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The 3-Legged Stool of Successful Grow Operations: Climate, Cultivation & Genetics – Part 3

By Phil Gibson
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This is Part 3 in The 3-Legged Stool of Successful Grow Operations series. Click here to see Part 1 and here to see Part 2. Stay tuned for Part 4, coming next week.

The Right Build Out

Aeroponic & hydroponic systems grow plants at a highly accelerated rate. A “clean room” type of construction approach is the best way to manage this type of grow operation. Starting with a facility that is completely void of any kind of wood or materials that are porous is a good start. Cellulose materials collect moisture and encourage mold and mildew formation no matter how good the sealant.

We have seen cultivation spaces built out of dry wall over wooden post construction and studs that look sealed and solid on the outside of walls but when repaired for plumbing or other expansion work, they are black inside and covered with nasty mold that no one wants near their grow space.

Panel construction over steel frames or steel studs with skins is a safer, more sterile approach than retrofitting a wooden structure. Panel construction offers the added benefit of rapid assembly and minimal labor costs. We have seen 300 light rooms assembled in a few days so it is both very cost effective and safely sealed for protected growth.

Room Sizes & Count

How do you best fill this space if you have a clean slate?

If you have unlimited space, temperature and humidity management should determine the room sizes in your facility. Room sizes that are square in dimensions tend to be easier to maintain from an environmental standpoint. Long narrow rooms are good for fan airflow but tend to be more expensive from a cooling and dehumidification point of view. The larger the room, the more likely that you will get “microclimates” within the room which can challenge yield optimization.

Now, of course, many grows are retrofits of existing structures so compromises can be necessary. We have found that cultivators that have both very large and mid-size rooms in the same facility (200 lights versus 70 lights) are consistently more successful in the 70 light rooms. These “smaller rooms (~1,500 ft2) out-yielded and out-performed the larger rooms using the same genetics and grow plans. Compartmentalization also minimizes the risk in the case that a calamity (i.e. pest infestation) strikes the room. In a large room scenario, the losses can damage your operation. For this reason, we recommend 70-100 light/tub rooms as a standard.

Rooms should also follow your nursery economics. Structuring your nursery to produce just enough clones/veg plants for your next flower room avoids wasted plant material and resources. Breaking a larger space down into individual rooms means that you need fewer veg plants to fill your flower room that week. The best way to optimize this is to have a number of rooms that are symmetrical with the number 8 (typical 8-week cycle genetics).

With 8 rooms running flower, you are able to plant one room per week for 8 weeks. In the 9th week, you start over on room 1. This continuous harvest process is highly efficient from a labor standpoint and it minimizes the size of your mothers room (cost center). Additional space can be applied to your flower rooms. If you do not have infinite space, even divisors work just as well; 2 or 4 rooms can be planted in sequence for the same optimization (for 2-room structures, harvest and replant 1 room every 4 weeks for example). The optimal structure (8, 16, 24, or more rooms) enables you to optimize your profitability. If any of this needs further explanation, please just ask.

Not photoshopped: An “ideal” 70-tub flower room in a CEA greenhouse (courtesy of FarmaGrowers, South Africa)

Within your room choice, movable rows or columns of tubs/lights also provides optimal yields.  Tubs/plants can be moved together for light usage efficiency and one 3-foot aisle can be opened for plant maintenance. Racking systems or movable trays/tubs make this convenient nowadays.

Floors

Concrete floors offer pockets for bacteria to collect and smolder.  As such, they have to be sealed.  Proper application of your sealant choice is required so that it does not peal up or crack after sealing. There are many benefits to sealed floors that is discussed in the white paper. Floor drains are the equivalent of a portal to Hell for a sterile grow operation. Avoid them at all costs.

Phased Construction

Tuning or optimizing you grow rooms for ideal flowering operation depends on your location. Our advice is that you build and optimize your facility in phases with the expectation that nothing is perfect and you will learn improvements in every phase of expansion. The immediate benefit is production that you can promote to your sales channels and revenue that starts as soon as possible to improve your profitability. This is also an excellent learning curve to apply to subsequent rooms. Our happiest customers are those that learned construction improvements in early rooms that were able to be applied to following rooms without headache. The ability to focus on one or two rooms also allows you to get the recipe correct rather than just relying on “winging it”.

