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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I've been inspected

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

His name is John Odenkirk, and he's Certified Fisheries Scientist #2043. He's the guy who inspects aquaponics facilities for the neighboring 11 counties - required for facilities that are requesting permission to raise tilapia.

He came. He snapped. He left.

It was a pretty painless process. And after he conveys the form and picture to the right people, my permit should be in the mail in a matter of a couple of weeks.

I was happy to show him my auto-siphon. Didn't look like he'd seen one of those before. And I was happy to show him my current water chemistry: 7.6 pH, 0.0 ppm Ammonia, 0.0 ppm Nitrite, and 80.0 ppm Nitrate.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Lights, Camera, Basil!

The Aquaponic Garden with Grow Lights (20,000 Lumens)

The lights have arrived!

I've got the system set up now so the lights are on a timer, and the pump plugs into the light, so it will come on when the lights come on.

The water is crazy clear right now. It's so fun to watch the fish darting around! Plants move and grow too, but they're not as exciting to watch. I'll be interested to see how much they grow with the lights!

The only two herbs they had at the grocery store were basil and mint. I bought a basil and transplanted four of the plantlings into my growbed. The rest will go up to the kitchen for now.

I didn't buy the mint, because mint is crazy. I might set up a "windowfarm" next to the aquaponics units and risk mint in those. Mint is very aggressive and develops roots like there's no tomorrow.

I think if the world were struck by some disaster that wiped out almost all plant life, mint would be amongst the plants that survived. However, no need to give mint a place in my garden.

In other news, I haven't heard from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. They're the folks who need to inspect my setup prior to me getting a license and purchasing tilapia.

I'm tentatively planning to go with 25 male fingerlings from That way I shouldn't have to start off dealing with the issues of breeding females, fingers crossed! 25 male fingerings will run me $102, which includes shipping.

My approximate costs to date have been:

$150 for tank and grow bed
$141 for the grow lights
$12 for gravel
$30 for the air pump
$45 for the water pump
$20 for the plumbing
$80 for the shelving unit
$15 for incidentals (e.g., metal tape, 2'x4' sheets of thin luaun plywood)
$30 for vermiculite, seeds, and plants
$22 for licenses
$30 for water testing kit

So my total outlay has been $575. Add fish ($102) and food ($20) and we're just under $700. With care, you might be able to knock the price down even lower than that.

If you didn't have a drill, bits (1/4", 1/2", & 1"), a door knob hole saw, and a saw, you'd have to purchase (or borrow) these. I've got a timer and am decorating to hide the industrial black plastic, but those aren't necessary expenses.

Color me happy!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Seedlings Growing...

Back on 18 November I planted my seeds in vermiculite, then transplanted them to the rock growbed.

We have green stuff. I can assure you that every seed has sprouted except for the Spinach, Parsley, and Fennel. Parsley is notoriously late to sprout, and it may be that the individual seeds I put in Spinach and Fennel were not good. We'll give them a week or so.

Last Sunday my youngest went out to the yard and brought me in a few earthworms, which are now somewhere in the rock pile. They were tiny worms - I guess that's what we get for waiting until after Thanksgiving to go scrounging in the garden.

When I first measured my water back in mid-November, I thought I might have "powered through" the ammonia and nitrite peaks, but it seems I spoke prematurely. I've got a healthy batch of nitrite in there now, and the nitrate is higher than it was. I'm sufficiently happy. The seedlings seem OK and the fish seem OK.

I have my growlights on order. Once the lights arrive, I can plant the other half of the grow bed with herbs - ones they sell at the grocery store that have a bit of growth on them.

Speaking of herbs, it was fun hanging with my daughter in Southern Virginia for Thanksgiving. She has a great southern exposure looking out over the Blue Ridge mountains. Here's the view from her front porch:

She has chives, parsley, rosemary, sage and more growing in her front window. It was great grabbing bits of those herbs to use in our Thanksgiving feast. She and her husband are complete foodies.

I'm not a complete foodie, but I do look forward to fresh greens plucked fresh from our year-round garden...

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Future of Farming

Rebecca Hosking's "Farm for the Future"

I was browsing the videos posted at Tricycle Gardens' media library and came across this 48 minute documentary by Rebeca Hosking, a wildlife photographer who grew up on a farm in Devon, England.

It's a visually lovely and compelling look at the predicted peaking of the fossil fuel boom, and the effect of declining availability of fossil fuel on current methods of farming. The idea is that we will transition from fuel surplus to fuel shortage sometime in the next 2-10 years, with the fossil fuel age slowly declining over the next 100 years, about the period of time over which we've enjoyed the burgeoning of the fossil fuel age up to now.

I enjoyed the early bit where Rebecca looks at a sandwich, the kind you buy for a couple of bucks at a convenience store. She explains how fossil fuel is necessary to production and shipping of each bit of that sandwich, and doesn't even point out the fundamental petroleum origin of the plastic packaging.

This brings me back to the reason why I want to figure out a system that almost anyone could set up - to make it possible for millions of folks (specifically Americans) to create millenial "victory gardens" from readily-available materials.

As for supplying the needs for fuel for vehicles, I enjoyed this video on production of algae, which in open pond culture can produce an astounding 20,000 gallons of oil per acre per year (compared to a mere 18 gallons per acre per year for corn). The vertical grow system seems like it could be much more productive than open pond culture:

Culture of algae to be refined into carbon based fuels

I look forward to seeing how all this evolves over the next decade. I predict many will be taken unawares - living at the edge of their finances and relying on modern conveniences to meet the requirements of their lives.

