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Friendly Aquaponics Newsletter
Number 147
November 21st,  2013
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm
Aloha Friend

Today's "Nugget" will be Part 2 of "Startup Reloaded: Starting Your Aquaponic System Is Easy And Fast!". We have a simple and dependable way to do this, that we've continuously improved over the last six years, and we share it with you here.

Watch out for the announcement of our new book: "Aquaponics The EASY Way!" within the next few days. We apologize for any delays in delivery, but Susanne's been working on it night and day; and insists on getting it perfect for you. It's still available at a presale discount of 33% now, for only $19.95 by clicking here. It will be $29.95 when finished; you'll save ten bucks and get it emailed directly to you when it's finished if you buy it now!

Our "In The Farmily" column today
is Part 5 of the story of our son Lucky, and why he got the nickname "Lucky". He really is lucky, as you will understand when you read it!

Aquaponics Nugget #147, Startup Reloaded, Part 2: (Starting Up Your Aquaponic System Is Easy And Fast!)

How To Get "Started":

We're going to skip the "Clean Water" section of startup here, because we covered it in these back newsletters of ours: #125, #126, and #127, which you should check out if you want to learn all about water to fill your aquaponics with, and how to avoid difficulties with your source water.

Although there are “experts” who recommend “fishless cycling”, we start all our systems with fish in them. We have never bothered to try starting without fish, simply because starting with fish works so well. There are some pitfalls to avoid, and we discuss them in this section. We also use the word “startup” to describe this process, because you only have to do it once in the lifetime of your system; after that it just runs; “cycling” sounds like something you need to do over and over.


As you know, there are three important types of bacteria in aquaponics systems: first, the ones that “eat” the decaying organic material in the system and produce ammonia; second, the ones that “eat” the ammonia and produce nitrites; and third, the ones that “eat” the nitrites and produce nitrates, which are fertilizer for the plants.


This is called the "nitrifying" process, or "nitrification", and the bacteria are collectively called "nitrifiers". These bacteria are the reason an aquaponic system works and grows vegetables, but they need to come from somewhere. How do you go about getting some into your system, and get them working for you?


They exist everywhere in the natural world that there is vegetation. Sooner or later, some will drift in on the breeze, or on a piece of plant material you feed to your fish. Waiting for them to appear can take a long time, however, as long as two to three months. We started one system this way, and it did take three months!


We unfortunately had a $1,000 per month mortgage on the system in question, so we were very motivated to find a better way for the next one. And we did! It’s called a bacterial inoculant, and simply means that we purchased a live bacterial culture (the right kinds of bacteria, of course!) in a bottle and dumped it into our aquaponic system’s water to get the nitrifying process started.


We recommend using Aquatic EcoSystem’s “ProLine” nitrifying bacteria in our DIY manuals. Also, most aquarium stores carry some kind of bacterial inoculant for “cycling” aquariums (“cycling” is what aquarium people call the startup process). You can tell if you’ve got the correct bacterial inoculant, because it will say on the label “contains freshwater nitrifying bacteria”. There are many other types of inoculants available, for lakes and ponds, for remedying bad smells, and for saltwater aquariums, so be certain you get the right kind; these others are not what you want. If you simply get one that says what is in the quotes above, it will work.


But these bacteria do need one thing in order to do their job; and that is food. So don’t just dump the inoculant into your aquaponics system; you need to add one more thing to your system first, your fish! They will provide the "food" for your new bacteria.


As you know, the food for the first of these bacteria is ammonia. As soon as you put your fish in your fish tank, the fish will begin excreting ammonia through their urinary pores into the water. The fish also excrete a large amount of ammonia through their gills, so as soon as they are in your system, your nitrifying bacteria inoculant has a source of food; now you can put the inoculant in either the fish tank or vegetable trough water; it doesn't matter.


We recommend 3/10 of a pound of fish per square foot of raft area in your system (in your fish tank, of course, not in the troughs!). We use raft area as a guide, because the fish are the “fertilizer generator” that feeds the vegetables on the rafts. However, you don’t even need this much for a “mature” system, as we saw when we visited Patty and Larry Yonashiro of Maui and their 256 square foot “Family” system.


