Kenneth Loshelder, Surna’s Director of Engineering and Field Services, is a licensed mechanical PE and a long time HVAC engineer with many years of large-scale construction experience. Our clients benefit enormously from his skillset. Kenneth is experienced, deeply intelligent, and extremely creative in solving the unique climate management challenges posed by indoor cultivation. His employees will tell you that he’s not just a great engineer, but he’s also a great boss—taking the time to ensure that our engineering team is thriving and developing their own skillsets further every day. We asked Kenneth to answer some questions and lend valuable insight into the construction of cultivation facilities, what our industry is doing right, and where it can do better.
1. You’ve been a mechanical engineer for 15-years. What made you want to migrate from “regular” construction and specialize in our industry?
Loshelder: I have been in the HVAC and environmental control business my whole career, and I was fascinated about applying that experience to a new industry and new application. I’ve also always had a general interest in plants and make it a point to visit gardens all over the country, so I find the industry merges multiple points of interest for me. As for cannabis, prohibition was a bit extreme to me, and I believe we should be focused on learning about the plant instead of shunning it. The plant offers clear positive benefits to people in several ways. Additionally, as Surna evolves into the broader CEA market, there will be a multitude of new and interesting projects to come. My specific role here at Surna offered me a big opportunity for professional and personal growth, and I was excited about that as well.
2. From your perspective, what is the most interesting thing about our industry now?
Loshelder: The industry is poised for massive growth and there is so much room for innovation. Farming indoors at this scale in a completely controlled environment has not been done for very long, and I am very interested to see how the industry evolves over the coming years. At Surna, we have our own opportunity to be a part of this evolution to push the envelope in terms of environmental consistency and energy efficiency, and it has been and will continue to be an engaging journey.
3. What do you think is the biggest challenge during design and construction of cultivation facilities?
Loshelder: The amount of self-inflicted pain on project teams due to poor planning. Although it’s improving as the industry matures, it really felt like the wild west of construction when I started. There are thousands of decisions that are interconnected through several trades in any major construction project, and this is especially true in a cultivation facility with specialized systems and equipment. These decisions need to be made in the proper order with consideration of the entire timeline to achieve the desired outcomes with the least pain and money. Careful project planning and execution will pay itself back tenfold when it leads to desired outcomes on the first try.
4. You’ve been doing this for a long time now. Do you still get surprised?
Loshelder: I am still surprised by how little consideration is given to the HVAC system, and its integration with the facility during early design decisions. Other than the building itself, the HVAC system is one of the most expensive components of the facility and it has a direct impact on the heart of the operation. The value of the facility is generated in the cultivation rooms yet often times the racking and the climate control environment building integration is the last items to be figured out. Cultivators are better served by starting with the needs of the plant, and then working from there to determine the best way to integrate critical systems into the facility design.
5. What would you say is the most challenging aspect of mechanical design for cultivation facilities?
Loshelder: The lack of industry standards and empirical data is a major challenge, especially for less experienced engineers. There are not many reliable sources to go to when you are working through a problem or considering a new approach. We continue to apply our experience to develop our own internal resources, and to give cultivators access to real data through our controls systems. Additionally, our controls offering has been a major key into understanding how these systems operate over time and evaluating the building-wide load diversity. This information allows us to make our systems more cost effective and efficient over time, which is not something that can be found in a handbook. Since Surna focuses in this industry, the lack of information is both a problem and a competitive advantage for us.
6. What would you like to see cultivation facility operators do more of?
Loshelder: From my perspective, growing operations are extremely energy intensive. I realize energy costs are a fraction of the costs associated with the production and sale of cannabis, but this piece is going to become more important over time. I’d like to see more focus on tracking and even reporting of energy as the industry needs to establish good baselines for energy efficient operations—not just to reduce our carbon footprint, but also to drive down operating costs. Surna is focused on developing a better understanding of the energy impacts of different HVAC designs employed in the industry, and we hope to work with more of our clients on analyzing and optimizing their grows in terms of energy use.
7. Where do you think Surna can deliver the most value to our clients?
Loshelder: I think the earlier we are involved the better it is for our clients. The more we can educate our clients about the various HVACD options available to them, and how those options align with their unique goals, the better their owner requirements will be integrated into the entire facility design. The HVACD system will have an impact on available space and structural requirements for the facility, and these are items best considered as early as possible. Additionally, the industry needs people who understand the whole facility and how it all comes together to operate seamlessly. Surna has developed a solid understanding of the key components of these facilities even outside HVACD and environmental control, which helps to make our input more valuable to our clients and project teams.
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8. In addition to our roles as primary engineers in cultivation facilities, we also participate with other engineering firms to help ensure that designs are correct and well-executed. What do you think they miss without our involvement?
Loshelder: First and foremost, making incorrect assumptions through inexperience which lead to mistakes in the design. As watering rates and desired parameters change over time, the load calculations needed to ensure the system performs well at every condition become increasingly complex. This is especially true for interconnected systems such as chilled water. Understanding those nuances and how to ask the right questions of the cultivator to ensure you’re adequately designing for every scenario requires experience. The flip side to that is engineers will often over-design capacity when they are unsure. In this case, the system will perform, but at an unnecessary cost premium.
When consulting on projects, we help teams avoid the most difficult problems to rectify after construction. Dealing with major design mistakes at the end of construction is the most stressful and costly time to deal with them. In addition, if the owner requirements are not clearly articulated and integrated into the design upfront it can become nearly impossible to achieve them at later stages. Every owner group wants to get through construction as fast as possible to begin generating revenue, but it is important to remember the construction phase is a mere fraction of the building life and owners and operators will be living with the building for many years to come.
9. What would you like to say about your engineering team?
Loshelder: I am lucky to work with them, and I am constantly impressed by every engineer on our team. I had the luxury of working for several large established engineering and constructions firms throughout my career which gave me a solid foundation to deal with the chaos and rapid changes in this industry. Some of our younger engineers began their careers at Surna, and because of the nature of the industry they’ve had to learn and grow much faster, and with fewer resources in the form of industry standards than I had, in order to keep up with the increasing complexity and weight of our project load. They’ve taken it all in stride and always maintain a level of fun in working through our daily challenges. There are a lot of dedicated, smart, fun people here at Surna that I am lucky to work with on a daily basis.
10. What excites you the most about the industry, and the work you’re doing at Surna?
Loshelder: There is so much room for innovation! At Surna, we have our own opportunity to be a part of this evolution to push the envelope in terms of environmental consistency and energy efficiency. I am excited about our work to expand our offerings and educate our clients in several possible approaches for environmental control in cultivation facilities. We’ve put in a lot of time and energy to evaluate the various HVACD system approaches that work well, and to ensure we can offer a wide range of system types to meet the specific needs of each cultivator. In addition to that, the industry is increasingly seeing the value of energy efficiency, and we continue to focus on energy efficiency, energy models, and data collection to further our understanding of the operational costs of each alternative. The quality and value of our offerings continue to improve each year.
Surna is extremely thankful for Kenneth and all that his team of engineers do for our company and for our clients. With over 15-years of experience, he has built a career focused on environmental consistency and energy efficiency. He encourages cultivators to engage with experienced mechanical engineers early-on in the buildout process. Surna offers over 15-years of experience in controlled cannabis environments, as well as a team of specialized CEA experts to facilitate mechanical system design from concept to commissioning and beyond.
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