But I doubt there will be world-wide apocalypse as sometimes projected. Personal discomfort, but not collapse of civilization.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tilapia - Legal in Your Town?

98% of America can legally raise Tilapia

I can legally raise tilapia at home. It just takes a couple of inexpensive permits.

Many members of my family live in Utah, where it is completely illegal to raise tilapia. That puts a big damper on enthusing about my latest project in family circles.

So I got curious - where in the US and her territories may tilapia be raised in a closed loop system?

So far, the only states that appear to prohibit tilapia entirely are Utah (0.9% of the US population), Nevada (0.8% of the US population), and Maine (0.4% of the US population). Utah and Nevada make a big point of prohibiting tilapia. Maine merely fails to list tilapia as one of the myriad species allowed (and all not on the list are prohibited).

Tilapia appear to be allowed in all other states and territories, or the other ~98% of the US population. If I found something in a somewhat believable website that explicitly stated no permit was required for an indoor, closed loop system, I colored that state green. However laws change and the websites I found might be wrong. You should contact your local Department of Natural Resources (or whatever it's called in your state) to make sure what kind of permit(s), if any, are required for you to set up a home-based, indoor, closed loop aquaponic system. You may also find that your "favorite" kind of tilapia are prohibited, but some other variant is not on the prohibited list.

Relatively few places in the US permit uncontrolled outdoor use of tilapia, especially where there is risk the fish could get into public waterways - another reason US folks are unlikely to be able to set up tilapia-based aquaponic systems in their backyards.

If you find out my map is wrong, let me know and I'll update it.

Things Egyptian

Today I happened across the heiroglyph for tilapia, which inspired me to generate a cartouche for aquaponics.

I have a cartouche that I wear always - my sister got it for me in Turkey back in the early 1990s. Alas, my sister was confined to the hospital, and the woman who did the actual order misunderstood the name on the paper. This is one of those cartouches where they print the Latin letters on the back. When it flips around, you can see the letters "MEC." So I always try to keep it flipped so you see the heiroglyphs.

The nice thing is that MEC is spelled out with symbols for an owl, a reed, and a pool. Not sure how to tie in the owl, but at least the reed is plant and pool stands for water culture, so my cartouche is like a mini representation of aquaculture...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

That was Easy

[Previously, much angst was expressed about my inability to remove the fish tank without completely disassembling the entire system.]

I was staring at the system before Thanksgiving, noticing that the size of the tank didn't look as big as in my schematics of the system. A bit of measuring and, voila, the tank is just a tad smaller than I thought.

That makes all the difference.

On paper it looked like I should be able to slide the tank out from under the legs of the 2'x4' shelf - just barely. Would it work in real life?

Last night I drained most of the water from the fish tank into the tub (scrubbed out with salt and rinsed, trying to get rid of any nasty stuff my fish tank won't like). With a few inches of water in the bottom of the tank (and two worried fish), I was able to maneuver the tank out from under the growbed.

And back again. Now that I know I can move the fish tank any time I really want to, I'm content to leave it the way it is.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Moving this sucker

MAN Atlante fronte 1040572
Titan Atlas, the heavens on his shoulders

I goofed. When I set up my initial system, I wasn't sure what my final design would look like. So I put a full 3x5 unit(fish tank, grow bed) along a clear bit of wall.

I did precisely locate it according to the eventual position of one of the 3x5 growbeds. Alas, the final plan won't have a fish tank in that place. And I can't move the fish tank without disassembling the stand and growbed.

Moving 500 pounds of wet rock, along with 800 pounds of nicely seasoned water is daunting...

Here's my plan:

1) Clear the wall where I want the fish tanks to end up, eventually. [This involves building a double-deep box shelf to house the boxes that currently reside along that wall.]

2) Empty the growbed. Luckily I hadn't planted anything yet. Phew! I have a couple of big sturdy bags that I believe will accommodate the gravel. I can stop pumping water into the growbed for a day or two before this move, to let water drain.

3) Move the growbed onto wood blocks. The wood blocks will protect the plumbing bulkhead, which I'll want to keep in place.

4) Disassemble the 2'x4' shelf unit.

5) Pump 50 gallons of the water into the empty growbed. I'll replace the current standpipe with a length of 3/4" tube that extends above the top edge of the growbed.

6) Discard the remaining water. Since I have a couple small fish, they'll get to live in the 50 gallon growbed for the duration.

7) Move the empty fishtank to the new location.

8) Reassemble the 2'x4' shelf unit.

9) Anchor the 2'x4' shelf unit to the wall.

10) Pump the 50 gallons of water from the growbed back into the relocated fishtank. [Move the fish too.]

11) Position the empty growbed on the 2'x4' shelf.

12) Return the gravel to the empty growbed.

Is it mere coincidence that there are 12 steps to this effort?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Plumbing Options

No Plumbing: Plants growing directly in fishbowls

There are so many options how to flood and drain a media-based aquaponic system. I thought I'd mention a few of the options that have tempted me.

Timer-based flood. The idea here is that you flood your growbeds for 15 minutes each hour (a standpipe in each bed prevents the beds from overflowing). When the pump turns off,the water drains back into the fish tank. Pure simplicity.

