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Packed with web links that


take you to the coolest aquaponics sites on the globe! Access to hardware too!


Aquaponics Guidebook

Access to Personal Agriculture

Aquaponics is proven worldwide as the most efficient and sustainable way to grow food, on any scale. Now, you can do it, starting today.
Bevan Suits


Access to Personal Agriculture Volume 1 Interactive PDF Edition United States Edition Copyright 2009 Bevan Suits

Editors: Nick Thompson David Cline, Auburn University Aquaculture Sustainable Design Group 1326 Fenway Circle Decatur, GA 30030

You may download, view and print the content of this PDF book, subject to the following: (a) the Content may be used solely for personal, informational purposes; (b) the Content may not be modified or altered in any way; and (c) no graphics may be used separate from accompanying text. Reproduction or file-sharing electronic copies is protected by copyright laws and is expressly forbidden. It is illegal to email it to anyone. It is illegal to make multiple copies for distribution.

Click to advance to selected page.

Dedication About This Book Good Reasons for Aquaponics Aquaponics Gallery Introducing Aquaponics Aquaponics Models Nitrogen Cycle A Basic Drip System The Ebb & Flow System The Hydroponic Raft System The UVI System Equipment / Media Container Gallery Pump DO = Aeration Heater Plumbing Lights Water, Testing for Quality Roots, Grow Media Bacteria Rule Growing Fish An Affinity for Fish Choosing Tilapia Other Species Tilapia Wellness Food, Growth A Home-built System Getting Started System Start-up System Balance 1 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Personal Agribusiness Plant Farming Thinking Production Planning, Education, Finance Grow Sell Eat Local Scaling Up Sheltering the System Outside the Box Technology, Community Resources Interactive, North America Interactive, Australia, Africa Research Links The Last Page Picture Credits

32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46

This book is dedicated to the many pioneers, innovators and engineers who have made aquaponics into something even I can understand:
Dr. John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd, New Alchemy Institute, Ocean Arks International

Mark R. McMurtry, Douglas C. Sanders, Paul V. Nelson of North Carolina State University

Dr. James Rakocy, PhD, The University of the Virgin Islands

Rebecca Nelson & John Pade, Nelson & Pade, Inc.

Travis Hughey, Faith & Sustainable Technology

Will Allen, Growing Power

Tom and Paula Speraneo, S & S Aqua Farm

Murray Hallam, Aquaponics,net.au

Auburn University Extension Office

Aquatic EcoSystems Technical & Design Staff

All the independent aquaponic pioneers around the globe.

This book is also dedicated to:

Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Catalog

Mary Suits

About This Book

This book is intended to present the concept of aquaponics and to encourage you to try it out on a small scale. It will introduce you to a worldwide network of people who have discovered aquaponics and found it to be a technology that could influence the world in a positive and necessary way. Once you try it you may think so too. This edition of the book, presented as a PDF, allows you to read it on your computer and click on links in the text and images that take you to some carefully researched websites. There you can explore in more detail the people, products and concepts of aquaponics. Future editions will discuss in more detail the numbers and strategies for larger systems. There is a lot to learn that a book can only suggest.

Good some
to try n


In traditional gardening you feed the soil. In aquaponics you feed the plants.

n You get both protein and vegetables from one system. n

Its been practiced around the world for many years.

n Its easy. n n n
Its fun and amazing. It works on a small or large scale, for fun or profit. You can do a great system for just a little money.

n It uses very little water compared to a conventional garden. n n

You can expand easily over time. Your plant harvest will be organic because you cant use chemicals -- theyd harm your fish.

n Vegetables grow much faster that those grown in a conventional garden. n n n

It will make you popular. You learn a valuable set of skills in science, math, engineering, biology, agriculture and economics. Raising fish is better than watching TV.

Aquaponics Gallery
Aquaponics is growing fish and plants in one system, with fish waste feeding the plants. It works in many variations of scale and form, though the basic concept does not change: Fish, bacteria and plants working together in a recirculating, soil-less system. It resembles a living organism, with a heart (the pump) and lungs (aeration). The bacteria remove waste like the kidneys and the liver. It will teach you a lot about food and this ecosystem we call home. Build a small system. Then you will want to build a larger one., because its simple and it works.

Click on images to visit websites.

FAST, South Carolina

Growing Power, Milwaukee

Growing Power, Milwaukee

Red Heeler, Australia

FAST, South Carolina

FAST, Kenya

University of the Virgin Islands

Sustainable Design Group, Atlanta

Nelson & Pade, Montello, WI

Murray Hallam, Queensland, Australia


The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

eplace an aquarium filter with a pot of gravel. Put a plant in the pot. Let it drain back into the aquarium. Thats aquaponics, boiled down to its simplest form.

Now, consider it on a bigger scale: An above-ground swimming pool with 3000 gallons of water. 4-foot wide grow bed trenches and lined with rubber, stretching 100 feet. Out of this system a staggering amount of vegetables and fish protein can be produced, to be consumed, traded or sold. Inputs are fish food, electricity and a modest amount of maintenance. Or how about this: Water from a fish pond is pumped up hill and filtered down through gravel grow beds. The clean water trickles back into the pond. Nothing is wasted. The excess nutrients provide a valuable crop. Aquaponics is simple and it works. Its also curious that it hasnt caught on in a bigger way, for all the clear and immediate benefits it provides.

Consider the Benefits:

Aquaponics is a highly efficient organic food growing system that produces a complete diet and requires no expensive or complex equipment.

Personal agriculture is very important for shaping our future economy and environment. We used to have an economy based on food production.

With a clear understanding of how the components fit together, you can start putting a system together quickly. It begins to deliver produce in just a few short weeks. Only a modest amount of fresh water is needed, as the water for the plants is continuously circulated. Only water lost to evaporation is replaced. You can provide your own fish food supply in the form of worms, insects and aquatic duckweed (for tilapia). Tilapia are the preferred aquaculture species worldwide. They taste great, grow fast, are very hardy and tolerate crowding. They grow from tiny fingerlings to one-pounders in about 8 months. A 500 gallon tank can produce 250 pounds of live fish, which go for about $5 per pound, retail. Greens such as basil and lettuce will grow from seedlings to harvest in about 6 weeks. In a southern, 6 month growing season, thats about 4 easy harvests. Basil wholesales for about $10 per pound. If you add a greenhouse or other indoor growing environment with supplemental grow lights, you can grow year-round.

The system does require close monitoring, routine maintentance and daily feeding (which can be automated). Yet there is no weeding, no back-breaking work with gas-guzzling machines. Pumps can be solar powered. Tanks can be heated with alternatives such as compost, solar or geothermal. Use this guide to get an idea of how it works and whats possible.

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The Bigger Picture

We have only a vague idea whats in our food, where it comes from, who grows it or who pockets the profits. This uncertainty is what drives our interest in creating local, decentralized agricultural economies. We have become a culture of 99% consumption, 1% production when it comes to food. The more we grow our own food, the better it is for everyone. When you hear about local food, its really about local economies and strong communities. Most of our farmed fish comes from foreign countries, mainly China. It doesnt have to be this way. We have millions of square feet of abandoned strip malls with sunny parking lots and empty south-facing store windows that could be converted to aquaponics growing operations. Now is a good time for innovations like aquaponics. It can provide productive and meaningful work for depressed areas. Many cities, especially in the Midwest are in great need of a post-industrial vision. Along with reinventing General Motors, we could be inventing a new economy built on fish and vegetables. The education value of aquaponics is very high. It teaches chemistry, biology, math, horticulture, agriculture, hydraulic engineering, plumbing, nutrition, economics and business development skills. Hundreds of schools are implementing aquaculture or aquaponics into their curriculum. Since the set-up costs are low, you can start today with the smallest of systems. Wider vision and deeper commitment will follow as you discover from your experience the value of aquaponics.

A strong community is the best survival tool. Growing food builds community and provides jobs for people who need them.

