plant type, soil type, slope, sun-shade, sprinkler type, and distribution uniformity already programmed in to it. The algorithm then calculates how much water the plantings should have and the controller will self-adjust in response to changes in weather conditions.
Soil moisture-based smart controllers determine when to irrigate the landscape according to what the soil moisture sensors buried in the ground tell it about the dryness of the soil around the roots of plants or trees. Independent soil moisture sensors have been around for years, says Baron. Marrying them to controllers is a recent development.
The industry is facing a couple of issues with the widespread installation of smart controllers. Brian Vinchesi, president of Irrigation Consulting and IA SWAT chairman, says landscape maintenance contractors are shutting off smart controllers because they don’t want to take the time to adjust them once they are installed. So, instead, the contractors will turn up the watering schedule.
Vinchesi sees another problem with municipal water utilities that issue bids for smart controllers and choose the low bid without considering the expertise they are hiring through that bid. He says his company is working on educating utilities. In Las Vegas, NV, for example, the SNWA has created a program for contractors, and they must attend if they want to get on a list of preferred contractors for a rebate program.
Many landscape companies are now offering education programs for both maintenance contractors and customers. Baron says residential users and landscape maintenance contractors are used to the outmoded dumb controller which turned on the water three days a week for 20 minutes, whether the landscape needed the water or not, and often they expect smart controllers to operate in the same way. “Getting accurate information programmed into the controller is critical,” he says.
Brian Lennon, director of sales at Irrometer, a manufacturer of soil moisture measuring instruments headquartered in Riverside, CA, says the push toward devices such as smart controllers has often produced applications where the same amount of water, or more, was used to irrigate a property. Someone in the chain failed to install or program the smart controller properly, or didn’t understand how to use equipment as designed. “Field personnel who manage many properties may not take the time to learn how to program a sophisticated controller,” he says.
Lennon states that there has been a disconnect between the intended outcome of the technology and its application in the real world. The trend he sees is people don’t really want complex equipment, they just want a management device that allows irrigation only when the soil moisture is depleted.
Lennon continues, saying that incentives must be built in if a maintenance contractor is expected to tweak smart controllers after installation. After all, they get paid to keep the grass green, not to save water. He cites the Irvine Company in southern California, which will pass through any fines it gets for excess watering to the landscape contractor. The bottom line for Lennon—keep the equipment simple. As examples, he points to Watermark’s WaterSwitch or Hunter’s Solar Sync.
Adhikari was present at the formation of SWAT and is a member of IA’s SWAT technical committee. He says as soon as the committee was formed, universities, purveyors, industry, municipalities, and water districts immediately came together and began developing an independent third-party testing protocol for smart weather-based and soil moisture sensor-based controllers.
The Center for Irrigation Technology, an independent testing laboratory, applied research facility, and educational resource center at California State University, Fresno, was chosen by the committee to write the SWAT protocols. The first protocol was for weather-based controllers and “evaluates how well current commercial technology has integrated the scientific data into a practical system that meets the agronomic needs of turf and landscape plants,” according to IA’s SWAT website. The eighth draft of the weather-based controller protocol is now out for public comment.
|Photo: City of Frisco, TX
A City of Frisco weather station
Commercial installation of Irrometer’s Multiple Hydrozone System
The protocol for soil moisture sensor-based controllers is still in development, and eight controllers have been tested in Phase 1 to calibrate soil moisture sensor components. The calibration does not evaluate the efficacy of a sensor over the entire range of soil moisture conditions possible, nor does it measure the integration of soil moisture sensors with a controller to manage irrigation. These tests are slated for Phase 2.
Manufacturers voluntarily submit their controller technology, along with a $2,500 fee, to CIT for testing against the protocol. A rating of adequacy and lack of excess water, based on testing in a six-zone virtual landscape, is determined and submitted to the manufacturer. The manufacturer then approves the release of the rating to IA. The SWAT committee approves it and refers the rating to the IA Board who authorizes its posting on the IA website. These ratings can be viewed by anyone going to the website.
Water districts and other agencies may use the ratings to determine which smart controllers can earn rebates. For example, a water district may decide that rebates will be awarded based on choosing controllers with a 90% adequacy rating or higher. Adhikari says the SWAT committee deliberately chose not to assign pass or fail grades to tested technologies, leaving the end users and/or agencies to decide what works for them.
