An aquaponics fish tank lets you grow plants in water, and these plants gain nutrients from fish and other organisms living in the same water. The fish present in this system also attain nutrients or favorable conditions from the plants present in the tank. As a result, you have fish and plants living in harmony in one stunning fish tank.
If you wish to set up an aquaponics fish tank at home, follow these key steps:
- Get the proper materials.
- Assemble the tank.
- Install a growing medium.
- Connect pipes and pumps.
- Add water.
- Add fish.
- Start adding plants.
Keep reading for the ultimate guide on how to set up your aquaponics fish tank at home. I’ll cover what you need for the job, how your tank will operate, and how you can ensure that your plants and fish thrive with relative ease. By the end of this piece, you’ll have all the knowledge you need to start your aquaponics tank today.
1. Get the Proper Materials
The first step in ensuring that you have a successful setup for your aquaponics fish tank is ensuring that you have the right tools and equipment for the job. Establishing an aquaponics fish tank is relatively easy with the right tools. However, with the wrong gear, your tank will surely die.
Here’s a list of the materials that you’ll need to ensure a successful aquaponics fish tank:
- 20 to 40 Gallon (75.71 to 151.42 L) fish tank (or larger)
- Growing tray
- Air pump with tubes
- Water pump
- Pipes or tubing
- Universal seals/bulkheads
- Growing medium
- pH meter
- Decorative pieces
All the materials listed above are readily available in most pet stores or online retailers.
Before continuing with the guide, you must have all of the above materials. If you’re missing some elements or have substituted some components for others, it may lead to issues in your tank after the initial setup.
If you’re unsure about any of the materials listed above, don’t worry. Throughout this guide, I’ll explain what each piece is and why it’s used when it comes up.
2. Assemble the Tank
Once you’ve got all of the necessary equipment for your new aquaponics fish tank, it’s time to figure out what goes where and why.
The first part of assembling this new tank is similar to setting up a standard fish tank.
So, first, get your tank. It can be a large store-bought fish tank or just a larger clean food container or plastic storage bin. The tank itself isn’t as important as what goes inside it. Once you’ve decided on which tank to use, you should clean it and get ready to decorate.
If you want, you can add a substrate at the bottom of the tank. Depending on the aquatic creatures you want to put in, you might need a different substrate. For example, shrimp usually need a substrate that helps keep the tank’s pH slightly acidic. Other animals may need sandier or rockier sediment.
You can add some water to your tank at this stage of the process to get you started. Once filled with water, you should add the water pump inside the tank and the air pump to the outside. Doing so will oxygenate and circulate the water, making ideal fish and plants flourish.
You should add an air stone to the air pump. This stone ensures that the air flows from the bottom of the tank up to the top, which is hugely beneficial for aquatic plants.
Even with the correct pumps and filters in place, the water in your tank isn’t ready to host fish for a couple of days to a week after you add the water.
Waiting a week or so allows the water to be adequately filtered and potentially harmful chemicals like fluoride and chlorine to leave the water. Chemicals like chlorine purify water from faucets, and fish are often vulnerable to these chemicals.
However, if you want to speed things up, you can use a water conditioner or dechlorinating product to make the water suitable for aquatic life immediately.
3. Install a Growing Medium
Once you’ve got your tank set up with the correct water and air pumps, it’s time to get the right pieces in place for healthy plant growth.
The plants you plan to propagate in the water will need certain conditions to stimulate healthy growth. In particular, the plants will require an excellent growing medium.
However, the first thing that your plants will need in your aquaponics fish tank is a plastic tray. This tray will act as a planting pot within the fish tank and allow the plants to develop strong roots.
You can find specific growing trays for aquaponics tanks, but you may also use a simple plastic container. I always use old plastic egg cartons to cut down on my recycling.
If you’re using a homemade growing tray, you must drill holes in the bottom to allow the bulkheads to fit in. We’ll explain this in more detail later. However, the holes should be present before adding your growing media.
Once you’ve got your growing tray in place, it’s time to get your growing media. There are several growing media available to use for aquaponics fish tanks. See below for a breakdown of the most common choices for aquaponics growing media:
Lava rocks are one of the most popular choices for growing media for aquaponics tanks. Lava rocks have a neutral Ph, which won’t influence oh levels. Also, the lightweight and porous nature of lava rocks allow for excellent air circulation and water flow through plant roots.
Expanded Clay Pellets
Expanded clay pellets are another common choice for growing media. Expanded clay pellets are likely the most expensive growing media form for aquaponics and hydroponics. These clay pellets have tiny holes that supply excellent aeration and water flow to plant roots.
These pellets also have a large surface area which facilitates strong roots. The clay can also allow nitrifying bacteria to form, which is excellent for plant development and growth. As a result, expanded clay pellets are ideal for any aquaponics setup.