Natural Model
Aquaponics can be seen in your nearest pond where food and waste are continuously recycled. This is a sustainable ecosystem. When the system is in balance, the water stays clean, plants and animals stay healthy. At the pond edges are marshy wetlands. This is the womb of nature, the deep silt supporting an explosion of life at the surface. At the base of this chain of life are bacteria. Organic waste matter is their food. They convert waste matter to nutrients for plants, which then convert CO2 to oxygen and provide further nutrition and shelter for animals. So the real stars of aquaponics are the bacteria. Fish produce 50 - 100 mg of ammonia per kilogram of bodyweight per day. In a well-stocked tank, thats pretty intense. They would soon be poisoned by their own waste if it werent for the nitrification process. Bacteria consume and oxidize this ammonia, converting it to nitrates, which plants need.

Nitrification Process
These ammonia-oxidizing bacteria come mainly from two families: Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter. The actual chemistry is complex but suffice it to say that nitrifica-

tion is a two-step process: 1. Certain bacterial specialists convert ammonia to nitrite via oxidization. 2. Other bacterial specialists convert the nitrites to nitrates. It may sound like an assembly line but its really a dynamic chemical soup, very complex. The closer you look, the more beauty you will see in it, like fiding a new galaxy under your feet, literally. This is the ongoing foundation of life on Earth. The nitrates are then consumed by the plants so the water will return clean and filtered to the fish tank, in a perfectly balanced system. High nitrate levels can be a problem for fish. So the volume of plants in the system must be fairly well-balanced with the volume of ammonia produced by the fish. (See page 31.) The oxygen level at the root level is critical. Unlike in a conventional garden, the roots in this soilless system are more exposed to the flowing of air and water. The grow media, such as gravel, provides just enough solid material for the roots to grab on to. In traditional farming, soil is the best grow medium because it stores and releases water and nutrients between waterings. A good mulch and earthworms bring a supply of air to the roots. In aquaponics and hydroponics, however, the roots are supplied by a continous flow of air and nutrients, feeding the roots directly. The open space between gravel or clay balls lets it flow easily. Bacteria by the trillions begin to populate the microscopic caves on the surfaces. Since the mix of air, water and nutrients is so rich, the plants respond by growing extemely well.
The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

Among our major tasks is the creation of ecologically derived human support systems - renewable energy, agriculture, aquaculture, housing and landscapes. The strategies we research emphasize a minimal reliance on fossil fuels and operate on a scale accessible to individuals, families, and small groups. It is our belief that ecological and social transformations must take place at the lowest functional levels of society if humankind is to direct its course towards a greener, saner world.
- New Alchemy Institute. 1970

Plants need N (nitrogen), P (phosphorous) and K (potassium) to flourish, especially fruting plants like tomatoes. Fish waste supplies the nitrogen. As your system grows, however, you may benefit from adding the potash and pottasium. On the other hand, some have had consistent and long term success without adding anything extra. The system is wide open for your experimentation. Here the discussion of chemistry ends, for now. Just remember that all you need to get started and achieve real results is curiosity and commitment.

Modern Timeline of Aquaponics

In the early 70s, The New Alchemy Institute, led by Dr. John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd, started early experiments that eventually became aquaponics. Their work resulted in a natural wastewater treatment system marketed as Living Machines, developed by Worrell Technologies of Charlottesville, VA. The New Alchemy Institutes mission continues in the form of Ocean Arks International. In 1986, Researchers at NC State University, Mark McMurtry, Douglas Nelson and Paul Nelson created the first known recirculating, closed loop system of fish and vegetables. In 1986, scientist Ronald Zweigs article was published in the May/June Issue of Aquaculture Magazine, An Integrated Fish Culture Hydroponic Vegetable Production System.

Today there are many projects worldwide. As the need grows, these projects will grow. Large systems are mostly academic research operations, the best known being the University of the Virgin Islands, headed by Dr. James Rakocy. There are nonprofits as well, such as Growing Power in Milwaukee and many individuals forging their own path with help from the internet. Most large operations have been in development for many years. But Australian Murray Hallam only learned of aquaponics in 2006 and is now successful at making aquaponics widely accepted there through the systems he builds and his media productions. Australians and other island nations have been drawn to aquaponics out of necessity. The lack of water there is severe. As the climate changes, other regions, including developed nations, are beginning to see the benefits. One of the most intriguing of new ventures to use aquaponics is Sky Vegetables, integrating urban rooftops across America with vegetable gardens. For more on the history of aquaponics, have a look at this document from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Apart from these larger entities is a strong global network of individual pioneers growing fish and vegetables together, which you will find by searching on the internet. A word of caution: As you compare the different approaches to aquaponics posted online, youll notice a lot of variation in technical details, often presented as hard fact. There are contradicatory statements. There is hard science at the base of it, but PhDs and amateurs have different points of view. The dynamics of a patio-sized system are different than a large scale commercial one. So find what works best for you and dont let all the details and discussions prevent you from getting your hands wet. Its hard to screw up a small system.

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Can You Make Money From Aquaponics?

The answer depends on where you live, what you grow, how you grow and the size of your operation. Vegetables produce a higher return than fish. 1200 pounds of tilapia (in 2400 gallons of heated water) might yield two or three thousand dollars every 8 months, but fast growing greens, such as basil, have a faster turnaround and a much higher value per pound. Finding or creating new markets for specialty produce, medicinal herbs, etc, could prove to be lucrative. Roots like carrots, onions and potatoes are trickier but possible, as proven in Hawaii with taro. The financial aspect is where aquaponics breaks from traditional soil-based growing. A community garden or urban farm is restricted in what it grows, where it grows and when it grows. The food is usually consumed by members or sold at farmers markets. The volume is not there for much revenue. With aquaponics however, the financial picture changes dramatically. The factors of time, volume, labor and relative cost are all proven to be way ahead of soil-based growing. Steady supplies of produce are in demand by distributors, especially if they can specify the varieties and off-season delivery dates. The opportunities with aquaponics to build a functioning urban agricultural economy are real. Look ahead to the chapter Personal Agribusiness for more details on financial models and information on distributors.

Aquaponics Models



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How Things Grow

If you think of aquaponics as a system of fish and plants, youre leaving out the most important group: bacteria. Without bacteria there is no connection between the fish and the plants. The ammonia from the fish would kill the plants. All of life on earth depends on bacteria converting waste matter to nutrient matter. This is called the nitrogen cycle or nitrification. Growing organically means to strengthen and support this natural process, without using anything synthetic or man-made. What makes aquaponics so unique is that it contains bacteria and uses nitrification in the system. This is the field of Bioprocess Engineering.

NItrate Consumption Plants thrive on nitrates.

Ammonia Fish secrete ammonia from their gills and in their waste.

Nitrification A range of bacteria species consumes ammonia, converting it first to nitrites (NO2) and then to nitrates (NO3).

New Perspective on the Ecosystem Growing with aquaponics can help you realize how the invisible quadrillions of bacteria exist all around us, making growth possible. It can change your perspective of the world. Your plants rapid growth is tangible evidence of these organisms. Even though we cant see them without a highpowered microscope, it can be like discovering a new universe in your yard, under your feet, on your hands and in your nose.

This model is very simple for a process that is actually very complex.

Basic Drip System

The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

Each component of an aquaponic system can be grouped as a:

Container Connector Medium Organism Nutrient

This system is basic drip irrigation, with 1/8 holes drilled into the tube. . A mesh pump bag will help prevent clogging. Alternately you can add emitters, which are valves on a stick, that bring the water to each plant.

Fish Tank, Grow Bed Tubing, Valves, Pumps, Filters, Bulkheads Water, Gravel (for plants & bacteria) People, Plants, Fish, Bacteria Fish Food, Fish Waste, Nitrogen, Oxygen, CO2

You could add Heat and Light as ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS and Electricity as POWER SOURCE.







Fish Food

Grow tray


Valve & Bulkhead





Fish Tank



Ebb & Flow System

The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

The ebb and flow system (also called flood and drain) uses a timer to turn on the pump to run for half of each hour. Many experts rate this as the best model to use. The advantage of ebb and flow is increased oxygenation for the roots. It is also fascinating to watch the regular rising and falling of the water, like a tidal flow. Sometimes an autosiphon is used instead of a timer, in which case the pump runs continuously. The autosiphon itself is a marvel of physics that you can make yourself. Click here to learn more about it.

These diagrams are to illustrate the concept and are not construction drawings.


OPTION: AUTOSIPHON The water level in the grow bed rises and falls about once per hour.