Don’t Be In A Rush To Go Green

A 70-tub flower room (courtesy of FarmaGrowers, South Africa)

Validate your water supplies and their stability. Verify that the water in your aeroponic or hydroponic feeds that get to your plants are clean and sterile. This is much easier in a step-by-step fashion than in a crisis debug mode once production is in progress. Be very cautious about incoming clone supplies. We will talk about this more in the next chapter on Integrated Pest Management but incoming clones are a top pest vector that can contaminate your entire facility.

Warehouse Versus Greenhouse Cultivation Spaces

As we started out, controlling your environment is your most important concern. We have seen success in both indoor rooms and greenhouses. The defining success factor is controlling humidity and temperature. Modern sealed controlled environment (CEA) greenhouses do this well and CEA is somewhat of a given for indoor grows. More details on this in the white paper.

Packaging these recommendations gets you to the perfect body for your Formula 1 race car. Now, you are ready to look at some of the mechanics of protecting your operation from pesky little critters and biologicals that can derail your operation and weaken your engine.

Before we sign off this week, I wanted to highlight the ultimate build-out that we have seen so far.  Of course, there are many challengers that have done this well but at this point, FarmaGrowers in South Africa has the best thought out facility we have seen. They acquired Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) & Good Agricultural & Collection Practice (GACP) certification early in their operations due to very well-thought-out designs. They are exporting to global markets without irradiation today. Certainly, many successful customers have beautifully thought-out operations and there are several upcoming facilities that offer amazing planning that will challenge for this crown, but for now. FarmaGrowers leads the pack in this aspect. See here for a walkthrough.

To download the complete guide and get to the beef quickly, please request the complete white paper Top Quality Cultivation Facilities here.

Stay tuned for Part 4 coming next week where we’ll discuss Integrated Pest Management.

The 3-Legged Stool of Successful Grow Operations: Climate, Cultivation & Genetics – Part 2

By Phil Gibson
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This is Part 2 in The 3-Legged Stool of Successful Grow Operations series. Click here to read Part 1 and stay tuned for Part 3 coming next week.

Aeroponic and hydroponic systems use zero-soil, so water is effectively our media and our transport mechanism for nutrition. Ideally, you start with clean, fresh water with “nothing” in it. Nothing in this case means no heavy metals, pesticides, bacteria or pathogens. There are some scary words in there so let’s talk through the best ways to get to “nothing.”

The first place to start is by testing your source water, whether it is surface, well or municipal water. This will give you an initial idea of how “empty” your water is. Water supplies shift over time, so it is also a very important input to monitor over time with annual or bi-annual testing. Clean water is the essence of success for aeroponics and a great way to lower your cost of production. With proper design and management, you can recycle and reuse 95%+ of the water you draw into your facility.

Reverse Osmosis (RO)

Mothers to clones: Happy clones, it’s all about the water

RO is the most common way to clear your incoming water. The process uses pressure filtration by forcing your water through a series of filters or meshes that block or extract large particles, organics and metals. Normally this is 98%-99% efficient. These systems do require attention and maintenance as they do have filters that are required to be changed regularly depending on the clarity of your original water source and the type of material filtered. This accomplishes a lot of your water clearing process to empty the balloon, but it does not clear the pesky biologicals or pathogens. RO is covered in detail in our “You are what you drink” webinar so look that over for a deeper explanation. There are a wide range of relatively low-cost suppliers based on capacity and filtration efficiency. From an operations standpoint, the key is to understand the filter replacement cycle and cost of replacement.

Ultraviolet Light (UV)

UV light can be used to clear organics and pathogens from water. The primary use is to clear origin water but it is also especially important for recovered water that you save from the humidity in your grow rooms. More on this below. One has to be cautious about the use of UV light. It will cause sunburn and eye damage with exposure so handle this resource with care. After RO & UV treatment, input water should be an empty balloon ready for the addition of your perfect nutrient salt recipe. There are a wide range of low-cost UV lighting solution suppliers from which to choose and they are easy to find.

Dehumidification & Recovery (DEHU)

Early root follicles: Reaching for first nutrients

The number one way to conserve water in an accelerated growth aeroponic grow room is to recapture the humidity that is transpired into the air as the plants grow. While DEHU water is effectively distilled water (or clear of particulates), it can be full of healthy little bacteria or pathogens than may be transported through air or residing in the equipment filters. Clearing these with UV light normally makes this water directly reusable in your fertigation systems. Not all dehumidifiers are perfect. Some metals used in their construction can leach into the recovered water, so this is worth a deeper look as you create your complete water system. Air treatment suppliers are covered in Part 1 of this series.

