Updated: Oct 12, 2016
Irrigation Controller Reviews:
- What is an irrigation controller?
- Benefits of using an irrigation system controller
- How much do irrigation controllers cost? Which should I buy?
The brains of your sprinkler system is called the irrigation controller, or sprinkler timer or clock. The irrigation controller allows you to set the sprinkler system in your yard or business to come on at certain times of the day and gives you the freedom of leaving the system to run itself. Irrigation controllers have become easier to setup and the ability to control different zones on your property allows for the best watering system without all the work of hand watering. You can define each zone based on water needs.
The latest products like the Hunter XC-800i ($120) give you an 8 station indoor controller with 3 unique programs and 4 start times per program. The average homeowner doesn't need all these programs and start times, but if you have lots of flower beds or sections of lawn, it may come in handy. A less expensive option may be the Rainbird ESP-6TM ($89) with 6 stations and two independent programs (A & B). Hunter and Rain Bird are the most recognized names in residential irrigation controllers and are definitely worth the look. What features should you look for in a new sprinkler timer? What do the expert landscapers say about the best irrigation controllers? We have all the answers and information below.
The video below shows the basic functions of an irrigation controller so you know what to expect:
Irrigation Controller Buying Guide
The main things to look for in an irrigation controller are at least 2 programs so you can run different zones on different days of the week, enough stations to run all the zones in your yard, an easy to ready LCD display on the unit and programming that is simple to setup. The vast majority of homeowners program their sprinkler timers once and probably never touch them again for years. The only time you would need to change anything is to shut off the system during the rainy months or increase watering when the weather gets extremely hot.
Many of the modern irrigation controllers have simple to use dial systems which are clearly marked and the manuals are easy to read and follow. I recently bought the Hunter XC-800i for my house after my older Nelson system died out. The XC-800i was easy to install, programming was just as the manual said, and the system was working within about 30 minutes. This model had an option to get the rain sensor but I choose not to get it so I switched the controller to bypass versus active mode on the sensor.
Other features to consider in any sprinkler timer are water budgeting for seasonal adjustment which lets you add minutes or subtract minutes depending on how wet or dry the weather is. Look for station delay, one-touch manual start, and station run times from 0 to 4 hours. Almost all controllers we saw have an internal lithium battery in case of power failure or regular batteries that keep your unit running even if the power goes out. The higher end systems have troubleshooting help on screen to detect for things like wiring issues. I always test each zone at the start of each spring season so it's nice to find a sprinkler timer with a "test program" that runs through each station with a quick system check to make sure things are up and running properly.
The top brands are Hunter and Rain Bird, but don't be afraid to look at DIG, Toro, VirtualRain, or Weathermatic. The good news is that most of the irrigation controllers we found in stores and online have almost all the basic functions you will need to water your yard efficiently and save water and money. Only the more expensive models offer more stations and programs, but these aren't always necessary for the smaller yards that many Americans now own. I happen to have 7 zones in my yard - 3 lawn areas, 2 walkway flower beds, one hillside, and a drip system. I set the time for each station a little differently since flower beds need less water than grass and the drip system has to be on for longer since it only releases a small amount of water per drip.
After being forced to get a new irrigation controller I definitely understand my sprinkler system much better than before and I'm totally comfortable adjusting the settings both on the controller indoors and at the irrigation boxes in the ground around my house.
If you like reading in depth reviews on irrigation controls, we found an excellent website with feedback and statistics on units from Cyber-Rain, Hunter, Irritol, Rain Bird, Toro, and Weathermatic HERE. This independent test was done to see how performance of various controllers was in terms of adequacy of water to help plants grow and efficiency so that there was no over watering. The test results are all in PDF format and manufacturers had to pay $2500 to get the testing done.
