MILTON, Vt. — Collecting maple syrup 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 time-waster in a season that lasts just a few weeks.
But now sugar makers are harnessing new technology to keep the precious sap flowing.
Meadowbrook Maple Syrup in January installed a monitoring system that is already paying off.
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Designed to help mid- to large-scale syrup producers keep an electronic eye on their sap 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 is 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 can even 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, Vt., listening and looking for leaks.
“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 when it is repaired.
Richards’ operation includes about 5,000 taps, with about 18 miles of tubing spread 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. He said the test site of 20,000 taps in Ontario resulted in a more than 5 percent increase in sap collection, or an extra $15,000.
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 company, also monitors sap lines for leaks and provides the information immediately on a smartphone or tablet.
The ideal system would have a sensor at the end of each of the mainlines. But that can be expensive — about $200 per Smartrek vacuum sensor and $400 for a tank level sensor — so some sugar-makers may start with a smaller number.
In the past, said maple-syrup producer Eric Sorkin, the only way to increase production was to make sure sap is flowing in the system, and that meant lots of man-hours checking each line. “With these remote monitoring systems, we can effectively lower our labor costs and increase our production,” he said.