Everything comes full circle at LivWell’s Warren, Michigan, cannabis cultivation site. From water reuse and heat recovery to recycling CO2, LivWell designed the facility from the ground up with sustainable cultivation practices in mind. The vertically integrated company, which also has operations in Colorado, strives to minimize waste at nearly every stage of the cultivation process. To accomplish this, LivWell relies on an automated control system that it first installed at its main cultivation facility in Denver, Colorado.
Crop stability, labor savings and waste reduction are some of the key benefits the company has achieved since implementing its first automated system in 2013 from Argus Controls. “We’ve been able to dial in environments to crop specific setpoints and control parameters in a much more precise fashion than we had been able to do before,” says Chris Chapdelaine, Senior Manager of Research and Development at LivWell.
The early success of the system at the Denver facility led the company to expand its use to other areas, including the Michigan cultivation facility, which became fully operational in 2020.
Dosing With Precision
LivWell’s transformation toward an automated cultivation environment began with the company’s fertigation and irrigation system at its 200,000-square-foot Denver indoor cultivation facility. In 2010, the company needed a more efficient system to deliver nutrients to the plants. During the early years of the cannabis industry, many companies were finding their way through trial and error. LivWell was experimenting with different types of feed recipes to see which one yielded the best results.
Changing formulations on a weekly basis was not practical using manual application methods, Chapdelaine says. The company began exploring automated fertigation to enable more flexibility and efficiency in the process.
“At the time, we had a plethora of different fertilizer formulations that we knew worked well, but we hadn’t agreed on any particular composition,” he explains. “So we went with a single-element dosing system so we could easily change feed formulations and augment them as we became more knowledgeable about what our crops required.”
Argus was one of the few companies that offered a single-element dosing system that could meet our specific parameters, Chapdelaine says. A single-element dosing system allows users to select different types of formulations from individual stock solution tanks. The Argus system identifies the contents of the connected stock tanks and automatically calculates how much it needs to inject from each tank based on predetermined elemental parts per million targets.
It’s an efficient way to deliver multiple feed formulations on the same irrigation system as well as reduce runoff and optimize water use through the precision specification of fertilizer and water delivery to the changing requirements of the crop.
“The accuracy and efficiency of delivering nutrients through an injection system as opposed to the traditional, manual method of hand mixing feed tanks resulted in significant cost savings for both fertilizers inputs as well as associated labor costs,” Chapdelaine says.
Powering a Sustainable Future
As LivWell has grown, the company has expanded the use of Argus automation systems to provide complete environmental control at the Denver facility as well as the newly constructed Michigan site. This includes control of the HVAC systems as well as management of newly installed horticultural LED systems at the Denver facility. The Argus system facilitates dynamic lighting control so the cultivation team can adjust the intensity of the light over various phases of plant growth as well as simulate sunrise and sunset, according to Chapdelaine.
LivWell powers its Michigan facility using a cogeneration power plant located on site. LivWell recovers heat from the engines to heat its hydronic systems and CO2 from the engines, which it purifies and distributes into the cultivation rooms for CO2 enrichment. The company uses the Argus automation system to control the entire cultivation operation, including all the fan coil units, hydronic systems, climate controls and CO2 distribution from the engines, Chapdelaine says. LivWell also uses Argus to control its fertigation/irrigation system at the facility as well as the on-site water-treatment plant that recovers leachate from the irrigation process and recycles it.
One of the key aspects of any automation system besides real time monitoring and alarming is the ability to collect and analyze data. Chapdelaine says having access to sensor-fed information helps him identify inefficiencies and optimize plant production strategies quickly.
“Some of the most powerful tools are the data logging and graphing features,” he says. “It’s a powerful feedback tool to help manage the environment and processes of the facility, and it’s one of the main reasons we really like the system.”
Having an automation partner on board during the early design phase at the Michigan facility also has played an important role in LivWell’s sustainability and efficiency efforts. While Argus does not control the on-site power plant, a robust communication protocol must be implemented between the two systems.
“It was really important to get Argus involved early on to make sure we could integrate the two systems without issue,” Chapdelaine says. “Given the complex nature of operating a central utility plant the importance of control systems integration cannot be underestimated.”
Conviron Drying Rooms
LivWell also relies on Conviron Rooms for curing and drying their product, in part because the controlled, horizontal airflow of Conviron drying and curing rooms ensure product quality, preserve terpenes, and prevent microbial formation. In total, the company has 20 rooms -11 in their Colorado facility and nine in Michigan- which are controlled by Argus. As with any Conviron room, these spaces include aspirators to monitor temperature and humidity. LivWell requested some additional custom-made mobile aspirators which are used to assess conditions at the bottom, middle and top of the drying racks to ensure consistent conditions on each level. These mobile aspirators assist in rack orientation when the room is loaded to ensure uniformity and consistency throughout entire dry/cure process.