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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.

Safety & Efficacy: Ensuring Dosing Accuracy for Infused Products

By Amy Davison
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Complications with dosing inaccuracies in the cannabis industry has always been a hot topic. In 2014, The Cannabist tested several Colorado infused products only to find that the results were different from what was indicated on the label. While the industry has come a long way at the state level since then, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association this past November found that 26 percent of CBD products sold online contained less CBD than the label. Similar to when you buy a bottle of wine or ibuprofen, people should be able to trust product labels.

Process validation in action at the Stratos facility
Process validation in action at the Stratos facility
(image credit: Lucy Beaugard)

There are processes that cannabis-infused product manufacturers can adopt to solve this issue. Incorporating process validation establishes reproducible customer experiences while in-process controls create product consistency and potency reliability. These operational and compliance techniques originated in the pharmaceutical industry and will undoubtedly become the future gold standard for best practices with cannabis manufacturers.

Product testing alone cannot assess quality for an entire lot or batch of product; therefore, each step of the manufacturing process must be controlled through Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). Process validation is an aspect of GMPs used by the pharmaceutical industry to create consistency in a product’s quality, safety and efficacy. There are three main stages to process validation: process design, process qualification and continued process verification. Implementing these stages ensures that quality, including dosing accuracy, is maintained for each manufactured batch of product.

Validation: Step 1

Process design, the first phase of process validation, defines the manufacturing process based on previous product development and process research. The appropriate equipment, instruments and materials are selected as part of process design. Both standard operating procedures for equipment and operations as well as batch records for manufacturing steps are also finalized during this phase. The batch record must include critical process parameters (CPP), the parameters that must be maintained in order to produce product that consistently meets specified criteria. Mixing speed and time, temperature, pressure and flow rate are examples of common CPP. Training production personnel is also defined and performed as part of process design. Operators are trained on operating procedures and batch records in order to learn how to make the product successfully.

Process validation can help ensure accurate dosing.
Process validation can help ensure accurate dosing. (image credit: Lucy Beaugard)

Validation: Step 2

Process qualification, the next stage of process validation, is performed to evaluate the capability of a process for reproducible and robust manufacturing. Because reproducibility of a process cannot be fully assessed with a single batch, evaluation is typically performed on a minimum of three separate batches. For each batch included in the process qualification, the frequency and number of samples are increased over normal sampling to provide a more thorough assessment of each batch. The testing includes visual inspection for defects as well as quantitative tests such as weight or volume and potency. In addition to composite sampling, which is performed by combining samples from multiple time points throughout a batch (e.g. beginning, middle and end) to assess a batch as a whole, stratified sampling is performed. Stratified samples are taken from specified points throughout a batch, and rather than being combined, the samples are tested separately to indicate consistency throughout a given batch.

The Stratos product lineup- validation helped produce each of these consistently.

In addition to evaluating the reproducibility of a process, tests for robustness are performed during process qualification to demonstrate how changes in a process may impact the product. It is important to use different operators for performing manufacturing steps to ensure changes in personnel do not affect product quality. Switching out equipment and instruments will also reveal any sensitivities in a process. For example, when a different oven, mixer or tablet press is used, are the appearance, texture and potency impacted? If the product remains the same, that points toward the process being robust. Challenging the CPP will also provide important feedback regarding a process. If a step requires a temperature range of 50° – 70°C, it is recommended that the process be tested at the low end and high end of the range, to ensure the final product meets all required specifications. If the range assigned to a unit’s gross weight is 500 g ± 5%, then testing at 475 g and 525 g will offer more insight into how much variance the process truly can withstand.

Validation: Step 3

Once the process has been assessed for reproducibility and robustness, it transitions to continued process verification, which is the third and final stage of Process Validation. Performance of quality checks during each batch for the life of a product is part of this final stage. For infused products such as tablets, these checks include appearance – the tablets are the color and shape indicated by the batch record and they include the required imprint(s); weight – the tablets are within the specified weight range, which indicates correct tablet size and consistency of ingredients; hardness – tablets will dissolve/disintegrate for proper dosing; and friability – tablets will withstand stress of routine handling.

As your company grows in manufacturing volume, each of these three steps will become critical to safeguard against any inconsistencies. As we know in this industry, our most valuable asset is our license and success can be negatively impacted based on meeting compliance. Dedicating an internal role within quality and compliance will serve to future-proof your business against additional rules and regulations that are likely to come.

control the room environment

Environmental Controls: The Basics

By Vince Sebald
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control the room environment

The outside environment can vary widely depending on where your facility is located. However, the internal environment around any activity can have an effect on that activity and any personnel performing the activity, whether that’s storage, manufacturing, testing, office work, etc. These effects can, in turn, affect the product of such activities. Environmental control strategies aim to ensure that the environment supports efforts to keep product quality high in a manner that is economical and sensible, regardless of the outside weather conditions.

