Uttara Samarakoon is an assistant professor of Greenhouse and Nursery Management at Ohio State’s Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster, Ohio. The Ohio State Wooster campus offers greenhouse management specialization and greenhouse engineering technology — the only two-year program in the U.S. that takes an engineering approach to traditional horticulture technology education.
There, she assists students with gaining classroom and hands-on experience in the program’s industry-oriented facilities. We caught up with her to get her insights into automated environmental controls.
Greenhouse Management: What is the most effective environmental control equipment?
Uttara Samarakoon: Environmental control systems are sort of like the brain. The grower sets the conditions and points he needs to maintain, like a heating system to increase temperature — such as a central heating system that can be connected to a boiler or even floor heating, which is very effective — the ventilation systems which are the fans and the cooling systems if they’re available. You can also connect an automated irrigation system, which is what happens in large-scale greenhouses. The irrigation is done through rooms and other systems so they are set based on the demand of the crop, so it’s not manually done, but will turn on based on the time and conditions of the environment.
GM: What are some of the potential pitfalls in automating environmental controls?
US: The key thing is that the grower should be knowledgeable about crop requirements. This is basically the most important thing because set points are based on these. The other thing is if there’s a power failure — which we’ve experienced — then everything shuts down. If that happens overnight, that can be an issue, especially with hydroponic systems because irrigation systems have to run continuously. Large-scale greenhouses tend to have backup, but if it is a small-scale facility, these types of issues can happen.
GM: How much monitoring is required for automated controls once the system is set up?
US: It depends on the type of greenhouse and environmental control system that you have. However, all greenhouses can be connected to a central computer, which means you don’t have to go into the greenhouse all the time because it can be monitored on the computer. You can also check it from home because most of the monitoring systems can be connected to your phone as well.
GM: How can automation help increase the range of what greenhouses can grow?
US: The environmental control systems are mostly used when you grow plants with similar growing conditions. If you are growing multiple crops, you need to compartmentalize your greenhouse and have different environmental conditions set up, which is possible, but you have to partition your greenhouse. If you have that capability, again, the environmental control system is very useful because you can grow multiple crops and see everything with one monitor.