Used Fertigation Water, or “Flush”

At the start of the flower cycle, take your clean water (the empty balloon) and add your perfect nutrient salt flower recipe and deliver it to your plants. Over the grow cycle from flower to harvest, your plants will use portions of your nutrients and your balloon contents will drift from your target recipe you’re your desired cycle, clear or flush your reservoirs and reset your recipe by refilling your balloon to your exact targets. The exiting nutrient-rich “flush” water can also be recycled into your source water feed since the salts and metals present can be cleared from the mixture through the same RO process that your source water goes through. The end result is perfectly good recycled water savings.

Oxygen Reduction Potential (ORP)

Healthy roots reach for water: Early veg when plants get rolling

ORP is a measurement of an oxidizing agent. Oxidizing solutions are a common and inexpensive method of disinfecting water before and during use in hydroponic systems. Oxidizers can be used to monitor and deal with the “cleanliness” of a nutrient water solution while it is in use. Several oxidizing agents exist with the most common being: hydrogen peroxide, chlorine, ozone and chlorine dioxide. The characteristics of each of these agents and how they interact with the organic matter in solutions is different. The ideal concentrations to use in each situation to kill or control pathogens is unique and one of the topics covered by our “Letters from the AEssenseGrows plant science team” on our website. That deep dive is the subject of another paper.

When you take all of these subjects together and they are done right, you should be able to recycle 95% of your source water with a professional water treatment & recycling system.

Here, I would like highlight the ultimate water hero: Ashley Hubbard, director of cultivation at RAIR Cannabis. For a quick tour of her water treatment and recovery room, see here. No one that I know manages water better than RAIR Cannabis and Ashley leads the team there.

To download the complete guide and get to the beef quickly, please request the complete white paper Top Quality Cultivation Facilities here.

Stay tuned for Part 3 coming next week where we’ll discuss The Right Build Out.

The 3-Legged Stool of Successful Grow Operations: Climate, Cultivation & Genetics – Part 1

By Chris Wrenn, Phil Gibson
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Ideal cannabis profits come from high demand/high selling prices and low production costs. The spread between those two, or margin, can determine the life or death of your business. We want to share this series of articles so that your next investment can be highly successful and high margin out-of-the-box.

Regardless of the grow method (soil, coco, rockwool, hydro or aero), every plant performs best in its own ideal environmental conditions. Experienced growers gained success through hard work, and just that, experience. Many have tried more advanced grow technologies, but shied away due to early trial failures or the complexity of maintaining chemistry across a grow facility. The wonderful thing now is that precision sensors and software controls eliminate the risk to robust healthy plants and harvest success. Growers are now able to both manage production while performing research in line with their operations.

We have learned a great deal working with our grow partners over the last 6 years. Every grow facility and location are different due to local weather, business environment and scale. This series of articles and guide, authored by our expert, Christopher Wrenn, will include recommendations of the most successful approaches we have seen here in North America and all over the world.

A 4-Layer fully aeroponic flower room using movable racking systems

Building top-quality cultivation facilities is no simple task. Cultivators are also looking for new help as they shift from older soil or media approaches to more efficient grow methods. One powerful method is aeroponics, which is very good at growing any type of plant in air in a sterile environment, with labor, nutrient and water savings.

Where possible, we will share key vendors that support healthy grow operations and (since it is World Series Time), customer examples that are knocking it out of the park. In today’s competitive business environment, it is critical to do what we can to increase profitability and survival in the face of steep headwinds. We want you to crush it and be “the last man standing.”

So, let’s get to it.

Climate: Environmental Control

We begin with a critical leg in your environment. The process of photosynthesis is more than just light, plant and moisture. We want to do more than just grow plants. We want to grow highly profitable plants. That means we have to accelerate photosynthesis so we are growing faster, bigger and more potent than our competitors.

The Vapor Pressure Deficit (VPD) is the amount of “drying power” available in the air surrounding your plants. This is a useful way to understand the amount of moisture your atmosphere can remove from your plants as they digest carbon dioxide and aspirate water and oxygen into the air around your plants. A higher vapor deficit is a good thing for growth; It is also a measurement of how much nutrient you can uptake into the plant roots and convert into size and potency in the canopy. We recommend that you have resources in your grow rooms to maintain your environment to within 5% of both your humidity and temperature targets for ideal results.

Onyx Agronomics is a Tier 3 indoor cultivator in the State of Washington. This is the canopy in one of their 8 flower rooms.

In our Top Quality Cultivation Facility white paper, we review environmental settings for temperature and humidity for mother, clone/veg and flower rooms for day and night light cycles from early cuttings through to end of harvest flush. Day temperatures can be up to 20% higher than night temperatures for example.

