Improving Aquaponics Water Quality

Improving Aquaponics Water Quality
By Oliver

Last weekend while Grace was planting Humble Seed lettuce into our Grow Beds in our new Growroom, I was working on a new water quality device I’ve been designing in my head for a while now when I had the realization that we had turned our Growroom into an Aquaponics Lab. We just installed our first set of LED Grow Lights over Grow Bed #4 where Grace planted Humble Seed Romaine lettuce; and we’re talking about turning one of our Grow Beds into a raft system in which the Grow Bed holds only water and no media like Hydroton. So this new Growroom has definitely become our experimental Aquaponics R & D laboratory; and that feels great as it’s important to always evolve and improve on Aquaponics technology. Having said that, I’d now like to share the particulars of this water quality device I’ve designed; but first, a little background.

In previous Aquaponics 101 posts, I have put forth an Aquaponics system design. This included a simple set-up of a single fish tank and one or more deep media filled grow beds. This design retains all fish waste in the system and, thereby, allows for (and requires) the mineralization of the fish waste solids in the grow beds, which also serve as bio-filters. Some of the advantages of such a design are low maintenance and operational cost, as well as a minimum number of components required to build the system.

In order for this system to properly function, it must meet certain design criteria. It must have an ample bio-filter volume in order to process the delivered fish waste. It must have ample water flow in order to deliver those wastes. It must have water aeration in order for the bacteria to process the fish waste. And, It must have ample grow bed space to grow the plants needed to uptake the produced nitrates.

For a simple backyard Aquaponics system this is all that is required, as long as it is limited to low fish density, which means having about one pound of fish for every five gallons or more of bio-filter/grow bed. This number can be pushed to one pound of fish for every three gallons of bio-filter; but that borders on the edge of instability. Even if the chemistry measures in the safe range, the lowering of pH due to the nitrification process will always require constant (weekly) adjustment by adding a pH-up solution. This solution can be either Potassium Hydroxide (potash) or Calcium Hydroxide (lime).

As mentioned above, the system must have ample aeration. This is necessary in order to create a Dissolved Oxygen (DO) content of 6.0 ppm (mg/L) or higher. This will also help to de-gas the water. More on this below. This DO level can be difficult to achieve by just aerating the fish tank, especially if the water temperature is above 78 degrees F, because the higher water temperature drives out the Oxygen. Additional aeration can be added to the grow beds; but it adds only a small amount of DO to the system water. This is because the depth of the water in the grow beds is minimal, and the air bubbles don’t spend much time in the water. Also, due to the shape of the grow beds, it is difficult to fully aerate them without multiple aeration devices spread throughout their bottoms. Again, this does add some DO to the water but at an equipment and energy cost. But, it may add enough DO to keep the system out of trouble.

Adding additional system components to help improve the water quality is in common usage among commercial aquaculture and Aquaponics growers. In order to understand these added components, we must first understand what need is being addressed by adding them to the system.

Water contains dissolved gasses. In addition to some oxygen in the water, it may contain excesses of Nitrogen, Hydrogen, Methane, CO2, and Hydrogen Sulfide. Some of these gasses are from the process of fish waste being broken down by the bacteria in the system. Hydrogen, for example, is released into the water when autotrophic bacteria break apart Ammonia (NH3) into Hydrogen and Nitrogen. They add Oxygen to the Nitrogen to produce Nitrite (NO2) in its first iteration process and later add another Oxygen atom to produce Nitrate (NO3), which is less toxic to the fish than either Ammonia or Nitrite and beneficial to the plants. The released Hydrogen is then combined with the CarbonDiOxide (CO2) in the water to help produce Carbonic Acid (H2CO3), which is what causes the water’s pH to lower. Carbonic acid is also formed anytime CarbonDiOxide is dissolved in water (CO2+H2O-> H2CO3). The alkaline buffers that may be present in the water initially will keep the pH high; but they will eventually be overwhelmed by the shear amount of Carbonic Acid being produced as the fish density increases when the fish grow out and are fed more food.

Part of the solution to these troublesome gasses in the water is to de-gasify them in a degassing tank. This is usually a rather shallow tank, which the water flows through as air is being pumped in by way of aerators in the tank’s bottom. This degassing operation also adds some aeration to the water.

Before the water gets to the degassing tank, the fish waste solids must be dealt with. There are essentially two ways to deal with these solids, either remove them completely (as best as can be done) or through a process known as mineralization, which is the breaking down of the solids by bacteria. These bacteria are found freely suspended in the water. Often, a combination of removal of the solids and mineralization of the remaining solids are combined in a system design.

Mineralization is accomplished by Heterotrophic bacteria. They, like the Autotrophic bacteria mentioned above, are Aerobic bacteria, meaning they require Oxygen to accomplish their task. Heterotrophic bacteria remain free in the water until they attach themselves to suspended organic matter, like solid fish waste and excess fish food, and convert them into dissolved solids, as well as produce Ammonia. The Ammonia is taken care of by the Autotrophic bacteria in the bio-filter, and they give us even more Nitrates. Again, Aerobic bacteria require and remove Dissolved Oxygen from the system water. The mineralization tank is much like the degassing tank in that it requires aeration to be effective.

