Aquaponic Gardening

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My system is a 10-gallon tank with a 1:1 ratio to a gravel-filled grow bed. I have three 3-inch long goldfish, and I keep my water at 75 deg F. I am using a bell siphon on a CHOP 2 system design. I got my system set up on November 26, and today my system is fully cycled. Here is what I've learned so far. 

  • Aquarium gravel costs five times what pea gravel costs
  • Bell siphons are difficult to set up, but fun and worthwhile. I would really like to see a pamphlet published about bell siphon science that clearly explains how it works and how to manipulate the various factors involved to be able to fit the siphon to an individual system and just to be able to adjust the thing so it works the way the owner wants it to the first time rather than spending time and money on trial and error. I may get around to this in a couple years if someone doesn't beat me to it. 
  • I learned why we use gravel guards. I don't have a gravel guard and I haven't had any problems yet with it clogging up, but I realized after filling my grow bed with gravel and planting flowers and a few seeds in it that I may want to remove my bell some day to adjust my system or clean it out. 
  • pH can be unpredictable when you make adjustments to your system. Make adjustments slowly--one per day to allow the system to stabilize before retesting and deciding what the next step should be (unless it is an emergency situation and you know exactly what you are doing or have the advice of someone else who does) This is slightly different from the commonly known wisdom of limiting pH adjustments to no more than one point per day. In my case, I thought I was limiting the adjustment to less than one point per day. I just didn't know how long it would take for the change to hit the test readings, so I added more decreaser when I should have waited. 

That's it for now. Thanks for reading. I hope this will be of some help to some other newbie out there. If any of this looks like false doctrine to the more experienced crowd, please let me know!

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Hi Cameron, great topic. Been meaning to post just such a topic. Here are just a few things out of hundreds that I learned the hard way.

Here is where I learned how to make the simple fail safe siphons that I use (and sell) in my IBC system and they are as simple as it gets. After reviewing dozens of complicated methods I immediately related to Affnan's KISS advice and designs. He does get into the weeds a bit design wise but the resulting design is genius in it's simplicity. I use no traps to get plugged up with roots and gravel and have never needed the "break" tube which also tends to plug eventually. The only maintenance I perform is to rotate the gravel guard every month or so to cut off any roots that tend to grow into the siphon (any siphon). That's it. Learned that on Youtube. The more macro rather than micro the better when dealing with the constantly changing conditions in AP. Small tubes, traps, etc will lead to failure eventually in my experience.

Pea gravel gets real cheap when you buy by the ton and if you are serious about feeding your family you do need tons of media. I now, after much searching, pay only 18.00 per ton and that fills 2 ibc GBs to 12-14".

In a large family feeding system of 1500 gals PH changes very slowly as do temp swings, etc, so larger is easier in many ways.

Let your air pump assist your pond pump (keeping energy $ at a min) by placing the air stones over your FT drain pipe as that rising current brings most of the waste right to the bottom exit keeping the waste to a min. I use a 25' siphon hose, short 1" pvc section, with a vac crevice tool at the end to clean what's left on the bottom corners about once a month. I also now use a T at the exit so if something clogs it simply overflows into the drain where it should rather than all over the floor. I also cut a skimmer 1/4" wide slot in the middle of the T to skim the surface of old food, etc. Just like swimming pool science.

I have also learned to or rather NOT to GLUE anything until you are sure you got it right because you probably did not the first time (or even the second time) IE siphon height. I don't glue the siphons above the TA's at all anymore. Keep in mind that glue is toxic as well as pvc. The less the better.

Everything should flow down hill. No areas to trap anything. Don't over size pipes as that slows flow and gives bacteria a place to grow and plug things up.

Most times you don't need expensive valves as they are the most expensive part of your plumbing system. Just rotate a 90 to control flow to your GBs. The only valve in my 1500 gal system I use to control flow thru the woodstove coil to keep the coil restricted in order to avoid condensation from running out the bottom of the stove. (it really stinks and can rot out your heater) Old fashioned valves are best for control as the ball valves are much harder to fine adjust. They're getting very hard to find so grab them when you see them. I use the garden "Y's" with the twin ball valves to control flow to the FTs. Cheap. I really only close them for tank maintenance or mods. Otherwise they run full open anyway.

