Total Pageviews

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bell Siphon - the Parts List

Folks have been asking for parts lists and drawings on how to put this together. So I've (finally!) put together a parts list, complete with links to the product pages for these bits on the Home Depot website. These are the links and prices in December 2011 - I'll try to update the links as they change over time.

Bernoulli Standpipe Inexpensive Bulkhead Fitting Coanda Discharge
Auto-siphon "Bell" Media Guard
All told, the parts add up to about $20 if you're just building a single Bell Siphon. If you build two of them, they come in at $14 apiece. Or if you get a bunch of friends together to build 10 of these, the price comes down to $9 apiece (because you'll buy the 10 foot long lengths of 2-inch and 3-inch pipe - economies of scale).

Small system I put together for a Feb 2012 science fair

Now that you've got the parts, here's how to put it together:

Installing the Bulkhead fitting (the grey conduit bits and O-ring)

Assembling the Standpipe, Bell, and Media Guard

Different Discharge Options (I like the 45 degree or Coanda Discharge)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Original prototype 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 in their post about How an Aquaponics System Works:
"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."
Below is EcoFilms' animation of how a bell siphon works.
[The red button toggles the animation on and off.]

A real-life system takes many times longer to fill than the time to drain (my initial prototype system with a single growbed took 10 minutes to fill and 1 minute to drain, ignoring the dribbly parts at the beginning and end of the siphon). 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%.

Basically, when water reaches the top of the siphon, water quickly drains out of the grow bed, sucking air down around the roots and oxygenating everything. You can have a small pump running continuously, rather than a big pump turning on for only a few minutes once an hour or so. Since the pump is on continuously, the water in the total system is also cycling continuously, which my fish and plants love.

I didn’t invent the bell siphon, but I have developed a design that doesn’t require solvents, a design that can be manufactured with just plumbing bits and a mitre saw.

I'll show the bell siphon working in tomorrow's post about the coanda discharge - for today the video just covers the parts and assembly of the bell siphon.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Installing Bulkheads

Exploded view of Bulkhead Components

You have to do something to let water drain from the grow beds.

If I wanted to just have a simple flood and drain system, I could pump water in the grow bed for a while, then let the water gush or dribble out a hole in the bottom.

But as soon as I want to control that water in any way, I need to install a bulkhead.

The bulkhead I use for the 365 Aquaponics System is constructed from inexpensive PVC pieces you can buy at any hardware store. I use ¾” PVC pipe and fittings. If using metric plumbing bits, the equivalent size is 19 mm.
For some inexplicable reason, plumbing bits in the US are designed with a rounded edge. So for the actual part that penetrates the tank, I use PVC bits designed for electrical conduit.

The male PVC coupling bit is screwed down through the thickness of the tank. Once the coupling is tight, PVC will seat itself against the plastic tank wall in a nearly water-tight fashion. Slip a #18 O-ring around the male threads, then thread the female fitting as tight as you can by hand. The O-ring will make this bulkhead water tight, given that none of these bulkheads needs to withstand more than a foot or 300mm of water pressure.

Credit for this bulkhead concept goes to Richard Kinch, who details this bulkhead design at "An Improvised PVC Bulkhead Fitting for Liquid Storage Tanks."

Here’s a short video clip showing installation of a bulkhead.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Setting Up Tanks

Tanks and materials for the 365 Aquaponics System
The first thing you need to have in an aquaponics system is a way to hold water. In order to achieve system stability and grow an interesting quantity of food and fish, you’ll want to shoot for a water volume of 250 gallons. That’s a lot of water. There are a lot of options. Concrete ponds, International Bulk Container (IBC) totes, 55-gallon drums, wood structures lined with plastic. For the 365 Aquaponics system, I chose stock tanks. Here are my reasons for using stock tanks. They are an existing and proven product. Stock tanks were designed to hold water for cattle, sheep, and other large livestock. They were designed to withstand day to day abuse from such livestock and the elements in which the livestock lives. Because plastic stock tanks are rugged, large capacity, and constructed from food grade plastic, they are often used by restaurants for food storage and preparation. Perhaps most important, they should be locally available. When you’re buying something this big and having it delivered to your home, you’ll pay a hundred dollars or more just for shipping. If you can get it in stock from a local agriculture store, the shipping to the store has already been covered by the store as part of the cost of doing business. They require little modification, if any. Grow beds in the 365 Aquaponics System have a single easy to drill hole (1” if using ‘English’ units, 25 mm if using metric). Beyond stacking some cinder blocks and planks, I don’t need to build support structures. So here’s a video clip showing me preparing the stock tanks for the 365 Aquaponics System.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

365 Aquaponics

An early post at 3x5 Aquaponics

Just today I was reflecting that I need a new name for my blog.

