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GARDENING / HOME IMPROVEMENT : Watering Garden Is Getting Easier

July 17, 1994|KEVIN CONNELLY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Connelly is an Arcadia free-lance writer. and

When gardeners used to talk about hybrids, they meant roses and dahlias. Now they're talking about hybrid irrigation controllers that combine solid-state circuitry with the easy programming of older electromechanical controllers.

And using these hybrids, watering your garden automatically has never been easier.

The first thing you notice about the hybrids is their distinctly retro look. Dials and switches have made a comeback, replacing the starkly simple digital key pad of solid-state controllers.

"A lot of our customers shied away from the key-pad-type controllers," said Dennis Calkins of the J. H. Mitchell Co., a landscape and irrigation supply firm in San Gabriel. "Dial-type hybrid controllers are definitely more user-friendly. The Rain Bird and Hardie companies seem to have hit the nail on the head with their dial-based designs."

A big seller at the Mitchell Co. is the Hardie Rain Dial, which can automatically open and close 6, 9 or 12 valves, depending on the model. An outstanding feature is their modular design, which allows the homeowner to pop out the controller from its box outdoors and bring it in the house to program in comfort.

No more uncomfortable crouching under the camellias to adjust the watering time. The Hardie Rain Dial also features a circuit breaker that detects short-circuits and flashes the number of the malfunctioning valve on the display panel. That could save you a lot of dead plants and trouble if a valve fails to open because of a short.

Rain Bird Corp.'s line of hybrid controllers are called ESP for "extra-simple programming." They are living up to their name, according to Ed Stuckey, manager of Modern Irrigation in Upland. "I even taught a blind woman how to program this one," he said of the ESP-6, which operates up to six valves. Other models in the ESP series operate from four to 16 valves.

Rain Bird hybrid controllers possess a water-budgeting feature that may be the most valuable new water-saving of the new hybrids. The watering time for each program can be adjusted up or down from 10% to 200%. Let's say that in the warm spring and autumn months your garden sprinklers need to run about 20 minutes to give your lawn a good soak and 30 minutes for the flower beds and shrubs.

With Rain Bird's water-budgeting feature, when cooler but still dry weather comes, you can turn a dial, punch a button and the watering time for both programs can be decreased by 50%. When spring turns to summer it's easy to increase the water time by 10% increments until you get it just right.

It is just those sorts of seasonal adjustments that have always been a source of water waste in the garden. Homeowners tend to leave their controllers programmed for the hottest weather, forgetting to turn it down when the weather cools off. Or if they do turn the water time down, they sometimes forget to turn it back up when it gets got and wind up with some badly scorched plants.

The easy operation of Rain Bird's water-budgeting feature should help relieve this problem. Hardie's Rain Dial does not have water budgeting but their more expensive Total Control series does.

Watering hillsides has always been a difficult proposition because water often flows from sprinklers faster than the ground can absorb it, leading to a wasteful runoff. Sprinkler heads that put out fewer gallons per hour, giving the water a chance to soak in, are a partial solution.

Another improvement is to break the total watering time into more than one period. Hardie Dial and Rain Bird ESP controllers can both divide watering time into three periods, allowing you to give your hillside plantings three waterings of 15 minutes each, spaced an hour apart, for example.

During the record drought that ended this year, many homeowners installed drip irrigation systems to give trees and shrubs an adequate soaking. Watering times of up to six hours per station now are possible with the Hardie Rain Dial. Rain Bird's lower-priced ESP models can open a valve for up to 99 minutes at a time, but the higher-priced controllers in the series can water up to 10 hours at a time, plenty for any drip system.

A lot of drought-tolerant plants found their way into our gardens during the last several dry years, many of them requiring irrigation only at widely spaced intervals.

Old-fashioned controllers had trouble with these water-saving plants because they had to open a valve at least once a week or not at all. Rain Bird's ESP series still has that limitation, but the Hardie Rain Dial can allow 15 days between waterings, while higher-priced Hardie models can go 30 days between waterings.

One last special feature that pleases most customers is the low price of the new hybrid controllers. You can buy a six-station controller, either Hardie Rain Dial or Rain Bird ESP for less than $90. Rain Bird has a three-year warranty and Hardie backs its controllers with a five-year warranty.

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