What is a Smart Sprinkler Controller and Do I Need One?

A lush and well-kept garden is a valuable addition to any home. To keep a garden healthy requires two key things: maintenance, and the right amount of water. Overwatering, even though less apparent, can be just as damaging as underwatering. Smart sprinkler controllers solve this problem by using data, either from weather and plant apps, or on-site soil moisture sensors, to ensure your garden gets the perfect amount of water each time.

Working many gardening and golf course maintenance jobs when I was younger helped me develop a love for gardening, but it also showed me first hand that gardening is hard work! Automating when and how much your garden gets watered means there is one less job for you to think about.

Smart sprinkler controllers replace the timer on conventional underground sprinkler systems and give you full control via a mobile app. By using weather reports, this smart tech reduces water usage by automatically adjusting to the seasons, as well as watering less or stopping when rainfall occurs. Some controllers can also be programmed to adhere to local water restrictions.

Beautiful lush garden with grass, trees and flowers

Roughly 50% of the water used for lawn irrigation in the US gets wasted due to inefficient watering systems. The EPA estimates that the average American household could save in the region of 15 000 gallons of water per year if they switched to a WaterSense labeled smart sprinkler controller. WaterSense is both a label for water-efficient products and a resource to help you save water.

Most people regard yellowed leaves on their plants as a sign to water more. The reality is, however, that the majority of domestic and commercial gardens are overwatered, leading to root rot and other plant ailments. By eliminating the guesswork, smart sprinkler controllers help to reduce runoff and the resulting loss of nutrients.

Sprinklers spraying water on a green lawn surrounded by trees with pink flowers. A rainbow can be seen being caused by sunlight being refracted in the spray.

Before you invest in a smart sprinkler controller, you will need the following:

  • An existing underground sprinkler system
  • A strong Wi-Fi connection where you intend to install it
  • A smartphone

Smart sprinkler controllers cost on average between $100 and $300 to purchase. There are smart controllers that attach directly to your garden hose, but the majority of them only work with underground sprinkler systems. DIY installation is entirely possible if you are confident, however, many rebates will require professional installation as a condition.

Professional performing maintenance on a smart sprinkler controller sprinkler head.

Things to look out for when buying a smart sprinkler controller

  • How many zones can it cover?
    This number should be the same or more than the current number of zones covered by your underground sprinkler system.
  • Is it WaterSense certified?
    WaterSense certification guarantees water savings of up to 20% and a reduced utilities bill. Depending on your state, you can also get a rebate from your water utility supplier by switching to a smart controller. Be aware, however, that this can be a tedious process requiring you to jump through a few hoops.
  • Is the unit waterproof?
    Many smart sprinkler controllers are designed for indoor use only, whereas waterproof outdoor controllers are more expensive. If you prefer to have it outside, many manufacturers sell weatherproof housings separately that allow you to mount an indoor controller outdoors.
Sprinklers watering a green lawn
  • Is it compatible with your existing home assistant (Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple’s Siri)?
    This is a nice feature to have but not a deal breaker. In order to be as water efficient as possible, sprinklers should always be set to run at night when water evaporation is at its lowest point. This would mean you will probably be asleep whenever the sprinklers come on, so chances are that voice control will be an underused feature.
  • Do you want manual programming?
    Many smart sprinkler controllers have mobile app control that allows you to fully customize everything. However, this requires that you always use your phone or tablet and these systems often don’t have any control buttons on the controller itself. This could be important if you want other people to have access to the system in your absence.

How do smart sprinkler controllers work?

The majority of smart sprinkler controllers work on the scientific principle known as evapotranspitation, or ET for short, which is the term used to describe the transfer of moisture from the earth into the atmosphere. By measuring humidity, wind, solar radiation and temperature, smart controllers can calculate how much moisture has been absorbed or released by your plants and how much water they need at any given time. Thankfully, you don’t need to worry about the science, the smart sprinkler controller will do that for you!

Picture demonstrating evapotranspiration cycle between the land, ocean, and atmosphere

Utilizing Wi-Fi, smart sprinkler controllers make use of weather and plant apps to fine tune your garden’s unique watering needs. Mobile app control allows for the programming and overriding of set schedules anywhere, as long as you have access to your smartphone, tablet, or can log into your account via desktop.

What are some of the best smart sprinkler controllers?

According to experts, and in no particular order, here are some of the most trusted brands in the Smart Sprinkler industry: Rachio, Rainmachine, Orbit B-hyve, Rainbird and Wyse are all well established. There are many less expensive startup companies, but be cautious as their support software and security are not guaranteed if the company were to fail.

What to do next?

If you enjoyed this article and are looking for more ways to upgrade your garden, come read our article Best Robot Lawnmowers for 2021

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