Aquaponic Gardening

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1st AP System - Ultimate goal to have a sustained system at 10,000 feet elevation

Hi everyone.

I hope that I will gain many new friends during my latest endeavor, to build a sustained aquaponics garden at 10,200 foot elevation.

We built our place in 1993 and from day one tried to figure out how to grow food up there. I studied a lot about hydroponics but I didn't like the power required to pump that much water as our mountain home is 100% off-grid and is restricted to the 6KWHr of power we generate each day. Also the expense of buying all those nutrients dissuaded me from further research into the subject.

We have a nice meadow, and it would be possible to grow potatoes, but the deer, elk and antelope, not counting all the ground squirrels, cotton tail rabbits and other furry critters, (not to mention free-roaming cattle) would eat any produce we might possibly grow. It wasn't until this year I noticed a greenhouse near Alma, CO and got struck by an epiphany that I could put a greenhouse over part of the meadow to protect the garden, and... extend the growing season. While researching greenhouses and hydroponics (again)  I ran across aquaponics and everything just clicked together. Low energy consumption, low water usage, and low cost nutrients (fish poop). Plus a source of protein that I don't have to fish for in the mountain streams or wait for hunting season to come around.

To kick off the project I have begun to build the above system, at our flatland home in Louisville, CO (5500 feet elevation) using a 275gal (1000L) Shutz IBC tote for the fish tank and a 55 gallon (200L) grow bed mounted on top of the tote. Look at the pictures in my album to look at significant steps I've made along the way. When I get the system working without killing plants and fish, I'll expand it in the cabin shown below.

The deck and the solar panels are facing due south. We plan on enclosing the bottom of the deck with corrugated plexiglass glazing to turn it into a greenhouse where the grow beds and drip system hydroponics will be set up. Its 32' long by 8' wide. The fish tanks (2 - 4 IBC totes) will be placed in the basement area which is partly below ground. This will be a good location for the fish tanks as the temperature swings are minimal and its dark enough to keep algae from blooming in the tanks.

I'll be adding a couple of DIY wind turbines that I have been experimenting with just prior to starting the AP project. These will be used initially to supplement battery charging and to pump water and air as needed. In the following picture you'll see a 2 meter diameter 3-blade wind turbine mounted on the back of my truck and a 1 meter diameter 6-blade version sitting in the garage.

The biggest struggle I am dealing with is what fish (Trout or Tilapia) to use for the interim period in my garage lab in Louisville, before setting up an expanded version in the mountains.  There will be quite a bit of construction  that needs to be done to the place to create the right environment. If I can keep the garage cool then I'll get hold of trout as that is what will be used at 10,000 feet. If it gets too warm here in town, then I'll have to destroy the trout and get Tilapia. Either way fish are going to have to die or find a new home as Tilapia can't live up in the mountains as the temperature swing will be 0 deg C to 20 deg C. I like the fact that Tilapia are herbivores and can eat lettuce and other vegetation that I'll be growing, as compared to the Trout who will require fish meal or bugs and worms. I still need to investigate a worm farm as part of the system.

The system needs to semi-automatic so I can leave for a couple of weeks at a time. I have 34 patents in the areas of disk drive and data robotic libraries, so I hope I can come up with a reliable system. I don't want to be trapped in a day-care system.

The biggest threat to success is whether this project can keep my interest. I have never been much on agriculture or water chemistry so there are loads of educational opportunities for me that I am looking forward to learn about. So... feel free to advise me!

Mike

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Not so much "need" as you seem to be doing more blogging on your website and I think this would be an interesting topic for you to write about as a post.  Always need to be looking for new material! 

To all,

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR FEEDBACK!  I am gleaning info as fast as I can, trying to learn from others and balancing that with trying to be innovative as well. I checked with the water engineers in my town and he said they only chlorinate the water, along with other stuff like fluoride, but no Chloramine. I did a chlorine test before the fish went in and it was unmeasurable and must have dissipated over the few days I was pumping it in and out, aerating the system. That's one chemical you can smell right away when you first fill the tank, and the smell went away after two days. I DID NOT check the ammonia before as I got the kit the same time as the fish, and was under pressure to get them into the environment before they ran out of air in the bag.

