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Friendly Aquaponics
Commercial Newsletter

Number 16
February 25th,  2013
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm

The Mysteries of Aquaponics, Part 4: You Don't Need A Biofilter, You Already Have One!

In our last newsletter, I mentioned that we have “systems which have run for months at a time with zero measurable nitrates; measured with a test that clearly shows 1 ppm”. The hydroponics people have told us to our faces that we are making bad measurements and don’t know what we’re doing. Aquaponics “experts” (notably those with little or no real experience) often do the same. The “necessary” number for parts per million (ppm) of nitrates they quote is from 60 to 200. So what’s right? Can both be right?


To clear up the nagging thought you may be having that the nutrients are coming from “somewhere else”, we do not put ANYTHING into our systems except fish food. We add a couple of cups of calcium carbonate to a 3,500 square foot system at intervals from six months to a year and a half to help with pH adjustment. We also add small amounts of chelated iron when we see interveinal chlorosis on the plants.


Nothing else goes into the system: no kelp powder, no mineral supplements, no azomite, no peat potting mix (we use coir, which is nutrient-neutral), no fertilizer, no more nothing (as we say in Hawaii!). Our systems produce vegetables explosively on a very small amount of fish food, a couple of handfuls of calcium carbonate for pH adjustment, and iron additions of small amounts of chelated iron 3 to 5 times a year. (Note: we often go more than a year on one 25-pound bag of chelated iron powder, even though we have 6,000 square feet of systems requiring iron supplementation).


If our systems work so well at low or unmeasurable nitrate levels, why do the “experts” insist that you must have 60 to 200 ppm nitrates for an aquaponics system to work? The reason is that they’ve never run an organic aquaponics system like ours, and thus, they don’t have the data we have. They do have data, but we feel it is contaminated by poor scientific procedure, just as the claimed “cold fusion” experiment of Pons and Fleischmann was in 1989.


Here’s the explanation of the unreliable data: the consultant’s and university’s systems are adjusted with caustic chemicals that are not organically certifiable (calcium and potassium hydroxides). We have hypothesized that every time you add these caustic chemicals to your system, you kill or inhibit a certain percentage of the nitrifying bacteria.

This effects huge fluctuations in nitrifying bacteria populations, which in turn creates huge swings in nitrite and nitrate levels in these systems. They measured these huge swings in nitrate numbers, and somehow got the idea that they are actually “adjusting” the levels of nitrates in their systems. We don’t believe this is accurate or true.


There is one time in the life of an organic aquaponics system such as ours (defined as one that has its pH adjusted with calcium carbonate) that you do measure high levels of nitrites and nitrates similar to those experienced in the university systems adjusted with caustic chemicals, and that's during the startup period. During startup, an organic aquaponics system experiences “spikes”, or high levels of nitrites and nitrates that appear similar to the levels of nitrites and nitrates experienced in an operating university type system.


The professors and consultants have unfortunately mistaken this continually recurring “startup condition” they've created for the normal operating condition of an aquaponic system. They have had no opportunity to get better data for comparison, because they have never run an organic aquaponics system as we have. We (and one of our early students), are the only people in the world we know of to have run both a traditional university system and one of our Low Density organic aquaponics systems.


Rose and Dad and two of our "Delicious Fishes". Although we eat them with respect, we don't give them names because then it's harder to eat them.


So how do we explain this apparently impossible phenomenon of low (or unmeasurable) nitrates still giving explosively productive plant growth in our Low Density systems? We’re going to go ninety degrees to this discussion first, and take a look at standard aquaculture technology: in a Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS), a common component is what’s called a “biofilter”.

These are tanks in the water flow from the fish tank(s) that are well aerated, and contain loads of expensive little plastic macaroni often called “Kaldnes media”, “Buckyballs”, etc, which have tons of surface area. The purpose of a biofilter in an aquaculture system is to provide lots of surface area for the nitrifying bacteria to colonize.


These bacteria are surface colonizers; and while they do live in the water column in your aquaponics system, that is much like a person living in a car; we all know that people are happier and more comfortable living in houses. Where the bacteria are most comfortable, and like to live, is glommed onto a surface in your aquaponics system in company with zillions of other bacteria.

They love surface area: they colonize the sides of the fish tank, the bottoms of the rafts, and the sides of the troughs, but most of all, they colonize the roots of all the plants in your system. The result is called a biofilm, a biolayer, or even just “slime”; for it’s kind of slippery to the touch.


Let’s look at an average biofilter: as a thought exercise, I constructed one using the Aquatic EcoSystems catalog. For a total of $10,000, I "purchased" a large fiberglass tank, several cubic yards of media, several airstones, and a small regenerative blower to aerate the biofilter. The total area represented by this $10,000 biofilter was 31,000 square feet. Then I measured the available area inside the fish tank in our largest aquaponics system; it was only 336 square feet. No wonder recirculating aquaculture systems need biofilters!


Next, I looked at our 6,000 square feet of aquaponics system; it has a total of 10,000 square feet of surface area, comprising the sides and bottoms of the fish tanks, the sides of the troughs, and the undersides of the rafts. I also took a representative sample of roots from our aquaponics system, measured their lengths, took a micrometer to them to get their diameter, counted them, then multiplied by an “average” sized greens produce item in our system.


