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Aquaponic Kit Review – Earth Solutions Farm in a Box

April 18, 2010

Earth Solutions Farm in a Box San Antonio System marketing photo

In a visit to my local hydroponics shop yesterday I noticed that they were in the process of setting up an Earth Solutions Farm in a Box San Antonio aquaponics system. I’d been wanting to see one of these up close ever since they first came out a year ago, but it never made sense to fork over the money to purchase one for myself (this particular system was $680).

My first impression was that it was attractive, although the wood frames were untreated and rough – I actually got a splinter as I ran my hand around the

The grow bed rim is easily lifted off

edge of the fish tank. Plus I questioned whether the untreated wood could possibly stand up to the dry, very sunny environment in Colorado. But then I thought perhaps I should just think of the system as an indoor garden. My husband pointed out that the screws in the top rim of the grow bed frame seemed randomly placed and not counter-sunk. At this point, the store employee who had set up the system overheard us and came over. He pointed out that the screws did not come with the system and that he had added them because the rim of the grow bed as designed had been falling off. He showed us the places where finishing nails that were too small for the job had been used to hold the frame in place and where they had failed. He then lifted up an unscrewed corner of the rim to make his point. Next he pointed out that the very center of the grow bed could not be used for planting because the water stream was so strong coming out of the pipe that it would prevent anything near it from growing. Then he laughed and told us that the grow bed leaked when he first set it up but “maybe this system just came out and they are still learning”. Well, no. Actually these systems have been advertised as available for at least 10 months.

Can't plant in the center of the bed because of the water stream

Copper inflow pipe and ugly PVC print on the side of the support pipe

As an indoor garden, the “smallish” 35 gallon fish tank would work fine with a limited number of fish, the small grow bed (14″ x 42″) would be fine for growing an herb garden or a modest amount of lettuce, and many people would find the sound of the water running out of the copper pipe pleasant… wait a minute…WHAT? Yes, friends, it is true. The system uses a copper pipe to deliver fish water to the grow bed, despite one of the cardinal rules of aquaponics – never use copper piping

because copper in sufficient concentrations is toxic to fish.

As a side note, when I got home I did a little research and quickly found a report by the EPA stating “Copper is highly toxic in aquatic environments and has effects in fish, invertebrates, and amphibians…”. Also in a well supported Wikipedia article on copper toxicity I read “Copper in water has also been found to damage marine life.[8] The observed effect of these higher concentrations on fish and other creatures is damage to gills, liver, kidneys and the nervous system.” Now I realize that many of us have copper piping in our homes that probably delivers water into our aquaponic systems but that water is coming in from our outside water supplies and running out through our sewers, not continuously recirculating through a copper pipe like it does in the Earth Solutions Farm in a Box. Of course, without running one of these systems and sending in water samples from the system for copper testing, I do not know what concentration of copper builds up in the recirculating water. However, I sure would want to know the answer to this before using one of these systems.

Back at the hydroponics store, I started investigating further by scanning the two-sided 8 ½” x 11″ instruction sheet and quickly developed more concerns related mainly to fish health and system maintenance. I asked for a copy of the instructions and took them home for further study. This is what I found.

Cover (left) and back page (right) of instructions

First, Earth Solutions is telling their customers that from the moment their system is operational they can “add up to 20 small or medium sized gold fish (to their 35 gallon tank) or the same quantity of regional fish, including crappie, perch, bass or catfish, etc. You may otherwise want to experiment with crawfish or tilapia”. Really? Twenty tilapia, bass or catfish in a 35 gallon tank in an uncycled flood and drain system on a 15 minute every hour timing cycle? Common knowledge in the aquaponic world indicates a maximum of one fish per 3 gallons as a maximum stocking density and closer to 5 gallons would be safer. The Earth Solutions ratio is one fish per 1.75 gallons; a ratio more appropriate to professionally run aquaculture operations and one that will quite likely result in ammonia buildup in a hobby system like this. We all know that ammonia buildup kills fish.

