A few years ago I started looking around for a WiFi-based irrigation system. At the time only a few existed and none of them had all the features I needed or any quality reviews to back it. A few months deeper into my search I stumbled upon a company that had an encouraging solution that promised to be “Coming Soon.” Their website was sharp and the product feature set looked robust. I checked back every few weeks to see when it would be available. Once available, I contacted this company in May of 2014. Unfortunately my need to have three separate systems all integrated together was not possible with them at the time. So I continued my search …
Fast forwarding to a few months ago, with my strict requirements still in tow, a company was found and a product was purchased. Happily it turned out to be the same company described above that I had been monitoring. That company is Rachio. Their product is the Rachio Iro Smart Sprinkler Controller.
Before I start my review I want you to keep in mind that I live in Southern California, which has a Mediterranean Climate. I average 13 inches of rain a year. So my review is from this perspective. The positives and/or negatives I found using the Rachio Iro might be totally different for those of you who live in other climates. Particularly the 30% water use savings they advertise when compared to standard controllers.
There are currently two models available from Rachio. An 8-zone controller priced at $249 and a 16-zone controller priced at $299. Yes it might seem like a considerable investment for something as mundane as a sprinkler controller, but keep in mind the price is in line with its competitors. Plus you can not compare the cost to a standard controller since it is like comparing apples to oranges. Helping with the cost is the fact the Rachio Iro is EPA WaterSense Certified. This means that many states and/or water districts offer rebates after purchase. Here in Southern California SoCal Water$mart offers $80/Controller for less than 1 Acre of landscape and $35/Station for more than 1 acre of landscape. My lot size is just over an acre. So after a little back and forth with SoCal Water$mart, they approved my rebate, which ended up paying for all three of my Rachio Iro Smart Sprinkler Controllers.
Once my Rachio Iros arrived I was surprised by how little there was to them. In the box was the controller, the power cord, two screws and a small pamphlet. That was it.
Installation and Setup: Honestly they couldn’t make it any easier. Having set up up a lot of WiFi home solutions like the painfully buggy WeMo switches had me thinking that the time investment and frustration level would be much more than the Rachio website makes you believe. I was pleasantly surprised at how smooth everything went. It only took me 45 minutes from start to finish to have my first one up and running.
There are a few things I highly recommend before you remove your old controller. First, make sure you have a strong WiFi signal at the old sprinkler controller. Obviously, without a WiFi signal the system will not work. Second, make sure to write down your current watering schedule to include the days you water, time you start watering and how long you water each zone. Third, if your wires are color-coded just write down which zone went to each. I took a picture to help me remember. If your wires are not color-coded, put tape around each wire and label it. Make sure to do these three things prior to removing your existing controller!
Because I like being able to shut an enclosure for extra protection, I decided to keep the Hunter shell that once housed my old sprinkler controller. All the internal parts came out by removing a few screws and the Rachio Iro fit with a lot of room to spare.
One thing that annoys me when mounting something to a wall is having to match up screw holes to hang or mount it. The Rachio Iro lets you screw through the unit itself and directly into the wall. This convenience made mounting it a breeze.
The Rachio Iro uses push-pin connectors which make installing your wires a simple, toolless job. The only issue I see here is that it would be a tight squeeze if you are unfortunate enough to have the old insulated wires.
There are slots for your master/pump valve wire and your rain/moisture sensor wires if you have them. Installing your own rain sensor would be the most accurate way to facilitate the water use savings Rachio advertises. Because we hardly get any rain in Southern California, I was content with just plugging in my ZIP code through the app so the system knows my local weather. I also added a neighbor’s weather station through the app to provide further accuracy. I felt this would suffice for dry Southern California so I didn’t use my old rain sensor.
Installed and awaiting WiFi setup.
If you thought the installation looked easy, you will be amazed at how fast and straightforward the setup is. I have no idea how Rachio could make it any easier other than coming to your house and doing the setup for you. The first thing you will need to do is name your Rachio Iro and provide a zip code, which is used to help Rachio run their algorithms when you set up your watering schedules.
Next you need to connect to your wireless network.
To help transfer the WiFi settings to the Rachio Iro, you will need to use the system’s BlinkUp procedure. BlinkUp works with your Apple and Android smartphones to connect your Rachio Iro to the Internet in just a few seconds. By taking your WiFi configuration information from the mobile device, BlinkUp transmits that data by rapidly flashing light pulses on the device’s screen. Basically it turns your phone into a strobe light to transfer your settings. Your data is read by the optical sensor on your Rachio Iro’s integrated imp hardware to make this a truly one-step process without the need to write down device IDs or leave the mobile app to delve into settings screens.
