Building of an indoor computerized grow box

Before going into my latest version of the grow box, I think it would be good to go through the brief history of my computerized grow boxes.

Version 1: PC Grow Box

It all started with my daughter’s question for her science project “Why don’t strawberries grow during the wintertime?”  After some discussion she decided because it was too dark and too cold (pretty smart for a kindergartener)  To prove her hypothesis we created the original computer grow box.

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Now the only thing computerized about this one was the fact that it was made from an old PC case using a simple lamp timer hooked up to control the CFL lights and a incandescent to provide a little extra heat.  This system worked great the strawberry plant thrived and produced about a dozen berries and we had proven that yes you can grow strawberries during the wintertime.

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As with any iterative development process I did look at some of the shortcomings of this design and made some improvements.  Though this was the perfect size for this experiment when I started consider using this for starting some of my seedlings the plants quickly overgrew this small space.  The other problem was the ability to maintain ideal temperatures for growing.  As the ambient temperature rose in my garage so did the grow box (by plus 15F normally) so this became a maintenance issue trying to keep this in check.  This led to the next version.

Version 2: The True Computerized Growbox

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This is where things started to get a little technical, my primary concern was temperature control.  This would allow me to create the perfect growing environment for my seedlings and plants by using a pretty simple software program, an arduino prototyping board for the electronics, and a few solid state relays I was able to achieve pretty consistent temperature in the grow box.

This design led to a couple of issues; first it worked great for seedlings but as the plants matured I ran out of room fast.  Second was temperature control, the CFL/incandescent combo was good at adding 10-15 degrees to the ambient temperature but when weather got very cold or hot there was not much that could be done to get the box out of these extremes.  These we the inspirations for the most recent build.

Version #3: The deluxe computerized grow box

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Space: First off the new box is over 3 times bigger than its predecessor.  This allows ample space for plants to grow up and out as needed.  Specially the dimensions are 4 feet wide and tall with a depth of 2 feet.  It is constructed underneath my workbench which is supported from studs in the wall and 2”X2” posts as legs supporting the actual workbench.  The walls of the grow box is made from a single sheet of quarter inch plywood…I probably should have spend a couple extra dollars for half inch for a little more insulation but hey this is the Cheap Vegetable Gardener.  Speaking of insulation…there is none, I might rethinking this while growing peppers over the summer to save a little on heating costs but for now I don’t need it.

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Lighting and Heating: Here are a couple more major improvements in this build. I have installed a 120 watt LED system from Advanced LED Lights and picked up a pair of 150 watt ceramic reptile heaters for $17 each on Amazon. Now for me this was a pretty big purchase but they were a steal provided they normally sell for $40 each at my local pet store. Between the very cool LEDs putting almost no heat and the heaters pumping out as much as I can need, this grow box is ready for any adverse weather that comes my way no matter what season.

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Ventilation: I went simple with this high performance CPU fan dangling from a couple of wires…this is on my list to create a better install of this but hey I have a newborn at home give me a break =)

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Watering: I really liked the bottom feeding system that I had in the old grow box but provided that now I have four separate trays to fill this makes things a little more complicated.  For the watering system material I chose to go with PVC pipe because it is easy to work with and is fairly inexpensive.  Another benefit is because I am using a low pressure system to pump the water in (low end pond pump) just making them hand tight is good enough to prevent leaks and allows me to make quick and easy modifications as needed.

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This was good when I made the misfortune of making the intake (see picture above) a little two low and accidentally created a syphon and if I wouldn’t happened to have been in the garage when it kicked on I would have had nearly my entire 5 gallon bucket of water on the floor of my garage.

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The next problem was that water will simply flow out the first free flowing outlet, so to create a small amount of water pressure to ensure the trays were getting filled evenly I used a threaded 1/2” cap with an 1/8” hole in the middle to restrict the flow enough for even distribution.  The rest of the piping included a couple of elbows, 4 T-joints for each tray and an end cap to stop the flow of water at the end of the pipe.

Hardware: The PC I scraped together from spare parts and was showing an end in life was near, so I upgraded the 12 year old desktop with my 7 year old laptop.  Which added a little performance but also cleaned up the need for LCD display, keyboard, mouse.  As an added bonus this made the brains of grow box much more portable which allowed more evenings of troubleshooting in my living room versus cold garage.

Software: This is an area where I will be the first to admit I went overboard on, but when you find something you are passionate about it is very easy to do.  Building upon the previous version of my software for the old grow box I made some cosmetic changes to give the UI a design that is similar to a thermostat.  I also included some temperature trending (up/down arrows next to the temperature) along with some basic (Min/Max/Avg) information for quick analysis for the climate of the grow box on that day.

