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For The Garden

The Water-Wise Landscape

Author: Cathy Babcock
Issue: February, 2018, Page 116
Smart controller systems allow you to monitor your yard’s water needs from your computer or smartphone, even when you are far from home.
Technology helps homeowners conserve water and maintain healthy landscapes

In today’s digital world, most of us have embraced some form of connected technology. From online banking to counting the number of our steps via an activity tracker to monitoring our home’s security on a tablet or smartphone, we are dialed in to some degree. While it can take some getting used to, technology makes our lives easier and more efficient in ways we never dreamed possible. And now, thanks to applications called smart controllers, you can monitor and manage your landscape and garden—saving you time and money as well as conserving water.

Simply put, smart controller systems redefine the way you water your yard. Using sensors that are either weather- or soil moisture-based, the technology monitors local conditions and customizes a watering schedule specific to its locale. The weather-based systems measure the rate of evapotranspiration (ET), which is the sum of plant transpiration or the process of water movement through a plant, plus soil moisture evaporation; they then apply water when needed to make up for the amount lost through ET. Soil moisture-based systems use sensors that measure the moisture around a plant’s root zone, activating a watering cycle only when the moisture level drops below a set threshold. Some systems accept a number of parameters per zone or station, such as soil type, plant type and slope, with weather conditions culled from onsite sensors or data collected from a local weather station.

“Arizona is a different animal than the rest of the country,” says Jeff Lee, a water conservation specialist for the City of Gilbert. “It is important to install a controller that adjusts the days or frequency between watering rather than just altering run times.” In other words, you don’t want a system that adds water daily for a short period of time. This will result in short, shallow watering. You want to keep the longer run time for deeper watering to properly wet the entire root zone.

WHICH SYSTEM IS RIGHT FOR YOU?  
Both types of controller systems work well in residential situations. Weather-based systems are less expensive than soil moisture-based controllers, and programming them is fairly simple. Soil moisture-based controllers, on the other hand, have expanded data parameters and therefore demand more configurations. To use the latter type of system correctly requires a sensor for each plant type, e.g., one in the grass, one for the shrubs and a third for the trees. “It’s basically a matter of individual preference as to which one you choose,” says Lee.

There are many options currently on the market. Smart controllers can be battery-operated, can utilize Bluetooth connectivity or smartphone mobile apps, or can be synced to cloud platforms. This allows you to unite all of your home applications in one place with your cellphone acting as a remote to send commands and receive text messages and alarms for broken lines or other problems that come up. “This technology will also be a boon for you if you are a winter visitor with a second home in the Valley and don’t want your landscaping to become scorched during the summer,” says Doug Donahue, an account manager for Scottsdale-based Ewing Irrigation & Landscape Supply. “You will be able to control your garden in Arizona from your summer home in Idaho; you can even receive alerts if something goes awry,”

All of these applications used to be part of larger-scale technology only available on a commercial basis that is now filtering down to the residential scale. But a yard will always need the human touch. “The smart controller is not the be-all and fix-all for your home gardening,” Lee warns. “You still might have a faulty irrigation system in place. The installation needs to be put together with appropriate hardware outside, correct spacing of sprinklers and emitters to provide coverage, and proper water pressure, among other things.” In addition, the controller itself must be programmed correctly or you can end up using three times the amount of water needed.

WHERE WILL THIS TECHNOLOGY GO NEXT?  
Both Lee and Donahue believe that controller technology will continue to evolve, becoming more prevalent and even more efficient. Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology have successfully created sensors that can be printed directly onto leaves and record when plants are experiencing water deficiency. So eventually your plants themselves will be able to communicate directly with your system. Donahue also mentions that several cities in the Valley currently offer sizable rebates for homeowners who install smart landscape controllers. Go to waterawarenessmonth.com or amwua.org to see what your city offers. Just remember: No phone download is going to take the place of hands-on experience when it comes to knowing what your landscape needs. And so far, no technology in the world is going to plant that tree or pull those weeds for you. Although, come to think of it, robot lawn mowers do exist.

Cathy Babcock is the director of horticulture for Boyce Thompson Arboretum, located in Superior.
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