How to Choose from Hundreds of Smart Controllers
I Love Smart Controllers!
I LOVE LOVE LOVE smart controllers! Since 2007 I've installed 56 of them. I still manage a few of the ones I've installed and managed over the years. Of these 56 controllers, there were 15 different models. And seven of those 15 no longer exist on the market. So smart controllers come and go. And there are lots of reasons for them to fall by the wayside. So, I wouldn't know how to make recommendations as to how to make sure you choose a controller that will still be on the market years from now. That seems to me a bit of a crap shoot.
A few of the arguments I wish to offer to convince you to use smart controllers in ALL of your projects are:
- Water districts have fantastic rebate programs! They're paying us to convert to using them.
- Many of these controllers irrigate based on the forecast, as well as the weather from the past few days. This is a new, super-valuable feature.
- At the very least, these controllers water in response to weather factors, not to a set, predetermined schedule. And even without installing a physical rain sensor, most of them won't water if there has been a measurable amount of rain recently. People don't always remember to turn the controller on or off, depending on the weather.
The biggest sweeping generalization I can confidently make is that you MUST use smart controllers that are on the EPA WaterSense controller list. These controllers have undergone rigorous third-party testing (SWAT) to qualify for the list. So these controllers have proven themselves to be effective at saving water in the landscape. If you were to do a search on amazon.com for smart irrigation controllers, you would find around 75 more brands that are NOT on the EPA WaterSense list.
So we're going to begin our filtering and culling starting with the EPA WaterSense list. I've provided the WaterSense list in its entirety at the end of this lesson for you to download. This list is just an FYI. So you won't be overwhelmed, please only refer to the "Lori P" revised spreadsheet where I've trimmed the list down to the most relevant choices for your residential projects. And please note that this is a living list. It changes regularly. Controllers come and go. Always make sure to download the latest list.
EPA WaterSense-Labeled, Weather-Based Irrigation Controllers
The EPA WaterSense list of Weather-Based Irrigation Controllers (WBICs) is currently 964 irrigation controllers strong, as of March 14, 2022. This list grows regularly. It had 775 controllers on it a year ago. As we proceed through this tutorial, we'll shrink those numbers down. By the end, we'll have filtered it down to a more manageable list of choices.
To keep you from running away at the sound of almost a thousand controllers to sift through, I should tell you that the bulkiness of this list is because the manufacturers have listed many models of individual controllers with the same features. For example, Rainmaster has 486 controllers on the list. Toro has 197. This accounts for more than half the list. The controllers offered by an individual manufacturer tend to be basically the same controller, only with different station counts, and indoor and outdoor models listed for each zone count. This is why the list is initially so unwieldy. But not to worry. I hid the fluff so we're left mostly with relevant info we need for our purposes.
There are 22 brands represented on the list.
All Brands on WaterSense List
- Aeon Matrix
- Banyan Water
- ET Water
- Rain Bird
Filter #1 - Residential or Commercial?
I've decided to only address residential applications in this course. I had to draw the line somewhere. Handling residential AND commercial controllers is more appropriate content for a full course, than a lesson within a course. So, judging by the requests that were made in the smart controller survey I asked students to fill out in the previous lesson, we're going with residential controllers. And by residential, I mean controllers with a capacity of 24 or fewer zones (stations). And I'm leaving out whole brands that are geared toward clientele not in the private sector. In this vein, I eliminated Banyan Water, Calsense, DIG, Netafim, Rainmaster, and Tucor. This leaves us with 16 brands of controllers and reduced the total number of models on the list to 463 (almost half of the original list).
Next, I removed the controllers that clearly function as central controls for large and multiple sites. This reduced the list to 182 controllers. Now we're left with the following 16 brands.
- Aeon Matrix
- ET Water (Jain)
- Rain Bird
Filter #2 - Remove redundancies
For this step I removed a LOT of repeat models - mainly indoor/outdoor repeats of the same model, as well as models that sported different features I felt weren't relevant. Once you settle on a model of controller, it's up to you to do the research and get the exact controller that fits the needs of the project. After removing all these redundant models, I ended with a much friendlier list of 85 controller models from 16 manufacturers.
Filter #3 - Paid or Free Weather Data Service?
This filter is an important one. There are three methods of providing weather data for weather-based smart controllers:
- Cellular service (paid)
- WiFi service (free)
- Onsite weather sensor (free)
Before WiFi controllers came along, there were two methods of obtaining weather data. One was accessing data from remote weather stations through cellular signal. And the other was onsite weather sensor. Then, when WiFi controllers came along, the market virtually exploded. Clients became more and more unwilling to pay around $225 per year for the cellular plan to operate their controllers. WiFi is free ... well, it's not really free, but it feels like it is because we use WiFi service for so many other things, we hardly think about the cost attached to it.
WiFi controllers have stormed the market. Almost all clients I deal with request them. And whereas there used to be six brands of controllers with onsite weather sensors, only three remain. I haven't had a client request a controller with an onsite sensor since 2011.
