Automation in the Growroom: Part 2
Networked gardens offer the ability to control the growing environment from your mobile device, ensuring everything runs smoothly even when you are not there. In the second half of his series on growroom automation, Skye Hanke shows how a networked gardening system works and how it protects the grower’s investment.
In the first article in this two-part series, I covered some of the issues that can occur when you’re not there to solve problems with your systems, including failing timers, exhaust fans, air conditioners and irrigation systems—all with potentially disastrous results.
I also introduced readers to the concept of the networked garden. A networked garden is an all-inclusive series of sensors and controllers that are capable of monitoring and controlling all of your previously autonomous growroom processes.
While the costs of setting up a networked garden vary depending on your needs and your desires, it can be seen as less of a cost and more of an insurance policy. Here are the various components of a networked garden and how they work to protect your growroom investment.
The Control Unit of a Grow Room
Maintaining a consistent environment where all processes are functioning in perfect harmony is the key to any successful garden. While you may be the conductor in this symphony of earth, air, water and light, there are a lot of moving parts that can be difficult to account for, let alone troubleshoot, if you’re not there 24/7. This is where a single point of information, such as a control unit, can be the key to your garden’s success.
The control unit is the hub for processing all of the systems and determining how they are working—and in some cases not working—within your garden. As the brain of your networked garden, the control unit’s job is to not only take in all of the information from your sensors, but also consolidate it down to easily digestible bits of information. Accessible from your mobile device, growers know when levels are outside of preset thresholds and that something is being done about it.
The technology, known as SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) and PLC (programmable logic controller), has been used in manufacturing for years. Traditionally used in areas such as the automotive and electronics industries, designers of networked garden control units have developed a more out-of-the-box, user-friendly product for growers.
With convenience and worry-free set-up in mind, control units will automatically perform their corrective measures through an “if this/do that” functionality that developers are constantly refining and improving upon. Simply put, your environment is going to make or break your ability to produce a strong and vibrant garden. With a control unit, gardeners stand a fighting chance of maintaining consistently high yields by being notified of any environmental conditions outside of the grower’s preset thresholds.
Environmental Sensors in a Grow Room
While the analog gardener deals with these elements individually, technology has simplified the data collection process into a single light, temperature and humidity (LTH) sensor. This sensor is one of the basic building blocks of any networked garden, as it gathers at least the minimum amount of information that any grower would want to know at all times.
Considering the many layers and scalability that the networked garden offers, with just the LTH sensor, even the novice gardener can use deductive reasoning to diagnose a current or potential problem.
For example, let’s say your growroom’s sensors alert you that, based on your set-points, your temperature is dangerously above acceptable levels. This would indicate something is wrong with your cooling equipment, allowing the control unit to take corrective actions such as shutting off lights, notifying you of the problem, giving time to react and consequently reducing potential loss.
In fact, for those who implement a CO2 delivery system, the inclusion of additional atmospheric monitoring within the LTH unit gives the networked gardener a greater level of optimization for reduced CO2 loss and increasing yields.
Thanks to sensing capabilities within these LTH and CO2 units, the advantage to networked growers of all skill levels is real-time information and alerting that can easily mean the difference between the life and death of their crops.
Water Content Sensor in a Grow Room
The hydroponic grower is constantly wondering if his plants are getting the water they need, if plants are getting too much water or if the irrigation timer used is working properly. Over- and under-watering are two of the most difficult aspects of the garden to control for the reason that by the time the results show on the plants, it can already be too late.
However, growers now have a chance to track the water content of their medium over time. Graphing this information, growers can track dry-down rates and tailor the most effective irrigation strategy for their particular garden’s needs, which sure beats picking up your pots and guessing.
In fact, peeling back another layer to maintaining proper moisture levels in your medium, the networked garden’s water content sensors collect data to determine the point just before the onset of plant stress to trigger emergency irrigation.
Likewise, indications of too much moisture would eliminate a previously programmed cycle, thus preventing unnecessary—and potentially dangerous—overwatering.
Looking to the Future of Grow Room Automation
Forgive the pun, but networked gardening is growing by leaps and bounds. While current technology already allows for a wide range of control within the garden, developers are looking beyond the basics, with the idea of not only increasing efficiency, but also including higher levels of systems integration that still keep ease-of-use in mind.
Smart plug technology will allow growers to remotely activate components such as exhaust fans, humidifiers and pumps, as well as monitor electricity and power consumption. Additionally, within the reservoir itself, automation will allow growers to maintain proper nutrient levels, remotely activate or deactivate irrigation pumps and have greater control over pH balance.
Finally, networked garden developers are even integrating the often overlooked aspects of physical security and disaster mitigation through the inclusion of video monitoring, access control, notification of equipment failures (such as air conditioners or timers) and potential water damage beyond the plants themselves.
These are the developments that are coming in the near future. The end product will be a more intuitive, predictive and proactive system based on accumulated data, keeping you ahead of the curve so you can run your garden rather than have your garden run you.