Gravel is the most affordable growing media, but it also has the most shortcomings.
While gravel is inexpensive and readily available, it has a poor surface area and doesn’t retain water, making healthy bacteria growth a big challenge. On top of this, gravel often contains limestone, which is basic or alkaline.
Therefore, adding gravel straight into your water mix may alter pH levels to disastrous consequences. However, you can soak the stone in vinegar before adding it to your setup, which will dissolve the limestone and reduce its influence on pH levels. It’s important to remember to wash away the vinegar from your gravel before adding it to your mix.
If you wish to see great results in your aquaponics setup, it’s best to avoid gravel. However, the stone is a decent option if you assemble your tank on a tight budget.
The last growing media that I’ll discuss today is expanded shale.
Expanded shale is perhaps the most cost-effective growing media on the list as it’s effective and affordable. Expanded shale contains pockets of air that stimulate bacteria growth. Expanded shale is also pH neutral, which makes maintaining the tanks easier.
Now that you know the most popular grow media for aquaponics setups, it’s time to figure out which is best suited to your needs. One of the most significant factors that influence this decision is your budget. If you can afford to buy expanded clay pellets, you should choose this growing media.
However, if expanded pellets are out of your budget, lava rocks and expanded shale are suitable replacements. If you’re making your aquaponics tank for as little money as possible, gravel might be your best bet. However, it’s the least effective of the growing media mentioned.
When you’re first setting up an aquaponics fish tank, you must take the time to see what works best for you.
If you use lava rock and you’re unsuccessful, try switching to expanded shale or expanded clay. You can even combine growing media to make your plants more robust and healthier. So, expect a little trial and error at the beginning of your setup.
Whichever growing media you choose for your tank, place it within your growing tray and place the tray at the bottom of the tank, alongside the air stone. Doing so ensures that your plant’s roots will receive plenty of aeration, critical for bacterial growth.
4. Connect Pipes and Pumps
After you’ve assembled your tank and included your growing media, it’s time to set up your pipes and pumps for the best plant growth. Aquaponics grows to require plenty of aeration and prime water conditions for best results. So, follow these steps to ensure a successful setup:
- The first thing that you must do is install the bulkheads. Bulkheads are seals in pipes that allow you to quickly drain water or fill water from your tank or your growing tray. If your bulkheads aren’t watertight after installation, use rubber cement to prevent leaks.
- The next thing you need to do is connect your pipe to the bulkheads beneath the growing media. This pipe will run out of the growing tray and into the tank below. You will use it to control the water flow through your plants, and it’ll ensure that the water is constantly moving around the plant’s roots.
- You’ll also need to connect some tubing or another pipe to the water pump outlet. This pipe will run from the outlet to the top of the media bed, stimulating water flow across the plant roots, which is terrific for healthy plant development.
- You should appropriately set up your air filter. I already mentioned this step earlier. However, if you missed it, place the air filter outside the tank with an air stone at the tank’s bottom beneath the growing media. Doing so maximizes airflow throughout the plant roots, facilitating healthy bacterial growth. After you’ve connected all of your pipes and tubing, it’s time to start putting the finishing touches on your aquaponics setup.
5. Add Water
If you already have water in your tank from earlier, it may be best to remove it from the tank to replace it with fresh water at this stage.
Changing the water reduces the risk of contamination caused by any new materials added to your fish tank. When you add water to your fish tank, it’s important to consider water quality and pH levels.
If the water is particularly hard where you live, using it for fish tanks may lead to high levels of chlorine or calcium in your water. These chemicals and minerals can change pH levels, which may facilitate harmful bacterial growth in your tank.
Some growers use bottled water or filtered water for their aquaponics systems. These clean water sources allow you to ensure that the water you are adding has a neutral pH and is free from contaminants.
You can monitor pH levels using testing kits that are affordable and available to buy online. Alternatively, you can choose to install a pH meter that automatically monitors the Ph levels on your tank.
Different species of fish and plants grow best in various pH levels. Therefore, you’ll need to research to determine what pH levels work best for the fish and plants you wish to cultivate. You may need to conduct some trial and error testing in the beginning to ensure the best results for your tank.
However, a pH level of 6.8 to 7 is ideal for most aquaponics setups. Seven is entirely neutral on the Ph scale, and pure water has a pH of seven. However, maintaining a small margin of acidity is complex, and you may want to set yourself the more realistic goal of between 6.4 and 7.4. Within this range, most plants, fish, and bacteria can thrive.
To help you keep track of the Ph levels in your aquaponics fish tank, I recommend investing in a digital Ph meter. It can make maintaining your aquaponics setup a much easier task.
