A Guidance on an Integrated Lifecycle of Designing a Cultivation Operation
Gretchen Schimelpfenig, PE, Technical Director of Resource Innovation
Brandy Keen, Co-Founder & Sr. Technical Advisor, Surna, Inc.
Adam Chalasinski, Applications Engineer, Rough Brothers/Nexus Greenhouse Systems/Tetra
David Vaillencourt, Founder & CEO, The GMP Collective
Kyle Lisabeth, Vice President of Horticulture, Silver Bullet Water
Back by popular demand, this panel discussion is returning with the same cast of subject matter experts to foster a longer, more comprehensive dialogue on cultivation facility design. Designing a cannabis cultivation facility that can produce consistent quality cannabis, meets the demands of the business objectives (profit, time to market, scalability) and consumers and stays within budget and timelines has been a major pain point for new and seasoned business owners and growers. What appears on the surface as a simple proposition – build a structure, install HVAC and fertigation systems, hire a master grower, plant some seeds and watch the sea of green roll in — is anything but.
The Beginner’s Guide to Integrated Pest Management
David Perkins, Founder, Floresco Consulting
This presentation goes into detail on everything you need to know to get started with integrated pest management. Learn about planning and designing your cultivation facility to minimize pest pressure, how to apply pesticides safely and lawfully and pest identification, as well as choosing the correct pesticides.
Starting from Scratch: Launching a Hemp Farm in Georgia
Reginald “Reggie” Reese, Founder & CEO, The Green Toad Hemp Farm
Dwayne Hirsch, President & Chief of Business Development, The Green Toad Hemp Farm
This presentation discusses how The Green Toad Hemp Farm started with an empty lot with no water, power or structures and turned the space into a productive vertically integrated hemp cultivation operation. Learn how to work with local and state regulations from this case study in Southeast Georgia and learn how to operate with friends, not enemies: How building partnerships with your community can ensure business success.
The journal Frontiers in Plant Science recently shared an important article from researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, highlighting the “Pathogens and Molds Affecting Production and Quality of Cannabis Sativa.”
As a chemist focused on the science of preventing and mitigating mold in greenhouse and indoor cannabis grow facilities, this piece was fascinating to me. Like many others, it details and explains prevalent mold like Penicillium, Cladosporium and Aspergillus – things I see in grows every day.
But wait, there’s more fungi
The research and resulting article also brought up another type of fungi – endophytic mold. Endophytic mold usually lives symbiotically with plants, or is at least beneficial for both plant and fungi.
But not always.
In the past, the industry has believed that damaging mold spores were found on the outside of the flower. When moved, that flower would release the spores and send them flying – often creating massive cross-contamination issues for indoor grows.
“While cannabis is an incredibly powerful plant in terms of its medicinal properties, it is unfortunately highly susceptible to many pest and pathogens,” says Hope Jones, PhD, CEO, Adivina & ECS. “And it is this susceptibility that is so challenging to many inexperienced or undisciplined grow operations.”
Now, however, we know that there’s another culprit to add to the list: the inner parts of the plant can also be a source of endophytic cross contamination and mold.
Since it grows inside of the plant, this fungus creates high spore counts that can cross contaminate from outside, into the flower.
Treating mold in a facility
Here’s the good news:
This seemingly bad news – that there’s a new fungus to worry about, and it is inside the flower – may actually help cannabis grows struggling with mold, and those who are following the proper protocols already.
Effective mitigation protocols can include things like treating HVAC systems, controlling humidity, using products like chlorine dioxide to treat irrigation lines, enforcing protective clothing and shoe covers for employees, reducing the amount of in-and-out for employees around grow rooms.
These are important upstream and environmentally-focused integrated pest management (IPM) programs that will usually keep facilities clean and relatively mold-free.
But if these programs are in place, and there’s still an issue, Endophytic fungi may be to blame.
If you are having ongoing mold issues but have ruled out cross-contamination and a facility without proper protocol, look to the mother plant.
“Small mistakes in agricultural practices are amplified with cannabis,” Dr. Jones continues. “And today’s propagation practices of traditional cloning add to this vulnerability. Cannabis is an annual plant and by keeping mothers in a perpetual state of vegetative growth for years, and taking repetitive cuttings produces clones in a highly stressed state. This stressed state diminishes genetic potential and weakens a plant’s ability to fight disease and pests.”
Testing for and addressing endophytic fungi
If these concerns are ringing a bell, remember, there is also a way to test for Endophytic mold.
Checking cuttings from suspected mother plants over a period of time is the best way to see if the Endophytic mold is present.
A section of the mother plant cutting is placed into a solution (for example, as outlined by the article, a very concentrated hypochlorite followed by 70% Ethanol) that will kill all of the microorganisms that are present on the surface of the plant tissues.
From there, an unadulterated dissection of the internal tissues can be extracted and cultured for quantification and identification of endophytic fungi.
“Tissue culture offers a form of genetic rebooting returning the plant to its natural genetic potential and thereby strengthening its natural ability to defend against environment assault,” says Dr. Jones. “It also allows the breeder to conduct pathogenic disease testing which provides the entire industry with a higher level of scientific certainty and analysis.”
