Aquaponics for Beginners – Everything You Need to Know Upfront

aquaponics for beginners

A beautiful garden is every homeowner’s dream. But apart from a nice lawn, a table and some chairs, how about having a proper garden with fruits and vegetables? How about growing your own food and eating organically every now and then? Aquaponics is a trend these days. Widely advocated for a decade or two ago, it has become a top choice all over the world for a plethora of people.

Now, what do you need to know in terms of aquaponics for beginners? How do you come up with a basic aquaponics environment at home? Whether you are after starting a scalable business that grows overtime or you do it for your own necessities only, this guide will give you all the information you need – a well-detailed overview on why and how to get started on this venture.

Understanding the concept of aquaponics

Aquaponics is practically a mix of two different industries. From some points of view, it borrows some of the concepts associated with aquaculture, which is basically fish farming. From another point of view, it brings in some of the aspects related to hydroponics – growing plants in nutrient solutions, without using any soil at all.

The idea behind aquaponics is fairly simple to understand. You come up with a self-sustainable environment. You do not require too much space anyway. Instead, you get the resources to grow everything organically. You can have plants filtering water for fish, while fish feed the plants. Of course, some beneficial bacteria is also involved in the process.

These things work together in a very tight collaboration. Of course, a bit of maintenance will still be required. In the beginning, you need to perform a few procedures to create the perfect environment. But once everything is set, you will not need to worry too much about the environment, unless you plan to grow it further.

How aquaponics systems work

So, how does an aquaponics system actually work? Simply put, plants are grown in a grow bed. This place can hold a particular amount of plants, depending on how large it is and what plants you choose for the system. Different plants come with different spacing requirements – not necessarily in the beginning, but later on, as they grow.

Then, fish will go inside a tank. The water your fish settles in will eventually end up filled with fish waste. The fish waste is nutritive and will help the grow bed. The grow bed features healthy and beneficial bacteria, which will break everything down – from ammonia to nitrites and then nitrates. These are healthy components in your plants’ diet.

The plants will absorb all the nitrates, as well as other nutrients coming with them. All these nutrients will help plants grow. As they grow, they will become more efficient at cleaning the water and filtering it, so the fish will also be happy. The clean water is well oxygenated and reaches the fish tank. The cycle is ongoing, and every part of the system is happy.

Reasons to start an aquaponics system

Considering aquaponics for beginners will most likely have something to do with the numerous benefits associated with it. Years ago, such systems gained notoriety, but only to a limited level. As their benefits became more and more obvious, plenty of people rely on such simple ideas for business purposes or for themselves.

Generally speaking, an aquaponics system will allow you to grow food round the clock. You can have fresh and organic food year-round. Make sure you learn a bit about the growing needs of your plants. Based on the climate you live in, a greenhouse may also be required.

Other than that, such a system is more efficient and implies less water consumption than classic farming – up to 90% less water. The water goes through a filtration system, so it is consistently recycled – no need to change it at all.

Another big difference between aquaponics systems and classic agriculture is the lack of soil. You do not require any soil at all – plants will grow in water. Without soil, you will most likely have to focus on your plants only – no weed invasions and other similar issues.

Plants have a slower and limited growing cycle in soil because they require water on a regular basis. In an aquaponics system, they are sitting in nutrient-rich water round the clock. They are constantly exposed to nutrient-rich water, so they will absorb as much as they require.

Such a system may embrace multiple forms. It could be horizontal or vertical. You can buy a readymade system or do it yourself. One thing is for sure – it does not require too much space. You can start such a system with limited space. Plus, the initial investment is quite low as well.

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aquaponics tower
aquaponics tower – vertical solution

Since plants grow faster and more efficiently, you will never have to rely on chemicals, preservatives, or toxic compounds. Your fish will not thrive in such an environment, while plants do not need it at all. Therefore, you can grow your food in an organic manner.

As the system grows – very scalable based on your needs, you will be able to have a decent and reliable source of food throughout the whole year. With time, you may as well enjoy food independence and security.

Last, but not least, while you can start an aquaponics system with ornamental fish and focus on the plants only, you can also harvest the fish – just get the right species. From many points of view, it represents a very good business opportunity and a solid source of income.

Now that you understand what makes aquaponics such an important opportunity these days, it is time to become familiar with the actual system, its components, and how they work. Generally speaking, there are three major components in this self-sustainable environment, and each of them plays a significant role in the process. This is the first step when studying aquaponics for beginners.

