Utah System Part 1 - Beginnings

134 posts in this topic

For 10 years I have had an 18 x 32' foot (5.5 x 9.75 meters) greenhouse that was moved from our last house, It was never fully setup till this summer, when the plastic finally gave out (10 years was pretty good). So I added new poly, then when my Giant Pumpkins contracted Fuserium Oxysporum and died (I had 200lb (90kgs) baby pumpkins by then, my personal best is 580lbs(265kgs)). I was in a sorry state.

With lots of extra time on my hands, I finally repaired the greenhouse controller, Put Polycarbonate on the end wall, added power vents and thrip screen, leveled the floor, sunk the 50 gallon pond, leveled the floor by adding 2" of sand, and covered it with heavy duty black weed guard. Then filled it up with tropical fruit trees.

Summer and Fall went by with good success, Lemons, Figs, Pineapples, Birds of Paradise and more. Bugs were low, a few fungus gnats, easy to control. Winter came, I filled the propane tank and wired up the propane space heater, keeping the temps above 50F degrees (10C). As our winters get cold and we had a meter of snow piled up, it cost $200 a month during the coldest season to keep the greenhouse going! That's very expensive lemons.

In December, my 10 year old son announced that he needed a science project for school. Having looked at Hydroponics, Aeroponics, Aquaponics, Aquaculture for years, We decide to hook up a floating raft system to the small pond with its 10 Koi and Goldfish. We bought a plastic tote, rerouted the pump line, added an overflow, cut some foam and started some lettuce.

The lettuce is still growing very very slow (the water averages 45-50F degrees (8-10C) the daylight is to short. But it continues to grow. In the meantime, Dad (me) decides its time to join the big time. So the search began for tanks, pumps, fish and information. My system is still not complete, but I thought I would document my searching’s for others to learn from, and for others to comment on. I'll add more posts with my progression.

First item, when growing lettuce in raft, don't fill the net pots with miracle grow. The day we moved them from the nursery to the floating raft, the air bubbles from the airstones, eroded away the media in 1/2 the pots. Now I have 1" by 1" Horticubes, and will just forget the net pots, starting the plants in these, then putting the horticubes directly into the foam board in the floating raft.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites


Congratulations on your decision to get an aquaponics system underway.

Like many of us, your journey has taken you on a circuitous route before you arrived at aquaponics.

Good luck and keep us posted. Did we mention that we like photos?


Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Once I decided to make go of it, I then had to get educated. I ordered a bunch of books and videos. I read all kinds of things on the Internet, including great information from the various Aquaponics forums (Yahoo Barrelponics group, Aquaponicshq, backyardaquaponics, S&S Aquaponics and more).

Some of the better information came from Dr. James E Rakocy with his University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) System. While the rest of us have been having fun trying different things out, they have scientifically measured the effects of different ratios, plants, and fish.

The core info I found here.


This link contains a number of other good articles on recirculating aquaculture.


This link has everything – especially for those in the United States (fish, prawns, ponds, systems, etc).


Initially I found that general guideline at MAXIMUM density of Tilapia was:

½ lb of Fish per Gallon of Tank

2 Gallons of grow bed per Gallon of Tank

or in metric

250 grams of fish per 4 litres of Fish tank

and 8 litres of bed per 4 litres of fish tank

But if you read further, what you actually find is that the size of the grow beds/raft system at maximum density is tied to the amount of feed fed daily. If your feeding a fish that grows slower such as trout (9 month grow out with 1.1:1 feed conversion), then you have less feed input each day, so you need less grow beds. Conversely if your feeding Tilapia at 1.7:1 and they grow out in 6 months, you need many more grow beds, or you must stock a lower density. A 4 x 8 foot grow bed will remove 0.4lbs (+/- .2lbs) of feed per day (according to the UVI research). Using the UVI data, I found that a 250 gallon fish tank raising trout required 1.37 beds 4 x 8 feet (1.4 to 1 ratio), while the same system growing Tilapia requires 3 beds 4 x 8 (3 to 1 ratio). That’s a big swing. In the end, the 2 to 1 ratio is a good average, especially if fish densities are kept below the maximum, or fish are started with fingerlings and the plant load grows as the fish grow.

