Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (raising plants in water). In Aquaponics, you grow fish and plants together in one system with no soil. But what happens in real life is a little more complicated than I expected. This page is all about my experience from the beginning and also why I decided to go with Aquaponics.
Aquaponics is a project that can be undertaken in a small way or a commercial way. It can be set up on a balcony or in a back yard. There are lots of plans available to help anyone who wants to raise their own food at home or in co-operation with a community. I will post links to a few plans and the one I used so you can take advantage of some of the information available if you decide to consider Aquaponics. After learning all I can and getting some experience I hope to go to a commercial system so we can feed lots of people.
THE STORY OF MY FIRST YEAR WITH AQUAPONICS
We moved here in 2009 from Tennessee. We bought this place with the intention of becoming self sufficient. Our place is on a hill in South Central Missouri. We have a 430 foot deep well that gives us all the wonderful water we want. Even through the drought we had this summer we were never short of water. BUT there is no water on our place if there is no electricity so that can be a problem. I plan to put in a solar panel for each need. One to run the water pump for the well and one for the circulation of our wood heat and another to operate the Aquaponics equipment. We have to provide air for oxygen and water filtration for the tanks.
Can We Grow Our Own Food?
Our garden is terraced with raised beds that have top soil added because our ground is all rocks. Every year I noticed that the grow beds were losing the soil. It just seems to wash away through the rocks. This is a problem for a successful garden. We need a better solution to raising our own food! I added loads of rabbit and chicken manure but my garden still didn't do as well as it should have. Some kind of vine that grows wild here did marvelously!
I grew lots of tomatoes and cucumbers the first summer. Some squash and some peppers. A lot of things just wouldn't grow at all. Cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts would grow but wouldn't make fruits. I planted spinach over and over in different spots. No spinach would grow beyond sprouting and each year it has been worse.
I eventually discovered the problem, besides rocks, is my water. It is wonderful for humans but the plants don't like the high Alkalinity. I solved the problem by collecting the rain water off the roof for the Aquaponics system and for the garden. The plants love rain water because it is neutral, neither acid nor alkaline. When I test the rain water I get pH of 6.0 and my well water is off the chart showing at least 8.4 which is very high. Spinach just won't grow in that! Not even in the Aquaponics system. I had to get the pH down! Rain Water is great but we needed a lot of it. That is one thing good about Aquaponics, it takes a lot less water than other forms of agriculture.
I did some research into what it would require to set upan Aquaponics system here. I found that the biggest expense is going to be tanks. I've devised a couple of plans to get around the need for expensive tanks. I had some nights of tossing and turning trying to come up with some ideas of how to build tanks and control the temperature without spending a lot.
I got an idea of digging holes in the ground for the tanks. Line the holes with plastic and there you have the tanks with little expense. The earth has a mean temperature of 55 degrees so I would only have to heat the water another 15 degrees to keep the fish and plants at 70 degrees. The soil will suck the heat right out of that water so it has to be insulated if we are going to heat the water for Tillapia. Catfish would be fine in the colder water, I learned later.
My first idea was to get a backhoe into my garden and dig out each of my raised beds and bury Styrofoam blocks into the ground under and around the tanks. So I started looking for Styrofoam. That too can be expensive. We do have lots of ROCK to landscape around the tanks once they are in. :-)
I came across an ad on Craig's List that they had Styrofoam blocks for free if one could come and get them and haul them off. We got a load of Styrofoam blocks that were originally used for floats for docks at a marina. The problem with those blocks was trying to cut them to the sizes I needed. I used a saws-all with some success. Not an easy thing to do! We got 8 or 10 blocks and only had the expense of the gas, $60 bucks.
My son said he would bring a backhoe and dig my trenches for me but he didn't get around to it. I waited and waited. So, about a year later, not getting the tanks dug caused me to go back to the drawing board for another idea. I came up with one and eventually it was the way I started out with my Aquaponics system. Starting out small is a good plan anyway.
IDEA #2: Use old waterbed frames instead of buying tanks. (See pictures at the left.) I can use those blocks to insulate the tanks from the ground and it will put them at a convenient height for working with the plants. I went to yard sales and found a couple old waterbed frames. $30 bucks each. Had liners and heaters and just what I needed. Also found an old aquarium with three small water pumps! I need the pumps for circulating the water from tank to tank and they are expensive too. That was a windfall.
I will need to build a strong roof attached to the front of the house and put transparent roofing on it to let the light in. I may have to add lighting as well. In the meantime I decided to just go ahead and put my waterbed frames up right in front of the house where the sun shines every morning. And an added bonus.....I can do it myself! I put a couple of those blocks on a leveled area and started my system. Two tanks for vegetables and a 55 gallon barrel on it's side for the fish.
