Do you love organic living? Are you passionate about healthy food but you do not always have the money for fresh organically sourced food? Are you looking for a fun and educational way to have more interaction with nature? Or are you genuinely concerned with recent environmental issues and do you want to learn how to contribute to sustainable food production? Then Aquaponics might be the perfect hobby for you!
What Is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is the practice of growing fish and plants together in one self-sustaining ecosystem. It brings together aquaculture – raising and growing fish in dedicated tanks as part of a re-circulating system – and hydroponics – the practice of growing plants in a soil-less medium such as clay pebbles, perlite or vermiculite.
There is much more to it, but basically, the fish and plants grow together and create a self-sustaining ecosystem. The fish grow, consume fish feed and produce waste. The waste in the water is then used as nutrients by the plants, meaning that the plants clean the water and ensure the health of the fish. The fish produce waste again and keep the cycle going.
Aquaponics is not only very sustainable, it is also highly efficient. The output will depend on the setup of your system and the fish and plants that you grow. Some systems allow you to have ½ to 1 square foot of grow bed space for each gallon of water and to raise a pound of fish with one to two gallons of water.
You can start raising fish and plants by yourself at home by using a small counter-top home aquaponics system. These smaller systems are the perfect learning tool for anyone that wants to get started with aquaponics. Keep reading to find out how it works and what you need to get started.
How Does Aquaponics Work?
In traditional aquaculture fish are growing in tanks. The fish waste accumulates in the tanks and eventually has to be removed by renewing the water in the tank, to ensure the health of the fish. But the waste produced by the fish is a useful byproduct that contains rich nutrients. These could be consumed by plants instead of just being thrown away.
In Aquaponics, fish also grow in tanks and therefore also produce waste in the tank. But instead of periodically renewing the water, the water and waste are pumped onto the plants in the grow bed. The plants consume the waste and filter the water so the fish stay healthy.
These are the main steps in the aquaponics cycle:
- Fish live and grow in the fish tank, where they produce waste.
- The water and waste are pumped into the grow bed and onto the plants.
- The fish waste contains toxic ammonia – this is harmful to the plants.
- The ammonia will attract bacteria in the grow bed. These bacteria are called Nitrosomonas.
- Nitrosomonas in the grow bed will convert the toxic ammonia into nitrites.
- The nitrites cannot be consumed by the plants, as they are even more toxic than ammonia. So a second bacteria, the Nitrospiras, are called to the rescue.
- The Nitrospiras convert the Nitrites into nitrates or nutritious plant food!
- The plants absorb the nutrient-rich water.
- The clean and recycled water is cycled back into the fish tank.
- The Main maintenance is feeding the fish.
- Water only needs to be added occasionally, as water levels only lower due to leakage or evaporation.
Home Aquaponics Systems
Aquaponics can be done at home. You can combine indoor gardening with a beautiful aquarium, all while not having a lot of maintenance. You will only need to feed the fish.
A home aquaponics system is limited in size (typically a 10-gallon aquarium is used) and can be used as part of your home decoration. It will simply turn a standard aquarium into a self-sustaining ecosystem that looks cool and will teach you a lot about plants and fish.
There are some great ready-made aquaponics kits on the market. These will transform a standard aquarium by building a grow bed on top of it. The kits come with all standard supplies such as water pumps and irrigation tubing.
Backyard Aquaponics Systems
Of course, you do not need to install your system in your home. Also, your backyard can be the perfect location for a small scale aquaponics system.
When you setup your system in your garden, you can use the natural sunlight to grow your plants and to heat the water for your fish.
DIY – What Do You Need To Build Your Own System
Building your own home or backyard aquaponics system can be a lot of fun. You will also have to chance to really think it through and design your system as you want it. This is not possible when you just go out and purchase a standard kit.
When you want to build your own system, the following list of supplies will get you started.
- Fish Tank – obviously your fish will need a place to live! You can use a standard 10-gallon aquarium as the base for your home aquaponics system. Alternatively, you can use a small stock tank, a half barrel or just a rubber-made tub. If you are really serious about your aquaponics plans you can use a larger bath tub or stock tank. You can even use large fiberglass tanks or open ponds!
- Fish and Plants – read further down this post what kind of fish are suited for aquaponics and which plants might do well in your system.
- Grow bed – a grow bed that is waterproof (water should only go in and out through the tubes), non-toxic (as it will be the home of your plants and bacteria) and sufficiently strong (as it will hold all the weight of the plants and grow medium).
- Soil-less Grow Medium – e.g. clay pebbles, a durable and low-maintenance soil replacement that supports plant roots, keeps moisture so plants do not dry out, and traps the fish waste so water is filtered and cleaned.
- Water Pump – the water needs to be regularly pumped into the grow bed and onto the plants. You best choose a pump with the timer to set and control the flood and drain cycles.
- Irrigation Tubing – pipes going in and out of the grow bed
- Grow Light – when you live in an area or country with not a lot of sun, or when you do not have space in your garden to install your system outside, you might need a grow light. This light is essential if your plants are not getting enough natural sunlight. You can choose a LED to grow light to ensure that your energy consumption is limited.
- Air Pump – needed
- Water heater – the body temperature of the fish is regulated by the temperature of the water. So depending on the type of fish that you grow, your water will need a certain stable temperature range. To ensure this you might need a fish tank water heater.
- pH Meter – the pH level of the water in your tank is the level of acidity in the water. As for the temperature, fish need to live in water with a stable pH range. So getting a pH meter to measure your water acidity level is probably a good idea!
- Filtration system – if your system is correctly balanced – right amounts of fish and plants, right amounts of daily fish feed, etc. – you will not need an additional filtration system.
- Access to stable electricity – to make sure that your pumps are regularly maintaining the flood and drain cycles, that the temperature of the water is stable and the grow light continuously mimics the sunlight, you will need stable electricity. So it is a good idea to install your system near an outlet!
What Kind Of Fish Are Good For Aquaponics
As said before, most fish need to live in water with a stable temperature range and acidity levels. So when you select the fish and plants for your aquaponics system, it makes sense to look for fish and plants that have similar needs for pH and temperature. Your fish and plants are more likely to grow better and live longer if these needs are in line.
When selecting your fish, you of course also need to take into account if you want your fish to be edible or not. If you are a vegetarian and are not planning to eat your fish, you can choose a beautiful small aquarium fish. If you plan to eat your fish, keeping goldfish is probably not the best idea!
The following are examples of aquarium fish that can be used in aquaponics systems:
- Tetra Fish
Some other, bigger fish that often live well in aquaponics systems are:
- Yellow, Silver or Golden Perch
Plants That Do Well In Aquaponics
In Aquaponics, you do not use soil. The plants grow in a soil-less medium. Water covers that medium most of the time. Therefore the plants that are adequate for your aquaponics system are those that grow above the soil and have roots that can be wet most of the time.
Leafy green vegetables and green herbs are good choices. However, plants that grow mainly under the soil, such as potatoes, will not do so well.
Below you can find a list of some of the vegetables and herbs that could do well on your system:
- Leaf Lettuce
- Pak Choi
- Swiss Chard