Sunday, December 26, 2010

Finally DONE

I finished the last few steps in about 2 hours this morning... and then had problems.

The pipe up from the sump tank leaked a little, as did the drain pipe.  And the pump wasn't pushing enough volume to overcome the drain holes in the stand pipe, so the growbed wasn't filling.  I looked at the pump and decided it just wasn't big enough for the job.  It's supposed to push enough water to cycle the entire system each hour, but it clearly wasn't up to the job and didn't have a volume control.

So I drove 30 minutes to the nearest open aquarium store, bought a 375 GPH pump with 6' head and a volume control, took a different route back to avoid some ugly traffic I'd seen on my way out, and decided on the way to ditch the sump-to-fishtank piping and go with tubing instead.  I stopped at Home Depot and bought some kink-proof hose in the fountain section, and a half-circle bracket to fasten the end to the upper lip of the fishtank.

This pump is a HELL of a lot stronger.  So strong, in fact, that it was exceeding my overflow pipe drain holes.

So I drilled twice as many. 

It's still flowing out the end pretty hard.  I may put in even more holes next weekend.  Yes, I could turn down the pump.  But that's the right amount of water volume for the system.  It's my job to make that work.  And it's working fine, it's just flowing out hard enough to splash and push pellets around, and that's less than ideal.

I also glued the drain pipe, but it's still got a bit of a leak.  I think I'll replace it (can't redo it since it's glued) and use some teflon tape this time.

Now that the pump is pushing enough water, I realized that my clay pellets only came up to the waterline.  It's vital that they be above the high water mark so they don't grow algae.  Luckily, I still had another 100 pounds of pellets I hadn't put into the growbed.  So I dumped those in and it's perfect.

As soon as I recover from it all (and catch up on the housework I intended to finish today and the dinner I planned to cook on Saturday) I'll get the plants in there.  

It's DONE!!!

SO close to done!

So far this weekend, I've gotten the rain-barrel connector pipe glued in, the standpipe glued in, the growbed full of 400 pounds of clay pellets, the overflow pipe drilled and installed, the fish tank drained about 3/4 of the way and jacked up so I could put 2x4s under the back corners to level it, refilled it, tested the overflow, and done most of the pipe work for the sump pump back to the fishtank (it might work the way it is, but it's not as neat a job as I'd like - I'll fix that today).  I would have gotten the drain pipe done but I'd bought the wrong adapter and the stores were closed for the day.  I'll buy the right one today and *hopefully* get the very last of the system completed!

Growbed full of pellets:

Overflow from fishtank:

Overflow pipe drilled full of holes:

Overflow pipe installed :

Video of overflow (tank filled by hose for this test):

Rain-barrels in place:

Sump pump from rain-barrel to fishtank:

Pump sitting in barrel:

Hole drilled in top of barrel for pipe:

Piping from barrel to fishtank:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Broke down and hired a handyman

I just couldn't seem to find time to finish the construction, nor did I have the right tools for the job, and I can't keep asking friends to bring their tools and work on it with me.  So I hired a handyman to come do the construction.  I've still got more work to do, but at least it's down to just plumbing work, and I can handle that.  Heck, I'm getting pretty comfortable with it after all this.

So I had the Handyman come and build the center support, and replace the plywood end with a thicker piece.  He did a fantastic job.

I've cancelled my Christmas weekend plans, and haven't made New Years weekend plans, so I WILL get the whole thing done for the new year.

In other news, I bought an algae eater.  He's about 6" long.  He wasn't cheap, but he and everyone else should be very happy for a while.

The Tilapia are doing well as far as I can tell.  If there are any dead ones, they aren't floating where I've seen them.  And the live ones are eating with great vigor.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Got a lot done! (Updated with pictures)

Everything is definitely taking longer than I expected, but then I guess that's one of the things I should expect. I have an overly full calendar already and neither the tools nor the physical strength to do some of the things myself. Nor the know-how to completely plan things out. Some a lot of stuff is being done, and adjusted, on the fly instead of being completely planned in advance the way I'd prefer.

Last weekend the water tested too high in nitrites, and my growbed was clearly not going to be finished in the next day or two, so I purchased a 300 gph aquarium filter and hooked that up. Hopefully that'll keep the tilapia healthy enough until I finish everything. I've also cut down on food, though that's hard to do since they swarm to the surface when I'm there and gobble up the pellets when I feed.

This weekend I (with the help of a coworker/friend and her circular saw) finally got the legs onto the growbed. It required a lot more cross-bracing than I'd expected during my initial planning, and I wasn't going to skimp on that once I realized how wobbly it was, but that's taken care of and it feels very sturdy now. (I'll post pics later this week.) The bed is nearly perfectly level. It actually slants just slightly away from the incoming water and toward the drain.

I've once again pulled the fixtures out of the rain barrels and tried yet another method of silicone and attaching them. I'm giving them 48 hours to cure per manufacturer's directions, and then I'll pressure test again... except I just realized while typing this that it rained last night, and I left the barrels outside because it NEVER rains here! Oops. Sigh...

I've already purchased the hydroton, and it's waiting next to the greenhouse. On the bright side, the rain probably washed away some of the clay dust from them.

If the rain barrels pass the pressure test, I just need to decide what type of drain system I want to use, make/install it, and finish plumbing the overflow out of the tank into the growbed (I've already got the pipe from the bottom of the FT to the overflow hole). Everything else is done... I think... until I realize something else I've missed.

