Fire code compliance for legal grow ops

fire codeUnlike underground growers, today’s cultivators need to be well-versed in acquiring permits

By Jennifer Martin

State-legal cultivation operations are up and running in Washington and Colorado, and knowing what legal growers have learned from safety inspectors can save growers time and money as they build and develop their own legal cultivation operation.

Regulations vary somewhat from one municipality to another, but many compliance issues are to be expected in any licensed grow operation in the U.S. Of course, regulations always cost extra money, especially during setup, so figure in an extra 30-40% in initial investment cost to cover all the bases that underground growers might have avoided in the past. Extra costs will come in the form of permits, automated air-quality tracking and ventilation equipment, extra exits, added electrical outlets (no extension cords allowed!), sprinkler systems and reporting responsibilities. If a system is designed smartly, investors can make that money back over time in the savings from a good HVAC system and efficient lighting technologies.

Besides the basics of safety and accessibility, fire department inspectors are beginning to take on some special responsibilities that relate specifically to marijuana grow sites, including odor control, fumigation, CO2 enrichment, and chemical and pesticide use. Wastewater is often also regulated, but this is usually handled through a different department. This is all new territory for regulators, so the rules should be considered a work in progress, and grow site managers need to stay in regular communication with inspectors in order to help develop and respond appropriately to this quickly evolving industry and all of its unique circumstances.

The application process for a legal grow operation usually requires detailed information from the licensee relating to how all of the safety and energy-related issues will be handled, so many decisions must be made and explained long before a new site is built out. While the state regulations will spell out most of the details, a few are left unmentioned, both because they are considered obvious by regulators and because, historically speaking, cultivation equipment manufacturers have not been accustomed to playing by the same rules as manufacturers of equipment for legal commercial industries.

One significant example of this is UL listing. Household appliances are common places to see this term, but many people have not realized its significance. UL (Underwriters Laboratories) is the certifying body for electrical products in the U.S. (other countries have their own specifications), and fire departments usually require this certification for the approval of commercial projects. It ensures the safety of the product for general use. Little do most growers know that most cultivation equipment, particularly lighting, is not UL listed. Why? Because getting UL certification costs money, and 99% of the cannabis cultivation market hasn’t been concerned with it due to the fact that fire inspectors haven’t been involved in — or allowed to inspect — grow operations until recently.

Looking at most digital ballasts are not UL listed. A few brands are an exception to this, and those are the ones that should be looked at for commercial growers.

For lights, and for any other equipment that plugs into the wall, ask the company about UL listing before investing in their products. You don’t want to drop a big chunk of change on lights and then have the fire inspectors reject them. Many companies that are not currently UL listed are ready to jump on board as soon as the market demands it, so it’s really worth having a conversation with them if the light you love isn’t yet listed, especially for a large-scale project. The companies might want your business badly enough to jump through the hoops in short order.

Some companies might have components that are UL listed, but the system as a whole is not. Be sure to ask that question before making a purchase and get a second opinion from the inspectors.

Besides having all the right construction, engineering and equipment, be prepared for all sorts of rules relating to the substances your plants are being treated with or otherwise exposed to. As mentioned earlier, the substances that go down the drain are in one category, usually regulated by the water department, and the substances used in the air that can affect worker health are in another category that is regulated by the fire department. These include pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, ozone, CO2 and other fumigants.

The fire department needs to make sure workers and visitors are safe during times of normal operations, as well as in the event of equipment malfunctions. Thus, they set maximum allowable levels of CO2 and ozone that can be present in a room, and require monitoring and automated ventilation if those levels are exceeded, as well as signage that warns everyone of the use and risk related to such substances.

Each state has its own list of approved pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, and rules are regularly being drafted and amended as it relates to cannabis as a consumable product. Check state guidelines for more information.

Sorry underground growers. We have entered the era of regulated cultivation. Things won’t be as cheap, easy or profitable as they used to be, but at least we can have more faith that the crops being produced are consistent, safe and healthy for everyone to consume.


Jennifer Martin is the winner of the 1998 San Francisco Bay Area Cannabis Cup, and is a pioneer in the US marijuana clone industry. She currently speaks at national conferences and consults for the legal cannabis industry. She can be reached through her website


One response to “Fire code compliance for legal grow ops”

  1. Josh Zaretsky says:

    I completely agree with this and will add an important point: As of right now, I don’t believe there is a single CO2 burner on the market which has been listed. That means that we would have to conduct a field inspection at an estimated cost (estimate coming from Spokane County permitting officials) of approximately $6,000-7,000.

    Of course, we’d already paid to have the gas company bury the propane line, bring it into the building and mount the burner. So we paid a decent sum to have work completed for a piece of equipment we can’t use.

    Depending on how successful we are this year, maybe we’ll be able to pay those extra costs. But that being said, I’d caution everyone to check their products for the proper listings if they’re planning on using them in their facility.

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