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The Easy Off-Grid Way To Start An Aquaponics System

Image source: Aquapolics.com

Image source: Aquapolics.com

There is an abundance of information on the Internet describing how to set up an aquaponics system, and a lot of that information makes it look frighteningly complicated and time-consuming. Today, I am going to try and simplify it for you, and hopefully make it less scary.

So what’s aquaponics? It’s a combination of fish and plant production using aquaculture and hydroponics systems. But is it really as easy as I claim?

This is a yes and no question. Yes, because it can be as easy as you want to make it. And no, because both aquaculture and hydroponics have difficulties inherent in the systems. When combining the two systems you can reduce the difficulties to just a few rather than a few dozen.

The difficulties you can run into with aquaponics are few and can be remedied fairly easily. These problems are:

1. Space. Where can you put your fish tank and grow beds? Solutions:

  • Any south-facing space just like a greenhouse.
  • A basement, garage or carport. If you use an enclosed space like a garage or basement you will need to invest in grow lights since sunshine and heat are essential for both fish and plants.
  • A greenhouse. This is the absolute best place for an aquaponics system, since you won’t need to provide a heater for the fish tank in cold weather.

2. Equipment. Solutions:

  • If you don’t have access to food-grade containers you can line the containers you do have with pond liner.
  • DO NOT use any containers that have been used to store chemicals or are comprised of any metal other than stainless steel. Avoid anything copper so that it doesn’t leech into your system since it can poison your fish.
  • Any food-grade plastic containers large enough to hold 10-20 fish for a small system will work.

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3. Time. Solutions:

  • An aquaponics system is not usable as soon as it is assembled. You will need to develop your bacteria colony before you can stock the fish tank and wait till you see how your fish are doing before planting your crops.
  • It can take anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks to allow the bacteria to find your system and develop a colony that will benefit your plants and fish.

Setting up your system is easy once you have the space you want to build it in. For this article we will be concentrating on setting up your system inside a greenhouse.

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Image source: Aquaponicsplan.com

Here’s the equipment you’ll need:

Fish Tank

  • This can be a large fish aquarium, a vinyl kiddie pool or any food-grade plastic container.
  • You will want to figure about 10 gallons of water to each fish. The ratio is 1 pound of adult fish to about 10 gallons of water. Stocking your tank with one fish per 10 gallons of water will help to keep your system balanced and reduce the amount of ammonia in the water and keep the pH in the optimum range.

Growing Medium

  • Most DIYers setting up an aquaponics system will use pea gravel. It is relatively inexpensive and easily acquired.
  • You can also use coir, peat moss, or expanded clay pellets.

Grow Beds

  • These can be any other food-grade containers that you have access to. They should be between 6-12 inches deep though the deeper containers will allow you to grow a more varied number of plants in each bed if you are working with a limited amount of space.
  • Many people will simply build a grow bed and line it with pond liner. Doing this allows you to make it to the size you want, choose to stack grow beds for more planting space and add legs so that it will fit over your fish tank.

Freshwater Master Test Kit

  • A test kit is necessary to keep control of the chemicals that can build up in your fish tank. If there is too much ammonia in the water or the pH is too high it can harm your fish. If ammonia is high in the tank then your beneficial bacteria aren’t getting the nitrites they need to live and the plants aren’t getting the nitrates the bacteria produce.
  • These kits test freshwater pH, ammonia, nitrite, high range pH and nitrate levels to help you control those levels more easily.

Water Pumps

  • I am going to assume that you will be using an intermittent flow system since it is the easiest to set up and operate. However, you can also use either the continuous flow or ebb & flow systems as well.
  • Choosing a water pump is very important for “turning over the water.” This filters and aerates it so that your fish remain healthy and the water does not become toxic with the amount of ammonia contained in suspension.
  • An intermittent flow system means that the grow beds will be flooded once an hour in a 15 minute on and 45 minute off cycle.
  • Things to consider when choosing the right pump are fish tank volume and the distance between your pump and the top of your grow bed where the water will flood the growing medium. We will have to make a lot of assumptions here. Your calculations and measurements may be different from this picture we are creating.
    • Assumption No. 1: Your fish tank is 100 gallons. One-hundred gallons divided by 24 hours means you will want to move 4-5 gallons per hour. However, you will not want to get a pump based solely on that figure.
    • Assumption No. 2: Your fish tank is 2.5 feet deep and your pump will be sitting 6 inches from the bottom. Elevating your pump means you won’t get a bunch of solid fish poo gumming up your pump.
    • Assumption No. 3: There is about 1.5 feet between the top of your fish tank and the bottom of your grow bed.
    • Assumption No. 4: Your grow bed is 12 inches deep.
    • With these four assumptions made, we can determine what size pump you will need to purchase for your system. Simple math skills will aid you here. 30 inches (fish tank depth) – 6 inches (pump elevation) + 18 inches (space between tank and bottom of grow bed) + 12 inches (grow bed depth) = 54 inches. This means that your head height, or the distance between pump and the top of the grow bed is 4.5 feet.
  • The best pump to get for the system described will be one that will cycle 5 gallons or more per hour with a head height, or “rise,” of about 5 feet. You will also need to consider the size tubing you are using for your pump. There may be an efficiency loss of 15-30 percent the greater your head height and tubing size.
  • The chart below will help you determine how powerful a pump you will need based upon the head height of your system.

