Have you ever thought of starting your garden? Grow, harvest, and eat the organic food you produce? If you're inspired to grow your food with aquaponics, then the next thought is, "How do I build a simple aquaponics system at home?" Well, this ultimate aquaponics beginner's guide will serve as an overview, giving you the information necessary to get started.
What Is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in a nutrient solution). You can create a self-sustainable garden with limited space and resources to grow your organic food with aquaponics. A simple aquaponics system involves growing plants and raising fish with the help of beneficial bacteria. These components work symbiotically to create an effective aquaponics system.
How Aquaponics Works
In aquaponics, the plants are grown in the grow bed, and fish are placed in the fish tank. The water from the fish tank that contains fish waste is fed to the grow bed, where billions of naturally occurring beneficial bacteria break the ammonia down into nitrites and then nitrates. Plants absorb these nitrates and other nutrients to help them grow. In return, the plants clean and filter the water in the system. The fresh, clean, and oxygenated water then recirculates back to the fish tank, where the cycle will begin again.
Benefits Of Aquaponics
Aquaponics lets you grow your food all year round by regulating your growing needs and using greenhouses.
Low water usage, Aquaponics uses approximately 90% less water than conventional farming. The water used is recycled, so it is rarely changed or discarded.
There is no soil involved in Aquaponics, so there are very few weeds that will pop up in your garden, giving you more time to enjoy farming.
Plants grow faster in the aquaponics system because of their access to the nutrient-rich water 24 hours a day.
An aquaponics system can be a source of income for you and your family if you grow commercially.
Aquaponics farming does not require large areas of land and is inexpensive to set up.
With Aquaponics, you can grow your food without the use of harmful chemicals or fertilizers.
By growing your own food, you can have food security and food independence
Three Main Components Of Aquaponics System
Every aquaponics system includes these three main components.
Growing plants organically is one reason many people want to set up their own aquaponics system. Plants also play an essential role in maintaining the aquaponics system's overall cycle by cleaning and oxygenating the water in the system. They filter the water and absorb the nitrates, thus cleaning and recirculating back to the fish.
Choosing the best plant to grow in your aquaponics system is important for your system's overall success. So select plants that are easy to grow and well suited to your location and climate. Until your new system is fully established, avoid planting nutrient-hungry plants like tomatoes and stick to easy-to-grow plants like leafy greens, lettuces, and herbs. Nutrient-hungry plants require a lot of nutrients, so wait until the fish in the system are larger before you start adding tomatoes, peppers, and other fruit-bearing plants.
Plants in Aquaponics are planted in the grow bed, pipes, or floating rafts. If you're using grow beds, make sure that the grow bed container is strong and the grow medium is deep enough to hold your plants when they grow. If you're planting in a floating foam, make sure that it is lightweight and buoyant and can hold the plants upright. In planting your plants, make sure that the base that holds the plants are sturdy enough to keep the plants when they grow up. Using net pots is recommended because it allows the plant roots to absorb ample amounts of nutrients and hold the plant securely in place.
Fish play an essential role in an aquaponics system because their waste acts as a natural fertilizer for the plants. To achieve a maximum growth output from your fish, you must know the best fish to raise in Aquaponics. In order to have maximum growth output from your fish, choose fish that is disease resistant, easy to raise, and readily available in your location.
You can raise ornamental fish like goldfish and koi or edible fish like tilapia and catfish in Aquaponics. Most home aquaponics systems are raising tilapia and goldfish because they are hardy and can thrive in almost any environment.
Bacteria play a vital role in an aquaponics system because they convert fish wastes into nutrients absorbed by the plants. The water from the fish tank that is fed to the plants contains a lot of ammonia from fish wastes that are converted by the bacteria (nitrifying bacteria) into nitrites and into nitrates through nitrification. The plants use these nitrates to grow. The bacteria in an aquaponics system can be present in the biofilter, grow beds, and fish tanks.
Types Of Aquaponics System
These are the four main types of aquaponics systems, which we will discuss below.
1. Media Based Aquaponics System
Media Based Systems, also called Flood and Drain, is the most common Aquaponics system, popular with do-it-yourselves, backyard home systems, and commercial farms. In a media-based system, plants are grown in planting media such as gravel or expanded clay pebbles. The media filters ammonia-based waste and solid waste. Media-based systems designs are simple and efficient with space and have a low initial cost suitable for beginners in Aquaponics.
