Aquaponics is the ultimate solution to at home backyard food production. It’s the smartest way to generate more food per square foot than a backyard garden alone.
It’s the answer to a prepared survivalist food production prayers. The ability to add food to the table even in a long term disaster scenario.
But most people have never seriously looked into DIY aquaponics systems – which is a shame.
So today, let’s discuss I’ll share (in detail) everything I know about Aquaponics:
- Self Sufficient Food Production
- Why Is Aquaponics Anyways?
- Why You Should Choose Aquaponics
- The Science Behind Aquaponics
- How To Plan Your First Aquaponics System
- How To Build A DIY Aquaponics System
- Taking Aquaponics To The Next Level
SELF SUFFICIENT FOOD PRODUCTION
As a survivalist, I’ll occasionally catch myself dream of food self-sufficiency.
I’ll close my eyes and image owning a large farm. One with a variety of livestock and a sprawling vegetable garden. Of course, I spot a few deer and ducks since wild game is great for variety!
Such a system would make me resilient to the uncertain future! But such an elaborate setup requires a LOT of real estate to function.
Depending on where you live, it can also be expensive. Sure, a half-acre “urban farm” can produce a lot of food, but they’re hard to find in most places. Not to mention, the cost of time.
The amount of maintenance of such a massive operation is a commitment few people can manage.
So, is food sufficiency just a survivalists pipe dream? Could I produce enough calories to survive in the space of a backyard?
Sure you can, with a DIY aquaponics system!
WHAT IS AQUAPONICS ANYWAYS?
Aquaponics is a combination and interdependence of two ecosystems:
- Aquaculture (raising edible fish and other seafood)
- Hydroponics (growing vegetables and other plants in a soil-free system)
Aquaponics is a nearly closed ecosystem. One where fish and plants are mutually beneficial to each other.
The plants use fish waste as nutrients while the plants remove the fish waste from the water. So the fish feed the plants and the plants filter the toxins from the water.
When in balance, the amount of fish waste produced is offset by the plant’s ability to use it. Here’s a simple overview of this system in action:
- 1 – Ammonia Is Added To Water Via Fish Wastes
- 2 – Water With Aoomnia Is Pumped To Plant/Bacteria Containers
- 3 – Bacteria Converts Ammonia Into Nitrate (plant food).
- 4 – Nitrate Is Absorbed By The Plants
- 5 – Clean Water Is Returned To Fish Tank
And here’s an excellent overview video to introduce you to aquaponics and its exciting possibilities:
WHY YOU SHOULD CHOOSE AQUAPONICS
First off, using aquaponics means eliminating the need for unnatural chemical fertilizers.
They become unnecessary unlike in traditional hydroponic systems.
You also can avoid the complexities of compost management associated with regular gardening. Why? Because it’s soil free farming.
This can be a game-changer if you have poor or contaminated soil – or even no soil at all! Which means you get a lot fewer weeds in your garden and the ones you do get are easy to remove by the root!
Aquaponics is efficient. It’s the best way to produce a LOT of food in a small footprint. And it’s expandable. Making it perfect for growing more and more self-sufficient over time.
The simplest aquaponic systems grow plants above the fish on floating mats. This means you only need space for a small fish tank and a limited amount of pumps or plumbing to get started. Such a compact setup makes home aquaponics ideal for limited spaces.
Heck, I’ve seen family-sized systems on backyard decks and apartment roofs. Or with an indoor light source, you can set one up inside; away from the weather, pests, and prying eyes.
Finally, aquaponic systems produce both nutritious vegetables and protein. The perfect combination for a basic meal.
This is hard to do with a hydroponic system alone. Why? Because most vegetable proteins (i.e., beans) need a lot of nutrients and space.
With aquaponics, the fish are your source of protein. And as we all know, fish is one of the healthiest sources of protein.
The bottom line is this:
Aquaponics is the most space efficient way to generate healthy calories to support you and your family today or post food crisis.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND AQUAPONICS
Before venturing too far into the aquaponics setup, let’s take a second to go over the basic chemistry.
Fish release ammonia as a waste product. It comes from their gills and fish poop.
In a closed system, if it’s not removed, this ammonia will build to toxic levels. And the more fish you have, the faster this build up occurs.
But aquaponics puts this natural “toxicity” to good use. It turns ammonia into plant food using two types of bacteria. Both in the form of biological filtration systems.
