Wednesday, July 22, 2020

PointCentral Makes Smart Home Tech Possible for the Rental Property Market

My latest blog post, “PointCentral Makes Smart Home Tech Possible for the Rental Property Market” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

Below is a copy of the article.




Whether you rent out a vacation home as a way to subsidize your mortgage payments, have created a business by purchasing properties and renting them, or own an apartment building, the management of rental properties has its challenges.


  • You need to coordinate with repair people when there are problems to provide them with entry into the property and to lock up after they have left.
  • When one tenant leaves and another is about to rent the property it needs to be cleaned.  This requires coordinating with a cleaning crew to provide access to the property and locking the property when they leave.
  • You need to provide the renter with secure access to the property and make sure that a former tenant can’t break in.
  • You want to minimize the costs of utilities by setting back thermostats and assuring lights are turned off; especially when the property isn’t rented.
  • You need to make sure that nobody breaks in and lives in the property when it isn’t occupied.
  • And the list goes on…

Integrating smart home technology into a rental property coupled with a rental property management tools can overcome all of these challenges, and more.

PointCentral is a subsidiary of Alarm.com.  Alarm.com was founded in 2000 and integrated security, smart home, and cloud technologies to pioneer the development of smart home as a service platforms.  Today, Alarm.com and its subsidiaries touch over 6.5 million housing units worldwide and have over 100 million connected devices in those housing units.  Alarm.com works with a nationwide network of smart home security providers for installation and maintenance of their systems. 

PointCentral, with over five million customers, expands on Alarm.com’s platform by offering products that are designed for the needs of residential property mangers. PointCentral’s software utilizes both Alarm.com hardware and certified third-party smart home hardware, to create a managed smart home solution for both property managers and tenants.

A basic PointCentral installation consists of an Alarm.com smart home hub, an Alarm.com smart thermostat, and a Yale Z-Wave lock.  Unlike most hubs, the Alarm.com smart home hub integrates with the Alarm.com cloud using a cellular connection; it doesn’t connect through a property’s WiFi and Internet connection.  This provides a more robust and reliable connection to the Alarm.com cloud that isn’t subject to ISP (Internet service provider) outages and other common problems that plague many cloud based smart home hubs. 

Z-Wave is the only smart home wireless protocol approved for use in security systems.  Because of this, the Alarm.com smart home hub uses the Z-Wave protocol exclusively for integration with other smart home products.  The basic smart home system can be expanded to include:

  • Jasco’s line of Z-Wave switches and outlets (these are also sold under the GE label)
  • Siri Shortcuts, Amazon Echo, and Google Home voice control assistants
  • Skybell’s doorbell cam
  • Alarm.com’s indoor and outdoor video cameras
  • MyQ Control Panel & Z-Wave Garage Controllers
  • Alarm.com’s window and door contact sensors
  • Rachio and Rain Bird smart sprinkler controllers
  • Alarm.com’s water sensors and water shut-off valves

A property owner/manager can either install these additional devices themselves to expand the smart home capabilities of a property or utilize the network of Alarm.com service providers.  Similarly smart home rules that leverage new hardware can also be added to the hub by either party.

But, the real magic isn’t just creating a smart home rule that turns on the lights at night or even the smart phone app that a renter can use to control the smart features of the property.  The real value is the services that PointCentral offers that are tightly integrated with the smart home capabilities installed in a property.   PointCentral offers an array of services to property managers.  For example:

  • Tenants can be provided with a smart lock key code that is only valid for their length of stay at the property.  A code for the smart lock code can be sent to them before they arrive at the property so their check-in is hassle free.

  • Automatic water shutoff in the event of a leak

  • Protection of the property from broken pipes due to the temperature dropping too low in the property.  For example, if the heat was accidentally turned off while the property wasn’t occupied.

  • Added security of never having to worry that a garage door was left open.

  • Energy savings by automatically turning off lights when the property isn’t occupied.

  • PointCentral integrates with property management software, such as Yardi, RealPage, and others.  If there is an issue at the property requiring repairs, a work order is created in the property management software.  PointCentral’s integration sees the creation of the work order and automatically creates an access code, which is only valid for the duration of the work order, to streamline the repair process.

Of course, these value-added services aren’t free.  The basic package of an Alarm.com smart home hub, an Alarm.com smart thermostat, and a Yale Z-Wave lock costs $550.  There is also a monthly service fee of $12 to $16 per housing unit. 

The monthly service fee could easily be offset by the savings from programming the system to set back the thermostat and turn off lights whenever the property wasn’t occupied.  In addition, according to a study of 1,000 U.S. renters in multifamily units by Wakefield Research and Schlage, 86% of Millennials and 65% of Baby Boomers are willing to pay more for a unit outfitted with automated or remote-controlled devices.  In fact, Millennials are willing to pay 20% more for housing with smart technology.

So, smart home technology not only makes sense for the average home or condo, it also makes sense for rental properties.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

How to Create a Zero-Energy Smart Home


My latest blog post, “How to Create a Zero-Energy Smart Home” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

Below is a copy of the article.

One of the latest, and most important, trends in home construction is the zero energy home (https://zeroenergyproject.org/).  The goal of a zero energy home is to produce as much energy, through renewable sources, as the home consumes in a year.  This leaves the occupants with net zero utility bills. 

Zero energy homes are not ultra-modern or strange looking.  You could walk right by a zero energy home and never know it.  They simply require careful planning, some specialized construction techniques to make them super energy efficient, and installing the correct energy efficient systems and appliances in the home. 

One of the key ways a home becomes a zero energy home is through a grid-tied solar photovoltaic system to generate electricity with a utility company that supports net metering.  It doesn’t matter if the home uses stand-alone solar panels (ground mounted or roof mounted) or newer solar panel designs that look more like standard shingles. 

Net metering is important so excess energy produced by the during the day by the solar system can be sold back to the utility company.  Then it can be used at night or during the winter when shorter days and the sun being lower in the sky combine to significantly reduce the amount of electricity produced.

Tesla’s Solar Roof is the most well know solar shingle solution but it isn’t alone.  Some other manufacturers are CertainTeed, Luma Solar Roof, and SunTegra.  The choice between solar panels and solar shingles can be simply be based on the aesthetics of the home and cost. 

There is also the option of creating a zero energy ready home.  In this case a zero energy home is built with the exception of the installation of a solar generating system.  This can save a significant amount of money on the initial construction costs of the home.  The solar generating system can be installed later, when the homeowner’s financial situation allows.

To protect consumers, homes that are labeled as zero energy, or zero energy ready, require certification from a third party agency.  A list of agencies can be found here.

While any homeowner can make investments in their home to lower the energy used, it would be very challenging to turn an existing home into a zero energy home.  Zero energy homes are designed from the ground up to meet the goal of a net zero energy bill.  This begins with the selection of a site for the home that allows for unobstructed sun for solar generation and passive solar heating.  But a site that provides for plenty of sunlight in the winter for passive solar heating can also require higher energy usage in the summer to keep the home cool.  So, the design needs to include features to block solar gain during the summer; such as awnings and deciduous trees.  Deciduous trees (Oak, Maple, etc.), as opposed to evergreens, lose their leaves in the winter allowing sun to reach the passive solar heating elements of a home.  In the summer the leaves of the tree block the sun.