I just tested my tap water for ammonia and it was 0 PPM, I double checked the tank (and drain area) to insure I did not have any goldfish carcasses hiding around and the tank is clear. I tested the tank again and it was still over 8 ppm for ammonia, so the 20 dead goldfish or the 500ml of Nutrifin Cycle bacteria I added before the test, raised the level. I can either wait it out until the bacteria bring it down or replace the water and start fresh. Either way, until the ammonia is down to zero I don't want to add anymore goldfish until I know they'll stay alive (until the trout eat them). ;-)

Although I currently store the test tubes above the tank, I do not add the chemicals anywhere near the opening. Its just a convenient place to display my last test results. Maybe its a bad idea. I'm trying to find out how to get more vials so that I can have a before and after comparison. I can easily move them to the side, depending on what access I end up with. I'll add a tray on my 'mobile' unit to keep the test set on and have a place to add a clipboard.

FYI, the current temperature of the water in the fish tank is 55 degF and the garage is 62degF. I'd like to find a chiller to control the water temp when summer gets here so I can get experience with trout, rather than do warm water fish.

 

Ok the cool water will slow the cycling for a bit.  It will still cycle just have patience.

 

As to the high ammonia, I don't think I would start over from scratch but you might want to air out some water in prep for a partial water change to at least get the ammonia down into a readable range.

 

Or you could do a dilution test to find out what your ammonia level really is.  Again air out some water to get rid of the chlorine.  Then put equal amounts of the system water and the aired out tap water in a container and mix it up then run an ammonia test on this diluted sample.  Hopefully the reading will be down in the distinguishable range and you take that number times two to get what your real level is.  I've never had to run a dilution test on ammonia before but I used to always have to do that to know what my nitrate levels were in the early days on my big system.  That used to run high on the nitrates all the time.  Anyway, If the dilution test gives you a readable range on the ammonia, it will also tell you how much water you would need to change out with aired out tap water in order to get the ammonia levels down into a reasonable cycling level.  Just make sure to get rid of the chlorine from your water for the change or you will wind up creating chloramine in your tank which will really slow things down.

 

Good Luck.

Sylvia et.al.

The ammonia is still off-the-chart. I turned off the pump to inspect the tank through clear water, and I did see the flakes of goldfish food still there when I initially put them in the tank. I guess the fish were too freaked out with the move to think about eating. Then after I PH'd them to death, that left the food behind. I wouldn't imagine that that little bit of food in 200 gallons would make that big of a difference. You guys were right on. 

I'll have to see if I can vacuum out the bottom, or drain it and start over.

More Lesson's Learned: Wait to feed fish until they've settled in and exhibit signs of hunger (gnawing on each other?).


Sylvia Bernstein said:

My vote - it was absolutely the pH swing that killed the fish - been there, done that ;-). I'm with Mike that you probably have a dead fish in there somewhere causing that ammonia spike - again, been there and done that.

TC,

Thanks for your advice. The API website also says to try and lower the ammonia level by diluting the old water with new water. I'm curious...you said that adding chlorinated water to my current batch, high in ammonia,  will create Chloramine?

If I wait long enough, won't the growing bacteria eventually start converting the ammonia into nitrates, which is the end goal anyway?

If fish food can put ammonia in the tank, for cycling purposes, why bother putting in the fish? It seems that this would be a simpler version of pee-ponics, or am I not getting it?

 

I'll pull out some water and add some back in and see how it goes, if that is what you advise.

 

BTW, I dropped a test tube in the tank tonight as I was filling it. Fortunately, it was half full and floated open side up so it was easy to retrieve. I'll use a pipette from now on. :o)


TCLynx said:

Ok the cool water will slow the cycling for a bit.  It will still cycle just have patience.

 

As to the high ammonia, I don't think I would start over from scratch but you might want to air out some water in prep for a partial water change to at least get the ammonia down into a readable range.

Or you could do a dilution test to find out what your ammonia level really is.  Again air out some water to get rid of the chlorine.  Then put equal amounts of the system water and the aired out tap water in a container .  Just make sure to get rid of the chlorine from your water for the change or you will wind up creating chloramine in your tank which will really slow things down.

 

Good Luck.