15 minute timers can be found at Home Depot for $15. You have to find a pump that will push the full volume of your tank out to the growbeds in 1/4 of an hour. For my case, with a 100 gallon tank, that means I'd necessarily need a 500 gph pump.

A downside is you are draining your tank by whatever amount of water fits between the media in your beds. In my case, it seems a 50 gallon growbed takes ~10 gallons of water to the top of the standpipe. Even if I had four 50 gallon growbeds hooked up to my system, I'm only sucking out 40% of the water volume. So I'm not draining the tank dry, but it will be more crowded during those fifteen minutes.

Constant Height of Pond (CHOP). With a CHOP system, you let the growbeds drain into a sump tank. A single pump in the sump tank pumps water to the fish tank, which then "overflows" into the growbeds. The growbeds use bell siphons to ensure the beds both flood and drain. The fish tank is always at the same level, minimizing stress on the fish.

Australia-based Murray Hallam announced an update to the CHOP system in October 2010, where the water from the sump is pumped out to both the fish tank and the grow beds. The fish tank overflows to the sump tank. This system yields all kinds of benefits, including the ability to have beds at different heights and the ability to add constant flood beds. If I had more space, I'd be loving on this as an option. Alas, I'm stuck in my tiny area.

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Murray Hallam's New CHOP2 System

Modular Fish Tanks. One reason I chose not to go with the CHOP2 idea is the problem of getting a 200+ gallon tall fish tank into a basement room. However, San Diego-based Tilapia Mama has a kit that converts four 55 gallon drums into a 200 gallon "Backyard Fish Farm (BFF)." If your space allows, you can use one of these BFF units as the tall fish tank for a CHOP 2 system, and you can lower your growbeds from the 48" top height I've got in my standard 3x5 system.

Tilapia Mama's Backyard Fish Farm

Indexing Valves. These are so cool. Each time you turn off the water, the valve switches to a new port. These were just invented a few years ago and are sold by K-rain and Fimco for irrigation.

TCLynx' animation of an Indexing Valve

Florida-based TCLynx of Aquaponics Lynx has pioneered the use of indexing valves for aquaponics. She modifies the basic indexing valve with a "gravity stem" so it can be used in low pressure systems, and is the only source I know of for the modified valves appropriate for aquaponics. The animation below shows an indexing valve being used to sequentially irrigate multiple growbeds from a single pump and fish tank.

Four growbeds flooded using a single pump and indexing valve

In order to use one of these indexing valves, you have to have something that stops the flow for a minute or more before starting the flow up again. While you could use the 15 minute timer, a repeat timer will allow you to shut the flow off for just a minute (I found cheap repeat timers on eBay for $30).

The modified indexing valve doesn't require the pressure you'd use in an irrigation system, but it still needs something like a 1000 gph pump to get the valve to work "right," according to TCLynx - a great option if you are looking at a 300-600 gallon fish tank.

What I Plan to Do. I love the indexing valve. I'd honestly love to use it.


I only have space for four 50 gallon grow beds, five max. I'm probably going to make do with two 100 gallon fish tanks, connected with piping so they stay at the same level. A 250 gallon pump would cycle all the water each hour, though I'll probably bump it to 350 or 500 to make sure there's enough flow to run the bell siphons. That will be only 6-11 watts per growbed to irrigate each growbed.

Right now I can't justify the added power, complexity or space to do CHOP, CHOP2, or use the indexing valve that's sitting on my desk. And since I've got a bell siphon design that works like a champ, I have no reason to opt for the timer option.

So it's simple bell siphons for me - at least until something changes to make more advanced technology/complications the obvious solution...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Socrates and Measurements

An API Freshwater Test Kit

Socrates supposedly said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

For some reason, that made me think about the fact that I haven't been measuring anything about my system - not temperature, not pH, not Ammonia level, not Nitrites, not Nitrates.

So I had no idea where my system was on the road to converting fish waste to fertilizer (nitrate) for plants using beneficial bacteria. It's all supposed to look like the image below:

Increase in Nitrogen during Initial Cycling of Aquaponic System
in [ml/liter = ppm]
see Sylvia Bernstein's post on Fishless Cycling

A fish (or something else) introduces ammonia to the system.
Ammonia spikes, attracting bacteria that convert ammonia to nitrite.
Nitrite spikes, attracting bacteria that convert nitrite to nitrate.
Plants consume nitrate.

I could have just forged on ahead without knowing what my system was doing. After all, I've been doing just that for a week... For most of a year, in fact, if you consider that I've had these aquaponic windowfarms going since May and likely haven't done even a pH test since July.

Right before dinner I put 5 ml of water from the system in each glass tube. pH comes up immediately - it's at 7.8, about the pH of raw tap water in my area.

The other tests looked like the 0.0 reading on the color card, but the instructions said I needed to wait 5 minutes for the final reading. I went and had dinner with the family, somewhat depressed.

Oh what a difference 5 minutes makes:

Ammonia @ 0.25 ppm
Nitrite @ 0.0 ppm
Nitrate @ 10 ppm

Seems adding the goldfish, water, and gravel rinse from the aquaponic windowfarm has powered me through the ammonium spike and the nitrite spike.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Paper Pot Maker and Planting

Seeds in their Paper Pots

The problem with starting an indoor garden in early winter is there are no seedlings for sale.

Frankly, it's pretty hard to find seeds.

