Monday, December 08, 2014

How to Make a Mini-Aquaponic System for $20 or Less

Upcycle a 5 gallon water container to become a mini Aquaponic system.
My most popular post (so far) describes how to convert a standard 10 gallon fishtank into a Deep Water Culture Aquaponics system for $50. (The materials cost about $35. I rounded up since I needed to buy a hole-cutter and also gas to drive to a few stores.) I built it to be plastic-free and portable. It worked well, but wasn't ideal for transporting to and from my Aquaponics presentations. Glass is considerably heavier than plastic and susceptible to leaking and cracking. Water weighs 8 lbs/gallon, so that whole system weighs about 90 pounds.

I love the scalability and simplicity of Aquaponics. Motivated to build a smaller, lighter, sturdier, and less expensive system, I did some research and found the video below on Youtube. It uses a recycled 5 gallon water container. To keep it simple, I decided to modify the design a little and eliminate the vertical PVC structure with hanging plants. All my plants grow in the growbed.
This system experiments with drip irrigation, similar to Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) and uses the air pump to lift water. This system is super portable and uses only 2 watts of electricity from a simple $5 aquarium air pump (which was the most expensive component). This time I didn't have to buy anything since I already had all the materials. I estimate the whole system costs about $20, and it costs even less if you use recycled materials.

Materials/Tools: Hacksaw, knife, small aquarium air pump, about 7-8' airline tubing, airline "T" connector, one-way air pump check valve, 1 gallon bag of inert growbed media (growstone, hydtroton, expanded shale, or pea gravel), 4" inch PVC pipe, a handful of small office clips, and a twist-tie.

How to put it together:
Find a 5 gallon (18.9 liter) plastic water container and rinse it out. If it has a handle, even better.
Take a hacksaw and cut the top off just above the handle. Then cut off the bottle neck. Keep it, you'll need it.

Invert the top part into the bottom and the neck through the hole.
The bottom becomes the tank and the top becomes your growbed. You'll feed your fish through the stem.
Cut holes in the bottom two inches of PVC pipe for drainage. Center it inside the top part. You can use a hacksaw to cut parallel holes across the bottom couple inches of the PVC or, use a drill to make the holes like I did. You don't need to drill this many holes; I had already drilled this PVC for a different system, so I used it.
The PVC piece becomes your gravel guard.
I used a sample gallon bag of Growstone made in the U.S.A. from recycled glass bottles. It's extremely porous and incredibly lightweight.

Hold the gravel guard down and add the stone around it evenly.
Connect a small section of airline tubing from the air pump to the one-way check valve. The valve helps prevent risk of electrical shock from water backing down the tube into your air pump, but it will also restrict the flow of air from it. The arrow on the valve indicates the direction of the air from the pump.
Make sure the arrow on the valve points away from the air pump.
From the check valve, connect about 3' of aquarium tubing into one of the top ends of the "T" connector.

Important: the "T" connection piece must stay at the bottom of the fish tank, otherwise the air pump cannot lift the water through it and the system won't function correctly.

I ran the airline tubing through the hole in the handle of the water container to help keep it in place.

Connect about 4' of tubing from the middle connector for your water/air lift to the growbed. I added a few inches of airline tubing to the bottom connection and anchored it to an aquarium ornament. 
How to lift water with an air pump.
My aquarium ornament conveniently had a perfect sized hole in the bottom that was designed to connect airline tubing to push bubbles. (With the "T" connected, instead of pushing air through it, it now draws water from the bottom of it.) You can also use a rock to anchor the "T" connection to the bottom of the fish tank. Make sure the end stays open so it can suck water through. 

Take a twist-tie and make a loop above the level of the growbed in the section of airline tubing that runs from the check valve down through the hole in the handle to the "T" connection. Connect it to an office clip on the rim of your growbed. This is another precautionary measure that will help prevent electrical shock if water accidentally backs up through the hose.

Take the end section of your water/airlift hose and form a circle around the circumference of your growbed. Poke about six small holes every few inches of the airline. Make the holes just big enough for water to drip out. Clip the airline underneath the top rim of the growbed to secure it in place.
Fill it with water and stop an inch or so below the bottom of the growbed. Fish food needs to fall into the water from the hole in the middle of the growbed, so don't overfill. Plug in the air pump. Add some small plants below the dripping water. Make sure to rinse any dirt from the plant roots beforehand. I transplanted aloe, mint, a small Jade plant, strawberry, and a rosemary shoot.
You'll want to add some fish, of course. Pick varieties that will stay small since there is only 2 1/2 gallons of water in the system. I am considering adding cold water snails, crayfish, fathead minnows, or some other variety that won't grow too large and won't require a heater. Here's a short video of my system in action.
video
I haven't added fish to my system yet since the water is just beginning to cycle. If you are new to fishkeeping, check out these tips for cycling your new tank.