Mike, my experience is that the test results in the test tubes will actually change over time so the result you see after 5 minutes isn't what you will see a day later.  Comparing the results in tubes isn't really feasible - most of us just write down the numbers daily.  I'm attaching a simple spreadsheet that I use just in case that comes in handy.

With regard to chilling the water in the summer it is doable, but expensive. Here is a link to a chiller we sell so you can check it out - http://www.theaquaponicstore.com/ActiveAqua-Chiller-1-4-HP-p/aashf0....  You don't get all that hot at 10,000 ft though, do you?

Attachments:

Time to start tracking temperatures to figure out if chilling is gonna be needed I guess.

 

Yea ya want to make sure the chlorine is outgassed before you go adding it into the high ammonia water there.

 

And if your ammonia is like crazy way too high (not sure how it happened) then it could impede the cycling process for some time before finally getting going.  If you can dilute the system water with clean water then you might have a better chance of getting things going quicker.

 

As to cycling with just fish food.  Yes it could work but I've noticed that fish food just thrown into a tank seems to pollute the water grow fuz and in general be kinda nasty.  It is also rather hard to remove the remains of old food and it shouldn't be left in when you get fish since uneaten feed tends to harbor lots of fish diseases.  Basically uneaten fish feed sitting in a tank is the perfect breeding ground for many of the fish disease bacteria that are usually around in small amounts.  If allowed to get out of control in uneaten feed, any new fish are going to have quite a time battling off the diseases when their immune systems are already stressed from the transport.

 

Would probably be better to let some raw shrimp rot in the tank than to try cycling with fish food.

Thanks again. BTW I hope the violent weather on the east coast is not affecting you.

So you're telling me that either way, I need to clean out my first mistake to get rid of the old flaky fish food. I visited a trout farm and noticed their food pellets float, which would make it easy to pull out.

Non-fish ammonia sources seem to be an interesting topic for unmonitored operation of an AP system that you could ignore for a couple of weeks. Hmmm.

Sylvia, The idea for the chiller was to gain experience with trout in a location (Louisville) where the electricity is plentiful (from the grid) before putting them in a more proper temperature environment (mountains).  I'm wondering if I could add a radiator (coils of tubing) in front of a small airconditioner  that I have in the garage to cool the pump flow. Just doing a little brainstorming here.

Sylvia Bernstein said:

Mike, my experience is that the test results in the test tubes will actually change over time so the result you see after 5 minutes isn't what you will see a day later.  Comparing the results in tubes isn't really feasible - most of us just write down the numbers daily.  I'm attaching a simple spreadsheet that I use just in case that comes in handy.

With regard to chilling the water in the summer it is doable, but expensive. Here is a link to a chiller we sell so you can check it out - http://www.theaquaponicstore.com/ActiveAqua-Chiller-1-4-HP-p/aashf0....  You don't get all that hot at 10,000 ft though, do you?

beware metals and fish
You bet, I was thinking of coils of plastic tubing, but I have to consider the head loss of the pump.

TCLynx said:
beware metals and fish

Update,

I drained the system, rinsed out the tank with a hose, then put 200 gallons back in from Louisville city water. The initial readings were pH 8.0+, Ammonia 0 ppm, Nitrites 0 ppm, .Nitrates 0 ppm, and Chlorine 1 ppm. The later is actually smaller than I thought so my town does not put much chlorine in the drinking water.

I decided to attempt lowering the pH again, and only put in 50ml (about a 1/3 cup). I was expecting that I would have to do several of these applications, but after a half hour, the pH measured 6.8 by the API test kit and by a 6-test litmus strip. I was hoping to hit 7.0 but again I swept past my mark in one application. Remember, the 1st time I did this I put in 1000ml based on a 1000:1 ratio from a smaller sample, so the previous attempt was why I killed the poor fish.

Ratios only work on linear scales, and I've recently learned that the pH scale is logarithmic, each whole number being 10 times greater or less than its neighbor. What is good for a 1000:1 at 6 pH becomes 100:1 at a 7ph. Oh, my. After 30 years of engineering in the physical sciences, I'm a now a novice at biology and chemistry. What fun.

 

I'll give it 24 hours to settle in and see what the pH is tomorrow, make a very slight change, then go buy some more goldfish. When are you allowed to add plants?

 

 

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