Last week at the MJBizCon, a major cannabis industry event held annually in Las Vegas, urban-gro launched the first technology line for cannabis growers utilizing Internet-of-Things (IoT). urban-gro, a cultivation technology company for commercial-scale growers, announced the launch of announced Soleil® Technologies, an integrated portfolio of hardware, software, and services that uses IoT.
“The solution suite includes per-plant sensing, environmental monitoring, machine diagnostics, fertigation management, lighting controls, inventory management, and seed-to-sale tracking,” reads the press release. IoT is essentially a network of devices embedded with sensors and software that allow the devices to connect and exchange data. IoT devices are used extensively in the food industry, including for integrated pest management, restaurant food safety and management and tracking product conditions such as temperature and humidity throughout the supply chain, among other uses.
Soleil consists of three primary lines:
Soleil 360 is the cloud-based software-as-a-service (SASS) platform that integrates all Soleil solutions.
Soleil Sense is the brand for all of urban-gro’s low-power wireless sensors that deliver data with the scale, precision and resolution needed for analytics and machine learning.
Soleil Controls is urban-gro’s product set for climate and irrigation controls, lighting systems, and other focused controls.
The core, low-power sensor that makes this unique was licensed from Edyza, a wireless innovator that specializes in low-power wireless grids that scale. urban-gro then developed on top of that sensor, including its cloud-based management, analytics, what the sensors detect and cover, etc., to make it ideal for cannabis growers.
According to Brad Nattrass, urban-gro’s chief executive officer, finding an IoT solution that can easily scale was a key goal for their business. “When evaluating the most advanced market-ready sensor technology available, it was crucial that we deliver a solution that can easily scale to thousands of sensors in order to satisfy the needs of large-scale commercial cultivators,” says Nattrass. “The introduction of Soleil demonstrates urban-gro’s commitment to going beyond simply supplying equipment, to truly serving our clients as an ongoing technological innovator and advisor, enabling cultivators to leverage today’s more advanced technologies to rise above the competition.”
“Cultivators will be able to monitor substrate moisture and EC (electrical conductivity) levels on a per plant basis, as well as track key environmental metrics like temperature, humidity, air movement, and probability of infestation,” reads the press release. “With multiple device options, cultivators can choose between several deployment options.” With the data hosted on the cloud, users can access it through web browsers, Android and iOS devices.
According to Jay Nichols, a representative of urban-gro, they have hired (and is hiring) code developers, product developers, etc. in order to expand this unit. Plant sensors are just one piece of the system, with the goal to automate the entire cultivation process, including controlling lights, pest management, irrigation and fertigation. They say it will be available in late Q1/early Q2.
I recently attended the CannaGrow Expo held in Denver, Colorado. It was a fantastic event, per usual, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of presentations by industry experts where the central themes were sustainability and environmental stewardship. I was particularly struck by Adam Maher’s presentation, where he discussed the merits of micro grid technologies and the ease in which they can be coupled with renewable energy modalities, such as solar. His sentiments really resonated with me, particularly with respect to the long-term implications of cannabis cultivation sweeping across North America.
Considering that cannabis represents the new frontier of modern medicine and its societal acceptance is rapidly spreading, there is a growing impetus for cannabis professionals to implement technologies that will enhance the sustainability of their operations. These pertain to, but are not limited to, power generation and lighting, both of which are integral components to any indoor cannabis cultivation facility. Not only can the utilization of energy efficient technologies (i.e., solar panels and LED lights) help our planet that is struggling mightily to neutralize the influences of anthropogenic climate change, but it can also add value to the bottom line. That’s right: environmental stewardship, product quality and financial success are not mutually exclusive in the cannabis industry. For example, the utilization of solar panels and/or a micro grid can have a relatively rapid payback (<6 years), while the hardware itself adds inherent value to any cannabis property/operation. This is particularly relevant in an emerging market where acquisitions are common and the management of asset value is a harbinger of success. Secondarily, the use of LED lighting technologies to produce ultra-premium cannabis is another piece of low-hanging fruit that can be picked to add value. For example, 1st and 2nd place in Arizona’s 2017 ERRL Cup were awarded to flower that was grown under LED lights designed by the Tall Trees LED Company, where the total cannabinoid levels exceeded 32% and a wide variety of terpenes were detected. These results, coupled with the fact that LED lights can provide full spectrum light that requires less energy and produces less heat than HPS lights, make the adoption of LED lights a simple choice for the environmentally conscious and financially savvy operator.
As we continue to move towards more states becoming cannabis powerhouses, and a potential federal rescheduling, the industry must continue pushing the operational equilibrium towards more resourceful technologies. Of course there is always going to be a perceived activation energy or threshold that must be transcended before the adoption of new technologies can be successfully accomplished with confidence. This is completely normal and is usually associated with the initial capital that is required to acquire such technologies, and/or fears that such an investment won’t bear fruit. However, there is currently enough data to indicate that technologies like solar panels and LED lights are a smart financial choice for any cultivation facility where there is sunlight and electrical outlets.
In summary, I would strongly encourage any operator to evaluate the sustainability and environmental stewardship of their business, especially if they anticipate spreading the holistic gospel of cannabis medicine for many years to come. You are already doing a tremendous service for those who depend on cannabis medicine and now is the time to continue your noble pursuit while taking care of Mother Earth and paying it forward to our subsequent generations.
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.
The preferred choice for indoor cannabis growing has long been high-pressure sodium (HPS) 1000-watt light bulbs during flowering. Light-emitting diodes (LED) are quickly changing the indoor farming landscape with innovative technologies and promising energy savings. Many think the technology still needs time to develop. There are certainly many pros and cons to switching an indoor cultivation facility from HPS to LED lighting systems.
