REVIEW – The 2022 Dog Days of Summer will bring brutally hot conditions to most of the USA. This means that residents should water conservatively. The Wi-Fi enabled Rachio 3 smart sprinkler controller uses local weather forecasts to precisely control the watering schedule. I have one to review. Read on to see what I think!
What is it?
The Rachio 3 8-zone smart sprinkler controller is a device that connects to the solenoids that determine what zone is watered in an underground sprinkler system. The system also connects to a local Wi-Fi network. The Rachio 3 is controlled through the cloud through a web interface or through an app that runs on iOS or Android, Samsung SmartThings, or through a smart speaker powered by Alexa or Google Home. This unit replaces my Scotts Gro / Blossom unit that I reviewed in 2020. As of December 30, 2021, Scotts discontinued operating the servers that provide needed communications with the Blossom and Gro controllers. Note that this is a review of the indoor use controller and cannot be installed in wet environments. Rachio sells an outdoor unit with a weatherproof enclosure as a separate item.
What’s in the box?
- Power Supply
- Wall Screws
- Quick Start Guide
- Zones: 8 plus control of a master solenoid.
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi
- Placement: Indoors
- EPA WaterSense Certified: Yes
- Dimensions: 6.95″ x 6.95″ x 1.55″
- Power input: 120 VAC
- Station input: 24 VAC
- Zone detection: automatic
Design and features
The Rachio 3 8-zone smart sprinkler controller comes in a full-color printed retail mailer box. The box highlights the expected water savings, the automated features of the controller, the cloud connectivity, and the quick and easy installation.
Some of the less advertised but impactful notices on the box are that Rachio is a B-certified company, meaning that the company has achieved leadership in the global movement for an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economy. Also, the unit is WaterSense certified. WaterSense labeled products and services are certified to use at least 20 percent less water, save energy, and perform as well as or better than regular models.
The box includes a QR code that you can use to see if there are rebates in your area for using a WaterSense. There were none offered in my area but 5 came up for drought-plagued Las Vegas.
Inside the box, the controller is mounted in a cardboard frame. The power adapter and mounting screws are packaged below the cardboard frame.
The design of the controller includes a magnetic faceplate that may be removed to access the zone controller wiring. While this seems clever and trendy to use magnets in this manner, in reality, the zone wiring and other items under the faceplate are only ever looked at once and it would be as simple to clamp or screw the front cover onto the back.
When the faceplate is removed it is easy to access the array of zone connections. There are 2 common connections, A master solenoid valve, 8 zone connections, 2 sensor connections, and 2 24V connections. Wiring the connections is easy since they are wire lever connection types. The connection for the system power supply is also exposed when the cover is removed. Three other items are exposed with the cover removed – the WiFi reset button, the mounting holes, and the system serial and MAC address labels. The directions for the system come with a drill hole mounting template and the unit comes with anchors and screws (I have my unit mounted to a concrete wall so I used the existing anchors.)
The cover plate has a wide slit through the center and when the plate is attached it becomes clear that the slit allows an array of LEDs to shine through the center. The LED array is a three-color design (amber, blue and white) and indicates the zone being watered as well as a host of other system states. The cover plate has numbers to correspond to the zone being watered as well as play/pause, stop, forward and backward icons around the single control button. One criticism I have is that I wish that the cover plate had a two-color design so that the controls and zones could be read better in low-light environments.
The unit is powered by a 120-power adapter attached to a 59-inch cable. Normally, an irrigation controller is installed at least 5 feet from an outlet or power source, so this should meet most installation requirements.
Setup does involve a handful of steps but they are all easy and well documented in the literature that comes with the unit. The instructions are written out in English and include detailed pictures or diagrams so that no guesswork is required that is normally expected for assembling furniture.
The steps include:
1. Test the old system and remove it. Take pictures of the wiring. The Blossom unit I had installed previously came with stickers to put on the wires. This was a nice touch and would have been a nice addition to this package.
