Turf Magazine - July, 2013

FEATURES

Irrigation Technology Marches On

Wireless and remotely controlled systems offer new service opportunities
By Brian Vinchesi


New communication options allow the contractor to monitor and manage irrigation and pump systems remotely. This is not only good for your customers, but also for your business.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF HUNTER INDUSTRIES.

As technology continues to surround and improve our lives, it finds its way into every aspect of our daily activities, and irrigation is no different. In the last few years the use of Wi-Fi and Internet as well as improved cellular modems and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) that's especially suited to data transfer has opened up areas of irrigation control and monitoring that were not available or reliable just a few years ago. Based on these improvements in technology there are new opportunities today for irrigation contractors in how they can manage their business and residential accounts and service calls.

Communication options between a remote computer or other smart devices and controllers (smart or otherwise) located at various commercial or residential properties have been greatly expanded. Probably the biggest improvement is in the cost of wireless communication. As the technology costs lower, it allows manufacturers to more easily use these new technologies in their products. Basically, these new communication options allow the contractor to monitor and manage irrigation and pump systems remotely. Being able to manage commercial and residential accounts remotely is not only good for your customers, but also for your business.

With the appropriate controller, you know when something has gone wrong and when a service call needs to be made when you are able to remotely monitor your customers' irrigation systems. This allows you to be proactive as opposed to reactive. It also allows you to manage the irrigation schedule on a daily or on an as-needed basis. The EPA estimates that most irrigation systems over water by some 50 percent. By changing schedules regularly you can save your customers a large amount of water and also the cost of the electricity that would have been required to pump it.



Most of these wireless devices utilize batteries and, at minimum, they need to be recharged, and at same point will need to be replaced. If using rechargeable batteries, solar is the prevalent way to recharge the batteries.

Easier installs

Many new irrigation products now communicate wirelessly which has also made their installation much easier and less expensive. Remember the days of having to mount a rain sensor on a house or building and then having to run a wire from the controller to it? It took two people, a ladder, possibly electrical conduit and a lot of time.

Wireless equipment includes rain sensors, wind sensors, freeze sensors remotes and mini or full-blown weather stations. Soil moisture sensors are also entering the irrigation commercial and residential markets very quickly and communication between the controller and the sensors is handled wirelessly also. Many had thought that talking from a controller to a valve wirelessly is something that they would never see, but that technology exists today although not widely available in the market.

Most of these wireless devices do utilize batteries and, at minimum, they need to be recharged, and at same point will need to be replaced. If using rechargeable batteries, solar is the prevalent way to recharge the batteries. Replacing the batteries in many products is an unknown process as the manufacturers are not always sure how long they last.

I went to a meeting once to learn more about a new wireless product. At the beginning of a meeting, which lasted for about 90 minutes, the discussion seemed to indicate that the battery would last 10 years. Midway through the meeting, strangely, the discussion appeared to suggest the battery would last five years and by the end of the meeting, three years. The cost of replacing the batteries could also not be quantified. In many cases, replacement of the remote sensor may be easier and less expensive than a battery exchange.

These wireless technologies do not just allow you to monitor, but also to receive alarms if desired telling you when something in a system has gone wrong. The remote monitoring and alarm capabilities allow you to provide better service to your customers and immediate response when something goes wrong. This can be marketed as an additional value added service your company offers at no additional cost, or can provide services that you can charge a premium for within your standard service agreement.

You may not want to be bothered that often to have this feature on every account, but certainly on your key accounts you should enable alarm notification. The access to all of your customers can be accomplished with one web based interface and a specific manufacturers software program and controllers.

You can access the Internet through any number of devices, including a desktop or laptop computer, smartphone, tablet or any other smart device. All of the data can be backed up on and retrieved through the Cloud also so that you do not have any memory or security issues. With the technology in most cases there is nothing you cannot do remotely that you can't do while standing in front or the controller or other device, such as a pump control panel.

Saving service calls

If you can reset schedules or troubleshoot an irrigation system remotely, it will save service calls, which save you and your customer money as well as your service staff. It keeps your staff morale up by keeping them from being frustrated running around making unnecessary service calls such as for reprogramming controllers or just changing schedules; most likely from the homeowner or property manager screwing it up.

Investing in wireless and Internet technologies allows you to take on more service contracts without adding additional staff. It also will allow you to be more cost competitive as service call costs will be easier to complete and travel costs less as many times you will not have to go to the site to fix an issue.

All this new radio and wireless technology has also improved the basic irrigation controller remote that has been around for decades. Today's remotes work better, have more functions, do not have to be radio-based and are less expensive. This also helps your bottom line and makes service calls more productive.

These wireless and Internet technologies also allow you to be more interactive with the irrigation systems you service and therefore with the customers. This allows you to provide better customer service which is essential today's successful businesses.

Technology has and will continue to improve irrigation systems. In the next few years, as in the past, the manufacturers will continue to develop products that improve monitoring and sensing systems and allow for remote manipulation of systems. Expect to see more irrigation functions in the future become wireless to the point where there may not even be controllers, just a black box on the garage wall to irrigate. Be aware of the maintenance costs of these type systems such as batteries and fees, but in the long run remote technologies will improve both your businesses and the customer's lives.

Brian Vinchesi, the 2009 EPA WaterSense Irrigation Partner of the Year, is president of Irrigation Consulting, Inc., an irrigation design and consulting firm headquartered in Pepperell, Mass., with an office in Huntersville, N.C., that designs irrigation systems throughout the world. Contact him at bvinchesi@irrigationconsulting.com or 978-433-8972.