Go out into the world, and you’ll see some really incredible aquaponics systems. High-tech and custom-built everything, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are plenty of options for a hobbyist to build their own aquaponics system at a fraction of the price. We’ll take you through the basics of an aquaponic system.
You can take this DIY and spruce it up with some of the specialized tech aquaponics equipment suppliers have put out over the last few years if you like, but for beginners or those with a tight budget, don’t worry if that’s out of your reach. You can still get the satisfaction of harvesting food from a farm you built from the ground up.
What is needed for a DIY aquaponics system?
- Bin for the fish
- Growing bed
- Plant tray
- Water pump & filter
- Air pump
- Light source (i.e. LED grow lights if indoors)
- A good pH tester
- Water primer
- Seed starters
- Fish food
The most important piece you need for building your own aquaponics system is a well-thought-out plan. Before you start gathering materials or ordering tubs of fish off the internet, research your options thoroughly and make sure you are prepared to dedicate the time your garden needs on a long-term and daily basis. Measure your proposed garden area and make sure that you have access to any electrical outlets, running water, and other utilities before you begin.
The best way to get ready for building a DIY aquaponics system is to sketch it out on paper. You don’t have to be good at drawing—just make sure you have accounted for all the nuts and bolts of your design and that your space is compatible with the project. Although aquaponics gardens are not especially time-consuming after getting set up properly, the set up will run much smoother if you have every step ready and on paper.
Although aquaponics farms do not require an especially large amount of time daily to check water chemistry and feed the fish, they require solid commitment. You must be able to dedicate regular time for feedings and water adjustments or you will soon find yourself trying to desperately save a dying garden.
Not only that, but some species of fish can live for decades, and even the short-living varieties live for several years, so if you are not planning on harvesting all of your fish for food, you should be prepared to take on aquaponics as a long-term project or set up a plan for rehoming them to a responsibly managed, captive environment. Never release nonnative fish into local wild areas.
In terms of aquaponics equipment, the basic things you’ll need are bins for the fish and growing beds, plant trays, water pumps and filters, water chemistry testing kits (particularly pH, nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia), water primers, seeds, seed starters, fish, and fish food. Thanks to the fish- you shouldn’t need the help from any liquid hydroponic nutrients.
It may also be a good idea to keep some generic fish illness remedies, a quarantine tank for new fish, and replacement filter and pump supplies on hand. Outside of that, just design your garden support system and plumbing, add the necessary parts to your list, and then you’re ready to get going!
How do I start my own aquaponics system?
Here’s a basic six step plan to building your own DIY aquaponics system.
Plan your garden.
Find and measure the space you want to use for your garden. Figure out what types of crops you want to grow and what fish will best serve your needs. Use those choices to guide the design of your system. Knowing your space constraints and what you intend to get out of the farm are the most important specs to figure out which aquaponics design will work for you. Once you’ve drawn up your design, make a play-by-play plan to know the exact order of construction and what needs to get done first.
Gather supplies and build the support system.
Acquire all of your supplies, except hold off on ordering your fish until you know you’re ready to get going with the garden. Unlike seeds that can sit dormant until you’re ready, the fish will need care and space the moment they arrive on your doorstep, whether you’ve got a space set up for them yet or now.
Build your support system and make sure it is sturdy enough to hold the weight of your tubs once they are filled with water and that it is big enough to allow for easy maintenance. It’s much easier to adjust your system’s logistics before all the water components are set up.
You can also start your seeds at this point, if you’re prepared to move quickly through the rest of the process. Check to see the germination times for each of your crops so your sprouts are timed correctly for when you’ll be ready to start gardening in your aquaponics system. Care for your seedlings as directed throughout the time you take to build your farm.
Hook up the plumbing.
Your farm will need to have some way for the water to flow between the different compartments of the system and through the filters. Get all of this plus the tubs in place and in working order before you begin filling with water.
Make sure that everything is in reach of an outlet that needs one and that everything is properly connected to its adjacent parts. Once again, do all of this before adding water to your system. This will eliminate the possibility of leaks from hasty work.
Fill with water and prime.