So, I calculated the area of my greenhouse I was willing to dedicate to my initial aquaponics trial, and a 250-300 gallon (1000-1200 litre) fish tank with a 2:1 ratio to beds (1/2 gravel 1/2 floating raft) would work.

Then I pondered which fish to grow. Rainbow Trout are easy to get in Utah and easy to obtain permits to raise. Initially, they were my choice, but they like 55-60 degree water (13-16C). Not a problem in the winter, but the rest of the year, the water would need chilled significantly. I looked around for chillers and new commercial 1hp chiller runs $1,000-1,200 USD AND consumes 18amps at startup. Ouch, now it’s getting expensive, I would need a new dedicated electrical circuit AND have to pay the power bill. Furthermore, very few plants do well at this temperature. So I abandon this plan and migrated to a warmer water fish.

My choices were narrowed down to the following:

1st Choice – Silver Perch (easy to raise, tolerate a wide range of conditions and grow fast, not prohibited in Utah, but no U.S. Suppliers that I can find)

2nd Choice – Tilapia (similar, and easy to find in the U.S., however, not permitted in Utah)

3rd Choice – Hybrid Stripped Bass (not as easy to raise, not as much info, but legal in Utah and readily obtainable in the U.S.)

I’m still working to get an Australian supplier licensed to export Silver Perch to Utah (anyone out there that can do this, let me know). If that works, that is what I’ll run with. If I can’t, then I will try and work through the regulations to get an exception to raise Tilapia in Utah, if that fails, then Hybrid Stripped Bass will be it.

Also, I hope to raise a few Red Claw Crayfish in the sump tank or other tanks for variety.

Next I looked at various system options, commercial kits, DIY systems, Barrelponics, Nelson and Pade, Aquaponics Made Easy, etc. I found that in the U.S. a packaged system was very expensive, with fish tanks costing $1 to $2 per gallon of tank. I found lots of recommendations to use 55 gallon plastic barrels, IBC Totes, Stock Tanks and More. Next time I’ll review my search for tanks and beds and what I ended up with.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I thought silver perch were available in the United States. Ausyfish apparently will ship you silver perch but it could get very expensive if you are only after a small number. We are spoilt in Australia with many excellent fish ideal for Aquaponics. Perhaps thats why its so popular here.


from their website:

International Shipments

Minimum shipment is ten boxes per consignment. Minimum value each shipment AUD$3,600 product. All shipping and and packing costs are in addition to fish value.

Payment is in full in advance, by direct deposit to our account.

Live arrival is guaranteed at our recommended packing rates. DOA claims must be received immediately upon arrival. DOA claims will be replaced on next shipment, no refunds. It is expected that the receiver is sufficiently skilled to manage the unpacking of freshwater fish which have been in extended transit. Anaesthetists can be used if requested by the customer.

Ausyfish ship to many countries around the world, including, mainland China, Taiwan, Europe, Hong Kong and the United States . We have an FDA number and are licensed to export native Australian fish.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I did email aussie fish, I only need enough for a 300 gallon tank (150-175 fingerlings) so the minimum is way more than I could need or afford. I've emailed a couple of others that are looking into it. I'm willing to pay extra for the extra headache and trouble, so I'm hopeful I can get a small quantity, but no commitments yet.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Excellent posts nwestwood - dont discount the trout though (if you like the taste), then grow out in around 6 months too. 750 Gramms.

They will take water from 2 deg c up to low 20's.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I'll keep trout in mind, It may be that rotating between trout and warm water fish is the way to go and keep heating costs down. I'm concerned that most Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Peppers will shut down in the cold trout water, but lettuce will continue to do well.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Yep trout over winter and silver perch over summer and i grow collies cabbage ect over winter and tomato corn lettuce over summer

Our temps here hit 40 deg for a few days in summer and last winter dident get over 10 some days

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Next came the search for tanks. I looked at the few commercial systems available in the U.S. and as much as I liked the idea of getting a complete package, or commercial tanks, all were out of my price range and none were configured the way I wanted. From the forums I saw that IBC Totes (48†x 40†x 40â€+ tall) (1200mm x 1000mm x1000mm) were a great choice. I began watching ebay and craigslist and found a few, most in the $75-$100 dollar range, and all out of state. Checking on shipping it would cost me over $100 each to get them shipped to Utah. Someone suggested calling bottling companies and other liquid products companies. I made probably 40 phone calls. Every company that used them in quantities had to return them to the supplier that sent them. Many calls yielded the name of a supplier (out of state). I called anyway.