The role of plants in an aquaponics system

Growing organic plants is one of the main reasons wherefore so many people start their own aquaponics systems. Plants are crucial in the functionality of this system, so you must pay a lot of attention when choosing the right types or amounts. Their primary role is to oxygenate and clean the water in the environment – poor or low amounts of plants will reduce the overall efficiency.

Plants also absorb nitrates and filter the water. Without a good amount of plants, the system will end up dirty. Your fish will no longer grow, but you also risk their health. They remove nitrates from the water, which are safe for them – as well as for yourself. In fact, they represent a good source of food in their overall diet.

Choosing the perfect types of plants requires lots of consideration. Since you are new to this system, you should focus on plants that do not require too much maintenance. They must be easy to grow, but you should also consider their growing necessities. For instance, make sure they can actually thrive in your climate.

Some plants are more nutrient hungry than others and will require more care and work, especially in the early stages of your system. At this point, while you fully establish the system, try to avoid plants like tomatoes. Instead, focus on leafy greens, herbs, or lettuces. You can bring in tomatoes, peppers, and other similar plants, but only later on, as the system is better established.

lettuce

Plants in this system will go straight into the grow bed. However, the grow bed can also be replaced by floating rafts, not to mention pipes. It depends on how the system is built. If you rely on a grow bed, the container must be strong to support it. Consider the overall depth too, as plants tend to develop long roots as they grow.

There are a few other requirements if you choose a floating foam, though. Opt for something buoyant and lightweight. You do not want the foam to turn around or go underwater. Instead, it is supposed to hold plants in an upright position. You get the idea – you need a sturdy base that will support plants in the early stages, as well as later on when they gain in size and weight.

Generally speaking, you could grow an aquaponics system based on net pots as well. In fact, lots of professionals will actually recommend this idea. It is an excellent opportunity when it comes to aquaponics for beginners because there is less hassle with the maintenance. Plant roots can get large amounts of nutrients without any difficulties. At the same time, the system will hold them securely.

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What makes fish so important in an aquaponics system?

It is imperative to keep your fish happy because they play a critical role in the self-sustainability of your system. Their waste is a natural fertilizer that helps plants grow. Without fish, your plants will no longer thrive. To gain as much as possible from this system, you need to know precisely what type of fish works best for the system, as well as the optimal quantity.

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It does help if you choose quality fish that can resist various diseases. Since you are new to this venture, opt for fish that will not be too demanding, but rather forgiving. Your fish must be easy to raise too, not to mention its availability in the area. Different species come with different requirements in terms of food, space, and temperature too, hence the necessity of doing your homework.

Unless you plan to harvest and eat the fish, you can opt for ornamental fish that will also look good in your garden. For example, lots of beginners rely on goldfish or perhaps koi fish. If you want to eat the fish later on, catfish and tilapia make some of the best choices. Some of these species can thrive in all kinds of environments due to their hardy profiles.

Tilapia
Tilapia

The importance of bacteria in an aquaponics system

No matter how important it is to choose the right plants and fish, the truth is nothing would really work without the right bacteria in the environment. Without bacteria, plants would not be able to assimilate fish waste. With bacteria, fish waste will be converted into nutrients. In other words, you do need bacteria for this system to be self-sustainable.

Fish waste is rich in ammonia. Healthy bacteria will convert ammonia into nitrites, which are then turned into nitrates. This is what your plants need to survive. As for the location of such bacteria, these microorganisms can grow in different places. They are usually located in grow beds, but they can also be in the filter or the actual fish tank.

Understanding the different types of aquaponics systems

Generally speaking, there are four different types of aquaponics systems you can come up with. Each of them comes with a few particularities, positive aspects, and drawbacks. Becoming familiar with their characteristics will help you choose the right option for your garden. Obviously, some of them are more suitable for beginners than others.

Media-based systems

Often referred to as flood and drain systems, media-based systems represent the most popular option on the market – great for beginners. Such a system is suitable for both small gardens and large commercial farms. Plants are basically installed in planting media – with clay pebbles and gravel as the most popular choices out there.

The media is responsible for filtering the fish waste. You have a grow bed that must be filled with the media. The vegetables go in, while the water from the tank goes through. The porous profile allows a longer water retention, which provides nutrients for a longer period of time. At the same time, the porous profile will also filter the water.

