Aquaponics System and
How To Build One
In a nutshell, an Aquaponics System is basically a combination of Aquaculture and Hydroponics, hence the word Aquaponics. It is the perfect marriage that capitalizes the positive side of both systems and taking away their negative aspects. Now, do allow me to elaborate further on that.
Hydroponics is basically a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water, without the use of soil. Plants are suspended at the surface via a floating media with its roots submerged in the specially formulated solutions that act as fertilizer to keep the plants healthy and strong. The set back is that the solution is not cheap and needs special handling after use.
Aquaculture on the other hand, is a means to harvesting aquatic organisms and plants, but typically fish are grown in these set ups and are harvested for food. The down side of this method, especially in landed fish farms is handling of the fish wastes. This waste water needs to be treated and if not dealt with properly would cause adverse effect on the environment.
This is when Aquaponics comes in. It takes the negative effects of both the systems and converts them into a synergistic effect producing healthy fish and plants. Aquaponics is a revolutionary process which combines aquaculture and hydroponics to grow fish and plants together in one integrated system, creating a mini ecosystem if you may.
In this system, the fish waste or the end product, Nitrate is nutrients to the plants. They just love it and that’s one of the reasons why most plants grow faster and bigger in an aquaponics environment. The plants actually act as natural filters that would clean the water in the system.
Now let’s touch on the microbes (nitrifying and nitrating bacteria) in the system. They are critical to the success of an aquaponics system. These bacteria do the job of converting ammonia from the fish wastes, first into nitrites, then into nitrates and the solids into vermicompost that are food for the plants.
As you can see, in combining both Hydroponics and Aquaculture, aquaponics capitalizes on the benefits and eliminates the drawbacks of both the systems. It’s an extremely effective way to produce healthy fish and vegetable, where plants can potentially grow twice as fast and up to ten times more produce using the same amount of space as compared to conventional farming methods.
What that means is if you’re growing lettuce in 10 square feet of space using an aquaponics system, it would be equivalent to you growing lettuce in a 100 square feet of land in the conventional agriculture. That’s a huge amount of difference in terms of land usage and financial saving.
Aquaponics is a natural way of producing food. Have you ever wondered why fish in a lake don’t need a filter like the fish in aquariums do? It’s because its wastes or excrement is consumed by the bacteria in the water.
These bacteria use the fish waste as food and give off other products that are food for plants. It’s how lakes clean themselves in a natural cycle called an eco-system. Aquaponics mimics this system and that’s why it is a self-sustaining system.
Let’s have a look at some of the benefits to aquaponics;
- Saves up to 90% of water usage compared to traditional methods of soil grown plants. You don’t need to water the plants. It’s automated!
- Plants grow significantly faster, bigger and healthier. The fish and the bacteria produce all the natural nutrient the plants need.
- There is no need to add fertilizers as the system feeds itself. That not only safes you money but also time and labor in growing your greens.
- There is no need to dispose of fish waste or provide an artificial filtration system. This is all being taken care of by the mini eco-system. That is what aquaponics systems are really.
- Less land area is required to grow the same quantity of crops as traditional soil methods.
- It’s easier to setupfor year round use compared to traditional gardening methods.
- You get delicious, healthy food.
- Reduced damage from soil grown pests and disease, because no soil is needed.
- No weeding or bending down on the ground required. The growbeds height are normally set at, or just above waist level, that’s why you don’t not need to bend down to remove weed if any, or for harvesting.
Aquaponics can basically be divided into two basic systems. The segregation if you may, comes by way of how the plants are being in supported. Let me first elaborate on the system that utilizes a media filled growbed. This simply means some form of media is used to support the plants in the aquaponics system.
Media Filled Growbed Aquaponics
This media normally comes in the likes of lava rocks, LECA (Lightweight Expanded Clay Agregade) more commonly known as hydroton, river stones and etc. I mean you can always experiment with other mediums that could do the job as well.
There is not much you can’t grow on a media platform, you can really grow just about anything. Where you are, climate conditions, the space that you have as well as the method of water flow you have decided are mainly the limitations in your aquaponics system.
Deep Water Culture Aquaponics
The Deep Water Culture system or more popularly known as just simply DWC, is mainly applied in commercial scale production. It has its roots originating from hydroponics however, its functioning concepts have been widely adopted in aquaponics systems as well.
A basic DWC system design includes a floating platform, more often than not foams are used. The working principle here is that the plants will be held on top of the water by means of the foam with its roots left dangling in the water to extract nutrients.
The Fundamental Components That
Make An Aquaponics System
There are a few fundamental materials that you ought to have in order to really make it work. In the first place, you must have a means to cultivate your fish and to grow your plants. In the aquaponics world we normally use tanks for these purposes. One for the fish and another for the plants that we refer to as “growbeds”.
