The Different Types of Aquaponics Systems

Several types of aquaponics system designs are being used by many growers right now. Each of these aquaponics system designs may be the best aquaponics system design for you to implement in a given situation. So, to help you decide what system might be the best for you, we made this article about the different aquaponics systems.

Achieving a good balance between fish, bacteria, and plants is essential in aquaponics. Once you have a good balance, you will have a successful and sustainable aquaponics system design that you can rely on.

Every aquaponics system design comprises the following components:

  • A grow bed for the plants to grow.
  • A fish tank for the fish to live.
  • A pump transfers the water from the fish tank to the grow bed.
  • Standpipes or siphons drain the grow bed water back to the fish tank.
  • The water pump helps water circulate through the entire system and helps with aeration.
  • Grow media or floating rafts that give support to the plants.

This article will explore the different types of aquaponics systems that cater to various preferences and needs. Whether you're a beginner looking for simplicity, an urban gardener with limited space, or a commercial farmer aiming for scalability, there is an aquaponics system tailored to meet your goals.

Overview of the Different Types of Aquaponics Systems

In general, there are three different types of aquaponics systems designs; Media Based, Raft System, and Nutrient Film Technique. However, because of the development of aquaponics, more designs are being developed and utilized by aquaponics growers today. The two new aquaponics designs are Vertical Aquaponics System and Hybrid System. When deciding what type of system to build, it is essential to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each design to determine what fits best with your needs and capacity.

The Different Types of Aquaponics Systems

1.Media Based Aquaponics System

Also called Flood and Drain, the media based system is common for small-scale aquaponics systems. It is also popular with do-it-yourselves aquaponics home growers because it is easy to operate. The media based system design is simple and efficient with space and has a low initial cost suitable for beginners in aquaponics.

Media Based Aquaponics System Infographic

How do Media-Based Aquaponics Systems Work?

A media based system uses a growbed or container filled with grow media (usually gravel, lava rock, or clay pebbles) to plant the crops. The grow bed is periodically flooded with water from the fish tank through a bell siphon so that the plants can access the nutrients. The water drains back into the fish tank, where a new cycle begins. 

All waste is broken down in the grow bed. Sometimes, worms are added to the grow media to help break down all the waste. The media version uses the fewest components, and no additional filtration is needed, making it easy to operate. However, the produce is lower than the other types because of its limited growing space. 

Media Based Aquaponics System

Advantages of Media Based Aquaponics Systems:

  1. Relatively inexpensive and straightforward.
  2. The grow media provides a stable base for plants, preventing them from shifting or falling over.
  3. The grow media supports the growth of beneficial bacteria, aiding in converting fish waste into plant-friendly nutrients.
  4. The media acts as a natural filter, removing particulate matter from the water and promoting water clarity.
  5. Media-based systems are adaptable to various plant types, making them suitable for different crops.
  6. Suitable for hobby applications, home gardens, and as part of the commercial farm.

Disadvantages of Media Based System:

  1. Over time, some media types may be prone to clogging, requiring periodic maintenance.
  2. The weight of certain media, like gravel, can add a significant load to the system, especially in larger setups.
  3. In some cases, the media may limit the oxygen exchange to plant roots, impacting overall system oxygenation.
  4. A good-quality grow media can be relatively expensive.
  5. The media beds are heavy and need a robust and rigid structure.

2.Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) Aquaponics Systems

The Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) is a hydroponic growing technique adapted to aquaponics because of its simple yet effective design that works well in some environments. This method capitalizes on gravity and uses horizontal pipes (PVC) with shallow streams of nutrient-rich water flowing through them. The NFT is famous for commercial aquaponics and is also helpful in urban places where space and food production are problems.

NFT Aquaponics System Infographic


How NFT Systems Work in Aquaponics:

In aquaponics, NFT systems integrate the principles of traditional hydroponic NFT with the nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks. A thin film of water continuously flows down on each channel to provide plant roots with water, nutrients, and oxygen. Like the raft system, the water flows from the fish tank through filtration components, through the NFT channels where plants are grown, and then back into the fish tank. A separate biofilter is required in NFT because there is insufficient surface area for the beneficial bacteria to live. 

NFT Aquaponics System

Advantages of NFT:

  1. NFT systems are highly water-efficient as they use a thin film of water, minimizing overall water consumption.
  2. Plant roots are exposed to air, promoting optimal oxygenation and preventing root suffocation.
  3. NFT systems are often vertically oriented, making them suitable for limited spaces and vertical farming.
  4. Precise control over nutrient delivery allows for optimal plant growth and development.
  5. Compared to other systems, the NFT uses fewer materials and less space.
  6. Plant roots in NFT systems remain above the waterline at all times, allowing them to expel waste gas and absorb oxygen, which results in better plant growth.