Adhikari says the EPA is using the SWAT protocol as a model to qualify smart controllers for its “WaterSense” label. Stephanie Tanner, lead engineer for the WaterSense Program at the EPA, says the WaterSense specification for weather-based controllers was released as a draft in November 2009. A revised draft was released on January 20 and is available on the WaterSense website, for review and comment. Tanner says it is difficult to say when a final specification will be available, because it will depend on the comments received.
The Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology at the University of Florida is now developing protocols for rain sensors, according to Adhikari. There are no plans in the near future to develop testing protocols for centralized or computer-based control systems.
Landscape Designers and Contractors Comment
According to Richard Restuccia, the Water Management Leader for ValleyCrest Landscape Maintenance, its parent company, Calabasas, CA-based ValleyCrest Landscape Companies, is the largest fully integrated landscape service in the country. It designs, installs, and maintains landscapes and turfs of all types.
Restuccia says the impacts of smart controllers on customers has been very positive and can make the biggest impact in the shortest time. “Anytime we can measure something, we can save money,” he states. Nine out of 10 new customers don’t have smart controllers, so the market is wide open, he adds.
Restuccia says there are probably 12 great smart controllers available in the market place. “We looked at the SWAT testing and got comfortable with the different technologies. SWAT is providing quality control for the industry. We tell our technicians to look at each individual situation as they select technologies.”
ValleyCrest holds “lunch and learn” talks weekly for customers. They have to have the basic understanding of the technology in order to save themselves money, says Restuccia. “We find with the ‘lunch and learn,’ once they see what we do and that we have a scientific process, they get comfortable with us.” Property managers and homeowner associations are among ValleyCrest’s largest clients, he adds.
The key changes in the last three to four years have been with wireless technologies, Restuccia says. This has given contractors and end users many advantages to change schedules remotely and reduce labor costs. Also, using a wireless device to close valves installed downstream from controllers has been a great advantage, since it saves the expense of digging trenches. “If something goes wrong and all of a sudden a flow sensor on the valve shows us 300 gallons is going through a line, we know something is wrong” and can deal with it quickly, he says.
Chris Curry is a certified irrigation designer with Marina Landscape in Anaheim, CA, which has a service territory stretching from Bakersfield in the middle of the state to San Diego. He says they are getting a lot of requests from customers to retrofit their systems with smart controllers.
Water districts increased company business by offering rebates, but the paperwork to get the rebates has been difficult, Curry says. The end user has to get a reservation number, then get the equipment installed, and then show proof of purchase.
Curry notes that everything to do with smart controllers is adding costs at a professional level—including staff training and tracking water usage at customers’ sites. The higher costs are included in the sale, which includes one year of service. “We track the system for the first year after a smart controller has been installed,” he says.
Actual savings have been at about 21% for systems that are adjusted seasonally. “We never install a smart controller and just leave it alone. It’s not good if the contractor walks away,” he explains.
If a customer is familiar and comfortable with the schedule of his current irrigation system, Curry will recommend installing an Alextronic or Hunter Solar Sync and not change the irrigation dates but will change the water runtime. While he personally prefers soil moisture sensors, he says they are expensive to install, adding that weather-based controllers are easier to install. “We don’t like to specify a system that comes with a monthly fee for accessing weather station information on a wireless system.” He says the Solar Sync, at about half the cost of other smart controllers, uses local temperatures to compare with historical data, thereby avoiding monthly fees for the customer.
Customers are given four years of historical water usage in spreadsheet format. A graph depicting monthly water usage illustrates whether the maintenance company is modifying controllers based on the seasons. If the customer experiences the 21% savings, the costs are justified, Curry says.
Jason Isenberg is the owner of Realm, an urban sustainable landscaping company headquartered in Tucson, AZ. It features 100% organic treatments on landscapes, even designs petscapes for homes with pets. Solar is installed on vehicles so that the power equipment can be run on solar power. It sources local and regional materials; specifies renewable, recycled, and reclaimed materials where feasible; and it has an extensive internal companywide sustainability initiative.
Isenberg, who is a landscape designer, favors xeriscaping, using plants adapted to arid conditions. “There are tons of plants that don’t require a lot of water, and there are a lot of microclimates in the area,” he says. “We can apply any sustainable concept to any architectural style. The technologies—smart controllers, wireless communications—allow us to appeal to a group who wants to be sustainable and to be guided by cost.”
|Photo: North Texas Municipal Water District
Lake Lavon, during the 2006 drought
|Photo: North Texas Municipal Water District
In late 2007 following recovery from the drought
Realm Water Works offers a variety of irrigation management services to the company’s clients. For example, residents who reside in their homes only during the winter months can pay for a monthly or quarterly service for a Realm conservation specialist like Tary Campbell to check the irrigation system during the months they are away to make sure the controllers and zones are working.
