I’m very excited to talk about how to build your own hydroponics or aquaponics system.
This will be a guide to help you understand the process, the tools/parts you’ll need & also answering common question that usually arise with when building your own grow system.
This article will talk about the essential considerations, hardware and design concepts related to the creation of an aquaponics system.
An aquaponics system combines the mechanisms of both hydroponics and aquaculture, so you will essentially be hitting two birds with one stone.
However, we will not be discussing hydroponics as a separate system anymore.
The ECOLIFE Conservation ECO-Cycle Aquaponics Indoor Garden System is one of my top recommendations picks. If you you’re not feeling this one then feel free to check out our other top picks over at our best aquaponics systems article.
Now let’s get rolling with learning about building a DIY aquaponics system.
If you live in a temperate country with spring and winter seasons, you’re likely thinking: I’m going to have to shut down my aquaponics setup when the weather gets too cold.
Yes, this is a possibility, since a frozen fish tank is no good for a recirculating system.
The solution to this problem is to harvest crops and fish early and shut down the aquaponics system before things get messy.
Shutting down the system minimizes the capability of aquaponics.
First of all, with the addition of grow lights and a little climate control, you can continue growing your crops indoors.
In a previous article, we talked about improving an aquaponics system so it can be transferred indoors during winter. This might take a whole day of work, but trust us, it’s going to be worth it.
So let’s assume that you’re going to grow crops indoors. The first consideration is weight – because water weights a lot.
Check the floor integrity of your home and see if it can support all the water and equipment needed to keep the system where it’s supposed to be.
You wouldn’t want a system installed on the second floor to end up on first floor!
Some aquaponics gardeners become really creative with their indoor systems.
Obviously, a large system is going to weigh a lot so putting the fish tank on the second floor might be dangerous.
So what other practitioners do is they put the fish tank in the basement and the growing beds on another floor if the beds don’t fit in the basements.
Plumbing connects the two parts of the aquaponics system and voila – the system lives. It’s not conventional even from the viewpoint of someone using a radical system like aquaponics, but if it works, it works.
This is another point that I’d like to remind everyone: when you set out to establish your very own aquaponics system, expect some things to require a solution that is not ‘in the book.’
We don’t all have spacious yards or lawns. Our equipment and gear are going to differ. The water from our faucets is going to be different.
The type of crops, fish, and fish feed are going to likely vary.
There are some general standards that we’d like to strive for, but in the end, your experience is going to dictate how you’re going to deal with your aquaponics system back home.
Many aquaponics gardeners start out small – indoors. Indoor systems are compact, require less water and there’s also less fish (generally) to take care of.
But don’t be deceived: there are people who have been able to extend their indoor systems to tend to dozens of kilograms of fish and several kilograms of crops per harvest, too.
Like we said before, it all depends on the space you have and yes, how much you’re willing to put into the effort of raising both fish and crops in one system.
Here are some factors to think about if you’re thinking of raising fish and crops indoors:
1Humidity – Where there’s water, there’s usually humidity – lots of it. Aquaponics is a recirculating system, which means water is constantly flowing to and fro the two parts of the system.
A basic flood and drain system will mean you have two vats of open water bodies indoors. The natural evaporation will increase the humidity.
Heating the water so the fish don’t die (as well as the plants) while the ambient air is cool can also cause extra humidity and droplet formation indoors.
If air circulation is poor inside your home, the walls can get pretty damp from the water in the system.
2Water spillage – No matter how careful we arewith water, there’s bound to be some spillage.
Assume the worst – don’t be careless with electricals and other stuff that can take water damage easily.
The room where your crops and fish are should be water-hardy and shouldn’t contain stuff that is sensitive to moisture and humidity – and getting soaked.
Prepare for spillages, prepare for possible mini-floods in case something happens to the body of the fish tank, too.
3Lighting – The most common choice for aquaponics system indoors are HIDs or high-intensity discharge systems. The problem with HIDs is they can get pretty warm and they consume lots of power.
Remember that one of the main points of using systems like hydroponics or aquaponics is we want to be kind to Mother Earth.
Consuming more power to grow crops puts us slightly off center when it comes to being Earth-friendly, as our carbon footprint increases.
Again, simply go into this fully aware of what is going into your system to sustain the life of fish and plants.