If you find this mold inside of the mother plant, your facility’s mold problem could be a systemic issue, not an environmental one.
If you do find that Endophytic mold is causing issues, of course, you may have to destroy the mother plant.
This should not mean the end of a strain. Tissue culture on a cutting is an option that can eliminate the unwanted fungi and save the genetics. Using those genetics to regrow a mother will start fresh and avoid the intrinsic mold that was plaguing the strain prior.
The practice of checking mother plants for Endophytic mold is not yet commonplace in cannabis, but the hemp business is leading the way.
They’re testing to create very clean plants, so you don’t have issues during cultivation.
Major growers in the U.S. could save millions in lost harvests with mold mitigation. If your current IPM program isn’t doing the trick, you may want to follow in hemp’s footsteps and look inside the plant.
There are obvious upsides and downsides to cannabis regulation. Gone are the days when it was a free for all, for outlaws growing in California’s hills, under the limited protections California’s medical cannabis laws provided. While there is no longer the threat of arrest and incarceration, for the most part, there are also a lot of hoops to jump through, and new rules and standards to contend with. This article highlights three areas in which your cultivation plan must necessarily change due to the new regulations.
1. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is limited
In the new regulated market, products that were once widely used are now no longer allowed. Prior to regulation, in the days of Prop 215, you could spray your plants with just about anything, since there was no testing mandated for the products that were being sold. However, people unfortunately got sick and experienced negative reactions, with products like Eagle 20, which contains mycobutinol, and Avid, which contains bifenthrin. Accordingly, under new regulations there are thankfully much more stringent standards dictating what pesticides can be used. It’s ironic that for most of the “medical marijuana” era in California there were no mandatory testing requirements for the THC content of your cannabis, let alone testing for toxins, including pesticides, molds or heavy metals.
You need to have a very thorough pest management plan to make sure your bug populations are always in check. Given that there are a small number of allowable products for pest control in the regulated market, this can be tricky. You need to be extremely familiar with what is and isn’t allowed in today’s regulations. You must also make sure that someone who is certified to apply pesticides is applying them.
As a word of caution, there have been instances where approved pesticides were found to have old unused chemicals (that are not approved for use) from the manufacturing process in them. They may have only occurred in very small amounts, but they are harmful to humans and there is no lawful way to dispose of them.
Further, the presence of these harmful chemicals can cause your finished product to fail when undergoing mandated testing.
Rather than using risky chemicals, the best solution for (early detected) control of pests is the use of beneficial insects. Although they may not be the best solution for an infestation, predator bugs like Neoseiulus Californicus can efficiently control small populations of spider mites while ladybugs are good to limit aphids. Strategic planning of your IPM is one of the best ways to keep pest levels in check.
2. Plant size and plant count matter more than ever
Despite widespread legalization in the past few years for both the medical and recreational markets in the United States, the black market is still rampant and most cannabis is still being produced illegally in the US and internationally.
Generally speaking, in the black market, the less plants you have the better, as high plant counts lead to longer sentences of incarceration. With the passage of prop 215 in 1996, many growers, especially outdoor, started growing their plants as big as they possibly could because most limitations were based on plant counts. Some outdoor growers were able to cultivate plants that yielded over 10 pounds per plant. These days regulations are based on canopy measurements, meaning you can grow as many plants as you want within a defined, limited square footage area. This is where “light deprivation,” a method used to force plants into flowering, becomes favorable as it allows 2-4 harvests per year instead of just one. It is a much more intensive way of growing when you have tens of thousands of plants. While it is easier to plant, cultivate and harvest a larger number of smaller plants, it also requires a much more detailed level of planning and organization.
In order to achieve 4 harvests per year, you must have a well thought out cultivation plan and an all-star staff, but if you are able to accomplish this, you can increase your revenue significantly. Maximizing plant canopy space is essential to a profitable business in today’s market, and to do that will require more detailed planning, better organization and proper crop management.
3. How you grow and what equipment you use
With regulation comes liability for defects or injury. It is essential that all equipment used is approved for its intended use. Traditionally, cannabis was cultivated in secrecy in the black market. This led to many unsafe grow rooms being built by people who did not have the proper skills to be undertaking projects such as converting a garage into a grow room or handling the electrical and plumbing running into them. Accordingly, there were many instances of damages to property or injuries to people because of this. Now that counties and states permit cannabis cultivation facilities, the infrastructure and labor that is done must meet regulated building codes and general safety requirements. It is therefore imperative to know the codes and regulations and hire a professional that does, to ensure you meet the standards in order to avoid potential liability.
Larger scale cultivation requires bigger and more expensive equipment. Cultivation facilities are more likely to have sophisticated equipment, such as chiller systems, that are designed to control the grow room environment. While very efficient, some are not intended to be used specifically for cannabis cultivation, and can therefore be difficult to control and maintain. They perform very specific functions, and when not properly tuned to your conditions, can malfunction by prioritizing dehumidification over cooling. This can be a real challenge in warmer climates when temperatures rise, requiring cooling, but also necessitate removal of moisture from the cultivation space.