The media-based aquaponics system consists of a grow bed filled with grow media (expanded clay pebbles, gravel, lava rock) into which the vegetables are planted. The water from the fish tank is pumped or flows by gravity into the grow beds so that the plants can access the nutrients. The grow media are porous to allow them to hold the water longer for more efficient nutrient uptake and filter out the water to prevent solids, materials, and other organisms from entering the fish tank. The grow bed serves as both the mechanical and biological filter and location for mineralization. The grow beds also host the colony of nitrifying bacteria and provide a place for the plants to grow.
Some media-based aquaponics systems are run by flooding and draining the grow beds, using a bell siphon to drain the water when it reaches a saturation point. Once the water reaches a certain level on the grow bed, the bell siphon will drain the water from the grow bed. This process will draw oxygen back down into the grow bed to benefit the microbes and the plants. This is a continuous regular cycle that provides all the necessary nutrients for the plants to grow without fertilizers.
2. Raft System
In a raft system, also known as Deep Water Culture or Floating System, the plants are grown on rafts boards (polystyrene or foam boards) that float on top of the water in the raft bed. The nutrient-filled water flows continuously from the fish tank through the filtration process, then to the raft tank where the plants are grown, and then back to the fish tank. Most often, the raft tank is separate from the fish tank. Many commercial aquaponics farm use this system because it allows the plants to grow faster and yield more crops.
3. Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
The Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) in Aquaponics is a 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 some environments.
This method uses horizontal pipes (usually PVC pipes) with shallow streams of nutrient-rich water flowing through them. Plants are planted in the holes in the top of the pipes and are able to utilize this thin film of nutrient-rich water. In NFT, a thin film of water flows continuously down each channel, providing the plant roots with water, nutrients, and oxygen. When the water reaches the end of the channel, it is pumped back to the fish tank.
NFT is popular for commercial Aquaponics because it is more viable than the other aquaponics methods. This technique is also more useful in urban places where space and food production are considerations. However, it is more expensive to set up and is not suitable in locations that do not have enough access to suppliers.
4. Hybrid Aquaponics System
A hybrid aquaponics system is a combination of multiple types of aquaponics systems. Most commercial Aquaponics uses a hybrid system because of its efficiency and great use of space. You can combine any system that you like that fits your needs. There are several approaches to the aquaponic system, and all can work well, depending on how you design, build and maintain your system.
A commercial and professional aquaponics system can be expensive. However, you can create your aquaponics system using recycled materials through this practical do-it-yourself (DIY) system and get higher food yields for your own home. Re-use or re-purpose items you may have already on hand to reduce your startup cost. You need a little creativity and a small pump to make your aquaponics system setup.
Here Are Three Aquaponics System DIY Ideas That Will Suit Any Budget
1. Small DIY Aquaponics System
This small aquaponics system costs only $40. It is delivered in 7 easy steps that lead you through creating a small aquaponics system. Jeffrey provided the lists of materials and tools used in this system. The grow bed is built from a 15- gallon plastic bin while the pipes are PVC pipes of different sizes, including a 2-inch and 0.5-inch PVC pipe. This system uses a 130 GPH submersible pump.
2. DIY Urban Bathtub Aquaponics System
This design takes the aquaponic system design to a new level. This is an outdoors designed aquaponics system using an old bathtub as the grow bed. A fish pond was built and decorated with rocks to give it a natural feel. Grow media filled the bathtub where the plants are grown. The stones around the pond and the wooden enclosure for the grow bed make it a functional and beautiful system. Creativity and finishing make this aquaponics system unique and different from other aquaponics systems.
3. DIY Vertical Aquaponics System by Garden Pool
This vertical aquaponics system is simple to set up, inexpensive, and can fit into almost any space. The idea in this system is to grow food vertically using a 10-gallon aquarium and a utility shelf. To build this system, Dennis used a 4-shelf utility/bookshelf. With only 2 square foot footprint, 6 square feet of growing spaces and 10 gallons of water for the fish, the finished system can grow food enough to feed a family.
Home Aquaponics Kit Systems
Home aquaponics kits are available in the market today. You can have an indoor aquaponics system in your home with no mess or hassle by choosing to use aquaponics kits. Aquaponics kits are best for growing micro greens, lettuce, houseplants, or other small, fast-growing vegetables. You may not grow full plants in home aquaponics kits, but you can do it as a hobby or learn the basics if you want to know the principles and develop them into your large-scale system.
Designed for year-round gardening, you can install this complete home kit aquaponics system indoors or outdoors. It is an attractive, easy to assemble, and easy-to-use design that will be a perfect fit for your home. This kit allows you to grow full-sized plants like lettuce, house plants, and other vegetables. This home kit system includes 60-gallon fish tanks, and a grow bed made from thick UV-protected and food-safe PE plastic. This kit is excellent for beginners, who are still trying to learn how Aquaponics works.
