I pay nearly $1,000 annually for city water in Miami, Florida: a semi-tropical, cooling-driven climate. Can a WiFi sprinkler controller reduce my water bill and which one should I buy?
We are a family of 3 in a two-bedroom, one-bath house with high-efficiency fixtures and toilets. Yet, water is my second-largest utility bill. It is nearly 60% of my annual electricity bill. Crazy.
About 9 years ago, I had an irrigation system professionally-installed for 1,000 square feet of grass (St. Augustine) and 1,000 square feet of trees and shrubs. I chose micro-sprayers for the bushes and plants, Rainbird rotor sprinklers and Rainbird pop-up heads for the grass, and a Rainbird sprinkler controller.
In May 2015, I installed the Rachio Iro 8-zone sprinkler controller (2nd generation now available) after researching WiFi sprinkler controllers. The unit has more than paid for itself. I’ll never go back to a traditional sprinkler controller, even one with a rain sensor.
Landscape Irrigation: 33% of Residential Water Use
Water for residential landscape irrigation accounts for significant water use. According to the US EPA WaterSense program:
- Landscape irrigation accounts for 33% of residential water use, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons per day
- As much as 50 percent of the water we use outdoors is wasted from inefficient watering methods and systems
- EPA believes that 95% of current sprinkler controllers need to be replaced for the 13.5 million irrigation systems installed in residential lawns across the US
In my house, landscape irrigation accounts for close to two-thirds of our residential water use and the price of water will only increase.
Types of Sprinkler Controllers
I grew up in Denver, Colorado in the 70’s/80’s and we were one of the first houses in the neighborhood to have an in-ground sprinkler system. Our Sunday morning ritual was reading the newspaper and going outside every 30 minutes to turn off / turn on the sprinklers via an in-ground valve with a “sprinkler key“. That was living. Much better than dragging around hoses and adjusting a sprinkler manually every 20-30 minutes. Sprinkler controllers have evolved significantly since that time, mostly evolving as weather-based sprinkler controllers.
Weather-based irrigation controllers, sometimes known as smart irrigation controllers, use current weather data to adapt irrigation schedules. This means the irrigation system’s station run times are based on plant water needs rather than on a preset, fixed schedule. Just think about how many times you have seen sprinklers running while it is raining. Ridiculous.
Onsite Sensor-based Control
By measuring onsite temperature, humidity, or solar radiation via external sensors, sprinkler run times are adjusted. Also, some controllers store historic weather patterns in memory to determine evapotranspiration rates and adjust watering times.
By receiving a regular signal for current weather conditions via radio, telephone, cable, cellular, or WiFi. The signal typically uses data fro local weather stations to update current schedule for the controller.
According to the US EPA, WaterSense labeled controllers–which are weather-based controllers–have the potential to save homeowners across the United States 110 billion gallons of water and roughly $410 million per year on utility bills.
Since most homes have WiFi today, I looked at only WiFi sprinkler controllers.
Rachio Iro WiFi Sprinkler Controller
Over the years, I have purchased a number of smart home devices to help me more easily control my home and save money. I have purchased the Lennox iComfort WiFi Thermostat (love it and so does my wife!), the Nest Thermostat (glorified remote control; a dial interface is not optimal for today’s touchscreen world), Belkin WeMo In-Wall Light Switch Timer (loved it before I installed the Insteon SwitchLinc Remote Control Switch, but there are some periodic connectivity issues). But I’m most excited about the Rachio Iro 8 Zone WiFi sprinkler controller. It was easy to install and set-up. It works reliably, paid for itself in less than one watering season, and has opened my eyes as to how little water my lawn and plants need to still look great. There is a reason why the controller has a 4.5 star rating with 685 reviews on Amazon.com.
The previous Rainbird sprinkler controller had an integrated outdoor enclosure. To install the new Rachio WiFi sprinkler controller, I needed a new outdoor enclosure. I looked at the Rachio Weatherproof Enclosure Box, but it was $85+ with shipping on Amazon.com. This was 35% of the cost of the sprinkler controller alone. In its place, I opted for the Orbit Weather-Resistant Outdoor Box at $32, including free Prime shipping. While cost-effective, it did require that I rotate the Rachio Iro sprinkler controller 90 degrees in the weather-resistant enclosure to allow space for the feed direction of the wires and the “wall wart” transformer. In the end, this is purely aesthetic and has not affected functionality. After nearly 6 months outside, the silver metal latch on the Orbit box has begun rusting. I don’t understand why Orbit didn’t install a stainless steel latch when it would have cost just a few cents. The Rachio Weatherproof Enclosure Box is all plastic and would have avoided this problem.
