Vintners have known for centuries that every step in the winemaking process—from cultivation and harvest techniques to fermentation, aging and bottling—has immense impact on the quality and value of the final product.
And that same level of scrutiny is now being applied to cannabis production.
As someone who has worked in the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) space for decades, I’ve been interested in finding out how post-harvest storage and packaging affect the quality and value of cannabis flower. After digging into the issue some more, storage conditions and humidity levels have indeed come into focus as major factors, beyond just the challenges of preventing mold.
I enlisted my research team at Boveda, which has studied moisture control in all manner of manufactured and natural CPG products, to look closer at what’s happening with cannabis once it leaves the cultivation room. There’s not a lot of research on cannabis storage—we checked—and so we explored this aspect further. We were frankly surprised by what a big effect evaporation has on quality and how this is playing out on the retail level.
We suspected moisture loss could affect the bottom line too, and so we did some number-crunching.
It’s well understood that the weight of cannabis flower directly correlates with its profitability—the heavier the yield, the higher the market value. Here’s what our analysis found: A mere 5% dip below the optimal relative humidity (RH) storage environment eliminates six pounds per every 1,000 pounds of cannabis flower. At $5 per gram wholesale, that works out to upwards of $13,500 in lost revenue—and that’s with just a 5% drop in RH below the target range of 55-65% established by ASTM International, an independent industry standards organization.
We also purchased flower at retailers in multiple state markets and commissioned a lab to test the samples, which revealed that most strains sold today are well below the optimal RH range (55-65%). Regardless of fluctuating wholesale prices, when you do the math it’s clear that tens of thousands of dollars in revenue are simply evaporating into thin air.
Why So Dry?
Historically, cultivators, processors and packagers have emphasized keeping flower below a particular humidity “ceiling” for a reason: Flower that’s too moist is prone to hazardous mold and microbial growth, so it’s understandable that many operators err on the side of being overly dry.
The misconception that cannabis flower can be “rehydrated” is another cause of dryness damage. But this method irrevocably damages the quality of the flower through trichome damage.
Those delicate plant structures that house the all-important cannabinoids and terpenes become brittle and fragile when stored in an overly dry environment, and are prone to breaking off from the flower; they cannot not be recovered even if the flower is later rehydrated.
When trichomes are compromised, terpenes responsible for the aroma, taste and scent of cannabis also can evaporate. Overly dried-out cannabis doesn’t just lose weight and efficacy—it loses shelf appeal, which is particularly risky in today’s market.
Cured cannabis flower can remain in storage potentially for months prior to sale or consumption. By the time it reaches the end consumer, much of the cannabis sold in regulated environments in the U.S. and Canada has suffered from dry damage.
There are various humidity controls available for cannabis cultivators: desiccants that absorb water vapor; mechanical equipment that alters RH on a larger scale; or two-way humidity-control packets designed for storage containers.
In the CPG sector, with other moisture-sensitive products such as foods and electronics, we’ve seen that employing humidity controls will preserve quality, and cannabis flower is no different.
Saltwater-based humidity control solutions with two-way vapor-phase osmosis technology automatically add or remove water vapor as needed to maintain a constant, predetermined RH level and ensures a consistent level of moisture weight inside the cannabis flower.
Here’s one more notable finding we discovered in our storage research: Third-party lab tests commissioned by Boveda showed cannabis stored with humidity control had terpene and cannabinoid levels that were 15% higher than cannabis stored without.
Cannabis stored within the optimal humidity range maximizes all the qualities that attract and retain customers. Similar to wine-making, when cannabis cultivators focus on quality control they need to look beyond the harvest.
With legalization rapidly increasing across states, the cannabis market is exploding. And with estimates of sales in the billions, it’s no surprise that greenhouses and grow rooms are emerging everywhere. As growers and extracting facilities continue to expand one important consideration that most tend to underestimate, is how flooring can impact both their production and product. Bare concrete is often a popular choice in cannabis facilities, as there are typically very minimal costs−if any at all−associated with preparing it for use. However, concrete floors can pose unique challenges when left untreated, which could inadvertently create unforeseen problems and unexpected costs.
Understanding the Risks of Bare Concrete Flooring
Whether a facility is growing or extracting, the proper flooring can play a critical role in helping maintain optimal safety and sanitation standards, while simultaneously contributing to production. That’s why its important for growers and extractors to know and understand the potential risks associated with bare concrete.
Concrete is porous: While concrete is a solid material, people may forget that it is porous. Unfortunately, these pores can absorb liquids and harbor small particles that spill on the floor. They create perfect hiding places for bacteria and other pathogens to proliferate. Pathogens can then contaminate product within the facility, causing a halt on production, and/or a potential product recall. This can incur unexpected costs associated with shutdown time and loss of product.
Concrete can be damp: When in a facility with an untreated concrete floor, at times the slab can feel slightly wet or damp to touch. This is due to moisture within the concrete that can eventually work its way up to the surface of the slab. When this happens, items that are placed on top of the floor can be damaged by trapped moisture above the slab and below the object. When this happens, if a product is not protected properly, it can be damaged.
Concrete is dark and unreflective: An untreated concrete slab can often make a room feel dark and it does not reflect lighting within the room. This can result in the need for extra lights and electricity to properly grow cannabis.
Concrete lacks texture: When working in areas where water and other liquids can fall to the ground and accumulate, flooring with traction can play a key role in helping aid against slip and fall incidents. Untreated concrete typically does not provide sufficient texture and can become very slippery when wet.
The Benefits of Bare Concrete Flooring
While the previously mentioned risks can be associated with bare concrete flooring, there is an upside to the situation! Concrete is the perfect substrate for adding a coating that is built to withstand the industry’s demands.
