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Fanatic Learning Curve! – Things I’ve Learned on my Aquaponics Journey!


I thought I’d run through a few of the things I’ve learned during this building of my Aquaponics Greenhouse, just as an FYI for those who may be interested.

PRE-PLANNING

When starting out with this project, like most, I had no clue about how to really go about it. So I started with doing a little research (my fav’s being YouTube and various AP Forums). First was to determine what type of AP setup I wanted to go with and its size (there is NFT – Nutrient Film Technique, Floating Raft and Flood and Drain) I decided on the flood and drain system primarily because it had the most information out there on how to do it. I also didn’t want any system with standing water in my greenhouse that might provide a nesting ground for mosquitoes.

When coming up with whether to go with a pre-built system or doing it on my own, that was a no-brainer. I like building my own things when I have the capacity to do so, plus you get a LOT more customization options and its typically MUCHO cheaper to do.

So when designing my system, the first thing that came into play was location within the yard. I wanted to distance it a bit from the house, but also wanted to be sure it got the most daily sun as possible. I went with the length of the greenhouse going East/West along my yards North wall and that seemed a perfect location. The other aspect was placement of the fish tank. It needed it to be near enough to the greenhouse area and also low enough to not require using a sump tank to return the water to the fish tank. I wanted this type of setup because keeping the system as SIMPLE as possible in terms of plumbing and additional mechanical requirements was a priority of mine. So I placed the tank on the West end of the Greenhouse within 4 feet of the entrance and dug a hole to bury the tank itself (more on this later).

I sketched everything down on paper and then came up with my overall dimensions and a parts list.

The three most dominant materials I needed during the building of the tank and grow beds was 2×4’s, 4×8 OSB Board and deck screws. When starting this, I tried to use as much reclaimed timber as I could find. This helped with eliminating potential waste and helped reduce my overall costs. It can be a bit more time consuming, but I found much more satisfaction in taking materials from a previous derelict project (in this case and old shed) and turning it into a new, useful project.

SOME POINTS THAT NEED POINTING AT

So with my initial materials in hand and a bit of gusto, I got going.
Now this is where you start finding issues you initially don’t plan for, some of the items that came into play for me where these..

  1. Find a Mentor – If you can find someone locally who has been working their own AP system for a while, they are going to be your single best source of information and inspiration. They have already gone through the process of putting a system together, getting materials, cycling it up, purchasing fish/plants and more often than not, finding those little hiccups that creep up that most people never see coming. It is wise to find such a person in your area and establish a good relationship with them. Having an extra hand (as well as an educated one) can save you a LOT of headaches.
  2. Grow Bed Width – I originally was going for a four foot width to reduce the need to cut the OSB and cut down my production time. I found that this seems logical in theory, but it does not work well in practicality when actually using a grow bed. Midway through building the first of my beds I realized the reach across the width was going to be too much of a reach (since one side of the bed would be butted up against the outer wall of the greenhouse). If I could have accessed both sides of the grow bed, it wouldn’t have been an issue. Plus my wife has a shorter reach… so 3 foot width was decided on versus 4 feet.
  3. Too Much Sun – I originally thought, you can never give a plant too much sun… HA! Lesson learned. Plants can get burned just like people, so yes, shade is something that may be required. In this case during our ridiculously hot summers in Phoenix, I had need of using shade cloth (85% screening) to help my plants to not get burned. This can then be removed during the winter to help add sun when necessary.
  4. Plumbing – Piping is cheap, fittings are where things can get expensive. Pre-plan your plumbing as much as possible to help reduce your overall costs. I also recommend never going below a 1 inch diameter PVC. I used this both for plumbing the grow beds, but also to build my hoop house. My recommendation is to not go with smaller diameter PVC, the cost savings is minimal but the overall strength and flow rate capacity is considerable. Stick to 1 inch or larger diameter PVC when working on your build, you’ll appreciate the benefits in the long term.
  5. Grow Media – Much fuss has been made about Hydroton and its benefits. I cannot argue that. But the stuff is cost prohibitive, i.e. expensive. The alternative I was pointed to with Cinder Rock (also known as Lava Rock). The benefits of this material are these. Its very porous so there is plenty of surface area for all the good little bacterial cultures that are needed for your system to find a home. This also helps with keeping the roots moist. The Lava Rock is also considerably lighter than river rock, so when you buy it by the ton, you get that much more to add into your system (this is also a blessing when you are trying to get this material loaded into your grow beds as well). Its inert, meaning it does not have trace minerals that will be harmful to your system as some other stone is prone to have (these trace minerals can be harmful to either your plants, fish or both). Lastly, it is more easily available or sourced locally.
  6. Water Volume – Simply put, the more the better. More water volume does two great things. One.. it keeps major fluctuations from happening in you water quality. I went with about 800-900 gallons for my setup. The second is temperature fluctuations. More water equals a lower variation in the waters temperature over time (not of much issue for the plants, but big deal if you want to keep your fish happy and healthy).
  7. Thermal Mass – This is also where burying my tank was a requirement. Thermal Mass is the equivalent of having a temperature buffer for your fish tanks water supply. By burying my tank I am afforded a free regulator that can keep my waters temperature from dropping below 65-70 degrees in the winter and from going over 90-95 degrees in the summer. Optimally the fish prefer a honky-dory temperature of 85 degrees to be truly happy, but by adding in this buffer protection via thermal mass, it helps add an additional bit of insurance that my fish will live to a ripe old age.
  8. Non-Permanent Structures – The Hoop House used for the Greenhouse was designed to be a non-permanent structure. I did this for a couple of reasons. First I did not want to get into permitting issues with the city or county. Second if the structure needs to be removed down the line (either from a personal need or if we sell the house and a potential new owner would prefer not to have that in their back yard) I can do so with little fanfare.
  9. Research Recurring Material Needs – This can be fish food, plants, water testing solutions, additional hardware needs, etc. Do this well in advance to know you’re getting a quality product at the best price. This can add up over time, so the savings you make here will stay in your pocket where it belongs 😉

