Garage Aquaponics

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Setup Complete

Parts List

This is not a complete list. I don't remember all the PVC parts, but I do recommend that you go bigger with the bell siphon and deeper in the grow bed.

1 330 Gallon IBC (must be food safe) bought on Craigslist $150
1 Lowes misc pvc, tubes, primer and glue $50.00
2 EHEIM Jager Aquarium Thermostat Heater 300W $64.64 (total)
1 Hydrofarm AAPW1000 1000-GPH Active Aqua Submersible Pump $50.05
1 API Freshwater Master Test Kit $24.99
1 KLOUD City® Plastic Aquarium Fish Tank Non-return Air Pump Check Valves $8.97
1 150 Gallon Tetra Whisper Air Pump for Deep Water Applications #33.55
1 Python No Spill Clean and Fill Aquarium Maintenance System, 50-Feet $68.95
1 Maxicrop 2002 Liquid Seaweed Plus Iron Fertilizer, 1-Gallon $30.18
2 Utilitech Fluorescent Shop Light Common: 4-ft $23.00 (total)
2 SYLVANIA 2-Pack 75-Watt 6,500K Daylight Fluorescent Tube Light Bulbs $27.00 (total)
8 CLay balls from a local grow shop $150.00 (total)
25 Tilapia from Colorado Aquaponics http://theaquaponicsource.com $60.00
1 AquaNourish Fish Feed Combo Pack for 25 Fish http://theaquaponicsource.com $60.00

The total spent was around $800, not including electricity and time. Time invest is not alot. Maybe 10 for hours setup. 10 minutes a day (feeding and checking water occasionally). Refilling the tank maybe an hour per month. So not a lot of time overall.

Total product gained from the system. Supplemental greens and 48 tilapia fillets (one was lost do to jumping out).

I have not done the calculations for power consumption... however those can be mediated with a green house, solar panel setup, and using fish that do not require heating, such as catfish or bluegill... or both :-)

What I did

The first thing I did was purchase a 330 gallon IBC tank. These are used for shipping bulk liquids. I wanted a 275 gallon, but I could only find a 330 gallon IBC suitable for aquaponics. I am glad I got the 330 gallon as it made it easier to do what I wanted to do.


Before you buy an IBC make check the shipping documents to see what it contained. The tank shipping documents on the one I purchased said is held concentrated hydrogen peroxide... which is easily decontaminated and can actually be used to treat some fish diseases. You want to make sure that whatever was in the tank before was food or hydrogen peroxide.


I first filled it with about 100 gallons to dilute, drained it, washed down the sides, and then rinsed it many times. I then left it sit outside with the cap loose for a couple of months. It was summer time and my garage gets pretty hot during the day so I figured I would start it later. Probably not necessary, but I know that sunlight will neutralize hydrogen peroxide, if there were any traces left.


A couple of months later I proceeded to chop it up. I cut the depth of my grow bed based on the the rings in the IBC cage starting from the bottom then cut the top of IBC tank to match. I decided that using the top of the tank would be perfect for the grow bed because of the lid. I figured I could use the lid threads for my drain. I then cut a section out a of the cage and the tank for the fish tank section so it wasn't up so high. This worked out perfectly as now I had a horizontal top on the cage for the tank and the grow bed. One thing to not is that I had to cut about an inch off the top of the tank portion in order to have the grow bed stack on top.


I placed the top part of the cage, the part to surround the tank, on a pallet in my garage. I then placed the tank part inside and reinstalled the pieces that held the IBS in the cage. I placed the bottom part of the cage and the grow bed on top of this. It fits perfectly and I don't have the vertical pieces sticking up.


I made a bell siphon to fit the cap on the lid of the IBC. It came out to be a 3/4 inch bell siphon. It works... but I highly recommend not using the cap and going bigger for the bell siphon - This was a lesson learned. I added a siphon screen on this, it was a 2.5 inch pipe that I used my arm saw to make staggering cuts. I added grow bed media into the grow bed. Even though it says that it is pre-washed... wash it anyway, otherwise you are going to end up with some pretty dirty water to start off. Another lesson learned... I had pretty dirty water to start off... it will eventually clear.


