The New Normal: How to Optimize a Greenhouse for Social Distancing
October 14, 2020
It is an indisputable fact that the world as we know it has changed. Working from home is the new normal; social gatherings and activities are drastically limited, and social distancing is required in all public spaces.
This is a challenging time for businesses, especially for those where working from home is not an option. Many businesses have to tailor their workplaces to social distancing, so their employees can come in and work safely during the pandemic.
Greenhouse operations may seem like they aren’t conducive to today’s requirements, but this is not necessarily the truth. With a few simple changes, any greenhouse can be optimized to be socially distanced. Automation and the addition of space via vertical growing and rolling benches can all help to make sure growing operations adhere to social distancing guidelines, ensuring that the greenhouse is a safe environment for every employee.
Controllers, sensors and automation help to streamline any grow and keep systems organized and accessible from one convenient location. Automating certain greenhouse systems can reduce labor requirements, which is important from a social distancing standpoint. It can also help make an operation more efficient in the long run, making it a worthwhile investment for the future.
Sensors are a key tool in automation as they constantly monitor and continually report what plants need at any given moment. This almost eliminates the need for employees to check on crops themselves and also provides growers with incredibly accurate, real-time information.
Controllers and sensors also allow growers to monitor their crops from anywhere. Some controllers will even send notifications to a grower’s phone or email to alert them of power outages or equipment failure. The ability to remotely monitor a grow ensures that, while employees may not be physically present in a greenhouse, the crops are still under a watchful eye and well taken care of.
Automation can drastically reduce the amount of labor necessary in a growing operation. This will decrease the number of employees present in the greenhouse at any given time, ensuring the space is not too crowded and that employees are maintaining a safe distance from one another.
In the event that guidelines change and employees can no longer come into work or capacity is severely limited, automation can really save an operation. If need be, automation can almost entirely run greenhouse systems with growers monitoring remotely. By remotely monitoring a grow, a grower can limit the number of people inside a greenhouse, which helps grow operations to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Remote monitoring and automation make it possible for greenhouses to operate efficiently and properly, even without the presence of a single employee.
Lighting, irrigation and fertigation are all systems that can be easily automated and eliminate the need for employees to do these tasks by hand. This reduces the number of employees present inside a greenhouse at one time, and also allocates labor where it may be needed more. This both ensures proper social distancing is taking place and increases the efficiency of a grow operation.
In addition to aiding in social distancing, automating a greenhouse has a host of other benefits. Reduced energy costs, increased profitability, more energy-efficient systems and increased accuracy are all things that greenhouse automation can provide. What starts out as an attempt at social distancing can turn into the revamping of an operation, increasing efficiency and profitability in its wake.
Vertical growing will naturally create more floor space, as growers are expanding upward instead of outward. This will allow growers to take advantage of the height of their greenhouse in order to maximize usable space and provide more room for employees.
Hydroponics and aeroponics are vertical growing methods that will help growers open up space in their greenhouse, as well as modernize their grow. In fact, when using certain systems, growers can produce 220 plants in less than 23 square feet. This will increase a grow’s yield, make an operation more efficient, increase profitability and, of course, open up more floor space.
Vertical hydroponic systems are a great option for expanding upward, as they provide superior control and provide relative ease. Shelving can also be installed for increased space. Having plants on shelves or hanging in baskets will open up more floor space, allowing employees to stay a safe distance apart from each other. This will also help growers organize their greenhouse, and again, increase efficiency, yield and, in turn, profitability.
The key to maximizing greenhouse space is to make the most of the surface area of the greenhouse. Vertical growing can help growers utilize every inch of space available, freeing up valuable square footage to ensure employees are maintaining their distance from one another. To go a step further, growers can mark the floor with arrows to ensure employees do not come in contact with one another while walking around the greenhouse.
In order to maintain a 6-foot distance apart, many growers may need to increase the size and width of their walkways in their greenhouses. Various accessories and equipment can be added to a greenhouse to temporarily extend walkways, which allows employees to properly distance themselves from each other while working.
Rolling benches are an easy piece of equipment to add to quickly and easily extend walkways within a greenhouse. Employees will be able to move these benches with ease, and can create wider walkways to maintain their distance from one another. Rolling benches also increase the amount of growing space in a greenhouse, allowing growers to utilize about 90 percent of their greenhouse space. So, while abiding by social distancing guidelines, growers can also increase the efficiency of their operation as well.
Rolling benches allow growers to set their workspace up in any arrangement they choose, as well as allowing for reconfiguration whenever it is necessary. This flexibility makes sure that growers can configure their benches in a way that is conducive to social distancing without sacrificing the productivity or efficiency of their operation.
Automated or mobile benching systems are also a great option for growers. They provide the same benefits and versatility as rolling benches, while also reducing labor requirements by automating the process. Automated benching move crops throughout the facility, typically on a conveyor, eliminating the need for employees to move the benches themselves.
Times have changed, and growers must change with them. While at first glance it may seem difficult to socially distance a greenhouse, with these tips, it should be a much more manageable task.
Implementing these changes is paramount to ensuring the health and safety of employees, as well as keeping a grow well taken care of. It is important to strike a balance between a reduced employee presence in a greenhouse and maintaining the same level of care the plants require. Automation and controllers can especially assist growers with this.
While social distancing hopefully won’t have to last forever, these small changes can become positive permanent fixtures in a growing operation. Automation and space saving equipment all lend themselves to social distancing, but they also help increase efficiency and maximize profitability for operations in the long run.