You’ve probably heard of aquaponics. But perhaps you don’t know exactly what it is. Aquaponics combines two things into one integrated system.
One is aquaculture, which is raising fish in a closed system such as a tub or tank. The other is hydroponics, which is raising plants in a soil-less system.
With aquaponics, you have fish, plants and water all contained in one system that uses bacteria and worms to balance it.
The fish emit their waste, which is full of ammonia, while the plants lose their decaying matter. Now, this would be a problem if you had fish but no plants. Or plants but no fish.
But when the two systems are combined with bacteria and worms, the issues are resolved. What results is an environment where both can thrive.
Worms and bacteria keep plants and fish alive
The worms and bacteria are the key elements of the system. Without them, neither the fish nor the plants will survive.
Those worms live inside the grow bed medium, while the bacteria lives on it.
The bacteria is crucial because it converts ammonia into nitrates. The plants suck up these nitrates. That leaves clear, aerated water that is recycled back to the fish.
The worms are essential because they feed on the plant matter and decaying leaves. And they break up the solid matter from the fish waste. The worms’ waste makes nutrients available to the plants.
Have you ever considered establishing an aquaponics system in your home or on your property? If so, here is information that might encourage you to move forward with the idea:
- You can’t over-fertilize an aquaponics system.
- You can use the same water indefinitely. You’ll only have to replace what’s lost through evaporation and transpiration.
- It’s less expensive than aquaculture and traditional gardening.
- There’s no weeding.
- It’s more difficult for predators to gain access.
- It’s four to six times more productive.
Establishing an aquaponics system
If you decide to build your own aquaponics system, there are websites and books that will show you how. First you’ll need to decide whether to go horizontal or vertical with your system.
The advantage to a horizontal system, assuming you have room to spread out, is that you can easily reach your plants.
A vertical system grows vegetables in columns above your fish tank. So, you can produce about twice the amount of plants as you can with a hydroponic system using the same area. One five-foot tall tower can produce more than 300 heads of lettuce per year.
Either way, you will need certain components for your aquaponics system. They include:
- A pump capable of moving the amount of water you have through your system
- An aerator and one or more air stones
- A container for the fish
- A container for the plants
- A grow media
- A testing kit
- A siphon (with certain systems).
There are two types of media-filled systems. One is continuous flow, and the other is flood and drain.
In the continuous flow system, water is pumped from the fish tank to the grow bed. The water drains through the media and back into the fish tank.
All this system needs is an irrigation grid. It should consist of pipes placed over the grow bed to ensure there is an even distribution of water.
In the basic flood and drain system, water is pumped from the fish tank into the media grow beds. The beds fill up before being drained.
The cycle repeats using an automatic siphon requiring no electricity. In addition to being simple, this system provides the best growing environment for the plants.
Choosing a container
When choosing a container for your aquaponics system, there’s only one rule: it must be able to hold water without leaking.
The advantage to a transparent container, such as an aquarium, is you can better see what’s going on in your system. A downside could be the water will heat up more quickly. And that’s not good for the fish.
A possibility you might want to consider for your aquaponics container is a kid’s swimming or wading pool.
Others are a wooden or fiberglass barrel, a bathtub, a concrete mixing tub, a livestock watering trough and a trash can.
And the winner is…
The most popular aquaponics container, for both first-time and experienced growers, is the Intermediate Bulk Container. The size of your container really comes down to how many pounds of produce and fish you wish to harvest.
The next thing you’ll need to decide is where to place your tank. Among the options are your basement, garage, sunroom, porch, deck, greenhouse, shed and garden.
One of the deciding factors is the type of fish you stock in your system. Some fish such as tilapia need higher water temperatures and benefit from sun. Others such as trout or catfish prefer cooler temperatures. They do better in shade.
Other factors regarding where to place your aquaponics tank are:
- How large and heavy it is
- How far from your living quarters you are willing to walk
- How close your power source is
- How close your water source is
- What kind of potential predators are in the area.
One of the realities of an aquaponics system is water loss. Depending on the size of the system, you could lose between two and four gallons of water per day.
Some vegetables require a considerable amount of water. Including tomatoes, squash, melons and strawberries.
They will devour the water and then release some of it through their leaves. Some of the other water in the tank will evaporate.
Following are five steps to launching your aquaponics system:
- Design and build or purchase and assemble your system.
- Fill the tanks with de-chlorinated water.
- Add plants to your grow media.
- Place worms on the top of the grow media. They’ll burrow in quickly.
