There are many frontiers in the quest to add intelligence to our homes — even on the outside.
You may be blessed with a small yard, as I am. Lawns require a lot of attention, much of which I am not willing to give. I hate yard work and hate every-other-day watering most of all.
So, I got a sprinkler system. The system was automated in that I set a schedule via bunch of physical sliders and there was even a rain sensor outside that would shut off the system if it started to rain. But most of the time I found myself running down to my basement to set off extra watering cycles, wondering if the system ran as I wanted, or growing frustrated because it would water the morning before a day’s worth of storms were predicted or the day after soaking rains.
My system was dumb. I want smart.
Over the last few months, I’ve been testing out a pair of smart sprinkler systems: RainMachine and Rachio. They both easily hook into an existing sprinkler system with anything from 8 to 16 zones (my tiny lawn has two), connect to your home Wi-Fi network, and can be managed and tracked from anywhere in the world via an app (iOS or Android).
More importantly, these systems are connected to national and local weather services so they know when it’s raining and will or won’t water accordingly. Rachio uses something called Aeris Weather Service, which aggregates weather sources, while RainMachine uses the National Weather Service.
I started with the $159 RainMachine, which had a relatively simply installation procedure. The tiny, mostly plastic box attaches to the wall with a few screws. Under the cover you have all the connection points. My system only has three wires: one for each zone and a common line. The app guided me through the setup. I also had to attach power. As with my analog system, RainMachine has you plug the two stripped wires from the AC-adapter directly into the system’s connectors.
The $249, 16-zone Rachio (there’s a $199, 8-zone model as well) has a nearly identical setup, except that it terminates the power adapter in an actual plug, which makes connecting the power a tiny bit easier.
The only difficulty with wiring either system is in how to handle the rain sensor. Rachio offers a stand-alone port for the sensor wire. Unfortunately, my rain sensor doesn’t have its own line. It’s part of the common line. As a result, there’s no clear way for Rachio to collect information from the rain sensor. The RainMachine recommends wiring the sensor in series to make it work with their system. That may be the way my wiring is set up.
To remedy this, I could set up a wireless rain sensor and connect the receiver to my Rachio device, but I’m not ready to do that. Rachio tech support warned me, though, that since the current sensor can literally shut off the whole watering system on its own, the accuracy of its water-measurement system could end up being a bit faulty. It can use the weather services to know when it’s raining, but not a physical measurement of water hitting my area.
Both systems guide you through installation and setting up a watering schedule. Rachio goes into some minutiae about the kinds of trees, grass, and shrubbery you have as well as how much sunlight each zone gets. Honestly, I have no idea what kind of grass or shrubs I have, but I do know that my lawn gets a ton of sunlight.
While Rachio and RainMachine geolocate me perfectly, only Rachio could find a forecast for my town. RainMachine’s NWS-based forecast system was much more generalized, and, as a result, didn’t do as good a job at watering when I needed it and avoiding it when I didn’t.
In addition, I was never quite sure when RainMachine did and didn’t water and had to dig down into the somewhat inscrutable app to find my watering reports. Rachio, on the other hand, sent me alerts. I knew when it watered and when it skipped due to inclement weather.
Each system could benefit from a clearer, top-menu based control to simply “Water Now.” RainMachine always opens with an off-putting “Devices” screen where your RainMachine system is listed with an IP address. Rachio goes right to a comprehensive status page. I can immediately see that my device is online, that there’s no watering delay, and what the current weather and forecast is for my town.
Rachio does have a Water Now option on that page, but it’s hidden under a circular icon that doesn’t really imply “Water Now.” Selecting it did reveal a very simple instant watering interface that I liked. I just want the words “Water Now” somewhere on that top screen.
There's no contest between RainMachine and Rachio for reports. Rachio keeps me up to date on when it plans to skip watering based on upcoming or current weather conditions. Its hyper-local weather forecasts mean it's never wrong, either.
One area where RainMachine outdoes Rachio is in the device-based controls. There’s a simple touchscreen on the RainMachine I can use to turn on the sprinkler system for either zone. Rachio has no touch interface.
In general, I like both systems, and it's clear both could save me on my water bill. But if I had to choose the one I'd rely to keep my lawn green and my frustration at a minimum, it would be Rachio.