With the application of a fluid-applied or resinous floor coating, the risks of bare concrete flooring can be mitigated. There are a variety of resin and fluid-based coating systems that can be applied, such as:
Epoxy and Urethane Systems
Urethane Mortar Systems
Decorative Quartz Systems
Decorative Flake Systems
These durable coatings have numerous benefits and can offer:
Protection against the proliferation bacteria and other pathogens: Unlike porous concrete, a smooth and virtually seamless floor coating eliminates the little crevices where pathogens can grow. This in turn helps aid against the growth of bacteria, keeping hygiene standards at the forefront and grow rooms in full operations.
Protection against moisture damage: As moisture within the concrete can move upward to the surface of the slab, there are moisture mitigation coating systems, that keep it trapped below the surface, thus helping toprotect items placed on the floor.
Brighter spaces and light reflection: Installing a floor coating that is light in color, such as white or light gray, can help brighten any space. The benefits of this are twofold: First, it can help with visibility, helping employees navigate the space safely. Secondly, light reflectivity of the flooring improves lighting efficiency, resulting in fewer light fixtures and smaller electric costs.
Texture options to help aid against slip and fall incidents: Floor coating systems can offer a variety of texture options−from light grit to heavy grit−depending on how much accumulated water and foot traffic the area receives. Without additional texture in wet areas, slip and fall incidents and injuries are inevitable.
A wide range of colors and decorative systems: These coating systems can be designed to match the aesthetics of the building or corporate colors. Some manufacturers even offer color matching upon request. When it comes to colors, the options are virtually endless.
Choosing the Right Flooring: Considering Bare Concrete
Choosing the right flooring for a cannabis greenhouse or processing facility requires important consideration as every grow room and greenhouse is different. Bare concrete is a popular flooring option for manufacturing and processing facilities across industries, however, as discussed, it can pose unique challenges due to its innate nature. That said, by taking the right steps to ensure that the concrete substrate is properly sealed, it can then be an effective and hygienic flooring option, offering high durability and a longer life cycle.
The topic of sustainability has grown in importance and priority for both consumers and regulators. From reducing emissions to lowering energy and water consumption, cannabis growing facilities face unique challenges when it comes to designing sustainable operations. Moreover, as the cannabis market grows and usage becomes more accepted, regulatory bodies will continue to increase the number of directives to help ensure the safety and quality of cannabis products.
Ubiquitous throughout cannabis grow rooms and greenhouses, flooring can be easily overlooked, yet offers an economical way to create more sustainable facilities. Many of today’s grow rooms are located in old retrofitted warehouses or former industrial buildings that were designed without sustainability or environmental concerns in mind.
Combined with energy efficient lighting and more thoughtful water usage, flooring can help create a more efficient facility that not only improves business operations, but also contributes to a better bottom line.
Whether in an old warehouse space or a new structure designed from the ground up, cannabis businesses face unique operational challenges when it comes to sustainable best practices.
Energy Consumption: Like any indoor farm, lighting plays an important role in cannabis growing facilities. Traditional grow lights can utilize a large amount of electricity, putting a strain on the company budget as well as regional energy resources. Switching to highly-efficient LED lighting can help facilities reduce their consumption, while still maximizing crop yield.
Water Consumption: Among the thirstiest of flora, cannabis plants require consistent and plentiful watering for healthy and fruitful crop production.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Enrichment: In many cases, carbon dioxide is introduced into facilities to help enhance the growth of crops. However, this practice may pose safety and health risks for workers, the surrounding community and the planet at large. CO2 is a greenhouse gas known to contribute to climate change.
In order to head off upcoming regulatory restrictions, as well as to alleviate the mounting safety and health concerns, it behooves cannabis grow room managers and owners to explore alternatives for improving sustainability in their facilities.
Flooring Requirements for More Sustainable Cannabis Facilities
Spanning thousands or even hundreds of thousands of square feet throughout a facility, flooring can be a unique way to introduce and support sustainable practices in any grow room or greenhouse.
When seeking to improve operational efficiency and implementing the use of sustainable practices in cannabis facilities, look for flooring systems with the following characteristics:
Impervious Surfaces— Fertilizers, fungicides, and other chemicals can infiltrate porous unprotected concrete to leach through the slab matrix and into the soil and groundwater below. Non-porous flooring options, such as industrial-grade, fluid-applied epoxies and urethanes, are impervious in nature, helping to isolate contaminants on the surface, thus enabling proper cleanup and disposal.
Light-Reflective Finishes— Light-colored white or pastel floor surfaces in glossy finishes can help reduce the amount of energy needed to properly illuminate grow rooms. By mirroring overhead lighting back upward, bright, light-reflective flooring can help minimize facilities’ reliance on expensive ceiling fixtures and electricity usage.
USDA, FDA, EPA, OSHA and ADA Compliancy— With cannabis industry regulations currently in flux, grow facilities that select food- and pharmaceutical-compliant flooring will be ahead of the game. Governing bodies in some states have already begun expanding the facility requirements of these sectors to the cannabis market.
Durable and Easy Care— Having to replace flooring every couple of years imposes high costs on businesses as well as the environment. Installation of many traditional types of flooring produces cut-off waste and requires landfill disposal of the old floor material. In contrast, by installing industrial-grade flooring systems that are highly durable and easy-to-maintain, facilities can count on long-term performance and value, while helping to minimize disposal costs and concerns.
Optimal flooring can help cultivation facilities reduce waste, improve the efficacy of existing lighting and lengthen floor replacement cycles for a better bottom line and a healthier environment. Additionally, having the right grow room floor can assist facilities in meeting regulatory requirements, help ensure production of quality products and improve the safety for consumers and staff.
Flooring Benefits for Employees and Consumers
Safety is paramount in any workplace. When it comes to the manufacture of foodstuffs and other consumed products, government oversight can be especially stringent. With the right compliant flooring in place, cultivation facilities can focus on the rest of their business, knowing that what’s underfoot is contributing to the safety of employees and their customers.
