Technology

Troy Wolverton: Dreaming of a smart sprinkler system for my dumb home

My home is far from a smart one.

Even though my refrigerator could connect to the Internet, I have not yet linked it to my Wi-Fi network. I still have a dumb old clothes washer with twist dials. And I lower my blinds manually every night.

But there’s one connected home gadget I’m itching to install at my house: a smart sprinkler controller.

I don’t know about you, but with a long-running drought dragging on in California, where I live, I spend a lot more time with my sprinkler system than I want to. I repeatedly fiddle with it – turning it off when there’s rain and turning it on when there’s not, and adjusting how much it waters depending on the time of year or how hot it’s getting.

Even with my active management, it can be hard to get the watering right. There are times when I overwater and times when I underwater. And every so often, the sprinkler goes off when it’s raining, because I forgot to turn it off or didn’t realize a storm was passing through.

What makes the task even more frustrating is that setting my sprinkler controller reminds me of trying to set the clock on an old VCR. It’s ridiculously complicated. I frequently have to pull out the owner’s manual when I try to adjust the schedule.

That’s where smart sprinkler controllers come in. Produced by a growing number of companies, the new generation of controllers promises to make outdoor watering a lot easier. The controllers can be programmed with a smartphone and will automatically adjust when and how much they water based on the day’s weather, soil conditions and plants you have in your yard.

The new gadgets can potentially help you save water and money while keeping your plants healthy. And they’re even smart enough to prevent your system from going off in the rain.

“There’s no doubt that smarter sprinkler systems for our gardens can save water,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a water policy think tank based in Oakland. “In reality, the systems we have now are anything but smart.”

Water experts estimate that 50 percent or more of residential water use in California goes to outside irrigation. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average home can reduce the amount of water used for irrigation by about 15 percent simply by switching from a traditional timer-based controller to a new smart one.

The new gadgets are made by a variety of manufacturers, including a pair of Silicon Valley startups – Plaid Systems and Green Electronics, makers of the Spruce and RainMachine controllers, respectively. The devices are generally designed to replace older controllers and work with your existing sprinkler or drip irrigation system so you don’t have to rip out your old pipes or install a completely new irrigation system.

Unlike the old controllers, the new smart ones typically can connect to the Internet, usually over Wi-Fi or through a power line Ethernet adapter. That allows them to glean weather information from sources like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And it allows users to control them from their smartphone or computer, whether inside the home or out.

In some cases, the network connection also allows the devices to connect with other smart-home gadgets. Rachio, for example, can be configured to start watering your lawn to prevent a fire from spreading if a Nest Protect smoke alarm detects a blaze.

You generally configure the gadgets, which range in price from around $150 to about $360, by giving them information about the type of soil in your yard and the type of plants you have in each zone of your sprinkler system. The devices combine that information with weather forecasts and, in some cases, data collected from soil moisture sensors or home weather monitoring stations.

The new systems have been trickling on to the market for a couple of years now, mostly through online stores or system installers. But they’re starting to make their way into the mainstream.

Rachio recently got a boost when it drew an investment from Amazon’s Alexa Fund, which promotes gadgets that can work with the Web company’s voice-control technology. Meanwhile, Best Buy offers a collection of them, and you’ll also find them at Home Depot and Lowe’s. In many cases, you can get a rebate from your water utility by buying one.

To be sure, the controllers aren’t perfect and have their own set of quirks. And if you’ve already severely cut back your watering, you may not see much more reduction by switching to one.

Indeed, when they first started rolling out, some of the devices actually resulted in residents increasing their water use, noted Peter Brostrom, water-use efficiency program manager at the California Department of Water Resources. Those residents tended to be the ones who already were doing a good job of conserving water, he said.

“If you are already very conscientious with your water use, a smart controller would probably not save you water,” said Brostrom. Instead, he added, they’re most effective “for people who don’t touch them and don’t look at them, who run the same schedule throughout the year.”

What’s more, having a smarter sprinkler controller is only one part of reducing landscape watering. Another important factor is the type of plants in your yard.

“A smart sprinkler system can save water, but it can save a lot more water if it’s not feeding a lawn,” said Gleick.

Even with that in mind, I’m eager to add a smart sprinkler to my home. It’s got to be better than the dumb old one I’ve got now.

Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Read more at www.mercurynews.com/troy-wolverton. twolverton@

mercurynews.com, @troywolv

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