Vapor Pressure Deficit/Differential
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What is VPD?
Vapor Pressure Deficit (VPD) is an indicator of the evaporation potential of water to the air. It’s a measurement that’s defined as the difference, or deficit, between pressure exerted by the moisture present in the air currently and the pressure at saturation. It’s one of several different methods that you can use to evaluate crop stress or water stress within a plant.
At 100% humidity, no water can evaporate. At or above 100% humidity, water vapor becomes condensed water and falls out of the air, typically as condensation. Obviously, condensation is bad in a grow setting, so you never really want 100% moisture content except for very specific situations such as cuttings.
The Basics of VPD
Vapor Pressure Deficit is superior because it accounts for the relationship of temperature and humidity. Water’s ability to be present as a vapor within the air is dependent on the temperature such that a warmer mass of air will have the ability to hold more water while a colder mass of air can hold less water. Relative humidity only gives you a percent of water vapor saturation in the air, but doesn’t tell you much about temperature fluctuations.
Unless you’re at a perfectly uniform environment, like cuttings or the seedling stage, you’re gonna have temperature swings like day and night-time temperatures. Temperature can even vary along different parts of the plant, between separate plants, and between plants and the structure. How close the plants are to the heating and cooling equipment also matters. This adds up to make RH less useful as measuring tool.
The example I give is that RH is like knowing that your car can get 20 MPG. That value doesn’t take into account how much I push on the pedal, if two or five of us are riding in the car, if there’s wind going against us, or if I’m in stop and go traffic. If you were to add the additional capability of measuring all the other factors, you could more accurately determine what your real mileage is. That’s what VPD does. It’s more precise.
If you push the VPD in the sense that you want to drive the transpiration stream, then you want a lower humidity environment, and therefore a high VPD. What you’re effectively doing is driving minerals and water through the plant, causing cells to expand. You can also manipulate the temperature in addition to the humidity. That’s where VPD is useful because temperature can greatly affect a plant’s metabolism, nutrient uptake and more.
For seeding and seedlings, you will generally want a warmer temperature and higher humidity. You’re trying to help the seed imbibe water and grow and give it a nice nurturing environment to become a healthy seedling for transplant. You don’t need temperature swings. In this case, you don’t even need to use VPD as a measurement tool or control mechanism, because RH is perfectly fine for a uniform temperature.
Cuttings are very similar to the seedling stage. With cuttings specifically, you’re cutting the plant and removing the root system, so its ability to take up water is almost completely eliminated, close to 99.9%. The objective is to put the cutting into a new place and allow it to repair itself and put out roots. In the meantime, to prevent further damage, you have to put a very high (like 99.9%) relative humidity in there so it doesn’t lose water. In this case, a low VPD, high relative humidity is optimal. You can get away with using relative humidity because it’s going to be 75 to 85 degrees without temperature swings, which is conducive to repair.
In the vegetative portion of it, you want a low VPD and a high relative humidity, because you want to see a nice bushy plant that’s going to grow well. Your temperature is generally gonna be warmer than seedlings or cuttings. Because it’s hotter, it’s growing a little faster and cell expansion is greater. Higher relative humidity is involved in greater leaf expansion, so you see nice broad leaves. For veg, the day/night swing is not as big as it would be in the flowering stage, like in tomatoes. I don’t know what number exactly the VPD would be at at that stage, but it would be higher than what it is at the cutting stage because you don’t need to maintain that 99% humidity.
With flowering you probably want a dip in the night time in terms of temperature. You want a cooler night time temperature, warmer daytime temperature. You’re trying to trick the plant into thinking that it’s about to turn into winter, and that it needs to finish its reproductive cycle and put out its flowers. For multiple reasons, you want to increase the temperature band so you have a wider range. You’re going to lower the relative humidity and increase the VPD.
My primary concerns during flowering would be the formation of powdery mildew and molds. If you think about a flower forming, it can be a dense head sometimes. If you have too high of a relative humidity, or low of a VPD, you’re more susceptible to powdery mildew and mold.