The fish tank water also rises and falls, but not enough to cause a problem for the fish, as long as they are not overcrowded at low tide.

An elegant autosiphon drain design by Synaptoman in South Africa, adapted from Australias Backyard Aquaponics .


Grow beds need to be only as deep as your roots. Basil needs 4 - 6, tomatoes deeper. Experiment to find the ideal depth.


Hydroponic Raft System

The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

This model is similar to commercial hydroponics, where plants float in rafts of styrofoam sheets, with holes cut out for pots. In the pots are grow media for the roots. Otherwise its all continuously flowing water and air. A settling tank, a biofilter and a serious aerator are required. When the water arrives at the grow bed, the ammonia is completely converted to nitrates for the plants. Air is pumped into the grow bed tank at evenly spaced ports in the bottom of the tank. This is an advanced system, best suited for larger operations. You can still borrow parts of it to make your own system, however. BIOMEDIA BIOFILTER

Hydroponics The word was formed 1937 in England from hydro-, from the Greek hydor "water" + -ponics, from the Greek ponein "to labor, toil".






MANIFOLD Red Heeler Hydroponic System



Click to visit an Australian version of this model.


The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

Aquaponics has been succesful because island nations have needed it as a sustainable food supply. The University of the Virgin Islands has one of the largest and most productive aquaponics systems. Its Director, Dr. James Rakocy, is a leading expert. On a large scale like this, there is a lot of extra equipment and processing that you dont see on a backyard scale. Managing more fish waste requires more equipment, letting the solids settle out as it converts it to usable nitrogen in the filter and degassing tanks. Extra nutrients, P (potash) and K (potassium) are added. The stakes are higher in a large system. If something goes wrong, failure of a piece of equipment for example, thousands of pounds of fish could die in a short time. This is why its important to work your way up over time.

Fish Tanks 10 x 4 2060 gallons each

Hydroponic Grow Tanks Each is 100 x 4 x 16 3000 gallons capacity Growing Area 2,304 ft x 6 Degassing Inflow Line


Clarifiers Filter Tanks

Return Line

Projecting Potential Revenue Here is a sample of actual aquaponics production and revenue numbers, in a system similar to UVIs, built at the Crop Diversification Center South, Alberta, Canada in the early 90s.
Crop Tomatoes Genovese Basil Eggplant

Annual Production Pounds/ft2 6.0 6.2 2.3 Tons/ 2690 ft2 8.1 8.2 3.1

Wholesale Price Unit 15 lb 3 oz 11 lb $ 17.28 5.59 25.78

Total Value $ / ft2 6.90 186.64 5.33 $/ 2690 ft2 18,542 502,044 14,362

Source: Southern Regional Aquaculture Center


Equipment Media


Container Gallery
Aquaponics is a series of connected containers. You have a lot of freedom choosing them, as long as they are food-safe and durable. You can make containers from planks and rubber pond liner. (When making a fish tank with pond liner, be aware that algae can grow in the folds. Tilapia will eat the algae and can wear a hole the liner.) You mainly need to contain fish and plants. Eventually you can add containers for biofiltering, solid waste settling, sump, degassing, etc. Its still the same continuous loop.
Avoid galvanized. The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

This stock watering tank is ideal becuase it is light, durable and inexpensive. It has a built-in drain hole.

Plastic storage boxes are fun, inexpensive and versatile but can crack and leak.

Troughs come in a range of sizes and depths at hydroponics stores and are ideal for grow beds, such as this Botanicare model.

If your budget is tight, you can get creative. Old bathtubs can contain fish or plants, are durable and available for free or low cost.

Barrels have been widely used for both fish and plants.

An aquarium is the most obvious fish container. Glass tanks are inexpensive and easy to find at yard sales. You can get creative and link together a stack of them on shelves.

A container can be a liner for a hole in the ground. ( www.aquaponics.com ).

A pond is a fish container.

Backyard swimming pools give you the most water for the money. A 2500 gallon inflatable pool costs under $200 ( www.tilapiafarmingathome.com ).


The Heart of Your System
Aquaponics relies on a pump. If the pump fails, the fish could die quickly, so plan to have a battery-powered backup aerator at all times (shown on page 14). The aerator will help to oxidize the ammonia until the power returns. The need for this increases as your system grows. You need to move a certain amount of water through your tank each hour. Pumps are measured according to their GPH (Gallons per Hour) or GPM (Gallons per Minute). The pressure they produce at certain height above the pump is the head. The higher the water is pumped, the lower the pressure. Head pressure is measured in PSI (Pounds per Square Inch). Pump types include submersible, (at the bottom of the tank), or in-line which sits outside the tank, the water line coming in and going out.
The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

A submersible pump sits on the bottom of your tank. The screen prevents small fish from getting stuck to the inlet and dying.

Water Pump Performance Curves

With the outlet at 12 feet, this pump can move 0 gallons of water per hour. 12 feet is the limit of this pump.

A pump performace chart tells you how much water you can pump to what height. This chart compares three different pumps. The height of the outlet is called head.

An in-line pump connects to the tubing between the fish tank and the grow bed. It is more powerful but costs more money.

12 11 10 9 TOTAL HEAD 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 200 400 600 800 1000 1200 1400 With the outlet at the same level as the pump (a total head of 0), this pump will move about 1350 gallons per hour. With the outlet at 10 feet, this pump will move about 600 gallons of water per hour.



DO = Aeration
DO stands for Dissolved Oxygen. It is the breath of your system.
Think of aeration as the lungs of your aquaponic organism. Fish, plants and bacteria need plenty of air. It keeps the system cleaner, with minimal algae growth. In nature, water plants and splashing water oxygenate the water, but in a tank you need to add it using an aearator and a diffuser. Types of Aerators and Diffusers In the world of aquaculture, aeration is a big topic. There are many systems available, compressors, air pumps, blowers, paddlewheels. There are also a wide range of diffusers or air stones to choose from. To calculate exactly how much air you need is not for the mathematically-challenged, another reason to start small. In the beginning, dont worry too much about oxygen level numbers, just give them a lot of air. Use an aquarium pump for tanks up to 100 gallons. It is also important to have a battery-powered back up aerator ready in case of power failure. DO Test Kit When you measure the DO, remember that each fish (tilapia) needs at least 5.0 ppm (parts per million). If its below that, get a bigger pump. Use a DO test kit and check the levels every so often. In a small system if you aerate well and everything looks healthy, checking the levels once per week is probably fine. Every detail affects your oxygen levels: temperature, biomass (total fish weight), water depth, species of fish, etc. If you split your air flow into multiple tanks, using a manifold, you need to count for that. A rule of thumb for air is that 1 cfm supports 27 pounds of fish in a tank 4 deep. Backup Air Pump Air Diffusers
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Aeration Components

Air Pump

Air pumps for larger systems ,100+ gallons

DO Test Kit

Manifold (splits air flow into several tubes)


If you live in the South, or keep your fish indoors, you can get by without a heater. Cold water fish such as bass, bluegill, perch, trout or catfish also minimize the need. Otherwise you need to heat the water, especially for tilapia, which need their water to stay between 75 and 90. The chart below shows how to plan water temperature to match tank size. To read the chart, for example, if you need to raise the temperature of a 100 gallon tank 9, you would need a 400 watt heater (or two 200 watt). If you want to raise a 400 gallon tank 22.5 you need 4,000 watts. If the water temperature is 60 in a 100 gallon tank, you need to get it up to around 86, an increase of 26. So you would add 1,500 watts. Heres a big creative challenge: How can you heat a tank without electricity, using passive solar, composting mulch or other means? Solve it and be an aquaponics superstar.

90 85 80 75 70 65 60 55 50 Cold water holds more oxygen than warm water. Tilapia

The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

Bass, Bluegill, Perch Koi, Goldfish, Carp


Calculating Water Heater Size in Watts

To Increase the Temperature (F) Tank Size (gallons) 100 250 400 9 400 W 1000 W 1600 W 13.5 600 W 1500 W 2400 W 18 800 W 2000 W 3200 w 22.5 1000 W 2500 W 4000 W 27 1500 W 3000 W 4800 W

Source: Aquatic EcoSystems


While composting goes on, the bacterial activity within a pile [of mulch] produces a considerable amount of heat . . . averaging about 140F in most instances. Thus it is possible to tap a significant source of thermal energy by intertwining heat-exchanging pipes throughout the interior of the stack.
- Mother Earth News Article on Jean Pain


The Aquaponics Guidebook

Aquaponics is really just an elaborate plumbing system. These hydroponic components are designed to make it easy.
Black vinyl tubing is ideal for a starter aquaponics system. The opaque color prevents algae from growing. It is flexible so you can move components around. Its inexpensive, easy to work with and comes in a range of sizes. Bulkheads are a great piece of hardware for draining fish tanks. They allow you to punch holes in containers and let water drain into a tube, while screening out gravel.