I started this aquaponics blog almost a year ago. At the time, I wanted to prototype an indoor DIY system that would allow year-round gardening. I picked the name 3x5 Aquaponics because:

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).

I designed the system and created a prototype. Seeds sprouted, and I transplanted them to the garden.

It worked. But the taller my plants grew, the more I envied those who can grow outside. When my tilapia "failed to thrive," I was free to create a system outside.

The garden grew...

July 2011

And grew...

August 24th, after a month away

And grew.

After Hurricane Irene swept past, August 28th

I'm loving this aquaponics adventure. Alas, "3x5 Aquaponics" doesn't really describe what I'm doing now. What new name could I pick?

Then I browsed to the Aquaponics Association website, to review what the site is promising about what I'll present this month in Orlando...

...Meg Stout of "365" Aquaponics

365 Aquaponics.

Year-round gardening.

It's perfect to fit where I am now in my journey, as well as including my original idea of a small indoor system.

So thank you, thank you, thank you to whoever decided I was 'Meg Stout of 365 Aquaponics.'

I'll continue to cross-post here for the rest of 2011, but all future posts will go up at 365 Aquaponics first.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Companion Planting

2009 Native American Dollar, obverse
Planting the "Three Sisters" - corn, beans, squash

I was chatting with a colleague, asking what they do when they aren't working for a wage.

Turns out they have a half acre where they practice intensive gardening. They have 39 solar panels that produce 4.5 kW of electricity and tanks to hold up to 2000 gallons of water, along with an osmosis and UV treatment system so their water meets USDA standards for safe drinking water.

So cool!

I've spent some time checking out online resources for intensive gardening. I was particularly pleased by three of the resources I stumbled across:

1) VEGETABLE GARDEN: INTENSIVE GARDENING METHODS, a page at the Arizona Cooperative Extension website. They have an extensive table listing plant spacings for intensive gardening, a method for calculating the distance between companion plantings in such a garden, and a list of the top 15 vegetables from an economic value standpoint.

2) Companion Planting: So Happy Together! by Kelle Carter, in the April 2006 issue of the Seeds of Change eNewsletter. Kelle's article is informative and easy to read. And she includes a HUGE list of plants, good companion plants, and the effects of the suggested companions. Awesome!

3) Companion Planting post over at Emily's My Square Foot Garden. Emily has a spreadsheet that lets you figure out companion plants for a single crop or what third plant would work if you already have two other crops in that same space. I like that she tells you what plants to not plant next to one another, as well as giving degrees of goodness.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What lurks beneath...

A Monster Zucchini

I popped out to the garden tonight to feed the fish and spent a few seconds gathering ripe eggplant and tomatoes. As I passed the end of the garden, I caught a glimpse of "not-leaf" suspended from the edge, hidden by a curtain of leaves.

Oh. My. Goodness.

My daughter pointed out that August is host to Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor's Porch Day. To quote from the Holiday Insights page:

Experienced gardener's know that Zucchini is one of the most prolific plants in all of the gardening world...

By the time August arrives, gardeners are reaping far more zucchini than they can possibly use. Zucchini growers become desperate, as they try to give zucchini away to family, friends and everyone they encounter. By August, even non-gardeners have had enough. Everyone avoids you...

Desperate times calls for desperate measure. It's time to sneak over, under the cover of darkness, to your neighbors porch, and unload some zucchini.

Someone wondered why this "Zucchini... Day" is held on August 8. Think of 8/8, which is like infinity over infinity, capsized.

Luckily, I only had a couple of zucchini plants, so the harvest has been just right for us.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Getting rid of Fruit Flies

Summer + Fruit + Vegetables = Fruit Flies

This summer we had an infestation of fruit flies. Now that it's under control, I thought I'd share what we did:

1) Clean everything. Sponges, walls, utensils, appliances. Warm, soapy water will wash off eggs, pheromones, and leave a soap film that they hate. And anything they hate, I love.

