August 2017 Issue  Volume 18  Number 8

Product Reviews and Guides

An Accessibility Check of the Rachio Smart Wi-Fi Sprinkler Controller

As a blind homeowner I am often faced with household chores that can be, let's say, a bit problematic. Cleaning the garage. Mowing the backyard. Trimming the bushes. They can all be done without vision, albeit using different techniques. Maybe it's not safe to mow the grass barefoot, but I find it is the only way to tell where I've mowed and where I still have to mow. And I do have to play several games of "what is this?" with my wife when I find unknown gizmos and gadgets on garage shelves. One chore that I usually left automated was the lawn sprinkler system. The control box contained a collection of switches and LED screens--none of them accessible. There was a rain gauge, but it only prevented the system from triggering if it was actively raining. If, say, it had rained for two days straight but had then stopped, the only way I could prevent a watering cycle was to physically unplug the system.

I solved this problem with the installation of a Rachio Smart Wi-Fi Sprinkler Controller. This sprinkler control box connects to the Internet via your home's wi-fi network, and uses an app to set controls. It's also, as it says right there in the name, pretty smart.

In this article I will describe how I use my Rachio to keep my lawn more or less green. Then I'll discuss a growing trend in "connected home" devices: the ability to "try before you buy."

Getting Connected

I made arrangements with a professional irrigation tech to install the Rachio control box. It took him about 10 minutes to swap out my old control box and connect the Rachio. I had already set up a Rachio account using my physical and email addresses, and after logging into the Rachio app I was able to use VoiceOver on my iPhone to set up all of my various watering zones. The system briefly turned on each of my six watering zones, one after another, offering me the chance to give each zone a unique name, such as "roadside strip," and "vegetable garden." I was subsequently prompted to enter the type of sprinkler head, the soil type and shade level for each zone, the slope of the plot, and what's growing in the zone: full season grass, warm season grass, trees, shrubs, etc.

Rachio uses the information you enter, along with your home location, to set a watering schedule and durations. These defaults can be easily overwritten. You can also create multiple watering schedules, which, as I will explain, is a handy workaround for one of the app's few accessibility shortfalls.

Rachio can use your local weather reports to postpone a scheduled watering, not only if it has rained, but also if it's going to rain. It will also adjust watering duration to accommodate seasonal shifts and heat spells. Additionally, you can also add extra time to one or more zones, if, say, your backyard zone has a veggie garden, like mine, and you want to give it an extra hit of H2O. These features can be enabled and disabled as desired.

The Rachio mobile app is available for both iOS and Android, and it's mostly accessible using VoiceOver or TalkBack. There are several buttons that have not been properly labeled, but most can be deciphered from their developer names, such as "Nav Activity, and "Nav Dashboard Icon."

The scheduling screen has pop-up controls that enable you to select your own watering frequency--daily, every other day, every third day, and so on--and time of day to run the schedule. There's also a one-time watering screen. Unfortunately, the timer dial control is completely inaccessible both on the iOS and the Android app. Here's where setting multiple watering schedules comes in handy. I have set a schedule that only waters a single zone. I did this for all six of my zones, and when, for example, I want to do an extra watering cycle for my vegetable garden I select that schedule and invoke the "Run schedule now" button. Either that or I can double tap the "Enable" button and the watering will take place at the time I scheduled--which allows me to water my garden at 6 am without having to roll out of bed, or from my brother's house a thousand miles away.

There is now an even easier way to accomplish both this and other Rachio tasks. Recently, Rachio began offering an Amazon Echo skill, so it's now also possible to control the device with voice commands such as, "Ask Rachio to start zone 6 for 20 minutes." Google Home and Samsung SmartThings are also supported, though I have not had the opportunity to try either of these.

All in all, I believe the Rachio Smart Wi-Fi Sprinkler Controller is a valuable addition to the accessible smart home. It can also save water and perhaps even pay for itself in a season or two. Check with your water utility company. Many municipalities offer rebates for the installation of these and other water-saving devices.

Try Before You Buy

If you visit Rachio.com/try you can request a guest logon and password to run the Rachio app in demo mode, which will allow you test the various settings but won't allow you to save your changes.

Another similar product is the Rainmachine Smart Sprinkler, which also offers a demo mode. Simply download the iOS or Android app and you can invoke the demo mode directly. I have not tested this device, but the app seems even more accessible than the Rachio. All of the buttons have been labelled, and a company support technician assures me that the developers used only standard app controls. Nonetheless, if this device is of interest, your own due diligence is advised.

In any case, I believe these "try before you buy" control demos are a welcome trend that should be encouraged. For most users, they are a useful window into the device's capabilities; for touch screen reader users they also offer a much needed window into accessibility.

Product Information

Product: Rachio Smart Wi-Fi Sprinkler Controller is available in 8- and 16-zone models.
Price: $199 and up
Available from: Rachio, 844-472-2446

Product: Rainmachine Smart Sprinklers are available in 8, 12 and 16 zone models
Price: $159 and up
Available from: Rainmachine, 844-498-8707

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