Too often, indoor agriculture facility operators fail to consider the maintenance of their climate system in their overall staffing and business plans. In these cases, systems maintenance is treated as an afterthought, or not addressed at all during planning stages, leading to the onus being on the cultivation team to manage maintenance in a facility.
While basic training for the cultivation and operations team on any of the systems they’re using is necessary, it is rarely reasonable to expect a such a team to have sufficient direct experience or time to adequately maintain a sophisticated HVACD system. After all, the hospitals, airports and data centers of the world have an entire staff dedicated to facility maintenance. No one expects a nurse to be an expert on cooling towers, and it’s not a reasonable expectation for cultivation professionals either.
We aren’t just talking about basic filter changes and coil cleaning, which doesn’t necessarily require any specialized expertise. Proper HVACD system maintenance is a far more complex undertaking. It extends to refrigeration circuits, lubrication, water treatment and quality, and other specialty tasks. As a result, direct expertise and experience with the types of systems being utilized in your facility is absolutely essential.
Climate system maintenance and emergency service needs are generally intertwined, and the team you put in charge of those critical systems which keep your cultivation operations healthy must understand the whole system and what to do with every component, whether performing routine maintenance or responding to emergencies.
IMPROPER MAINTENANCE CAN BE CATASTROPHIC
A poorly maintained grow room climate system will begin to underperform in ways that aren’t easy to detect at first.
- Dirty filters will limit airflow across the cooling coils, forcing them to run more often to achieve sufficient cooling, or not achieve sufficient cooling at all.
- Dirty strainers in chilled water systems will force pumps to work harder and can result in diminished chiller capacity resulting from flow rate disruptions.
- Uncleaned condenser coils will limit heat exchange in the refrigerant circuit, resulting in less cooling output in exterior units.
These are just a few examples. Diminished capacities caused by improper maintenance, first impact energy use. The systems begin using more energy than they need to do the job, which goes straight to the cultivator’s bottom line in the form of operating costs.
As these issues progress, systems may begin to fail to maintain climate parameters consistently. Brief departures from setpoints may not be noticeable or particularly concerning at first, but inconsistency in parameters can lead to inconsistency in yields. It can also create biosecurity risks as fluctuations in humidity and temperature can leave plants particularly vulnerable to fungus and other pests.
If filters, ducting and air sterilization equipment associated with the HVACD system hasn’t been properly maintained, this increased vulnerability is exacerbated by increased infiltration of those same pests.
Left untreated, performance will usually continue to degrade, ultimately resulting in a requirement for expensive emergency service that could have been handled with far less expense (and stress) had the maintenance been properly managed in the beginning. Sometimes the emergency service is limited to performing long overdue maintenance, and sometimes it results in premature failure of equipment, such as compressor or fan motor failure. In any facility, this is disruptive and expensive. In some, it’s catastrophic.
WHAT TO INCLUDE IN YOUR HVACD MAINTENANCE PLAN
PLANNING & DESIGN
General maintenance requirements for the systems that will be utilized in your facility should be understood on at least a basic level before the design is implemented. When the various HVACD systems options are discussed during the predesign phase, your mechanical engineer should be able to explain the varying degrees of maintenance complexity associated with each option. This will help inform the decisions by the owners from the beginning of the process.
Once the system is installed, a general training walk-through with the provider of the system to ensure that facility operators understand the basic functions of the system is extremely helpful. This way, the operations team understands what they’re working with at the user level, and who to call if they need support.
ACCOUNTABILITY & SUPPORT
Maintenance recommendations for the system, and for each individual piece of equipment as identified by the manufacturer, should be rigorously followed. It’s vital that whoever oversees this maintenance is held accountable to ensure that systems are properly maintained. Usually, this is accomplished with a scheduling tool of some kind (even if it’s as simple as calendar reminders) and a log sheet that identifies what maintenance was performed, when it was performed, and any pertinent notes associated with the maintenance.
This step is usually where professionals are best suited to take over. For example, Surna offers maintenance and emergency service as an option for our clients with every system. Alternatively, your installing contractor may offer maintenance services as well.
A good controls system can also be a good early warning sign for climate maintenance requirements. SentryIQ® tells us at what capacity the major components of our systems are operating. Anomalies in power use, run times, or other changes in behaviors of equipment are displayed and can be a kind of canary in the coal mine for maintenance needs.
Failures of any individual pieces of equipment will trigger an alarm via text or email to the facilities team. Similarly, data collection around room parameters provided with most controls systems can also be helpful. Reviewing climate parameters and identifying anomalies or unusual drifting of climate parameters can be a trigger to check the components of your systems to ensure they don’t require maintenance.
CHOOSE YOUR HVACD VENDOR WISELY
Lastly, and we cannot stress this enough; hire experienced professionals for design, equipment integration, installation, controls and facilities maintenance. In addition to being a substantial investment, HVACD systems are one of the most vital components of the cultivation operation. Proper maintenance of these crucial systems will ensure that your system lasts as long as it ought to, and that your investment continues to provide returns for years to come.