Thursday, October 29, 2020


We've finally got our hydroponics system setup and mostly populated. There were all sorts of issues along the way, but I'll get to those later. First, the grand tour.

Click the pictures to embiggen. 

When you walk into the room this is the view you get. There's an old chest freezer, as in older than me old, that holds the fish. We've got fifteen in there. One that we took out of Mariah's parents' little pond and fourteen more that we got once we realized what a pain it was to get fish out of the pond. 

The ammonia in the fish waste gets transformed into nitrites and then into nitrates and is all of the food for the plants. 

On either end of the freezer there's a post running across. A small pump runs water through all the time. Probably a bit deeper than it should be, but the roots are still developing. Could be a problem later. Anyway, the water pumps in one side, out the other, and over to the second post. Might add a third post later. We just ran out of caps. I'd have to make my own. 

The bucket underneath has two small screw holes in the bottom. I was hoping to keep the water level high enough to grow duckweed in there to feed the fish, but low tide is too low. So, instead I use it to add water to the system slow enough to keep the temperature change from shocking the fish. 

Just a minor trickle. Isn't it cute?

Low tide

This is the inside of the chest freezer. I filled it half way and left it for a few weeks to make sure it was water tight. Terracotta pots give them something to hide in and keep the fish tank from being an infinite white void slowly driving the fish mad. You can also see the return hose from the posts and a bubbler. 

The posts are one system and this is the start of the second system. This is the control bucket. One pump in the fish tank pumps water into this and a pump in the control bucket pumps water back out. Water then flows through the six other hoses in the side of this bucket to six other buckets. The water automatically keeps level across all seven of them. 

There's a float valve inside the control bucket to stop the water at a certain level, but it's rather narrow, so it limits how fast the bucket can fill. So a timer pumps water in for half an hour, it sits for about fifteen minutes, and then the second pump drains it in about ten minutes. Then it sucks air for five minutes because the timer works on intervals of fifteen minutes. This give the fish tank a tide of 25-30 gallons. 

We did try giving them more water so that low tide isn't so low, but the float valve isn't as effective as one might like and there was overflow. 

Note the white(ish) block of wax under the bucket. That'll come up again.

The other six buckets are in a reflective grow closet. 




When I take a pot out you can see the roots coming out the bottom. Once that's happening with all of them I can lower the water level by removing the wax block under the control bucket.

Right now, only the tomatoes have roots that big. If the other stuff, like the strawberries, don't catch up, they'll end up moved to the continuous flow system.

These are expanded clay pellets. They are neutral enough to not change the PH level of the water, big enough not to wash away, and serve to help hold the plants in place. 

The biggest expense is the lights. That's true in general and not just in the case of people like us who scavenged most of the material. This light was $500. And I shopped around until I found one that wasn't made entirely in China. 

They are a major source of heat. Not as much as the pre-LED systems, but quite a bit. The basement likes to be in the mid-60°Fs, but this reflective room gets to 79°F when the lights are on. 


The biggest issue with a system like this is leaks. Or algae. So far, it's been leaks. Anywhere there's a hose coming in or out there's a rubber gasket and plastic grommet. Those weren't waterproof on their own, much to my disappointment.  So, I tried to use silicone to seal stuff up. Apparently a common mistake as the guys in the shops nodded knowingly when I griped to them about how that went. So I stripped it off and used a more adhesive caulk. That was better, but still drippy. So I put some inside, too. No good. Finally, after weeks of using different materials, letting it set, testing it, mopping the floor, letting it dry, trying something else, I got some Flex Seal and slathered it all over the ends of the posts. 

Suck it, leaks!

It still leaked where the hoses came and went... sometimes. That's why the control bucket is in a pan. And in the first picture there's an aquarium under the end of one of the posts. All that water didn't come from a leak. That's the fish hospital. The PH got a bit out of control and some needed assistance. Anyway, the leaks around the hoses seem to have stopped after running for a few days. 

That's actually, less complaining than I expected to do. BUT THE LEAKS WERE A BIG AND ANNOYING PROBLEM!

Oh, right the algae. If you're doing this at home you want to block out as much light as possible. Paint the buckets black, use black hoses, keep a lid on the fish tank, etc. A few years ago I helped set up a tower garden for my brother, but replaced the reservoir with a 300 gallon IBC tank and fish. But too much light got in, the algae clogged up the system, and water poured everywhere he didn't want it. 

Our system isn't as light-proof as I might like it, but it's better than my brothers' was and so far we have no algae. 


We got the freezer free from Craiglist. We thought we were getting a working freezer. So did the people who gave it to us. But the guys who pushed it to the curb tore out some vital parts... such as the power supply. 
The big fish was abducted from in-laws. The little fish are feeder fish rescued from a pet store. Cost us two bucks.
The posts came from the in-laws. They got them free some years ago as leftovers from someone's project. 
The pots were free from Craigslist. Some farmer was buying plants and had lots of empty pots to get rid of. 
The clay pellets were part of a previous attempt at hydroponics from 5-6 years ago. 
Buckets from the in-laws. 
Lids from HomeDepot. 
The reflective closet, the light over the fish tank, hooks, ropes, the drip pan, and some vent fans and other stuff we got off Craigslist for $250 or so - about 1/3 the going price. When this light was in the reflective closet the temperature sat at 77°F. 
The new light is new and ~$500. I did a lot of shopping to find one that wasn't 100% made in China. 
The tomatoes in the reflective closet are cuttings from stuff in the yard. The tomatoes in the posts are cuttings from a friends' yard. 
The strawberry in the closet is one from the yard that came with the house. The one in the post we got in the spring, grew like mad, and never produced anything.
There's blueberry cuttings from the blueberry bush outside using the light and some fish water.
We brought our peppers in and put them in the closet to see how well they keep producing over the winter. 
There is lettuce, zucchini, and some other things coming up from see to go in the system. 
There's two apple trees grown from seed.
We're still trying to figure out what to do about our two dozen lemon trees grown from seed. 
FlexSeal is like $30 a quart!
And the hoses and pumps and gaskets came from local hydroponics store and cost many moneys. By local I mean the several that are an hour away and the none that are close. 


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