THINGS I’D HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY

  1. Fish Tank – I would not have built a tank, but simply dug a deep enough hole and then lined it with pond liner to create my tank. I would have saved a good deal of time and money this way. I would’ve also gone twice as big.
  2. Grow Beds – I’ve currently got 2, but will be needing to build 2-4 more in the future. If I were to start this project again, I would’ve got them all knocked out at the same time with the design still fresh in my memory.
  3. Get Some Extra Hands – I’m a bit stubborn when it comes to asking for help. I like to do things on my own. But I’ll emphasize it now.. when help is needed, don’t be afraid to ask for an assist from either friends or family. I could have saved myself a good deal of blood and sweat if I’d simply asked others to lend me a hand every now and then 😉
  4. Prep the Land Better – I look at the setup I have and if given another opportunity, I would’ve prepped the ground a bit better by working on getting the grade leveled out a bit better. Truth be told I would’ve preferred a concrete slab for the greenhouse, but then that gets into permitting issues and a permanent structure setup. Had my yard been bigger, I would’ve gone that route.
  5. Went Even Bigger – Yes, for most people having a 12×40 greenhouse would be considered quite a decent size, for me I’d have preferred a setup that was easily double that. Course funds and the wife were the main reasons this did not come to be, but its food for thought down the road when version 2.0 comes out 😉

Fanatic Growth! – Aquaponics Can Do No Wrong!


With all of life’s ups and downs, it sure is nice to have something to come home to where everything is just working right 😉

The AP Greenhouse has been a big goal of mine and now to see the fruits of my labor (pun intended) starting to come into their own, its just a big warm and fuzzy right where one needs it 🙂

I’ve done soil based planting since I was a kid with my Grandparents out in their big garden in their backyard. But the sheer SPEED at which the plants we’ve put into the new AP system grow is just incredible!

We decided to give everything a try.. we’ve got Swish Chard, Kale, Basil, Corn, Fennel, Peppers, Eggplant, Tomatoes, Leeks, Garlic, Lettuce, Pumpkins, Beets, and Chives. That’s not to say that some things didn’t quite take.. we did try Yellow Squash and Strawberries, but they did not make it. After a bit of research we believe its because the waters Ph is still too high for these varieties and so the nutrients aren’t being absorbed through their roots.

The other fascinating aspect is Fish.tv. Watching our Talapia grow has been grossly entertaining. Its been about 5 weeks and they are now four times their original size. We started out with 50, and I’m ecstatic to say we have yet to lose one fish!

The system itself has had very little need of intervention. The siphons have  been doing their work splendidly without adjustment. We have had to top of the tank on occasion. We now average about 1 to 2 – 55 gallon barrels a month (through evaporation).

On occasion, bugs have crept up, but it has taken little work to keep them at bay. Usually I will clip off the infected leaves and either toss them in with the fish, or give the chickens a treat every now and then.

Overall, it has been a very productive month. The wife has been regularly clipping off a few of the herbs to assist with various dinner preparations. All our chickens are now laying eggs now that the heat has dissipated. We now routinely get about 3-5 eggs a day!