On the other hand, there is new technology that can make a huge difference in the success of your cultivation. I recently worked with two different companies that specialize in root zone heating systems. One manufactured equipment for root zone heating and cooling of 10k sq ft raised beds that had never been used in California previously. The other company specialized in root zone heating using radiant floor heat. They both worked as intended to maintain a constant root zone temperature, which increased plant health, and ultimately increased yield.
Many counties require data collection from your cultivation, requiring you to track the amount of water and nutrients used. Therefore, another useful tool you can use to increase efficiency, is data collection software that will allow you to collect different information about the amount of water and nutrients used, as well as specific information about the conditions in your grow medium. You can also record and display temperature and humidity readings in your grow room, in real time remotely through Wi-Fi, that you can then access from your phone or computer from anywhere in the world. This can be a useful tool when documenting information that your county, state or investors may require from you. Further, the ability to collect and analyze data will allow you to identify areas of inefficiency in order to correct and optimize your grow room’s potential. While you can achieve these same goals with simple in-line water meters, keeping track of nutrients and pesticides is not as easy. Data collection in the most basic form, using a pen and paper, can be an inaccurate and an inefficient use of time, and can easily be misplaced or ruined. Therefore, simple data software collection programs are the best solution to make the process simple and hassle free.
While it is nice to have state of the art equipment, if it does not work properly, or cannot be easily maintained, it will not be worth it in the long run and you will never see a return on your investment. Innovation comes with a price; using equipment that is cutting edge can be risky, but on the flip side, when done properly it can give you a big advantage over your competitors.
In switching from the black market to the regulated market, these three areas have proven to be the biggest areas of change and have presented the biggest challenges. It is important you consider these necessary changes, and make a solid plan before you begin your cultivation. This is where a cultivation consultant can help.
News of cannabis glut and falling wholesale prices has been dominating the airwaves of late, despite some recent reports showing that prices are remaining steady. As legalization continues to spread across the nation, the industry is poised to become commoditized, especially in those areas where it has been legal for a longer period of time. Whether specializing in retail cannabis products or industrial hemp, companies in the cannabis industry should be taking note of the sweeping economic implications of a maturing marketplace.
As is true in any industry, rapid growth and significant investments are sometimes followed by a slowdown (think dot-com, but less extreme). There are measures that companies can take in order to avoid negative outcomes, and a step in the right direction includes focusing on the bottom line and planning for future growth. Company leaders need to educate themselves on the competitive landscape and take the long view toward solutions for their operations.
Sounds easy enough, but how do we actually do this? One key step is to pay attention to overall expenses and create efficiencies wherever possible in order to remain competitive. This means that during the facility and systems design phase, all outcomes need to be taken into account. One of the most important – and cost conscious – things to consider is energy usage. Energy Star, the EPA-backed program for energy efficiency, says that facilities can “reduce their energy use by up to 30 percent through low or no-cost measures.” Generally, this means that efficiencies are built-in to the design with energy cost savings and sustainability in mind.
One of the largest energy outputs for a cannabis operation includes the facility’s HVAC and electrical systems. We have found that when clients step back to consider a range of alternatives, they have a more comprehensive base for this important decision. Considering outside factors, such as growth projections and specific goals, cannabis companies can make a more educated decision on the system that will provide the best economic outcome for their business. Often, those that plan ahead and look past the initial system cost, find longer term savings and lower energy usage over time.
As an example, we had a client looking to build an indoor cannabis cultivation operation. They had originally chosen to build their facility with high pressure sodium lighting to save money up front. Because this method of lighting typically has a lower first cost, it appeals to many companies that are starting out and wary of their budget. However, this particular client was poised for growth and looking to make sustainable choices that would impact their bottom line and meet their goals for environmentally sound business practices. We were able to create a model for them to illustrate the long-term benefits of installing LED lighting. This type of lighting allows growers to keep room temperatures higher, without compromising plant health with issues like tip burn. In addition, LED lights are more efficient and reduce the cooling load. This means mechanical systems were able to be downsized reducing first costs, and these systems also consumed less energy, reducing operational costs. Despite a higher first cost of the LED lights, the company ended up saving enough money in the reduced mechanical equipment size, as well as in the reduction of energy use from the lights and the mechanical equipment. The first costs between an HPS system and an LED system were much more comparable than originally expected, and they were able to keep their operational costs to an absolute minimum. This type of scenario has proven true over and over when models are built to show longer-term cost benefits for electrical and HVAC systems, using analysis from an experienced team of designers and engineers.
While the greater economic outlook for the cannabis industry is in flux, a thoughtful approach can help operations avoid negative outcomes. As more and more companies continue to enter the space, investments roll in and supply rises, we will all watch to see if demand will match this growth. Taking note of incremental methods for impacting the bottom line, such as smart HVAC and electrical system selection, can mean the difference between success and failure (and profit margins!) in this turbulent landscape.
You’re sitting down to dinner at a restaurant about ten minutes from where you work, finally relaxing after a tough day. You’ve set your environmental alerts on your plants; you have that peace of mind that the technology promised and you know that if anything goes wrong you’ll get notified immediately. As you’re looking at the menu, you receive an alert telling you that the temperature in one of your 2,000 square foot grow rooms has gone out of the safe range. Your mind starts to race, “It’s week seven, I’ve got 500 plants one week away from harvest, that’s 200 pounds of cannabis worth about $150,000-$200,000. Oh my God, what am I going to do?”
