In constructing any aquaponics setup, you should consider several elements because these will either make or break your enterprise. The type of aquaponics setup, the space you can allot, your current location are some factors that should make up your list of considerations. But the very first thing you must recognize is how aquaponics operate.
How does aquaponics work?
In an aquaponics system, fish are kept on tanks, and their waste is pumped to vegetables grown in gravel-filled grow beds. The nitrates are taken up by the roots, which then grow rapidly. The water is purified and returned to the tank. Organic veggies and fish give a well-rounded diet, beneficial in today's uncertain world.
By putting the fish in a huge water tank, you may grow both the fish and the plants. The water in the tank is then drained into a gravel bed. Positive bacteria would break down the fish's ammonia waste to generate nitrogen, aiding plant growth. The filtered water is then transported to the growth bed before returning to the fish tank.
This farming approach has several advantages, including the fact that it does not require soil usage. You do not have to be concerned about weeds sprouting on your property. For fertilization, you also don't need to spread manure. As a result, you will gain from this agricultural strategy even if your property is unproductive.
What are the different methods of aquaponics?
When you dive into the industry of aquaponics, there are three methods that you will undoubtedly encounter. These are the following:
Media Bed Aquaponics
Another name for this method is flood and drain. I could say that this is the most well-known aquaponics technique in terms of backyard home setups or do-it-yourself constructions.
Plants are cultivated in planting media such as gravel or expanded clay pebbles in a media-based system. The medium filters ammonia-based waste and solid trash. The designs of such systems are efficient and straightforward with space, and they have a minimal initial cost, making them suitable for those starting out.
Some media-based aquaponics systems are operated by flooding and draining the grow beds, with the water being drained via a bell siphon when it reaches saturation. The bell siphon drains the water from the grow bed if the water level runs a certain level. This procedure will return oxygen to the grow bed, which will help both the microorganisms and the plants. This process is a continuous, regular cycle that gives the plants all of the necessary nutrients to develop without using traditional fertilizers.
- The setup is straightforward and not that expensive.
- This design requires a minimal amount of cleaning effort.
- Plants that are leafy and fruit-bearing will thrive in the media bed technique.
- Red worms may be added to improve sold waste breakdown.
- Using a high-quality medium might cost you.
- This technique is seldom used for commercial production.
- To sufficiently hold your media bed, ensure sturdy and reliable construction.
Deep Water Culture Aquaponics
The following known method of doing aquaponics is deep water culture. It is also called the raft method, floating system, or its abbreviation DWC.
The DWC circulates nutrient-rich water through long canals at a depth of about 20 cm, with rafts (often polystyrene) floating on top. Plants are supported by net pots within holes in the rafts. The plant roots dangle in nutrient-rich, oxygenated water, absorbing significant amounts of oxygen and nutrients that help the plants grow healthily.
This design is commonly used in commercial manufacturing because it is the most stable of the three system types. Since there is an abundance of water in the system, nutrient and temperature swings are less common. It is preferable for warmer climates since heating the water in colder climes is expensive and can withstand daily temperature changes. Furthermore, larger root zone plants can be used, which can be removed much more quickly than in media beds.
- Roots are more exposed to nutrients since they are soaked in nutrient-rich water.
- Plants are easier to harvest because they are not planted in a growing media.
- The volume of water in a raft system ensures that the water quality and temperature are more consistent than in other systems.
- The DWC is recommended for hot and warmer regions.
- The system only allows you to grow small leafy vegetables such as spinach, onions, and basils.
- This setup has high filtration demand since it requires a large amount of water. Aside from this, you would need to clean the system's filters regularly.
- Because the plants' roots are submerged in the water, herbivorous fish might feed on them.
- There is a tiny opening to replace the air pump if it breaks. The plants will quickly deteriorate if the air pump is not operational for an extended time.
- The nutrient concentration, water level, and PH can all change drastically, so it is vital to keep an eye on them all the time.
Nutrient Film Technique
This method, also known as NFT, is a rail-type system developed for aquaponic and hydroponic systems.
Water is pushed or gravity-fed through the mechanical filter and into the biofilter or sump tank in an NFT system. Some water from the sump tank is sent directly into the fish tank, while the rest is pumped and dispersed evenly through the pipes. The water flows down via the grow pipes, where the plants are sown by gravity. The water returns to the biofilter or sump after departing the grow pipes and then into the fish tank or grow pipes. The water that enters the fish tank makes it overflow, causing the cycle to repeat through the exit pipe and back into the mechanical filter.
The nutrient film technique is an approach that uses only a thin layer of water as a nutrient carrier. Operators will find it easy to set up because only a tiny amount of water is required. Similarly, the vegetable roots are greatly oxygenated due to the constant film of water moving through the canals, decreasing the possibility of root rot, fungal, and algae growth.