When Wires are Too Short
The bottom hole in the Orbit weather-resistant box was 3/4″ and needed to be 1 1/8″ to feed the existing PVC tube into the box. I purchased a 4-piece Irwin Unibit Set, using the largest bit to enlarge the hole. Since I had heard so many good things about Unibits (electricians swear by them), I decided to bite the bullet and buy the complete set. I’m glad I did.
Unibits have a single cutting edge, preventing chatter when drilling or enlarging a hole, and they live up to that claim. Since Unibits are stepped, each bit can drill multiple hole sizes. In less than 20 seconds, I had a perfectly sized hole to fit the existing PVC conduit fitting.
Now that I could dry-fit the Rachio sprinkler controller in the Orbit box, I realized that the solenoid wires were too short. Sure, I could have used wire nuts to extend the wires, but that would not have looked professional. After a bit of research, I used Ideal Spliceline Connectors 30-1042 that I purchased at my local Home Depot for about $3.50 (also on Amazon.com). Push each wire into opposite ends and In seconds, I had extended my solenoid wires with a guaranteed-tight connection. I like that the Spliceline connectors saved space in the box and the in-line look is clean as opposed to the various types of wire nuts available.
Installing the sprinkler controller took about 1 week (waiting for the Unibits to arrive, trips to Home Depot, family obligations, etc). Once installed, Rachio Iro set-up was a snap. Installation instructions are well documented in the Quick Start Guide on the Rachio site.
“Aeris collects weather data from Ham radio operators, personal weather stations, and official NWS and FAA sources. It’s used by organizations like the US Air Force, Polaris, a number of TV broadcasters, and many more.”
For my home, the nearest weather station is KOPF, 6.46 miles away. On initial set-up, I was concerned about the distance to the weather station, believing actual and forecasted precipitation would be inaccurate. In practice, this has had no impact.
Next, I configured the watering zones. At long last, I could move away from “zone 1” or “zone 3” descriptions. I could never remember which zone covered which area of my yard. I can’t emphasize enough the convenience of plain language zone descriptions. With the Rachio Iro, I still include the zone number followed by a plain language description.
Living with Rachio Iro
The Rachio Iro WiFi sprinkler controller has opened my eyes as to how frequently my irrigation systems actually runs… or does not run. Before, I had blind faith that the rain sensor did its job. Sure, if there was a downpour the rain sensor would activate and prevent my irrigation system from turning on. The combination of rain sensor with forecasted precipitation is a one-two punch that minimizes water usage. I accepted the default precipitation threshold amount of .25 inches, which has worked well.
Now that I am watering my lawn so much less, grass grows over my sprinkler heads. I find myself having to locate the sprinkler heads and cutting around them with a trench shovel so the sprinkler heads pop up to full height.
Automatic Seasonal Adjustments
Watering needs change by season and Rachio is smart enough to automatically adjust for these changes. I don’t have to fiddle with anything to make these seasonal shifts. It just works. Every four to six weeks, on average, I receive an email indicating that a seasonal shift has been made to which zone, which station and by how much the watering time has been increased or decreased. Typically watering times are changed by 1-2 minutes per station. In my case, reducing a station’s watering time by 1-2 minutes changes overall watering time by 5-10 minutes. The saved gallons really add up while watering 2-3 times per week.
My Lowest Water Bill in 10 Years
The Rachio Iro is undoubtedly the most convenient sprinkler controller that I have ever owned. No longer do I have to go outside and manually adjust watering schedules every few months. Or manually turn off the sprinklers because they are watering when the ground is already saturated. But does Rachio Iro save money by reducing water use? Other home automation devices have promised savings but not delivered. I’m looking at you Nest thermostat.
My watering strategy can be divided into three phases:
- Hand Watering – To water the lawn, I dragged around hoses using an earlier version of the Orbit 62034 Mechanical Hose-Bib Timer attached to an all-metal Melnor Oscillating Sprinkler (well made!). I also hand-watered plants using a Dramm 30″ Classic Rain Wand with the upgraded Dramm 12353 Heavy-Duty Brass Shut-Off Valve. For hand watering, that was a pretty good set-up.
Average gallons used and cost per 90-day bill: 21,149 gallons; $40.69.