The result for this "root area calculation" was 64,000 square feet; when added to the 10,000 square feet of the system itself, this gives us a total of 74,000 square feet of biofilter “area” in our aquaponics systems, without having to spend any money on a “biofilter”. As you can see, the $10,000 biofilter just didn’t compare; and in addition, was completely unnecessary.

There is an incredible area in the roots of the plants living in your system. This is why aquaponics systems simply don’t need biofilters; they’ve already got tons of them if they have plants in the system. You can eat these biofilters, and they make money too!


(Next week we wrap this whole series with Part 5: “Why They Work”, our hypothesis explaining why aquaponics systems with ZERO measurable nitrates still grow vegetables like gangbusters! Thanks for listening!)

Friendly 2014 Commercial Aquaponics and Greenhouse Training Schedule:

Texas Training in May, dates to be announced

Tennessee Training in May, dates to be announced

California Training in June, dates to be announced

(Below) One of Ben and Alysha Godfrey's aquaponics systems in a greenhouse in Milam County, Texas. Their system water tastes great! It has a pale blond hue, with a hint of apple and pear blossoms. 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).


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.


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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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.


Micro System Classes!

Our four affiliates are now offering Micro System courses.

Click here
for a listing of affiliates and course locations!


Our new book: "Aquaponics The EASY Way!" is done!

It covers how to successfully build and operate tabletop aquaponics gardens from 3-1/2 to 18 square feet in size, using materials and equipment you can buy locally at Home Depot, Lowe's, and Petco.

The "3.5" costs you under $100 in Hawaii (where things are expensive) and the "18" costs $320.30. Click here to get our free "System Cost Calculator", an ExCel spreadsheet that you can put your own local numbers into (for parts) to find out what your system will cost you.

To purchase this E-book for only $29.95, click here. It's an excellent textbook for aquaponics for students from 6th 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.

The "Spice Chronicles", #4: "Nuku Hiva North Point Mixup"

This is a fish story from 1976, when I was sailing my 37-foot cutter "Spice" in the Marquesas Islands (down near Tahiti). I had made a plan with some friends on another cruising boat to meet them in a small bay on the North side of the island of Nuku Hiva.


They'd left Taiohae bay earlier in the day, and I'd stayed to finish some maintenance jobs on my boat. I got done later than I'd expected to, hauled anchor and set sail for the north side. I had put out four trolling lines as soon as I'd cleared Taiohae harbor, but hadn't had a single strike in about an hour and a half of sailing.


As I made my way around the western end of the island and turned north, I watched my lines and wham! One of them went off, the bungie cord stretching all the way out to its full length of six feet. This meant that there was a big fish on, and I sheeted out and put the boat on her windvane self-steering so I could  go pull the fish in.


I pulled in a nice 50-pound yellowfin tuna, what was called locally "kahi", and put it in a net bag. I then put out the trolling lines again, and got headed in the right direction.


Just as we were passing around the north-western tip of the island, the wind, which was blowing straight towards the towering 500-foot black stone cliffs that came right down into the sea, switched and came FROM the cliff for a minute or two. It swirled around the boat, throwing us aback, with the sails pressed against the rigging and mast.


The wind wasn't very strong, and we were VERY close to the cliff, so (just a little scared!) I jumped down below and started my little hand-cranked 6-hp diesel engine to get us straightened out and go in the right direction.


In my little time below, though, we'd gotten a gust of wind that had swirled the boat around, and as soon as I started the engine, the prop sucked in a couple of the trolling lines and the engine stopped dead with the lines wound around the prop shaft. Now I was really scared!


I looked at the wind, saw that it was gusty and shifting from moment to moment. I saw the cliff, only about 200 feet away now, and realized that I was at a critical juncture. So I sheeted the sails all the way out (loose), dropped the boarding ladder off the stern, and dove over the side with a razor sharp butcher's knife in my hand.


The whole time up til now I had kept my lifeline harness and lifeline on, to keep me with the boat, but now having a webbing harness and line on me could be the one thing that caught on a rudder gudgeon or the prop itself and drowned me. So I dove over without any lifeline on.


I went straight under the boat, and sawed about half the lines off the prop with my first breath. I had to come up to take another, then went down again. There was a confused sea off the point, and although the boat wasn't moving through the water much, or at all, she was bouncing up and down three or four feet on the stern and trying to bash my head in with the rudder and propshaft.

When I went under and grabbed the propshaft as a solid point to work from, I was jerked violently up and down underwater about every four to five seconds, which was the period of the waves.


I went down a second time, got a death grip on the propshaft, and just barely sawed the rest of the lines off the shaft before running out of air. Swam to the boarding ladder, faced a quandary:

How do I climb this thing with one hand holding onto a knife? Jammed the knife in between my teeth like a buccaneer, latched onto the ladder like it was my savior (it was!), and made it up the three rungs in about three tenths of a second!


The engine had never sounded sweeter when it cranked over and sucked me and my boat away from the towering stone cliffs. I sailed into the bay without seeing a sign of my friends; kind of feeling my way because by now it was pitch black, and there were no boats, no lights on shore, and no moon out.

When I got the boat anchored and collapsed into my bunk, I totally forgot about the beautiful ahi I caught, and had to salt-dry it the next day instead of eat it fresh. But I still had a boat!

Aloha, Tim.....

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