Cooling

Managing temperature may seem straight-forward but the heat generated by LED lights, HPS lights or the sun will vary across rooms, time exposure and with the distance of the light source from the plants. Measurement sensors should be distributed across rooms to monitor and trigger temperature resources.

Humidification/Dehumidification

This is a topic that can be underappreciated by cultivators. It is important to slowly transition humidity as you move plants from cuttings to clones, to veg and to flower. Beginning in a very humid stage to motivate root start, humidity will be stepped down from an opening near 90% down to an arid 50% in your end of flush flower rooms. We detail the transitions in 5% increments in the white paper.

The 4-Layer aeroponic flower room with movable racking systems from the side with a tall human for scale. One can do a lot with 30′ ceilings.

Relative Humidity (RH) and the related VPD are the key metrics to accelerating growth throughout the stages. Not sizing dehumidifiers correctly is one of the most common mistakes our grow partners learn about as they move to full production. In the first phase of turning cuttings from healthy mothers into rooted clones, hitting your target VPD to motivate root growth is the number one success factor. This will require the addition of humidity into your clone room. It is also typical to require raise the humidity of your flower rooms when you transition clone/veg plants from the high humidity clone/veg room into an initially dry flower room, otherwise the plants may go into shock as a result of the dramatic change.

As flowering begins, if humidity remains high, and the VPD is below target, the plants will not be moving nutrients and transpiring moisture. We have seen lowering the humidity from 70% in a flower room down to 50%, results in a yield increase from 50 grams to 90 grams of dry trim bud per plant, so a smooth transition can both accelerate growth and have a big impact on your margins and profitability.

Plants in aeroponics can truly have explosive growth. This means that they will also transpire moisture at an accelerated rate. Fast automated growth in aeroponics means increased humidity output. Sizing these critical systems for humidification/dehumidification are a critical part of the design process.

Airflow

Fans combined with your cooling/heating/humidity/dehu systems need to mix the air in a room to break the boundary layer at the leaf surface for transpiration. As we covered, VPD is critical to growth success. A dry surface motivates the plants to transpire moisture. We recommend flow rates across the canopy in a 0.5-1.5 meter/second rate to align to your genetics and where you are in the flowering process.

A raw facility before it gets outfitted.

Airflow and flowering means rich beautiful aromas are generated. Every facility has to consider odor control. If you are in a populated area, you will have ordinances and neighbors to satisfy. The best way to do this is to minimize the amount of air that exits a facility. This is also the cheapest approach.

Sterile HEPA filters and scrubbing systems clean air of pathogens and odor but they also need to circulate and “condition” air to the correct temperature and humidity levels before it can be recirculated into a room. Oftentimes, this is a good place to also recapture humidity and reinject it into your pure water cleaning systems.

Key vendors to talk to about sizing air treatment systems are SURNA, Quest, Desert Aire and AGS. Each of these vendors have specialties and tend to be superior partners in different regions of the world. We would be happy to introduce you to excellent support resources for air management systems.

To download the complete guide and get to the beef quickly, please request the complete white paper Top Quality Cultivation Facilities here.

Click here to see Part 2 where we discuss water quality and management.

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California Banned Ozone Generator “Air Purifiers”

By Jeff Scheir
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California was the first state to step up to defend consumers from false marketing claims that ozone generators are safe, effective air purifiers. In reality, ozone is a lung irritant, especially harmful to allergy and asthma sufferers. In 2009, California became the first state in the nation to ban ozone generators. The Air Resources Board of the California Environmental Protection Agency states:

Not all air-cleaning devices are appropriate for use — some can be harmful to human health. The ARB recommends that ozone generators, air cleaners that intentionally produce ozone, not be used in the home or anywhere else humans are present. Ozone is a gas that can cause health problems, including respiratory tract irritation and breathing difficulty.

The regulation took effect in 2009 along with a ban on the sale of air purifiers that emit more than 0.05 parts per million of ozone. The ARB says that anything beyond this is enough to harm human health; however, some experts say that there is no safe level of ozone.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends an exposure limit to ozone of 0.1 ppm and considers levels of 5 ppm or higher “immediately dangerous to life or health.”

If you’re shopping for an air purifier, it’s best to avoid ozone generators, especially if you have a respiratory condition. Ozone generators, and ionic air cleaners that emit ozone, can cause asthma attacks in humans while doing little to nothing to clean the air.

