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My Top Nine Epic Aquaponic Blunders

Those of you who know me know that I am passionate about aquaponics, the system of growing plants and fish together symbiotically to produce food.  You also know that not everything has gone according to plan with my aquaponics system, and that I have made several mistakes along the way.  I have identified my top nine blunders, and they are detailed below for your enjoyment and edification.  Please don’t do any of these things that I have done.  😉

  1. Believing the myth that all you do is combine fish and plants and everything else will work like magic – Let’s start here, with the granddaddy of all aquaponics myths, the idea that if you add fish to water and then add some plants everything will “just work.”  Wow – that is a fish story if I ever heard one.  The truth of the matter is this: Aquaponics is tricky and exact.  Aquaponics is a system that is driven by pH, is impacted by temperature, and obeys the rule of “Most Limiting Nutrient” meaning that if your system is low in a single nutrient the entire system will suffer.  Add to that the difficulty for the layperson to identify any/all of these factors and you have a frustrating situation for the average aquaponics user.
  2. Not stirring the hydroton in the flood-and-drain bedHydroton is known for not packing down and having great surface area for nitrifying bacteria growth, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore it.  Anaerobic conditions can develop in pockets in the hydroton, causing plant mortality and rot.  Stir your hydroton every few months to prevent dead zones.
  3. Refusing to use pesticides to control bugs in greenhouse (even OMRI approved pesticides) – Aquaponics has been nick-named “Organic Hydroponics” due to the mistaken belief that all you need to make plants grow is fish (see above).  This attitude creates resistance to the idea of using pesticides to control bugs in your greenhouse, even pesticides made from neem oil and sanctioned by the Organic Materials Review Institute.  This reluctance on my part has led to infestations, plant damage and destruction, and crop loss.
  4. Ignoring algae growth in, on, and around the fixtures in my system – Algae is a natural result of nutrient rich water and sunlight, so what’s the problem?  Algae growth can cause pH swings in your aquaponics system, and that my dear reader is a problem.
  5. Only feeding my fish once a day – Oh boy do I still struggle with this one.  I have heard fish feeding schedules as frequent as every 45 minutes.  My fish are doing well if they eat once a day, which is bad.  Part of the problem is the hassle of getting fish food to the greenhouse – it must be safely stored in a separate building because of the bear problem in our neighborhood.  So to feed the fish I have to trudge to the barn, grab some food, head to the greenhouse, feed the fish, and the reverse trip back to the house.  In an eight hour day that adds up to almost eleven trips, which would consume nearly an hour of my time each day.  No wonder I suck at feeding my fish.
  6. Trying to lower the pH in my system rapidly – There is so much emphasis placed on pH that us aquaponics folks verily obsess over this one metric.  When your pH is sitting high in your system the inclination is to lower the pH using a pH lowering chemical.  In a word, don’t.  The pH of your system will drop on its own over time due to nitrification, and that gradual drop is safe for your fish.  Quick, dramatic drops are death for your fish, as I can personally attest.
  7. Ignoring signs from plants that they’re nutrient deficient (see #1)If the popular theory goes “Add fish and everything will work like magic” then why would I worry about some plants not looking well?  If I just keep doing what I am doing the plants will get with the program and snap-to, right?  Wrong!  Plants are your barometer regarding the health of the system.  If your plants are struggling something is wrong with your system, and nutrient deficiencies are a good place to start looking.  My system has been suffering from a potassium (K) deficiency since it first cycled; I could have saved myself a lot of headache over a year ago had I just paid closer attention to my plants.
  8. Using tap water to top-off my system – Tap water is really all I have access to (no well water and it is illegal to catch rain water in Colorado), so tap water is what I have used.  Now, I aerate the tap water for several days to off-gas the chlorine, but it is still tap water.  If you have a better water source than tap water use it, including a reverse osmosis machine if you live in a region with high enough humidity rates to warrant it.
  9. Allowing water temperature to vary greatly from season to season (by as much as 40 degrees) – I am a firm believer in reducing my personal use of energy (coal, natural gas, propane, petroleum).  For that reason I do not heat my greenhouse in the winter, and will only slightly heat my water, just enough to keep the water temperature during the winter season above 45 degrees.   Water temperature impacts pH, the amount fish will eat (thereby impacting nitrate levels), the activity level of nitrifying bacteria, and plant growth.  If you want to keep your aquaponics system perpetually confused and in constant adjustment, varying the temperature by 40 degrees or more from season to season is a great way to do it.

