A research project at a southwestern Ontario greenhouse has found a sustainable method to cool the water that growers use to irrigate their greenhouse vegetable crops - improving both plant health and fruit quality in the process.
Using funding from the Greenhouse Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative (GCII), Under Sun Acres Inc., has identified that water from a greenhouse’s stormwater management pond can be used to bring irrigation water to the ideal temperature the crops need, as opposed to using an electric or gas-powered cooling unit.
Irrigation water used for greenhouse crops is a combination of fresh water from natural sources such as wells and ponds, municipal sources, leach water that is disinfected and recirculated from within the greenhouse environment, and fertilizer. The ideal temperature for irrigation water is approximately 20-22 °C throughout the growing season.
“Growers mix fresh water from the municipality with treated leach water to use for irrigation, but when it is 32 °C in the greenhouse in the summer, the treated leach water is the same temperature,” explains Lucas Semple of Under Sun Acres Inc. “As you lower the temperature of the irrigation water, it increases the health of the plant by reducing plant stress.”
A lot of greenhouses, including Under Sun Acres, already use water from their stormwater management ponds to cool the fresh water they get from municipal sources, but they have no control over the temperature of the treated leach water. Its temperature would stay high no matter how much the municipal water was cooled unless they used cooling units.
“We began pulling water from our pond and using a heat exchanger to cool the treated leach water, which lets us cool and control it,” he says. “The unknown for us was the pond – how will the pond water react, and is the pond cool enough throughout the summer, for example?”
On top of the heat exchanger equipment, Semple installed a series of temperature sensors into the pond to monitor water temperature at different spots and help track where to take the water from during the growing season for the best results. The key is not being too aggressive in extracting cool water from the bottom of the pond early in the season, so the pond water will still be cool enough to meet its temperature requirements during the hottest days of summer.
“This was a new process, and we don’t know of anyone else using pond water in this way,” he says. “Simply put, irrigation water temperatures are too high in the summer, and we’ve been able to prove that it does work to use pond water to cool fresh and treated leach water for greenhouse irrigation.”
The size and depth, and amount of rainfall have a large influence on the cooling capacity of the pond. Semple found, for example, that the pond’s average temperature can increase by up to 1°C after big rainfalls. They’re now looking to cover the pond to reduce the impact of rainfall and solar radiation on its water temperature.
When greenhouse operators are planning to build a new stormwater retention pond, which is required for all site plan approvals, Semple encourages them to consider how else the pond can be used. This may require some additional design work related to volume and depth at the onset but can provide added future benefits.
Semple worked with researchers from the University of Windsor on the project, which he feels is one of the biggest benefits of accessing GCII funding.
“Helping us make that industry-academic partnership for a plant health project like this was a really big outcome as a result of GCII,” he says. “Any new project you’re doing is a risk to the grower, and when there is a risk, it greatly helps to have funding support through a program like GCII.”
“Ontario’s greenhouse growers have long proved that they are adaptable and at the leading edge of operational enhancements,” says Lisa Thompson, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “Through the Greenhouse Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative, our government is helping greenhouse growers find sustainable methods to increase efficiencies, reduce energy costs and protect the environment.”
This project was supported through the Greenhouse Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative, a cost-share program funded by the Ontario government and delivered by the Agricultural Adaptation Council on behalf of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).
Agricultural Adaptation Council
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