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Friendly Aquaponics Newsletter
Number 150
December 5th,  2013
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm
Aloha Friend

Our new book: "Aquaponics The EASY Way!" is done! (and we hit #150 in our email newsletters at the same time!).

Sincere thanks (!) to everyone who purchased it at our presale discount. We are sending you an email with a link to download your copy of this E-book on Thursday, December 4th.

To purchase this E-book for only $29.95, click here. By the way, it's designed to be an excellent textbook for aquaponics for students from 8th grade on up. If you are a teacher, school administrator, or other faculty member, email us for information on pricing and volume discounts for textbook use.

Today's "wrap-up" of "Starting Your Aquaponic System" covers how to diagnose a system start-up that won't "start up".

Our side column today
is the very first of the "Fishing Chronicles", when Tim was sailing around the South Pacific on his 37-foot cutter "Spice", and was in the Marquesas Islands.

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 (click here for more information!).

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

(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.


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!

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

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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!


Aquaponics Nugget #150, Part 5: Diagnosing An Ailing Startup

Our reader Bob wrote (12-4-2013):

OK my system startup should have already happened weeks ago, and my fish seem ok and my plants are growing but not well. My pH is high and my nitrites and nitrates are zero, my ammonia is high. Obviously my Nitrogen cycle failed to take.  How do you get a system to balance if it should already be going?



Thanks, Bob for being our “trial horse”; his question is perfect because he’s got almost everything going wrong. Let’s diagnose and discuss the pH issue first:


The pH Issue: First, don't worry about your pH; the fish constantly breathe out carbon dioxide (CO2), which turns into carbonic acid upon contact with the water; this acid input will drop your pH. In addition, your nitrifying bacteria excrete small amounts of nitric acid as part of the nitrification process, which also acidifies the system water, dropping pH. Both the fish and bacteria are affected by water temperature; and cold water slows them both down.


If you only have a small amount of fish (as is common during startups because they cost money, yeah?), and/or are starting up in cold water, this happens slowly. However, it will happen sooner or later no matter what you do or don't do. Don’t worry about the pH!

The “No Nitrites Or Nitrates” Issue: The ammonia "spike", the nitrite "spike", and the nitrates often show up at such low levels that people can't measure them. I wish we had a dollar for every time our students have ignored the advice in our manuals to get specific, very sensitive measuring test strips or kits, and just bought what's at the aquarium store.


Unfortunately, what's at the aquarium store doesn’t measure below 1 ppm nitrites and 20 ppm nitrates. If they have low levels of these, such as 0.25 ppm nitrites and 3 ppm nitrates (common during startup!) in their system, these strips will come out white, and they erroneously conclude that they have no nitrates and no startup. The fact is that they're in the middle of a perfectly normal startup that they can't measure because they got the wrong strips.


Don’t believe the “experts” who say: “you must experience this level of this, or this level of that, during startup”. We’ve seen startups that showed hardly any ammonia, nitrites, or nitrates; and also ones that showed huge spikes of all three. These numbers mean very little during startup; what’s important is your ammonia level (next).

The “My Ammonia Is High” Issue: This is stupid simple: ammonia levels of 3 ppm or over inhibit the nitrifying bacteria or stop them dead in their tracks. Period. If your ammonia is 3 ppm or over, it’s silly to test for nitrites or nitrates, because your nitrifiers are all hiding under a rock. Dump half your system water, refill, and circulate with your water pump for a few hours to mix and dilute. Measure ammonia again, and if it’s under 3 (preferably around 1 ppm), then your startup should continue in fine style.

But you have to keep it under 3 ppm; don’t start feeding the fish a ton of fish food (makes ammonia), and if any fish die, get them out right away (makes ammonia), and measure ammonia again, and if it’s over 3, dump, refill, you get the idea.

The “Bob Didn’t Ask, But My Water Is Green” Issue:


The other question we commonly get is "my water is green, and I have no nitrites or nitrates, what do I do?". Sorry, you do have nitrites and nitrates, or the algae that's making your water green wouldn't grow at all. They're plants, and they simply won't grow without nitrates, ie fertilizer. If you have nitrates, you have nitrites, because the bacteria that make nitrates use nitrites for food; they can’t make nitrates without nitrites in the water. Period.

The Real World:  A system startup that takes a month under 72-75 degree F water conditions can easily take two to three months or longer under cold water conditions of 62-65 or below. Ammonia levels of 3 ppm or over inhibit the nitrifying bacteria or stop them dead in their tracks; this prolongs or stops system startup. DO levels are also critical for the nitrifier's successful reproduction and colonizing the system. If a practitioner has got a low DO, this can also slow down or stop startup in its tracks.

