How Do Modular Hydroponic Systems Work?
Live long and...go modular? Offering flexibility, the opportunity to scale operations up or down, and quarantine or connect various components of your growroom, Treefrog explores the benefits of going modular.
Modular hydroponics systems are repeatable grow systems that can extend from a small area such as a closet or bedroom to any unlimited space. The main objective is the repeatability, allowing cultivation to occur on a much larger scale. Scaling up often provides challenges to growers.
One way to avoid complications in this area is to select equipment that can easily be unplugged from the system and isolated for purposes of quarantine, cleanup, nutrient change, harvest completion variances, changes in photoperiod, or any other reasons that can occur in a large-scale garden.
Pests and diseases are usually the main issue. Once identified, you want to be able to isolate the plants and equipment immediately. By definition, modular hydro systems utilize designs that make this necessity a possible reality.
Benefits of Modular Hydroponic Systems
Modular hydroponic systems allow growers to easily switch plants or groups of plants between rows or other areas. This can be achieved regardless of the location of the equipment, rooms, greenhouse space, light cycles, temperature changes, environmental variances, and many other parameters. Commercial operations are very challenging on a large scale because there is little adaptability in conventional gardens.
When issues occur on modular farms, the user simply unplugs the grow chamber from the “chain” or “bank” of units and the rest of the garden continues operating as if nothing went wrong. Problems can easily be isolated and addressed, as compared to conventional controlled environment commercial operations.
At harvest time, there is often a lag in the production line because the grow system and corresponding space must be cleaned before new plants arrive. Modular systems provide a means to mobilize the plants, removing them for harvest and cleanup. The obvious advantage to this capability is the empty space that has been created in the garden, which can quickly be replaced with a fresh crop, ready for production.
Modular systems also offer the chance to keep a plant or group of plants in place but disconnected from the others and fed on a different schedule or regimen if necessary. Finally, perhaps the largest benefit offered by modular grow systems is the ability to spread out the typical burdens brought about by harvest time, allowing for businesses and their labor demands to more easily operate on a weekly or daily schedule instead.
Quick Connect Grow Systems
Quick-connect fittings are unique in that they clamp onto tubing for a watertight fit and they just as easily unclamp for disassembly. Due to their durability and versatility, they are ideal for use in modular hydroponics and aeroponics.
A complete large-scale modular farm can be built with repeatability, reusing the same tubing components and quick-connect fittings over and over again throughout the garden. Modern growers that maintain high crop turnover for the highest profitability understand the need to keep things moving, and by using modular components such as quick-connect fittings, this can be achieved with little or no downtime.
Another reason to use these components is for easy cleanup that occurs simultaneously instead of in between crops. This valuable capacity, maximizing competitive advantage, is utilized by commercial modular farms to increase efficiency by purchasing extra sets of quick-connect fittings to use in production while the old sets are being cleaned.
Adaptability of the grow system is a key advantage offered by modular hydroponic systems, which minimize downtime to the operation. Individual growth chambers may be removed for any reason and at any time with ease. Further adaptability is often paramount to saving time and reducing the need to physically move the growth system when everything is going smoothly. When growth is thriving, experienced gardeners do not want to transplant or change much of anything at all.
A system capable of various ranges of adaptability, such as adjusting drain levels to control flood depth and eliminating the need for transplanting are parameters of a system that many gardeners would enjoy controlling. Modular systems can save valuable time, especially by avoiding unnecessary transplant shock.
For example, in a deep water culture system, the roots spread out into the water and can get tangled if they share the same system. The plants don't mind as long as they are not being disturbed and have access to nutrients at the correct pH level. Modular systems find ways to offer adaptability with minimal disturbances, if any.
Cleaning and Maintenance
Cleaning and maintenance become less of a headache when using modular systems. Users can easily disconnect units from the rest of the garden to be removed for thorough cleaning in a separate area. The space is then freed up and made available for a minimal and quick cleanup before refilling it with a new modular grow unit, ready for production.
Meanwhile, in the separate cleaning area, staff can take their time properly harvesting and removing plant material, disassembling grow systems and components, and properly cleaning and inspecting each and every component. Reassembly and replanting is made easy because each root chamber and set of components such as pumps, quick-connect fittings, and tubing are repeatable and not specific to one another. This allows time for an organized methodology and virtually seamless transition between crops.
Read More: How to Get Your Grow Space Clean and Fresh
Scalability can more easily be achieved in a system that is modular and uses quick-connect fittings. There is little to no downtime and the operation can virtually grow to an unlimited size by scaling up. At some point, it makes sense to have groups or “banks” of systems because of nutrient and pH changes down the line.
For example, plants that get fed first will take up some of the nutrients and could change the pH and nutrient density, or parts per million (PPM), so plants down the line would not get the same mix. For this reason, banks are pretty much required at some point. However, banks offer other advantages as well.
Since the modular farm is sharing water, all modular units can potentially be affected by sharing disease pathogens in the recirculating system. Putting systems together in groups or "banks" offers redundancy and additional crop insurance by providing the opportunity to quarantine or isolate a group of modular systems, before they would have affected a larger area or the entire crop. Modular farms offer multiple layers of protection versus conventional methods.
The ability to quarantine and isolate certain plants or groups of plants is especially advantageous in a large commercial agriculture setting. When disease or pest infestations occur, it is easy to remove the affected area before the problem spreads. Most gardens do not have this option. When potential problems are spotted quickly, this quarantine method can even be used to save the plants in the immediate problem area, long before the entire crop is affected.
Homogeneous and Non-Homogenous Capabilities
Most agricultural crops are homogenous, even in controlled environment agriculture (CEA) settings. This is due to the need for the increased efficiencies provided by repeatability. Modular systems offer these efficiencies but also offer commercial gardeners the opportunity to grow non-homogeneous crops where different varieties or families of crops can be grown in the same areas and even on different feeding schedules or regimens. This versatility provides modern growers the opportunity to anticipate and adapt rapidly, providing their markets with crops that are in-demand and of high value.
Due to their versatility, modular hydroponic systems have a future in controlled environment agriculture. This advanced concept is only just beginning. These systems not only offer commercial users the competitive advantages outlined in this article, they also offer all users new options and components to utilize in their gardens.
These tools make it easier for growers to tinker and adapt their systems as needed from crop to crop. This adaptability provides for a fun hobby garden or an advanced competitive advantage in a commercial work environment or research setting. If you haven't tried out a modular system or components, consider adding this technology to your own garden and then customize as you grow.
For more information on hydroponic gardening, check out The Pros and Cons of Hydroponic Gardening.
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.