Some of these systems imply flooding and draining grow beds – a more sophisticated mechanism involved. A bell siphon is usually used in the process and works on a cyclic basis.

Raft systems

Raft systems are sometimes referred to as floating systems or deep water culture systems. Plants grow on boards – most commonly made of foam or polystyrene. These boards are light and can float on the surface of the water. There is always access to water, and the filtration procedure is continuous, meaning the water is always moving between the two environments.

While not always a general rule, the raft tank is normally separate from the actual tank. Since plants are always exposed to water, they grow larger and faster. Therefore, it is a primary choice for commercial farms. Sure, beginners can also rely on this system, but it implies a bit of extra work and more space for the boards.

Nutrient film systems

Such systems are based on a nutrient film technique. Plants are symmetrically installed in a long channel. The channel is usually narrow and leaves room for plants to grow and expand. The technique is most commonly used in hydroponics, but it has been adapted to aquaponics as well due to its simplicity and efficiency.

These pipes are installed horizontally and based on PVC. They allow shallow streams of water. They feature small holes for the plants to go in. Plants are always exposed to thin films of nutrient-rich water, meaning they grow relatively fast. As the water reached the end of a channel, it is filtered and sent back into the fish tank.

Such nutrient film systems are common for commercial purposes. They are also useful in tight spaces, so they are common in small gardens or urban areas. But then, the system is a bit more expensive in the first place.

Hybrid systems

Hybrid systems are self-explanatory. They bring in a mix of different other systems. Many commercial farms rely on hybrid systems because they harvest the benefits of multiple systems, without the actual drawbacks. Such systems are quite diversified and highly efficient, but they are also space efficient as plants grow.

There are no rules at this point. You are free to combine any systems you like. Small adjustments are always accepted. If it works for you, go for it. There are, indeed, a few general approaches at this point, but there are no major requirements.

Most common considerations in aquaponics for beginners

Aquaponics for beginners can be confusing if you have no clue where to start or what to do first. While the idea may look enticing to everyone, you need to consider a few things before making a final decision and getting involved.

The right system

Make sure you become familiar with each type of system and what it implies. Consider its advantages, as well as drawbacks. Think about the possibility to increase the size of your system – in this case, you want scalability.

The longterm goals

Consider your longterm goals regarding this system. Think about the plants you want to grow, as well as their necessities. The same rule applies to the fish. Will you eat the fish? Can you do with ornamental fish only? Plan everything in small details to determine the longterm purpose of your system.

The DIY profile

You can find readymade aquaponics systems, as well as materials to do it yourself based on your unique necessities. A proven design could be better and hassle free, but it will be more expensive than doing it yourself. DIY aquaponics for beginners implies trial and error. It can be an interesting learning experience, but it will also bring in some extra expenses. You will also waste quite a good amount of time to figure out how everything works on your own.

A readymade system is proven to work and does not require too much technical experience.

Humidity

The humidity is an environmental aspect to keep in mind. The water flow goes round the clock. The humidity affects the overall evaporation, meaning there will be more moisture around. Extra moisture can lead to other issues, such as mold. Massive differences in temperature will have similar effects due to the extra humidity.

Spillages

You will use a fish tank for this system, meaning it is prone to leaking in the long run. While in theory you can install an aquaponics system anywhere, you need serious consideration. Decide on a spot that is waterproof – or something that can get wet without the floor to swell or the electricity to be affected. Good care and maintenance will pay off, but you should be prepared for such situations.

Lighting

Lighting is another environmental factor to keep in mind. Your plants will require light – no doubts about it. Direct sunlight is mandatory for the photosynthesis. The energy is required for a constant and healthy growth. Sunlight is the ideal source of light. But then, you can start an indoor aquaponics system as well. At this point, artificial light may help. Not all types of artificial light will work though.

On the other hand, fish will not require so much light. Instead, your fish could do with a bit of shade. While light is not mandatory for their survival, most fish will prefer a mix of both. Without any light at all, your fish could stop eating and fall ill. Light is, therefore, essential too.

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Aquaponics Grow Lights

How to start an aquaponics system

Assuming you have done your homework and know precisely what will go inside your aquaponics system, it is time to get to work and get the system up and running. There are a few initial steps you need to go through, as well as further adjustments as time goes by and you become more experienced with such things.

Getting the system ready

The first step implies setting everything up. If you choose to buy a readymade and proven aquaponics system, this step is already done. Choose something based on your available space and longterm purpose. If you want to do it yourself, get all the materials ready and build it from scratch with the design and specifications in mind.

