In 2012, as most voters focused on the U.S. presidential race, Coloradans and Washingtonians also cast ballots to legalize recreational use of marijuana. It was the first state to do so. In the years since, Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have followed suit. Vermont recently legalized marijuana sales through legislative action. Massachusetts will join those states in July. Maine has proposed it.
According to a report from New Frontier Data, legalized marijuana is expected to generate $600 million in state taxes. Other states can’t ignore that and just might follow, even though marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.
While the underground market has thrived for years, the legalization of recreational marijuana has ushered in a new ball game. New rules, regulations and procedures abound for those in the building trades.
“It’s a huge opportunity for electrical contractors, but you have to do it right from the start, or it turns into a nightmare,” said Ron Guarienti, owner of Pueblo Electrics in Pueblo, Colo.
Understanding the climate
The Pueblo area has been dubbed the “Napa Valley of weed” because its climate and humidity level are as amenable to growth of marijuana plants as the Napa climate is to grapevines.
“Everyone says it’s just lights and wire, but there’s a lot more work and science behind this than just putting a building together and adding some lights, some heating and cooling,” Guarienti said.
Jaime Loza, project manager/estimator at Schrock Electric, in Pueblo, echoed Guarienti’s remarks. Schrock Electric installs electrical and CCTV recording systems for growhouses and greenhouses for cannabis plants. Depending on the project, the company uses plans drawn up by engineers or creates their own as part of a design/build team.
Licenses, power and water are issues that come into play long before the electrical installation begins.
“Guys come in here from out of state and want to grow,” Loza said. “A lot of them contact the individual subs since they don’t know what’s up with the local and state authorities. From the [point of view] of the EC, we try to advise them, telling them what we think they should research first. For example, are licenses available? How many plants do you want to grow? Are you growing in an area where your license or potential license allows you to do that? If so, you would need to find out if the state is actually granting licenses for that type of production. And is there adequate power, and is water readily available? After they get everything together, they can contact a general contractor who will manage the whole project.”
In Colorado, only a certain number of licenses are offered at any given time.
“Sometimes the state will announce that 10 licenses will be available,” Loza said. “People that apply have to put money up front and bring all the documents that are related to the project. In Colorado, a person who wants to grow can’t just get a license and use it anywhere, since licenses are granted for a specific building that has a completed design for that structure. The license ties together the documents and location. An entire package has to be in place before a grower is granted the ability to put a facility together.
“Once it comes down to the actual installation, it’s a matter of following the standards, making sure requirements for that type of facility are being met. Most people are setting up grows in barns or metal buildings, but one of the challenges is that greenhouses have not been designed to accept this type of very heavy electrical installation,” he said.
When a grower gets the go-ahead to proceed, the state of Colorado oversees the grow. Issues or situations related to installation are constantly developing in terms of what needs to be done to comply with the state and code requirements.
“We have to make sure that all the equipment being used has been UL-stamped and complies with national standard codes, including the local and state level amendments from all the divisions,” Guarienti said.
Plant growth and adherence to regulation is measured and observed from day one to ensure growers are abiding by all the rules. In Colorado, for example, every plant is tagged with a number, and every square inch of a growhouse is monitored by the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) using digital video recorders and a modular digital recording system with a 40-day backup, installation of which is included in the electrical work.
“The MED can check in at any time on your cameras and make sure that you’re following all the proper protocol,” Guarienti said. “One 8,000-square-foot facility we have has 65 cameras, so there’s a significant amount of storage associated with that.”
That necessary storage has other repercussions.
“Our biggest problem in Colorado is getting enough power to operate a facility, since the growhouses we wire use four times the power usually associated with a building,” he said. “A normal building might have a 400-amp [A] service, but a growhouse can have an 800 or 1,200A service, depending on what you’re running. Everything has to be automated.”
Automation requires power, which sometimes is not readily available.
“People who want to grow are mostly going into the rural areas, and in Colorado, there’s not sufficient power there,” Loza said. “The power availability on the grid around the county was never designed for something like this. When some realize that they might have to bring in their own power, it makes a grow prohibitive in terms of cost. Also, we want to make sure the customers are aware that, depending on the location they have or are looking to buy, there might be some restrictions in their ability to get water. They may be faced with trucking it in.”
Light it up
So, with the building bought, the design completed and the license granted, it is time for installation. ECs will learn that cannabis plants have different stages of growth; they are placed in separate rooms with different environments, depending on the stage. To encourage growth and prevent mildew or mold, rooms have lighting controls installed by the EC and controls for humidity installed by the mechanical contractor.
For example, in a room that houses multiple mother plants—the ones a grower uses to build inventory of their different strains—some owners keep the lights on 24 hours a day. Other owners have them on for 18 hours and off for six.
Pueblo Electrics favors LEDs since they produce significantly less heat and use less electricity than high-pressure sodium (HPS) lights, which produce double the heat load and require cooling. Other contractors prefer HPS lights, but they are moving to LEDs as the technology improves.
In a room of clones where the lights stay on 24 hours a day, some ECs like to use high-intensity T5 fluorescent lighting. In a flower room, HPS or LED lights stay on 12 hours on and off 12 hours off. No sun or other light—even from an exit sign—can enter the room.
Growers cultivating specific marijuana strains can call for the color of the light spectrum to change during the day. The quality and amount of the harvest heavily depends on this proper, complicated lighting.
While some cultivators grow indoors in an enclosed building, others grow in greenhouses, which call for particular procedures. Greenhouses have the benefit of natural light. Indoor grows have less susceptibility to bugs and other pests and to humidity fluctuations. Both require carbon filters for odor mitigation, Guarienti said.
Since marijuana growth and use has been legalized on the state level, state governments oversee and regulate the industry. The MED monitors the movement of plants from one room or facility to another, from the grow areas or buildings to the processing sections of the same or a separate building. It keeps track of every inch of a grow building or greenhouse, as well as all other areas where product is being processed or handled, all access points to the facility and all exterior grows, which have no building or enclosing structure other than a perimeter fence. All harvested products are tested by a third party for microbial and THC content to evaluate the plant’s quality.
If an EC doesn’t want to be involved with the growing aspect but wants to be in the game, there are opportunities in terms of working on construction of dispensaries—stores that sell the products. Dispensaries are similar to doctor’s offices in that they require a heavy security and monitoring systems for all areas within, every point of entry or exit, and every point of sale where transactions take place.
Another market exists for marijuana-infused products facilities. These are basically kitchens in which the cannabis concentrate is turned into edible products.
“The biggest thing with this is processing the plant from a plant base to an oil and extracting with CO2 or butane,” Guarienti said. “The EC is hooking up the equipment for the kitchen equipment as well as all the security systems, which they should know. But they need to know that butane is explosion-proof and that CO2 is not. It’s a different type of installation from a butane to a CO2. Most ECs will need to learn about explosion-proof areas, to know the process behind it.
“There’s lots to learn about the different ways of growing and it can pay off as an entirely new market. If an EC understands the growth cycle of the plants and how the lights, humidity and controls affect their growth, and complies with the scrutiny of government agencies, the market will be open to that company,” he said.
It promises to be a very profitable market.