Modern technology manages water consumption and maximizes efficiency.

Water pumps have been helping people irrigate for more than 4,000 years, since the Egyptians invented a basic pumping device called a shaduf. Over time, pumping technology advanced, and gears and motors were added. By 1959, most modern pump designs had been introduced and developed into commercial products.

While not all irrigation systems use pumps and wells, more than 53.5 billion gallons of groundwater from 407,923 wells are used daily for agricultural irrigation, according to the National Groundwater Association. Through decreased system losses and managed reductions in crop consumptive use, better water management practices can help producers maximize the economic efficiency of their irrigation systems and the potential for water savings. Relatively few farms, however, use water management best practices and focus on water conservation while deciding when and how much to irrigate. Modern irrigation monitoring technology can help farmers manage water consumption and maximize efficiency.

a farmer’s engine pumpImage 1. A farmer’s engine pump with remote monitoring technology waits to be activated using the farmer’s smartphone or desktop. (Images courtesy of Net Irrigate)

Remote Monitoring & Pumps

The worldwide growth of electrically driven mechanized irrigation systems since the late 1970s provided many economic benefits for farmers. However, few farmers were able to keep tabs on irrigation equipment from afar with cost effective technologies, ensuring that time, water and money were not wasted. Modern remote monitoring devices add tremendous value to irrigation equipment by boosting efficiency and profitability.

Four Cost-Saving Benefits of Remote Irrigation Monitoring

Equipment providers have created remote monitoring devices that work with single-phase, three-phase and engine-driven pumps. These products provide valuable information to farmers, saving time, money and collectively millions of gallons of water by detecting stoppages, flooding and power failure. These types of irrigation solutions allow farmers to remotely monitor and shut down irrigation pumps, eliminating unnecessary pumping time and the need for expensive underground wires. These advanced products provide benefits to operations using both center pivot irrigation and flood or furrow irrigation.

Advanced Features

Remote monitoring devices determine if a machine is functioning correctly and collect actionable information about the equipment. Farmers can streamline maintenance issues by instituting predictive failure analysis, which can identify potential replacement parts before the equipment breaks down. This data opens up a wealth of information and allows users to be proactive instead of reactive. Farmers can also analyze crop yields against irrigation data and weather patterns.

Modern remote monitoring systems also incorporate machine-to-machine (M2M) or Internet of Things technology, which enables devices to communicate on existing wireless networks and standard protocols without human intervention. This form of communication enhances the flow of data between machines and people, making data collection, transmission and assessment easily accessible. M2M technology allows famers to monitor and manage remote assets in real time, aiding in security, remote maintenance and equipment control. Integrating wireless communications can improve device functionality while facilitating more efficient decision-making.

remote monitoring technology in irrigation could save 800 billion gallons of water

M2M technology also works with websites and mobile apps that help farmers monitor irrigation systems. Smartphone apps give instant access to equipment status, making remote changes possible and creating positive impact on operational productivity. Some remote monitoring technologies allow farmers to be alerted by text message, phone call or email when technical issues such as overloads or power failures occur. These instant notifications allow farmers to react immediately.

Because of the geographic breadth, crop growth and topography associated with agriculture, cellular or satellite based M2M solutions are often the best fit, eliminating the need for line of sight restrictions. Farmers are not limited to staying within a certain distance from their pumps to monitor or adjust them, and they no longer have to sit at a dedicated monitoring workstation to evaluate equipment. Basic cell coverage allows communication with a pump anywhere in the world, negating the need for a central-based station or local area network.

Cloud-based technology provides additional flexibility and integration potential. New features and updates to existing technology can be added by simply updating a mobile app. Wireless systems and remote storage services permit large amounts of data to be collected with less hardware and wiring, which can be subject to localized corruption or access failure.

an engine-driven pumpImage 2. An engine-driven pump working in a farmer’s flood-irrigated field

This type of communication could prove extremely valuable for farming communities. If thousands of irrigation pumps are connected within the same rural county, a cloud-based system could allow the electrical utility provider to make intelligent irrigation scheduling recommendations to farmers. This system could also factor in weather data, crop yields and water tables to optimize efficiency.

Another benefit of current M2M technology is ease of installation, which often leads to lower labor costs compared with the typical expense of installing remote monitoring devices. Some devices have technology that interfaces directly with hard circuitry rather than proprietary controls, facilitating interoperability and making installation less time consuming. The best devices should take around 15 minutes for an equipment dealership employee to install, making it easier for widespread adoption to occur.

Remote Monitoring ROI

The benefits of remote monitoring technology for irrigation systems make a compelling case for a famer to invest, especially if the goal is to minimize environmental impact while increasing production. Farmers with any number of irrigation pumps can use the technology. Providers offer remote monitoring solutions at various price points with costs starting at $1,500.

Some solutions require monthly or annual subscription fees for monitoring services and require contractor installation costs. Others offer an up-front investment with a one-time purchase fee. Users should note potential charges for necessary technology updates and improvements in the future.

With remote monitoring technology in irrigation, the long-term benefits are nearly limitless and paves the way for innovation, increases in efficiency and greater profitability.

Remotely Managing Pumps on the Farm

Mark McCormick farms approximately 5,000 acres scattered across 22 miles of land near Floydada, Texas. He’s a fourth-generation farmer who produces cotton, corn and grain sorghum. This farm requires a substantial amount of watering. The irrigation process occurs for 24 hours per day for weeks at a time, depending on the time of year and environmental conditions.
pivot irrigation systemImage 3. Mark McCormick uses remote monitoring devices on all 22 pivot irrigation systems on his farm to ensure proper watering.
The Problem In the past, McCormick had to be present at the farm nearly all day to ensure the pumps and pivots were operating correctly. Common problems included power loss or equipment malfunction—which can lead to flooding that wastes hundreds of gallons of water—and crop damage caused by over- or under-watering. The Solution In 2012, McCormick was introduced to products that allow irrigators to manage pumps and pivots from the convenience of a mobile app. The product provider estimates that these solutions have the potential to conserve approximately 5 percent of gravity flow irrigation water per year, or about 800 billion gallons of water in the U.S. Additionally, the provider predicts that these products can reduce total energy pumping expenditures by $96 million annually and automotive fuel expenditures for field travel by $22 million. These products allow irrigators to remotely monitor, start and shutdown irrigation pumps. When used with center pivots, the products eliminate the need for kill wires to associated irrigation wells. Functionalities often include:
  • A virtual timer to set the pump to turn off at a given time online or through a mobile app
  • The ability to remotely start and stop the pump with a mobile app or phone call
  • Thermal overload and power failure notifications can be sent to up to ten recipients through a call, text message or email
  • Notifications when a pump starts or stops
  • A global positioning system that streamlines center pivot management systems
  • Copper wire theft security that allows farmers to better protect the wire on their irrigation systems by immediately sending alerts through phone call, email or text message when a copper wire is cut, which saves thousands of dollars
After initially purchasing a few of these solutions for his pivots, McCormick has since purchased more, now outfitting all 22 pivots and 45 irrigation well pumps with the technology. He typically accesses the mobile apps three to four times per day during watering season and has enjoyed spending time away from the farm more often. He no longer drives more than 100 miles per day to visually check pivots and pumps to ensure that they are working properly. These products allow McCormick to decrease labor, fuel and maintenance costs and increase the application efficiency of irrigated water.