I was resigned to simply planting more of the seeds I'd bought earlier this year (i.e., nasty-tasting lettuce, blech). Luckily for me, I happened to drive by Brown's Hardware in Falls Church, VA - a small hardware store that has "existed longer than General Motors - without a bankruptcy." They had a nice collection of seeds still available, so I bought many of the varieties I'd been ogling over at Less expensive and no shipping (and no wait).

In my internet searches, I'd come across the idea of starting plants in recycled pots - most elegantly paper pots created from strips of newspaper using a cool turned wooden tool, a Pot Maker.

Problem was a Pot Maker runs about $20 and I'd have to wait...

Instead I decided to use a bottle I already had at home. A spice bottle would have worked nicely, but I used an old pill bottle.

First I cut strips 3 1/2" by 16" (I suppose I could have gotten by with 10").

Next I rolled the strip around the bottle so that the free ends would slightly overlap one another when I folded them down. Just because it seemed a good idea, I spiraled the free edge, so that the folded edges were interleaved one ply thickness at a time. I also dipped the free edge in water, in hopes that this might help the plies mesh together.

After tamping the (slightly wet) end of the bottle on the table, I gently slid the paper pot off the bottle and put a single staple in the top edge, where the end of the newspaper tended to gap.

Filled the pot with vermiculite (organic, no added miracle grow) and added fish tank water to each pot. This was water from one of the windowfarm fish tanks, full of fishy goodness.

Rinse and repeat 11 times.

Finally, I planted a single seed in each pot and put a plastic cloche over the whole thing, to keep in moisture. If not all the seeds germinate, that'll be fine. I'll have opportunity to start additional seedlings if need be, and my tilapia fry (or fingerlings) won't get here until January.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What the doctor ordered

Egyptian symbol of Health and modern Rx

I went to the doctor today for my annual physical. When we got talking about what's going on in my life, I talked about my 3x5 aquaponics venture. Of course.

"Don't plant lettuce - plant cruciferous vegetables!" The doctor went on to extol the benefits of kale, Swiss chard, bok choi, gai lon - all of which the doctor grows at home.

I'd been thinking cruciferous vegetables were necessarily varsity-level plants, ones I'd want to attempt after thoroughly cutting my teeth on easy plants. But kale and chard and spinach seem pretty easy. Now to find a source for seeds this late in the year...


The water is pretty clear now - you can actually see the fish swimming around all the time, now. The bell siphon goes off like clockwork. Now to start thinking about starting seeds - I'll blog about that tomorrow.

PS - There's a nice list of Aquaponic Gardening Rules of Thumb over at Sylvia Bernstein's Aquaponics Community website - highly recommended!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Aquaponics plumbing - the Bell Siphon

My Bell Siphon

There are two types of aquaponic growbeds:

  • floating raft (plants floating with their roots in a constant stream of water)
  • media-based growbeds (plants growing in some sort of rock/sand/gravel/beads)

Media-based systems are recommended for home hydroponicists because they are simpler and more reliable. Media-based systems are also referred to as flood and drain. The idea is you flood the growbed with the fish water (delivering nutrients and, um, water), then let it drain out (bathing the roots in air/oxygen).

Of the various ways to flood/drain a media-based growbed, the one that is easiest on the checkbook is a bell siphon. All a bell siphon needs are simple plumbing bits available at any hardware store. Oh, and a small pump. I loved the way the folks at ecofilms explain it:

"If the pump is the heart of an aquaponics system, then the auto-siphon are it’s lungs. A vital part of kit. Remember when you were a little kid and the teacher told you about the regular flooding of the Nile river and how fertile the Nile delta was to early farmers. Well think of the auto siphon as a kind of similar concept. It’s main purpose is to flood the grow bed drawing rich oxygen into the depths of the trough, oxygenating the plant roots and turbo charging the bacteria to do their thing."

They created a great animation of how a bell siphon works. A real-life system takes many times longer to fill than the time to drain (my system takes 10 minutes to fill and 1 minute to drain, ignoring the dribbly parts at the beginning and end of the siphon). Also, the pump never turns off. I found the growbed in my system only needs 10 gallons to fill the spaces between the rocks, so the change in the level of the water in the fish tank is only 2-3 inches, about 10%.

Though I love the idea of "constant height of pond" (CHOP), the added complexity and space to achieve CHOP didn't make sense for my 3x5 system. Let me tell you the bits I used to create the system I've got.

First is the pump - 140 gallon Pondmaster that I got from a local hardware store for under $40. It has only one moving part and consumes just 10 watts. It's like having a night light plugged into a wall socket, as far as energy usage is concerned.

Next are the plumbing bits (I presume the kind of handyman attempting this will already have saws and drills, etc.). The plumbing bits are:

1) The outer sheath or media guard. It's the white tube poking up through the gravel in this picture.

This is 3" (ID) pipe roughly 1' long with dozens of 1/4" holes to allow water (but not rocks) to reach the siphon. I drilled down 12 lines, putting a hole every inch and precisely staggered the holes on adjacent lines because I'm OCD. But the regular holes also serve as a crude measuring stick, helping me determine critical distances. Turns out a 15.5 oz can fits nicely inside this sheath, to prevent rocks from falling in from above. Plus a can adds iron to your system as it rusts - useful as most fish food lacks the kind of iron levels we'd like to have in foods we eat.