For outdoor setups, the greenhouse is the most essential ‘hardware’ you will need to think about and establish. A greenhouse is essential to aquaponics because it gives you full control of the environment around your fish and plants.
Here are some things to think about during construction.
1Frost line – Know the frost line of your climate and insulation to the base where the foundation of your greenhouse is going to be established.
This will help prevent warm air from seeping out during the winter through the floor of the greenhouse. Warm air moves to cool areas, not the other way around. So frost doesn’t get in, essentially, but warm air goes out. Insulation will reduce the escape of heat, which is essential for both fish and plant life.
2Insulation is a must – If you live in the southern hemisphere, much of the sunlight that your plants need will be coming in from the south-facing side of your greenhouse if you live in the northern hemisphere (and vice-versa).
You can add grow lights if you need to if there isn’t enough sunlight.
However, heating is a completely different proposition. A greenhouse is essentially a climate-controlled unit and you need to control the ambient temperature, too.
Instead of hoping for more sunlight, you will get better results with your greenhouse by adding more insulation. Use a thermometer to check if you’re getting the right readings daily.
3Double-layered glass – Check direction where the sun is hottest and design your greenhouse so that its roof faces that way.
Plain glass and other appropriate glazing materials such as clear polycarbonates can be used as roofing material. Here’s the tricky part: we’ll need to replicate the ozone layer in your greenhouse.
Here’s how it works: imagine that your greenhouse, with all its glass and insulation, is your atmosphere and everything within it is the planet.
When the heat comes in, some of it is retained while the sun is still up but most of it escapes as night draws near. You will need to install an extra layer of glass as roofing to reduce the amount of heat escaping through the roof through exothermic action.
In order for this double layering to become more effective, there is a need to put some air space in between the two layers. The air in between will simulate the atmosphere further and will help slow down exothermic action even more.
4Reducing costs – Be creative with your greenhouse! Being earth-friendly not only translates to using sustainable systems but also recycling materials for your needs.
Discarded glass, frames and polycarbonate panes can be used to construct and fortify your greenhouse. There are lots of places to get these secondhand/discarded materials.
With a little elbow grease, cutting tools and creativity, you can use scrap materials to build an awesome and sturdy greenhouse, for use in years to come.
An aquaponics system essentially has two parts: the fish tank and the grow beds. These two components are connected by pipes and a water pump delivers water from the fish tank to the growing beds.
Let’s discuss the two main types of system layouts: flood and drain and CHIFT PIST (constant height in a fish tank, pump in sump tank).
– Fish tank
– Grow beds
In a basic flood and drain system, overhead pipes deliver water to the grow beds through a simple pump system.
In a flood and drain system, the grow beds are always positioned above the fish tank so that water being pumped onto the beds are eventually drained to the fish tank.
Water can be returned to the fish tank when the pump has been turned off (via timer) or when a siphon mechanism is tripped and the water is drained back to the fish tank.
Either way, it’s gravity that takes care of the draining for you but the grow beds need to be situated above the fish tank in order for this system to work.
– Fish tank
– Grow beds
– Sump tank
The CHIFT PIST system takes off from the basic flood and drain system and takes it one notch higher with the addition of a sump tank.
With a CHIFT PIST system in place, the grow beds no longer have to be placed above the fish tank.
They can be on the same level as the fish tank because a sump tank will be collecting the water from the grow beds so that it can be redirected to the fish tank once again.
An auto-siphon helps drain the grow beds, and any fluctuations in the water height in the fish tank is easily compensated by the system.
The downside of the CHIFT PIST system is that the grow beds have to be almost perfectly level in order to produce ideal results.
Also, remember that the motorized pump will no longer be placed in the fish tank, but in the sump tank below the grow beds. Water from this point in the system will be fed to the fish tank to maintain a constant water height.
The conventional CHIFT PIST system has been improved upon by the CHIFT2 design.
The CHIFT2 design elevates the grow beds once again but maintains the sump tank. An auto-siphon continues to control the drainage of the grow beds.
Gravity guides water from the grow beds down to the sump tank. A second pump, guided by a floater, delivers water back to the main reservoir/fish tank whenever the floater settings trigger the outward flow of water.
This way, even if the grow beds are not completely level, the water level in the fish tank remains constant, which is really good for the fish, health-wise.
