By Dr. Nadia Sabeh, Founder/President of Dr. Greenhouse
Controlling the environmental parameters of the indoor farm is essential to managing the productivity and health of your crop.
This presentation will discuss the critical roles that VPD, airflow, CO2, and other parameters play in the dynamic indoor environment, and we will review different systems and strategies you can use to manage them.
A project case study will be presented to demonstrate the costs associated with different climate management (HVAC) alternatives, including first cost, operating cost, maintenance, and crop productivity.
The technology portfolio, aimed at larger, commercial-scale growers, is essentially a network of monitors, sensors and controls that give cultivators real-time data on things like temperature, humidity, light, barometric pressure and other key factors. The idea of using IoT and hypersensitive monitoring is not new to horticulture, food or agriculture, but this is certainly a very new development for the cannabis growing space.
According to Brad Nattrass, chief executive officer and co-founder of urban-gro, it’s technology like this that’ll help growers control microclimates, helping them make the minor adjustments needed to ultimately improve yield and quality. “As ROI and optimized yields become increasingly important for commercial cultivators, the need for technologies that deliver rich granular data and real-time insights becomes critical,” says Nattrass. “With the ability to comprehensively sense, monitor, and control the microclimates throughout your facility in real-time, cultivators will be able to make proactive decisions to maximize yields.”
One of the more exciting aspects of this platform is the integration of sensors, and controls with automation. With the system monitoring and controlling fertigation, lighting and climate, it can detect when conditions are not ideal, which gives a cultivator valuable insights for directing pest management or HVAC decisions, according to Dan Droller, vice president of corporate development with urban-gro. “As we add more data, for example, adding alerts for when temperatures falls or humidity spikes can tell a grower to be on the lookout for powdery mildew,” says Droller. “We saw a corner of a bench get hot in the system’s monitoring, based on predefined alerts, which told us a bench fan was broken.” Hooking up a lot of these nodes and sensors with IoT and their platform allows the grower to get real-time monitoring on the entire operation, from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Droller says using more and more sensors creates super high-density data, which translates to being able to see a problem quickly and regroup on the fly. “Cannabis growers need to maintain ideal conditions, usually they do that with a handful of sensors right now,” says Droller. “They get peace of mind based on two or three sensors sending data points back. Our technology scales to the plant and bench level, connecting all of the aggregate data in one automated system.”
In the future, urban-gro is anticipating this will lay the groundwork for using artificial intelligence to learn when controls need to be adjusted based on the monitoring. Droller hopes to see the data from environmental conditions mapped with yield and by strain type, which could allow for ultra-precise breeding based on environmental conditions. “As we add more and more data and develop the platform further, we can deliver some elements of AI in the future, with increased controls and more scientific data,” says Droller.
Controlling your grow environment doesn’t start when you germinate your first seeds, it starts before you build your grow. There are steps you can take that will have a significant impact on mold growth and contamination, and these will vary based on the grow environment you choose.
Below is a roadmap to where each grow environment stands in terms of mold and contamination risk, and simple steps you can take to mitigate these factors.
The benefits of an outdoor grow are significant – using natural sunlight to grow plants is both inexpensive and environmentally sound. However, it allows the least amount of control and makes plants susceptible to weather conditions and outdoor contaminants including dust, wind, rain and insects. Depending on humidity and precipitation levels, mold can be a big issue as well.
When selecting an outdoor area for a cannabis farm, there are two important factors to consider: location and neighboring farmland. Geographical environments and sub-climates vary and once you have purchased land, you are committed, so be sure to consider these factors prior to purchase.
While arid desert climates have abundant sunlight and long growing seasons, flat, dry lands are subject to dust-storms, flash floods and exceedingly high winds that can damage crops. Conversely, more protected areas often have high humidity and rainfall late in the season, which can create huge issues with bud rot and mold. Neighboring farms also have an impact on your grow, so be sure to find out what they cultivate, what they spray, their harvest schedule and how they run their operation. Large farming equipment kicks up a lot of contaminant-laden dust and can damage crops by displacing insects to your farm if they harvest before you. Pesticide drift is also a major issue as even tiny amounts from a neighbor’s farm can cause your crops to fail testing, depending on what state you are in.
With outdoor grow environments always at the mercy of Mother Nature, any cultivator is wise to control contamination potential on the ground. Cover soil and protect your crop by planting cover crops and laying plastic mulch on as much ground as reasonable. In many cases it makes sense to irrigate uncultivated parts of your farm just to keep dust down.
Greenhouses are the future of cannabis cultivation. They allow growers to capture the full spectrum and power of the sun while lessening environmental impact and operating expenses, while still being able to precisely control the environment to grow great cannabis. With recent advancements in greenhouse technology such as automated control systems, positive pressure, geothermal heating or cooling and LED supplemental lighting, greenhouses are the future. However, older or economy greenhouses that take in unfiltered air from outside still have a medium amount of mold and contamination risk.