The Edu Aquaponics Kit uses a scaled-down technology like you would find in a large scale aquaponics setup. This kit may not be as stylish as others, but it will teach you how to grow with Aquaponics. It is an all in one system using expanded clay as growing medium and real edible plants to filter fish water. The bell siphon self waters the plants while keeping them in a separate tank so that the water is not clouded with roots. This is an excellent system for anyone who wants to learn about Aquaponics at home.
Things To Consider Before Starting your Aquaponics System:
If you're planning to build your aquaponics system or purchase a complete system, it is essential to consider these things. These are the basic checklists listed to help you plan your system accordingly. These are for home, hobbies, or small scale aquaponics systems and do not cover the planning required for a commercial-scale aquaponics system.
1. Choose an aquaponics system that you want to implement.
2. What are the goals and purpose of your aquaponics system?
Why do you want to have an aquaponics system? What plants or fish are you planning to grow and raise? Are you going to eat your fish? These questions should be given thought to plan your system correctly and know what system will meet your goals and purposes.
3. Are you a do-it-yourself (DIY) person?
Are you a do-it-yourself person, or do you prefer to purchase a well-proven free-made design? This is one of the most important considerations to make in planning your aquaponics system. DIY Aquaponics is a trial and error, but can be a rewarding and fun learning experience. It may also take a long time to make as you try to figure things on your own. However, if you want a proven system that can run quickly and with technical support, you can purchase a free-made aquaponics system.
In an aquaponics system, the water flow is constant, so you need to consider the natural evaporation and increase moisture in your space. The temperature difference will cause extra humidity.
2. Water Spillage
Your fish tank or aquarium can leak. Therefore, the area where you want to create your system should be waterproof, or it is an area that can get wet. Be prepared in advance for spillage.
Plants need light to grow. All plants require sunlight for photosynthesis, which converts light, oxygen, and water into carbohydrates (energy). This energy is needed by the plants to grow, bear fruit, and bloom. Sunlight is the best source of light for the plants in an aquaponics system. However, if you decide to grow an indoor aquaponics system, you can use artificial light to supplement your plant's light needs. Artificial lighting needs to be given essential considerations and carefully selected because plants absorb wavelengths at either end of the light spectrum, which we cannot see.
Although plants require light, fish prefer some shade. Fish do not need sunlight to grow and survive, but most fish require both light and dark periods. Without periods of light, the fish may become lethargic and become ill or may stop eating. So you must provide light (artificial or indirect sunlight) to your fish every day. So even if spectrum both plan to have an indoor or outdoor aquaponics system, you need to provide the three living organisms enough and balance light for them to thrive.
System Components And Supplies
The following components are essential in building your aquaponics system. There are two types of components in an aquaponics system; The "materials" are the materials or equipment needed to build your system, while the "supplies" are required to manage or optimize your system.
- Fish Tank - Depends on the size you choose
- Grow Bed - Media bed, raft, PVC pipes.
- Grow Bed Support - Frame that will support the weight of your grow bed.
- Sump Tank - Optional. This will depend on the design of your system.
- Plumbing pipes and fittings - Depends on the type of your grow beds, system, and other factors.
- Bell Siphon - This is required for a flood and drain media bed.
- Water pump - The size depends on your desired tank exchange rate and several grow beds.
- Aerator, air stones - This is used in the fish tank and media beds.
- Grow Lights - Optional. This is mostly used in indoor systems.
- Heater- Optional. This depends on your location, fish species, and target water temperature.
- Grow Media - For a media-based system, you can use clay pebbles, expanded shale, gravel, and other inert media.
- Monitoring System - Optional. It depends on your situation and how you want to manage your system.
- Timers and Controllers- This is mostly used for lighting and pumping.
- Water Quality Test Kit - A water test kit is very important in monitoring your water quality parameters.
- Cycling Kit- A source of nitrifying bacteria or ammonia required to cycle your system and prepare your system for the fish.
- Fish Food - You need a supply of fish food for your fish. Choose fish food that is organic and meet the nutritional requirements of the fish.
- Fish Care Products - Fishnet, thermometer, automatic feeder, etc.
- Gardening Supplies - Supplies you will need in gardening like gloves, pruning shears, sprayer, etc.
- Seeds and Seed Starting Supplies - Net pots, germination trays, or seed starting kit you will need to get your plants off to a good start.
1. Building Your System
Once you have all the materials needed for your aquaponics system, you can start building your system based on your specifications and design. Test your system to ensure there are no leaks and the flow rate and drain rate work well.