For this article, let us define the “environment” as characteristics related to the room air in which an activity is performed, setting aside construction and procedural conditions that may also affect the activity. Also, let us leave the issue of managing toxins or potent compounds for another time (as well as lighting, noise, vibration, air flow, differential pressures, etc). The intent here is to focus on the basics: temperature, humidity and a little bit on particulate counts.

Temperature and humidity are key because a non-suitable environment can result in the following problems:

  • Operator discomfort
  • Increased operator error
  • Difficulty in managing products (e.g. powders, capsules, etc)
  • Particulate generation
  • Degradation of raw materials
  • Product contamination
  • Product degradation
  • Microbial and mold growth
  • Excessive static

USP <659> “Packaging and Storage Requirements” identifies room temperature as 20-25°C (68-77 °F) and is often used as a guideline for operations. If gowning is required, the temperature may be reduced to improve operator comfort. This is a good guide for human working areas. For areas that require other specific temperatures (e.g. refrigerated storage for raw materials), the temperature of the area should be set to those requirements.

Humidity can affect activities at the high end by allowing mold growth and at the low end by increasing static. Some products (or packaging materials) are hydroscopic, and will take on water from a humid environment. Working with particular products (e.g. powders) can also drive the requirement for better humidity control, since some powders become difficult to manage in either high or low humidity environments. For human operations without other constraints, a typical range for desirable humidity is in the range of 20 to 70% RH in manufacturing areas, allowing for occasional excursions above. As in the case of temperature, other requirements may dictate a different range.

control the room environment
In some cases, a locally controlled environment is a good option to reduce the need to control the room environment as tightly or to protect the operator.

In a typical work environment, it is often sufficient to control the temperature, while allowing the relative humidity to vary. If the humidity does not exceed the limits for the activity, then this approach is preferred, because controlling humidity adds a level of complexity (and cost) to the air handling. If humidity control is required, it can be managed by adding moisture via various humidification systems, or cooling/reheating air to remove moisture. When very low humidity is required, special equipment such as a desiccant system may be required. It should be noted that although you can save money by not implementing humidity control at the beginning, retrofitting your system for humidity control at a later time can be expensive and require a shutdown of the facility.

Good engineering practice can help prevent issues that may be caused by activities performed in inappropriately controlled environments. The following steps can help manage the process:

  • Plan your operations throughout your facility, taking into account the requirements for the temperature and humidity in each area and know what activities are most sensitive to the environment. Plans can change, so plan for contingencies whenever possible.
  • Write down your requirements in a User Requirement Specification (URS) to a level of detail that is sufficient for you to test against once the system is built. This should include specific temperature and RH ranges. You may have additional requirements. Don’t forget to include requirements for instrumentation that will allow you to monitor the temperature and RH of critical areas. This instrumentation should be calibrated.
  • Solicit and select proposals for work based on the URS that you have generated. The contractor will understand the weather in the area and can ensure that the system can meet your requirements. A good contractor can also further assist with other topics that are not within the scope of this article (particulates, differential pressures, managing heating or humidity generating equipment effects, etc).
  • Once work is completed, verify correct operation using the calibrated instrumentation provided, and make sure you add periodic calibration of critical equipment, as well as maintenance of your mechanical system(s), to your calibration and maintenance schedules, to keep everything running smoothly.

The main point is if you plan your facility and know your requirements, then you can avoid significant problems down the road as your company grows and activity in various areas increases. Chances are that a typical facility may not meet your particular requirements, and finding that out after you are operational can take away from your vacation time and peace of mind. Consider the environment, its good business!

HACCP

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) for the Cannabis Industry: Part 1

By Kathy Knutson, Ph.D.
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HACCP

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Defined

Farm-to-fork is a concept to describe the control of food safety starting in the fields of a farm and ending with deliciousness in my mouth. The more that is optimized at every step, the more food safety and quality are realized. Farm-to-fork is not a concept reserved for foodies or “eat local” food campaigns and applies to all scales of food manufacture. HACCP is like putting the last piece of a huge puzzle in the middle and seeing the whole picture develop. HACCP is a program to control food safety at the step of food processing. In states where cannabis is legal, the state department of public health or state department of agriculture may require food manufacturers to have a HACCP plan. The HACCP plan is a written document identifying food safety hazards and how those hazards are controlled by the manufacturer. While there are many resources available for writing a HACCP plan, like solving that puzzle, it is a do-it-yourself project. You can’t use someone else’s “puzzle,” and you can’t put the box on a shelf and say you have a “puzzle.”