Disadvantages of NFT:

  1. NFT systems rely on a water pump for continuous nutrient flow; any pump failure could impact the entire system.
  2. Certain plants with large root systems may not thrive in NFT systems due to the absence of a solid growing medium.
  3. Regular monitoring and maintenance are crucial to prevent clogs and ensure consistent nutrient flow.
  4. The water temperature is more challenging to control in NFT because of the thin film of water that flows in the pipes. 
  5. The narrow channels or the pipes are susceptible to clogging.

3.Raft Aquaponics System

Also known as the Deep Water Culture (DWC), the raft system of aquaponics is one of the most efficient aquaponics system designs. In raft systems, plants are suspended with their roots directly immersed in a nutrient-rich, oxygenated water solution. This method provides an oxygen-rich environment for the roots, promoting rapid nutrient uptake and robust plant growth. This system is often used in large-scale or commercial aquaponics systems because of its mass production capability. 

    Raft Aquaponics System Infographic

    How do Raft Aquaponics Systems Work?

    In a raft system, the nutrient-rich water circulates through the long canals, usually at a depth of about 20 cm, while rafts (polystyrene or foam board) float on top. The plants are grown on the raft boards supported within holes by net pots. Plant roots hang down in the nutrient-rich, oxygenated water, absorbing oxygen and nutrients to grow rapidly. The nutrient-filled water flows continuously from the fish tank through filtration, then to the raft tank, where the plants are grown, and back to the fish tank. Most often, the raft tank is separate from the fish tank. Monitoring water quality parameters, such as pH and nutrient levels, is crucial for maintaining a balanced and thriving raft aquaponics system.

    Raft Aquaponics System

    Advantages of the Raft System:

    1. Raft systems provide excellent oxygenation to plant roots, leading to accelerated nutrient absorption and enhanced growth.
    2. These systems are often vertically oriented, making them suitable for limited space or vertical farming setups.
    3. Raft systems are relatively low-maintenance compared to other aquaponics techniques, requiring less physical labor.
    4. Plants are easier to harvest in a raft system since roots are submerged in water and not in any media.
    5. Raft systems are easy to maintain as raft beds can be placed in the tank itself, allowing for efficient use of space. 
    6. Raft systems are well-suited for commercial production.

    Disadvantages of Rafts System:

    1. As roots are constantly submerged in water, root rot is at risk if the oxygen levels are not adequately maintained.
    2. Certain plants with extensive root systems may be better suited for raft systems.
    3. Continuous aeration is crucial, and any failure in the aeration system can quickly impact the health of the plants.
    4. Raft systems can be a mosquito breeding ground if not designed correctly.
    5. Because the roots are entirely submerged, oxygen through aeration is often required.
    6. There is little surface area for beneficial bacteria to grow in raft systems.
      Vertical Aquaponics System

      4. Vertical Aquaponics System

      Vertical aquaponics systems take advantage of vertical space to maximize plant cultivation and utilize aquaponic principles. In these systems, plants are stacked or arranged in vertical tiers, often using towers, columns, or wall-mounted structures. The vertical orientation allows for efficient space utilization, making it particularly suitable for environments with limited horizontal space.

      How do Vertical Aquaponics Systems Work?

      Vertical aquaponics mainly uses the nutrient film technique (NFT) aquaponics method. The NFT is an aquaponics method in which the plants are grown in a long, narrow channel. NFT is a hydroponic growing technique adapted to aquaponics because of its simple yet effective design that works well in many environments. The only difference is that in the NFT method, the growing channels are set up horizontally, while in the vertical system, the growing channels are set up vertically.

      Advantages of Vertical Aquaponics Systems:

      1. One of the primary advantages is the efficient use of space. Vertical systems make growing more plants in a smaller footprint possible, making them suitable for urban and indoor environments.
      2. By stacking plants vertically, growers can optimize sunlight exposure for each level, leading to increased photosynthesis and, subsequently, higher crop yields than traditional horizontal systems.
      3. Vertical aquaponics systems can be visually striking, making them suitable for commercial and decorative purposes.
      4. Some vertical systems incorporate a recirculating design, which can contribute to water conservation by efficiently utilizing and recycling water within the system.

      Challenges and Considerations of Vertical Aquaponics Systems:

      1. Ensuring uniform nutrient distribution to all levels of a vertical system can be challenging. Proper design and water circulation mechanisms are crucial to avoid nutrient imbalances.
      2. Working with vertically stacked systems may pose challenges for accessing and maintaining plants at higher levels. Consideration must be given to ease of maintenance and harvesting.
      3. Vertical systems can become heavy, especially when filled with water, plants, and fish. Proper structural support is essential to prevent collapsing and ensure the system's safety.

      5. Hybrid Aquaponics System

      Hybrid aquaponics systems represent a fusion of different aquaponic techniques, combining elements from various methodologies to create a customized and efficient system. These systems leverage the strengths of multiple approaches, offering growers flexibility in design, optimization, and management.

      Hybrid systems may integrate components from media-based, NFT, raft, or other aquaponics methods to create a synergistic setup that addresses specific needs. For example, a hybrid system might use media-based grow beds for stability and biofiltration coupled with an NFT component for efficient nutrient delivery to certain plants.