One clear advantage of the CHIFT2 design is despite the fact that the grow beds need to be elevated, these don’t have to be higher than the fish tank at all.
If you could remember in the basic flood and drain system, the grow beds need to be above the fish tank in order for the water to be naturally drained back to the tank.
This isn’t the case in the CHIFT2 system. In CHIFT2, only the sump (receiving/drainage tank) needs to be below the grow beds. The fish tank can be of any height.
The motorized pump will be controlling the flow of water, so it can just feed water back to the fish tank whenever it needs to.
Yet another alternative system designed by Travis Hughey utilizes the concept of the flood and drain system but it does so with the help of the cheapest materials in the market: plastic barrels.
The Hughey Barrel-ponics system makes use of three barrels. The fish tank is positioned below the grow beds. A pump delivers water to a barrel above the grow beds.
A simple valve mechanism delivers nutrient-rich water to the grow beds. The water then drains back to the fish tank. The piping of the Hughey system is designed in such a way that in case of a power failure, all of the water will return to the fish tank via a restricted drain.
Aquaponics is a hybrid system of cultivating crops using methods acquired from aquaculture and hydroponics.
Aquaponics is considered a superior method of growing plants in the long term because it uses less water and also utilizes readily available nutrients from within the system itself.
Aquaponics is also a soil-free system, like hydroponics, but you get to raise fish, too! In large-scale aquaponics setups, fish like tilapia are raised in tanks to supply nutrients to large tracts of crops.
The components of the system work in harmony to keep both fish and plants alive. This aquaponics guide will introduce you the basic concepts and benefits of an aquaponics system.
There are three main questions that you have to answer if you want to figure out if aquaponics is right for you:
– Are you an environmentally-conscious person?
– Do you like growing plants?
– Do you like low-maintenance systems?
If you said yes to at least two of these questions, then we can confidently say that you should definitely take a look at aquaponics as it is environmentally-consistent, low-maintenance and can easily help you grow a wide variety of crops with outstanding yields over time.
When it comes to cultivating crops, nothing beats natural – and the nutrients that will be fed to crops planted in an aquaponics system will come directly from the fish in a separate tank.
How? When you feed fish, they will naturally excrete waste – this waste mixes with the water, increasing the ammonia levels in the water.
High levels of ammonia is toxic to fish. Normally, ammonia is removed either by chemicals or by naturally-occurring bacteria that is also found in the wastes of fish.
When a new fish tank is established, there is a period called balancing where ammonia levels climb to near-toxic levels and then drop gradually as the water balances itself.
In an aquaponics setup, in addition to naturally occurring bacteria in the water that processes ammonia, nitrifying bacteria in the roots of plants help filter the water and remove wastes.
Fish waste is plant food! Fish waste help grow large and healthy crops, the plants help prevent the fish tank from turning into a toxic ammonia bath.
Like we said earlier, aquaponics is a highly synergistic system that is close to perfection in the way it handles both halves of the system – the plants and the animals.
Aquaponics is unique because for the first time in modern agricultural history, fish and plants are essentially kept together for the purpose of keeping each other alive.
There have been other attempts in using animal waste/manure as fertilizer for plants (this has been done a long time ago), but to combine the two in a soil-free system? Unheard of!
Why does it work?
It works because aquaponics essentially establishes an ecosystem.
An ecosystem can balance itself, with the help of larger members and microorganisms that tend to the various processes and needs of the system. There are different kinds of ecosystems on the planet. An ecosystem doesn’t have to be big at all in order to work.
A small aquaponics setup with high efficiency can be considered an efficient and sustainable ecosystem simply because it already has all of the components of an ecosystem that is naturally formed in nature.
1Nutrient source – This is definitely a point of contention when you’re cultivating plants. How much money would you be spending as you wait for nature to take its course and grow your plants?
In a conventional soil setup, you’re going to spend a lot of cash on fertilizers, pest control, etc.
In an aquaponics setup, you don’t have to buy fertilizers anymore because the nutrients that your plants need are already available in the water.
Again, fish waste is plant food. Fish waste contains all of the nutrients that plants need to grow healthily.
Yes, your plants will be consuming fish poop, but it’s the kind of poop that’s a true gold standard in agriculture because it’s pure, it’s complete in plant nutrients and it’s relatively cheap!