2. System Cycling
Before stocking your system with fish and plants, make sure your system is healthy by system cycling to establish the beneficial bacteria. The cycling process converts ammonia (fish wastes) into nitrates necessary for the plants to thrive in an aquaponics system.
- Cycling Startup
Cycling starts when setting up a newly built or restarting aquaponics system. Cycling with fish generally takes 4-6 weeks. This time frame is dependent on the water temperature, which is ideally 75° - 80 °F, the temperature outside this range will take longer to cycle because the bacteria will be slow to eat and reproduce. However, you can speed up the cycling process by using other methods of cycling.
Cycling With Fish
1. Start fish cycling by adding fish to the fish tank. The fish will be the source of ammonia. Avoid feeding the fish for the first 24 hours and feed lightly for the first several days.
2. Let the bacteria populate naturally, or you can add a bacteria starter.
3. Every day, perform a water test to check the ammonia, nitrites, and nitrite levels. The ammonia should remain below 3.0 ppm, and the nitrites below 1.0 ppm. The nitrates will increase over time.
4. If the ammonia gets above 3.0 ppm or nitrites above 1,0 ppm, replace ⅓ of the tank water with new water because the fish will suffer or die of the ammonia, and nitrite levels get too high.
5. The ammonia level will rise steadily to a peak in the first 10-15 days. The ammonia is high because the bacteria that will convert it into nitrites haven't established enough to quickly start the nitrogen cycle.
6. After 25 days into the cycle, the nitrite level will rise to a peak.
7. You will know your aquaponics system is fully cycled when:
- You find nitrates in the water.
- The water test shows that both the ammonia and nitrite levels dropped to lower than 0.5 ppm.
- Regular feeding of the fish will not increase the level of ammonia.
8. Once your system is fully cycled, you can add more fish and plants.
1. Add bacteria to your aquaponics system.
2. Add the ammonia (powder or liquid) until the levels are at 4.0 ppm.
3. Test the water to check the ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels.
4. Continue adding the ammonia until the levels are around 4.0 ppm.
5. The cycling is complete when the ammonia and nitrite levels drop to below 0.5 ppm. The presence of nitrates also indicates that cycling is taking place.
6. the system is fully cycled, stop adding ammonia and start adding fish and plants into the system.
Maintaining Your System
Maintaining an aquaponics system is simple if you have a plan. Here are some necessary steps that you need to do in maintaining your aquaponics system.
1. Feeding The Fish (every day)
You need to feed the fish properly to keep them healthy. Feed them at least twice a day with an excellent quality diet, and while feeding them, monitor their behavior inside the fish tank. Feed the fish only what they can consume in 5 minutes. Remove any uneaten food after feeding to avoid unwanted water quality issues. To calculate the amount of feed needed in your system, use this formula: 20 g of feed per meter of floating raft growing area.
2. Check The pH Level
The pH level of the aquaponics system plays a significant role in determining whether your system will work. Check the pH level weekly. The pH should be neutral, between 6.8 - 7.0, which is the ideal pH for fish, plants, and bacteria.
You can lower your water pH by using pH down products, which usually contain food-grade phosphoric acid. Add only a little pH down at a time to reduce the pH to the proper level.
If you have a lower pH, you can make adjustments using pH-up products, which usually contain potassium hydroxide and potassium carbonate. Add little at a time until your water pH is raised to the proper level.
3. Ammonia And Nitrate Levels
Check the ammonia levels weekly to note any problem that can become disastrous. A sudden rise in the ammonia level, for example, is an indicator that the system may have a dead fish. The levels may not exceed 0.5 ppm. On the other hand, nitrate levels must be checked monthly and must not exceed 150 ppm. Levels that go further indicate that the plants in the system absorb less nitrogen in the nitrogen released by nitrifying bacteria. You can solve this by adding more plants or harvesting some fish.
Monitor your fish tank's temperature to check if it is within the ideal range for your fish. When necessary, adjust to the right range to ensure that your fish are healthy.
5. Plant Maintance
Tend to your plants as you would a regular garden, except you will not seed any weeds. Check for plant diseases and insects. To keep the balance of your system, plant new crops after harvesting.
With the right aquaponic system components, you can create the perfect setup for your space and goals. Carefully planning your aquaponics system design before you get started will make the entire process easier. Remember that sometimes trial and error is the best way to learn a new skill, which is true in aquaponics and all gardening endeavors. If it is not working the way you want it to, reconsider your design and try again.
Thank you for reading our article. Enjoy aquaponics gardening and growing your organic food. We'd love to hear your feedback on the comments section below and subscribe to our newsletter to get new Aquaponics updates.