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We just started our IBC aquaponics system a few weeks ago.  We're in the process of Fishless Cycling; our fish (channel catfish, black crappie, and bullhead minnows) will be here sometime in May.  We have ten IBC fish tanks and grow-beds.  We're using washed pea-gravel for the growing media.  We have 200 gallons of water in each tank with water pumps in each to deliver water to the grow-beds.  The water in the grow-bed reaches nearly the top of the pea-gravel and the overflow drains back into the tank.  Being a newbie, I'm not sure of the terms I should be using for our system.  You can probably tell from the pictures.  We washed the roots of the seedlings you see in the picture and transplanted them into the grow-beds.  We’ve planted some seeds in the grow-beds too.  We just added some heirloom tomato plants – we’re not sure how well they’ll do, but everything we’ve been doing so far has been trial and error.  The seedlings have grown to almost double in size and most of the seeds are sprouting.  Please keep reading below the pictures - WE NEED HELP...


Here’s our dilemma: we’ve been adding ½ cup of clear household ammonia (because we couldn’t find pure ammonia locally and didn’t want to spend a fortune on shipping) to the tanks each day (to reach 5 ppm) and a quart of Maxicrop Liquid Seaweed (without iron) to each tank for the past two weeks.  We test the water in one or two tanks daily.

The tanks have tested high (8 ppm) for ammonia for the past three days.  The weather is getting warm here in Mississippi now, and as you can see from the pictures, we have an open greenhouse over the tanks, so the water is now nearly 65 degrees.  We’re not seeing any test results for nitrites yet and pH is between 7.8 and 8.  We understand that with the ammonia being so high, it may be hindering the nitrosomonas from colonizing – we’re not sure because we’re getting conflicting information.  Since we don’t have any fish at the moment, should we just discontinue adding ammonia each day (which we already have) and wait for the bacteria to catch up, or drain and refill the tanks?  We really don’t want to have to drain and refill because our only source of water is municipal, so it contains chlorine and may take us right back to square one.

Last week, the water accumulated algae and became a murky green color, so we added some Hydra Bio-Aquatic Bacteria Boost® to the water, hoping that would help rid the water of algae and speed the cycling process since it contains nitrosommonas, nitrobacter, and nitrospira.  The water was much clearer (at least until we added Maxicrop).

So the ammonia is high now and there’s no nitrite according to our tests (we’re using an API Freshwater Master Test Kit).  Our fish will be arriving any day now (sometime in May), so we REALLY need to get cycled.  Can anybody offer some good advice?  Is our system "FUBAR" now?

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Hi Donna

I was wondering how your system is going by now?

all the best,


Sure would like to know how this set up is going?

I have lots of advice! 

Donna Fielder said:

Hi George David,

I called you Tom earlier, so sorry.  I can't remember my own name most days!  I think I just replied to the wrong post.

I'm sorry that you haven't received much help on the forum.  I hope I've helped a little, but I'm still learning myself.  You really can't duplicate what another person is doing because every system is a little different in some way; it's a lot of trial and error.  We've learned a lot from other, more experienced people and from books, but we've learned a lot on our own along the way too.  It sounds like all you really need to do is a little more research and experimentation.  Good luck with your system!

George David said:


Thanks for your info. I was asking questions on the forum and got a kind of rude comment to read that book I was talking about. I didn't get a kind response, like from you. I will try to add a lot more water to mine at least double it. I have about 12 plants in mine. Tomato, peppers, spices, and squash. The japs and tomatoes are starting to yield all ready. I even put my 9 year old's venus fly trap in there, he begged me. Any way thanks again.

Donna Fielder said:

Thanks Tom!

We've really made a lot of progress on our system since I last posted.  Our tanks (except one) are completely cycled now and our vegetables are taking off - they've more than quadrupled in size and have blooms on them.  We drained our tanks and refilled them to get our ammonia level down to less than 5 ppm per 200 gallons and the bacteria settled in - we got nitrites and nitrates within just a few days.  Now, our tanks go from less than 5 ppm of ammonia down to 0 ppm in 24 hours.  Since we don't have our fish just yet, we still add ammonia to about 4 ppm daily to feed the bacteria until our fish arrive.  The plants aren't using all of the nitrates, so we're probably going to add more growbeds.

I've never heard or read that the growbeds per tank have to be 1 to 1.  You want enough plants to use up the nitrates (ideally) and have no ammonia or nitrites.  The ammonia and nitrites should be converted by the bacteria within a 24 hour period.  The more fish, the more ammonia, and the more nitrates.  You want to keep a balance and remember that ammonia and nitrites are dangerous to fish, so you want to eliminate them, and the end result of eliminating them is nitrates, and that's what plants thrive on.  Then, if nitrates are high, you need more plants (or some heavier feeding plants - like corn, for example).  As far as the number of fish is concerned, the amount of fish per tank depends upon their weight, not the quantity.  You can learn a lot from the other members of this site!

Our biggest mistake was adding too much ammonia - we were up to over 8 ppms before we drained the tanks.  Once the chlorine evaporated, we tested the tanks and only added ammonia if it tested below 4 ppm.  Too much ammonia can definitely hinder the cycling process.  I also purchased some ammonia online that is 10% ammonia and 90% water (no phosphates or other additives) - which helps too.

We stopped adding anything else and let nature take it's course and within just a couple of days, we were seeing results.  It was odd that the first tank to cycle was the one closest to our rabbit shed.  But then, I think the bacteria we were looking for came from the rabbit shed, which has plenty of ventilation.  We have hay on the floor of the rabbit shed to catch droppings and urine (which of course, contains ammonia).  We keep it pretty clean in there, but it's nowhere near sterile - so that's what led to my theory about the bacteria (since it's airborne) coming from the rabbit shed.  You can see the rabbit shed in some of my pictures (the building behind the greenhouse).  The tank that cycled first is the last one on the right (right next to the gate of the rabbit shed).

Tom Dumas said:

Donna great looking system. I can understand your reasoning for separate systems and pumps but you now have 10 distinct habitats that will always be different do to weather, tank positioning, fish, plant type etc. This will require a lot of detailed recording to keep things running properly.  Jim has given you great advise on starting down the right path. It takes 2 weeks to 6 months just for your system to cycle and 6 months to a year or more to mature. I was like you and couldn't wait to start planting.  Not a big mistake if you can take disappointment. Plants need food and you system doesn't have any.  Yes the maixcrop and some nutrient in the grow media will promote some growth but only to a point.

Since you have so many separate systems check out the fishless forum and read Vlad's postings.  He is very knowledgeable and grows wonderful plants without fish. This will allow you to grow plants has your fish system gets running.

The fish you plan on purchasing won't even come close to what you need to sustain your grow bed.  Jim's comment on the fish ration is so true but that takes time to get fish that size. 

You may want to reconsider so many separate FT tanks.  Your systems looks to be laid out so it wouldn't be much of a problem to link several of them together.  2000 gallons of FT tank is over kill and you couldn't fit the needed additional grow beds into the greenhouse.

Don't get discouraged a little tweaking here and there plus time and you will be feeding the neighborhood.  Tom

Any updates on your system?


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