- Establish the nitrifying bacteria by adding a few fish.
Choosing your fish
When you feel too cold, running around or engaging in other exercise will generate some of the heat your body craves. When you feel too warm, remaining as perfectly still as possible can help your body cool down.
Fish don’t have this luxury. They are cold-blooded creatures. That means their internal body temperature is regulated solely by the outside environment.
Swimming faster won’t help them warm up and staying still won’t help them cool down. They are at the mercy of the water temperature.
If it’s too hot or too cold, they will not eat, swim or mate as they are supposed to. And they may eventually become susceptible to disease or die. Of course, different fish have different optimal body temperatures.
As you select fish for your aquaponics system, keep in mind the temperatures in which they will thrive rather than just survive.
Plants have temp preferences, too
Your decision should also be based on what kind of plants your system will include, as some do better in colder temperatures and others in warmer temps.
As an example, saltwater is not a good environment for most fruits and vegetables. So, you’ll want to choose fresh water fish for your system.
Another factor to consider when choosing fish is water movement. A still water environment is great for tilapia, bluegill, bass and most perch. A moving water system is better for trout and catfish.
And speaking of environment, there are activities you should avoid. One is subjecting your fish to extreme and sudden differences in lighting. That occurs when you flip on a bright light after they’ve been in darkness all night.
Another is tapping on the tank with your fingers, which causes uncomfortable vibrations throughout their bodies.
Types of fish
Do some research into the types of fish to stock in your system. In the meantime, here are some possibilities:
- Catfish – These fish are bottom feeders. They co-exist well with bluegill, which enjoy a tank’s upper levels. Catfish prefer still to slow-moving water.
- Carp – This hardy fish can adapt to just about any temperature and conditions. They do best in still water with temperatures between 50-70 degrees F.
- Koi – Brilliantly colored and sometimes expensive, koi are still basically carp at heart. They live from four to 20 years, on average.
- Yellow Perch – These fish need more room than the average fish in order to grow faster and healthier. They thrive in flowing water.
- Silver Perch – They are intolerant of overcrowding and poor water quality. These fish like flowing water and need plenty of protein in their diet.
- Jade Perch – These fish enjoy warm water and tend to grow to full size quickly. Unlike other perch, they prefer still water.
- Murray Cod – A fast-growing fish that tastes great, they can be predatory so keep them well fed. They like moving water.
- Tilapia – Hardy and adaptable, these fish can tolerate poor water conditions but need warm (82-86 degrees F) and still water.
- Trout – Without crystal clear, cold water, these fish will not do well in an aquaponics system. In the right conditions, they have fast growth rates.
Fish and water quantities
One of the first questions people ask when they’re looking into setting up an aquaponics system is, “How many fish should I have?”
Because fish vary in size and water needs, there is no set answer. As a general rule, you can probably have as many as 40 to 50 fish if your tank holds 265 gallons.
Keep in mind that larger tanks usually provide a more stable fish environment. So, it’s best to build up the number of fish over time rather than risking over-populating your tank right away.
Also, the more active your fish are, the fewer you’ll want in the tank. The number of fish you can raise in any system is only limited by how well your system can convert ammonia to nitrates.
And by how effectively you can maintain appropriate levels of dissolved oxygen in the water.
Introducing fish to water
Your water’s pH levels should be between 6.5 and 8.5, depending upon the temperature of the water, to maximize your fish’s odds of thriving.
Before you add fish, you need to cycle your water to create the bacteria/water balance that will convert ammonia from the fish into nitrates your plants can use.
Once your fish are introduced to the water, they will begin generating waste. Including ammonia as a result of their respiratory process and solid waste that needs to be converted to nitrates.
Bacteria and worms will take care of this important responsibility in an aquaponics system.
Harvesting your fish
You want to harvest your mature fish without stressing out the younger ones. Put your net into the tank and let it sit there for a while until the fish are used to it.
Pick out the fish you want to harvest and wait until it comes to you. Scoop it up quickly when it’s not next to a smaller fish. Then transfer it to a bucket or cooler for processing.
Want an easy step by step guide to get started?
Aquaponics is a fun way to grow and harvest plants and fish. It could be the rewarding challenge you are seeking.
And here at 4Patriots, we created a step by step video guide with aquaponics expert Chad Hudspeth called Aquaponics4Patriots.
Featured on DoomsDay Preppers, Chad provides unparalleled, professional instructions on building your own self contained “fish-powered food factory” that you can have up and running in no time flat.