Aquaponics involves a balanced interaction of fish, plants, and bacteria in one recirculating environment, where the fish and plants depend on the balance of dissolved nutrients and water quality to grow and thrive. The unique balance between fish, plants, and bacteria leads to a healthy and productive aquaponics system.
Because of the symbiotic relationship between fish and plants and the need for a balanced ecosystem, regular water monitoring in an aquaponics system is essential. There are several commercially available water testing kits for aquaponics systems. However, the choice of which method to use can be confusing, especially for beginners in aquaponics. This article discusses what you need to know in testing the different water parameters and how to adjust them in your aquaponics system.
Why Do You Need to Do a Water Quality Test?
Water testing in aquaponics is the process of testing the different water quality parameters, such as ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, dissolved oxygen, water hardness, temperature, and more. This ensures that the plants are getting the proper nutrients and fish have clean water to live in. Here are the reasons why you need to monitor and test the water in your aquaponics system regularly:
- To make sure there is a good balance in your aquaponics system.
- To ensure that the plants, fish, and bacteria are in good health.
- To make sure that it adapted the water parameters in the water to the plants, fish, and bacteria's needs.
- The bacteria cannot be seen or measured directly, and water testing is the only method to diagnose the bacteria’s health and activity indirectly.
How Often Should You Do a Water Quality Test?
Water testing for a new aquaponics system that is undergoing a cycling process should be done every two to three days to ensure the bacteria are growing and the ammonia and nitrites are going up at the beginning and going down once the bacteria are established in the system.
In established systems that are six months old or more, monitoring and testing should be done every 3 or 7 days or whenever there is an indication of abnormality in the water. However, you can do a weekly water test if you have a stable and balanced system.
Testing the water that will be added to the system is also recommended to ensure the new water is safe for the fish. It is also recommended to keep a record of your test results for reference in case of future problems.
The Different Water Parameters in Aquaponics
- Temperature: measure the temperature to ensure the water temperature is maintained in the ideal range for the fish.
- Dissolve Oxygen: the concentration of oxygen in the water.
- General Hardness of the water (GH): this parameter gives you an idea of the number of minerals in your water. (between 50-100 ppm)
- Carbonate Hardness of the water (KH): it measures the calculations of carbonates in the water. Carbonates act as the buffer that helps maintain the pH. (between 70-100 ppm).
What Causes Poor Water Quality in Aquaponics?
Many factors contribute to the unstable water quality in an aquaponics system. These factors are why monitoring and testing the water in your system regularly is necessary. Also, early detection helps control any unbalance easily, while late detection may cause havoc and failure in the entire system. Some of the common factors that contribute to the poor water quality in aquaponics are:
- Equipment failure: These are unexpected events and usually involve an equipment malfunction or power failure.
- Inadequate aeration: Insufficient aeration will lower dissolved oxygen, which might cause plant and fish death.
- Overcrowded fish tank: Too many fish will cause a chemical imbalance in the whole system.
- Overfeeding: Overfeeding the fish and not removing the uneaten fish food will result in bio-waste residue, which can imbalance the system.
- Changes in the environment: Sudden environmental changes such as weather and temperature can significantly impact the health of your system. Plants and fish are susceptible to big temperature swings or unexpected extreme weather exposure, such as frost or heat.
- Chemical imbalances: Chemical additives such as fertilizers and other chemicals can disrupt the entire aquaponics system.
- Improper fish/plant selection: Selecting the wrong fish species and plants in relation to how they fit with your chosen system/design may result in failure or the need to restart the system. Always observe the fish-to-plant ratio to avoid system imbalance. For the success of your system, always choose the suitable fish species and the best plants to grow in your choice of aquaponics system design
- Fish stress: Fish health is vital to an aquaponics system. So keep your fish happy and healthy at all times.
What Do You Need To Test Water Quality in Aquaponics?
The following are the equipments you will use in testing water in your aquaponics system.
Temperature - Thermometer (It is recommended to record your water temperature for future reference).
Ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, and pH: Freshwater test kit: a box with bottles and test solution inside.
GH and KH: API Test kit:
Dissolved Oxygen: Oximeter (optional) you can use air stones to ensure the DO is maintained.
Step-by-Step Instruction on Testing Aquaponics Water Quality
We will use the API Freshwater Master Kit in this water parameter test.
- Inside are 4 transparent vials, a booklet with instructions, a color chart, and the chemical solutions for ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, and pH test.
- The 4 transparent vials that come with the kit have a line that represents 5 ml.
