Boom systems save watering labor.
Photo: John Bartok, Jr.

A recent industry survey showed that about half of the growers in the country were planning changes to their facilities this year. Incorporating the latest technical advances can improve performance and reduce operating costs.

Because most technology is obsolete in 10 years, a good way for you to approach renovation is to plan on a 10-year schedule, addressing one greenhouse or system each year. This will help to keep your operation competitive with your neighbor’s.

Recent developments in the greenhouse industry that should be considered include:

Glazing — The use of greenhouse grade poly that diffuses light. This will get more light into the lower leaves of the crop. Also be sure to use an infrared material as the inner layer to save 10 to 15 percent in heating cost.

Heating systems — The development of very high efficiency, condensing type gas heating systems can save considerable money even with the lower fuel prices. These unit heaters and boilers operate at 90 to 97-percent efficiency and have a short payback when you are replacing a conventional system with 70 to 75-percent efficiency. In addition, USDA grant programs help with the upgrading.

Ventilation — Natural ventilation replaces fan systems to save on electricity costs and provide more uniform greenhouse temperatures. Roll-up sidewall, guillotine wall vents, large roof vents and open roof design systems are now readily available.

Controls — Significant advances have been made in electronic controls over the past few years. The integration of heating, cooling and other environment control equipment can be done easily. System costs have come down considerably.

Irrigation — Significant savings in labor can be achieved with automatic watering. Boom systems are commonly installed in both gutter-connected and hoophouses. Ebb-and-flood and flood-floor recycle systems are being used for groundwater protection and to save water.

Materials handling equipment — Handling containers with conveyors, skid-steer forks and robots are reducing labor. Carts are the major method of moving plants into and out of the growing area and for shipping.

Updating keeps you competitive

Updating to keep pace with current technology should be the goal of all growers. This will keep your operation competitive with growers that are building new facilities. To do this, consider the following steps:

Evaluate your facilities. List the systems that meet current technology and those that need improvement. Also evaluate the condition of each. Sometimes simple maintenance and repair is all that is needed. In a case where a structure is in poor condition (i.e. deteriorated foundation, rusted frame, etc.), it may be best to develop a planned replacement schedule.

A container filling system can feed directly into a transplanting/potting operation.
Photo: John Bartok, Jr.

Determine where the greatest savings can be achieved. Where can new technology reduce your costs? What will improve the quality of the plants you produce? Where can you improve labor efficiency?

For example, labor, the largest single cost item in production, should be given high priority. You can increase productivity by mechanizing some of the transplanting/potting operations.

Develop a priority list of improvements for each greenhouse. Assign a cost to each. Estimate payback based on the savings accrued or the improved plant quality. For example, many older greenhouse ranges were heated by a central boiler. Besides being obsolete, this boiler may be functioning poorly. One solution may be to install high efficiency unit heaters. Besides better control, your operating costs will be reduced considerably.

Budget for the improvements. Once your priority list is finalized, funding for the changes needs to be found. Small-ticket items can usually come out of your current income. Large costs may require you to borrow. In both cases, funding for improvements to your facility should be built into the prices you charge for your plants.