Before building your greenhouse, study the area while taking into account climate, weather conditions and sun exposure. Excessively windy areas can blow in contaminants, and extremely hot climates make cooling the greenhouse interior a challenging and costly endeavor.
There are several simple operational tactics to reduce contaminants in a greenhouse. Add a thrip screen to keep insects out, thoroughly clean pad walls with an oxidizing agent after each cycle, and keep plants at least 10 feet from pad walls. Plan to flip the entire greenhouse at once so that you can clean the greenhouse top to bottom before your next crop. A continuous harvest in your greenhouse allows contaminants to jump from one plant to the next and reduces the ability to control your environment and eliminate problems at the end of a cycle. Lastly, open shade curtains slowly in the morning. This prevents temperature inversion and condensation, which can cause water drops to fall from the ceiling and transfer contaminants onto plants below.
An indoor environment offers ultimate control to any grow operation. Cultivators can grow high-quality cannabis with the smallest potential for yeast and mold growth. Unfortunately, indoor environments are extremely expensive, inefficient and environmentally costly.
With indoor grow environments, keeping mold and contaminants at bay comes down to following a regimented plan that keeps all grow aspects clean and in order. To keep your grow environment clean, change HVAC filters multiple times a month. It’s also important to install HEPA filters and UV lights in HVAC systems to further reduce contamination threats. Clearly mark air returns if they are near the ground and keep those areas free of clutter. They are the lungs of your grow. Also, stop using brooms in the grow space. They stir up a lot of contaminants that have settled to the floor. Instead, use HEPA filter backpack vacuums or install a central vacuum system. Set up a “dirty room” for anything messy on a separate HVAC system, and be sure to thoroughly clean pots after every harvest cycle.
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.
New Frontier, a financial data analysis firm, recently released a report that caused a media frenzy over the cannabis industry’s alarmingly high energy bill. The Washington Post published an article with the headline “The Surprisingly Huge Energy Footprint of the Booming Marijuana Industry.” Denver news publication, Westword, posted an article with the headline “Legal Marijuana Used Over $6 Billion in Energy Last Year, Report Says.” There are dozens of articles published suggesting the legal cannabis industry’s energy consumption has a $6 billion price tag, which is misleading.
What’s the problem? The $6 billion figure that New Frontier cites comes from a 2012 research study that estimates the energy footprint for legal and illicit markets. That means the $6 billion estimate includes the legal cannabis industry and the black market’s energy footprint. To put it in perspective, the size of the entire legal cannabis industry in the United States was less than that in 2014 at $4.6 billion, according to the ArcView Group.
According to Giadha Aguirre DeCarcer, founder and chief executive officer of New Frontier, only including the legal market would significantly reduce the size of this estimate. “Dr. Mills’ study looked to assess the total energy use associated with marijuana in the US, not just that of the nascent legal marijuana industry; including this holistic view is an important growth determinant for the legal market as the U.S. transitions from a predominantly illicit production environment,” says Decarcer.
Dr. Evan Mills, energy analyst at the Department of Energy and member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, conducted the 2012 research study and is a senior advisor on the New Frontier report.
Brett Roper, founder and chief operating officer at Medicine Man Technologies, believes those numbers still need to be adjusted. “Dr. Mills’ study is based on pre-2011 data and sources that date back as far as 2003,” says Roper. “The study provides figures that are, quite frankly, outdated based upon changes in the industry related to cultivation and production efficiency.” The study focuses on cultivation increments of sixteen square feet consuming 13,000 KW per year that, according to Roper, is not reflective of current indoor cultivation technology and energy consumption metrics.
According to Roper, today’s efficiencies, scalable cultivation operations and new technology could explain the overestimate from five years ago. “We are a Tier III operator that produced approximately 5,100 (+/-) pounds of dried cured flower in 2015 and have a total power bill of approximately $420,000 for the year,” he says. Note that the company had roughly $18 million in revenue in 2015. “Using this metric we have a total energy billing of approximately $83 per pound grown.” According to Roper, they cultivate completely indoors with HPS lights that are not particularly energy-efficient, so this estimate is relatively conservative.
Dr. Mills’ research cites much higher numbers for the cost of energy per pound of finished product than Roper’s findings. “From the perspective of a producer, the national-average annual energy costs are approximately $5500 per module or $2500 per kilogram [roughly 2.2 pounds] of finished product,” says Dr. Mills. That would suggest the average cost of energy for indoor growing to be above $1,000 per pound, roughly half the current average wholesale price. These numbers would mean that cannabis growers, on average, lose roughly 50% of their total revenue to their energy bill. Medicine Man Technologies’ energy usage is less than 3% of their total revenue.
The New Frontier report does provide caveats on the use of Dr. Mills’ research. “While this analysis was conducted before many of the recent advancements in cultivation technologies, it highlights the significant energy-related environmental impact of marijuana production, and makes the issue of energy efficiency not just one of competitive advantage but also one of environmental sustainability.”