Awnings for a zero energy home are specifically designed to block the sun when it is higher in the sky, during the summer, and allow the sun to reach the home when it lower in the sky, during the winter.

The design of zero energy home will also include very efficient at heating and cooling of the home through the use of energy efficient HVAC equipment and leveraging passive solar heating to minimize heating costs in the winter.  The U.S. Department of Energy defines a passive solar home as a home that “collects heat as the sun shines through south-facing windows and retains it in materials that store heat, known as thermal mass”.

It goes without saying that a zero energy home needs to be very well insulated.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has developed the Energy Star rating for energy efficiency.  The Energy Star recommendation for the insulation applied to the ceilings of a home with an un-insulated attic range between R-30 and R-60 depending on how cold an area of the country the home is located in.  For reference R-30 insulation is approximately 10 inches thick and R-60 insulation is approximately 18 inches thick.

A zero energy home, depending on the area of the country where the home is being built, starts at R-60 insulation in the ceilings and can go up to R-140 in very cold climates.  Insulation in other areas of the homes (walls, floors, etc.) is similarly thicker in a zero energy home.   It should also be noted that the architectural design of the walls in a zero energy home will be different than a standard home to accommodate the thicker insulation.

A zero energy home will also be very tightly sealed to minimize any air leakage.  The certification process will require a blower test to validate that the home is properly sealed.  And, because a zero energy home is so tightly sealed, steps need to be taken to assure that good air quality in the home is maintained.  An energy recovery ventilator (ERV) or heat recovery ventilator (HRV) should be included in the design.  These ventilation systems allow a home to be ventilated with outside air without losing energy.

The energy used by a zero energy home is also minimized by carefully choosing:

·         How water will be heated in the home to minimize the energy used.  The exact choice will depend on where the home is located and can include solar hot water generation,  a heat pump water heater, and others.

·         Only energy efficient lighting including LED bulbs.

·         Energy Star rated appliances for cooking, cleaning, etc.

In a locale with a temperate climate, it is reasonably easy to build a zero energy home by following the guidelines outlined above.  However, in areas that are particularly hot, such as the southern United States or the desert southwest, a great deal of energy is going to be used for air conditioning. Also, in very cold parts of the country, a great deal of energy will be used heating a home.  Finally, the homeowners’ behavior can have an impact on the success of a zero energy home meeting its goals.  Electronic devices can act as “power vampires” and use a significant amount of electricity.  Similarly, if lights and TVs are left on, or thermostats aren’t set back when the home isn’t occupied, it can also lead to a zero energy home not meeting its goals.  This is where the inclusion of smart home technology into a zero energy home can be beneficial.

First, and foremost, to minimize the energy used by a home it is critical to know when the home is occupied, or not.  There are a number of techniques for accomplishing this.

  1. Using an alarm system that is integrated with the smart home system.  If the home’s occupants are diligent in their use of the alarm system you can be absolutely sure that when the alarm system is armed in away mode that there is nobody home.  Similarly, if the alarm system is armed in “stay” mode then you can be absolutely sure that the home is occupied.  However, if the alarm system is disarmed you can only assume it is occupied.

  1. You can integrate presence sensors with the smart home system and create a geo-fence around the home.  When all the presence sensors are outside the geo-fence the home isn’t occupied.  Instead of dedicated presence sensors in many cases smart phones can be used for this purpose.

  1. Simple buttons can be located by exterior doors, one for leaving home and one for returning.

Once the smart home system is aware of when people are leaving a home and when they are returning it can, for example:

  • Shut off lights, ceiling fans, and audio/video equipment when people leave.

  • Shut off smart power strips to turn off equipment that doesn’t need to be powered when nobody is home to eliminate “power vampires”.

  • Set back the thermostat on the heating/air conditioning system when people leave.

  • Set back the thermostat on the hot water heater when people leave; unless an on-demand hot water heater is installed.

  • On larger homes a hot water recirculation pump can be turned off when people leave.

  • Restore the thermostat to its normal set point when people arrive home.

  • Restore the hot water heater to its normal set point when people arrive home.

  • For safety, turn on pathway lights in the home if people arrive at night.

A smart home system can also:

  • Schedule connected appliances to operate when electricity generation is plentiful; such as running the dishwasher during the middle of the day while the homeowners are at work.

  • Automate Blinds/Shades to minimize solar gain in the summer and leverage passive solar to help heat the home in the winter

  • Automate shades/drapes for daylight harvesting to minimize the need for electric lights during the day

  • When outside air cools during the evening, open motorized windows and turn on a whole house fan to expel warm air and bring cool outside air into the home as long as outdoor air quality is good and there isn’t an unacceptable level of humidity outside.  This will minimize the need for air conditioning. 

Smart home technology is a perfect fit in a zero energy home.  It can help a zero energy home meet its goals.  It may even transform a zero energy home into a positive energy home or even a zero carbon home.   A positive energy home is one that produces more energy than the home consumes and, through net metering, passes the excess energy generated back to the electrical grid for other people to use.  A zero carbon home produces enough energy to make up for the carbon cost of the materials used to build the home along with the energy used during the building process. 

If enough people built zero energy homes, positive energy homes and zero carbon homes it could even reduce the need for the construction of new power generation facilities; saving everyone more money and further reducing the overall carbon footprint of society. 


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Killing Germs on Your Smart Home Devices Using UV-C Light

My latest blog post, “Killing Germs on Your Smart Home Devices Using UV-C Light” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

Below is a copy of the article.


According to the Cone Health Medical Group (CHMG), a group of over 500 physicians and providers in North Carolina, “Americans spend nearly $5 billion each year on illness caused by germs.  Germs lie in wait on surfaces, having been left there by something or someone that is infected. Our hands come in contact with the surface and we then touch our eye, mouth or nose, allowing the germs to enter our bodies, making us ill.”

Voice assistants have greatly reduced the need to make physical contact with devices in a smart home to control them.  Using a voice assistant you can:

  • Turn lights on and off
  • Adjust a thermostat
  • Play music
  • Unlock or lock a door
  • Control a connected kitchen appliance
  • And much more…

However, people in a smart home still manually operate their lights using the switches on walls, use the buttons on the thermostat to make it warmer or cooler, manually unlock or lock doors, operate a smart appliance using its front panel controls, etc. They do these things even though they risk the transmission of illnesses through shared contact with these devices. 

People in a smart home will also use smart phones, tablets, and hand-held remote controls to control the smart systems in their home.  And, sharing these devices can further lead to the spread of germs among family members and visitors.

So, it isn’t that a smart home itself will make you sick (in spite of what some conspiracy theorists will tell you), but the surfaces of smart devices in a home can be the source of infections spreading among the people in the home.

Disinfecting some surfaces in a smart home to minimize the transmission of germs is just as easy as in a home that isn’t smart.  For example, a simple disinfecting wipe can be used to disinfect light switches in a home.  However, cleaning smart phones, tablets and other electronic devices, that could be damaged by the harsh chemicals used in these wipes, is much more challenging. 

