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). What follows is my Review: Farm in a Box.
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
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.
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. 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″ 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.
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.
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.