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Friendly Aquaponics Newsletter
Number 40
June 7th,  2011
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm
Aloha Friend,
 
First, this issue introduces our interest and committment to designing and building efficient and economical off-grid aquaponics systems. We've finally been given a project that allows us to build some serious off-grid systems and develop the technology in a more efficient and sustainable direction.

Also, Susanne and I've gotten so many inquiries for back issues of the newsletter that it has gone to the top of my list. What does "to the top of my list" mean; how soon will there be access to the back emails? Although I'd love to sit down and do the back issue project now, I've written the following to give you an idea what our days are like here at the Friendly Farm; this will give you an idea when to expect the back issues:

(Please note: I am NOT bragging on myself; Susanne ALWAYS has a busier day than I do and does MORE "stuff", but since she and I often go different ways at the beginning of the day, I didn't see all the things that made up her day yesterday and can just address mine). Here's what I did on June 6th: I worked on the MEO off-grid system we're building, fed the fish in 21 different fish tanks on the farm (twice), checked the tilapia egg hatching system (twice), cleared the ice machine chute (twice), made a list and ordered equipment from Aquatic EcoSystems for our own off-grid system that we're building, put up tomato trellises on our system #1, answered the phone 17 times and wrote down and delivered messages to the harvest crew at lunchtime, refilled one of our Micro Systems that I'd sterilized after it had gotten contaminated with snails from an aquatic plant one of our darling children had left in it "overnight, just to keep it alive", answered emails for 2-1/2 hours, worked on the "Plywood Tank Manual" and the website for about 1 hour, and cooked Masamun beef curry and jasmine rice for dinner. To flesh out just ONE of these things I did, I include the following description of the Maui off-grid project:

Off-Grid Aquaponics System for Maui

On June 6th I worked on the Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO) solar power module for their off-grid system. Explanation: We've contracted to supply a table-top system, plus a 64-square-foot Micro System, plus a 512-square-foot small commercial/large Family system to MEO for training newly-released State prison inmates in aquaponics. MEO's farm site is off-grid, and therefore these systems have to have a completely self-sufficient power supply.

Because there is no grid there to use as "backup" if it's cloudy for several days and the batteries don't get charged by the solar panels, a good off-grid system for their location needs to have lots of surplus storage ability designed in. One way to do this is simply put LOTS of battery storage and solar panels on the system, which is expensive. Another way is to make the system's electrical usage as efficient as possible to reduce the need for additional battery storage and solar panels. This is the design philosophy we've used for the MEO system.

We've built a modular system in which the solar panels are mounted on top of the fish tank, and the charge controller, inverter, batteries, water pumps, and air pumps are inside a lockable cabinet that the table-top system mounts on top of. This cabinet weighs 500 pounds with all this stuff inside it, and is bolted to the side of the fish tank/solar panel mount (which weighs about 4,000 pounds when filled with water) so that the solar panels have a solid and heavy foundation that won't blow away in a high wind.

Because of successful aquaponics system experiments we've done where we turned off the water pump and about half the air pumps at night (and still got the same great growth from the plants!), we're putting the equipment in this system on a 12-hours-on and 12-hours-off timer to reduce electrical consumption. The fish tank and the troughs will have LOTS of aeration in the daytime, but the big air pump for those (50 watts) will be switched off at night by the timer and two 8-watt airpumps that feed a separate set of airstones in the fish tank ONLY are switched on. This reduced aeration works because the fish are way less active at night and do not require as much aeration (or electrical consumption) to keep the DO in the fish tank high.

Also, since the vegetables don't need water flow or oxygen at the roots at night, the air pump and water pumps to those in all three systems are turned off by the timer, saving additional energy and keeping the system cost low. The timers used are simple $15.95 Ace hardware store weatherproof timers.

When we finish the project around the end of summer 2011, MEO will have an 8-square-foot tabletop system that any of its students can build and operate for under $200, a Micro System that can be built for under $800, and an example of a small commercial aquaponics system. We've given MEO the rights to use our training materials in perpetuity for no fee as part of this contract as long as they don't charge participants for the training.

IMPORTANT! We will make the same offer to any other social welfare agencies or non-profits who desire to set up an ongoing training project using our aquaponics system designs and training materials.

We will be offering a manual for construction of off-grid systems AND for conversion of existing on-grid systems within the next three months. Our electricity in Hawaii is the most expensive in the nation, and our aquaponics systems were tightly designed to reduce electrical consumption for that reason. For most locations in the US, electricity is far less expensive than here. But it's only going to get more expensive as fuel and energy prices increase, and there are those who want to build aquaponics systems now that will make them independent of rising energy costs in the future. We're also getting a lot of interest from locations in the world where electricity is NOT dependable. These are the people we're developing these off-grid systems for.