O3 is a free radical, an oxidizer; when it meets any organic molecule floating around it bonds to it and destroys it. In a grow room, organic molecules include the essential oils in cannabis which produce the fragrance. When using ozone within your grow room, too much will not only all but eliminate the smell of your flowers but with prolonged exposure, it begins to actually degrade the cell walls of trichomes and destroy the structure of the glands.

Despite the claims of some manufacturers, ozone does not have an anti-microbial effect in air unless levels far exceed the maximums of the regulation and is therefore harmful humans.

Keeping the grow room clean of mold and bacteria is important, but ozone is not the technology you want to employ to satisfy this goal. Looking into a combination of UVC and Filtration will better meet the goal while keeping both your plants and staff healthy.

Keeping Your Environment Clean: Preventative Measures Against Contamination

By Jeff Scheir
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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:

  1. Prevention via air and surface disinfection using germicidal UVC is much better than chemical spot treatment on the surface of plants
  2. High levels of air changes per hour enhance UVC system performance in reducing airborne spores
  3. 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 graphic 4

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.

  1. Mold and spores grow in your air handler and are present in air entering your HVAC system.
  2. Steril-Aire UVC system installs quickly and easily in your existing system.
  3. The Steril-Aire UVC system destroys up to 99.999% of mold/spores.
  4. 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.

Dr. Ed Askew
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Distillation Of Your Cannabis Extract: Ignorance Is Not Bliss

By Dr. Edward F. Askew
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Dr. Ed Askew

In a previous article I discussed the elephant in the room for clients of laboratory services- the possibility of errors, inaccurate testing and dishonesty.

Now, I will explain how the current “smoke and mirrors” of distillation claims are impacting the cannabis industry in the recreational and medical areas. We have all heard the saying, “ignorance is bliss.” But, the ignorance of how distillation really works is creating misinformation and misleading consumers.

That is, just because a cannabis extract has been distilled, doesn’t mean it is safer.There have been reports of people claiming that “Distilled cannabis productsthat are Category 2 distillate are pesticide free and phosphate free, while Category 1 has pesticides and phosphates, but within acceptable limits”

The problem is that these claims of Category 1 and Category 2 cannot be proven just by saying they are distilled. Ignorance of the physical chemistry rules of distillation will lead to increased concentrations of pesticides and other organic contaminants in the supposedly purified cannabis distillate. That is, just because a cannabis extract has been distilled, doesn’t mean it is safer.

So, let’s look at a basic physical chemistry explanation of the cannabis distillation process.

  • First off, you must have an extract to distill. This extract is produced by butane, carbon dioxide or ethanol extraction of cannabis botanical raw material. This extract is a tarry or waxy solid. It contains cannabinoids, terpenes and other botanical chemicals. It will also contain pesticides, organic chemicals and inorganic chemicals present in the raw material. The extraction process will concentrate all of these chemical compounds in the final extract.
  • Now you are ready to distill the extract. The extract is transferred to the vacuum distillation vessel. Vacuum distillation is typically used so as to prevent the decomposition of the cannabinoid products by thermal reactions or oxidation. Under a vacuum, the cannabinoids turn into a vapor at a lower temperature and oxygen is limited.
  • Part of the vacuum distillation apparatus is the distillation column. The dimensions of this column (length and width) along with the packing or design (theoretical plates) will determine the efficiency of distillation separation of each chemical compound. What this means is that the more theoretical plates in a column, the purer the chemical compound in the distillate. (e.g. Vigreux column = 2-5 theoretical plates, Oldershaw column = 10-15 plates, Sieve plate column = any number you can pay for).
  • The temperature and vacuum controls must be adjustable and accurate for all parts of the distillation apparatus. Failure to control the temperature and vacuum on any part to the apparatus will lead to:
    • Thermal destruction of the distillate
    • Oxidation of the distillate
    • Impure distillate

Now, you can see that a proper distillation apparatus is not something you throw together from a high school chemistry lab. But just having the proper equipment will not produce a pure cannabis product. The physical chemistry that takes place in any distillation is the percentage a chemical compound that occurs in the vapor phase compared to the percentage in liquid phase.So, how can you produce a cannabis distillate that is clean and pure?

For example, let’s look at whiskey distillation. In a simple pot still, alcohol is distilled over with some water to produce a mixture that is 25%-30% ethanol. Transferring this distillate to an additional series of pot stills concentrates this alcohol solution to a higher concentration of 85%-90% ethanol. So, each pot still is like a single theoretical plate in a distillation column.

