Before You Build: Electricity

Proper planning can save money and headaches when constructing a grow facility

Lightning during a thunderstorm.

With any indoor grow operation, electricity is one of the major concerns for business owners.

It’s the lifeblood of growing plants without sunlight, but it can also be one of the most significant drains on profitability. It’s a necessary evil for being able to grow perpetual crops year-round regardless of weather conditions or geographic location. But without proper planning, growers frequently find themselves fixing costly mistakes and enduring one delay after another.

Marijuana Venture sat down with Your Green Contractor founder and president Nathan Mendel to discuss ways growers and entrepreneurs can educate themselves for the early stages of building a cannabis production facility.

 

Marijuana Venture: What are some of the common misconceptions about the electrical needs of a grow facility?

Nathan Mendel: I would say for most people the misconception is how much power they’re going to need. Everybody has the vague idea that it takes more power than normal, but it’s more power by a factor of 10, not by a factor of two.

MV: Do you often find that you have to go back and supplement that somehow?

NM: Almost every time. We see people all the time that are excited because they found a building that they think has a lot of power. The short story is that unless the building you’re taking over was a data center, the odds of it having enough power are about 1-2%. People always think, ‘It was a heavy manufacturing plant, so I know it’ll have enough power,’ but that’s probably not the case.

MV: So what kind of power should they be looking to have on a property?

NM: As far as a rule of thumb goes, typically you need about 1,000 amps for every 10,000 feet. In a 20,000-square-foot grow, you’re going to need 2,000 amps. Again, the odds of that being at the building already are not very good.

Finding the right electrical contractor is important, but the right electrical engineer is even more vital.

Finding the right electrical contractor is important, but the right electrical engineer is even more vital.

 

MV: How do the needs of setting up a grow room vary from the needs of setting up any other type of commercial building? Is it important to have an electrician with that specific experience?

NM: I think it’s very helpful. But I think what’s even more important than an electrician with experience is finding an electrical engineer who has set up grow facilities before. At the end of the day, if the engineering is done correctly, any electrician can follow the plans. So it’s much more important to get the plans right than it is to have the right electrician. If you get the right electrician, then that’s a bonus, because they are not asking questions because they already understand it.

MV: When people are looking at possible locations for their grow operation, what are some of the most crucial factors they need to consider from an electricity standpoint?

NM: Again, there is just not going to be enough power there. You’re almost better off with the landlord and everybody understanding that they don’t have enough power, versus having a landlord that thinks he might have enough power. The reason is this: Let’s go back to the example of having 20,000 square feet and needing 2,000 amps.

Let’s say you’re looking at a building that has a 1,600-amp service right now, which is much bigger than average. The landlord thinks he has an amenity there and he’s going to charge a premium. But the fact of the matter is that 1,600 amps doesn’t do you any good; it has just as much value as 400 amps because it’s not enough. So now you’re paying a premium to the landlord for a service that is not enough, so it doesn’t help anybody.

MV: Have you seen that happen before?

 

NM: Yeah, we get people all the time. Somebody will get a manufacturing facility or what they think is a heavy industrial facility, and they’ll say, ‘I am sure it’s got plenty of power.’ And I always say, ‘I’m sure it doesn’t.’ I have yet to walk into a building that actually has enough power off the bat.

Quick Tips

Experienced electrical contractor Jon Murfitt offers five practical pieces of advice for entrepreneurs looking to build out a commercial cannabis grow facility.

  1. Find quality contractors

Get to know the contractor you are inquiring about. Go online and check them out. Perhaps they have some photos of their craft. They will provide references if asked. Previous customers are a good way to get the pulse of a company. Most of my customers have gotten my name through another grower, or simply word of mouth.

  1. Ask other growers

In my experience, growers, and this industry in general, are very helpful. Producers aren’t going to give out their proprietary information or their nutrient formulas, but they are willing to share their experiences and bits of their knowledge. Keep in mind that I end up becoming personal friends with my customers by the end of the project build-out. This industry has a lot of trust built into it. The majority of my customers have been growing for years “underground” and only trusted a few people. Now their trade is out in the open, but they want people that they can trust.

  1. Be Confident

When opening a state-licensed grow facility in Washington, you have a 15-day window to get all of your genetics into the building and get them logged into your seed-to-sale software. This is an enormous task. Quite a few growers are starting out with only a few rooms of their facility to “get the hang of it.” If they can afford to hire enough employees to maintain all of the plants, then it’s a little bit different. Most start out with just the owners until they can afford to hire more employees and open up more flower rooms.

You know your style of growing — stick with what you know. There is a learning curve from being a small medical grower to being a state-licensed producer. Having to learn a new style of growing is hard to do when you are dependent on your product for profit. Taking care of 15 plants is much different than 5,000 plants.

  1. Attend a conference

There are so many things to be learned from walking around a convention. Talk with vendors, other growers, contractors. You will learn so much valuable information just by attending one of these conventions.

  1. Research your equipment

When looking at security, make sure your equipment is UL listed! I’m getting phone calls about security equipment that is not listed. Getting a UL listing is quite expensive for the manufacturer. If you get a really low price on equipment, chances are that it’s not listed. I have even come across Cat 5 wire that wasn’t a listed product in these cases. The electrical inspector caught it and it all had to come out. As a licensed electrical contractor I could be fined for even installing equipment that is not listed. Trying to save a few bucks in the beginning ended up costing the customer much more in the end.

