Why does greenhouse equipment need to be simple?

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Profound Microfarms, Texas

By Chris Higgins

What is the number one thing to look for in commercial horticulture and agriculture equipment? Simplicity.

Simple well engineered commercial horticulture equipment performs best.

Regardless of the product or the product category the best selling and most successfully used products are easy to learn, easy to use and easy to fix.  But, this is not to say that they are actually simple.  They are usually far from that.  But, they are engineered with simplicity in mind.

Why is that so important in commercial horticulture?  

To understand the answer to that question we need to agree to a few things.  First, it’s important to remember that not all greenhouses are built the same.  There are a wide variety of greenhouses from low tech (some might include high tunnels) all the way to the Dutch designed glass venlo greenhouse.  Second, let’s agree that the conditions inside the greenhouse can vary widely.  From extremely hot and humid to very cold and dry.  Finally we need to agree that there are a lot of crops grown commercially in greenhouses and indoor farms.  Often the expectation is that many of these crops can be grown in the same greenhouse at the same time or during different stages or progressions of that greenhouse’s life in business.  

Greener Roots, TN

Next, we need to consider the conditions these different variables put on the technology that we are investing in. The location of the greenhouse will have a major impact on the longevity of any equipment placed inside.  The longevity of the equipment then determines the amount of time, money and energy one needs to put into maintenance and ultimately impacts the return on investment for that purchase.  The ability to maintain the equipment will be determined by the likelihood that there is a local maintenance person with access to parts that understands how to fix it.  None of this takes into account the drastically different economic circumstances each owner may find themselves in based on their crop, access to capital and market.  Put all these things together and this means smart simple designs will be accountable for addressing all of these conditions.

One of the sayings I learned very early in my career,
“Keep It Simple Stupid” (KISS)

So what does this mean? 

Here are some brief, probably overly simplified (joke intended), examples of why it’s so important for key equipment components to be simple even in a relatively niche market where cost management is key and customers are very spread out.

Irrigation

Everyone in commercial horticulture uses some sort of irrigation system.  Options are only limited by imagination.  However the most successful technologies fit the widest purposes, they are easy to install and are even easier to fix.  Why?  Imagine you have a crop in your greenhouse and your irrigation system fails.  Imagine you have hours (yes only hours) to identify the problem, determine a solution, source parts and fix the problem before you lose your crop.  Improving the quality of source water, moving water (under pressure), uniformly adding nutrients continuously, collecting waste and recirculating all of it is complex enough.  Adding complexed equipment that is difficult to service is often not worth the hassle.

Lighting

While much less common than irrigation, supplemental lighting plays a key role in growing year round and locally for most of the world.  This also represents a major investment for those choosing to do so.  In order to achieve a reasonable return on investment it needs to last and whether it is in use or not it’s going to be exposed to a wide range of conditions.  In the summer months it will be pummeled with intense sun-light potentially high humidities and high temperatures.  In the winter it will be subject to constant fluctuations in temperature as it cycles on/off and in addition to that all of this is hung in a part of the greenhouse that is difficult to access.  Products that use passive cooling and are designed to manage these possible extreme conditions that are easy to install and maintain will help to lower the growers cost and insure a successful return on investment.

True Harvest Greenhouse, Texas
True Harvest, Texas

Sensors

The newest technology of the three categories, it’s also possibly becoming the most important in our ever evolving effort to manage our greenhouses more efficiently and effectively in order to increase profit.  This is also a product category in which simple to use definitely does not mean simple to design.  Sensors should be robust enough to work in a hoop house with the climate conditions will swing widely and at the same time sturdy enough to withstand tractors, laborers and other unknown variables that will for sure come in contact with them over their lifetime.  Sensors should be simple to install and operate.  If they are not, they will likely not be used for very long.  They should also allow simple access to the data.  And my last point here is something that has not yet been commercially achieved, it should be easy to share the data across platforms making the data useful and meaningful.

Remember, this article is not designed to tell you what to invest in.  Just a recommendation into what characteristics to look for in your investments.  Products will fail over time, it is the management teams job to evaluate the risk over time and insure that the product is designed for success in your specific environment.  After 25 years of working with commercial greenhouse growers and other commercial horticulture production businesses, I have witnessed that growers who invest in simple, robust and easy to maintain technology continue to have long-term success.

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