2) Spritz them out of the air with Rubbing Alcohol. I'm actually not sure if alcohol kills them. But when they are flying around (in groups - shudder), it is satisfying to spray them and see them drop out of the air like lead balloons.

3) Trap them. For years we've used the standard cider vinegar in a glass with a drop of detergent. The detergent destroys the surface tension, so when the flies alight to drink the alluring liquid, it's the fruit fly equivalent of quick sand. An open bottle or bowl is ok. Using a paper funnel to aid entrance and impede exit is better.

This year we got a bit more sophisticated. We stuck a drinking straw through a capped plastic bottle. There's an exit cut into the straw, so the flies can get from the straw to the liquid. I also mixed wine vinegar with the cider vinegar, which seems to have attracted more flies than the traps that only had cider vinegar.

4) Vacuum them up. This last technique works best with individual flies on a flat surface. Turn on the vacuum in the center of the room. Carefully lay the nozzle along the wall at least 2 inches from the fly. Edge the nozzle towards the fly - by the time it tries to take off, it'll likely get sucked straight into the vacuum.

You can try to vacuum them out of the air, but don't expect to succeed.

5) Squish them. Once you've calibrated your fruit flies, you can sometimes simply squish them. Slowly place your squishing implement (e.g., hand) 1-2 inches away, or whatever you've determined is the 'comfort zone' for your flies. Then BAM. If you have a fine mesh fly swatter, that's good. I've also had good success with a crumpled plastic bag (increases effective surface area and breaks up the rush of air on which they typically escape).

Lastly, make sure you and yours clean up promptly and thoroughly after all interactions with food.

[I've seen theoretical discussions of using a homemade fly paper made from nori and molassas, so the resulting molassas/seaweed/dead fly thing can be fed to fish. If anyone tests that hypothesis and finds it actually eliminates an infestation, that would be good to know.]

Hurricane Irene - Before and after

The Garden - Before Irene

I took the plastic cover off my greenhouse a long time ago for two reasons:

1) It was getting blasted hot inside the greenhouse, even though I never got around to installing the "ends" on my greenhouse.

2) My plants were running into the 5-foot 2-inch 'roof.'

The garden did great 'topless' all summer, even with me being absent for weeks on end. But Hurricane Irene was set to arrive off my coast around midnight last night. Predictions were rainfall of 2 to 6 inches and winds of 20-60 mph.

I mainly worried about the rain. I didn't want my system to flood and overflow.

Worst case if my system flooded was the water level in my sump would overflow the lip of the sump tank. The goldfish in my sump probably wouldn't even get washed out of the system. Unless I developed a clog in the piping between my fish tank and sump, the fish tank wouldn't overflow. Even with a clog, the cover on the tank will keep the fish inside.

Long term, adding as much as 6 inches of rain water to my tank could throw off the water chemistry. Not sure how much of an impact that would have since the fish and plants are so well balanced and I have no ammonia, no nitrite, and low levels (ppm) of nitrate in the system right now.

Wind could do a number. My growbeds are filled with hydroton, which in itself doesn't anchor the plants well. I do have 2 inches of gravel in the base of each growbed, but I'm pretty sure that won't help against tropical storm winds.

To mitigate both the rain and wind, I loosely covered the greenhouse frame with plastic for the weekend. I harvested basil and moved the banana plant, since they were too tall to fit inside. The banana is now in a large planter in my basement. I blanched the basil and turned it into a quart of pistou (pesto without the pine nuts).

Basil - before becoming pistou

We spent the evening reading, munching on toast with pistou, waiting for the storm to pass. From our digital clocks, it looks like we briefly lost power around 2 am, but that was it. The garden fared well, with just edge flaps of the plastic coming undone. Once things dry up this afternoon, I'll go ahead and remove the plastic again for the rest of the summer.

The Garden - After Irene

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Shake, Rattle, & Roll

USGS Map of Tuesday's Virginia Earthquake

We had an earthquake Tuesday, and I missed it, because I was driving on the interstate. The rumbling sensation of a large truck passing by isn't as remarkable when you're on bridges with large trucks passing by...

Turns out earthquakes on the east coast of the US can be "worse" than a same-magnitude quake on the west coast.

