“Smart” home devices don’t only make your life easier, but in many cases can also save you money. Readers of my blog already know I’m a big fan of ecobee’s smart thermostat products. They’re WiFi enabled controllers that use weather data available via the Internet to predicatively (and reactively) minimize HVAC system use to save energy and money.
Recently, I went on a search for something similar for my sprinkler systems: a WiFi enabled sprinkler controller that would use online weather data to predicatively and reactively minimize water usage and save me money. I decided to test and review the Irrigation Caddy (one of the first in the industry), the RainMachine, and the Rachio Iro.
TL;DR: Ignore the Irridation Caddy. Their device is junk and their customer service is non-existant. Between the RainMachine and the Rachio Iro, it’s kind of a toss up, depending on whether you want to access your WiFi sprinkler controller via a Cloud-based smartphone app (drawback is if Rachio goes out of business or their Cloud service goes down you can’t control your sprinklers) or via direct access to the device (drawback is you’ll need to know how to set up DDNS and port-forwarding on your router to control your sprinklers when you’re not on the same WiFi network).
For more details on each product, read on!
IrrigationCaddy was one of the first “smart” sprinkler controllers on the scene. I actually started with their S1 product, which used an Ethernet cable to connect to your switch or router. I tested it at my cabin in Eastern Washington, which has 5 zones (four lawn zones and one shrub zone). My biggest complaint was the hardware’s overall build quality… until I fired it up and saw the interface. Yikes! It looked like something a 1990s high school kid would create for a class project. I cheered up slightly when I saw that a number of firmware updates were available, thinking that perhaps the interface might have received a refresh. But when I read the instructions for updating the firmware, it reminded me of the archaic method we used to employ to update the Flash BIOS on an old PC: manual download and installation of an update utility plus downloads of multiple ROM files. I trudged through, but I ran into trouble on one of the final updates. I tried to email customer support, but never heard back. I completely gave up at that point. Had I sensed any promise, I would have persisted. But this device is light years behind the competition in both form and function, and from what I can tell from even their latest model, it appears to be the same as the wired version, except for a large antenna and an amber LCD screen. As unprofessional as it seems, I’m not going to even bother writing about the devices features, number of zones supported, etc. You simply don’t want it. The IrrigationCaddy sells for $99 on Amazon, where I’m shocked that it has an average review score of 4 stars with 225 customer reviews. However, most of the positive reviews are a few years old, and its more recent reviews echo my feelings that there are far better options available today.
And speaking of better options…
The next device I tested was the RainMachine. In fact, I tested three of them. Not because they kept breaking or anything, but because their original version supported 12 zones, and I have 36 zones at my house (lots of lawn and lots of shrubs). They’ve since updated their offerings with their “HD” line and how have 8 and 16 zone versions available, as well.
The RainMachine’s strong suits are its 6.5″ capacitive glass touch-screen interface (neither the IrrigationCaddy or the Rachio offer this) and the fact that it doesn’t rely on a cloud-based service or mobile app to set up or control. The RainMachine’s is actually an embedded Android device with a two USB ports, along with a tiny USB TP-Link WiFi adapter. I love the modular approach, because if the WiFi device ever croaks, I can just plug in another one.
Installing the RainMachine was no different than installing any other sprinkler controller. I mounted the unit on the wall next to my old RainBird controller, then moved each of the zone’s wires to the same-numbered terminal on the RainMachine. I connected the “C” (common) wire, then powered it up. It booted and launched right into the setup wizard. Using the touch-screen (which responded as well as any Android-based mobile device I’ve used), I authenticated on my house’s WiFi network. Then I manually entered my house’s address so the RainMachine would know which NOAA-based weather station to trust for my local weather data. After the initial setup, I used the touch-screen to add my zones and set my watering times. I didn’t get fancy (yet) and just copied over the same settings I’d been using on my old controller. It took a few minutes for the device to download the weather data, but eventually I was rewarded with a “forecast” of how my device was going to handle my sprinklers. Based on how much rain was expected on any given day, it would adjust the watering times down to a smaller percentage of the “baseline” I’d entered during setup. In the photo above, because RainMachine knows about how much it’s going to rain on Tuesday, it plans to only run for 36% of the original times. Of course, as each day moves closer, the NOAA data on which RainMachine relies gets more accurate, and adjustments are made in real time. I love seeing this “forecast” of how RainMachine plans to save water (and money).
