The American West and Southwest are usually in a state of drought. It's not climate change causing this; rather, it's the nature of this arid region of the world. Add millions of people living in a desert area, all of whom want green lawns and colorful gardens, and you create a need for a lot of water that is simply not available. Thanks to the laws of supply and demand, that makes water a scarce -- and expensive -- resource. So a new company, Rachio, decided to create a product that combines the smarts of the iPhone, the connectivity of the Internet, and some attractively-designed custom hardware to help home and business owners to gain more control and use less of that pricey H2O. The Rachio Iro (US$249 for 8-zone, $299 for 16-zone) is the first smart sprinkler controller designed specifically to be set up and programmed by iPhone, and it's available both directly from Rachio and from a number of Home Depot stores in the US.
Controls: Standard 24 V AC sprinkler valves
Number of zones controlled: 8 or 16
Available inputs for master valve or pump, rain sensor
The one thing about most sprinkler controllers is that they're usually in locations where nobody can see them -- dark basements, crawl spaces, garages. That's particularly sad in the case of the Rachio Iro, which is really quite attractive.
Unlike most sprinkler controllers, there are no knobs, dials, or displays on the outside of the Iro. Instead, it's a sleek white box with Rachio's sprinkler-like logo, a small sensor on the lower left side, and a set of LEDs on the front right side. That's it.
By dispensing with all of the manual controls, the Iro immediately lets you know that you're going to be using your iPhone to do all of the brain work.
Installation of the Iro is incredibly simple, particularly if you already have an existing sprinkler controller. Rachio suggests that you take a few photos of your existing controller to document which wires go where, and that you also use your iPhone to check the strength of the Wi-Fi signal at the location where the Iro will be installed.
Next, you remove the old controller, then use a pair of included screws to mount a back panel on the wall that contains wiring connectors (spring loaded) for the low-voltage lines as well as a pinout connector that plugs into the back of the main unit. I found it very easy to plug in the wires -- you literally just push the bare ends into a small hole while pushing down on a "button", then let up on the button to hold them in place.
At that point, you're ready to install the main Iro unit by lining it up with the back panel and mating the connector. Plug the included AC adapter into a wall socket and plug the other end into the Iro, and the unit powers up. One green LED tells you that you have power; a second LED flashes red to indicate that it's time to set up the Wi-Fi connection.
That's done by using the free Rachio app. You'll need to create a free account to register your Iro. A step-by-step process takes you through through the process of identifying the network you want to connect the Iro to and entering the password. Then comes the fun part; you tap an on-screen button when you're ready to send the information to the Iro, then place it face down on the section of the device where the little optical sensor is. The iPhone screen flashes a pattern that is captured and translated by the Iro, and seconds later the Wi-FI LED settles down to a green flashing pattern to indicate that your connection is live.
The rest of the setup can be done from your yard! The app takes you through each zone, turning it on, asking you to identify the main type of foliage (grass, shrubs, etc...), the type of sprinkler head, the type of soil, the amount of shade and whether or not it is sloped (and if it is, whether or not you're at the top or bottom of the slope). Based on your zip code, the app assigns a duration to each zone. As an example, for my yard it selected 23 minutes per zone in the front (not much shade) and 16 minutes per zone in the back (well-shaded).
Those times are also based on your watering schedule. You can enter in schedules based on daily, every other day, every third day, or whatever other crazy pattern you desire. The app asks if the schedule is due to a watering restriction, although I'm not sure exactly why... There's also a way to enabled Water Budgeting, which adjusts the amount of time that each zone is watered to account for regional and seasonal variations in watering needs, and to turn on Weather Intelligence.
Weather Intelligence will skip scheduled watering times if certain weather conditions are detected by the app. For example, let's say that it rains in the afternoon for an hour today and tomorrow. It's pretty likely that if the rain was heavy, the Iro will skip watering on Thursday morning. If you happen to have a rain sensor attached to your Iro, it will take that information into account as well.
All of this automatic stuff doesn't mean that you can't just water an area a bit more if you need to. In fact, Iro makes that much easier to do -- if you're wandering your yard and the flower garden looks a bit stressed, pull out the iPhone, select the zone for the garden, pick a time (3 minutes is the default), and then tap the green Run button. The zone gets an extra pop of water, and Iro shuts off the water once the manual watering is done. While the zone is being watered, a blue line gradually circles the duration so that you can see with a glance how much time is left.
So far, I've been very favorably impressed with the Rachio Iro. Are there any things I wish it could do? Sure - I'd like a notification to appear in Notification Center telling me that it ran a particular schedule on a certain day, maybe even telling me about the durations if they change from the original calculated quantity. I'd love to see Rachio source their weather information from Weather Underground's Personal Weather Station (PWS) network, so it would be possible to let the timer know exactly how much rain my lawn has received (I run a PWS). Even people in close proximity to a PWS would benefit from this. Finally, integration with HomeKit and Siri would be amazing -- I'd love to be able to say "Siri, water the front yard for ten minutes" and have Iro bend to my command.
What I really love about the Rachio Iro is that I should no longer have to worry about whether or not my lawn is getting enough water if I'm gone for a while during the summer months. I could even set up a webcam that would view the lawn and if it gets a little dry looking, just do some extra watering from wherever I happen to be. I'm also looking forward to seeing how my water usage varies thanks to Water Budgeting and Weather Intelligence.
The first time I heard about the Rachio Iro, it caught my interest as it's definitely a product that can conserve both water and money. For a startup, Rachio has shown an incredible ability to design and execute connected products in the home automation space and bring them to market, and I eagerly anticipate seeing what the company does next. As it is, the Iro is sure to spawn a host of competitors, but I seriously doubt if any one of them will do a better job. In terms of design, setup, and the way that Iro intelligently varies watering times based on actual weather data, it's a top-notch home automation product.