UV-C Light

Ultra-Violet light is invisible to the human eye.  It is divided into three bands: A, B, C. UV-C light kills germs by breaking down a germ’s DNA so it cannot reproduce and cause illness. 

UV-C light is widely used in hospitals to minimize the spread of disease.  It is used to disinfect operating rooms and patient rooms, to keep the air free from germs, and within specialized disinfecting cabinets for cleaning the surfaces of object placed within the cabinet.


The Coral UV Sterilizer and Dryer uses UV-C light to sterilize household items and kill 99.9% of harmful bacteria and viruses in just 10 minutes.  Unlike smaller, cell phone sterilizers it’s 10” x 8” x 7.5” internal capacity is large enough to sterilize a standard size iPad or the vast majority of TV, and other electronic equipment, remote controls.  It is even large enough to fit any of the universal remote controls that I have worked with.

The Coral UV Sterilizer and Dryer is designed to sterilize more than just electronic equipment.  It can sterilize anything from baby bottles to plushy toys.  When sterilizing items, other than electronic equipment, it includes a dryer function so, for example, baby bottles, along with their lids and nipples, can be washed and then placed directly into the Coral UV Sterilizer and Dryer.

Unlike smaller sterilizers, the Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer includes two UV-C bulbs; not one.  In addition, the interior of the sterilizer is highly reflective to assure the UV-C light reaches all sides of the objects placed into it. 

The Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer uses Philips UV-C bulbs.  Philips is a leader in UV-C sterilization technology.  They have over 35 years of experience in developing and manufacturing UV-C bulbs. In addition, their lamps include a unique coating that assures the lamp never drops below 85% output for the life of the bulb.

UV-C bulbs do wear over time and the intensity of the light they produce diminishes.  The Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer includes two indicator lights; one for each bulb.  If one of these indicator lights doesn’t illuminate when a sterilization cycle is started the associated bulb needs to be replaced.  In any case, Coral recommends that the bulbs should be replaced each year to maintain the devices ability to kill 99.9% of germs.  Bulbs are reasonably inexpensive and replacements can be purchased on the Coral UV web store here.

Another thing that separates the Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer from competing products is the testing process it has gone through.  The Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer has been submitted to multiple testing firms to assure that it both kills 99.9% of germs and that it is electrically safe for homeowners to operate.  Reports from each testing firm are available for public review on the Coral UV web site.

Hands On with the Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer

I had the opportunity to try the Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer.  It includes four operating modes.

  1. 10, 15, or 20 minute sterilization cycle
  2. 10 minute sterilization followed by a 40, 50, 60, or 70 minute dry cycle
  3. 30, 40, 50, or 60 minute dry only cycle
  4. 24 hour storage cycle that performs a 50 minute sterilization/dry cycle followed by 2 minute sterilization cycles every 2 hours for up to 24 hours.  This is useful for keeping baby bottles and breast pump parts free of germs.

Only the sterilization cycle would be used for electronic devices.  However, the additional operating modes make this device more useful for families with young children.

There are four buttons on the top of the unit’s cover to select which of the above operating modes you want.  Each time you press one of the buttons it selects the associated mode and cycles to a different run time.  The current running time is displayed on the top of the units covered making it easy to see which one you’ve selected.  A few seconds after you stop pressing the button the unit automatically starts running.

To assure that any remaining germs that might have survived during the sterilization process aren’t spread into the home during the dry cycle the Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer has a replaceable HEPA filter.  Coral recommends changing the filter after every 3 months (depending on use) and three replacement filters are included with the product.

There is plenty of space inside the Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer and a wire basket is included that can help increase the capacity of the unit.  My iPad easily fit by placing it diagonally inside. 

To give the Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer a true test outside of a lab I had to purchase some laboratory equipment.  In this case I purchased some Petri dishes with agar growth media and sterile swabs.  I rubbed one of the swabs on my iPhone’s screen to collect any germs on the screen and then rubbed it against the agar to transfer the germs to the growth media.  Then I sealed the Petri dish and set it aside. 

Next I placed my iPhone in the Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer and ran a standard 10 minute sterilization cycle.  Once the cycle was complete I took a second sterile swab, rubbed it on my iPhone’s screen, and rubbed it on the agar growth media in a second Petri dish.  I sealed the second Petri dish and put both inside a cabinet so they had a nice dark environment for germs to grow.

After a week I took the two Petri dishes out of the cabinet and compared them.  What you would expect is that the first Petri dish would have a lot of growth and the second would have minimal growth. 


As you can see in the image above, after a few days the Petri dish marked 1 that was swabbed before sterilization of the iPhone has started growing lots of bacteria.  On the other hand the Petri dish marked two that was swabbed after the iPhone was sterilized doesn’t show any growth.  Clearly the Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer is doing its job!

Conclusions

The Coral UV-C Sterilizer and Dryer is a very useful device in these challenging times we find ourselves in.  It is easy to use and has the capacity to sterilize your smart phone, many tablets, reusable face masks, and other household items.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Landroid, Tertill, and Rachio: A Smarter Way to Take Care of a Yard

My latest blog post, “Landroid, Tertill, and Rachio: A Smarter Way to Take Care of a Yard” was originally published by the good folks at Residential Tech Today Magazine on their web site here:

Below is a copy of the article.

Yard work can be time consuming, back breaking drudgery.  Pushing a lawn mower around a yard, bending over picking weeds out of a flower bed, or dragging sprinkler hoses around the yard for watering is not everyone’s idea of a fun time.  In fact, I’ve met very few people who look forward to spending their free time doing yard work.  Today, yard work is even more of an issue for people who are fighting illness or have underlying medical conditions. 

Some people may find the distraction of doing yard work welcome right now.  Shelter in place orders have people looking for any distraction to remove the boredom.   However, when the situation improves, and people head back to work, there will be tremendous financial pressures on businesses.  This will lead to additional pressures on employees, leaving them with even less free time than they had before the pandemic.  At that time yard work will become even more of a burden for people.

Fortunately, technology now exists that can automate almost all of your yard work. 
 



Mowing a lawn with a robotic mower can save a homeowner a great deal of time and effort.  However, it is important to understand that they are very different than a conventional mower

The first thing a new owner will notice about a robotic mower is that it doesn’t have a large spinning blade that looks something like an airplane propeller for cutting the lawn.  Instead robotic mowers use very small, razor sharp blades.  These blades reduce the force required to cut the lawn and extends the time between battery charges.  The blades include two sharpened edges, and are replaced after they dull.    Fortunately, replacement blades are inexpensive. 

A standard mower’s big blade and gas engine has the capacity to cut through long grass.  This allows a homeowner to cut their lawn only once or twice a week.  A robotic mower operates differently.  It is designed to cut the lawn very often; even daily.  Each time it cuts it only removes a small of growth off the top of the grass stalks.  This minimizes the strain on the motor and, like the blade design, maximizes the battery run time. 

Unlike a robot vacuum that is constrained by the walls of the rooms in a home, a robot lawn mower has no constraints.  Without a barrier the mower would wander into a neighbor’s yard or mow straight through a flower bed.  Robot mowers use an electronic barrier created by a boundary wire.  The wire extends from a robotic mower’s charging base around the property, flower beds, trees, and other obstacles in a continuous loop.  It is important to understand before purchasing a robotic mower that this requires up front planning and a few hours work. 

