Although the El Niño rains may be rescuing us from the prolonged drought we’ve been suffering here in the West, water conservation is clearly going to remain a priority for those of us who garden.
One of the most water-wise steps you can take in your garden is to install a smart irrigation controller. Smart controllers connect to your home WiFi network to download weather data and use it to intelligently adjust the watering programs you set for your garden.
The RainMachine is one of the newer types of smart irrigation controllers to hit the market so we gave it a thorough test in both dry and rainy conditions.
Surprisingly Easy Installation and Setup
I’ve been somewhat intimidated about the idea of setting up a smart controller for my irrigation system, but getting the RainMachine HD-12 (2nd generation) gave me the chance to dive in and face my fears.
Because I already had an irrigation system installed with a conventional controller, I started by taking a photo with my cell phone of how the wires were connected to the old controller. Only then did I unplug and disconnect that controller.
The RainMachine comes with a paper template to use so you know where to drill holes to attach the controller to the wall. Tape the template to the wall and drill holes where indicated. Once the holes were drilled I only had to attach the RainMachine to the wall with three screws.
I then referred to my photo to attach the valve wires the same way they were connected to the previous controller, connected the power leads, and plugged it in.
Wizard Guides You Through Setup
Once it’s turned on, the system boots up and takes you through a setup wizard to get you connected to your WiFi network.
On the RainMachine’s touchscreen I selected my WiFi network from the list of networks it recognized, then I put in my WiFi password. It used GPS data to pinpoint my location and asked me to confirm it.
To set up my login account, it stepped me through naming my RainMachine system (I call it “Mr Rain”) and setting a password for the account. At that point I was ready to begin setting up a watering program.
The entire installation was done in well under an hour.
Programming Zones and Setting Options
Setting up a basic program is really simple. Touch the Settings icon, then select Programs, then Add New Program. You can name the program (such as Vegetable Garden or Lawn), then set the frequency of watering (every day or every n number of days), the start time, and the base watering duration. The base watering duration is the amount of time to water on a typical summer day, say, five minutes. The RainMachine will automatically adjust the watering time, however, based on current weather conditions and time of year. You can select which zones you want the program to apply to and when you’re finished setting up the program, press Save.
You can modify the zones by naming them, assigning a vegetation type, disabling the ability for the RainMachine to use weather data to adjust the program for that zone, or set it up to use historical averages if current weather data isn’t available.
You can also set pre-programmed features like “Cycle and Soak,” which breaks up the watering duration into multiple cycles that allow time for the water to soak in and avoid run-off, or “Delay Between Zones,” where you can set the time between watering zones in case you need to allow time for water pressure to build up again.
Other features include:
- a Snooze setting, which skips the set-up programs for a number of days;
- Freeze Protect, which skips watering if the temperature drops below a certain threshold; and
- a Hot Days option that allows extra watering during heat waves.
Multiple Options Are Both Good and Bad
While the ability to customize the system is touted as a major plus for the RainMachine, it could be as much a problem as a benefit, depending on how well you customize it. How well it performs for you could depend very much on how you tweak the default settings, such as rain sensitivity, field capacity, and wind sensitivity, to reflect your soil and climate or microclimate.
I kept the default settings and that worked fine during the testing period; however, I may need to tweak it a bit more as the season goes on. If you just leave the default settings but your situation has specific issues, like regular windy conditions, you might not be happy with the results if you don’t change the default settings, or if you change them incorrectly.
Weather & Moisture Data
There is no moisture sensor per se in the system. The RainMachine depends entirely on data downloaded from the NOAA, and whatever settings you customize, to adjust the watering programs you set.
The weather data seemed accurate as far as I could tell and it is updated several times a day. However, you’ll want to closely monitor moisture levels in the soil during the initial set-up period, as well as periodically as the seasons change, to ensure that your irrigation system is supplying the right amount of water given the weather conditions.
Remote Access with Apps
I particularly like that the RainMachine system, once it’s set up, is accessible on your cell phone via an Android or iPhone app. With the app, you can edit a watering program or turn it off completely. As with the device, the app was very easy to install and set up.
One question many people have with WiFi enabled devices is how secure the device may be. Could someone hack into it? That’s not something I could evaluate but I assume it’s as secure as your personal WiFi system is. If someone can hack into your WiFi, then I suppose they can hack into the RainMachine. But there is a password to get into the system, so they would have to hack that as well.
Certification and Rebates
The RainMachine is WaterSense- and EPA-certified and may qualify for a rebate from your water utility. I was given it for review purposes but if I had purchased the RainMachine Touch HD-12, it would have qualified for a $75 rebate from my water utility.
I really like the accessibility and flexibility of the RainMachine system. From the easy installation to the range of options that allow you to set up customized watering plans by zone, the RainMachine makes it easy not only to get the garden watered but also to create programs based on watering restrictions when needed and know that the system will adjust to weather patterns on its own.
There is an option to accommodate just about every situation I could think of, whether allowing soaking time in the watering cycle to avoid run-off or an option for extra watering on hot days. Being able to operate the system either from the device in my home or remotely from an app on my cell phone makes it even more useful and I appreciate the security of knowing I can monitor the system on my phone when I’m out of town.
The flexibility provided by the multiple options was a real plus – but also made it more difficult to set up the system. You have to really know your property well to be able to benefit from all of the options and it’ll likely take considerable monitoring and tweaking to get it just right.
Still, I do think the RainMachine is worth the expense, especially in places where rebates are available. Particularly with a drip-irrigation system (as opposed to a sprinkler system), the RainMachine is likely to save enough water to pay for itself in one to three years, depending on the size of the property and type of vegetation.
As water becomes a more and more precious commodity, smart irrigation controllers are becoming the best tool you can have in the garden. The RainMachine is surprisingly simple to set up and use and will make saving water a much easier task.
Where to Buy
The RainMachine Touch HD-12, which accommodates up to 12 watering zones, retails for $259 and is available on Amazon and Build.com. The RainMachine Mini-8 for 8 zones is priced at $179 and the RainMachine Touch HD-16 for 16 zones sells for $299.
Now over to you – Have you tried a Smart WiFi Irrigation Controller before? What did you use and how did it work? Let us know in the comments below!
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Disclaimer – GPReview would like to thank RainMachine for giving us a free RainMachine HD-12 – The Forecast Sprinkler – Smart WiFi Irrigation Controller, 2nd Generation to review. There was no expectation that it would be a positive review and we received no compensation for writing it. All opinions expressed here are those of the author based on personal experience using the product.
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