Photo courtesy of Ben Polimer

Smart irrigation systems: the future is now

Smart irrigation systems are really smart. And as sportsturf managers, we should embrace this fairly new technology and use it to full capability. Saving water is critical for me in Weston, MA and that was the driving force behind retrofitting our 13 controllers/systems across our Town a few years ago. Even if you don’t pay for your water, being judicial with your water usage is critical in having high performing sports fields.

Besides water savings, there are many benefits to these systems whether it’s retrofitting old systems or installing new. Turf managers can save labor and time with these systems as well. With “old fashioned” systems, you need to walk, or in my case drive through town and open each controller and program them. This might be a daily or weekly occurrence. Well, we all have smartphones, so wouldn’t it be great to sit on your couch at home and set the controllers? How about turning them off when you see the thunderstorm rolling through on the radar. Smart systems are internet-based and can be manipulated anywhere you can connect to them.

Retrofit doesn’t help poor design

Some things to consider when looking at retrofitting your systems: These systems do not help poorly designed systems. They will not correct poor head placement, poor flow, poor pressure or aging infrastructure. Infrastructure should be in good working order before embarking on installing these systems.

Something to consider if your systems are not preforming as well as you would like: have one site or multiple sites assessed by a professional irrigation consultant. They will run through your system from the point of connection to the last head of your system and provide you with a site assessment. We did ours one year prior to the central control system upgrades. A tangible report is an easy sell to your administrator or boss to show the good and the bad of your irrigation systems. This allowed us to see all our deficiencies and provided us with a list of items that should be fixed right away, like broken heads and stuck valves, and longer-range items like adding a pump to a system to increase pressure.

Maybe you only have one field to control. These systems, through all the major manufacturers, have WiFi systems that can instantly turn your old controller to a new “high tech” system at relatively low cost.

Flow control is key

I think the heart to any smart system is having flow control. Managing the flow of your system is critical. Knowing how much water the system puts out every day or night is great information. Using flow to your advantage can help reduce watering times. This in turn reduces leaf wetness. Each system has a designed flow or optimum flow. Let’s say for example that is 100 gallons per minute. Flow on each zone of your system might be different, but the controller can combine multiple zones that equal to your designed flow. Instead of running one zone at a time, this might let your system run up to three zones or more at one time, reducing watering times.

My system sends me two emails each morning at 6:30 am: a run time pdf, where I can see each of my 14 sites, including what zones ran, which didn’t, and total amount of water per field. The second email has alarms and warnings. Maybe I had a stuck open solenoid on a field. The system will understand that the valve didn’t shut off and shut done the system. Maybe I had a mainline or lateral line break. My system will know it’s a “unscheduled flow” and shut down the system. Some systems will send you a text or a specific email if this happens. The best part of these, are they are savable, and I have folders with hundreds of pdf. I can tell you what happened on any given day in the past.

Smart systems will reduce water usage using weather data. My system allows me to use local weather data to provide the system with a watering schedule based on many factors. This takes some setup time at the beginning, and the system needs to learn your trends. I currently do not water any of my sports fields with ET or weather data at this point. I do use rain sensors to prevent watering. I use weather data for my landscaped beds, and lawns. Inputting data like soil texture, root depths, plant types, irrigation heads etc., takes time but uses the system to its fullest capability.

We all know about rain sensors. How many of us have them that actually work? Maybe just upgrading to newer rain or freeze sensors is an upgrade. How about a weather station attached to your system? These are not inexpensive, but provide you with hyper local information like wind, rain gauge, and ET. What about moisture sensors? How many should you install per field? Does your field have a microclimate? I have considered using moisture sensors on my lawn areas and ornamental beds. Their cost has come way down.

Installing master valves into your systems are another smart feature. Master valves can be set into two positions, normally open or normally closed. Normally open will not prevent line breaks. I keep my systems normally closed. The mainline and laterals are kept dry. When the system calls for water, the pipes fill. This prevents “unscheduled flows” or line breaks. If you use a lot of quick couplers or snap valves for hand watering like baseball fields, normally closed might not work for you. But with a click of the smart phone, I can manually open the mainline to allow the use of QC.

My systems were retrofitted starting in 2017 and has taken some time to get used to. All our controllers run on cell modems and sometimes connectivity is an issue. This is due to the poor cell phone coverage in town. We installed external antennas to all our controllers for better cellular coverage. Most systems are capable of using WiFi or cell modems. Cell modems are yearly expense but also come with monitoring my systems from the host, a local irrigation contractor who did the smart systems installation. It takes time to see the water savings, but data is your friend and so collect as much data over time as you can.

We have added three more irrigated sites since 2017, all adding to our central control system. Currently we are in construction with a large irrigation project around our high school stadium that will include irrigating lawns, beds and a JV football field. This would make our system then have 15 site controlled remotely.

Most manufacturers have their own versions of smart controllers and the associated equipment. My best advice is to read as much as you can about each product and find a neighboring turf manager that has a system and pick their brain. Find a good contractor you can ask questions and get their feedback.

Ben Polimer is Fields and Grounds Coordinator, City of Weston, MA, and also current President of the New England STMA chapter.