Once you’re sure you’re happy with the design of your garden and that everything has been hooked up correctly, you’re ready to add the water. After the water is to the appropriate levels in all the bins, plug in your pumps and filters, making sure that each one is working correctly. Remedy any problems with these, and then let the system filter on its own for a few hours. This will let the water circulate through the system a bit and eliminate inconsistencies between each compartment’s water chemistry.
After you’ve let it sit, test the water chemistry and add primers or treatments to adjust to appropriate levels for fish. You may consider letting the system run without any plants of animals in it for a few days to ensure that you can keep your water chemistry levels and to get used to the testing process. This may save you some heartache later.
At this point, you can also order the fish. You can either order online or go to an in-person supplier. Either way, know that it won’t take long to receive your fish order after they’ve shipped. Live animals are often overnight or two-day shipping max. Be ready to set them up the moment they arrive.
Introduce life to your garden.
Hopefully your seedlings and your fish will be ready for their new homes at roughly the same time. Transfer seedlings to plant trays and introduce your fish to their new tanks. Make sure to test water chemistry very often and very thoroughly for the first couple weeks of having a new garden.
Watch your harvest grow, and give it some help when needed.
Check water quality at least a couple times a week, if not every day. Keep an eye on your fish and plants for disease or malnutrition. Feed your fish, and watch your fish feed your plants. Enjoy!
Check out this video for three cool DIY aquaponics designs!
How many fish do I need for aquaponics?
The amount of fish you keep in your garden is dependent on your setup, the species of fish you choose, and your harvest needs. Large-scale aquaponics farms designed to produce food for many people will, naturally, need more fish than a small backyard garden designed to produce food for just one.
Along the same line, if you choose a small type of fish, you will need more of them to fill your system than if you choose larger fish. Check stocking densities of various species to know exactly how many per gallon will optimize the yield of your garden. Overstocking leads to stress and disease that can kill your fish and up your costs. Understocking will lead to slowed plant growth or even death due to a lack of nutrients in the water.
People choosing decorative species, such as koi or goldfish, over time will not need to buy as many fish to stock the garden with compared to people stocking the garden to harvest fish as well as plants. Knowing the exact number of fish you need is a question best asked during a discussion with your supplier. They will be able to direct you based on your preferred species and setup needs.
Can you eat the fish from aquaponics?
Depending on the species of fish you choose, the fish living your garden can be harvested for food. If you’re wanting to use the fish in your system as a food source, be sure to research your choices carefully. Some fish varieties are decorative and produce little or no harvest, and the harvestable options grow at different rates and have varying stocking densities. Make sure you choose a fish species that will be able to meet your needs.
What fish is best for aquaponics?
The fish that is best suited to your garden will depend on the type of farm you are hoping to run. Some of the factors you will need to consider are whether you want to harvest the fish for food and how often, what your local climate restraints are, and the space you have available. There are many different species of fish that can thrive in an aquaponics garden, and you can even keep multiple types in some instances. For a closer look, check out the article linked in the above headline.
If you’re wondering what types of plants to grow take a peek at our guide highlighting the best plants to grow in an aquaponics system.
Do you feed fish in aquaponics?
Yes. You don’t have to do much to keep an aquaponics system running on the day-to-day, but feeding the fish is one of the things you must do. There is no other food source coming in from the recycled grow bed water, so if you neglect to feed your fish, they will not be able to survive.
Is aquaponics easy?
Farming with aquaponics is a lot like cleaning your house. If you take your time to do things right the first time and make sure to keep up with the daily chores, maintaining an aquaponics garden isn’t difficult. If you stop checking the water chemistry or let an illness go unchecked, you will have a much harder time getting everything back in check.
How deep should aquaponics grow beds be?
There is a lot of controversy surrounding grow bed depth, but most people agree beds should be at least one foot deep. For beginners, this is a good place to start, because it is not so large that it becomes very pricey, but large enough to allow a self-sustaining cleaning system to establish.
Shallower beds are cheaper and can work well for certain plants, in particular, leafy greens, but these beds will require more maintenance, because a grower may find that the beds are not able to complete the cleaning process all on their own.
Building your own aquaponic system can be fun and rewarding. We hope our step-by-step how to build an aquaponic setup guide was both helpful and inspiring.