The potential theft of a robotic mower that sits outside 24 hours a day, either mowing or on its charging base is an issue.  Fortunately, robotic mowers have built in anti-theft features that mitigate this issue.  Operation of the robotic mowers is always locked by a PIN code.  This removes the temptation for someone to steal one.  For models controlled by a smart phone app, if someone attempts to steal the mower, notifications are sent to the phones with the app installed.

Another potential issue with robotic mowers that are left alone to autonomously cut a lawn is safety.  Again, robotic mowers have built in features to minimize the chance of injury. As mentioned above, operation of the mower requires a PIN code so this keeps an unauthorized person, or child, from operating the mower.  In addition, mowers include lift and tilt sensors that will immediately stop the blade from spinning if the mower is lifted.

Robotic mowers are also designed to cut the grass into very small clippings that act as mulch for the lawn.  There is no need to worry about having to collect the clippings afterwards for recycling or disposal.

Finally, robotic mowers include rain sensors so the mower won’t operate when the grass is wet.  Wet grass typically cuts very unevenly and the clippings will stick to the underside of the mower.  This disrupts the mulching process and requires the mower to use much more power to cut the lawn; resulting in shorter run times before recharging is required.

With these differences between conventional and robotic mowers understood we can move on to looking at the Landroid mowers by Worx.

Worx is a subsidiary of Positec Tool Corporation, along with Rockwell Tools.  Positec was founded in 1994 and in 2004 began offering the Worx line of lawn and garden tools.  In 2014 Worx released their first Landroid robotic lawn mower.  Today the Worx Landroid is in its second generation and Worx has two basic models and two that add the optional GPS module to the mower:

·         Landroid M – Model WR140
·         Landroid L – Model WR150
·         Landroid M with GPS – Model WR143
·         Landroid L with GPS – Model WR153

The Landroid M is suitable for yards under ¼ acres.  The Landroid L is for larger yards, up to ½ acre.  Both mowers are powered by Worx’s standard 20 volt, 4.0 Ah, tool battery.  This is the same battery that powers other cordless power tools from Worx.  This is an advantage over other robotic mowers that use proprietary batteries.  All rechargeable batteries eventually wear out and, in the future, proprietary batteries may be hard to find or expensive.  Worx’s choice to use the same battery that powers their line of cordless power tools assures consumers that they will be manufactured for years to come.

The optional GPS module includes a cellular radio.  The module allows for real time notifications including if the mower is moved outside its mowing area. The module also allows the homeowner to track the mower and remotely lock it.

Both Landroid models have:

  • 90 minute charging time
  • Are powered by 2 brushless motors
  • Produce 63dB of noise
  • Cut using 3 small, razor sharp blades
  • 3 year warranty

What differentiates the two models is that the L model has a slightly larger 9” cutting width, compared to the M models 7” cutting width.  In addition the L model has an adjustable cutting height from 1.6” to 3.9”.  The M model has a slightly narrower cutting height adjustment from 2” to 3.5”. 

When you un-box the Landroid mower you’ll find the following included with the mower:

  • Charging base, power adapter, and special screws for securing it in your lawn
  • Three sets of cutting blades
  • Boundary wire and pins to secure the wire in place
  • Measuring tools used during installation to install the boundary wire the proper distance from the edge of the lawn and obstacles
  • Worx 20 volt 4.0 Ah battery
  • Instructions

Worx also offers some additional, optional accessories for the Landroid

  • Ultrasonic Anti-Collision System.  This improves the Landroid’s navigation allowing it to avoid running into, and possibly damaging, trees, outdoor furniture, etc. It provides the most flexible solution for the Landroid to avoid bumping into obstacles without the need to include them in the loop of boundary wire.

  • Off Limits Digital Fencing.  This module installs in the Landroid and allows a homeowner to use magnetic strips to easily create a no-mow zone.  These can be used for furniture, or other objects, that are moved around a yard.  They can also be used to mark objects that the mower needs to avoid without routing the main boundary wire around the object; simplifying installation.  The installation kit includes magnetic strips, connectors to create a loop out of the magnetic strips, and stakes to secure the magnetic strips to the lawn.

  • Garage.  This is a cover that attaches to the Landroid charging base and protects the mower from rain, etc.  The mower is weatherproof but the garage will provide added protection and extend the mower’s life.

  • Accessory Kit.  The accessory kit includes an additional 165 feet of boundary wire, lawn stakes to secure the wire, twelve additional cutting blades.

Hands on with the Landroid

Worx provided me with a Landroid WR153 for this article.  In addition, they also provided me with the Ultrasonic Anti-collision System, Off Limits Digital Fencing, the Garage, and the Accessory Kit 

The Landroid comes fully assembled.  The only thing necessary is to install the battery and, in the case of the WR153 model, the GPS unit.  The GPS is easily installed by removing a small cover plate underneath the Landroid, plugging an electrical connector into the GPS unit, and re-installing the cover plate.  With the GPS, Worx supplies special security screws that can’t be removed after they have been installed.  This makes sure that someone trying to steal the Landroid can’t unplug the GPS unit.  When I first installed the GPS unit I used the original screws as I wanted to make sure everything worked properly.  Later I went back and installed the security screws. 

In fact, I did have a minor issue with the GPS.  For some reason the built in cellular radio wouldn’t initialize properly.  A quick call to the Landroid support line and the problem was resolved by a very knowledgeable support technician.  Later I had a problem where I lost control of the Landroid through the smart phone app.  A call to tech support uncovered that there was an issue where the Landroid was confused between communications through my WiFi network and communications through the cellular radio built into the “Find My Landroid” GPS unit.  The support person said they needed to report this to their technical staff and a short time later the issue was resolved. 

Finally, I was having problems with controlling the Landroid from my smart phone.  Sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t.  Working with support we traced this to a problem that only exists when the GPS unit is installed. 

When a GPS unit is installed the Landroid will prioritize use of the cellular radio over WiFi for communications.  Because I live in an area where there is a very marginal cell signal, the Landroid would continue to try to establish communications with a cell tower and wouldn’t switch over to using the WiFi radio.  The Landroid shouldn’t simply prioritize to using a cellular signal for communications.  Instead, it should simply choose the strongest signal available.  Fortunately, you can always use the control panel on the Landroid itself if for any reason the app can’t communicate with the mower.

The Ultrasonic Anti-collision System and Off Limits Digital Fencing sensor are both very easy to install.  To install the Ultrasonic Anti-collision System you start by removing a small plastic cover plate on the top of the Landroid by prying it off with a screw driver.  Mine fit very tightly and I had to use a very small screw driver to get between the cover plate and the body of the Landroid.  After that there are two, snap together, electrical connections and the unit is affixed to the top of the Landroid with two screws. 

The Off Limits Digital Fencing sensor is even easier to install.  First you simply unscrew the two screws that secure the cover plate on the bottom of the Landroid.  A single electrical connector is the plugged into the sensor and cover plate is re-installed with the original screws.