I’d say by next month we’ll be able to start collecting on the eggplants and tomatoes!

Good times! Good times! 🙂

A Weeks Worth of Eggs
(Minus 6.. we were hungry this morning)

An Overview Of My Aquaponics Greenhouse!


Wanted to provide a bit of an overview on the entire setup since my cycling is almost complete and fish will be going in tomorrow…

Grow Bed Build – Bed #2 Complete!


Got this one done in double-quick time!

Since building the first, I now know what lengths are needed without trial and error, plus I pre-cut some of the supports for the second bed when I was completing the first. Makes the work go by a whole lot faster 🙂

Now that the first two beds are completed, I can move on to getting them setup, lined, leveled and plumbed. I’ll then add additional beds in sets of two going forward till all 8 beds are completed. This should be interesting as now I’m having to pre-plan a bit with regards to how all the plumbing will work together (not just for the first two going forward, but all eight down the line).

Starting off, I’ll have 48 sq ft of growing space. Upon completion of all the beds this will give me 192 sq ft of grow bed area to work with! Not too shabby! I have also considered the possibility for expansion and so if down the road I’m feeling spunky, I can expand the width of the greenhouse to accommodate another 50% increase in grow bed space. That will be phase two. I’d also have to incorporate a sump tank into the setup to help keep my fish tank levels from dropping. So this idea is a bit of a ways down the road.

I’m getting quite excited now!

I should be ready to start cycling the system come mid-August.

A slight delay as I’ll be doing a bit of traveling in the coming weeks.

Progress is good! I’m happy.. and more updates to come! 🙂

Fanatically Happy Day! – The Aquaponic Tank is in the Hole!!!


As it has been a while since my last update, I wanted to quickly go over the reasons for my delay in getting our large fish tank (840 gallon capacity) into the ground…

Originally the idea I had in mind was to get 3 extra people together and coordinate a time to have them come over to lend me their muscle lowing the tank in the hole with some large rope. Problem was I could never get everyone together on the same day. Family plans and being out of town were the main reasons. This then made me research hiring some movers to come out and help me get the tank in the ground. Well that plan was also a no-go as I was repeatedly getting quotes somewhere between $240-290 dollars to have them come out and put in an hours worth of work (uh uh). What finally ended up happening was that my friend John, who has many cogs and gears whirring through his head at any given time, helped devise a game plan that involved the use of 1 inch PVC to act as rollers underneath the tank to get it from my porch to the other end of the yard. He also help devise a sketched idea of using an a-frame gantry and a winch that we used to span over the hole. My job was essentially getting the needed materials together and building it.

So with this new plan in mind, I paid a visit to a local Harbor Freight and got my hands on a hand winch and straps with hooks. I then was able to piece the A-frame portion together with some 2×4’s, OSB board and some 3/8″ lag screws. For the gantry portion going over the hole I had to purchase three lengths of 2x4x10’s (as all I had was 8ft lengths at home which were too short). These lengths I then screwed together with deck screws and then mounted the winch in the center.

These eventually showed me a few issues that I needed to overcome. One, the hand winch is the cheapest unit I could find at Harbor Freight (rated for 2000 pounds, the tank I figured was pushing about 6-800 pounds).. this winch had originally been placed on the bottom of the gantry, but that proved to not be a workable idea since the design of the winch did not allow for a cleared area of the cable and hook away from the hand crank, essentially eliminating my ability to crank it up and down. The solution was to detach and re-attach the unit on the side versus the bottom of the 2x4x10’s. Because of this I need to add a 4th, shorter piece of 2×4 so that I could accommodate the entire footprint of the winch on the side. Immediately I could see that this would cause some serious torque happening on the overhanging gantry, essentially setting it up for failure by twisting to the point of falling off the A-frame support. To negate this, I added a 2×6 piece at the end overhanging the cinderblock wall on the other side, giving the gantry some much needed leverage.

In the end the whole system was a one-time use setup, so as long as it did the job of getting the tank in the hole, that’s all I cared about.. and… it worked! We needed to constantly work on maneuvering the tank into the hole cause I made the size of that hole only inches of clearance on each side (this did require some modification on our part with a pick ax and shovel before hand as we found a few areas that would not clear the tank.. my bad).

The last aspect of this endeavor was that we were doing it in Summer in Phoenix. Even though the sun was not directly on us at the time of the lowering. It was still reading 108-109 outside. Yeah, we’re a crazy bunch for doing this in that heat, but it was either that or wait till September to get it done when the temps drop… uuuuh NOPE!