But, if there are any chemical compounds that are soluble in the vapor produced, they will also be carried over with the vapor during distillation. This means that pesticides or other contaminants that are present in the cannabis extract can be carried over during distillation!

So, how can you produce a cannabis distillate that is clean and pure?

  • Produce a cannabis extract that has lower concentrations of bad chemicals. Since a lot of the cannabis extracts available for distillation are coming from grey-black market cannabis, the chances of contamination are high. So, the first thing to do is to set up an extraction cleanup procedure.
    • An example of this is to wash the raw extract to remove inorganic phosphates. Then recrystallize the washed extract to remove some of the pesticides.
  • Make sure that the distillation apparatus is set up to have proper temperature and vacuum controls. This will limit production of cannabis decomposition products in the final distillate.
  • Make sure your distillation apparatus has more than enough theoretical plates. This will make sure that your cannabis distillate has the purity needed.
  • Finally, make sure that the staff that operates the cannabis distillation processes are well trained and have the experience and knowledge to understand their work.

Inexperienced or under-trained individuals will produce inferior and contaminated product. Additional information of extract cleanup and effective vacuum distillation can be obtained by contacting the author.

Total Yeast & Mold Count: What Cultivators & Business Owners Need to Know

By Parastoo Yaghmaee, PhD
3 Comments

Editor’s note: This article should serve as a foundation of knowledge for yeast and mold in cannabis. Beginning in January 2018, we will publish a series of articles focused entirely on yeast and mold, discussing topics such as TYMC testing, preventing yeast and mold in cultivation and treatment methods to reduce yeast and mold.


Cannabis stakeholders, including cultivators, extractors, brokers, distributors and consumers, have been active in the shadows for decades. With the legalization of recreational adult use in several states, and more on the way, safety of the distributed product is one of the main concerns for regulators and the public. Currently, Colorado1, Nevada and Canada2 require total yeast and mold count (TYMC) compliance testing to evaluate whether or not cannabis is safe for human consumption. As the cannabis industry matures, it is likely that TYMC or other stringent testing for yeast and mold will be adopted in the increasingly regulated medical and recreational markets.

The goal of this article is to provide general information on yeast and mold, and to explain why TYMC is an important indicator in determining cannabis safety.

Yeast & Mold

Photo credit: Steep Hill- a petri dish of mold growth from tested cannabis

Yeast and mold are members of the fungi family. Fungus, widespread in nature, can be found in the air, water, soil, vegetation and in decaying matter. The types of fungus found in different geographic regions vary based upon humidity, soil and other environmental conditions. In general, fungi can grow in a wide range of pH environments and temperatures, and can survive in harsh conditions that bacteria cannot. They are not able to produce their own food like plants, and survive by breaking down material from their surroundings into nutrients. Mold cannot thrive in an environment with limited oxygen, while yeast is able to grow with or without oxygen. Most molds, if grown for a long enough period, can be detected visually, while yeast growth is usually detected by off-flavor and fermentation.

Due to their versatility, it is rare to find a place or surface that is naturally free of fungi or their spores. Damp conditions, poor air quality and darker areas are inviting environments for yeast and mold growth.

Cannabis plants are grown in both indoor and outdoor conditions. Plants grown outdoors are exposed to wider ranges and larger populations of fungal species compared to indoor plants. However, factors such as improper watering, the type of soil and fertilizer and poor air circulation can all increase the chance of mold growth in indoor environments. Moreover, secondary contamination is a prevalent risk from human handling during harvest and trimming for both indoor and outdoor-grown cannabis. If humidity and temperature levels of drying and curing rooms are not carefully controlled, the final product could also easily develop fungi or their growth by-product.

 What is TYMC?

TYMC, or total yeast and mold count, is the number of colony forming units present per gram of product (CFU/g). A colony forming unit is the scientific means of counting and reporting the population of live bacteria or yeast and mold in a product. To determine the count, the cannabis sample is plated on a petri dish which is then incubated at a specific temperature for three to five days. During this time, the yeast and mold present will grow and reproduce. Each colony, which represents an individual or a group of yeast and mold, produces one spot on the petri dish. Each spot is considered one colony forming unit.

Why is TYMC Measured?

TYMC is an indicator of the overall cleanliness of the product’s life cycle: growing environment, processing conditions, material handling and storage facilities. Mold by itself is not considered “bad,” but having a high mold count, as measured by TYMC, is alarming and could be detrimental to both consumers and cultivators. 