Additionally, having a higher VPD and stressing it out just a little bit can have a beneficial effect where it’s driving flavors and other things into the actual flower. It’s like stressing a tomato plant. It’ll put more sugar into the tomato to create a sweet, better tasting fruit. Now there’s always a caveat. When you stress plants out, you can get a lower yield, and if you do it incorrectly, you can get a lower quality. It is a very fine balance. Just like with using VPD, if you don’t really know what you’re doing, you can really damage things.
You can see lots of different effects on the plants. You can also see how the environment changes over the course of the day. It’s really an environmental indicator.
In a controlled room, like the one we’re in, we effectively have control over 100% of everything. In a greenhouse, we don’t have control over the sun. You can do blackout curtains, and things like that, but there’s still gonna be effects from heat in the surrounding area.
My opinion is that it would be easier to control for VPD in a closed environment because I have all the control and all the equipment I need, as opposed to a greenhouse where I have less control and probably have restrictions on equipment. It’s not impossible to put an AC in my greenhouse, it’s just that it may not be economically feasible or operationally feasible to do so.
The caveat is that while I do have 100% control per se in a controlled environment, it’s gonna cost me. For example, I’ve got my air conditioner which both dehumidifies and cools. If I want the temperature at 65 or 70 degrees, I have to remove humidity in the process. But if I want 60% humidity, I have to put the humidity back in somehow. You end up fighting yourself to get the right conditions. You have to buy extra equipment and the electrical costs add up over time.
And all of this can occur in a greenhouse too, but you’re generally not gonna stick an air conditioner in a greenhouse. Here in Tucson, when we go into monsoon season, humidity can jump drastically. If you’re using a swamp cooler… suddenly your cooling has gone kaput. VPD control has gone out the window.
These are considerations that vegetable growers have to think about. When you’re inside your common problem is just equipment costs and operational issues like electricity and labor and water.
Integrating VPD Control Into Your Technique
If I’m driving back and forth to grandma’s house. I don’t need a Ferrari.Myles Lewis
Misting systems are common. Fog systems are cool, but they can be finicky. I don’t recommend that except for the largest and most experienced grow ops.
Ultrasonic humidifiers are a nice, lower cost option for humidifying. There are small versions and large commercial versions that pump out large volumes for commercial situations. If I was a large greenhouse, a large ultrasonic commercial humidifier might be useful if my evaporative cooling system was not keeping up, or I found myself needing additional humidity.
In really low-tech scenarios, you can leave a barrel or pan of water out such that the water vapor just enters the air. It’s not productive in scaled-up production systems, but if you’re in a smaller, enclosed environment, it is a cost effective way to increase humidity. If you put a boiler plate under that, you could also increase the heat at the same time.
Of course, there’s not really a low-tech solution to dehumidifying. The lowest tech solution is bringing in dryer air from a different source, like outside. There’s chemical desiccant methods, such as zeolite, silica gels, or some sort of water-absorbent material. You pass air through them and then either recharge or replace them.
I personally use a heat pump that has a dehumidify option on it as my solution beyond introducing external dry air. With it, I can heat, air condition, and if I really need to, dehumidify. That’s a pretty common feature on the mini-split duct type heat pumps and air conditioners.
The only amendments I could see myself adding to a substrate when thinking about VPD would be a hydrogel. It’s a hydrophilic substance, sometimes used in agriculture and many other fields, that can absorb water, up to 90% by weight. If you knew that you were going to be a particularly dry environment or have long periods between irrigations, you could mix in hydrogel to help regulate substrate moisture. You could also use fungal inoculants, which would create hyphae or myceliae within the substrate mass for helping retain moisture. It’s hard to associate an inoculant or amendment with VPD though, at least in my mind.
Editor’s Note: It might seem strange to add hydrogel, a dry particulate that absorbs water to a dry environment. The reason is that hydrogel captures excess water and slowly releases it into the soil.
You also need sensors to go with the controller. For example, your temperature and/or relative humidity sensor is not just gonna be a thermocouple sitting out in the open under the sun. It’s going to be an aspirated sensor. It will have a fan attached to it, passing air over the sensor. You also have to decide between wired or wireless sensors. There’s benefits and drawbacks to both. I don’t necessarily recommend one over the other, unless there’s a specific reason like OSHA restrictions on running wires. You want to place your sensors in the canopy. If I have it on the ground or in the sky, that’s not where the plants are, and that’s not the environment we want to control. Placement of quality sensors in multiple locations matters.