This is one aspect of hydroponics that people rarely talk about. When hydroponics became in vogue in the 1980s, the price per gallon of hydroponic nutrients was still low.
But now, there is an increased demand for hydroponic systems and readily-made solutions.
Nutrient solutions, which are essentially mixes of nitrogen, calcium and other essential elements for plant growth, are now succumbing to market conditions. Higher demand means higher prices.
Fish feed, like tilapia feed, are created voluminously and do not require mineral mining to manufacture.
Because of the nature of its manufacture and the fact that manufacturers will lose money if they price fish feed too much, fish feed is cheaper by the kilogram.
Additionally, a 23-kilogram pack of tilapia feed, for example, will already be sufficient to yield almost 20 kilograms of tilapia and support up to eight adult tomato plants.
2Waste and Sustainability – Since the water in the tank will serve as the always-available nutrient solution, you might be wondering: must you dump it, too?
In a conventional hydroponic setup, the water reservoir is periodically drained especially when the pH levels are no longer controllable or when there are toxic salt buildups that can actually kill the plants.
It’s completely different when you’re cultivating plants using an aquaponics setup.
In an aquaponics setup, the waste material from the fish tank will be essentially filtered/cleaned by the plants as they absorb the ammonia and other nutrients.
Unless the water is contaminated by chemicals for some reason, there is no need to discharge the water from the fish tank.
Believe it or not, the microorganisms living in both the fish and in the roots of plants will take care of the nitrogen levels.
After a time, the two components of the aquaponics system will reach equilibrium and the system becomes even easier to manage.
There will be no periodic discharging of water from the fish tank; however, because of natural evaporation the water level in the fish tank will be depleted after a time.
When this happens, you simply top it up to make sure that there’s enough water to go around for the fish and plants.
3Maintenance – From the outset, it can be difficult to see why aquaponics is better than hydroponics in many ways. That is until you’re actually doing it.
In a conventional hydroponic setup, one there is a need to perform daily electrical conductivity (EC) tests with a specialized device to check if the nutrient solution is still up to par and is not approaching toxic levels.
In an aquaponics system, the balancing of nitrogen and the pH level of the water is taken care of by the bacteria in the water and the plants themselves.
After building the base of the water (what growers call the biofilter), good bacteria begins to proliferate in the system and daily EC testing becomes obsolete/unnecessary.
There are still two tests that you need to perform. Once a week, you need to check pH level and ammonia level of the water (instead of daily) and second, you also need to test the nitrate level of the system. Nitrate level testing can be performed once every 30 days.
4Yield and productivity of the system – In a study performed by the Crop Diversification Center in Canada, an aquaponics system tends to overtake the productiveness and yield of conventional hydroponics systems after six months.
Six months is the average time needed to fully establish the bacterial base of the system or the biological filter.
Take note that the biofilter is not really a plastic or synthetic filter.
The ‘filter’ we are referring to here is comprised of the bacteria in the water itself, proliferating and replicating itself continuously to respond to the presence of nutrients in the water.
As the month’s progress, the colonies of beneficial bacteria in the water begin to multiply at an accelerated rate, increasing the effectiveness of the ecosystem and improving the overall performance of the natural filtration available in the aquaponics system.
5Organic through and through – While the containers and pumps that animate an aquaponics system are certainly man-made, the system itself that is contained within these machines and vessels are regulated by Mother Nature.
The interaction between fish, water, and plants is mediated by naturally-occurring bacteria, and as a result, the rebalancing of the nutrient solution (which occurs daily) is handled by nature instead of man.
Red worms are now also being used to improve the waste management and nutrient breakdown in aquaponics systems. Red worms are introduced into the media bed; they proliferate and compost solid fish waste that hasn’t been naturally broken down yet by the movement of the water and bacteria.
This helps prevent spoilage of the water and the growth of e. coli bacteria, which can kill fish.
If you’re a traditional gardener, you’re probably already aware of the many challenges that gardeners face just to get a good yield from a small patch of vegetables/crops. When you shift to aquaponics, you can expect the following:
1Organic produce – Like we said before, the system is largely organic and therefore, the produce is going to be organic.
We’re not going to be using the usual pesticides and other synthetic chemicals that are normally used for gardening on soil.
