Commercial sensor and data logging solutions for hydroponics

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On a previous post, I discussed a very interesting open-source sensor/data logging alternative for Hydroponics called MyCodo, which offers a lot of features and flexibility for those growers with the time and skills necessary to implement their own sensor and data logging setup. However, many growers don’t have the time to do this on their own – or the time and willingness to hire someone to do it for them – and all they want is a solution that “just works” out of the box and that fits most of their data logging needs. In this post I am going to talk about three commercial solutions – in no particular order – that I’ve had experience with along with some of the advantages and disadvantages that each one offers you. Note that this post has not been sponsored by any of these brands. The statements below represent my opinions on the matter and the facts, to the best of my knowledge. I recommend you contact each company to ask specific questions pertinent to your needs.

Growtronix

Growtronix. This company offers a complete solution for monitoring and automation of hydroponic crops. Their sensors are hooked through cabled connections and they support a wide array of analogue sensors, both sold by them and by third parties. As long as a sensor can work on a 3.5-5V input and give an analogue reading, it can be installed in a growtronix setup. Their web interface is user-friendly, it allows you to view sensor readings and create control schemes using simple if logic statements. They have also shared the source code of their web interface with some of my customers in the past, so if you would like to customize things beyond their base web application, I’m sure you could figure it out if you have the time and programming skills. Growtronix support – per the experience of the customers I have you have used it – has been stellar.

There are however some downsides to using growtronix. Since everything is cabled you will need to lay cables across your rooms if you want to hook up multiple sensors within them. The system lacks support for third party i2c sensors, meaning that you can only connect analogue sensors and will miss on some interesting third-party sensor offerings. The data is also stored in a non-relational mongoDB implementation, which means that querying data and doing complicated data analysis will not be easy with them. Their control algorithm technology is also rather simple, to the best of my knowledge they do not offer more advanced control mechanisms beyond the if logic statements they allow the users to program.

Controllers- Environmental Controllers by Forever Flowering Greenhouses

Agrowtek. Similar to Growtronix, they also offer a complete monitoring and automation solution for hydroponic crops. However, they offer their own touchscreen computers to connect to their sensors, dosing pumps, and relay modules, so they do not have a dedicated web interface for their sensors that is hosted on any computer but you must purchase their own. Their “GrowControl” panels will hook with normal ethernet cables to any of the sensors they offer and you will be able to program all the behavior of the sensors and the relays from these stations. Their main advantage is easy setup, everything easily hooks up and you can then program things within the GrowControl panels to fit whatever simple control needs you might have. You can probably setup 200 sensors/relays in a day to control an entire facility using this setup. Their custom computer also gives you more stability, meaning crashes of the system are rare (according to the customers I have who have used them). From the three companies discussed in this post, this is also the only one to offer nutrient injection systems in their offering.

However, one big limitation of this company is how closed the ecosystem is. You have absolutely no ability to hook up third-party sensors and sadly their offering lacks some important and basic sensors for a medium to large scale hydroponic setup, specifically water content and water potential sensors. You are also becoming reliant on the availability of support from them and – if the company went under – it would be very hard for you to be able to fix or find replacements for their sensors or their control panels. Their control algorithms are also fairly simple and are limited to basic if-logic, similar to the Growtronix system. Data is also not logged into any database but as basic csv files, which means substantial effort will be needed to perform advanced data analysis tasks.

SmartBee™ Controllers SmartBee™ Controllers | The Best Automated Grow System

SmartBeeControllers. This company also offers a complete automation and monitoring solution for your hydroponic crop. Their main differentiating factor relative to the last two is that sensor stations connect wirelessly to your computer, allowing you to place sensors throughout your facility without having to set up cables through the entire place. Their sensor stations can hook up to a large number of sensors so, for example, you can use a water content station to hook up six of their capacitive water content sensors. They also require a computer server with the web software to communicate with – alike Growtronix – and their software has a focus on simplicity. In this case, control options are even more limited than in other cases, with basically only simple set-point logic available to control relays (to the best of my knowledge).

