At its core, the progression of Smart Home technology is all about improving efficiency; more competent security measures, reducing energy consumption, and optimization of daily life are all driving factors of the home automation market. The need for better home devices doesn’t stop indoors though, and smart outdoor devices are making waves with how homeowners conserve energy.
Here in the drought-stricken state of California and across much of the Southwest where water is a limited resource, optimizing yard watering is a critical need. From an energy waste-reduction standpoint, smart sprinkler controllers are right up there with smart thermostats and automated lighting as having the greatest impact on increasing efficiency, and the Netro Sprite smart sprinkler controller makes a compelling case to automate that process.
Who Would Benefit from a Smart Sprinkler Controller?
While the obvious use case for automating lawn watering is of course those with a lawn, smart irrigation control really can benefit anyone with any sort of in-ground irrigation system (drip lines, bubblers, sprayers, emitters). Since the irrigation controller works in the most basic sense as a timer, those with gardens can have far greater control over moisture-sensitive plants with electric irrigation valves in place.
Netro Sprite Design & Specs
From the physical standpoint, the $120 Sprite is quite simple. It comes in both a six-zone and a 12-zone model, and while 12-zones is probably overkill for most home lawns it can also control garden valve setups independently, so that is quite useful.
I’ve had a handful of these smart sprinkler controllers to review, like the RainMachine, Blossom, and Orbit B-hyve among others, and there are a couple similar design methodologies brands can go with.
They go way techie, with touchscreens and color LCDs, showing fancy readouts and such. RainMachine did this on their 12-zone model and it really is unnecessary, however their lower-zone versions were more practical without the screen. They could do the B-hyve route, which maintains normal physical operation of the unit as would any “non-smart sprinkler controller”, with the app functionality as a companion.
Or finally, they can go the super minimalist route and essentially use the least possible amount of materials and physical “bells & whistles”, having all interface control via the app (like the Blossom). Netro chose the latter, and I’m seeing more and more new smart irrigation controllers take this methodology.
The device itself is a pretty slick design with a magnetic lid and measures 5.7” x 5.7” x 1.2” overall. But really, when it comes to sprinkler controllers (smart or otherwise) looks don’t play a part in my decision process nearly as much as the functionality and app. After all, who cares how good your sprinkler controller looks?
Now to some of the goodies, the Netro Sprite works with both Amazon Echo and Google Home devices, and connects to the network via 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi. The connectivity allows for remote operation, monitoring water usage, and setting schedules all from the Android/iOS app as well as connectivity to the Netro Cloud.
What Can Cloud-based Smart Sprinkler Controllers Do?
If the only thing smart sprinkler controllers could do would be remote operation, their overall value over non-smart controllers would be (while still useful) limited. Fortunately, with the connectivity to cloud services smart sprinkler controllers like the Sprite can pull in data about the local weather, and historic climate data to help minimize water consumption while ensuring overall plant sustainability.
The Netro Sprite also has fully automatic scheduling capabilities, so users can plug it in, make a few selections based on the vegetation and soil, and the cloud will create the optimal schedule. With either an automated schedule or one set individually, the Sprite automatically updates with local government watering regulations to help ensure that homeowners are compliant with changing regulations.
Smart Sprinkler Controller Action
Across the board, one thing I’ve noticed and loved about the smart sprinkler controller options I tested so far is they all are really simple to use. That may not sound like a glowing endorsement, but if anyone has spent enough time with home automation devices it is bound to dredge up a slew of bad experiences with connectivity, interface, or the functionality itself.
Netro’s solution follows this experience, and is a simple retrofit for non-smart sprinkler controllers. Setup of the property in the app is easy as well, and by assigning plant, soil, and soil characteristics each zone can have the optimal watering schedule to eliminate waste.
The remote control watering function is actually really great, as any homeowner knows when working on a sprinkler system the pain of running back and forth between the controller and the zone to test for leaks is a pain.
The Sprite integrates with both Alexa and Google Assistant so voice-controlled watering can be set for specific zones or durations, to get a little extra moisture on-demand. Setting and managing schedules is also available, with automatic delays in the schedule for rain forecasts.
Watering from the Cloud
One area where smart sprinkler controllers and thermostats have succeeded thus far is in true artificial intelligence (AI) to automate the watering process based on need, not on an arbitrary guess by non-greenthumbs (myself included).
The Netro Cloud learns from how users interact with it, in conjunction with the schedules that are set and optimizes the watering schedule accordingly. While this is great for rain delays, it also goes deeper into adjusting the timing and frequency based on the weather and ground moisture, so if the weather jumps 12 degrees above normal the program will adjust accordingly.
One of the elements of this scheduling intelligence is based on actions that promote deep root growth, which over the long-term help the grass pull more oxygen into the roots and improve lawn health.
Netro claims that their watering technology saves up to 50% of water, by utilizing algorithms to optimize root zone penetration. They do this by breaking up the watering cycles to ensure minimal runoff, and preventing watering under improper temperatures and overnight watering. This often causes soggy lawns due to oversaturation, which leads to lawn disease and dead grass.
One way the Netro Cloud helps to ensure proper customization for each individual landscape is their Netro Plant Database. This is a collection of over 1,000 plant species and growing, which has specific characteristics about the individual plants that helps direct watering guidelines. This, combined with the soil settings all means that the desert succulent in the rocky front yard isn’t getting the same schedule as the moisture-loving iris in the rich soil of the backyard. Pretty smart indeed.
Netro Ecosystem Expands with the Whisperer
The Netro smart sprinkler controller on its own is a substantial smart sprinkler controller, since it can be set to different detailed ecosystems (soil content, sunlight, and plant type). This is great for anyone with lawns, or relatively easy gardens without too much fretting or those who aren’t as meticulous with their plant care.
But to get the most accurate measurement of the soil moisture content for the avid green thumbs, Netro has their solar-powered in-ground moisture sensor, the Whisperer. This wireless companion to the smart sprinkler controller sits right in the ground in the target area of the garden, and keeps track of the sunlight, temperature, and moisture level of the soil.
The satellite device can communicate with the irrigation hub up to 200 feet away, and multiple Whisperers can be paired with each hub.The Whisperer uses the Sprite’s AI to monitor and adapt to the characteristics of the specific soil it is planted in, and adjust each zone independently.
The Whisperer is currently on pre-order for $50 each, which is definitely not for the amatuer plantsmith, and will be fully available later this Spring.
The Netro App
With any smart device (especially one without much of a physical component), the app functionality and interface are critical for the overall success or failure of the device.
The Netro app itself is clean, and packed with information. Tracking for daily sunlight, temperature, and soil moisture levels is all visible via the dashboard with multi-device and multi-user support along with real-time weather based on the local weather.
Of course, the remote on/off functionality for individual zones and the ability to override the AI to set watering schedules still exists, as well as the ability to monitor both gallons of water and money saved, which is the goal at the end of the day.
Smart Sprinkler Ecosystem
At the end of the day, moves to become more efficient with energy-saving devices can often be hard to track. We know LEDs save money over old incandescent bulbs, but is it very noticeable on the bill? Automating the irrigation system to optimize water consumption is one of the ones that is a clear easy-win to not only save money but cut down on excessive use.
The Sprite smart sprinkler controller and the full Netro ecosystem are prime devices for average homeowners to automate a process that has a clear reflection on the water bill. This device is positioned to be a highly useful device for those interested in home automation, without a ton of cash to throw at products just for fun.