Indoor Food Cultivation Is Growing and it’s all About Control

April 2023


What is Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)?

Controlled Environment Agriculture is, quite simply, farming done indoors. The idea is to create an environment that is as close to ideal for plant growth as possible. By moving agriculture indoors nearly all important variables can be controlled. By controlling the environment, including light energy, watering and nutrient uptake rates, ambient temperature, humidity and CO2 levels, cultivators have significant control of the plant’s metabolic activity. This level of control allows for exceptional quality/consistency and dramatically higher yields. 

Controlled Environment Agriculture does require a significant amount of energy. For this reason, it is important for operators to invest in a smart facility design with state of the art, efficient purpose built equipment in order to minimize energy consumption and maximize yields.

Types of controlled indoor agriculture

Tomatoes grown indoors

The two most common forms of controlled environment agriculture are indoor farming, and greenhouse farming, both of which require a controlled environment agriculture dehumidifier to manage moisture levels.

Indoor farming facilities resemble a food production facility in structure. These buildings are typically well insulated and air sealed, and feature a room inside a room design. See Desert Aire Application Note #30 Structure Design in Grow Room Applications for more information. The interior grow rooms are often constructed of insulated metal panels with white food grade FRP coatings. Artificial grow lighting is hung from the ceiling directly over the plants to provide the necessary light energy for photosynthesis.  The lights also produce a lot of heat. Through the photosynthesis process the plants give off nearly all the water they consume in the form of transpiration. For these reasons indoor agriculture facilities require powerful heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and dehumidification (HVACD) systems to address both the temperature and moisture loads in order to stabilize the indoor growing environment. Indoor grow facilities or vertical farms are typically multi-tier to maximize crop space in an efficient footprint. Facilities can vary in size and are typically divided up into smaller rooms providing tight environmental control for various stages of cultivation, from seedling, vegetative, flowering and fruit.

Greenhouse facilities range from very simple structures covered in thin poly sheeting, to sophisticated sealed and semi sealed facilities with supplemental lighting and HVACD systems to control temperature and humidity. Low energy usage is the primary benefit of greenhouse facilities vs indoor farms. Greenhouses are able to take advantage of the sun’s energy and do not need to rely on artificial light which saves a significant amount of energy. However, while indoor farming is more energy intensive, it is also much easier to achieve tight climatic and lighting control in a truly indoor environment. For these reasons the highest value crops that require the highest level of control to successfully cultivate are typically grown indoor vs greenhouse.

Advantages of Controlled Environment Agriculture Sprouts grown indooors

Controlled Environment Agriculture has numerous advantages over traditional outdoor cultivation. In today’s society large population centers are often hundreds or thousands of miles away from the location where the food they consume was grown. This reality has a large environmental impact as these crops must be transported long distances to market. This model features low cost production, but high transportation costs and high waste due to spoilage. Conversely, controlled environment agriculture businesses can operate in the same communities where their crops are consumed, nearly eliminating transportation costs.

Growing food in a controlled environment allows for perfect or near perfect conditions at all times. This simply does not happen outdoors. For these reasons crops grown in a controlled environment often do not require any chemicals or pesticides to protect them from bugs or pathogens. This clean, optimal growing process enhances the nutrients and taste of the crops while eliminating the potentially harmful chemicals. 

Traditional agriculture operations utilize a large amount of water and much water is wasted in the form of runoff. This is a major concern in the western part of the United States, where a large majority of U.S. national agricultural activity takes place. Farms simply will not be able to continue to consume water at current rates.  Controlled environment agriculture is far less water intensive than traditional farming. In the future a larger share of U.S. agricultural food crops will need to be cultivated in a water conscious manner. Indoor farming is one successful method to minimize water usage. 

Innovations in Controlled Environment Agriculture 

The legalization of medicinal and recreational cannabis has boosted the speed of innovation for the indoor agriculture sector as a whole. The large indoor cannabis production industry drove many advancements in efficiency from an equipment standpoint in a relatively short time. Many of these learnings and equipment platforms can be applied to other indoor crops with great success as well. 

