The state of Smart Irrigation in 2018

With the growth of DIY smart home platforms and the increasing popularity of connected smart devices, integration of our reticulation and irrigation needs would seem to be a easy win. Oddly, this is an area that has been lagging for some time. While it is true that the irrigation manufacturers have been trying to make their products 'smart', they are not tech companies, and the results have been lack luster for the most part.

Researching for this article I found many products which claim to be 'smart', but on closer inspection they simply mean that they have WiFi and the ability to connect to a moisture sensor or weather service. Sure, that makes them smarter in that you can use water more efficiently, and they are easier to program. It is not, however, the kind of integrated smarts we are looking for.

It's not all bad though, the ease of Alexa integration and the growth of the smart home ecosystem in general has encouraged both incumbents and new players to do better. There are a number of controllers that support Alexa integration on the market, which at least gives voice control. A handful of them also support integrated platforms to truly offer a smart solution. I've picked the best options available right now in these categories to take a look at.

Multi-zone Controllers

Skydrop Arc

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Skydrop is a widely available irrigation controller brand, with their 8 zone Halo controller being one of the more modern looking units on the market. The new Arc controller however, takes a fully app controlled approach, foregoing the nice touch display for a minimalist round wall-mount unit, which must be interior mounted. The Arc supports 12 zones and Skydrop's extensive configuration option to optimize it's dynamic scheduling system.

The dynamic schedules are a way to manage both when to water and for how long based on a number of factors. Many 'smart' controllers do this by using weather information, but Skydrop claims to take this further with hourly weather checks from 'hyperlocal' sources. The system also allows for incorporating solar radiation, wind, slope and soil condition when calculating transpiration rate and determine the watering time (or if watering is not required).

The Arc is controlled via smartphone app, and supports integration with Echo, Google Home, Nest, Ecobee and some other lesser known systems. The Echo Show is fully supported, which provides a mechanism to see what the system is doing in place of it's own display.

Skydrop is selling the Arc controller for $180 direct, and it's available through numerous irrigation dealers.

Rachio 3

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Rachio's newest model, the Rachio 3, offers significant improvements to the set up experience over their previous model, and incorporates it's own rain, soil, and flow sensors to assist with water scheduling. The marketing claims setup can be done in 30 minutes, although user reports suggest it may be closer to 45. That's including install, configuration and testing though. The 3 comes in two models, and 8 zone or 16 zone variant with an optional outdoor enclosure, but requires a 120V power supply, so international users may be out of luck.

Like all 'smart' irrigation systems, Rachio also offers smart weather sensing using their Weather Intelligence Plus service. This services aggregates data from satellite, radar and over 250,000 ground stations to provide what Rachio claims is the world's most accurate weather monitoring.

Similar to the Skydrop Arc, the Rachio 3 foregoes on device controls for app-based configuration, with only a light bar to indicate status information. Rachio supports integration with Alexa, Google Assistant, SmartThings, Nest, IFTTT, Wink, Control4, and Nexia.

The Rachio 3 is selling for $230 direct, or through select US retails outlets and Amazon.

B-Hyve Orbit

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Stepping down market a little, we have the B-Hyve Orbit. This model has a more classic look to it, with a good ole' monochrome LCD panel and big buttons. The app is fairly attractive though, and you can avoid messing with the front panel for the most part.

The Orbit uses WiFi to connect to the weather service (Smart WeatherSense) for some basic smarts, basically run time and skip (if rain is forecast). The unit supports third party Rin/Freeze sensors, and is limited to Alexa integration only.

The Orbit does come in a waterproof housing, so no optional extras there, and it's also available in international versions with 6 or 12 station configurations.

With limitations comes the key benefit of cost. The Orbit is available for only $99 through Amazon or direct from B-Hyve's Orbit store.

RainMachine Touch HD

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RainMachine takes a slightly different approach to things with a notably open development model. They make their RainMachine API publicly available and open source their evapotranspiration code to facilitate trust.

Also, rather than a proprietary weather service, their source data from a number of public sources such as NOAA and Wunderground. The Touch HD is the top of the line model, and features a very nice 6.5" touchscreen with a wealth of graphical info. The smartphone app is also very comprehensive, if a little busy looking.

RainMachine also takes a longer view of their weatherdata by managing the watering schedules not be current day forecast but a 7 day look ahead. This allows for a smarter view of what is coming and whether extensive watering is required now or not.