So the final decision to be made... what kind of drainage will I do? The GB has a huge hole already in it, with gaskets and stand pipe. But I don't need a drain hole that big. (Off the top of my head I think it's 3" diameter.)
  • I could drill a small hole near the bottom of the stand pipe and use a timer for quick fill and slow drain.
  • I could build a bell siphon, but with an outlet that large I don't even know what the specs would be for all the parts. I could figure it out, or maybe ask around. But bell siphons just seem so finicky to me.
  • I could do an internal or external U-siphon. I'd still need a reducer, I think. And it has to be on the downflow of the pipe or it won't work. But I think that's probably the most fool proof.
  • I could use a tube for a loop-siphon. Those also seem a little finicky and harder to keep clean. And I'd still need to reduce a ton before the tubing.

I still want to build a cover for the fishtank.  And I really should drain it down, jack it up, and shim it - it's pretty far from level and slanting in precisely the wrong direction.  But those aren't urgently necessary for it to function... I think.  It's possible that in order to overflow I'll have to get the water level too high in the rear (lower side) of the fishtank.  If it's too high it'll either overflow out the back (that would be terrible) or the water will be too high and the fish might jump out (that would also be terrible).  One solution would be to level the tank right away.  Another would be a cover which I'll need to do anyway to control algae.  So, yeah, something will need to be done.  But I'm hoping to postpone those until Paul is here in a little over a week and can help.  :)
It's all taking shape now!

The fully braced leg:

The side view with both legs:

 Side brackets attaching the growbed to the fishtank:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Well THAT isn't going to work...

Progress report:

I'm still fighting with the rainbarrels.  This time I invited a friend over to help me, and we removed the fittings, put rubber gaskets in on *both* sides of the rainbarrel wall so it was sandwiched in, reinstalled the fittings, and one of them *still* leaks.  The other one sealed fine on the fitting, but it leaks around the actual PVC pipe.  Sigh.  So I'm going to pull them apart and put silicone into the sandwich on both sides, and some PVC glue, and if that doesn't work I'll just scream.

I also purchased the 4x4 posts to make table legs for the growbed.  But without cross bracing they wobble way too much.  So I'm working on cross bracing (and meanwhile the growbed is still safely propped on cinderblock).  I should mention that this little project necessitated the purchase of a jigsaw.  The mitersaw was a piece of junk, a miterbox wouldn't have the angles I needed, and I'll be damned if I'll saw everything by hand anyway.  I really want a table saw, of course.  ;-)  But this will do for now.

Oh, and the fish... I nearly killed 'em.  I tested the water Saturday morning and it was bad.  Scary bad.  Everything would be fine if the growbed was set up so the water was being filtered.  Weeks ago like I'd intended.  Meanwhile, the fish are happily eating and pooping and the water isn't being filtered.  So I rushed out to my local pet store and purchased a 300 gph aquarium filter.  Of course it won't fit on the side of MY fishtank, like it would over a skinny little aquarium.  But it actually sits quite nicely on top of the fishtank wall.  It's very stable there.  I also hooked up a long hose to the uptake tube, and fitted a screen on the other end (purchased from my local hydroponics store) so the filter is pulling from the bottom as it should.  After running it for 24 hours I removed the slimy, greenish-black filter pad and hosed it off so it was pristine and white again.  I'll probably do that again after work tonight.  My poor fish!

And while I was at the hydroponics store purchasing the tubing and filter, I discussed Hydroton with them.  They'll sell it to me for the same price as everywhere else offers it, plus they'll deliver it to me (for free, I believe - if not, they're close enough to home that I can make 3 trips without wasting the whole day).  So if I ever get the growbed properly braced, I'll have the Hydroton ready to fill it.

Oh, and on that note, I'm having issues with the draining of the growbed.  It's got a HUGE pipe fitted through the bottom right now.  I think it's like a 2" or maybe even 3" (I'm going from memory here).  There's no way I'm going to try to build a bell siphon with that as the upstand.  I considered just drilling a drain hole near the base of it and doing a timer-based fill with a slow drain, but the fittings come up too high.  So the next step is to see if I can unscrew it.  If so, perhaps I could put in a reducer immediately at the floor of the GB and do a U-bend siphon off of that.  The U-bend would be my preferred method anyway.  If I can't do the U-bend up into the GB itself, I can run it off to the side and U-bend externally, leaving the gaping hole (properly screened from media, of course) on the bottom as is.  That would probably be the least hassle at this point.

Plants have sprouted nicely and will probably want to be planted in the next few weeks.  My fiance will be here on vacation in 2.5 weeks, so if all else fails he and I will just spend our vacation blasting through this and getting it done.  I hate to admit it, but that actually sounds like a good vacation to me.  Getting this project complete would make me very happy!

Rainbarrels: fail
GB legs: fail
GB drain: fail
Fish health: fail
Stress management for me: fail

LOL.  At least no one is dead yet.  Not me, and not the fish.  And where there's life, there's hope!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Greenhouse complete!

I got the sides on myself, with a crochet hook and a lot of swearing.

Then Pam, my friend from work, came over to pick up the old greenhouse, and while she was here she helped me put the ends on.

Greenhouse done!

I also re-siliconed the rainbarrels.  I'll pressure test them this week.

Progress once again

So the new rainbarrels are drilled and plumbed, though I'm still trying to get a water tight seal on the plumbing.  I'll work on that some more today

One of my poker buddies came over and helped me raise the growbeds up another block-worth.  And he, and another poker buddy/neighbor helped me get the new greenhouse partially assembled.

 I've started some seeds, and they're already popping up.