HACCP is pronounced “ha” as in “hat” plus “sip.”

(Say it aloud.)

3-2-1 We have liftoff.

The history of HACCP starts not with Adam eating in the garden of Eden but with the development of manned missions to the moon, the race to space in the 1950s. Sorry to be gross, but imagine an astronaut with vomiting and diarrhea as a result of foodborne illness. In the 1950s, the food industry relied on finished product testing to determine safety. Testing is destructive of product, and there is no amount of finished product testing that will determine food is safe enough for astronauts. Instead, the food industry built safety into the process. Temperature was monitored and recorded. Acidity measured by pH is an easy test. Rather than waiting to test the finished product in its sealed package, the food industry writes specifications for ingredients, ensures equipment is clean and sanitized, and monitors processing and packaging. HACCP was born first for astronauts and now for everyone.HACCP

HACCP is not the only food safety program.

If you are just learning about HACCP, it is a great place to start! There is a big world of food safety programs. HACCP is required by the United States Department of Agriculture for meat processors. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires HACCP for seafood processing and 100% juice manufacture. For all foods beyond meat, seafood and juice, FDA has the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) to enforce food safety. FSMA was signed in 2011 and became enforceable for companies with more than 500 employees in September of 2016; all food companies are under enforcement in September 2018. FSMA requires all food companies with an annual revenue greater than $1 million to follow a written food safety plan. Both FDA inspectors and industry professionals are working to meet the requirements of FSMA. There are also national and international guidelines for food safety with elements of HACCP which do not carry the letter of law.

The first step in HACCP is a hazard analysis.

Traditionally HACCP has focused on processing and packaging. Your organization may call that manufacturing or operations. In a large facility there is metering of ingredients by weight or volume and mixing. A recipe or batch sheet is followed. Most, but not all, products have a kill step where high heat is applied through roasting, baking, frying or canning. The food is sealed in packaging, labeled, boxed and heads out for distribution. For your hazard analysis, you identify the potential hazards that could cause injury or illness, if not controlled during processing. Think about all the potential hazards:

  • Biological: What pathogens are you killing in the kill step? What pathogens could get in to the product before packaging is sealed?
  • Chemical: Pesticides, industrial chemicals, mycotoxins and allergens are concerns.
  • Physical: Evaluate the potential for choking hazards and glass, wood, hard plastic and metal.

The hazards analysis drives everything you do for food safety.

I cannot emphasize too much the importance of the hazard analysis. Every food safety decision is grounded in the hazard analysis. Procedures will be developed and capital will be purchased based on the hazard analysis and control of food safety in your product. There is no one form for the completion of a hazard analysis.

HACCP risk matrix
A risk severity matrix. Many HACCP training programs have these.

So where do you start? Create a flow diagram naming all the steps in processing and packaging. If your flow diagram starts with Receiving of ingredients, then the next step is Storage of ingredients; include packaging with Receiving and Storage. From Storage, ingredients and packaging are gathered for a batch. Draw out the processing steps in order and through to Packaging. After Packaging, there is finished product Storage and Distribution. Remember HACCP focuses on the processing and packaging steps. It is not necessary to detail each step on the flow diagram, just name the step, e.g. Mixing, Filling, Baking, etc. Other supporting documents have the details of each step.

For every step on the flow diagram, identify hazards.

Transfer the name of the step to the hazard analysis form of your choice. Focus on one step at a time. Identify biological, chemical and physical hazards, if any, at that step. The next part is tricky. For each hazard identified, determine the probability of the hazard occurring and severity of illness or injury. Some hazards are easy like allergens. If you have an ingredient that contains an allergen, the probability is high. Because people can die from ingestion of allergens when allergic, the severity is high. Allergens are a hazard you must control. What about pesticides? What is the probability and severity? I can hear you say that you are going to control pesticides through your purchasing agreements. Great! Pesticides are still a hazard to identify in your hazard analysis. What you do about the hazard is up to you.

photo of outdoor grow operation

How to Reduce Mold & Contaminants in Indoor, Greenhouse and Outdoor Grows

By Ketch DeGabrielle
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photo of outdoor grow operation

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.