The Garage is, like everything else today, primarily made of plastic with two metal brackets that are secured to the ground with long plastic screws.  It will do a fine job of protecting the Landroid from rain and sun.  However, I live in the mountains and there can be three, four, five, and more feet of snow in my yard during the winter.  The garage would not survive this and it will have to be stored inside during the winter. 

Installation of the charging station and boundary wire requires thought and planning.  A robot vacuum’s charging connectors are on the rear side of the unit.  This allows the vacuum to back into its charging base.  The Landroid’s charging contacts are on its side.  This requires the Landroid to pull into the charging base like a car that is pulling into a parking space.  The Landroid manual specifies that you should have a minimum of thirty-two inches of open space to the right side of the charging base and twelve inches of space to the left side.  When you add this to the two foot width of the charging base you need almost six feet of open space.  Coupling this with the additional requirements in the manual (within reach of a power outlet, in the shade, flat land, and no irrigation system sprinkler head nearby), finding an acceptable location for the charging base can be challenging. 

Once you’ve decided on the location for the base station, you can move onto the installation of the boundary wire.  The wire starts at the base and makes a continuous loop around your property, flower beds, your house, trees, and other obstacles; ending back at the charging base.  Details on how to install the boundary wire are included in the provided Landroid owner’s manual.  However, I found even more details in an installation guide for European Landroid owners.  That guide can be found here.  The boundary wire is held in place with small plastic stakes.  Worx recommends that you first just install the boundary wire, with the included stakes, on the surface of your lawn and make sure everything is working properly before going through the optional process of burying the wire.  However, trying to bury the wire later, without damaging the wire, would be a challenge.  So, I chose to bury mine from the start using a technique I’ve used before to bury a wire in my yard.  I use a Worx WG896 Lawn Edger / Trencher to cut a narrow slot in the lawn and stake the wire at the bottom of the slot.  Cutting the slot with Worx WG896 goes quickly.  In addition, the slot will be very quickly absorbed by the lawn and hidden from view. 

I did make two mistakes in my placement of the boundary wire around my yard.  Worx warns you that you need to avoid gravel as the Landroid can get stuck in it.  I placed the boundary wire too close to the gravel right of way, between my yard and the street, in front of my home.  After the Landroid got stuck a few times I realized I needed to move the wire back.  

Removing the stakes holding the wire was easier than I thought.  They were easy to pull out of the ground with pliers.  I then cut a new trench for the wire a little farther from the gravel and staked the wire into the bottom of the new trench.

I also found a second place where I needed to re-route the boundary wire.  There is a 4” plastic pipe with a cap that protrudes vertically upwards from the ground in my front yard.  This is the access to the irrigation system cutoff valve.  The cutoff valve is far below ground so the water in the pipes can’t freeze in the winter.   I thought that the pipe protruded far enough above the ground that the Landroid would simply bump into it and avoid it.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.  Let’s just say that the battle was a bit one-sided and the Landroid’s spinning blades won.  A trip to the plumbing supply house provided me with a replacement pipe cap.  Now the boundary wire goes around the pipe to avoid another fight between the two.

I mention these two situations to let people know that they should be prepared for making changes to their boundary wire installation to accommodate unforeseen problems.  

The Ultrasonic Anti-collision System, and to a slightly lesser extent the Off Limits Digital Fencing greatly simplify the boundary wire installation.  Because, with the Ultrasonic Anti-collision System the Landroid can “see” objects, like trees, there is no need to surround them with the boundary wire.  With the Off Limits Digital Fencing sensor installed you can surround your trees with included magnetic tape instead of the boundary wire.  The alternative to all this is to just let the Landroid bump into your trees.  However, over time that can damage the bark and cause the trees to have health problems. 

The Ultrasonic Anti-collision System works very well.  It allows the Landroid to narrowly miss objects so it can still mow close to them.  However, I still have seen the Landroid occasionally hit a tree with a glancing blow when the tree wasn’t directly in the Landroid’s path.

For people that want to tweak how the Landroid spends its time mowing a yard, Worx offers the option to divide a yard into, up to, four zones.  Zones can be defined either using the control panel or the Landroid app.  The Landroid will start following the boundary wire and when the Landroid enters an area to be defined as a zone the homeowner simply presses the “Mark” button in the app or the stop button on the Landroid.  Once all the zones are defined the percentage of time that the Landroid will spend mowing that zone can be adjusted. 

What I would have found even more useful would have been to allow a user to name each zone.  Then commands to mow a specific zone could be added to the Alexa skill.  A homeowner could then make sure their front yard was neatly mowed on a day where they were having guests over using a simple voice command.

Integration

The Landroid is designed to connect to a homeowner’s WiFi network to enable control from the smart phone app.  In addition, the “Find My Landroid”, GPS module, includes a cellular radio so you can locate your Landroid in the event it is stolen.  The GPS module also allows you to create a digital fence outside of which your Landroid can’t operate.

The Landroid does have an Alexa skill that allows you to start the mower, stop the mower, send it back to its charging base, and ask the mower’s status.  This is a nice feature but it doesn’t provide a way to create additional smart home automations.

Worx hasn’t released either an IFTTT service or a public API.  However, there are API implementations on GitHub based on people monitoring the communications between the Landroid, the app, and the Worx cloud service.  Because the API isn’t publicly supported by Worx there isn’t any documentation and it is subject to change without notice.  This reserves use of the API to people with advanced programming skills and eliminates the majority of smart home enthusiasts who would use an IFTTT service to connect their Landroid to a commercially available hub. 

Areas for Improvement

  1. The Landroid needs more options for scheduling.  It currently allows you to schedule mowing on a weekly basis.  To save water our local jurisdiction restricts irrigation to alternate days.  If your house number is even you can irrigate on even days of the month.  If your house number is odd you can irrigate on odd days.  I wanted my Landroid to mow on days my irrigation system wasn’t scheduled to run so my lawn was assured of being dry.  Scheduling the Landroid to run every day of the week would mean that half the days of the month it would be cutting wet grass or thinking it was raining because it ran into a zone that was actively being irrigated.  If I scheduled the Landroid to mow every other day those might all be days the irrigation system was running or they might all be days the lawn would be dry.  It would change from week to week.

  1. IFTTT has become widely used in the smart home community for integration of products.  This is evidenced by the IFTTT subreddit having over 46,000 members!  IFTTT integration, and a fully supported, and documented, API, would be a major upgrade to the Landroid for smart home owners and mitigate the competitive advantage that Husqvarna mowers have in this area.  iRobot has developed the much anticipated Terra robotic mower.  While the release of the Terra has been delayed due to the impact of the pandemic on their business, I expect that the Terra will also be integrated into iRobot’s existing IFTTT service.  If there was a Landroid IFTTT service I could easily have done my own scheduling on my smart home processor/hub and there would be no need for Worx to enhance the Landroid’s current 7-day scheduling.  Because the Landroid already connects with a home’s WiFi network, this doesn’t require a hardware update to the product.  It would only require the development of the IFTTT service itself.

