Choosing a Cannabis Greenhouse


How to Choose the Right Commercial Cannabis Greenhouse

In this Growers Spotlight, we interview Shane Hutto. Shane has Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Horticulture with a focus on extraction from Oklahoma State University. Shane is also the owner of Horticultural Solutions Ltd and Horticultural Extracts LLC.

He has worked in one of the largest single-site greenhouses in the United States, the Metrolina Greenhouses. Shane has also worked in extractions for many years for Oklahoma State University, and currently consults for commercial cannabis grow operations on greenhouse designs.

In this Growers Spotlight, we discuss terminology, equipment, brands, and what options a grower should look at when purchasing a greenhouse.

The following was an interview with an industry expert. Growers Network does not endorse nor evaluate the claims of our interviewees, nor do they influence our editorial process. We thank our interviewees for their time and effort so we can continue our exclusive Growers Spotlight service.


The Science of a Greenhouse

A greenhouse is any building or structure that is designed to capture the heat and light from the sun for the purposes of growing plants. Greenhouses allow for more precise control of the environment in which plants grow.

The term “greenhouse” can encompass a wide variety of structures made with different building materials.

Generally speaking, greenhouses have a skeletal structure which can be made out of hard plastics, wood, metal, and more. This skeletal structure has large gaps through which sunlight can travel. These gaps are covered by a translucent material — typically glass or plastic.

The basic principle that allows greenhouses to control their environment is very similar to the greenhouse effect. Light passes through the translucent material in the greenhouse and is converted into heat. The heat is then trapped inside the building and cannot leave.

There are a large variety of greenhouse types, from the humble polytunnel to Victorian-era glasshouses to modern greenhouses and hybrid greenhouses.



What You Should Know About Greenhouses

Greenhouses are very sophisticated machines and how well they run depends on how well they’re designed and built. Shane Hutto
There are definitely a few terms you want to understand:

  • Trusses are cross beams that run the span of your greenhouse. You can see these in all sorts of building construction.
  • Screening is another important term. We use a variety of different screens, which are essentially made of fabric that is being used to either save energy, block the sun, or trap the light from exiting the greenhouse.
  • Microclimates is an important term to understand. Within any greenhouse there are spots that have different climates from the rest of the building.
  • Wetwalls: Essentially a wetwall is a corrugated cardboard that you run water from the top down. Air is pulled through the corrugation while the water is running. Doing this creates a giant evaporative cooler. This makes the air inside the greenhouse more humid than what is outside. You’re pulling outside air through the wetwall and humidifying it.

    An example of a wetwall used in a greenhouse.

    I should also mention the different types of components that are involved in making greenhouses.

  • There are polycarbonates, which are a plastic-like polymer. There are different varieties of polycarbonates, like a diffused polycarbonate that has a special coating on it to prevent hotspots.
  • There are poly-plastics, which are used for different, cheaper structures. PVC would be an example. Polyethylene is a common skin for cheap greenhouses.
  • Then you have glass, and there’s different varieties of glass, such as diffused glass.

    And finally there’s terms related to the management of a greenhouse. Crop structure is one such term. Labor flow is another big one. Greenhouses are very sophisticated machines and how well they run depends on how well they’re designed and built.

  • They are a slightly different kind of greenhouse. A “hybrid” greenhouse means a few different things, but it primarily means that you have steel walls and a greenhouse roof. A hybrid greenhouse can also mean that you have a conventional air conditioning system instead of a typical evaporative cooling system.

    An example of what you might see in a hybrid greenhouse.

    Hybrid greenhouses tend to work better in areas where you have light high in the sky for most of the year. In northern latitudes that don’t have a lot of light in the winter, hybrid greenhouses aren’t particularly useful. Essentially hybrid greenhouses are useful in areas where you expect a security risk or a legislative body wants you to have something more secure than a glass or plastic wall.

    I would say that hybrid greenhouses have better insulation properties, but I wouldn’t say that that’s a major selling point for them. We can get pretty high R-values in a greenhouse, especially if we’re under glass. We have energy retention curtains and things like that if we’re in a scenario where we’re worried about utilities or trying to save on operations costs.

    I would say the big difference in size is essentially height. The larger you go in a greenhouse, the easier it is to get taller. Smaller greenhouses tend to be shorter, and that presents an issue with your crop inputs and how high you can get the crop.

    A “large” greenhouse with significant height.