Today I will once again silicone the rain barrel fittings, using the 2nd tube of silicone which did such a great job on the fittings I'd already used it on.  The first tube, of a different brand, has consistently failed at every application.  I also am hoping to get to the home center to purchase some brackets and 4x4 posts to use as table legs in place of the cinderblocks.  Though the blocks are functional, they aren't as stable as I'd like.  I'm also considering putting the legs onto furniture coasters to aid in any future moving around, since the posts are more likely to splay and crack.

I did a pH test on the 3/4" gravel offered locally, and it's just not going to work.  So Paul and I have decided to use the expanded clay instead.  It also has the advantage of being lighter weight than gravel.  It will be more expensive, and is not as easy to maintain, but it will be easier on my fingers.  I won't be doing that today, though; I'm fairly sure most of the hydroponics stores are closed for Sunday and I'm not really ready to plant anything anyway.  So that can wait.

Paul and I also discussed cover designs for the fishtank.  The overflow hole is rather higher than I'd like, and if I fill the tank that high it's going to bring the fish up awfully close to the top of the tank.  Also, the fish prefer to be under cover so they feel safe.  I have the greenhouse providing shade, but it doesn't provide that feeling of hiding.  We've tentatively agreed on a 3-piece lid.  The back portion of the tank will be covered by one piece which will remain stationary.  The front half will be two pieces, each hinged to the stationary piece, so that the fish can be fed by opening a small portion of the lid, or cleaning and capturing can be done by opening both hinged pieces creating a large opening.  I'll be building that soon... I hope.  I plan to use fence slats with some spacing between them for good air circulation.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The "official" trip report

Saturday morning I got up at 2:30 to go to the bathroom, and The Princess decided that since I needed to get up in an hour anyway, I might as well stay up and pet her. I tried for a perfunctory scritching but she wasn't having any. She climbed up between my shoulder blades and purred directly into my ear, and if the petting stopped (and you can imagine how difficult she was to reach anyway) she stuck her cold, wet nose into my ear. When I finally put my hand over my ear, she nipped it to recall me to my duties. Clearly I was not to sleep in another hour.

So instead of rushing through my early morning and starting off sleepy and grumpy, I woke in plenty of time and hit the road feeling chipper and well loved. There are worse things to happen.

I drove to my office and into the locked back lot to exchange my car for the rental truck and borrowed trailer. I then drove out to pick up my dad at his new apartment which I haven't visited before. Using my trusty navigator, I arrived at the place my verbal and dispassionate copilot directed and even found a long parking spot just before the corner. In three tries I managed to back the trailer into a perfect 6" parallel-to-the-curb park. I then got out, manually locked the truck from both sides, and walked a half block back to the front of the apartment building... to find that the address was considerably different from the one I'd directed my copilot to find.

Back into the truck, driving still in the dark and now by sheer determination, I find my way to the correct address... which is on a dead end street and has zero parking. Luckily, the end has a large culdesac so I was able to turn around and park in the center divider while my dad got dressed (excuse me?!? I was on time, damnit, despite the long drive I've already made) and came downstairs trailing sleepiness and coffee.

We then bounced on down the road, spilling a little of his coffee onto his lap or shirt front every few miles. No, I didn't aim for the bumps. But an empty truck towing an empty trailer is a jiggly kind of ride.

By now my stomach is thoroughly awake and demanding breakfast, and my new and hopefully more accurate copilot is always hungry (and I've inherited from him the tendency to low-blood-sugar-gumpiness). So we agree to keep our eyes open for a place we can manage to get this monstrosity in and out of.

Next thing we realize (several hours later, but still) we're passing the offramp we were supposed to take. No breakfast, and now we have to figure this out without using the precise directions from the guy we're going to see. Luckily, the offramp ends up taking us to the same street and we're back on course.

I then proceed to drive this awkward beast up some windy (no, that's supposed to be pronounced "Whine-Dee". How do you spell that so it doesn't look like a stiff breeze?) roads and ask my father the copilot to read me the line of directions from the sheet in my purse.

My father the copilot informs me that he elected not to bring his glasses.

I've got 3 cars behind me, no place to pull over, and a complete awareness that if I miss my turn I'll never be able to turn this train around. You think driving with a cellphone is dangerous, try towing a trailer up a curvy (that's one way to solve the spelling problem) road while reading small print.

But I'm one determined woman. In fact, that's kind of my theme for this little trip report.

We find our way to the correct place using the excellent directions provided by the gentleman who lives there and therefore oughtta know. We are there at 8:00 (for those of you doing the math, yes, I've been driving for about 4.5 hours by now, and nearly non-stop) because he has insisted that he *must* leave his place by 10:00. And since he's doing me the favor, I'm going to follow whatever restrictions he sets.

So here we are, and he says, "You got here plenty early! And we should have no problem loading everything by 10. Or it's fine even if we don't get done by 11. So why don't you disconnect the trailer and go have breakfast?" My years of poker stand me in good stead, as I manage to keep smiling while going to unhook.

Father and I have a 1 hour leisurely breakfast (which I order for him as he can't read the menu without his glasses) then drive back to the guy's house. My father and he hit it off and I'm obviously expected to stay out of the way, so I do a lot of listening. The guy is an ex polo player and is 50 years old. My father is a few years from 70, and not in what anyone would consider "fighting trim," while I am 120 pounds with arms like toothpicks. The guy seems to think we'll have no problem moving these *really heavy* wooden parts (fishtank and growbed) without additional help. He, having driven horse trailers around a lot during his polo career, offers to back our truck and trailer down his strangely situated driveway. I happily hand him the keys. I could probably do it, but it would be slow and painful. Particularly with my awareness of an audience.

So he whips the truck back to the trailer, we hook it back up, and he heads on up the street to turn around. He pulls partially into a side street, backs up in what is obviously intended to be a 3-point-turn, and I say to my father, "He's going to jackknife the trailer."