Update - Turns out you can simply cut slices in the media guard - slices also work just fine for the base of the bell. FWIW, I use a crochet hook to pull the bell out of the media guard when I want to check the siphon.

2) The bulkhead. I used 3/4" electrical PVC fittings here, because the electrical fittings are dirt cheap and adequate to this low-pressure task. I was inspired by Richard Kinch's post"An Improvised PVC Bulkhead Fitting forLiquid Storage Tanks. I only used the PVC male and female electrical conduit adapters - I didn't need to modify them in any way. This part of my system drove me to 3/4" piping, because the 1" adapters have seams running up through the threads and don't seat nearly as well. As 3/4" is the size of standard bilge pump line, I figured it was large enough for my purposes.

I used a 1" bit to drill the hole through the bottom of my grow bed, and a doorknob hole cutter to drill a hole in the shelf for the drain. You can improve the seal through the grow bed with silicon or you can simply use a #18 o-ring. I used aluminum foil tape to seal the edge of the hole through the shelf just in case there were a leak, to mitigate moisture getting into the wood and turning it soft.

3) The 1" to 3/4" reducer and standpipe. I struggled long and hard on this bit, inspired by Affnan's Bell Siphon video:

My problem is that I'm in the US, so I can't get the metric bit parts he uses for his system. I settled on a 1" slip to 3/4" male threaded reducer/adapter, followed by a female threaded to female slip coupler.

The two bits together cost about $1. Turns out the 1" female slip adapter has an inner diameter of 1-5/16" (to accommodate the added wall thickness of 1" pipe). A 1-5/16" diameter circle is three times the area of a 3/4" diameter circle - meaning your siphon thinks the pump is putting out 3 times as much flow as it actually is. So 3 times as much water hits your 3/4" pipe to start the siphoning action with the 1" to 3/4" reducer than the pipe would see if it was just a flat cut. This is a good thing. Trust me.

If you like math and physics, you can go read up on Bernoulli's principle, which comes into play here. Just don't tell the helpful people at the hardware store you are putting together a plumbing fixture that creates a Bernoulli suction. My limited sample shows consistent brow-furrowing and eyebrow raising.

You'll need a short length of 3/4" pipe to connect the reducer to the bulkhead so the top of the reducer is about 1-2" below the top of your gravel. Since your bed will flood to the top of the reducer and no higher, the 1-2" layer of dry gravel keeps algae from growing on the surface of your gravel. Here's a picture of the assembled upstand (reducer through bulkhead) next to the bell.

4) The Bell. This is a 2" pipe with an end cap.

I cut six 1/2" holes in a ring around the bottom, leaving about 1/4"-1/2" of material between the edge of the holes and the end of the pipe. Then I used a hack saw and 10" miter saw to remove all but three "legs." Just above each leg, I drilled a 1/4" hole, then added a fourth 1/4" hole above these. These four 1/4" holes help break the siphon when the grow bed is drained by allowing air to fill the top of the bell.

Update - I've found that cutting slices in the bottom of the bell about an inch above the bottom works just fine. It's also quieter than my bell that had the drilled holes.

5) The gravity run. This is the part that I fiddled with the most. If the gravity run has no kink, it's possible that water will just sheet down the sides of the pipe, leaving a tube of air straight from the bottom of the run to the top of the bell that will prevent the siphon from ever forming. If the gravity run has too much kink, you'll never get enough air to the top of the bell to break the siphon. Below is the gravity run that has worked best for me so far - with a 45 degree kink:

Update - the 45-degree angle is great. You do need to insert a bit of pipe in the bottom, even if it's only 1/2-inch long, because the upper edge of the lower pipe is part of what kicks the water and creates the siphon. Here's another picture, showing a siphon drain in my constant-height-of-pond system. I've got the exit coming out at or below water level, so the slices in the lower tube allow air in to break the siphon when the growbed has drained completely.

I'm creating a pdf of instructions with photos for the whole assembly, and will update this post with a link when I've got it done.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Apologies to the Imp

My First Aquaponics Setup - a Windowfarm

[In the previous post, an autistic daughter plopped one of her goldfish into the big tank. We despaired for its life.}

I've been scanning the surface of the tank to see if anything floated to the surface. No luck. Then I tried randomly netting the murky depths in hopes of bagging the fish. Again no luck.

Is there an inverse to spontaneous generation? You know, when something disappears without physical explanation?

Tonight I was looking for an old youtube video of mine, when I remembered:

The first time I set up each aquaponic windowfarm, the fish tank was cloudy.

For a 5 gallon tank, it only took two goldfish a day to clear the water. The fish created waste, the gravel began growing good bacteria that feed on the waste, the water got clear.

The water got clear.

All my goldfish have survived this process at least once before. Maybe, just maybe, the goldfish my daughter dumped into the drink was still OK.

In fact, maybe I could help things along by adding the water/waste from one of the two aquaponics fish tanks. Like the one that stopped flowing in early fall. All the plants were dead before the lack of water was noticed, but the fish had survived without the water-cleaning effect of the plants.

Come to think of it, maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing to add a second goldfish to the big tank, to speed things along.

My autistic daughter was still awake when I decided to take one of the remaining three goldfish. She watched me trying to snag the short-tailed fish - they look ordinary, but speed around and eat like the next meal may never come. Great metabolism, I was thinking.

We don't have a net, so I was trying to catch the fish with a tube my daughter had used the day before. Several attempts later, I was ready to give up.

