Member Project: Brett’s DIY aquaponics system

In this Q & A, Brett Nissley discusses the build process and materials used in his DIY aquaponics project, made entirely at Vocademy – The Makerspace. He also shares why he sees aquaponics as being an important farming method for the future.

What is your project?

Aquaponics is an idea that has been around for a while and I am not sure why it has not generated more interest.  I am always on a quest for synergy, the idea that sum of a systems parts can be greater than its individual product has fascinated me for years. Aquaponics takes two highly efficient disciplines, hydroponics and aqua culture, and combines them to leverage the benefits of both.
You start off with a fish tank, feed them a little food and they grow and produce waste. The waste basically becomes ammonia which is toxic to the fish and if not removed will kill them in short order.  Luckily the environment contains several kinds of bacteria that love to feed on Ammonia. These critters convert the Ammonia to Nitrite and the Nitrite is then consumed by another strain of bacteria that produce Nitrate a plant food.  All this is done without a lot of help from us and takes a few weeks to start running well. The Nitrate rich water is then filtered by your plants with the plants absorbing the Nitrogen and other trace products and returning filtered water to the fish tank where the fish continue to do what fish do; Eat and poop and grow.

  The only input to the system is fish food, a little electricity to run the pumps, and some water to compensate for evaporation.  On the scaled-up-system that I hope to build,  after a few weeks you will be able to start harvesting veggies, and in several months, tilapia.

Why did you gravitate towards this type of project?

As you can imagine, this type of system could have a tremendous impact in its ability to generate lots of clean high quality produce and protein, perfect for areas of the planet that lack soil resources or have extreme environments.  My idea is this would be great to help decentralize our food system by helping to put production back in the local communities instead of trucking it from centralized corporate farms.
The project was pretty much 100% constructed at Vocademy starting with the welding of the steel frame, building the plywood shelves, painting, and installing all of the components to make a working system.  At home I just added the grow media filled with water and installed the fish and plants. 
My goals for this demo system is to learn more about the water chemistry issues in raising fish and keeping both them and the plants healthy.  This system will also allow me to experiment with using Arduino type micro controllers to automate many of the housekeeping and control systems for the eventual full size system.  And although I don’t think the Goldfish will be very tasty, the system will provide us with chemical free fresh herbs and tomatoes year round.

What were some of the materials that you used, and what was your approximate cost for the final product?

Of course, as you know, everything costs twice of your best estimate and takes four times as long as you thought to complete!

Cart was around $100.00 for square tube, caster mounting plates, plywood, casters, paint and misc hardware.
Fish tank is a Rough Tote 27 gal bin from Costco, around $9 and grow bed is a large material mixing pan from Home Depot, around 12 dollars.  I used Hydroton grow media. Its a special kind of fired clay pellets that work really well for hydroponics applications, but it is kind of pricy, running around 40 dollars for the amount needed on this small system. Lots of people are using Lava rock or crushed granite with good results.  Water and air pump along with timers, pipe, tubing, pipe fittings, grow light, and fish light around a 100 dollars.  Plants, 30 dollars.  water test and conditioning supplies along with fish food, 40 dollars.  Five Gold Fish, 98 cents.  The only thing cheap about this project.
So lets say, $331.98.  I feel pretty good about the 98 cent part, not so good about the $331.00 part. 

In retrospect, what are some things that you would have done differently with your project?

A few of the things that I would do differently next time would be using solid casters,  the urethane ones that I used tend to flat spot and make moving the water filled system difficult. The grow light would be mounted on some type of adjustable height bracket to allow me to raise it as the plants grow.  I have switched from a bell siphon constant flood / drain system to one that uses a standpipe with the pump on a timer system.  I think this will improve plant health.
So far, except for a caterpillar attack, the plants are doing great.  But I have lost 3 gold fish to unknown causes.  From what I have heard, the start-up phase of any aquarium type environment is tough on its residents.  Water chemistry is turning out to be a bit more complicated than I thought it would be.  Issues with ph control that do not happen in a normal aquarium are giving me fits right now, along with finding chemicals to control it that are safe for plants, fish and humans.
Even with the short time that the system has been in operation, it has yielded tons of very useful information that will be very valuable when I scale up. And having 5 kinds of fresh herbs growing makes Sherre [Brett's wife] very happy! 

It’s been several months since you finished building, but its an ongoing project that will continue to grow. Have you had any issues with the project since you finished? What have you learned from the project as a whole?
This project has been a blast! As always, it’s not the known unknowns that get you, it’s the unknown unknowns (thanks, Donald Rumsfeld). The current issues I am having with micro-nutrient deficiencies and trying to balance the plant to fish ratios so as to provide adequate levels of nitrogen to the plants are issues that I had not even considered before. This is what I love about new projects, learning something totally unexpected.  It’s like every new project is a wrapped Christmas present and the only way to get to it is to work your way through the initial steps. Red compost worms.  Who would have thought that they are a key part of a robust aquaponics system.  As digesters of organic material they help prevent sludge build up and help to release nutrients back to the rest of the system.  
Hopefully I will  eventually start a meet up group and attract a few people that know what they are doing, it would make things a lot easier. Open source is the only viable method for the future.  With seven billion of us on a space ship with finite resources we better start getting our shit together.

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