Chemical Resistance— Floors can be exposed to a high concentration of chemicals, acids and alkalis in the form of fertilizers, soil enhancers and other substances. In processing locations, the proper disinfecting and sanitizing of equipment can require harsh solvents, detergents and chemical solutions, which can drip or spill onto the floor, damaging traditional flooring materials. It pays to select cannabis facility flooring with high chemical resistance to help ensure floors can perform as designed over the long term.
Thermal Shock Resistance— Optimal cannabis facility flooring should be capable of withstanding repeated temperature cycling. Slab-on-grade structures in colder climates may be especially vulnerable to floor damage caused by drastic temperature differences between a freezing cold concrete slab and the tropical grow room above. This extreme contrast can cause certain floor materials to crack, delaminate and curl away from the concrete substrate. The resulting crevices and uneven surfaces present trip and fall hazards to employees and leave the slab unprotected from further degradation. As an alternative, thermal shock-resistant floors, such as urethane mortar systems, furnish long-lived functionality even when regularly exposed to extreme temperature swings.
Humidity and Moisture Resistance— Traditional floor surfaces tend to break down in ongoing damp, humid environments. Cannabis facility flooring must be capable of withstanding this stress and more.
Pathogen Resistance— Undesirable microbes, fungi and bacteria can thrive in the moist, warm environments found in grow rooms. Floors with extensive grout lines and gaps provide additional dark, damp locations for pathogen growth. Fluid-applied flooring results in a virtually seamless surface that’s directly bonded to the concrete. Integral floor-to-wall cove bases can further improve wash down and sanitation.
Proper Slope and Drainage— Where food and/or pharmaceutical facility regulations have already been extended to cannabis operations, flooring is required to slope properly toward a floor drain. This prevents puddling, which can be a slip hazard as well as a microbe breeding ground. Unlike more typical materials, resinous flooring offers an economical solution for correcting floor slope wherever needed.
The Problems Presented by Traditional Flooring Options
Previously, cannabis growers often relied on traditional greenhouse-type flooring, including tamped down dirt floors, gravel or bare concrete. However, current and upcoming regulations are curtailing the use of these simple flooring options.
Growers often compare and contrast the benefits and value of traditional greenhouse flooring with more modern solutions, such as fluid-applied epoxy and urethane floors.
Dirt and gravel flooring offers little opportunity to properly sanitize, thus potentially inviting microorganism and pathogen invasion, contamination and costly damage. Growers who have turned to bare concrete floors face other concerns, including:
Unprotected concrete is inherently porous and therefore able to quickly absorb spilled liquids and moisture from the air. In addition, organic and synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and chemicals can leach through the concrete floors, contaminating the groundwater, injuring the surrounding environment and wildlife.
Older slabs often lack an under-slab vapor barrier. Even in new construction, a single nail hole can render an under-slab barrier ineffective. In these situations, moisture from underneath the floor slab can move upward osmotically through the alkaline slab, leading to blistering and damage to standard commercial floor coverings.
Bare concrete floors can stain easily. These dark stains tend to absorb light instead of reflecting it, contributing to a potential increase in energy usage and cost.
The mold proliferation encouraged by the warmth and humidity of grow rooms can easily penetrate into the depths of unprotected slab surfaces, eventually damaging its structural integrity and shortening the usable life of the concrete.
While traditional greenhouse flooring options can initially seem less expensive, they frequently present long-term risks to the health of cannabis grow businesses. In addition, the performance of dirt, gravel and bare concrete floors runs counter to the industry’s commitment to reducing the carbon footprint of growing facilities.
Choosing Sustainable Grow Room Flooring
It’s no secret that the cannabis industry is undergoing enormous change and faces numerous environmental challenges. Luckily, optimal flooring options are now available to help growers economically increase their eco-friendly practices on many fronts. By focusing on quality resinous flooring, cannabis growers can get closer to meeting their sustainability goals, while simultaneously contributing to improved operation efficiency, enhanced yields and an increased bottom line.
The cannabis industry is growing exponentially, and the use of cannabis for medical purposes is being adopted across the nation. With this boom in cannabis consumers, there has been an increasing need for knowledge about the product.
The role of testing labs has become crucial to the process, which makes owning and operating a lab more lucrative. Scientists testing for potency, heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, moisture, terpene profile, microbial and fungal growth, and mycotoxins/aflatoxins are able to make meaningful contributions to the medical industry by making sure products are safe, while simultaneously generating profits and a return on investment.
Here are the key testing instruments you need to conduct these critical analyses. Note that cannabis analytical testing requirements may vary by state, so be sure to check the regulations applicable to the location of your laboratory.
The most important component of cannabis testing is the analysis of cannabinoid profiles, also known as potency. Cannabis plants naturally produce cannabinoids that determine the overall effect and strength of the cultivar, which is also referred to as the strain. There are many different cannabinoids that all have distinct medicinal effects. However, most states only require testing and reporting for the dry weight percentages of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). It should be noted that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (Δ9-THCA) can be converted to THC through oxidation with heat or light.
For potency testing, traditional high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is recommended and has become the gold standard for analyzing cannabinoid profiles. Look for a turnkey HPLC analyzer that delivers a comprehensive package that integrates instrument hardware, software, consumables and proven HPLC methods.
Heavy Metal Testing
Different types of metals can be found in soils and fertilizers, and as cannabis plants grow, they tend to draw in these metals from the soil. Heavy metals are a group of metals considered to be toxic, and the most common include lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Most labs are required to test and confirm that samples are under the allowable toxic concentration limits for these four hazardous metals.
Heavy metal testing is performed by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). ICP-MS uses the different masses of each element to determine which elements are present within a sample and at what concentrations. Make sure to include accompanying software that provides assistant functions to simplify analysis by developing analytical methods and automatically diagnosing spectral interference. This will provide easy operation and analytical results with exceptionally high reliability.