So, to say I’m ecstatic about the tank finally being in the hole is an understatement!

The next steps of my progress will be to back fill the areas around the tank, add in the pond liner, start in on the end frames for the greenhouse and get started on building at least 2 grow beds to get the system started on cycling.

Obviously I’ve still a ways to go, but now I’m no longer bottlenecked going forward! WOOT!

BIG, BIG, BIG thanks to my buddy John for all his help on this project.. a true friend to the end!

Fanatic AP Fish Tank Assembly! – These Fish Will be Living Large!


Well, finally getting into the homestretch with regards to the Aquaponic fish tank. I’ve got all the sides bolted together and am currently adding in the foam insulation.

This project is without a doubt the longest pet project I’ve ever taken on (besides the chicken coop build). I made an attempt to start the assembly over the hole that has been dug for it, but found issues with regards to everything lining up like it was supposed to (i.e. all the angles staying straight and true). So brought it back to the porch and had the assembly done there. I did note some issues with one side not lining up proper as I had originally hoped. Had to take some liberties with regards to the fastening of the bolts in a different fashion for that side. Thankfully this also proved to be considerably stronger since the bolts then went through three 2×4’s versus only two.

The foam insulation cutting has been going relatively easily. Only bad thing was that not all the recessed areas are of the same size, so have to custom cut each one for fit. Should have those completed by mid-week.

Now the big issue is gonna be moving this beast from the porch to the hole. As I had to modify my being able to build relatively close to the hole and instead build on the porch, there’s gonna be some extra grunting involved in getting it to its final destination. I know my buddies are not going to like me after whatever day I can get them all together to take on this task. I’m going to have to remove either one or two sections of PVC on the Greenhouse in order to provide enough space to two people on each side to get this over the hole.

At any rate, it has been fun in the building of the tank itself. Yes, hindsight is 20/20 and there are a few items I would’ve done differently in building the tank knowing what I know now. But thankfully that knowledge will carry over to version 2.0 of the AP say 3-6 years down the road.

For fun I thought I’d post a shot of myself in the tank to help people get a good reference on its size. I’m 5′ 11′ and I barely take up a corner of the tank!

As always, I’ll keep the updates coming as things progress 😉

Fish Tank or Perhaps Our New Jacuzzi? – Aquaponics Tank Framing Begins!


I’m a happy guy! Why? Well because I’m finally getting started on the meat and potatoes of our AP build!

This little number is not so little. As mentioned in my previous post, the tank will be quite large.. close to 840 gallons! Jacuzzi anyone?… I’m sure the fish won’t mind 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

So with all the reclaimed lumber, I’ve had a busy day of selecting pieces that were not warped. Surprisingly there was little termite damage, but warping seems to be the most prevalent issue with reusing this wood. So took my time, found lengths that had minimal issues and got to cutting!

All in all, not a bad Friday’s work! There’s still a bit more work to do. I must get the OSB fitted to each frame piece. Then comes some outdoor paint to help give the wood some extra protection from the elements (it is after all going to buried in the ground.. more on that later). Then some foam insulation on the inset areas to help keep the water as well insulated as possible. I’m trying to minimize temperature fluctuations as much as possible, which of course might be a little overkill on my part. But that’s how I roll!

Much of the framing is pretty straight forward. I had to offset the additional support sections so that I could properly screw them to the rest of the framing. I got this nifty little idea from my friend John who has already got his AP system setup and growing food. But for the size of the tank.. the idea was to do as little cutting of the OSB board material as possible. I’ll only have to cut one section in half, then add to each end piece. The rest of the tanks sides can be fitted with the OSB without cuts since those sides are the same dimensions as the 4×8 boards.

 

 

 

I plan on following up with more later on the tank build, but got all excited about getting it going, that I just had to post something!

The Termite Mansions New Lease on Life – New Aquaponics Build Begins!


So, here was all this wood just sitting in our yard, a vestige from the previous owner. We didn’t like the old shed, we didn’t care for its location.. so what did we do?
WE TORE IT DOWN!!!

In all honesty, I wasn’t sure how much of the old shed might be salvageable, but surprisingly I’d say we were able to save ourselves about $250 in lumber material by taking from the old and re-purposing for the new. The new in this case is a continuance of our desire to build an Aquaponics Greenhouse in our backyard. This is no small task. Financially it definitely goes beyond a simple home setup. But with a little patience and a lot of hard work we hope to end up using 1/5 of our backyard for the sole purpose of growing food.