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What Fish Should I Use To Stock My Tank?

What type of fish you use depends on one of two things. Are you going to eat them or are you just raising them for the poop? My answer is that I intend to eat them so I’m going to list the fish that are often stocked in aquaponics systems.

Image source: UFL.edu

Tilapia. Image source: UFL.edu

Tilapia.

  • These are the most common fish stocked in aquaponics systems. They are the most common because they are herbivorous fish and won’t eat each other as they are growing.
  • Tilapia love warm waters, so an aquaponics tank in the greenhouse is perfect for them.
  • If your tank is in optimum working order, the fish will reach harvestable size in 4 months.
  • They are more resilient in less than optimum tank conditions.
  • They can be stocked in higher densities than most fish. This means you could get away with 1 fish for each 5 gallons of water instead of 1 per 10.
  • They love to eat plants and duckweed, so if you can get duckweed to grow on top of your tank you’ll only need to feed them supplemental pellets.

Catfish.

  • These fish are a bit more finicky than Tilapia but still work well in an aquaponics tank in a greenhouse.
  • They are resistant to both disease and parasites in properly controlled water conditions.
  • They are bottom dwellers, so they are a low yield food fish. Many people add bluegill to the catfish tank, since the bluegill will occupy the upper level of your tank while the catfish occupy the bottom. This increases your yield at harvest time.

Bluegill.

  • This is an omnivorous fish. They like to feed on small crustaceans, worms, insects, plants and even smaller fish.
  • They are a fairly sturdy fish and are similar to catfish in that they do very well so long as you properly control the nitrate and pH levels in your tank.

Other fresh aquatic critters you can use in aquaponics once you have the technique down are crawfish/crayfish, freshwater mussels and freshwater prawns.

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What Plants Can I Raise In My Grow Beds?

Any plant that can be harvested as a leaf will grow well with just the fish providing the nutrients the plants need to grow: leaf lettuce, kale, basil, spinach, arugula, dill, chives, etc. This is a benefit to your winter produce since you’ll be able to enjoy fresh salads all through the cold months.

Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and other plants of this nature can also be grown in your aquaponics system. However, you will need to find a supplier for the supplemental fertilizer you will need to add for them to grow properly. Any plant that flowers to produce a fruit needs boron, copper, sulfur, and other nutrients and minerals to fruit properly.

Unfortunately, you will not be able to grow any plants where the harvestable product is grown at the roots. This means you will need to grow your potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes and turnips in dirt. But since you are setting up your aquaponics system in your greenhouse this is a benefit, since now you can use those places that would be taken up by your leaf crops to grow more root crops. And you’ll get about 30 pounds of harvested, edible fish per year if you use tilapia.

Final Thoughts

I cannot stress it enough: Always do your research before adding to your aquaponics system. Make sure that you have the space, materials, time and energy.

One thing I have not talked about in this article is breeding space for your fish. If you don’t want to have to purchase fingerlings every few months and wait for them to grow up, you will need to provide breeding space within your tank or a separate tank for your chosen breeding pair so that the grown fish don’t attack the resulting fry. Again, you will need to research what your species of fish requires for breeding and what the fry require to grow into fingerlings.

Remember that when you harvest your fish you will get roe from them. Roe from the males can be fried up for dinner or sold as fish bait while the roe from females can be rinsed, salted and cured into your very own caviar, which can then be canned and kept to surprise your friends and family with a “posh” treat on special occasions. Depending upon the species and sub-species of your fish, the color of the roe will be nearly any color between creamy yellow and dark purplish-red.

I’m sure that there are a few other things you may want to know, but all I can offer right now is to do your due diligence and research everything. Happy harvesting!

Do you have experience with aquaponics? What advice would you add? Share it in the section below:

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12 comments

  1. This was very informative, in language I could understand. Thank you!

  2. Seriously? Only turn the water once per day?

    I used to keep aquarium fish and in my 240 tank I turned the water 6 times an hour. The more you turn the water, the healthier the fish are and the more aerated the water is. Friends of mine that had Koi Ponds turned their ponds at least 6 times a day.

