How to Get Started with DIY Aquaponics
If aquaponics is a hobby you’ve been interested in taking up but the initial cost of start up has always been off putting, then DIY aquaponics might just be the option for you! It’s no secret that the science behind aquaponics is rather complex, and indeed the technique itself is far from the easiest. However, with the right guidance, and little care and attention, aquaponics is eco-farming technique that’s more than achievable for any budding grower.
One of the best ways to really immerse yourself in the technique to fully understand what’s happening in your manmade ecosystem is to start the process from the ground up; i.e. to build your own DIY aquaponics system to your own specifications.
Why DIY Aquaponics?
The number of complete, all-in-one aquaponics solutions on the market has seen a relatively large increase in recent years. So with this growing amount of ready to install systems also giving consumers more options, why would anyone wish to go down the DIY route? Cost, quality and customization.
Cost: although some systems do offer great value for money, when constructing your own you’ll essentially avoid labour costs and have the option to purchase best quality components. This typically works out cheaper when the total cost of parts is compared with the cost of complete systems.
Quality: Following on from cost, since it’s often cheaper to purchase and assemble parts yourself, you’ll be able to afford better quality components within the same budget as you get in complete systems of the same price.
Customization: In addition, you’ll have almost endless options when it comes to configuration, within reason of course since each technique does have certain setup requirements. More importantly, you’ll be able to choose from a range of materials already tried and tested by others in the field, or if you’re feeling creative, you can experiment with various different materials, configurations and approaches.
By going the DIY route in your aquaponics journey you’ll be able to construct your preferred system in a configuration that best fits your space, and to the exact dimensions that maximize use of this space.
More Advantages of DIY Aquaponics
In addition to cost, quality and customization, there are a number of other advantages you can enjoy by setting up your own DIY aquaponics system. These benefits include:
Space saving: Having the option to customize all aspects of the setup allows you to built to the exact dimensions that will maximize the space of your working area. Aquaponics setups can be constructed vertically, further increasing the useable area.
Education: Building your own system from scratch will give you a much better understanding of the whole process then if you simply bought a complete system and following the operating instructions.
Easy Repairs: By knowing exactly how your system is constructed you’ll be able to troubleshoot and repair any issues much easier than other branded systems. Systems from other companies may also require an expensive purchases from said company to replace any proprietary parts, which isn’t just likely to be expensive, it’s also likely to take longer to get to you than any standard part available off the shelf of any good supply store.
Sustainability/Entry to eco-arming: In the modern day and age most people wish to lower their impact on the world, and starting your own sustainable farming project is a great way to do so. Not only will you be helping to make the world a cleaner place, you’ll also benefit from the fruits of your labor, as too may your family, friends, and/or even your customers!
Disadvantages of DIY Aquaponics
When it comes to DIY aquaponics there really is just one disadvantage; the fact you could make a mistake with construction, and have to start from scratch again. Aside from that however, there really isn’t any more, mainly because all other potential downsides, e.g. harder to build, more labor intensive, are a direct result of choosing the DIY route, therefore there really isn’t anything to convince you otherwise!
What Type of DIY Aquaponics is Most Suitable?
Image credit: Build Your Own “Chop & Flip” Backyard Aquaponic System, RobsAquaponics.com.
Types of Aquaponics Systems
Aquaponics systems are generally categorized into three different configurations. Each system is constructed slightly different, and each allows for different configurations. The three main aquaponics systems, and their preferred application are as follows:
Nutrient Film Technique NFT: Commonly employed for commercial application due to the efficiency of space, the ability to configure vertical grow shelves, together with reduced labor costs.
– Best plants for NFT aquaponics: This includes leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach, kale and mustard greens, certain herbs like basil, dill, cilantro and parsley, and some flowering plants like tomatoes and strawberries.
Deep Water Culture DWC: Another technique also popular in the commercial industry due to the high stocking density and potential area for growing plants. However, there are DWC setups that are suitable for small spaces, and therefore can also be installed in the home.