"Let me," my daughter asked. Reluctant, I handed her the tube.

In one swift move, my daughter had the fish. And it wasn't just luck - she used a very unusual and gentle technique. I was impressed--and humbled.

After taking time to gradually transition the fish to the new water, I released it.

In a minute I saw the fish again. And then I saw the golden glint was two fishes. I watched for far too long, and the pair of fish kept showing up together, linked as though by a chain.

They both seemed healthy and, I don't know, fond of each other. Go figure.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's Alive!

The 3x5 setup as of last night

What a difference a day makes. I drilled holes, plumbed the growbed, moved the 520 lbs of rock, and added water. This video shows the siphon working while I was adding water to the growbed:

I was all set to call it a day. Alas, someone (aka the imp) decided the fish tank must necessarily host fish. They borrowed the camera and got this shot of the poor unfortunate en route to its new home:

Fish irrevocably consigned to the brand-new (and murky) tank, I immediately added air and conditioned the water with Amquel water conditioner. I have no idea how much temperature or pH shock the poor thing endured - not to mention being terrified. The three other goldfish are still in their tank, so at least we're only doing search and rescue for the one fish.

I had to get a new water pump and fiddle (a lot) with plumbing, but I finally got the autosiphon working. In a day or two the water should clear up enough to see the fish, whatever its state. Here's a video showing the bit parts. Sorry about the last couple of minutes - you get my audio but probably can't see the lovely laminar flow coming out of the drain tube against the black of the tank.

Phew! Now to get some rest...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Payday: shelving, plumbing, and rocks

3/4" River Stones (520 lbs for only $12)

Anticipation makes the reality all the sweeter. The past few weeks have been like Christmas, aquaponics-style. Stopping by the store for a few minutes, just to make sure the shelves were in stock... Malingering in the plumbing aisle, making sure the bits fit... Sitting down to watch "Aquaponics made Easy" with my youngest and jotting down ideas...

It is all the anticipatory fun of the holidays without the stress of tradition and obligation.

And sometimes the anticipation pays off.

I planned to buy my 3/4" river rock from Home Depot. It wasn't going to cost much: just $50 for 14 bags @ $3.50/bag.

Then I drove by Sisler's Stone - a place I've driven past (and been driven past) since I was teeny.

I figured it had to be cheaper to buy stone from a wholesale place. Plus I could just fill up my 50 gallon tank to exactly the right level. There was only one downside. I would need to buy the gravel sooner (before plumbing the growbed) rather than later.

This was a downside?

Today was gorgeous: bright, warm, dry - the kind of day that vies for one of the top ten days of the year. A perfect day to shovel gravel. Sisler's calls it "river jack," which is a Delaware stone. Colors range from off-white to shades of grey to some reds.

For those of us (like me) who've never bought bulk stone before, it works like this.
  • Drive onto the scales to weigh your vehicle before you add the stone.

  • Drive down into the stone yard and load up with your stone of choice.

  • Drive back to the scales where they measure you again, with the stones.

  • Park and pay the nice people.

I'm going to go back out and enjoy the rest of this beautiful day. Tomorrow I will talk about the shelving, with a picture of how the system looks assembled.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Roots (part 2 of 2)

Fisherman and Fisherwoman by Huang Shen
Fisherman and Fisherwoman
Huang Shen, Qing Dynasty, China, Nanjing Museum

My Chinese grandparents married because of fish.

They grew up on the eastern coast of China in Xiao Ao (Little Cove), due west of the Matsu Islands, named after the beloved Goddess of the Sea, patron of fishermen and sailors.

There were two fishing ventures in Xiao Ao. The first used a vast fleet to gather fish from the oft-dangerous waters of the East China Sea.

The other worked a tidal fence behind which coastal fish were trapped twice a day at low tide. No matter when low tide occurred, the workers gathered at the fence to bring in the harvest.

Grandmother's family owned the tidal fishery. Grandfather's family owned the fishing fleet. In the early 1900s, the families decided to join together. The union of the sea-faring fleet and the shore-bound fishery was sealed by the planned marriage between the two children.

If peace and harmony had prevailed, I might live in Xiao Ao today. But the merger ruptured when grandmother's brother became a devote of Mao Zedong (Grandpa was aide-de-camp to Chiang Kai-Shek). Grandma and Grandpa ended up fleeing China, and lived their last years in California, an ocean away from the land of their birth.

I think I've only caught two fishes in my life. Once I went fishing at Flaming Gorge in Utah. I didn't catch any fish with my line, but I did trap a fingerling in my cupped hands. I think someone else ended up using my fingerling as bait...

Some thirty years later I was on a research vessel in the Philippine Sea, and the crew lent us their fishing gear. At night the creatures of the sea ascend from the depths to feed, and I caught a squid on my first cast. Since it wasn't as huge as the squid a colleague bagged, I threw mine back in. The rest of the night I couldn't catch anything to save my life.

Tomorrow I can go buy the heavy duty shelves. Hooray!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My Roots (part 1 of 2)

Corne d

Since I can't buy my next system component until payday, and I can't submit my application for permit until Virginia posts the new forms, I'll defuse my frustration by writing about my agricultural roots. (A post on my fishing heritage will help defuse frustration later in the week).

