A rain sensor or rain switch is a switching device activated by rainfall. There are two main applications for rain sensors. The first is a water conservation device connected to an automatic irrigation system that causes the system to shut down in the event of rainfall. The second is a device used to protect the interior of an automobile from rain and to support the automatic mode of windscreen wipers. An additional application in professional satellite communications antennas is to trigger a rain blower on the aperture of the antenna feed, to remove water droplets from the mylar cover that keeps presurized and dry air inside the wave-guides.
Rain sensors for irrigation systems are available in both wireless and hard-wired versions, most employing hygroscopic disks that swell in the presence of rain and shrink back down again as they dry out — an electrical switch is in turn depressed or released by the hygroscopic disk stack, and the rate of drying is typically adjusted by controlling the ventilation reaching the stack. However, some electrical type sensors are also marketed that use tipping bucket or conductance type probes to measure rainfall. Wireless and wired versions both use similar mechanisms to temporarily suspend watering by the irrigation controller — specifically they are connected to the irrigation controller's sensor terminals, or are installed in series with the solenoid valve common circuit such that they prevent the opening of any valves when rain has been sensed.
Some irrigation rain sensors also contain a freeze sensor to keep the system from operating in freezing temperatures. Typically freeze sensors are employed in regions where irrigation systems are not "blown-out" for the winter. However, in areas where there is occasionally a chance of overnight frosts, such as Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Connecticut new lawn sprinkler systems are required to use a rain sensor.
A new trend in "smart" sensors (like the Virtual Rain Sensor) are using recent weather observation data (rainfall, sunlight, temperature, humidity, and pressure) to calculate evapotranspiration of water. Used in conjunction with forecast rain and temperatures data these can direct home automation hardware at variable intervals and durations to optimize water savings.
In 1958, the Cadillac Motor Car Division of General Motors experimented with a water-sensitive switch that triggered various electric motors to close the convertible top and raise the open windows of a specially-built Eldorado Biarritz model, in case of rain. The first such device appears to have been used for that same purpose in a concept vehicle designated Le Sabre and built around 1950–51. For Model Year 1996, Cadillac once again equipped cars with an automatic rain sensor; this time to automatically trigger the windshield wipers and adjust their speed to conditions as necessary.
The most common modern rain sensors are based on the principle of total internal reflection: an infrared light is beamed at a 45-degree angle into the windshield from the interior — if the glass is wet, less light makes it back to the sensor, and the wipers turn on. Most vehicles with this feature have an "AUTO" position on the stalk.