You’re doing all this at the dinner table and even though you’re not in a state of panic, you are extremely concerned. You need to figure out what’s going on. You check the graphing and see that over the past hour your humidity dropped and your temperature is gradually going up. Within the past ten minutes, the temperature has gone to 90 degrees. Your numbers tell you that the temperature in the room with $200,000 of cannabis is going up about five degrees every three minutes.
“I see this trend and can’t figure it out,” the grower relates. “Normally, the HVAC kicks on and I’d begin to see a downward trend on the graphs. I pre-set my trigger for 90 degrees. But, I’m not seeing that. What I AM seeing is the temperature gradually and consistently getting warmer without the bounce-back that I would expect once the HVAC trigger was hit. All I know is I better find out what’s causing all this and I better find out fast or my entire crop is gone.”
You go through the rest of the checklist from LUNA and you see that the lights are still on. Now, you’re starting to sweat because if the temperature in that room hits 130 and stays there for more than twenty minutes, you’re losing your entire crop. You have to walk in your boss’s office the next day and explain why, after all the time and money you put in over the past seven weeks, not only is all that money gone but so is the $200,000 he is counting on to pay salaries, expenses, and bank loans.
This is something you’ve been working on for seven straight weeks and if you don’t make the right decision, really quickly, when that room hits 130 degrees here’s what happens.
“My equipment starts to fail,” our grower continues. “The crop literally burns as the oils dry up and the crop is worthless. At 130 degrees, my grow lights essentially start to melt. All you can think of is that temperature going up five degrees every three minutes and you’re ten minutes from your facility. I need to leave that restaurant right now, immediately, because even if I get there in ten minutes the temperature is going to be almost 120 degrees while I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out what’s wrong.”
You run out to your car and you speed back to the facility. The grow room is now 125 degrees, you have maybe three or four minutes left to figure things out before you flush $200,000 down the drain. The first thing you do is turn off the grow lights because that’s your primary source of heat. Then, you check your HVAC panel and you realize it malfunctioned and shorted out. There’s the problem.
The real toll is the human cost. Once this happens, no grower ever wants to leave and go home or even go to dinner. It’s a horrible toll. It’s the hidden cost we don’t talk about. The grower opens up with his own personal experience.“This system allows the grower to step back and still feel confident because you’re not leaving your facility to another person,”
“You think about the burden on the person that you bring in to replace you while you’re out of town and then you think about the burden on you if something goes wrong again. And you decide, it’s not worth it. The anxiety, the fear that it will happen again, it’s not worth it. So, you don’t go. I didn’t even see my sister’s new baby for eight months.”
Your desire to see your family, your desire to have a normal life; all of that goes out the window because of your desire to be successful in your job. It outweighs everything.
This is every grower. It’s why many farmers never leave their property. It just becomes a normal way of living. You just repeat it so much that you don’t even think about it. Why go on vacation if your stress level is higher than it is if you’re home. You’re constantly worried about your farm or your facility. The only way to escape it is to not go away at all.
“This system allows the grower to step back and still feel confident because you’re not leaving your facility to another person,” he tells us. “You don’t realize how stressful a lifestyle you live is until you step back and look at it. Or, if you have an alert system that allows you to pull back. That’s when you realize how difficult your life is. Otherwise, it just seems normal.”
As AI technology expands its footprint into agriculture, there will be more tools to help mediate situations like this; more tools to give you a more normal life. It’s one of the reasons we got into the business in the first place.
For years we have heard about and sometimes experienced, white powdery mildew when growing cannabis. It is a problem we can see, and we have numerous ways to combat it. But now more and more states are introducing regulatory testing on our harvests and they are looking for harmful substances like Escherichia coli., Aspergillis Fumigatus, Aspergillis terreus, … just to name a few. Mycotoxins, mold and bacteria can render a harvest unusable and even unsellable- and you can’t see these problems with the naked eye. How much would it cost you to have to throw away an entire crop?
You bring in equipment to control the humidity. You treat the soil and create just the right amount of light to grow a superior product. You secure and protect the growing, harvesting, drying and production areas of your facility. You do everything you can to secure a superior yield… but do you?
Many of the organisms that can hurt our harvest are being multiplied, concentrated and introduced to the plants by the very equipment we use to control the growing environment. This happens inherently in HVAC equipment.
Your air conditioning equipment cools the air circulating around your harvest in a process that pulls moisture from the air and creates a perfect breeding ground in the wet cooling coil for growth of many of the organisms that can destroy your yield. As these organisms multiply and concentrate in the HVAC system, they then spew out into the very environment you are trying to protect at concentrated levels far greater than outside air. In effect, you are inoculating the very plants you need to keep safe from these toxins if you want to sell your product.
The cannabis industry is starting to take a page from the healthcare and food safety industries who have discovered the best way to mitigate these dangers is the installation of a proper UVC solution inside their air conditioning equipment.
Why? How does UVC help? What is UVC?