He then pulls completely into the sidestreet and disappears for several minutes. I suspect he thought we didn't hear or see what happened, and he's pulled over the check the damage. For the curious: it caved in the side of the truck bed about 3 inches and left a lot of black trailer paint on the side of the brand new white truck. He does manage to get it into his driveway, with the passenger door and mirror only slightly jammed against his fence (more denting and paint exchange). I am maintaining my cheerful smile and imagining my later success at the World Series of Poker when I'm billed as The Woman Whose Face Never Reveals Anything.

The 50 year old, with minimal help from the 67 year old and the skinny chick, does manage to load everything onto our truck and trailer. I (not being completely unable to learn from my mistakes) choose to pull the truck and trailer out of the driveway myself.

We drive to the nearest gas station (yes, of course we should have done that earlier - either while the trailer was empty or while it was disconnected during our breakfast run - but I didn't think of it) where I expertly (yes, really) pull up to the pump, gas her up, and pull back out again. Without hitting anything. I do, however, take this time to walk around the truck and see the damage. Doing so in front of The Guy seemed like a bad idea, so this is my first opportunity to check it out. Ouch.

Then we have 2 hours of driving back to my dad's house, where I park (lots of parking now) and go up to see the new apartment. Then I get back into the truck, and my dad gets back into his car, and we head the additional 2 hours to my house.

This might be a good time to mention that I'd originally rented the truck at 4:00 pm on Friday for 24 hours. My father completely freaked out that I had left us with insufficient time to get everything done, and he *insisted* I rent the truck for an additional day. I did so. He was correct that I now felt calm and relaxed about the schedule. He, on the other hand, is now pushing me because he thinks I can get it returned within 24 hours if we hurry. Of course, I can't drive more than 60 MPH in this thing and feel safe (nor is he pushing me to). And the gentlemen, in their wisdom, ignored my suggestion that the 5 foot cube of fishtank should have its opening to the rear, not the front. So I'm driving the most un-aerodynamic thing on the planet: a giant wind catching cup. This isn't going to move quickly. And the whole thing weighs enough to push the truck around, so I'm following semi-trucks under the theory that they probably won't stop faster than I can handle, and no one will want to drive between me and the semi so I should be able to maintain the distance I think necessary. It's a slow drive, and a nervous one.

So we get back to my house, and now have NO way to remove these items from truck and trailer. And my father wants it done NOW so we can return the rental a day early. (I am again practicing my poker face. It's totally inappropriate to get irritable with people who are doing you favors.) I back my trailer most of the way up my long, narrow, curved driveway (I told you I knew how) and we both get into dad's car to drive about 20 minutes to Home Depot in the hopes of finding some muscle to hire. But 2 blocks from my house, there are 3 military-looking guys moving stuff out of a trailer. I tell my dad to stop. I get out and BEG for their help, offering money, beer and food if they'll please help us.

I am a very determined woman.

The men come over and I trustingly handed over the keys again.  This time my trust was justified.  They were fantastic.  I brought out some of the big bottles from the purloined liquor collection and handed them over in thanks.  My dad and I then rushed back to my office to drop off the borrowed trailer, and rushed over to U-Haul to return the rented truck.  I'm SO glad I paid the $10 damage waiver, since that means I didn't have to pay for the dings, dents, scrapes, bashes, etc.  On the other hand, I'm humiliated that they think I drove so badly.  I didn't!  But of course I can't tell them I allowed anyone else to drive the truck I rented, since I'm pretty sure the small print forbids that.

My father drove me from the rental place back to my office to pick up my car, and then he and I each headed to our respective homes.  I had expected him to spend the night and help me on Sunday, but he was exhausted and eager to get home, and I can't blame him.

I got home and started filling the fishtank so the temperature in the tank and in the barrel of fish would equalize by morning and I'd be able to transfer the fish... and then I saw that the drain plug was leaking.  I tightened it, I swore at it, I gave up on it.  Tomorrow, Scarlett, is another day.  I took a hot bath and was sound asleep by 8:30.

Sunday I had expected to have my dad around and things went a lot slower without him.  There were things, like moving the greenhouse, that we could have done in 10 minutes together.  But doing them alone takes more than twice as long, since arches fall apart, and I have to keep walking back and forth to straighten and check and tighten and shift things.  So unfortunately I only got about a quarter of the stuff done that I'd hoped.  Which means that I'll be working on things every evening when I get home in the dark.  Which really sucks.  A lot.  But it *will* get done.

I am extremely determined.

So first thing in the morning I went to the hardware store and bought a new 1 1/2" pvc cap, some pipe tape, and a pipe wrench.  I then went home and replaced the drain pipe and it stopped leaking.  Whew.  I don't know what I would have done if it hadn't.  I also had purchased some fiberglass resin, with which I patched up a thin spot in the fishtank wall.

Oh, I should mention that the fishtank didn't fit between the house and the garage, so I couldn't place it all where I'd originally intended.  Which turns out to be fortuitous, since other things have happened that require a larger space be used anyway, and the intended spot didn't have a lot of extra room.  So when I moved the greenhouse (in pieces, accompanied by foul language) I discovered that it didn't fit over the top of the fish tank.  I solved this by propping the back support on 8" cinderblocks.  Of course, that left the center supports unsupported.  So I went back to the hardware store and bought red bricks and propped up the center with those.  The greenhouse claims to be 6'6" tall at the center, but if that were so I'm fairly certain I wouldn't be bumping my head on the ridge pole.  I have now ordered a bigger greenhouse (yes, from a different company).  And this one would never have fit in the old spot, even if the fishtank had.  So it's really good that we set up on the other side of the garage instead.  That area will fit the new greenhouse, and it's right next to the garden.  It really is the better spot.