The supplier said they use them up until the plastic expires, then they dispose of them, BUT he made the brilliant suggestion to look in the Yellow Pages under “Barrels and Drums – Plastic.†These companies did not have “free†Totes, but I did find two that had uncleaned 275 gallon (1000 litres) or greater totes for $50 each and cleaned, nice used for $150, and new for $305. I hooked up my trailer and made the trip out. I found that the unclean were very clean. I picked through a pile and found 2 that came from a car wash and had minor soap residue. (Most of them you could not tell what was in them, I was trying to avoid anything toxic and knew that soap would clean up easy.) These two I brought home, just $100 poorer – I was happy.

These were two different styles, and next time I will look more carefully. One had a nice plastic pallet bottom, flat and easy to work with. It also had a full cage, including a top. The other had an open top and funky pipe bottom that is hard to work with. I used bolt cutters to cut the cage, and metal snips to cut the metal portion on one, the other I had to use a grinding wheel to cut the metal. As my greenhouse door is only 36†(900mm) wide. I cut the frame so it would fit, and the tank (removed from the frame, so it would fit. On a 275 gallon (1000 litre) tank, it was just the very top that had to come off, but I cut the top of the cage so would hold a 14†(355mm) deep tank. The second tank I cut so that I ended up with two 14†deep beds for gravel. Then washed them out carefully with detergent and water, rinsing thoroughly. I cut a piece of 2†(50mm) construction foam to fit in the bottom to insulate the tank, and cut out the tank contours in the foam so it would sit well and drain out the valve. I moved the pieces into the green house and assembled them.

Both had 2†shutoff valves. So now I have a 275-gallon (actually it goes to 300 gallon) tank, and two roughly 4’ x 4’ foot (1200mm x1200mm) gravel bed tanks.

I also spent a lot of time looking for plastic 55 gallon barrels, intending to use them for sumps, dump tanks and fingerling tanks. I made 30-40 calls, to food processing and beverage bottlers and distributors. Here I had more luck, several had barrels for free, but with waiting lists. Some would allow you to pick up 1-2 quickly. Ultimately I found a contact through my brother who is setting aside 10 for me to pick up in a few weeks. In the end, I may not use barrels at all.

I still needed a way to create a large 4’ x 8’ (1200mm x 2400mm) floating raft or DWC (deep water culture) tank. In asking questions on the barrelponics group, Travis suggested Dead Vinyl. Dead Vinyl? What was that? Come to find out, when sign companies take down the large roadside sign coverings, this is dead vinyl. I was talking to a neighbor about my project and he mentioned he had a friend from a sign company that got him a bunch of Vinyl to put under a playground this way. The next day he showed up with a large 18’ x 28’ ( 5.5meters x 8.5 meters) piece of dead vinyl for me to use. Turns out it is an old McDonalds sign (I hope the fish will be happy). So I bought a 4’ x 8’ foot (1200 x 2500mm) sheet of plywood, and 2†x 12†(50mm x 300mm) lumber and framed that into the sides, added an additional 4†(100mm) to get up past 14†(400mm) and now I have the DWC tank. I have not yet lined the tank, but I’m told you can patch and reinforce it using PVC glue and scraps. I’ll report when I add my liner.

This Dead Vinyl is also very useful for lining galvanized tanks or other tanks that give off trace elements toxic to fish. I have even seen some people just dug a pit in the ground and line it with Vinyl for their fish or sump tank. Now that’s Aquaculture on a shoestring!

