Wednesday, 02 May 2012 00:39

Introduction to Aquaponics

aquaponicsAquaponics farming has been growing steadily over the past years, it has especially gained traction in arid regions where water preservation is crucial. Aquaponics uses a symbiotic closed-loop system that cycles the same water between fish and plants, the fish produces nutrients and CO2 for the plants, and the plants in turn purifies the water and returns Oxygen to the fish. Today, many are setting up aquaponics systems at home, and growing their own produce and farming their own fish.


1. The Basics 

Before going further, let's break down the basics of aquaponics.


  1. Water container housing fish or invertebrates (shrimp, prawn, etc)
  2. Grow bed with grow media, such as hydroton, lava rocks, or even just river rocks, depending on the level of water retention you want
  3. Pump to push the water from the fish container to the grow bed, can be powered by electric, solar, wind, hamster wheel (not recommended)
  4. A drainage system back down from the grow bed to the fish container
Drainage System
There are two types of drainage/flow systems: (1) continuous flow, and (2) ebb and flow (aka. flood and drain).
Continuous flow constantly cycles the water through the grow bed, and the water drains down mechanically. The disadvantage of this is that the roots are either always submerged, or never submerged. 
Ebb and flow uses a method (a flush system, bell siphon, or timer) to accumulate water into the grow bed, then drain it, and repeat. This allows roots to take full advantage of the nutrients in the water during the flood cycle, and allows it to oxygenate during the drain cycle. Ebb and flow via a timer is the easiest, but will also shorten the life span of your pump.
Aquaponics and the nitrogen cycle (fish-plant symbiotics) is nothing new to those who keep planted aquarium tanks, the concept is the same. In fact, some aquarists are already growing terrestrial plants out of their aquarium filters, such as our previously featured 10g and 20g aquarium tanks. 
For the terrestrial backyard gardener looking to grow more plants or produce, aquaponics still poses some difficulty. A commercial system can be too costly to justify its benefits, and DIY systems are fairly complex and require a good amount of cutting and drilling.


2. Commercial Systems

Probably due to the lack of demand, commercial systems remain costly today for the backyard or balcony farmer.

Australian company Backyard Aquaponics has been offering systems and installation starting at around $1,000 for a small balcony system, going upwards to $8,000 for a large family system.  Despite the price tag, the company has had huge success throughout Australia, but as previously mentioned, the demand there is great due to arid regions requiring water conservation.

Backyard Aquaponics Entertainer Model, 265g, for about $2k including setup

Here in the States, commercial systems lack luster. a readily available line of system, titled "Farm in a Box" can be found on Amazon. The system basically features a small wooden tray, with an aquarium tank (not included) on the bottom.

Farm in a Box Little Tokyo Model, 10g tank, $295

Another system to market is the AquaBundance, for about $1,300, you can have your own awesome orange totes on a metal rack, strangely resembling scraps from a dead Transformers robot.

AquaBundance, 60g tank, $1300; designer model on right for $1600

On the upside, they do offer a designer version of this for $300 more, again resembling the Farm In A Box -- grow bed up top, aquarium tank on bottom -- but made of wood and comes with a light! Not bad for an alternative indoor fish tank / garden, but not very functional besides planting an herb garden, and probably not enough to justify the price tag.


3. DIY Systems

I don't think I'll be purchasing a commercial system anytime soon. Sadly that brings us to DIY. Now there's a few methods of doing this. If you simply want to say -- I have an aquaponics system! -- then all you have to do is stick some plants inside your aquarium tank. Or, find a plastic tupperware and position it above your tank, add some media such as hydroton, then use a pump to cycle water through it. If you're looking for more, there are a few options (including PDF guides!)

Small Herb Hydroponics

Features a $5 plastic tote, and an airstone. To make this an aquaponic setup, all you have to do is be a little cruel and throw a goldfish inside the dark container. But we wouldn't recommend it. However it would be the easiest in-home project if you're just looking to grow something small in water. See the DIY article here by xponics.



Now we're talking, unlike the herb-hydroponics DIY, this is real aquaponics, featuring a container for the fish and a separate grow bed for the plants. 

In addition, the DIY guide also features a "flood valve" also known as a bell siphon, this little device seals the grow bed during the flood cycle, and automatically releases the water from the grow bed down to the fish container when a certain level is reached. For more detailed instructions on building a bell siphon, see this DIY article by the University of Hawaii. 



This is more of an extension upon barrel-ponics, you still use the barrel for fish, but via a series of modular PVC piping, you can build your garden upwards into the sky. That's right, PVC pipes and red Dixie cups! Check out the full article on Engineering for Change.


Have an aquaponics setup you want to share with us, or interested in starting your own? Discuss it with us in the forums, or start a photo journal of your setup today!

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