- The roots are adequately oxygenated, and such a situation prevents root rot.
- The constant flow of water in the system prevents particles from accumulating on the roots and guarantees that nutrient-rich water is always available for the plant, promoting development and health.
- This aquaponics method is environmentally favorable since it reduces the possibility of localized groundwater contamination.
- The roots of fast-growing plants might clog up the channels.
- The water running through the conduits can have an alternating temperature reading, either cold or hot. This situation is due to the thin film of water that runs through the NFT channels, which is susceptible to temperature variations.
What are the steps in building an aquaponics setup?
Here are the simple steps you can follow in constructing your aquaponics setup:
Step one: Decide what your purpose is for doing aquaponics. Before you do anything, you must recognize your "why" in building an aquaponics system. Do you aim to develop an aquaponics setup as your past time, or do you want to have an income-generating project? Knowing the purpose behind your aquaponics project will determine how much effort and budget you are willing to put into it.
Step two: Determine the space and location for your aquaponics system. If you are doing aquaponics for hobby's sake, you will not require much space. Starting practitioners build aquaponics systems that are easy to construct and need less space. A good example is a goldfish aquaponics setup wherein you will need a typical goldfish aquarium integrated with a DIY aquaponics installation. On the other hand, building aquaponics to make profits may require more space since this will lead to bigger fish tanks and growing beds.
Upon knowing what space you are willing to allot for your setup, you should also consider your location, particularly its climate. This is because certain plants and fish thrive at a specific temperature. Particular species of fish and plants grow well in warm temperatures and vice versa.
Step three: Select the aquaponics technique you will adopt. Choosing which among the three prominent setups you would utilize is another consideration for pursuing your aquaponics project. As discussed above, each has its own advantages and disadvantages that you should consider.
Step four: Build your fish tanks. Apparently, these tanks will house your fish and other aquatic animals. The following factors influence your fish tanks construction:
- Materials - Aquaponics is a versatile method of cultivating fish and plants, and this is proven by the various materials you can use for the fish tanks. Some growers recycle bathtubs, while others use clay pots or plastic containers. Regardless of the type of material you prefer for the fish tank, always be mindful of its sturdiness, waterproofing, and free from any toxicity. - Ideally, the fish tank should be durable enough to withstand the overall water pressure inside it. - The fish tank needs to be watertight. No water should escape from your tanks, which could give you considerable problems. If you buy a used tank, check for leaks by filling it with water and sealing any leaks with marine-grade silicone or rubber. - It is critical that there are no harmful substances in your fish tanks that could hurt or even kill your aquatic animals. Food-grade materials should be used to construct your fish tank. Again as precautionary advice, if you are going to use a used tank for your fish tank, be sure it is free of dangerous substances and is not contaminated. Sturdiness Waterproof Toxic-free
- Fish stocking density - Calculate the fish tank volume using the stocking density rule (1 pound fish per 5–7 gallons of fish tank volume or .5 kilogram per 20–26 liters). Equalize the number of plants in proportion to the size of the fish and their matching feed rate/waste output while your fish are young and small.
- Shape - Any type of fish tank will work; however, the round/oval tank and square/rectangular tank are the two most frequent shapes used in aquaponics. Round fish tanks with a flat bottom are favored over rectangular fish tanks because they are more effective. The water will circulate evenly in a round tank, and centrifugal force will convey solid wastes to the tank's center. Furthermore, the fish in a circular-shaped fish tank has good water flow, which provides them with a current to swim against, resulting in improved fish health.
Step five: Prepare your grow bed. In an aquaponics system, the grow bed is arguably one of the most significant components. Your plants will thrive if you choose the appropriate aquaponics grow bed. On the other hand, failure to do so will stunt their growth and affect your harvest.
Now, just like the fish tanks, specific considerations should be observed to use the correct grow bed for your chosen greens.
Identify the type of setup you want.
Each aquaponics technique will require different grow bed construction. For example, if you prefer media-based aquaponics, you will need to construct a grow bed with a depth of 12 inches to accommodate the growing media you will use. Your plants are typically grown on rafts for deep water culture, serving as their grow beds. Last will be the nutrient film technique. In this setup, your plants are cultivated in grow pipes, and this automatically means you would need to purchase long tubes.
Install water pumps.
Water pumps are also needed for your setup to become high-performing.
The following are some of the functions of a water pump in an aquaponics system:
- The water pump facilitates effective water transport from the fish tank to the grow bed and back to the fish tank.
- Water pumps oxygenate the water, ensuring that the fish in the tank have sufficient oxygen.
