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Optimizing a cultivation facility: what to expect and why you should prepare

So, construction is complete. You’ve finished the long process of building a cultivation facility, all of the systems are operable, and you’ve handed the facility over to your cultivation team. The financial stress of construction is over. Plants are in, everything will work perfectly right from the jump, and your cultivation team is going to hit it out of the park on day one, right? Not so fast. Have you taken into consideration the inevitable period in which you will need to optimize your cultivation facility?

The truth is, once plants are in the building, there is still a lot of fine tuning and dialing-in to be done, in both cultivation processes and the building and support systems themselves. This is true even for very experienced cultivators. So, take a breath, temper your team’s expectations, and understand from the get-go that this is all part of the process.

Perfection of the processes
Most cultivators would agree that it takes several harvests to ensure that all of the cultivation processes are firing on all cylinders. New employees are being trained, and early turnover is being addressed. Optimizing a cultivation facility, related to strain selection and perfection of cultivation specific processes to maximize yield and quality, takes time. Perfection of those processes will have a direct impact on how you’re using the support systems in the building.

There are likely to be contractor button up or warranty issues that may not have been apparent at start-up and need to be resolved. What you’ve built is a complex manufacturing facility with industrial grade systems; you just happen to be “manufacturing” a plant. This optimization period is not reflective of a problem with your design, construction or cultivation team. Rather, dialing-in a grow environment is a natural byproduct of the complexity of the cultivation process and supporting systems.

Things will fail
There will always be general building tweaks. When you’re installing hundreds of lights and ballasts, pumps, switches, breakers, etc., common sense tells us that some of that equipment is going to fail and require repair or replacement. This doesn’t mean it’s of poor quality, it’s just reality—even with very low failure rates, if you’re installing 500 lights, some of them are going to fail.

Cultivation facilities require an enormous amount of power and a lot of piping. Minor wiring issues and plumbing leaks will likely need to be addressed. In some geographies, cultivators may find the power from the utility is less stable than they’d expect, causing issues with the industrial grade equipment they may have onsite (pumps, HVAC, etc). These are all issues that may not be fully apparent until the facility is in operation, and anticipating the possibility ensures that you’ll be well prepared to address them.

Patience and planning
To minimize start-up headaches and lengthy dialing-in periods, the first step you can take is to avoid rushing move-in. Taking the time to fully complete the building and support systems (to whatever extent is possible), will minimize disruption and ensure your cultivation team has the right tools for success. In addition to warranty coverage, ensure that agreements with key vendors and contractors include continued support after start-up. As your cultivation processes evolve, you may need to adjust things like nutrient dosing, irrigation and lighting schedules, or HVAC controls sequences. you should have support for those adjustments through the dialing-in period.

Whether it’s the first facility or the tenth, new geographies mean differences in water quality, climate and common pests and pathogens. The water treatment and filtration strategies that were established in location A might not be fully repeatable in location B and may need some tweaks. Some cultivators may have had great success with a specific strain in one location and find that it performs differently in another location, forcing a change to irrigation and fertigation strategies, or abandonment of some strains in favor of others. All of these parts of a cultivation facility take time to optimize.

Be prepared to make changes
In new geographies, prevalent biosecurity risks may be different. It’s very common for experienced cultivators to be surprised by an outbreak of one pest or fungus or another, after having no experience with it in previous facilities. If this occurs, the team has to identify mitigation and operating protocols that they may not have previously considered. This can impact quality and yield in those early harvests.

As your cultivation practices evolve, HVAC-D system performance will also require dialing-in. The performance of the climate control system is calculated at the engineering level based on cultivator inputs. These inputs include irrigation schedule and volume, lighting schedules and intensity, and desired parameters. If there are deviations in practice from these early stage assumptions during design (and there almost certainly will be), adjustments will be required. Ideally, you’ll have worked with an experienced HVAC-D designer like Surna who can help you plan for these contingencies affordably at the design level.

Sophisticated controls can help
It’s also exceptionally helpful to have a sophisticated controls system, such as Sentry IQ™, to offer visibility into the operation of the HVAC system in real time. Then, you can perfect your performance based on data. A good controls system can tell an engineer everything they need to know about how an HVAC system is performing. They can then make tweaks to the control sequences to perfect performance as cultivation methodologies evolve. Remember that a good controls system provider will include these sequence adjustments as part of their package.

Without visibility into exactly how the HVAC system is responding to changes in cultivator methodology, tweaks and adjustments are based on educated guesses, not real data. In those cases, the dialing-in period can take longer than it has to. In addition to the revenue implications, this may also mean added capital expenditures—i.e., you might end up purchasing extra equipment when all you really needed was a sequence tweak.

Climate system performance is a critical piece of maximizing yields and quality, and their performance is affected by nearly every other cultivation decision in the facility. It’s vitally important that experience, visibility into the system, and ongoing support, are part of the package for any vendor partner you choose for HVAC in your facility.

Completing construction of a cultivation facility is a huge milestone and an accomplishment to be celebrated. This is where the path to profitability really begins. Remember, though—it’s just the beginning. Staying on the path, continuing to optimize your cultivation facility, and giving your business the opportunity and resources it needs to perform at its peak will ensure long term viability and profitability for the years ahead.

For more information:
1780 55th Street, Suite A Boulder, CO 80301
T: (303) 993-5271
F: (303) 955-2544      

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