Outdoor

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.

Outdoor growing has obvious benefits, such as natural sunlight, but may also require extra steps to prevent contamination

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.

Greenhouse

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.

A greenhouse grow facility

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.

Indoor

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.

Talltrees
An indoor cannabis operation set up (Image: Tall Trees LED Company)

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.

Learn more about reducing mold and contaminants in an indoor or greenhouse grow in another article from our series: 10 Ways to Reduce Mold in Your Grow.

10 Ways to Reduce Mold in Your Grow

By Ketch DeGabrielle
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Regardless of whether your grow is indoor or in a greenhouse, mold is a factor that all cultivators must consider.

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

After weeks of careful tending, pruning and watering to encourage a strong harvest, all cultivators are looking to sell their crop for the highest market value. A high mold presence, measured through a total yeast and mold count (TYMC), can cause a change of plans by decreasing crop value. But it doesn’t have to.

There are simple steps that any cultivator can take that will greatly eliminate the risk of mold in a grow. Below are some basic best practices to incorporate into your operation to reduce contaminants and mold growth:

  1. Isolate dirty tasks. If you are cleaning pots, filling pots or scrubbing trimming scissors, keep these and other dirty tasks away from grow and process areas. Dirty tasks can contaminate the grow area and encourage mold growth. Set up a “dirty room” that does not share heating, ventilation and air conditioning with clean areas.
  2. Compartmentalize the grow space. Mold can launch spores at speeds up to 55 miles per hour up to eight feet away without any air current. For this reason, if mold growth begins, it can become a huge problem very quickly. Isolate or remove a problem as soon as it is discovered- better to toss a plant than to risk your crop.
  3. No drinks or food allowed. Any drinks or food, with the exception of water, are completely off limits in a grow space. If one of your employees drops a soda on the ground, the sugars in the soda provide food for mold and yeast to grow. You’d be surprised how much damage a capful of soda or the crust of a sandwich can do.
  4. Empty all trash daily. Limiting contaminants in turn limits the potential for issues. This is an easy way to keep your grow clean and sterile.
  5. Axe the brooms. While a broom may seem like the perfect way to clean the floor, it is one of the fastest ways to stir up dirt, dust, spores and contaminants, and spread them everywhere. Replace your brooms with hepa filter backpack vacuums, but be sure that they are always emptied outside at the end of the work day.
  6. No standing water or high humidity. Mold needs water to grow, therefore standing water or high humidity levels gives mold the sustenance to sporulate. Pests also proliferate with water. Remove standing water and keep the humidity level as low as possible without detriment to your plants.
  7. Require coveralls for all employees. Your employee may love his favorite jean jacket, but the odds are that it hasn’t been cleaned in months and is covered with mold spores. Clean clothing for your staff is a must. Provide coveralls that are washed at least once a week if not daily.
  8. Keep things clean. A clean and organized grow area will have a huge impact on mold growth. Clean pots with oxidate, mop floors with oxidate every week, keep the areas in front of air returns clean and clutter-free, and clean floor drains regularly. The entire grow and everything in it should be scrubbed top to bottom after each harvest.
  9. Keep it cool. Keep curing areas cool and storage areas cold where possible. The ideal temperature for a curing area is roughly 60 degrees and under 32 degrees for a storage area. Just like food, the lower the temperature, the better it keeps. High temperature increases all molecular and biological activity, which causes things to deteriorate faster than at cooler temperatures. However, curing temperature is a function of water activity more than anything.
  10. Be Careful With Beneficials. Beneficial insects certainly have their place in the grow environment. However, if you have a problem with mold on only a small percentage of plants, any insect can act as a carrier for spores and exacerbate the problem. By the same token, pests spread mold more effectively than beneficials because they produce rapidly, where beneficials die if there aren’t pests for them to eat. It is best to use beneficials early in the cycle and only when necessary.

urban-gro Launches Cannabis Industry’s First Line Of IoT Solutions

By Aaron G. Biros
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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.

How To Select The Best Monitoring System For Your Cannabis Greenhouses

By Rob Fusco
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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.

Cloud-based monitoring system base unit in weatherproof enclosure

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

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 Levels

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. 

Lighting

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.

CO2 Levels

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.

Soil moisture sensor

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.

Air Circulation

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.

Greenhouse Security

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.)
  • Alarm notification
  • Programming and status checks
  • Data logging
  • 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.

Alarm Notifications

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 Logging

Sample greenhouse monitoring data log

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.

Final Thoughts

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.