– Best plants for DWC aquaponics: Plants that thrive in NFT aquaponics typically do well in DWC systems too, and DWC is known to be more forgiving.
Media Based: Generally best for home use due to the low stocking rate, however they provide a very stable environment for plant roots, which leads to increased plant growth.
– Best plants for Media Based aquaponics: The deep media bed enables the system to support a wider variety of plant species, namely root vegetables such as carrot and radish. These plants are hard if not impossible to grow in NFT or DWC setups since they do not contain enough grow media to support the deep roots and heavy plant.
Best Fish Species for Aquaponics
The best species of fish for aquaponics: There is a variety of fish species that are suitable for aquaponics. Many of the common ones are edible, however there are a few inedible species typically use for aesthetics and/or hardiness. Popular fish for aquaponics include:
- Goldfish: inedible, grown for hardiness
- Tilapia: perhaps the most popular edible fish for aquaponics, grows quick, hardy
- Catfish: another fast growing, tasty and hardy fish
- Trout: produce large yields, much like salmon but easier to raise in aquaponics
- Salmon: the most popular edible fish in the world, one of the more challenging fish for aquaponics but produces very large yields when successful
- Koi: inedible, grown solely for aesthetic reasons, and some might say luck!
- Large Mouth Bass: easy to grow and great tasting
Planning Your DIY Aquaponics System
With the only real downside regarding DIY aquaponics being the risk of making a mistake in construction, the planning stage becomes extremely important. Here you’ll be able to get a much clearer picture of exactly how your plans can be executed and what the real world results will be. Sketching out a rough diagram of the setup can also give you a visual overview that can make it easier to spot mistakes.
Furthermore, a clear and concise checklist can double as a guide to assist you throughout the build; giving you an easy way to refer to help information along the way. This will become extremely useful when it comes to constructing the system as it’s highly unlikely you’re to remember each and every step, and even if you could, it’s still an idea to have writ en guidelines in case any thing goes wrong; being able to refer to your original plans can, in some cases, be invaluable.
The location you chose to setup is you aquaponics setup is important for several reasons; a couple of which may not be immediately obvious.
Likely top of most people’s requirements list; nobody wants to travel out their way just to get to their aquaponics setup. Between the different system configurations, you’ll be sure to find a setup that fits perfectly into the given work area allocated for the project.
The location will also dictate the surrounding climate, and whether or not you have any control over this. Heating and/or cooling solutions are plentiful but most come with additional power requirements, and since aquaponics is all about sustainability, increasing power demand is counterproductive. Therefore, it’s best to select fish and plants that will do well in the natural climate of the location the system will operate; whether that be completely indoor, outdoor but uncover, or in a greenhouse.
Note: Setting up outdoor also opens the system up to possible weather damage from extreme, or prolonged, conditions. So if you’re located in an area where the risk of this occurring is high, then considering installing the system in a greenhouse, outhouse, garage, or completely indoor.
This requirement will largely depend on what plants and fish you choose, as well as what type of setup you build. Most plants do best with periods of direct sunlight, however most fish prefer indirect light. This is commonly solved by placing the grow bed in the area that catches the sun, then applying some form of shading to shield the fish tank and also to the sides of the grow bed to prevent sunlight from promoting algae growth. With that in mind, no matter what system you go with or what fish and plants you chose to grow, sunlight is one factor you’ll want to consider from the start, as it can be tough to adjust things later.
As part of deciding where to install your system you’ll also need to decide what type of setup best suits your needs. Here you’ll mainly want to consider space limitations, followed by budget, and finally what type of plants and fish you wish to farm.
Once you’ve evaluated your situation and assessed exactly how you’ll go about constructing the system and what materials, components and parts you’ll need, next you’ll be able to calculate an accurate budget.
In the spirit of DIY try to hunt out any discarded, and/or unwanted materials that can be repurposed. It’s very common for scrap metal, wood and all manner of plastic items to get dumped in local tips, skips and other areas. Be sure not to steal any body’s possessions, or trespass on private property whilst doing this. Also ask your family and friends if they have any scrap material they wish to get rid of. Many people have old things they desperately want gone but simply don’t find it viable to organize the time to do so. In this case you could actually be helping them, which is win-win, and then everyone’s happy.
