Aquaponic Gardening

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Our “I’m in over my head” CHOP2 system. (long version) Do over

A little back ground and the construction:

Being that Jenny (wife) and I are both Vegetarians we decided to start a garden a few years ago. Just before we got started with the project along came TJ (son) who is 2 years old now and what started out to be a simple few plants in the dirt turned into a 2 year project of research, saving money and building what we have today.


Since we don’t trust what we’re buying in the market, we decided to grow all our own food and planted a bunch of fruit trees, blueberries, blackberries and avocado trees around the property. Next on the list… the Aquaponics system from hell.


 The Greenhouse is 16x24 and took me months to build. Between work and the kid, this thing dragged on forever. As I was building and researching I fell across and finally found the 8 grow beds I wanted. Not easy to find really nice ones in the USA!  Thank you to Sylvia and Alan for putting up with me until I finally placed my order. Of course if you’re going to do it… do it big… I ordered 4 more grow beds for a total of 12.


 That done (and not doing the proper research) I ordered a 700 gallon Fish Tank and a 300 gallon Sump for my CHOP2. The Tank is 6’ long, 5’ high and 40” wide. The size was due to the limited space I was trying to get it into. I cut a port hole into the side so TJ can see the fish and planned to bury the Tank ½ way into the ground. As it arrived I realized there was no way to get a 40” wide Tank through a 32” wide doorway! So tear out the front of the green house, stuff the tank in, rebuild, 2 more days gone. That seems SO FAR to be the only real issue we’ve had.


 Buried the sump and tank, built the stands, plumbed it all up and fired up the pump to marvel in what we built!


 Well….maybe not. I knew the (Bull Frog?) pump was oversized at 3000gph, but it only drew 130 watts and pretty much has a 99% non-failure rate running 24/7. Of course I got two just in case because I always get the 1% that fails. To make sure I was covered I ran 2, 2” drains back to the sump. Well that wasn’t enough. The water came over the top of the tank within minutes. Besides that, the Fish Tank is actually a HAZMAT containment tank so it couldn’t handle the weight of the water and the top bowed out 2 feet from where it started! So replaced all the 2” drains with 3”, built a bar to skirt around the tank and filled it all up again. Seemed to do the trick although its right there at the drain back capacity.


 So as of last night (05/26/11) the system up and running again. We are now letting the chlorine go away and this weekend we will start the fishless cycling with the starter kits we got from Sylvia. You can see by the pictures, we filled on the one side (7 beds) with Hydroton and the other side we will fill with ¾ River Rock as that is all our left over budget can handle. Going to run by the local nursery that has several huge Koi ponds and ask them for some rocks to put in our grow beds and see if that doesn’t speed up the process. Fish for now will be Red Comet Gold Fish when ready until we learn the system and we will replace them with Tilapia. Even though we wont eat them, I’m sure I’ll have no problem finding takers when they out grow the tank.


 Don’t think he’s on this Forum, but I do want to say a special thank you to Mike Shambarger for all his time answering my endless emails and putting up with my stupid questions. Seems like all the research in the world is nothing like doing it yourself and learning by doing. Like not needing an auto filler on a constant height Fish Tank. Shade cloth in So.California is a must after it hit 110 degrees (without the fans on) and it was only 90 outside. 


 Next comes the 5 strawberry/herb hanging towers (building the stand now) and about 4 wicking beds to grow potatoes, brown onions and such.


 Haven’t looked into it yet, but any thoughts on clams/mussels in the sump to help keep things clean? Alright, open minded for any criticism or help to make this a successful outcome for my family. Jeff

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Hi Jeff,

No more dosing of ammonia 8 ppm is the upper limit and beyond this will slow cycling for a long time. Ammonia at 8ppm in a cycled system should take about 24-48 hours for bacteria to "digest" completely. So if after this period you get all zero readings all is good. If after the 24-48 you get the zero reading, dose again to 1ppm-4ppm ammonia and look for a zero within 24 hours, if this happens you're cycled.

STOP Dosing!!!!!!!