Valves, tees and elbows give you a lot of creative options for building your system. They dont leak and you can easily move them as your system grows.

When leaks happen, a tube of silicone will usually solve the problem.

Autosiphons, Bell Siphons, Pipe-in-a-pipe

In the world of aquaponics there is much discussion about autosiphons. They are a piece of plumbing equipment that you can make yourself from PVC pipe. Installed as a drain for each grow bed, they allow you to run a pump continously in an ebb and flow system. As the water level in the bed reaches a certain level, they begin to drain it out, then stopping the draining as the water reaches its low point, by means of an air tube which breaks the siphon. The water then begins to fill again. They are fascinating because they have no moving parts and are a demonstration of fluid dynamics. There are a few variations to choose from. The problem is that they must be crafted and installed perfectly. It is challenging to do so, as any air leak, blockage or improper ratio of tube size / water pressure / air pressure will prevent it from working. There is much less headache in using a pump with timer that cycles on and off every thirty minutes. Yet the magic of it is compelling and worth trying out. Click here to inquire about plans and instructions for making your own autosiphon.

A great way to learn about fluid dynamics, autosiphons are simple to make, though difficult to master.


More light = more vegetables, faster.
Adequate light levels are critical to your success in growing vegetables with aquaponics. You can get by with only natural light if you have a greenhouse or you intend to grow only in the summer for your own consumption. If you want to seriously grow for production, year-round, or indoors, youll need a lighting system, especially where fruiting vegetables are desired. Here is the general outline for lighting: Lumens - A measurement of the intensity of the light output. Color The spectrum of light produced by a lamp. Wider is better. A broad spectrum of light is more important than the number of lumens. Life Span - Each light is rated for a number of hours, say 10,000 hours. This is misleading, because that means until it burns out. The output and color spectrum begins to deteriorate long before the light burns out! A rule of thumb is to count on replacing the lights after 6,000 hours, which equates to using them 16 hours per day for a year. If you have some natural light, the lights can be extended longer than that. Efficiency - How can you get a lot of light without seriously spikng your electric bill? An average increase is $8 to $20 per month. You can calculate the amount: Bulb wattage X number of operating hours divided by 1000 = kilowatt-hours (kWh) used. Now find out what you pay per kWh. A 400 watt lamp running 18 hours will use 7.2 kW h. If your kWh rate is .33 that equals a monthly increase of 9.66. Not so bad. Coverage - How many lights do you need for your grow space? 250 watt light covers about 3x3 feet (9 square feet) 400 watt light covers about 4x4 feet (16 square feet) 600 watt light covers about 6x6 feet (36 square feet) 1000 watt light will cover about 7 x7 feet (49 square feet) Overall, your crop yields will vastly improve with a good lighting set-up.
T5 Fluorescent Lighting is a recent innovation. Traditionally, fluorescent lighting was used for seedlings, cuttings and plants with low lightlevel requirements and HID was used for established plants and plants with higher light-level requirements. T5s, however, have changed that. With T5s you get: High-luminance. Low heat / energy consumption Broad color spectrum. No need to rotate lamps. Excellent light distribution. High Intensity Discharge (HID) is much brighter than other types of lighting. An HID lighting system consists of a ballast, reflector, socket and lamp (light bulb). The ballast acts like the engine, converting and driving energy to illuminate the lamp. HID lighting options include High Pressure Sodium (HPS), Metal Halide (MH), Mercury Vapor and Low Pressure Sodium. The two typically used for plant growth are HPS and MH systems.
The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

Traditional Fluorescent Lighting The regular shop light does not provide enough of what your plants need, which is why these other products exist. Its better than nothing, but dont expect the best performance from your plants.


Water, Testing for

If youre more of an intuitive person in the way you grow things, heres a chance to try something new. An engineered growing system is managed by numbers. You need to control the technology and keep things in balance and a test kit is how you do it. What to Test For: The top priorities are for testing water are: 1. Temperature 2. Ammonia 3. pH 4. Dissolved Oxygen (DO)

The Aquaponics Guidebook

Water Quality Parameters

Tilapia, 75 - 90 F
DO mg/l 3 - 10 pH units 6 - 9 Alkalinity mg/l 50 - 250 CO2 mg/l 0 - 30 Un-Ionized Ammonia mg/l 0 - .04 Nitrite mg/l 0 - .8 Hardness mg/l Chloride mg/l



50 - 350 0 - 5000

0 - 15

Goldfish / Koi, 65 - 75 F
DO mg/l 4 - 10 pH units 6 - 8 Alkalinity mg/l 50 - 250 CO2 mg/l 0 - 25 Un-Ionized Ammonia mg/l 0 - .08 Nitrite mg/l 0 - .6 Hardness mg/l Chloride mg/l Salinity

50 - 350 0 - 2000

0 - 4

Bass & Bluegill, 70 - 85 F

DO mg/l 4 - 10 pH units 6 - 8 Alkalinity mg/l 50 - 250 CO2 mg/l 0 - 25 Un-Ionized Ammonia mg/l 0 - .03 Nitrite mg/l 0 - .8 Hardness mg/l Chloride mg/l Salinity

Testing equipment covers a wide range of technologies and prices.

50 - 350 0 - 1500

0 - 3

Source: Aquatic Ecosystems, Inc.

Making Adjustments Your fish tank is a chemical soup, if you look close enough. Each compound interacts with the others. Temperature and light affect everything. Over time youll learn to understand and control this balance. Ammonia Level Too High (Un-ionized ammonia is the toxic form of ammonia.) Possible Causes: There is not enough filtration happening. Overfeeding. The density of the fish in the tank may be too high. Not enough aeration. If your pump fails, the ammonia level will begin to increase immediately. The water returning to the fish tank needs to be tested to make sure its clean enough. If its coming back with ammonia, you need to increase biofiltration. (See the section on Biofiltering). The rule of thumb for tilapia density is 1 pound per two gallons of water. Ammonia Level Too Low You need to produce enough ammonia for the plants or they wont grow as fast as possible. To solve this, add more fish, feed them more or use a smaller tank. pH Too High High pH levels, above 8.5, means the water is too alkaline. It is often a symptom of imbalanced conditions, especially related to carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is a function of fish respiration and photosynthesis of water plants. There are quick-fix water additives like alum. This is less of an issue for smaller tanks than for larger fish ponds. Dissolved Oxygen Level Too Low This is easy to fix by adding more air stones. You cant have a DO level that is too high. When the water is saturated, extra air disperses into the atmosphere.

Most kits use reagents that you mix with the water. A color chart gives you the reading.

Click images for more information.

More pricey are electronic devices that give you a number, without having to compare colors.



Grow Media
The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

A good mix of grow media allows nitrification to take place, where the ammonia from fish waste is converted by bacteria into useful nitrogen.
Permatil by Stalite is expanded slate. It is used as a soil additive for gardens but is an excellent grow medium for aquaponics because of its light weight, high surface area and relatively low cost. Mix it 50/50 with low-cost pea gravel. Expanded clay, such as Hydroton, Viastone and other brands, are used in soilless systems for their ability to hold roots and provide a good home for bacteria. The pebbles are porous and light. They allow plenty of water, air and nutrients to reach the roots. A large bag costs about $35, so it is most cost-effective when mixed with less expensive gravel.
Actual Size

Actual Size

Actual Size

Kaldnes, from Norway, is designed for wastewater treatment as an ideal environment for bacteria. It is an excellent biomedia for your biofilter. Though somewhat expensive, it provides maximum surface area for microbial growth while still allowing space for air and water to flow. At the same time, bacteria is protected from abrasive action as the plastic pieces are circulated in water.