When purchasing your pvc pipe get the cheaper S&D (sewer and drain) thinwall pipe as the interior volume is quite a bit larger and it costs you less. We are not dealing with 600# pressure in AP so the 200# test pipe is much better bang for your buck.

Try to design your system so that your pump is in a CLEAN water sump and it, the most expensive item in your system, lasts longer, much longer, than if it has to pump solids.

I could, and probably will, write a book on all I have learned in my 1st year but this is a start and a very good thread idea. I find that the devil is in the details with AP as in so many other things so the more heads up we give and get the better. Just the above notes would have saved me a lot of time and money. For example I never tuned into the S&D grade pipe until shipping my siphons cross country became an $ issue and now I use it for the whole system. Just one of about 100 things I have never read on a forum and had to figure out for myself. Details can make or break a system. KISS.

For photos of some of the things I mention here just click on my avatar.

Great thread and I hope I have helped someone. I'm sure I have stepped on someone's toes, but OH WELL

One more thing on another topic that I have learned is to make a copy of any long "comment" before posting it as they have a bad habit of disappearing into the ether. I don't know about you but I am never as inspired the second time I have to rewrite something. This time I remembered!

Oooooooh....where do you get gravel for 18.00/ton? What size fish tank do you use a ton of gravel to match? Nevermind, just read you have a 1500 gallon system. I do want to feed my family, and I would eventually like to get into commercial aquaponics. But I have to start somewhere, so here I am. Thanks Jim for imparting the wisdom. I know it takes time and energy, and I know how writing a long post that gets lost can be oh so depressing, especially when you wrote it on your phone and it was a LOT of work. I have tended to write in a wp document for that reason. Anyway, thanks again and I'll be checking out your pictures and leaving comments. 

We have a granite quarry just over the mtn. in Mtn City, TN and they make all sizes of pebble and grade it and wash it very well. I take our 2 ton trailer over and get a 1-2 ton scoop when I need it. The earlier 3 gbs have river sand stone gravel at 40.00 a ton but so far I like the granite better. Far less to wash out and granite dust is a much sought after mineral sup for plants anyhow. Stays looking a whole lot better than the river stone as well. Please join our IBC group to learn lots more about IBC systems and I will try to get some more discussions going as well. I love the IBCs in every way. Recycling is a passion of mine.

I try to use 330 ibcs for 5 fts and 275s for 10 gbs. Here is a composite pic looking down the FT row and the 5 gbs on the other side of the divider curtain. Some but not all the fts are wrapped in insulation. Next year the ft room will be properly closed in and insulated and the gh will be double insulated as well. My mega woodstove hot water heater (recycled drums and a slide show of the build at my page) is taking up the slack very well for now. Just tarps for this Winter and 4 mil poly for the gh. We have had 19F nights and 60 mph winds and so far so good (but scary) Looking forward to a real gh roof next year.

What does gbs mean? 

Sorry Cameron, AP (aquaponics) abs (abbreviations)

gbs - grow beds

gh = greenhouse

ft = fish tank

ibc = International Bulk Containers

And I see I missed a question: As a rule of (my) thumb I figure since I use full ibcs for fts (rather than cut the top 1/3 off for gbs) I should have at least two 12 - 14" deep ibc gbs per fish tank. Of course it depends on density of fish and plants and time of year (temps for bacteria action). I am running at 1/3 - 1/2 potential fish density at the moment (50 trout and 18 cats) as I am still very much in the learning phase when it comes to plant science and fish science so I am not about to push the envelope and Winter conditions are another new frontier as well. The bug battle is the biggest Winter lesson as it turns out and the local garden stores are either closed or not carrying any bug solutions this time of year. Turns out you can never have too many fly trap ribbons in your gh so buy in bulk and spread them around any place that is moist or you will be over run with white flies.