Inside pages of instructions

Then there is the plant experience. The instruction booklet makes absolutely no mention of the nitrogen cycling process, or that the user should monitor this process. The kit does not include any bacterium, seaweed extract, or anything else to accelerate or ease the nitrogen cycling process and the instructions do not even suggest that the user should consider applying such a technique. To make matters worse, the user is told to put plants into the bed during set up. Using the set-up process specified in the instructions, there will be no nitrifying bacterium converting the fish waste to plant food. Further, the instructions do not recommend using any other plant food (such as seaweed extract) during the start-up period when the plants will be otherwise un-fed. So, without the nitrogen cycling process in place and without any other plant food, I expect anything planted at this 2 – 4 week stage will be highly stressed and will possibly not survive. Last, the grow bed is only 8″ deep. If the user does not fill the bed with media right up to the rim, one can assume that the depth of the media would be about 7″. But the generally accepted depth in media based aquaponics is 11″ to 12″ which enables both long term bio-filter health and plant type flexibility.

Finally, the instructions do not mention any need to maintain or monitor the system. I think it is misleading to not mention a maintenance requirement but it seems moot in this case because the system is designed such that you cannot access the pipes to clean them without removing all the plants and media. Regarding monitoring, there is no mention anywhere of the importance of pH. The good news is they do mention at the very end of the instructions that if you have any questions you should go to the FAQ sheet or the FAQ section of the website. The bad news is that no FAQ sheet was included in the box and the FAQ section of the website doesn’t exist.

To summarize: The best thing I can say about the Earth Solutions Farm in a Box San Antonio system is that it is attractive and unintimidating. The downsides are that it is poorly constructed both from quality and functional perspectives, uses components that are potentially toxic to fish, and comes with minimal instructions that at best omit key information and at worst are instructing users to take actions that are actually harmful to their fish and plants.

I love the notion of a mainstream, introductory aquaponics kit but only if it is well executed and will provide the user with a successful aquaponic gardening experience. In my opinion, this one isn’t, and won’t.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Luc d'Aubuisson permalink
    April 19, 2010 8:56 am

    Wood is not a good container for aquaponics because over time it warps, shrinks and joints pull apart, especially if you use standard nails and untreated pine. It also rots. Insects love it. Aquaponic systems hold considerable amounts of weight with gravel, and when you do an ebb and flow system it’s like a fat guy sitting down on it several times a day. Look at a shipping pallet. It’s made of oak and the nails are extremely hard to pull out, but that’s the kind of stress even a small unit needs to hold. Overall, these units are not so much engineered as fabricated to sell to an unsuspecting new market.

  2. April 19, 2010 3:11 pm

    Great review.

    Re: Luc’s comment: I agree that wood is a bad material for containers. However, I have seen good results with wooden containers lined with thick rubber (“pond liner”). Kijiji Grows, a local aquaponics companies near me in Oakland, builds rigs out of wood with pond liners, and they have good results.

    So it’s possible that one could retrofit one of these rigs with pond liner and thereby prevent warping; replace the toxic copper with something else; and use fewer fish…but at that point I am not sure you would be better off than if you’d just built your own system from scratch.

    A question about the fish/gallon ratios: Shouldn’t those be in terms of kg fish body mass per gallon? Seems like you’d want a different number of goldfish than full-grown tilapia.

    • April 19, 2010 3:23 pm

      Hi Chris,

      You are right, it is more accurate to refer to the fish stocking density using a weight / gallon ratio. I’ve seen it both ways, most recently on Murray Hallam’s Aquaponics Made Easy video where he uses the quantity of fish instead of weight. While weight is more accurate, using number of fish is more realistic to a home gardener who probably isn’t going to regularly check the weight of their fish. That’s why I used quantity in this post. Optimally a home based system would never stock higher than 1 pound of fish per 3 gallons of water, and would be safer at 1 lb per 5 gallons.

      Thanks to both you and Luc for your thoughtful comments.

