In hydroponics, one needs a constant supply of water, electricity, and nutrients just to maintain a system. But how do these seemingly miniscule costs add up in the grand scheme of things?
The utilities cost of hydroponics are given by electricity and water bills, nutrients, eventual real estate, and heating costs. Usually electricity and heating are the two larger contributors. While utilities costs in hydroponics are higher than soil cultivation, hydroponics provides faster and larger harvest per surface with the flexibility to be deployed almost everywhere.
While it is true that hydroponics costs more to operate in exchange for better yielding, better growing plants, it doesn’t have to be this way! Anyone can reduce how much they can spend per month by taking into consideration all the factors which add up to the final cost and respond accordingly.
These two major preliminary factors are the ultimate determinants on the utilities cost in operating a hydroponics system.
Where you live is the most important factor to consider in the utilities cost of hydroponics. Every state and country differs in the price they charge for water and electricity as geography and technological advancement dictates price variations.
Likewise, more developed areas mean higher property values which may mean higher taxes, rents, or mortgages. Where you are in the world also has other tangible impacts such as the availability of materials, nutrients, plants, and so on.
Below is an up-to-date table of the average electric in some states in the US.
|State||Average Electric Rate|
|Alabama||12.38 ¢ per kWh|
|California||21.43 ¢ per kWh|
|New Mexico||12.53 ¢ per kWh|
|Washington||14.05 ¢ per kWh|
|West Virginia||11.2 ¢ per kWh|
Needless to say, the larger or more complex a system (i.e. the scale), the higher the costs that come with operating and maintaining it. The relation is directly proportional.
Smaller systems require less things to keep it going but compromises in yield quantity. Larger systems produce greater yields but are far more expensive to maintain and operate.
These utilities costs are affected by the preliminary factors. The following will increase or decrease depending on the scale of the system or the location where the system is situated.
Despite hydroponics focused mainly on water, the highest utility cost a grower encounters is electrical costs. Hydroponics requires a fair amount of electricity to keep the active components such as air pumps operational. Air pumps are necessary in most hydroponic techniques including nutrient film technique (NFT), deep water culture (DWC), and ebb and flow – all are termed as active hydroponic techniques. Only passive systems such as kratky and wick systems do not use electricity to transport nutrients.
Grow lamps can be installed to maximize the growth and development of plants. Likewise, humidifiers can be installed to maintain the relative humidity level in an enclosed area. However, these are only optional but much more desirable in indoor growing conditions because the presence of sunlight and humidity may not be as present.
To compute how much electricity a device uses, multiply the wattage to the average number of hours the device is for a certain period of time.
(Wattage)(Average Hours of Use)(Electricity Rate)
The prices can really vary greatly from a few dozens to a few hundred dollars a month depending on the scale and technology. If you want a real example of a small hydroponic system keep reading till the end!
Water comes as a secondary consideration. Despite exclusively using water as the nutrient medium in lieu of soil, hydroponics is surprisingly water conservative. Hydroponics uses 10 times less water compared to soil cultivation according to the National Parks Services.
The rule of thumb of water allocation in hydroponics is 0.5 gallon for small plants, 1 gallon for small plants, 1-1.5 gallons for medium plants, and 2.5 gallons for large plants. The amount of plants grown in a system will dictate the required capacity needed for an effective reservoir.
(Amount of Plants)(Water Required Per Plant) = Required Reservoir Capacity
Refilling a reservoir consists of topping off and a full water change. Topping off means adding water in a system lost by way of evaporation or transpiration. A full water change means completely replacing the water when the total water topped off is now equal to the total capacity of the reservoir. This usually happens every 2-3 weeks, depending on the system.
By computing the required reservoir capacity in relation to the total amount of plants grown and how often a full water change occurs, an estimated cost can be accurately determined. It can be assumed that X gallons will be consumed twice a month.
(Reservoir Capacity)(Cost Per Gallon)(Water Change twice/month) = Water Utilities Cost
The price of nutrients will vary but sources give a liberal estimate a total price of $60-90 dollars and how long it will last will depend on how many plants you’re capable of growing. The use of pre-mixed solutions or dry nutrients will greatly affect nutrient expenses.
Nutrients can either come in (1) pre-mixed solutions which are often a special mix macro and micro nutrients catered to certain plant species; or (2) dry nutrients which are chemicals salts such as iron, potassium, or phosphorous, among others, reduced to water soluble powdered forms.
If a grower has technical expertise in chemistry, dry nutrients are far cheaper. It also has the additional benefit of allowing a greater level of granularity in controlling the nutrient balance in the reservoir.
If you have an hydroponic system chances are that you are going to use your own land/garden. However, if this is not the case, the rental costs can vary significantly. The good news is that hydroponic systems, until you have a good access to electricity, can be located everywhere as water, light can be artificially provided.
Rent/mortgage/tax plays a hidden consideration in hydroponics. Space is rarely cheap, especially in more developed areas wherein an increased population and quality of life equates to higher property prices. These higher property prices became an important factor for a space conscious grower seeking to maximize their growing or a hobbyist who doesn’t have much living space.
The most practical way of computing the cost of using real property if you own it is by assessing the total value of the real property multiplied by the mill rate (the tax rate in an area) and then divided by the total area.
(Real value)(mill rate)/total area
The same applies for rented property except the value is the rent. The cost of using rented property is rent divided by the total area of the property.
Apply the derived result from the equation to the total and that will be the cost of using a certain amount of space for hydroponics.
(Area Value per sq. ft.)(Total Area Occupied by the Hydroponics System)
Geographic location and climate conditions are important factors since it will determine what a grower can and cannot grow outside as some plants. Colder climates or areas which experience seasonal snow are ill-fitted for outdoor hydroponics because the water will freeze if the system is left outside.
Heating is a difficult factor to compute because it depends on how often it is used. It will only be used during the winter season which further affects the consistency of the computations.
There are also electric and gas heaters. The former is more energy efficient hence cheaper whereas the latter is more expensive.
Imagine living in a decently sized apartment in Manhattan, New York operating a small 6 square feet indoor NFT hydroponics system growing 72 pots of lettuce with 32 watt grow lamps during the winter.
Let’s assume that the system is this NFT system found in Amazon for the sake of making the computations simpler by having a reference system. Remember, the same approach can be applied to any system (it is just math).
Assuming that both water pumps and grow lamps are operating 24/7. An ordinary 12 volt NFT water pump is rated at 22 watts while grow lamps are rated at 32 watts. This totals to 55 watts. This multiplied by 720 hours (1 month) which results in 39600 watt-hours or 39.6kWh.
In New York, the average electricity rate is 18.03¢ per kWh. Multiple the rate to 39.6kWh consumption and this will result in $7.13.
Since there are 72 pots of lettuce, each lettuce will need around 0.5 gallons of water. 20 multiplied by 0.5 results in a 36 gallon reservoir that will be replaced every 2 weeks for the sake of simplicity.
In the state of New York, the cost of water is $3.98 per cubic feet (748 gallons). It means the cost of water per gallon in New York is $0.005. Since there is a 32 gallon reservoir, filling it up twice per month would cost $0.36.
Assuming that you’re a grower who uses chemical nutrients. It has been stated by some growers that $60 of dry nutrients will be good enough for 1 year. This means per month, it will cost around $5 to keep the system filled with nutrients.
Assuming you live in Manhattan, New York, the estimated average rent there is $3,777 per month for a 702 sq. ft. room. This means that it costs $5.38 per sq. ft. Since the space occupied by the system is only 6 sq. ft. it means that the space cost is $32.28 per month.
Heating during the winter season will cost around $150 when using gas heaters or $100 when using electric heaters. Let’s say we’re using an energy efficient electric heater and this would cost us $100 to keep the indoor environment warm enough for plant growth.
The total utilities cost is computed by adding all the aforementioned factors ($7.13 + $0.36+ + $5.00 + $32.28 + $100.00).
All in all, it would cost $144.77 per month to operate an NFT system growing 72 lettuce plants in a rented apartment in Manhattan, New York during the winter.
For some people this is quite a lot but we do have to consider the biggest cost which is heating during the winter. During the summer, it would only cost around $44.77 to operate said system per month.
Unlike soil cultivation, there are more costs related to hydroponics just with the electricity costs alone. In soil, you just have to water it occasionally and let nature take care of the rest. Hydroponics is a much more involved process which requires more participation from the grower.
In conclusion, it is apparent that the utilities cost of hydroponics is much more expensive compared to soil cultivation. However, it is important to consider that what hydroponics loses in terms of monetary costs, it greatly makes up for in terms of growth rate, plant health, increased yield with the added benefit of being able to grow anywhere.
There are several ways a grower can reduce utilities cost but the viability of these cost reduction methods vary.
Downsizing the scale of the hydroponics system is the simplest way to reduce utilities cost. The smaller the system, the less it will cost to operate and maintain. Less water, less electricity, less nutrients, and less space will be used by downsizing.
Location can also be changed in order to reduce taxes and rent prices. However, this is less likely since location is more or less a permanent factor. Likewise, location will determine electrical costs, water, heating, and real estate costs.
Electricity costs are easier to control. It is important to find more efficient devices that can output more for less power required. Electrical devices can also be set on timers to determine when they will turn or off and for how long.
- The scale of the system and the location are the two big preliminary factors in determining the estimated utilities costs of a hydroponics system.
- Electricity, Water, Nutrients, Real Estate Costs, and Heating are affected by the preliminary factors. These are the values which will add up to the total utilities cost per month.
- There are ways to reduce utilities cost by they are also affected by the preliminary factors. The simplest cost reduction measure is by reducing the amount of electricity consumed by way of more efficient devices and preventing prolonged use unless necessary.
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- “6 Easy Steps to Calculating Your Office Space Cost” by Nathan Smith in Business Tank of Texas
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