New Frontier’s CEO, DeCarcer, stresses that their report is intended to serve as a starting point to a much broader exploration of energy use in cannabis. “We are already in the process of establishing a partnership through which New Frontier will ingest real time energy-use data from cultivators across different legal markets for analysis in our next report,” says DeCarcer. “Our goal is to build on the work done by Dr. Mills and others in order to ensure that we are providing the most accurate representation of where the industry currently is, and where it is headed.”
Regardless of the discrepancies, this kind of discourse is great for prompting innovation and getting people to think about the environment. It is very important to examine the energy footprint of cannabis cultivation as it raises questions regarding energy efficiency, which would help the industry’s long-term environmental sustainability.
In the second part of this series, I speak with Alex Cooley, vice president of Solstice, to find out what particular solutions growers can use to increase efficiency. Last month, I introduced the challenge of growing cannabis more sustainably. To recap, I raised the issue of sustainability as an economic, social and environmental problem and referenced recent pesticide issues in Colorado and carbon footprint estimates of growing cannabis.
“Switching to outdoors or greenhouse will always be more sustainable than indoor, but depending on the type of facility, energy efficiency and specifically lighting should be at top of mind,” says Cooley. “Just looking at your bottom line, it is cheaper to use energy efficient lighting sources such as plasma or LED lighting, which will reduce your need for air conditioning and your overall energy consumption.”
Looking into sustainable technologies is one of the quicker ways to improve your overall efficiency. “We are big believers in VRF [variable refrigerant flow] HVAC systems because it is one of the most energy efficient ways to cool a large space in the world,” adds Cooley. “Use a smart water filtration system that gets away from wasting water by catching condensate off AC and dehumidifiers, filtering and then reusing that water.”
Utilizing your waste streams is another relatively simple and cost effective practice to grow cannabis sustainably. “Our soil and biomass goes through a composting company, we recapture any of our waste fertilizer and runoff for reuse,” says Cooley. “We try to use post-consumer or fully recyclable packaging to reduce what would go into the waste streams.”
So some of the low hanging fruit to improve your bottom line and overall sustainability, according to Alex Cooley, include things like reusing materials, composting, increasing energy efficiency and saving water. These are some of the easily implementable standard operating procedures that directly address inefficiency in your operation.
In the next part of this series, I will discuss Terra Tech’s approach to sustainable cultivation, which utilizes the “Dutch hydroponic greenhouse model” on a large scale growing produce such as thyme and basil, but are now taking their technologies and expertise to the cannabis industry. I will also discuss the benefits of using a third party certification, Clean Green Certified, to not only help grow cannabis more ecofriendly, but also market your final product as such. Stay tuned for more in Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016, Part III.
A few weeks ago, it was that time of the year when people set new year’s resolutions hoping to accomplish a set of goals or somehow better themselves. More often than not, those expectations never get met and those resolutions remain unfulfilled, lofty ambitions.
The cultivation of cannabis is a production process that is notoriously inefficient and energy-intensive. Indoor growing requires a very large carbon footprint. In 2015, we saw the country’s cannabis market grow to roughly $2.7 billion. Looking forward to 2016, we can expect more growth with multiple states voting on recreational sales including California and Nevada, leading to more growers and a higher volume of cannabis production across the nation.
I am suggesting a resolution for cultivators to adopt: Grow your cannabis more sustainably. This might seem unattainable, but the key to a good resolution is a force of habit, setting small goals to improve your production process and make your operation more efficient, ultimately saving you money and reducing your carbon footprint. This series will delve into some of the tools cultivators can use to grow cannabis more sustainably.
Environmental, social and economic sustainability are the three pillars of sustainability to keep in mind. Many describe it in terms of people, planet and profit in reference to the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Essentially, cultivators should adjust their standard operating procedures and business model to include their responsibility to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.
The challenge of growing cannabis efficiently is understandably daunting. A research study published in the journal, Energy Policy, suggests, “One average kilogram of final product [dried flower marijuana] is associated with 4600 kg of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.” That translates to an enormous carbon footprint, the equivalent of roughly three million cars.
The use of pesticides is also a tangible social and environmental issue of sustainability because of the potentially harmful effects on the cultivation environment and the consumer. Just last week, Denver recalled almost 100,000 edibles due to concerns of dangerous pesticide residue. Growing pesticide-free marijuana is more sustainable across the board for obvious reasons; it is safe for the consumer, less harmful to the environment and more marketable as a clean and safe product.
There are a lot of tools in the cultivator’s arsenal they can use to work toward a more sustainable operation. Some of these include more energy efficient technology, like LED lighting and efficient HVAC systems. Some tools require more effort to implement like moving toward greenhouse growing, using post-consumer products, support fields, composting and others.
In this series, we will hear from growers offering advice on some of the steps you can take to grow your cannabis with sustainability at top of mind. Alex Cooley, vice president of Solstice, a cultivation and processing business in Washington, will share some insights on the sustainable technologies you can implement to improve efficiency in your grow operation. Stay tuned for Part II of Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016.
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