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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Well see what the pH is tomorrow.  Sometimes with hard water you will bring the pH down but it has a tendency to bounce back up to don't get too eager yet.


Personally I would recommend doing the fishless cycling thing since you can do that a bit faster and stress free (no killing fish) if you want to avoid that again.


As for the plants, if you are starting from seed, do it anytime after the pH settles down.  If starting from seedlings or transplants, I would wait till you get past your initial ammonia spike.

Mike I built a solar collector out of 3\4 drip tube. The temps were as high as 140. degrees in the box during the day. My input to output temp raised about 4 degrees pumping 5 gal per minute thru the collector. It wasnt as successful as I was hoping. Water to its credit is very temp stable and it takes a lot of energy to raise it 1 btu or cool it. I buried my tank to take advantage of earths mass in cooling and heating. The water in the collector traveled thru 250 lf of pipe and still only moved 4 degrees so you are going to have to consider a chiller if water temps are your down side. You can see my collector on my page. Good luck and keep the tinkering mind sharp. hehe.
Mike hollllllllllllllllllllld on hehe. Look at system start ups on this site and follow their advice. Add some kelp extract  add plants and let run for a couple of weeks. Add a little ammonia and see if it drops in 24 hours an only then are you safe to add fish. Sylvia and TC are gurus on start up pick their brains on the details.

I've done some solar heating of water.  Trick is to move the water slowly through the solar collecting tubing if you want to see much heating.


But for chilling, I kinda doubt just putting a coil in front of a AC unit will see a big difference.  Some form of evaporative cooling might be more effective there but still might not be enough through the heat of summer to keep trout happy.

Yep, Mike...I'm with David.  I'm a big fan of getting plants into your system ASAP.  Add in some MaxiCrop (liquid seaweed) to help the roots establish and by the time you have things settled down enough for fish (I highly recommend following TC's advice and Fishless Cycle...all your concerns about swinging pH can go away ) your plants will be over their transplant shock and humming.  You can either get one of our kits or just get some Clear Ammonia at McGuckins.

And I like your idea about chilling the water!  Hope it works!  Are you getting trout from the place in Boulder?

David, Sylvia and TC, I bought some potted plants from Home depot (tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and spinach) that have yet to bloom, but I was waiting to put them in until I saw some bacterial activity. I had added 500ml of Nutrifin bacteria before that last water swap, so there should still be some on the Hydroton.

So if I am getting the advice right, I need to

1) make a chemical neutral environment (ph 7, chlorine 0, ammonia 0, etc)

2) put in the plants,

3) add goldfish or some other ammonia source

watch the ammonia and nitrate levels.

Does 2 and 3 occur at the same time?


A couple adjustments, Mike

  • I suggest going light on the fruiting plants and the spinach at the, the first 4 months of your system.  The fruiting plants (peppers and tomatoes) are going to be looking for potassium and calcium that won't really be available until you are not only cycled, but really have some solid waste that is breaking down as well.  Spinach loves iron, which again could be in short supply until things get cranking.  What you will have plenty of, however, is nitrogen so I recommend focusing on those leafy greens to start for the first few months.
  • I recommend adding in some Maxicrop to give the plants something to eat until the nitrates kick in.  Also helps them root better.  Either get if from me, or Boulder Hydro
  • I think you meant watch the ammonia and nitrite levels...

Otherwise, as far as I'm concerned, you have a plan you can run with!

1st, get rid of chlorine

2nd, adjust pH (you don't need to be at 7, systems cycle just fine anywhere in the 7-7.9 area.)  Adjust it and get it to stay stable below 8 for a day or so then move to next step.

3rd.  add your ammonia source.  If you go with fish, things will be much slower and you should start with only a modest number of fish.  I recommend fishless cycling (and Sylvia sells a kit for that now even.)


Ammonia should spike first and shortly there after you should also start seeing Nitrites.  The Nitrite spike usually lasts longer and it isn't until both the nitrite and ammonia are back to 0 that life is really good again for the fish.  If you fishless cycle you have the spikes without subjecting the fish to them.  If you cycle with fish you still have to have a certain amount of spiking to get the bio-filter built up but you have to control it by witholding feed and water changes which slow the process and extend the period of time the fish are in the spiking water and being put on short rations etc.


Nitrates show up sometime during cycling and slowly rise unless you have some plants in to keep em in check.  If you fishless cycle I would definitely get plants in as soon as your first Ammonia spike starts to subside.  If starting seeds, you can probably do it anytime after pH adjustment is done.  If cycling with fish, just keep in mind the plants will be waiting a little longer for their nitrates and they will come a bit slower so if cycling with fish lettuce might be the best first plant and other leafy greens with it.  As Sylvia said.


Some maxicrop can help getting plants established and providing trace elements that take much longer to break down from fish food.

Tonights measurements: Chlorine 0.5 ppm, Nitites and Nitrates 0 ppm, ph 7.8-8.0, and ammonia 2.0 ppm.

I must have had some left-over residue in the grow bed that has now rinsed off by the new water and is now being pumped through. The ph went up from yesterday, and I think TC said that would happen once the bacteria start growing. Is this amount of ammonia enough to feed the bacteria?

My wife will put the tomatoes, peppers and spinach in the ground and I'll just start with lettuce.

Sylvia, can I buy Maxicrop from you on the weekend (pickup) or are you strictly mail order? Does it get poured in the tank or just scattered on the top of the grow bed. With or without pumping?

I put my pump on a timer so that it turns on for 15min every half hour. That is enough to fill and drain the grow bed once then wait another half hour. Is this a bad idea? I was looking at ways to conserve energy.

Hey Mike. The ph reading you are getting is a false reading due to the ammonia with throw your test off so dont sweat it right now. The ammonia will start to fall and the nitrites will rise. Then the nitrites will fall and nitrates will go up. 2.0 ammonia is great to start. Plant the crap out of lettuce cabbage onion bulbs garlic they all thrive in young systems. When your ammonia is at zero and your nitrates are reading you have a working system. I dumped 1600 gal or water twice in my start up and said alot of cuss words like go buck a fuzzard. hehe. So you are on the right track. When you get to zero on the ammonia add fish and test everyday and control ammonia by holding the feed if it rises above .5. Your system will crank on after that. Try to get your water temp up be putting it out in the sun but keep the tank shaded. Try to get your water to 70. Your drain cycle is ok for now. Sylvia does 15 run 45 off but her system is cycled. I continuously run but my siphons kick in every 20 minutes. Put Tomatoes in when your fish have been in for a couple of weeks. Rock on............D

Warmer water will speed cycling.  And if you want to cycle quicker, the more pump cycles you run the faster cycling will be.  There is a trade off between saving electricity and getting cycled quickly.  Once the system is cycled up you can then work on adjusting the pumping to find the right balance between good water quality and happy plants and minimal electrical use (this may vary depending on fish load and temperature depending on fish type.)

Mike, you can come pick up Maxicrop here if you like.  Shoot me a private email message and we can arrange the details offline.  You want to pour it in the tank so it circulates with everything else.

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