  1. My yard is ¼ acre, right at the dividing line between the L and M models.  For this article, Worx generously provided me with the L model for lawns up to ½ acre.  Even with the 650 foot spool of boundary wire included with the L model, I didn’t have enough for my yard.  And, because Worx included the anti-collision system, I didn’t have to route the wire around the trees in my yard.  That would have taken even more wire.  Worx should either include more wire with the Landroid or provide instructions for estimating the amount of wire a user will need before they make their order.  This could be as simple as a YouTube video that instructed potential purchasers to measure their stride, walk around their yard in the path they envision the boundary wire to take, count their steps, and multiply their steps by their stride length to calculate the amount of wire they will need.  This would remove a surprise cost and also the need to wait for an additional order of wire to arrive when you are part way through the installation.

  1. The garage is a nice accessory to keep the Landroid out of the sun and rain.  Unfortunately, it blocks your access to the control panel.  It would be nice if the garage included a small, hinged door that could be opened to access the control panel.

  1. When a GPS unit is installed with a cellular radio, the Landroid shouldn’t simply prioritize to using a cellular signal for communications.  Instead, it should simply choose the strongest signal available so a marginal cellular connection doesn’t keep the smart phone app from connecting to the mower.

Conclusions

The Landroid is a very capable robotic mower.  It is very quiet, simple to operate, and trouble free.  The Ultrasonic Anti-collision System is a useful, though not inexpensive, accessory that simplifies the installation of the boundary wire. 

Installation of the boundary wire can be handled by an industrious homeowner who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty.  Careful planning will make the job easier.  Even if you do make some mistakes, changes aren’t difficult.

Once the robot is up and running, it takes care of itself, and your lawn.  But, the lack of an IFTTT service, or a well documented and supported API, limits the appeal of an otherwise nice robot lawn mower for smart home enthusiasts.





Pulling weeds in a garden is back breaking work.  But, it is a job that can’t be ignored.  Whether you have a flower garden, or vegetable garden, weeds compete with your plants for water, nutrients, and sunlight.  Weeds are successful in the ecosystem because they are so aggressive and, if left on their own, will take over a garden.  One alternative is weed killers.  But the negative health affects of weed killers, like Roundup, has proven they need to be avoided if at all possible. 

Enter the Tertill, the only residential weeding robot made today.  Tertill was introduced through Kickstarter in 2017.  It was developed by Joe Jones, the inventor of the Roomba robotic vacuum, and Rory Mackean, an experienced robotics engineer.  The Tertill is uniquely designed to tackle the job of keeping a garden free of weeds. 

  • The first aspect of the Tertill’s unique design is how it differentiates between weeds vs. the flowers, and vegetables, that have been planted in the garden.  It does this by size.  The Tertill detects any plan that is at least three inches tall and moves away from it.  Other plants will be cut down by the Tertill’s spinning “weed whacker”.  For this design strategy to work it is important that the garden be free of weeds before the Tertill is first placed into the garden. Then, as the Tertill moves through garden it will move around the established plants and cut down weeds that have just started to sprout.

However, the Tertill isn’t smart enough to differentiate between seedlings of flowers and vegetables planted by a homeowner and the weeds that have just started to sprout up.  This is because computer vision, which could be placed into a small robot, isn’t yet capable of doing this.  To overcome this problem Tertill is packaged with wire plant guides that are stuck into the ground surrounding where seeds have been planted.  The Tertill detects the plant guides, just as it would an established plant, and moves around the new seedlings.  Once the seedlings are over three inches tall the plant guides can be removed.

  • A weed will try to grow back after it is cut by the Tertill.  However, the Tertill is continuously patrolling the garden and cutting down weeds; over, and over.  The weed will never grow enough to develop the leaves it needs to supply the energy required for it to survive.  After a weed has been cut multiple times by the Tertill, it will deplete the energy stored in its seed pod and die. In addition, according to Joe Jones, during the development of Tertill they found that “when weeds sprout from seeds they go through a stage where they are vulnerable to even small disturbances in the soil.  Just the fact that the robot is constantly moving about, slightly scrubbing the top layer of the soil is enough to kill most emerging weeds.”

  • Because a garden may not be conveniently located near an electrical outlet, Franklin Robotics couldn’t utilize the same kind of base station battery charger used by robotic vacuums and lawn mowers.  Instead, the top of the Tertill includes a large solar panel that charges an internal battery.  During the day a Tertill will move around the garden weeding it for a period of time.  As the energy stored in the battery is depleted it will pause for recharging.  After the battery is charged, it will continue weeding the garden.

  • Tertill uses its “weed whacker” two ways.  First, to minimize energy usage, the “weed whacker” is only turned on when a weed is detected by a capacitive sensor on the bottom of the robot.  Second, to cut weeds that are too short to be sensed by the capacitive sensor, the Tertill also randomly turns on the “weed whacker” for short periods of time.

  • Finally, robotic vacuums and mowers only have to traverse relatively even, flat terrain.  However, a garden is made up of soft, uneven earth.  To traverse the unique terrain of a garden the Tertill has specially designed, angled wheels.

There are constraints to the Tertill’s design that need to be understood by a homeowner.

  1. The Tertill is designed to manage the weeding of a garden that is approximately 200 square feet (10 foot x 20 foot).  While this sized garden should be more than adequate for most home gardeners, additional Tertills can be placed in a larger garden.

  1. A garden where the Tertill will be used needs to be enclosed by a physical barrier to keep the robot from wandering away where, for example, it might damage a lawn.  The Tertill uses a capacitive sensor on the front of the robot to detect obstacles and plants.  Anything slightly conductive will trigger it including wire fencing, rocks, or wood.  In a garden, rocks and wood are typically moist enough to be slightly conductive and trigger the sensor. 

  1. The Tertill requires plants to be separated by approximately twelve inches so it has room to navigate between them.  This amount of spacing is typical in a vegetable garden to give plants room to grow.  In a flower garden a homeowner needs to understand that the Tertill will weed around flowers that are planted close together in a grouping.  However, it won’t be able to remove weeds that germinate within the group.  The homeowner will still have to remove those weeds by hand.  Finally, Tertill will simply not work in any garden where plants are planted very close together leaving little, or no, room for the Tertill to navigate.

  1. While the Tertill’s wheels are designed to traverse the soft, uneven ground of a garden, the garden should be free of ruts and mid-sized rocks.  In addition, sloped areas of the garden should have less than a forty percent grade (twenty-two degree slope).

  1. Tertill is weatherproof but muddy ground can bring it to a grinding halt.  Just like a car on a muddy, dirt road, the wheels can slip and dig into the mud.  In addition, mud can stick to the wheels until they are nearly impossible for the Tertill’s motor to move.  How often this occurs will depend on the type of soil in your garden.  This is simply one additional reason that homeowners can’t ignore their Tertill.  They need to periodically check on the robot to make sure it is operating properly.

Hands on with the Tertill

The first thing to be aware of is that the Tertill is not as active a weeder as you think it will be.  The solar charging system and the rechargeable battery only provide the Tertill with enough power to run between one and two hours per day.  The Tertill will wake up periodically, run for a while, and then go back to sleep while it recharges.  I found it rare to actually see the Tertill running.  The only proof I found of it running was that each time I checked I found it in a different location.  Of course, the real proof was that there weren’t any weeds.