Well there you have, the nine most effective ways I have found to destroy an aquaponics system, based on my own personal experience.  I hope you got a good laugh and learned something along the way, because I know I sure have!  🙂

Have you made an epic aquaponic blunder?  We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below – there is always so much more to learn and sharing your mistake could help others avoid it!

 

“It’s always helpful to learn from your mistakes because then your mistakes seem worthwhile.” ~ Garry Marshall

52 Responses to My Top Nine Epic Aquaponic Blunders

  1. Rudy Kehler December 11, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

    Thanks Christine! Your transparency is refreshing and appreciated. In our learning years we have also blundered and continue to do so, then learn, then move on. Great post.

    • Christine December 12, 2012 at 6:46 am #

      Thanks Rudy – we are getting better all the time as well. It does feel like the learning curve is significant, but manageable. 🙂

  2. Nicole December 28, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    Now I’m a little more apprehensive to try aquaponics. Sounds super complicated…

    • Christine December 30, 2012 at 8:45 am #

      Hey Nicole! Aquaponics is not quite super complicated, but it does require some vigilance on the part of the aquaponic gardener. There is a ton of great information out there (and some not so great info as well), but access to the information you will need generally does exist. I will be posting an on-line aquaponics overview class in the next month or so (piloted it earlier this month to rave reviews). Keep an eye out for the class and do not be shy about e-mailing or posting questions. I’d be happy to help in any way that I can. 🙂

      • Connie Johnson January 15, 2013 at 10:11 am #

        Hi Christine,

        Will you be sending an email about the on-line aquaponics overview class?

        Also, did you DIY your own system or did you buy one? Any good books that you would recommend in the meantime?

        I’m super interested!

        Blessings,
        Connie

        • Christine January 15, 2013 at 10:39 am #

          I will be sending out an e-mail about the on-line class – should be this spring sometime. I didn’t see your name on the e-mail list (just checked) so please click here to get on that list.

          Yes, we did DIY our aquaponics system. We are building a bigger system this spring in friends greenhouse and have revised our design a fair amount. We hope the new design will save us some work. 🙂

          Two books I recommend – “Hydroponic Food Production” and “Aquaponic Gardening.” The first is the bible of growing food without soil, but is not aquaponic specific. The second is aquaponic specific, but a little light on particulars. Between the two you should get what you need.

          If you have any other questions don’t hesitate to ask. 🙂

          • Steven Shook May 19, 2013 at 8:13 am #

            You mention a online course for aquaponics I would like to know more. Getting training on the system is paramount at this time. Thanks

          • Christine May 20, 2013 at 11:28 am #

            I will send out an announcement in my e-newsletter about the aquaponics course – make sure you are signed up to receive the e-newsletter. 🙂

  3. chris crane January 19, 2013 at 8:36 am #

    We are just starting out and thought your article very helpful,I am amazed at the comment about it being illegal to collect rain water in Colorado . We are starting to hear of other places that are also banning water collection ,is there a reason that is beginning to become a problem ,and how do we protest this? Has the EPA gone insane ? Rain barrels are the enemy? Love to hear your thoughts Thanks ,please keep writing ,and hopefully ,this year we will be producing alot of our food through Aquaponic’s Gloria Crane

    • Christine January 21, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

      Hey Chris! Yes, there is a reason that this is becoming such an issue – in short, there are too many people competing for fresh water. We are hitting peak water and we are starting to see the results. I have heard rumors of a national water plan that would control catching water, gray water, and water use. Something to look forward to… (kidding!)

    • jerry February 25, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

      I’d tell the EPA and all other American bureauratic morons to go stuff it! Rain water that falls on my house belongs to me.

      Yes, I think aquaponic farming is more hype than truth…. BUT, I am experimenting with a smal system in Chiang Mai Thailand.

      Let me hear from someone!