So, I WILL finish the back newsletter project, as soon as possible. We will also have these manuals available within the next three months. We're juggling as many balls as we can right now, and want to keep them all in the air and intact.

If you're interested in commercial scale aquaponics, please take a look at our Commercial Aquaponics Trainings (Special Offer in right sidebar of this email), where you will learn more about real-life operation of a commercial aquaponics system than you can anywhere else in the world. For smaller home backyard and apartment systems, please read on:
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Purchase Construction Plans and Operating Info for 4 Different Sizes of Apartment/Condo Aquaponics Systems $49.95

Our Apartment/Condo System package includes new and easy-to-understand building instructions and complete operating information for 4 different sizes of small aquaponic systems based on our years of experience operating a commercial aquaponics farm. Anyone can build a system out of plastic barrels, 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 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 Apartment/Condo Systems!


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Aquaponics Nugget #40:
Redux of The Start Up Blues (Part 4)


This week we explain how to get through the next part of this adventure, or "If you think you have NO Nitrite Spike", and other startup problems.

We have seen many small systems start-up slowly and seemingly NEVER show a nitrite spike. However, low levels of nitrates show up within a week or two after inoculation, and these systems are growing vegetables and flourishing after the second to fifth week, so everything is fine. Do not be alarmed if your system startup does not include a nitrite spike, even with you measuring with the “sensitive” test strips as recommended here. This is OK! The systems we’ve started up have all had nitrite spikes, but we think it may have something to do with the much larger mass of water in our commercial systems compared to these smaller ones.

Another phenomenon we’ve seen in smaller system start-ups is an apparent nitrogen deficiency. Nitrogen comes to the plants in the form of nitrates, which come, indirectly, from fish pee and fish poop. This deficiency shows up in the form of yellow leaves on plants. The whole leaf is yellow, NOT just between the veins in the leaf; and it shows up in the OLDER leaves first; they also look the worst. What you will see if there's a nitrogen deficiency is a plant whose older leaves are yellow and whose younger leaves are a nice green. This is because nitrogen is MOBILE, that means it can move from older leaves within the plant to newer leaves where it’s needed. We’ve NEVER seen this in any of our large commercial systems, only in these smaller systems. We feel this could be occurring for several reasons:

The builder, being on a budget, has put in a much smaller amount of fish than is recommended for their particular system. As an example, for a Micro System 64 they might have bought from 4 pounds to 10 pounds of fish, rather than the recommended 20 pounds. This means that the plants may be receiving lower levels of nitrates (nitrogen) than they need, because the nitrates come from the fish poo and pee, which there is not as much of with fewer fish. The recommended amounts of fish are considered minimums needed to run a system adequately. In addition to there being less than the recommended amount of fish in the system, there is another factor in play: fish that have been recently moved (as all fish in new systems are) do not eat much, or sometimes not at all, for the first couple of weeks or so after the move. This means less fish pee and poo, and contributes to there being less available nitrogen, and to the nitrogen deficiency we think we’re seeing here. Just wait, and your fish will start eating more and more gradually, and your vegetables will  bloom and grow better by the day.

System startups in these small systems seem to be rather slow anyway, and IF you do not have test strips for nitrites that go down to 0.5 ppm and nitrates down to 1 ppm (as the Hach #27454 strips in the Aquatic Eco catalog do), then you won't see the nitrates when they show up, and also may miss the nitrite spike because nitrites are too low to measure with some strips that don't measure below 20 ppm nitrates. This doesn't mean they aren't there, it just means you don't have a sensitive enough test kit to measure them. Also, we have seen bad bottles of inoculant every once in a while. Basically, if you are under 3ppm ammonia and put nitrifiers in or water from another aquaponics system (that you trust to NOT have any disease in it), then you CAN'T STOP the nitrifying cycle from starting.

Fish fatalities add ammonia to the system, which adds to the startup problem. Fish often die within 2 days to two weeks after being hauled, if they had rough treatment during the haul or are sensitive, and if they are allowed to sit on the bottom for awhile after dying but before they float to the top and you see them and remove them from the tank, they will put a LOT of ammonia into the system. To fix this you have to dump water and refill to remove the excess ammonia. It is difficult to understand unless you know when the fish fatalities occurred (NOT just when they floated, as they were putting ammonia into the system as soon as they were dead), and relate this to ammonia levels happening at the time; because the two are VERY connected. Re-read the whole previous newsletter that covered “How to kill fish with bad hauling techniques” if you want to avoid this one.