After transfer is complete you are required to set your first scheduling. Don’t worry about the details here, just submit your zones to water and let Rachio run its ever-improving algorithms to set up your recommended schedule. Once you have finished this final setup step, you can go back and fine-tune everything.
Ease of Use: Rachio seems to have taken the same approach to software development that Apple has. The initial settings Rachio recommends are going to work for the majority of people who use their product. The app and desktop software are intuitive and logical to the point you would really have to be a technophobe to not be able to manage your new smart sprinkler controller. Like your Apple OS, most stuff is preconfigured but the software allows you to drill down further to get more granular control. For example the zone setup through the app allows you to specify vegetation type, soil type, sun exposure, slope type and even nozzle type. Want to drill down even further? The advanced settings let you configure things like root depth, allowed depletion and efficiency.
Features: The Rachio Iro’s feature set is extensive and, thanks to an active software development team, it is ever-growing. For example, just last week the ability to take pictures and attach them to your zones for easier ID was added with the release of the 2.0 App. Are you worried about what happens if you lose your WiFi connection? One of the built-in features Rachio has is that if you lose your WiFi connection for any reason, Rachio will notify you that the signal has been lost and it will continue to operate using the last schedule you programmed. Another great feature is “Smart Cycle.” If you configured your zones’ soil types, some of those soil types, like clay, will cause your Rachio Iro to water using a series of short watering cycles to increase absorption and avoid run-off. I have always configured my sprinkler controllers to water my zones with shorter times and then return to those zones a little later. But this is something hardly anyone I have talked with about their watering has thought of or done in the past. So it is nice Rachio will do this for you because this is where extensive water savings can be found.
While the Rachio Iro is intended to be mounted indoors, it is possible to do outdoor installations as well. It just requires a lot more work and additional cost. You will need power outside to plug in the Iro and you will need a waterproof enclosure to protect it from the elements.
The Rachio Iro’s ability to interact with complete home automation solutions from Control4 and Crestron or with third-party options like Nest, Wink Hub, and IFTTT show that this company is forward thinking and always on the lookout for ways to expand their offering.
For me the top feature and the main reason I bought my Rachio Iro was to be able to walk around my garden and, with just a few clicks on my phone, turn on my sprinklers. This proves invaluable for when I wish to run a spot watering or test zones and individual sprinklers without having to run back and forth between the controller and the zone. Rachio replaced my archaic Hunter ICR, which was cumbersome, unintuitive and a pain to cart around. I went from using this beast:
To simply having to do this:
While the Rachio Iro’s current features might accommodate about 95% of its users, it is still missing a few things. Here are some features I would like to see in order to give Rachio 5 stars on their feature set.
- I would like to see controls on the front of the unit so a technologically unsavvy landscaper or lawncare person can run it or make edits. While I have no need for this personally, I know the more hands-off buyer would, as the guy who mows their lawn most likely also manages their sprinkler controller and watering schedule. Rachio does have something called ‘Landscaper Access,’ but I am sure many of the mow and blow guys that work here in Southern California won’t be using it for various reasons. Controls in the front of the box are much preferred in this case.
- In the Rachio Iro’s reports, the “gallons used” are very rough numbers. However, the only way to get an accurate number is with a flow meter like their competitor Hydrawise has available. Having the option to buy a flowmeter to provide accurate water use data for cross referencing with your water company could help people in California meet imposed restrictions.
- The weather delay needs to work as one program with all Rachio Iros under your control. I have three systems and each one runs a watering schedule every third day. One runs Monday, another on Tuesday and yet another on Wednesday. This cycle is repeated perpetually. Now let’s say it rains on a Monday night. The Racho Iro that is set to run Tuesday will be forwarded ahead a day due to the rain delay threshold I have set up. Ideally it should bump my schedule on all three systems ahead one day to keep my preferred program in place. Currently it does not have this ability. So what happens is the Tuesday bump to Wednesday will now have it run in conjunction with my other Rachio Iro that was already scheduled to run that Wednesday. In order to prevent two Rachio Iro systems from running at the same time and dropping my water pressure, I have to manually change the scheduling on the other two Rachio Iros and forward each ahead one day. Even though it doesn’t rain often here in Southern California, it is still a pain to have to remember to do this manual bumping after each storm.
