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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The IBC of Aquaponics

Backyard Aquaponics has released an awesome manual on aquaponics, featuring 43 (yes, forty-three) systems made with Intermediate Bulk Containers or IBCs, appropriately called The IBC of Aquaponics. Even though I don't have an IBC system, I think IBCs are great. In fact, I'll be helping teach an aquaponics workshop in May where we'll be creating about a dozen IBC systems.

Why the IBC of Aquaponics is Cool - A list.
  1. The manual is free. That's always cool in my book.
  2. The introduction and appendix contain great (and pretty) information about aquaponics - all that stuff experienced aquapons have forgotten they ever had to learn.
  3. There are great pictures and write-ups on all the systems.
  4. Many of the articles about systems include hyperlinks to youtube videos, sketch-up models, and forum discussions about the systems.
Check out this cool chart, showing the relationship between nutrient availability and system pH. I've seen charts like this before and simplified the message in my own mind to "6.5 is good." But this version of the chart is absolutely lovely.

This level of professionalism and beauty continues through the rest of the document. If creating an aquaponics system out of an IBC tote appeals to you, you can browse several dozen different configurations, and even create a 3-D version of how your system could look (Google Sketch-up required).

If you live in the DC area and would like to participate in the May IBC workshop, drop me a line. Totes will be provided as part of the workshop!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Making an Indoor System

The last weekend in March I will be presenting a workshop at the Home Grown Institute Conference.

The conference will be held at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, in NW Philadelphia with the theme "Springing Good Intentions Into Action.” There will be over 50 home-scaled workshops, including edible gardens, community and school gardens, seed-saving, soil enrichment, 4 season harvest, bees, chickens, worms, aquaponics, food preservation, fermentation, re-purposing, upcycling, and natural building.

Lots of fun!

I'll be putting on the aquaponics workshop, demonstrating the construction of three different systems:
  • An aquaponic windowfarm, using recycled water bottles
  • A apartment/patio system
  • An outdoor system using stock tanks
All the systems I'm demonstrating emphasize putting together something relatively nice-looking out of local parts on a budget. In my own aquaponics journey, I went straight from a windowfarm to a system made from stock tanks. But I can imagine many people would want to start with something in between. So I've been playing...

First, structure. I like the look of wire shelving. But heavy-duty wire shelves can put you back a pretty penny. Luckily, Target carries a small three-tiered set of wire shelves for just $19.99 as part of their Room Essentials line. The shelves can carry a moderate load, particularly if the load is evenly distributed, such as would be the case with the flat bottom of a fish tank, or a flat bottomed grow bed.

Second, the fish tank. I'm fine with a 5-gallon water jug, but my daughter really liked the idea of an actual fish tank, where you could clearly see the fish inside. I was happy to find a 10-gallon tank at PetSmart for under $14.00. That would work just fine for a tank located under the growbed with a pump inside. Or I could cut a 1" hole near the top with a diamond hole saw if I wanted to have a "Constant Height of Fish Tank" configuration with a pump in a sump tank.

Finally, the growbed and sump. I've used concrete mixing tubs in the past, at least for a grow bed. But TC Lynx over at the Aquaponics Gardening community mentioned that she uses bus tubs for a demonstration system she packs along when she's selling her wares at the farmers market. Bus tubs are sturdy, designed to carry a load of dirty dishes from a table to the dish-washing part of a restaurant kitchen. They are also compact enough that they're still luggable, even when filled with gravel. I was able to find 7" deep bus tubs online from a variety of sellers. I decided to get three: one for a sump, a second for a media growbed, and a third for a floating raft grow bed.

There are other configurations I can imagine, but this is simple to put together without putting much strain on the family budget.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Keeping things warm

I hate working outside in the cold.

Unfortunately, I didn't get my two heating solutions finished before cold set in. With work, family, and short days, I've not had the time I'd hoped to finish things off.

Another concern I've had is getting things too warm. Since my greenhouse is so tiny, I had visions of scalding water and melted plastic. So I wanted to measure temperatures with the rocket mass heater without it being connected to the greenhouse.

This past week I finally got the rust stripped off and painted the drum and lid (from a second-hand 22.5" Weber grill) with high temperature paint. The high temperature paint is supposed to be able to go to 800 degrees Fahrenheit without out-gassing or burning off.

I've got a video here showing how I assembled the innards. I want to be able to disassemble the rocket mass heater, so making the components of cob isn't my first choice. If I had a chance to do this over, I would cut two 8 inch holes into the base plate or "lid" of the barrel.

I've found that it's a bit tricky getting these heaters to start. The method that ended up working for me is to start off with crumpled newspaper and a wax & eggcarton fire starter. Then feeding in small diameter sticks with the occasional piece of junk mail works great.

In my initial burn, I found that the top of the barrel (inside the domed lid) got to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The sides of the barrel warmed my hands when held about an inch away, and the top of the domed lid provided a similar level of diffuse heat.

