Tips and Technology to Advance Your Grow Facility

May 14, 2018

Whether you are just starting out in the cannabis industry and looking to setup a grow facility, or you are a veteran in the field, one thing is clear: Advancements in lighting, design, cultivation, and technology abound for grow facilities. Mark Doherty, director of project management with urban-gro, recently spoke to us about the work his company is doing to help clients set up new grow facilities. Doherty offers practical tips and advice for anyone starting out and highlights some exciting new technology that could change the future of cannabis horticulture.

Whether you are just starting out in the cannabis industry and looking to setup a grow facility, or you are a veteran in the field, one thing is clear: Advancements in lighting, design, cultivation, and technology abound for grow facilities. Mark Doherty, director of project management with urban-gro, recently spoke to us about the work his company is doing to help clients set up new grow facilities. Doherty offers practical tips and advice for anyone starting out and highlights some exciting new technology that could change the future of cannabis horticulture.

Your company specializes in setting up growing facilities for the cannabis industry. What is the most important first step in setting up such a facility?
Bringing the right people to the design–build table at the right time. One thing many facilities designers overlook is the sheer volume of integration that needs to occur between architectural designers, facility owners, cultivators, product suppliers, and the engineers responsible for the “guts of the grow”-meaning stuff like lights, racking, fertigation, automation, and so on.

Many times, the important pieces from a cultivation standpoint often don’t get integrated early enough in the process. So, the end result doesn’t function as intended. Most of the organizations we work with want the most advanced facility possible as quickly as possible, but if we don’t bring the right folks into the process early enough the project will end up late and over budget. No one wants that.

Can you walk us through the process of setting up a cannabis grow facility?
One can write an entire book on this question, but I will try to give you the abridged answer. The first question you need to ask is, “Where is the facility located?” Even if you’re growing indoors, outdoor environments impact how you build and are dramatically different. Consider the climates of California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Washington and you’ll see what I mean. After that, you need to ask if this will this be a warehouse with no natural light, or a greenhouse with lots of natural light, or a hybrid model of some kind? Understanding the environment in which you’re building and the type of facility you want is really the big first step.

The second issue is budgetary- what do you have to spend? That’s going to dictate the size and complexity of your grow. Also, in what order will you fill out the space you have? Perhaps you’re doing a quarter of your space first. If so, that impacts the timing on when to bring in the requisite experts at the specific time they are needed. The local market is also a factor that can impact this, since depending on the market, you may not have a large pool of expertise in large-scale grows. Until you nail down your architecture, technology, and size, you don’t understand what your budget will be. Getting everyone on the same page of the design that you’re using is critical. For example, if you decide you want to hand-water your plants, but then later on in the build realize you want to integrate automation, that’s going to add time and money to your effort.

Once your design is set, you can begin procuring equipment, which has its own set of timelines. Like everything else so far, you need to plan ahead. We’ve seen where groups will purchase equipment, later realizing they needed more physical space. Since they often do not take into account how to get the equipment into their structure, our first question is always what’s the size of the smallest doorway!

Finally, be sure to align your cultivation methodology with your budget and equipment choices. Sometimes, this means taking your grower’s experience into account and making sure it matches the technology procured. For example, there is a big difference growing with light-emitting diode (LED) versus high-pressure sodium (HPS) lighting.

How can growers adapt to new state regulations on water and light use?
State regulation compliance is possibly the most challenging issue for cultivators, especially since regulations vary so widely from state to state. With regard to water, the big regulations are around discharge. Leachate and runoff from any facility will vary from less than 10% of total volume to upwards of 25%. Most municipalities really care about that runoff-you can’t always put it down the drain or dump it into septic. We strongly recommend installing some kind of reclamation system that enables you to capture that discharge and recycle a majority of it for reuse. Today, we’re seeing more facilities that are recapturing water from condensate systems, where water recaptured is from heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and the air itself because the plants are transpiring. The standard estimate is that the plants will only retain 3–5% of the water given to them at any time. So, by using a condensate water reclamation system you can recapture it and recycle it to bring back almost 75% as fresh water. Not only does this approach make sense for your facility’s efficiency, it is the right thing for our industry to do in terms of lowering our environmental impact.

In terms of lighting, it’s really all about what strategy you use in terms of deployment. Most states today are considering some cap on energy use. Massachusetts, for example, is limiting wattage per square foot to meet energy goals by 2020. That threshold is around 35 W/ft2, a measure easily broken by average HPS at 50 W/ft2. Plus, one general standard for many growers is that 900 µmol for flower is the optimal intensity for high yields. That definitely goes beyond most energy reduction goals.

For example, it turns out that many strains don’t care for that much light. So by designing facilities where you spread out that wattage cost, you can bring the overall consumption level down. There are also things you can do with LEDs or even hybrid ceramic metal halide (CMH) and double-ended HPS (DEHPS) designs that help bring that down.

Is there a benefit for growers to switch to all LED lights compared to the traditional lights used for growing?
The jury is still out on this one, although LEDs do seem to be where the industry is headed. The technology has come a long way, and growers understanding of how to best utilize this technology has as well. Interestingly, some recent research seems to show that a more mixed spectrum seems to be better at canopy penetration, but the LEDs become less efficient compared to reds and blues. As we learn more about various spectrum combinations and their impact on grows, we believe you will still see a mix of lighting solutions for some years to come.

You recently launched some new technology called Soleil Technologies that will give clients specific information on each plant. Can you tell us more about this technology and what it will mean for the cannabis industry?
Soleil Technologies, we believe, provides the most advanced cultivation technology in the industry today. We’re essentially borrowing the same technologies Silicon Valley is applying to industries like manufacturing, transportation, and healthcare. That is, large volumes of very specific sensor data, which serves as a resource to the cultivator to make immediate, real-time decisions about their facility, as well as serve as the basis for future machine learning and automation of a grow.

There are two separate products under Soleil Technologies: Soleil Sense and Soleil Control. Soleil Sense consists of very advanced wireless sensor networks in a new architecture known as a High-Density Internet-of-Things (HD-IoT) model. While sensors have been used in agriculture for decades, these sensors are far more advanced, because you can deploy them at the per-plant level and scale those sensor networks to millions of square feet. They use a proprietary wireless protocol that is ultralow power, but capable of leveraging the sensor next to it to provide a detailed map of the microclimate and other conditions in each grow. This information is then sent to our Soleil 360 platform, a cloud-based interface that enables cultivators to view this map and take immediate action from anywhere with an internet connection.

The second product group, Soleil Control, is a new style of environmental control system with an open architecture that makes it capable of controlling almost any aspect of your facility. Out of the box it works as a fertigation mixer and controller, but lighting and other attributes can be deployed over time. Together, Soleil Sense and Control solutions represent an unprecedented end-to-end platform for connected agriculture capable of generating new levels of productivity, compliance, and return on investment (ROI) for large-scale precision horticulture.

Do you have any advice for people just getting started with their cannabis growing facilities or people in states that just legalized medical or recreational cannabis?
Do your due diligence. Attend as many conferences and panels as you can. Speak with everyone you can with experience in this industry. That means people that have experience running large grow facilities, cannabis or otherwise. Leverage the wealth of knowledge that’s out there. And, just to be a little self-serving, you can do a lot worse that partnering with design and technology experts like urban-gro. We bring a wealth of experience to the table and can solve a lot of your headaches.