If you’re not sure what an automatic nutrient dosing system is, the name alone should tell you what you need to know. This method, also known as an auto-dosing system, is a mechanized nutrient delivery system that administers specific amounts of nutrient solution to crops, according to a pre-programmed schedule. They’re big, they’re complex, they’re expensive — and they’re absolutely necessary for large-scale commercial grow ops.
As a garden grows and expands its footprint, it can reach the point where it’s just too big for one grower — let alone a team of growers — to water by hand. This is the point where an auto-dosing system becomes necessary. If you’re approaching this point or you plan on getting your grow to that size in future, get yourself acquainted with auto-dosing systems now.
In this article, we’re going to cover:
- The components of an auto-dosing system.
- The effects an auto-dosing system has on crops.
- Buying and installing an auto-dosing system.
- Problems you may face with your auto-dosing system.
Components Of An Automatic Dosing System
An automatic nutrient dosing system is made up of the following parts:
- Injector, also known as a dosing pump, for each nutrient formula.
- Booster/source pump.
- Control interface. This can be either simple or fairly complex.
- Monitor kit comprised of a pressure gauge and an electronic readout showing the system’s temperature, pH and conductivity.
A key component of an auto-dosing system is its dosing pump, which introduces nutrient blends to the system and keeps them moving through and into the crops at an appropriate rate and pressure. There are several types of dosing pumps, each of which operates slightly differently:
- Magnetic diaphragm pumps. This type of pump uses a magnet to move its diaphragm back and forth, which draws up and injects liquid.
- Volumetric piston drives, or water-driven pumps.
- Venturi drives, which are ejector pumps that create motion through the venturi effect. This is the reduction in water pressure within a pipe that occurs when the water moves through a narrow section of the pipe.
The Benefits Of An Automatic Nutrient Dosing System
Auto-dosing systems are primarily meant for commercial growers. As mentioned, commercial growers can reach a point where their grow operation is so large that it’s no longer realistic to water by hand. At this scale, an auto-dosing system isn’t a luxury, but a necessity. Some smaller-scale, hand-watering growers do opt for auto-dosing systems because they seek the consistency these systems provide. While an auto-dosing system is a key part of irrigation automation, it doesn’t have to be a grower’s chosen watering system.
The biggest benefit you’ll find with an auto-dosing system is that it eliminates human error. There are plenty of simple errors growers can make, especially new growers. Because the hydroponic nutrient doser does the mixing and feeding for you, there’s less chance of human error that leads to a crop-killing issue, such as a nutrient lockout.
An automatic nutrient dosing system mixes water with nutrients directly in its lines, which saves you space because it eliminates the need to store oversized water tanks. Also, there’s no need for a mixing tank when you’re working with this kind of system — yet another space-saving benefit.
When you have a nutrient mixing pump keeping your system in motion, you also get the benefit of having your nutrients constantly agitated. Keeping your nutrients properly shaken up to ensure they are well blended is critical to providing your crops with the correct nutrient ratios for optimal growth. Many cultivators use small, submersible magnetic diaphragm pumps in their nutrient tanks to keep the mixture agitated. If you’ve seen how a pond pump keeps the pond’s water constantly in flux, then you should have a good idea of how these growers keep their nutrients properly blended.
How An Auto-Dosing System Affects Crop Outcomes
Here’s what most growers probably want to know about these systems more than anything else: How do they impact crop quality?
The primary benefit of using an auto-dosing system is that it eliminates human error, because crops grown using this arrangement always get the exact blend of nutrients they need, exactly when they need them. When used correctly, automation can result in better harvests than you’ll get from dosing and watering crops by hand.
That said, some of the benefits of an auto-dosing system are subjective. Some growers feel that when you remove the human touch from the feeding process, you lose the control that enables you to cultivate a top-quality crop. However, this is highly dependent on a few factors, the most important being the grower’s experience level. Also keep in mind that an auto-dosing system is mechanized, and mechanical systems can break down when they’re not properly maintained.
Problems One Can Face With A Nutrient Dosing System
Although an auto-dosing system has plenty of benefits, it’s by no means a foolproof system. There are a few issues that can arise, including inferior nutrients getting clogged in the lines. When this happens, the water can get blocked, starving crops of the sustenance they need.
Although it’s a rare occurrence, metals found in certain nutrient formulas are attracted to the magnetic pumps in these systems, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies when they build up on the magnetic components. Advanced Nutrients products, like our pH Perfect Coco Base Nutrients, are specifically adjusted to prevent this from happening.
Buying And Installing An Automatic Nutrient Dosing System
Growers buy automatic nutrient dosing systems based on their unique fertigation and cultivation needs. An auto-dosing system can cost upward of $10,000. Because these systems are customized for growers’ specific requirements, there can be wide variations in cost. To estimate the expense of a system, it’s important to start by examining the individual components you’ll need. Also, remember to take your energy and water costs into account when estimating auto-dosing system costs.
Making A Nutrient Dosing System Part Of Your Grow Operation
As with any other piece of mechanical equipment, it’s crucial to your entire operation that you properly maintain your automatic nutrient dosing system. A well-maintained system should last you a decade or more. In fact, if you strive to maintain your system, you’ll likely find yourself replacing parts as more efficient, technologically advanced components become available, rather than as they wear out.
To clear out the salt buildup in its lines, run a cleaning solution through your automatic nutrient dosing system according to manufacturer’s directions. You’ll also need to open the system’s filters periodically to clear out any built-up debris.
It’s also necessary to lubricate the system’s components regularly and conduct routine maintenance checks to catch any damage, clogs or excessive buildup that can potentially harm your crops.
When you’re ready to upgrade your grow from a small-scale garden to a large-scale commercial grow op, you’ll likely want to invest in an automatic dosing system.
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Special thanks to Chris Lundgren, National Sales Manager – Horticulture, of Dosatron for his help in writing this article.