    Greenhouse height also impacts your ability to control the environment. One of the big rules in greenhouse construction is that the taller your greenhouse is, the easier it is to control your climate; the extra height provides a huge barrier of air between the crop and the greenhouse exterior. The height difference will allow you to control your environment much more precisely. In short, as you go from a small, entry-level greenhouse to a large, full-scale high-tech greenhouse, you’re going to see the height go from 10 to 12 feet to the truss all the way up to 20 to 25 to the truss.

    We also make sure to build the greenhouses to the local building codes. If you’re in an area that doesn’t require a super-sturdy structure, but you still want it tall, then it might not be necessary to make the greenhouse beefy. If you’re in an environment like the mountains of Colorado where you have to design for huge snow loads on the roof and wind loads on the structure, then you’re going to have a much beefier structure. We build the structures for the environment.

    Grades, at least for me, have to do with the technology in a greenhouse. If you’re in a high-grade greenhouse, you’re very high tech and highly automated. Conversely, a low-grade greenhouse has very little technological control and a lot is done manually. Somewhere between is the mid-grade. Size is not a determinant. I’ve seen some greenhouses in Colorado that are quite large but have very little technology in them. I’ve also seen the opposite — smaller greenhouses that have an extreme amount of technology.

    Automatic irrigation is one example of high-grade technology in a greenhouse.

    As far as companies go for the different categories, you can find them pretty much everywhere. Some of the good manufacturers for low-grade greenhouses, in my opinion, would be Rimol or Nexus. When you get into the mid-grade greenhouses, you’re probably looking at a GGS or a Rough Brothers (pronounced Rao). With high-grade greenhouses, you’re looking at Havecon, Bom Group, or something in that range.

    Editor’s Note: Terms such as “low-grade” are meant to describe low-tech, not low quality. The aforementioned greenhouse manufacturers are some of Shane’s preferred manufacturers, but there are many more high quality manufacturers out there.

    Structure matters, sure, but the technology that goes into it matters as well. Every greenhouse manufacturer will sell you all the equipment that goes inside the structure. That may or may not be a good decision. If you really know what you want and what you’re ordering, then a greenhouse manufacturer is probably going to give you a good deal.

    Automatic salinity control, pH control, microbiological screens, and EC control are a technological advantage.

    However, realistically speaking, [some] greenhouse manufacturers don’t know enough about cannabis to understand what the right equipment is and how to design the greenhouse around it. I would use a greenhouse manufacturer to put up the structure, and then I would go to the technology’s manufacturer, a good consultant, or hydro-stores to get the right equipment for the job. That’s the best way to approach it.

    There’s not a great website that I know of where you can learn how to decipher between different manufacturers and different options. I really wish there was a good website that laid it all out there. The industry is lacking a clear, concise resource which explains what parts are what, what options are available, and more.

    Because it’s difficult to find a solid resource, every greenhouse manufacturer will tell you that their structure is the best, and that their structure is the best for that crop, and that their structure can give you the best. Most of them embellish a bit.

    Editor’s Note: Growers Network is building a centralized resource for this kind of information. If you are interested in contributing to our research, please contact us at [email protected].



    The Greenhouse Market

    Nobody wants to invest a million dollars in a greenhouse and 5 years later see it rusted to hell.Shane Hutto
    Editor’s Note: Many of the companies below are Shane’s preferred companies. There are many others out there, so do your research first!

    There’s a ton of different companies in the space. The best approach to find one appropriate for you is to start going to greenhouse tradeshows. There are a substantial number of shows every year that are centered solely around greenhouses. One of the best trade shows in my opinion is the Canadian Greenhouse Conference. It’s just across the border in New York if you’re flying to Buffalo. Another big trade show is Cultivate in Ohio. It’s a little more nursery centered, but there’s still a ton of greenhouse activity there. Greenhouse Grower Magazine also puts on a lot of different events that are centered around greenhouses.

    When you start talking about environmental technology, I definitely would look at Delta-T Solutions. Whether it’s an indoor grow or greenhouse grow, they’re top level. If you want an automated greenhouse, Havecon seems to be one of the most sensible companies, in my opinion. They operate the best products for the money.

    A Havecon greenhouse, courtesy of Havecon.