A Plug for Controllers with Paid Weather-Data Access
I haven't been successful in getting any clients to spring for the controllers with the paid weather access in a few years. In the residential realm, we only have three brands with paid cellular services. These are HydroPoint, ET Water, and Toro IntelliSense. I can't speak for the current ET Water controller. I had installed a few of them in the past and was unhappy with their algorithm and performance. So I never tried them again. It's that "once bitten, twice shy" syndrome. But ET Water was bought by Jain Irrigation. And they may have improved the controller. I would love to hear from anyone who has positive experiences with that controller.
But I have to say here that I absolutely LOVE the HydroPoint WeatherTRAK controller! It was one of the first smart controllers to come on the market. They came on the scene in 2002, and I installed my first one in 2009. I've installed several since then. And they've always performed beautifully, and never given me even the least bit of trouble. That controller is my first choice in smart controllers. But it's a tough sell for clients to say yes to the $225 a year data service fee when the WiFi controllers have free weather data access. The only time I can reliably specify one of these is when there is no WiFi access at the location of the controller - which is rare.
As for the Toro IntelliSense, I've used it, and I like it very much. Toro licenses the WeatherTRAK technology from HydroPoint to drive this controller. So I wouldn't recommend it because Toro could decide at any time to let go of their contract with HydroPoint (or vice-versa). And if they do that, your client would be left high and dry, and have to purchase another smart controller.
Filter #4 - App Required or Not?
This is a big one for me. I'm heavily biased on this one, which only pertains to WiFi controllers.
If a controller is just a box sitting on the wall without any kind of LCD panel, buttons, or dials to be able to program the controller or check the program, this really sets me off. Having been a maintenance gardener myself for several years, I'm offended by the idea of an irrigation controller that doesn't support gardeners. Many of the WiFi smart irrigation controllers out there are just this. A box on the wall that you can only operate with either a mobile device app or a web browser app is not an irrigation controller, to my mind. What if somebody on the maintenance team shows up one day and sees the plants are suffering? What if he or she left their cell phone home that day? what if cell coverage for their phone is spotty or non-existent at that site? What if their password to access the app isn't working, or they're blocked for whatever reason? What then?
The irrigation manufacturers who make other irrigation parts and products know the importance of supporting maintenance gardeners. You won't see them creating controllers that require apps to use them. It's the non-irrigation tech companies who are creating controllers that reduce irrigation scheduling to something on a par with turning lights on and off inside and outside of the house. Being able to walk up to a controller and check the irrigation schedule, look at when it ran last and plans to run again, maybe make a few tweaks here and there based on how the plants look and feel... I can only endorse controllers that support this.
Here is a list of controllers on the WaterSense list that require apps to interact with them. The Rachio lets you run the zones manually, but that isn't enough for me. So I'm including Rachio in this list of controllers that I do not endorse as powerful and valuable smart irrigation controllers.
App Required to Schedule Controller
- Aeon Matrix
- H2O Pro
*Note: People are constantly asking me about the Rachio controller. I have to say I have a love-hate relationship with this controller. I've never specified or used the Rachio controller. I hate the fact that it's just a box on the wall that doesn't support gardeners. But I love the scheduling algorithm. See section below called "Scheduling Method."
App Not Required to Schedule Controller
Here is a list of the brands and models that I recommend. These controllers do not require apps, but do provide supplemental apps.
- ET Water HermitCrab (paid weather data service)
- ET Water SmartBox and SmartWorks (paid weather data service)
- Hunter Hydrawise
- Hunter Solar Sync onsite weather sensor
- HydroPoint WeatherTRAK LC and ET Pro3 (paid weather data service)
- Hydro-Rain B-Hyve (same controller as Orbit)
- Irritrol CL-100 (converts several Irritrol and Toro controllers to weather-based smart control) onsite weather sensor
- Orbit B-Hyve (same controller as Hydro-Rain)
- Rain Bird ST8
- Toro Evolution onsite weather sensor
- Toro IntelliSense (paid weather data service)
- Weathermatic (paid cellular service and WiFi available) also onsite weather sensor
Let's Filter this Down Even More
First, let's separate the paid data services from the free ones. This could be a big deciding factor for clients. Here we see we have four controllers with paid weather data services, five with WiFi services (free), and four with the weather data provided by an onsite weather sensor. I should note here that the onsite weather sensors collect a limited data set of weather. It's usually solar radiation and air temperature, and sometimes relative humidity. Historical weather values are used to fill in data these sensors are not equipped to provide.
