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!








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Mike like your start so far. As far as being able to walk away for two weeks at a time I really dont think that will be successful with aquaponics. The fish feed needs to be monitored just as any livestock does. You can sneek away for a long weekend with auto feeders but thats about it. Aquaponics is amazing and addiciting but not a low maintenance option. The fish can be fickle and change eating habits with temp swings and a hundred other reasons. It is farming and that takes plaing ol babysitting have to say. Find a good house sitter and train on how to feed and you are good to go on long trips.

Instead of tilapia, I might suggest you choose a native warm water fish that can survive cool water but grow well in warm water.  Blue Gill, perch or catfish are the ones I would probably recommend.  Tilapia might have the benefit of being able to eat plants but I wouldn't call them herbivores they are omnivores and you definitely only get the super fast growth with tilapia when you are feeding them a higher protein feed and providing them with rather warm water.  They barely eat or grow at all if the water is below 70 F.


As to being able to walk away for weeks at a time.......   I leave for a week at a time on a regular basis but I'll warn that automatic feeding is dangerous.  Now if you are really into tinkering with the electronics, sensors, monitors and controls then perhaps this project will keep your attention just for that, however, when testing out the electronics and the first few trips away will be dangerous because what do you do if the internet at the greenhouse needs to be re-set and if something is going wrong while you are gone and you can't adjust it remotely, who do you call to actually walk in there and know how to fix it for you?  I know of no way to automatically scoop out excess uneaten feed and that is the primary cause of fish illness in my personal experience.  Uneaten feed seems to grow nasty bacteria and foul the water (even when the water tests say all is fine.) 


But on a side note.  (provided the yuck factor doesn't scare you off) I ran a pee ponics system for over a year and that seems to provide very similar nutrients to aquaponics and it's free (or actually some people have to pay to flush it away so even better than free.)  You can keep a system cycled up between batches of fish pee ponically too.  Let me know if you are interested in the details since there are ways to make it relatively safe too.

David and TCLynx,

Thanks for your quick responses. I am on such a steep learning curve so I relish being corrected with wise counsel. It will save me a lot of money and frustration in the long run.

One of the things I do not envy up in the mountains is our friends and neighbors who have horses and other critters like numerous dogs and small livestock that keeps them chained to their homestead. They can never leave without jumping through hoops so they can never come 'down' to visit overnight when we are in the front range of Colorado (near Boulder). However they are great people to have around as they would be able to tend to our place when we are away. I was trying to avoid such a situation though.

I definitely want to learn more about pee-ponics. That would be a solution for a scenario when we are away off and on for a season (we are retired now and want to travel). When we are there for a long period we can raise fish and harvest them before its time to go away. Interesting thoughts.

Last night I started the pump system after adding the Hydroton media. It was surprising to find out that stuff floats, rising and falling with the fill cycle.   I have a 550 GpH pump which I diverted half the flow back into the fish tank. It takes 10 minutes to fill and 4 minutes to drain with the pump running all the time. What is the optimal cycle?

I was hoping to be able to put the pump on a timer to save energy, but I do not know, yet, the rules for keeping the plant roots wet.

I'm still partial to native trout, especially if I can get some real natural foodd in their bellies to turn their flesh pink.



With the Clay, you want to set your flood such that the media is not floating up and down during the flood cycle.  Generally you want to have the flood to about an inch below the media surface.  Perhaps you want to let the media soak for a day in water so it won't be quite so prone to floating.


Optimal flood and drain cycles are a debated topic.  Some people run constant flood, some run the siphons with the constant pumping, others will run timed flood and drain with a stand pipe.  The optimal will be when you have enough flow to keep the fish tank water quality good.  The minimum is generally to pump at least the volume of your fish tank each hour and when keeping trout you will want to pump more than that and add additional air too.


Here is a link to a forum thread about Pee Ponics which you might find useful.

Pee Ponics

Fish not being fed for two weeks isn't a major problem.  People doing their system cycling with fish can encounter situations in which they need to stop feeding the fish---for the length of period of time it takes to clear up the problem. Because the fish are suspended in the water and use little energy for motion, and because they are cold blooded and don't use energy to heat their bodies (unlike the 70% of our calorie intake that goes to maintain our body temperature), they aren't going to starve without food for two weeks.  Of more concern would be equipment failure.  Being off grid, you aren't going to worry about a power failure like the rest of us, but a pump not working will likely soon be fatal.