    One greenhouse manufacturer I want to mention is Harnois, a French company. They make some really good, sturdy greenhouses that are middle of the road on costs. For the structures, they use oval tubing instead of square tubing, which adds a lot of strength to the structure. GGS is another big manufacturer. GGS builds some quality structures that are nice and sturdy, although they use square tubes. Rough Brothers, pronounced Rao Brothers, isn’t a bad one. They make a quality structure. That said, they’re sort of the low-end for what we do. If we want to get into truly low-tech greenhouses, I would probably look at Rimol. They build some of the easiest to DIY greenhouses. DeCloet also builds a nice middle of the road greenhouse. Nexus greenhouses are on the lower-tech side of things. Nexus greenhouses don’t get very tall, so they tend not to be my favorite. I’m going to be a proponent of the height of a greenhouse.

    Beyond that, there’s hundreds of different companies out there. They’ll all tell you that they’re the best and that they have what you want. Understanding what you’re buying from a greenhouse manufacturer is difficult.

    Simply put, the cost of production is much lower in a greenhouse, and your output yield is much higher. It’s fun to see the rate of growth out of a greenhouse compared to an indoor grow, because once you get under the sun, these plants grow faster.

    Greenhouse designed for cold-weather environments by Horticultural Solutions.

    I’d also like to think that most growers enjoy the challenge of improving their skills, as greenhouses are more complicated than indoor growing.

    There are a few reasons why you should not choose to use a greenhouse. When your local government is worried about security, a greenhouse is seen as a liability. Another reason not to get a greenhouse is if you’re growing in an area where you see powerful forces of nature, like high amounts of hail or destructive winds. We can build greenhouses rated up to 110 mph wind-load, but if you’re supposed to be rated for 150 mph winds you may want to pick another building type.


    Natural forces pose a threat to greenhouses.

    Beyond that, I would say there is no environment where we can’t build greenhouses. There’s greenhouses in Antarctica and there’s also greenhouses in Iran in the middle of the desert. We can build in all extremes. The most difficult, extreme place to build is a really high-humidity area. Your costs are going to go up dramatically.

    You have to look at the cost of a grow operation from two perspectives: the initial cost and the ongoing costs.

    If you’re looking to build a new building, we can build a greenhouse for the same cost that you could build an indoor grow. Now if you’re retrofitting a building, that’s a different story, and the costs on that will vary. But if you’re doing new construction, I can probably build a greenhouse for about the same price as an indoor grow, including the same technology.

    When you factor in the sun’s light, your cost of operations goes down by about a half.Shane Hutto

    Then the question of costs goes to operational costs. When you factor in the sun’s light, your cost of operations goes down by about a half. That’s really what’s attractive about a greenhouse grow. Now, to clarify, there’s a higher learning curve in a greenhouse: understanding seasonal variances, understanding the difference between the maximum light intensity you can get under the sun, learning how to make those daily adjustments based on what is happening outside, and more. It’s a steep learning curve.

    Can’t beat the sun.

    There’s a lot of people who believe that the quality of indoor-grown cannabis will always beat greenhouse-grown. Personally, I have experienced far better product out of greenhouses than I have out of indoor grows. As far the market is concerned, the indoor game is still top-dog, but if you have a greenhouse dialed in, you can see faster, larger growth in your plants.

    The biggest concern I would have is whether or not the steel is hot dipped or spray-galvanized. What I mean is that when greenhouses are built, they should last at least 20 years, realistically. When trusses are built, there are a lot of welds made in order to form the structure. Some companies will just spray-galvanize over those welds. Spray-galvanization tends to rust, peel, and degrade. If the trusses are hot-dipped as one piece, they become a much stronger galvanized material. Therefore you can rely on the truss being there 20 years later, not rusted and falling. Nobody wants to invest a million dollars in a greenhouse and 5 years later see it rusted to hell.

    A side-by-side comparison of the two processes.

    You want to consider the lead time on the structure. Typically you’re going to see 12-16 weeks for delivery, and then depending on the structure, it could be 4 to 12 weeks of construction. If you’re on a deadline, this is an important factor to consider.

    A lot of greenhouse manufacturers don’t do their own construction. Many of them will just drop the structure on-site and you have to either find your own contractor, or they have one that they recommend. Without a contractor, some of these structures get built and halfway through they fall over.

    Your next big pieces are your lighting and your irrigation. Lighting a greenhouse is different than lighting a warehouse. You don’t want to hang a bunch of things that are shading your plants during the day while the sun’s out. Because of this, we try to stick lights into the trusses and crossbeams, which is where your equipment will hang. You don’t want large reflectors. A commercial fixture is where it’s at.

    Placement is going to be done with calculations and a spreadsheet. Unlike a standard grid in a warehouse, your trusses may not be distributed evenly. In addition, your spans are much wider, and your lights are much higher up.