After all their fish died in an accident, they’d only been able to obtain about 7 pounds of 2-inch tilapia fingerlings. This was less than 10% of the recommended 80 pounds of fish this 256-square-foot system “should” have had; yet all the vegetables looked incredible: huge, vibrantly healthy, and growing like gangbusters! This is what we now call “the lower end”; or approximately 3/100 of a pound of fish per square foot of raft area. Although we never would have done this experiment on purpose ourselves, we were pleasantly surprised because the minimum amount of fish needed for great growth was far less than we’d thought!


We suggest starting your system with 10 to 20% or so of the “recommended” amount of fish for operating your system. There are a couple of reasons for this: first, it can be difficult or expensive to just buy a large amount (by weight) of live fish, and with our experience with the “lower end” in mind, we know a system that is supposed to have 80 pounds will work just fine with only 8 pounds.


The second reason is that during startup you are establishing the nitrifying bacteria population in your system, and an excess of ammonia over 3 ppm can slow down or even stop the startup process in its tracks. Because the fish produce ammonia, a smaller quantity of fish that produces a smaller amount of ammonia is actually desirable during startup. As you will see in a bit, we also recommend not feeding your fish during startup until the ammonia level in your system comes down to 1 ppm, in order to keep ammonia levels low.

Just so you’re completely clear, here’s what you actually do to start up your system with fish in it:

1. Fill your finished system with clean water and dechlorinate or dechloroaminate it.


2. Put the fish in your fish tank (make certain the air pump and water pumps are on, and the rafts are on the troughs).


3. Put your inoculant bacteria into your system water (in the fish tank or vegetable trough, either is fine).


4. Check ammonia levels once a day: wait to feed the fish until your ammonia level comes down to near or below 1 ppm.


The Waiting Game


After the bacterial inoculant is in, it’s a waiting game for a few days or so. There won’t be any changes visible to your naked eye, but here’s what’s happening in your system: the one species of nitrifying bacteria, having found the ammonia it loves, is eating and proliferating like crazy. That bacteria makes nitrites, which is food for the second bacteria, so they, too, are eating and proliferating like crazy. These two bacterial populations will double every 12 to 48 hours, depending on water temperature, and will soon be making significant amounts of nitrates, the fertilizer your plants grow on.


To understand where you are in this process, you will test the system water every day with ammonia test strips, and separate nitrite/nitrate test strips; for about the first four weeks after you put the inoculant bacteria into the system.


The only test strips we've found that are sensitive enough to measure the low levels of nitrites and nitrates that sometimes occur during system startup is a combination nitrite/nitrate test strip by a company called "Hach", the item number of this test strip is 27454, and they come in a small bottle holding 25 strips. If you can't find this, get the most sensitive test strips or test you can find: it should be able to measure down to one ppm nitrites and one ppm nitrates.

Often you can find test strips at the aquarium store that are called “multi-strips” and will have tests for ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates all on the same strip. Get these if that's all that's available.

All of these test strips are simple to use; you dip them into your system’s water for a recommended period of a few seconds. Then, you let them “develop”, just like old-fashioned film does, for a few more seconds (follow the directions on the label, times vary from brand to brand). The little felt pads on the strips will turn from white to a color; you compare the color on the strip to the colors and numbers shown on the test bottle, and have your number, which is given in parts per million (ppm).


Too Much Ammonia OR Nitrites


The nitrifying bacteria are good because they turn toxic ammonia and nitrites into nitrates (which the fish have a very high tolerance for, and which the plants love) during normal operation of an aquaponic system. Toxic range for ammonia and nitrites for fish is considered by most authorities to be around  6 ppm; for nitrates, it is much higher at 500-1,000 ppm.


The Nitrite Spike


We can experience difficulties during the startup period, because of something called the “nitrite spike”, which can last from a few days to three to four weeks. This is an abnormally high concentration of nitrites that only occurs during startup. Once you’re through startup, it never happens again. The trick is getting through startup without killing any of your fish, which, as we mentioned, find high levels of this stuff toxic.