Once you are done with the design, test the system without any plants or fish in it. You want to make sure it actually works, and the water flows freely. There should be no leaks whatsoever. The drain rate is also worth some attention.

Cycling the system

The bacteria should go first inside the system. It is not like you can buy beneficial bacteria from a shop, so you need to create the optimal environment for such microorganisms to develop and come in. Establishing the bacteria implies cycling the system. This system turns ammonia into nitrates. There are more ways to get it done.

The first step applies when you are just starting the system or after restarting it. You can cycle with fish, which will take anywhere between a month and six weeks. There are more factors that will affect the efficiency of this cycling procedure, such as the temperature. The ideal temperature flows between 75 and 80 degrees F. Temperatures out of this range will slow the cycling process down.

When cycling with fish, you can add a few fish in the tank. The fish will bring in ammonia. During the first 24 hours, your fish should not be fed. Later on, you can feed them lightly. The bacteria will come in naturally, yet you can also purchase a bacteria starter.

Keep an eye on the water and its quality. Purchase a few tests and double-check the ammonia and nitrites. Ammonia must be under 3ppm, while nitrites should go below 1ppm. Nitrates should increase in the long run.

If the ammonia and nitrites will go above the required levels, simply remove 30% of the water and refill it with fresh water. Fail to do so, and your fish will eventually die. Levels of ammonia can increase during the first couple of weeks – perfectly normal, as it takes a while for the bacteria to kick in. Make sure it stays under 3ppm, though.

Three to four weeks into this cycle, the levels of nitrites should go higher than normally. All in all, the cycling process is over when you see nitrates in the water. Check the ammonia and nitrites too – they should be under 0.5ppm. Feed your fish regularly, as the levels of ammonia will not really increase. Once done with everything, you can bring in more fish, as well as the plants.

Fishless cycling is different. Add some bacteria starters to your system. Add ammonia to 4ppm and test the water on a regular level. As ammonia drops, you can add some more until you reach 4ppm. Only do it once. As ammonia and nitrites will keep dropping, the cycle is done when they are under 0.5ppm. Nitrates will also be a good sign.

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How to look after your aquaponics system

Aquaponics for beginners can be tricky if you have no clue what to do once you have your system. There are more aspects to think about in terms of long-term maintenance. Having a plan will make everything much easier. All in all, here are some of the things you need to keep in mind.

Feed your fish

You need happy and healthy fish, so you have to feed them on a daily basis then. Feed them a couple of times a week and stick to the right diet for the species you get. It pays off monitoring the behavior as you feed them. With time, you will become familiar with their nutritive requirements – feed them what they can have within five minutes, not more. If any food is left around, remove it, or the water quality will drop. There are more formulas out there according to the species you have.

Monitor the pH levels

pH levels are quite important when trying to figure out whether or not the system will actually work. You do not have to do it daily, though, but once a week. Keep it neutral – around 6.8 or seven, which is great for most fish and plants. Obviously, different species may come with different requirements.

Should the pH go above the limits, you can reduce it with specific products – most of them are based on phosphoric acid. Do it gradually, as too much of it can harm the system. On the other hand, low pH can also be adjusted with pH-related products – most commonly based on potassium carbonate and potassium hydroxide. Again, add it little by little.

Monitor the ammonia and nitrates

Ammonia should be checked on a weekly basis – any problems could ruin the system. If the level is too high, you probably have a dead fish. Make sure the ammonia does not exceed 0.5ppm. As for nitrates, do it monthly – not more than 150ppm. Higher levels mean you need to remove some fish or add more plants.

Keep an eye on the temperature

The temperature in the fish tank must be within the perfect range for the species of fish you have. Going beyond their ideal limits can cause them to fall ill.

Maintain the plants

Maintain plants as if they grew in an actual garden – pretty much everything apart from dealing with weeds. Check them out for insects or diseases. Once you harvest, it pays off planting new crops instead.

Conclusion

As a short final conclusion, having the right components in the system will ensure its self-sustainability. Plan everything in small details before you even start the system, as it will make the whole process smoother. Keep in mind that trial and error might be the optimal way to learn new skills, which always applies to aquaponics. If it fails to work, simply make some adjustments or reconsider the whole design.

Aquaponics for beginners can be easy if you do everything by the book – one thing at a time, in the right order. Rushing can lead to problematic consequences that will involve spending even more time and money.

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