Automation Must-Haves for New Growers
Being in control of your indoor garden can seem intimidating at first, but with the right automation and knowledge, your plants will think Mother Nature is running the show.
Hydro newbies, don’t be scared, just get growing! Hydroponic gardening is not that intimidating, just choose your own way of going about it. This article will provide beginners with automation basics in order to get automated using any hydroponic growing method, regardless of current knowledge or skill level.
Lighting and temperature control are probably the most important factors in growroom automation. In fact, these are the two main aspects that need to be controlled in any cultivation operation. Whether growing in a greenhouse, indoor garden, or other type of controlled environment, lighting and temperature are usually the most important parameters, humidity being a close third. Controlling these three are the main factors in producing a high-quality crop and maximum yield. This article explores ways to use basic automation to help.
For budding and flowering, many plant species depend on photoperiod rather than general age, lifecycle, or seasonal temperatures. Photoperiod simply means the amount of daylight hours versus dark hours in a 24-hour period. By controlling the photoperiod, we are simply telling the garden which season it is. In summer, days are longer while in winter nights are longer. The grow lights need to be programmed as such, and the easiest way to do this is with a heavy-duty timer. Buy lighting timers from a grow store to ensure the proper amperage rating to prevent overload to your electrical system. Most plants grow vigorously in early summer, bud in late summer, and fruit in the fall. Typical settings used to mimic seasons are 18 hours “on” for vegetative growth, as in spring/summer, and 12 hours (or less) “on” for budding fruits or flowers, as in fall/winter.
A timer may also be needed for your hydroponic or aeroponic pump to automate irrigation and keep the plants fed and oxygenated. Since pumps do not have a high electrical demand like grow lights do, heavy-duty timers with high amperage ratings are not usually needed. Timers sold by most grow stores are suitable for lights and pumps.
Read also: Automation Options for Outdoor Soil Gardens
Simple timers can automate most irrigation setups and smart timers allow for remote control via wifi apps and various programming options. Attach timers to pumps to automate nearly any type of hydroponics or aeroponics irrigation setup.
With hydroponics, water temperature is a key factor. If the water gets too hot, roots harbor pathogens and rot. With an open reservoir that is allowed to evaporate, water will stay about 8-10°F cooler than the ambient room temperature.
Temperature control will allow you to manipulate the environment your plants are growing in. This allows for cultivation of a variety of crops, depending on their given needs. For example, tomatoes do not consistently flower or fruit without temperatures above 70°F. This can be tough to do in winter without a heater and some sort of thermostat control to automate temperature. On the other hand, some varieties are not very heat tolerant, so thermostats or timers are often used with fans to remove heat from the garden. Thermostats can automatically maintain a set temperature. Some thermostat controllers have separate day and night settings as well.
Often, a simple exhaust fan with a passive intake is the most effective way to remove heat from the growroom. Hydroponic shops sell can-style fans that connect ducting to light fixtures, also known as reflectors, and remove the heat produced by the intense grow lights. Besides using thermostat controllers, fans are often controlled with timers set to run when the lights are running. This setting will remove heat during the day and preserve heat at night.
Read also: Absentee Growing: How to Maximize a Garden's Growth from Out of Town
Temperature control is vitally important and often challenging. A simple window air conditioning unit will do wonders in an indoor grow environment but keep in mind this will also remove humidity. This is usually a desired effect in growrooms because the transpiration of the plants as they vigorously grow puts lots of humidity into the air, which usually needs to be removed. An AC unit will do a good job of this. HVAC units will also automate heat control by simply setting a thermostat.
Growroom automation makes hydroponic production more efficient and allows for production at a faster rate. Start with dialing in automation of your growroom temperature and photoperiod, then consider additional automation such as irrigation, nutrient dosing and humidity.
Humidity control will allow your plants to thrive in a given temperature. Plants will grow faster, bigger, and stronger if their environment is balanced at a desirable temperature and humidity level. The plants can then drink water and nutrients and allow for photosynthesis to occur at a more rapid rate. The excess humidity must be removed for the plants to continue growing at this level of hyper-efficiency.
As described before, AC units offer humidity reduction by default, but how do you control humidity levels independently? Like AC units, fans also remove humidity.
After automating temperature and lighting, automation of humidity is an upgrade that makes a lot of sense. A hygrometer controller is an easy way to automate humidity control to a specified relative humidity, represented by a percentage setting. A good target is somewhere between 30-60 per cent, depending on the species of plants being grown. Be careful not to allow humidity to remain above 60 per cent for extended periods of time in order to prevent molds. If this is a concern, you can always utilize additional circulation or oscillating fans.
Control your whole room with a comprehensive controller that regulates lighting, temperature, humidity, CO2 levels, and more. Many controllers have easy-to-use apps, putting automated remote control of your growroom at your fingertips.
Heading towards full automation, many hydro growers choose to integrate nutrient-dosing technology into their irrigation system. Simply prepare nutrients separately and set the doser to maintain a certain EC/ppm level, then the nutrient doser will do the mixing for you. Set your reservoir on a float valve to experience complete fertigation automation. All you need to do at this point is periodic system cleaning and maintenance, and just be sure to top off the nutrient containers on the dosing system.
Read also: Increasing Automation with Autodosers
Whether a newbie grower or a soil grower transitioning to hydroponics, now you have the basic automation knowledge and checklist to build out your growroom for success. Start with lighting and temperature and then add more automation in order to further dial in your environment as you grow into your garden. This is an easy way to expand your production capacity and maximize the potential of your hydroponics garden.
Written by Keith "Tree Frog" Bouchard | Founder & Co-inventor at Multiponics
Keith is the founder and co-inventor at Multiponics, an indoor gardening manufacturer and online boutique. Multiponics has a passion for pushing innovative ag-tech forward and is a consultant to the NASA-funded X-Hab project via the University of Colorado in Boulder.