What is Ultraviolet?
Ultraviolet (UV) light is one form of electromagnetic energy produced naturally by the sun. UV is a spectrum of light just below the visible light and it is split into four distinct spectral areas – Vacuum UV or UVV (100 to 200 nm), UVC (200 to 280 nm), UVB (280 to 315 nm) and UVA (315 to 400 nm). UVA & UVB have been used in the industry to help promote growth of cannabis.
What is UVC (Ultraviolet C)?
The entire UV spectrum can kill or inactivate many microorganism species, preventing them from replicating. UVC energy at 253.7 nanometers provides the most germicidal effect. The application of UVC energy to inactivate microorganisms is also known as Germicidal Irradiation or UVGI.
UVC exposure inactivates microbial organisms such as mold, bacteria and viruses by altering the structure and the molecular bonds of their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA is a “blue print” these organisms use to develop, function and reproduce. By destroying the organism’s ability to reproduce, it becomes harmless since it cannot colonize. After UVC exposure, the organism dies off leaving no offspring, and the population of the microorganism diminishes rapidly.
Ultraviolet germicidal lamps provide a much more powerful and concentrated effect of ultraviolet energy than can be found naturally. Germicidal UV provides a highly effective method of destroying microorganisms.
To better understand how Steril-Aire UVC works, it is important to understand the recommended design. Directed at a cooling coil and drain pan, UVC energy destroys surface biofilm, a gluey matrix of microorganisms that grows in the presence of moisture. Biofilm is prevalent in HVAC systems and leads to a host of indoor air quality (IAQ) and HVAC operational problems. UVC also destroys airborne viruses and bacteria that circulate through an HVAC system and feed out onto the crop. HVAC cooling coils are the largest reservoir and amplification device for microorganisms in any facility.
For the most effective microbial control, UV germicidal Emitters are installed on the supply side of the system, downstream from the cooling coil and above the drain pan. This location provides more effective biofilm and microbial control than in-duct UVC installations. By irradiating the contaminants at the source – the cooling coils and drain pans – UVC delivers simultaneous cleaning of surface microorganisms as well as destruction of airborne microorganisms and mycotoxins. Steril-Aire patented this installation configuration in 1998.
The recirculating air in HVAC systems create redundancy in exposing microorganisms and mycotoxins to UVC, ensuring multiple passes so the light energy is effective against large quantities of airborne mycotoxins and cleaning the air your plants live by.
Where are these mycotoxins coming from?
Aspergillus favors environments with ample oxygen and moisture. Most pre-harvest strategies to prevent these mycotoxins involve chemical treatment and are therefore not ideal for the cannabis industry.
Despite the lack of cannabis protocols and guidelines for reducing mycotoxin contamination, there are some basic practices that can be utilized from other agricultural groups that will help avoid the production of aflatoxins and ochratoxins.
When guidelines are applied correctly to the cannabis industry, the threat of aflatoxin and ochratoxin contamination can be significantly reduced. The place to start is a clean air environment.
Design to win
The design of indoor grow rooms for cannabis is critical to the control of airborne fungal spores and although most existing greenhouses allow for the ingress of fungal spores, experience has shown that they can be retrofitted with air filters, fans, and UVC systems to make them relatively free of these spores. Proper designs have shown clearly that:
Prevention via air and surface disinfection using germicidal UVC is much better than chemical spot treatment on the surface of plants
High levels of air changes per hour enhance UVC system performance in reducing airborne spores
Cooling coil inner surfaces are a hidden reservoir of spores, a fertile breeding ground and constitute an ecosystem for a wide variety of molds. Continuous UVC surface decontamination of all coils should be the first system to be installed in greenhouses to reduce mildew outbreaks.
UVC can virtually eliminate airborne contaminants
Steril-Aire was the first and is the market leader in using UVC light to eliminate mold and spores to ensure your product will not be ruined or test positive.
Mold and spores grow in your air handler and are present in air entering your HVAC system.
Steril-Aire UVC system installs quickly and easily in your existing system.
The Steril-Aire UVC system destroys up to 99.999% of mold/spores.
Plants are less likely to be affected by mold…with a low cost and no down time solution.
It’s time to protect your harvest before it gets sick. It’s time to be confident your yield will not test positive for the contaminants that will render it unusable. It’s time to win the testing battle. It’s time for a proper UVC solution to be incorporated throughout your facilities.
There’s a better way to design HVAC for cannabis grow rooms, and it may seem a little odd at first.
Central chillers are a tried-and-true solution for projects requiring large refrigeration capacity. They’re found in college campuses, hospitals, office buildings and other big facilities.
While central chillers are a good default for most large-scale applications, they fall short in this industry. Grow rooms, with their need for tight, variable conditions and scalable, redundant infrastructure, have HVAC requirements that the central chiller model simply can’t deliver on.
Let’s unpack the shortcomings with the central chiller in this niche and explore some possible solutions.
What’s Wrong With Chillers?
Building a scalable HVAC system is essential for the cannabis industry as it continues to ramp up production in the U.S. and Canada.