The first bacteria (Nitrosomonas) consumes ammonia and releases nitrite. Following that, a second bacteria (Nitrobacteria) converts the nitrite to nitrate. Finally, plants use nitrates as their primary nutrient.
This process cleans the water and keeps it healthy for the fish. Simple but effective.
HOW TO PLAN YOUR FIRST AQUAPONICS SYSTEM
Before you begin ordering supplies for your DIY aquaponics system, you need to have an idea of scale.
One of the benefits of aquaponics systems is they are easily scalable.
If you find yourself short on fish or vegetables, you can add another tank or increase the size of your current one.
If you’re overrun with food, you can harvest an entire tank setup. Freeze or can the surplus produce and scale down your system accordingly.
This is why IBC (intermediate bulk container) are popular tanks for aquaponics. These are easy to find and often have plumbing fittings already in place.
The standard shape is a simple cube design.
It also has an integrated pallet base which makes the system sturdy and easier to move than other tanks.
Here’s a video of an IBC – chop and flip aquaponics build:
For beginners, you can (and should) start small, with a single tank.
The first thing you need to build an at home aquaponics system is a fish tank.
Any size will do, from small bedroom aquariums to dedicated fish ponds. And with the natural plant water filter, you can stock fish at a higher density than normal. But again, I recommend starting with a single IBC container.
Note: if you want an all-in-one bundle for your home aquaponics system, check out this Ecolife ECO-Cycle Aquaponics Indoor Garden System.
Besides the fish tank, you’ll also need a vegetable growth container. These containers are not as large as the fish tank, but they must be sturdy. Why? Because they’ll need to hold the accumulating weight of the growing plants and produce.
A wide, shallow container is ideal because plants don’t need deep roots for this setup.
Finally, you’ll need some plumbing supplies and a pump. This moves the water from the fish tank to the plant container.
Now, the best designs take advantage of gravity. You can do this by placing the plant tank at a higher elevation than the fish tank. This allows natural drainage of the cleaned plant water to fall back to the fish tank.
It’s best to size the pump for a quick transfer, flooding the plant tank. Then turn the pump off and allow the water to drain back into the fish tank slowly. This ensures the roots get watered often but avoid rot. You don’t want roots continuously submerged.
A garden sized pond pump works for large or medium-sized systems. But is overkill for all but the very smallest systems. Unless your system is massive, then you’ll want to look at industrial-sized pumps.
You’ll also need a timer for the pump. This allows you to schedule several cycles per day automatically.
You’ll also need separate growing media for the plants and bacteria. Unlike traditional gardening, this setup doesn’t use soil.
Remember, the plants will receive their nutrients from the fish waste. So their growing media should be something durable and inert – soil is neither of these.
Look for a quick-draining material such as gravel, coarse sand, or even coconut fiber. Expanded clay balls are also a common growing media, though they’re more expensive.
Check out this video for even more information about choosing the right growing media for you:
As for the bacteria, look to aquarium filter media or filter fiber. These provide enough water movement and a large enough surface area. Both of which are necessary for a bacterial colony to thrive.
Which Fish and Plants?
Finally, you’ll need to get the organic components of your system – the fish, plants, and bacteria.
Bacteria is straightforward – it’s the same variety for all water temperatures.
But the choice of plant and fish are temperature dependent. They must be hardy enough to tolerate the environmental conditions (i.e., the temperature swings).
So keep in mind the temperatures at which the plants and fish will live year around. This is especially true if you’re planning an outdoors system in winter climates.
Here are some basic water temperature guidelines for fish and plant selection:
Warm Water Tanks
With warm water tanks choose a fish species that can survive on low amounts of dissolved oxygen.
Tilapia, channel catfish, and yellow perch are good options.
Tilapia have the added benefit of quick reproduction and mild flavor.
Channel catfish also have rapid growth characteristics. But you must remove their scale-free skin before cooking – which is a pain. And they don’t tolerate excessive handling very well.
Yellow perch are aggressive feeders and reproduce fast as well. They also taste great and are easy for beginners to manage.
With warm water systems, consider leafy warm-weather greens. Varieties such as lettuce, peas, and basil are best. These vegetables all do well with warm water tanks and produce a quick harvest.