- I do not need to see every time a zone is started and stopped in my “Watering History” report. It clogs my history and makes it harder to find the more important data like when a schedule was started and actually finished. There needs to be a way to turn off this zone reporting.
- I am really digging deep here, but I have been around technology my whole life. I have seen companies come and go. One of the reasons I did choose Rachio over their competitors was the fact they appear to be growing rapidly. Plus, being found in Home Depot shows they are serious enough to meet large demand. So I have no doubt Rachio will be around a while or at the very least be attractive enough to be purchased by one of the dinosaurs like Hunter or Rainbird. However, the cold reality is that if Rachio were to fold up shop tomorrow, your controller would now be worthless and your yard would not get watered. This is the nature of the beast when you choose a company that relies solely on cloud-based solutions. Because of this I would much prefer to see my smart sprinkler controller act more like my ScreenLogic pool controller, which keeps my settings local and uses port forwarding to communicate.
Customer Service: For me the real bread and butter of a company is its customer service. All the features in the world won’t matter when you can’t use them or you can’t set them up. I was able to test Rachio’s support on two separate occasions and each time they were amazing to work with. I had to engage their support once when I tried to get a little too creative and set up each zone on its very own schedule, which caused me to use all the memory in one of my Rachio Iros. I called their toll-free support hotline and they picked up right away without any hold time. Getting a representative that actually lives in the USA (Colorado, to be specific) was a welcome surprise. Frankly, I am tired of being sent to “Tim” in India when I call other companies’ support hotlines. The second use of support was when SoCal Water$mart refused my initial sales receipt. Zach in support manually created a new one that met SoCal Water$mart’s requirements. In both cases followup was later made to ensure I was all set. At Rachio there is genuine care about the customer and an eagerness to ensure their product is working as advertised. I can honestly say they have one of the best customer service environments I have experienced with a company. You will not be disappointed.
Rachio also offers an active community forum where many of its employees post to help answer questions or concerns and discuss future updates. It is also where you can read some honest feedback from real users about their product. Rachio also has an emailed newsletter or you can follow them on Facebook, Twitter or Google+. Plenty of ways to keep you in the loop.
1) We all know there is a severe drought here in Southern California. We have been cutting back on our water use for a few years now. So when you have finished setting up your watering schedule through the Rachio App, make sure to go back and edit the watering durations for each zone. If you do not check your automatic zone setups that Rachio programs, you just might find you are increasing water use rather than decreasing it. I found that in all three instances where I set up my Rachio Iro, their algorithm programmed schedules with greater watering lengths than I had previously set on my old sprinkler controller. It seems to me that right now their algorithm is geared towards areas of higher rainfall.
2) One feature that you need to make sure you have turned off is “Water Budgeting.” Water Budgeting makes automatic seasonal and regional adjustments to your watering times. This feature is not needed here in Southern California for various reasons. Even Rachio recommended I turn this off once support found out I live in Southern California. In order to make this feature work for us in Southern California, Rachio would need to spend much more time understanding our complex microclimates and unique seasonal cycles. For example, for most of the country using the water budgeting feature would show their watering times decreasing by October, but here in Southern California doing so could be deadly when a week of our Santa Ana winds comes to town in October.
Conclusion: Who is the Rachio Iro really for? It is best suited to people like me that love technology, like to follow closely what is happening with their garden’s irrigation and who want to simplify their lives by being able to manage everything from a mobile phone. It won’t save hands-on guys like me any water use because I was already very dialed-in with my old controller. I also used a rain gauge to ensure the old system wasn’t running during a storm. In fact, without my rebate I highly doubt that I would be saving enough money over the life of the system to make my money back on the initial investment. So what it comes down to is whether using a mobile phone to turn your sprinklers on and manage all your controller’s settings adds enough value in your life to warrant the additional cost. Thanks to the rebates, this was a no-brainer for me.
The Rachio Iro is also perfect for home owners that have a second home elsewhere or for gardeners that like to travel a lot. Let’s say I am on vacation in Thailand and I check my weather back home and read an entire week of Santa Ana winds is expected. No worries. I just manually run an extra watering all the way from Thailand to ensure my hibiscus don’t dry out.
I just recently passed the sixty-day mark with my Rachio Iros and they have all worked flawlessly. The Rachio Iro is a quality product with an exciting, expanding list of features, all backed by outstanding customer service. Without hesitation, I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new sprinkler controller.