The Tertill was designed for, and is most at home in, a vegetable garden where plants are well spaced to provide adequate room for growth, and all the rocks are removed.  In this environment the Tertill is free to easily roam around a garden clearing it of weeds.

The Tertill has a tougher time in a flower garden.

  • Plants aren’t evenly spaced and some may be too close together for the Tertill to navigate between them.
  • A flower garden may include tree roots, rocks, bird baths, sculptures, and other items that provide additional visual interest.  Smaller tree roots, rocks, and other small items can create barriers for the Tertill or obstacles that it will get stuck on. 

When you place a Tertill in a flower garden there is a learning curve.  You will find places where it can’t navigate because two plants are too close together.  Some careful pruning can fix this issue.  You will also find rocks and other obstacles that the Tertill gets stuck on.  Rocks can be removed from the garden.  A tree root can be surrounded by wire barriers included with the Tertill; like a seedling.  If you want the Tertill to be fully autonomous you simply need to adjust your garden to be more “Tertill friendly”.

The time you spend making minor adjustments to your garden to make it a better environment for the Tertill, the happier you will be with it.  You will be able to depend more, and more, on the Tertill to take care of itself, and eliminate your weeds.

Even with minor changes there are areas of a flower garden that the Tertill can have trouble navigating.  The plants at the back of our garden form a narrow pathway that dead ends at one edge of the garden.  The Tertill was very good at navigating to the end of the pathway but for some reason could never find its way back out.  It would turn left and right but would never turn 180 degrees around to go back the way it came.

The Tertill is more at home in a flower garden during the summer than the spring.  During the spring, before plants have returned to their normal summer growth stage, there are stems that can’t be detected by the Tertill’s sensor.  The best example of this is a rose.  Before the rose starts to grow the stems left from the previous summer can’t be detected by the Tertill and it makes its best effort to climb up and over the rose instead of simply turning away and going another direction. 

It is also important to remember that in either a flower or vegetable garden if, during the summer, the plants grow to the point where they are too close together that will limit the Tertill’s ability to navigate.  Again, good planning will allow the Tertill to be more effective.

Areas for Improvement

Even well designed products can be improved.

  1. Because the Tertill can get stuck, I think a significant improvement would be to include a WiFi radio in the robot.  To save energy, the radio would only be turned on when Tertill was stuck.  After the radio is activated the Tertill would send notifications to the homeowners’ smart phones so they are immediately made aware of the problem.  This would minimize the effort homeowners have to make to check on the Tertill’s operation.  There could also be an option for different types of radios that would operate on larger properties where WiFi isn’t practical.

  1. If the Tertill is left running in a garden located in the front a home it is easy for a passer by to steal the robot.  At a minimum, a piercing lift/tilt alarm would help to mitigate this.  A requirement to enter a pin code for the robot to operate would also be a deterrent to theft.  Again, if a WiFi radio was included in the Tertill a notification could be sent to the homeowner alerting them of the issue.

  1. The Tertill has five colored LEDs that provide feedback to the homeowner on the status of the robot.  However, it is difficult to remember that the left LED is for battery status, the next LED is for wheel status, etc.  It would be better if the meaning of each LED was molded into the shell next to it.  Otherwise a user is going to have to reach for the manual when they see the middle LED is red just to find out that they need to clear some debris that has jammed the weed whacker.

  1. For added safety the Tertill’s “weed whacker” spins at about 1/3 the speed of a gas powered, string trimmer.  Unfortunately, this speed reduction reduces the Tertill’s effectiveness at cutting grass; which is a common invader of a residential garden.  I’m not sure if the weed whacker’s speed can safely be increased or if there is a better whacker design to make it more effective at cutting grass.  I just feel that given the prevalence of grass invasion into residential gardens that the Tertill needs to be improved to better handle it.

  1. The cover to the USB charging port on the Tertill drops down close to the ground below the Tertill.  Because it has an angular shape it can get stuck on rocks and roots in a garden.  Changing the design of the USB port and its cover to raise the ground clearance of the Tertill would help it navigate over obstacles.

  1. The Tertill’s battery is not replaceable.  The software in the Tertill is designed to do everything possible to maximize the battery’s life.  However, I think the option should exist for a user to maintain their robot for an extended period of time so the battery should be user replaceable.

Summary

The Tertill is a useful garden robot.  It is more at home in a vegetable garden than a flower garden but is adaptable enough to help keep weeds at bay in either environment.  Because it lacks anti-theft features you may be more comfortable only using it in your back yard; out of sight of passers by.  Also be aware that if you use it in a flower garden, you may need to make changes to the garden so the Tertill can navigate throughout the garden. 


Dragging hoses around your yard to rearrange sprinklers so your grass doesn’t turn brown is a pain.  What is more painful is:

·         Getting your water bill at the end of the month when you left the sprinklers run too long and wasted a ton of water.
 
·         Not watering enough and your lawn turns into an unsightly brown mat.

·         Receiving a fine from your local municipality because you accidentally violated watering restrictions.

All of these problems can be avoided by watering your lawn with an underground irrigation system controlled by a smart sprinkler controller; like the Rachio.

If you don’t currently have an irrigation system for watering your lawn they aren’t a cheap investment.  According to Home Advisor the price for a system typically costs between $1,734 and $3,397.  You can save money by installing a system yourself but it is a complex project.  First and foremost, the system has to be very well planned to provide full, and even, coverage of a lawn and adjacent flower beds.  Then there is a great deal of work required to dig up the lawn, install the system properly, and repair the lawn after the system is buried. Most people will be much happier trusting this work to a professional.

If you already have an irrigation system, replacing an old controller with a smart controller, like a Rachio, is a reasonably simple job.  Why would you want to do this?

  1. Most smart sprinkler controllers are simple to setup.  They can automatically create your entire watering schedule after just entering some basic information about your lawn.

  1. Smart sprinkler controllers monitor the weather and automatically adjust the amount of water applied to a lawn based on the amount of rain that has fallen and the outside temperature; which affects the amount of water lost due to evaporation.  This can provide significant savings on your water bill.

  1. A smart sprinkler controller will automatically skip watering your lawn when it is raining.

  1. Smart sprinkler controllers include scheduling options that are sophisticated enough to meet the restrictions set by local jurisdictions.  Water schedules can be set to only water at specific times of the day, only watering on specific days of the month, odd days, even days, and more.

  1. The entire irrigation system can be easily setup and controlled with a smart phone app.

  1. Smart irrigation controllers typically include integration with Alexa and Google Assistant so the sprinkler system can be controlled with simple voice commands.

  1. Some smart sprinkler controllers can be integrated with smart home platforms so, for example, watering can be automatically postponed during the evening when you set your home up for a party.

Rachio is a Denver based company founded in 2012.  Their third generation controller, the Rachio 3, was released two years ago and it is still one of the highest rated smart sprinkler controllers on the market.  New features of the Rachio 3 include:

  • Weather IntelligenceTM Plus – combines weather data from satellites, radar, the National Weather Service, and more than 270,000 personal weather stations to provide hyperlocal weather forecasts.  This improves the Rachio 3’s ability to apply the correct amount of water to a lawn.  In addition, Weather IntelligenceTM Plus includes a self healing ability.  If the closest personal weather station to a home stops reporting data, the Rachio 3 will automatically switch to the next closest station and send a notification of the change to the homeowner. 