For additional water filtration and aeration, I am considering adding a small homemade sponge filter like the one from the Youtube video below. They work great.
Post comments and questions!  

Monday, December 01, 2014

Living in the Dark


Every 15 minutes, the bell siphon in my Aquaponics media bed flushes the flood and drain system, aerating the water for my goldfish below. The fish live in the dark. 
Using camera flash during flush mode. 
I feed them once a day. Other than that, I generally don't think much about them. I can't see them well without a flashlight, so they've gotten little attention in the few years I've kept them.  

These comet goldfish are from the local pet store. They are low maintenance and make a lot of fertilizer (read: poop a lot). At their present size, I think they're ideal for this cool-weather system.

The roots of the plants keeps their water clean, and a small pinhole at the bottom of the siphon (in the media bed) provides a constant trickle of fresh water in between flushes, which keeps them healthy.
Swimming around the water pump prior to flush mode.
These goldfish are about 4" long.
One huge benefit to the fish living in the dark is there is no algae growth. With the absence of direct sunlight in the barrel, I don't have to deal with algae killing the roots of my plants. Above the fish, the media bed fills to a couple of inches below the rock surface, so no harmful algae grows there either.

Someone asked me, "Are they happy?" It's hard to really know, but they've tripled in size, haven't gotten sick yet, and they eat well.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Aquaponics Saves Lives

It's true. My Aquaponics system has turned into a mini Humane Society for outside garden plants. Currently, I am growing the following transplants:

Parsley
I just transplanted this parsley after harvesting all the leaves. It's grown well in this system in the past, so I should see new growth soon.

Wild Mustard
I love wild mustard. It's like wasabi as a leaf. Try it.

Basil
These purple basil are doing better indoors than they did all summer outdoors. There's been a lot of new growth and I've been cutting it back every couple of weeks.

Rosemary
The rosemary are my resident plants, so even if I decide to harvest all the others, I still have these two plants to filter the water for the goldfish below. They buffer the system in between plantings.

Sorrel
The sorrel is growing really quickly. It's an acquired taste, which is kind of sour like a wild strawberry, but I like its juicy flavor.

Mint
My coworker, Tim Stone, gave me a mint plant and I put one of it's shoots in the system. So far so good - some new growth and it's rooting well. I hear mint can take over, so I'm watching this one carefully.

All these plants are growing indoors, under two 4' low wattage florescent ballasts with indirect light from the window above.

Meanwhile, the fish are getting fat. Stay tuned for my next blog about them.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Grilled Northern Pike on Rosemary & Cedar

The other day I went kayak fishing on the Connecticut River and hooked into a strong Northern Pike. The fish pulled me around for about 5 minutes before coming to the surface. During the fight, I pulled my camera out but changed my mind. I didn't want to risk losing a nice fish for a good photo. 

I was surprised to land the toothy monster without a metal leader on my line (I was fishing off the bottom with nightcrawlers for perch and bass). At 5 1/2 pounds, and 32" long it was easily enough meat for a few meals, so I decided to harvest it.
gutted pike ready for filleting on a large pizza box
I'd never really cooked a pike before. I'd caught much smaller ones on the Connecticut River, but always released them (for taking a Northern on the river, the minimum length requirement is 28"). Pike and Pickerel have a pesky "Y bone," which makes filleting them a bit more tricky. Online, I discovered the website of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department , which has an instructional video how to remove the Y bones, and offers a slew of recipes, from "poor man's lobster" to a pickled pike dip. (Yeah, really.) Since Northern Pike is North Dakota's state fish, I figured they know a thing or two.

By the time I finished filleting, it was too late to cook, so I cut and submerged the fillets in ice water and let them soak overnight. I decided to freeze a lot of the fish (in water), since there was about 2 1/2 pounds of fillet. I have plenty of Aquaponic Rosemary, which is one of my favorite herbs for cooking fish.
Aquaponic Rosemary
For last night's dinner, I followed this recipe, substituting maple syrup for brown sugar: 

Cedar Planked Pike

Soak a cedar plank for at least 1 hour or longer until the wood becomes saturated. Keep plank in water until ready for use.
Pike Fillets (Rub quantities should make enough for 2 decent size fillets), 2-3 fresh sprigs of rosemary
Rub:
1/2 Tbs smoked paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp ground coriander
2 Tbs brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
Mix rub ingredients thoroughly. Apply to fish. Set aside. Heat your grill to 350 degrees (better with charcoal than with gas but both work, you can also use your oven just be careful the wood plank will smoke). Place rosemary on soaked plank on grill for 5 minutes prior to putting fish on it. Place fish on plank overtop the rosemary and cook until tender. Do not flip fish. Serve on plank.
I started the raw fillets over indirect heat for the first 20 minutes 
I finished the fillets over direct heat for the last 15 minutes. Here they are almost done
ready to eat 
So how did it taste?