2. Remove the old controller. Mount the new one. Install the wires and the power supply.
3. Download the app from the App Store or Google Play and create an account. The Rachio 3 8-zone smart sprinkler controller requires a 2.4 or 5 GHz Wireless Network Signal. Replace the magnetic faceplate after pairing. If there are difficulties with the WIFi connection then the WiFi button will need to be held down for a few seconds to reset the pairing process. Once the account is created and the controller is paired with the WiFi then the control of the unit can also be performed with SmartThings or from a web interface on the Rachio site.
4. Each zone has an extensive list of setup options. At a minimum, the type of vegetation that the zone will be used for must be specified. If the zone is for grass (and not for a vegetable garden, shrubs, trees, flowers, dessert-adapted, etc.) then the type of grass must be specified. In addition to defining what is watered, the type of sprinkler head, the soil type, the amount of sun, and the slope of the terrain must be specified.
5. Advanced settings include those on the following page. I haven’t changed these but could adjust the area to match the zone coverage.
The basic purpose of the Rachio is to turn zones on and off that supply the yard with water. This can be done by either turning on the zones directly or by scheduling the operation. Turing on the zones directly may be done from the zone controller itself. Pressing the forward and backward button will select a zone and then pressing the play button will start a 3-minute duration run. Since this method is limited to 3 minutes it seems perfectly designed for blowing the system dry (in areas where the ground will freeze the sprinklers are blown empty during the winter to avoid damage by ice). A “Quick Run” may also be started from the app or from the web. The web interface only lets this “Quick run” continue for 10 hours but a full 18 hours is programmable on the Android version.
The scheduled operation has three main options: Fixed schedule, flex monthly, or flex daily. The fixed schedule allows watering on specific days of the week, even or odd dates of the month, waterings from every day to every 21 days, or waterings from every hour to every 6 hours. The waterings can be set to end before sunrise (the recommended time because this exposes the lawn to the least amount of evaporation), start after sunset, end before a specific time, or start at a specific time. The schedules can be set to run from a specified start date to a specified end date. Also, different zones can have different schedules.
One feature available to digital controllers that Rachio really takes advantage of is the cycle and soak method of watering. The controller will water for a period then let the water that it has applied soak into the ground before providing additional watering. This operation limits runoff from the watered area and allows more water to get to the roots of the lawn. The Rachio system will automatically schedule zones in a watering schedule to operate in the correct sequence to optimize the soak cycles based on the calculated moisture in the soil. Manual soak cycles are also programmable as well as no cycle and soak.
The system also has settings to skip or modify watering based on rain, freezing conditions, wind, saturated ground conditions, or seasonal changes.
When your phone is not around you can turn the irrigation system on or off using an Alexa or Google Home smart speaker. Actually, there are an enormous number of integrations on this page here, including HomeKit, Alexa, SmartThings, Google Home, Wink, Nexia, Alarm.com, Control4, IFTTT, Overview, and Stringify.
After establishing a schedule, the system will begin to track the soil moisture and will display the balance of irrigation, precipitation, and evaporation that contributes to the moisture in the ground. Being able to gauge how the system is performing, based on the appearance of the lawn, versus how it thinks it is doing, based on the moisture balance allows the user to optimize the settings.
What I like
- Very configurable and easy-to-read app
- lots of control options
- Easy Set up
What I’d change
- Include wire stickers with unit
- Add color to zone indicators on the front plate.
At a very basic level, one could set the controller up to water at fixed times and be able to anticipate its operation. However, with more freedom, the Rachio 3 8-zone smart sprinkler controller can be more accurate and deliver improved irrigation. The accurate watering calculations and the vast number of integrations that the Rachio 3 has should allow it to perform in a very intelligent way to circumvent any inconvenience watering off-schedule can have. For instance, using the integrations one could set up geofencing to pause the sprinklers along a walkway if a person is approaching a location. The easy installation, set-it, and forget-it operation, and advanced features make recommending the Rachio 3 8-zone smart sprinkler controller an easy choice.