These days, it’s possible to minimize the time spent in your growroom, while simultaneously maximizing the yield of your buds, via automated growing (even the use of simple robotics). Of course, most people growing medicine indoors are likely using some level of automation already: for example, timers for lights and maybe even watering, or perhaps a thermostat that turns the exhaust fan on and off as necessary. Such simple, inexpensive and easy-to-obtain devices mean that you don’t have to be physically present in the garden to handle these tasks -- and since they’ve been widely embraced by indoor growers for some time now, this represents the entry level of automated growing.
Today, however, many more aspects of your indoor garden can be managed and operated from anywhere in the world if you have an Internet connection with a smartphone, Mac or PC. Here’s a quick list of just some of the things in your growroom that can not only be automated, but also controlled from afar:
Lighting (photoperiod and even intensity)
Cooling and heating
Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels l Reservoir levels
Irrigation and feedings
Security and monitoring
Even so, if you always had to be connected with your garden to know what was going on, you’d only be realizing a small part of the benefits that automation has to offer. That’s why sophisticated systems can also alert the grower to any adverse changes or conditions in the garden via pre-set alarms. You can also have pan-and-tilt cameras connected that will allow you to take a virtual look around your growroom, or have a conversation with two-way microphones, or even record data and have the footage sent to you based on your user-set preferences.
Sound like a hefty technological endeavor? Not really. If you’ve ever set up a home or business computer network or connected your Xbox, PlayStation or Wii (etc.) online, you can pull this off! Obviously, technology like this doesn’t come cheap, but considering the freedom and opportunities it can provide with one or several cultivation projects, the investment can easily be worth it for many indoor growers. Plus a system covering all of the bases described here can be put together for less than a few thousand dollars (cameras and router not included).
Still not sure whether an automated grow is in your future? Then you might want to consider what it costs to buy a CO2 monitor, PH monitor, PPM or TDS (total dissolved solids) monitor, water level monitor, temperature and humidity controls, light timers, alarms, cameras, etc. --all separately. And now consider that each of these devices won’t be able to “talk” to the rest or to you; they’re going to do their jobs separately, without regard to what else is going on in the garden or what the crop’s overall needs dictate. If you add it all up, you might find that buying a plug-and-play automated-growing controller is both cost-effective and gives you plenty of potential advantages over more traditional (e.g., non-“smart”) controllers. And if you have a good understanding of exactly what you need and how it all fits together, you may be able to assemble your own system using regular home-style remotes -- the kind they sell at building centers or online -- to accomplish the level of automation you seek.
Here’s a look at a few potential ways that you can put this kind of technology to work for you.
This is an area that’s often a source of contention among growers, mainly because it’s so crucial and generally requires a good deal of time (as well as visits to the grow space) to maintain at optimal levels. Even so, here are a couple of ways to automate it.
Drain-to-waste: This system operates either by a timer or manually (e.g., when you decide it’s time to feed by checking a camera or moisture sensor remotely) and uses either straight water (with adjustments for optimal PH) or a nutrient solution with supplements and beneficials added and delivered to your plants via the watering system.
How it works: An electronic solenoid opens the water flow or activates a pump. The water passes through a manifold with pH and TDS sensors. Micro-dosers adjust the PH and add nutrient components that are contained in stock tanks, injected at user-set ratios to achieve the target EC (electrical conductivity) and PH levels. The solution is then delivered by an emitter system to the plant containers, beds, etc.
Recirculating system: Here, the reservoir operates completely automatically, which means that so long as the solution levels in the stock tanks are maintained and there’s no interruption to the drainage or fill lines to and from the rez, the grower doesn’t need to touch it -- ever!
How it works: The nutrient solution is continually passed through a manifold with H and EC sensors to monitor the condition of the solution. When the parameters fall out of range, micro-dose pumps add adjusters or nutrient components from the stock tanks into the solution. Additional pumps, solenoid gates and controllers can empty and refill the reservoir with fresh, purified RO (reverse osmosis) water, which can be added to the reservoir by dose pumps gradually or all at once -- either by the push of a phone button or automatically.
Does this kind of automated-feeding system sound like science fiction? Not at all -- in fact, it’s standard in either the GroBot or GroBot Evolution from PurGro.com. Just imagine the nutritional advantages that your ladies will enjoy by having access to the optimal balance of nutes and other beneficial supplements all of the time -- and always at the correct H. Coupled with automated environmental controls, this lucky crop has no struggles in life -- and nothing to do but grow big and sticky.
These days, almost every indoor grow has cooling equipment that kicks into gear when the lights come on or there’s a rise in temperature. And while ACs are great for serious ops, most growers still rely on fans to help keep temperatures optimal, remove excess humidity and maintain a flow of fresh air for plant growth. In terms of automating your grow, you have two types of setup available.
Basic: A variable fan-speed controller, such as the TV (I & II) series from GroZone Controls, gives you a more fine-tuned approach to keep- ing the temperature right for plants to achieve their best growth, and it costs less than $100.
How it works: Each model operates a bit differently, but the basic principle is the same: When the temperature rises past a certain point set by the grower, the fan turns on low. If that doesn’t cool the space sufficiently, the fan speeds up -- and if that still isn’t cool enough, the fan speeds up even more. Once the temperature has been lowered, the fan either idles at a pre-set speed or shuts off entirely. The big advantages here are the constant airflow for fresher air and the prevention of any humidity-related problems, as well as a temperature that stays in the optimal range rather than jumping from too hot to too cold. Plus this type of system is inexpensive and works with almost any inline fan.
