A First-timer’s Guide to Aquaponics

By MsKYprepper

Aquaponics is a very intelligent idea.  But it’s also ugly – pipes going every which way, around large growing containers.  I want one but I want one that looks good.  I’m dreaming of a system that resembles an upscale outdoor water feature.   I have not found a design to buy that I like.  I’m gonna build one. 


Don’t confuse hydroponics with aquaponics.  Aquaponics is a system of simultaneously growing plants and fish: Fish fertilize the water with waste product.  The nutrient water is then pumped to feed the plants.  The plants in turn, filter the water and the clean water is returned to the fish.  This is a closed system requiring a water tank for fish and growing beds for plants so that every aspect can be controlled. 


FISH.  The most popular fish for aquaponics is the tilapia.  They grow fast and are tolerant of neglect.  They are disease resistant, with a mild flavored, white flesh.  Because of their tolerance for poor water quality and crowding, tilapias are well suited to recirculation systems. They eat dry cat food and algae.  Fish are ready to harvest at about 1.5 lbs, in about 6 months.  My husband and I, eating fish twice a week, would need to harvest 72 tilapia over 6 months.  I plan for 1/3 of the population to be “fingerlings,” (slightly larger than a minnow) 1/3 to be juveniles and 1/3 to be adults, ready for immediate harvest. 


WATER.  Tilapia growth performance is best in a water temperature range of 72-90º F.  Growth slows in water temps below 70º F.  They are intolerant to cold and will die when water temps dip below 45º F.   In most geographical areas, raising tilapia outdoors without a way to control water temp is a seasonal endeavor.  A healthy system will plan 3 gallons of water for each pound of fish.  My fish population will be at different sizes and weights thru the 6 months, but for planning purposes, I’m planning for 58 lbs of fish, requiring 178 gallons of water.  Water weighs 8.3 lbs. per gallon.  My water tank will weigh 1,442 lbs.  Planning a solid, level base will be important.


DIMENSIONS.   1 cubic foot (cf) of space is 12” wide, 12” long and 12” deep.  1 CF holds 7.48 gallons.  Thus my tank, holding 178 gallons will require about 23.2CF.  I am planning a tank 6’ long x 2’ wide x 2’ tall – 24CF


GROW BEDS.  The key to success in an aquaponics system is in managing plants:  too many and there won’t be enough fish waste to feed them all; too few and there won’t be enough plants to filter the water.   As the fish population grow and fatten, the need for plants will increase.  Thus flexibility is necessary.  I’m planning a growing space 6’ long, 2’ wide and 1’ deep.  If I need more plants, I’ll set up vertical growing space overhead.  I chose a growing medium called “expanded clay pebbles” – it takes the place of soil, giving the roots something to hold onto.  Clay pebbles don’t rot and are not susceptible to fungus. Thus you can reuse them year-after-year.  Also, they weigh much less than gravel which means the grow bed construction needn’t be robust.


PLANTS.  Any shallow-root plant can be grown.  Strawberries, herbs, lettuces and other leafy veggies do well.  Flowers and ornamentals also do well.  Stay away from deep rooted tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, as well as root-plants such as potatoes, peanuts, large carrots and the like.  Start the plants first to get them growing, then add fish.


THE PLAN.  The plan is to incorporate this information into a functional system that resembles a water feature, worthy of my upscale suburban backyard.  As you can see from the Google SketchUp, I’m planning the growing bed to be positioned over the fish tank.  However, the center section of the grow bed is elevated, allowing for water to cascade into the lower beds – thus the delightful sound of a splashing water feature.  A 12” area between the fish tank and the grow bed allows room to feed and harvest fish.


THE MATERIALS.  I purchased a used equine watering-trough purchased from the Re-Store, it’s a near-perfect size and a lucky find.  (This is KY, you know.)  I also found 3 over-sized, plastic bus trays in the kitchen area of Sam’s Club.  They should work well for the grow beds.  I’ll use 1” PVC to support the grow beds and ¾” PVC for the plumbing.  I plan to enclose it all on three sides with interlocking concrete blocks from Home Depot.  The upper blocks will be supported by a piece of metal.  The back will be hidden by a large shrub but open, for possible maintenance.  My hope is that it will look like a stone water fountain.


With the addition of a pump and a few other accessories, I expect to spend just shy of $200 on this project.    


It may not be the aquaponics dream setup for everyone.  Sure you could buy a plastic barrel and cut it in half – if that fits with your landscaping motif.  But for me, it’s a perfect fit for my family and I am very excited.  To learn more about building a DIY aquaponics system, search YouTube.  Happy fishing!


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  1. You better break out your checkbook. Just the clay grow media for 12Sq. Ft. grow bed will be 4 bags (50 liters each) at about $50 each (shipping weight)unless you live next to the manufacturer. Like solar, Aquaponics is not cheap to set up, nor as painless as you think.

    I have dry run my system and will be putting it on line this week. two interlinked 275 gallon fish (Tilapia)tanks feeding four 3’x4’x1′ grow beds made from 5 IBCs about $50 each, High capacity 12 volt pump about $70 and the PVC plumbing about another $100. I also have this wired into a small solar unit with its own battery bank $300 so as to run off grid.

    You better go back to the catalogs and on-line tutorials (look at Australian set-ups) or plan on having goldfish and a couple of chia plants. As you can see my system cost over $1200 without the solar. Trust me ,I did it on the cheap and with a lot of labor and it should produce the equivelent of a one acre garden.

