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Considerations for Building the Best Hydroponic Controller Systems


hydroponic greenhouse

Jenco Instruments has been manufacturing innovative water quality instruments for the scientific, research, environmental and industrial industries since 1973. Not as common knowledge is our established OEM/ODM services where we design and build water monitoring systems for our partners in other industries such as the hydroponics industry.

In our capacity as a hydroponics control system OEM/ODM partner, our full-service R&D and award-winning industrial teams design the right solutions that meet to exceed our partners’ specifications, while our production team builds products adhering to the strict quality standards honed from our 45 plus years building water quality instruments.

Our partners in the hydroponics industry have many considerations before contracting Jenco to build their products. From measurement parameters to alarms and notifications and app connectivity, our partners need to know that their controller systems will ensure an optimal hydroponic growth environment and stand up to the quality of their brand. 

This post details some of the key considerations for any company looking to create their own hydroponics controller system.

Advantages of a Hydroponic Controller System

Hydroponic gardening is a complex system of pump cycles, nutrient solutions, grow lights and other variables. Temperature, water levels and pH levels are some of the critical parameters that affect plant growth. And many of our partners come to us with a need for a hydroponic controller system to provide constant monitoring of these parameters without the need for manual testing. While manual testing of hydroponics systems may be lower in cost and easier for the end-user to get started with, manual pH testing is more time consuming and may lead to missed key water quality data between tests. Automated controller systems, in contrast, can continuously monitor water quality and automate the process of controlling water quality and providing proper level of actionable notification to the end-user.

The best hydroponic controller systems have features that allow for flexibility for specific plant needs. Each growth area has specific nutrient, light, pH and moisture requirements. Changes in these parameters can seriously affect the health of the plants in that area. For example, a pH level that is too high can interfere with a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients. The goal of the controller system is to provide real-time data to ensure optimal growth environments and peace of mind, and to automate the maintenance of the optimal growth environment.

Oxidation and Reduction Basics

If a substance doesn’t have enough electrons, it will actively attempt to acquire them through the process of oxidation—a chemical reaction in which one agent is oxidized (i.e., loses electrons to another agent). Because substances with positive ORP readings are looking to acquire electrons, they are considered oxidizing agents.

On the other hand, electrons that have a surplus of ions can afford to lose ions to oxidizing agents without becoming destabilized themselves. For this reason, they are referred to as antioxidizing agents, or reducing agents. The higher or lower an ORP reading (positive or negative), the more oxidizing or antioxidizing a substance is, respectively.

Requirements and Measurement Parameters

A hydroponic controller system typically contains a processor module, a control module and one or more sensor modules. The processor module contains the electronics for conditioning sensor inputs, controlling the relays and displaying information to the end-user. The control module contains relays and connectors that control devices such as pumps and feeders. One sensor module typically contains water quality sensors that monitor pH and electrical conductivity (EC) while a second sensor module would measure environmental parameters such as light, humidity and temperature. A quality sensor module can hold from one to four sensors for any variety of parameters.

These measurements provide vital information about the hydroponic growth environment. The pH level indicates the acidity or alkalinity of the nutrient solution, which affects the plants’ ability to absorb nutrients. The EC sensor measures the salts and totally dissolved solids, which indicates the nutrient levels in the solution. 

To prevent stress to plants from sudden temperature changes, the water and nutrient solution temperatures should be the same. The temperature sensor indicates whether the nutrient solution and water temperatures are within the ideal range of 65 to 80 degrees F.

A controller system should contain a second module for monitoring environmental data such as a light and humidity sensor as each plant has specific light and humidity requirements. A tropical plant, for example, needs higher humidity and more light than a plant from a northern region. Some plants require direct light while others prefer diffuse light. Plants need longer hours of light during germination than in later growth stages. The end-user should, therefore, be able to place light or humidity sensors to monitor and control these parameters.

Ease of use is also a key requirement starting with setup. Pumps, lights and any other automation equipment should be able to plug in to the system through a simple outlet. Initial setup operation of the controller such as pH or EC calibration, timers, and set points for the pumps should be done by simply pressing a single button on the control unit itself or activated through smartphone apps or web apps.
Since many times hydroponics controllers are installed outdoors, the instruments should be weather-resistant, and the modules should be enclosed in industrial-grade boxes specifically made for keeping the elements at bay. The controllers should have weather-resistant protection, such as with many of Jenco’s 1/8 DIN and 1/4 DIN industrial products.

Controlling Features, Alarms and Notifications

At Jenco, we know that the system we design and build for our partners will be relied upon for real-time information and convenience to monitor and control their customers’ hydroponics garden from anywhere. The system must contain relays to automatically turn on dosing pumps, adjust light intensity and activate an alarm or send email alerts when there is a problem. When the end-users has access the internet, with Jenco’s hydroponics system he or she also have access to real-time data 24/7. The end-user should know the moment the pH level needs adjusting, instead of waiting until he or she manually tests the pH level two days later. Alerts are also sent out the moment there is a risk of water overflow or other critical change.

A hydroponic garden often contains multiple growth areas with varying requirements. The end-user should be able to control the relays and adjust settings to suit his or her particular growth areas and requirements. For example, settings should be available to adjust pump cycles to run a certain length of time or to adjust the water levels that trigger an overflow alert. Adjusting the settings can be as simple as switching on outlets that are installed in each growth area.

If desired, the controller system should allow easy expansion of the number of modules, relays and sensors. For example, the end-user could add another sensor module to monitor pH and EC or light and humidity in a newly added growth area. Flexibility is key, so the goal should be to create systems that make the data available when it is needed.

This sophisticated and complex monitoring is possible through a high performing microcomputer located in the main processor module. This microcomputer enables the system perform traditional controller and monitoring functions and calculations, and also the ability to run a local server to connect to the network or interact with smartphone or web apps.

Electrode Selection and Serviceability

Water quality electrodes should be specially designed for constant immersion in a hydroponic nutrient solution. Most general purpose electrodes cannot remain continuously submerged in the feed solution because of lack of proper waterproofing and electrode junctions that can be easily damaged by nutrients. Submersible electrodes are usually mounted on PVC fixtures that can be screwed into the tank and can be fitted with special junctions that are more resistant to damage from the nutrient solution. If desired, the end-user can also attach an adapter collar to increase the length of the and provide a good seal at the point of attachment.

Electrodes are crucial components in a hydroponic controller system. To ensure accurate readings and improve response time, the end-user should be able to easily reach and detach the electrodes for regular, proper maintenance and calibration. Regular cleaning helps maximize the lifespan of the electrodes and can even reduce the need for calibration.

Historical Data

To help the end-user make decisions about growing conditions, a good hydroponic controller should capture and store historical water quality data. This feature helps the end-user monitor long-term patterns and detect swings in pH levels and other measured parameters.

With this information, the end-user should be able to detect undesirable variations that he or she may not otherwise notice. As a result, the end-user may decide to adjust the nutrient solution, pump cycle timing or grow light schedule, or even add additional sensors or modules to the controller system. Data storage and system monitoring provide the information necessary for maintaining an optimal hydroponic growth environment.

Electrode Selection and Serviceability

At Jenco, we believe that the best hydroponic controller systems combine quality with value. Instruments should be assembled from low-cost but high-quality, reliable components and manufactured by an experienced production team within a reputable company in the water quality industry

A hydroponic controller system provides crucial, real-time information can mean the difference between healthy plants and a lost crop. Valuable data should always be available on the end-user’s computer, smartphone or the cloud, while email alerts and alarms should help prevent damaging changes in the growth environment. Quality and value provide peace of mind and help create the best environment for a hydroponic garden.

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