Aspergillus species niger
Photo: Carlos de Paz, Flickr

The vast majority of mold and yeast present in the environment are indeed harmless, and even useful to humans. Some fungi are used commercially in production of fermented food, industrial alcohol, biodegradation of waste material and the production of antibiotics and enzymes, such as penicillin and proteases. However, certain fungi cause food spoilage and the production of mycotoxin, a fungal growth by-product that is toxic to humans and animals. Humans absorb mycotoxins through inhalation, skin contact and ingestion. Unfortunately, mycotoxins are very stable and withstand both freezing and cooking temperatures. One way to reduce mycotoxin levels in a product is to have a low TYMC.

Aspergillus flavus on culture.
Photo: Iqbal Osman, Flickr

Yeast and mold have been found to be prevalent in cannabis in both current and previous case studies. In a 2017 UC Davis study, 20 marijuana samples obtained from Northern California dispensaries were found to contain several yeast and mold species, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger, and Aspergillus flavus.3 The same results were reported in 1983, when marijuana samples collected from 14 cannabis smokers were analyzed. All of the above mold species in the 2017 study were present in 13 out of 14 marijuana samples.4

Aspergillus species niger, flavus, and fumigatus are known for aflatoxin production, a type of dangerous mycotoxin that can be lethal.5 Once a patient smokes and/or ingests cannabis with mold, the toxins and/or spores can thrive inside the lungs and body.6, 7 There are documented fatalities and complications in immunocompromised patients smoking cannabis with mold, including patients with HIV and other autoimmune diseases, as well as the elderly.8, 9, 10, 11

For this reason, regulations exist to limit the allowable TYMC counts for purposes of protecting consumer safety. At the time of writing this article, the acceptable limit for TYMC in cannabis plant material in Colorado, Nevada and Canada is ≤10,000 CFU/g. Washington state requires a mycotoxin test.12 California is looking into testing for specific Aspergillus species as a part of their requirement. As the cannabis industry continues to grow and advance, it is likely that additional states will adopt some form of TYMC testing into their regulatory testing requirements.

References:

  1. https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/Complete%20Retail%20Marijuana%20Rules%20as%20of%20April%2014%202017.pdf
  2. http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/f-27/
  3. https://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/publish/news/newsroom/11791
  4. Kagen SL, Kurup VP, Sohnle PG, Fink JN. 1983. Marijuana smoking and fungal sensitization. Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 71(4): 389-393.
  5. Centre for Disease control and prevention. 2004 Outbreak of Aflatoxin Poisoning – Eastern and central provinces, Kenya, Jan – July 2004. Morbidity and mortality weekly report.. Sep 3, 2004: 53(34): 790-793
  6. Cescon DW, Page AV, Richardson S, Moore MJ, Boerner S, Gold WL. 2008. Invasive pulmonary Aspergillosis associated with marijuana use in a man with colorectal cancer. Diagnosis in Oncology. 26(13): 2214-2215.
  7. Szyper-Kravits M, Lang R, Manor Y, Lahav M. 2001 Early invasive pulmonary aspergillosis in a leukemia patient linked to aspergillus contaminated marijuana smoking. Leukemia Lymphoma 42(6): 1433 – 1437.
  8. Verweii PE, Kerremans JJ, Voss A, F.G. Meis M. 2000. Fungal contamination of Tobacco and Marijuana. JAMA 2000 284(22): 2875.
  9. Ruchlemer R, Amit-Kohn M, Raveh D, Hanus L. 2015. Inhaled medicinal cannabis and the immunocompromised patient. Support Care Cancer. 23(3):819-822.
  10. McPartland JM, Pruitt PL. 1997. Medical Marijuana and its use by the immunocompromised. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 3 (3): 39-45.
  11. Hamadeh R, Ardehali A, Locksley RM, York MK. 1983. Fatal aspergillosis associated with smoking contaminated marijuana, in a marrow transplant recipient. Chest. 94(2): 432-433.
  12. http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=314-55-102

Understanding Dissolved Oxygen in Cannabis Cultivation

By Aaron G. Biros
3 Comments

Oxygen plays an integral role in plant photosynthesis, respiration and transpiration. Photosynthesis requires water from the roots making its way up the plant via capillary action, which is where oxygen’s job comes in. For both water and nutrient uptake, oxygen levels at the root tips and hairs is a controlling input. A plant converts sugar from photosynthesis to ATP in the respiration process, where oxygen is delivered from the root system to the leaf and plays a direct role in the process.

