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How to grow herbs & keep fish for cheap! Easy, small scale aquaponics DIY

 
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I'm constantly amazed at how expensive the fancy home aquaponics set-ups are, and how tiny.  Here's an example :



It's pretty and all that, but it also costs over $130, for a three gallon aquarium with a pump and some trays! Now, I'm not a master fishkeeper, and my fish-keeping knowledge is only what I've absorbed via osmosis from living with my husband, who is a master fishkeeper and has been keeping fish and helping people with their fish fish for at least 15 years. I asked him to explain how to make a system like this, for a third or less of the price.

===========================================================================

Husband here! Longtime fishkeeper. Just pointing out some ways one might improve upon this concept, take or leave them.

-Size of tank.
You're going to have an easier time doing this cheaper with a slightly larger tank. For around 40? dollars, you can get a setup like this going, depending on how much stuff you already have lying around.
Ten gallon tanks (can be had cheap, used 5 to 10 dollars normally) are going to give you more room for appropriate fish, the trays on top, the fountain pump, and plants to go in the tray. Look for tanks on craigslist, yard sales, thrift stores. A ten gallon tank is a good size because it's more forgiving, requires less water changes, and will allow you to grow a bit more plants on top. And, the fish are happier because they get more room to swim and places to hide.

-Appropriate fish.
Bettas are an obvious fail because you want POOPERS to feed your tiny garden. Bettas have to be fed sparingly or they get bloated and die. You really should only feed bettas once a day, or less, and that makes for teeny little amounts of poop. Aim for something that really poops, but can be happy enough in a 10g tank. I'd start with maybe 9 to 12 white cloud mountain minnows (super cheap, they even get sold as feeders). They are swift fish and can eat a lot in a day, and will make more fertilizer for your tiny garden. White Clouds don't need a heater, they are tough as nails and forgiving of novice mistakes.



Also, you've gotta ask how labor intensive you want this to be. The more fish you have the more water changes you'll end up doing. Granted, the plants will eat the nitrogen-based waste products, but the water will still experience mineral depletion and become excessively soft, or laden with Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) over time, and if water conditions suddenly change (a water change after many months of stability), the fish can die from the shock. A set-up like this is, admittedly, the magic trick a lot of fishkeepers wish they knew about. You won't need to do many water changes (every few days or once a week would be normal for most heavily-stocked aquaria, would defeat the purpose of fertilizing the plants here), but a solid 75% change once a month would still be advisable to prevent the water from becoming too different from your source (tap or well).

Other options for "fish":
  • Random pest snails: These things aren't too pretty, and can get stinky, but they have the advantage of being easy to feed. Also called bladder snails, these can be found in local ponds or picked up in any aquarium shop. Small Ramshorn snails also work, and the same facts apply. Drop in some raw vegetables--like the butt of carrot--every so often, and they'll be happy. Tiny bits of meat on occasion is a good idea also. They're tiny--at most about 1/2 inch, and they breed quickly and will cover the walls of your tank. If they breed too many, you can always feed them to your ducks and chickens--protein and calcium for the poultry=win!


  • Zebra Danios: These are also great and hard to kill. You could stock about 10 in your ten gallon.



  • Rosy Red/Fathead/Feeder Minnows: Many names for the same fish--these are really cheap and very hardy. You could put 3-4 in you 10 gallon, as they actually get pretty chunky



  • Guppies: If you want some pretty fish, you could have 1 or 2 MALE guppies along with your minnows. Don't get females, because they come pregnant and will make tons of babies. Don't get more than 2 males, because they'll fight and try--unsuccessfully--to breed with each other.