Today I have taken two baby steps forward. I have made some small tweaks to my system. #1: I rerouted my pipes so that they are now ziptied to my wire shelving unit rather than secured to the wall using pipe bands. This reduced ALL OF THE NOISE (YAY!) my system was making in my bedroom (minus the pleasant sound of flowing water, of course) because now the vibration from the pump is not transferred into the walls in the corner of my bedroom. 

#2: Repaired a leak in the system. I am using 10 gallon clear plastic totes for all my containers, and the grow bed is slightly misshapen because of the weight of the gravel. The rear side of my GB was slightly lower than the front, causing water to escape from the holes in the tote handle--just a few drops every siphon cycle--but I couldn't figure out where it was coming from until today. I simply removed my standpipe, cut off 1" and replaced it. That fixed the problem. Now my water level height is actually 2" below the surface of the gravel like it should be...BONUS! 

A tweak I made last week was to add a gravel guard and new siphon. Had I not retroactively installed these last week, I would have been having a hell of a time today trying to do the repair I made. Because I had no gravel guard, I bought a length of 6" pipe, shoved it down into the grow bed around the siphon, and bit by bit removed the gravel between the inside of the pipe and the outside of the bell. After the 6" pipe hit the bottom of the bed, I removed the bell and standpipe and replaced them with larger, better performing ones. Lowe's near my house and Home Depot don't sell pipe larger than 2", so I had to get creative. I banded together four 3" landscaping pipe couplings on end using zip ties and cut the slits in. The zip ties are not holding together as well as I'd like but the four couplings are not shifting inside the gravel, so it works. The U of Hawaii published a really good paper on bell siphons that I used as a reference when creating mine. In it, the authors state the gravel guard should be at least twice the size of the bell. Well, if you're not using 2" pipe as your bell, I say the gravel guard should be a minimum 4" wide because no matter how big your bed is or your siphon, you're going to need to stick your hand inside the thing from time to time to make adjustments, clean it out, or experiment with different siphon sizes and configurations. 

#3: Over the last week I have been experimenting with splash containment. My FT and GB are both only 20" x 15" x 11", so any splashing in the system will land outside of the system. Over the course of a week, I end up having to add 5 gallons of water--30% of my entire system! So I lowered my FT inlet dropdown pipe and added a 90 deg elbow. This resulted in a kindler, gentler point of entry for the water coming in from the sump, and it creates a nice current that helps the tank cycle out solids as well. There is still some agitation there, so there is no worry of lack of oxygen. Besides, the GB siphon and the FT drain agitate the water probably well enough alone that I wouldn't need to worry about oxygenation occurring at the FT water inlet--but it's always good to keep your options open and keep your system operating as robustly as it possibly can--so I didn't want to lose that option if I didn't have to. 

Another splash containment point was the water inlet to the grow bed. My drop down pipe was only 3 or 4 inches away from the edge of the GB container, so the water hitting the surface of the gravel created a lot of splashing that escaped the system. I contained this splashing by adding a 1 1/4" pipe with several holes drilled in the bottom--very similar to a siphon bell--in fact, I previously used this pipe in my system as a bell. I rotated my (glueless) GB inlet drop down pipe outward a little bit, slipped the splash guard pipe over the inlet pipe, and rotated the inlet pipe back down toward the bed. Then I shoved the bottom of the pipe into the gravel. Now the water is contained when it his the surface of the bed, and it gets released underneath the surface of the bed with plenty of outflow so my siphon still operates as it would without the splash guard. 

I recognize the fact that I am chasing a lot of problems I would not be chasing if my system were a lot larger, but I take this experience gratefully. When I was in high school learning to play the French horn, I had a 20-year-old, dingy, dented horn with clacky valves and a bent lead pipe. I hated playing on that horn, but my teacher told me to keep practicing anyway. Learning to overcome the problems I was having with the poor equipment would make me a better player later on when I obtained a better horn. She was right. And so I'm grateful to be playing the AP game, and I'm grateful to be learning on a small system so when my larger system comes along I'll be better prepared. 


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