You’ve finally gotten your license and funding, picked out a facility, picked out equipment and pulled the trigger. Now what? Sometimes, the hardest part of setting up a facility comes when you’re ready to begin construction and have to get everything in order. You want to be sure that your new equipment is going to be installed and maintained correctly and efficiently, offering you savings on operating costs and the peace of mind that your plants are healthy and safe all hours of the day.
At Surna, we see this all the time. This is why we’ve designed our business to be a partner to cultivators. We not only offer top-notch equipment, but system design, project management, installation management and maintenance and technical support. Our goal is to help cultivators like you be successful.
So, this week, I sat down with our Installation Manager, Johnny Hellums, to talk about his role at Surna and his insight into the installation, start-up and maintenance of our systems.
What is your role at Surna?
My role is doing installation support, system start-ups and occasionally, maintenance.
So what does that look like? What is an average day in the life of Johnny Hellums?
It depends. We have service contracts with some of our clients so we’ll do maintenance on equipment to keep it performing like it’s supposed to. That involves traveling from facility to facility to do inspections on the equipment and do maintenance when needed.
Mostly we do start-ups which are totally different than a service contract. We’ll go to a facility to commission the chillers and balance the system to make sure they’re cooling and operating as designed so growers don’t have any interruptions once they get going.
How did you find yourself at Surna? What is your background?
I was in the construction industry for 10 years and then I taught construction trades and construction management for 25 years.
So, this is a bit different from your background then, yes?
It’s more intense because everything here is engineered. The flow rates are engineered, the placement is engineered, the design is engineered, the sizing of the system is engineered; its all engineered for a particular site. Whereas, in my regular construction days, each day was different but the work was the same more or less. One day I would be working concrete, one day I would be framing, one day I would be working electrical but it was not usually as specifically engineered. Also, this is cooling specific which means heavy plumbing so that is different.
So, how long would you say it took for you to feel comfortable with cooling and chilled water systems in general?
There’s something new coming out all the time. The first two or three didn’t have VFDs, or they didn’t have the big chillers and had the smaller chillers, like the 10 ton, instead. And all of a sudden, we’re doing 600 ton systems and everything is getting larger. And then it continues to evolve with these control systems. You get comfortable with it generally but there’s always something new. That’s why you have to be as familiar with the system as we are in order to do it properly because technology does change so rapidly, creating a bit of a learning curve.
How hard would it be for someone who’s never done this before to do it themselves?
With the smaller systems, it probably wouldn’t be too hard. With the larger systems, its becomes more complicated. Those larger systems have so much more engineering involved and the more engineering there is, the more complicated the installation. I’ve been here for three years and I don’t even know how many installations I’ve seen but I learn something everyday. There’s always something new that could be potentially missed if you’re not paying attention and knowing what to look for. But I’ve been around it long enough now, I know what I’m looking for.
So, keeping with that, what are some of the overall challenges with installing and maintaining chilled water systems people might not know about?
The main thing is when a system is designed and engineered, you have to stick to that engineering plan. The system is designed with specific pipe sizes and lengths because theres exact flow rates and water speeds that need to be met. You cannot change things without careful consideration. When people leave out certain piping and extend other piping, for example, well, it changes the whole design of the system and, of course, the way it will perform. So, that’s the main thing. You need to stick to the design.
The next thing would be the maintenance. You have to maintain the system because if you don’t, you’re going to lose efficiencies; you’re not going to cool effectively. You have to keep your coils and chillers and filters and dehumidifiers clean. All of that affects the system so you have to stay on top of it.
So you talk about keeping your coils, chillers, etc clean. Are there any other basics you have to keep in mind when maintaining one of these systems?
The main thing is making sure the coils are cleaned on your chillers and your fan coils. If your coils get dirty, you lose heat transfer. In your cultivation rooms, you have to have that fresh air coming across the coils and if they’re dirty, there’s a barrier. With the chillers, you have to keep the coils and the fins clean because if you don’t, you’re going to have whats called “coil starvation” where there’s no air to cross your coils. If you’re blowing basically nothing across your coils and, thus, not getting any heat transfer, your rooms are going to get hot.
Standard procedure should be to check your equipment quarterly at the very least. Fan coils should be cleaned on your harvest schedule. When you harvest and you’re cleaning out the room and going to sterilize it, you should clean your coils and change out your filters on your dehumidifiers at that time.The other thing is you need to keep an eye on your flow rates. If they’re dropping for any reason, you need to check your wye strainers to be sure those aren’t clogged.
That’s just a some of the regular maintenance you need to perform on these systems to get the most efficiency but there’s more. We’re always happy to talk it through with customers.
Is there anything unique about this being cannabis cultivation?
Our goal is to remove heat from the space. Our systems are designed for cannabis and the particularly hot and humid environment they both create and need.
What are some mistakes you see people make either in installation, start-up or maintenance?
I’ve seen them all! Mostly, it’s from not paying attention to the details. I’ve seen air separators plumbed in backwards or the pump or chiller wired backwards. Those things are fixable relatively easily (assuming you haven’t already ruined your crop by then).
Another problem we see is when people change the design of the system. I’ve seen an entire trunk line left out and just smaller pipe run instead and there was not enough flow to the fan coils and the rooms were getting hot. This is a huge problem to fix.
But, really, the big ones — the mistakes you definitely don’t want to make — are the expensive ones. We’ve seen people start up a chiller with no glycol in it which puts chillers at risk of freezing and of breaking evaporators. I’ve seen systems shut down in the winter without enough glycol and the evaporators pop and the chiller is ruined. And then there’s refrigerant in the system which causes the pipes to deteriorate and it all has to be replaced. So, the biggest problem is when people start their system up, without us being there, without enough glycol in it.
What would you say the Surna way is?
We know how the system is supposed to operate so when we leave a job site after a start up, you can be sure that the system is going to work. To me, that is the Surna way.
Any last words of advice to people buying, installing, or maintaining a Surna system?
First, we’re always here for support; so, if you’re confused about something or if you have questions about something, we’re always here to answer your questions and we have all the maintenance and troubleshooting guides you could need. So call us. Second, if you buy one of our systems and we’ve designed it– just follow our design. If you follow our designs, procedures and maintenance recommendations, you’ll have a cool room and healthy plants.