    Why would you only turn it once a day?

    • Hello, Kirk.

      This particular article is written for those who are living off the grid and are in the position where they may have to apportion their electrical use. The pumps are small and mostly low voltage but they will have to consider whether they can afford to turn their water more than once per day. It will depend on how they have their electrical reservoir set up.

      Two days is the minimum suggested water turning time for up to 500 gallon tanks while once a day is near optimum for the smaller tanks. While turning the water up to 6 times per day is perfect for an aquarium or koi pond, you are also attempting to regulate the nitrates being pumped up to your growbeds. We don’t want to overload the bacteria in the growbeds with too many nitrates while we are still keeping the ammonia levels in the tank down.

  3. I’d like to set up a system using solar panels. Has anyone done this?

  4. Very interesting story. a couple of question I need to ask you. !. It’s very hot in the south can we still grow or should we wait until the temps cool down? Direct sunlight or shade. If in the sunlight would a sun shade work? 3. How about cold weather,
    a frost or do you have to close the system down during the winter months. could you heat the water and say put the system in a shed with lights and heated water? 3, What type of food would you use in the water. Would the run off effect the fish,if I used fish. We have a small kiddie pool and we’re going to give it a try. Thanks you. SP

    • Hello, southernpatriot.

      Thank you, I’m glad you found it interesting.

      I will do my best to answer your questions.

      1. Yes, you can still grow whatever produce your regional temperatures allow. You don’t necessarily need to wait till the temps cool down except that it might be easier on you when setting up and tending the fish and plants.

      2. Definitely not direct sunlight. Direct sunlight will break down the chemical properties of your tank. You want to keep your fish relatively shaded. Many people use black food grade tanks with clear covers to allow some light to enter the fish’s environment. I have seen many aquaponics units set up beneath carports or lean-tos without 3 of the 4 surrounding walls as well as in Quonset buildings.

      3. You certainly can heat the tank if you live in a colder clime. You would need to research what kind of pool/pond/tank heater would be required for the size tank you are using. If you have your aquaponics unit set up inside a greenhouse then you should be fine to continue growing fish and plants provided you have succeeded in doing so in previous years. Any aquaponics unit set up in an enclosed building that is not heated will need grow lights for the plants which will give off some heat but a tank heater would be beneficial in that scenario.

      4. The type of food you would use, either as feed or as supplemental feeding when using duckweed in the tank, will depend on the type of fish you are growing. This would require a little research to find a reputable supplier. The run off shouldn’t adversely affect the fish unless you were using the wrong type of food.

      You’re welcome, SP. Please remember that this is an aquaponics set up, not a hydroponics set up, fish are a requirement for it to work properly. I’m glad that you’re wanting to try this. Good luck! I hope that it turns out well for you and your family.

  5. Friendly Aquaponics has a great website to look at, although they are based in beautiful Hawaii with the weather, they also have approved facilities here in the states with adverse weather. I think Tennessee and Texas. Not a sales pitch but check them out..

  6. I can tell you that as an Aquapon myself you DO NOT WANT Duckweed IN your system, it will work its way into all your pipes, pumps, filters, media (dying and becoming anaerobic) and in every single microscopic crevice and totally wreak havoc and be dam near IMPOSSIBLE to clean out while at the same time NOT being present in the tank with the fish, they eat it all ASAP except for what escapes out to infest the whole system! Whatever you do DO NOT introduce it live, grow it separate and FREEZE it in a commercial freezer for 7 days to insure it is dead or dehydrate it at 115 degrees THEN and ONLY then feed your fish with it. The problems it causes are so not worth it.

    I see that this site is giving several not good nor safe or recommended advice/directions, PLEASE for your own sake DO A LOT of STUDY from reputable teachers who run successful commercial system BEFORE you attempt this great and wonderful but sensitive system, why do it wrong? I do agree with the previous commenter that the FRIENDLYs in Hawaii are total experts as is Murray Hallum in Australia.

  7. in northern nj ..winters are cold .. need reliable greenhouse heater in absence of electricity ; natural gas; heating oil ; open to suggestion

  8. I ‘m living to Philippines, and your system seems interesting during dry season from march to july. Can I know what I can make specially for tropical countries. Thk by advance

  9. With all due respect, I assure you that Catfish are not the” finicky” fish of the group that you described. In fact of all the fish mention, it is the most resilent of them all, even when one errors are great in trying to raise fish.

  10. Aloha,

    Very helpful information for me. Thank you. I want to ask you if you can give some information about the flats Styrofoam I see in the images you show here where can I buy these? I like to use flats like these with holes for the seedling pots or plugs please. Again thank you.

    Regards,
    Nonu.

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