    The aspects you should consider most are your temperature and humidity.

    Essentially, in a humid environment I’m going to suggest a sealed system, where you’re not exchanging a lot of air with the environment. Any time you bring outside air inside your greenhouse, you’re essentially changing your humidity levels. Because we don’t want your humidity to run too high for cannabis, we seal up the greenhouse to bring in very little outside air. We then treat all the air inside and recirculate it through a closed system. That’s going to help with odor control as well. Whereas, if you’re in a dry environment like Arizona or Colorado, then an evaporative cooling pad makes a lot more sense. We aren’t worried about fighting humidity above 50 or 60%, generally.

    A dry environment like the Sonoran Desert is a great environment to have an evaporative cooling system. Image courtesy of ralphmag.org.

    When it comes to temperature, I would rather build a greenhouse in a cold area than I would in a hot area. It’s easier to heat a greenhouse in the winter than it is to cool a greenhouse in the summer.

    As far as heating goes, floor heating is a great method. It’s a drier heat and it tends to perform much better than other heating sources. Floor heating can be centered right around your root zone, so that you’re not just getting heat to the canopy, but also to the roots. Because roots like warmer temperatures, the root system will grow faster. The heat on the bottom also creates a turbulent air that rises through the canopy, keeping the crop metabolically active. There’s a lot of advantages to floor heating.


    The Technology of Modern Greenhouses



    I definitely believe in automated irrigation. Having a system that reads moisture content, EC, and pH on a regular basis throughout the day is great. Understanding how that fluctuates throughout the day is a big piece of dialing in a greenhouse control system. Having the ability to track those values is mastery of your grow operation. Some of the best systems out there do it all. They can control your environment, your irrigation, and even your inventory.

    For automated irrigation, I really like the Priva system. Priva’s systems tend to be the best at working in conjunction with the environmental system and comparing graphs from the environment against the irrigation, plant size, and whatever other parameters that it’s set to track.


    An example system, image courtesy of Priva. Click for larger image.

    Dosatron is probably the most widely used irrigator, but in my mind that’s in the low to mid tech range. On the high tech side, I’m using Priva irrigators and UV sterilizers. As facilities get higher-tech, there’s more water recirculation coming from the runoff of the plants. Right now, we’re creating a water-neutral facility, and because of the sterilization procedures we’re taking, we won’t face the risk of water-borne plant pathogens.

    Priva injectors are computerized. They can be set up in multiple ways, but essentially you have 4 injection ports, an acid, and a mixing chamber. Your concentrate gets pulled from its tank, goes through a mixing chamber, and then a computer checks to see that it matches the EC and pH that you want. Then the water gets sent out. That computer has the ability to make 50 different recipes, so if you want a different fertilizer for each irrigation zone you have set up, you can have it.

    Now that said, the technology definitely isn’t cheap. It’s not something that’s going to be for everybody. But if you’re in a high-tech facility that you spent some big money on, then you’re probably not going to balk at top-notch irrigation and environmental systems. The pricing generally starts around $40,000 or $50,000 and can easily reach in excess of $200,000. If you want a cheaper environmental controller, you might try Damatex. They’re like an entry level Argus, in my opinion.

    Some other big guys in the automation industry are also Argus and HortiMax. They definitely offer similar technology. I would say there’s pros and cons to them, because they have different features.

    An example of an Argus System, image courtesy of Argus.

    When it comes to dehumidification, it really depends on the system. Realistically, the right dehumidification system in pretty much every case is going to be based off of a boiler and a cooling system to overcome the heat from the boiler. This creates condensation to draw water out of the air. One company that comes to mind is Delta-T Solutions. They probably have the best dehumidification system that I’ve seen. There are some standalone units that we use as well. One company is called DryGair. They’re based out of Israel. We also work with an Italian company called Vifra.

    On that note, we should talk about air conditioning. You definitely don’t want conventional air conditioning in a greenhouse. We don’t want to have thin coils with ducting running all over the place. In high humidity areas I recommend a sealed greenhouse and a hydronic chiller system. It’s “air conditioning” but it’s a more efficient technology, and in order to function properly, the greenhouse has to be sealed off or have limited air exchange. A hydronic chiller system runs chilled glycol or another non-conventional refrigerating fluid from outside of the building into it, carrying heat back outside. Delta-T Solutions also designs hydronic chiller systems.

    Editor’s Note: There are a range of other options out there for environmetal controls. Delta-T is Shane’s preferred company for environmental control.