On the lighting side, there have been rapid advancements over the last 10 years that have led to far higher efficiencies for commercial grow light systems. New LED systems are able to provide targeted light spectrums while removing spectrums that only produce heat. LED lighting systems can also efficiently vary the intensity of the lights to mimic daylight light patterns, which enables crop steering and other more advanced cultivation techniques designed to save energy and optimize yields.

HVACD systems have also evolved substantially for the controlled environment agriculture application over the past decade to deliver a higher level of control while consuming less energy. In the early days of indoor cultivation most facilities used standard comfort cooling AC systems and supplemental standalone dehumidifiers to remove extra moisture. Not surprisingly these systems struggled to maintain stable environmental control and consumed a lot of energy. The core issue is that these systems are not integrated and working together. For example, each of the standalone dehumidifiers, which are typically hung in the grow space, generate a lot of heat from dehumidification and distribute all of it to the space in the form of hot dry air. This heat energy from dehumidification then needs to be removed by the AC system which results in longer run times, higher energy usage and imprecise environmental control. 

Now more and more indoor farmers are selecting purpose designed, integrated HVACD systems like the GrowAire™ system from Desert Aire. These systems are designed exclusively for the demands of indoor cultivation and are tuned to deliver exceptionally tight control of both temperature and humidity with one hyper-efficient system. In addition, all GrowAire™ indoor cultivation HVACD systems come with both VPDsync™ technology and AireGuard™. VPDsync™ is a proprietary control algorithm that takes advantage of automatic adaptive learning logic to optimize the PID loop to manage the GrowAire™ system to achieve the highest levels of environmental control and ability to hit VPD set points. AireGuard™ allows for real-time remote access to vital internal system data enabling factory based optimization or trouble shooting to ensure the HVACD equipment stays within its optimal range and delivers its expected efficiency levels.

The Controlled Environment Agriculture sector has also seen large recent gains in automation and the implementation of efficiency driven systems to lower the cost of production. In traditional agriculture labor makes up a large share of the overall cost to produce. These are physically demanding jobs often in remote locations and can be difficult to fill. Controlled environment agriculture leverages technology and facility design to enable farming with a far lower dependence on labor. This injection of technology is changing some of the macroeconomic drivers within the agriculture sector and making controlled environment agriculture more feasible for the future.

The Future of Food Production: The Impact of CEALettuce grown indoors

Indoor production of food crops is projected to grow 27% year over year until 2027. Demand for fresh, locally grown pesticide-free food is at an all-time high and as a society we are looking to increase our food security and reduce reliance on foreign food imports. In addition, population growth, water conservation efforts, and more dramatic swings in weather due to climate change are all driving many producers to investigate controlled environment agriculture. At the same time, recent innovations and injections of efficiency-boosting technologies and purpose-built equipment are helping to solve some of the historic challenges surrounding controlled environment agriculture.

Controlled Environment Agriculture is a rapidly growing sector of the global food supply. If done correctly CEA is positioned to help provide some sustainable food solutions to the world. The key is smart facility design, and a strong understanding of the internal HVACD loads that will need to be addressed in a cost effective manner to achieve the best growing environment for crops to thrive. Desert Aire has long been the leading manufacturer of purpose built integrated HVACD systems for controlled environment agriculture facilities. Each new evolution in our GrowAire™ product offers enhanced efficiency and improved levels of control. We are excited to support the growth of indoor agriculture and dedicated to continued innovation to help develop even better facilities that will enhance crop quality while reducing energy usage.

Take the Next Step Towards Optimized Controlled Environment Agriculture Desert Aire GrowAire dehumidifier installed at Alo Farms

Ready to explore the benefits of a controlled environment agriculture dehumidifier for your indoor farming operation? Visit our CEA & Greenhouse Dehumidification page to learn more about how the GrowAire™ system or our other CEA dehumidifier systems can enhance your crop quality and reduce energy usage. If you have any questions or need assistance with your specific indoor farming needs, don't hesitate to Contact us today. Our experienced team is here to help you find the best solutions for your controlled environment agriculture project.

Read more about a CEA application using Desert Aire GrowAire™ system: Dehumidification System Helps Create Community Through Local Indoor Farming of Greens and Fish in Georgia.

This blog was written by Chip Seidel, CEA Brand Manager, Desert Aire