Though the west coast of the United States experiences significantly higher seismic activity, the crust in the eastern United States is more efficient at propagating seismic waves because it's older and colder. For example, a magnitude 5 in San Jose, CA would be moderately felt 45 miles away in San Francisco. In contrast, an east coast magnitude 5 (or 5.9 in our case today) could be felt for several hundred miles. The earth's crust in the east coast propagates much more energy at high frequencies than crust in the west coast, so small structures like homes experience about a factor of 5 more shaking. [Derived from a post by kmayeda at]

Luckily, my old-construction masonry home isn't showing any cracks. Phew!

I did take the chance to snap a few pics of my (overgrown and un-tended) garden. Enjoy!

Goldfish in my Sump

Monday, August 15, 2011

Back from my travels

Double Rainbow with supernumerary bands, Nebraska

It's good to get back to my garden again!

I was in France and all across the United States over the past three weeks, so didn't have much to post about my garden. I was a bit worried, in fact, since local temperatures have been up over 100 degrees Fahrenheit several times, and consistently above 90 degrees.

Thankfully I had someone who could check in on my fish and water levels, and everything is thriving (I'd had visions of coming home to sun-baked black plastic tanks and dessicated remains of plants and fish...).

There were some garden-related points of interest during my travels, aside from the amazing double rainbow with supernumerary bands (extra inner rainbows) we saw while driving across Nebraska:

  • Notre Dame Gardens - I had the chance to visit Paris while in France, and quite enjoyed the garden around the famous cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. As always, it's fascinating to realize that Paris is further north than any point in the state of Maine.
  • UW Botanic Gardens and Center for Urban Agriculture - From Paris, I flew to Seattle for several more perfect days. Locals tell me that Seattle is usually overcast and wet, so the perfect weather was a rare treat. The Center for Urban Agriculture is lovely, and there are several walking tours one can take of the surrounding Botanical Gardens. If you can't visit in person, you can always listen to the online audio tours.
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park - I was surprised to learn that this is America’s most visited national park, with over 9 million visitors each year. This part of the southern Appalachian mountains was located just south of the ice cap during the most recent ice age, so animals and plants from more northerly regions migrated to these mountains. When the ice receded, many of the species remained in ecological niches on the mountain slopes. This area is the most biologically diverse of any similar-sized temperate area, with upwards of 100,000 species of plants, animals, and invertebrates believed to live within the park's borders.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Anyone want to do research on aquaponics?

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds research on sustainable agriculture - up to $250,000 for multi-year projects. Most the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant pre-proposals were due 7/14, but the pre-proposals for the Northeast region aren't due for another couple of weeks.

I'd like to conduct a longitudinal study of how much the combination of a rocket mass heater and a subterranean heating/cooling system can extend the growing season, tracking temperatures and yields across numerous variables (USDA Zones, urban/suburban/rural, crops).

The bad thing is I'm a federal employee during the day, so I can only conduct this research (and apply for a grant) as an individual. There are various laws that prevent me from representing another entity in receipt of federal funds. And I don't know if they'd let an individual conduct research on the scale I'm interested in.

The other bad thing is I'm so close to the deadline, and others who might be interested in doing something along these lines are on vacation.

The good thing is a UN-published study showed the underground heat exchange system (UHES) or subterranean heating/cooling system (SHCS) increased yield by 50% compared to an equivalent greenhouse that lacked the subterranean heating/cooling technology. John Cruickshank shares his experience with UHES/SHCS at his SunnyJohn website, saying: can expect to raise the soil temperature to 65-75F by the end of the summer. That is the soil temperature of all the soil in the greenhouse to a depth of 3 feet!! You can expect to keep it cycling in that range for 3 months after the summer season before it begins to discharge seriously. That represents an enormous influence on the zone above it. For a 30' by 20' greenhouse I believe that is in the neighbourhood of 75 tons of soil and represents several million BTU's of heat. How this all pans out for season extension is a guess, but I assure you, it will extend your season!! For Zone 4, we can grow Eliot Coleman style in simple hoop houses for 12 months of the year using just a SHCS. Adding insulated north walls, double skins, propane CO2 generators and tighter building envelope we can grow tropically well for 10 months.

So if we add a rocket mass heater during the winter, to add BTUs to greenhouse soil during the short winter days, I'm thinking it might be possible to enjoy "tropical" conditions year round in inexpensive hoop houses.

