Garden Basics with Farmer Fred

218 Smarter Irrigation Controllers

August 09, 2022 Fred Hoffman Season 3 Episode 218
Garden Basics with Farmer Fred
218 Smarter Irrigation Controllers
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

If you have a sprinkler system, a drip irrigation system or a series of soaker hoses, how are you turning those systems on and off?  For many gardeners who live in dry summer climates, automatic irrigation control systems are the way to go. And if you have one of those older irrigation control systems, you might be amazed at how the newer, smartphone-controlled systems can ease your watering chores even more. We talk with an irrigation specialist, Don Smith,  the water management coordinator for the City of Folsom, California. Not only will you learn about the features on the newest irrigation control systems, you just might discover how inexpensive upgrades to your watering systems can be, thanks to grants and rebates.

We’re podcasting from Barking Dog Studios here in the beautiful Abutilon Jungle in Suburban Purgatory. It’s the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast, brought to you today by Smart Pots. And we will do it all in just a little over 30 minutes. Let’s go!

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GB 218 TRANSCRIPT Smarter Irrigation Controllers

Farmer Fred  0:00  

Garden Basics with Farmer Fred is brought to you by Smart Pots, the original lightweight, long lasting fabric plant container. It’s made in the USA. Visit slash Fred for more information and a special discount, that's

Farmer Fred  0:20  

Welcome to the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast. If you're just a beginning gardener or you want good gardening information, you've come to the right spot. 

Farmer Fred  0:31  

If you have a sprinkler system, a drip irrigation system or a series of soaker hoses, how are you turning those systems on and off? By hand, because you regularly get rainfall throughout the year? Lucky you. For many gardeners who live in dry summer climates, or are discovering that where they live, the rain isn’t as dependable as it used to be, then automatic irrigation control systems are the way to go. And if you have one of those older irrigation control systems, perhaps one that has a few years on it, you might be amazed at how the newer systems can ease your watering chores even more. Many of the new irrigation systems are controlled with your smartphone. And they take the guesswork out of turning your systems on and off. Today we talk with an irrigation specialist, Don Smith, he’s the water management coordinator for the City of Folsom California’s water department. Not only will you learn about the features on the newest irrigation control systems, you just might discover how inexpensive upgrades to your watering systems can be, thanks to grants and rebates. Oh, you didn’t know about those? Stick around, we’ll tell you.

We’re podcasting from Barking Dog Studios here in the beautiful Abutilon Jungle in Suburban Purgatory. It’s the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast, brought to you today by Smart Pots. And we will do it all in just a little over 30 minutes. Let’s go!  


Farmer Fred  1:59  

California, as you're probably aware, is in a drought. There are water restrictions in place here. And in fact, there are water restrictions in place throughout much of the country where there is a drought, it's not just the southwest, It's not just California, it's many states, even in the Midwest, and it really comes down to watering efficiently. How many of you have an irrigation control system? Probably many of you, but how old is that system? There are newer systems out there that, as the kids would say, blow your mind. Because they can do a lot that you don't even have to think about anymore when it comes to watering your lawn and garden. So we're gonna talk about updating your sprinkler control system, your irrigation control system, and maybe your irrigation sprinklers as well. We're talking with Don Smith. Don Smith is with the city of Folsom, California. He is their water management coordinator. And Don, as I say, drought is nothing new to California. Watering restrictions are nothing new. And it's all a carrot and stick approach. And for years California and its various cities, such as Folsom, have been offering some very nice carrots as far as rebates, on some very nifty irrigation control systems.

Don Smith  3:17  

Correct. We've got a couple of programs going, we have a direct purchase program where we subsidize the purchase of a new controller. The particular one that we're doing is called a Rachio. And it is Wi Fi enabled. It is a whole new generation. It looks nothing like the controllers your father used. When you look at it, there's no dials, there's no buttons, it connects to your Wi Fi, all the programming adjustments. You're all doing it either through your computer or a mobile device, a phone or a tablet. It's so very convenient. You know, I've been in this job for 20 years; and 20 years before that, I was a landscape contractor. And running sprinkler systems, you'd run back and forth. You know, you'd be in the backyard, you'd look at a system run and you'd run back to the garage to turn on the next zone. With a Rachio, you stand there with your phone and you turn what you want to turn, on as you're looking at it. So that makes inspections and just checking out your system and make sure nothing's wrong. It makes it very easy. Also, too, they're smart controllers in the sense that they use current weather data to make their adjustments. They're downloading weather data from a number of sources, and it's pretty accurate to where you are. So it will use that data to determine how much water needs to be applied at a certain time. It works pretty well. Most of our customers who have taken advantage of the program are very happy with it.