Cold Water Tanks
In colder water, many of the same fish species will work. But perch is temperature tolerant, as are channel catfish.
Trout are best left for more established aquaponics systems. They are ideal once you’ve mastered a stable, highly oxygenated water system. That’s because trout are more sensitive to water chemistry fluctuations.
Alongside cold-water fish, thick leafy vegetables are best. Kale, spinach, bok choy, and swiss chard all tolerate or thrive in colder climates.
Here’s an excellent overview video on different fish species for aquaponics systems. Worth a watch to help decide on the best fish species for you:
HOW TO BUILD A DIY AQUAPONICS SYSTEM
After you’ve planned your system, it can be tempting to buy everything at once and get started.
But that’s a recipe for disaster.
Make sure to bring the system online slowly in a step by step fashion. This takes time to get everything up to speed.
So instead, follow these simple steps. That way, you’ll increase your odds of establishing a healthy, productive aquaponics system.
1 – Location
Choose your location with care. You don’t want to disturb your system once you’re up and running.
Even smaller systems are difficult to move without completely disassembling. And moving adds stress to plants, fish, and bacteria.
Look for an area with plenty of light (unless you plan to use artificial lights). If your location has strong sun and high temps, use a shade screen to reduce excess heating of the water.
You’ll also want adequate access for cleaning. And remember, water is also heavy. So be sure you have a stable surface to build on, or you may find things shifting or sinking on you.
Leaks or failure of tanks could cause damage to the surroundings as well a total loss of the system.
2 – Setting up Tanks and Pumps
Once you have your location, it’s time to set up your tanks, pumps, and plumbing. Most DIY aquaponics systems use gravitational drainage from the plant to fish tank.
This means setting up the plant tanks at a higher elevation. But that can take the form of high benches, shelves, or even a hillside.
Be creative and use what works best.
Just make sure your pump can handle pumping water up the difference in elevation (referred to as “head”).
While you set up the pump and plumbing, be sure to check for any leaks and check all the fittings.
Finally, add an air pump and stone to the fish tank to provide dissolved oxygen. With all the leaks managed, you can put in the growing media and finish filling water to the right level.
If your water is chlorinated, allow ample time for it to dissipate. It is harmful to your system.
So do this before introducing your bacteria, fish, or plants. You can speed the process up by circulating the water through the system.
At the same time, turn on the air pump and allow it to run full time. This aeration of the water helps the chlorine escape and introduces dissolved oxygen.
Allow this to run for several days to ensure the chlorine is all removed.
3 – Cycling The System
At this point, you can introduce the plants and bacteria to the system, but not fish.
Both species of bacteria are present throughout the environment. But it can be helpful to get a starter to help establish the colony.
Most aquarium shops can provide you with more than enough to get going. You can get a source of pure ammonia in the laundry aisle at the grocery store to get your colony to grow.
At this point, you’ll need some basic water testing supplies. These allow you to determine if the ammonia is being converted to nitrite and then nitrate.
If you are successful in converting all the way to nitrate, you can add your plants.
Then allow the system to run for a while before introducing fish. This phase is when the bacteria converts ammonia to plant food. And the plants clean the water.
This helps to reduce the shock to the fish due to any changes in water chemistry.
4 – Adding Fish
Finally, once you have a colony of bacteria and your water parameters are stable, you can add fish.
But add them slowly, allowing them to acclimate to the temperature and chemistry of the water.
Never dump fish into a new tank haphazardly, the abrupt change can shock or even kill them.
Ask your fish supplier for suggestions on how best to acclimate your chosen species.
5 – Maintaining The System
Once your aquaponics system is running, there’s not a lot of ongoing maintenance required.
Sure, the fish will need food. You’ll need to test water chemistry on occasion. But one of the best indicators of system health is growing plants and healthy fish.
If you’re still reading this article, I know you’re serious about building your own aquaponics system. That’s why you should consider investing in a real educational product.
TAKING AQUAPONICS TO THE NEXT LEVEL
If you’re looking to be self-sufficient without the farm, take a good hard look at aquaponics. Aquaponics can produce a continuous stream of fresh vegetables and healthy fish.
In a small-scale backyard system that’s efficient in both time and resources. You can build them at any scale you want, from feeding a single person to an entire community.
And there are ways to remove or eliminate the inputs and expand the out outs! Watch the following Ted Talk to get an idea of how this works: