Introduction: Unbelievably Simple Aquaponics

I love aquariums and since I always end up with extra aquariums, I thought what would be better then an aquaponics tank. This project can be done by pretty much anyone, there is very little setup and you need a bit of knowledge about plants, which you can find all over the web.

So why aquaponics, well I can tell you first hand that there's nothing like having fresh herbs ans spices on hand for cooking. It definitely beats having to run to the store because you are out of something. It also requires very little maintenance.

Fish produce waste which has to be handled in one way or another, in an aquaponics tanks the plants act as the filtration system. The plants use the fish waste as fertilizer, coupled with energy from the lights and you have a self sustaining, self renewing food source.

This project costs me 6$ for 15 comet goldfish, though not everyone will have the required parts laying around. So your costs will vary.

The equipment I am using in the picture is as follows:

  • 70 gal Aquarium
  • 6 bulb T5 light
  • 2 Hydor pico 800 (about 100 gal per hour each)
  • Air pots for plants
  • Pea gravel for the air pots

Step 1: Equipment Needed

For this project you will need the following items:

  • Aquarium or a plastic container (plastics tend to leech chemicals, very bad, use at your own risk)
  • Circulation pumps
  • Containers for the plants
  • Media for the plant containers
  • Fish (goldfish are cheap and produce lots of waste)
  • Lights - Explained in another step

The costs of each of these items will vary depending on the size of the aquarium and what you want to grow. You will need to adjust the follow if you choose a bigger tank.

Aquarium: You can use any size you have lying around but to be successful I would go with a minimum 29 gal tank. A new 29 gal tank is around 60$, but I'm sure you can find one used for a quarter of the price. The aquarium will dictate what you can grow and how much of it you can grow.

Circulation pumps: A submersible pump with at least 60 gal/h will do, I suggest two smaller one's then one big one

Plant Containers: I recommend air pots, you can get them from any nursery or aquaponics store, they are about a buck a piece and come in various sizes. You can also use red plastic cups, just poke a bunch of small holes in them to let the water pass through. They cost about $1.50 for 8 @ the dollar store, but again they are plastic.

Container Media:: Pea gravel(cost: 8$ 30 kg bag, Home Depot), but any ph neutral media will work

Fish: Goldfish are cheap and produce lots of waste, great to start with

Step 2: Lighting Options

Lighting is where it gets a bit complicated, there are a wide range of options for lighting, they all have Pros/Cons.

Thongs to consider

  • Temperature: The lower the temp the closer they can be positioned to the plants, providing more energy
  • Bulb replacement: The more bulbs you have to replace the higher the running costs
  • Costs: It's easy to go for the cheaper startup cost but factor in the costs over a year or two

Below is my personal opinion from experience..

Lighting Options

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metal halite & high pressure sodium: Way overkill, very expensive, run extremely hot and have to be replaced every 6 months

T12: Not an option, doesn't provide enough exposure and has become obsolete

T8: Decent lights, medium powered, low running temperature, bulbs and fixtures are affordable. The bulbs need to be replaced every 6 months. Dual T8 fixture cost about 20$ from Walmart, you would need two. Bulbs are about 30$ for 10.@ home depot

T5: Great lights, high powered, medium running temperature but the bulbs and fixtures are expensive. The bulbs also need to be replaced every 4 - 6 months. Fixture price varies depending on the number of bulbs it supports. The bubs run from 12$ to 30$ each depending on quality and color.

NOTE: The T series lights degrade over time and stop producing the required color spectrum, therefore need to be replaced.

LED's: These are the new big thing. The have a long life ( 6 or so years ), all light is focused downward, no lose of energy, very low running temperature. Price varies depending on the number of led's, color and wattage. A single 35 watt red/blue led bulb ( covers about 1 ft) is about 35$ on eBay, though the quality of these bulbs is not great.

My Recommendation

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Start with 4 T8's, they have a low starting cost and the replacement bulbs are affordable, you wont get the best results from T8's but they will work.

If you decide that aquaponics is for you, then go ahead and invest in decent LED's. I believe that LED"s are the best option.

Step 3: Plant Options

Not all plants will do well in an aquaponics setup, do some research on the type of plants that you want to grow. You can grow, almost any green leafy plant, some fruits and vegetables, some flowers. I wouldn't try to grow from seeds in the aquaponics setup, use soil or another media to germinate and grow to about 3" before you put them in the water.

Plants I grew successfully

  • Catnip
  • Basil
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Dill
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • String Beans
  • Lettuce
  • Sentry Onions

Plants that didn't work out

  • Snow peas
  • Forget me not's
  • Lillie's
  • Aloe Vera
  • Bulb Onions

Just because some plants don't do well in water, doesn't mean you are out of luck. For things I have had trouble with I put in a sealed pot filled with soil and then inside tank. You just have to remember to water them. I also tend to put seedlings just outside the tank so they get the benefit of the lighting system, but again they have to be watered,

Step 4: Setup & Assembly

Step 1:

Fill your tank with just enough water that leaves 2" of your air pots out of the water, this will prevent algae from growing on the media (pea gravel). Let the water sit for 24 hrs with your circulation pumps in the water. This will dissipate any chlorine in the water. Chlorine is a killer for fish and not good for plants either. I live in Toronto and they add chloramine to the water. which is a nasty chemical, it's much stronger then chlorine and doesn't dissipate over time like chlorine. You can buy tablets to remove the chloramine, but so far I haven't had any trouble with it. Check with you local water provide for what they put in the water. You can also start to grow your plants at this time as it will take a few weeks to be ready to enter the water depending on the plant species.

Step 2:

After about 24 hrs you can add a couple of fish, don't add more then 3 to start with as the water in the tank will go through what's called new tank syndrome, where the water parameters fluctuate greatly and it puts a lot of strain on the fish, You can also buy a water conditioner to help this process along, but it's not necessary.

Step 3:

Now you want to add your lighting system, how you set them up with depend on what type of lights you purchased. Get information from the retailer you purchased the lights from about placement, if they aren't willing to help then don't buy anything from them.

Step 4:

Once your plants are about 3" they are ready to go into the water, at this point you can add a few more fish. Transplant your plants from the soil. try to get as much soil off the roots as you can, as it will just muddy up the water. The plants roots should be about halfway into the air pot and covered withy our grow media. Again make sure that the top 2" of the air pot is out of the water.

Step 5:

Keep an eye on your tank, if plants and fish are dying then you likely have to much nutrients in the water. If just plants are dying then you likely don't have enough nutrients in the water. It's a balancing act until you figure out how much nutrients your plants need and your fish can tolerate. Remember that as your plants grow or you add more plants, they will require more nutrients.

Last Step:

Enjoy your tank, it's fun to watch the fish swimming around, I find myself mesmerized sometimes and just staring into the tank, In a month or so you should have a bounty of herbs, spices and veggies.

Step 5: Conclusion

Aquaponics is a lot of trial and error, if some plants or fish die, don't be discouraged, just learn from your mistakes and make adjustments. Thankfully seeds and gold fish are cheap.

Some of the issues you will have to negotiate are as follow

  • How many fish per plant are needed
  • How often to do a water change
  • How to position your lighting system
  • Choosing plants that wont outgrow your tank.

There is more information about aquaponics on the web then you could ever read, I would recommend finding a local nursery or aquaponics shop and establishing a relationship with them.

Final Note: With the exception of fish, do not buy anything from a fish store, everything is almost always overpriced and can be found cheaper elsewhere.

Good Luck ad Enjoy!

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