Aquaponic Gardening

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Hello All,

For the past year I've been thrilled to work on a building and maintaining a medium-sized aquaponic system at a local high school as a part of my job.  We're looking to expand to teacher training to include gardening in their curriculum, and not every school has access to an aquaponic system.  Instead of excluding aquaponics from our workshops, I challenged myself to build a bare-bones home system.

 

My bare-bones home aquaponic system -- designed to cost about $75. Materials were:
- 10 gal aquarium
- 5-15 gal air pump
- a handful of feeder goldfish
- 2 foot section of 4 inch PVC and endcaps
- 30-45 gal/hr fountain pump

I figured it would be less expensive to cycle with martyr fish that are doomed to die of ammonium toxicity than pay for a cycling starter.

I expected to have some trouble clogging up the pump, but with the intake covered in gravel and weekly rinsing, I haven't had any problems.

I also expected to have problems from a lack of light, but the plants seem green and happy and aren't stretching.


The system's been running relatively flawlessly for 3 weeks now.

 

I'm open to any tips and suggestions to improve before we start including this in workshops.

 

Click HERE for more pictures.

 

Thanks for your help, Amanda

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Looks good to me Amanda, but I'm  no expert - just learning myself. One thing I did when I started my second system I bought a package of the green scrubby pads from the dollar store, placed them in my first already up and running system for a week which allowed the good bacteria to establish themselves - there's a lot of surface area on them - then to start the second system i transferred the scrubbies into the new system. I managed to start the second system without loosing any fish.

Not sure if anyone else does this but it worked for me. Just make sure you get the scrubbies with no chemicals and I rinsed them out good before putting them in the tank.

Happy aquaponicing

That's a great idea!  

I did grab some gravel from the our established system at the high school, but I don't know how effective was at transferring bacteria.  Considering the fact that a few fish died right before the two week mark, my way probably didn't work that well.

Thanks for your help, Amanda

This is really cool. Are you using a bell siphon at all or just letting it run through and drain all on its own??? Looks awesome and very small, which I like as I want to experiment with in an apartment.

The small system and our larger greenhouse system both run continuously.  I've heard that it's easier on the pumps, and the plants don't seem to mind.

You're desire to experiment is exactly what I was feeling when I decided to do this.  Probably the most fun part is the flexibility involved -- you don't have to do everything exactly the same for this to work.  All you need is somewhere to hold the fish, somewhere to hold the plants, an air pump, and a water pump.

Thanks for your help, Amanda

With a such a low vertical distance (head) to overcome, could you use an air lift to move the water up and forgo the fountain pump?

Also, I don't see any reason why the goldfish would die of ammonia toxicity. I've "cold" started a couple small systems with goldfish and didn't have any problems.

I guess I'm just completely unfamiliar with the concept of an air lift, and we use a pump at the aquaponic system at my job.  Do you use an air lift?  Can you tell me more about it?

I've had ammonia toxicity issues starting the work system last year and my home system this year.  That's part of why we choose to start off with inexpensive feeder fish.  I think the fact that the feeder fish probably aren't kept very healthy in the store may play a part in their susceptibility to become easily stressed.  

Did you start your plants at the same time that you added fish?  I know that there are products that can be used to reduce ammonia toxicity in aquariums, but they're not recommended for use with plants.

I've played around with air lifts, but most systems tend to have too much head for them to be practical. A 10 gal system might be just right, though. A basic description is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airlift_pump and further Googling will give you more info. You can make a basic air lift with an aquarium air pump, air stone, and tubing. 

I started my most recent couple of systems with urea (converts to ammonia) and filters from my wife's aquarium (for bacteria), but in my first system I just chucked some goldfish in and went for it. Are you testing your water ammonia level and pH?

I have just the basic liquid test for pH and nitrogen that you can get at a pet shop.

Very cool information about the air lift pump!  I may try that out on my home system in the future.  The idea behind developing a simple, inexpensive system is to increase the number of school teachers that are able to do aquaponic gardening in class.  I see that for large systems an air lift can be inexpensive and the plans look a little confusing.  Do you think it would be simpler and around $15 to incorporate with a 10 gal aquarium?

Thanks for the info!

I'm not sure what you mean by "nitrogen". The most common kit I know of is the API Freshwater Master Test Kit, which includes pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate tests. You can monitor the cycling of your system with this, which should also be a great exercise for students. Keep in mind that ammonia toxicity is a function not only of ammonia level, but also temperature and pH (lower values of each tending to allow higher safe levels of ammonia).

I wouldn't be able to comment on whether an air lift would work for you without experimenting with your actual setup, sorry.


Amanda...In section "4.3.5.2 Airlift" of this PDF document http://www.backyardaquaponics.com/Travis/Aquaponics-Design.pdf (towards the last third of the doc) you will find the exact how's and why's that make an airlift work. There are also some very helpful diagram's with dimensional ratios you need to respect, as well as mathematical formulas that explain exactly how and why such an airlift is possible.

The rest of the document may also be of keen interest to an aquapon/educator. It is more academic than most stuff you'll come across (especially these days) which you might appreciate.

Here is a chart Rupert of Oz provided (pH/temps total ammonia nitrogen toxicity...

 Or...if you want to punish your students a bit, you can have them do it this way as well...

 To use the chart above in order to determine the amount of the toxic (un-ionized) form of ammonia (NH3) present in a given amount of total ammonia...you do the following:

1- Using the appropriate water test kit, determine the amount of total ammonia ion in your systems water
2- Determine the temperature and pH of the water.
3- Refer to the chart (below) and locate the numerical value that corresponds to the temperature and pH of your water.
4- Multiply this number by the reading for total ammonia (from step 1). The result is the amount of toxic un-ionized ammonia (in mg/L) in the water.

 For example...The pH is 7.0, the temperature is 18° C and the total ammonia reading is 0.8 mg/L. Locate the appropriate numerical value (in this example it is .0034). Multiply 0.8 times .0034; the result is .00272. This means that there is about .003 mg/L of NH3 in this example.

By Nitrogen I mean the 3 forms of N: ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate.  The kit tests for those forms, pH, and high pH.

Thanks for the info!

Jake Isaacs said:

I'm not sure what you mean by "nitrogen". The most common kit I know of is the API Freshwater Master Test Kit, which includes pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate tests. You can monitor the cycling of your system with this, which should also be a great exercise for students. Keep in mind that ammonia toxicity is a function not only of ammonia level, but also temperature and pH (lower values of each tending to allow higher safe levels of ammonia).

I wouldn't be able to comment on whether an air lift would work for you without experimenting with your actual setup, sorry.


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