If I had a greenhouse that was taller and could make a second version of this, I would consider having the heater inside the greenhouse. My greenhouse is short, however, so the roof plastic would only be a few inches above the domed lid. And this first version has the big rough rectangular hole for the exhaust, so I would be concerned about the exhaust fumes leaking in the enclosed space.

My next step will be constructing a nicer base out of bricks and connecting the exhaust to the duct work and structure inside my greenhouse.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Starting Seeds

We've been experimenting around with sowing seeds this winter, so I thought I'd share how that's been going.

Our first attempt was to plant seeds in rock wool, with the idea that we'd transplant the happy little baby plants into hydroton-filled net pots after they sprouted. That worked OK for a few seeds (peas, for instance), but for the most part we were left with itchy fingers and tiny plants that were too small to work with but too large to thrive in the original rock wool cubes we'd allocated.

For my next attempt, I encased each seed in a spit wad of tissue paper before planting it directly in a net pot filled with hydroton. I thought the tissue would keep the seeds moist and keep tiny seeds from falling through the balls of hydroton. I was hoping the tissue would be sufficiently flimsy to get out of the way of the plant when it started to grow.

My daughter, for her part, wanted to use peat pots, which she planted liberally with seeds. She poured lots of very warm water over the plants.

My daughter's seeds sprouted first - making a little carpet of green in her container. That was all well and good until it came time to transplant the little plants. It was nasty hard, and lots of individual plants were damaged in the process.

My seeds eventually sprouted, except for some old spinach seeds that likely were no longer viable. The spit wad idea worked great, and since the plants were already growing in hydroton, there was no need to handle the plants. All I had to do was plop my net pots into my floating raft out in the greenhouse.

Unfortunately, a fair number of the plants we set out in the greenhouse have "failed to thrive." All of the ones that haven't thrived are plants from seeds we initially grew in either rock wool or peat, the ones that had to be transplanted into hydroton. So taking all the good ideas and getting rid of the rest, here's my plan for planting seedlings as I wait for winter to end.

  • Encase the seeds I'm about to plant in a bit of tissue. I used a single ply of facial tissue, torn in 1/2" strips, then cut about 1/2-1" long. I put the seed in the center and fold the tissue over it. Then I moisten the folded square of tissue (licking works for me) and roll it into a ball or wad.

  • I fill a net pot 3/4 full of hydroton and place two of the seed spit wads on top.
  • Next I toss a few more balls of hydroton on top to cover the seeds and fill the netpot.
  • I arrange the filled net pots into a plastic container (to which I have a lid).
  • I fill the plastic container with nicely warm water so it almost reaches the top of the net pots.
  • Last thing for today, put on a lid and stick the plastic container somewhere dark and warm. I've found I can put it on top of some electrical appliance, where the waste heat keeps things warmer than average.

  • Tomorrow I will drain off most of the water and wait. If I'm right, I should see little sprouts as soon as my daughter got sprouts. If so, I can move these plants to the floating raft in my greenhouse as early as next week.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What's in a picture?

This past week some of us were designing a T-shirt to celebrate World Water Day and Aquaponics. The T-shirt is now live at Cafepress, and it's cool.

In the process, however, I came up with a slightly different logo, which I'll be using for my own aquaponics efforts. Thought I'd explain what I was thinking, and why this is such a perfect logo for "365 Aquaponics."

The T-shirt slogan talks about growing more food with every drop. Since I often have to explain aquaponics to folks, I thought a design that showed the fish in clean water and the plants in fertilized water would be cool. Of course, the plant would have to be above the fish. Since the system cycles constantly, I decided to show the drops chasing each other - it would also look a bit like the yin yang symbol, which implies completeness. Super-excited about my concept, I shared a sketch with the team:

They were underwhelmed. Frankly, I don't like it, after getting a good night of sleep. The term "hot mess" comes to mind.

The official T-shirt went forward with its elegant and simple graphic, but I couldn't get the idea out of my head. Around this time I decided to research the yin yang symbol, to make sure there wasn't some weird symbolism I wanted to avoid. That's when I found out that the original yin yang symbol was all about the seasons of the year.

Allen Tsai has a nice page describing the original origin, with plots showing the day when the sun shone longest (and cast the shortest shadow) versus the day the sun shone least and cast the longest shadow.

If you put a little white spot to symbolize the day the sun starts to "conquer," and a little black spot to symbolize the day the moon starts to "conquer," you get the familiar yin yang symbol. And it's all about the seasons of the year.

I created my yin yang art, and drew a fish. The plant is supposed to be generic plant - neither lotus nor lettuce nor flower, but somehow representative of all of these.

The final touch is the curved white line of bubbles, suggesting movement and the need to oxygenate the fishes' water. VoilĂ ! An image that explains aquaponics and the full year, winter as well as summer.