Charlie Hayes has a degree in biochemistry and spent the past 17 years researching and designing water treatment processes to improve plant health. Hayes is a biochemist and owner of Advanced Treatment Technologies, a water treatment solutions provider. In a presentation at the CannaGrow conference, Hayes discussed the various benefits of dissolved oxygen throughout the cultivation process. We sat down with Hayes to learn about the science behind improving cannabis plant production via dissolved oxygen.

In transpiration, water evaporates from a plant’s leaves via the stomata and creates a ‘transpirational pull,’ drawing water, oxygen and nutrients from the soil or other growing medium. That process helps cool the plant down, changes osmotic pressure in cells and enables a flow of water and nutrients up from the root system, according to Hayes.

Charlie Hayes, biochemist and owner of Advanced Treatment Technologies

Roots in an oxygen-rich environment can absorb nutrients more effectively. “The metabolic energy required for nutrient uptake come from root respiration using oxygen,” says Hayes. “Using high levels of oxygen can ensure more root mass, more fine root hairs and healthy root tips.” A majority of water in the plant is taken up by the fine root hairs and requires a lot of energy, and thus oxygen, to produce new cells.

So what happens if you don’t have enough oxygen in your root system? Hayes says that can reduce water and nutrient uptake, reduce root and overall plant growth, induce wilting (even outside of heat stress) in heat stress and reduce the overall photosynthesis and glucose transfer capabilities of the plant. Lower levels of dissolved oxygen also significantly reduce transpiration in the plant. Another effect that oxygen-deprived root systems can have is the production of ethylene, which can cause cells to collapse and make them more susceptible to disease. He says if you are having issues with unhealthy root systems, increasing the oxygen levels around the root system can improve root health. “Oxygen starved root tips can lead to a calcium shortage in the shoot,” says Hayes. “That calcium shortage is a common issue with a lack of oxygen, but in an oxygen-deprived environment, anaerobic organisms can attack the root system, which could present bigger problems.”

So how much dissolved oxygen do you need in the root system and how do you achieve that desired level? Hayes says the first step is getting a dissolved oxygen meter and probe to measure your baseline. The typical dissolved oxygen probe can detect from 20 up to 50 ppm and up to 500% saturation. That is a critical first step and tool in understanding dissolved oxygen in the root system. Another important tool to have is an oxidation-reduction potential meter (ORP meter), which indicates the level of residual oxidizer left in the water.

Their treatment system includes check valves that are OSHA and fire code-compliant.

Citing research and experience from his previous work, he says that health and production improvements in cannabis plateau at the 40-45 parts-per-million (ppm) of dissolved oxygen in the root zone. But to achieve those levels, growers need to start with an even higher level of dissolved oxygen in a treatment system to deliver that 40-45 ppm to the roots. “Let’s say for example with 3 ppm of oxygen in the root tissue and 6ppm of oxygen in the surrounding soil or growing medium, higher concentrations outside of the tissue would help drive absorption for the root system membrane,” says Hayes.

Reaching that 40-45 ppm range can be difficult however and there are a couple methods of delivering dissolved oxygen. The most typical method is aeration of water using bubbling or injecting air into the water. This method has some unexpected ramifications though. Oxygen is only one of many gasses in air and those other gasses can be much more soluble in water. Paying attention to Henry’s Law is important here. Henry’s Law essentially means that the solubility of gasses is controlled by temperature, pressure and concentration. For example, Hayes says carbon dioxide is up to twenty times more soluble than oxygen. That means the longer you aerate water, the higher concentration of carbon dioxide and lower concentration of oxygen over time.

Another popular method of oxidizing water is chemically. Some growers might use hydrogen peroxide to add dissolved oxygen to a water-based solution, but that can create a certain level of phytotoxicity that could be bad for root health.

Using ozone, Hayes says, is by far the most effective method of getting dissolved oxygen in water, (because it is 12 ½ times more soluble than oxygen). But just using an ozone generator will not effectively deliver dissolved oxygen at the target levels to the root system. In order to use ozone properly, you need a treatment system that can handle a high enough concentration of ozone, mix it properly and hold it in the solution, says Hayes. “Ozone is an inherently unstable molecule, with a half-life of 15 minutes and even down to 3-5 minutes, which is when it converts to dissolved oxygen,” says Hayes. Using a patented control vessel, Hayes can use a counter-current, counter-rotational liquid vortex to mix the solution under pressure after leaving a vacuum. Their system can produce two necessary tools for growers: highly ozonized water, which can be sent through the irrigation system to effectively destroy microorganisms and resident biofilms, and water with high levels of dissolved oxygen for use in the root system.