Campbell says not all of his customers have smart controllers—the type of controller will depend on what the customer can afford and the type and size of the landscape. New clients will get a water audit of the landscaping at their residence to determine how much water is needed, depending on the plant species, the microclimate, and soil. Recommendations will include repairing the current system or replacing it.
Customers Weigh In
Rancho California Water District
Bill Stephens, senior water resource planner at Rancho California Water District in southern California, says the district has seen about 2,100 smart controllers installed by customers in its service area. Some of the customers obtained rebates from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California—others bought them without rebates. Stephens’ district does not offer the rebates.
The district did obtain a grant from the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation and in November 2009 started providing smart controllers to as many as 500 residential high water users. It solicited bids for the weather-based smart controllers from manufacturers, and the Irrometer Smart Dial and Toro IntelliSense controllers were chosen. “We’ve had very good success,” says Stephens. A handful of customers did have difficulty for a month or so fine-tuning the controllers, even though the contractor educated them in the field.
Early on, the district invited the customers to a few weather-based irrigation control tune-up classes it held with Toro doing hands-on training. Starting this spring, the district is holding classes every month for first-time customers who didn’t get to the first classes or customers who want brush-up reviews, says Stephens.
He adds that the district is now looking at water use data in a preliminary study for the 500 customers who received controllers in late 2009. Looking at the rough numbers, he says, “We are saving water in the 10 to 20% range.”
Frisco, TX, is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, says Melody Emadiazar, water education coordinator for the city. Between 1970 and 2010 the city grew from 1,845 residents to 110,000 today, thanks to its proximity to Dallas—about a 20-mile drive south. Emadiazar described the majority of water customers as affluent, with annual incomes of $100,000 on the average, and are college-educated homeowners.
In late 2006 the area suffered through a drought in which the main water source for the North Texas Municipal Water District that serves the city shrank to 35% capacity. By July 2007, following heavy rains, water levels were close to normal, and the drought restrictions were lifted. However, the City Council moved ahead with its long-term water management plan, which was adopted in April 2009. Its components include a water efficiency plan, a drought contingency plan, and innovative water conservation initiatives.
All new homes built since 2007 are required to have smart controllers chosen from SWAT’s approval list, and homeowners can register their controller. The new irrigation system may use either soil moisture or weather-based controllers. An irrigation specialist verifies the system if the homeowner signs up for a free irrigation checkup. The specialist runs through a checklist of settings, points out inefficiencies, and makes recommendations. The city offers a one-time $100 rebate for homes that retrofit from a standard automatic sprinkler controller to a smart controller.
A homeowner who joins the Smart Controller Program will get a free annual water checkup and a yard sign that projects sustainability to the neighborhood. The free program requires annual registration. About 300 homeowners are in the program, Emadiazar says. Waterwise workshops are also offered.
The city can determine if the homeowners in the program are overwatering since it has their landscaping information, including the number of people in the home and data from the weather station. Emadiazar says when this happens, the city asks the homeowners to check their controller schedules, since these might not have been reset for the season. “We’ve learned a lot from our first program,” she says. “Customers who jumped in first were tech-savvy and took pride as early adopters, and they followed the city council’s regulations.”
The city owns an ET weather station with four remote rain gauges and measures how much water is lost through evapotranspiration. Emadiazar says, starting in August 2009, the city has been sending weekly e-mails to a list of about 1,400 homeowners. The e-mails report the previous week’s weather record and recommends watering schedules for the coming week. Furthermore, a sample schedule that residents can set their controller to is posted on the department’s website every week.
Water restrictions apply during spring and summer months and are lifted when clocks are turned back at the end of Daylight Saving Time. Fees are added to water bills if the restrictions are violated, unless the resident calls in and requests an irrigation checkup. Emadiazar says the department issued 1,200 violations in 2009 for violating water restrictions.
She states that Lake Lavon is now at 76% capacity. In spite of that, because the city is “green,” the City Council recognizes the need for long-term water management strategies.
Author's bio: Lyn Corum is a technical writer specializing in water and energy topics.