  3. April 20, 2010 8:46 am

    About 10 goldfish would power this pretty well, though at that rate I think you would have to manage your garden pretty well to remove enough nitrates.

  4. RupertofOZ permalink
    April 20, 2010 10:06 am

    Possibly Richard.. whether or not the “growbed” would be sufficient to filter the solids and perform nitrification, is another matter…

    And if you going to stock 10 goldfish… then a “barrelponics” system is a better, proven system…. at about 10% of the cost…

    Sadly, IMO… this is just another “get rich quick” cowboy, with little or no aquaponics experience… cashing in on the latest “fad”… or so they see it…

  5. April 23, 2010 6:30 am

    A very generous review of the system for sure and you are probably more gracious than I would be. The quality issues of this system are, and have been, a concern of mine for a very long time and are very telling of the people behind the product. The people behind this system are novices and would not be able to offer any real support is very disconcerting. How they are getting the press and even feel good about putting something out like this is an indication of the integrity of who people a purchaser would be dealing with. The term “Caveat emptor” comes to mind. One (among many) of the things I noticed on their website is there are no photo’s of any mature plants growing in their systems, only plants newly transplanted. Aquaponics is an amazing technology that finally is starting to take hold in the general public arena. I have been doing it successfully since 2003 and have grown an amazing variety of crops for my family.
    I am the writer of The Barrel-Ponics Manual. The real one, not the one offered for sale on their website. I would also like to let people know I have no relationship with these people and never have had. They are using my name and reputation to help sell their products and making false claims about their “Barrel-Ponics” system (as it relates to mine) to boot without permission and still continue to do so after requests to take any mention of me off their website. I also currently have seen pictures of a system they designed for a customer that after 10 months is laying in a heap due to bad design, poor choice of materials and poor workmanship. Once again, when dealing with Earth Solutions – Caveat emptor!!

  6. Luc d'Aubuisson permalink
    April 30, 2010 8:46 am

    Overall, the Earth Solutions product launch is a benchmark of aquaponics future as a consumer product. This is being promoted as an appliance without education. Best case scenario, people will use it learn from it, then quickly outgrow it and create their own and continue on that path with positive growth. Worst case, the system will get scummy and rotted, consumers will have ‘tried’ aquaponics and found that it’s a lot of hype. Maybe. This points to a big need for education and systems with components that don’t get thrown away.

    As far as Travis’s comments, it is outrageous that they would so blatantly take from him for commercial gain. The aquaponics community needs to be strengthened, because when you get right down to it, people are the most important aquaponics crop. Sorry, that’s kind of sappy, but think about young children today learning aquaponics and how that could shape the world in 15 years.

    We’ll see.

  7. Jeff permalink
    May 3, 2010 8:19 am

    Thanks for the warning. I was considering buying this at some point (not soon though), but now I’ll reconsider.

    I’ve looked at their YouTube page. I notice that all their test systems are set-up outside in the open. Maybe the influx of rainwater provides enough fresh water to deal both the overstocking and toxic piping that you describe. I’m just an interested observer though. I wouldn’t even call myself a novice.

  8. May 12, 2010 8:56 am

    Thanks so much for the first hand eye witness account of one of the systems. I know many people into aquaponics have looked at the info online about these systems and not been impressed but your information about their instruction manual, the copper piping and the hands on inspection in the store carry more weight!!!!!!!

  9. Bob Segraves permalink
    May 29, 2010 6:27 pm

    My first comment is to Travis – we have laws in this country that protect intellectual property, including the use of someones name without permission. You can take civil action if you choose. Also, their marketing of a manual on aquaponics that usurps the name of your publication is also against the law.

    To the community in general – We are all agast at the quality or lack there of in the “Farm in a Box”. However, the concept of a small indoor aquaponics in a box system, not unlike Rebecca Nelson’s Desk Top Aquaponics, could be a good alternative product. Given the price of the Farm…. we should be able to produce a quality product that can serve as a learning tool and the stepping stone a newcomer can use to get the basics before moving on to larger, more complex systems. Any thoughts on this are welcome.

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