Steve Kruss, president of Light-Waves Electronics, Inc., gave a comprehensive analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of various light sources at the CannaGrow Conference and Expo. “The first adopters [of LED light technology] more than two years ago did not get the results they wanted, so many growers gave them a bad rap very early on,” says Kruss. His discussion delved into the pros and cons of both LED and HPS lights in growing cannabis.
It is important to highlight the weaknesses in many common HPS systems and the possible solutions that LED technology could offer. According to Kruss, HPS lights do not match the light spectrum’s photosynthesis curve that plants need to absorb energy. HPS lights give off a tremendous amount of heat that requires more energy to cool a facility down with an HVAC system, increasing energy costs for growers. Since LED’s use 50% less wattage, they produce approximately 50% less heat, significantly reducing cooling costs. HPS light bulbs need to be replaced multiple times per year. Quality LED fixtures can last more than 50,000 hours, or roughly eleven years. “The reality is HPS is putting a lot of light out but that energy is wasted because so much of it is in a light spectrum that plants do not absorb,” says Kruss. Perhaps most important is the lack of ability to vary the light spectrum; any light that HPS bulbs produce that the plant does not absorb is essentially wasted energy.
LED light bulbs provide a solution to the wasted light in HPS by targeting the particular spectrum that plants need for photosynthesis. By targeting the photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), roughly 400-700nm, LEDs can effectively mimic the sun’s ability to produce the wavelength of light specifically needed in a certain stage of cultivation. The absorption spectra and action spectra are wavelengths of light preferable for harvest as well as plant growth and metabolism, respectively. LED manufacturers and growers commonly try to harness the Emerson Effect, which uses red (670nm) and far red (700nm) to increase the rate of photosynthesis.
The benefits of LED lights in growing cannabis are numerous. The primary benefit is that it provides light at the specific wavelengths chosen to match the specific needs of plants. When finely tuned, LEDs can influence the growth process by slowing down vegetative plant growth and inducing flowering when appropriate. LEDs are more energy efficient than their counterparts partially because they give off substantially less heat in the beam itself, reducing cooling costs. Some growers use LEDs together with HPS lights, some use LEDs with natural sunlight in a greenhouse setting and some use strictly LEDs for the entire growth cycle. Each cultivation operation has its own budgetary restraints and structural limitations, but energy efficiency is one area that all growers should look to improve. According to Adam Koh, chief cultivation officer of Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C), indoor growers can get away with T5 fluorescent lamps (which do not consume much energy) throughout the vegetative process.
For some, the debate is over and growers recognize the added benefits that LEDs bring to growing cannabis. According to Kruss, LED technology is almost there. “In terms of yields, LED lights are providing around 75% of the weight that HPS produces, but on the vegetative side, the growth is considerably faster which could make up for that weight loss with faster grow cycles and an extra harvest,” says Kruss.
Adam Jacques, award-winning grower and founder of Growers’ Guild Gardens, has used LEDs in tandem with sunlight. Him and his team have bred and grown cannabis in indoor, greenhouse and outdoor operations. “I love the huge steps that some LED manufacturers have made in the past year,” says Jacques. “When I utilize them within a greenhouse setting I really like the product it grows.” Jacques’ findings in the field echo Kruss’ statements that LED lights have made considerable progress very recently. “It does take a little dialing in due to the plants’ increased feeding regiment, but it is a small price to pay for all of the benefits we see,” adds Jacques. His success with the new technology is representative of a larger trend; more and more growers are beginning to implement LEDs in some form.
Maxx Wiley and Robert Manes, co-founders of Tall Trees LED Company based in Arizona, believe their technology is on par with the yields other growers are getting with different light sources. “We conducted heads-up tests with our 500-watt LEDs versus other 1000-watt HPS bulbs and have seen very impressive results,” says Wiley. “The plants under our lights were consistently getting more weight and more flowers; the flowers appeared smaller but were actually denser and heavier in reality.” Wiley’s company makes commercial LED luminaires that are IP 65 waterproof rated and he claims they never had any issues with failures. The technology uses no moving parts to cool the lights, just metal clad circuit boards, heat sinks and conductive thermal-bonding materials. “We have had customers run potency analyses and have found tremendous variation in plants grown with HPS,” says Wiley. “We see more compound production and more consistency crop-to-crop with our LED technology.” There are currently a handful of manufacturers bringing innovative designs to market.
GS Thermal Solutions, based in Connecticut, manufactures 1000-watt LED fixtures that are liquid-cooled. The company makes lights that are fully adjustable, so growers can dial in each spectrum of light intensity independently and tailor to specific strains as well as stages of growth. According to Rick Rhyins, vice president of sales at GS Thermal Solutions, the liquid cooling technology allows for a much longer lifetime of the LED and a much more efficient energy consumption. “Our technology addresses the shortcomings and previous problems with early generation LED models,” says Rhyins. Coupled with facility automation, GS Thermal Solutions uses a central control system to monitor cooling, light intensity and spectra, nutrient monitoring and feed control.
Yet some are still skeptical of the LED lighting in today’s market and feel the technology is not there yet. Nic Easley, chief executive officer of Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C), has brought over sixty cultivation operations to market and is hesitant to endorse the technology at this point. “I will never be an early adopter when it comes to new lighting technology and I feel we are at least a year out from seeing consistently efficient LED lighting,” says Easley. “There are still a lot of false claims out there and I want to wait until I see repeatable results on a small scale before I feel comfortable endorsing LED lights for cannabis cultivation.” While companies will continue to innovate lighting solutions for indoor cultivation, in many cases (but not all) it seems using the sun to grow cannabis would be more energy efficient.
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.