Sophisticated: Integration is key here. Controls that lower or raise the temperature and humidity level, or that monitor and disperse CO2, are nothing new -- but ones that work in harmony with your other controls, alert you to adverse conditions or allow changes to the settings via a computer network certainly are.
How it works: When the grow lights switch on, the temperature control adjusts to one that’s optimal for “day- light” (versus the dark cycle). Carbon dioxide isn’t added until the plants have some time to wake up (as opposed to the instant that the lights come on). Once the cooling fans kick in, CO2 is no longer released, since it would simply be wasted by getting sucked out through the exhaust—but as soon as the fans cycle off, the CO2 is added again. In the event that the temps can’t be maintained near optimal levels and continue to climb, a high-temperature sensor shuts off the lights to prevent plant stress or even total crop loss. And, once again, any and all of this can be monitored, adjusted or changed from anywhere in the world, with an alert sent automatically if the temperature falls out of the optimal range, since this is typically a sign of trouble
Unless you’re running a 24/7 perpetual vegetative stage room, the lights will have to switch on and off at regular times to control what phase of growth the plants are in. You will likely also need to adjust the intensity of the lighting—for example, less light for young transplants versus as much as the plants can handle during their peak bud phase.
Your options here are the same as for environmental control:
Basic: To control the photoperiod, a timer is used. Ideally, this operates from a 110-volt source for a higher degree of safety (even if your lighting is 220 volts, since you’re likely to touch the timer every now and then). Your lighting is also hooked up to a high-temperature shut- down switch, which means that if the cooling gear fails, the lights switch off until the normal operating temps can be established. To regulate the intensity, you might do better than raising and lowering the lights manually by using a manual dimmer-switch selector on your ballast.
How it works: It’s pretty basic -- the lights go on and off per the timer’s setting, and they’ll also shut off if the room gets too hot for whatever reason. To fine-tune their intensity, you simply manually select for 50%, 75% or 100% of output on your lighting ballasts.
Sophisticated: Electronic ballasts are integrated via the network directly into the environmental controls, thereby allowing for intelligent changes to light intensity based on temperature or pre-sets from the grower for the growth phase being met.
How it works: When the light cycle begins, the intensity is gradually ramped up over an hour (or even several), and as the cycle ends, the light intensity is gradually reduced. This combination mimics the sunrise and sunset (and who doesn’t like a gradual wake-up?). If the temps increase beyond what the cooling fans or other equipment can handle, the networked digital ballasts receive a command to diminish light intensity until the pre-set temperature is met. If it can’t be met, this means that something major is wrong, and the lights shut down as a result.
Today, thanks to the current technology, the possibilities when it comes to automated cannabis growing are limited only by your imagination (and, of course, your budget). One of the advantages to a DIY approach is that you can put it together a little bit at a time. But when you consider that whatever you don’t have automated is going to keep you coming back to the garden anyway, it also makes sense to go the whole nine yards in one shot.
Automating and networking a medical cannabis cultivation site can also add a degree of safety, both for the operator (and his or her building) and the surrounding community. For example, camera systems with remote viewing can help to serve as a deterrent to thieves and aid in gathering positive proof regarding anyone who is targeting legal medical grows. The operator can also check out a garden remotely after receiving an alert that things aren’t working right, which could be a warning sign of a much bigger problem, perhaps of an electrical nature.
Having pan-and-tilt cams with two-way mics, while obviously never as good as actually being there yourself, is certainly the next best thing. You can check on the health of your plants, see if you need to hit the “water” button or, best of all, even walk a less-skilled onsite worker through the particular task or job required.
As you can see, the path to growing bigger and stickier medical buds is get- ting a little bit easier every day thanks to new advances in technology -- and the savvy growers who learn to adopt them. These days, however, anyone can reap bigger yields of higher-quality buds with less work through automated growing. The future, in short, is already here -- and it’s just a click away.
AUTOMATION ESSENTIALS: A Quick Checklist
The items are listed here in the order you’ll need them to get the job done.
Look for reliability and security -- you go wireless, range is important, too. if you’re away from your grow and want to monitor and control it, the door will be locked if your router fails (and if your router isn’t secure, that door will be unlocked and open to others). Typically, you’ll also need a computer as part of your automated setup.
CCTV Camera System
Your local home-building center or even places like Costco carry good CCTV (closed-circuit television)
camera systems at reason- able prices. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $500 minimum in North america, and go for hard-wired systems (not wireless). You can add additional cameras, including network cameras. Make sure the device is reliable and allows you secure remote viewing in addition to recording.
Software and Controllers
Whether you buy a plug-and-play system or build your own, you’ll need a controller that offers software to link to your computer via a router or even directly. You can buy inexpensive home-automation
controls over the Web, and these can be plugged in and used for anything that switches on or off. However, while units built expressly for growing may cost you more, they’ll also give you a much higher level of control with fewer headaches.
Some of your gear will come with software for your computer, but to use your smartphone, you’ll usually need to download and install an app. Most of these apps are free with your gear purchase, but there are also some great third-party or “after-market” apps that can step up your level of automation or improve reliability.