Sorry, I know my narrative is getting very disjointed now.  But I want to get all the information out while it's fresh.  I'm pretty determined.

So the food-grade barrels I'd purchased and paid extra to have delivered last week were not, in fact, food grade.  In fact, the chemical they used to contain was specifically for killing fish and plants.  The guy I bought them from is difficult to reach (read: "flaky as hell") and so here I am with a lot of useless barrels, and an immediate need for *something* to use as a sump tank.  Back to the hardware store.  I neded up purchasing 2 50-gallon rainbarrels.  Wait.  They seemed a hell of a lot smaller than those 55 gallon drums.  Maybe I'd better read the labels again when I get home.  Hmmm...  In any case, these are big square containers.  They already have fittings and hoses, but that's all much too small.  I had the hardware guy help me work up some fittings for running 1-1/2" pipe between them.  That way when the growbed dumps into one of them, they'll equalize quickly without overflowing.  Of course, there was no way to fit those into my car.  Not even individually.  But as we walked out to try (and it was actually only 2" too big) a local pulled up in his pickup truck, and kindly offered to drive them to my house for me.  Yay!  Then, of course, I had to go back to the hardware store again (4th trip, I think) to purchase 16" cinderblocks.  The growbed is already on 16" cinderblocks, but it's not up high enough to put the rainbarrels underneath.  So I'm going to put a second layer of blocks.  No, I'm not entirely sure how, yet.  But ut will get done!  I'm... yeah, you know.

This morning, before I left for work, I went out to the greenhouse and threw a handful of fish food pellets onto the water.  I immediately heard splashing sounds.  So it looks like the fish are alive.  And really that's what it's all about.  The rest is just details, and it will all get done.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

In which nothing goes quite as planned...

On the plus side, I had paid the damage waiver on the rental truck, so when the guy in Santa Barbara said he was really good at backing trailers managed to jackknife the thing and bash up the side of the truck, at least I don't have to pay for it.  Not that I didn't feel *really* bad about messing up their brand new truck.  And on the way to find some muscle to help us unload stuff, we found some military-looking guys moving in 2 blocks away, and they kindly agreed to unload for us.  And once I bought a new cap and some plumber's tape and a pipe wrench, the drain pipe on the bottom of the fishtank stopped leaking.  Oh! And none of the fish died... yet.

And then there's everything else.  LOL

The fishtank wouldn't fit in the gap between the house and the garage, so the greenhouse I so carefully assembled was in the wrong place from where I ended up setting everything up.  And it won't fit over the tank anyway, though I'm trying to rig it anyway so the fish will have shade and shelter.

I used some cinderblock and red bricks to prop up the legs of the greenhouse, so it's high enough over the fish and slanting to ground level at the front.  I'll also need to raise the growbed up another cinderblock height so I can fit sump tanks below it.  And that's assuming the barrel guy ever comes back to exchange these toxic barrels for food safe ones like I'd requested in the first place.

Okay, I bought rain barrels and 12 16" cinderblocks (and managed to get all of them into my Z... and out again).  And pipe and fittings to connect the rainbarrels.

And I'm exhausted and done for the day.  Tomorrow, I'll put the rest of it together... assuming my muscles are still speaking to me.  Otherwise, it'll wait.  As long as I keep feeding the fish, I should be okay.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Yeah, sure, no problem

So I've ordered this "7' x 15' Greenhouse" in which to put my new system.  And when I go onto the website just before it arrives, to check the height (since 2 dimensions are simply not sufficient now that I've decided to put this thing under the arbor) I read the specs VERY carefully and see that it is, in fact, NOT seven (7) feet wide.  It's 6.5 feet wide.  Um... that matters, folks.  Truly.

But I'll cope.  Not that I have a choice now, since it's supposed to be here the next day.  And it's going to be 6.5 feet high.  Okay, that'll be just fine.

So the box arrives on my front step.  Immediately, I notice a few rips in the box.  This is only a problem if something fell out... like a support piece.  So I take pictures of all the rips.  Not, dear reader, to share with you.  But to share with them in case I need to beg piteously for them to send me something *functional*.

The next night I open the box to assemble the greenhouse (and count pieces first, of course).  I search the box for the assembly directions and finally find them... well, most of them.

As you can see, they are not in very good shape, nor are they complete.  But the important parts seem to be intact, including piece counts.  And all the pieces are, surprisingly, present.

I did not take pictures of the intermediate assembly process.  I was too busy swearing.  Not that it's complicated, exactly.  It's just... not made for one person to assemble.  I built the arches, and figured I'd put the connecting pieces between the first two arches which would give me a freestanding section, then I'd keep attaching more arches.  It was a good plan.  But it somehow skipped the rather important planning step of *how* precisely to connect the first two arches.

You might think this is a simple thing, but each arch is 7 pieces, and those pieces quite happily rotate around their connections.  Since each piece is curved, this means that if everything isn't held in the precise orientation you want, it turns from an arch into a twisty snake.  And there's just no way for one person to hold 7 pieces simultaneously.  One may, of course, hold the top of the arch and connect it to the top of the next arch, which would force the orientation of those top pieces... as long as you're holding both arches.  Which is a little difficult to do while holding the connecting bar, which you kind of have to do if you're going to connect it to anything.  And you can't just lean the arch against something, since it will then revert to snake, which - aside from everything else it does including encourage me to invent new swear words - will also change the orientation of the top piece... the only piece I'm trying to wrangle with right now.

