Over the past few years we've seen device-controlled lighting systems, thermostats, switches and other home-automation devices take hold in the market to save energy, but nobody seemed to be looking at the other big home consumable -- water. Especially in the arid Western United States, one of the largest uses of water is for lawn irrigation, and keeping those lawns green can be both expensive and a huge waste of water. Fortunately for consumers, Rachio's new Iro smart sprinkler controller (US$249) is now available in Home Depot stores across the US and promises to help consumers keep tabs on their water usage.
I had an opportunity to talk to the founder of Denver-based Rachio, Chris Klein, about Iro and how the smartphone-controlled device came to be. The idea took root at the Denver Startup Weekend in November of 2012 with a pitch on using technology to save water. An idea to created "boxed gardens" to save water just wasn't scalable, so the idea of a smart sprinkler controller was floated. With a Belkin WeMo switch and some ingenuity, they quickly discovered that the concept was possible.
Rather than just package parts from other manufacturers, Klein and his partners decided that it was time to create their own brand and product. By February of 2013, Rachio was in business and by December of 2013, the company had perfected the software and hardware for the smart controller. Klein notes with pride that the entire device is built in the Centennial State, and that through a network of local manufacturers and services they've been able to accomplish tasks in a remarkably short period of time.
So, what makes Iro so smart? Existing sprinkler timers have no intelligence -- they simply turn sprinklers on and off at times of your choosing. Replace the old timer with an Iro, and you can tell it things about each zone -- the type of soil (clay, sand, etc...), how much shade the area receives, and of course the location of the yard -- and about your watering parameters. Those parameters can include acceptable watering hours and days by local ordinance.
Unlike most sprinkler timers, there are no knobs or dials on the Iro. Klein mentions that most timers are located in odd, out-of-the-way places like basements or garages where they're out of sight anyway, so all of the controls are located in the free app. Since the Iro needs to be connected to your Wi-Fi network, Rachio picked Electric Imp's connectivity solution to provide good range. The company suggests that potential Iro owners bring an iPhone or iPad to the location where the controller will be located just to see how strong the signal is. A weak signal may necessitate the installation of a Wi-Fi range extender to reach the Iro.
The app provides a way to set up the controller for automatic watering or even manually kick off watering from anywhere you're connected to the Internet. I personally look forward to the day when the app can use hyper-localized weather data to determine just how much water each sprinkler zone requires -- and not a drop more. The company has already updated the app several times in the first few weeks of availability to respond directly to consumer input, so that pipe dream of mine might not be that far away. At the present time, you can easily let the app know that the lawn has received extra water from rain, or that a hot spell has stressed the lawn, and it will adjust each zone's watering times appropriately.
TUAW will feature a full review of the Rachio Iro in the near future.