These days, everything is smart: lights, thermostats, cars, even refrigerators. But for some reason, I never thought about smart sprinklers for my lawn, until I heard about Rachio. Intrigued, I reached out to them and they were kind enough to send me a unit for review.
First step: installation. I’ve always paid people to come out and deal with all things lawn watering for me, so I was a bit nervous about this part. Thankfully, the Rachio comes with incredibly simply instructions that even folks who are decidedly non-green-thumby can manage to do without screwing things up too badly. It also helps that it turns out that automatic sprinklers are built with some degree of user-friendliness, since each wire is inconveniently color-coded.
So I went out to my garage, risked life and limb climbing over stuff to get to where the sprinkler controls are, and began unscrewing the old unit. So far, so good. Yank out a bunch of wires (the best advice in the Rachio’s instructions were to take a picture of the old system before doing anything so you’d know which wire reconnected to which port. Thankfully, I did this, so that when I screwed up a bit later (more on that in a moment) I was able to recover easily.)
Next: Screw the new unit in. This is where things got a bit tricky, since the Rachio unit is considerably bigger than the old one. But I found what looked like a big enough spot and where at least one of the screws would go into the stud, so cool. The unit included several of those plastic thingies that let you put screws into drywall, so all seemed well–unit attached to the wall nice and securely.
And then I learned that that big bundle of wires coming out of the wall that I needed to hook back in had essentially no slack at all, and where I had mounted the unit was about 4 inches too high. So, some minor cursing and a quick trip up to Lowes to buy more of those plastic thingies (obviously, Rachio doesn’t provide enough of them for you to completely screw up and waste all of them screwing in the unit in the wrong place) and all was well again. Of course, by this time I had completely forgotten which wire went where, but thanks to the brilliant suggestion that I take a picture, that wasn’t a big deal either. Thank you, Rachio, for anticipating that your customers might be idiots and would need to start over a few times.
Now that it was hooked back up and plugged in, time to set up. Like all modern smart devices, this is all done via an app, which means that I got to leave the mess in the garage to go back in to finish. I think some of the spiders might have been disappointed that they didn’t get to watch the end of the process, but they’ll deal.
Once downloaded, the app quickly found the Rachio unit, and the prompted me to connect to my WiFi. Once that was done and the device was online, it led me to the next step, which is where things got a bit surprising.
Obviously, if I had ever thought about it, I would have realized that different types of landscaping require different amounts of water. The size of the yard, the type of grass (or weeds) or plants, the type of soil… Well, duh. All of it matters. And yet, in over 15 years of home ownership, I had never paused to consider it. 10 minutes per set of sprinklers, every couple of days, and we’re done. Right? Uh, no.
The first thing Rachio does is take each set of sprinklers and differentiate them by zone. For each zone, it asks a set of questions: what kind of plants are there? What kind of soil? What kinds of sprinkler heads are on this zone? How much of a slope is the yard? Once you answer these (or guess as to the answer), it lets you name the zone, and then moves on to the next. I’d guess it took me about 20 minutes to get everything set up.
One of the questions I ran into right away was whether or not we’d be able to continue to use the WiFi rain sensor we paid a lot for last time we had a pro come upgrade our sprinkler system. Some quick searching on Rachio’s website provided the answer: yes. Another round of surprisingly simple wiring and it was hooked up. Then, into the advanced settings in the app and it was enabled.
Also in the advanced settings was something that honestly I was surprised wasn’t in the basic setup: the size of the yard. I have a tiny yard, which of course doesn’t need as much water as a bigger yard, so a little bit outside with a tape measure and the system is even smarter, and watering less than before.
Another cool feature that I set up but honestly never use: Rachio works well with Google Home, so I could in theory say, “OK Google, tell Rachio to water the front yard.” While there might come a time when turning on the sprinklers while the kids are playing outside might be fun, I’m not sure there are too many places where I would want to manually water things, since after all the whole point of the system is to not really have to think too much about watering. (It also works with Amazon’s Alexa.)
Ironically, the system makes me think about watering more than before, since I do get a notification on my phone every time the sprinklers run. But that’s an OK “thinking about watering”, which is different from the “dang, did the lawn get watered today? What’s wrong with the system?” type of thinking I used to have to do.
In the end, a smart sprinkler system is one of those new technologies that makes my wife kind of roll her eyes, but even she’s come around to agreeing that this is one smart system that’s well worth having. Over the long run, I’m sure it’ll save us money as well, since it does water much less than before and yet still keeps our yard looking decent. (In the middle of the summer here in surface-of-the-sun Sacramento heat, “decent” is all we can really hope for.) Certainly, families with bigger yards in more moderate climates will see the savings much faster.
The Rachio Smart Sprinkler Controller is available on Amazon for $190 for an 8-zone system or $250 for a 16-zone system.