It really doesn't require super high ammonia to cycle.  Let the ammonia come down.  And I would actually wait till you can see that the nitrite is dropping as well before dosing the ammonia again.  I've cycled several systems by only dosing to about 1-2 ppm of ammonia and that has been fine unless you are going to put in a huge full grown fish load to start.

Of the 1000 plus gallons of water in my system, I've only added 3 tablespoons of powdered ammonia over the first few days which gave me a reading of 2 ppm. I never added anymore over the past week+ and the levels kept rising. Since my beds are all Hydroton, I just assumed the PH down stuff I'm using is what put the levels through the roof.

:You really shouldnt try to adjust the ph during the start up IMO. High Ammonia will screw with your ph readings. Let the system cycle like you are and leave the ph alone for a while. And plant the heck out of the system as soon as you can. Once you are cycled and stable adjust slowly.

So what all has been added to the system if you only dosed the first few days?

Ammonia, 3 tbsp


What is the pH down stuff?


Had you added seaweed extract or was it more like powdered kelp meal or something else?  One needs to be aware that seaweed extract usually doesn't have much in the way of nitrogen but kelp meal or seaweed plus fish emulsion will produce an added bio load and ammonia.


Have you checked to make sure no critters fell in the tank and died?  Frogs, lizards, etc?  Any living creatures that die and decompose in a system will produce ammonia big time.  Small lizards may be really great at scurrying up almost anything but smooth plastic tank sides might be more than they can handle without an escape ramp and without an escape they drown.

Here is what I've been using to get the PH levels down. They are finally holding at 7.15. After reading the label a few days ago, I'm going to ASSUME this is what made my Ammonia hit 8ppm? We havent added anymore PH down for a week and ammonia is still 8ppm. Last night Jenny started planting the beds and we will keep monitoring the levels. Nitrites are still off the chart and the Nitrates are finally coming up. Water temp seems to go between 74 and 79 degrees, and I keep the tank and sumps mostly covered. Once I can get this ammonia issue under control I will order up our fish. Got the swamp cooler up and running in prep for the hot So Cal heat.

Thank you everyone for the feedback and keep it coming. I still feel clueless everytime I walk into the green house. Jeff

Oh, yea that would definitely cause ammonia issues.  Both the ammonium sulfate and the urea phosphate!!!!  And then the Citric Acid is probably not a good choice when trying to cycle up a bio-filter either.
You need to stop using that. Citric acid kills bacteria. Just go to the hardware store and buy some muratic in the cement or paint section. Use it a tsp at a time. Dont use that it will kill what you are trying to grow bacteria. Citric is one of the taboos as far as a acid goes to adjust ph.

Hi Jeff,

The citric acid will inhibit/destroy your nitrifying bacteria. Since you're getting nitrite and nitrate readings this shows some bio-filtration is taking place, so all is not lost. If after a few days of stopping the product you find the ammonia is taking a very long time to get a zero reading, you'll need to dose back to 1ppm-4ppm ammonia until you get a zero reading within the 24 hour period.If you can't get a zero within the 24 hours over some time passes you may have to replace system water and re-cycle, let's hope it won't have to come to that!

GREAT! Alright, thanks for the input everyone. This morning the Ammonia was still at 8 and the nitrites were still off the chart. Nitrates are back to zero. Jenny was busy planting last night and the night before. All the plants are doing great.... this morning anyway. We are hoping the plants will start bringing the ammonia levels down?


It is the bio-filter bacteria that will bring the ammonia and nitrite down.  The plants take care of nitrates.

But at this point, who knows how high you ammonia actually has been.  You might want to run a dilution test on ammonia and nitrite to see if you can find out how high they really are.  There is much debate about how high is too high on the ammonia for fishless cycling but if the ammonia doesn't drop a bit soon you might need to look at a partial water change to reduce the ammonia levels a little.

Thank you, I think I'll bite the bullet and change out some of the water. Should I just do 80/100 gallons a day and watch it, or just dump 1/2 (600gallons) and start over? For some reason the PH dropped last night? We were holding steady at 7.1 and this morning it was down to 6.5. This is so annoying :-)

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