How To Set Up Your Aquaponics System To Be Self-Sustaining

Article by Robert Alekson

If you are like me, then the idea of becoming self-sufficient and growing organic food for your family is an appealing idea. There are a lot of good books that can show a complete novice how to set up their own aquaponics garden, and it is actually quite easy to do once you know the basics. A lot of people have the tendency to rush into this type of project a bit too hastily, and end up buying supplies they don’t need or items that they could have used recycled items for.

Aquaponics is a relatively new technology which was developed specifically to solve the major problems of 2 other traditional organic gardening systems. Traditionally, raising fish (aquaculture) and growing organic fruit and vegetables (hydroponics) have been difficult to implement, primarily because each system requires a moderate to high amount of maintenance and expense to be successful.

With aquaculture, the main problem is that over 10% of the water has to be removed and replaced every day to prevent the fish from dying. Hydroponics requires a fairly significant investment in food and nutrients for the plants being grown, since soil is not used. Aquaponics solves the problems of each system, is inexpensive to set up, and requires very little maintenance.

Biological Balance Is Achieved in Successful Aquaponics Systems

The secret to building a successful aquaponics system is to maintain balance between 3 parts: the fish, healthy bacteria, and vegetation. It is easier than you think, since you really only have to get the conditions close to being right and mother nature will do the rest.

Aquaponics has to have the right amount of all 3 parts to achieve biological balance, and then the fish will feed the plants, and the vegetables will keep the water clean for the fish. If the 3 parts are out of balance, then either the fish or the vegetables will suffer, and possibly die. If there are too many fish, then the water can become toxic with a build-up of ammonia. With too few fish, the plants will not have enough nutrients. Without enough healthy bacteria, the fish waste by-products will not be converted into a useable form for the plants to absorb.

If you set up your aquaponics system in a systematic way that takes into account all 3 variables, it can be fun, easy, and inexpensive to set up a self-sustaining system in about a week.

What Is Happening In a Successful Aquaponics System

To really get a good handle on how to set up an aquaponics system, it is vitally important to understand what is happening. Aquaponics is a closed freshwater system, which means that the water does not “naturally” flow like the water in a river or lake in the wild does. This means that the system needs to be set up to create this “flow” where the water moves from the fish to the plants – and then back to the fish again.In this closed freshwater system, fish such as tilapia or koi are kept in a holding tank or small pond where they are fed on a daily basis. Before the fish are placed in their new home, the water has to be conditioned properly using a technique called “cycling”, where fish feed is gradually added to the water to reduce the chlorine and build up the healthy bacteria we talked about earlier. Without proper cycling, the water will contain toxic levels of chlorine that may kill the fish, and since the bacteria take a few days to multiply to optimal levels, it just makes good sense to wait until the bacteria levels are high enough before introducing the fish.

The fish are then introduced into this bacterial filled environment where they will be fed daily. They will produce ammonia and solid waste by-products that will be transformed by the bacteria into nitrates, which are the preferred nutrients for the organic fruits and vegetables. High enough levels of bacteria will ensure that all of the ammonia is converted to nitrates, and that the plants have enough food to grow big and healthy. We must be careful to monitor the level of nitrates in the water, however, since weeds and unwanted plants will tend to grow in the fish tank if the nitrate levels are too high.

This is where the plants become an important part of this system. You see, if the amount of nitrates in the water is too high, then this can result in overgrowth of unwanted vegetation in the water. This is why the aquaponics system must be in balance at all times. Fortunately, these nitrates are ideal natural nutrients for plants, and they are quickly absorbed by the plant roots and used as food, thereby cleaning and filtering the water. This is also why it is so important for the water to be circulated from where the fish are – to where the plants are. Without circulation, the nitrates will quickly build where the fish are, and unwanted vegetation and weeds will grow in that area.

After adding the fish, the plants must be introduced to the home aquaponics system. The plants are the third and final piece to the aquaponics puzzle. The vegetables and fruit are grown on “grow beds”, which receive a constant stream of water (and nutrients) from the fish tank. If the system is set up properly, water can drain from the fish tanks to the grow beds and back to the fish after the plants filter and purify it.

In larger systems, it is highly recommended to have a mechanical purification filter in place that will both purify and circulate the water. This will prevent build up of fish waste that can quickly accumulate and prevent the plants from cleaning the water.

Once you figure out what the right balance of fish and plants are in your system, it is really easy to maintain the system. In fact, once this “biological balance” is achieved, all you have to do is monitor the pH levels of the water and make sure the fish get enough food each day. The system will maintain and clean itself each and every day after that, which is the reason why aquaponics has become so popular in the United States in the last 2 years.

Robert Alekson is an aquaponics expert. So if you want to read a great how to aquaponics book, then be sure to visit

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