Anyway, let me know what questions you think USDA-funded research into integrated energy systems and aquaponics ought to answer!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Yum, Basil Chicken Salad

How to Chiffonade, from Dreamy Dish

The point of growing food in a garden is to eat it.

Tonight we had a wonderful chicken salad, with fresh basil and beet leaves from the garden. I'm lucky enough to have a former chef for a son-in-law, so he was able to just throw everything together. But here's an approximation of the recipe (so I can replicate this myself sometime in the future, if for no other reason!):

1-2 boneless chicken breast(s)
chicken broth
1-2 Granny Smith apple(s)
2 stalks of celery
1/2 cup basil leaves
2-4 beet leaves with red stalks
1 cup mayonnaise
1-2 cloves crushed/diced garlic
1 tsp mustard
salt & pepper to taste
handful of raisins and pine nuts (optional)

Cook the chicken in the broth.
While the chicken is cooking, dice the apple and celery.
Chiffonade the basil and beet leaves.
Remove the cooked chicken from the broth and set the broth aside to use in some future meal.
Cube the chicken.
Mix the apples, celery, chicken, basil, beets, and garlic. Add the raisins and pine nuts if you're using them.
Add the mayonnaise and mustard, and mix well.
Salt and pepper to taste.

I liked it between soft slices of whole grain bread.

And on a slice of mozzarella.

And on toast...


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Oh, Where are my BSFs?

The cryptic saga of my Black Soldier Fly Larvae

I don't have my BSFs yet. I don't know how they'll be doing by Monday - the 7th day since they were shipped.

USPS claims they left notices - I think they're knocking at the wrong door, because I was here at 3:09 today. There was also someone at my house ready to receive the larvae yesterday. And we've seen no written notices.

In the mean time we've got lots of compost waiting for the BSFs when they do get here. Assuming they are still alive by then...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Local Food Production (another review)

National Geographic image of Earth circa 2210

When I reviewed "A Crude Awakening," CTD suggested I watch three other films:

Fuel - watched that, enjoyed it.

I.O.U.S.A. - haven't watched it yet.

Collapse - I think I watched it today.

There are two "Collapse" movies on Netflix.

The first one I watched was a National Geographic film that was part history lesson, part current events tour, and part apocalyptic sci fi.

The conceit was that scientists circa 2210 would have no idea how "we" lived and why our great cities collapsed. Pretty fun, actually, as a dramatic device. Except how did these clueless future scientists manage to have 2010-era equipment (Ray-Bans and scuba gear, for crying out loud)?

The show talked about how dwindling water, food, energy, and trust destroyed past civilizations (the Anazasi, the Romans, and the Mayans).

What happens when your water runs out

The second "Collapse" film was 90 minutes of listening to Michael Ruppert talk. Michael Ruppert is a Cassandra - one who [accurately] foretells the future, but who is largely ignored.

It isn't fun to watch Ruppert talk. He's mostly angry and bitter, and the future vision he paints is dark and painful. But I did garner a few gems:

Ruppert said, "Local Food production is perhaps the most fundamental key to human survival in the collapse of industrialized civilization. [57:00]" He goes on to talk about what happened when two communist dependencies lost access to oil when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The first state was North Korea. Rigid, hierarchical, and cursed with a harsh climate, the people starved. I remember hearing about how people were trying to survive eating grass.

The second state was Cuba. Castro immediately promoted a return to local food production - every square inch that could be exploited for food production was converted to making food. It didn't hurt that Cuba is a tropical country. Anyway, folks in Cuba now eat better than ever.

I also liked Ruppert's suggestion that "Community will save us."

At the end of the day, denial, anger, bargaining, and depression won't help as we face a challenging future. Acceptance of life's reality, with belief-inspired action will allow us to find the way out.

And when we have discovered the way out, we can learn from the parable of the hundredth monkey.

Ruppert tells of the experiments detonating nuclear bombs on the Bikini Atoll in 1946. And yes, the two-piece swimsuit was introduced around that time.

In the 1950s scientists introduces thousands of monkeys to the island, to study the effects of any lingering radiation. Turned out most things were back to normal. But the coconut husks were still slightly radioactive. If the monkeys continued as they had been going, they would all eventually succumb to radiation poisoning. No one wanted to deal with thousands of dead monkey corpses.