    There are a ton of developments being made. I would say that the technology is experiencing continual advancement. In the last year alone, we saw the tomato industry make massive developments. The technology is not so well-settled on the cannabis side of the business. That’s my specialty: taking technology from the tomato and agricultural side and applying it to cannabis.

    One of the more recent innovations we saw is an automatic leaf picker. They’re calling it a de-leafer. It’s essentially designed to remove leaves from the bottom of your plant. Because it’s a robot, it uses an infrared eye to inspect each plant. All you need to do is set the parameters in the computer once. If you wanted to take the bottom two feet of leaves from a plant and leave all the stems, you program the de-leafer. It can run 24 hours a day just moving around, checking every plant in the building. This significantly reduces labor costs. I approached Priva about the technology, and I’m told that I will have my opportunity to assist with development sometime in early summer of 2017.

    There’s a company called the ISO Group, and they’ve developed some really interesting technology in conjunction with the University Groningen in Holland. For example, they have an automatic cuttings machine. You stick a whole plant or a branch in, and it’ll cut the plant apart and automatically create cuttings for you.

    ISO Cutting and Planting robot capable of continuously creating new cuttings from an existing plant in seconds.

    One of the other things that really comes to mind is tissue culture. There’s machines now that can auto-sample tissue. That means you can put in a branch or piece of the plant, and the robot will take a pinprick, enough for a handful of actual plant cells. It takes those cells and transfers them into tissue culture for you. That’s the start of your tissue culture. It’s very expensive, like $150k.

    ISO Plantsampler can take small samples of plants automatically.

    One of the big things I look forward to in the industry is developing tissue culture and clean genetics. I’d like to see certified disease-free plants.

    On the lighting side, there’s a lot of advances in LEDs. A lot of LED companies are making a run at cannabis. One LED company that I expect to make an impact in the market is called the Oreon. They’re a Dutch company. Their LED is actually water-cooled, and you can recirculate the water for under-bench heating as a free source of heat from your lights. Plasma lights are typically not used in greenhouses because you get a lot of the UV spectrum out of plasma. You already get enough of that from the sun. As a result, you generally don’t need to supplement with plasma. I’ve also seen guys experimenting with ceramics, but I don’t have a lot of feedback at this time.

    There’s always going to be opportunity for these. If you’re cash-strapped and you’re trying to make something out of nothing, they aren’t a bad direction to go. However, don’t expect them to be perfect out of the gate. There will be a lot of errors and mistakes that you realize later. If you aren’t looking for a lot, these are okay.

    I would say that most people who use a DIY or a prefab greenhouse will come back years later and want a nicer structure. Hopefully by that point they’ve made the money to pay for the new structure.


    A typical polytunnel

    The big concern is that their polytunnel blows away or gets destroyed. Hail can go right through some of those DIY structures.

    The other worry with DIY greenhouses is that they can be affected by local construction laws. DIY Greenhouses can be seen as temporary structures, so local ordinances can shut you down for lack of permanency. Additionally, once you build a greenhouse structure, you fall under agricultural regulations. In most states that means the Department of Agriculture can come and inspect your operation. State troopers can also come and inspect your operations.

    I see greenhouses in the cannabis industry taking over. Within a few years you’ll see very, very few warehouse grows being built. For the most part I think that a lot of the warehouse grows will go out of business or convert. We’ll always have some boutique growers that stay in the indoor model, because they’re well-known and have a great product. But in all the other situations, I see greenhouses taking over.

    Realistically, I can see a model where warehouses will be converted to cloning and propagation, with some vegetative growth, and greenhouses would be used for flowering. There’s some areas where we won’t see warehouses disappear due to laws or environmental conditions.


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    Want a consultation from Shane for a grow operation?

    The best way to find Shane is through his website hort-solutions.com. There’s a contact form on the website. You can find the office phone number on there. Shane’s secretary can set up an appointment. You can also email [email protected] and somebody will take care of you.


    Resources:

    1. Horticultural Solutions — Consult with Shane Hutto on your own greenhouse.
    2. Priva — Horticultural Automation
    3. Delta-T Solutions — Environmental Control Systems
    4. Dosatron — Automated Irrigation Systems
    5. DryGair — Commercial Dehumidification Systems for Greenhouses
    6. GGS-Greenhouses — High-Quality Greenhouses

    Do you have any questions or comments?

    Feel free to post below!


    About the Author

    Hunter Wilson is a community builder with Growers Network. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 2011 with a Masters in Teaching and in 2007 with a Bachelors in Biology.