Farmer Fred  4:48  

Yeah, irrigation control systems, as you mentioned, make it easy. If you're out doing repairs, especially if you have a drip irrigation system and you're fixing pipes or emitters, and you want to turn on this system to check it out, you don't have to run back to the garage or wherever the controller is to turn it on. And in fact, looking at some of the smart irrigation controllers that are out there now there are some that will even tell you when you have a leak, right?

Don Smith  5:12  

The Rachio, if you want to, it's an add on service, but they actually have a flow meter that can be installed in your line. Now this requires some plumbing, but it learns what your normal flows are when your systems are running. And when that flow spikes, which would indicate a break or broken sprinkler, it will notify you and let you know you got a problem. So you can go check it out. I mean, most of us our systems are coming on early in the morning, late at night, and we can have broken equipment that we never know about. The Rachio flow meter will let you know you've got a problem. 

Farmer Fred  5:51  

Yeah, that's very nifty. And also many cities including Folsom, subscribe to the Dropcountr service that can let customers know how much water they are using on a day to day basis, and when there might be a leak, as well.

Don Smith  6:05  

Correct. Dropcountr is what the city of Folsom uses, there's several other providers. It gives the customer a portal to look to see what their water usage is, they can see down to the hour. Occasionally, we've had to talk to a customer who thought his water bill was too high. And we asked him how much he was watering. And he said hardly ever. And then we looked at the Dropcountr page. And we could see big spikes every night. And he just wasn't aware it was coming on. So with that knowledge, you can correct problems before they get to be a big deal via the portal and almost all of them do it. But the Dropcountr portal, if it notices that water is flowing through your meter on a 24 hour basis, it will send you an email to let you know that you may have a leak somewhere. Many times if you don't have this technology, you know there's a leak when you get a big bill, it's definitely advantageous to be able to see that information early and to be able to take care of it.

Farmer Fred  7:03  

Yeah, if people can find it. if they can find the manual to their controller and I've heard that story before. People say well, I lost the manual, I don't know where it is. Or they'll even say I may have a controller in the garage, somewhere. But there's probably a bunch of shelves in front of it. Well, that's a problem that needs to be addressed.

Don Smith  7:24  

Right. That's one of my standard lectures to homeowners: is make sure that timer is where you can get at it, keep it clear in front so you can get to it. Because you may not be installing a Rachio or you may not be installing the smart controller that will adjust itself. And that means you need to get to that timer on a regular basis to change the settings depending on the season. And if you've got shelves and boxes and all other types of things in front of it, it makes that difficult. Another thing that's really important is when the timer is installed, make sure it's right there, at eye level for you, the homeowner. I've seen them down on the ground. I've seen them up by the ceiling of the garage. I worked with one gentleman and I asked him where his timer was. And he pointed up above his walk-through door in the garage. And it was right up next to the ceiling. And I asked him why did you put it there. And he said that's where the installer ran out of wire. So make it so that it's convenient for you to get to it. And when it's convenient to get to you'll be taking advantage of all of the functions that help it to be efficient.

Farmer Fred  8:35  

Do most of the newer systems have backup batteries in them? 

Don Smith  8:40  

Well, you know, for a long time, there were nine volt batteries, that would be in every timer. All that would do, if you had a power outage, it would save the programming, it wouldn't operate the system, but it would save the program. So when the power came back on, everything just started up where it left off. But nowadays, you're getting these small lithium batteries. But usually there is some kind of a battery in every timer to protect it from power outages.

Farmer Fred  9:07  

And I would think with the more modern controllers, it would give you a warning when that battery needs to be replaced. 

Don Smith

Yes, they will. And the Rachio will do that. They'll send you a message. 