This should be easy to control, in the same way we put in exactly the amount of baking powder we know the cake needs, but unfortunately it’s not. We’ve often wished there was a volume adjustment knob on the startup process, because then it would be much easier to understand and deal with.

(Our next newsletter will cover how to modulate the nitrite spike during startup, and how to keep your fish alive. Thanks for listening!).

An Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse with the participants in our second June 2013 course in Tennessee!

June2013Class1-385px 2

For smaller home backyard and apartment systems, please read on:
Purchase Construction Plans and Operating Info for 4 Different Sizes of Table Top Aquaponics Systems $49.95

Our TableTop System package includes easy-to-understand building instructions and operating information for 4 different sizes of small aquaponic systems based on our years of experience. Anyone can build a system out of plastic barrels or IBC totes, but operating one successfully without good and easily-understood information can be frustrating. You simply use the "Daily Operations Checklist" in the manual and follow the step-by-step instructions on your way to success. We also cover how to make aquaponics systems out of weird things like old refrigerators and door frames; this makes aquaponics much more economical to get started in, and fun too!

We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and built our first commercial aquaponics systems with FAR less information than this manual contains. We included all the information learned from that experience in this manual so you don't need to make any of the same mistakes we did.

Learn about our TableTop Systems!


Friendly 2014 Commercial Aquaponics and Greenhouse Trainings;

Texas Training from January 13th to the 17th at Ben Godfrey's farm in Milam County, Texas (Click here for more information!).

One-day CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) Course given by Ben and Alysha Godfrey at their farm on January 18th, Saturday

Tennessee Training from January 27th to the 31st at Randy Campbell's farm in Elora, Tennessee (Click here for more information!).

These trainings are $1,495 per person for five days of the most comprehensive and profitable Commercial Aquaponics and energy efficient Solar Greenhouse technology on the planet. If you can't wait until Jamuary to learn about profitable commercial aquaponics, check out our Personal Intensive trainings in Hawaii.

(Below) One of Ben and Alysha Godfrey's aquaponics systems in a greenhouse in Milam County, Texas. I can't wait to taste their system water! lettuce2-385px

(Below) Another of Ben and Alysha's aquaponic greenhouses.

(Below) Tim drinking water from one of Randy and Katie's aquaponics systems at a Tennessee training. "I've been doing this for six years; I'm certain the food from these systems is safe and healthy" (Tim).  TimWaterDrinkingNugget

These five-day trainings allow you to travel during the weekend so that you only need to take a week off your busy life to attend, and include our $999 DIY Commercial Aquaponics package, $998 DIY Farmer's Market Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse package, and new $295 DIY Commercial Tilapia Hatchery manual as course materials, plus our Plywood/Epoxy/ Tank manual, CAD construction drawings for all greenhouses and aquaponics systems, and much more!

(Below) Randy and Tim showing attendees at a Tennessee training how easy it is to use a DO (dissolved oxygen) meter to measure oxygen levels in the vegetable troughs.


If you're located near Tennessee or Texas, Randy and Katie Campbell (in Tennessee) and Ben Godfrey (in Texas) give regular free farm tours of their aquaponics systems and greenhouses to introduce the public to the benefits of aquaponics and energy-efficient greenhouse growing.

In Tennessee: Call Randy and Katie at 256-679-9488 or email Randy to find out when the next farm tour is scheduled.

In Texas: Call Ben at 254-697-2927 or email Ben to find out when their next "Family Day" farm tour is scheduled ($15 fee per family is charged).

More details of the Aquaponics Technology course here.

More details of the Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse course here.

More details of the Commercial Aquaponics course here.

(Below) Randy and Katie's Chinese-style Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse in Tennessee in the February snow, 2013. 70 degrees inside and you had to take your coat off when working with the vegetables!