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To have easy access to see how the plants have been doing while I have been away I have the ability to view the current conditions inside the box but also to check on images taken in the past.

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Finally we have the “Settings” screen which allows the ability to change optimum temperature range, lighting conditions, and watering configurations.  I also added an hydroponics mode which works on timed on/off cycles versus being based on moisture content in the soil.

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Lastly as I mentioned previously I have implemented Windows Phone 7 mobile support, which I am still limited to using on an emulator given Verizon taking their sweet time bring a model for to market for me to purchase…this provides a view into the grow box and also allows me to remotely turn on/off the controls watering, lighting, heating, and the fans within the grow box.

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Overall I couldn’t be more pleased with my current configuration and the plants are thriving in their closely monitored and controlled climate…now I just have to hope that the temperatures outside will fall into some reasonable ranges to they can thrive outside of this box.

22 Responses to “Building of an indoor computerized grow box”

  1. Urban Florida Hydroponics Says:

    Great Stuff! I’ve been wanting to put together a little automation system, but I guess I havent had the time lately (or complete knowledge)…
    Have you heard/tried the netduino? It has the .net micro framework =)
    I have 5+ yrs professional experience with .NET, but I know almost nothing about pcb’s… Hopefully I will buy one soon to play around with it =)
    But great work man…. keep it up :)
    (Since your also a .NET/C# guy it seems, what would you recommend to get me started learning the the pcb/eletronic stuff? )


  2. The Cheap Vegetable Gardener Says:

    If I would have known about the netduino before I started I probably would have gone that route (might even switch one of these days) Either one should be pretty easy to pick up coding is pretty simple with limited libraries so not much to learn but you have to go a little old school writing atoi type functions we are more accustomed to getting by default.


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  4. KustomLED Says:

    Did you create the UI in the Arduino programming or is it seperate software?


  5. The Cheap Vegetable Gardener Says:

    KustomLED, the UI is using Visual Studio C#. Arduino just handles the basic electronics (turning lights on/off, etc)


  6. Dave joseph Says:

    I’m very grateful to have these project. im planning to use this as a thesis project thanks a lot


  7. Dave joseph Gutierrez Says:

    Sir i’ve been wondering how you create this kind of project. could you share your code for the UI? and sir i have some question regarding how many kind of plant able to accommodate this project? and if it’s possible to build this in to build these in tropical country?


  8. ColumgrowBob Says:

    What is your market position with grow box software. We may be interested in expanding your initial thinking. Give us a shout if interested.

    Bob


  9. Dave Says:

    Please consider open sourcing this program and helping others create grow boxes like this :)


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  11. joakim Says:

    I really thought that the LED’s would not put out any of the UV that I would expect the plants to require. Discharge lamps have plenty but I didn’t think that this would work with LED’s.
    Let me know how you go its pretty cool to see what you’ve done.


  12. Grass Machinery Says:

    Really smart thinking with the grow box and temperature control, wow is all i can say!


  13. Bodynsoil Says:

    I love this project, not only for the learning/bonding aspect with your daughter, but for the computer management program as well. (be still my heart) I will be researching this process for my own plant units too. Now I am off to research and learn a little programming to do the UI in KustomLED the name Arduino sounds like a comedy script name. Thanks for sharing.


  14. DanWorkin Says:

    Just going to toss my 2 cents in on this one, i’ve seen your post copied a to a few different sites but this looks like the most detailed version. I noticed a software vendor interested in your software, avoid the sellout temptation, you will make less money than if you open source it, while you may disregard what you have created as “overboard” it is really quite amazing. when you open source it, a vast community of people will help you develop it and make it amazing, i’d like to add some co2 deployment myself, and when large hydroponic companies want to use your software and it doesnt support w/e feature they are looking for they will pay you or another community member to do that coding work, which then gets shared back to the community which leads to more companies that want to pay to add more features etc. read about the gpl and fire this thing up over at sourceforge and see how awesome itll be in a year.


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  16. JackVegas Says:

    Noticed your “ventilation” fan dangling from wires inside box. Fine for circulating air around plants and distributing heat, but shouldn’t you also be truly ventilating with fresh air from outside the box? CO2 is the most significant plant nutrient. All others are trace in comparison (but still important!). Without introducing fresh air with fresh CO2, your plants will starve.


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  21. Kane Says:

    Very impressive. The lighting color looks pink, does it require this color. or what color temperature is best for plant growth.


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