Aquaponics update – First day of fish screw up and recovery!

On Sunday, after weeks of preparation of building, cycling water through my system and planting seeds, I brought home 23 tilapia from Frank’s Aquaponics.

I followed some great advice by Frank with regard to acclimating the fish to my system, and they appear to have adapted to the move perfectly.  And by perfectly, I mean that none are floating so far.  I watched pretty closely for a three or four hours and everything was going just great.  However… my day was not over.  Hopefully the following mistake will help some people avoid a similar problem.

I watched a video sometime back, while I was working out my design, where a guy’s drain got clogged and he accidentally dumped his entire system onto the ground overnight and lost a number of fish. Based on this, I created my system where there is no pump inside my fish tank. Essentially, it stays 100% full at all times with an overflow that exits into a recessed 55 gallon barrel (sump tank), and from there water is pumped out and up to the garden, where it eventually drains and returns back to the fish tank itself. That way, there is no reason the water in the fish tank should ever sit below the level of the overflow. It works really smoothly, and I was feeling pretty great about it. However, there was a small catch in making sure that I keep fish from draining from my overflow into the sump tank.  I thought a perfect solution was to cover the overflow with window screen material, and that seemed to work flawlessly about a week’s worth of testing. But… that was pre-fish!   Yesterday, after the fish being in the tank for a few hours, I noticed that some waste material was collecting on the screen, but water was still flowing. I left the house for a couple of hours to play volleyball last night, and when I returned I found that screen had become so clogged that it couldn’t keep up with the water coming back from the garden. Over a that 2 hours I dumped about 35 gallons of water out of the system, and when I took the lid off my sump tank, I found that my pump was danged close to running dry!

This left me with 2 significant things to solve in a hurry…
1) I can’t run my system until I fill it back up with water. I can’t just run a hose to it or I’ll kill my fish who had already had one traumatic experience that day just moving in.

2) What am I going to do about a screen?

I decided the screen was the most immediate thing to solve so I started there. Thankfully my wife is a scrapbooker and had decorative hole punches. So now my screen has now been modified with cute decorative star-pattern holes, which I am sure the fish will appreciate as the swim by. They are small enough that no fish should go through, but hopefully big enough that waste won’t collect as quickly until I find something more permanent.

Then came the water issue. Can I really treat 35 gallons of tap water effectively and dump it into the system without damaging the fish? Perhaps, but I have no confidence in that.  Then it hit me… I have lakes all around me! So about 10pm last night, I loaded up three five gallon buckets on the the golf cart and headed down the street to the boat ramp. Three trips later my system was full again and I flipped it back on, and left a nice fresh piece of lettuce on the surface as a token of apology to my fish.

This morning I was relieved to find that the fish apparently adapted fine as there were no floaters, and I could see that they had munched away on the lettuce leaf I had left them overnight. Whew…. crisis averted.

Getting started with my aquaponics garden

Over the past few years, I have become more drawn toward the ideas of self-sustainability.  As our society becomes ever more dependent on food delivery systems that are completely outside of our control, the idea of having some level of sustenance in my own back yard has seemed increasingly important to me, and having the kind of skills that would help in the even of some kind of disruption to food lines.  That notion has manifested itself in various ways over the years, but most recently this has resulted my creating an aquaponics garden.   Aquaponic gardens are a combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water instead of soil).   In aquaponics, the fish and plants develop a symbiotic relationship, in which the waste of the fish is provided to the plants as nitrates, and then the garden is responsible for feeding the fish and for helping to filter the water to keep the fish happy.  Ultimately, depending on your choice of fish, the fish then can also become food as the grow and multiply.  Lastly, given the recycling of the water through the system, aquaponics farming uses just a fraction of water that is used in traditional farming and gardening.

After studying countless videos on YouTube and attending a local aquaponics class at Frank’s Aquaponics with my son, I put together a system that consists of a 100 gallon fish tank, a 55 gallon sump tank and then various grow beds.  I have three horizontal 4″ PVC tubes that each support 8 plants.  I have one ebb & flow bed that supports 20-24 plants, and one raft bed that supports about 20 plants.

As of the time of this post, I have actually planted about 40 plants and have a school of 23 tilapia that are about 2-3″ long each.  I have recorded a couple of videos along the way though, so I figured I would post them now and do follow-ups with my progress.

Even looking at these videos now, I realize I have learned quite a bit over the past few weeks and have modified the design slightly, but they are still pretty accurate to where I sit today.

Initial construction of my aquaponics garden…

Cover for my fish tank…