Pittsburgh Aquaponics – Building Tour

When I first started my aquaponics project I really would have liked a strong support network of locals who shared the interest (aquapioneers?). It’s two years later now and there looks to be the beginnings of such a network forming. One of the groups, Pittsburgh Aquaponics, had an open house this weekend and I was able to get in and see what their facility was like.

Pittsburgh Aquaponics is located on the South Side and I’d really like to be able to make a “drink like a fish” joke here, but it’s just been one of those days and I don’t feel one coming on. They have a few different systems in their basement space. Some should be pretty familiar to frequent readers, others might be new if this blog is your only source of aquaponics knowledge. If you need a refresher, here’s their one-sheet for how the aquaponics cycle works:

PA Tour_infographic

And here’s what that simple system looks like in practice:

PA Tour_starter system

Fish on the bottom, plants on the top. This small system is where they start their plants and fish, tilapia in this case. They also have a larger version of the same system, probably the closest analog to my system that they have:

PA Tour_typical system

The main attraction, though, was their 400-gallon system. There are many components, so I’ve labeled and numbered the parts and pieces for explanation below. Feel free to click the pic for a better view.

PA Tour_main system

(1) The backbone of the system: a 400-gallon fish pond. They’ve opted for a light and moveable plastic model as opposed to a literal brick-and-mortar tub. I was told that 400 gallons of water can support 20-30 fish, so I could probably do at least a dozen in my 200ish gallon pond. Right now, though, the tilapia are still growing, so the system is supported by just a few goldfish until the tilapia grow up:

PA Tour_400 detail

(2) Swirl Tank. One big difference between this system and the others is that the fish are kept above the plants and the water is gravity-fed to the plants before being pumped back up to the pond (basically the opposite of my system and the ones pictured first in this post). This swirl tank is an interim stop as the water flows downhill, and it allows the solid waste to settle to the bottom outside of the fish pond and out of the pipes. I have no such tank, so all that fish waste will either get filtered at the pump or end up clogging the irrigation tubes. Time will tell.

(3) Grow Lamp. It is a basement, after all.

(4) Media bed.

PA Tour_media bed detail

This is like a big version of what I will eventually have in my back yard. If you recall, I designed it so that all this media will be broken up into eight more manageable tubs so that they can be rearranged at will. It’s what will hopefully end up being a happy compromise between one huge bed (like this) and the tiny cups used in the …

(5) Rafts. This is something that my system does not have. How it works is that holes are bored into styrofoam rafts, into which small cups of media can be placed. The light leafy plants that live in the cups let their roots hang down into the water below.

PA Tour_rafts detail

The rafts and their small cups are easy to handle, but the size limits the kinds of plants that can be grown with a system like this. I believe that rafts like this could be used in the same tank as fish, minimizing the need for an elaborate pumping system. You’d have to find a species of fish that wouldn’t eat the roots, though, and tilapia do not qualify.

I’m pretty impressed with what they have going on down there at Pittsburgh Aquaponics. As you can see, not all of the plants are going gangbusters, which is probably due the fact that the goldfish aren’t producing enough nutrients for the system yet. Soon, though, I imagine things will be going full bore down there and hopefully I get to come back for an update. I’ve been emailing back and forth with Mark Berger and it’s great to know that I have someone who can answer my questions and maybe even motivate me a bit. Thanks to Pittsburgh Aquaponics for opening up their doors and for taking the lead in expanding aquaponics in Pittsburgh.


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