Yea fish normally can go quite a while without feed.  However, when you first get small fingerlings, if they are really little, you may need to make sure they are fed more often as the little guys don't have the reserves to survive fasting for long.  This is actually why many species of fish can't take the cold when they are really little, it isn't that the cold kills them, it that they can't handle going without food for that long and fish don't eat when it gets too cold for them to eat. 


So you want to plan getting fry or fingerlings when you will be home to monitor and feed more regularly.

Its now a week later, the pump is recirculating and I have begun water testing. The pump flow is split between filling the grow bed and returning to the fish tank. The return is terminated with a 2ft ( 60cm) horizontal section of 3/4 PVC that has a row of 1/8" (3mm) holes drilled in line on a 1/4" (6mm) pitch. This is used to constantly aerate the water. The 1" PVC loop siphon drain is split at a 'T' below the grow bed under the cover of the IBC fish tank and two sections of pipe are added that have also been drilled for additional aeration during the drain phase of the siphon.It really churns up the water, especially when both waterfalls are on, as you can see by the photos below.

For convenience sake, I added a water level indicator on the side of the tank, an electrical outlet for the pump (and timer if needed), mounted an indoor/outdoor digital thermometer on the tank(outdoor probe is attached to the pipe inside the fish tank)  and I drilled the rim to use as a test tube rack during water tests.


Unfortunately my chemistry skills and biology knowledge are not on the same par with my engineering ability and in trying to lower the PH I killed my first batch of goldfish. 

4 mistakes


1) I did not realize that fish do not like a PH change of more than 0.2 in 24 hours.

2) I modified a small quantity (2000ml) of my water then used the same ratio for the larger (200 gallons) volume...all at once.

3) I did not introduce the 'PH down' in small increments. I went from over 8 to under 6 in one application.

4) I did not have any 'PH up' to correct my previous error.

5) I should have waited to put the sacrificial goldfish fish in until AFTER I adjusted the water chemistry.

I've added a jug of bacteria, but am now having issues with a very high ammonia content (off-the-chart), even though there are no fish present (they were only in my tank a few hours). I assume the the off-the-shelf-bacteria treatment comes with its own ammonia 'food' to keep it alive on the shelf?


You are now a true aquapon. I have a batch of cats to go with your golds. Not sure why your ammonia is so high. Bacteria normally doesnt cause a off the chart spike. Any chance some dead fish still in the system somewhere. Uneaten fish food will also cause a spike.
There was a pinch of goldfish food (shrimp based) that none of the fish touched. I'll try testing again tomorrow. Thanks for your encouragement!

David Waite said:
You are now a true aquapon. I have a batch of cats to go with your golds. Not sure why your ammonia is so high. Bacteria normally doesnt cause a off the chart spike. Any chance some dead fish still in the system somewhere. Uneaten fish food will also cause a spike.

Was your ammonia level high before you started tinkering with the pH?


That kind of ammonia level is what I would expect to have killed the fish so fast though the pH shift that drastic wouldn't have been healthy for them either.


Was this treated city water?  Chlroamine when neutralized will actually leave you with ammonia in your water.  So for those cycling up a system with chloramine treated water, I recommend no fish.  Neutralize the chlorine which will leave you with ammonia to start your fishless cycling.


Otherwise I don't know.


As to doing the test tubes over the tank like that, I would probably urge you to step away from the tank.  Breaking glass in a fish tank is really bad luck (seeing as it is nearly impossible to get it out and wet skin and glass usually mean bad cuts.)  Also, some of the re-agents would be bad for the fish if they were to spill or drip into the tank.


Also as plants grow, you won't have much space for your materials up there anyway.


At least use a towel covered tray below the test tubes if you must keep your testing set up there but I would recommend setting up a little towel covered work station near by and you can just use the test kit tray as your test tube holder.  I use some container to collect a water sample and then a turkey baster to fill the test tubes to the line and run the tests.  I keep a notebook and pencil or pen there to write down the results and take notes (could be handy for figuring out proper dosing)  Also over at my little testing station I have a timer.  The towel is handy for wiping the rim of the nitrate test tube after you shake it the first time since when you take the cap back off there will be a drip on the outside of the tube and that stuff is an irritant you don't really want on your skin when you pick the tube up again to shake it for a minute.  I have a good light over the testing station to make it easier to read the test tube colors under a consistent light.  Keep the color cards protected from bright light when not in use as some of the colors will fade with age.

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, Mike probably doesn't have Chloramine in his water because is pretty rarely (if ever) used in the treatment of water in Colorado. Great tips about a "testing station"! You should write a blog post about your setup, TC, along with some images...

Hum, I think I have partially done that, at least did some videos of water testing.  But you are right perhaps I need to expand on that. 


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