Farmer Fred

You know, I mentioned that a lot of people would like to be able to change the settings on their controller, but they have no idea how to do it and they don't have the manual. Well, the good news is here in the 21st century. You can find the manual on the internet. 

Don Smith  9:33  

Exactly. I tell people to do that all the time. Google that manual. You know, it's always interesting. I've talked to computer engineers that don't even want to look at the timer. Here in Folsom. One of our big businesses is Intel. And I teased the guy one time I said your company probably made the chip that runs that timer. So I think you need to learn to use it.

Farmer Fred  9:55  

Okay, so that was a case where he just didn't want to have anything to do with it. It wasn't a case of he wanted everything on the smartphone.

Don Smith  10:01  

Right. I asked him where his timer was. And he says, “out in the garage somewhere, I haven't looked at it, don't want to look at it.” Which is a little bit of a foolish attitude to have. And some people just assume it's going to be so complicated and difficult, they say, “I’m never going to be able to do the programming.” And I've seen that happen where people have good systems, but they've just been intimidated by the timer, and they end up dragging hoses around the yard instead of using the system that's in the ground. And so it's just a matter of education. And a lot of times, it's pretty common in water districts across the country. They'll have a conservation program, and they have conservation specialists who will make appointments with you and come out and do a house call. And when they do that, they will take a look at your system, they'll take a look at your timer, they'll make sure that you understand how to operate it. And then they'll give you advice on good schedules to put in there. And if you don't have a smart controller that does it automatically, they'll help you set up and give you some advice on what to do seasonally, and how long things should run and when they should run, and those types of things.


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Farmer Fred  13:00  

Let's continue our conversation with Don Smith. He's the Water Management Coordinator for the city of Folsom, California. If you're trying to cut down your water bill and save water in your yard, one of the easiest places to start is with a new smart irrigation control system. Let's continue our conversation with Don Smith. In commercial agriculture now, because water is expensive, many farmers have installed soil sensors, soil moisture sensors, to help them regulate the flow of water and it makes perfect sense. And that seems to me to be the best solution out there, is to let the machine determine when the soil needs water. But how close are we to that point for home units?

Don Smith  13:52  

Well, there are soil moisture units for home use. There's four or five manufacturers, some of the big ones have them and their add ons to the timer you already have, it’s not that complicated. The only thing I would caution people: in agriculture, you've got this big flat field and you can put that moisture meter just about anywhere. And it's going to be representative of the conditions in the whole field. When you get to a home, you've got shady spots, you've got a slope here, you've got a tree there. So there are multiple different soil conditions throughout that yard. So you have to carefully locate,  find a spot, that is a happy medium for everything around your yard. And I've even talked to some people who combined the soil moisture meter with the smart controller that's using atmospheric weather conditions to estimate water use while that's very very good. It's still an estimate when they're looking at weather is as to how much water to apply to your landscape. The soil moisture meter is actually measuring moisture in the soil. So they will connect the soil moisture meter to the Smart Controller, if the smart controller makes a mistake, and you really don't need as much water as it thinks you need, the moisture meter will override it and not allow it to water. So it can be a benefit, you just have to be careful where you locate it.

Farmer Fred  15:19  

Can multiple soil moisture meters be used with a single irrigation controller?

Don Smith  15:25  

They can and there are systems that do that. But you're going up in cost and difficulty of installation.

Farmer Fred  15:32  

Yeah, something like that would probably be best if you're doing a total yard rehab, and you're going to start from scratch.

Don Smith  15:38  

Right, our new construction, you know, getting those conduit cables there, there is one wireless moisture meter out there that I've heard works pretty well, you just got to stay on top of keeping the batteries changed. So it's kind of a twice a year, you change the batteries in your smoke alarms, you also go out and change the battery in your moisture meter.

Farmer Fred  16:01  

There are some very interesting and rather inexpensive moisture monitors that you can pick up like at Amazon, they sell for about 40 or 50 bucks, and you can plunk it into the soil wherever you want it. And it will send a signal usually via Wi Fi or Bluetooth to a monitor, a gauge, wherever you are in the house that lets you know what the current moisture level is, and whether it needs water or not. And that's not a bad place to start.

