Very few things go wrong with modern controllers. The vast majority of "broken" controllers are just programmed incorrectly. (The program, by the way, consists of the time settings and other information you enter into the unit with all those dials and buttons. You did this when you put the controller in, right?) If the system isn't coming on automatically, the best thing you can do is get out the instruction book for the controller and reprogram it. If reprogramming doesn't do the trick, take the unit in to a dealer for repair.
Power outages lasting a few hours or more may cause the backup battery to run down, in which case you lose the program. The remedy is simple: Replace the battery and reenter the program. (You did keep a hard copy of the program, didn't you?)
Adjusting the program at least four times a year to account for seasonal changes in water demand is one of your most important jobs in the sustainable landscape. Refer to the water management information in Chapter 9. (If you have a smart controller, you're off the hook.)
Sometimes a problem looks like a controller malfunction but is actually a short in the wiring or is a bad control valve. If at least one valve doesn't come on, use a voltmeter to measure the voltage at the terminal strip inside the controller; it should be delivering 24 volts to whatever valve is set to come on. If it is, but the valve still isn't working, measure the voltage at the valve. If the valve is getting power, you've got a bad solenoid or a defective valve; if the valve isn't getting power, you likely have bad wiring.
A rain sensor, which is a little cup located on the eaves of the house or at some other location that's exposed to rainfall, turns off the controller temporarily in the event of rain. Once in a while, a rain sensor can cause an overall system malfunction. Disconnect the rain sensor at the terminal strip inside the controller; if the system works, the sensor is bad. Some rain sensors can get filled with leaves, so clean them out now and then.
(ftNG/ Never hook up a controller to an electrical circuit that also serves a washing machine, compressor, or other piece of equipment that has a large power draw. Power surges resulting when the equipment starts up can throw the delicate electronics of your controller into a permanent snit.
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