It’s the age of the smartphone. People can order food, get game tickets, book a flight, check their 401(k) and monitor the security of their house all with the touch of a button on the mobile devices they carry in their pockets. The information is right there, so they’re always connected and always remote.

It’s not surprising that this trend has influenced irrigation technology over the past couple of years.

Both irrigation contractors and residential and commercial clients want the same control over their irrigation systems via apps on their smartphones. And now they have it. But there are a few rules.

“The customer expects the information to be at their hands,” says Sean Azad, Rain Bird regional sales manager for the Southwest and Rocky Mountains. “It has to be easy to use, and they’re willing to sacrifice the feature set in exchange for simplicity. You can make the most complicated control system in the world and have all the best features, but if it’s complicated, people don’t like it.”

Rain Bird has answered the call with a commercial control system called IQ-Cloud that allows customers to log in through their web browser or open up the companion mobile version and control their irrigation systems from anywhere in the world – set the irrigation schedule, adjust run times, account for the weather and more.

Over the past couple of months, Rain Bird tooled that product down, reduced the size and cost and released a residential version: an add-on device for their control systems called Wi-Fi link that allows homeowners to plug in the device to their controller and convert it to not only a cloud-connected controller that they can access with the companion mobile app from anywhere in world, but also a smart controller where they can use weather data to adjust irrigation schedules.

“So it’s not only a cloud-connected controller but a smart controller,” Azad says. “And that’s really the age of the smartphone – really making these devices cloud-enabled, smart, easy to use and accessible.”

It seems like with any new technology, there are positives and negatives. But Azad said he could honestly not think of one bad thing about it other than the potential for systems to be hacked. Rain Bird, however, has made it virtually impossible to do that.

“There is always the risk of hackers and hacking a system and security, but the way our system is built, there is authentication and security built around not only just the software but the hardware,” he says. “So we are not only making an app but we actually manufacture our hardware, too, so there is a software authentication built into the hardware that we build, so no one can get around that. I could see other systems where they don’t do the manufacturing and haven’t been making control systems that long being at risk for that, but I know ours is not.”

Things like drought and making systems more efficient are the things that influence what a new product’s features are, but the real driver of this new smart, cloud-based technology are people’s iPhones and Android phones.

“People are doing everything from their smartphones,” Azad says. “They change the channel, set their DVR to record, adjust their Philips Hue lighting system, look at their security system and feed their dog. The smartphone is not going away. There are major companies in the tech industry like Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, GE and Honeywell that are making this technology cheaper, more affordable and easier to use, so everyone wants to be moving in that direction. Rain Bird is not the only one who sees this shift in the market. The key is to make these things not burdensome to people.”

With that said, Rain Bird is not entirely giving up on past technology, understanding that there’s a range of customers out there with different preferences.

“We know that some people like traditional interfaces,” Azad says. “The fact of the matter is I cannot go give my 72-year-old grandfather a Wi-Fi connected controller and expect him to hook that up and get it working. So the Rain Bird philosophy is we will have a traditional interface where the user can walk up to the controller, whether it’s in the garage or on the side of the house or, if it’s a commercial controller, probably on a pedestal somewhere, and use the buttons and dials and screen to make the changes right there with a manual. We have a product that caters to all generations because everyone is a homeowner.”

These technological advancements have become an upsell in a way because now landscape professionals can present a traditional controller to a customer and tell them how it works, but then also give them the option of the new cloud-based system with the advantage of being able to remotely manage their irrigation systems.

“They’re using it to upsell as a way to manage more systems from a centralized location,” Azad says. “One guy can sit in an office in Tucson, Arizona, and manage systems in China, Australia, Boston or Buenos Aires.”

It has also allowed landscape and irrigation professionals to diversify and start doing water management where they’re not just going to their accounts to trim trees or pick up leaves.

“They’re hired to help end users reach their water savings goals,” Azad says. “Water managers are popping up left and right. Sometimes they’re contractors that are doing that business, and sometimes they’re irrigation specifiers or consultants. It’s transforming the way they do business because they’re no longer geographically limited by how close the system is they’re running.”

Buying Tips

1. Know your customer. Have a product that fits your traditional clientele, who are used to programming a controller one way but may not be comfortable learning a new way. Then, identify the right type of customer to present this to. Millennials are buying homes in droves right now, and they’re looking to install irrigation systems and gardens. Therefore, they’re a prime target to sell the new technology to.

2. Educate the customer. People, specifically those in the Western U.S., are really sensitive to water bills. Educate the customer on where the water is going. Some people say don’t take long showers, but that doesn’t really affect water usage as much as an irrigation system. So utilize some of the tools irrigation manufacturers provide and educate end users on water savings.

3. Be savvy and compare products. Some are better than others. Do your homework and compare.

4. Find a company that will support you. At the end of the day, if you have a question or want to do a joint presentation to secure a big project, who on a local level can help you? Some irrigation manufacturers are not able to help customers.