Unable or unwilling to train all the monkeys to wash the coconuts in fresh water to remove the radiation, researchers trained 10 of the monkeys to wash their coconuts. Slowly the ten nut washers converted others to their odd practices. 12 nut washers, 20 nut washers, 50 nut washers.

Then the 100th monkey became a nut washer and overnight the other 9,900 started washing their coconuts.

One assumes the monkeys survived, but I can't find any mention of the state of Bikini Atoll monkeys in our times. At least I didn't find mention of mass extinction of the nut-washing primates.

So, we already knew aquaponics is a great system for producing food in warm, barren deserts, not to mention how awesome it can be in warm, moist climates.

But if we can get "100 monkeys" to demonstrate a robust aquaponics system that works year-round in cold climates, life starts to get sweet, indeed.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Food and Energy in the Cold Northeast

The Cold Northeast Regions of China and the United States
Point A: Shenyang, Jilin, China
Point B: Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States

I found a delightful report the United Nations put together in 1994 on how to produce crops and energy in the cold northeast (42 degrees north of the equator). It's got a wealth of information on topics from methane production to solar homes and greenhouses, and integrated plant/animal ecosystems.

It's also chock full of charts and graphs and experimental results.

The full title is "Integrated energy systems in China - The cold Northeastern region experience."

Happily, the cold northeastern region of China is eerily similar to the cold northeastern region of the United States - same latitude, near an ocean, and populated by millions of folks who like to eat and stay warm.

I particularly liked the documented results from the experiments comparing Subterranean heating/Cooling Systems or Underground Heat Exchange Solar Greenhouses (UHESG) to Conventional Solar Greenhouses (CSG). The 1980s-era researchers document greater than 50% improvement in yields (in both weight and money value) for UHESG over CSG.

The English in the report is a bit awkward and laden with engineer-ese, but there are plenty of great ideas for those of us who have uncomfortably cold winters.

[Post Script - Latitude isn't the only story. The hardiness zone in Shenyang is between 4 and 5, while the hardiness zone of latitudinal twin Plymouth is an ocean-warmed 6. Due to the Gulf Stream, London enjoys a hardiness zone of 9, though it is almost 10 degrees further north than either Shenyang or Plymouth. I'd have to travel south to Florida to get to a hardiness zone of 9!]

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Worms, worms, everywhere

Redworm, one of many things fish love to eat

My mother gave my husband a brilliant gift for Father's Day - composting worms. 1000 Eisenia Foetidae or Red Wrigglers, to be exact. She ordered them from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm at the same time she bought her own worms and composter.

Reading the instructions, I realized for the first time that composting worms are different from your standard earthworm. I'd been popping worms from my yard into my growbeds, assuming that was "good enough." Hasn't hurt, but it seems red wrigglers will work even better.

A few benefits of worms in aquaponics:

1) They turn scraps into rich, fertile compost. The stuff is called "worm castings," but it's worm poop. Manure on a micro scale. [I wonder if worms are considered "animals" for the purposes of granting food safety certification. Since they're cold blooded, they don't harbor e.coli in their guts any more than do fish.]

2) No need to wash your grow media after initial system setup. The worms will clear out left over roots and stuff.

3) Supplemental food for your fish. Worms double their population in short order (90 days, if I remember correctly). They stop reproducing when they reach the maximum sustainable density, so their is no worry that they will start spilling out all over. But this rapid population growth and/or population replacement means you can snag out a few from time to time as a treat for your fish without worrying that you are fundamentally damaging the efficacy of your worm population to process compost.

4) A worm population in your grow beds can keep your system working between batches of fish. In fact, some folks rely entirely on worms for their ammonia source. This is referred to as Vermiponics. Alas, vermiponics appears to be a new movement, to the point where there isn't even a wikipedia article describing vermiponics and its history.

A downside of worms is their need for bedding material and decomposing scraps. On the other hand, I produce more than enough paper and cardboard as a byproduct of modern life to keep my worms happy.

Now that I know regular earthworms aren't as "good" as red wrigglers for composting, I've started taking to tipping found worms into my fish tank, where I used to tip them into my growbeds. It's been gratifying to see the enthusiasm with which fish consume the worms, even dead and slightly dessicated worms.

Next biological enhancement to the system will be black soldier fly larvae - they should be en route right now. Should be fun!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Peak Oil got you depressed? Check out "Fuel"

Fuel, the film, available on Netflix

Josh Tickell has been a bio-diesel advocate for over a decade. In his 2008/9 documentary Fuel, Josh goes way beyond bio-diesel to show how the world can realistically become petroleum independent and go carbon neutral.