To reduce running costs, look for a supporting hardware system that reduces the consumption of argon gas and electricity. For example, use a plasma ignition sequence that is optimized for lower-purity argon gas (i.e., 99.9% argon as opposed to more expensive 99.9999%).
The detection of pesticides in cannabis can be a challenge. There are many pesticides that are used in commercial cannabis grow operations to kill the pests that thrive on the plants and in greenhouses. These chemicals are toxic to humans, so confirming their absence from cannabis products is crucial. The number of pesticides that must be tested for varies from state to state, with Colorado requiring only 13 pesticides, whereas Oregon and California require 59 and 66 respectively. Canada has taken it a step further and must test for 96 pesticides, while AOAC International is developing methods for testing for 104 pesticides. The list of pesticides will continue to evolve as the industry evolves.
Testing for pesticides is one of the more problematic analyses, possibly resulting in the need for two different instruments depending on the state’s requirements. For a majority of pesticides, liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) is acceptable and operates much like HPLC but utilizes a different detector and sample preparation.
Pesticides that do not ionize well in an LCMS source require the use of a gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) instrument. The principles of HPLC still apply – you inject a sample, separate it on a column and detect with a detector. However, in this case, a gas (typically helium) is used to carry the sample.
Look for a LC-MS/MS system or HPLC system with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer that provides ultra-low detection limits, high sensitivity and efficient throughput. Advanced systems can analyze more than 200 pesticides in 12 minutes.
For GCMS analysis, consider an instrument that utilizes a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer to help maximize the capabilities of your laboratory. Select an instrument that is designed with enhanced functionality, analysis software, databases and a sample introduction system. Also include a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for terpene profiles and residual solvent testing.
Residual Solvent Testing
Residual solvents are chemicals left over from the process of extracting cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis plant. Common solvents for such extractions include ethanol, butane, propane and hexane. These solvents are evaporated to prepare high-concentration oils and waxes. However, it is sometimes necessary to use large quantities of solvent in order to increase extraction efficiency and to achieve higher levels of purity. Since these solvents are not safe for human consumption, most states require labs to verify that all traces of the substances have been removed.
Testing for residual solvents requires gas chromatography (GC). For this process, a small amount of extract is put into a vial and heated to mimic the natural evaporation process. The amount of solvent that is evaporated from the sample and into the air is referred to as the “headspace.” The headspace is then extracted with a syringe and placed in the injection port of the GC. This technique is called full-evaporated technique (FET) and utilizes the headspace autosampler for the GC.
Look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for pesticide and terpene analysis.
Terpene Profile Testing
Terpenes are produced in the trichomes of the cannabis leaves, where THC is created, and are common constituents of the plant’s distinctive flavor and aroma. Terpenes also act as essential medicinal hydrocarbon building blocks, influencing the overall homeopathic and therapeutic effect of the product. The characterization of terpenes and their synergistic effect with cannabinoids are key for identifying the correct cannabis treatment plan for patients with pain, anxiety, epilepsy, depression, cancer and other illnesses. This test is not required by most states, but it is recommended.
The instrumentation that is used for analyzing terpene profiles is a GCMS with headspace autosampler with an appropriate spectral library. Since residual solvent testing is an analysis required by most states, all of the instrumentation required for terpene profiling will already be in your lab.
As with residual solvent testing, look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler (see above).
Microbe, Fungus and Mycotoxin Testing
Most states mandate that cannabis testing labs analyze samples for any fungal or microbial growth resulting from production or handling, as well as for mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by fungi. With the potential to become lethal, continuous exposure to mycotoxins can lead to a buildup of progressively worse allergic reactions.
LCMS should be used to qualify and identify strains of mycotoxins. However, determining the amount of microorganisms present is another challenge. That testing can be done using enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) or matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS), with each having their advantages and disadvantages.
For mycotoxin analysis, select a high-sensitivity LC-MS/MS instrument. In addition to standard LC, using an MS/MS selective detector enables labs to obtain limits of detection up to 1000 times greater than conventional LC-UV instruments.
For qPCR and its associated needs, look for a real-time PCR amplification system that combines thermal cyclers with optical reaction modules for singleplex and multiplex detection of fluorophores. These real-time PCR detection systems range from economical two-target detection to sophisticated five-target or more detection systems. The real-time detection platform should offer reliable gradient-enabled thermal cyclers for rapid assay optimization. Accompanying software built to work with the system simplifies plate setup, data collection, data analysis and data visualization of real-time PCR results.
Moisture Content and Water Activity Testing
Moisture content testing is required in some states. Moisture can be extremely detrimental to the quality of stored cannabis products. Dried cannabis typically has a moisture content of 5% to 12%. A moisture content above 12% in dried cannabis is prone to fungal growth (mold). As medical users may be immune deficient and vulnerable to the effects of mold, constant monitoring of moisture is needed. Below a 5% moisture content, the cannabis will turn to a dust-like texture.
The best way to analyze the moisture content of any product is using the thermogravimetric method with a moisture balance instrument. This process involves placing the sample of cannabis into the sample chamber and taking an initial reading. Then the moisture balance instrument heats up until all the moisture has been evaporated out of the sample. A final reading is then taken to determine the percent weight of moisture that was contained in the original sample.
Look for a moisture balance that offers intuitive operation and quick, accurate determination of moisture content. The pan should be spacious enough to allow large samples to be spread thinly. The halogen heater and reflector plate should combine to enable precise, uniform heating. Advanced features can include preset, modifiable measurement modes like automated ending, timed ending, rapid drying, slow drying and step drying.
Another method for preventing mold is monitoring water activity (aW). Very simply, moisture content is the total amount of water available, while water activity is the “free water” that could produce mold. Water activityranges from 0 to 1. Pure water would have an aW of 1.0. ASTM methods D8196-18 and D8297-18 are methods for monitoring water activity in dry cannabis flower. The aW range recommended for storage is 0.55 to 0.65. Some states recommend moisture content to be monitored, other states monitor water activity, and some states such as California recommend monitoring both.