Extending from roots are root hairs. This microenvironment is where everything comes together, the biochemical soup converting into plant flesh. The roots benefit from the large amount of air and nutrients that flow through a soilless system. This enables greens such as basil and lettuce grow from seedling to harvest in as little as 4 weeks. If you use municipal water in your system, remember that it contains chlorine that kills beneficial bacteria..

In theory, just about any clean, inert and loose material can be a grow media. Shredded tires and packing peanuts are being studied.



The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

Microbes convert death and excrement into new life. They can live without us. We cant live without them.
The nitrification process is what makes aquaponics unique. Converting waste ammonia into useful nitrogen is what some bacteria specialize in. Its the foundation of agriculture and all plant life and, by extension, all animal life. Its the basis of wastewater treatment systems. The world of bacteria is as powerful as it is small. Every human body is host to over 100 trillion microbes. Understanding the bacterial realm is what organic is all about.


A Partial List of Nitrogen Cycle Microbes (in order of importance)

Nitrosomonas Nitrobacter Pseudomonas Bacillus Escerichia Coli* Azotobacter Clostridium *This species is a major component of feces. It has many harmless strains. The strain that sickens people is 0157:H7, which is associated with cattle feedlots.


Escherichia Coli





Growing Fish


An Affinity for

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Fish as Livestock

ne hundred years ago, growing food was part of our culture. Now you can help bring it back with an aquaponics system. The fish of choice is tilapia.

Aquaponics is eco-technology on a backyard scale, a living, breathing machine with its own heart, lungs, kidneys and liver. It begins and ends with the fish. The fish of choice is tilapia. Learning to raise fish for food is one of the most sustainable or green things we can do, beyond buying a hybrid vehicle, because it represents a cultural shift in the right direction, back to self-reliance and productivity. Grow system technologies also bring communities together. The abundance of food produced will help open doors in neighborhoods. A garden may have admirers, but a growing system will draw a crowd. A fish harvest festival may be the best reward of all. Once you decide to create a small aquaponics system of 100 fish or less, you can go online and discover vast amounts of information: Hobbyists, breeders, researchers, recipes, equipment dealers, economic statistics, etc. This is because farmed fish, especially tilapia, are a driving force of the worlds food economy. They are easy to raise, grow fast and taste great. You can do it. There is both art and science to raising fish. The art is in the intuitive nurturing that we know as gardeners, pet owners and parents. There is a lot of creative freedom in putting your system together and making it fit your space, conducting experiments out of curiosity. The fish are beautiful to watch. Seeing plants grow so quickly is encouraging. Hearing the splash of flowing water is relaxing. This is technology that feels right, a model of an ecosystem. The science is in observing, measuring and controlling the many variables that keep your system in balance. The good news is that in starting small, the critical numbers are fewer and easier to manage. Once you have the feel and experience of a working system, scaling up becomes more feasible. Before long your system will be in balance and thriving. Young fish need several feedings per day, so you many need an automated fish feeder. As the fish grow, you will want to divide the fish tank or add extra tanks for different sized fish to separate the larger ones, giving the smaller stock a chance to grow. Your fish will start to grow quickly and youll be planning what to do with them and looking ahead to starting a new batch, learning to stagger their production. Your success will give you confidence. After you grow succesfully with aquaponics, you may feel like an expert, but its

Hunger caused by climate change may be the defining human tragedy of this century.
- OXFAM June 2009


the failures that create experts. Some fish may die, equipment may fail, plumbing may leak. Be prepared for at least a few bumps in the road, its part of the process of learning, getting to your first decent-sized harvest. Then youll have earned a stripe or two. Educational Value Hundreds of schools are using aquaculture and aquaponics in their curriculum. There is so much to learn from it. Children of all ages can enjoy keeping track of the variables, how to measure and control them. This type of interactive learning opportunity is extremely rare, especially as its not merely academic but actually produces food quickly, ideal for helping with short attention spans. Even though aquaponics is new to our culture in the US, there is a great support community online. Before long your efforts will help create a local community of growers, perhaps the best benefit of all.

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What Aquaponics Teaches

Chemistry Botany Horticulture Agriculture

Learning aquaponics is really learning to manage an ecosystem. The cycle of life/death/rebirth is right there. Yet its not a completely closed loop, as nature is. We still have to maintain it and feed the fish. For children, this is a great lesson in how everything is connected. About 500 schools in the US are using aquaponics or aquaculture in their curriculum.

Math Biology Ecology Fluid Dynamics Plumbing Nutrition Economics Business



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5/8 Fingerling, 3 grams

Call Them Oreochromis.

Avoid names like Bubbles or Franny.
Your intentions with aquaponics will determine what fish you raise and how you raise them. You have a wide range of choices but tilapia are the number one in most markets. They taste great, grow fast, and are tolerant of crowding. Their only drawback is that they require the water to be kept about 85 F.

230 Days

Another option is to keep natives such as bass, bluegill and catfish, easy to find from local pond stocking firms, or you can catch them yourself. If you just want to look at the fish and use them as waste producers, thats just as valid and easier because you dont have to kill them. In that case, koi are ideal. If you grow fish as crops, then youre an aquaculturist. They are an investment that you expect will pay you back in food, cash or trade in a few months time. Do not give them names. Its easier that way at harvest time. For more on tilapia, click here.

550 grams, over 1 pound



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One problem with tilapia is that you have to buy them in quantity from breeders. The cost is under $200 for 1,000 fingerlings, including shipping. Thats a lot of fish for someone starting out and youll need at least 2000 gallons of heated water by harvest time (2 gallons per one pound of fish). Another issue is that tilpia are a potentially invasive species and DNR offices want to prevent them from getting into local waterways, especially in the southern US. As long as they are never dumped into any open waterway, it should be okay, but check with your local DNR office. Fortunately, you can grow any kind of fish or water creature in aquaponics, even turtles, crayfish or shrimp. It depends on your goals. If youre just starting out, buy a hundred feeder goldfish at a few cents each. They produce a lot of ammonia. Government fish hatcheries have fish available, though usually they sell in volume. In some states you can get a mix of bass, bluegill, redear sunfish and catfish for $50 per pond/acre. They may allow smaller quantity purchases. Wild fish are available from your local streams and lakes by hook or by net for the price of a fishing license. You can get a free supply of fish, and at the same time interact with your local ecosystem. Game fish such as bass and sunfish can be caught with hook and line only. Nuisance species and bait fish such as carp and shad can be netted. Check with Carp and koi family. your local DNR office to find out what the rules are in your area.

Bluegill, bass and panfish family.


Perch family (yellow perch shown).


Photos by Eric Engbretson.

Trout family (rainbow trout shown).



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Tilapia are number one in aquaculture in part because of their resistance to disease. They are very hardy. That doesnt mean there are no problems. As their population at fish farms has risen, so has the incidence of disease. Various pathogens that affect them include streptoccus, aeromona, columnaris and trichodina or trich, a parasite. There are treatments to try but ususally the best thing to do is to get rid of everything, sterilize the equipment and start over. For more on this topic visit Americulture. An all-male tilapia crop is preferable because males grow more quickly than females. A mixed-gender batch can breed, overpopulation can occur and the system will deteriorate. Here is where things get controviersial. Fisheries avoid this problem by adding methyltestosterone that converts young tilapia females to males. The reason for this, of course, is profitability due to faster growth. These hormones have no government standard of safety, but the US government does allow their use, as long as records are sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service. This program is called INAD, for Investigational New Drug Exemption. To the right are more links that provide a more in-depth look at INAD and other aquaculture industry topics. For consumers sensitive to the content of their food, here is an opportunity to create a market for organic fingerlings. Breeders go by the demand of the markets, its the way of business. If there are enough independent aquaponics growers willing to pay a bit more, some breeders will respond. Or you can start breeding your own, a topic for a later book. Another topic is genetics. There are over 100 tilapia species, with a very few pure breeds determined to be the best. Each breeder has a specialty and a reputation to uphold, not so different from a vintner. There are pure line species like nilotica and mossambicus. Specialized hybrids are also available, such as the pennyfish, with decades of detailed records to back up claims of superior quality. There is a lot to absorb when it comes to managing the health and well being of tilapia and other fish. Starting small will allow you to get comfortable running a balanced aquaponic system with low risk of disease.

