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For years, people have understood and accepted smart controllers, and now the question has become how to sell them, says Russ Jundt, founder and chief operating officer at Conserva Irrigation. “Ultimately, the way that we market or sell a smart controller is it’s much like a thermostat in your home,” he says.

As a thermostat automatically adjusts the heat or air conditioning based on existing temperatures, smart controllers adjust irrigation levels based on weather, precipitation and other factors, Jundt says. If a lawn is too dry, a smart controller provides it with enough of the water, but not too much, that the lawn needs to obtain moisture. If a lawn is already wet, a smart controller might only turn on briefly, or it will take a break from watering.

Founded in Minneapolis in 2010, Conserva Irrigation was built around the premise of saving water, and it has since integrated smart controllers into all of its jobs.

In addition to its Minneapolis location, the company services nine United States locations east of the Mississippi River. The Minneapolis location has the most customers with 2,150, and the Chicago location has the second-most with more than 600.

In 2017, Conserva plans to expand to 15 more locations across the country. The company’s marketing strategies allow for franchisees to quickly increase their client counts.

In 2016, Conserva brought in revenues of about $2 million. It anticipates revenues of more than $5 million in 2017.

“It’s almost like eating at an unbelievable restaurant that’s kind of a hole in the wall. It’s going to spread quick.” – Ryan Jordan, Turf Masters Lawn Care

Conserva installs Toro’s Evolution controller, which pulls in 40 years of historic weather data as well as current information from onsite evapotranspiration sensors.

“It gives us the best of two worlds in that it relies on past ET data, but more importantly, it gives us specific onsite, real-time weather conditions, so we know how we’re deviating from that normal, from the past,” Jundt says.

Toro has recently added a new offering to the market called SMRT Logic, which serves as an internet gateway that retrofits to several of the company’s existing controllers.

With the new technology, contractors and customers can adjust stations and schedules wirelessly. Using an iOS- and Android-compatible app, homeowners can tap on pictures that represent each of their zones and provide them with extra water. Conserva contractors in the South are already integrating the technology, and contractors in the North will follow suit next spring.

In the past six years, Conserva customers have seen an average reduction in water use of 40 to 60 percent, Jundt says. Customers’ cost savings often equal, and sometimes exceed, these figures.

In communities where municipalities and water providers have set up tiered rate structures, residents and businesses who use smart controllers end up using less water and paying lower rates.

Savings down south.

In Mississippi and Alabama, where Pascagoula, Mississippi-based Turf Masters Lawn Care provides services, water is relatively cheap and restrictions on its use are limited, says Ryan Jordan, the company’s account manager and executive vice president.

However, people still hope to save on water, in much the same way they hope to save on heat, electricity and other utilities. “Even in the South, where everything is so easygoing, you still have people that are spending the money that are aware we live in a world with limited resources,” he says.

Most of the irrigation products Turf Masters uses are manufactured by Rain Bird, which offers SMT smart controllers for mainly residential jobs and IQ smart controllers for mainly commercial jobs, Jordan says.

For customers who use these smart controllers, Rain Bird promises water savings of up to 70 percent, which Jordan says can translate to annual savings of hundreds of dollars for residential customers and thousands of dollars for commercial customers.

Turf Masters integrates smart controllers into approximately 80 percent of its jobs. Many of the company’s customers are not only receptive to, but excited about, the smart controller options, Jordan says.

“They don’t mind paying a little extra if they know that they’re going to get a good product out of that, and we feel like it’s a no-brainer because it’s a very versatile unit,” he says.

Depending on various factors, the cost to install an SMT controller is about $500, whereas to install Rain Bird’s manual ESP controllers is often between $250 and $350.

Rain Bird’s commercial IQ systems have capabilities such as being able to run market reports, flow data and historical flow data.

Price ranges for IQ installs vary greatly, says Jordan, who recently performed an install at a casino for around $2,500. He refers to the IQ as a “cleaned-up version” of Rain Bird’s Maxicom, which can cost more than twice as much to install because it requires cluster control units and satellite controllers.

Some of Turf Masters’s residential clients purchase Rain Bird’s IQ central control system because it offers quantitative results and has flow sensors and cloud connectivity built in. Contractors still have more control and data over the systems than their customers, but customers can themselves run manual zones and test programs, check flow data reports and runtime reports and can close a master valve in the event of a major leak.

The automated functions of smart controllers limit the time lawn care companies must spend performing audits, which directly decreases costs for both them and their customers, Jordan says.

The IQ controllers automatically water areas based on global weather data as well as local, historical evapotranspiration data, and the SMT controllers water based on the local, historical ET data. Upon installing these controllers, companies still must make trips to check irrigation heads and to see if there are any major issues with systems, but those trips are less frequent and time-consuming compared to older controllers.

Adopting smart controllers has provided Turf Masters with increased revenue, but the company has not monitored exactly how much added revenue links directly back to the technology, Jordan says.

The company has gained customers due to word spreading about smart controllers. “It’s almost like eating at an unbelievable restaurant that’s kind of a hole in the wall,” he says.

“It’s going to spread quick, and for you to get a good meal, you’re going to tell somebody, and then that somebody is going to tell a few other people.”

Becoming the norm.

In many markets, the number of people interested in smart controllers continues to grow.

Jarod Roberts, general manager for Westside Sprinkler & Property Performance in Denver, Colorado, says he installs more smart controllers than older models.

“For example, it’s almost hard to not get a smartphone,” he says. “You’re almost just led into that. So, it’s the same thing with sprinkler controllers. Why do we put in a new controller? Well, someone’s controller has went out. It just went bad. It’s an ancient, analog type of thing.”

Smart controllers continue to become more specialized, from Rachio controllers that can be found in department stores to the Weathermatic systems that service large commercial and municipal clients, Roberts says.

Many are smartphone-compatible, such as IrriGreen’s Genius, which Roberts installs.

It is easiest to sell smart controllers to customers who are already focused on the importance of water conservation, says Tom Horn, president of All-N-One Irrigation Systems in Jefferson City, Missouri, who works primarily with Rain Bird.

Although they cost more money upfront than older controllers, with a list price of SMT controllers around $100 higher than ESP controllers, investing in smart controllers is worth it, Horn says.

“I would almost venture to say that in less than one year on an average-sized lawn that is maybe four to six zones, the return on investment already pays for itself, and it starts putting money in your pocket, so to speak,” he says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.