Because extracts are taking over an increasing segment of the market, cannabis businesses are preparing for the future of the industry and finding that engineering-based design to support extraction processes is critical to the construction and performance of their processing facilities. Incorrect or missed steps in the early development stages can be costly for both timelines and budgets.
While there are many facility design and construction considerations behind a successful extraction operation, electrical systems are commonly misunderstood or undervalued in the planning process. Knowledgeable electrical system design supports and often directly impacts the reliability and performance of your entire extraction operation. Here are some of the most important considerations and common challenges extraction facilities face when designing electrical systems.
Power Utility Service Size
Existing and/or new power utility services are often undersized, or not even considered until a project is too far down the road. Upgrading a service after the fact can be costly and time-consuming.
For extraction facilities operating as tenants in a multi-unit building, this issue can be even more substantial as electrical upgrades can affect tenants throughout the entire building. A new service upgrade for one tenant typically requires updating the service equipment throughout the entire building (and is paid for by the upsizing tenant).
Even single-tenant commercial spaces are often not set up with the appropriate three-phase power, especially 480-volt, which is preferred or required for larger extraction and mechanical support loads.
Updates to service voltage can be time consuming — if they are even available by the utility provider. Typical lead time on new utility transformers is 16 weeks once the new service is approved, leading to construction delays. If your business is working with a commercial real estate professional, talk to them about looking for datacenter, brewery or heavy machinery-type spaces. Because commercial extraction businesses are relatively new in the marketplace, the electrical needs of cannabis clients are often overlooked by even seasoned professionals who specialize in locating and selling commercial real estate.
More often than not, extraction processes need emergency power sources for running required life safety equipment. This can include HVAC equipment for ventilation of classified spaces, emergency lighting, leak detection systems and more. These larger electrical loads almost always require an alternate source of electrical power, such as a generator, in case the normal electrical power source fails, as outlined by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Emergency power systems can include power sources, transfer equipment, controls, accessory equipment and more. Backup power can also be useful for protecting equipment in the case of a system interruption or shutdown, which can lead to product loss.
Space considerations, like access for refueling, need to be addressed, alongside the impact of incorporating emergency power into the existing electrical system (unless your facility is new construction). When it comes to regulatory concerns, most jurisdictions will require diesel-fired power sources, as natural gas is not an onsite stored fuel source (a minimum of 90 minutes of fuel is required for life safety loads).
Equipment Space Needs
Many extraction facilities that are designed without bringing on a specialized mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) engineering team early in the process often disregard interior and exterior space requirements for mechanical and electrical equipment. In order to keep costs reasonable and meet regulatory standards, a dedicated electrical room or area separate from the extraction process is necessary for the multiple control panels, transformers, transfer switches and other building service equipment.
Locating and identifying hazardous operations and equipment in the early stages of the design process and designing systems accordingly are crucial steps to providing a code-compliant and safe design.
Without expertise in electrical engineering, many extraction businesses fail to understand that some equipment can force hazardous classification from one category to another, having costly impacts on the facility design process and installation. An example would be the use of a screw press machine. National Electrical Code (NEC) and NFPA codes clearly classify the use of a screw press as a Class 1, Division 1 hazardous location, which means all electrical connections within a defined radius are now also required to be rated as such (even if other equipment in the area does not need to be rated).
Electrical connections to hazardous equipment are very expensive due to specialized conduit, receptacles and installation methods that often cost 10 to 20 times that of an unclassified space. Collaboration between the owner and engineering team during the design phase can help mitigate unnecessary and costly mistakes and potential rework, as well as provide an opportunity to locate potentially dangerous equipment in areas designed for such use before final installation. Reviewing these spaces and equipment early allows the owner to make sure the revised layout fits within the process flow and desired operation of the facility.
Hemp is rated as a Class III combustible fiber and called out by name in NFPA Code 497 (unlike cannabis). This means that grinding, loading and storage typically require specified lighting and electrical systems to prevent fire hazards. CBD isolate is also a Class II combustible dust, meaning it is capable of producing an ignitable or explosive mixture. In addition, many extraction processes require the use of highly flammable solvents, which pose yet another life safety concern. As a potential source of ignition, electrical installation methods such as grounding, isolation, proper equipment and specific installation methods will not only protect the employees but help ensure the safe operation and reduced liability for all stakeholders. Having clear electrical drawings showing designated areas, hazard mitigation methods and the proper means of storage and handling mean that processes are likely to go more smoothly with county officials, inspectors and jurisdictions that might otherwise restrict permits or approvals for facility operations.
Knowledgeable design of electrical systems can increase production volume, lower operating costs, increase product quality and boost long-term operational sustainability. Relying on the expertise of an electrical engineering team experienced in the cannabis industry will ensure electrical systems are reliable and understandable and set operations up for future growth.
Laura Breit is the founder and owner of Oregon-based firms Root Engineers and ColeBreit Engineering. She is a professional mechanical engineer specializing in the design of HVAC, plumbing and processing systems for the cannabis industry. Since legalization in her home state of Oregon in 2014, she has led her team of mechanical and electrical engineers and designers on more than 100 cannabis-related projects across the country.
Michael Nelson is the electrical engineering lead for Root Engineers, a professional engineering firm specializing in the cannabis industry. He has 16 years of experience working in large MEP firms and provides his clients with accurate, detailed designs based on established fundamentals, while bringing new ideas to a market often dominated by traditional ways of thinking.