Sites About INAD and Aquaculture.

2009 INAD Sign Up

Study Protocol for INAD Exemption

Aquaculture Drug Approval Process

Tilapia Health Diagnosis and Treatment Advice

Aquanet Aquaculture Community



The Aquaponics Guidebook

Commercial fish food is formulated as a complete diet.

Grow your own duckweed and youll have an excellent and free food source for the omnivorous tilapia.


Feed them worms from home-built worm beds, which eat your household garbage.

How fast the fish are growing.

SGR, Specific Growth Rate: Percentage of body weight gained.

Growth rate for all fish combined (biomass).

Its better to underfeed than overfeed. Partculates of uneaten / undigested food will stress your biofilter.

Growth of the fish from a fraction of an ounce to 19.75 ounces, over 1 pound.
Tilapia Feeding Chart
Age Feeding Period Days 10 - 20 20 - 30 30 - 40 40 - 50 50 - 60 60 - 70 70 - 80 80 - 90 90 - 100 100 - 110 110 - 120 120 - 130 130 - 140 140 - 150 150 - 160 160 - 170 170 - 180 180 - 190 190 - 200 210 - 220 210 - 220 220 - 230 230 - 240 Weight Weight Gain SGR

Amount of food added per fish / per day.

Feed Conversion Ratio: Amount of food used / Total weight gain.

Daily Feeding Rate


Cumulative FCR

Daily Feedings x/Day

Aquaculture Feeding Chart

This chart shows how detailed you can track fish growth over several months. This is for commercial fish production. Small systems need not be so detailed but its good to know about. In this system, commercial fish food is used exclusively, which makes it easier to measure. For a small system, you can experiment with different foods, as tilapia are omnivorous. Duckweed and earthworms are excellent alternatives and you can grow them yourself organically.

Day 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100 110 120 130 140 150 160 170 180 190 200

Gram 3.2 7.6 13.7 21.6 31.3 42.7 56.0 71.0 87.8 106.4 126.7 148.9 172.8 198.5 226.0 255.2 286.3 319.1 353.7 390.1 428.2 509.9 553.4

G/Day 0.43 0.61 0.79 0.97 1.15 1.32 1.50 1.68 1.86 2.04 2.21 2.39 2.57 2.75 2.93 3.10 3.28 3.46 3.64 3.82 3.99 4.17 4.35

%/Day 8.50 5.92 4.55 3.70 3.12 2.70 2.38 2.12 1.92 1.75 1.61 1.49 1.39 1.30 1.22 1.15 1.09 1.03 0.98 0.89 0.85 0.82 0.79

%/Biomass G/Fish/Day 8.3 5.3 4.7 4.4 4.2 3.7 3.6 3.5 3.3 3.2 3.1 2.9 2.6 2.4 2.3 2.2 2.1 1.9 1.8 1.7 1.7 1.6 1.5 0.3 0.4 0.6 1.0 1.3 1.6 2.0 2.5 2.9 3.4 3.9 4.3 4.5 4.8 5.2 5.6 6.0 6.1 6.4 6.6 7.3 7.5 7.6 0.46 0.55 0.60 0.68 0.77 0.87 0.95 1.03 1.12 1.19 1.27 1.35 1.41 1.45 1.49 1.52 1.55 1.58 1.60 1.61 1.62 1.64 1.65

10 - 12 10 - 12 10 - 12 10 - 12 8 - 10 8 - 10 8 - 10 8 - 10 8 - 10 8 - 10 6 -8 6 -8 6 -8 6 -8 6 -8 4 -6 4 -6 4 -6 4 -6 4 -6 3 -4 3 -4 3 -4

Investing in an automated fish feeder is a good idea for larger systems, as the daily feedings can be as often as every two hours. You can also invent your own. Click on the picture for more information.

210 220 230

Source: Zemach Feed Mill, Israel


A Home-built System



The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

A Simple System
Below is a modular aquaponics unit that you can build. Its economical, sturdy and the parts should be easy to find. If you want to add to it later, its easy to replicate. Before long you will be adding thousand-gallon swimming pools and a long line of grow beds. The skill level required to build it is average. The tools needed are found in most homes. For access to detailed plans, specification sheet, sources for products and some alternative ideas to do it for less, inquire here.

Pots for growing vegetables of different sizes, from seedlings to full-grown tomatoes.

Room for 20 onepound tilapia.

Biofilter tank & pump.


System Start-up
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Culturing the System

The beneficial bacteria in your grow beds take time to become established. Here is one process to get your system for getting your system up and running in two weeks. Once the system is running with no leaks:



Circulate the system for a day or two to allow chlorine to evaporate. Add a couple dozen inexpensive goldfish to the tank. Their ammonia will jump start the culturing process. Feed the goldfish every day. To do it without fish, add a few drops of ammonium chloride to the tank each day. Add plant seedlings in the grow bed. Each day add a solution of seaweed concetrate, such as Maxicrop. This will give the plants the nutrients they need in the beginning, plus some addtional ammonia for the bacteria. After two weeks the system should be ready. You can then replace the goldfish with your crop fish. The bacterial culturing process will continue to maturity for a few more weeks.

The chlorine in tap water can burn the fishes gills, and is harmful to bacteria so keep an open barrel (with a scren top) full of water thats been sitting at least a couple of days. Aerating it will speed up the degassing. You can use a product such as Ammo Lock, which instantly removes both chlorines and chloramines. You can also invest in a reverse osmosis (RO) filter which delivers pure H20. These cost a few hundred dollars but are worth it to minimize any guesswork about the content of the water.

Adding Tap Water

Adding Fish

Make sure the water temperature is right for the fish. If the fish are in a water-filled bag, float it on the surface of the tank water for an hour or so. Then you can release them into the water and start feeding them. Keep a close watch on the fish. Its normal to lose a few in the transport process, 5% is acceptable. If you prepared the tank carefully, there should be no problem. Congratulations! You are now the parent of an ecosystem. The real learning will now begin.


System Balance
Understanding Key Ratios Helps You to Troubleshoot
The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents


Here you have many fish producing a good amount of ammonia. The biomedia in filter and grow bed is adequate to convert it to nitrates. There are enough plants to absorb all the nitrates. Water returns clean to the fish tank.
Enough biomedia Enough fish Enough plants

A Balanced System

Here is the same amount of fish with a small amount of biomedia to convert ammonia to nitrates. The water is mostly unfiltered, so too much ammonia returns to the tank. Solution: Add a biofilter or more grow media so the bacteria can do its work. Remember that it takes time for bacteria culture to develop on new media.

Not Enough Biomedia / Grow Media


Too little media Per volume of fish... Too much ammonia returns to fish

The same amount of fish with adequte biomedia but too few plants to take up the nitrates. Too much nitrate returns to the fish tank. Not dangerous but unhealthy. Solution: Add more plants to soak up the extra nitrates.
Too few plants Per volume of fish... Too much nitrate returns to fish

Not Enough Plants


A small amount of fish, or too much water, with enough biomedia and enough plants. There is not enough ammonia being produced for the plants to grow well. Solution: Add more fish or grow fewer plants.
Not enough ammonia to nourish plants

Not Enough Fish or Too Much Water



Personal Agribusiness



The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

Plants Are #1
In aquaponics, plants are the primary crop, fish are secondary. When you discover that there is a steady market for your vegetable crop, this will make sense. You can have several plant harvests over the 8 months it takes for tilapia to mature. You have great freedom to choose what vegetables to grow, with a couple of caveats: Greens grow fastest and best, six weeks from seedling to harvest is common. Fruiting plants do well but require full nutrient levels from the fish tanks. Some say its necessary to add phosphorous and potassium to the grow media. Others report great results with no additives. Experiment both ways and find out the truth. Adding grow lights will greatly increase growth rate and yield. Root plants, carrots, potatoes, onions, etc. reportedly do not do well. This is disputable however, because Friendly Aquaponics in Hawaii has been growing taro root very successfully.