This film is a pleasure to watch - it has:

  • Beautiful graphics,
  • A David versus Goliath personal story,
  • Comments from the rich, famous, and learned,
  • A message that not all need go dark when fossil fuel runs out.
Oh, and lovely music, sung by Josh's now-wife, Rebecca Harrell.

The diesel engine was originally designed to run on a vegetable oil-based fuel. Ford originally designed his cars to run on ethanol (derived from corn). But the availability of 'inexpensive' fossil fuel and the distribution might of Standard Oil combined to make fossil-based products the fuel of choice.

Interesting tidbit - Josh Tickell makes a case suggesting Prohibition in the United States may have become law because it made ethanol illegal. Henry Ford continued to offer the ethanol-compatible version for several years, but finally folded to economic necessity in 1932 and gave up offering the ethanol-fueled engine option. Coincidentally, Prohibition was allowed to be repealed the following year.

Josh also lays out the idea that the recent US war in Iraq was motivated by oil. This isn't a new idea, but he does a particularly good job of connecting the dots.

Back to how we move past fossil fuel towards a sustainable future - bio-diesel is a clear winner, requiring only 1 part energy to produce 3 parts diesel (ethanol requires 1 part energy to produce 1 part ethanol, and fossil fuel requires 1 part energy to produce 0.8 part fuel). Solar and wind can work, where conditions are adequate. There's even mention of trees that were designed to remediate contaminated soils that grow to maturity in 3 years and regenerate from a cut stump, making wood-based energy creation a viable green option as well.

My only complaint is the discussion of wind didn't show my favorite wind turbine, the vertical Windspire. Traditional wind turbines kill birds due to the high differential pressures at the blade tips, not even counting the birds killed by being hit by a blade. The Windspire doesn't have this problem.

So, if talk of Peak Oil and/or soaring energy prices get you down, take a breather and watch this film. It won't make the immediate crisis go away, but does offer hope that there is a future, even after cheap fossil fuels go away.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Subterranean Heating and Cooling

Installing a Subterranean Heating and Cooling System

Last night CTD commented on my post "If I could design a system from scratch...," saying:

You may have already thought about a subterranean heating and cooling system, but if not, here's a couple of links. I'm considering one of these for its year-round efficiency (off grid if I can get the math to work out) and possibly a small rocket mass as a supplement for those really cold stretches...

Such cool stuff! The subterranean heating/cooling system is primarily three layers of Underground Air Circulation Tubing (UACT), 4 inch thin-walled perforated drainage tubes (less than $6 per 10 foot length at Home Depot). The tubes are spaced about every 2 feet horizontally in each layer, and the UACT layers are each a foot deep. The tubes are connected to a plenum (e.g., a 55-gallon drum) at each end, and a fan blows the entire volume of the greenhouse through the underground tubing every 10 minutes.

During days when it gets toasty in the greenhouse, air enters the system warm and moist and comes out cool and dry, leaving the moisture and heat energy in the soil. When the greenhouse air gets colder than the soil (e.g., winter nights), the fan pumps cool air through the ground and it comes out warmer and moister.

John Cruickshank of says he's created greenhouses in Zone 4 (average minimum temperature of -25 degrees F) that maintain a Mediterranean environment all year round without any supplementary heat.

I still want to include a rocket mass heater. One, I like to burn things (wood). Two, I like to cook things (pizza...). Three, my greenhouse isn't a double-glazed marvel of heat retention, so it will probably need supplemental heat, even though I'm in Zone 7 (average minimum temperature of 5 degrees F).

Here are some sketches of how I think I could have both a Subterranean Heating and Cooling System (SHCS) and a Rocket Mass Heater (RMH).

Monday, June 27, 2011

Rattlesnake Mountain

Marriott Ranch is a 4200 acre cattle ranch near Rattlesnake Mountain, about an hour from Washington, DC. I had the chance to accompany my autistic daughter on a youth trip there during this past week.

About 150 youth spent three days re-living the Mormon handcart trek - no cell phones, no computers, no microwaves or ovens, no flush toilets. I didn't take a camera, so the image above is a shot from the internet showing the views near Hume, Virginia, and looks like the blue skies and green landscapes we saw.