We have had HORRIBLE luck transplanting plants that originally developed in dirt into the aquaponics systems. They look bad then die. The biggest plants we've transferred successfully are about 2-3" tall with roots that barely come out of the net pot an inch or two, and if they’re larger than that they almost exclusively just die. This one came up because a student said “all my plants are dying in the system”. Only after extensive questioning did we discover that in trying to save money this student had potted their sprouts in DIRT, rather than the coir/vermiculite potting mixture the manual recommends, and they experienced what we just described. Please, if you try something new, REMEMBER to tell us when you email us and tell us your system’s not working. It can take us days to figure it out otherwise, and it wastes everybody’s time.

(Next week: "Something Interesting About Aquaponics" ( we'll figure it out next Tuesday!)

Click to see our new Video!
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Free Farm Tours
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Aquaponics tour at the Friendly farm!

We hold a free workshop on our farm the FIRST Saturday of every month,  focused on growing food with aquaponics and permaculture.  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!


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3-1/2 pound kalo (taro root) grown in a 2" net pot (little bump at bottom)



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4-month old prawn (macrobrachium rosenbergii) grown in hydroponics troughs of our aquaponics systems


Special Offer! Sign up for our October 2011 Hawaii Commercial Aquaponics Training OR our September 2011 Florida Commercial Aquaponics Training now, and we will email you our Micro System package so you can begin studying aquaponics! ($99.95 value)

Sign up for Hawaii and Florida Commercial Aquaponics Training

In The Farmily
This week's "In The Farmily" we went out and caught ocean fish! You're probably getting visions of mahi mahi or yellowfin tuna steaks and filets now, but this was much more humble than that, and we DIDN'T eat what we brought home.

Susanne bought us $40 worth of "slurp guns", and a transparent fish-collecting net on Ebay, and we went snorkeling for reef fish. Susanne and Jack have three saltwater aquariums in the house as a hobby (Jack got one for his 9th birthday, and has really been fascinated by the fish and eels since then). We've also been knocked out by the high prices of reef fish in the aquarium store, and Susanne decided to do something about that, hence the slurp guns.

As anyone who has ever run an aquarium knows, they are MUCH more sensitive and difficult to run than aquaponics systems. You have to test your water quality and do water exchanges regularly to get rid of excess nitrates.

Although aquariums have the same nitrifying bacterial cycle converting ammonia to nitrites to nitrates that aquaponics systems do, they do NOT have any plants in the systems to filter out the nitrates as they build up towards toxic levels for the fish. And if you wait too long, your indicator of poor water quality is a dead fish floating on top of your aquarium, plus the ammonia that dead fish imparted to the water starting when it died.

Now, a slurp gun is a 3-foot long transparent plastic tube with a plunger inside. The idea is that you as you point the tube at a reef fish and push the plunger, a stream of water comes out of the mouth of the slurp gun near the reef fish, the reef fish starts swimming into this apparent ocean water "current", and just as it starts swimming, you reverse the plunger in the slurp gun, sucking the reef fish up into the transparent tube. That's how it's supposed to work, anyway.

Apparently no one told this to the fish we tried it on, because they shied away from the slurp gun like it was a red-hot iron. We were hoping one of them at least had read the slurp gun manual in fish school, but no luck! . We did not get a single fish with the slurp gun, although we tried for about half an hour on hundreds of different fish.

Jack, our mogul who is a natural and always does well at whatever he tries, took the net and soon had caught a white-spot puffer fish, which is a $30 fish in the aquarium store. We took the puffer home and it is now resident in one of Jack's aquariums.

Over the previous weekend, before the slurp guns and transparent net arrived in the mail,  we also caught a red-banded coral shrimp during a night dive. It was a really nice example of this species, big and fat, but we hadn't thought much about it until we got it home and I noticed that it (she!) was carrying a couple thousand eggs on her swimmerets. We watched her this week, and  the eggs have hatched;  there are hundreds of little dots swimming around in the tank now.

So we thought "Great! Baby shrimp to sell!". Then we found out that they ONLY eat live  rotifers and that the smallest amount of rotifers we could buy was $70 worth (plus $60 FedEx overnight shipping, of course!). Then we checked into growing our own and found a nice rotifer colony hatching unit for only $2,932 plus shipping. So I think we'll have to pursue other avenues to make our millions. Also, Jack's puffer fish has tasty snacks consisting of larval red-banded coral shrimp now, more or less the way it happens in the real ocean.

The next thing we're going to try is gluing two of the slurp guns together to make a six-foot long slurp gun, on the theory that it's the big HUMAN so close to them that's scaring the fish and NOT the slurp gun itself. We're hoping that getting the human three feet furtgher away from the business end of the slurp gun may bear fruit (or fish!). More on the Farmily's underwater salty adventures next week!
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Honoka'a, Hawaii 96727
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