The Evolution of Water Technology in the CEA Space
Kent Gruetzmacher gets the scoop on the latest tech being used in controlled environment agriculture from a couple of key industry insiders and learns much has changed over the past 20 years.
The controlled environment agriculture (CEA) space has grown leaps and bounds. New technology has pushed the CEA industry forward in new and unexpected ways. Whether it be LED grow lights or artificial intelligence (AI), the CEA space is constantly evolving with new technology.
Today, innovative water treatment and filtration companies are working tirelessly to give CEA growers better water quality. By focusing on important issues with water usage, they are helping establish new environmental standards for CEA production.
Silver Bullet Water Treatment is a Colorado-based company offering water filtration and treatment technologies for farmers. Their CEA division is spearheaded by vice-president of Horticulture Kyle Lisabeth. GrowGeneration is the biggest retail hydro store chain in the U.S., with more than 50 locations. Frank Hegardt is their commercial accounts manager, as well as their water filtration expert. Both Lisabeth and Hegardt were very helpful in getting us up-to-speed on the latest developments in water technology for CEA production.
Agricultural water technology has changed dramatically over the last two decades. This change is partly attributable to different focuses in crop choice. Lisabeth tells us, “20 years ago, plants being grown in controlled environment agriculture infrastructure focused on flowers and select fruits and vegetables.” With such different aims, people of that era were not as concerned with water quality as, say, hydro leafy greens growers are today. Hegardt further elaborates, stating, back then “agricultural water application standards were definitely lacking testing and procedure.”
The evolution of technology has greatly influenced water filtration and treatment in CEA. Just a couple of decades ago, greenhouse water tech looked much different than it does today. According to Lisabeth, 20 years ago “simple bag and sand media filtration systems were used to remove large solids. [Yet], there was little concern with dissolved contaminants like metals or chemical residuals, and no one was using RO (reverse osmosis) filtration systems.” Obviously, with even the smallest CEA farms today using advanced testing, RO systems, and automated fertigation, things have changed quite a bit.
Changes in water technology within CEA are also tied to new government regulations. As we come to learn more about the importance of clean water, new rules are set in place to protect consumers as well as the environment. Hegardt puts it this way, “in 2011, the Food Safety Modernization water act was passed. This act made water testing mandatory. Such as testing of water quality at the source, testing for sterile equipment, testing runoff, and a 10-year source evaluation.”
With new regulations in place, comprehensive water management companies like Silver Bullet Water Treatment have engineered new technologies and established best management practices to help ensure a constant supply of clean water. Lisabeth explains, “as water supplies began to decline, competition for water resources rose, and energy costs influenced irrigation type and management. While treatment technologies began to come online, so did sensor-based data systems, autonomous management, and micro-irrigation systems.”
Today, water quality is considered one of the most important factors in running a successful CEA operation. Yet, more goes into it than simply filtering or treating your water. A large part of CEA water tech is dedicated to testing. Hergardt feels adamantly that “having knowledge of your water quality is crucial to your growing success. It is the key to life.” Lisabeth is in agreement here, explaining “it is critical to understand what constituents are in water and how they will impact the intended use. Some are pathogenic or toxic to plants, others may not be compatible with nutrient recipes and still, others may cause excessive maintenance issues.”
Both GrowGeneration and Silver Bullet Water Treatment have clients whose crops have suffered because they were complacent with water filtration and treatment. As Hergardt illustrates, “it is key to have professional water testing done so you know what your base levels are. After that, you assess what purification system is suited to your specific needs.” Without such careful protocol, crop health can quickly decline. Lisabeth recalls a client who “had been operating for about three years and had no form of sanitation or shock treatment abilities.” In time, they “began to see fluctuations in pH.” They brought Silver Bullet Water Treatment to the operation and discovered the “irrigation plumbing showed excessive amounts of biofilm accumulation, which required extensive rework to resolve.”
Beyond helping CEA producers, new water technologies and best management practices also are helping curb issues with environmental degradation. Lisabeth explains it like this, “CEA will continue to be put under a microscope. These farms are seen as energy and water-intensive, and it will be up to the industry as a whole to prove otherwise. Fortunately, efficient use of water and several water recycling options exist for CEA farms. Silver Bullet sees water monitoring, auditing, and water footprint being key data metrics that every farm monitors moving forward.”
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As CEA growers continue to revise their methods, we see an increased interest in water filtration and treatment. Importantly, growers now realize how important it is to know exactly what is in their water. In the end, you could have the best nutrient formula on earth, but it won’t pay out if your PPM and EC levels are off the charts.
In today’s CEA market, companies like GrowGeneration and Silver Bullet are working together to educate the public on the importance of clean water. In doing so, Lisabeth and Hergardt also work tirelessly to promote the technologies and best management practices that help CEA producers, while also protecting the environment. With an array of new water technologies on the market, ranging from commercial RO systems to cloud-based crop monitoring, the future is looking quite interesting.
As CEA growing continues to gain popularity, it will be interesting to see how technology and guidance from the industry will continue to solve problems. Whether you are interested in saving the environment or protecting your bottom line, CEA water tech will help do the job.