Engineering for the Cannabis Cultivation Industry: An Interview

Here at Surna, we do a lot of things. But there is one thing at the core of what we do that we don’t talk about much-- our engineering services. Setting up a commercial cannabis cultivation facility inevitably involves engineers-- to help design the space and pick out equipment, among other things. We’re very fortunate to have an amazing staff of experienced and smart people to design our equipment, design our clients’ facilities and help maintain products after they’re up and running. So, I decided to sit down with Marc Nathan, Surna's engineering manager, to get his thoughts on the unique nature of engineering for cannabis cultivation facilities.

 

Hey Marc. Thanks for sitting down with me.  I’d like to start with you describing your role here at Surna.

I run the engineering department here at Surna. We have a number of departments that all fall under Engineering. We have research and development/new technology development, an after-market service department and obviously, facility design for our customers who buy Surna equipment.

 

So how did you get to Surna? What is your background?

I literally walked in the front door one day! haha. I actually came out of the oil field. I worked for a company called Cameron  that designed sub-sea production equipment. Before that I worked for Siemens and Pratt doing turbine research and before that, before I went back to school, I worked in construction.

 

What are some of the commonalities you see in projects that Surna works on? How are they alike?

One of the things that’s cool and common between all the projects is that, despite whether they’re large or small, there’s a lot of passion behind them. There is always a person behind these projects who has a lot of passion about cannabis-- about growing. They usually have an interesting personal story that brought them to why they’re there at that facility. And that’s probably my favorite part of this-- getting to work with all these different people and hear their stories and kind of understand how they got there. I mean, we’re all coming from different places but there’s-- what like over 100,000 people who have joined the cannabis industry?-- who have all come from different places, but we all have a story of why we’re sitting in this seat. So, thats a cool commonality.

 

Okay, so what do you think are some of the challenges that engineers run into at each different phase of the process?

I would say our biggest challenge is a lack of accepted industry standards. If you work in most other industries there is a governing body, like a trade association, that pushes to set standards for safety and quality and reliability and performance; but in the cannabis industry, we don’t have that. And a lot of that obviously comes out of the conflicting nature of the state legality and federal illegality. So, yeah, a lot of our big challenges relate to not having those standards to rely on and thus, we have to manage interpretations or understanding of what is a best practice.

 

So, how do you manage that?

What I try to do is look at complementary, or sister industries, ones where I would find applicable standards and apply those to the cannabis industry for best practices. As an example, we did a project recently to draft an odor control plan for a customer down in Denver related to some new DEH regulation. Part of the new regulation required that facilities be set up according to best practices, which don’t exist. So we applied standards that are commonly used in Sewer and Wastewater Treatment in regards to odor control and were able to successfully use those for the cultivation facility.

 

And those were okay as far as what the city of Denver considered to be sufficient?

The city considered that to be one of the comparable industries and were very happy with what we presented. So that’s one of the ways that we are able to address those issues is to pick best practices from other industries and apply them here.

 

In keeping with that, what makes this sort of engineering for cannabis cultivation different from other industries that engineers may be more familiar with? What would you say makes it unique?

Well, there are a few things that make it unique. Other than the lack of industry standards like I mentioned before, one of them is that obviously you’re dealing with cannabis which is a plant that has tremendous amount of unknowns surrounding it. Due to the lack of research being allowed, we don’t have scientific evidence to help us understand the effects of the different parts of the plant or the specifics around how plants responds to light and heat and so on. When you look at agriculture, tomatoes for example, people have been studying the way you can grow tomatoes for years and years and publishing that information for other growers. Luckily, we do have anecdotal evidence and our own personal research we can use to understand how these plants respond to lights, heat, etc. which is what all of our equipment is based on. I mean, Stephen’s [Keen, co-founder of Surna] own experience is what Surna’s cannabis expertise grew out of.

Also, the variance between states makes this industry quite unique. You’re not dealing with a federally regulated industry, you’re dealing with an industry that’s regulated on a state level only, so every single state has different things that matter to them. When we’re going in and working with different customers, we have to be sure we understand not just the differences in building codes, but also the differences in whatever the state permitting agency licensing the marijuana grow operation expects and wants. So it leads to a lot of differences between our projects to accomplish the same thing. Now that we’ve been doing these for a while though, we’re comfortable with a lot of the regulations in the states that have been around. As new states come on, we just get ourselves up to speed and then can hit the ground running when the projects come in.

 

So, what are your thoughts on having a company who has designed the equipment also doing the engineering for the facility? Do you think that’s necessary or just a nice extra?

I definitely think it is beneficial. There are a lot of the same challenges in both phases of engineering so I think that someone who has a really good understanding of the design of HVAC equipment-  design of air handling and heat transfer equipment-  and also has an understanding of the cannabis facility, is best positioned to design a proper, successful and efficient facility.

 

So if someone is choosing an engineer that is not Surna--

Why would you do that?

 

You’re right.  Anyway, what are the things that they should think about?

The first question I would ask them would be how much cannabis cultivation facility experience they have. Because while there are a lot of similar industries we can use to establish best practices like we’ve been talking about-  a lot of verticals, horizontals, etc,-  at the end of the day if you haven’t done a cannabis facility, there will be a pretty steep learning curve due to some of the challenges I just mentioned. So you want to be sure you work with a partner who has had experience in this space before and has already learned a lot of those lessons and are not learning them on your job and your dime. Which is why I say again, just choose Surna.

 

So do you have any advice/tips for people or engineers who are beginning this process.

Yes! First of all, it's going to be a lot more frustrating than you think. You’re going to learn a lot more than you ever thought possible. Also, make sure you have experts on all sides of the table. The guy who can grow amazing plants and is the cultivation expert is not going to be the same guy who is going to give you information on the electrical or how to build and construct your facility and that’s not going to be the same guy who is going to teach you how to operate or run that facility. So, the cool thing about this industry is there are people coming into it from all over-  coming into this space who bring a lot of experience and there’s a lot of opportunity to find qualified partners and qualified individuals. So I’d say, vet all your people and pick the right person for the particular job.

 

Marc, thank you so much for your thoughts! 

Anytime.

 

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