Aquaponics and Urban Farming


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Aquaponics and Urban Farming

As we continue to push forward with our Creative IO projects, I’ve been going slowly churning my way though the creative process. When this project was proposed, I immediately knew I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to create some type of sustainable indoor urban farming. However, I knew better than to simply slap down such a lofty concept on my sketch pad. Once I decided on what my end goal was going to be, I began asking myself questions to try and get a better sense for what are the specifics I’m looking to achieve.

Here’s what I came up with:
Self Sustainability/Low Maintenance
Growing your own food is cool, but most people don’t have the patience to deal with the minutia of agriculture. Check the PH level everyday? Fertilize every 2-4 weeks? Most folks (including myself) hardly get enough sleep at night. No one needs another household chore.
The system should be as self-sustainable as possible. Interaction from the user in terms of maintenance should be minimal.
Ideally, the system should “just work”
Keep it natural
I started experimenting with hydroponics this summer, and I learned it uses a lot of chemicals. Eventually I was checking the water’s PH twice a day and was engaged in a fight to keep my water as balanced as possible. In any process, the more steps there are, the more opportunities there are for error. When you have a system that’s reliant on the constant mixing of chemicals and monitoring, the margin for error is pretty high. By keeping it natural and letting nature do the work, you’re able to harness thousands of years of evolution that have designed these systems to work flawlessly together. Why reinvent the wheel and make more work for yourself if you don’t have to?
People have noted a taste difference in organically grown hydroponic produce and chemically grown hydroponic produce
As a personal philosophy, I believe that a natural based solution that has empirical evidence of its effectiveness is always the better alternative over anything man-made
My Native American ancestors hid out in the swamps of South Carolina pretending to be white to escape the worst of the Jim Crow racial hierarchy. During this time, my ancestors practiced sustainable agriculture and maintained a connection to nature. Given their historical location in the Carolina lowlands, they were also likely enslaved on rice plantations which are nature’s form of aquaponics. Through this project, I can give a nod to my native heritage by leveraging a technique used during their enslavement to help people forge a personal connection to nature and also providing a tangible example of natural balance.
Just because I really hate imperialism, I’d like to point out that this tactic was widely employed by the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan (located where modern day Mexico City is), was sorrounded by water with the city appearing to float in the middle. The Aztec used the surrounding lake for aquaponic agriculture until Cortés torched everything. Isn’t that lovely?

Imagine if we still had this around today?

Enjoy the full experience
Fish growing your food for you in one self contained unit is pretty damn cool. If I’m going to spend all this time conceptualizing and building this system, I want to enjoy it! That means making the fish front and center with as few visual distractions as possible. By going with a tall plexiglass fish tank, there will be no bezels or other visual distractions from the lower portion of the tank.
When looking at designs of systems, the majority of hydroponic systems seem to revolve around the idea of having a hole cut out where you can insert a wire mesh basket

each row has a set number of plants you can grow

I found this constraint to be highly limiting. People often overestimate how much space an individual plant needs, with many varieties being perfectly happy with being sandwiched between neighbors. When you have a set number of holes you can plant in, you’ve really stymied your growing opportunities because you’ve imposed a rigid structure; the user can’t decide how they want to utilize their growing space.
Traditional hydroponic systems demand different chemical solutions and chemical balances based on what you’re growing. This means you can’t grow your citrus next to your basil *lame*

What I ended up with

A freestanding plexiglass fish tank with a trey of lava rocks and a lamp on top

After a few hours of thought and a few sketches, I’ve settled on this as the current form factor. The tank would be roughly 4 or 5 feet in height and would taper towards the bottom. In hydroponics, plants are inserted into a medium called “rock wool” and are held into place with lava rocks. A trey filled with lava rocks at the top sits in the fertilized water and enables the user to place their plants however they see fit, rather than boxing them in with cutout holes. To complete the system, I would have a floor-lamp-like light included. I am yet to decide if I wanted to go for a low profile look and use florescent lights or if I want to go with a professional grow light. I’ve been on the search for a low profile grow light, so hopefully I find some solution to this in the long term.The first goal is to start with prototypes and create the system. If time permits, additional features I’d like to add are:

A connected PH meter
A connected PPM meter
A connected timer to manage the lighting schedule
These features could be enabled and supported by a raspberry PI that records the values in a CSV file and hosts the files and managed by the user with a web interface.

Here are some sketches with the form factors I was considering with thoughts and notes from my process

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