Fruiting Plants for Aquaponics Tomatoes Corn Peppers Cucumbers Squash Melons Peas Beans Strawberries

Room for Roots

Aquaponics is still an emerging science. There is conflicting information available about how deep the grow media needs to be for aquaponic. Some say 13 for all plants. Yet basil and lettuce do well with far less room... 4 has been proven adequate. In a soil-filled container, 12 is recommended as enough depth, but you may be able to get by with less in a gravel grow bed. The best guide to root depth is intuition and common sense. Plants in any container need just enough space and no more. You can play it safe and give them extra. Or you can try experimenting with the same plant species in containers of different depths and see what is most efficient. Then you will know for sure.

Leafy, Flowering Plants for Aquaponics Lettuce Kale Chard Arugula Bok Choy Spinach Basil Mint Watercress Chives Other Herbs Cabbage Celery Broccoli Cauliflower

Take what you read online and in this book with a grain of salt. Take some risks and experiment. The best knowledge comes from your own experience and research. Expect some errors. If you are a by-the-book perfectionist, aquaponics is probably not for you. (On the other hand, you need to be technically-inclined and disciplined...this is farming, not gardening.)



Your Produce Has a Dollar Value

The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

What if you could make steady income with aquaponics and even finance your equipment? We have been a consumer culture for so long that most of us have forgotten that growing is a business. If you can deliver a steady volume of quality produce, you can count on selling it, which greatly affects how to think about aquaponics. On page 10 you can see a spreadsheet for a large-scale operation that brought in a lot of money from a few thousand square feet of growing space. Even if you only have a fraction of that space, you should know what sells, at what price, and at what time of year. Eggplant, for example, wholesales in some markets today for around $18 per bushel. The price is higher in cold months. In the spreadsheet below you can see that a 10 x 10 basil bed has the potential to generate up to $1500 per month, at $10 per pound and ideal growing conditions. Pro Forma Basil Revenue Crop Basil Pounds per Square Foot 1 - 1.5 Grow Period 4 - 6 weeks Typical Wholesale Price per Pound $10 Net Revenue per 100 Square Ft $1000 - $1500

Source: Growing Edge Magazine

Growing Edge Magazine, Basil Stats

Of course if everyone is growing basil the price starts to drop and you have to find another crop, which is simple agricultural economics. Hobby gardeners tend to forget this because we are conditioned to think of a single five-month growing period, a harvest in September, with dozens of tomatoes and squash eaten, given away or left to rot. With aquaponics you gain so much efficiency over traditional gardening that someone with even a modest amount of growing space can become a reliable supplier to wholesalers, restaurants, groceries and co-ops. There may also be emerging crop markets for (legal) medicinal herbs for Asian communities and other groups. There are likely other valuable markets remaining to be discovered or even created. Who will get there first and cash in?

Local Harvest Network

How to Do It
You dont need an MBA to become an aquaponics business person. Just find out who wants what, how much they want and what they are willing to pay. You can do it like a CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture), recruiting families to subscribe. Or you can talk to owners of high-end restaurants and restaurant chains, grocery stores and wholesale distributors. Make some calls, promote yourself. Being the first one in is very important.

The Word on Organic

The USDA jury is still out on organic certification for hydroponics/aquaponics. If you feed your fish certified organic fish food, duckweed, earthworms, without any antibiotics or hormones, it may be technically organic but you cant sell it as such until you get the stamp. The links on the right provide more in-depth information. A decision is likely in November of 2009.

USDA Organic 1

USDA Organic 2


Planning Education
Farm Credit System

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President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Farm Loan Act of 1916 which created the Farm Credit System (FCS). The FCS still thrives today, offering fair lending terms for growers, which includes beginning farmers, whether they live in the city or the country, doing traditional farming or aquaponics. Initially the FCS made loans solely through cooperatives, using land and improvements as collateral. It gave farmers a new alternative to the high interest rates and short terms offered by banks. During the Great Depression, the FCS and Congress continuously struggled with restructuring the way agriculture was financed. That era saw the creation of new legislation to help manage the crisis. The Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929, the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act and the Farm Credit Act of 1933 were legislated. The new Farm Credit Administration (FCA) was created by President Roosevelt to regulate the whole system. This is how todays Farm Credit System was established. Beginning in the 1950s, the culture of the family farm began to fade as corporate interests became stronger. In order to increase production, farmers had to finance more equipment, machinery and land, so reliance on credit increased. Eventually the recession of the 1980s proved fatal to scores of family farms. This heartbreaking event was a major cultural shift in our society, giving over theh bulk of food production to corporate agribusiness. The financial model of aquaponics is much different than that of our current model of farming. There is much more control over such variables as weather, soil quality and acreage. If you use a greenhouse the season not an issue. Machinery such as combines are not needed, nor are pesticides and fertilizers. It is an intensive growing system with a more predictable rate of return, measured by the square foot instead of by the acre. With harvests of greens every 4 - 6 weeks, the payback process can be predictable and manageable. If there is a crop failure for whatever reason, its on a much more contained scale, so the risk is lowered. The entire sytem lends itself well to the needs of small growers. Todays financial system is much more competitive than ever. Rates and payback terms for small equipment loans can be found at all kinds of financial institutions. With aquaponics we have the opportunity for the next phase of personal agribusiness. The creation of regional growing cooperatives would follow.

Farm Credit Services

Beginnning Farmers

Beginnning Farmers 2


Govt Loan Programs

Beginning Farmer Loans and Education Programs

The US government has always supported farming in small and large ways. Within the USDA is a vast store of valuable information which exists for the purpose of making it easy for even novices to grow for production, even if your nearest farm field is an hour away. On the right are links to these sites.


Grow Sell Eat

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The Whole Foods Influence

Even though the family farm as we once knew it is mostly gone, a new small and local agriculture has been emerging, supported by the likes of Whole Foods. The growers in their network include some of the remaining family farms who have been able to make a living, thanks to stores customers who are willing to pay more for a high-quality product that supports a sustainable, environmentallyfriendly model. The problem is that many of these farms should be more local than they are. Although it beats bringing in peppers from Chile, four hours from the store is a long way. This represents a great opportunity for aquaponics in urban areas, where the growing, selling, buying and consuming can all take place within a twenty-mile loop of beltline highway. There is no obstacle to this opportunity. Another opportunity for aquaponics is to deliver produce off-season, which traditional farms cannot do. This is especially attractive to distributors. If you look at the prices for tomatoes in January, which are imported or grown in hot houses, the need is clear. An insulated greenhouse heated with solar and composting mulch would reduce heating costs to make this even more feasible. Fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, red and green peppers and eggplant are in the highest demand in the off-season, less so in late summer. Distributors are happy to tell you what theyd like to buy over a years time. Recent years has seen problems with food safety, especially e. coli on spinach and salmonella with peanuts. This is an ongoing concern that requires growers to have at least $1 million in insurance coverage. Fortunately this costs only a few hundred dollars per year and could decrease with a growing network of small, local growers working in a co-op. Remember that vegetables are the number one moneymaker in aquaponics. The fishs real function is to provide ammonia. A half-ton of tilapia may yield a few thousand dollars, but a promotional fish fry may have higher value as a way to thank customers and neighbors.

Produce Buyers

Whole Foods Local

Aquaponics Cooperatives
Fish form in schools to gain a group advantage. Its the same with growers who pool their resources. Agricultural cooperatives for starting aquaponics growers in urban areas would be easy to establish. The rough structure of them already exists with CSAs, community gardens and food co-ops. Agricultural service cooperatives offer both supplies and marketing for its members. Credit cooperatives provide, of course, access to financing. Cooperatives help farmers overcome the curse of smallness, so they resemble trade unions. Assets can be shared, in the form of equipment, growing space, labor and knowledge. A cooperative entity can be attractive to larger distributors who want reliable delivery of quality product. So it can really be a win/win situation.


Scaling Up


Sheltering the

The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

Planning for Year Round Growing

Placement of the System
Your basic aquaponics system can go just about anywhere its warm, as long as you have enough light for your plants and power for pumps, aerators and tank heaters. With grow lights, you can put it in your house or garage. A basement can work if there is access to water and a drain. A healthy system is relatively odor-free its basically the same as a large aquarium. You can separate the fish tank and grow beds, keeping fish in the garage, plants a few feet away outdoors, perhaps contained in a lean-to hoop house.

Greenhouses & Hoop Houses

The best shelter is a greenhouse. You can find them as kits or make hoop houses, a good low-cost alternative to a greenhouse. There are a wide range of kits and ideas available. Or you can replace your garage roof with double wall polycarbonate.