      Cheers,

      jerry

      • Christine February 27, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

        Well, considering the $500 fine for collecting rain water, I’m inclined to just sink it into my soil via berming and swaling. However, I do share your sentiment. 🙂

  4. Steven Shook May 19, 2013 at 8:09 am #

    I have recently found myself battling the Nitrite rich problem. I am now cycling my tanks to get back to a norm with the irrigation water from the lake. I spiked a couple of days ago and am worried about my fish. My plants are doing spectacular but I see lots of undissolved food in the plant medium. I think over feeding might be the problem. You can view my videos on my site http://www.originalaquaponics.com and please give me an Idea of what I can do…HELP!

    • Christine May 20, 2013 at 11:27 am #

      Hey Steven! I would have to agree with your assessment that over feeding could be the issue. What are your ammonia and nitrite levels?

    • Zevicor February 23, 2015 at 9:15 pm #

      Actually if you are seeing that food then you don’t have a vortex filtration 3 phase system in place. I suggest you look into that as that will greatly enhance your experience as well as provide you with a fertilizer solution for free for plants you have in the ground. Simply drain the solution straight from your waste catcher into a jug and BAM! instant fertilizer in a liquid form.

      • Christine February 24, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

        I don’t think we can do that, as our tanks are buried for insulation. But thanks for tip – I’ve seen those systems and they are cool. 🙂

  5. MichaelRoll July 18, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

    How did you solve your potassium deficiency?

    • Christine July 25, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

      We use sulphate of potash because our pH is often running over 6.5. Caustic potash, also known as lye (potassium hydroxide), is most often used to put potassium into your system providing your pH is low enough (caustic potash will cause pH to rise). Check out the link below for more info.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potash

  6. Christie Lyons July 25, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    Thanks, Christine for this information. It is useful to the beginning aquaponics person. I just added tap water to my system to bring it back up to the proper level. I’m watching my fishies very closely for the next 24 hours.
    As far as food, mine eat duckweed and I feed them 3 to 5 times a day. Now I’m thinking of feeding them more often.

    Your info was very helpful!

    • Christine July 25, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

      You are most welcome Christie – glad it was helpful. 🙂

  7. Tad August 16, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    Hey Christine! I think all your info on aquaponics is great! I really like the way you “Keep it Real”!! I am piecing together my first aquaponic system now. I live in a apartment in the SW corner of Wyoming. I like staying busy and the idea of having fresh organic greens in an area where 9 month winters are brutal. No gardens here; nothing grows very long without a controlled environment greenhouse. So, I am up for a challenge with my apartment sized aquaponic system. My question is about “light”: I plan to have three bunked (shelving system) grow beds (23 gal) two sumps (20 gal) and a 100 gallon black fish tank (30-60 fingerlings) in front of a large southern facing window. I understand I will need supplemental lighting and reflective material, but I was wondering if the natural light will be enough to get started. Can you recommend a lighting system or website I can reference to achieve my lighting goals? How do you feel about my “No backyard system” and can you offer any tips toward my light deficient opportunity, positional, chemical, etc?

    • Christine August 20, 2013 at 10:58 am #

      Hey Tad! I know the bunk systems are cheaper, but have you considered the Zip Grow Towers from Bright Agrotech? Because you could face the all south out the window you might not need the supplemental lighting, with the possible exception of during the Persephone Period (November through January). I used a water heater cover for reflective material and that worked well for me. I love aquaponics systems in apartments – I believe many more folks need to be doing this. Here’s a post I wrote in this topic a while back – it might have some information for you. 🙂 http://www.righttothrive.org/2012/10/20/think-you-cant-grow-food-in-your-apartment-think-again/

  8. Matt October 6, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    Hi Christine.

    I’ve got a system that I made this month. It has 700L of water in an IBC and 250L of clay ball growing media above. I have 6 goldfish which I used to get the ammonia going in the system and there are also 30 silver perch with them. The plants have been going badly because they are in shade. I haven’t been checking any levels except the water level and the temp. It is on a continual flood and drain for now….. But that may be affecting some plants, so I might make it come on for 15mins and then an hour break.

    In the last two days I set up four fluro-tubest above the plants and they are responding great. The biggest issue I am having now is with moths!