Once I got the first two arches connected, the rest did go fairly smoothly.  Not perfectly, mind you.  It's a very inexpensive greenhouse and so there were the expected challenges such as the end of a piece being bent closed enough that I couldn't actually force its intended buddy to join with it.  But that was nothing I couldn't fix with some pliers and frighteningly little muscle.  Yes, either I'm turning into Wonder Woman or this is some flimsy stuff.  I'm voting for the latter.  But finally I got the framework put together, and once again I noticed a change in my anatomy.  I'm evidently 6.5 feet tall!  I know this because I kept bumping my head on the ridge pole of my greenhouse which is 6.5 feet tall according to the specs.  And you'll note that it's on a cement pad, so I'm pretty sure this isn't a leveling issue here.

And then I put the cover on.  And a second person would definitely have helped here also.  I'm pretty sure I didn't get it evenly stretched along the frame, but it still worked pretty well.  And it did have velcro to secure it to the frame at intelligent places.  And I did get it done.  And it looks pretty good, for a cheap thing!

So now I'm waiting to pick up my rental truck, hook up the trailer, drive home, sleep quickly, and run out pre-dawn tomorrow to get my dad and go pick up my system and bring it home.  I'm so excited!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In which we may start a business... or two

One of the challenges of building your own system (or components) out of food-grade containers is finding said containers at a reasonable price somewhat locally.  I've been searching / researching for several months now with limited success, but then again I haven't been trying all that hard because it was still just preliminary research.  But now that I have a system coming, and it'll need a sump tank immediately and some additional grow beds soon, I got a little more serious.

Luckily, I found a guy right around the corner from work who has a huge supply of them in various sizes.

Business offer #1: He would like me to resell some from my place.

The guy is familiar with aquaponics, and is aware of how his containers can be used to build systems, but doesn't know how to build a system himself and has been looking for someone to partner with who does know how.

Business offer #2: Build and sell small, domestic AP systems.

I've talked to Paul about both ideas and he's in favor.  He'll probably need to be the one building and selling, since I've got a full time job already.  But that's really one of the things we'd planned to break into anyway, so this is just a huge step in that direction.

Opportunities galore, as soon as he can get here!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Maybe it won't be that difficult after all

My boss has our old trailer and he's offered to loan it to me.  My exhusband has a Honda Element that is already set up to tow that trailer, and he said I could borrow it if he has time to fix the broken motor mount.  My local fish guru said it was really important to keep the water level in the transport barrel less than halfway, and that means it will weigh less than 200 lbs instead of the expected 400.  If I'm using the trailer and the Element, I *will* be able to use the cigarette lighter, so I purchased a 12' extension for that (omg cheap for those things) and I'll be able to run the 12 volt bubbler (which the seller is also providing) directly off of that so the fish will be well aerated.  And there are only about 25 fish, so this shouldn't be a huge deal after all. 

What a relief!

While I was talking to my fish guy (at lunchtime today) I also picked up a water mover that he says uses very little power but will help keep the fish happy and healthy, and some small pellet fish food, and a dechlorinator.  I asked him about putting these fish into my local water supply and he said that with this (all natural) dechlorinator, and my white vinegar to bring the pH down to whatever they're living in, and the tank of water sitting overnight right next to the barrel of fish (so the temperatures equalize) I should be fine.

And with only 25 fish, it's not a huge expense to replace them if I do lose them.  I'd hate for that to happen, since I'm responsible for their lives, but it's not devastating financially at least.

My dad has offered to drive out to my house so he can ride to Santa Barbara and back with me (and presumably sharing in the driving).  That's very generous of him.  I'd love to spend the time with him, of course, but that'll be more than 10 hours of car ride in one day for him.  I've got wonderful audiobooks to keep me company, and I don't mind long drives as long as it's not rush hour, so I think I'll just have him come out Sunday and help me set up.  That's going to be the exciting part, after all!

The greenhouse is ordered, and is expected to arrive on Wednesday.  It's just an open-bottomed hoop greenhouse, so it should be very easy for me to set up and move by myself.  I'm not sure if I should set it up ahead of time and lift it over my completed system, or set up the whole system and assemble the greenhouse over the top.  I'm putting it under a large arbor, so I will have limited airspace for lifting it.  But then, I might just need to open up the front wall (doorway) all the way and kind of slide it over.  If so, I think it would be best to have it set up in advance.  I can't pick up the system until after 6 on Saturday, and I expect it'll take a little while to load it and be social to the seller, and then a 4 hour drive home... I won't feel like doing much of anything and I *must* get the tank placed and loaded, and the barrel nearby it.  By the time I'm done with all of that, I won't have any urge to be setting up a greenhouse (and in the dark no less).  Best to have that already done.

Oh! Reminder to self: buy or rent a hand truck.  Now that I'm not renting a truck, I won't already be there to rent the hand truck.

This is becoming less of a panicked clusterfuck and more of a well organized plan.  Not bad progress for 24 hours...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

OMGOMGOMG! A real system - for FREE!

 So today a member of one of the AP message boards posted that he was going to be getting rid of his system.  It's complete - heck, it's up and running with fish and plants - but would anyone like to come pick it up?

I checked to make sure his phone number was in an area code I recognized before I called.

It's a 340 gallon fishtank, an 8'l x 2'w x 12"d raft trough, some 1" - 4" tilapia, and all the plumbing and pumps and everything.  I hadn't been planning a raft system to start, but I can either convert that to gravel or just add on some gravel beds.  He's also including some books, videos, CD's, etc.

For free.