GreenhouseSnow3Small 2

The Friendly  Aquaponics Way Video!
Back Issues Of Newsletters Now Available, Click Here!
Trough Liner Distributors:
West Coast USA
East Coast USA

Click here for Trout fry and fingerlings directly from the hatchery to you!

Spanish Language Micro System package now available!
Free Farm Tours

Aquaponics tour at the Friendly farm!

We hold a free Farm Tour on our farm the FIRST Saturday of every month at 10:00,  focused on growing food with aquaponics.  Click here for information. See you there!

If you are a school, a non-profit organization, an organization working with the poor, Native Hawaiians, or ex-inmates, or if you are a church, we will hold a free farm tour for you anytime. You DO need to email us first to schedule, or we might be out on errands!


Thousands of inch-long "fifty-cent" baby tilapia from our "backyard" hatchery.


What they turn into about a year later: a beautiful 2-pound white tilapia grown in the fish tanks of our aquaponics systems.



Sign yourself up for the Texas January 2014 (13th-17th)

Or sign yourself up for the Tennessee January 2014 (27th-31st)

Commercial Aquaponics and Solar Greenhouse Training
NOW, and receive a free Micro System DIY package so you can begin studying aquaponics, as soon as you register! ($99.95 value)


Micro System Classes!

Our four affiliates are now offering Micro System courses.

Click here
for a listing of affiliates and course locations!


"Fish Bites: Food-Grade Liners and Fish Tanks"

Corrugated steel round fish tanks come from Scafco Grain Systems,

Tell them you need an open-top tank, not one with a conical steel roof, which you don't need or want for a fish tank.

For Liner, order standard sizes AND custom-sized round and rectangular food-grade vinyl liners from DLM Plastics, 1530 Harvard Avenue, Findlay, OH, 45840, 419-424-5250. Get "White NSF-61 PVC", it is FOOD-GRADE vinyl (the "NSF" on the label means "National Sanitation Foundation").

"In The Farmily: Lucky's Story, Part 5"

We were still far from out of the woods, though. We’d basically been living in the Kapiolani infant ICU for about ten days now, and we started seeing Lucky improving a little bit every day. It wasn’t as obvious as seeing the nurses jumping up and down saying “he’s healed!”, it was a lot more subtle than that.


One of the most dangerous things to Lucky at this point would have been any kind of a lung or respiratory infection, or any kind of systemic infection, because his immune system wasn’t developed yet, and his lung functions were still severely compromised. So we were still on the edge of our chairs, so to speak.


Susanne, having done pre-med in college before going in another direction, was “reading” all this off to me; that is, giving me a layman’s interpretation of the medical terms flying around, and a summary of Lucky’s condition and what the medical team was doing about it. She insisted we get some eucalyptus oil and put it on Lucky’s pillow and his chest.

How she explained this to me was: “The eucalyptus is an essential oil; it has a long molecule that is easily absorbed by skin and through your lungs, and it kills any potential infection before it can even get started. The only side effect is that Lucky will smell like a eucalyptus tree”.


She went on to explain the mechanism by which the essential oil does this: it inhibits the uptake of ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate) by bacteria, but not by normal body cells. ATP is often referred to as “the molecular unit of currency” of intercellular energy transfer; and is essential for bacteria to metabolize and multiply.

When the essential oil prevents the bacteria from utilizing ATP, it has roughly the same effect as preventing an animal from breathing; it kills them. Unlike antibiotics, which bacteria can (and often do) develop resistance to, it is impossible for bacteria to develop resistance to having their access to ATP blocked, so they simply die.


In Europe, where they have known the healing properties of essential oils for years, it requires a medical doctor’s prescription to purchase them. Fortunately for us, the FDA and the medical establishment here hasn’t figured this out yet, and you can buy them over the counter in many locations. So we went shopping on one of our excursions away from the ICU, and picked up a little bottle of pure eucalyptus essential oil.


When we returned to the ICU, Susanne thought about putting some into the ventilator (the machine that was breathing for Lucky) but realized we would probably get thrown out of the ward; so waited until there were no nurses around, and settled for putting a couple of drops onto Lucky’s chest and a couple of drops onto his pillow.