One caution, I did look at steel and galvanized stock tanks. They were less money and I was attracted to them. However, research showed that without linings, I would have fish kills from elevated levels of toxic metals. Stick with plastics, fiberglass, or glass for tanks, pipes and fittings.

The vinyl looks a little worn, so I’ll report back on how it holds water once I get to that stage. I’ll also wrap the fish tank with flexible insulation and then wrap it with dead vinyl to protect it and block out the light.

I did break down an buy a plastic 110 gallon (400 litre) rubberized stock tank to use as a sump tank. It was the right size AND it was on sale, I paid $50 new for it. (now I just have to dig the hole to put it in.)

Next time I’ll report on my search for Gravel to fill the beds.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Here are few pictures:

1) Greenhouse - outside (bbrrr)

2) Tank cut as a grow bed, inside cut cage, also shows cinderblock supports

3) Fishtank in cage, notice insulation below and the nice plastic pallet.

4) Space heater and newly installed water heater.

5) The tank cage I don't like, notice the bottom frame, ackward to work with.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites


I admire you blokes so much. Trying to do aquaponics in such extreme conditions, you need a medal of honour.

I felt cold just looking at the photos.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Extraordinary! Thanks for sharing. That first photo says it all. Looks very cold and the complete opposite to our environment in Australia.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Seeing the fourth photo reminds me of a nursery in castlemane that used gas hot water service for heating with just coils of 1 1/2 polly pipe running around the floor and a small circulating pump moving the water

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Finding gravel seemed like the easiest thing to do. Run down to the local gravel pit and pick up a cubic yard. But, gravel is heavy it runs 110 lbs per cubic foot, and can be sharp, cutting your hands when planting in it. So the search began for the better alternative. Expanded Clay (Hydroton or Leca) was the recommendation. I called all the local supply houses in Utah, nobody carries it or an equivalent expanded clay. I called several national suppliers, they carry it. So checking into having it shipped Utah, no problem just $1,000 dollars for a pallet!!! Well that wasn’t going to work.

In searching around I discovered a company in Utah that manufactures Expanded Shale www.utelite.com Shale by nature is an Alkali – not neutral like clay (Hmmm). It comes in various sizes, but the 3/8†“medium†10mm looked the best. Shale is quarried from the local mountains and heated and in their words,

“As the raw shale passes down the length of the kiln, the material is heated to a temperature of approximately 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

At this temperature the shale is red hot and somewhat plastic. Internal gases trying to escape the shale expand or "bloat" the particles, creating a myriad of small non-interconnecting internal voids. These voids are retained after the material cools and solidifies.

Sounds like the perfect media. It weighs 55lbs per cubic foot (Hydroton ways 45-50lbs per cubic foot). Light weight, lots of voids for stuff to grow in, cleaned and washed.

In researching the product, it has been used in water filtration and water reclamation doing just what we do, growing bacteria. Water quality tests showed that water passed through the gravel came out meeting drinking water standards. No excessive levels of trace minerals or toxic chemicals.

A study conducted in Koi pond, showed that when unwashed expanded shale was put in the pond, the first week the PH spiked up to 8.0-8.5 then settled down to 7.5-8.0 within a few weeks. The also said that the shale has a tendency to bond with phosphorus, which is good for water cleaning, but may be an issue in aquaponics, we will see.

I made the 1-hour trip to the plant and hand shoveled a yard and half into my small-enclosed trailer. The material was clean, (no dust, no fines) and easy to shovel. It is angular as it has been crushed, but not sharp, as the heating process tends to blunt the sharp edges. Also very important, it only cost $26 a cubic yard (close to a cubic meter), which is all I needed for my system. A LOT nicer than $1,000.00.

This weekend I hope to give it a quick wash, and then soak it in a solution of phosphoric acid to try and do 2 things. 1) Allow it to take up phosphorus so that it leaches less out of the aquaponics system water, and 2) to bring the PH down a little to begin with. Then I’ll run the system for a few days, flush it and refill with fresh water to start the cycle process.

My hope is that over time the natural tendency of aquaponics PH to drop, will be buffered by the shale, and a PH of 7.0 or so can be maintained without added material. I’m very curious to see how it goes.

