Part I: The challenge of understanding the process of HVAC system design, selection and installation
Designing, building and operating the ideal cannabis growing facility and getting every aspect of it right is no small task. There are countless decisions to be made and no obvious road map to create the perfect facility, nor is there a magic formula yet to maximize return on invested capital. Plus, growing at scale is a new frontier for most licensed producers and it’s been referred to by many as the Wild West because of the hectic pace of growth and perpetual innovation in a hyper-competitive landscape.
There are countless vendors and consultants vying for your business, but do they really have all the answers? Are they truly experts? How do you know their solutions actually are the best ones? It’s not easy. There are no cookie-cutter answers, and better solutions are evolving constantly for virtually every aspect of the cannabis industry.
This three-part series will address some of the biggest challenges and common mistakes being made by growers in selecting the best HVAC solution for their needs.
Challenge: Understanding the Process
Getting the right equipment designed and installed for a project is far more complex than most growers would expect, and the process itself often sets the stage for conflicting interests when choosing between lowest initial cost and smartest long-term value — a critical issue for business owners.
Because there are so many participants in the process with differing levels of HVAC design knowledge and potentially competing interests, the design, specification and equipment selection process can be very convoluted. There are many decision points, which don’t always serve the owner’s best interests. There are no hard and fast rules, but for new construction, and oftentimes for designing and renovating cannabis production facilities, the process looks like this:
– The owner selects an architect to design or retrofit a building.
– The architect hires an engineering firm to manage all facets of engineering.
– The engineering firm may hire an HVAC specialist to design the heating and cooling requirements.
– The engineering firm/HVAC specialist invites vendor reps to recommend HVAC solutions and propose equipment options.
– Reps propose assorted solutions and price points and may require manufacturer support (few reps are experts in all equipment lines they represent).
– The engineer accepts a proposed solution and uses that solution to create their “basis of design” — the specifications for the bidding process.
– The general contractor is hired by the business owner, architect or engineering firm to build the project — typically through a price-sensitive bidding process.
– The winning general contractor solicits bids from sub-contractors specializing in various aspects of the job (another price-sensitive process).
– The winning sub-contractor typically gets the job based on best price to supply and install the HVAC equipment that “meets the specifications” set out by the engineer. (Of note, there can be several vendors and several levels of quality that will technically meet specifications; sub-contractors typically choose the lowest cost in order to maximize their profits.)
– The winning sub-contractor typically only has to support issues with the installed equipment for one year after startup.
Although there are often variances, the 10 steps outlined above are a pretty common process. Even when there’s deviation from this process, the key takeaway is that unless the architect, owner, engineer or general contractor direct the HVAC sub-contractor to purchase a specific brand of equipment, or utilize a particularly prudent technology, the final equipment selection takes place at the end of the process — at which time the contractor makes a profit-motivated decision where typically the lowest-cost vendor wins.
Why? Because the contactor has already bid and won the job based on their predetermined price. That means any additional savings they can extract will add to the contractor’s profits from the project, thus they are typically looking to meet the specifications of the job with the cheapest equipment they can find.
We want to be clear that we are in no way suggesting any participant in the design, engineering or construction process has less than full commitment to the success of the project. However, what we are suggesting is that some of the traditional industry biases, processes and protocols are not always aligned for optimal equipment selection in the highly specialized cultivation industry.
Low Cost is Usually Very Expensive
Specifications rarely include energy consumption criteria and operating, maintenance or service costs, nor do they factor reliability or equipment life — all of which have a huge impact on the most important long-term value considerations. Unless a non-traditional, extended warranty is called for, facility managers are saddled with the long-term outcome of the equipment choices. This should be a big concern to owners.
Owners need to be aware of exactly what equipment has been specified by the engineer and which vendor/brand will provide it. If it’s premium quality equipment, will the contractor be allowed to provide alternates or substitutions? Specifications must be extremely tight with key competitive features clearly defined in the documentation.
This is one of the biggest challenges business owners face in getting a premium quality solution to their HVAC needs. In our estimation, the lowest “first cost” or lowest cost on “contractor bid day” is typically not the smartest money or the best way to ensure long-term value and performance.
It’s highly recommended that business owners have a clear understanding of the entire HVAC decision process from design to installation. Ask lots of questions, understand what the options are and why specific recommendations have been made. Get all the facts.
Of note, a well-informed owner, architect or engineer can predetermine the brand of HVAC equipment they prefer or the type of HVAC design they feel strongly about. It makes no sense that the final decision should come down to the lowest cost without consideration of the bigger picture equipment value factors. As the owner, you will be well-advised to understand and participate in the decision process of specifying and selecting the equipment for such a critical aspect of your business.
Geoff Brown is the brand and product manager for the Agronomic IQ Series of dehumidifiers, specifically designed for growing cannabis in every size of grow room. He started his HVAC career more than 15 years ago and has honed his expertise, dealing in every aspect of dehumidification throughout his career. Prior to managing the Agronomic IQ brand, he was a senior sales manager and sales engineer, who consulted on and managed various successful dehumidification projects.
For additional information about Agronomic IQ’s purpose-built, unitary grow room humidity and temperature control solutions, visit AgronomicIQ.com, or contact the company at ContactUs@AgronomicIQ.com.
This article is the first of a three-part series on the biggest HVAC challenges of modern grow rooms. In the March 2019 issue of Marijuana Venture, Part II will address how to get the design parameters right. Part III of the cover HVAC solution design.