I plumbed out the pipes down to the pump. You want to use a stainless steel hose clamp to connect the hose to the pump. I converted the flexible hose to pvc, and then split it at the top of the grow bed. I ran that to valves and then to the center of the grow bed. I did use drinking water safe primer and glue. It wouldn't be high pressure, but I am the kind of guy that doesn't want stuff to come apart.


Next add in your air stone and make sure you have a check valve inline to keep water from siphoning out of the tank in case of failure. I added the water heater, in which I had to add a second one as the first one couldn't keep up with the colder garage.


I installed the two 4 foot garage lights above the tank. I put hooks into the rafters and used chain to connect to the lights, this way I could adjust the lighting as the plants grew taller. I ran the light cords to a timer. I wanted the lights to be on 18 hours a day, otherwise with no darkness the plants will start to yellow.


I filled the tank a few inches below the top with tap water... around 175 gallons. I have two whole house filters that filter sediment and chlorine. I turned on the system and made my adjustments to the water flow so that way the grow bed would fill and drain every 10 minutes.


Lastly, I added the ammonia to the system. A few cap fulls at a time until it was sitting at 8 PPM ammonia. It was November, so the system was a little cooler and it took about 2 months to fully cycle the systems. I would check the water every couple of days for ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. This type of conditioning is called fish-less cycling. I didn't want to introduce pet store goldfish to my system... no idea what diseases they would have, so I opted for fish-less cycling.


Once the system is able to clear out the ammonia and nitrites completely within 24 hours, the system is ready. By the way, you can start growing in the system once you start seeing nitrates. You don't have to have the fish in there, but I did add seaweed extract with iron into the system - about a cup per month. I still add seaweed extract to the system for the trace minerals.

Planting Seeds

This type of system is an ebb and flow, meaning the grow bed fills up to just below the surface and then drains. So planting, while you could do starters and then clean the dirt off and plant... I just sprinkled the seeds in the bed. I did not thin them out although technically they did get thinned when I made salad, but I never removed any root systems.

When the lettuce finally bolted and turned bitter, I pulled them out and replanted... Another reason to have more than one bed. It took a couple of weeks before they were up to par on clearing out nitrates, but not too bad. I had to do one water change during that time.

Pests

Aphids

You cannot under any circumstance use pesticides or herbicides in your system. I would not even use any chemical that said it was safe for aquaponics... So you have to fight another way. I noticed sometime during February/March, I had aphids. A lot of aphids...

I was like how the hell did they get there? I am guessing it was from the seed stock. So I ordered lady bugs... and the smallest in stock size was 1000. So I was farming lady bugs, fish and lettuce. I released the survivors and the offspring into the wild when it got warmer. Trust me... I had a lot of lady bugs to release.

Ladybugs

Economics

Lets break down the economics. I wanted to know if this is a viable. Excluding the startup costs, the power consumption I figured to be a total of 1400 watts for 12 hours per day average over 365 days. In that time frame, with no fish loss, you could theoretically raise 33 fish per year with some system modifications. Now the food I used, they seemed to send me more that what I needed... I fed the fish twice daily and let them eat all they could eat within a 5 minute period, but I am going to add in the cost of twice the amount for the entire year, so roughly $80. The seeds, would be replanted on average 4 times, but I had 2 mixed greens and 2 lettuces for a cost of 12 dollars.

Electrical - $750
Fish - $80
Feed - $80
Seed - $12
Water Testing $20
Seaweed Extract = $30

Average harvest weight was 2 pounds.

Total $972 or $29 per pound.

Well wait a minute... I also had gotten approximately 40 pounds of lettuce. For simplistic reasons lets just add the total pounds up. A total poundage of 106.