The next thing is making sure that your lead grower or master grower is appropriately educated to use the controller, manage the set points, and identify different stages of growth. They need to have the foresight to problem solve. VPD control isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. It’s going to be an ongoing research trial for you for a long time, until you figure out exactly what the plant likes. Your lead grower has to be able to understand the controller information and tinker with it, in addition to problem-solving in real time when unusual things occur.
And lastly, but most importantly, record everything. Take wicked amounts of data, pictures, videos, graphs, and things like that. If you can tie together a picture of a plant’s health to a graph that shows the current conditions of light, humidity, temperature, VPD, CO2, so on and so forth, you might be able to figure out what went wrong (or right) in the system.
Generally the controllers will take the data automatically and process it automatically as well. The time that it takes to record the data or take the picture isn’t a big issue, it’s the time to sit down and think about it. Growers will be busy, and they might not always have the time or expertise to analyze the information. That’s where an expert like myself can come in and look at the data in order to identify trends. We can spot things that you might not necessarily consider, like the salinity of the water or something similar that might be affecting your plants.
You can have VPD values that are in line with what they should be, but if something like the root system is going wrong, the VPD value alone might not have the potential to tell you what’s really happening. It only indicates the conditions in which stress might be occurring and why it might be occurring from a single measurement’s perspective.
VPD also is not measured directly on the leaf surface. It’s close if you place your sensors correctly and are doing your homework, but it’s not going to be the actual leaf surface VPD. It’s about having the sensors placed in a variety of locations within the growing area and the canopy to get a more accurate picture.
In other words, you use VPD as one of your tools in the toolbox to help you accomplish the task. It should not be the single value for feedback control; you shouldn’t control your operation based on VPD alone.
To name a few manufacturers in order of my experience with them…
Be warned though, Priva and Argus systems are very sophisticated controllers that require a smart grower, and sometimes even an engineer… not the guy who just got promoted to be master grower. They require someone who really knows horticulture and the various parameters that the controllers interact with. All of these controllers are appropriate because they are computerized, they have digital displays, they can all read sensors you deploy into your growing conditions, they can all do some level of basic calculations, and they can actuate equipment such as heaters, fans, CO2 generators, evaporative coolers, pumps and so on and so forth.
I would also like to have sensors all over the place. Generally, controller companies like to have their own set of sensors, but when you get down to it, it’s like an OEM deal with standard and generalized components from a small handful of manufacturers. The bulk of them are voltage-based readings. You don’t necessarily have to stay married to one specific brand unless they change the connectors. Each controller also has a finite number of channels that can support sensors. You might need to institute multiplexers or other pieces of equipment which control different zones that all communicate back to a central control. Alternatively you could just have zones controlled by their own controllers. Just don’t go overboard on the sensors. I want a couple in key locations that I need to monitor. If I’m tripping on everything, it’s a maintenance and safety nightmare.
I mentioned an ultrasonic humidifier earlier. An ultrasonic humidifier can be a valuable tool to control humidity. I’m planning at least one in the back of my mind for shipping container operations, because I’ve witnessed air conditioning having a hard time handling humidity. It either remains too humid and leads to an equipment malfunction, or alternatively it works so well that the plants have no water in the air. At some level, if you’re indoors, you’re going to be fighting yourself for the humidity, just because of the process for cooling the air.
An automatic irrigation system is critical, especially if you can tie that into your controller. If your irrigation system and controller are communicating, your system can respond quickly to changes such as weather conditions and sunlight availability without needing human input.
Carbon dioxide injection. A CO2 burner is a good idea, but there’s limitations to it. Too high a CO2 level can have detrimental effects, and if you’re not burning the right fuel source you can have detrimental effects like ethylene introduction
You also need appropriate lighting. I’ve personally used High Pressure Sodium, Metal Halide, several different LED’s. The LEDs that I make for myself are perfect for day zero as a seed all the way through cuttings of small plants that are 6 or 8 inches tall, right before they start pushing the vegetative state. When they go into the veg state, then I really need something that kicks out a lot more light, and typically that’s been the HID’s, like MH or HPS, because they have a throw which many LEDs seem to lack. The 1000W HPS light has significantly more ability to get illuminance out to the plant’s surface over the LED, per inverse-square law. On the flip side, that 1000W light requires almost 1000W of cooling to keep it at the same temperature. If you can do a metal halide and HPS, that works well. Conversion bulbs are ok.
