THE SAGA OF AQUAPONICS

Rich's Photos
Tilt your head a little to the left…Good?

Having pretty much run the gambit on the greenhouse trial runs, it was time to set up an outdoor garden. In the front courtyard is a KOI pond that has a meandering creek and some small waterfalls, two turtle ponds, and two biofilters made of rock, filter mat, and EDPM liner. Directly adjacent to this is a front flagstone deck about 16′ wide and 6′ from the front edge to the house. I thought it would be a perfect place to situate four-4′ x 4’x1′ reservoirs to utilize the nutrients produced by the 13 large KOI. Boy, did that idea not go well with the boss! (ok, so maybe the 29 buckets would have looked a little tacky next to the front door.)

Now to plan B, the Backyard Garden. Using materials stacked behind the greenhouse left over from construction projects for the past 5-6 yrs in hopes that someday I would finally use up the wood, even after 3 arbors, one gazebo, there still is some wood left; time to get to work. My Backyard Garden is underway.  About 5 years ago I started a 20,000-gallon KOI pond. The main pond was designed to have a separate 600-gallon biological filter pond. It will act as a skimmer when the large pond is finished. The Bio-filter pond (Biopond for short) has inside dimensions of 2′ front to back x 16′ long and 2-1/2′ deep. Two to four inches from the bottom is a 2″ dia perforated PVC pipe that forms a loop the full length of the Biopond. The loop connects to a 3″ diameter collector at one end that is routed to an outside pond pump. Perfect!

I have kept water in the 600-gallon Biofilter with Taro growing out of it. The dogs drink a lot of water, ok? And I get tired of filling the 5-gallon bucket every day with water. Fritz, Pinto, and Lady can inhale a lot of water in one sitting but not 600 gallons.

Anyway, it came to me in a dream that I should convert the Biofilter into a large fish pond to provide nutrients for the plants. Yes, I have these visions quite frequently, my wife calls them hallucinations.

Remember from the first article all of the excess equipment I had collected? You don’t? Take my word for it, there was and still is all of those extra parts from the first greenhouse revamp. Since I shot my allowance (that not what you thought I was going to say was it?) on the greenhouse I’m going to have to improvise.

I am putting together an outdoor garden combining AQUAPONICS & VERMIPONICS.

Anyway, the first thing I wanted to do was build stands for the three 100 gal reservoirs that had been in the greenhouse. My nephew, bless his heart, took some of the wood and built stands for them, don’t mind that the double stand to the left of the Biopond is four inches shorter than the single stand to the right of the Biopond. It still undecided whether it was my instructions or his interpretation of them.  Actually, it doesn’t look all that bad if you tilt your head a little to the left; from a distance, they almost look the same height!

In construction work, we collect 5 gal buckets. We take our tools to the job in a tool tote or toolbox and bring them back in a 5 gal bucket. I don’t know why we just do! The buckets are too good to throw away. What better tote for our experiment!

Now, I had four worm bins by the back door. Kitchen leftovers no problem; all I had to do, was open the back door and throw the leftovers at the worm boxes, most of it went into at least one of the boxes, the rest, well, unless you got out and looked you couldn’t see the stuff anyway. That is I couldn’t see the stuff, my wife vision is a lot better than mine when she squints. She saw the stuff, now I had to find a new home for the worm boxes!

That unfinished 20,000 gal pond is a big concrete hole in the backyard, so I figured that with the help of my nephew, (I love to abuse my relatives, my brother couldn’t take it anymore and moved out!), we relocated a couple of sixteen and twenty foot long 4″ x 6″ to make a support structure for the buckets, by straddling the pond. Perpendicular to the two 4″x 6″ going lengthwise over the concrete hole in the ground we, ok, the nephew screwed down equally spaced 2″ x 4″, that I cut, and attached them on top of the 4″x 6″. Aquaponics, nutrients provided by the 200 or so 2-3″ goldfish in the Biopond do not produce all of the nutrients required for some of the veggies and flowers in these trial beds. So, I decided to turn the four worm bins into (29) 5gal worm bins and include them in the system, Vermiponics.

The buckets each would have a plant of some type in it. We, ok, the nephew drilled a single hole in the bottom of each bucket (But I did get the drill and hole saw for him and helped him round up the buckets.) Into the bottom of each hole, we installed a single bulkhead tubing fitting with a screen designed for hydroponics. Into each bucket I placed a couple of inches of chunk core (coconut fiber used for orchids or mulch) on top of that I placed a 3″ layer of worm bedding full of red wrigglers. In the worm bedding, I placed one plant; squash, tomatoes, potatoes, horseradish, green beans, artichoke, two rose bushes and one rooted rose cutting.

