Aquaponics is a revolutionary method of growing plants and raising fish in an integrated, sustainable aquaculture system. It’s a combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and is used to grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
Aquaponics is an efficient way to produce food while reducing total water consumption, fertilizer runoff, and home energy costs. In this blog post we’ll discuss everything you need to know to create your own aquaponics system and help it thrive.
What Is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is a closed-loop system in which fish and plants are grown together in a mutually beneficial way. This system uses 90% less water than soil-based farming and zero chemicals or pesticides.
In aquaponics, fish excrement is used as a natural fertilizer for the plants, and the plants filter and clean the water for the fish. This means that the fish and plants both benefit from the same water and resources. Setting up a system at home is a fantastic way to reduce your carbon footprint and live a more eco-friendly lifestyle.
Aquaponics is also a great way to get involved with the local food movement, including locally sourced foods, micro gardening, slow food, and community gardening. The principles and benefits of aquaponics can be used to teach children about sustainability and the importance of resource conservation.
Aquaponics has become very popular in recent years and continues to be. Industry experts anticipate a 14 to 15% annual growth rate from 2023 through 2025 and about 12 to 13% growth from 2025 to 2028.
An aquaponics system consists of two main components: a fish tank and a grow bed. The fish tank is where the fish live and swim and the grow bed is where the plants are grown.
The fish tank and grow bed are connected by a pump that moves water from the fish tank to the grow bed. Any excess water from the grow bed then makes its way back to the tank where the fish benefit from it.
The most important part of an aquaponics system is the balance between the fish and the plants. You need fish, plants, a water temperature, and a tank environment that all support each other, otherwise both fish and plants will suffer.
The best types of plants to start with are those that don’t require tons of nutrients to be successful. Such plants include cucumbers, lettuces, watercress, herbs, and cauliflower. As your system becomes balanced and sustainable, you can expand into more nutrient-dense plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and ginger.
Aquaponics Fish Tank
The fish tank is the heart of the aquaponics system and is home to the fish. One of the most important decisions in setting up your aquaponics system is choosing the right size and type of fish tank.
The size of the fish tank you use is determined by the number and type of fish you want to keep. A rule of thumb is adding one inch of fish for every gallon of water. If you have a 20-gallon tank, you’d want 20 one-inch fishes or 10 two-inch fishes.
It is also important to make sure the fish tank is properly aerated and filtered to keep the water clean and healthy for the fish. A well-aerated aquaponics tank ensures your fish don’t have trouble respirating, your plants get the nutrients they need, and there’s symbiosis between plants and fish.
Before getting into all details of aeration, let’s look at the three ways a tank can be aerated. Those are mechanical aeration, diffused air systems, and water pump systems:
- Mechanical aeration systems: This approach uses a paddle wheel, spinning blade, or similar object powered by a submersible motor to propel water in the tank. This keeps the water fresh and ensures fish waste isn’t accumulating in clumps or corners of the tank.
- Diffused air systems: A diffused air system makes use of an aquarium bubbler, otherwise known as an air stone, to transfer dissolved oxygen into the tank water. This is a less abrupt way to keep water fresh for the fish while ensuring the plants still get what they need. Air stones also look great and enhance the visual appeal of your aquaponics tank.
- Water pump systems: This is the most complex type of aeration system but also works great for spherical or loop tanks. Water pump systems involve drilling small holes into a pipe that’s submerged in water and later connected to a motor that pushes water through the system. Pumps work well in loop-style tanks because the water has to circulate through the entire tank to be fresh and oxygenated.
With the basics of aeration out of the way, it’s time to look at how to keep your tank as clean and fresh as possible. Here are our top recommendations:
- Create and use a tank cleaning checklist. Even with thoroughly aerated water, your tank is going to accumulate biowaste, fish solids, and slime. It’s important to regularly clean your tank and its components and drain it fully once per year. The most important aspects to check and clean on a regular basis are your aeration system, its motor, any pipes, and any filters.
- Develop a daily maintenance checklist. Several crucial water characteristics should be checked daily to ensure a healthy environment for plants and fish. Those factors are the water’s alkalinity, dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, temperature, and pH. Here’s what each component should be:
- Alkalinity: 100 ppm CaCO3 or greater
- Oxygen: 5 mg per liter / per quarter gallon
- Nitrogen: 3 to 150 mg per liter
- Temperature: Between 68°F to 86°F / 20 to 30°C
- pH: Between 6.8 and 7.0 (ever so slightly acidic)
- Use the right temperature and pH level. Water pH and temperature level is crucial to ensure both plants and fish are getting what they need. A healthy pH level for most aquaponics systems is between 6.8 and 7.0. The right temperature range is about 68°F to 86°F, or 20 to 30°C. This range is where the fish, plants, and bacteria do best, optimizing your system for months to come.
- Maintain a well-ventilated system. Just like the water needs to be well-oxygenated, fresh air is essential too. If your system is outdoors, this is typically all the ventilation you need. If you’ve set up aquaponics indoors, make sure it’s in a room that receives predictable airflow. If this isn’t the case, set up a fan or a timed source of air circulation that ensures the room isn’t getting stale.
- In general, maximize your tank’s aeration. The more aerated your tank’s water is, the more your plants and fish thrive. Without fresh oxygen, your fish will suffer, potentially die, and your plants will also wither. As long as your aeration system is running smoothly each day and you clean it at least once per month, you’re on the right track.