Delicious. The fish has a densely flaky texture, but wasn't too flaky. It held up well to all the spices, and the mixture of the cedar, rosemary and maple syrup really brought it to another level. A little squeeze of lemon...Boom!

If pike weren't so predacious, slimy and bony, there might not be an open season for them. I took my time filleting, but still managed to miss a few thin bones.

More Northern Pike recipes here: http://gf.nd.gov/fishing/other-fishing-information/pike/recipes

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fall Fried Perch

Fall fishin' 
Fall is a great time for fishing in Vermont; as the water cools down, the fish get hungry. Also, there is less fishing pressure as there usually aren't as many anglers on the water. 

no fishing pressure here
One of my favorite fish to cook and eat is yellow perch. In my April 28 post, I compared frying and baking them.
  
I caught some perch at Lake Sadawga, filleted them, and cut them into small pieces. Typically with the fillets I make a beer batter and fish fry, but today I didn't have any beer in the house. Since my wife, Susan Crowther, is an excellent cook, I asked her to cook them for lunch instead.

She dredged the fish in white flour, fried them in grapeseed oil, and took them off the heat while she made a simple sauce called Meuniere of browned butter, lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper. 
Meuniere sauce
Meuniere is both the preparation and the sauce. Here is a step-by-step recipe for Fish a la Meuniere. Evidently, it was one of the first things she learned at the Culinary Institute of America. Lucky me! 

After making the sauce, she re-added the fish to fry them in the sauce.

almost done
Compared to my beer batter fried perch, these perch were equally delicious but much lighter. Cooked in the lemon and butter sauce, they maintained their delicate flavor. 
cabbage, sauerkraut, quinoa with hot red peppers and perch a la Meuniere
So, maybe running out of beer has its advantages? Post comments below.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Natural Insecticide: Tomato Spray for Aphids

Fall is harvest time for the outdoor garden. It also signals a time to transplant crops which can continue to grow indoors in my Aquaponics systems.

Last fall I transplanted some Swiss Chard and Parsley indoors to extend their growing season. Little did I know that I had also transported aphids from the outside, which ate my veggies and caused me to start over. You can read about it here:
http://markcrowther.blogspot.com/2013/10/extending-growing-season.html

harvested tomato leaves for insecticide spray
Organic pest control can be tricky with Aquaponics because what is good for your plants isn't necessarily good for your fish. When I found this organic spray using only tomato leaves and water I thought I'd give fall transplanting another shot. Since tomatoes are members of the nightshade family, perhaps I could have substituted rhubarb, pepper or eggplant leaves for tomato? Has anyone tried those leaves with positive results? I've also read that aphids hate garlic, but didn't try that as the spray called for liquid dish soap, which could easily harm my fish.

two cups of tomato leaves

two cups of tomato leaves with water added = organic aphid spray
After I soaked two cups of leaves in two cups of water, it made a dark brown liquid, which I diluted with another cup of water or so after straining it into a spray bottle. It couldn't have been easier to make.

Then I transplanted the basil, wild mustard greens, and kale.


 I sprayed them thoroughly before planting them and have sprayed them almost every day for a week. But, the tomato spray started to ferment. I used it last night and it made the whole room stink so I dumped it out. On the upside, I haven't seen any sign of aphids, or any other bugs for that matter, and the transplants are looking okay.

As an experiment, I kept the overhead lights off for a couple of months before transplanting. In the second picture below, you can see the spacing is fairly wide between the nodes of the Rosemary plant (a node is the space between the each leaf and the plant stem). The Rosemary received its late summer light only through the adjacent window. The west-facing window provided only a few hours of direct light. Still, it grew substantially, demonstrating that this herb is well-suited for Aquaponics.

Aquaponic Rosemary planted last fall

Same Aquaponic Rosemary 1 year later

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Barrelponics Videos

video

These short videos help demonstrate what's been growing in my barrelponics system.

The top video shows some of the cool weather plants I have been growing, while the bottom video highlights the auto siphon feature of the system.

Enjoy!

video

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Eating Weed

I planted an edible weed called purslane in my flood and drain Aquaponics system. It's doing great!