Once the plants were in place I put a 6″ or so layer of alfalfa hay, veggie scraps mixed combined with composted chicken manure and finally for insulation shredded newspaper. We ran two eight foot lengths of 2-1/2 PVC pipe inserting a 2 in the center of the 16′. We then inserted a 6′ length of pipe into it stubbed out from under the bucket garden framework and extended to the Biopond. This allows the excess Worm Tea from overwatering drain from the buckets to the Biopond. The 29 buckets will be on a timed irrigation system.

Oh, I almost forgot the 2-1/2″ cubic yards of red lava that was placed in the 3-100gal reservoirs and 8 of it placed in the bottom of the Biopond to create an under gravel filter. I still have ½” of a cubic yard of red lava to go. No help from the nephew on this one, something about he had to go to work to make a living?Back to the 2-1/2″ PVC drain pipe. We drilled 1″ holes in the pipe in the direction of each of the 29 buckets. Then we ran a short piece of tubing (remember the box of 100′ I mentioned in the last article, you don’t remember that either?) from the drain nipple to a 90-degree elbow, then another piece of tubing from the 90-degree elbow to a hole in the drain pipe.

One thing that I have learned about being 65 it takes a hell of a lot longer to do what I think I use to do in a lot shorter period of time. Either that or I have been lying to myself about how good I use to be. But, nothing compares to the feeling I have when I try to get up the morning after. I don’t ever recall in my anatomy and physiology class ever seeing anything in those areas of my body that could possibly hurt like what I am experiencing!

It finally warmed up enough for the 19yr old yellow belly sliders, Baby and what his name to go out to their part of the courtyard ponds. I quickly snagged their 100gal reservoir out of the greenhouse, built an extension on the single stand and set the turtle reservoir alongside the single reservoir. Now it balanced! (one still has to tilt their head a little to one side) just in time to find out the red lava is pushing the pH from 7.3 to 8.0. A bale of Canadian peat, a couple of zipper pillowcases in the relocated turtle tank which I built a bell siphon for and the pH was on it way down.

The Biopond pump has a 1-1/2″ supply to the Biopond. I added a with a reducer to at each of the reservoir locations, each stub out from the main supply line has a separate  ball valve for individual control. I added two additional vertical two 2’x8’x1’deep grow beds and two horizontal for the bucket garden. Now, leftover from the greenhouse are four 1′ x 41″ x 4″ deep Flood Trays for flood and drain. So, the last part of the construction is going up, a stand that straddles the Biopond measuring 3′ high by 3′ from front to back and 17′ long. The remainder of the grow trays and the two home built 120 gal Grow Beds will rest on this stand.

The 1′ x 41″ x 4″ Flood Trays will be Flood and Drain (same as Ebb and Flow) with individual 275 gph pumps and each pair of F/Ts will have a timer. Two of the trays contain 3 pots each of asparagus and other two Flood Trays contain 3 pots each of Bhut Jolokia chiles. (heck no I can’t eat them; they are for friends that claim nothing is too hot!) The potted plants are in a mixture of COIR and COMMERCIAL PERLITE #4 GRADE. This grade is  ¼” to size. Coir or coconut fiber comes in 3 common types, (probably more, but I haven’t seen them) a chunk type, a medium length fiber, and a fine grade similar to peat. I prefer the medium fiber when I can find it.

Although I prefer the acid properties of peat moss, it is not a renewable resource and the peat bogs are being depleted, not to mention the release of carbon dioxide from the peat. When you purchase the coir check to make sure it is not loaded with salt or have a high pH, if it does soak and rinse it thoroughly, before putting it in your system.

The two final Grow Beds are made of 1-1/8″ plywood with a center drain and lined with an EDPM liner. They are 2′ front to back, 8′ wide and 1′ deep. One of the GB will contain a couple of inches of red lava on the bottom covered with filter fabric, the type used to wrap around perforated storm drain pipes. Then a couple of layers of chunk type coir and topped off with fine coir and perlite mix. Asparagus and Yukon gold potatoes will be planted in this one. This GB is on a timer for irrigation.

Rich's PhotosThe other 2’x8’x1′ GB will contain a raft system. The raft is a 1″ thick piece of foil faced Styrofoam. I use a drill with a 1-7/8″ hole saw to drill the holes. I lay out a 6″x 6″ grid to locate the placement of the holes. This is a perfect size hole for NET POTS. I purchase the net pots at any of the half dozen hydroponic stores in my area. I either place a cutting directly into the floating pot or start a seed in a Jiffy Peat Pellet. Once the seed has germinated I place the Jiffy Peat Pellet in the floating net pot.

By the way, the difference between a Flood Tray and a Grow Bed; the Flood Tray has planted containers, mineral wool blocks, or the like and is used for Flood & Drain controlled by a timer. A Flood Tray can contain a floating raft with a continuous flow. While Grow Beds, are just that, the media is placed directly into the container and the plants are planted directly into the grow media. In Aquaponics the grow media is usually Hydroton or aggregate. Do not use an aggregate that can leach minerals into the water, such as sandstone, granite, marble, etc. are not acceptable. Aggregate such as quartz, lava, some types of shale, river rock work well, these are usually available at a rockery, Home Depot or landscape supply.

