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Tapping the computing cloud for smarter water

ET Water Systems' Net-connected SmartBox for commercial sites creates a tailored watering schedule based on plant and soil type and on regular weather updates.

If irrigation systems were half as smart as scientific calculators, they could cut water usage by 20 percent to 50 percent, says ET Water Systems.

The company earlier this year introduced its SmartBox, a replacement for commercial-scale irrigation controllers that determines the watering needs for landscaping based on a mash-up of site-specific data and local weather. A new version of the device, set for release this summer, will be able to get firmware upgrades over the cell network it uses.

The screen to operate the SmartBox irrigation controller. ET Water Systems

Water conservation is an area that's often considered overlooked by investors and technology entrepreneurs. That's largely because there isn't a large economic incentive to conserve, according to ET Water CEO Pat McIntyre. Still, the Novato, Calif.-based company plans in the fourth-quarter to seek $5 million of venture capital to expand its distribution, he said.

Business at the eight-year-old company has suffered from the economic downturn over the past two years. But McIntyre said he expects that rising costs for water and state mandates around conservation will drive demand for technology upgrades.

"It's the high-tech companies which are the first to adopt this," he said, adding that Adobe Systems, Facebook, Apple, and Google are all customers.

The payback for these irrigation systems, which cost about $2,000 installed, is around two years, he said. They are designed for college campuses or office building parks.

Landscape managers replace irrigation controllers with the SmartBox (the company also developed a retrofit option) and then configure the system with a Web-based application. People can input variables, such as soil type, slope, shading, and plant type (mature trees versus turf, for example). That watering schedule is adjusted automatically by ET Water computers by incorporating weather information from

The system is more expensive than sensor-based systems, which can track soil humidity, McIntrye said. But the SmartBox allows for more precision and will last longer than sensors, he said.

One of the challenges to getting the technology adopted is that people are set in their ways. "Traditional irrigation people are more comfortable going out and touching and adjusting controllers by hand," he said.

By automating the system, they can focus on other tasks, such as overall health of plantings and landscape design. An update to its software due in June will allow landscape professions to access the ET Water software via smartphones.