Smart Irrigation Controllers – Real Life Review

Smart Irrigation Controllers – Real Life Review
June 21, 2023 Sabine Schoenberg
A smart irrigation system combines convenience, good water management, and money savings. These controllers simply make sense. However, know important differences among smart irrigation controllers.  Nothing beats a real-life experience-based review like this one.  There are the good, the bad, and the ugly controllers on the market today.
How often have you seen sprinklers running in the middle of a rainstorm?  Yes, those are the old, outdated, and rightfully called, “dumb” controllers. We all have an obligation to use natural resources like water responsibly. Smart controllers help make responsible management possible. Installing the right one is the key to a great garden management experience.
Smart irrigation controllers are pretty simple tech devices.  By now, they have been around for many years.  I have owned several smart controllers across many years and several properties. I expected the units to be pretty similar by now – WRONG! I recently found out the hard way.  There are significant differences to know about.

Decision-Making As A Consumer

Often it’s advisable to take your contractor’s equipment recommendations since they will service the gear. This year I decided to find a new irrigation installer. So, I interviewed several and determined this one fellow with decades of installations under his belt was the right, experienced choice for this retrofit installation. In the back of my mind, I thought that smart irrigation controllers have been on the market for several years, and by now, the units should be pretty well understood by people in the field. While I had no direct experience with the brand, Hunter/Hydrawise, the installer suggested I was willing to roll with it. Now I know the important differences among smart irrigation controllers first-hand.

Tech Gear – New Learning Curve

Lesson I: When it comes to technology established home improvement installers – a.k.a. older contractors – more often than not lack cutting-edge tech expertise. In this case, our irrigation contractor did a fabulous job installing the lines, irrigation heads, and zones, but smart controllers were outside his area of expertise. 
Years of using Hunter controllers led him to reach for Hunter’s smart controller, Hydrawise. He trusted the Hunter brand in the face of not understanding the technology.

Hunter/Hydrawise Controller – NOT Wise, NOT Smart

Problems with Hydrawise HCC installation showed up right away:
  1. The first unit did not work at all – the screen was black. My irrigation installer brought a new unit the next day. 
  2. There is NO company customer service backup in the US from Hydrawise – none – a big red flag. Reaching out to Hydrawise via email yielded the following response:                                  “Hunter appreciates your business and places high importance on                                      answering emails within 5-7 business days. Please allow us slightly                                  more time if we receive your correspondence over the weekend.…”.              Are they kidding?  NOONE EVER followed up over the following weeks either.
  3. Hydrawise’s app makes things a guessing game about what HCC unit my installer brought. Our installer had no company training and hoped to set this up with YouTube videos. 

Specific Installation Issues

The Hydrawise controller did not hold the signal. There were 66 disconnections in two hours. We all wondered what the cause might be. Could it be that our home wifi signal was not strong enough? Was the reach from our house to the controller too far? 
Looking for answers, I checked our home mesh wifi system. Everything was operating properly within our home tech infrastructure. The signal strength at the unit was 4 1/2 bars.
Next step: Call EERO customer service, our mesh signal provider. This is where we got lucky. The EERO customer service tech from Bulgaria was simply fabulous!
Our home system functioned properly. The technician could see the behavior of the Hydrawise controller. He saw the many disconnects of Hydrawise. AND the customer service tech could see into the technical component of the Hydrawise controller: We learned that the chip in the Hydrawise controller is 2008 technology. 
With today’s wifi standards (Generation 6 and 6E), Hydrawise’s chip is an outdated, generation 4 wifi standard. No wonder there are no customer service technicians to speak to! 

All of this explains why it was impossible to set up irrigation zones, open the master valve, and get the system running even in a basic way. 

We reached out to Hydrawise’s media team for comment on this article.  We have yet to receive any responses from Hydrawise/Hunter.

Lessons – Know The Important Differences 

  • When your irrigation company suggests a Hunter/Hydrawise controller – RUN! 
  • There are way better options from Rachio, Rainbird, and others – it took 30 minutes to set up the Rachio 3 Pro smart controller.
  • Don’t just rely on your installer’s recommendations – get smart yourself.
  • Most importantly watch and learn from independent experts like SHG Living’s  Smart Home Solver and CaliKim’s Container Watering to educate yourself on your smart irrigation devices!
  • Know important differences among smart irrigation controllers.
Now that our system runs with the RachioPro smart irrigation controller, having a yard with lush lawns, lots of perennials, and shrubs is easy, efficient, and smart!

Follow Up

I recently had to add a new zone.  Given the extreme summer heat of late, I wanted to avoid making a mistake.  So I called the Rachio customer service number.  The service representative helped me through the process. Literally, 5 minutes later it was done. Voila.!

Today’s smart irrigation controllers are inexpensive, powerful, smart controllers. No gardener should be without a good smart irrigation controller.