Smart Irrigation

Archaic timers, manual valves and aging irrigation infrastructure are costing businesses too much money and time. That’s because traditional landscape irrigation systems provide little visibility into how much or when water is used. Grounds maintenance teams might not find out about a system leak for hours, sometimes days. Sudden weather systems that dump inches of rain can go unnoticed, so the systems continue with their regularly-scheduled watering. The result is excessive watering and runoff that can kill plants and damage building foundations, parking lots and other hardscapes.

There are solutions coming to market that deliver cost-effective, intelligent irrigation. These systems, known as smart irrigation systems because of their use of automation and real-time weather data, aren’t new. A variety of systems have been available – with varying degrees of intelligence – for years. But newer versions expand the use of intelligence with two-way communication between controllers and users, the internet of things (IoT) and the cloud, and with easy-to-use apps that run on mobile devices.

The earliest versions aimed at addressing water scarcity were especially useful for drought-ridden areas like California. Today, however, building owners and managers are realizing that overwatering is an equally troubling issue. Not only is it expensive, but too much water can cause significant structural and plant damage, and even compliance violations that are related to excessive runoff.

Simple timer-based systems progressed to more advanced weather-based irrigation systems, but even these lacked enough granular data to make informed watering decisions at the localized level. That’s because there was little in the way of easily accessible and useful water usage reports. Early generation systems also lacked two-way communications between remote users and the controllers and stations at sites, so even if a system was over-watering it was difficult to use that data to then initiate shutdown of the sprinklers. 

Two-Way Communication

Two-way wireless communication, which is now much more affordable and available, facilitates communication within the landscape irrigation system’s infrastructure. Communication can occur between central operations, remotely housed controllers and hundreds or thousands of stations and sensors. Flow sensors installed on the grounds can share real-time data with the controllers, and the information can be used to help identify leaks, system breaks, controller setting errors and even water theft.

The most advanced smart irrigation systems include two-way communication, but they also can automatically share real-time information with groundskeepers. Maintenance teams can effectively manage multiple sites, no matter what their size, and be automatically alerted if something goes wrong. Some systems even let teams remotely test and verify a problem before making a trip to the site. Automated irrigation scheduling that is rules-based, site-specific and weather-adjusted – we’re talking local weather data and micro-zones that are accurate down to one square kilometer – enable proactive irrigation. 

This means groundskeepers can get ahead of problems rather than rushing from one emergency to another. The addition of IoT-enabled infrastructures and IoT-connected devices means groundskeepers can carry out a variety of irrigation and water management tasks from devices such as tablets or smart phones.

Cloud-based computing is creating new possibilities as well. Smart irrigation systems hosted in the cloud can be accessed and managed from anywhere via web-based applications or smart phone apps. Groundskeepers can view and dissect detailed reports that are created from all the data collected from the flow sensors, stations, weather feeds and more, and these reports can render numerous insights including budgeting tools or summaries about water savings.

Today’s modern, smart irrigation systems are already in use. Starwood Hotels & Resorts is using one to support a company-wide water reduction strategy, and has already reduced its global water consumption by more than 17 percent since 2008, nearing its goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2020. Specifically, the hotel chain’s smart irrigation system has saved about 307 million gallons of water valued at more than $2 million.

In another example, a national retailer installed a smart irrigation system at new stores and retrofitted sites across the country and cut water use by 39 percent on average, per site. The retailer’s property managers, landscape contractors and company executives also now have remote access and visibility into the irrigation system and numerous reports. Then there’s Regency Centers, a developer, owner and operator of commercial property, which installed more than 165 smart controllers. These controllers are used to prevent overwatering and reduce outdoor water consumption across 11 states with high water costs. Already, Regency Centers has saved more than 96 million gallons of water and more than $350,000 in water and operating expenses annually.

The addition of real-time, comprehensive weather data, two-way communication, cloud computing and IoT have modernized smart irrigation solutions. Building owners, managers and grounds maintenance teams can use these next-generation systems to be more proactive, maximize water savings, reduce operating costs and minimize damage and risk to their properties. Moreover, the irrigation systems are only going to keep getting better – and smarter. 

Chris Spain is the president and CEO of HydroPoint. See www.hydropoint.com for more information.

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