Many growers are building their large facilities in phases. In Canada, this is common because growers must have two harvests before they can receive a production permit, so they build just one phase to satisfy this requirement and then build out the facility after the government’s approval.
This strategy of building out is less feasible with a central chiller.
A chiller and its supporting infrastructure are impractical to expand, which means it and the rest of the facility needs to be built to full size for day one, even though the facility will be in partial occupancy for a long time. This results in high upfront capital costs.
If the facility needs to expand later down the road, to meet market demand for example, that will be difficult because, as mentioned, it’s expensive to add capacity to a central chiller.
Additionally, the chiller creates a central point of failure for the facility. When it goes down, crops in every room are at risk of potentially devastating loss. Grow rooms are unusual because of their requirement for strict conditions and even a slight change could have big impact on the crop. Losing control due to mechanical failure could spell disaster.
One Southern Ontario cannabis grower met with some of these issues after constructing their facility, which uses a central chiller for cooling and dehumidification. The chiller was built for full size, but the results were disappointing as early as phase one of cultivation. While sensible demands in the space are being easily met, humidity levels are out of control – flowering rooms are up to 75% RH.
Humidity is one of the most important control aspects to growers. Without a handle on it, growers risk losing their entire crop either because there’s not enough and the plants dry out, or there’s too much and the plants get mold disease. This facility has fortunately not yet reported serious crop issues but is mindful of the potential impact on harvest quality.
By going unitary, capital costs scale on a linear basis.If tight control over humidity is what you need, then a chilled water system needs very careful consideration. That’s because typical chiller system designs get the coils cold enough to lower the air temperature, but not cold enough to condense water out of the air as effectively as a properly designed dehumidifier coil.
A chilled water system capable of achieving the coil temperatures needed for adequate dehumidification in a typical flower room will also require full-time reheat to ensure that air delivered to the plants isn’t shockingly cold — either stunting their growth or killing them altogether. This reheat source adds complexity, cost and inefficiency which does not serve growers well, many of whom are under pressure from both utilities and their management to minimize their energy usage.
How Do Unitary Systems Solve These Problems?
Compared to central chillers, a unitary setup is more agile.
A facility can commence with the minimum capacity it needs for start-up and then add more units in the future as required. They’re usually cheaper to install than a central system and offer several reliability and efficiency benefits as well.
The real business advantage to this approach is to open up the grower’s cash flow by spreading out their costs over time, rather than a large, immediate cost to construct the entire facility and chiller for day one. By going unitary, capital costs scale on a linear basis.
Growers can have more control over their crop by installing multiple units to provide varying conditions, room-by-room, instead of a single system that can only provide one condition.
For example, flowering rooms that each have different strains of crop may require different conditions – so they can be served by their own unit to provide variability. Or, rooms that need uniform conditions could just be served by one common unit. The flexibility that growers can enjoy with this approach is nearly unlimited.
Some growers have opted for multiple units installed for the same room, which maximizes redundancy in case one unit fails.
A cannabis facility in the Montreal area went this direction when building their HVAC system. Rather than build everything in one shot, this facility selected a unitary design that had flowering rooms served independently by a series of units, while vegetation rooms shared one. The units were sized to provide more capacity than currently required in each room, which allows the grower to add more plants and lighting in the future if they choose.
This facility expects to build more grow rooms in a future phase, so it was important to have an intelligent system that could accommodate that by being easy to add capacity to. This is accomplished by simply adding more units.Multiple, small systems also have a better return-on-investment.
The grower, after making a significant investment in this facility, was also averse to the risk of losing crop due to mechanical failure, which is why they were happy to go with a system of independent grow room control.
Multiple, small systems also have a better return-on-investment. Not only are they easier to maintain (parts are easier to switch out and downtime for maintenance is minimal) but they can actually be more efficient than a large, central system.
Some units include heat recovery, which recycles the heat created by the dehumidification process to efficiently reheat the unit’s cold discharge air and keep the space temperature consistent, without needing expensive supplementary heaters. There’s also economizer cooling, which can be used to reduce or even eliminate compressor usage during winter by running the unit on dry outside air only.
Demand for cannabis continues to increase and many growers are looking to expand their businesses by adding new facilities or augmenting existing ones. Faced with the limitations of the traditional chiller system, like the lack of flexibility, scalability and redundancy, they’re looking for an intelligent alternative and the unitary approach is earning their trust. It’s expected this option will soon become the leading one across North America.
No matter the size of your cannabis greenhouse operation, keeping your plants alive and healthy requires the best possible growing environment. This means greenhouse managers and personnel must frequently monitor the status of environmental conditions and equipment. The sooner someone discovers extreme temperature fluctuations, rising humidity or equipment failure, the more inventory you can save.
That’s why integrating a remote monitoring system into your greenhouse operation can save you time, money and anxiety. Monitoring systems that use cloud-based technology let you see real-time status of all monitored conditions and receive alerts right on your mobile device.
Installing a monitoring system and sensors can be easier than you might think. Here are answers to ten questions to ask before installing a cloud-based monitoring system:
What is required to use a remote monitoring system?
