A Tale Of Two Pipes

Like Fixing A Hole In The Roof
Recently, I had the fun chore of finding and fixing two broken irrigation pipes for our sprinkler system.

It seems every year, without fail, there is always a broken sprinkler head to adjust or replace, but this time, two different zones were not getting any water at all.

As I ran back and forth, multiple times, between the ancient controller box on the garage wall and the different irrigation zones in the backyard, my thoughts turned to the same question – Is it time to install a smart(er) sprinkler controller?

Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Remember the children’s joke about the farmer with a hole in his roof?

During a rainstorm, his wife asks him to fix the leak.  The farmer explains that he can’t fix it while it is raining.

So after the storm, wife reminds him to fix the leak and he replies “Why should I bother, it’s not raining?”

I’m reminded of this every time I think about the expense (and honestly mostly the time and effort) to replace my classic sprinkler controller with a modern smarter one.

I say “smarter” because the controller i have has a small LCD display, some buttons, a dial, and a basic microprocessor inside that remembers zone settings and watering times along with a running schedule.

Realistically, there isn’t much more that is needed.  Even the newest, smartest units are ultimately designed to do the same thing.

This is really a case of “ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  So why am I tempted?

Set It And Forget It!
Programming the irrigation controller is a chore.  Selecting each zone and specifying the watering time and setting the overall start time and other options requires navigating a cryptic user interface.

The tiny monochrome LCD screen doesn’t display much feedback, but with brute force diligence, the job can be accomplished.

If I had to do this frequently, I would have upgraded a long time ago just to avoid the agony.

But programming the watering cycles is a “set it and forget it” one-time procedure. I don’t think I’ve made any major changes in many years.

“Convenience, Thy Middle Name Is SmartHome”
I foreshadowed my actual pain point at the start of this note – I hate running back and forth to the sprinkler control box turning zones on and off as I systematically check each watering zone.

We have a reasonable size house (not some big McMansion), but with 12 zones there is still a lot of back and forth.

I have tolerated it, but no more.  Finding a broken pipe is more involved than just watching the sprinklers spray everywhere but where they are supposed to be pointing.

A broken feeder pipe requires digging into the lawn or dirt about a half foot down, to locate the pipe and find the break.  Even more running back and forth to turn the zone on and off to see the water leaking out.

When I got close, it was actually easier to wait a day for the the water to drain than continuing to dig in a big mud puddle.

No Ideal Choice
Once again, the overlap of my desired features and available products is almost nil.  No single product will give me everything that I think is reasonable.

The candidates break down into three categories – Smarter versions of traditional control systems from legacy lawn care/irrigation companies; A few better-known startup products (but not necessarily the best bang-for-the-buck), or a half-dozen other unknown products with some interesting unique capabilities that might not still be around in a few years.

Always Consider Frequency Of Use
Now you know already that I only really need to adjust the sprinklers about once a year.  I’m using this fact to help narrow the selection.

Since actual use is infrequent, I don’t care about fancy integrations or compatibility with HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, or Google Home. 

I don’t want to talk to my sprinklers, thank you very much!

Similarly, choosing a system that requires it’s own app is a non-issue.  I won’t be juggling between that app and others very often.  If I have to use a standalone app, I’m ok with that.

For me, the most important functionality is a clean, easy-to-understand app so when I haven’t used it in almost a year I can intuitively operate it without having to re-learn some weird icons or menu structure.

I also want a device that has reasonable traditional manual controls right on the unit in the garage.  The app control is desirable, but cannot be mandatory.

I’ll Keep You Posted
I hate to be anti-climactic (bad pun?) but I am just starting to review potential products so I have not made any decision or even narrowed down the field.

No surprise, but now that both feeder pipes are fixed, the “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” procrastination is starting to set in again.  I’m only human!

What Do You Think?
Have you already installed a smart irrigation system? Let me know what you think.


Automation technologist and problem solver

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