Last week I toyed around with settling on a final form factor. After coming around to a general vision with the primary goal being a self sustaining alternative organic farming method, I decided it was time to start experimenting with prototypes. Aquaponics is a process with which one must become intimately acquainted with to understand its quirks, time constrains, and requirements. Just as with any new venture, the primary goal is to tackle one component at a time so that the task is not insurmountably chaotic and difficult.
In the spirit of such a compartmentalized approach, I began experimenting with the process of aquaponics though trials. Here’s a breakdown of my initial prototypes:
Mason Jar Aquarium
This summer I began experimenting with Deep Water Culture (DWC) hydroponics
Hydroponics differes from Aquaponics in that Hydroponics is usually (but not always) chemically based and requires constant intervention and maintenance on behalf of the user
Aquaponics is based off of an ancient farming method, notably employed by the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan where the waste from fish is converted from ammonia, to nitrites, and then to nitrates (a fantastic plant fertilizer) by naturally occurring bacteria. This is referred to as the biofilter
Deep Water Culture (DWC) Aquaponics
Deep Water Culture hydroponics works by pumping in oxygen to the hydroponic solution via an air stone. The PH and PPM (indicating nutrient levels) is constantly monitored. Usually the PH will swing from 5.5 to 6.5 as the plant raises the PH as it absorbed specific nutrients at each respective PH level. Cleaning happens about every week to ensure the environment stays inert and the reservoir is well formulated. Algae growth is an omnipresent threat. Plant roots are submerged in the solution while an air-stone oxygenates the water
Thanks to the mason jar form factor, I’ve placed my air stone directly below the roots of the plant to bathe the plant in oxygen. This is one way to catalyze growth.
What I’ve Done
As any pragmatic designer would do, I utilized my understanding of aquaponics and DWC hydroponics to break each concept down to its core components to see the similarities and differences between the two techniques. Both techniques are focused on the common goal of raising agriculture though a soilless medium.
When analyzed, both techniques break down into essentially being oxygenated nutrient solutions for plants
Chemically or organically based
Maintained by user
Cleanings about once a week
Maintained by the symbiotic relationships which convert fish waste into fertilizer
During the first 30 days, the user must change about 10%-15% of the water to prevent high levels of nitrites and ammonia from building up while the bacteria colonizes the tank
Afterwards, the plants filter the system’s water
After 30 days, fish can be weaned from their food to eat the naturally occurring algae
I rigged this prototype up from the DWC hydroponic mason jar planter I fashioned this summer. I used 1 Del Sol Mason Jar drink dispenser with a 1/2 inch grommet. Various sizes of aquarium tubing were used. The hole with the 1/2 inch grommet required 1/2 tubing, but the aquarium pump only uses 1/16 inch tubing. A silicone sealant was used to bond the 1/2 inch tubing with the 1/16 inch tubing. The 1/2 inch tubing is essentially a conduit though which the 1/16th inch tubing runs though. The 1/16 inch tubing is connected to the air stone inside.
The above GIFs show the initial set up with 11 guppies (3 males, 9 females) and 4 small shrimp. A kale plant was later added to the mesh basket at the top and some romaine lettuce seeds were sprinkled in (pictured in prototype B). I’ve also added some mint sprigs to the sides (also seen on the edge of prototype B)
The Aquarium was assembled on last Wednesday (September 20th)
Last Friday (September 22nd):
1 fish died from ammonia and nitrite build up
Last Saturday (September 23rd):
1 fish died from suicide jumping on the floor when the mason jar imploded
2 orange shrimp died in the mason jar implosion
Aquaria and plants are temporarily stored in a pot with the air-stone dropped into the top
Romaine lettuce seedlings have sprouted. Some seeds which fell into the water germinated and are continuing to grow while they float around the aquarium. The kale plant has reoriented itself towards the light
The remaining 2 shrimp die
The aquaria are transferred to prototype B
Romaine lettuce seedlings that are in free floating in the water continue to grow seemingly faster than their surface counterparts. A few seedlings have embedded themselves into the gravel or aquarium plants. The surface seedlings are beginning to shed their casings
The kale roots are beginning to poke out of the plastic mesh basket and into the aquaponic solution indicating strong growth.
The Saturday Crash
One issue I noticed with this prototype was it seemed to be constantly leaking. My first instinct told me it was because I hadn’t sealed/bonded the grommet and aquarium tubing. After some additional silicone sealant was added, the dripping didn’t seem to go away
Curiously, the protective towel I set down kept getting soaked. Unsure of what could be causing the leek, on Saturday I migrated the jar to the kitchen near the sink while it continued to leak. By Saturday, 1/5 of the water was regularly draining out.
Upon a closer inspection in the kitchen, I noticed a crack had appeared along the lower 1/5 of the mason jar near the base. Previously this jar was sitting outside on concrete, so this crack may have materialized over time due to constant contact with pavement.
On Sunday as I went to move the jar on the kitchen counter, the top portion of the mason (as separated by the crack) detached itself from the bottom. Yep, that meant fish everywhere
As I’m sure you can imagine, I suffered a few casualties
This prototype was assembled almost similarly to the first one. However, this drink dispenser came with a stand which I’m hoping will prevent from the same type of crack formation that occurred with prototype A
To prevent leaking when handled, I’ve created a large silicone seal around the grommet and aquarium piping
As I continue to flush my way though this project, form factor again comes to mind. Would it be better to make a freestanding large aquarium such as the one I drew last week? Or would it be a more effective use of my space if I converted the top of my closet into a aquaponics setup? Could the closet-top setup be a test run for the freestanding model? Would the freestanding model be a test for the closet-top model? It seems as though the form-factor is the hardest part to nail down about this project, a revelation which I suppose is hardly revolutionary to anyone who’s worked on designing a physical product before.