The firmware update process on the RainMachine is exactly what it should be: simple. A message popped up on the touch-screen asking if I wanted to install new firmware. I pressed “Yes.” It downloaded the update, installed it, rebooted, and kept humming along.
I continued by setting up two more RainMachines to run my additional zones. Because my system is attached to a well, I can only run one zone at a time. The RainMachine auto-syncs its clock over the network, so I was able to program my units so that RainMachine #2 started watering right after RainMachine #1 finished, and #3 started when #2 was done. I realized, however, that by running three separate units that rely on the same well created a limitation for me: I couldn’t allow RainMachine #1 or #2 to increase their watering times on extra-hot days, because they’d potentially still be running when the next RainMachine in the series started its watering. The interface allowed me to disable over-watering on my first two units, meaning they could still reduce watering on wet or cool days, but on hot days they’d never exceed their baseline times. I allowed RainMachine #3 to over-water, since it was the last in my “chain.” I fired off a quick email to RainMachine’s developer with a suggestion that for cases such as mine, RainMachine could somehow be “aware” of other units on the same network and delay its start time if another unit “higher” in the chain was over-watering. I received a prompt reply thanking me for my suggestion and a promise to look into it.
For remote control, RainMachine relies on a mobile app (available for Apple and Android devices). The app isn’t fancy, but it’s functional. You can program zones and watering times, see history, view the watering forecast, and control some basic settings. If your mobile device is attached to the same WiFi network as your RainMachine, the app auto-detects the device. But if you’re walking around in your yard and get outside the range of your WiFi, you won’t be able to access your RainMachine unless you set up DDNS and port-forwarding on your router. I did this for all three of my devices, so now I can walk around my entire yard manually turning zones on and off. For me, this feature is the #1 reason to get a smart sprinkler. I was able to walk around my entire system turning zones on and off to check for broken heads and adjust sprinkler coverage without running back and forth to the garage to mess with the controller. You can also access the RainMachine’s on-board web server from your desktop machine’s browser, which makes programming and control even easier. However, I found this to be a tad bit buddy when using Chrome or Firefox, and my RainMachine units tended to be happiest when using Safari.
My RainMachines have been humming along for a few months now, during the hottest summer in Seattle history, and my lawn is still (mostly) green. I’ve used the app-based control on a few occasions to tweak my settings as I walk around the yard. I have no reservations recommending the RainMachine. I wrote this review using their original 12 zone unit, but their updated HD-12 is available on Amazon for $249. Their 8-zone Mini-8 is available for $179. They’ve also announced a 16-zone version due July 25. 2015.
Happy with the RainMachine at my main house, I needed a smart sprinkler controller to replace the IrrigationCaddy at my cabin. I found the Rachio Iro (pronounced RA-chee-oh EE-roh) at Home Depot and decided to give it a try. I bought the cheaper 8-zone unit, because I only have 5 zones at the cabin.
Hardware installation was much like the RainMachine, except that the takes up almost three times the space, which made it difficult for me to fit it in the outdoor control box that my old Toro controller had occupied. After cutting some of the plastic inside the Toro box, I was able to squeeze the Rachio Iro into place. I connected all the zones and fired it up. Unlike the RainMachine, the Rachio Iro has no touchscreen or buttons on the device; it’s completely controlled via mobile app. In order to connect to your WiFi network, you need to use “Blink Up” technology to send your WiFi settings to your Rachio Iro via encoded flashes on your device’s screen to a tiny light-sensing eye on front of the unit. When I read this in the instructions, a shiver ran down my spine… as it reminded me of the terrible experience I had with the Quirky Spotter. However, Blink Up worked perfectly on the first try with my Rachio Iro, and a breathed a sigh of relief. Here’s a brief video explanation of how Blink Up works with the Rachio Iro:
Once the Rachio Iro is connected to your local WiFi network, all other interaction with the device happens via the mobile app. When I installed the device earlier this year, Rachio only had the original version of their smart phone app available. However, about a week ago, Rachio released version 2 of the mobile app, which is a huge improvement. What the Rachio gives up by lacking a touch-screen interface, it makes up with its excellent mobile app.
On the subject of the app, it’s important to understand that your app doesn’t actually connect directly to your Rachio Iro. All communications have to “travel” through Rachio’s cloud-based servers. The benefit to this is that you won’t need to set up port-forwarding on your router to control your Rachio when you’re off your WiFi network. The downside is that if Rachio ever goes out of business, or their servers have a problem, or there’s a connectivity issue between your Internet provider and Rachio, you won’t be able to access or control your unit. It’s also worth noting that all of your watering history and data will be stored on Rachio’s servers. I don’t see that as a huge privacy risk, but it’s worth mentioning. But even if the Rachio loses connection to the mothership, it will continue to water your lawn on its last known schedule.