As you can see, cannabis growers benefit tremendously from cannabis testing. Whether meeting state requirements or certifying a product, laboratory testing reduces growers’ risk and ensures delivery of a quality product. As medicinal and recreational cannabis markets continue to grow, analytical testing will ensure that consumers are receiving accurately
labeled products that are free from contamination. That’s why it is important to invest in the future of your cannabis testing lab by selecting the right analytical equipment at the start of your venture.
In the burgeoning cannabis market, grow facilities are facing more and more competition every day. New indoor cultivation enterprises are often being set up in formerly vacant industrial buildings and commercial spaces, while in other cases, companies are planning and constructing new grow facilities from the ground up. For all these establishments, continually lowering production costs while supplying the highest possible quality in ever-increasing yields is the way forward.
Whether in existing or new structures, concrete floors are ubiquitous throughout the majority of cannabis growing facilities. With the right treatment, these indoor concrete traffic surfaces can greatly contribute to a company achieving its operational objectives. Alternatively, insufficiently protected concrete floors can create annoying and costly barriers to accomplishing company goals.
Challenges in Cannabis Grow Facility Construction
As with any emergent industry, mainstream acceptance and market growth is bringing regulation to cannabis cultivation. Local governments are paying more attention to how cannabis growing facilities are constructed and operated. In addition to the standard business matters of building safety, employee working conditions and tax contributions, elected officials are increasingly under pressure from constituents to analyze the overall effect of grow facilities on their communities at large.
High consumption of energy for grow room lights and high water usage are just part of the equation. The temperature and humidity needs of a grow facility can be similar to that of an indoor swimming pool environment. While warmth and moisture are ideal for cannabis growth, they also provide the ideal conditions for the growth and proliferation of fungi and other undesirable microorganisms. Therefore, to help preserve plant health in the moist indoor climate, fumigation often comes into play.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) enrichment of grow room air, a common practice proven to increase crop yields, presents another set of safety and health considerations in dense urban environments.
Adding to these challenges, many cannabis grow facilities are producing plants destined for either pharmacological or nutritional use. This in itself demands scrutiny by regulators for the sake of the consuming public.
As a result, grow room managers and owners must stay informed about the evolution of the industry in terms of local and federal agency regulations concerning their facilities, their overall operation and their products.
Bare Concrete Floors in Grow Rooms
As a foundational construction material, concrete continues to lead the way in commercial and industrial construction. Despite the many advantages of concrete floors, when left unprotected they can present significant challenges specific to cannabis grow rooms.
Untreated, bare concrete is naturally porous, easily absorbing liquids and environmental moisture. Substances found in grow rooms, such as fertilizers, fungicides and other chemicals, can leach through the porous concrete floor slab into the soil and ground water. Whether organic or synthetic, concentrations of such substances can be highly detrimental to the surrounding environment.
Whether in an existing or newly constructed facility, it is not uncommon for the under-slab vapor barrier to be compromised during construction. When this occurs, moisture from the soil beneath the floor slab can enter the concrete and move osmotically upward, creating a phenomenon known as Moisture Vapor Transmission (MVT). The resulting moisture and moisture vapor tends to become ever more alkaline as it rises upward through the concrete slab. MVT can result in blistering, bubbles and other damage to floor coverings.
The warm temperatures, regular watering of plants and high relative humidity maintained within many grow rooms can contribute to a weakening of the structural integrity of unprotected grow room slabs.
Within the confined space of a grow room, the warm, moist air invites microbe proliferation. Food and pharmaceutical plants are high on the priority list when it comes to facility hygiene levels, as demanded by code.
Public health guidelines for cannabis cultivation facilities in various parts of the country are increasingly mirroring those of food processing. Typical requirements include having smooth, durable, non-absorbent floor surfaces that are easily cleaned and in good repair, possessing proper floor slope towards a sanitary floor drain, with no puddling, as well as an integral floor-to-wall cove base. These directives cannot be met with bare concrete alone.
Optimal Grow Room Flooring Performance
In some locations, cannabis growing facilities are already subject to strict building codes and regulations. This will no doubt be spreading to other regions in the near future. For example, the Public Health Agency of Los Angeles County publishes construction guidelines to ensure cannabis facility floors meet standards mirroring the food processing and pharmaceutical manufacturing industries, where sanitation, facility hygiene and safety are paramount. In these types of facilities, bare, unprotected concrete floor slabs are not allowed as a general rule, due to the material’s innate porosity and absorbency.
Flooring in grow rooms, like in their food and pharma industry counterparts, should optimally:
Provide a monolithic and virtually seamless surface to help eliminate crevices, grout lines and other dark, damp locations where soil and pathogens tend to hide
Be impervious and non-porous, providing a surface that can isolate toxic materials on the surface for proper clean-up where needed
Enable correction or improvement of the floor slope for proper drainage, with no low spots to help avoid puddling
Be installed with integral floor-to-wall cove options for easier wash-down and sanitizing
Have the strength and thermal shock resistance, plus the tenacious bond, to undergo steam-cleaning and/or hot power washing, where needed
Enable seamless, continuous surface installation over concrete curbs and containment areas
Offer antimicrobial options for highly sensitive locations
Demonstrate high compressive strength and impact resistance for durability under heavy loads
Display excellent abrasion resistance, allowing the system to perform under grueling daily wear-and-tear
Present customizable slip-resistance options that can be balanced with easy clean-ability
Facilitate the use of floor safety markings, such as color-coded traffic and work area designations
Be formulated with low odor, low-VOC chemistries that meet all EPA and similar regulations
Be able to contribute LEED Green Building Credits, where desired
Include options for refurbishing old or damaged concrete surfaces to allow reuse of existing facility resources, as opposed to having to be demolished, thus unnecessarily contributing to landfill waste
Withstand and perform in continually damp grow room conditions, without degrading
Be compliant with FDA, USDA, EPA, ADA, OSHA, as well as local regulations and/or guidelines
Include MVT mitigating solutions where Moisture Vapor Transmission site issues are present
Provide waterproofing underlayment options for multi-story facilities
Demonstrate excellent resistance to a broad range of chemicals, fertilizers and extreme pH substances
Finding an affordable floor system with all the above features may seem like a tall order. Luckily, innovative manufacturers now offer cannabis facility flooring that meets sanitation, regulatory compliancy, durability and budgetary needs of growers.
