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Farm in a Box™ Aquaponic FAQs – Maintenance and Use

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What are some reasons why my water may be murky? The rocks may not have been  properly cleaned. Feeding fish too much may cause murky water. You’ll know if you fed too much if they don’t eat everything you’ve fed them within half an  hour. Too much light exposure on water causes algae to build up. Putting anacharis or hyacinth can remove much of that problem; or you can do a water exchange and take out 50% of the water and replenish it. If you have tested it and the ammonia and nitrite are not too high, then stop feeding the fish for a couple of days.

Can I leave the system outdoors year round? If you raise goldfish, they can withstand very cold temperatures, but a solid frozen tank will not be good. Plant roots will die if they freeze solid in a wet rock bed or in deep water culture.  If you live in a tropical climate you can raise fish and plants year round. Since many people live in climates where the winter water temperature will drop below 50 degrees; at that temperature tilapia and many other fish will not survive. Winter plants (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, beets) will do okay, as long as the roots don’t freeze and there is a source of fish waste. In outdoor winter settings it is best to use goldfish and turn off the pump when the temperature goes below freezing. You should leave an aerator on so that a frozen tank will still supply air to the fish.

 

Can I put a heater on in the winter? Yes but if it is an AC electric heater, you may see a significant rise in your heating bill. The best way to handle the winter is to either use the smaller Farm in a Box™ systems indoors or to enclose your Phoenix in a greenhouse and heat with a heating system or use solar panels or passive solar heat capture.

Do I put fish and plants in the system on day one? It is best if you let the system cycle for a few days before adding fish and plants. In order to remove fish ammonia, there needs to be a healthy colony of nitrification bacteria in the rock beds. This colonization can be stimulated by adding a capful of ammonia to the water. Once in the rock beds the health bacteria will naturally populate the area, paving the way for fish and their ammonia waste. Plants will do best if there is some nitrogen in the system too. This is not so much a concern at the early phase as plants are small and don’t require a lot of minerals. But if you plan to transplant a larger plant into this system, then stabilization is a good idea. As the plants grow, the fish will be growing and the nitrogen levels will rise to the occasion.

Do I need to add fertilizer? No never. It will kill the fish. And if it’s not good for the fish, it’s probably not good for the plants. Organic food tastes better anyway.

How do I test the pH and nitrogen levels? There are a number of freshwater test kits available; you may buy them online at Earth Solutions or purchase at your local fish store. For larger systems you may want to use an electric device to read pH and temperature. The smaller systems generally do not have to be monitored. After a couple weeks a normal balance will occur. If there is a lot of ammonia in the system, more bacteria will colonize to make that conversion and the plants will grow more as they absorb the extra nutrients.

Do I need to add air or oxygen? In the smaller systems adding oxygen may be helpful but is not necessary. Because the water flow forces air into the tank oxygen is provided through that movement as it occurs every 1 hour or so. In larger systems, producing a lot of waste and growing many plants, oxygen addition is very important.

If I have my system outside, does the rain throw off the pH balance? The pH in an aquaponic system should be maintained between 7.0 and 7.5. If your pH is higher than 7.5, this is usually ok and you do not have to do anything to ‘fix’ it. The nitrification process will cause the system to become more acidic over time. We have had systems with pH levels just over 8 when they started and they all went down over time. If your pH drops below 7.0, the nitrification process will slow dramatically and stop by the low 6’s. It is important that you do not let this happen!

How do I buffer the system if it’s too acidic? You can increase the pH of the system (make it more alkaline) by adding calcium carbonate. But be very careful; this is really only necessary in larger systems. Add a small amount of the powder to a bucket of water. Then pour in a teaspoon at a time, once per hour and test the system before repeating. Remember it is very alkaline so do not just dump it all quickly into the system. If you place sea shells under trickling water in the system then calcium will slowly release into the system providing a mild steady buffer, preventing any need for alkalinizing with calcium carbonate.

Should I worry about eating plants raised on fish poop? There have been no known incidents of contamination of plants by fish water in aquaponics. However it is always a good practice to thoroughly wash your plants before eating, no matter the source. Salmonella is not typically a problem in fish tanks; it is more common among turtles and fowl. Birds fly over these systems and will occasionally land on the bed for water or strawberries, and poop. Again, wash your plants whenever you grow your own or acquire from grocery or another gardener.

How do I clean the glass if it gets algae buildup? Best way is to take a non soapy scouring pad and scrape the walls clean. If the bottom of the tank builds up too much mirkyness you may stir up the water a bit and let it get pumped up to the upper beds where it will filter through the rocks. Or you can buy a siphon pump to clean the debris from the bottom of the tank. Try not to clean the system too much as the debris is helpful to maintain bacteria for nitrification.

Will the Farm in a Box withstand moisture? The wood is untreated and will last longest if painted or treated with linseed oil.

What sort of plant lighting is necessary? For outdoor plants, 4-6 hours of direct sunlight is ideal. Herbs and light feeding plants will do okay with 2-3 hours of direct light. Indoors, plants should either be exposed to a south facing window or else a grow light can be placed above the plant beds.

Fish lights? Fish do not require much lighting. If you are raising water plants in the same tank as you are growing fish, it is necessary to get sunlight to the tank so that they may photosynthesize and produce oxygen. Algae forms when there is too much direct light on any nutrient rich water source.

 

Can I leave the system outside? Except for the larger Phoenix system, try not to let your system get wet from rain. The fish tank may flood causing you to lose fish. Rain exposure will also dilute the nutrient concentration, can cause pH to become acidic and if unpainted or varnished, the wood may warp and discolor. We will offer the designs in marine plywood or cedarwood which is weather resistant.  The Phoenix is built with cedarwood and marine plywood.

What do I need to do for the system if I go out of town? Goldfish can survive for days without food but if you want to be sure there is steady nitrogen production and happy bacteria colony, you may want to buy an automatic fish feeder.

How often should the water cycle on and off? In an ebb and flow system the water can go on ss frequent as once per hour or to as infrequently as once per six hours. This depends on the rate at which the bed dries out and the needs of the plants.

Electricty: Please use CAUTION when handling electric outlets near water.

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About drdave

CoFounder of Algosolar, dba Bioponica. Consultant, designer, developer of Biogarden and Incubator Ecosystems for producing organic food and fish, sustainably.

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Incubator

Bioponica System

20' x 4' Deep Water Troughs plus 210 Gallon Tank Below. Troughs function as clarifier, biofilter, and aerobic digester for duckweed and Deep Water Culture

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20' x 4' plant beds 210 gallon fish tank. Ebb and flow rock beds above tank

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