    My friend has the same sort of setup, but his is in the sun. He has tonnes more fish and also has a waste trough or tank that catches the solids a bit more.

    I was following a site online that tell you basically what you said……’add fish and it all works and takes care of itself’.

    My friend only ever checks the PH if he has a fish die. Otherwise, he doesn’t check nitrate/nitrite.

    What would you recommend? I have pictures if you want to see them?!

    • Christine October 6, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

      I say if it aint broke don’t fix it. 😉 In other words, if it’s working for you and/or your friend, then go with it. That being said, I’m guessing eventually there could be an issue, especially if the source water (and topping off water) is from a municipality. It never hurts to check your metrics, so I would recommend checking pH, ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, and water temperature. I would love to see your pictures! Post them on the Right to Thrive Facebook page and I will check them out. 🙂

  9. Matt October 8, 2013 at 7:10 am #

    I’ve added an album on the Facebook page. It has 29 pics from various stages. I’ll have more pics as I progress. I have just added some air stones and although the fish were at home, they seem to love it. They are growing very well. At the moment I am feeding them goldfish food and I also give them duck weed that I grow in a separate bucket. I will be attempting homemade fish feed after I set the solar panels on my roof.

    I’ll keep you updated!

    Matt.

    • Christine October 9, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

      Awesome! The duck week thing is such a great idea, and it does seem to work well in some of the systems. Keep me in the loop regarding how that works for you.

  10. Matt October 8, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    Hello again.

    Are marigolds good for aquaponic systems or not? There seems to be confusion on the subject.
    I wanted to use them to take care of unwanted pests.

    Thanks,

    Matt.

    • Christine October 9, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

      Hmmm… I hadn’t heard the scuttle about marigolds – I don’t know that I’m qualified to comment. We use lady bugs for pest control, but with your open air system the lady bugs would be hard to keep on your plants. Not sure on this one – interesting question.

  11. Matt October 9, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

    So, last night I used our thermomix to make a concoction of seasol, garlic and chilli. I then mixed it with ten parts water. I sprayed the leaves this morning. Looking good so far. I was told not to spray the growing media as garlic can kill the good bacteria as well!

    If you do this yourself for an aquaponics system, make sure you use organic garlic that hasn’t had and chemicals used on it!

  12. Joshua October 17, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    Hi Christine,

    What insecticides do you recommend for aquaponics? We grow micro greens and have a massive aphid issue. We’ve tried ladybugs, somewhat effective, but our customers don’t really like receiving a tray full of bugs even if they are ladies. Thanks in advance.

    • Christine October 17, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

      Oh… aphids suck. We have had so much trouble with them we switched our crop choices to just avoid the problem. Any oil can coat the fishes gills and kill them, so “natural” insecticides like neem oil or citronella oil can be risky. How is your system set-up? Can you isolate your fish from your growing system? Honestly, the best person to ask is Nate Storey of Bright Agrotech – he knows insecticides for aquaponics better than anyone I know. He has a great YouTube channel, and if I remember right he has one video that covers insecticides. Good luck!

      • Craig Swank February 17, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

        Hi Christine. Thanks for this article. You said you changed your crop choices to avoid aphids. Could you let us know what you are growing? I started my system last summer and the aphids are driving me nuts.

        Also, my greenhouse gets so hot in the summer that I suspect it is bad for the plants. Do you do anything to keep it cooler in the summer? If you live in Colorado (I’m in Denver) then whatever you do would apply to my system I would guess.

        • Christine February 20, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

          Hey Craig! The aphids loved my greens and kales (especially my kales). They don’t seem to bother my tomatoes, peppers, herbs, tatsoi, or mizuna. I am growing kale right now, as we are pre-aphid season. Once those little boogers show up I will discontinue the kale. I did hear about an aphid control of using 10% isopropyl alcohol, mixing it in a 1:10 solution with water (1 part alcohol, 10 parts water), and misting the aphids with that. Keep it out of your water and grow beds, but apparently it will knock the aphids back. As for heat, I use an aluminum shade cloth over my greenhouse in the summer – it works great.

          • Craig Swank February 23, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

            Thanks, eh. By the way, the only green I’ve been able to grow in peace is swiss chard.