Resinous Flooring Value for Cannabis Facilities
Choosing the right floor solutions for a given cultivation facility may be one of the most important decisions an owner or manager makes. Since floors are present throughout the structure, poor selection and compromised protection of concrete slabs can end up wreaking havoc with profits and yields over time.
Few facilities can afford the inconvenience and expense of an otherwise unnecessary floor repair or replacement. Having to suddenly move cumbersome plant beds and heavy pots in order to give workers access to the floor area can be headache. In addition, the unscheduled downtime and overall juggling of resources that invariably must take place make a strong case for investing in optimal grow room flooring from the start.
An excellent long-term value, professional-grade resinous floor systems present cannabis growers with a unique set of solutions for cultivation rooms. Not only does this type of flooring offer all the desirable features listed above, but also furnish a host of added benefits to grow room operations, including:
Very High Gloss Finish
Highly reflective floor surfaces enable light entering the space from overhead to bounce back upward, exposing the underside of leaves to the light and potentially increasing yields
Exceptionally high gloss floor finishes in light colors help make the most of your existing lighting sources, significantly increasing room illumination
Achieving greater illumination without adding fixtures helps reduce energy consumption and associated costs
Virtually Seamless Surface
Fluid-applied resin-based flooring provides an impermeable, monolithic surface that is exceptionally easy to clean and maintain
The virtually seamless finish of resinous coated floors greatly reduces the number of locations for soil, pathogens and microbes to gather
Resinous floors, by incorporating integral cove bases to eliminate ninety degree angles, correcting floor slope to eliminate puddling, and allowing for a virtually seamless surface, provide an optimally sanitary flooring solution
Outstanding Moisture Tolerance
Designed specifically for use in wet industrial environments, cementitious urethane flooring is a top choice for humid grow rooms
Also called “urethane mortar”, this type of floor can help mitigate certain undesirable site conditions, such as Moisture Vapor Transmission (MVT)
Chemical, Acid and Alkali Resistance
Whether organic or synthetic, many soil enhancers and substances used to eradicate undesirable fungi and pests can damage concrete and shorten the usable life of foundational slabs
Protecting concrete slabs with monolithic, non-absorbent and appropriately chemical resistant coating systems allows concrete to perform as designed, for as long as intended
A proper barrier coating on the floor allows spilled or sprayed substances to be properly cleaned up and disposed of, rather than allowing the liquids to seep through the porous slab, and into the surrounding natural environment
Resinous coating systems’ slip-resistance is completely customizable at the time of installation, enabling growers to request more traction in pedestrian walkways and less slip-resistance under raised beds.
Epoxy, urethane and polyaspartic resinous flooring systems accommodate the installation of safety and line markings, as well as varying colors to delineate specific work areas
The antimicrobial flooring options available from some manufacturers offer further hygiene support in highly sensitive facilities
Today’s industrial resinous floor coatings from reputable suppliers are very low to zero V.O.C. and compliant with EPA and other environmental regulations
Resinous coating systems provide ideal value to informed growers who require durable, reliable and long-lasting high performance flooring for their facilities.
Support from the Ground Up
From incredible medical advances to high tensile fiber in construction materials, the expanding cannabis industry is bringing exciting opportunities to many areas of the economy. As more and more growers enter the market, so increases the pressure to compete.
By choosing light reflective, seamless and moisture tolerant resinous flooring that meets regulatory guidelines for grow rooms, managers can help reduce their overhead costs on multiple fronts — and get a jump on the competition.
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.
Maintaining an environment that supports cultivation and keeps plants healthy is not an easy task. In cannabis growing, there are a variety of factors that greenhouse managers and personnel must monitor to ensure that their plants are in a healthy environment that fosters growth and development. Temperature, humidity, lighting and CO2 levels are a few of the conditions that need to be tailored to each cannabis greenhouse operation. However, it can be difficult to constantly monitor the status of your equipment and the greenhouse environment, especially after hours or during the off-season.
A remote monitoring system that’s properly selected and installed can help greenhouse managers keep their cannabis plants healthy, multiply their yields and increase return on investment. This type of system also helps operators identify patterns and trends in environmental conditions and get insight into larger issues that can prevent problems before they arise.
Here are some tips on key conditions to monitor and what you need to consider when selecting a monitoring system for your cannabis greenhouse operation:
Temperature plays a crucial role in any cannabis grow operation. The climate in your greenhouse must be warm enough to nurture photosynthesis and the growth of cannabis plants. Setting the incorrect temperature will significantly impact the potential yield of the plant and the rate at which it develops. A temperature too low will slow the growth of the cannabis, but too hot can lead to heat stress for your plants. The ideal temperature for a standard greenhouse is between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. However, depending on the stage of plant and desired growth densities, the temperature of the greenhouse needs to be adjusted accordingly.
Humidity directly affects plant photosynthesis and transpiration, so controlling humidity is vital in greenhouse growing. The ideal relative humidity (RH) for cannabis growth is around 60%. A low humidity level can cause water to evaporate too quickly for photosynthesis, while a humidity level that is too high can cause poor growth and possible mold and fungal disease. Monitoring the moisture content in the air of your greenhouse will help the plants during the transpiration process, increasing absorption of nutrients and overall health of the cannabis.
