What exactly is automation? It can come in many different forms, all seeking to accomplish the same goals. From turning on equipment at a specific time, to operating a more high-tech assembly line production, to employing robotic harvesting technologies, the role of automation is to lessen the workload of human workers and bring a higher level of consistency to activities.
What types of tasks can be automated? Any activity that is performed according to a schedule can be automated. Although many automated tasks require complex equipment, simple tools are readily available to help even hobby growers simplify their workload. The following examples outline a few ways you can start automating your indoor garden.
Float Valves Help Automate Your Nutrient Reservoir
Float valves are simple devices that control a drip or flow of water into a holding reservoir. They typically include a pressurized water line and a movable float, all anchored firmly at the desired water line. As the water level rises and falls, the float rises and falls right along with it. A dip in the water level leads to the opening of the pressurized water line little by little, allowing more water to drip or flow in, raising the water level once more.
Maintaining pressure in the water supply line is key to keeping the float valve functioning, but high pressure is not always necessary. Gravity-assisted flow will move water from a higher reservoir to a lower one as the water level in the lower changes.
This more passive technique does not require any specialized equipment beyond a float valve, or a direct connection to a pressurized tap water line. However, it does require more user involvement to check upper reservoirs if they are not automatically refilled themselves.
Pressure in the water line can come from various sources, but one readily available source in residential areas is a tap water line. Simple plumbing fixtures affixed to a tap will push water into an attached line ending in a float valve inside of a reservoir. The float valve keeps the end of the line firmly shut when the water level is high enough, preventing water from constantly pouring out and causing a flood.
Float valves can be used to accomplish many different goals. A float valve could be added in a main hydroponic reservoir to maintain water levels through the addition of tap water or a pre-mixed nutrient solution. Multiple stock solution reservoirs could drip into a system at float-valve-controlled rates by using more than one float valve, automatically adding both tap water and nutrient amendments at the same time.
Automated Timers for Controlled Grow Rooms
Timers come in a variety of forms, such as mechanical or electrical, and can be used for a number of purposes. Some have mechanical displays that allow the user to select on/off hours by toggling tabs, while others are digital and come with more sophisticated settings. Timers are basically relays that automatically control when an attached device receives electricity. Electricity is made available to devices plugged into the timer’s outlet based on user-programmed schedules.
Mechanical timers have the advantage of not being severely affected by power surges or outages, whereas an electronic timer may have its settings or internal time reset during such an event. While it usually doesn’t take long to reprogram your settings, it can still be frustrating. Electronic timers often have finer increments of time available, giving users the ability to control their schedules down to the minute or second, while mechanical timers commonly use half-hour increments.
Automation is very useful when it comes to lights. After all, it is easy to forget to turn your grow lights on and off by hand. Automating the photoperiod is a simple way to make your indoor garden more successful. Electronic timers often provide options to automatically shorten or lengthen the photoperiod, or the number of hours of light a plant receives day by day, in a realistic seasonal simulation. Timers allow you to provide your plants with just the right amount of light, without ever having to think about it too much!
Timers can also be used to automate a watering schedule, whether you are using a hydroponic or a soil-based method. For example, ebb and flood hydroponics flood a water table containing plants by activating a pump for a short period. The bed is then allowed to drain and remain “dry” for another period. Timers can be used to turn a pump on and off repeatedly throughout the day to automatically control this watering cycle.
Computerization for Grow Rooms
Computers and sensors are becoming smaller and cheaper and easier to use. With the growing popularity of micro-controllers and micro-computers, more devices are appearing in an increasing number of applications. Conditions like water and air temperature, pH, humidity, total dissolved salts levels and even light levels can now be monitored and recorded by a number of sensors.
A computer monitoring system typically consists of the computer environment (user interface, operating system, etc.), a number of sensors and their connection ports, and a program to tell the computer what sensors are connected and how often it should record. With a computerized monitoring system, measurements are taken and recorded throughout the day, allowing gardeners to see daily and weekly trends with more clarity.
Though learning how to program and calibrate sensors can seem intimidating, a huge amount of information on how to use these devices is out there. Taking the learning process one sensor at a time can break down the task into more manageable chunks, and the rewards are often great.
Some sensors are extremely sophisticated and require special care and careful calibration to use. The data they collect often reveals useful information about the health of an indoor system. However, by using simpler sensors, gardeners can still stay well-informed and better able to make decisions about how to care for their systems.
One of the simplest sensors out there is the thermocouple, which is used to measure temperature. A thermocouple usually requires calibration, but some sensors are ready to go as soon as they are plugged them in. Most sensors come with detailed instructions that allow consumers to see the degree of difficulty of their installation and use before they are purchased.
Though computers and sensors may be considered specialty equipment, most hydro and hardware stores will have float valves, timers, plumbing fixtures and pumps ready for purchase and installation. These components are just a few of the many tools available to indoor and outdoor gardeners.