          • Christine February 28, 2014 at 9:06 am #

            That sounds about right – my Swiss chard is impervious to everything except leaf miners.

  13. Clint April 22, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    Christine, I loved reading your article and all the comments that followed!!! I am in my third year with my 30k gal system and I can relate to the ups and downs of Aquaponic gardening. For anyone looking to start their own system a few tips, find very hardy fish in the beginning, same with the plants….a lot of plants have their own natural protection such as tomatoes, chives, or marigolds!

    • Christine April 23, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

      Great tips Clint! Thanks for that – I never thought of tough plants like I thought of tough fish (an absolute necessity), but that makes a lot of sense about the plants. 🙂

  14. Ryan hamilton July 25, 2014 at 7:27 am #

    I started my aquaponics system this spring and my lettuce isn’t growing well. I have a 20gallontank with six fish in it containing comets and goldfish plus one algae eater from Walmart. My grow bed consists of pea gravel (because the clay pellets were a little too expensive). Right now I have a timer set for a hour, four times a day. I feed the fish a good pinch twice a day. Everything seems to be running fine but my lettuce is barely growing and the older lettuce is starting to die off. I’m a little concerned with the water level and how well it drains (I don’t have a bell siphon on it). The water level is about two inches from the top of the gravel when the pump isn’t on. Please lend me your advice. Thank you!

    • Christine July 25, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

      Have you pulled the water chemistry? Sounds like a nitrate problem. Pull ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates and see what you’ve got. If that’s not it, then it’s a nutrient problem most likely.

  15. Ryan hamilton July 27, 2014 at 6:05 pm #

    Checked the chemistry and it looks like I’m running low on nitrates, but they are present(around 10ppm). Ammonia is over 7 closer to 8 and looks like no nitrites. Tests in the past were similar.
    How do I manage nutrients?!

  16. Tyler June 6, 2015 at 5:25 am #

    Hey I know I’m a little late to the party, but I’ve been wondering… Is it possible to add fish to an aeroponics system? It seems the hydro and aero systems are fundamentally the same, but I’m just not sure if adding fish is doable. Thanks!

    • Christine June 11, 2015 at 2:42 pm #

      I honestly have no idea – never tried it.

    • Quenten Visser October 31, 2015 at 10:27 am #

      All you’d do is use your tank water to spray the roots, you would have to change out your water pretty often since you would not be filtering it through anything.

  17. Rajiv Pradhan October 8, 2015 at 5:39 am #

    Hello,
    Thank You for the tips, I have build a small prototype to study about aquaponic, so far its been 40 days, my plants are growing but its very slow, and lots of my Tilipai fingerling fish have died but bigger one are striving.. what i am missing???

    • Christine October 8, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

      What is your pH? And have you pulled your ammonia, nitrite, nitrate numbers recently?

  18. Quenten Visser October 31, 2015 at 10:22 am #

    Has anyone else made the bone head mistake of having your water input (to the grow beds) greater then it’s output? I’ve nearly flooded my house more then once…which I’m sure my wife loved.

  19. Gil February 15, 2016 at 3:20 pm #

    My first aeration pump burned up and an “Expert” friend said my fish would be fine for a day or so. I have a 500 gal tank. My fish died.
    My question:
    Is it possible to over aerate a fish tank?

    • Christine February 15, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

      Not that I’ve ever seen, but perhaps a fish store could give you a more precise answer.

  20. Edgar Estrada April 29, 2016 at 11:46 am #

    Hi Chris:

    I am facing a very interesting challenge, and I would like your advise on the matter.

    I built an aquaponics farm a year ago; I made two separated aquaponics systems instead of making a large one for security purposes.

    After a year of struggling with Tilapias dying for cold water, and Trouts dying because of hot water, now I finally stabilized the temperature naturally.

    But I am facing a totally different issue now: every night, Module 1 pH goes up around 2 points (from 7 to 9 – 9.5) — that is absolutely insane, to the point I´ve lost all my fish in module 1; At first I thought it was disease and changed all the water, but checking my electronic sensors indicate inmediately after sun goes down, pH starts going up — what do you suggest I should do?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Christine May 2, 2016 at 6:42 pm #

      What!? I have no idea what’s happening – I’ve never heard of this before. Very weird…

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