Because any and all of these things can contribute to a startup that isn’t “starting up”, here are the questions you must ask (and answer definitively) to diagnose what’s really going on:

A. How many pounds of fish do you have and how long ago did you put them in?

B. Did you put a bacterial inoculant in at the same time?
C. What is your water temperature?
D. What are/have your ammonia levels been?
E. What size air pump and how many airstones do you have, and where are the airstones located?

F. What color is your water?

Often we find that the system in question:


1. Is in the first two weeks to three weeks or so of startup; and/or

2. Has only a small amount of fish; and/or

3. Is full of cold water; and/or

4. Has ammonia levels over 3 ppm; because they've put in ammonia (per an "expert's" advice!), and have been feeding the fish, and had fish die, or all of these; and/or

5. Also has inadequate aeration; and/or

6. Has green water; and/or

7. The owner is using insensitive test strips that can’t measure the low levels of nitrites and nitrates that are occurring in a “slow” startup; and/or

8. Wasn't inoculated


All these factors conspire against startup. What to do? In order of “easy-to-expensive”, do the following:


A. If ammonia is over 3 ppm, dump water and refill. We suggest doing the same with the green water.


B. Get dead fish out right away! Scoop them off the bottom of the fish tank before they float!


C. Get the right test strips; they should measure down to 1 ppm nitrites and nitrates.


D. Get some oxygen test strips or borrow a DO meter, and confirm you have good DO levels in the system.

E. If you didn't initially do so, get some inoculant bacteria from Aquatic EcoSystems; or a "cycling kit" from an aquarium store and inoculate your system.


It’s difficult or impossible to heat all the system water up if you don’t already have the system insulated and in a greenhouse. Try again next year with those necessities installed, or use trout (good coldwater fish!).


What startup means is: "Establishing a large and stable population of nitrifying bacteria in your system". Period. When it's done, it's done, and your system is mature and stable forever, unless you let it freeze or cook.

Thanks to all the readers of the last newsletter who sent in suggestion for a newsletter series. Right now, it looks like the most interest shown is in planting, germination, and sprouting systems for aquaponics.

We will take suggestions one more time, then our next newsletter will cover the most popular subject that you, the readers, suggest. What are you interested in hearing more about? Please email Tim and make your request for a subject, either for a single newsletter, or for a series. Thanks for listening!.

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").

"Martin's Fish"

It was 1976, and I was anchored in my 37-foot SeaRunner cutter "Spice" in a bay called Hakaui on the South side of Nuku Hiva, in the Marquesas Islands, with my friends Chuck and Nancy, who were cruising on their dugout canoe "Tyone", named after Chuck's son (this is not last week's column, it just takes place around the same time and in the same geographic area of the world).

We'd run low on fresh fish, so we decided to take my 37-foot cutter Spice out of the bay on a fishing trip. We'd been spending a lot of time on shore with Paul Taupotini and his nephew Martin, so we went over there first to see if Paul or Martin wanted to go fishing with us, as they did not have access to the deep sea fish, not having a seaworthy ocean-going boat themselves.

Paul had been a gracious host, always inviting us to eat, or go hunting (then eating). We'd had everything from the freshwater prawns that grew in the river to lobster from the bay, to barbecued goat, pig cooked in an underground oven  with sweet potatoes and taro, "back-yard" chicken, and other delicacies.

We found Paul and Martin, but Paul had work to do, so sent Martin with us. Martin, about 19 or so, was eager and full of excitement. We left the anchor on a bouy, since we were going to be right back in a few hours, and headed out of the bay under the vigorous push of my little 6-hp diesel inboard engine.

We had put up the sails while still at anchor, just as a precaution, but couldn't really use them until we got outside the bay, because the precipitous 500-foot tall cliffs that bordered the bay on one side made the wind circle in whirligigs and williwaws, not coming from one direction consistently for more than a few seconds at a time.

Once outside the bay, we were immediately in the dependable 10-12 knot tradewinds of the Marquesas, sheeted in the sails, turned off the engine, and started looking for birds.

Wait a minute, you say: don't you look for fish? No. When you are fishing for yellowfin tuna, mahi mahi, and ono, the way we were, you look for the flocks of birds that are a giveaway as to where the big schools of fish are feeding.

The big fish chase the baitfish up to the surface, and they are caught between the birds above and the big fish below: this is an opportunity for the birds, and is how they make their living.

So we found a school shortly, and with four husky handlines in the water proceeded to pass through the squawking mass of diving birds and surface splashes from the big fish below. We hit all four lines!

Each fish stretched the shock-absorbing  bungey cord on the handlines out to their full lengths, and we luffed up into the wind to slow the boat down and pull the fish in.

I put the boat on self-steering so I could pull fish too, and (wearing my safety line), went to the rail, braced myself, and started hauling in a 120-lb yellowfin tuna. Martin was pulling in a line next to me, and he was a little slower on the draw; I got my fish in to the boat, and put a gaff into it while he was still pulling his in.

(to be continued next newsletter)

Aloha, Tim....

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