Next time – the search for heating, cooling and what pipes to use.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

It looks a lot like the flint and common pea gravel we get here in Kansas. Personally I would skip the acid and just rinse it really well instead, you'll never get rid of its bonding tendency anyways. Sounds like things are moving along well.:D

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Ok, so after 4 hours of washing and bucketing, the gravel is in. The first problem was that the large screw on cap from the IBC Totes, have hidden vents - or LEAKS. I had to dig out the gravel, unscrew the cap, dry the whole thing and reseal with aquarium silicon and now wait 24 hours before getting wet. The other royal pain was the tank cage made of metal. The uneven pipe base cased me to have to move around the support beams (after the the other tote was filled with gravel!). Always position everything before filling!. Now after 6 hours of work, I have 2 grow beds (almost done), with installed bell siphons, almost ready to go.

The attached pictures show:

1) drain and siphon view

2) The problem cap, now silicon-ed

3) Beds almost ready.

4) DWC frame.

Although the shale, looks like common river gravel, it is not. It has been crushed, filtered, heated. Even after hand working, washing, dumping this shale, my hands are not chafed or cut. The sharp edges were melted by the heat and full of bubbles and voids. So far, I'm very impressed with the expanded shale, it's light, cleaned easy - now if it will just grow crops and not kill fish...

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Yet another day gone, and . . AT LAST there is water. Nothing every goes as easy as it looks.

This days work started a month ago with diagrams and elevations and planning. I redid the plan at least 3 times. First a Two Pump system with dump tanks, then a two pump system on timers and floats, then a single pump system with bell siphons and pump in the sump. Needless to say I have some extra pip fittings as each step simplified the system.

At first I considered Trout and would have needed a chiller plumbed in line. Research showed chillers for my system would have been $1000-1300 and the cooler temps limit the kinds of plants. Not this time, so then it’s warm water fish and I would need a heater for winter. That was almost as bad. I finally bought a new 40 Gallon (150 liter) propane fired water heater. Next I was concerned about toxic metals and fittings. After much research, here is what I concluded:

PVC, Plastic, ABS, Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Glass, coated steel are all ok.

Galvanized, Copper, Zinc all bad.

The Water heater has coated steel inlet and outlets. The drop tube is plastic, the drain and overpressure appeared to be Galvanized and Copper (bad). I replaced the drain with a stainless steel nipple and shutoff valve (ball valve). The pressure valve I left as I have not found a replacement. I hope it’s such a small part that it will be ok. The Ball valve was recommended to me by a plumber who said a ball valve allows large particles to be flushed out, where as the standard faucet tap fitting is very narrow. Also the anode in old water heaters is ZINC which guarantees fish kills, but the new water heaters have a Magnesium anode, which is much lest toxic and used by plants. So I left it in and will test the water in a couple of weeks. Also the tanks are steel, but are glass lined, so safe. All connections, adapters, flex tubing is either PVC or a plastic or rubber. Essentially a galvanized copper free system (except the overpressure valve, and I’m betting the nipple is coated.

The greenhouse already had the propane plumbed for the space heater, I just hooked into that. The exhaust vent goes up and out the end wall that backs the water heater, again not difficult, just time consuming. I put the whole thing in a drain pain under some solid support, just to keep the heater off the floor.

Today I finished burying the sump tank. Originally I had planned to leave it sticking up 8†as there should have been enough drop for the drain pipe. But when I fitted the 3†ABS (75mm) black sewer pipe, with Y fittings for each siphon drain, it wasn’t going to work. So I dropped the sump tank all the way to ground level. I cut and had fit the ABS drain pipe (no glue). Then for the drain pipe out of the siphons, I used flex tubing, which allowed me to have the flex rise slightly before dropping into the Y drain fitting. Then my first test of the siphons, they wouldn’t hold siphon, and would break about ½ way done. First I had to much head space, which I fixed. I made sure the break tube connections was silicone sealed, and then I made the flex tube longer so it shoved down inside the Y fitting, giving it more distance to pull from. Then things worked better.