Purslane; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portulaca_oleracea
I pulled it from my garden and introduced it into my Aquaponics system after learning about it's amazing nutritional/medicinal properties. Supposedly, it even contains Omega 3 fatty acids.

Purslane, a.k.a. "hogweed", "verdolaga", "pigweed", "pursley", and "moss rose" is an annual succulent which has a slightly sour and salty taste.  The stems, leaves and flowers are all edible, and it can be eaten raw or cooked. I like to eat it raw.

Evidently, one of the easiest ways of acquiring Purslane is to buy a commercial bag of Peat Moss. The Purslane seeds will likely be present in the Peat Moss bag and will quickly sprout.

It grows mostly horizontally, creeping along the ground, which makes it pretty easy to identify. It's got red stems, succulent rounded green leaves and small yellow flowers.

Try it out.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Upcycling Plastic

In Brattleboro, it's easy to recycle plastic packaging - just take it to the curb and it gets picked up every week. Because I live in the country, however, my recycling and garbage are at the end of my road, over 1/2 mile away. I drop off my recycling every couple of weeks at a station near my work instead. Consequently, I have a lot of plastic on hand to reuse for other purposes. 

After catching and cleaning a couple of rainbow trout, I decided I wasn't going to cook them right away. I hunted around for a Tupperware container that was long enough to freeze them with the heads on (cooking with the heads on gives better flavor). No luck. 
freezing a couple of trout in an upcycled plastic milk container

I cleaned out a milk container and cut off the top. Then I added the trout and filled the container with water. The trout fit perfectly. Completely submerged, they'll keep fresh with no "freezer burn." 

Milk containers are made from High-Density Polyethlyne (HDPE), or Type 2 plastic. HDPE is safe when frozen. Look for the HDPE label on the container.

After I cook these trout, I'll probably reuse the container for gardening. Fill it with soil and it's an instant planter with a handle. Or, cut out a bit more plastic and it becomes a scoop. This works great for removing gravel from fishtanks. 
My perception of plastic has changed since I upcycled those HDPE 55 gallon blue barrels into two barrelponics systems. Now, when I see a used plastic container, I ask myself, "What can I make with it?"
  
It is our collective challenge to prevent waste in all aspects of food production and to conserve our natural resources in the process. Aquaponics is resourceful gardening, helping to close energy loops by recycling the water in recirculating systems. Soil-based gardening requires up to 90% more water, as it cannot be reused after it soaks into soil.

Upcycling helps to keep plastic out of our landfills and oceans. It conserves energy used in production, as well as energy needed for the recycling process. This flow chart explains the process of plastic consumption, from Recycling vs. Upcycling: What is the difference? 



Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Introduction to Aquaponics Presentation on TV

Last Thursday, I was a guest on Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV), hosted by George Harvey and Tom Finnell. This hour-long show called "Energy Week Extra!" highlighted my "Introduction to Aquaponics" presentation. This video is available exclusively online. Please share it with people who are interested in Aquaponics, energy and sustainability!


(Left to right: George, Tom, and me)

"Energy Week" is a program, which features current topics related to Energy and Sustainability. I joined that discussion as well, preceding the Aquaponics show. Here's the YouTube May 29th Energy Week program which was also aired on BCTV local cable access. 

Check out George's blog, "geoharvey" for daily news about energy & climate change: 



Thursday, May 22, 2014

You don't always get what you pay for; sometimes you get more.

I found another free fishtank! Out with the old...
My first Aquaponics system is gone.
In with the new:

29 gallon fishtank, next to 10 gallon fishtank (on left) 
I sold one of my barrelponics systems to Tim Stone, a coworker at Landmark College, to make space for a new system. Another coworker, Jim Lovering, was giving away his 29 gallon tank with accessories. Thanks, guys! The dimensions fit the space well. I made the stand about twenty years ago and was only using it for books. Now it works both as a stand and storage.

I'm planning to set up a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) system with the new tank. NFT is popular with Hydroponics (which is fish-less) but is also used in Aquaponics.

Since I already have Media Filled Grow Bed (MFG) with my other barrelponics system, and Deep Water Culture (DWC) with my 10 gallon mini-system, I figured it was time to experiment with NFT and have one of each design.

Alphabet soup? What's the difference between NFT, MFG and DWC? Japan Aquaponics explains the three designs in more detail with photos.

I already have a custom support piece to support the PVC tubing for the new system. This will go width-wise across the top of the tank. Actually, I didn't even have to make it. The previous owner of my other 29 gallon fishtank gave it away with accessories as he had converted that tank into an Aquaponics system.
support piece for PVC tubing
When finished, the system will look something like this:
NFT system at Kalakaua Middle School, Hawaii
Stay tuned!