The Mayflower

Turns out I descend from seven individuals who came to America on the Mayflower in 1620: Priscilla Mullins, her parents, John Alden, Richard Warren, Francis Cooke, and his son, John (who married Richard Warren's daughter, Sarah).

The Pilgrims weren't particularly famous for their agriculture, except for the big feast they had at the end of that first summer. Thanks for a bountiful harvest is sweeter when one has expended labor to create that harvest - a level of thanks most folks in America don't experience anymore.

Western Irrigation

Fast forward 200+ years, and my forebears found themselves in the barren deserts of the west. The joke goes that when the early Mormons first saw the desolate Salt Lake valley, they only stayed because they couldn't bear to repeat the trek it would take to get away.

Everyone farmed. The first two permanent settlements were name "Bountiful" and "Farmington." [My ancestors lived in Farmington.] And the only way farming could succeed in that desert was by careful, painstaking irrigation. Pumps, valves, flooding fields (growbeds) - all things common with aquaponics.

Fields of Alfalfa

My dad bought a 200+ acre farm as an engineering graduate student, before I started school. I remember the 30 milk cows, the shiny milk truck that took away the seeming ocean of fresh milk Dad and his hands collected before dark every morning. Mom once performed emergency surgery on a cow who was bloating from eating the neighbor's alfalfa - miraculously plunging her knife into just the spot that would relieve the deadly pressure in the cows gut. Probably stank. I'm guessing.

One day my aunt decided to give me a ride on a neighbor's horse. The horse was loose in that old alfalfa field, without bridle or saddle. My aunt hoisted me atop the hind quarters of the horse. Before I knew it, I was face down with a mouth full of water, mud, and alfalfa. My aunt said I performed the most amazing somersault as the horse bucked me...


I had known a neat girl in high school who was a vegetarian. And one day in college I happened across a can of vegetarian vegetable soup. Then and there I decided to be a vegetarian. This was shortly after the huge gas shortages of the 1970s, when school children were convinced fossil fuels would soon run out. We were all concerned about the future of our planet and trying to find ways to survive after fossil fuels failed (or in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, whichever happened first)...

Ten years later I was a single parent living in my mom's home. I decided to dig out my college-era books, to live my dreams of a green, self-sufficient life. Per the instructions in one text, I created gravel growbeds in dishpans, plumbed them, and dutifully irrigated my gravel--every day. Sometimes twice a day.

I didn't understand why my seeds barely sprouted. When we left town for a vacation, my Mom unplugged my grow lamp.

For some reason everything was dead when we returned a week later.

My family history doesn't make me a natural farmer. But working on this little aquaponics system reminds me of my ancestors, who were "green," because there was no other option.

Here's hoping the modern world of DVDs and the internet will help me succeed with aquaponics despite my youthful failures in by-the-[cheap]-book hydroponics....

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Countdown Plan

TuebingenBuergerheim060409 P1040548

I don't want to buy this entire aquaponics system in one go.

[Actually, I do, but other people wouldn't like it. And I love them...]

Since we get paid every two weeks, here is my plan for the weeks leading up to January, when I plan to buy the tilapia. I'm including stuff I did in the past month as well (I already have a water pump, air pumps, and bubblers).

10/15 - Purchase the Murray Hallam DVDs ($65 via The Aquaponics Source)

10/29 - Purchase the fish tank and grow bed (~$150 from Southern States)

11/12 - Purchase the 2'x4' heavy duty shelving (~$80 from Home Depot)

11/26 - Purchase the gravel ($50) and bell siphon bits ($10)

[Start seedlings, focusing on lettuce and herbs]

12/10 - Purchase the grow lights ($128)

12/24 - Purchase bio-activation stuff and accessories ($60)

01/07 - Obtain permits and buy tilapia ($22.50 for permits, $114 for White Brook Farms tilapia fry)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why "3x5 Aquaponics?"

Possible arrangement for a three-growbed system

Anyone with a 3' by 5' area (that can literally support a ton of water/gravel/etc.) can have an aquaponics system for well under $1000. That's under $1000 complete with lights, fish, and rocks (most experts recommend home aquaponicists stick to rock-based systems).

The Aquaponics USA miniature Food Forever Growing System gets you a plumbed tank/grow bed and accessories for under $1000, but that doesn't include shipping or rocks. They also don't consider lights - a must for us indoor aquaponicists in climates with limited outdoor growing seasons.

As shown in the picture above, the oblong 50 and 100 gallon tanks can fit inside the corners of a 2'x4' rectangle. This means I can use readily available heavy-duty shelving to support the grow bed. Home Depot sells Edsal 2'x4' heavy duty shelving for under $80.

Turns out there are various sources for 100 gallon and 50 gallon tanks. I was able to find Rubbermaid stock tanks at my local agricultural center (Southern States in Manassas) for less than $70 each. They're 52" by 31" and 26" high for the 100 gallon, 12" high for the 50 gallon.

I liked the gray granite of the Behlen 50 and 100 gallon tanks, but couldn't find them at a local vendor. If I lived near Austin, Texas, I could get tanks from Plastic-Mart, but the shipping costs were prohibitive (much more than the very reasonable item costs). Any other tank is OK as long as it is made of food grade material and fits inside the 2'x4' support post locations.