          Hybrid Aquaponics System


          How do Hybrid Aquaponics Systems Work?

          There are several approaches to the hybrid system, and all can work well depending on the design. One example of a hybrid system is a combination of raft and media based systems. Some aquaponics home growers and commercial aquaponics farmers use hybrid systems because of their efficiency and great use of space.

          Advantages of Hybrid Setups:

          1. By combining different aquaponics techniques, hybrid systems can optimize nutrient distribution, ensuring that various plants receive the specific conditions they require for optimal growth.
          2. Hybrid systems offer flexibility in choosing crops by accommodating shallow and deep-rooted plants and allowing growers to diversify their produce.
          3. Integrating vertical components into a hybrid system allows for efficient use of space, making it suitable for urban and small-scale farming.

           Examples of Successful Hybrid Aquaponics Systems:

          1. Media-NFT Hybrids: Combining media-based systems with NFT systems can be successfully implemented in both commercial and home setups, supporting a variety of crops.
          2. Raft-Vertical Hybrid Systems: Integrating a raft system with a vertical component can maximize space while providing optimal oxygenation to plant roots. They have shown success in producing crops like lettuce, herbs, and strawberries.
          3. Media-Vertical Hybrids: Using a combination of media-based beds and vertical towers, offer a balance between stability and space efficiency. 
          4. Integrated Aquaponics with Traditional Agriculture: Some hybrids integrate aquaponics with traditional soil-based agriculture. This approach provides a diversified farming system, including aquaponic and traditional growing methods.

          Challenges and Considerations for Aquaponics Systems

          A.Common Issues in Aquaponics

          1. Water Quality Fluctuations: Maintaining stable water parameters, including pH levels, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels, can be challenging. Fluctuations may stress fish and hinder plant growth.
          2. Fish Health Concerns: Fish diseases or stress can quickly spread in confined aquaponic systems. Monitoring fish health is crucial to preventing outbreaks impacting the entire ecosystem.
          3. Nutrient Imbalances: Achieving a balanced nutrient ratio for plants is vital. Overfeeding fish or insufficient biofiltration can lead to nutrient imbalances, affecting plant growth.
          4. Temperature Variations: Aquaponics systems are sensitive to temperature changes. Extreme temperatures can impact the metabolic rates of both fish and beneficial bacteria.

          B.Tips for Troubleshooting and Maintenance

          1. Regular Monitoring: Implement a routine monitoring schedule for water parameters, fish behavior, and plant health. Early detection of issues allows for timely intervention.
          2. Proper Filtration: Ensure adequate mechanical and biological filtration. Regularly clean filters and remove debris to maintain optimal water quality.
          3. Balanced Feeding: Avoid overfeeding fish, as excess uneaten food can degrade water quality. Adjust feeding quantities based on fish size, species, and system conditions.
          4. Disease Prevention: Quarantine new fish before introducing them to the main system to prevent the spread of diseases. Maintain a stress-free environment to minimize the risk of illnesses.

          C.Factors to Consider When Choosing an Aquaponics System

          1. Before you choose a system design, think about the system's intended use. Is it for personal, educational, or commercial use? Your intentions will determine what kind of system design fits your particular needs. Properly planning your system will help you become more successful in setting up your aquaponics system. Here are some factors to consider in choosing your aquaponics system design
          2. Consider the space you have for your aquaponics system. Different systems, such as media-based, NFT, raft, or vertical setups, have varying space requirements.
          3. Choose a system that aligns with your experience and skill level. Beginners may find media-based systems more forgiving, while experienced growers might opt for more advanced techniques.
          4. Crop Selection: The type of plants you want to grow influences your chosen system. Some crops thrive better in specific aquaponic setups, so consider the needs of your desired plants.
          5. The availability of resources, including water, energy, and budget. Some systems, such as rafts, may require more water, while others may be more energy-efficient.
          6. Consider the local climate and available sunlight when planning your aquaponics system. Some systems, like vertical setups, may be more adaptable to indoor or shaded environments.

          Conclusion: What System is the Best for You?

          The best aquaponics system design for you will depend on your answers to the factors you must consider when choosing an aquaponics system design. The best thing you can do in choosing the best plan for you is to weigh each design's advantages and disadvantages. By joining aquaponics groups online, it is also good to ask for the expert's opinion and experiences on each system. There are also many free resources online to learn what fits your needs. 

          We hope this article has helped you choose your aquaponics system. Starting something is always exciting but challenging. We highly recommend reading more about aquaponics so you can learn more and know how to manage your aquaponics system. If you need assistance planning your aquaponics system, please contactus.

          2 Responses

          Raymond Osborne

          Raymond Osborne

          April 07, 2022

          Very good site and information.
          I’d like to stay in touch for when we start building a system.

          Rohitha kumara

          Rohitha kumara

          August 31, 2021

          Presentation is good

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