  • -The general set-up.
    With cold-tolerant fish like white cloud mountain minnows, you won't need a heater. This will save you money and simplify things for you.
  • Substrate: None needed, barebottom is fine as long as you don't mind seeing your fertilizer. Gravel would be fine, it will hold the poo for you and give it a place to decompose. Sand is fine but you'll need to worry about it getting into the pump if you use it, so I wouldn't advise it, really in this case if you want simplicity.
  • Top tray: This is where it all comes together. You'd want a tray that will fit the top of the tank. I'd use one slightly smaller than the tank's top opening, set it on the lid of tank if you bought one or a solid piece of glass if you're cheap like me. You want it full of gravel for the plants to sit in. Plain, small pea gravel. Some minor plumbing (I use nylon hoses and the gray corner pieces from Lowe's) will carry water from any kind of small fountain pump up to one side of the tray, where it can empty straight into the gravel and fill the tray. At the other end, you'd want a sponge (aquaclear brand is best) up against a series of holes you would drill into the plastic tray for water to leave, so near the top 1/4 of the tray's edge. So the sponge will act as a barrier between the gravel bed and the wall of the tray, and also provide a place for healthy bacteria to live. Also drill an emergency overflow hole somewhere along the tray (higher than the other holes) so that if the sponge and gravel somehow clog up, the water will escape back into the tank and not overflow the tray and create a catastrophe.
       You can use almost any tray that fits and can be drilled without shattering.
  • Water pump: You can find tiny fountain pumps super cheap at thrift stores or new at pet stores.
  • Hose: Take your pump to the the hardware store and look for some nylon hose that will fit on your pump.
    Here's the type of hose to look for
    And here's a picture of a bigger hose and pump. One end connects to the pump and the other end comes up out of the tank and is fitted with a corner connector piece.
  • Corner connector: One end goes on your house, the other end waterfalls into your tray.
  • Food: Feed a quality food that isn't made too entirely of corn or soy. If you go with snails, you can just feed them vegetable scraps.


  • -Lighting
    Place tank where it will get several hours of sun (mostly indirect but that will depend on what you grow) per day, move tank further from light if it grows excessive algae, not that algae harms anything, but it will rob nutrients from your garden and people think it's ugly. You might need to buy a light if sun isn't doing it, that will cost a little, but you can get those used or buy non-aquarium lights like a heat lamp/work light housing with a good sun-spectrum CFL screwed in.

    -Cycling the Tank
    Usually this is a big deal when having an aquarium, but, since you've got live plants, you don't have to worry too much about it. If you want to be on the safe side, and you've got access to someone else's healthy, cycled tank, you can wring out the dirty sponge directly into the new tank's water, the bacteria will find happy places to live on their own and will populate the sponge rapidly. Easy-peasy.


    That's all I've got off the top of my head, feel free to add to the discussion!
     
    Nicole Alderman
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    Nicole Alderman again, and I thought I'd add something about other fish. I know how a lot of people (myself included) like "pretty" fish. So, I asked my husband if, maybe, Paradise Gouramis would do well in an aquaponics system, since they are hardier than bettas and don't require a heater if your house is warm enough. He said, No:

    "Not Paradise either. Like bettas, they don’t eat enough."

    We looked through a list of other fish for small tanks. He was amazed that most of them were on the list, because a lot of them are very finiky fish. White Cloud Mountain Minnows really are the easiest choice, especially if this is your first time keeping fish.
     
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    Great thread!

    We have had fish in the past so I really enjoyed reading about this procedure and the different fish.

    Since it is so windy here that I can't get outside to plant, I have been experimenting with water. I am interested in learning about growing plants in water.
     
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    I got myself a watergarden for my apartment a year ago. it doesn't come with any lights, so low light plants are recomended. i've had a betta in there for a year with no problems. never change the water, except to top off.  You dont need waste, i believe you need ammonia, which is excreted through gills.
     
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    As someone who has raised fish for years and done large-scale and small-scale aquaponics, I agree 100% with everything you said.  Some things I would add:

    1) consider "peeponics" to kick start the tank.  ie, add a cup of urine to the grow bed to start the nitrogen cycle.