Your cannabis may be getting an abundance of natural light during the summer months, but maintaining adequate sunlight during the winter months can be a challenge. As a solution to this, many greenhouse managers equip their facilities with additional lights to supplement natural light during off-seasons or off-hours. To achieve the best possible yield, a cannabis plant in the budding stage should receive twelve hours of light each day, while other stages could require additional lighting. For example, the growth stage could require your cannabis to be exposed to sunlight for up to eighteen hours a day.
Like any other plant, cannabis requires CO2 to breathe. Greenhouse managers must set and monitor the CO2 levels in their facility to make sure that there is an adequate amount for the plants to develop, grow and be healthy. The amount of carbon dioxide required for your cannabis depends of the size of the facility and the amount of light the plants are receiving. However, a standard grow area for cannabis can maintain a CO2 range from 1000 to 1500 parts per million (PPM). A level below that threshold can result in slower growth of the plants, while a level above would lead to unused and wasted CO2.
Irrigation and Soil Moisture
One way to ensure a good yield from your cannabis is to water it regularly and monitor your soil moisture. Overwatering your plants can have the same effect, if not worse, than letting the soil become too dry. Plants’ roots need oxygen to survive, unlike leaves that breathe CO2, and when the soil is waterlogged the roots can’t provide their function. The lack of oxygen interferes with the roots’ nutrient uptake and photosynthesis causing the cannabis plant to wilt. The exact moisture content of the soil depends on the size of your greenhouse, temperature and humidity. Whether you hand water or are using a drip irrigation system, being aware of your soil moisture is vital to the long-term health of your cannabis.
Your greenhouse environment should mimic the ideal conditions in which cannabis plants flourish. With an indoor facility, you have the ability to control air circulation by venting hot air out and blowing fresh air in. Creating a circulation of air inside your greenhouse will increase your cannabis plant’s growth speed and yield. Additionally, an exhaust system helps control the temperature and humidity, while also preventing the invasion of mold and pests that thrive in hot, stagnant air.
When growing something of value, like cannabis, there will always be a threat of intruders. Whether your greenhouse is in a populated area or around hungry wildlife, any intruder could be detrimental to your overall yields and profit. Remote monitoring systems can give you peace of mind and instantly alert you when there is an unwanted presence in your greenhouse.
Knowing all the possible threats to your cannabis greenhouse helps you evaluate your specific needs, and ultimately identify the proper remote monitoring system.
Selecting the Right Monitoring System
Other factors to consider when choosing a monitoring system right for your operation include:
Base unit and sensors
Wireless or hardwired sensors
Communications to your site (Phone, cellular, Wi-Fi, etc.)
Programming and status checks
Return on investment
Base Units and Sensors
Each condition in your greenhouse that you want to monitor requires its own input on the base unit of the monitoring system. You must match your needs with the number of inputs available. A good fit for a smaller cannabis greenhouse may be a lower-cost, non-expandable monitoring system. However, larger facilities have many monitoring points and more people to alert when there’s a problem. If your cannabis operation is poised for growth, purchasing an expandable system could add value to the initial purchase because you wouldn’t have to replace your entire system in the future.
Your monitoring system should also have an internal rechargeable battery backup to ensure continuous monitoring and alerts in the event of a power outage. It is also recommended to have each base unit in a sheltered enclosure to protect it from moisture, dirt and other hazards.
Placement of sensors is also crucial. For example, temperature sensors in your greenhouse should be placed throughout the facility. They should be next to your thermostat and in the center of your greenhouse, preferably away from direct sunlight.
Wireless or Hardwired Sensors
Remote monitoring systems offer the option to have sensors hardwired directly to the base unit or sensors wirelessly connected. A hardwired monitoring system connects the sensors to the base device with wires. Generally, trenching long distances for wires is time consuming and costly. So alternatively, 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.
Communications to Your Site
Monitoring devices that use cellular communications must be registered on a wireless network (like Verizon or AT&T) before you can send or receive messages. Because cellular devices perform all communications over a wireless network, it is important that there be sufficient signal strength at the greenhouse. It is a good idea to check the signal quality in the area before purchasing a cellular product. If the cellular network has less than desirable coverage, it is possible to install an external antenna to help increase cellular signal.
When monitoring systems identify a change in status, they immediately send alerts to people on the contact list. If you don’t want all of your personnel to receive notifications at the same time, certain devices can be programmed to send alerts in a tiered fashion. It is important to consider the reach of the communications, so that you’ll be notified regardless of your locations. Multiple communications methods like phone, email and text provide extra assurance that you’ll get the alert. Also, note of the number of people the system can reach and if the system automatically cycles through the contact list until someone responds. Make sure the system allows for flexible scheduling so that it doesn’t send alarms to off-duty personnel.
Programming and Status Check
If you’re responsible for maintaining a commercial greenhouse facility, you want a system that will provide real-time status of all monitored conditions on demand. There are a few different ways to access your sensor readings. Options include calling to check status, viewing a web page, either on a local network or on the cloud, or accessing the information via an app on your mobile device. With a cloud-based system, the devices supervise themselves. This means if the internet or cellular connection goes down, the device will send an alarm to alert the appropriate personnel.
If you don’t select a cloud-based system, you will be limited to logging in through a local area network, which will allow you to make programming changes, access status conditions and review data logs. If internet connectivity is not available at your location, you will want to choose a cellular or phone system rather than Ethernet-based option.
Data history is valuable in identifying patterns and trends in your cannabis greenhouse conditions. Manually monitoring and recording environmental parameters takes a significant amount of personnel time and detracts from other important workplace demands. However, many monitoring systems automatically save information, recording tens of thousands of data points, dates and times. Cloud-based logging provides an unlimited number of records for users to view, graph, print and export data trends.
Analyzing data samples may lend insight to larger issues and prevent problems before they arise. For example, if the data log shows power fluctuations occurring at a regular time, it could be indicative of a more serious problem. Or, if the data shows signs of a ventilation fan or supplementary lighting beginning to malfunction, they can be repaired or replaced before total failure occurs.