Like the RainMachine, the Rachio uses Internet-based weather data to adjust its watering times. One advantage the Rachio has over the RainMachine is that the Rachio can also use personal weather stations, such as the Davis Vantage Pro2 I run at my house. That’s really useful in areas where your micro-climate might differ from the official NOAA measurement location. That said, I actually prefer the RainMachine’s approach to weather-based watering adjustments over the Rachio. The Rachio seems to make changes far less often, and refers to them as “seasonal” adjustments rather than day-to-day forecasted adjustments. I don’t know whether or not this translates to any actual difference in the water savings between the units. I just really like seeing the RainMachine’s forecast of how much water I’m going to save.
The Rachio’s mobile app makes things just as easy when walking around the yard making adjustments to sprinkler heads. In fact, with their latest app update, I think it’s slightly easier than the RainMachine (which is easy to begin with). Rachio’s customer support is top-notch, and they have an excellent community-based support forum where users can help each other. I get the sense that Rachio is a bigger company than RainMachine, which can have its own pros and cons. But like the RainMachine, I have no reservations recommending the Rachio Iro to anyone looking to save water and make it easier to tinker with your sprinklers without running back and forth to the garage. Like the RainMachine, you can also control the Rachio Iro via a desktop web interface, and I liked the Rachio’s web interface better than RainMachine’s.
Which WiFi Sprinkler Controller Should YOU Get?
So which WiFi smart sprinkler controller is right for you? Let’s start with the obvious: avoid the IrrigationCaddy.
Between the RainMachine and the Rachio Iro, it’s really a no-lose situation. Both are vast improvements over traditional controllers. Both can be controlled remotely via mobile app or web browser. Both use local weather to save water when possible, and over-water when needed. Both are easy to install, configure, and operate.
To help make your decision, let’s focus on what’s unique or better on one unit versus the other.
For on-device interface, the RainMachine wins easily… because the Rachio Iro has no interface. But the RainMachine wins by more than just default, as their touch-screen interface really is beautiful and useful. And if you regularly have landscape guys operating your system for repairs or end-of-the-season blow out, the RainMachine lets them control the system on-site just as they would with a traditional controller. It’s possible to share access to your Rachio, but that would mean that your landscape guy would have to install the app, set up an account, authenticate on the system, and then figure out the app… and the landscape dudes I know probably aren’t going to want to do that.
For remote interfaces, the Rachio Iro wins — for both its mobile app and web-based interface. Both are way slicker than the “function over form” interface of the RainMachine. Both interfaces are easy enough for anyone to navigate, but the Rachio’s polished interface not only looks better, but is slightly easier to use.
For weather adjustments, it’s a toss up. I like the more “day-to-day” adjustments and forecasting of the RainMachine, but I wish it supported personal weather stations like the Rachio Iro (I have this same complaint about my beloved ecobee3). If the Rachio had more responsive adjustments, or the RainMachine added local weather stations, either could claim this category.
For connectivity “philosophy” it’s also a toss-up, and will boil down to what you think is important. RainMachine’s website touts that their devices are “Cloud independent by design” and that “nobody else owns your garden.” So if you want direct connection to your controller, and don’t want your data stored remotely, RainMachine is the way to go. You’ll have to set up port-forwarding for remote access, but if you’re the kind of person who cares about direct connectivity and the open source nature of RainMachine, you probably already know how to do that (and if you don’t, it’s not that hard). The cloud-based approach of the Rachio means that storing data viewing reports for your system is easier, but at the cost of some privacy. The cloud-based approach also means that if their system goes down for any reason, you can’t control your sprinklers from your mobile device… and because the Rachio lacks on-device interface, it means you can’t control your sprinklers at all. Is it a huge risk? No. But it’s a risk nonetheless.
So which one should you get? Only you can answer that. If you want local weather station support, a slick mobile app, and don’t care about cloud-based control, get the Rachio Iro. If you care about open source technologies, direct control, and an on-device interface, get the RainMachine. Or buy both, try them out, and return the one you don’t like as much. As I said at the beginning, both are far better choices than the old-school controller you’re probably running right now, and choosing between the two is a no-lose proposition. I’m actually glad I have one of each!
As always I welcome your questions, comments, and feedback below!