We have now added two extra components to the system, a mineralizing tank and a degassing tank. And, if we plan on using Raft, NFT (Nutrient Film Technology) or Aeroponics (the spraying of nutrient rich water onto the plant roots) instead of deep media grow beds to grow our veggies, then we will need to add another component to the system, the bio-filter. It is interesting to see how little attention is paid to the bio-filter in some of the commercial system designs I’ve looked at on the internet. The bio-filter contains media with lots of surface area so the Autotrophic bacteria have a place to live and do their thing of converting the Ammonia to Nitrates. The bio-filter is a container of some sort where the mineralized (or filtered) and degassed water passes through the media; and, if properly designed, aeration devices are added to help with the process and to de-gas the Hydrogen.

So, why go to all of this trouble and expense in adding these components? Well, if you are building a low density backyard system, then they are not necessary. But if your system is a larger higher density one, and you want to get serious about growing large amounts of food (vegetables and fish), then improving your water quality not only makes sense, it is a requirement.

In a media filled grow bed, the addition of the solid fish waste can be problematic. Even though I have advocated for this being done in order to simplify a small low density backyard system, the grow bed is not the ideal place to mineralize the solid waste. It coats the grow bed media making it less usable for the autotrophic bacteria which need the media’s surface for attachment. It can also coat the vegetable roots preventing them from proper uptake of nutrients. As the amount of solid waste increases, this, then, becomes a problem.

If you are growing lettuce or other leafy greens that can be grown in a raft system, growing them in media such as Hydroton takes more time to both transplant and harvest. In our last post, Grace described this process. In a commercial operation, this added time cuts deep into what little profit margin there may be. By using a raft system, the transplanting and harvesting time is greatly reduced.

In order to use a raft growing system, the water must be relatively clean, which means free of solid fish waste that might interfere with the plants’ uptake by coating their roots. This coating would retard their growth requiring more time and thereby adding cost to the yield. Clean water is especially necessary in aeroponics, as the sprayers can otherwise become clogged with solid fish waste.

So, how do we accomplish this water quality improvement without adding a lot of system complexity and cost? One way is to combine as many of these operations into as few components as possible. Think vertical. By using a relatively tall tank (which we refer to as a water tower), say six feet or taller, we can take all of the water from the fish tank pump (it must have enough head and flow to reach six feet or more) and pump it into the bottom of this vertical water tower and remove it near it’s top. By adding aeration devices in the bottom of the tower, the air takes time to cover the distance to the tower’s top, which is vented. On our test tower pictured above, there is an eight inch cap on its very top with a vent hole. We cut a larger hole in this cap and inserted a bulkhead so we could extend the height to prevent water overflow as well as provide a high vent and a place to insert the airline running to the aerators in the bottom of the tower.

About eighteen inches from the tower’s top, we added a bulkhead outlet (as far as we could reach into the tower from the top with the cap removed) where the water is allowed to flow from it into the grow beds. This outlet is well above the height of the grow beds and good flow has been achieved. Each grow bed has its own control valve to adjust the flow into it. About one foot above the grow bed outlet and about six to ten inches from the tower’s top is another outlet (this, along with the bottom inlet, were built into the original tank) where the excess water being pumped in and not flowing into the grow beds is allowed to overflow back into the fish tank(s).

The slow upward movement of the water allows the heavier than water fish waste solids to precipitate. The air from the air stones placed in the tower’s bottom keep the solids suspended. We found that there needs to be a balance in the amount of air that is pushed through the stones; for if there is too much air coming in, then the water becomes less dense and doesn’t flow properly from the outlets near the tank’s top causing an overflow condition, as well as raising the suspended solids too high. As it turns out, we needed a smaller air pump than we are currently using in the main fish tank.

We sized the tower to contain the same amount of water that is contained in all of the media filled grow beds combined when full. This should be enough volume to mineralize all the solid fish waste that would otherwise be going into the grow beds.

We had initially planed to move the media from one or more grow beds into this tower. We may still do that, but for now we are testing the current implementation without media in the tower. When we do this, we will have combined the bio-filter into the tower. We are also thinking of adding a second tower just for the media as a separate bio-filter. The main problem with that idea is the limited space we have inside our grow room.

The project appears to be successful. The air under pressure entering the bottom of the tower and rising degases the water. The smell from the top of the tower is an indication of this process. Distributed over forty four square feet of grow bed, the smell was not noticeable, but the smell coming from the hole in the top of the tower gives an enhanced experience.

The Dissolved Oxygen in the water coming from the overflow back to the fish tanks is at 97% saturation as measured on our trusty Milwaukee DO meter. That is a measured 8.3 ppm (mg/L) out of a possible 8.5 ppm. The DO coming from the grow bed return to the fish tank is 6.5 ppm or greater. The combined DO level as measured in the fish tank is 7.5 ppm. This is quite an improvement in our fish tank DO.

The water going to the grow beds is much cleaner than it was prior to incorporating this technology. The fish tanks are becoming even clearer than before.

Prior to this addition, we were adding pH-UP weekly. Since adding the tower, the pH has stabilized at about 7.0. We attribute this to the degassing of the water. Time will tell if this trend continues.

What will be continuing are lots of interesting and informative R&D experiments and results that we’ll keep sharing with you. Hope you had an enjoyable Thanksgiving. Until we post again, Get Growing.


One comment on “Improving Aquaponics Water Quality

  1. Oliver,
    Thank you for a very informative article. My system is clearly in need. I have to add baking soda to my system every few days to raise the Ph…and, my ammonia levels are beginning to rise since my fish are growing. Specifically, I have 50 tilapia in an IBC (about 125 gals in fish tank and 75 gallons of hydroton). The fingerlings arrived on Nov. 8th and have grown very fast. Several are now 5-6″.

    Can you advise where I can source a vertical tank such as what you picture? And, can you suggest how to add air to the bottom…I have no experience with air stones.


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