Don Smith  16:33  

No, those work very well. But you know, that's something that requires homeowner participation. You know, like all of us, we get busy at times. And we may not stay on top of things like that, even though we're getting the information, we may not make use of it and go out and make the adjustments to our controller. So I'm kind of a big fan of trying to get those changes and, and adjustments due to weather as automated as possible. That's why I've become a big fan of the Wi Fi controllers like Rachio.

Farmer Fred  17:06  

Yeah, exactly. They're doing so much now. But in the past, the problem has been well, that requires the homeowner to have a better working knowledge of the settings and how to adjust them. Whereas if it becomes more automatic, they don't have to worry about it.

Don Smith  17:21  

Right. And you know, for a lot of homeowners I mean we have busy lives. If we manage to turn that controller off in the wintertime, we're probably ahead of the game as far as what other homeowners are doing from a water district point of view. I'm trying to encourage people to be efficient, and not use more water than they need to. I'm a big promoter of using smart controllers that are the Wi Fi enabled controllers.

Farmer Fred  17:46  

Exactly. And there are plenty of portable moisture meters that you can take around the yard to measure the soil moisture yourself and, and proceed from that point. But again, that's audience participation, which, right, as you mentioned, people are busy, they want everything as automated as possible. But  I foresee the day, and it's I don't think it's that far in the future, when the soil moisture sensors will become cheaper and easier to install. And watering will be automatic, right.

Don Smith  18:17  

And we're already seeing that. And then a lot of the technology, you can buy versions of the Wi Fi enabled units at the big box stores fairly inexpensively. If you're concerned about cost, there's ways to do it. And they all work similar to each other. We've had this program here at Folsom with the Rachio unit. And we've gotten pretty familiar with it and through experience of having hundreds of them installed, have seen, you know the reliability of it. So it just depends what way you want to go.

Farmer Fred  18:48  

Here in California. There are rebates galore for newer irrigation control systems, check with your local water supplier, check with the State of California, too, because there are combinations of rebates available, correct. And save you a lot of money.

Don Smith  19:05  

They will. The Rachio program is just one of ours. We have programs if you just want to upgrade your entire system, we have rebates that will pay for 50% of the material cost. It's not just timers, it's everything you can put out there,

Farmer Fred  19:22  

including more efficient sprinkler heads?

Don Smith  19:25  

Correct. Drip systems, better heads, the majority of the sprinkler heads people have out there right now, if you're old enough to get this reference, I refer to that as the beta - VHS tape. You know, back in the day, when the tapes were a big deal, they started pushing this technology called Beta which quickly faded. And I think a lot of sprinkler heads are that beta technology only they have faded. They've been going for years and they're continue going and there's just better ways to do it. Yeah, exactly.

Farmer Fred  20:00  

And if you are old enough to remember, you would maybe think like I do, that Betamax was superior to VHS, but it was Sony’s short sightedness of not licensing the technology to other companies that contributed to its downfall. But that's besides the point.

Don Smith  20:18  

Well, you know, I look, when I talk about sprinkler technology, I like to compare it to cell phone technology. I mean, when I was a contractor, the first cell phone I ever had, was the size of a brick and looked like an old army walkie talkie. And now you've we've got these nice iPhones and smartphones, you can't even buy one of those old brick cell phones anymore, they're not available. But you can still buy the same old sprinkler that was installed 50 years ago, just because people are used to them, they're comfortable with them. You know, that's what my dad use. So that's what I'll use. When there are much better options out there, like the rotary sprinkler nozzles, which are far superior to the misting spray heads.

Farmer Fred  20:59  

Exactly. They use much less water.  And for those who are maybe averse to Wi Fi, averse to carrying their smartphone with them everywhere, I understand that. I feel your pain. Yeah, and a lot of these controllers, you can walk up to the controller and program it from the controller, right? You don't, you don't necessarily need the Wi Fi or Bluetooth connection. If you want to be old fashioned about it, you can walk up to it and program it.