Okay, so how far away IS it?  4 hours.  Each way.  And the tank is too big to fit into a pickup truck, so I'll be renting a moving truck.  And feeding it at 10 MPG.  And hiring day laborers on each end of the drive to do the lifting.  And a hand truck.  So at the end of the day it won't actually be free any more.  But I've priced out what I can, and it's still going to cost less than $400.  ZOMG.

Oh, and I'm not going to be moving the 340 gallon tank when it's full or anything.  He's going to transfer the fish to a 55 gallon drum for transport.  For those of you who don't automatically know what a 55-gallon drum of water weighs, let me help you.  Alton Brown tells me that "A pint's a pound the world around."  There are 2 pints to a quart, and 4 quarts to a gallon.  So a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds.  50 gallons (I'm sure it will have some head space) will therefore weigh 400 pounds.

I'm going to pick it up next Saturday and set everything up on Sunday and actually have a working system *that fast*!

So what's the first thing I did when I got home?  Check the measurements of the components to see if they'll fit into the inexpensive 7'x15' hoop greenhouse I saw (they will) then measure the outside patio to see if that will fit (it will) then order the greenhouse.  It should be here in plenty of time, so my new arrivals will be properly protected from kids, cats, possums, and the dust storms of the gardeners.

I'm going to have a system!  6 months sooner than I expected!  OMG I'm so excited I can barely stand it!

Here she is in her current home:

Monday, September 20, 2010

AP Workshop

Saturday I attended the Aquaponics workshop in Oceanside.  It was Murray Hallam's first US workshop.  It was a very informal event, and the 25 or so of us interrupted constantly with questions, comments, and shared experiences.  Though as Murray said, AP is simple enough that there just isn't 8 hours of information for him to share anyway.  So our questions helped fill in the time profitably.  It was great to be able to ask specific questions about our own systems and get individualized answers and group discussion.  He seemed much more interested in helping us all learn than in selling us anything, and in fact warned against people who wanted to make it all more complicated than it should be.

A system in action
Almost everyone in the room had clearly done their homework before getting there.  But I may have been the only person other than our organizer (Richard) who actually had a system already set up.  In the afternoon we went a few blocks away to Richard's house and got to see his sytem.  It's a full-sized system based around one of Murray's kits:
He had about 50 tilapia, some fingerlings and some about mature, and his entire system (excluding an extra duckweed kiddie-pond) was housed in a framed greenhouse that I'd guess was about 8'x10'.  Murray joined us there, which gave us great opportunity to ask questions that were raised by seeing an actual system. 

One of my questions was about various auto-siphons.  I've built a bell-siphon, and it's tempermental enough to worry me.  I'm using a timer-based fill and drain right now, but it has its own risks.  I asked Murray about using a U-siphon and he said that or a loop-siphon would work just fine.  What a relief!

Richard was showing Murray his cucumber plant, and said it had set fruit but the fruits just never matured and Murray said he should hand-polinate.  Luckily (for me) Richard didn't know how, so we got to watch Murray show us.  Fascinating.  You need to pluck a male flower, pull back the petals so the stamen is fully exposed, and rub it against the stamens of all female flowers.  (How do you know if it's a male or female flower?  Because the females have fruit setting below the blossom, and the males just have a skinny stem.)  That only needs to be done if you don't have natural polinators taking care of it, but since it's in a greenhouse it's less likely to get the right flying visitors (even though Richard said he leaves the big door open all day).

Murray said that his fish didn't seem interested in the Black Soldier Fly larvae.  On the other hand, he said at a different time that any time he changes food, the fish ignore it for a while as if they don't recognize it as food (except lettuce, which they always attack).  So I wonder if the problem with the larvae was only that they didn't see it often enough.  He purchased an organic food pellet from Indonesia.  I, of course, would like to try to grow all the food myself.  I'm hoping that a combination of duckweed and larvae, with the occasional lettuce, will be sufficient.  And that I can grow/raise sufficient quantities of them all.  Particularly since I want to feed some of the larvae to the chickens (along with fish scraps - head, bones, skin).  So I'll need a good volume of all of that.  And since the larvae need to be fed vegetation, I have to make sure I'm not putting all of my growing power into feeding the fish, grubs, and chickens.  I want to grow some food for me also! 

I got a chance to ask about feeding frequency, and he said he feeds the fish twice a day in the summer, but only once every 3 or 4 days in the winter.  I'm glad I asked, because I would never have realized that.  And overfeeding can be a serious mistake.

He suggested that for domestic systems, if we're going to do any rafts (or in my case, towers) that we run it off the sump water, since that is already as filtered of solids as possible.  You do NOT want solids in your raft since they'll attach to the roots and kill the plants.  In a growbed, that is handled by worms.  I, of course, don't have worms in my mini-system.  But I'm filtering solids to combat that problem.  Though as he said, that removed some of the very valuable nutrients from the system unless I process the solids I'm filtering out.

I need to research more specifics on how to filter the solids, but he said basically that you put them in a bucket and bubble air through them for several days, and that releases the minerals.  Whatever solids are left over you put into your compost heap.  I need more information than that.  I think perhaps you put them into water, and that the minerals are released into that water which you then strain off the top.  But, again, I'm not sure.

Worms (he said) seem to show up on their own.  He hypothesized that they came from seedlings he'd purchased from the nursery.  But he said you can purchase composting worms (such as red wrigglers).  He also suggested a worm feeding station: one of the heavily drilled baffles like the one around the siphon, set up in the corner of the growbed, and put kitchen veggie scraps in there (though not onion or garlic).