Make educated decisions on grow equipment and know the products you are purchasing. Each has pros and cons. Ask other growers what they are using and things they would have done differently. This is valuable information that is only learned by experience. Before purchasing the most expensive equipment, look around. In all likelihood there is a product that is every bit as good but at a much lower cost.

Jon Murfitt is the president of Greener Futures Electric (www.greenerfutures.us), an electrical contractor based in southwestern Washington with decades of commercial and residential experience.

MV: What are some other factors that regularly get overlooked?

NM: There are two kinds of power. There’s single-phase power and there’s three-phase power. Three-phase power is much more preferable than single-phase. But a lot of people don’t even know to ask that question.

Another thing is that when we talk about upgrading the power, everybody understands that there’ll be a cost for the electrician to do that work. But what a lot of people fail to understand, and this is actually different in the marijuana industry than it is in any other industry, is the upfront cost of upgrading. If I were to upgrade a building from 100 amps to 200 amps, there’s no charge for that, because the electric utility knows it is going to make that up over time because now I’m using more power.

But in the marijuana industry, the electric utility’s concern — and it’s justified — is that if they spend $50,000 to upgrade you to 2,400 amps and you go out of business tomorrow, then there is no other user that can benefit from the 2,400 amps. So they’re charging that $50,000 upfront.

So a lot of people understand that the work might cost $50,000 for the electrician, but on top of that is a huge, five-digit number that’s going directly to the power company.

In addition to that, and this is even more important than the money, is the timing. In Colorado that process is going to take somewhere between 90 and 180 days. So people who think that they’re just going to call up the electric utility and get a service tomorrow and be up in operation by the end of the week? That is never going to happen that way.

MV: Since many growers don’t know to ask about single-phase or three-phase power, could you give a brief explanation about what it is and why it’s important?

NM: So a single-phase is basically a lesser type of power. It’s the 110- to 220-volt power that runs to your house and my house and most places. Three-phase is the 277/480-volt power and it’s much more efficient for air-conditioning units, any big equipment, chillers, heaters, kitchen equipment. They are all going to run better on three-phase power. Sometimes not even better, sometimes they require three-phase power.

I wouldn’t say three-phase power is extremely rare, but it’s something you need to ask about before you complete your purchase or your lease.

MV: So does this regularly set grow operations behind schedule?

NM: Yes, and this is completely outside the permit process. So people understand that it takes four weeks to get a permit, or it takes eight weeks to get a permit. But this is completely separate from that, but it’s equally as important.

MV: What are some of the common mistakes people make when they set up a grow room?

NM: We see a mistake that people put in outlets almost like they would in a house. They think that they can put in an outlet every six feet and they can plug in whatever they want.

We want to know, up front in the design, exactly what they expect to plug in to every single outlet. We don’t want to give them any outlets that don’t have a function. The reason is that people see an outlet and they think, ‘I can plug anything I want in there at any time.’ But when you’re talking about plugging in 1,000-watt grow-lights? That’s a lot of power and you have to have a plan for that power. So we want to know exactly what they want to plug in every outlet, in every location so that it can be engineered properly and we don’t want any other outlets in the room.

MV: It sounds like a lot of these fatal flaws come from the planning and design phase, well before the contractor takes the blueprints. Is that correct?

NM: Exactly. That’s where you need somebody, whether it’s your general contractor or your electrical engineer or your electrician to go through this during the design and ask, ‘Have you thought about this?’ We understand that you want to put about 40 grow lights in this room, but are you doing supplemental fans on the wall for air circulation? If so we need power for that.

What are your exhaust air requirements in the room? We need power for that. Do you want to have an emergency green light which you can turn on if you need to get into that room during the off hours? We want to have power for that.

 

MV: Any other general thoughts about the electrical needs or ways to set up a grow facility, or selecting the right contractor?

NM: You know, I think as far as hiring a contractor, I would say at a minimum that if you’re in a jurisdiction that is just coming online, let’s say Maryland or New York, somewhere that’s brand new, if you can’t find a contractor that has done one of these before, then at a minimum, hire a consultant or somebody that is not trying to re-invent the wheel.

I’ll give you one more: In a commercial grow facility, when you’re getting a permit from the building department, they are going to want to see what they call a UL (Underwriters Laboratory) label on all of your fixtures. That’s different from the guys that are growing in their basement, because nobody is checking your work and nobody cares. But there is some inexpensive lighting that’s come in from China and other places that are not UL listed and it’s not going to fly on a true commercial project.

The first thing the building inspectors are going to ask is, ‘Where is your UL listing?’ If you don’t have it, then you’re not going to put that light fixture in. So it doesn’t matter how inexpensive it was — it’s now a paper weight.

Nathan Mendel is the founder and president of Your Green Contractor (yourgreencontractor.com), which builds custom indoor grow facilities, greenhouses, kitchens, extraction rooms and retail stores for the cannabis industry. With more than 600 completed projects since the company launched in 2011, Your Green Contractor is one of the most recognized names in cannabis construction in the country. Mendel has more than two decades of experience, having started his first construction company, Mendel and Company Construction in 1997.

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