Mistake #1. My first batch of catfish all died off after about a week. They never would eat any of the catfish food I bought for them. When I got the second batch of catfish fingerlings I asked the seller what water temperature they like. He said 55 degrees or lower. That was the problem with the first batch! I was heating the water for them to 75 degrees! Lesson learned.
Next I set up my tanks with the strongest plastic for liners available at Lowe's, which is 6 mil. The plans I bought online call for 20 mil plastic so I used two layers. 20 mil is very expensive and not readily available here. I also bought new waterbed heaters to put under the liners when the weather started getting cold. I made an online purchase of two air pumps that I found on E-Bay fairly reasonably. You have to keep the dissolved oxygen levels up or the fish, plants and necessary bacteria will not thrive and may die off.
Mistake #2. When I took the water out of the tanks to slide the new waterbed heaters under the lining it cracked the plastic and caused leaks. I had it all to do over again and I had to buy new plastic for the liners. The plastic gets brittle after it has been used for a few months. Moving it, even very carefully, causes small cracks which means it will not hold water. That was an expensive mistake. Maybe you won't make it.
You see what I mean when I say it is more complicated than I originally thought it would be?Yes, you have to keep the water at the right temperature, the right oxygen level, the right pH level, and the right nitrite and nitrate levels. But don't get discouraged! This is all doable with a little patience and determination.
One more thing to consider.... mosquitoes! If you have a tank of water sitting around you are going to have mosquitoes. Duh! So I ordered some mosquito fish and was told they will clear your property of mosquitoes. They eat the larvae and don't even require feeding. So I bought some Mosquito fish. They are really neat, I love them. They were shipped to me and arrived in good shape and were healthy. They were actually inexpensive, $10 for a batch of 30 Mosquito fish and $12 for shipping. I bought 2 batches and put them in both vegetable tanks. The fish in the fish tank will eat the larvae in that tank, I hope.
The Mosquito fish look like guppies, except they are not colorful or fancy. They are livebearers just like guppies so I think they will keep us supplied with plenty of mosquito prevention for the future.
Okay so everything is not roses, not yet. I had some left over seeds from my garden and sprouted them and planted them in the first vegetable tank. They took off like gangbusters and in only six days started developing a root system I was very proud of. I planted peppers, tomatoes, spinach, squash and other stuff in my first experiment.
The gold fish were producing ammonia which the bacteria was turning into nitrites, which another bacteria was successfully turning into the lovely nitrates for the plants. I was testing the water with my test kits and everything was going nicely. The plants were taking up the nitrates and returning the water to the fish tank clean for the fish. Then the plants started dying off. In fact after the spinach sprouted it never did much at all. Just like in my garden. The nice big squash plant that was doing so well started getting yellow leaves. Then the rest of the plants also started getting yellow leaves. Back to the Internet to learn what to do! Yellow leaves indicate low Iron, I learned. So I got some iron and put it in the water. Nope that wasn't it. Everything was still dying off. More research online.
That’s when I came across the answer. Spinach doesn't like alkaline conditions. Spinach likes a neutral pH level. Oh my! That could explain a lot. No wonder I haven't been able to raise any spinach since I first got here. Our well water comes out of the well so alkaline that I’m not sure how high it actually is.
All this past year I've been experimenting with the whole concept of Aquaponics. I didn't get to start out when I wanted to last year because winter came. So I had to start in doors with a 30-gallon aquarium (at a yard sale, $20) and started raising gold fish. I have been feeding the fish-water to my houseplants. It's a jungle around here. My plants love the fish-water! My philodendron ivy has leaves the size of saucers! So I started trying to bring the pH down in the vegetable tanks. Rain water does the best getting the pH where it should be.
We had a storm after a long period of drought. I got a bright idea to test the rainwater and sure enough it is perfectly neutral! So I rigged up a black bag to hang on the downspout of the gutter on my back deck and collected 4 small barrels of rainwater. I put a lot of rainwater in my two tanks. I also started some new sprouts. Peppers are up, the Brussels sprouts didn't make it and the spinach died before I could get them in the tanks. I have the peppers in vegetable tank #1.
I believe food prices are going to get a lot higher than we have seen yet and we should try to raise most of our own food. I believe this is a project worth working on to get it right and be able to feed us. You never know when we will have no choice but to do just that.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions or ideas.
Thanks for joining me on my adventure!
If you made it this far you deserve a treat! Here is a free YouTube video showing how to build your own Solar Aquaponics tank! This is what I'm going to do next.
I LOVE IT! Thanks Urban Farming Guys!