Amazon.com offers a few reviews on products like the DIG Sprinkler Timer, Rain Bird Simple Set timers, Gilmour water timers, Orbit Sprinkler Systems, and the Toro Ecxtra Irrigation timers. Home Depot offers up consumer reviews and opinions on their websites for outdoor sprinkler controllers (Toro and Orbit). We couldn't find any relevant or recent reviews in Consumer Reports magazine which is always a great source of information. Popular Mechanics online website has a great article on the Irritrol's PC Control timer which lets you control the features and programming from your personal computer. Very cool and a little expensive, but if you have big watering bills, it might be the way to save the most money.
The ET-based systems (ET stands for evapotranspiration) work like a weather station and keep track of moisture levels to determine how much watering is necessary in your yard. They cost more but again will save you money in the long run with the ability to save water and help reduce runoff from lawns which spreads fertilizer and is not good for the local environment. Talk with your gardener or landscaper to see what they recommend for your current setup and I'm sure they will fill you in on all the latest products and features. You can the top selling sprinkler timers and irrigation controllers online here.
Best Residential Irrigation Controller:
If you have a decent size yard you will need to have a sprinkler system with multiple stations (zones) to water all your plants and grass thoroughly. You can't water all stations simultaneously due to water pressure issues, so that is why stations separate things for you. Those with medium to large sized yards will probably require a 6 to 8 station irrigation controller. I have 7 zones in my yard and so I went with the Hunter XC-800i ($120) which can handle up to 8 stations.
Hunter is the top rated name in irrigation controllers for both commercial and residential uses so I felt comfortable going with them plus my landscaper recommended this model. The screen is easy to read and bright enough to see even when the sun is shining on it. The programs are intuitive and scrolling from one feature to the next is easy. I was able to setup 2 programs with 2 different start times so I could get the grass more often in the summer and limit the hillside in front of my house from getting overwatered. The run times and day were simple to setup and I can do seasonal adjustment in certain zones if I want to increase or decrease water output.
Overall, the XC-800i is well designed and more importantly it's simple to use which is what most homeowners want from an irrigation timer. You can view more details at Hunterindustries.com. There are also less expensive 4 and 6 station models in the XC series from Hunter which sell for less and will also do your watering work for you.
To check out how to use an irrigation controller for your yard - click the image below to go to video.
Best Value Indoor Sprinkler Controller:
I live on the west coast where peoples backyards seem to be getting smaller and smaller every year. Many yards around us are on either 7500 square foot lots or slightly bigger meaning these homeowners probably don't need a sprinkler timer that handles more than 6 stations. The Rainbird ESP-6TM ($90) is the perfect compliment to anyone with a smaller sized yard. Rain Bird has a solid reputation in the landscaping industry for producing quality products. The ESP stands for "extra simple programming" and reviews support their claim on this.
You get 2 independent programs, "flip strip" terminal strips let you hookup the valve wires without screws, precise station timing in 1 minute increments, and the LCD display is easy to read and figure out. Just turn the dial to your desired setting - run, manual start, water budget, program start times, etc. The water saving features are what owners really like about this unit and there is no need to worry about over watering your lawn, plants, or trees. You can Buy it Online HERE or view the product details at Rainbird.com. Rain Bird also makes a great 4 station system that costs about $75.
Budget Sprinkler Timer - 2 or 4 station Controller:
The Orbit Sprinkler System 4-Station ($47) is in the budget category for sprinkler timers and it sells online at Amazon.com
HERE. We also found the Orbit brand in Home Depot so we know that brand name is growing in some stores. Dial sprinkler system control timer is easy to use with large buttons and a small LCD screen to display the features and programming. You can run two independent programs with the ability to setup the day of the week, watering intervals, and odd/even days. Program up to 8 start times per day.
Newer lawns require lots of watering and so do drip irrigation systems so the Orbit should work well in both those scenarios. Time settings range from 1 to 99 minutes and you can set the rain delay feature to stop operations for 24, 48, or 72 hours if rainy weather is in the forecast. The 4 stations should be more than ample for the modern homes on smaller lots. You can find Orbit products on the Internet at Orbitonline.com.
More videos and resources are here on our Irrigation controller Resource Page.
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