    2) Load up the tank with fish, or the plants will suffer.  
     
    pollinator
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    Nice to see an aquaponics thread going. Looks good to me, I'm a fish keeper as well as as an APer (aquaponics person.)  One thing I'm learning about recently that I'll add to the discussion on fish feed types. Since in aquaponics the fish feed also feed the plants it is important to look at what is in the feed. Does it have the minerals necessary to feed the plants. This is a bigger concern if you want to grow vegetables  you can eat of course. Goldfish food for the most part is plant based with little protein and minerals  here is an example from a quick search "Fish Meal, Ground Brown Rice, Torula Dried Yeast, Feeding Oat Meal, Shrimp Meal, Wheat Gluten, Soybean Oil, Fish Oil, Algae Meal, Sorbitol, Lecithin, L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate (Vitamin C). Artificial Colors Including Yellow 5, Red 3, And Blue 2. Ethoxyquin As A Preservative.
    TetraFin Goldfish Flakes | Petco
    https://www.petco.com/shop/en/petcostore/product/tetrafin-goldfish-flakes  
    The following information is for larger systems such as ours where we have a 2600 gallon trout tank and can feed high quality feed from Skrettings. It is a interesting read as they are a world-wide provider of fish and shrimp feed skretting-sustianability-report-2016 They apparently pay close attention to sustainability and reduction of antibiotics in animal feed. I know my plants do better when I can afford to buy Skrettings Classic Trout feed.  
    Food for thought, I hope helps.
    Brian
     
    Nicole Alderman
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    Rob Lineberger wrote:As someone who has raised fish for years and done large-scale and small-scale aquaponics, I agree 100% with everything you said.  Some things I would add:

    1) consider "peeponics" to kick start the tank.  ie, add a cup of urine to the grow bed to start the nitrogen cycle.

    2) Load up the tank with fish, or the plants will suffer.  



    I asked my husband about the peeponics, and he agreed that it would work, but mentioned that it's a whole lot faster and simpler to jumpstart cyling a tank by taking some water from a sponge filter from some other aquarium. That way, you don't have to cycle it at all.

    Nice to see an aquaponics thread going. Looks good to me, I'm a fish keeper as well as as an APer (aquaponics person.)  One thing I'm learning about recently that I'll add to the discussion on fish feed types. Since in aquaponics the fish feed also feed the plants it is important to look at what is in the feed. Does it have the minerals necessary to feed the plants. This is a bigger concern if you want to grow vegetables  you can eat of course. Goldfish food for the most part is plant based with little protein and minerals  here is an example from a quick search "Fish Meal, Ground Brown Rice, Torula Dried Yeast, Feeding Oat Meal, Shrimp Meal, Wheat Gluten, Soybean Oil, Fish Oil, Algae Meal, Sorbitol, Lecithin, L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate (Vitamin C). Artificial Colors Including Yellow 5, Red 3, And Blue 2. Ethoxyquin As A Preservative.  



    So very true! If there's none of a nutrient in the fish food, it's not going to be in the tank and therefore not in the plants!

    It's interesting, too, that you mention differences in quality of fish food. It was actually through searching for the best fish food for his fish, that my husband looked into eating healthier food. He'd been trying to find what fish ate in the wild, and then though, "What do wild humans eat?" That's how he ran across paleo/primal eating, which really turned his health around. He fell off the bandwagon for a while when we had kids...and then developed Crohn's. We think that if he'd stuck to eating "what wild humans eat," he might never have ended up getting Crohn's. Now he's on a diet that's similar, but stricter than paleo, called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. It's kept his Crohn's in remission for over 9 months now!

    What we--and what fish--eat is so important!
     
    Brian Rodgers
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    9 months is good. I too am on a pretty strict diet, vegetables and more vegetables with a few other food groups as sides. I had a worm bin going outside and another in the greenhouse and the fish loved worms, unfortunately, cows got the outdoor worm bin this Winter and the greenhouse bin got used for something else and the worms released in the dirt portions of the greenhouse. I'm starting new bins, but that was a homegrown fish feed source that I let get away from us.
    Brian  
     
    Nicole Alderman
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    One of my husband's co-workers just can't believe he's better without any meds. He was SO sick just a year ago. He couldn't walk, was pooping all day, anemic, having kidney failure, bleeding out his bottom, weak and tired. Now he's almost back to his pre-crohn's self, and off all of the meds. Good food does that!