Editor’s Note: Myles Lewis is the author of a patent for a semi-automated, shipping container growing system. Give it a look. We at Growers Network think it’s an excellent idea.
I think growers need to experiment and push their crops to their limits. In other words, you know what the gold medal product looks like in your brain. You can then manipulate the situation, the PAR, the VPD, the CO2, the EC and salinity of the soil around a little bit, with the end goal of getting that gold medal product but reducing the cost to do it. Experiment to figure out what the maximum yield with the minimal input is. I would encourage most grows, that if they have the capacity to have an experimental setup somewhere, to do internal testing.
Outside of that, another problem could be investing in really cool toys up front. For example, I mentioned a fogging system. I wouldn’t talk about a fogging system unless I was 100% sure I knew how to use it, and 100% sure I was gonna get a return on it. I wouldn’t invest in an Argus controller if I’m just starting out. That’s a lot of controller for a very small operation, especially if you are a novice.
Don’t get distracted by shiny things.
Think about what you’re trying to do and map it out. If you want to expand and be big, that’s fine. Just be reasonable in the beginning. This is a very profitable game at this point in time. If you overinvest in technology you don’t know how to use, that’s money that came out of investing in something else that could’ve made a difference. If I’m driving back and forth to grandma’s house. I don’t need a Ferrari. Be realistic in the equipment that you need.
The other thing is that if you don’t know something, don’t be afraid to say that and bring the appropriate people in to help prevent you from buying or investing in improper and unneeded equipment. A lot can go wrong in the very beginning.
The Science of VPD
The interesting thing about pests is that bugs don’t like being wet. If you create a foggy or misty environment correctly, it creates an inhospitable environment for bugs. However, it can also make a hospitable environment for fungus. That’s where the control based on VPD and moisture is really critical, because you can put just enough moisture into the air to repel bugs, control humidity, and change temperature without reaching the condensation point, where you start seeing wetness on the leaf surfaces. This is where having a really good controller and really good sensors feeding back into it comes in handy.
You don’t want condensation on the plant, but you also don’t want it occurring on the structure. Structural condensation can be just as bad. It just takes a single spore carried by a single drop.
Your plant is going to be putting out humidity into the environment, external of whatever your humidifier is doing. Be aware that the plant itself is an internal humidifier, and in some ways, an evaporative cooler.
Stomata are the structures regulating gas exchange, and it’s almost counterintuitive how they work. They’re the little pores controlling water vapor going out and CO2 coming in. When water goes in, the stomata expand, creating the opening for which gas exchange can occur. When the plant loses water, the stomata lose water, flatten out and seal, and you lose gas exchange. And if no gas exchange is occurring, photosynthesis stops without CO2.
Editor’s Note: I cannot overstate the importance of plant stomata for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis requires carbon dioxide from the air to work. If your plants’ stomata are closed (due to dehydration from very low humidity or excessive heat), photosynthesis will grind to a halt from a lack of incoming carbon dioxide.
As an additional note, too high of a temperature can cause the effect known as photorespiration, which causes a plant to waste energy and become significantly more inefficient.
A visual comparison of the different species/subspecies.
My concern with VPD and the cultivar would be the general flower and plant morphology. In other words, when I’m in the flowering stage, do I have a plant that has a really dense flower head on it? that’s where you’re doing VPD specific things. If a flower is really open or really dense, it may change your ideal VPD because of mold, mildew, and pests.
I think that there might be some benefit to looking at VPD cultivar to cultivar in the vegetative stage too. Like the flowering stage, you can also have very dense, bushy plant or one that’s leggy and spread out. However, if it’s just one out of 10 other ones, and it’s being a finicky bastard… just open it up with scissors. Don’t sit there trying to control the one but lose the nine.
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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.