Cools, Humidifies : Tom Mee’s Fog Machine Winning Place on the Farm

Times Staff Writer

Thanks to Tom Mee, the fog spinner of San Gabriel, Merle Jensen is growing lettuce in the Arizona desert, delicate horticultural cuttings survived Florida’s record January frost and the dreaded two-spotted spider mite has vanished from San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers.

Mee, a cloud physicist by training and a tinkerer by nature, has developed what he says is the world’s only patented fog-making system--one that can cool plants, patios and people, lay down a blanket of powder snow, even enable plants to root in nutrient-rich humidified air.

The patented Mee fog system can also modify a hot, dry climate by lowering the temperature by 30 degrees or more through evaporative cooling. By enveloping an orchard, the fog can help trees retain their own heat and thus resist freezing. The fog system can even use brackish water, combined with precise drip-irrigation techniques, to greatly reduce the need for fresh water in farming.


1,000 Systems Installed

So far, Mee Industries has installed 800 fog systems in Europe and 200 in the United States. Most spew their superfine fogs to modify the microclimates within greenhouses, but some generate protective fogs outdoors--over an almond orchard outside Paso Robles, Calif., for example, a vineyard in France, a cherry orchard in Czechoslovakia and a citrus grove in Greece.

Any rider through Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean has experienced a Mee fog, and visitors to Disney’s Epcot Center near Orlando, Fla., enjoy an enhanced fireworks and light show over the World Showcase Lagoon, thanks to a reflecting blanket of fog emanating from a barge behind the display.

Mee has packaged his invention in a dishwasher-sized console, called the Mee II CloudMaker System. A one-inch nozzle has the cooling capacity of a one-ton mechanical air-conditioning system, he said, and uses one-tenth the energy. The system automatically creates and maintains an ideal growing climate or moderates temperatures over areas ranging from 500 square feet to 10,000 square feet.

The Mee fog system is conceptually simple: Water is pumped under high pressure through a hair’s-breadth opening. The super-thin jet then shatters on a needle valve, dispersing droplets so light that they remain suspended in the atmosphere. In a greenhouse, the fog provides 100% humidity without wetting objects--even eyeglasses--or over-watering delicate root systems. The system cools through evaporation, blocking none of the sunlight that plants need to grow.

Merle Jensen, a plant scientist at the University of Arizona’s Environmental Research Laboratory at Tucson, not only grows lettuce, a cool-weather crop, but has created a half-acre oasis. He bought a Mee unit in 1981 to replace “swamp coolers” that had produced the necessary humidity in the lab’s green houses.

Outdoors, a fog line spews mist out over a half-acre, dropping Tucson’s typical 105-degree summer temperature into the 70s. To Jensen, this means that fog systems could be used to modify temperatures at open-air stadiums, shopping malls, amusement parks and downtown areas--”anywhere you want to keep a gathering of people cool.” They could even transform the arid Southwest into agricultural states, he said.


Conservatory of Flowers

At the 107-year-old Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, director Tom Bass installed a $16,000 fog system 2 1/2 years ago at the top of the picturesque 55-foot glass dome, in its twin wings and in a plant-propagation area. “We used to have the gardeners squirt water on the concrete paths for evaporation,” Bass said. But humidity monitors showed “that what they did was scarcely perceptible.”

“A big problem here in San Francisco,” Bass said, “is that during the winter we can get three or four weeks without rain, and the plants begin to dry out. If we water them, we can get soil molds. So we wanted a way to provide the humidity without wetting the ground.”

The fog system does just that, he said, and has contributed a couple of useful side effects. For one thing, the two-spotted spider mite, bane of the conservatory’s palm collection, has disappeared, and insect experts attribute eradication to the enhanced microclimate. For another, the leaves of the Tacca, or bat plant, which formerly grew to four inches, now can attain a 12-inch span under the ideal humidity.

Across the country in Florida, horticulturists have a different problem--or thought they had when 30 of them bought Mee fog systems at a trade show last January to help protect delicate plants from the state’s hot summers. But two days after Herb Pierson, head grower at Margo Farms near Homestead, south of Miami, completed installation of the system, the temperature dropped to a record 27 degrees. None of the indoor ornamentals grown there could survive a freeze, Pierson knew.

“We ran the fog (machine) through the cold weather,” he said, “and we were able to maintain 58 degrees when it was 29 degrees outside. We saved the entire $200,000 crop.”

Pierson had bought the system for reasons of efficiency and economy, he said. “To me as a grower,” he explained, “it maintains the most ideal conditions for propagating plants--you don’t soak the soil (cutting the flow of air), and you maintain 100% humidity. The plant doesn’t even know it’s been severed from the mother plant. It just sits there and develops roots.”


Mee said his system requires a 20th of the water of a mist or sprinkler system while consuming fuel (electricity to run a small pressure pump) at the rate of 11 cents an hour per acre.

Sales of the fog systems, modest as they are, have nonetheless more than doubled annually over the last three years, “since we finally got our act together,” Mee said. A recent addition is a full-time sales staff headed by Don Moore, who directed the successful Florida incursion. Sales in the first three months of 1985 exceeded $700,000, outpacing the first six months of 1984, Mee said.

Mee Industries, whose stock trades over the counter, reported net income of $400,000 on sales of $1.9 million last year. The company, whose staff has grown tenfold since its inception to 30 now, expects to move from its present San Gabriel site by fall. Where it’s moving hasn’t been decided yet, but “if we don’t,” Mee said, “we’re going to burst the walls.”

Tom Mee, who holds a doctorate in physics, studied weather modification and worked at Cornell University with pioneers in the rarefied field of cloud physics.

Having observed Southern California citrus growers resorting periodically to smudge pots during periodically devastating freezes, Mee realized that fog would be much more effective. “Smudge pots don’t work,” he said. “The smoke does no good whatsoever, though the heat from the heater probably helps a little.” Smoke particles are too large to confine the plant’s heat, he said, but superfine fog would.

Decade of Development

Mee initially estimated that he could assemble a fog generator in about six months--until he discovered, to his surprise, that the fine nozzle needed to produce tiny particles that would hang suspended in the air did not exist. His six months stretched almost into a decade, he said. But the result is the patented Mee nozzle, one of three patents he holds for the system.


While horticulture offers the first major application of the fog system, Mee expects to see it used to lower the daytime temperature and raise the humidity in arid areas. And since it works with brackish, salty and waste water--and even treated effluent--the fog maker can be used where fresh water is scarce.

That water can be used to cool outdoor areas, he said, produce ideal temperatures for egg laying, enhance cattle raising and milk production, produce real powder snow for 10 times less energy than the frozen pellets produced by current snow-making machines, disperse waste water more effectively and cheaply than through evaporation ponds and reduce industrial pollutants in the air.

Generating fog, Mee said, “is not brute force fighting nature, like mechanical air conditioning. We just bend the forces a little bit in our favor. What we do with this fog system is what nature does naturally.”