Ammonia, Nitrites, Nitrates, and pH Test
In this step, we will make the ammonia water test. The process for testing ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, and pH is the same, so we will use the ammonia test as an example. Ammonia has 2 bottles of test solutions numbered 1 and 2. You can also read the number of drops (8) that you need to drop in the vial.
- Fill the 4 vials with water (up to the line) from your aquaponics system—separate 1 vial for the ammonia test.
- Take the ammonia solution bottle number1 and shake it energetically for 30 seconds.
- Open the bottle and put 8 drops in the vial.
- Close the test solution bottle and the vial.
- Shake the vial for a few seconds to mix water and chemicals.
- Leave the vial to rest for 1 or 2 minutes.
- After 2 minutes, take the ammonia solution number 2 and shake it energetically for at least 30 seconds.
- Open the bottle and add 8 drops of ammonia solution to the same vial you used earlier.
- Close the vial, shake it again, and let it rest for 5 minutes.
- After 5 minutes, compare the color of the water in the vial to the ammonia color chart on the chart provided with the test kit.
- Check the result and manage your pH depending on the outcome of the test.
Water Temperature Test
- Measure your system's water temperature by submerging the thermometer two-thirds below the water's surface.
- Let the thermometer adjust to the water temperature for at least 1 minute.
- Remove the thermometer from the water and quickly read the result.
General Hardness of the Water (GH) Test
We will use the API GH test kit.
- Fill up your vial with system water up to the white line.
- Open your KH solution bottle and add 1 drop to the vial.
- Put the lid on and shake the vial gently. The water will turn orange but keep adding 1 drop of KH solution into the vial until it turns green.
- The number of drops you add will be the level of KH in your system. Let's say you add 4 drops of KH solution before it turns green; then your KH is 4.
Carbonate Hardness of the Water (KH) Test
We will use the API KH test kit.
- Fill up your vial with system water up to the white line.
- Open your KH solution bottle and add one drop to the vial.
- Put the lid on and shake the vial gently. The water will turn blue but keep adding one drop of KH solution into the vial until it turns yellow.
- The number of drops you add will be the level of KH in your system. Let's say you add 3 drops of KH solution before it turns yellow, and then your KH is 3.
How to Interpret Results of the Water Quality Test
Each parameter has its target range ideal for the plants, fish, and bacteria in an aquaponics system. It is essential to compare the test result to your ideal target range. If you're within the target range, you don't have to do anything, but you need to adjust the parameter quickly to protect the fish in your system if you're above the target range.
Here is the ideal range for the following:
- Ammonia - 0 ppm
- Nitrites - 0 ppm
- Nitrates - between 20 - 50 ppm
- pH - between 6.4 - 7.8
- General Hardness (GH) - between 50-100 ppm
- Carbonate Hardness (KH) - between 70-100 ppm
Adjusting Ammonia and Nitrites Level
- Remove some water from the fish tank and replace it with new water to dilute the toxicity concentration in the water.
- Do not feed the fish.
- Add more oxygen to the water by increasing aeration.
- Avoid stressing the fish by covering the fish tank to keep fish in the dark.
- Find the cause of the problem and fix it to prevent it from happening again.
How to Lower Nitrates Level
- Remove some water from the system and add new water to dilute the high nitrate concentration.
- You can also add more plants to the system.
Adjusting pH Levels
- How to Raise pH Level
In raising the water pH level, use calcium carbonate and potassium carbonate. You should add equal parts of each at the same time.
- How to Lower pH Level
To lower the water pH level in aquaponics, use certain acids, such as nitric, muriatic, and phosphoric. Phosphoric is the safest of the three acids. Rapid pH changes can be harmful to the fish, so adjust and add to the system little by little and wait to distribute throughout the system before taking a retest. You can repeat until your desired pH level is achieved.
General Hardness (GH) and Carbonate Hardness (KH)
How to Create a Buffer in Your System
- Add potassium bicarbonate to your system at a rate of 2 ½ tsp per 100 gallons of water for each dKH level you need to go up.
For aquaponics systems, a proper water testing routine is the only way to ensure that the water quality remains balanced for faster and healthy fish and plant growth. Regular monitoring and testing routines should involve testing the pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia levels. A simple vial or strip water test can be used, and immediate corrective action should be done once the results show an imbalance to ensure your aquaponics system's continuous health and success.
Thank you for reading our article. For more information on aquaponics water quality, please read our article, Water Quality in Aquaponics.