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The last time I looked at my water bill I was disgusted with how much I was spending to keep some semblance of “green” on my battered lawn. A few years ago I heard about smart irrigation as a concept. But having experienced many early adoptions of “smart” devices, I wanted to see some proof that they actually worked first.
Thankfully, the market has matured quickly. There are a handful of competent smart irrigation devices that are useful, market ready, and beyond the “beta” phase.
In the following guide on the best smart sprinkler controllers, I’ll outline the key considerations to evaluate a good smart sprinkler. I will also lay out my top recommendations for which devices to go with, depending on your needs (this section is towards the bottom – you can navigate using the hyperlinks below).
Bottom Line Up Front: My top pick is still the 2nd Gen Rachio controller available here for it’s versatile compatibility with, smart app, and most reliable real-time scheduling.
However, that’s not to say there aren’t some interesting up and coming competitors (even within the last year). Read on for the full evaluation of the smart sprinkler controller landscape…
Note: I’ve tested all of these systems – or had team members test – in the following states: New Jersey, Texas, and California over the course of 6-8+ months in each. Of course, your local conditions may vary.
Contents (Jump to)
Why Use a Smart Sprinkler? Key Selling Points
First off, why even bother with a smart sprinkler system? I know you are on this page because you are interested in getting one, but take a step back and ask yourself, “what are the goals I’m looking to accomplish” with this investment?
- Cost Savings: There’s a two part benefit to this point. Practically speaking, you can save you money on your water bill. In certain parts of the country, water is expensive! No matter where you live, it is a resource worth conserving, but some locations make a smart sprinkler a vital cost saving mechanism.
- Save Time: Imagine never having to mess with your sprinklers again? Maybe that’s a bit of an over-statment. Afterall, there is some setup involved and occasional calibration needed. Still, on average, you will find yourself spending less time thinking about the weather and manipulating individual sprinkler heads. Set it up once, calibrate, and forget about it! You can relax on your couch, monitoring your system from your smartphone. Real time weather data can be pushed automatically, so – in theory – you will never have your sprinklers running before or during a rain storm, etc…
- Help the Environment: Water conservation is the second “win”. Especially if you live in arid or drought prone regions, optimizing water usage can have a positive effect on your environmental footprint. Yes, the cost savings and automation are what will drive most people, but the water savings is a nice secondary benefit.
What Makes a Good Smart Sprinkler System?
The second question to answer is “what makes a good smart sprinkler system?” There are certain core features that you should expect, as well as some nice bonus features to keep on eye on.
- Real-Time Weather Data Integration: This is one of the landmark features of a good smart sprinkler system. By automatically syncing to live weather feeds local to your area, you can leverage environmental conditions to maximize water use effectiveness. Some systems pull from weather station sources like Weather.com, NOAA, or WeatherUnderground based on the closest weather tower/monitoring es may have better readings closer to your specific location. In areas where weather conditions can vary wildly, this can be critical to know before you invest in a system.
- Rain Sensor: Related to the above is the importance of having an accurate on-board system sensor. Not all sensors are as “smart” as advertised and may have trouble pulling real-time data, regardless of the source.
- Capable of Handling Multiple “Zones”: Most quality smart sprinkler systems will have multiple “zones”. This helps to properly manage different areas of your lawn. Say, for example one area gets more direct sunlight or a certain flower bed needs more water. Ideally, you can scale in complexity as you go and depending on your needs. 6, 8, 10, or 12 zones are great to start. Some companies even offer “expandable” add-on packages to boost your system up to 24 zones (and potentially more).
- Intuitive App Control: A solid app is essential to a good smart sprinkler system. Apps themselves are tricky to perfect, so be sure to read the reviews of the app (not just the system). Most users expect a fully functional app, but some companies still have a “beta” feel to them. Ideally, you can control and monitor your system easily from the app, receiving alerts based on your personal preferences.
- Advanced Customization Features: Here’s where there starts to be separation from the pack. How much customization does your system offer? What if you need to follow local HOA rules down to the last detail? Some users will prefer simplicity, but if you want to adjust watering down to the last fraction of an inch or slightly change the irrigation timer for each zone, taking a look at advanced features will be important.
- Smart Water Schedule Timer: Related to the above, but more specific to water schedules, how advanced are the scheduling options? Depending on your needs, this can be critical. For example, when do you typically use your yard? How does this coincide with the weather conditions, etc…? Maybe you have regular visitors (mailman, landscaper, etc…) or pets. While for some this is TOO much control, I personally like to have the option to control down to the minute.
- Plays Well With Other Smart Devices: In an increasingly complex smart home network, playing well with other devices is a necessity. If all you need is a smart sprinkler system, then ignore this. But chances are, you probably either have other devices or plan on adding other devices later. The most important compatibility will be with your “smart hub”, whether it’s the SmartThings Hub, Amazon Echo, Wink or even just working with IFTTT or Alexa.