Paid Weather Data Service
- ET Water HermitCrab (paid weather data service) Plug-in that converts other manufacturers' controllers to smart control
- ET Water SmartBox and SmartWorks (paid weather data service) Plug-in that converts other manufacturers' controllers to smart control
- HydroPoint WeatherTRAK LC and ET Pro3 (paid weather data service)
- Toro IntelliSense (paid weather data service) I don't recommend this controller, as noted above
Free Weather Data Service - WiFi
- Hunter Hydrawise
- Hydro-Rain B-Hyve and Orbit B-Hyve (two manufacturers, same controller)
- Rain Bird ST8
- Weathermatic SL series
- Rachio *Note: I added Rachio back in because of its popularity, not because of my preference
Free Weather Data - Onsite Weather Sensor (limited real-time weather data collected)
- Hunter Solar Sync (temperature, rain, solar radiation)
- Irritrol CL-100 (temperature, rain, solar radiation)
- Toro Evolution CL-100 (temperature, rain, solar radiation)
- Weathermatic (temperature and rain sensor)
One Last Filter - Scheduling Method
The last filtering criterion I like to propose is the scheduling method. There are two general methods.
- Enter in the data for each zone and the controller creates its own independent schedule for each zone
- Enter in a peak schedule and the controller adjusts either the run time or the frequency
Of these two methods, the one I prefer is the first. In my experience, it does a better job because it independently creates a schedule for each zone each day, based on the specific logistics of the zone. The peak scheduling method requires the user to create and enter in a good peak schedule. I don't know of very many people who can create good, solid, well-informed irrigation schedules. So adjusting something that may not be very accurate to begin with seems faulty to me. I don't have a problem with it if the original schedule is a good one. It's kind of like building a house on a foundation that isn't to code, or doesn't use materials that won't hold up over time.
An argument that can be made against the first method is that the user has to be able to identify the data correctly for the zone. The data that's collected is plant material, soil type, precipitation rate of the irrigation device that waters the zone, exposure, wind, and slope. The hardest one to get right here is the precipitation rate of the irrigation. How many people know that? Even if the controller gives you several choices to choose from that have default values assigned to them, is the design true to the default value?
Final Controller Lists for You to Choose From
So with that all said, I'll let you choose which you prefer. Here is the list of available controllers that use zone data as their scheduling method. My personal preferred controllers are bolded in blue.
Paid Weather Data Service - Scheduling Method: Enter Zone Data
- ET Water HermitCrab (paid weather data service) - Scheduling method: Zone data
- ET Water SmartBox and SmartWorks (paid weather data service) - Scheduling method: Zone data
- HydroPoint WeatherTRAK LC and ET Pro3 (paid weather data service) - Scheduling method: Zone data
- Toro IntelliSense (paid weather data service) - Scheduling method: Zone data - I don't recommend this controller, as noted above
Free Weather Data Service - WiFi - Scheduling Method: Enter Zone Data
- Hydro-Rain B-Hyve and Orbit B-Hyve (two manufacturers, same controller) - Scheduling method: Zone data
- Netro - Scheduling method: Zone data
- Weathermatic SL series - Scheduling method: Zone data
- Rachio - Scheduling method: Enter peak schedule
Free Weather Data - Onsite Weather Sensor - Scheduling Method: Enter Zone Data
- Weathermatic (temperature and rain sensor) - Scheduling method: Zone data
And here is the list of available controllers that use the scheduling method of entering a peak schedule. My personal preferred controllers are bolded in blue.
Free Weather Data Service - WiFi - Scheduling Method: Enter Peak Schedule
- Aeon Matrix
- Hunter Hydrawise - Scheduling method: Enter peak schedule
- Rain Bird ST8 - Scheduling method: Enter peak schedule
Free Weather Data - Onsite Weather Sensor - Scheduling Method: Enter Peak Schedule
- Hunter Solar Sync (temperature, rain, solar radiation) - Scheduling method: Enter peak schedule
- Irritrol CL-100 (temperature, rain, solar radiation) - Scheduling method: Enter peak schedule
- Toro Evolution CL-100 (temperature, rain, solar radiation) - Scheduling method: Enter peak schedule
A Few Last Pieces of Advice
I have a few pieces of advice I'd like to leave you with, to help you decide on a smart controller for your project.
- Choose a smart controller of a brand with local manufacturer rep support. This is big. The manufacturers' reps are standing by waiting for us landscape professionals to ask them for help with their products. They'll even hold your hand if you need it. In the Bay Area, the following manufacturers have a strong physical support presence: Hunter, HydroPoint, and Rain Bird. If you care about this, please do use the products of these manufacturers if you live and work in the Bay Area.
- If you have access to the person who will be doing or is doing the maintenance on the property, ask them which smart controller they prefer. This piece of information could trump any decision you might otherwise make. The end user needs to be comfortable with the controller, and use it correctly in order for it to save water. Just make sure it's on the WaterSense list. That part should be non-negotiable.
- For new landscape installations, be sure to designate all plants as high water use until they are established. Otherwise the controller will not give the new plants enough water to get established correctly, and the plants will be weak and suffer for the rest of their lives. See full explanation in the Scheduling section of this course called "New vs. Mature Landscapes."
- If you have information for me from your experience that is contrary to the information I've provided here, please let me know. I welcome hearing your experience with smart controllers. I also welcome any advice you wish me to add to this.