That means you’ll be a happy, healthy grower yourself since you will no longer be in contact with these harmful chemicals as you establish your very own aquaponics base.
2Water thriftiness – Compared to soil gardening, aquaponics uses only one-tenth of the usual amount of water used in traditional gardening.
Why? Because all the water you put into the aquaponics system is recirculated (reused). In traditional gardening, you water your plants, some of the moisture is retained near the oxygen zone of the roots and the rest is absorbed by the soil itself.
The process is repeated constantly because soil dries out quickly, especially in places with dry climes.
3Golden waste management – In aquaculture, fish waste is considered a pollutant – something that messes with the natural balance of the fish tank and can kill the fish. In an aquaponics setup, the process is reversed.
Instead of being treated as a toxic pollutant, fish waste is what we’re after. The fish waste is going to feed the plants, which in turn will clean the water so the water doesn’t become spoiled with fish waste.
4Good for your back, too! – Aquaponics setups are usually waist high, or least they aren’t ground-level, so you won’t be doing a lot of back-bending/breaking work at all. You can check the water once a week and observe the growth of the plants, all without having to tire your back out. Sweet!
5Natural fertilizer – Nutrients are delivered to your plants automatically.
There is no need to sprinkle additional fertilizers on your plants because the recirculating system is always delivering water with fish waste in it.
In short, your crops will be receiving vital nutrients and elements 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you won’t even notice it because the system is so harmonious and easily balanced.
6Set up anywhere there’s light – If you don’t want to spend additional money on grow lights, there’s always the option of setting up your aquaponics system where there’s sunlight. But if this isn’t the case, then you would need a grow tent and grow lights.
Grow lights are high-intensity light machines that deliver UV radiation, not just visible light. These lights simulate the natural light coming from the sun and they are widely available on the Internet, too.
7Some added bonuses – Who likes watering plants daily? I know it can be good exercise and to some, it’s a relaxing activity.
But when you’re growing several rows of crops with different water requirements and you’re busy with work, watering plants 365 days a week can be a challenging proposition!
Yes, we don’t water plants in aquaponics setups. There is no need for that because the media bed is constantly wet from the recirculating system.
That recirculating system is simply a pump system that delivers water to the media bed and brings back the water to the main reservoir in a repeated cycle.
And finally, there are no weeds! Weed are unwanted plants that grow beside crops in gardens.
Seeds are blown by the wind; the weeds can flourish quickly if you don’t uproot or trim them.
In an aquaponics setup, weeds can’t grow on the media bed. The only plants that can grow are the ones that are actually planted by the grower in the growth cups.
Location, location, location
We all know how it feels like when winter is coming and your garden is at risk of being killed off by the cold. So what do we do in this situation?
Remember – your aquaponics system is man-made. It can be transported to different locations when the need arises.
During the winter, aquaponics growers can dismantle their systems and reassemble them indoors (like in the basement) so they can continue growing crops year round.
Year-round cultivation becomes possible, again, because of the availability of technology that can support plant life indoors, such as grow tents and grow lights. This is a much better proposition than say, harvesting crops early or letting winter take its toll on your plants.
An aquaponics system can be created from scratch. If you want to purchase a complete setup that is being sold commercially, you can still modify that so it can be transported or moved easily to the garage or the basement when the need arises for it.
Yes, it will probably take a bit of effort to make a non-transportable system more mobile, but it will be worth it, as a single aquaponics setup can be used again and again, year after year, for use in the cultivation of different crops.
Take note also that there are smaller commercial aquaponics systems that are designed specifically to work indoors.
These are for people who want to take up gardening as a hobby but don’t have the luxury of having a spacious yard or lawn area. These smaller, indoor systems can deliver and there’s nothing wrong with trying them if you’re just starting out.
A smaller system is easier to manager, relatively cheaper to maintain and you get to understand how aquaponics works on a smaller scale.
Admittedly, there’s a slight learning curve when you’re starting out with aquaponics. The system is not automatic. You still have to figure out what type of fish to put into the tank, what type of feed delivers better results, how to hook the pump into the system, etc.
There are dozens of small steps to take into consideration. But all these are worth it, believe us, because once you master the basics, you have a virtually unlimited frontier waiting for you!