Cost of $9.16 per pound.

Local Grocery Store Tilapia $3.49 per pound. Organic Leaf Lettuce $1.79 per pound


Options

If we eliminated the need for electricity from the grid we get this: Cost 2.09 per pound.

However you are looking at a greenhouse then costs for the solar panel array will be expensive, but that is a one time upfront costs... not including maintenance costs.

If we switched the fish out and reduced the need for heating as well as using supplemental food products and expand the grow beds... the number of fish I had could have easily supported 2 grow beds... maybe even 3. Thereby increasing the amount of produce harvested.

Double the produce output (2 beds) would be 80 pounds bringing the total food harvested to 146 pounds. Supplement the feed by vermiculture and black soldier fly larvae harvesting (remember we are going to switch to carnivorous fish (catfish and bluegill). We could effectively reduce the feed input by at least 30 percent.

Fish cost - $45 Feed cost - $45 plus the seaweed extract, double the seeds, and testing supplies

Total: $162 or $1.11 per pound.

Now if you could sell half your bounty at say $2 per pound average, you would end up with $0.21 per pound.

Summary

So is this economically viable? In a garage in Colorado, no. In a section of your house that is already being heating... probably, but you would still have electrical costs, but no where near what the garage requires. In a solar powered greenhouse? Yes but you would have at least 2-3 months you would have to add supplemental heat in places where the winters are colder. Increasing the scale and diversifying your crops would make it more viable. Not using tilapia makes it even more viable. Supplementing the carnivorous fish with worms, black soldier fly larvae, and meal worms/beetles makes it even more viable. If you can get your fish to reproduce and you can save the fry.. then it gets even more viable.

In the greenhouse build, more specifically a hoop house setup, I would definitely incorporate geothermal heating and double walled plastic and pumping air between the layers.

Lessons Learned

Unless you have a method of dealing with the fish waste when the fish get bigger, it is best to stick with the number of fish based on your grow bed. Otherwise you are going to be performing lots of water changes and dealing with sludge build up in the grow bed when they get bigger. Maybe a swirl filter and a bigger grow bed for me the next time... so I am looking to get 2 more IBC tanks - one for adding in 2 more grow beds, and the other to act as sump or a water level buffer for the tanks. I would also add in a swirl filter so that waste could be added to my garden as well as add red wigglers to the media beds.

Adding the red wigglers will result in the worms breaking down the fish waste to nutrients that the plants can use. Which should remove the need or at least greatly reduce the need for adding trace minerals.

On your bell siphon... go big. I would say a 1.5 inch drain for bell siphon would suffice. The little 3/4 inch drain that I have works... but not so well. It takes a bit to cut off, but I still had gotten 6 fills and drains per hour.

On the drain back into the tank, make sure you have a section that goes level. You can cut it to make it work well in your system. I have a 90 degree elbow on my drain, that goes to a 6 inch 3/4 pvp pipe and to another 90 degree elbow. This increases the flow significantly.

Water splash... although you can grow lettuces in water... they don't like getting water constantly splashed on them. They did not grow in the splash area. So I cut up a couple of water bottles to prevent the splashing and the plants thrived up to the water bottle.

Not so sure I would stick with the clay beads... they work, but maybe pea gravel or something. Regardless, you have to make sure the media is pH neutral.

I would not cull the fish all at once. The grow at different rates. I would only cull the largest fish as you need them.

This was mainly an experiment for me to see how viable aquaponics would be. All in all, I will probably do this again... just not in the garage and probably not tilapia where I have to heat the water and the air. I would most definitely add a float valve to auto-fill the water. Other items I would add would be an auto feeder and a float valve to auto fill water as I would want to make the system as low maintenance as possible. I would want to have minimal involvement in the system and only intervening when needed.

Next on the list... a greenhouse and my Aquaponics System 2.0.

Links to Aquaponics Sources

Poly Tank
The Aquaponics Source (Colorado Aquaponics)