6. Add Fish
Now that you’ve got all of the pipes, tubes, pumps, and growing media set up, it’s time to make some more exciting additions to your aquaponics setup. I am, of course, talking about fish. However, before you decide on which fish to include in your design, there are a few factors you first need to consider.
Here are some important things to note before choosing the fish for your aquaponics project:
The size of your aquaponics tank has a significant influence on the fish you choose to add to it. For example, you’re not growing salmon in a goldfish bowl. Your tank needs to have enough room for the fish to thrive alongside the plants living in the tank.
You’ll also need to consider the adult size of the fish species you’ll include and how many adult fish your tank can accommodate.
The breeding habits of the fish species you choose will also dictate the tank size. That’s because fish and other animals that reproduce rapidly will quickly overpopulate your aquaponics setup.
Edible vs. Ornamental
Another critical factor to consider when deciding what fish to include in your tank is what you want to do with the fish. If you’re going to use your aquaponics tank for farming fish, you’ll need to choose an edible fish species. If you don’t plan on eating the fish in your setup, ornamental fish are sufficient.
Ornamental fish species are commonly used for their aesthetic appeal or as decoration. They include common household pets like goldfish and koi. At the same time, edible fish are fish that you eat like salmon, catfish, and tilapia.
These edible fish usually need a huge tank, and most home-grown aquaponics setups don’t include them due to space limitations.
Your aquaponics setup’s water quality and conditions also influence which fish species you choose. Some fish species grow in saltwater, while others grow in fresh. Similarly, some fish thrive in cooler waters, while others prefer warm climates.
Therefore, you should take the time to research which fish species live best in the water conditions present in your tank. The levels of contaminants and chemicals present in your tank will also influence which fish species are best suited.
As always, the cost is something that you must take into consideration.
Depending on where you live and what fish species are common in your area, the price of getting the fish you desire may vary significantly. Check out which fish species are affordable in your area and well suited to living in an aquaponics setup. Or, if costs aren’t an issue, you can pay extra to get the fish you desire most for your aquaponics setup.
Pro tip: If you don’t care about what your fish look like, head over to a bait shop and look for some local minnows. These fish are usually hardy and resilient, and they come at an unbelievably low price.
Specific fish species are illegal to keep in your home in some places.
Certain fish are outlawed as pets for many reasons ranging from preventing environmental issues to protecting endangered wildlife. To avoid any legal repercussions, investigate which fish species, if any, are illegal to keep in your aquaponics setup before proceeding.
Some fish species are more challenging to grow and breed than others. As a result, specific fish species will require a significant amount of care and attention. It likely won’t end well if you don’t have the time to invest in fish care. Therefore, it’s best to find a fish species that suits your experience and capabilities.
Once you’ve considered these factors, it’s time to choose the best fish for your tank. See below for a list of edible and ornamental fish species commonly chosen for aquaponics grows.
Edible fish used in aquaponics fish tanks:
Ornamental fish commonly used in aquaponics fish tanks:
- Cory Catfish
Many more fish species are well adapted for living inside an aquaponics setup. However, I have just included the most popular fish used— research which fish species is best for your design to ensure the best results.
7. Start Adding Plants
Finally, we’ve reached the last step in setting up your aquaponics fish tank. You’ve got your tank setup, and you’ve even got the water and fish included. It’s time for the final piece of the puzzle, the plants. So which plant species should you choose to have in your aquaponics setup?
Aquaponics plants are generally divided into two main categories, small system plants, and large system plants. If you have a small aquaponics tank, you can only grow certain species as your tank won’t contain sufficient nutrients, some more prominent or more nutrient-dense species.
Here are some standard small system aquaponics plants:
- Various herbs such as basil, rosemary, parsley, or chives
- Bok choy
Here are some large scale aquaponics plants that you can include in a more extensive setup:
Not all plants are well suited to aquaponics setups. Some common plants like blueberries and mint don’t grow well in aquaponics conditions. Therefore, you should take time to research your desired plant species before including it.
Like the fish, the plant species you choose should also suit your specific water conditions. Some plants need a higher or lower pH, nutrient content, or sunlight level.
Once you’ve decided on which plant to include in your setup, it’s time to sow the plant of your choosing.
Some plant species can be grown in an aquaponics setup using only cuttings. At the same time, other plant species will only succeed if the seeds have already germinated. Check how to best grow the plant of your choice before adding the plant.
Once your plant is ready, place it into the growing media. Doing so will allow the roots to develop, which will result in a solid and sturdy plant if growing conditions are adequate.
Setting up an aquaponics fish tank may seem daunting without the necessary information. However, with the proper knowledge, this is a simple task. Remember to follow these critical steps, and you should have a successful hydroponics system in place:
- Get the right equipment for the tank.
- Monitor water quality and pH levels.
- Choose an appropriate growing medium.
- Choose fish and plant species wisely.