Syrup makers go high-tech with wireless monitoring

Associated PressApril 6, 2014 

— Maple syrup production has come a long way from metal buckets hung on trees, but even high-tech operations have had to rely on old-fashioned foot patrols to fix a common problem – leaks.

The tubes that draw sap from trees straight to sugar houses often get pulled down or bent by falling limbs or chewed by critters, meaning sugar makers spend hours and sometimes days stomping through snowy woods to find and fix problems – a big timewaster in a sugaring season that lasts just a few weeks.

But now syrup makers are harnessing new technology to keep that precious sap flowing.

Meadowbrook Maple Syrup installed a monitoring system in January that is already paying off. Designed to help mid-to-large scale syrup producers keep an electronic eye on their sap vacuum lines, the Tap Track system consists of solar battery-powered radio units strapped to trees, with each unit monitoring the pressure on a half-dozen lines. The data are transmitted to a computer or smartphone, where it shows up as a map with green dots indicating lines with good sap flow and red dots indicating leaks. Users even can get text messages alerting them to problems.

“I think it’s the thing of the future. I really do,” owner Donnie Richards said.

In the past, Richards and his crew would have to walk the woods of Milton listening and looking for leaks, which was time consuming.

“And if you didn’t find the leak that day, you didn’t get sap off that part of the woods all day long,” he said.

Now he uses his iPhone to check the system, and can immediately see a leak and know when it has been repaired.

“I’m getting used to it,” he said. “You can teach an old dog new tricks.”

Richards’ operation includes about 5,000 taps, with about 18 miles of tubing spread out over more than 100 acres. The new system costs $1 to $2 per tap, but inventor Jason Gagne said the return on investment can be seen in one season. Gagne said the test site of 20,000 taps in Ontario resulted in more than 5 percent increase in sap collection, or an extra $15,000.

Gagne, who used to spend days on end patrolling his own sugar bush in Swanton, came up with the idea several years ago, teaming up with Canadian sugar maker Doug Thompson to develop the product.

The University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center is using a similar remote monitoring system for the first time this season, as the technology becomes more commercially available. Smartrek, produced by a Quebec-based company, also monitors the sap lines for leaks and provides the information immediately on a smartphone or tablet.

Nationally, maple syrup production totaled 3.25 million gallons last year. Vermont led with 1.3 million gallons, followed by New York, Maine, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Each of those gallons of syrup required sugar makers to collect 40  gallons of sap.

It takes warm days and cold nights for sap to flow, so the conditions are just right for syrup-making for only about 4 to 6 weeks. And cold weather has already pushed back Vermont’s season this year. But Proctor researchers expect the new system to make their operation more efficient and productive. It will also give sugar makers, who are prone to staying up late to boil sap down to syrup, a few extra hours of sleep, said Brian Stowe, Proctor’s sugaring operations manager.

“We find that a lot of sugar makers get sleep deprived during the season, this again they can take a quick look from their house and then they can go to bed and get some good sleep and not have to worry,” Stowe said.

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