Autopots are something you’re bound to hear about if you’ve ever so much as whispered the phrase “cannabis cultivation.” Given how popular they are, it’s no surprise that when I asked our fans what topic they’d like to see me write about the one person who commented said “Tell me what you think about Autopots.” If you’ve read any of my other articles it will not surprise you that I think Autopots are great in some situations and not at all applicable in others, but that statement without anything to back it up isn’t terribly helpful. With that being said, let’s get into it!
Picture courtsey of autopot-usa.com
As always, the first important part of analyzing any irrigation method is knowing what it does. Autopots are an all-in-one cultivation system that use gravity pressure to fill tubs with water/fertilizer solution. They use a special kind of float valve to refill the tubs when they go dry. The plants sit over the top of this tub in special pots that are designed to help the plant wick water up from the tub, thus watering and feeding the plant with minimal interaction from the grower. Think of it as an automated flood-and-drain system. It’s not exactly flood-and-drain, but the irrigation principles at work here are basically the same.
If you’re thinking “That’s it? It’s that simple?” then you’re on the right track. It is that simple, and that inherent simplicity is the best attribute that Autopots have. An Autopot system is an all-in-one package that is designed for “set it and forget it” gardening. The basic six plant kit looks like it takes about 20 minutes to set up, and once you’ve done that the required maintenance is really just refilling the reservoir (12.4 gallons for a six pot system) when it gets too low. This affords you ample time to prune, inspect, stress, and sing to your plants. Cleaning seems to be minimal as well, just a simple flush every now and again and after every harvest.
The pros stop there, though, as the points I’ve listed are really the only pros of using an Autopot system: very easy to set up, simple to use, not a lot of moving parts. This isn’t to say that these pros aren’t attractive or that you should discount Autopots as a growing system, just that they’re a bit of a one trick pony. Autopots do simplicity very well, but they don’t do a lot past that. As we will see later, some of these upsides are significantly weakened if not outright removed when scaled up to commercial size, so take these pros with a grain of salt.
The biggest overall con of Autopots is the price. Autopots are crazy expensive compared to other irrigation systems, with a four plant system ranging from $100 to over $200 depending on the size of the pots and where you buy it. One 24-pot system I found is selling for $585, and individual pots cost $25-$30. Comparing this to the $1-$2 per plant that a drip irrigation system costs may cause you to think again about the pros I mentioned earlier. Setting up Autopots may be easy, but is it 25 times easier? Perhaps not.
If you have a small home grow of 6-12 plants, you’re probably expecting to spend a couple bucks on your grow, and you’d probably prefer to make it as simple and effective as possible. Autopots come with everything you need, which means less hassle and less time spent before you get your plants growing. The fact that it’s gravity fed also means that you don’t have to run a water source into your grow area, which can be a real hassle. Yeah, you could buy one of our 12-outlet manifold kits, some PVC, pots, and a timer and irrigation your plants for half (or less) the cost of an Autopot system, but what if you don’t want to cut a hole in your screen window to bring water into the grow room? What if you’re inexperienced with PVC and don’t want to hassle with it? What if you are trying to keep your grow a secret and need something really low-key? All of these points against using a drip system make up for the extra cost incurred by using Autopots. It may not be precisely 25 times easier to set up, but it’s enough easier that the extra price is worth it. After all, you’re working with relatively small numbers here.
An example of a manifold-based commercial grow
When it comes to large-scale cultivation, the tables are flipped. Economies of scale make everything less expensive, but larger quantities also make the percentage price difference a lot more painful. A recent quote we gave to a customer with 6,500 plants come out to just under $11,000 or $1.69 per plant, which is right in the expected range of $1-$2 per plant. The price reduces further if you take out some of the bells and whistles that state-of-the-art facilities like, such as pressure gauges on each row.
Now, if we take that $585 24-pot Autopot system we get a price of $24 per pot. If we tack on an additional 15% discount for volume we get a per plant cost of $20, which would make that same 6,500 plant quote balloon to $130,000. You may not need to buy pumps or reservoirs, but you will still need filtration/water treatment and a crew or automated system that will refill the reservoirs with your nutrient/water solution.
The simplicity and ease-of-use of Autopots take a similar hit when you scale them up. For a home grower, the setup and maintenance of Autopots is well worth the money. You can avoid cutting holes in walls to run pipe, and refilling the reservoir every now and then isn’t much of a hassle. Plus, it’s likely your plants are all in the same growth stage and are being fed the same recipe of nutrients. This makes for a centralized experience with simple maintenance.
At a large scale, none of these things are true. Commercial facilities have no problem running pipe wherever they need it, and a lot of our clients have buildings made for cannabis cultivation if not specifically designed for the clients themselves. These facilities will have multiple rooms for each growth stage, with each of those rooms having multiple strains in it. Nutrient recipes aren’t as easy to generalize – everyone has their pet recipe – but it’s safe to say that commercial facilities have two to four different recipes running out to their plants.
$20 per plant adds up pretty quickly
All of this means that the strengths of Autopots become weaknesses at scale. Instead of minimal labor being required to mix and fill one reservoir, you are now paying a team of people to mix large batches of different recipes and put them in dozens of different reservoirs. You could design an automated system to mix and deliver your recipes to all the reservoirs, but at that point you might as well commit to cutting costs and get a drip system instead as you’re basically halfway there at that point.
Aside from these scale-related issues, there is one other issue with Autopots that I believe makes them less than ideal for commercial operations, and that is the lack of precision and accuracy in their watering/feeding. As I discussed in my article about free flow irrigation, flood-and-drain systems take a shotgun approach to irrigation. They supply a large amount of water and nutrients with the expectation that the plants will take what they need. This is all well and good, and the fact that flood-and-drain remains a popular irrigation method speaks to that fact. However, many commercial facilities like to know exactly how much water and nutrients any given plant is getting. Whether this is for testing, to control costs, or for some other reason, Autopots (or any free-flow irrigation method, for that matter) cannot provide you with this kind of granular control. This is another situational con, but the desire for granular control over watering and feeding is something we hear from clients often enough that I’d be remiss not to mention it.
If I were to boil that down into one sentence (or a tl;dr in appropriate internet terminology) it would be this: Autopots are great for small grows, but they are not economically or technically viable for commercial operations. There are, of course, caveats. “Commercial grow” is not a terribly precise term, as anyone growing for re-sale could be termed a commercial grow. If you have a single storage container with 100 plants that you’re re-selling then Autopots could work for your commercial grow. You could even have a larger facility and still use them without any ill effects. It’s not like they don’t work, after all. The big issue is that they are by far the most expensive irrigation option I’ve come across, both in initial material costs and continuing labor costs. At a commercial scale, they don’t offer enough benefits to justify the high cost compared to other methods. Easy setup has far more value to a small grower who has to do everything himself than a huge grower with a team already on payroll, and a facility with continuing harvests isn’t as interested in a “set it and forget it” system as a guy with a secret closet grow or a small facility outside of town. On the topic of price, the difference between $150 and $500 for a home grow is not insignificant, but it’s manageable. The difference between $11,000 and $130,000 for a commercial grow is liable to gain you an eye roll from your investors and not much more.
Not a bad buy... for a small grow
The moral of this particular story is not that Autopots are bad. They are far from it, in fact. But when it comes to cannabis cultivation as a moneymaking venture, controlling costs and staying profitable are the name of the game. In that game, Autopots lose a lot of their luster. If you ever run across a 75% off 6,000 Autopot systems deal, take that deal and open a cultivation facility. Until then, though, your bottom line will be much better served by using a different irrigation method.