Anything that has an on/off switch or some sort of electro-mechanical action can be automated. Wander off to your local hardware store, pick up some mechanical timers, and you can automate a simple system in an afternoon. Automation is valuable because it saves time, and builds consistent, predictable cycles that promote quality growing.
These days, both simple and sophisticated greenhouse automation is available to almost any grower with nearly any type of crop or budget. The cost of electronics has dropped steeply over the past decade. At the same time, software has become more powerful and sensors are vastly more sensitive.
The challenge becomes picking out the right solution from a wide range of sometimes complementary and conflicting solutions.
Dedicated Versus Integrated
Let’s start with types of automation controls. Generally speaking, they fall into two kinds of controls.
Dedicated controls manage only one system. A water timer on a hose is a dedicated system. So are the small computers you can attach to boilers or lighting systems or irrigation valves. They may be sophisticated electronic devices, but they manage only boilers (or heaters, fans, lights or whatever).
Integrated controls are usually small computer systems that manage more than one system. Their advantage is general management, alarming and reporting. They often watch for changes in the environment and they can react: send an eMail, open a valve, adjust EC/pH, fire up the heaters or complain about that dead unit in house 51 via smartphone. They provide tighter environmental controls. They are more expensive than dedicated controls, but they accomplish more as well.
Some growers work better with dedicated controls. Some growers really need integrated controls. You want to ask yourself this question early on because your first choices will affect almost all the decisions you make afterwards.
Set Your Scope
Simplicity is your friend, but you don’t want to draw your circle too tightly. Most growers want to learn only one system, so pick one that allows you to expand if needed.
For example, there was a New Jersey grower who needed a water management system, but the operation picked one that did not handle electro-conductivity or pH issues. As a result, managing water quality still required many footsteps throughout the day to check the water status. Also, if something failed, there was no alarming. Sometimes the grower would not discover the problem until damage began to appear in the crops. Had their control system supported those extra areas of controls, they would have avoided all that frustration.
Eight Prime Areas For Automation
Good automation controls exist for these general greenhouse categories. Many manufacturers offer good controls for their equipment. Integrated controls will combine several of these categories into a single cohesive system.
- Heating (boilers, unit heaters, hot water distribution)
- Cooling (ventilation, pad and fan, A/C)
- Humidity (fog, ventilation)
- Irrigation (valves and sensors)
- Airflow (fans and vents)
- Lighting (HID and LED)
- Water Conditioning (all sorts of QC)
- Thermal Regulation (shades and screens)
Three Rules For Better Automation
Good automation projects follow simple, basic rules in order to achieve success quickly and cleanly. It doesn’t matter whether you are automating one single valve, or if you are building out environmental controls for 50 zones. Do what the professionals do, and follow these simple rules-of-thumb:
1) Tackle Consistency First
Automation is all about repeatability. Pick a process, establish a path to success and repeat it. Your solution should reliably repeat itself, and you should be able to predict when and how it repeats.
Keep it simple. A good system that works is better than a great system that doesn’t work.
2) Refine Quality Next
Once you have a working system, improve it. A good system becomes a great system by enhancing a path to success that you understand. For example, you can refine system controls by replacing mechanical timers with soil sensors and thermostatic controls that give your system the actual feedback it needs to adjust itself for you.
3) Expand on Success
Don’t set and forget. A successful system is actually a framework that you can use to add other types of automation. Look closely at the techniques used in the automation. Once you are comfortable with one system, it can often be adapted to solve other, similar problems.
The Great Force Multiplier
Automation is the great force-multiplier in the green goods industry. It allows a small crew of people to produce more crops than a non-automated competitor. Take a look at the top growers in any metro market. The biggest producers not only learn automation, they master automation and use it to build revenue. Walk their houses and talk to their growers. You will see how central automation is to their success.
This is not a trend restricted to the high end of the market. Even small- and mid-size growers can use automation to build revenue. Even if just a few key systems can be automated, a smaller grower can introduce better consistency and a lower labor cost to grow their crops.