- Rainbird ESP 8-LX – Upon remodeling our house, we re-landscaped our house adding more than 100 plants and numerous large palm trees. Ready to abandon the hand watering strategy, Affordable Irrigation of Miami, FL installed a complete irrigation system using Rainbird pop-up sprinklers, Hunter rotor sprinklers, and micro-irrigation sprinklers driven by an 8-zone Rainbird ESP 8-LX with rain sensor.
Average gallons used and cost per 90-day bill: 43,811 gallons; $163.13.
- Rachio Iro – Tired of paying nearly $1,000 per year for water, and expecting the cost of water to only increase, I installed a Rachio Iro 8-zone WiFi sprinkler controller. Nothing else on the irrigation system was changed. After running the Rachio Iro for nearly one year, my water bill is now 65% of previous costs, on average–a 35% savings!
Average gallons used and cost per 90-day bill: 28,424 gallons; $106.78.
2nd Generation Rachio Iro WiFi Sprinkler Controller
On Feb. 2, 2016 the 2nd generation of the Rachio Iro WiFi Sprinkler Controller was released. Key new features:
- Smaller, easier-to-install design. It takes up less space on your wall while allowing more space for wiring in the controller.
- Easier Wi-Fi setup. Simpler connection process that no longer requires the ‘blinkup’ protocol.
- Run zones directly from the controller. Manual access on the box for local control for you or your landscape professional, and LED lights that give a visual indication of what’s happening.
- Additional sensor ports. You can now connect rain and freeze sensors for additional data while we provide a flow sensor connection for future functionality.
- Easier diagnostics and troubleshooting. Auto-detect wiring will automatically detect when wiring for zones is connected to the controller for better diagnostics and troubleshooting. (Coming soon)
- New custom outdoor enclosure option. Protects your controller in all weather situations. Hardwire option included. Only $29.99.
- Easy transfer. Copy your Gen 1 settings to your new Gen 2 controller.
- Amazon.com Alexa integration.
Read the announcement blog post.
Of the new features, I’m most interested in running zones directly from the controller and the additional port for a flow sensor.
During a recent service call, the irrigation tech needed to turn on various irrigation zones for testing. When I told him that could only be done from my smartphone, he looked at me perplexed. I didn’t want to give him my smartphone so I turned them on for him. I have irrigation service calls once every 3-4 years so the new ability to run zones directly from the controller is a nice-to-have.
I’m more interested in the new port for the sensor flow. Rachio has made an educated guess as to how much water the system is actually using based on sprinkler characteristics configured in the smartphone app and based on run time. At best, water consumption is approximate. Although the US EPA estimates that more than 33% of residential water use is for landscaping, I believe the number is closer to 66% – 75% of residential water use, at least in my situation.
Other WiFi Sprinkler Controllers
Rachio Iro WiFi Sprinkler Controllers are not the only ones available. Other top rated WiFi sprinkler controllers to consider:
- RainMachine Touch 12 Zone Smart WiFi Irrigation Controller, 2nd Generation ($250)
- SkyDrop 8 Zone Wifi-Enabled App Smart Sprinkler Controller ($198)
- Blossom 12 Zone Smart Watering Controller with WiFi + Powerline ($158)
- BlueSpray 8 / 16 / 24 Zone Smart WiFi Sprinkler Controller ($267)
- Orbit 57950 B-hyve Indoor/Outdoor 12 Station WiFi Sprinkler System Controller ($119)
Let’s do a quick summary:
- I’m sticking with Rachio Iro WiFi sprinkler controller. It has saved me 35% on my water bill over the past 12 months. No other smart home device has provided a quicker payback.
- Finally, understanding the name of each zone in plain language is convenient. No more trying to remember what “zone 5” means.
- Notifications when rain sensor is active and when watering will be suspended based on actual and forecasted precipitation is great.
- Automatic application of “seasonal shifts” is awesome and makes the irrigation controller “set and forget.”
- Turning on my sprinkler from anywhere in my yard is unbelievably convenient, especially for confirming sprinkler head coverage.
- Once I upgrade to the 2nd generation device and the new flow sensor port, I look forward to finally understanding the actual domestic vs. landscaping water usage.
If you haven’t upgraded to a WiFi sprinkler controller, it’s time to do it. They’re easy to install, provide unbeatable convenience and save real money on your water bill. The cost of water will only continue to increase over time. Give the Rachio Iro WiFi sprinkler controller a try. You won’t be disappointed.