Updated: Nov 27, 2020
The SPACE 200 (Sustainable Probiotic Aquaponics Cultivation Environment, 200 gallons) is an aquaponics system built by Galactic Farms that has been operating at the University of Montana Dining Services (UMDS) since 2015. The SPACE 200 uses an agricultural technique called aquaponics, where fish effluent supplies all the nutrients that plants regularly obtain from the soil. This technique for food production is somewhat complex and requires an understanding basic chemistry and the biology of the living components (fish, plants, and probiotic bacteria). Thousands of students see this system every day and it is our hope that this exposure to aquaponics gets the next generation thinking about the role of nutrient cycling in food production. In fact, it has already inspired students to build their own systems at home.
SPACE 200 October 2016 - On FLEEK!!!!
How the SPACE 200 Came to Be
UMDS is committed to sourcing local food for the University of Montana cafeterias. They have many gardens on campus that produce fresh produce for the students, but they wanted to expand to year round production. Their hopes were to implement a system that would be mobile, have a small footprint, and be displayed in the university dining hall year round. Jeff had previously worked with UMDS to build an aquaponics mircogreens demonstration system for an independent study program he created through the Department of Environmental Studies. UMDS asked him to pitch a system that would fit their needs so he suggested a controlled environment aquaponics system. This type of system makes year round production possible so local sourcing of veggies can continue in every season. A known issue faced when building a system like this is the initial unpredictability while environmental fluctuations settle down. Also, using supplemental grow lighting during the winter can be energetically expensive. Luckily, energy is relatively inexpensive in Western Montana because 56% is supplied by renewable sources like wind and hydroelectric.
Building the system was a lot of fun for Jeff. He took his UMDS proposal to his engineering buddies Chuck Gailey and Troy Letisko to see what they could do with his initial plans. They made some adjustments that made the system seismically stable (i.e. wont crush people if there is an earthquake) but kept the system mobile. Jeff also realized that he needed to sacrifice productivity for design because the project is intended for educational purposes. Normally, fishtanks in aquaponics systems wouldn’t be exposed to light to prevent algae growth. However, it is important that students are able to see the fish because they are the source of nutrients for the plants and making this realization about nutrient cycling is really the main purpose for creating the educational display.
For plant media he chose to use Zip Grow towers from Bright Agrotech. He liked the look and simplicity of the towers and thought they were perfect for an educational display. They show how vertical space can be used for plant cultivation, which tickled us because our mission at Galactic Farms is to grown food in the least expected places. The Bright Agrotech team has been amazing to work with. They check up on us regularly and are always on hand to offer support and expertise on aquaponics and hydroponics growing systems.
After the system was built, we needed to inoculate the water with beneficial bacteria and the fish that carry them. We sourced fish from the Frenchtown pond after obtaining a fish transportation permit. Fishing in the winter was “fun”; we got all bundled up, drilled holes in the ice, and sat out there for hours. We caught about one perch or so a week until one day in early spring when we caught 20 perch all at once.
Tilapia would have been ideal for the aquaponics system, but Montana regulations do not permit transportation of those species. Some aquaponics enthusiasts around here think that is crazy because tilapia live in much warmer waters. However, they can be very invasive where they do show up, and with weather patterns changing, why not be cautious?
As mentioned previously, aquaponics systems do require some intelligent and informed maintenance on the part of the gardener. We found that for our situation, the best plants to grow were basil and chard. We ran into a few issues over the course of time we have been in operation. Below is a diagram of these issues and what we did to manage them: