How Suppliers Are Addressing Remote Monitoring Needs for Greenhouse Growers

Woods Greenhouses Sentinel Monitoring System
The staff at Wood’s Greenhouses must monitor 40 zones throughout the greenhouses, each requiring its own temperature range. Sensaphone’s Sentinel Cellular monitoring system makes this process easier.

The technology involved in greenhouse environmental control systems is always changing, and perhaps the biggest requirement growers have today in this area is the ability to monitor their crop remotely and make instant changes based on conditions or problems in the greenhouse.

Many industry suppliers are working closely with growers to address this critical need. Here’s a look at what a couple of them are doing.

Preventing Plant Loss During Harsh Winters

Wood’s Greenhouses in Asbury, NJ, is a family owned wholesale operation with regional Home Depot stores as its main customer, along with independent landscapers and garden centers. James Langmayer, Operations Manager at Wood’s, recently upgraded from auto-dialer temperature monitors to a cloud-based temperature monitoring system that includes an app, so he can control and monitor the devices from his phone.

About 10 years ago, he arrived on one cold winter morning to begin his workday, only to discover that a heater malfunction had destroyed the inventory of an entire greenhouse.

“We lost a few greenhouses that day because we didn’t have anyone working a night shift to go around and manually check the heaters,” Langmayer says.

He and his team soon began shopping for a remote monitoring system, and decided to go with Sensaphone auto-dialing remote monitors.

Langmayer and his team monitor 40 zones throughout the greenhouses, each requiring its own temperature range. Recently, he upgraded to a Sentinel Cellular monitoring system from Sensaphone.

“It’s a better option for us, because we don’t have to use a back-up service or worry about phone lines,” Langmayer says. “I can change all of the settings, disable the alarms, change recognition times, and set high and low temperature limits right from the app.”

Another advantage of the cloud-based Sentinel is how easy it is to calibrate the temperature sensors, he says.. With auto dialers, the user has to listen at the base unit for the temperature reading, then go to the greenhouse to make sure that the real temperature matches what the device is registering.

“With something like the Sentinel, I can just pull up the app and stay right in the greenhouse and calibrate the temperature,” Langmayer says.

Langmayer keeps the Sensaphone monitoring units in two main locations — the main facility and a remote location on the property. Most of the units reside in the main facility, with another in the boiler room where he uses the alarm system’s internal sound sensor to notify him when the boiler’s alarm goes off. The early warning gives him and his crew time to address the boiler failure before greenhouses get too cold and trigger a temperature alert.

Every greenhouse has its own dedicated heater, and adding temperature probes are essential when monitoring for heater failures. Langmayer runs 50 feet to a few hundred feet of Cat5 cable in conduit underground to each greenhouse. Once inside, the cable is hung in conduit from the rafters and attached to 2.8k temperature probes that are located in the middle of the greenhouse.

Langmayer also monitors for power failure, so the staff can react quickly to an outage and turn on the generators. However, he doesn’t see a need to
monitor humidity.

“In our operation, we don’t need monitors to tell us when humidity is building up.”

Improving the User Experience

Many growers simply want a system they can set up, and then forget about, according to Bartlett Instrument Co.’s Megan Wagner.

“They mainly want to be able to monitor and manage all of their greenhouse controls in one place, whether that be via computer or cell phone,” Wagner says.

When it comes to growers adapting new technological developments in environmental controls into their operations, Wagner says there has been an increased interest in the Bartlett’s CIS software, which allows growers to monitor and control their greenhouses from a PC.

“We frequently speak with clients still using thermostats or manual controls, but once they get a taste of more sophisticated environmental controls, they are quick to update more of their houses,” Wagner says. “I think growers are willing to try new things and give new technologies a shot.”

Moving forward, Wagner says Bartlett is hoping to develop an improved user interface for its controller line, as well as better data collection and storage for growers to use from season to season.

“We had some growers wanting to use our Wind/Rain alarm more efficiently with multiple controllers,” Wagner says. “With a new release of our CIS software, users are able to manage all controllers vents with their Wind/Rain alarm wirelessly.”

A Look at New Developments at Wadsworth Control Systems

What are you hearing from your grower customers in terms of what they are looking for in greenhouse environmental controls today?

• Options for better dehumidification, phone connectivity, and more graphable data. Wadsworth Control Systems’ newest touchscreen control, Seed, is able to configure each piece of equipment’s setpoints to address dehumidification. The PC Seed Software allows for remote connectivity. Many environmental control manufacturers seem to be adding these options. With growers always working to improve yield while decreasing utility cost, the demand for graphed data has increased. Graphing equipment and greenhouse conditions saves on utilities while increasing yield and overall plant health.
• Growers are looking for a control that’s powerful and intuitive. A young grower recently told us that Seed is the control for their generation, powerful, but incredibly easy to use.
• There is an increase in integrating irrigation, and new approaches to lighting (checker board, mimicking the sun ramping up), LED lights, and recipes, plus more focus on controlling humidity. Everyone wants phone connectivity to the greenhouse. And people are really using the data to improve their quality and yield.
• As control systems become more complex, we are finding that customers want adequate training upon system implementation.

What are the biggest needs growers have, or the biggest challenges they are trying to address?

• The biggest challenge has been dehumidification. Since mildews and molds thrive above 50% humidity, it’s a baseline for growers. They need their control to keep conditions below the 50% mark.
• Labor and turnover in staff is a challenge. Growers need a system that’s quick and easy to learn with powerful reporting to track successes.

How are you seeing growers adapting new technological developments in environmental controls into their operations?

• Depending on the degree of technological change with the new control, growers transition by retaining previous settings, then add and adjust capabilities methodically tracking as they move forward. This avoids confusion and allows them to adapt successfully.
• Growers are using graphing reports as a business management tool. The reports offer accurate crop forecasts and better management of the business.

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