Now the best way I can see of taking on this task it to start initially with the idea of how much grow area we will appear to have available then building a fish tank that will be of an appropriate size to accommodate that grow area. Eventually the mindset came out to be that the larger the amount of water volume you have in your system, the more stable its going to be from variations in nutrients, Ph and temperature fluctuations. So for our purposes we decided to start big on the tank and limit the initial amount of fish based on the amount of grow bed area we’d have available. This would allow us to size up as additional beds are added to the system, but provide a much more stable environment right from the get-go. Our tank will be 8′ long x 4′ wide x 3.5′ deep. This gives us a total volume of 112 sf, or just shy of 837 gallons for the tank… and that is where I begin the actual build of the AP for our greenhouse.

As you can see from the pictures, there was plenty of reclaimed wood that escaped termite damage from our old shed. I figure I’ve got enough OSB board and 2×4 material to complete the fish tank and at least 2 grow beds to start. What you don’t see is the sheer amount of time I had to spend ‘de-nailing/screwing’ this timber. I spent 2 days and roughly 11 hours dedicated solely to that purpose.

In the last shot, you are seeing the beginning of the base for the tank itself. I will be adding prodigious amounts of reinforcement as 837 gallons of water is equivelant to 3 1/2 tons!!!

Extra reinforcement, coupled with the fact that I intend to bury this tank in the ground should provide enough support to keep anything from busting (fingers crossed).

I’ll keep you appraised!

Fanatic Tear Down of the Termite Mansion!


This weekends big ticket item was the dismantling of our old shed. There are many reasons I can list as to why this shed was taken down. First and foremost because it was a termite buffet (the proofs in the pics). We knew we had termite issues as we had a pest control company come out and check our surrounding areas for potential pests. One thing you must understand about the state of Arizona.. if you live here, you’ve got termites, guarantee it. No real way to get rid of them completely. Its why most building construction (at least pre-early 80’s) was done using cinder-block construction.

One does not truly understand the issue till one sees a colony first hand. For me that colony was most pre-dominant below the shed, which I believe has sat there for at least several years. Another reason for my wishing to dismantle it was that it consumed a part of our yard that we wish to revamp into something more ‘us’. Lastly I planned on reclaiming a good portion of the wood (obviously the stuff that the termites did not get their teeth into) and use that for my Aquaponics Greenhouse build.

I can honestly say that aside from a few sheets that were unprotected from the elements and pests, that there was a good deal of wood that I can re-use for my project… YAY! All told, the teardown took the better part of 5 hours, which in my mind was remarkably fast considering the size of the structure (8’x16′).

This weekend kicked into the low 100’s, so by the time I was done, I was a wet soppy mess. I had little left in me to proceed at that point. The next step is to remove nails/screws from the wood and sort what’s usable and what will be tossed.

All told, a very productive weekend!

Aquaponic Greenhouse Build – Got Rock?


As with all builds, there comes a stage of which you question why you decided to do something a bit.. extreme 😉

In this case, the questionable decision of adding 10 tons of 1 inch rock to setup the base of your greenhouse. This was how I spent my Saturday. Thankfully my good friend came over to lend me a hand and we made good progress. All in all, it took us about 6 hours to move all 10 tons, or about 1.6ish tons per hour.. and boy were we both beat by the end of it.

I’ve had the opportunity to move that much rock before.. but that was roughly 12 years ago.. and as in all things.. the mind is willing, but the flesh.. well its a bit dated 😉

I am grateful that the path between the dump site and the end goal of where it needed to end up, was for the most part level and maybe only 20-30 yards. We took time alternating between wheeling the barrel back and forth, as any more than 2-3 times in continuous succession and we had a tendency to get sloppy or almost tip the load.

At the start of the job I had been worried that I didn’t order enough rock, but by the time we had got through half the pile it was obvious that I had figured out the proper amount for the job.. whew! Even had enough to run a good portion around our chicken/coop run (see previous post).

My recommendations for those thinking of proceeding with such a job.. if you’re gonna order that much rock, you most definitely want 3 or more people to help even out the workload. It can be done with less, but at that point satisfying one’s pride can come at a cost. The more friends you can drag into it.. the better!

The next step of the build will now be to add the end frames, then the grow beds/nft raft trough and finally the greenhouse film, door and fan ventilation. After that I will need to proceed with getting the shed/tank installed and then work on running the plumbing.

Still a ways off from completion, but progress has been great.. and steady. As long as I maintain momentum, I’m probably looking at around May/June to get started on cycling up the system.

I’ll keep you appraised 🙂