- What’s Your Soil Type? Every region has it’s own unique soil conditions. A good smart sprinkler will allow for various saturation options depending on these conditions. Otherwise, it can take a LOT of tinkering to find the right balance (unless of course you can adapt previous knowledge about your area). UPDATE: An emerging concept here is new “smart soil detectors” that can give real-time updates on soil moisture. While the soil moisture sensor market is still developing, it’s definitely a smart lawn integration to watch!
- Works as Advertised / Reliability: You would be surprised at how many smart devices are shipped too early. Especially with the popularity of Kickstarter backed products, there’s a tendency to over-promise and under deliver. This is one of things I carefully measure up when reviewing any of these devices. Note: One of the BIG killers of otherwise good smart home technology is poor Wi-Fi connection issues, particularly when it’s a bad receiver on the unit itself.
- Easy to Install: The world of smart home technology has a wide spectrum of “user friendliness”. It used to be quite difficult to accomplish anything meaningful. These days, even relatively sophisticated smart sprinkler controllers should be relatively easy to manipulate. Personally, I don’t mind breaking out the manual if I have to, but you better make sure those instructions are logical!
- WaterSense Program Certified: The WaterSense certification is considered the industry certification source from the EPA. While it doesn’t tell the whole story, it’s certainly reassuring to see sprinkler controllers that have this approval.
- Price: At the end of the day, price is the main concern for some people. Most systems will run you about $150 – 300 all in. In general, there isn’t TOO much difference between most of the leading devices. However, be on the lookout for cheap knock-offs from China (or elsewhere), especially as the market picks up.
The Top Smart Irrigation Controller System Currently on the Market
Without further delay, here are the leading systems currently on the market (and what I think of them):
- Rachio IRO: The Rachio is definitely one of the more popular smart irrigation systems currently available. Standard versions come in 8-zone or and expanded 16 zones. The device features a well thought out app that can monitor a host of variables to select the right watering ratios. In particular, slope type, vegetation, slope angle, sunlight, nozzle type, etc… You can pull from either local or national weather stations. A useful “water report” feature will tell you how much water you have saved. Bottom line savings are claimed to be about 30%, but this tends to vary based on location. This device is available for EPA rebates (in some areas) and is “WaterSense Certified“. Rachio is also compatible as a Z-wave sprinkler, able to integrate into the rest of your smart home on this protocol. Pricing is relatively affordable, as you can see below.
- Skydrop: Skydrop is another major player in the space and rivals the Rachio for market share. The advantage of the Skydrop is that it integrates closely with the Nest thermostat. Another advantage of the Skydrop is the excellent customer support. In other areas, the Skydrop measures up nicely when compared to the Rachio. Namely, The Skydrop does have a jog wheel toggle based system on the device itself. It CAN still can suffer from the occasional disconnect between the weather forecast and the actual results on the ground. Like the Rachio, it’s EPA WaterSense certified as well. To get the full picture, you can read my Skydrop review here.
- RainMachine: RainMachine is another contender that is both WaterSense Certified and is expandable up to 16 zones (8 zone default option). They also have a 12 zone option. Similarly, it can integrate with IFTTT, Alexa, Nest, and SmartThings.
- Blossom: The Blossom also does not feature touchscreen interface (if that’s what you need), but you can control it via iOS and Android apps, just like the others. Minor drawbacks are that it doesn’t feature an active “soak cycle” and limited historical data to analyze. You can check out my full take right here.
- Hydrawise: The Hydrawise irrigation controller does an excellent job of historical and live reporting. You can get daily usage reports, weekly and monthly, which provides a good contrast to other options out there. It also comes with 3 base zone packages (6, 8, and 12 zones). The newer version also features a touchscreen interface and a fulling sealed weatherproof cover. You can read the full take here.
- Spruce: Spruce is another newer competitor to the market. You can learn more specifically about how it works here. The main advantage is for SmartThings users, as it is designed specifically for this system.
- Greeniq: Greeniq is yet another new competitor on the market. I haven’t had a chance to review it yet, but you can learn more about it here. The major change is that it appears to be more oriented towards home gardens vs just lawns and shrubs.
Comparison Table of the Best Smart Watering Systems
As a way of summarizing the current smart irrigation landscape, the following table captures the core features of each.
|Model||Prices||Zone Options||Touchscreen?||Supported Integration||EPA WaterSense Certified?|
|Rachio (EDITOR'S CHOICE)||Check here||8 and 16||No||Alexa, IFTTT, Nest, iControl, Control4, Crestron, Nexia, Wink||Yes|
|Skydrop||Check here||8 and 16||No (although has a "jog" wheel)||Nest||Yes|
|RainMachine||Check here||8, 12, and 16||Yes||IFTTT||Yes|
|Blossom||Check here||8 and 12||No||No specific integration partners||No|
|Hydrawise||Check here||6 and 12||Yes||No specific integrations partners||Yes|
|GreenIQ||Check here||6||No||Netatmo, IFTTT, Nest, Alexa, Crestron, Parrot||No|