    You also better use 2x4s to support your grow beds all of that heavy water spends time up there also 1″ PVC wont cut it. Sorry, but there is not much about your plan that is realistic, although nicely constructed article. Back to the books and Home Depot with a notepad to price things. You also need controlled breeding stock or you are going to be instantly up to your eyeballs in grown fish.
    Regards, D.

  2. When I get my property ~ I plan to start with a small aquaponics set up in a greenhouse, then after the trial learning experience (and all grows well) build up from there ~ I can see a small expenditure at first, then a large expenditure. I hope your article encourages people to try as well, starting small and go ‘grow’ from there. 🙂

  3. I like MsKYPrepper’s ideas.

    Start small, learn then work your way larger. I never ate the neon tetras, but a dumpster-dived 10 gal. aquarium tank, an airlift tube, a rubbermaid container, some pea gravel and basil in hydroponic media taught me some stuff I needed to learn for about 20 bucks, before I attempt a full-size system.

  4. wow – great post. Thank you. This is going to be saved and put into the TSHTF thumbdrive and a print out into the TSHTF folder. It’s nice to see in writing that when I questioned the former group I was kicked out of about how they’re going to keep it up to temp during the cold months I wasn’t just having negative energy (they told me it wouldn’t be needed since it would warm itself & fish would be fine in all but frigid weather). Great Lakes area gets a little chilly for 6 months. I can see hooking up a small solar heater or even a small siphon type wood fired to keep temps up during our winter months. Or even move into a greenhouse for the winter.

  5. MsKy:
    I did not mean to imply that there was not a lot of good data in this aricle, there is!
    But the cost and end result factor is unrealistic. For the sizes of what she wishes to do, there is no way at $200. The Clay media for her size of grow bed would be $200 alone. I cannot see MsKy (upscale backyard), dumpster diving for anything, so the remainder of tanks, plumbing, pump and fish (Minimun buy qtys. @$1.00 per)would total about another $300 (Tractor Supply Co.)at least for a very modest set-up.
    I don’t know what a “Water Feature” is but I assume that MsKy is enamored more with the looks and sound of this idea than the production of food and fish. Her water fall from the top grow bed to the lowers would negate the Ebb and flood nature of Aquaponics (the top plants would most likely drown). A PVC pipe watering grid with a pattern of small holes drilled will give a nice spray over the grow beds and provide that pleasant water fall sound she looks to hear. She has also not mentioned the important use or construction of Syphon pumps that will create that Ebb and Flood without power consumption. I would also warn again about the tremedous weight involved of the water and bed media and proper support if you are to avert disaster and possible injury.

    J.H. the nature of these systems (great weight of water/grow media) would preclude moving them in winter, just build it there to begin with. To all who would get into Aquaponics, good luck, it is fairly easy to do. I would suggest to jump in with both feet though and get some serious return for your effort. One good sized fish tank will feed nutrients to two or three grow beds. It is just as easy to build a large one as small with good planning. P.S. I got a friends 2 tank 4 bed system running a few months back and it is booming!!!
    Regards, D.

  6. In CO 40 liters of clay pebbles in CO is $29.99 and the 55gallon barrel (used) is 20.00 (from the Pepsi bottling CO it held Mt Dew) The heater from Petsmart is $39.00 the air pump is ~20.00 finally the water pump is $69.00 with pvc. Seeds, Lights, Fish food and fish are extra bout $20.00.


    I built this in Nov 2012. Dec I placed fish and seeds in the set up. The growbed holds 40 liters of hydro clay balls.

    This setup can easily be built under $200. This was my 1st setup. Ebay beats out my prices an go and buy the clay balls from your local nursery.

    Does this work?

    I have harvested green beans, oregano, lettuce and tomatoes already. There are ~60 tomato blooms and 40 green tomatoes. I have cucumber blooms (~10) and pumpkin blooms about 4 (no female with male blooms for proper pollination) look it up for further explanation.


    Cut off top 1/3 of 55 gallon barrel flip it over. That is your 22″ circumference growbed ~ 11″ deep. The bottom 2/3 is your 31 gallon fish tank. (mine is the home to 4 13″ tilapia and 11 3″ goldfish.

    The growbeds hangs over the lower barrel so the water will fall back into the fishtank once the bell siphon activates.

    This system is larger. A 150gallon spawning tank (139.00) and 4 bags of grow media @ $29.99 a bag to fill 1 55 gallon barrel into 2 pieces (from top to bottom) and once again a air pump, water pump, heater, fish, fish food, seeds, lights, electricity and water.


    I built the lighting it ran about $60.00 and will run me a total of $74.00 a year for 12 hr a day and 365 days a year. It is CFL lighting. I am improving that with LED lighting which will cut the electric bill down to ~$38.00 a year.

    This can be done and has been done. All equipment is brand new other than the 55gallon barrel.

  7. Really interesting article. I have been thinking about creating an aquaponics setup in my gardens but it seems really expensive as a whole. But I guess in a shtf situation, this would be extremely valuable!

  8. Bernie stated
    “Domestically raised fish are susceptible to diseases. How is this determined and controlled with aquaponics?”

    They are no more susceptible than what is in the wild. You can usually see issue. When you do you quarantine the subject in a separate tank. You can then medicate the subject in an effort to correct the issue.


    These are the medications you will use for the subject.

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