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Show Notes

Aquaponics System Design Philosophy (Part 2)

In the last episode, we talked about Dr. Storey’s recommendations about single pump systems, split flow, water pressure, fish stocking, and high BSA.

If you haven’t listened to Episode 8 yet, be sure to check it out– you don’t want to miss those nuggets of wisdom!

This episode will cover the four factors of successful system design:

    1. How to design for specific crops
    2. How to design for specific markets
    3. How to design for specific uses
    4. How to design a system that you can scale

All four of these concepts are important, but not all of them are obvious.  While almost everybody designs their system for their crops, convenience and market are often overlooked.

Convenience? You may be thinking, “I’m designing this system for production, not luxury.” But if you’re an experienced grower, you know that the majority of your cost is bound up in labor.

If you design a system solely for plants, then you are only addressing one of those. Most of the failures that we see in aquaponics are due to design that only addresses one or two factors.

Let’s go over these four concepts and how to consider each of them in your system design.


What are your markets? What are your crops?

These two are closely linked, because your market will largely determine your crops.

To grow for you market, you want to know which crops that are in demand, what you can grow, and which crops are going to be crop effective.

Think you’re exempt from the market factor because you’re a hobby grower?

Think again.

Whether you are growing commercially or in your backyard for your family, you are growing for a market.

Once you have identified suitable crops, you will need to use a growing technique that is appropriate for that crop. For example, if you are growing tomatoes, you will want to use a grow bed, which can give the plant the right anchoring and adequate nutrient supply. If you are growing greens, on the other hand, you will want to grow in ZipGrow towers, which are the most appropriate technique for that.

The market you grow for also effects the type of facility that you will want to use. Your facility dictates how efficiently you can approach your market and the type of sales techniques you can use, as well as impacting your ability to meet the market’s needs.


Example: Stacked beds or rafts

An example is using stacks indoors. While this technique is biologically viable, you are still growing the same product and bringing it to market in the exact same way. The only difference is the labor cost and the cost of growing. We know that the labor cost is going to be way higher indoors. Because of that, the growers aren’t saving money. (Which means they aren’t making much, either.)

Let me explain what I mean by designing a facility for the market.

Designing for the market

When we designed our greenhouse we designed it to be practical for our selling method- live sales. When we design indoor growing operations, we do them on these modular racks, ZipRacks, that can be rolled around on wheels. We have lights on racks that travel between two rows of towers on either side.

This means that you plant the towers, you hang them, plug in the system, they get irrigated, and then once they’re grown out, it’s easy to take them  out of the main irrigation system.

One person alone can move the entire rack into a truck and into a grocery store and you sell the crops using live sales. No harvest, minimal transportation- labor costs are incredibly low and we gain a point of sale (living herbs from a grocery store) while we’re at it.

[Dig Deeper >> Rochester, Minnesota Aquaponic Startup Takes Farm-to-Fork to a Whole New Level]


What are you using the system for?

The most common mistake we see in design is that people confuse “will the plant grow” (biological feasibility) with “can the plant be grown.”

Impracticality example: Stacked beds or rafts

One example is when growers stack beds or rafts. The impracticality of this is that they have to access the top layers with a scissor lift, or if the beds are at ground level, they have to get down on their hands and knees- this takes a ton of time and usually, special equipment. The designer doesn’t think about how humans need to move throughout the system. He designed the system with biological feasibility, but not with user feasibility. When this happens, labor costs go way up.

Design for efficient labor

But if you design a system that makes it easy for employees to do their job quickly and effectively, you are saving a lot of money in the long term.

This doesn’t just apply to commercial growers. If your system as a hobby grower is hard to use, you won’t use it.

If it’s difficult to do tests, to harvest, whatever- you won’t do it. Your system won’t work as well, will cause a lot of headaches, and you won’t get to enjoy or sell the results.

So… always be thinking about the usability.

Ask yourself questions like:

    • Are there clear aisles?
    • Can I access plants?
    • Will I have to bend over?
    • Do I have to lean in?
    • Can I monitor the plants easily?

If you can’t imagine it being easy, then don’t do it, because you won’t do it! Or you [or your employees] won’t like it.


How will you scale?

Maybe you’re the rare case in which you’ll stay small forever.

Most folks, however, will eventually scale up, whether it’s into a bigger hobby system or an actual commercial system.

A lot of people don’t think about designing a system that is easy to add on to (scale). Usually, people who are starting to build a system don’t have this aspiration yet. They are caught up in starting, often a little overwhelmed, and they just don’t consider the probability that they will want to add on to it some day.

In reality, that is usually the natural progression of thought when you have a system up and running; it’s going well, you are enjoying the results, and you want to add a little more and a little more.

If you design your system to expand from the start, you will have a headache-free expansion down the road. Some great ways to do this are to use and in-ground sumps, use lots of valves, and use poly-tubing.


Good Decision-Making Best Practices

The more options you are aware of, the better your system design will be. This means lots of research.

There are three parts to making the right decisions:

1) Pre-build troubleshooting.

Design the problems out of your systems at the beginning.

Now this can be difficult for beginners because before you’ve built the system, it’s hard to say what the problem will be. Accomplishing this really ends up being a critical thinking exercise.

It consists of looking at your system and answering some questions like: where are the high and low points? how are you going to deal with solids? do you have a grade that supports drainage to the sump? Will there be anaerobic zones.

Keep in mind some more general rules and principles: avoid weird angles in your plumbing, operate under pressure, have an adequate amount of electricity. Turn over your water twice an hour. Don’t put off repairs and improvements. Some of these things will just be a trial-and-error solving process, but anyone can avoid a majority of these problems on the front end just by careful planning and critical thinking, both of which are necessary for managing a system anyway (and the rest of life, for that matter). Be critical of what you are doing and always seek a better way to do things.

2) Designing through an economic lens.

Once again, hobby growers are not exempt from this principle. (If you aren’t subject to economic laws, we envy you!)

You should be thinking less about growing the plant, and more about selling it. You can grow a plant anywhere, but you can’t sell it anywhere, and you can’t always sell it for more than you grew it.

3) Be realistic about what you can do with the system.

Some people have a bigger dream than is possible, and some people dream too conservatively.

For you big dreamers: Be strategic and do research. Don’t make hasty decisions or blindly follow fads.

For you small dreamers: know your opportunities and take them!

In summary… Design for crops, markets, user and scaling ability!

Design your system for your crop, market, user, and scale. Make good design system choices by designing problems our of your system on the front end, educating yourself, being economic, and being realistic about what you can do.



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If you haven’t heard part one of system design, check it out on iTunes or Stitcher.

As always, feedback is welcome, and we love reviews!

Stay tuned for the next podcast.


Aquaponics Podcast

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