Like earlier Rachio models Weather IntelligenceTM Plus will skip watering a lawn when it is raining, when the Rachio believes the ground has enough water for the grass to thrive until the next scheduled watering, and when the temperature is below freezing.  In addition, it will now skip watering during high wind events when the wind will keep the sprinklers from delivering water where they should.

  • Previous generations of the Rachio controller only included 2.4 GHz WiFi.  The Rachio 3 now includes the ability to connect to 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz WiFi networks.

  • The Rachio 3 can connect to the Rachio wireless flow meter.   Previous generations of the Rachio controller would only work with a wired flow meter.  A flow meter allows the Rachio controller to detect leaks and blockages of the sprinkler system.  If a leak is detected the Rachio controller can shut off the zone being watered and send a notification to the homeowner.

 Hands on with the Rachio Sprinkler Controller

Replacing an older sprinkler controller with a Rachio is reasonably easy to do.  Typically, the electric valves that control a sprinkler system are simply wired back to the controller.  There is a single common wire and individual wires for each zone.  Rachio includes a video on their web site that describes the entire process.  It can be found here.  Briefly, the steps to replace a sprinkler controller are:

  1. First validate that all your sprinkler zones are working properly.  There is nothing more frustrating than thinking you have done something wrong, or that your newly installed Rachio controller isn’t working properly, when you started the installation process with a broken sprinkler zone.

  1. Make sure you have good WiFi signal strength where you plan to install the Rachio controller.  The Rachio 3 doesn’t include an option for a wired Ethernet connection.

  1. Study the wire connections to your existing controller and the connectors on your Rachio controller to make sure you understand where each wire needs to be connected on the Rachio.  If you are not sure where all the wires will go, review the Hardware/Wiring information on the Rachio web site, or contact Rachio tech support, for assistance.

  1. Disconnect the power supply to your existing controller

  1. If the wires to your existing controller are not individually color coded you will need to clearly number the wires that go to each connection on your sprinkler controller.  Inputs 1 through (8 or 16 depending on how many zones you have) are the wires that go to each electric valve.  The wire in the connector marked “C” is the common connection that completes the circuit to each valve.  If you have a rain sensor or wired flow sensor those wires should also be labeled.  Wires can either be labeled using a label maker or, if the wires are big enough, you may be able to simply write on the outer insulation jacket of the wires with a permanent marker. 

  1. Take a picture of the installation with your smart phone.  Validate that, on the photo, you can clearly tell where each wire connects to your existing controller.  If something goes wrong with your installation, this picture will be worth its weight in gold.

  1. Disconnect all the wires from the existing controller being careful not to pull off any of the labels you’ve applied to the wires.

  1. Remove any screws used to mount your existing controller to the wall.

  1. Place your existing controller aside.

  1. Attach the Rachio controller to the wall.  If you are mounting the controller to drywall, be sure to use the enclosed wall anchors.  If you are mounting the controller outside then you will need to mount it inside a weatherproof case.

  1. Attach the wires to the connections on the Rachio controller

  1. Plug the power adapter into a nearby outlet and connect it to the Rachio controller.

With the Rachio controller up and running you will need to use the app to create an account and connect your Rachio controller to your WiFi network.  

Properly setting up the different watering zones that are included in the irrigation system is extremely important because Rachio uses this data to determine how much water the plants in that zone need and how long to send water to that zone during a watering cycle.  After naming the zone you will have to enter:

  • The type of vegetation in the zone (cool season grass, warm season grass, shrubs, trees, etc.)
  • The type of spray head installed (rotor head, mister, bubbler, etc.)
  • The soil type (sand, loamy sand, loam, clay, etc.)
  • The exposure (lots of sun, some shade, etc.)
  • The slope (flat, slight, moderate, or steep)
  • And a few more things

Once the zones are defined the next step is to create a schedule.  Schedules can either be

  • Fixed
  • Flex Monthly – The frequency and duration of watering will be adjusted on a monthly basis to account for seasonal changes in the weather
  • Flex Daily – The zones are watered independently and the Rachio will modify the schedule on a day to day basis.

Schedules can also include jurisdictional restrictions, such as only watering on even or odd days of the month.  You can also choose the time the schedule is run so you can, for example, water in the early morning or evening to avoid losing too much water due to evaporation in the middle of the day.

Grass grows best in the spring and fall when the weather is cooler.  During the hottest months of the summer, July and August, grass grows much more slowly and needs extra water or it will turn brown.  The Rachio can make automatic seasonal adjustments to the amount of water applied to the yard to compensate for this.

If, for some reason you decide that Rachio’s watering calculations don’t work for you then you can even create fixed watering times for each zone and eliminate Weather IntelligenceTM Plus’s ability to decide when a zone has received enough water.  This eliminates the potential water savings offered by Weather IntelligenceTM Plus but not the system’s ability to skip days when it is raining, when there are freezing temperatures, or when it is too windy.  It also doesn’t eliminate the ease of use afforded by using the Rachio app to control your sprinkler system.

Some of this may seem a bit daunting to someone not accustomed to dealing with the details of irrigation and landscaping.  However, there are a number of ways to get assistance.  Rachio has a very active user community (https://community.rachio.com/).  The community has a wide range of participants, including professional landscapers, who are willing to help other users.  Rachio also has a wealth of help articles on their website and, if all else fails, support professionals to assist owners.

It is hard to say more than once setup, the Rachio takes care of itself and does a good job of watering a lawn.  A homeowner can truly take any responsibility for watering off their to-do list.  When coupled with a flow sensor, the Rachio will even monitor the system for leaks, and notify the homeowner should any problems arise. 

One important thing to understand is that the processing behind Weather IntelligenceTM Plus takes place in the cloud, not on the Rachio controller.  So a solid connection to WiFi and the Internet is required for the Rachio controller to function.

Integration

A Rachio system can be integrated into a wide variety of smart home platforms including

  • Apple Homekit
  • Amazon Alexa
  • Nest
  • Google Assistant
  • IFTTT
  • Alarm.com
  • SmartThings
  • Hubitat
  • And more

There is also a published, public API so developers can add integration with the Rachio platform to their smart home system of choice.

Areas for Improvement

  1. Based on weather data, and knowing how much water the sprinkler system has applied to a yard, Rachio calculates how moist the soil is and uses this to decide how much additional irrigation is required.  However, there is no actual feedback to the system so this is, for lack of a better term, a calculated guess.  Rachio needs to keep up with their competition and integrate soil moisture sensors into their system.  This would validate their calculations and assure they don’t schedule a skip day when watering is really required or apply more water to a lawn when it isn’t necessary.  Some users in very dry climates have complained that skip days have been applied when their lawn really needed more water.

Summary

The technology to relieve homeowners of the day after day work to keep a yard looking great has grown by leaps and bounds.  The most back breaking tasks

  • Weeding
  • Mowing
  • Watering

can now all be done by robots and a smart sprinkler controller.  The Landroid robotic mower, Tertill weeding robot, and the Rachio 3 sprinkler controller are all excellent examples of this technology.