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Gardening: Use your phone and all sorts of wireless tech to tend your Charleston yard

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Low-voltage lighting system connected to a Wi-Fi outlet and controlled with a phone app. Tony Bertauski/provided

The days of hardwired phones are fading fast. We’re no longer tethered to the tangled curly cords or wondering who’s calling.

Now our phones can network everything in the house, and that technology can extend into the landscape. You can have a horticulturist in your pocket. With apps like PlantSnap, you can identify plants with a picture. There are apps that identify insects, mushrooms and birds. You probably still need a pathologist for diseases, but who knows? We never thought we’d be telling Alexa to turn up the music 10 years ago.

In recent years, we’ve incorporated Wi-Fi technology at the Trident Technical College horticulture program to save time, money and water. The Wi-Fi-enabled Hunter Hydrawise controller belongs to a group of irrigation technology called smart controllers.

Smart controllers use weather input to calculate water loss. This can be done in a number of ways, depending on the controller, but the common method uses the daily average temperature to calculate evapotranspiration. This is the combined water loss due to evaporation and transpiration.

Evaporation is simply liquid water transforming into vapor. Transpiration is soil water absorbed through roots and released as vapor through foliage to cool the plant. Approximately 99 percent of the water taken up by plants is used for transpiration.

Simple smart controllers have a weather module that collects weather data in the yard and automatically adjust the amount of time irrigation will run. It keeps the system from overwatering on cool days, saving water and improving growth.

Wi-Fi-enabled smart controllers, such as the Hunter Hydrawise, collect data from local weather stations for the same purpose. While they can be programmed at the controller, they can also be programmed from a laptop or phone app with a detailed interface for fine-tuning applications. And it allows you to turn the system on or off without leaving the couch.

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The real upside for homeowners is a controller that does most of the work, constantly adjusting irrigation to meet the landscape’s water demands. No more staring at a confusing dial or accidentally programming it to run three times in one day.

Irrigation contractors can network multiple controllers on their app. In some cases, they can troubleshoot issues from their phone. At the TTC horticulture program, we can walk around campus and turn zones on and off with a phone. This has been an invaluable teaching tool. If there’s a repair, we can test the system without walking back to the controller.

Landscape lighting hasn’t quite delivered Wi-Fi-enabled controllers like irrigation technology. A low-voltage lighting controller is a transformer that steps down voltage from 120 volts coming out of an outlet to 12 volts to power the lights. Most inexpensive transformers have a timer that can be set to turn on and off. However, as sunrise and sunset change throughout the year, the timer needs to be adjusted.

Photocells can be installed to sense light. At a certain degree of illumination, it will turn the lights on or off. However, when the transformer is located in a shady area, a photocell may not be timely.

Recently, we installed an outdoor Wi-Fi outlet on an inexpensive transformer. It’s an economical component, about $20, that plugs into an outlet and then any device plugged into it. Once networked, the Wi-Fi outlet can be programmed with an app. The model we’re using, WiOn, is programmed on the astronomic timing of the sun. It will turn on a half an hour after sunset and turn off a half an hour before sunrise. This circumvents the problem of the photocell’s shady location and constantly adjusts for the change of season.

A Wi-Fi outlet can also be used for pumps, whether installed on ponds or pools, to run at certain times of the day. The power to turn them on is in the palm of your hand. Even if you’re on vacation.

Or on the couch.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, e-mail him at

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