Turf Magazine - February, 2013

FEATURES

Choosing the Right Irrigation Controller

How it's becoming easier to bridge the gap between residential and light commercial applications
By Lynette von Minden

In some ways, an irrigation system can be compared to a human body. While sprays and rotors may be the system's most visible components, they need valves and a controller to act as the system's heart and brain, respectively. While valves control the flow of water, the controller runs the show, turning components on and off according to a predetermined schedule.


Click photo to enlarge.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF RAIN BIRD.

These days, however, controllers can do much more than that. From the simplest residential models to the most advanced commercial versions, the range of controller options available presents contractors with a daunting challenge: which controller best matches both their needs and their customers' needs?

"Some contractors start off servicing only residential accounts because those projects are typically smaller and less complex; then they find themselves being pulled into larger projects and ultimately expand into commercial installations as their business grows," says Todd Green, Rain Bird's controller product manager. "However, there are some contractors who stay in the residential market entirely. It's really a function of appetite, growth, stress and crew member training. Contractors tend to stick with what they know unless they receive additional training that gives them the confidence to expand their services to additional markets."

Those contractors who choose to install and maintain only residential irrigation systems may feel more comfortable doing so, but they may also limit their job opportunities and income potential as a result. Green says that's why most residential contractors will venture into light commercial installations, like small office buildings, strip malls, parks or cemeteries. Light commercial and residential installations are similar enough that most contractors can easily do both.

Contractors have lots of controller options, so
there's no reason not to select the one that best
meets their clients' needs
Contractors have lots of controller options, so there's no reason not to select the one that best meets their clients' needs

However, while these two types of installations may be similar, the controllers used on residential and light commercial applications can be very different. Perhaps the most significant difference lies in station, or zone, count. Most simple, fixed-zone residential controllers offer from four to eight stations. Because commercial sites are typically larger, they often require more than eight stations. Factors like increased pedestrian traffic and a higher potential for vandalism on commercial sites can also present contractors with job site issues that residential sites don't have.

Because of these variables, Green says most contractors have to know how to install and program at least three different types of controllers to cover the different types of clients they service. First, a low-cost, fixed station controller for entry-level residential markets; second, a modular controller that has the ability to be scaled in the future for expanding landscapes; and finally, a high-station-count, modular controller with the features to support commercial installations.

Making it simpler

"Most controllers have similar programming styles until you get into the high-station-count commercial models," Green says. "Then things get a bit more complicated because of the advanced features built into those controllers. Features like flow sensing and management, watering window programming, station sequencing - all of those require some specialized knowledge and understanding."

While getting familiar with three different controllers doesn't sound like a big deal, it's only part of the equation. Not only do contractors who service both residential and commercial customers have to learn how to install and use them, they must also teach their crews how to install and use them. That takes time and money, particularly if the employees need to enroll in external irrigation training rather than simple on-the-job training. Using multiple controllers also creates inventory issues and takes up valuable space on work trucks.

For all these reasons, most contractors try to install a controller with the fewest "bells and whistles," but that can still manage irrigation on a particular site. That's why some contractors will end up installing a controller designed for residential applications on a commercial site. Green says that while this solution may initially appear cost-effective and "good enough," using a residential controller doesn't typically allow for future system expansion or the addition of more water-efficient or laborsaving features. Conversely, some contractors may choose to go the opposite direction, installing a more expensive and sophisticated commercial controller on a light commercial site simply because it offers a higher station count.

The owners of many new or small landscape companies start off by installing irrigation systems on home lawns, but as
they become more experienced they take on larger more challenging properties like this one that requires controllers
that can handle many more zones.
Click photo to enlarge.

The owners of many new or small landscape companies start off by installing irrigation systems on home lawns, but as they become more experienced they take on larger more challenging properties like this one that requires controllers that can handle many more zones.

"For light commercial sites, you really just have to have scalability, ease of use and intuitive programming that both contractors and their customers can understand," Green adds. "Many commercial controllers with high station counts also include advanced features that light commercial sites don't need. These features often end up just confusing these customers and creating unnecessary complications contractors must come back and fix as a result. These controllers also cost a lot more, and contractors end up having to pass on that cost to their customers. That cost can be the difference between winning a bid and losing it."

Michael Thompson, a certified irrigation contractor and irrigation services manager with Michael Hatcher and Associates in Memphis, Tenn., echoes Green's comments. "I've had to purchase a controller that was too 'advanced' for a particular site's needs just to get the right number of zones," Thompson says. "In certain situations it can work, but often it's overkill."

"Contractors want a controller that's versatile enough to serve a broader range of customers and give them confidence that any crew member can program the controller," says Rain Bird's Green. They wanted a controller that didn't just offer more stations, but that also included only those features that both homeowners and commercial grounds managers would find valuable and actually use.

"The feedback we got from our field testing helped us to determine if we were going in the right direction," Green says of his company's new ESP-Me controller that comes standard with four stations. But, by adding either three- or six-station modules, contractors can expand it up to a maximum of 22 stations.

"Through surveys and usability studies, we were able to identify the most widely used features for both residential and light commercial sites. For example, because so many areas are dealing with water restrictions, we found that including a Total Run Time Calculator was a must. Users want to be able to quickly determine what the total run time is for a given program."

Thompson at Memphis-based Michael Hatcher & Associates says that his team has tested the controller and found that it offers a number of benefits. "The expanded station capability adds flexibility in choosing a controller for larger residential or smaller commercial systems," Thompson says, adding that programming is easy.

Green says he believes that there will be more opportunities beyond controllers for irrigation manufacturers to help contractors bridge the gap between residential and light commercial applications. He says, "from a manufacturer's perspective, the best thing we can do is continue to develop products and technology that help contractors accomplish more with less."

Lynette Von Minden is senior public relations counsel at Swanson Russell, Lincoln, Neb. Contact her at lynettev@swansonrussell.com.