Most remote monitoring systems require an internet or WiFi connection and access to an electrical outlet. Programming is done through a website, so it’s easiest to use a computer for the initial setup. If you don’t have an internet connection at your location, you’ll want to choose a cellular system. Make sure that there’s sufficient signal strength at your site, and check the signal quality in the area before purchasing a cellular device.
2. How do we determine what kind of monitoring system and sensors we need?
A reputable manufacturer will have a well-trained support team that can assess your needs even without a site visit to determine which products are best for your application. If you feel you need them to check out your greenhouse operation,many companies can set up a video conference or FaceTime chat to substitute for being on site.
You will want to provide details about the scope and purpose of your cannabis growing operation. Important factors to discuss include:
Skeletal structure of the greenhouse (metal, plastic, wood, etc.) and the covering material (glass or plastic).
Floor space square footage and height of each of your greenhouses.
Number of greenhouse structures in your operation.
Outdoor climate to determine if you rely more on heating or air conditioning and the level of humidity control needed.
Space dedicated to phases of growth (cloning and propagation, vegetative, flowering) and the microclimates needed for each.
Types of lighting, ventilation and irrigation systems.
Level of technological automation versus manual operation in place.
The monitoring system representative will then determine the type of system that would best serve your operation, the number of base units you will need and the types of sensors required.
The representative should also be able to provide tips on the placement of the sensors you’re purchasing. For example, to ensure thorough air temperature coverage, place sensors throughout the greenhouse, next to the thermostat controlling the room temperature and in the center of the greenhouse out of direct sunlight.
Note that there shouldn’t be a cost for a demo, consultation or assistance throughout the sales process. Be sure to ask if there are any fees or licenses to keep using the monitoring equipment after you purchase it.
3. Are sensors included with the monitoring system?
In most cases, sensors are sold separately. The sensors you select depend upon the conditions you want to monitor and how many you can connect to your base unit. Certainly, temperature is critical, but there are many other factors to deal with as well, such as humidity, CO2, soil moisture, water pH, power and equipment failure, ventilation and physical security.
For example, humidity has a direct impact on the photosynthesis and transpiration of plants. High humidity can also cause disease and promote the growth of harmful mold, algae and mildew. Sensors can detect changes in humidity levels.
Like any other plant, cannabis needs CO2 to thrive, so it’s a good idea to include a CO2 sensor that will signal to the monitoring device when readings go out of the preset range. There are even sensors that you can place in the soil to measure moisture content to help prevent over- or underwatering, budget water usage costs, promote growth and increase crop yield and quality.
Of course, all the critical systems in your growing facility—from water pumps to irrigation lines to louvers—rely on electrical power. A power outage monitoring sensor detects power failure. It can also monitor equipment for conditions that predict if a problem is looming, such as power fluctuations that occur at specific times.
Ventilation systems not only help control temperature, they also provide fresh air that is critical to plant health. Automated systems include features like vented roofs, side vents and forced fans. Sensors placed on all these systems will send personnel an alert if they stop running or operate outside of preset parameters.
To monitor the physical security of your greenhouses, you can add sensors to entrance doors, windows, supply rooms and equipment sheds. During off hours, when no staff is on duty, you can remain vigilant and be alerted to any unauthorized entry into your facility.
4. Do monitoring systems only work with the manufacturer’s sensors?
Not necessarily. For example, certain monitoring units can connect with most 4-20mA sensors and transmitters regardless of the brand. When selecting sensors, you might have a choice between ones that are designed by the manufacturer to work specifically with the monitoring system or universal components made by a third party. If the components aren’t made by the system manufacturer, you’ll want to find out if they have been tested with the monitor you are choosing and if you need to work with another vendor to purchase the parts.
5. Is a monitoring system easy to set up, or do we need to hire an electrician?
Many monitoring systems are quick and easy to install, and users can often set them up without hiring an outside expert. Look for one that requires only a few simple physical installation steps. For example:
Mount the device to the wall or somewhere secure;
Plug it into an electrical outlet and an internet connection;
Connect the sensors.
You connect the sensors to the base unit’s terminal strip using wire, which is included with many sensors. The range of many wired sensors can be extended up to 2,000 feet away from the base unit by adding wire that can be easily purchased at any home store. It’s a good idea to hire an electrician if you need to run wires through walls or ceilings.
Usually, once you plug in the device and connect the sensors, you then create an account on the manufacturer’s designated website and begin using your device. There should be no fee to create an account and use the site.
If the manufacturer doesn’t offer installation services, ask if they can recommend a local representative in your area who can set up your system. If not, make sure they provide free technical support via phone or email to walk you through the installation and answer any questions you might have about programming and daily usage.
6. Is there a monthly fee to access all the functionality of a monitoring device?
Many web- or cloud-based systems provide free functionality with some limitations. You might have to purchase a premium subscription to unlock features such as text messaging, phone call alerts and unlimited data logging access.
7. Should we get a system that is wired or wireless? Will we need to have a phone line, cable, internet or something else?
Wireless can mean two different things as it relates to monitoring: how the system communicates its data to the outside world and how the sensors communicate with the system.
The most popular systems require an internet or WiFi connection, but if that’s not an option, cellular- and phone-based systems are available.