A form of Flood & Drain uses a continuous flow of nutrients coupled with a Bell Siphon or any type of automated siphon. The auto-siphons are used in conjunction with the aggregate, instead of having a timer set to repeat the flood and drain cycles; with a auto-siphon such as a bell siphon the continuous flow of nutrients reaches a level in the grow bed were the fluid starts to flow down the stand pipe (drain pipe) and creates a siphon. The siphon then draws the nutrient solution down to almost the bottom of the grow bed before air is sucked into the bell siphon through holes located at the bottom of the bell housing and stops the siphon. As it siphons out the nutrient rich water it pulls air down into the aggregate. Pretty slick! Ah, but the nutrient enriched water is still flowing into the grow bed, when the grow bed is full again the bell siphon will drain it down again. This happens or should happen about 4 times an hour. And you don’t have to have a timer turning your pump on then turning your pump off only to turn the pump back on again.

After I built my first Bell siphon I kept watching it cycle, (I’m easily entertained). The problem is if a person had seen me staring at the same bell siphon for long periods of time, that person would start to talk, so I had to build another and another until I now have five bell siphons.. (it throws others off the track). They once again thought I was sane! Well sorta until they look over the fence!

BELL SIPHONS are easy to make, don’t go from YouTube video to YouTube video. I must have watched a hundred of the things. Some want you to create a vortex others want you to stuff an air tube in the cap; then there are a few designs that must have a dozen different pieces and a ten-minute video why you need to have these special dimensioned and shaped pieces. Holy cow!!! Stop already; all you have to do is drill a hole in the center (or whatever is easiest for a location) of the future grow bed. Insert a bulkhead fitting through it. (You can purchase either the threaded type or slip type, I prefer the slip type).

For a small grow bed say 2’x 2′ or so cut a piece of 3″ PVC pipe. This is called the standpipe (you would have purchased a bulkhead fitting for this application, for my 100 gallon 4’x4′ GB I used a 1′ standpipe, 1″bulkhead fitting and 3″ bell housing) cut the standpipe about 1-1/2″ below the rim of the grow bed and slip the standpipe into the bulkhead fitting. (A green side up moment here.) The standpipe goes inside of the GB not under it. Next cut a piece of 1/2″ PVC pipe the same length as the stand pipe if you have a rounded cap. If the PVC cap is flat, add a quarter inch or so to the length of the bell housing.

Now get yourself a one inch hole saw, fostner bit, paddle bit to use in a drill to make round holes. Because you will be drilling 2 opposing pairs of holes in the bell housing. (divide the pipe into 4 quarters, one hole in each quarter) The bottom of the round hole is about a quarter of an inch from the bottom edge of the bell housing. If you don’t have a drill, take out your pocket knife and start whittling!

Glue the  cap on the opposite end of the bell housing, don’t rely on a tight fit of the cap and the housing, it will leak air, break your siphon, drive you nuts! So glue it, not silicone glue, use PVC glue. Silicon is an adhesive, not glue. Silicone has to have body for adhesion. Glue penetrates and melds the items together.

Don’t glue either the standpipe or the bell siphon to the grow bed. It will work just fine with the bell housing vibrating around the standpipe. I’ve seen pictures with rocks on top of the bell. Beats the hell out of me, owners must be control freaks.

Now under the grow bed, you must build your drain pipe. Insert a short piece of PVC into the bottom of the bulkhead fitting, (that under the grow bed!) now attach a 90-degree elbow to the short piece of PVC hopefully aimed in the direction you hope the water to go! To the elbow attach a longer piece of PVC in a horizontal position. At the end of the horizontal piece you just installed attach another 90degree elbow aimed down. Now for the last piece of the puzzle insert another straight piece of PVC into the elbow you just installed with the last pipe aimed down (or close to it) I support the end of the horizontal piece with a nylon tie, but allow it to slope slightly down at the end.

One little tidbit I make a cylindrical wire cage with tabs at the bottom bent away from the bell siphon to be held in place by the aggregate. This is considerably larger, like twice the diameter of the Bell housing this allows for a lot smoother and faster flow of water out of the GB. It also prevents the roots from clogging up the bell housing; anything is easily removed with forceps.

Presto! You now have a magical siphon that you can watch for hours. You can build two of them in GB side by side and have races. You can monitor them on a daily basis making certain that they are siphoning at the same speed as when new. You can brag at your neighbors that your bell siphon is faster than their bell siphon! Endless possibilities!!

Happy Aquaponicing to you

Rich

Post Author: Rich Feiller

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