In 2013, we hired Berry Irrigation to install a watering system for our landscaping on the PCDworks campus. Brett Berry, the owner, had to dig a trench from the water supply to the building to install the flow sensor. He commented half jokingly that he figured at this point someone would have come up with a more elegant, convenient solution than digging trenches. “Why isn’t there a wireless option for this yet?” Brett asked out loud, and in true PCDworks fashion we responded: “Let’s build one!”
Listening to people’s pain points is the most effective way to identify real-world problems that need solving. It’s so ingrained in our team at PCDworks that we can’t help but notice any comment that points toward a problem we could create a solution for: “Someone should really come up with a better fix for X” or “If only there was a way to do this faster/cheaper/more sustainably” or “This is the worst/most inefficient/most painful part of the project.”
We partnered with Berry Irrigation to do just that - relieve the most frustrating pain point of installing a new system for him and everyone else in the industry. Brett told us exactly what he needed and we provided the proof of concept, testing and engineering to make his ideas for real-time, wireless water management a reality.
Of course, the effort and financial expenditure of solving a complicated problem only makes sense, if you know the problem is big enough to result in significant demand for your solution. As an industry leader, Berry Irrigation knew that a wireless, real-time water management system would not only be the solution to the tedious and expensive trench digging for the company, but also provide convenient system monitoring to save their customers money while preserving a precious resource.
According to the EPA, as much as 50 percent of the water we use outdoors is lost due to wind, evaporation, and runoff caused by inefficient irrigation methods and systems. A household with an automatic landscape irrigation system that isn't properly maintained and operated can waste up to 25,000 gallons of water annually.
This is an expensive waste of resources as water rates have increased 43% over the last decade, more than any other utility bill (Bluefield Research), especially considering that two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages by 2025 (WWF). The worldwide concern has already led many state and city governments to institute hefty fines for broken sprinkler heads causing leaks and wasting water. In cities such as Dallas in PCDworks’ home state of Texas, you won’t only be on the hook for additional water bills if your system springs a leak, but fined between $250 - $2,000 per incident.
We knew our solution could have a potentially significant impact, but before we really dug into problem-solving mode, we first reviewed existing patents in the space to make sure our idea was truly novel and there weren’t competitors developing a similar product. To our surprise, nobody was addressing this issue, so we got to work.
The Berry Irrigation team came to our campus for an innovation session exploring all the parameters and specifications the solution would need to meet. Did most customers use Wifi already so we could use it as the basis for our communication? What was the minimum range required between the controller and flow sensor? What should the size, weight, and material specifications be for the flow sensor based on where it needed to be installed?
After the initial discussions, our team at PCDworks started designing and building a prototype to test. Because our process is iterative, every testing phase brings up more questions: What natural and human-made barriers would block the signal between the controller and flow sensor? How could we make it easier for the installers to manipulate parts for set-up? Where would the power supply come from? How could we most efficiently hook the flow sensor into the controller? How would we make the dashboard for relaying data as user-friendly and easy to access as possible? Only after answering all these questions and testing our preliminary prototype for performance and reliability, were we ready to create the final manufacturing design.
After intense innovation and design efforts, we introduced the solution - the H2O Flow Pro - to a number of beta testers in 2020. These original devices were tested by several locations of Brookshire Brothers grocery stores and Christus Health Systems. We protected our intellectual property by patenting the underlying technology of our wireless water management system that allows customers real-time monitoring of daily water consumption.
Our patented technology used a two-way mesh radio for real-time communication and irrigation system monitoring, allowing remote operation for shutting off the system in cases of emergency or equipment failure, potentially saving customers from financial losses, property damage, flooding, fines for overwatering, soil erosion, and wasting precious resources.
The H2O Flow Pro controller is inserted into the zone wiring for the existing irrigation controller. The transmitter relays flow measurements to the controller, which documents normal flow for each zone, then switches to monitor mode. H2O Flow Pro integrates with Exosite, an Internet-of-Things (IoT) platform that collects and transmits the water usage data in real-time from your irrigation system to your internet-enabled devices (cell phone, desktop, laptop). Whenever the controller detects a high or low flow, it sends an alert and shuts off the zone in case of a high flow. The alert notifications are sent to the customer via email. The dashboard is mobile-friendly and a full mobile app is currently in development.
H2O Flow Pro integrates with any existing irrigation or sprinkler system, lowers water bills and conserves resources, and reduces energy use. The system’s easy installation allows data collection to start within minutes of set-up. Users can set monthly budgets for water usage and alerts when reaching 50% and 75% of the monthly budget respectively.
Covid-19 Pandemic Setback
Shortly after our original prototypes were deployed to customers, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the world shut down. One of the lingering effects were significant logistics and supply issues and we were unable to source the parts we needed to assemble more devices.
We went back to the drawing board and completely re-designed the solution with different parts. It was a difficult time full of uncertainty but the results were well worth it. The newer parts boast even more capabilities such as full bi-directional communication between the controller and water flow sensor. We’ve also incorporated a new type of valve that allows a complete shutoff for maximum safety in case of damage or leaks. Finally, we decided to move from Wifi-based communication to utilizing more reliable cell phone networks.
The new systems are being tested in June 2023, after which they’ll go through a software debugging phase that can last up to three months. Once we’re completely satisfied with the performance, we’ll order a run of 100 parts and cases to assemble before making them available for purchase.
For commercial properties such as apartment complexes, healthcare facilities, or store chains, the H2O Flow Pro is a small investment, compared to its outsized benefits. One of the keys to great innovation is ensuring the solution is accessible and affordable. At a price point of around $1,000, the H2O Flow Pro only costs the equivalent of a few broken sprinkler head fines, while saving money, time, and energy – and, of course, the most important resource our planet has to offer humanity.
Get Ready to Fail: The 3-Step Learning Cycle of Prototyping
In the early 1900s, Thomas Edison and his researchers were trying to develop a new kind of battery. They had been working on the problem for more than five months when Edison’s long-time associate Walter S. Mallory came to visit. As Mallory recounted, he found Edison at a long bench covered with hundreds of test cells. The researchers had done more than 9,000 experiments with such cells, but still they had not found a working solution...