The SmartBee ecosystem is also quite limited and offers no pH/EC/ORP sensors or water potential sensors (tensiometers). You have no ability to hook up third-party sensors as well, meaning you’re stuck with this offering if you use them. Because of the wireless nature of communications, sensor readings and their stability can also be compromised due to excessive electromagnetic noise, which can be particularly problematic in a short room that has a lot of HPS ballasts. It is also true that in the past (2-3 years ago) their support seemed to have problems, with several complaints about their response time online. I do not know if their technical support has improved so I would advise you to seek recent opinions about it on social media if you’re considering them for purchase. The people I know who used them didn’t need to contact support, so I cannot comment on this aspect from my customers’ experience.

The above are three commercially available data logging systems for hydroponics. All of them should be easy to hook up and should provide you with basic data logging and control capabilities for your grow. In my opinion, the most complete one is Growtronix, given the ability to add third-party sensors – even if only analogue ones – and the quality of their sensors and web application software. However, if controlling the nutrient injection process electronically is important for your situation, then Agrowtek might be a better solution. None of them however provide advanced control mechanisms – like reinforcement learning-based climate control – and none of them provide access to all sensors that would be desirable, so a custom DIY setup might be best if these features are very important to you.

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9 Comments

  • Jens Frerk
    March 15, 2021 @ 4:45 am

    Hello, thanks for the listing. I would like to add another system here – a very promising system for me. It is not yet affordable for me as a private person, but it is worth an idea. https://overgrower.ru/en/

  • Greg
    March 15, 2021 @ 1:20 pm

    In your closing comment, you mention “and none of them provide access to all sensors that would be desirable, so a custom DIY setup might be best if these features are very important to you.”

    Please list all the sensors that you feel are desirable to have monitored.

    Thanks

    • admin
      March 15, 2021 @ 3:25 pm

      Thanks for your comment! In general I would like to be able to hook up any analogue or i2c sensor I would want to the system. Sadly no company that I know of currently offers this. However, if they had a private offering of sensors, these are the ones I would like to have: Temperature (at least 3 different chipsets), humidity (at least 3 different chipsets), CO2 (infrared and electrochemical), tensiometers, hot wire anemometer, EC, pH, ORP, dissolved oxygen, luminosity, PAR, water content (capacitive).

      • Chris Regini
        March 15, 2021 @ 6:00 pm

        Fantastic list! Any chance you can elaborate on importance of tensiometer if we are already measuring for pH, EC, and ORP? Would love to hear more especially if you could suggest one to interface with our raspberry pi controlled monitoring system. Cheers!

        • admin
          March 17, 2021 @ 8:15 am

          Thanks for commenting Chris! Always happy to see you’re reading the blog. About the tensiometers, they are key to measure the water potential of the media and properly time irrigations, if you don’t measure water potential then you risk over/under watering your plants. This however can be irrelevant in systems that do not have a significant amount of media, such as NFT systems, and only applies to systems where media plays a key role.

      • Greg
        March 16, 2021 @ 3:24 pm

        We have some flexible hardware that we could probably easily run-up that scenario on. If you can give me a list of the actual sensors you are looking for we can build some development boards up that can report that data to the cloud to review the results.

        • admin
          March 17, 2021 @ 8:18 am

          Thanks for commenting! Getting you a specific sensor list would require a significant amount of time. If you’re interested in getting my help to further develop your sensor platform, feel free to book an hour of consulting time through the website.

  • Chris Regini
    March 15, 2021 @ 5:53 pm

    For those of you that are interested in a bit more modularity and are willing to get your hands dirty on the coding end, Atlas Scientific has an amazing array of environmental robotic sensors for your growing systems. I have their entire sweet in my high school lab. They do offer some IoT for free if you’re running windows 10 on a raspberry pi. Their documentation is phenomenal including cad files for those of you that print or laser cut your own project enclosures like we do.

    • admin
      March 17, 2021 @ 8:16 am

      Absolutely love Atlas as well! Recently I’ve been trying lower cost electrically isolated pH/EC boards from ufire, which are signifcantly lower cost. You might want to give those a shot if you’re interested in comparing between different solutions of this sort.

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