Below is the rough order estimate for the system components, including water, pump, bubbler, lights, fish, rocks, and plumbing:

$000 Water
$120 Fish
$050 Air pump and bubbler
$050 Water pump and plumbing
$150 Stock tanks (locally-sourced 50 & 100 gal tanks)
$080 Heavy duty 2'x4' shelving
$050 River pebbles (14 bags @ $3.50/ea)
$150 Flourescent lights (20,000 lumens)
$650 TOTAL per complete 3x5 fishtank/growbed unit.

Take away the fish, lights, and rocks to put this concept on par with other systems available for sale, and we're talking less than $350 - a number even a skeptical spouse might like. Being the holidays, they could buy it for you without having to travel further than the local agricultural coop and Home Depot...

To add growing space, you could add additional growbeds/shelving/lights for only $400 each . So the three growbed system shown above would cost $1450. Ongoing costs would be seeds, electricity for the pumps and lights (~$80/year in my area), and fish food (~$20/40 lb bag at the local Southern States), plus a bit for replacing parts that wear out (light bulbs, pumps).

For the rest of 2010, I'll take you along as I construct a basic 3x5 aquaponics system, in preparation for adding tilapia in January 2011.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Using Tilapia for Indoor Aquaponics

tilapia niloticus ( vs. image from egyptian tomb

The heart of an aquaponics system is the fish. Tilapia grow fast (fingerling to plate sized in 6-9 months), like tank culture, will eat anything, and like the kind of temperatures I like. Plus they have a white, flaky flesh I know my family likes to eat.

The folks at Tilapia Vita Farms, aka Tilapia Farming At Home, have put together a guide to legal issues relative to keeping tilapia in each state. Living in Virginia, I must obtain a permit to "import, possess, propagate, buy, and sell" tilapia, and must provide
place of origin, the name and address of the exporter and a certificate from a licensed and accredited practicing veterinarian, or certified fish pathologist, certifying that the animal to be imported is not manifesting any signs of infectious, contagious, or communicable disease.

I can use mossambique tilapia, nile tilapia, blue tilapia, and/or zanzibar tilapia. The Virginia permits ($22.50 total) expire December 31st, no matter when you obtain the permits. So I plan to wait until January to get my tilapia. With the holidays coming up, deferring fish to January isn't much of a delay.

After fondly considering the various breeds and sources, I'm leaning towards nile tilapia. It sounds good to say this is because the nile tilapia is directly related to the fish of pharaohs. Alas, I'm just a sucker for the pretty white variant developed by White Brook Tilapia Farm. For better or worse, nile tilapia are the slowest to reach sexual maturity (16-18 weeks compared to 11 weeks for blue tilapia).

Even better, for my penny-pinching, internet-loving soul, I can get live White Brook tilapia via eBay ($25 + $89 S&H for 25 fry (1/2"), $50 + $89 S&H for 25 fingerlings (1")). That's $114 or $139 to you and me. Additional batches of 25 can be purchased with only a $5 increase to S&H.

Pros of other variants:

Blue tilapia can survive colder temperatures, down to 45 degrees fahrenheit. You can find these on eBay - I am impressed with White Brook Farms' descriptions and pricing (same as the white niles mentioned above), but right now you can get as few as five from another source for under $35 (fish + S&H).

Female Mozambique tilapia and male Zanzibar tilapia can be interbred to produce predominantly male offspring. Since a mature female tilapia can produce 200-1000 fry every two months, this can be an important consideration. Edgar Sanchez at Tilapia Vita Farms currently offers breeder colonies for $399 + $99 S&H.

Here's hoping White Brook Farms has nile tilapia available in January 2011!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ancient Aquaponics


Aquaponics - the symbiotic cultivation of fish and edible plants, has been around for over 6000 years. It is seen (above) in the fabulous paintings from the tomb of Nebamun, and a drawing in King Tut's tomb shows the boy king merrily flipping two tilapia from an aquaponic pond into the arms of his wife.

Since I like food and technology and saving the planet, aquaponics is a natural for me. I've been checking out the burgeoning aquaponics movement in Australia, and decided to create a system of my own here in the US.

I've come across four options:

1) Buy the stylish "Farm in a Box" from EarthSolutions ($3000 + S&H on for the 200 gallon version).

2) Buy the lovely "Aquabundance" system from ($1295, free shipping, 60 gallon unit)

3) Buy one of the "Food Forever Growing Systems" ($895 + S&H for the 100 gallon bare bones system).

4) DIY from IBC containers, 55 gallon barrels, bathtubs, etc.

Underwhelming compared to the cool stuff they're doing in Australia.

So why isn't aquaponics taking off in the US? You know, because if it were popular in the US, I could find supplies and get a system without paying four digits...

I've decided it's because it gets cold here in the US.

Look at a map - Australia is mostly within 30 degrees of the equator, kind of like Central America. It pretty much just doesn't get cold there. Sydney, Australia, is as far south of the equator as Los Angeles, California, is north. Think warm/hot, frost-free weather year round.

No wonder the Aussies can do aquaponics in their backyards! For those with a greenhouse or a large porch in the warm climes of the US, the Farm in a Box or Food Forever Growing Systems make a lot of sense.

The Aquabundance system takes the cooler US reality into account - the system is small enough to fit through doorways and has a cart with wheels for the growbed. But to equal the recommended 1000 liter system most Aussies talk about (250 gallons), I'd have to get at least 4 Aquabundance units - over $5000.

I wish I had $5000. But I don't. So I'm going to try to figure out how to do a system that looks good that doesn't cost lots of dough.