Return On Investment
When deciding how much you should pay for a remote monitoring system, tally up the entire cost, fully installed with additional peripherals and sensors and any labor fees for installation. Then consider the value of your cannabis plant inventory and greenhouse equipment. Finally, factor in the cost of downtime, should an environmental event shut down your operation for a period of time.
Choosing the right greenhouse monitoring system and sensors could mean the difference between life and death for your cannabis plants. Understanding the conditions you need to watch and monitoring systems’ capabilities are they best way to protect your investment.
When a grower harvests their cannabis plants, they process it by drying, curing and trimming the plant material. Dried cannabis ready for the consumer can often sit on retail shelves for months before it is purchased. According to the Cannabis Safety Institute, trimming is the processing stage with the highest level of human handling, and thus presents the most significant opportunities for microbiological contamination.
The Cannabis Safety Institute recommends workers handling dry cannabis wash their hands periodically, generally conform to food safety rules and wear gloves at all times. In addition to these tips, looking at relative humidity is a good tool to mitigate contamination concerns like the growth of yeast and mold spores. Mold spores can grow quickly when there is enough moisture, but if the cannabis is dry enough, mold spores cannot develop.
Growers controlling the relative humidity of their finished product in the past often placed an orange peel or a wet cotton ball in a jar with dried cannabis to retain the weight from water and keep it from over-drying. Those tactics have since been improved upon using modern technology.
Water activity is a measure of the relative humidity immediately adjacent to the product, according to Bob Esse, vice president of research at Boveda. “Cannabis’ relative humidity will reach equilibrium with the surrounding environment over time, which is why it is so critical to manage this adjacent atmosphere,” says Esse. “Moisture content is the total water present in the product and is a variable that changes in its relationship to water activity from one strain or type of product to the next.”
Back in 1997, Boveda first patented two-way humidity control. For the last 20 years, that company has made humidity control products for packaging in a variety of industries, like wooden musical instruments, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, electronics, tobacco, photos and documents and perhaps most notably for keeping cigars at the right humidity level in a humidor. According to Charles Rutherford, business development director at Boveda, he saw people buying their products meant for cigars, but using them with cannabis. About six years ago, they started developing a product specifically for the cannabis market.
The science behind it is relatively simple, says Rutherford. “Certain salts saturated in water can naturally regulate humidity- we just developed a cannabis-specific humidity level and patented the packaging around it that purifies the water and can come in direct contact with cannabis,” says Rutherford. “Using water activity meters and a moisture isotherm test, we determined the most appropriate range of humidity levels that cannabis will remain stable.” That range turned out to be between 59% and 63% humidity level for the properties in dried cannabis to stay the same.
According to Rutherford, it is a little more complex than just a range to stay in. “There are different humidity levels that certain strains prefer, but there are personal preferences, regions and other factors to consider when determining the levels of humidity ideal for cannabis,” says Rutherford. “We wanted to understand what people consider to be perfect.” In their research they found that depending on the region of the country, that humidity level varies considerably. “Using a water activity meter we could tell exactly what people prefer,” says Rutherford. Colorado, for example, prefers significantly drier cannabis than the Pacific Northwest, according to their findings.
Right now, Boveda has two-way humidity controllers set at 62%, 58% and soon they will have an under 50% option (appealing to the Colorado market). Using a device to accurately control the humidity level in cannabis can help growers and retailers prevent contamination from the biggest source of concern: water. “There is a ton of talk about pesticide contamination, but the reality is even if the flower is grown organically, you can still encounter safety problems when the moisture level is off,” says Rutherford. From a medical perspective, keeping dried cannabis at an ideal humidity level helps stabilize the properties of it, maintaining the medical efficacy. “If this is something people use for a medicine, it should be at an ideal condition,” says Rutherford. “Quantifying and understanding what humidity level is right is what we are helping accomplish.” For patients with compromised immune systems that need safe, consumable cannabis, a humidity control device can help prevent contamination and ensure a certain degree of safety in their medicine.
On a retail level, the packaging insert can extend the shelf life of products and maintain the quality. “The world has known for decades that 70% humidity level for cigars is ideal,” says Rutherford. “The cannabis world hasn’t had a moisture standard or understanding of what is proper until very recently.” That 62% humidity level determined after commissioned testing is a good standard to reference when determining your own ideal humidity level.
Growers also recognize the value in keeping their cannabis at the right humidity level beyond the obvious safety concerns. “As cannabis dries out and loses its humidity, the overall weight is reduced,” says Rutherford. “Precision humidity control gives a uniform humidity throughout the flower, leaving out the mystery for growers and maintaining weight, meeting the nexus between quality and weight.” According to Rutherford, growers have an incentive to package their cannabis a little on the wet side. “Because it weighs the most when wet, it is sold by weight and it will lose moisture over time, the incentive to deliver product that will dry out over time- that can create a lot of problems by having high moisture content.” For the first time ever, people can dramatically extend the shelf life of dried cannabis, instead of letting products naturally deteriorate and go bad over time. “For the first time ever, it allows you to extend the shelf life of dried cannabis for aging cannabis like wine and cigars,” says Rutherford.
The data from that Cannabis Safety Institute report, collected by AquaLab and CannaSafe Analytics using a vapor sorption analyzer, shows a cutoff of 65% relative humidity. These findings give the industry a lot of guidance in working to reduce the amount of yeast and mold contamination, says Bob Esse. “If your dried cannabis is above 65% relative humidity and you are a retailer, you should send that product back to the grower because it wasn’t dried properly, is vulnerable to mold and yeast spores and thus not safe for the consumer,” says Esse.
Pointing to the report, Esse says foods with high moisture content are able to support robust microbial population growth, which can lead to bacterial and fungal infections. “Water activity is what impacts whether microorganisms can grow or not.” By using two-way humidity control technology, growers and retailers can mitigate risks of contamination, improve quality and extend the shelf life of their products.
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