The Best Smart Irrigation Controller for 2020

With so many smart-home systems available to manage the internal operations of a household—from thermostats to lighting—it only makes sense that smart-home technology is making its way into residential landscape maintenance. If you already own a sprinkler system with a mechanical or clock-based timer, it may be time to upgrade to a smart controller to ensure that you’re using water efficiently and providing optimal hydration levels for your lawn and garden.

Smart sprinkler controllers, alternately known as weather-based controllers, use current meteorological information to determine when and how much to water your yard. Smart sprinklers also account for seasonal changes in their settings, freeing you from having to manually adjust it every few months.

How Do Smart Controllers Work?

Smart sprinkler controllers are designed to work with underground irrigation systems that use wired controllers and are not compatible with battery-powered controllers or hose timers. Smart systems rely on your home Wi-Fi to gather weather information and communicate with the system’s mobile app, so you’ll need to make sure your wireless signal is powerful enough to reach the device. In case of a Wi-Fi outage, your sprinkler will revert to a default schedule that you program.

Many smart sprinkler controllers work in tandem with other smart-home systems, including Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple HomeKit, SmartThings and Wink, which allow you to operate your sprinkler with voice commands and can even adjust your sprinkler settings based on other actions, such as pausing the spray when the front door opens to avoid getting anyone wet.

Smart sprinkler systems use a wide range of meteorological metrics, including temperature, humidity, wind and solar radiation, to determine how frequently and how much to water your lawn. The system pairs this data with information you provide about your yard’s soil, grass, plants and topography and calculates optimal watering schedules for your unique conditions using the science of evapotranspiration (ET)—the interaction of evaporation and plant water use. The sprinklers also incorporate upcoming predictions about potential weather extremes like high winds or freeze warnings and adjust the watering schedule accordingly.

What are the Benefits of a Smart Sprinkler?

For homeowners concerned about good environmental stewardship, smart sprinklers are perhaps the most effective way to be certain you’re using water efficiently. All of the models on our list are certified by WaterSense, which evaluates products’ adherence to EPA standards for performance and efficiency. According to the EPA, installing a WaterSense system can save a household an average of 8,800 gallons of water per year, which could add up to 120 billion gallons and $435 million saved nationwide if every home with a sprinkler system had a WaterSense-certified model. In some cities, doing so may also earn you a rebate from your water utility.

Smart sprinklers not only bring efficiency and cost savings to your yard, but they also include the benefit of convenience. Instead of squinting to see the screen on your existing system or trying to decipher a complicated instruction manual, you’ll be able to set and modify your irrigation schedule via computer or mobile app. Best of all, you can make the adjustments from anywhere at any time, with no need to go out to your yard to manually update your settings.

What to Look for in a Smart Sprinkler

If you’re ready to make an investment in a smart sprinkler system, there are a number of factors to consider in determining which model will best meet your needs. No matter what, you want a system that is simple to install and use and doesn’t require much extra effort or input from you—after all, the whole idea is to let the system do the work for you. Other features to look for include:

  • Responsiveness to local weather forecasts and current conditions
  • WaterSense certification
  • Usage reports and activity logs
  • Customizable alerts and notifications
  • Compatibility with other smart-home systems
  • Backup scheduling in case of internet outages

Best Smart Sprinkler: Rachio 3

Of all smart sprinkler controllers on the market, the Rachio 3 delivers the best combination of autonomy and flexibility, allowing you to adjust the settings when needed but generally performing well based on its own calculations. The Rachio 3 pulls up-to-the-minute weather data from the internet to determine when and how much water to give your lawn or garden, but if you prefer to be more involved, you can set your own schedule while letting the system make water-saving adjustments in the case of extreme conditions.

The WaterSense-certified Rachio 3 is available in an eight-zone model ($222) and a 16-zone model ($271) for lawns with highly variable needs. Rather than relying on physical soil moisture sensors, it makes its watering determinations based wholly on multiple sources of meteorological data streamed via Wi-Fi, including Weather Intelligence Plus (WIP), which delivers satellite, radar, and atmospheric flight data; local weather reports; and other climate information to develop a highly localized forecast.

From an aesthetic perspective, the Rachio 3 offers a clean, modern design that won’t distract from your landscaping. The white case with blue LED lights includes a magnetic cover, although the unit itself is not waterproof (for that, you’ll need to purchase a $30 protective enclosure). Other optional accessories include a Wireless Flow Meter ($120), which monitors outdoor water use, detects leaks and if necessary, shuts down the system to prevent damage to your lawn and your utility bill.

Installation is simple and fast, typically requiring only existing wiring and a handful of mounting screws. The app’s step-by-step setup process includes taking photos and providing details about plant and soil types, sun levels and the type of nozzle heads your system uses. The app also checks to ensure that each zone is functioning properly, providing valuable peace of mind for users who don’t consider themselves irrigation experts.

Once setup is complete, you can choose from two watering schedules: watering according to established intervals or specific days of the week, or watering based on a schedule determined by the system. Both options can be customized to incorporate details like local watering restrictions, and both can be programmed to adapt to data provided by Weather Intelligence Plus for maximum efficiency.