    Your mention of the worms reminded me of when my husband and I were newly married, and he hadn't taken out the kitchen trash in weeks. One day he opened it up and found maggots. Maggots. I was totally grossed out. He, on the other hand, was super excited, saying, "Free fish food!"
     
    Brian Rodgers
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    Nicole Alderman wrote:One of my husband's co-workers just can't believe he's better without any meds. He was SO sick just a year ago. He couldn't walk, was pooping all day, anemic, having kidney failure, bleeding out his bottom, weak and tired. Now he's almost back to his pre-crohn's self, and off all of the meds. Good food does that!
    Congratulations!
    We are watching Ultimate Beastmaster games season three on Netflix and the American said he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and through diet he is able to compete one year later!   I hope the audience hears what this really means and not just as a sympathy point. Listen up Americans, even though our medical professionals say we should give up and take drugs, there is actually hope. Yes, it is our diet that is torturing us! Grow your own food! "Hip hip horray," that accomplishment!
    Your mention of the worms reminded me of when my husband and I were newly married, and he hadn't taken out the kitchen trash in weeks. One day he opened it up and found maggots. Maggots. I was totally grossed out. He, on the other hand, was super excited, saying, "Free fish food!"



     
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    Nicole Alderman wrote:


    It's pretty and all that, but it also costs over $130, for a three gallon aquarium with a pump and some trays!



    Hi Nicole,

    I agree completely. I saw those desk-sized aquaponics rigs at a food store and they got my imagination rolling. Seemed ripe for an improved and DIY version.  I'd like to share what I came up with. If someone's thinking about a fully developed fish and vegie growing system, then my little set-up is only a proof of concept, but it's working. I made it from a second-hand Brita water dispenser without the filter.  It is a tiny two gallons with only 2 to 5 minnows, but:

    * It's been going continously for almost a year and a half.

    * Every day it can produce a cup or quart or more of waste water for potted plants or the garden.

    * It's pretty and I find myself meditatively staring at it each day while it drips through its cycle, and I wait as my coffee drips through its other cycle on the same counter.

    * It's tolerant of neglect, going a full month with only a couple quarts of water change, with no observable harm (not too much to ask from a pet-sitter when I'm out of town)

    * It has no electrical or other moving parts, no tank heater and no pump or submerged filter, even though I keep my home cold in the winter.

    * Its plants come from my yard or garden seed collection. A handful of sword fern fronds live in the tank like a vase, and stay alive a few months, absorbing ammonia and providing nice fish-hiding habitat.

    * Seedlings started in the top tray grow great. They're tall and spindly from low light, but vibrant and healthy.

    * Its parts are all second-hand up-cycled things except a bit of washed gravel and the minnows from a pet store.

    I want to explain how I did it, so others can experiment. As a proof of concept, I'd like it to help people design larger systems.
    -------
    Cascading Tank System

    The problem I solved is how to get bottom sludge cycled through without an electric pump.  I wanted a simple cascade, water flowing with gravity. This little fish and plant system cascades water from a tray on top, through the fish habitat, to a watering pot on the bottom.  The only power needed should be lifting some water to the top. In my little tank, my arm does the lifting, but the water flow path is efficient enough to not require too much throughput.  I'll start describing from that moment when I lift water up to the top and pour.