We were there the next time a nurse checked Lucky, and of course, we got busted; she said: “It smells like a eucalyptus grove in here, what is going on?”, and Susanne had to explain. However, she gave the nurse the bit about the ATP, sounding practically like a doctor herself, so the nurse said “OK, I’ll let it go; just don’t let the doctor see you”.


So we daubed eucalyptus oil on Lucky, ate mechanically, and slept like meat robots who parked their carcasses on chairs, in cars, or wherever we found ourselves, and the days went by.

One day the nurse told us they were going to wean Lucky off the ventilator and heroin, and just leave a nasal oxygen line in to give him more oxygen. This was a trial to see how he did; and picking when to do it was a balancing act.


They wanted him to breathe on his own as soon as possible, because the longer they left him on the ventilator, after a certain point, the longer it would take to get him off it; but if they took him off too soon, they would just need to put him back on. Lucky needed to use his lungs to strengthen the muscles, and to help finish getting the last of the meconium and associated gunk out.


So they did, and soon we got to see Lucky’s eyes open for the first time in weeks (he’d been in a drug-induced coma to keep him from choking on the respirator tube). Even though he was the biggest baby in the ward, at ten pounds two ounces, he looked small and pale to me. After a few more hours or days, they let Susanne pick him out of the incubator and nurse him.


There was another bit of “luck” here that I forgot to mention: when Lucky was born, Susanne had nursed him a few times before he got taken away and stuck in the incubator with a tube down his throat. This may have saved his life, for two reasons: the first milk that she gave him was what’s called “colostrum”, or mother’s first milk; it is full of the mother’s antibodies, and it “jump starts” and strengthens the baby’s immune system.

Babies who get no colostrum are far more susceptible to infections than ones who do; and this may have made all the difference in Lucky never contracting an infection while he was in hospital.


The second reason was that, having “latched-on” to his mother’s breast once, he didn’t forget how. If Lucky had not nursed before he got put in the hospital, it would probably be too late now; it is simply something the baby learns to do in their first few days of life, or never. And if Susanne hadn’t done what she’d done, she would have been unavailable to breast feed Lucky.


She had expected him to make it, and had been expressing breast milk the entire time we were there (so she wouldn’t “go dry” and stop lactating); the nurses would take it and freeze it for us (we ended up checking an entire cooler full of breast milk at the airport as luggage!). After nursing his fill, Susanne handed him to me, and I got to hold my baby for the first time in weeks; my lucky lion who fought and made it.


I’m crying as I write this, it was so damn close. You can’t protect yourself from it; you just have to open up and love with no guarantee that it won’t hurt. That’s the lesson Lucky taught me; you may get hurt, but there’s no sense in holding back; there’s no cheese down that hole.


This was a few days before Lucky was approved to go home, I don’t remember exactly when. Some of the things that happened during these three weeks were burned into my brain and I could never forget them, while other details were hazy. I remembered the names and faces of Lucky’s nurses for years afterwards, but I didn’t remember the doctor’s name at all.

Now that Lucky had officially “made it”, we phoned home and shared the good news. A couple of days later we got on the plane and flew home to the Big Island, wearing our Salvation Army clothes, and with a bright eyed new baby; this was 21 days after Susanne had flown to Oahu with Lucky on the Coast Guard C130.


We were going to have to watch him like a hawk for the next year or so, because he would be abnormally susceptible to any kind of respiratory infection. They had given us a vaporizor as a precaution, along with some “surfactant” to use in it, and instructions on how to give it to Lucky. Susanne did, but she also misted Lucky with eucalyptus oil mist.


We went back about seven years later to the Kapiolani infant ICU ward. When we asked, we found that none of the nurses who had been there seven years previously were on duty; some of them still worked there but in different departments, so we didn’t get to introduce Lucky to any of his caregivers and lifesavers. It was a strange visit; I don’t even remember why we were on Oahu. Just glad to have my Lucky boy alive!

Aloha, Tim....

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