Preparation for Your DIY Aquaponics
Cycling / Nitrification
Preparation of your aquaponics setup is a crucial first step that involves balancing certain vital parameters with the goal of achieving sufficient nitrification; the process in which bacteria convert ammonia waste into nitrites then nitrates for the plants to feed on Just like you will introduce fish and plants into the system, you can consider this stage as introducing these beneficial bacteria. To perform this process it requires two different types of bacteria from the Nitrobacteraceae family:
– Nitrosomonas, Nitrosospira, Nitrosococcus, and Nitrosolobus, which convert ammonia into nitrites, and Nitrobacter, Nitrospina
– Nitrococcus, which then convert nitrites into nitrates that the plants can easily absorb.
This is done by ‘cycling’; allowing time for the bacteria colonize on the biofilter and other surfaces, where it can then start to convert ammonia to nitrates until it reaches sufficient levels.
Introducing Beneficial Bacteria
You’ll have the option to do this with or without fish. When using fish you’ll want to select a hardy species such as goldfish or tilapia. To provide ammonia for the system introduce the fish, refrain from feeding for a day and feed lightly for the following few days. Next you’ll have the option to let the beneficial bacteria develop naturally from the small colonies already contained within the biofilter, or you can kick-start the process by manually adding nitrifying bacteria starter kit and/or nitrifying bacteria supplements.
Alternatively you can start this whole process without fish. This will require you to manually ammonia, then you can establish the colonies of bacteria in the much the same way as noted above.
Since the bacteria are also a living organism just like the fish and plants, factors such as temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen DO will also affect the growth of colonies. Therefore it’s just as important to monitor things during this stage of the process as it is during the regular operation.
In order for nitrification to take place, the target levels you should aim for are:
- pH: 6.8-7.7
- Temperature: 20-30°C / 68-86°F
- Dissolved oxygen concentration: 5-8 mg/l
Introducing Plants and Fish into DIY Aquaponics
It’s advisable to transplant your seedlings into the grow media, or net pots, depending on your setup, as soon as you begin cycling. This will help the nitrification process to balance itself out and prep for full-scale operation.
Here you may also wish to install a grow light to help better control the light cycle preferred by the species of plant you’ve chosen to grow.
Whether you’re adding fish to start the nitrification process, or once it’s already underway, you’ll need to ensure the fish are acclimated to the temperature and pH of the new waters to avoid shock and stress.
To do this you can first test the current water’s pH levels. Should readings be far from each other, then slowly adjust the pH of the water the fish is currently in until it matches your aquaponics system water.
Next you’ll need to equalize the waters temperature between the bag and the system. To do this simply place the fish in a bag along with its current water, seal the bag up, and let it float in the aquaponics system water until the temperatures are slowly brought together. This will slowly adjust the temperature surrounding the fish instead of exposing it to a sudden shift in temperature.
Once the fish are transferred into the aquaponics tank it’s advised to avoid feeding them for 24 hours, then only feed them lightly until the point they’re willing consuming food.
Once these levels are safely balanced, you’ll be able to officially begin your aquaponics journey.
If you’re looking to get into aquaponics but the cost of initial setup is higher than your preferred budget, then trying your hand at DIY aquaponics could be an ideal solution in overcoming this common hurdle. The field of homemade, DIY aquaponics has seen a lot of progress in recent years and as a result, the internet is now full of useful (and not so useful!) information, how-to-guides and tutorials on how to build you own DIY systems, and with all this helpful information now readily available to anyone willing to look online, you’ll be able to follow instructions to design and build a custom aquaponics system that meets your unique needs and requirements, no matter what type of aquaponics technique you wish to try.
Offering a number of benefits over purchasing an all-in-one aquaponics system, and solely putting the creative process and decision-making in your hands; opting to start DIY aquaponics is no doubt one of the best ways to take up sustainable farming.
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