    Most days I pour a pint or quart of water from the bottom into a coffee filter on top. The coffee filter is a metal mesh and plastic drip-filter pressed into a coconut coir seedling pot. The filter is lined with brown paper coffee filters, and filled with natural washed aquarium gravel entwined with growing plant roots. I haven't changed the filter gravel since starting, but added some more filter layers elsewhere. This spring I found a sprouting hazel nut and a sprouting walnut from trees in my yard. I stuck the nuts on top of the coffee filter gravel and watched them put roots down into it. The little trees are  growing on the fish debris that accumulates in the gravel as I pour. Notice I've tied the two trees together. I'm trying to pleach them.
    -------


    img1.jpg
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    DIY mini aquaponic filter from coffee dripper
    img2.jpg
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    DIY mini aquaponic filter in flood tray
     
    Antigone Gordon
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    When I pour water in the top, bottom-water goes out through a seive under the marbles (see round-stone construction note)  and gravel, and it stops flowing when the water level is down to normal again. This is great for water quality because the dirtier water leaves the bottom with each pour, without getting mixed up into the water above.  It's also good because I can add any amount and not overfill or over-empty the thing.  The external drain-tube rises straight up and curves under a handle built into the tank.  The handle holds the output tube at the perfect hieght for drainage, without dripping when the right level is reached (see drain-tube construction note).

    That's all for now. I always wanted to write this up, but didn't intend it to be so long. I'll add some seemingly endless construction notes and close out, but I'd love to get questions and other's ideas.


    CONSTRUCTION NOTES

    * Glass would be better, but all this plastic was my inexpensive thrift-store find.

    * We could say there are five gravity fed filters:

    (1) the coffee-drip-filter contraption,

    (2) thumb-tack holes in the bottom of a grocery store plastic bin that came with fresh organic spinach. The bin is exactly the right size for the Brita top tray, and might have some anti plant-ripening qualities, like those films made to put in your fridge to slow ripening. The 10?  thumb-tack holes can't be on the exact bottom, or they will clog.  I poked them through the small up-indentations molded into the bin's bottom,

    (3) another coir seedling pot in the place made for a commercial filter cartridge in the top tray. This second pot is llined with a brown-paper coffee filter and filled with more gravel. It is partially submerged in the water, but hasn't seemed to be a problem after 3 or 4 months.

    (4) The stones, gravel and marbles on the bottom of the tank do some filtering, collecting sludge that could probably support live under-water plant roots, and

    (5) a tube made from plastic 1/8 inch embroiderer's mesh.

    * The top tray was a bonus for plants, but the top tray shouldn't be fitted down into the tank. The original design of the tray fitted down into the tank is good for drinking water, but fish need the tanks small water surface as clear as possible for air contact. Especially because this is a non-electric system, no air-filter stones or etc.

    * The drain tubes have two parts. I made the internal 1 inch drain tube with one end closed, by sewing 1/8 inch plastic embroiderer's mesh with fishing line. The open end of the tube is pressed deep into the spigot from the inside of the tank with snips and a fold (no glue anywhere). Then I snipped and squeezed the end of a solid flexible plastic tube into the outside of the spigot, that I turned to drain facing up.

    * drain tube warning: The drain tube is presure fit into the spigot, and is easy to pull out. A child wouldn't like this arrangement, but I don't want to use glue. It's bad enough using plastic. Maybe a child instructor could find a way to clamp this tube in place. Meanwhile it's never come out for me unless I purposefully tugged on it, even when bending the tube to lower the water level.

    * Round-stone warning: marbles are not good for small fish, because they get sucked down between them. I've got to put more gravel on top to close the gaps between marbles. I think any round stones would have the same problem, and I have definitely lost some fish this way.


    INSPIRATIONS

    * Sri Lanka cascade tank (resevoir) system  https://www.iucn.org/asia/countries/sri-lanka/ecological-restoration-kapiriggama-cascade-system ]

    * George Chow's video "How to Re-purpose a Brita into an Aquaponics System"

    * bottom draining, self-cleaning fish bowls

    ------

    other key words: education for kids, water flow
    img4.jpg
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    DIY mini aquaponic system - an early brainstorm sketch
    img3.jpg
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    DIY mini aquaponic system - overview after 14 months, showing drain tube in action
     
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