Don Smith  21:30  

With the Wi Fi enabled ones, that's difficult to do, they don't really make that easy to do, they almost require you to use the Wi Fi settings. But there are still plenty of standard controllers that are reliable good technology, you just have to be conscious about making the changes yourself. There are dozens of models. If you don't want to go all high tech, I would just say take a look at what's available. And  when you look at it, maybe go online and look at the manual. And see if it makes sense to you. Does it seem simple to you. And if it does, go for it. The only thing I encourage people to do is at a minimum, make sure that you have multiple programs. And you'll usually see that by letter designations, we'll have program A, program B, Program C. That's very important for the efficiency and how it operates because you can separate zones that need to be watered differently from each other. And each one of those programs can be set up independently of the other program as far as start times, as far as days of the week that it comes on. So you can separate a drip system from a spray system. And then also, along with multiple programs, you want multiple start times. That way, say for instance, you need to get a half an hour water on. But you know after about five minutes, it's all run-off. If you have multiple start times, you can divide that up and use a technique called Cycle and Soak, where you run for a few minutes. Let it soak in for an hour, and then schedule another start time. And you repeat that multiple times until you get enough water into the landscape that you need. And you can do that without the runoff and gutter flooding of one big long run. That's  what I encourage people to look at. Look for the multiple start times and multiple programs.

Farmer Fred  23:26  

And what's good, too, even with the simpler controllers that are out there, they can come with a lot of add ons that will turn off the system if it's raining, or be able to gather the weather report or have a calendar system based into it. And will adjust your sprinklers automatically based on this extra equipment that you've installed with it. 

Don Smith  23:49  

Right, and the rain shut offs are fairly inexpensive. One of the drawbacks was you had to have a wire from the sensor back to your controller. Well, they have wireless ones now. They don't cost a whole lot. And if it's wet, it will prevent your controller from turning on.

Farmer Fred  24:05  

Now all we need is rain. That's right.

Don Smith  24:08  

Well in Northern California, the rain sensors while still okay, are not quite as critical. You know, every year. Well actually California has a drought every year, we call it summer. And I tell people when they asked me about the rain sensors here in California, is that the on-off switch is really all you need. Typically I turn mine off late October, mid November, depending on how the weather is. And they don't come back on again till March because we get cooler weather and that's where we'll get rain, hopefully get rain. But there are other parts of the country, like I grew up South Carolina and it rains all through the year. So you want to make sure you're not watering while it's raining and one of those rain sensors is just a great idea in those areas of the country.

Farmer Fred  24:53  

If you haven't upgraded your irrigation control system in a decade or so, you might take a look at what's available on the marketplace now and also check with your local water supplier. They may have some nice rebates involved for you to take advantage of when it comes to upgrading your irrigation control systems. Don Smith is the Water Management Coordinator for the city of Folsom, California. Don, thanks for giving us the lowdown on smarter irrigation control equipment. 

Don Smith  25:22  

Oh, happy to do it.


Farmer Fred  25:32  

Is it hotter, or is it just your imagination? It’s real. Heat waves across the country in the last decade are longer in duration and higher in temperature including both daytime and nighttime temperatures. And your plants are noticing it too, especially those popular ornamental shrubs that are more at home in milder climates, roses. Have you noticed that the blooms on your roses might be smaller than usual. That they tend to dry up quicker. And the foliage on the rose bushes may look crispier that usual. However, there are some rose varieties that can thrive in the heat, especially if that rose bush is located near a hard surface and it’s against a south or west facing wall, where the heat is particularly strong. In the Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter, out Friday August 12, Master Rosarian Debbie Arrington talks about those rose bush varieties that can take the heat.

Find a link to the newsletter in today’s show notes, or visit our website, Garden Basics dot net, where you can sign up to have the free Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter delivered to your inbox each Friday. Also at Garden Basics dot net, you can listen to any of our previous editions of the podcast, as well as read a transcript of the podcast episode you are listening to now. That’s at Garden Basics dot net. For current subscribers, look for those heat tolerant rose varieties in the next Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter on Friday, August 12th in your email. Take a deeper dive into gardening, with the Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter. And it’s free. Find the link at garden basics dot net.  

Farmer Fred  27:11  

Garden Basics With Farmer Fred comes out every Tuesday and Friday and is brought to you by Smart Pots and Dave Wilson Nursery. Garden Basics is available wherever podcasts are handed out. For more information about the podcast, visit our website, GardenBasics dot net. That’s where you can find out about the free, Garden Basics newsletter, Beyond the Basics. And thank you so much for listening.

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