A hardwired monitoring system connects the sensors to the base device with wires. A wireless system uses built-in radio transmitters to communicate with the base unit. Some monitoring systems can accommodate a combination of hardwired and wireless sensors.
8. Can one system monitor several sensor inputs around the clock?
Once the monitoring system is installed and programmed, it will constantly read the information from the sensors 24/7. Cloud-based systems have data logging capabilities and store limitless amounts of information that you can view from any internet-connected device via a website or app.
If the system detects any sensor readings outside of the preset range, it will send an alarm to all designated personnel. The number of sensors a base unit can monitor varies. Make sure to evaluate your needs and to select one that can accommodate your present situation and future growth.
When a monitoring system identifies a change in status, it immediately sends alerts to people on your contact list. If you don’t want all your personnel to receive notifications at the same time, some devices can be programmed to send alerts in a tiered fashion or on a schedule. Multiple communications methods like phone, email and text provide extra assurance that you’ll get the alert. It’s a good idea to check the number of people the system can reach and if the system automatically cycles through the contact list until someone responds. Some systems allow for flexible scheduling, so that off-duty personnel don’t receive alerts.
9. Do monitoring systems have a back-up power system that will ensure the alarming function still works if the power goes out or if someone disconnects the power?
The safest choice is a cloud-based system that comes with a built-in battery backup that will last for hours in the event of a power failure. Cloud-based units constantly communicate a signal to the cloud to validate its online status. If the communication link is interrupted—for example by a power outage or an employee accidently switching off the unit—the system generates an alarm indicating that the internet connection is lost or that there is a cellular communications problem. Users are alerted about the disruption through phone, text or email. All data collected during this time will be stored in the device and will be uploaded to the cloud when the internet connection is restored.
If you opt for a cloud-based monitoring system, make sure the infrastructure used to create the cloud platform is monitored 24/7 by the manufacturer’s team. Ask if they have multiple backups across the country to ensure the system is never down.
10. What should we expect if we need technical support or repairs to the system?
Purchase your system from a reputable manufacturer that provides a warranty and offers full repair services in the event the product stops working as it should. Also, research to make sure their tech support team is knowledgeable and willing to walk you through any questions you have about your monitoring system. Often, support specialists can diagnose and correct unit setup and programming issues over the phone.
It helps to record your observations regarding the problem, so the tech team can look for trends and circumstances concerning the issue and better diagnose the problem. Ideally, the manufacturer can provide loaner units if your problem requires mailing the device to their facility for repair.
By Dr. Nadia Sabeh, Founder/President of Dr. Greenhouse
Controlling the environmental parameters of the indoor farm is essential to managing the productivity and health of your crop.
This presentation will discuss the critical roles that VPD, airflow, CO2, and other parameters play in the dynamic indoor environment, and we will review different systems and strategies you can use to manage them.
A project case study will be presented to demonstrate the costs associated with different climate management (HVAC) alternatives, including first cost, operating cost, maintenance, and crop productivity.
The technology portfolio, aimed at larger, commercial-scale growers, is essentially a network of monitors, sensors and controls that give cultivators real-time data on things like temperature, humidity, light, barometric pressure and other key factors. The idea of using IoT and hypersensitive monitoring is not new to horticulture, food or agriculture, but this is certainly a very new development for the cannabis growing space.
According to Brad Nattrass, chief executive officer and co-founder of urban-gro, it’s technology like this that’ll help growers control microclimates, helping them make the minor adjustments needed to ultimately improve yield and quality. “As ROI and optimized yields become increasingly important for commercial cultivators, the need for technologies that deliver rich granular data and real-time insights becomes critical,” says Nattrass. “With the ability to comprehensively sense, monitor, and control the microclimates throughout your facility in real-time, cultivators will be able to make proactive decisions to maximize yields.”
One of the more exciting aspects of this platform is the integration of sensors, and controls with automation. With the system monitoring and controlling fertigation, lighting and climate, it can detect when conditions are not ideal, which gives a cultivator valuable insights for directing pest management or HVAC decisions, according to Dan Droller, vice president of corporate development with urban-gro. “As we add more data, for example, adding alerts for when temperatures falls or humidity spikes can tell a grower to be on the lookout for powdery mildew,” says Droller. “We saw a corner of a bench get hot in the system’s monitoring, based on predefined alerts, which told us a bench fan was broken.” Hooking up a lot of these nodes and sensors with IoT and their platform allows the grower to get real-time monitoring on the entire operation, from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Droller says using more and more sensors creates super high-density data, which translates to being able to see a problem quickly and regroup on the fly. “Cannabis growers need to maintain ideal conditions, usually they do that with a handful of sensors right now,” says Droller. “They get peace of mind based on two or three sensors sending data points back. Our technology scales to the plant and bench level, connecting all of the aggregate data in one automated system.”
In the future, urban-gro is anticipating this will lay the groundwork for using artificial intelligence to learn when controls need to be adjusted based on the monitoring. Droller hopes to see the data from environmental conditions mapped with yield and by strain type, which could allow for ultra-precise breeding based on environmental conditions. “As we add more and more data and develop the platform further, we can deliver some elements of AI in the future, with increased controls and more scientific data,” says Droller.
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