I cycled the beds each 2 or 3 times to make sure the dust and fines were really out. I rigged a hose fitting after the pump so I could flush this water out of the system, although it was very clear. Then I rigged the return line 1 ¼†(about 30mm). Ran it along the floor, behind the beds, behind the fish tank to the water heater. There I ran it up and took it down to 1†(25mm) with a bypass rigged to go around the water heater if needed. Then it necks down to the ¾†(18mm) going into the water heater, connected by 2 reinforced rubber flex tubes. Same flex tube coming out of the WH then up to 1†and over and into the tank (see the picture). This entire pipe is glued with shut offs and unions to clean.

Next I cut a hole for a 2†bulkhead fitting as high as I could on the side of the tank, wanting as much water as possible in the tank (mistake). I ran 2†pipe out of the tank, across the back side of the beds, with Tee’s going down to 1†ball valves, dumping straight into the corner of each bed, stubbed out on the end for the DWC bed when it’s done. When filled, the fish tank was within 1†(25 mm)of the top, way to close for me. I cut another hole just below the last, now the water is about 4â€-5†(100-125mm) below the top.

Then we started the pump and began filling the tanks for real. One thing I found was that going down to the ¾†(18mm) pipe in and out of the water heater, cuts the flow a bunch, maybe in ½. I haven’t measured it yet and as I oversized the pump to begin with, I think I will still get a full water change per hour, but beware; rated flow is in full size pipe, no obstructions.

Once full, one bed cycles every 15 minutes and dribbles for 2 min. to start. The other cycles every 20 min, and starts right off. I fired up the water heater as the water out of the tap is 44 degrees (6 C). The water heater immediately raises the temp to 60 degrees (16 C). I’ll check in the morning and see how it’s doing. The temperature regulation will be a little guesswork.

I tested the water after the system had been up and running for a few hours. 44 degrees (6 C), 0 nitrates, 0 nitrites, 0 ammonia, PH 7.2, TDS 320, water hardness 300+, no chlorine. The PH reading is suspect as the test strip continues to change colors, I read at 30 seconds as instructed, so hopefully that’s trustworthy.

Another day off work – this hobby is time consuming. So now tell me what I did incorrect.

Pictures are:

1) Full tank, (notice the extra bulk head fitting – live and learn, and the water heater connections)

2) Grow Beds filling – is a single inlet ok? I see systems with pipes all over, but does it matter?

3) Siphon base – notice flex tubing curves up slightly, really helped the siphon.

4) Dump tank – Although the pics are in the dark, notice you can see the pump in the bottom, nice clear water.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi nwestwood

well, what can i say - i could have written almost your entire post, and it would have been relevant in my system! (except the heater part, nice going)

i have been through the exact same stages, from system layout changes to GB media replacement, the lot. now i set up almost a replica copy of your system, also just up and running, so it'll be great to get more feedback!

as you can see from the photos, i added a duckweed tank connected to the sump, that gives extra water to the system, extra water storage space (i got a 1500 liter tank and a small sump) and duckweed for the tilapia. as for the abrasive metal bits on the IBC, try some cut pvc piping. not too pretty, but helps against cuts...

how is the water coming out of your fish tank? just an overflow, or is it pushing up from the bottom?

i use tuff as media, puffed volcanic rock. it is widely used in hydroponics, so i reckon it will do just fine in aquaponics.

how do you plan to deal with solid removal?

nothing like a good time consuming hobby...



Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites


The outlet of the fish tank is an overflow, but it has a down spout into the tank so it draws from the bottom, with a Tee on top to prevent siphoning. This seems to suck most of the solids off the bottom which will empty into the grow beds and break down. I also plan on a few Red Claw to keep the bottom cleaned up.

The one thing I think I would do different is that the Expanded Shale is 3/8" or about 10mm. From what I'm seeing and reading, I think I would go with the next size up - 1/2-3/4" or 12-20mm. This will work fine, but may plug sooner than a larger size. Also, the water heater is going to be a little tricky. I'm getting 2-3C temp swing and I had hoped I could keep it nearly an even temperature. I'll have to work on that.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now