We pulled handcarts along the trails south of Rattlesnake Mountain. One stretch we will all remember was the ascent of Killer Ridge - where the men and boys were pulled away and forbidden to talk with or help the girls. I'd heard about the "Women's Pull," but it was another thing entirely to experience it. The way was full of rocks, eroded trail, and tree roots - entirely difficult even had it been flat terrain, much less the steep side of a mountainous ridge. Because the weather was lovely, they had us go all the way to the top of the ridge. It was intense in a good way and possibly the most physically challenging thing I have done short of un-anesthetized childbirth.

As we camped by the river the second night, most were thinking how hard it had been for those early folks who settled the Western United States. I was thinking about how life is now for so many who don't have access to electricity and plumbing, and how life will be in a post-oil era, whenever that might happen. But there was also the wonder of walking within feet of longhorn cattle (without an intervening fence), watching a crane soar through the sky over our camp, seeing the blanket of stars above us as our campfires died out, and washing in the sparkling waters of the Rappahannock River.

Towards the end of the last day, my daughter told me, "Momar, I don't think I want to do this after all." But that was when we were already on the track home, walking towards the cars that would take us back to our electricity-served modern lives. And it was really the only time she complained, beyond the constant refrain of "My feet are starting to get tired, Momar."

One of the girls captured my feelings well when she said "It was a cleansing experience."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Aquaponics Association Fundraiser

The Upcoming Aquaponics Association Conference

Recently Sylvia Bernstein announced an Aquaponics Conference in Orlando, Florida, during mid-September. Murray Hallam of Practical Aquaponics will be there, and Sylvia will be launching her new book, Aquaponic Gardening.

I volunteered to build an aquaponics system in an hour, and explain the improvements I've made to make the system quieter and more robust. I suggested we could do a silent auction for the system during the conference, since I already have a system.

This weekend Sylvia contacted me about the idea of using the proceeds from the auction as a fundraiser for the Aquaponics Association. The Association will promote the benefits of aquaponics, create educational materials, and, eventually, advocate for legal and business standing for those wishing to grow using aquaponics.

Why is an association needed?

Because aquaponics growers currently run afoul of laws and regulations that were written for livestock. Food poisoning can result when E. Coli bacteria from the feces of warm-blooded animals gets into the food supply. So the standard for Food Safety Certification reads: "The presence of animals in the growing area is an automatic (complete) failure of the food safety audit."

Because fish are not warm-blooded they do not carry E. coli internally. But it was easier to write the standard using the term "the presence of animals" than type "the presence of feces from warm-blooded animals and/or humans."

Aquaponics, the most elegant, ecologically responsible form of agriculture, is currently damned by the laziness of legislators. [Damn as in the Latin damnum, meaning damage, fine, or harm.] For more, check out Sylvia's recent blog talking about aquaponics, safe food, and public perception.

Anyway, I am completely in favor of this Aquaponics Association. I'm pleased that proceeds from auction of this system can help further the aims of the group.

On a separate note, Sylvia suggested that instead of a silent auction, we have Murray Hallam auction the system off during dinner on Saturday night (September 17th). I adore Murray Hallam, and the room will be full of Murray Hallam groupies. Need I say I'm geeking out at the idea of Murray auctioning off my system?


By the way, Sylvia was highlighted as a "Hero Entrepreneur" on blogtalk radio on 16 June. You can pre-order Sylvia's book and save 30%.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Look what Netflix Recommended...

A Crude Awakening

Since I've indulged in several documentaries talking about peak oil and food issues, Netflix now highlights other, similar, movies for me to consider. Today's recommendation was A Crude Awakening. This is not a comfortable film to watch, but it's interesting to see that it came out in 2006 - the same year world-wide oil production peaked.

If documentary films about the screwed up food/energy/carbon situation depress you, don't watch this one. But if such documentaries energize you to live sustainably and work towards a peaceful post-oil future, then feel free to flex your brain with this particular offering.

From a film student perspective, it's interesting to compare the 2006 A Crude Awakening with the 2004 documentary The End of Suburbia. The two films cover similar ground and lay out almost the same facts. But I think the 2006 film is better. More terrifying, but better.

The 2004 film End of Suburbia

When I am old and [more] gray, it will be interesting to look back and see how the reality compares to the messages we are being given circa 2011.