Moisture sensor put to test in Toro CEO's own yard

  • Article by: SUSAN FEYDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 16, 2012 - 3:47 PM

The device, first marketed to golf courses and other commercial uses, is now adapted for residential use.

Yardwork is a family affair for Toro Co. CEO Michael Hoffman. Instead of hiring a lawn service for his Apple Valley home, he, his wife and teenage son mow, weed and water the yard themselves.

So naturally Hoffman took a personal interest in a new Toro device designed to measure soil moisture to prevent under- and over-watering. This spring he installed the Toro sensor, which works with in-ground sprinkler systems, and then watched over the next several weeks as it passed what he calls "the driveway test."

Hoffman said he noticed that during this year's wet spring, a strip of driveway next to his lawn was not getting wet from the sprinkler. That meant the sensor was telling the sprinkler it didn't need to be turned on because the soil was getting adequate moisture from rain.

Hoffman said it's too soon to know how much he will save on his water bill. "I have no doubt it will be down substantially," he said. "Besides, people put down trillions of gallons of water where it's unnecessary. This is just the right thing to do."

Toro's Precision Soil Moisture Sensor is among a growing suite of products by the Bloomington-based turf and landscape equipment manufacturer aimed at water conservation for agricultural, commercial as well as residential customers. Depending on the climate, Toro says the device can reduce homeowner's water usage by about 35 percent.

The new product is an offshoot of another wireless moisture sensing device that Toro developed for golf courses. Called Turf Guard, it also was installed at Target Field.

Mike Wherley, an analyst at Janney Capital Markets, said Toro has typically focused on its more lucrative professional market, which includes landscape contractors as well as golf courses. Those businesses accounted for about two-thirds of Toro's $1.9 billion in sales last year. "Recently the company has done a better job of gaining traction on the residential side," Wherley said. He said it's a smart move by Toro to use its research and development for professional products by adapting them for the residential market.

But Turf Guard, as well as competitor's moisture-sensing devices, only work if they are underground. Toro's new sensor does not require any digging -- it has short spikes to press it into the ground by stepping on it. It's wireless and communicates moisture-sensing data to a receiver that easily hooks up to the sprinkler's controller, a small unit typically kept in the garage.

Brandon Gothmann, owner of BNR Irrigation Services in Hopkins, said the ability to install Toro's device without digging represents a significant technological advance. "It makes it easier for the homeowner to install and easier to move to a different part of the yard," he said. "You could have more than one to control certain microclimates, like a place that slopes down and retains more moisture."

The no-dig feature makes it easier for Toro to target existing homeowners, as well as homebuilders and customers, said Peter Moeller, director of marketing for the company's Riverside, Calif.-based irrigation business. That's something that is especially attractive now as the new-construction market continues to languish, he said. The product is available for about $140 at Home Depot, hardware stores and Amazon.com.

In addition to making it easier to install, the sensor's signal-sending capability had to be lowered, for residential use. "On a golf course, you might need to send a signal thousands of feet," Moeller said.

The device also was designed to work not only with Toro's, but competitors' sprinkling systems.

"When you have to say, 'Tell me what system you have and I'll tell you if ours will work,' you lose the customer," Moeller said. "To be able to say that this is universal and works with almost any controller on the market removes that barrier."

Gothmann agrees, and said he has sold the moisture-sensing device to people with Toro and non-Toro sprinkling systems.

Moeller said that while many sprinkler systems have weather-sensing capabilities, the ability to sense moisture in the soil is a step up. "This unit is going to give you a direct reading from the soil, not what's coming from the air," he said. That's important because different plants and types of soil have different moisture requirements, he added.

The device also is smart enough to work in tandem with the existing controller if it is set to comply with local watering restrictions, Moelller said.

Popular Mechanics recently honored Toro's new moisture sensor with its Editor's Choice Award at the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas. The device was one of 11 winners among more than 2,500 products at the show.

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723

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