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Networking your garden

Jul 19, 20044 mins
Computers and PeripheralsNetworking

This week, a summer distraction and complete geek-out as we network our garden irrigation system.

The problem is that standard irrigation timers just do not cut it when you have a large garden. We have such a garden with 29 separate watering zones, and we wound up with two clusters of timers in two buildings separated by some 200 feet, one cluster in a barn and the other in a basement.

This might not sound too problematic until you notice in passing that this flower bed needs more water or that shrub looks a little dry, or rain makes it necessary to skip all watering for 24 hours, or a high wind makes it pointless to have sprinklers on at all.

Any of these critical horticultural situations can turn into an inconvenient trek to the barn or basement only to find that the timer you want is in the other location. Then when you do find the right one you have to fool with a horrible user interface. The obvious solution is networking.

We looked around for remote controllable irrigation systems, and not wanting to spend thousands of dollars on commercial products designed for watering hundreds of acres we concluded that an X-10 product might help.

X-10 is a simple, low-speed, power-line network technology that Gearhead covered a few years ago (here and here). While it is not the most robust or high-performance network offering it is cost-effective (cheap) and adequate for this kind of application.

After much research, we also settled on a neat device called the Rain8 from WGL & Associates. This is a tiny box with three connectors: one for programming; one for connecting to a separate power-line interface module that converts the X-10 signals into a custom serial interface for the Rain8; and a terminal block with eight connections (one for valves or “zone,” one common for all valves and two for the 12-volt power supply).

WGL provides a utility for programming the Rain8 that lets you set the X-10 codes and maximum run time for each zone and two optional codes that trigger running the zones in sequence with a separate list of zone run times. There are two further optional codes: one that disables the unit and another that skips the next sequenced run (in effect, a 24-hour delay function).

We found a box to house the equipment (three Rain8s, power supply and power-line interface), wired it all up (click here for some pictures and links to all of the components), and tested it by replacing the timers in the barn.

With a stand-alone X-10 controller plugged in next to the unit, there were no problems. But from the computer room being controlled by a computer through a power-line interface, nothing worked.

We assumed the problem was signal degradation because of the power circuit being about 200 feet long. But after buying a new power-line interface for the Rain8 setup and trying the same on the computer, installing an X-10 signal booster and an X-10 phase coupler, and after much fooling around, we still couldn’t get it to work.

It turned out that simply moving the computer’s power-line interface from a socket powering several computers to another a dozen feet away with nothing plugged into it fixed the problem. Such are the curiosities of the X-10.

So what software to drive the Rain8 setup? The second Gearhead story we mentioned above covered the HomeSeer program, and after much research, we concluded that there is nothing better. There are some interesting alternatives, such as the freeware MisterHouse, but in terms of ease of use and power, HomeSeer was the hands-down winner.

HomeSeer really is a fine piece of engineering with a good interface and good documentation, and can run scripts written in VBScript, JavaScript and Perl, which has led to a large collection of free and commercial add-ons. HomeSeer offers an optional telephone interface that provides a multi-box voice mail system, and with the right hardware HomeSeer provides a Web interface so any computer in the house can trigger or change the irrigation system. We are modifying it so we can walk around the grounds triggering zones using a wireless connection from a PDA.

One Rain8 sprinkler controller, 24-volt AC 300ma transformer, RS232 cable, data cable and a PSC05 power-line interface costs about $100; additional Rain8s cost about $80. HomeSeer costs about $150.


Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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