Aquaponics DIY Tips
Now that you’re aware of the basics of an aquaponics system and its maintenance, it’s time for some DIY tips. Here are the strategies and tips we’ve used for our own aquaponics systems:
- Create a budget. Just like any other goal, a well-organized budget makes it much easier to accomplish. You can get a quality, reliable, at-home aquaponics system started for about $1,600 to $3,000.
- Designate a space for your system. Aquaponics can work both outdoors and indoors but we recommend indoors for beginners. This gives you more control over the setup and helps you monitor both plant and fish needs in a simpler manner.
- Research the fish you want. There are dozens of fish varieties that work for aquaponics but that doesn’t mean you should blindly choose any. Consider what kind of fish match your aquaponics goals and what their needs are. Look at what’s feasible based on your aquaponics budget.
- Get the right equipment. Your aquaponics system needs plenty of hardware to get up and running. The essentials include the fish tank, a grow bed, a water pump or aeration system, grow media, PVC pipe including fittings, bulkheads or uniseals, a seed starting tray and seed starting cubes, a siphon, a water testing kit, and a total dissolved solids (TDS) or electrical conductivity (EC) meter.
- Set things up properly. With your equipment and space prepared, it’s time to get things organized. Use the instructions and information that came with your equipment to set it up correctly. If you bought an all-inclusive aquaponics kit, follow the steps in the instructional info it comes with.
Best Fish for Aquaponics
When choosing fish for your aquaponics system, it’s crucial to choose fish that are suited to your home’s climate, typical temperature, and the size of your tank. Researching both the type of fish you want and that will match your tank setup ensures you’ll be off to good results.
Here are the best types of fish for aquaponics:
- Advantages: Work well with a varied diet; easier to maintain in colder climates
- Drawbacks: Grow slowly; need large tanks; can’t be grown with other fish; need higher level of dissolved oxygen
- Advantages: Easier to grow and breed; aren’t territorial; can be grown in varying water temperatures
- Drawbacks: Can be easily stressed or injured; must be fed high-protein foods
- Advantages: Grow quickly and in a variety of environments; they’re top feeders (quickly adjustable diet)
- Drawbacks: Quick reproduction timeline; require warmer water in a climate that still cool
- Advantages: Handle different pH levels well; produce waste frequently for plants/grow bed
- Drawbacks: Can’t be mixed with other fish
- Advantages: Tolerate cold temperatures/climates well
- Drawbacks: Require more food; more likely to contract disease than other fish
- Advantages: Resist diseases and parasites well; long lifespan
- Drawbacks: Need a large tank; produce more waste as they age creating a greater need for maintenance
- Largemouth bass
- Advantages: Top feeders; work well with a varied diet
- Drawbacks: Require close monitoring of potassium levels; very sensitive to environmental changes; don’t tolerate bright light
With your aquaponics materials and fish prepared, you can begin your aquaponics setup. The first step is to properly install the fish tank and the grow bed. Make sure the tank and the grow bed are connected with the pump and that water is getting filtered and aerated.
Second is ensuring your hardware is set up and running correctly before adding fish. That way your fish aren’t experiencing shock or potentially dying because the tank’s environment wasn’t ready.
Third, make sure your system is properly balanced between the fish and the plants. You won’t want to have too much or little of one or the other, otherwise you won’t get good results.
The tank is a central part of your aquaponics system and is the home to the fish. Choosing the right size and shape of tank for the type of fish you want to keep and making sure the tank is fully aerated is crucial here.
How to Build an Aquaponics System
If you prefer to buy supplies separately and build your own tank, that works great too. Building an aquaponics system can seem daunting but it’s simple once you get going.
- Assemble the hardware. The tank itself, filter, aerator, any electrical components, pipes, and any other pieces must be assembled before anything else can be added.
- Put your media bed together. Media is the material used to grow your plants without soil. This keeps your plants’ roots positioned correctly while ensuring they still receive the nutrients required for growth. Start with a 1:1 ratio of bed volume to fish tank volume, and as your system matures you can increase that to 2:1.
- Add fish to the tank. When your tank and media bed is assembled, test your tank water first. When it passes all tests, you’re clear to add your fish.
- Add your seed cubes or plant starters. Now that everything else is ready you can add your plant starters or seed cubes. Make sure your plants receive the care and handling necessary for their growth.
At this point, you’re off to the races! Keep monitoring your fish and plants for both expected behavior and unexpected occurrences. Stick with your daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly maintenance schedule and you’ll be reaping all the rewards of aquaponics soon.
Drawbacks of Aquaponics
For all of their benefits, unfortunately there are some drawbacks of aquaponics. Here are the main ones to be aware of, which may help you decided if you still want to invest in it:
- Heavy reliance on electricity. In order for the pumps and filters to operate effortlessly, they require electricity. For those 100% reliant on solar power, this may not be as much of an issue. For individuals and families already on a tight budget, this will only spread them thinner.
- Limited plant selection. While aquaponics greatly reduces the amount of water needed for growing, you can’t grow a variety of plants with it. You’re limited to the plants that can do well with grow bed media and a constant supply of water. For most people this ends up being plants like cucumbers, lettuce, watercress, cauliflower, and cabbage.
- High startup costs. Even if you’re setting up a modest home aquaponics system, it can cost more than $1,000. Most people will need to invest closer to $2,000 to $3,000 for all the equipment necessary to sustain great results. This cost is feasible for families with the means, but can be a high barrier to entry for those looking for an inexpensive hobby.
The Bottom Line
Start your at-home aquaponics system today! Not only will your house have fresher air from the live plants, but you’ll also have an amazing conversation piece and also be contributing to a cleaner environment with your zero chemical, zero pesticide agricultural system.
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