- A water pump guarantees that both the fish and the plants get the nutrients they need to thrive.
How do I maintain my aquaponics setup?
Aquaponics combines the breeding of fish with the growing of plants. It is a carefully managed atmosphere that maximizes nutrient and energy use. These allow for the production of a large amount of fish protein and vegetables in a small area with recirculating water.
Having said that, it is imperative for you to properly maintain your system to ensure a productive harvest for your fish and plants. Here I recommend these general maintenance steps that apply to any aquaponics methods:
- Feed your fish daily. Regardless of the frequency, because every species of fish and its growth stages allow for different feeding constancy in a day, you need to feed your aquatic animals every day. Recall that the fish effluents provide your plants with the nutrients they need, and if they are not fed, no nitrates will be available for your growth.
- Do not overfeed your fish. Although feeding your aquatic stock is necessary, it requires a delicate balancing act. Excess waste from uneaten food can result from overfeeding your fish. This overabundance of wastes can create an imbalance in your system, resulting in unpleasant odors or disrupting the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle.
- Always keep the proper ratios. In general, the volume of the grow bed should be nearly equal to the fish tank volume, resulting in a suitable grow bed to fish tank ratio of approximately 1:1. Different characteristics can be used to define and calculate this ratio. A normally balanced system would have roughly 25L of wet media per fish in terms of growing medium.
- Check your plants for insects. You can do this step once a week to ensure that any issues are addressed before they become out of hand. It's also worth remembering that most insects prefer to live in stem parts and beneath plant leaves. If you keep this suggestion in mind, it will be easier to look for insects among your plants.
- Check your plants for any deficiencies. Essential nutrients are not readily available in the fish excrement used to feed the plants in aquaponics. Deficiencies can stifle plant growth and make them more vulnerable to illnesses and insects. Maintaining a pH of 6-7 and providing the fish with a balanced and complete diet are the best ways to ensure that plants in aquaponics do not suffer from nutrient deficits. Another option is to use growing media beds to give all of the nutrients plants require to thrive.
- Ensure proper water parameters for both fish and plants. Because this system integrates plant and animal production, it has unique water chemistry requirements, and good water quality is critical for a healthy, well-balanced design. Maintaining a balanced system necessitates a thorough understanding of how these parameters interact with one another. Many companies sell kits and other items to help you monitor water quality on your own, or you can submit water samples to commercial labs for testing.
- Inspect for leaks. Leaks are problems you must address immediately because they could drain your tanks of water. Leaks are common if your tanks are not brand new or made from low durability materials. Another cause for leaks would be the plumbings in your system. Ensure no leaks as you are installing your plumbing system. For example, you can do this with marine-grade silicon, Uniseals®, or bulkhead fittings.
What are common mistakes when building an aquaponics system?
Aquaponics is an excellent food production approach since you are rearing two types of healthful and nutritious foods - fish and plants. Building any aquaponic system does require diligence, and this includes avoiding some common mistakes I rounded up below:
- Poor water quality - Water parameters such as pH range, dissolved oxygen level, temperature, and total nitrogen should always be within the ideal spectrum for your fish and plants to achieve optimum growth.
- Using the incorrect growing media - Nutrient-free, neutral pH, able to retain air, hold water, and drain fast, so roots do not get saturated are all qualities of the ideal grow media. The colonization of microbial communities is also possible with growing media. Because of its superior water retention, neutral pH, and ease of maintenance, hydroton is the most often used growing media.
- Growing the wrong plants and plants This mistake is common among beginners, and even experienced ones are prone to commit this error. The common cause for this is you grow plants and fish that are non-seasonal or non-native. If you plan to grow fish and plants that are not of your region's season, ensure the proper water temperature. Nevertheless, it is always advisable to cultivate fish and plants that fit the climate of your location.
- Inadequate pest control strategy - In aquaponics, growers are advised to avoid synthetic pesticides. Once you have identified pests such as insects, you can deal with them by feeding them to your fish or introducing plant-friendly insects such as ladybirds.
- Introducing fish even if the system is yet to cycle - One of the most common mistakes newcomers make is hurrying to add fish to their aquariums. Fish are poisoned by ammonia and nitrites created by fish excrement. A situation like this can result in pH and ammonia surges, leading to fish death. To set up the system, you must first cycle the fish.
You may design the ideal aquaponics system for your space and goals using the information I provided in this article. But as with other projects, carefully plan your aquaponics system design. This course of action will make the entire process go more smoothly. Remember that trial and error is sometimes the most excellent way to master a new skill with aquaponics and all gardening pursuits. Rethink your design and try again if it is not working the way you want.