Latent vs Sensible Heat for Controlled Environment Agriculture

Proper control of temperature and humidity inside a grow room can be the difference between success and failure. Grow room temperature directly impacts leaf surface temperature, CO2 supplementation, relative humidity, transpiration rates and nutrient uptake – to name a few. Temperature control may appear as simple as setting a programmable thermostat; but of course, it’s more complicated than that.

Overheating forces plants to take up more water and then quickly transpire it, which can cause humidity overload when the lights go off. And a high relative humidity can lead to devastating problems like powdery mildew. During nighttime periods of plant respiration, lights are off, which typically reduces the grow room ambient temperature by 5-10 degrees. The temperature drop and high relative humidity frequently create a wet environment that approaches the dew point.

The leading strategies for controlling temperature and humidity in a grow room include ventilation and dehumidification, or some combination of the two.  Determining which strategy to implement depends on the prevailing type of heat in the room. When plants transpire, stomata open, releasing water vapor through an evaporative process that cools the leaf. Water molecules in the plant absorb heat and are converted to a gas – water vapor. Since there is a phase change during this process, the heat absorbed by the water molecules is defined a latent heat. The other type of heat is called sensible heat, which is heat that is either added or subtracted without a phase change.

For the case of an overheated grow room dominated by sensible heat, a simple method for lowering the temperature is ventilation. Ventilation can be used to lower both temperature and humidity. Passive ventilation techniques have been utilized for thousands of years, so the technology is proven and so are its limitations. The efficacy of ventilation can be subject to local climate conditions and can be challenging during CO2 supplementation.

Dehumidification should be considered when cooling a grow room with excessive latent heat and corresponding high humidity. Latent heat converters (LHC) transform excess water vapor into liquid, which dehumidifies the air and converts the heat of condensation (latent heat) into sensible heat that can be used to heat the environment when needed. Ventilation can be reduced, which lowers heating costs and allows atmospheric CO2 enrichment. In addition to converting “wet” heat to “dry” heat, an LHC can be a good source of clean, readily accessible water. Moisture from inside the grow room can be recycled and used again.

Electric lighting can be the dominant source of heat in a grow room. As we know, LEDs are more efficient than traditional lighting technologies – they convert more electrical energy to light and less to heat. Energy supplied to an LED that isn’t converted to light becomes heat that gets radiated into the air. In contrast, much of the heat generated by an HPS fixture is contained in the light beam in the form of infrared (IR) energy. The IR energy, which is absorbed by the plants, raises the leaf surface temperature and induces higher rates of transpiration. So, HPS lighting can lead to higher amounts of latent heat (via plant transpiration), while LED lighting creates more sensible heat by radiative heating. These differences can influence the strategies used to optimize temperature and humidity in a grow room.