Gravel (3/4") is better than expanded clay if you can find gravel that isn't too high in pH.  It provides better spacing for worms, waterflow, and roots.  With the clay, you'll occasionally need to clean it out.  With the gravel it should maintain good flow.  Though he does periodically run a scraper along the bottom of the beds, under the gravel, to loosen things.  I'm picturing a hoe or similar device.

He recommended the use of bird netting, but NOT mosquito netting, as the smaller insects are quite beneficial to a system.  Some of your plants are going to be eaten.  That's just the price of organic farming.  Though healthier plants are less likely to be bothered than unhealthy ones.  So health and companion planting are the best pest protection.

Jade Perch are much higher in Omega-3 than even atlantic salmon.  I need to see if we can raise those in the US.  Don't mix fish species in one tank, as all fish seem to be prejudiced little buggers.  But if we *can* do jade perch here, I'd like to branch into that after we work the bugs out on the (more forgiving) tilapia.

Misters (in a non-humid area) will lower the temperature in a greenhouse by about 5 degrees C.  That's about 9 degrees F.  I think that's sufficient to handle the summer heat here if the greenhouse is ventilated and shaded.

I'm really leaning toward a CHOP (Constant Height, One Pump) system even though that means we won't be able to bury our tanks for insulation, as we had planned.  Though if we're handling the heat with misters, we really only have to worry about the winter.  And aquarium heaters are very inexpensive.  So with the CHOP system, we'll have the fishtank overflow into the growbeds.  The overflow will use a pipe to pull from the bottom of the fishtank, thereby grabbing the richest water.  (Don't forget to vent the top of the overflow pipe so it doesn't form a siphon!)  The growbeds will drain into the sump tank.  (The sump tank needs to be big enough to hold the complete drain of all growbeds without overflowing.)  The sump tank will pump back to the fishtank, forcing that to overflow and continue the cycle.  (Alternatively, the sump can pump into a raft or tower system which will directly flow into the fishtank - this way the raft/tower is getting the water with the fewest solids.)  Optionally, the sump tank can be fitted with a toilet-tank float valve to force automatic top up if the water level reaches a low point.

Murray cautioned that the hardest part of commercializing is finding your market.  Without that, it won't matter how well your system works.  I did some "field research" at my local farmer's market, and one of the booths was selling small, scrawny bunches of basil for $3 each.  At that price, I could probably retire.  Though I suspect that was too high and they probably didn't sell many.  If I could grow them in towers, I'd like to actually take the towers to the market and sell the plants picked to order.  I think the novelty would bring people to see, and that plus the freshness would be a great selling point.

If my local produce buying club is still around (and they seem very solid) I think that would be another great place to sell to.  Both produce and fish, perhaps.  Plus there is my e-volve ning group.  Of course, making a profit will be secondary to supplying our own household needs.  But if all goes well, I would like to use the excess at first to trade (whether through a direct barter, or by selling and using the funds) for proteins and produce we don't raise ourselves.  In a perfect world, we could then raise enough more than that to actually provide an income.

As always, I'm ready to just jump in and do this.  I'm not sure that the workshop changed that at all, except that it gave me some more reassurance that help is available when I run into trouble.  And it clarified some of the directions I think I want to go... all subject to change as always when I start doing things or I get more information.

But I'm ready!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Progress Report - Week 8

Fish seem healthy, though I did lose another this week.  But she had been swimming straight at the airstone for a while, so I suspected she wasn't going to make it.

I've removed all of the aquarium gravel, and put in the last of my clay, in the hopes of having a surface to help filter the detritus without raising pH:

I also removed all of the rockwool today, transplanting those plants directly into the clay.  I also transplanted the seedlings I'd started a few weeks ago.  The growbeds now have about as many plants as they'll be able to fit in, once the plants get bigger:

pH remains stable at 8.1, though I am treating with small daily doses of acid.  Perhaps with all the rockwool and gravel gone, it will start to lower.

Nitrates, nitrites and ammonia are good.  Water is still awfully hard, but that'll clear up in time.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Progress Report - Week 7

I think things are starting to get dialed in.

pH has remained high, but stable.  Nitrates are up, Nitrites got measurable but I reduced feeding and it went back to negligible.  Two dead fish.  Plants remain the same.

I had read in several places that gravel can raise pH.  So today I pulled out the majority of the aquarium gravel:

I also added some vinegar, and the pH is currently in the mid 6's.  We'll see how it looks tomorrow.  It used to return to ~8 within 24 hours, so we'll see what the removal of the gravel does.  No, I didn't *mean* to drop it so low so quickly.  Sigh...  But it's there now, so I don't want to do anything else until I see what happens.

I also planted some seedlings a lady gave me (free!) at Market Night on Thursday.  Dill, Thyme, Oregano, Sage, and two dwarf Tomato.  So they, and the Basil and Chives, all seem pretty happy:

I also started some more seeds.  I planted more of the herb seeds from the first batch... but darned if I remember exactly what or where.  I know I planted more Cilantro and Parsley, and I think I planted Mustard, Oregano, and Thyme.  I think.  I'll know more when they get big enough.  lol

And then Friday I planted some Arugula, dwarf Pak Choi, Spinach, and Cress.  And many of those have already sprouted!

So fast!

And today Paul and I worked out more of the details of the big(ger) system we want to put in the back yard.  I'm really excited about it.  I like that I'm learning on a small (and relatively inexpensive) system.  And one that is right in the kitchen so I don't have to trek out to the yard after work.  But it's difficult to figure out what to grow in 6" of airspace!  And when things go wrong, they go very quickly.  A larger system will naturally buffer itself better.  But this is great for learning.

UPDATE: Only a few hours, and the pH is back up to 7.8 again