The Touch HD has an optional external enclosure, which their lower models do not, and comes in a 12 or 16 zone configuration. Integrations include Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT, SmartThings, Home Assistant, and of course, their own API.

The Touch HD is selling for $240 direct, on Amazon, or select retailers in US and EU versions.

NxEco NX-12

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Dropping back to the basic range, we have the NxEco NX-12 (or NX-8). These devices sport a large knob/dial on the front allowing for easy use known as the NxEco Knob. The system is designed for easy setup, with NxEco claiming it can be done in 15 minutes.

Weather updates are received free from NxEco's own cloud server on a daily basis, and these support the basic duration and delay functions. This can be enhanced with an optional third-party rain sensor, and the unit includes built-in freeze protection.

Support is available for voice control via Alexa or Google Assistant only. International versions are available in a wide selection of countries, and can be bought direct or via Amazon for $150 for the 12 zone model.

Tap Timers

For the simpler installations, sometimes a simple tap timer will do. After having battled with a few commercial 'dumb' models with clunky programming and poor reliability, I thought it would be useful to see what smarter options are on the table in this space as well.

B-Hyve Faucet Timer

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This entry from B-Hyve sports similar capabilities to their Orbit irrigation timer (above) in terms of weather sense allowing for adjustment of tap schedules. The unit itself is a battery powered tap valve which can be programmed via their app. A manual control is provided for simple on/off switching, which is useful if you want to use the tap for something else temporarily.

The remote control is provided via BlueTooth given the battery powered nature of the device. B0Hyve provides a WiFi Hub that plugs directly into a wall socket in order to connect to the internet for remote control and weather data. If you have more than one tap timer these can also mesh together to reach the hub.

Unfortunately, only Alexa support is provided, and the hub only support 110V outlets.

The Faucet Timer is available from B-Hyve's selection of retailers, and Amazon for $60.

Elgato Eve Aqua

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Finally, we have the newest entry to the smart sprinkler space, Elgato's Eve Aqua. This unit is similar in essence to the B-Hyve device above, in that it is a BlueTooth enabled, battery powered unit that connects directly to a tap. Like the B-Hyve it also sports a manual on/off control.

The unique feature of the Eve Aqua is that it is the only HomeKit enabled sprinkler controller available at this time. As such, a seperate hub is not required for connectivity, and you gain the assurance of Apple's high security standards for connectivity.

The Eve app provides data logging of run time, water usage and trending, and this can also be used to set up schedules independently of any other device so it can run stand-alone. Alternatively, the use of HomeKit automations allow for integration with other HomeKit devices such as weather sensors.

A unique feature on the Eve Aqua is a child lock to prevent unwanted operation, which is more of an issue on a tap timer such as this than a more comprehensive controller.

The Eve Aqua is available from Elgato or Amazon for $100.

A note on security

You could be excused for thinking hackers wouldn't be that interested in home irrigation controllers, but a recent investigation by researchers at Ben Gurion University noted that attacks on a sufficient number of controllers could be used as an indirect attack on the water supply, without any access to a city's infrastructure.

As an indication of the threat level, they estimate a typical municipal water tower could be emptied with control of only 1355 sprinklers. That would be a lot for individual attacks to compromise, but if a suitable remote access vulnerability was to be found, the exploit could be much easier.

connected controllers from GreenIQ, Rainmachine, and BlueSpray were investigated for exploits, and while all three were able to be influenced, they could not be directly attacked, and the attacks were limited to man-in-the-middle attacks against unencrypted HTTP connections. GreenIQ and BlueSpray devices, like many connected things, communicate with their own cloud service for remote access and weather data. Amazingly, these connections were unencrypted and it was trivial for the researchers to inject commands.

In the case of RainMachine, which takes a cloud-free stance, the devices could be influenced by sending bogus weather data from the unencrypted public weather services they use. GreenIQ has reportedly implemented encryption as a result of the research, but none of the companies have responded to the researchers directly.

These attacks didn't require any specific exploit, simply injecting commands into an un-encrypted web connection, which only furthers the push to encrypt everything, no matter how unimportant it may seem. The saving grace here is that all of these exploits required a presence on the local network to communicate with the devices, and were not remotely exploitable. Still, many home networks are woefully unprotected and even openly exposed to the internet due to poorly implemented router firmware, or bad user security behaviors.