Over the last several decades, improvements in greenhouse and hydroponic systems have increasingly streamlined many cultural practices of crop production.
At the same time, many of these same advancements have incorporated several more environmentally friendly alternatives and methods as compared to the way of doing things in decades past. Among these newer systems and improvements are any number of self-monitoring and automatic injection arrays of needed plant nutrients, pH adjusters, or other modifications to a wide variety of growing systems.
Collectively, the use of any such system to improve crop performance is referred to as autodosing. Such systems are widely implemented in hydroponic and aquaponic systems as well as with aquarium care and coral farming.
Many of the benefits of autodosing are self-evident while others are more discreet.
Among the more common reasons for an autodosing system are time, labor, and space savings, healthier plants, and the limiting of human error. Autodosing can also help to improve water quality when injections of chlorine or calcium are dosed into the system at appropriate levels. Autodosing is better for plant health than manual applications of nutrients and additives as only the prescribed amount of product will be released into the system as per real-time readings of current levels.
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This prevents the “shocking” of plants that can occur when too much of a nutrient, additive, or even temperature gradient is applied too suddenly to a system. These surgical and calculated introductions of the plants’ needs can result in healthier and more robust plants. For those in the business of selling their crops, this can translate to higher sales. There are hundreds of different autodosing systems, assemblies, and combinations on the market and each has its own attributes appropriate for a variety of crops, operational sizes, and budgets.
The most basic autodosing systems will monitor and correct pH and EC levels.
Other systems and add-ons will do the same for water temperature, air temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, and lighting. Some can add more water to a system as evaporation occurs. Others will add not only the needed N-P-K, but also chelated iron or any other available macro or micronutrient depending on the system. Every system can be as simple or complex as the system owner can afford or cares to achieve.
With all the above benefits and features to consider, keep the following five tips for autodosing in mind:
- Pick a system appropriate for the scale of your operation — The point of adding an autodosing system to your setup is to save time, so a system that is too small may underperform and be much more hassle to maintain than it is worth.
Conversely, installing an autodosing system that is set up for a much greater capacity than your current operation can potentially cost you many thousands of dollars more than necessary. A larger system, however, may be a wise investment if you are in a business growth phase or adding on to your existing system.
- Select components that can be constantly submerged in water — Not all probes that are meant to take wet readings are designed to withstand constant moisture.
Ensure the probes and monitoring equipment you have chosen are always intended to be underwater. Additionally, make sure all meters are placed at appropriate levels in your system so measurements are not gleaned at the bottom of the tank where sediment can build, and temperatures are different than at crop level. Place the meters and probes at or around the root level of your crops if possible.
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- Perform regular checks on the various systems in your autodosing array — This should occur no less frequently than once per week. This includes checking, cleaning and lubricating (where appropriate moving parts are located) the probes, monitors, and lines. This last step is often overlooked but is important as nutrient sediment can get clogged in the lines. This can have detrimental effects on the crops as sediment can block the water flow entirely. If not caught in a timely fashion, none of the plants will get any of their needed nutrition and will suffer accordingly. To clear out any buildup of salt in your lines, it is advisable to run a cleaning solution throughout the autodosing system as per manufacturer’s recommendations and guidelines.
The system’s filters should also be opened and inspected routinely to clean out any debris that may have built up over time. pH meters should not only be checked and tested monthly, but they should be re-buffered on a monthly basis. This is achieved by soaking each of their probes in solutions of 4.0 and 7.0 respectively; each for two to three hours. The limits on the controllers and pH ranges should be checked monthly. These may need a periodic tweaking to ensure they are still appropriate for the crop being grown or for the growth stage of the crop. Another aspect to check, though it is not a common occurrence, is to look at the pump’s magnetic components. Rarely, but sometimes the metals in some fertilizer formulations can be attracted to the magnetic pumps.
Any nutrients attached to the pumps cannot of course be utilized by the crops and this can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
- Manually check the plants that are being autodosed — Don’t neglect or underestimate the human touch when it comes to the nurturing of plant crops. Autodosing can prevent many headaches when done correctly, but it will not automatically treat insect or disease issues. Pesticide applications can be autodosed, but that will only be effective if sufficient and accurate pest monitoring, identification, and remedy selection has been undertaken.
- Measure and mix your reservoirs and stock tanks appropriately — Autodosing will release pre-programmed amounts of whatever is in those same reservoirs and stock tanks, but if the concentrations are not correct, either too much or too little product will be injected. Check the parts per million (ppm) levels of each nutrient or additive that is to be dosed at least weekly to maintain proper levels.
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Autodosing systems can be a great addition to any grower looking to improve efficiency in their operation or to improve plant health and the quality of their overall crops. Like any system, of course, they are only as useful as the companies or individuals that design, install, use, and maintain it. These systems can cost as little as under one hundred dollars to many tens of thousands of dollars. Consider all the potential benefits and drawbacks to such systems before taking the plunge and installing an autodosing system.