The Rachio app is intuitive and packed with features. Front and center on the home screen, you’ll see the controller’s status, local forecast and current watering schedule. In the app, you can also set up various notifications via phone or email, including a warning when your sprinklers are about to come on to prevent anyone in your yard from being inadvertently sprayed. The app will also alert you if the system is offline.

The Rachio 3 is compatible with nearly every major smart-home system, including Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple HomeKit, SmartThings, IFTTT, Wink, Control4 and Nexia, among others. These integrations allow for added conveniences like voice control and paired actions, such as pausing watering when the front door opens.

Pros:

  • Excellent performance
  • Accurate weather prediction and assessment of current conditions
  • Compatibility with most smart-home systems

Cons:

  • Unit isn’t waterproof
  • Expensive

Best Second Choice: RainMachine Touch HD-12

If smart-home devices raise privacy concerns for you, the RainMachine Touch HD-12 offers an added layer of security by storing all data internally instead of in the cloud. The unit’s Wi-Fi connection is strictly used to stream up-to-the-minute weather forecasts.

With its compact, highly intuitive touchscreen display, the RainMachine Touch HD-12 is both attractive and easy to operate. It’s available in 12- and 16-zone versions ($223 and $269, respectively), both of which include WaterSense certification. Like the Rachio 3, the unit isn’t waterproof, so depending on where you want to install it, you’ll need to spend about $35 on an aftermarket cover to protect it from the elements.

Installation is quick and straightforward, and the app guides you through selecting a program to set the frequency and length of watering for each zone. The system’s “weather adaptive watering” feature will then adjust the actual watering time in response to on-the-ground conditions. The app also allows you to accommodate any local watering restrictions, delay watering start times between zones and set watering cancellation levels for windy and rainy conditions.

The app also provides detailed water usage and savings reports, delivering comprehensive weather and watering information for specific days, weeks, months and even years.

Pros:

  • Sleek, intuitive touchscreen
  • Enhanced privacy settings
  • Comprehensive water usage and savings reports

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Unit isn’t waterproof
  • Minimal smart-home integration only includes Amazon Alexa

Best Budget Option: Orbit B-hyve Smart Wi-Fi Indoor Timer

At less than half the price of most of its competitors, the Orbit B-hyve Smart Wi-Fi Indoor Timer ($80) covers up to eight zones and is small enough to fit in one hand. This WaterSense-certified controller can set up an irrigation schedule from scratch or use weather data to adjust one that you create.

The Orbit app guides you through the brief installation process, prompting you to set up each zone to allow the unit to develop an optimal watering schedule. The LED indicator on top of the box lets you know which zone is being watered and displays a “D” when the system is in a rain delay. By pushing the button labeled with a “B,” you can water all zones for 10 minutes, cancel a watering session or power the unit on and off.

The app itself is easy enough to use, making it very clear which mode the system is currently in and what’s next on the schedule. However, the alerts feature is somewhat lacking, so you won’t be notified if the system goes offline.

Like its costlier competitors, the Orbit B-hyve isn’t waterproof, so you may need to factor a protective case into your budget.

Pros:

  • Inexpensive
  • Voice controls available through Alexa and Google Assistant

Cons:

  • Unit isn’t waterproof
  • Local weather station is preselected and can’t be modified
  • App’s features are limited

Honorable Mentions:

If the previous three smart sprinkler controllers don’t meet your needs, consider the following alternative models:

  • Spruce Irrigation Smart Irrigation Controller 2nd Gen ($180): This WaterSense-certified unit automatically creates a watering schedule and works with Google Home, Amazon Alexa and SmartThings. The app shows a comprehensive breakdown of water usage, but it can be challenging to navigate and doesn’t allow you to select your own weather station.
  • Gro Controller ($99): Produced by the well-known Scotts lawn company, the Gro Controller is a budget-friendly pick that offers a simple setup and straightforward programming based on “weather adaptive watering.” The controller includes up to eight watering zones and will notify you when the system is offline or experiencing wiring issues, but it doesn’t provide water use metrics or smart-home integrations beyond Amazon Alexa.
  • Rain Bird ST8O-2.0 Smart Sprinkler System ($174): This eight-zone WaterSense-certified system replaces RainBird’s ST8I-WIFI model and includes faster app speeds, enhanced water usage reports and automatic seasonal adjustments based on season, local weather, temperature and humidity levels. Notifications alert you if the system loses its Wi-Fi connection, applies Automatic Seasonal Adjust, experiences a valve malfunction or predicts a possible freeze.

Final Thoughts

Despite a significant investment up front, smart sprinkler controllers can quickly pay for themselves by ensuring you’re watering your lawn and garden in the most efficient way possible and by alerting you to irrigation system malfunctions that could cause thousands of dollars in damage. Additionally, they can help you minimize your environmental impact and bring added convenience to your home maintenance routine, making this purchase a no-brainer for any homeowner with an automated irrigation system.

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