Now, it’s not necessary to buy new ones. You can always recycle what you already have at your disposal. This could be a tank you bought that’s now lying in the garage collecting dust. Or it may be a fish aquarium or a pond that you may already have in your vicinity, all the above can get the job done. Just make sure they are no less than two feet deep.
Let’s move on to the growbed. A growbed in aquaponics term, is simply the area where you grow your aquaponics plants. A rectangle-shaped tank is generally used for this purpose, but nevertheless, nothing should prevent you from using a round or any other shape of tank for this purpose. If you’re a handyman, you can easily build one yourself.
Water Pump And PVC Connections
The third component you’ll need is the water pump so as to transfer water from the fish tank into your growbed. You can use a normal aquarium water pump to get that going, absolutely nothing fancy is required. As long as it can push a sufficient quantity of water all the way up to the growbed, it is good enough.
The last item you’re looking for now are some PVC piping for the supply line, from the pump to the growbed plus a drain line via the growbed, to gravity feed water back again to the fish tank.
Once you’ve all the above sorted out, the next thing for you to do is figure out what plant and fish to grow in your aquaponics system. I think it’s safe to say here that you would choose the fish and the plants that you love to put on your dinner plate, and that is only natural right. The size of your tanks and climate conditions play a significant part in deciding the fish species and type of plants that you should have for your aquaponics system.
Tilapia is definitely one of the most popular choice for this system simply because this is a really hardy fish as they are delicious to eat. And they grow fast as well. Tilapias can grow to plate size in 6 to 9 months, easy to maintain and are omnivores. They feed on plants, duckweed in particular and smaller fish. Can be stocked in high density which is another reason why they are most sorted after even in the agriculture world.
Other popular fish include trout, barramundi, crappies, catfish, silver perch, largemouth bass, yellow perch, crayfish even koi, goldfish and other smaller ornamental fish are suitable for the system.
Leafy plants normally make great aquaponics plants. This includes bok choy, lettuce, choi sam, kale, spinach, cucumber, my favorite cherry tomato, mint…you name it! Herbs also do very well here and that includes flowers as well. Your location is the limit really, your geographical location that is. If you stay in a place like Hawaii, where there’s plenty of sun throughout the year and temperatures do not fluctuate much, you can grow your plants all year long.
But if you go thru 4 different seasons, then you may have to grow plants that suit the weather at that particular time of the year. You may even have to decommission your aquaponics system during winter seasons unless you have a green house to work with. A green house would help to maintain a fairly consistent temperature. This way you can grow fish and plants pretty much thru out the year without worries of climatic fluctuations.
The type of aquaponics system you choose also makes a difference here. A matured media-filled system allows you the flexibility to grow a variety of different plants in one growbed. But on the other hand a media-less system will normally do well with one, or the most two variety of plants.
Building An Aquaponics System
The first thing you need to do is to find the right location for it. You will need a spot with plenty of sun year round. If you are building a diy aquaponics system, it’s a good idea to put it near the window unless you plan to invest in grow lights. Once you have your system ready, the next thing you need to do is “cycle” your system.
This is where you fill your system with water and allow the bacteria (nitriting and nitrating bacteria) to grow. Without them, your aquaponics system will not work. You can find out more about it in this article I wrote. You can actually cycle it with your fish and plants in the system or do it without. There are two schools of thought here, but I always do it with everything in. I find this to be more effective and easier to tune the system later.
You need to monitor your system for nitrite spike for the first few weeks and feed your fish less when it spikes up high. That tends to happen in new setups and don’t worry too much. Just becareful how much you feed your fish.
Operating And Fine-Tuning
Make sure your water (system) pump is running all the time. Water needs to be continuously circulated for the system to wok right. It is this circulation that allows exchange of nitrate in the growbed to happen. Nitrate from the fish tank is sent to the growbed where it will be consumed, in the matter of speaking, by the roots of the plants.
Feed the fish for as much as they can eat in 5 minutes. You can feed them a few times a day but make sure the timing is consistent. Bear in mind that the more you feed, the faster your fish and plants will grow, but you have to strike a balance between the number of fish and plants you have in the system. When you see your system water go murky, you know you’re feeding too much.
The secret really is to start small, learn as you go and when you have established a routine that works for you then grow on it. Experience is still the name of the game here. Be ready to get your hair wet and in no time you will be growing organic food with your aquaponics system.
There you have it. I hope this has given you a good understanding of what aquaponics is. This method of growing food does not only ensure you have delicious, healthy food it is also a good way of going green, a small but a sure effort towards saving our mother earth.
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