Garage becomes greenhouse with double-wall polycarbonate roof.

Security and safety is an issue, to keep the fish safe from vandals, thieves or curious children. A water tank of any depth requires keeping young children out.The biggest threat of theft outdoors comes from herons and racoons who will eat all of your fish. People with koi ponds deal with this issue all the time. So an exposed fish tank needs some type of cover, either netting or a hinged frame with screen.

Aquaponics will function much differently in Florida than it will in Minnesota, obviously. For northern climates one should factor in some type of greenhouse structure to extend the season. Tilapia can be replaced with cold water fish like bluegill or catfish.
Hoop houses are easy to build, effective and inexpensive.

Abandoned Buildings
A vast amount of square footage is available for what is called adaptive reuse, where a building is redesigned to function in a new way. Turning an old gas station into a restaurant is one example. There are many architects available who specialize in this process. It makes sense to consider how aquaponics might fit into an abandoned strip mall, with large, south-facing windows. Replace the roof of a store with greenhouse roof sections. Aquaponics and all that it brings to a community would be an excellent use of decaying commercial buildings, potentially even paying the mortgage and then some.

Abandoned commercial spaces can be redeveloped into valuable community assets.


Outside the
Home Aquariums

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Other Creative Options

Every home aquarium has filters and systems to deal with fish waste. Yet with aquaponics that waste can be put to good use. Fish are fish and ammonia is ammonia. So if you have an aquarium you can create a rudimentary aquaponics system by buying or making a grow bed a few inches deep and putting the aquariums filter tube into it at one end, a valve to return water to the aquarium at the other and youre almost there.

Public Aquariums

The large public aquarium also deals with waste, but on a massive scale. The primary goal is to make sure the water is perfect for fish. However, there may be a big opportunity to capture a wasted resource and use it for growing.

Koi Ponds

Koi are excellent producers of ammonia, so every koi pond is a starting point for aquaponics. Koi ponds are designed to make beautiful landscapes however, so its not likely youll see rows of industrial grow beds next to them. But grow beds can be dug into the ground and they dont have to be straight. Take a look at Japanese gardens with dry gravel stream beds and youll get some ideas about how to make it look natural. Simply dig trenches in serpentine shapes uphill from the pond and pump the water through the gravel to return to the pond. Biofilters and other equipment can be hidden. Any plant you grow, edible or not, will grow very well.

Farm Ponds

Then there is the farm pond. The problem to solve is how to concentrate enough fish waste so that grow beds can achieve the volume of nutrients that they need. One option is to contain a volume of fish in small fenced area at an end of the pond. An inline pump will draw water through the fenced area to increase the ammonia. This will require some experimentation to get consistent results. As the need for more grow space increases, simply expand the size of the penned area.

Swimming Pools

Finally there is the abandond, below-ground swimming pool, waiting for a new lease on life. One pool could hold enough fish water for a whole neighborhood of grow beds.


Technology Community
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New Green Technology

The potential for widespread hunger is looming for the world in years to come. Perhaps not so much in America, but when hundreds of millions are suffering, we know that the problem is one we all share. Weve proven that we can engineer and export the most amazing and sophisticated weapons systems the world has seen, for the purpose of keeping the peace. Exporting a food production system instead would obviously go a long way to building on that, at a tiny fraction of the cost. The nice thing about engineered systems like aquaponics is that they can usually be made to work on smaller or larger scales, as well as shipped in complete packages. This makes aquaponics a good solution for shipping to areas of the world where food and water are in short supply.

New Community
Aquaponics also has the unique potential among engineered systems to stabilize communities. A small system can be managed by an individual, but as the scale increases, the management needs to be spread among a team. This is where a family, a class, a church or a neighborhood can work together, creating great value beyond the crops it produces. When the economy goes down, there is opportunity to put people to work in more sustainable ways. Aquaponics can help sustain communities when there are fewer jobs, sustain our spirit when we work together and sustain our health when eating local food. Places like Detroit and other rust belt cities are ideal labs for implementing aquaponics. The cost of commercial buildings, which can be converted for use as year-round aquaponics operations, is amazingly low. Entrepreneurs and investors can work with local communities to provide labor, which has been proven by Growing Power in Milwaukee. The payback comes to the community in terms of employment, education, improved nutrition, lowered crime and overall stability. This type of project could serve as a catalyst and anchor for related developments in the neighborhood. There is nothing in the way of this opportunity.

Access to clean water and locally-produced food will define global politics for decades to come.




Interactive Tour Page

North America
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This PDF edition features hyperlinks. By clicking the names, the websites of these featured aquaponics specialists will open in your browser.

Floating Gardens

Crop Diversification Nelson & Pade Vancouver Island U

Growing Power

Kirby Peak

Ocean Arks

Flying Fish

Freshwater Institute

Portable Farms


Grow Foods

Morning Star Fishermen

S&S Aqua Farm




Friendly Aquaponics


Interactive Tour Page


+ UK + South Africa
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Australia is way ahead of everyone in aquaponics.

Urban Aquaponics

Aquaponics Shop

Practical Aquaponics

Aquaponics Pty Ltd

Red Heeler

AquaponicsUK True Blue Marron Backyard Aquaponics



Cherax cainii, the Australian blue marron. Not to be confused with yabbies, red claws, koonak or gilgie. This cousin of the crawfish is the most widely farm-grown crustacean in Australia. It comes in a range of colors besides bright blue.
South Africa Synaptoman



The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

USDA Defines Sustainable Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Alternative Farming Systems Information Center Cooperative State Research, Education & Extension Service Western Sustainable Agriculture Sustainable Urban Gardens Denver Urban Gardens Milwaukee Urban Gardens Philadelphia Urban Gardens Urban Habitat Chicago Urban Gardens Los Angeles Seattle Tilth Atlantas Farmer D Just Food in New York City Urban Gardens DC Growing Edge Magazine Farmer Johns CSA, Angelic Organics Urban Garden Magazine Food Inc, The Movie ALEARN, Auburn University Aquaculture Extension American Tilapia Association The Fish Site, Aquaculture Stats on Tilapia Mississippi State, Stats on Tilapia Whole Foods Corporate Values Slow Food Movement Local Harvest Network Food Routes, Knowing Where Food Comes From National Family Farm Coalition



Last Page
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This could be a conclusion that describes a wonderful future where everyone grows with aquaponics in a just, verdant and peaceful world. I will spare you from that. Aquaponics is not a panacea. It simply grows food exceptionally well with very little water. Just look at the practical beauty of it, give it a go on a small scale and see if you like it. For the price of a Schwinn mountain bike you can build a decent system and get it growing on your back deck. For the price of a used Harley you can grow enough food for a family, and then some. For the price of a Chevy Malibu you can build a small greenhouse and grow enough food to sell year-round. Once you build a couple of systems and grow some fish and vegetables, youll have experience and skills worth promoting, helping others to get into it. They might pay you. Consider it a capital investment in knowledge and experience, one that doesnt depreciate.


Picture Credits
used with permission
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Page Cover Contents Dedication About Good Reasons Gallery All Chapter Pages 6 7 8 10 12

Image Graphic Minnow Graphic Cucmber VIne Bluegill TV Fish + Man All Small Fish icon Broccoli Bluegill Bacillus Roots Fish + Man Fish Food Siphon UVI System Tank Plastic Boxes Grow Bed Bathtub Blue Barrel Aquarium Aquaponics System Pond Tilpia Pools Pumps Aerators, Test Kit Heater Fittings Silicone Siphon Test Kits Hydroton Kaldnes Permatill Radish Root Bacteria Tilapia Filet Earthworm Girl Small Fish Large Fish All Tilapia AquaXcel Duckweed Earthworm Feeders Illustration Ammo Lock Maxicrop Cucumber Vine Lettuce Dollar Coop Garage Hoop House Strip Mall Aquarium Ga Aquarium Koi Pond Tomato Plant Water System Marron

Credit Sustainable Design Group Public Domain Sustainable Design Group Amy Preneta Eric Engbretsen www.vintagelooks.com Sean Shimmel Linked to source Noel Burkhead Sustainable Design Group Eric Engrbretsen CDC Public Domain Sean Shimmel Cargill, Inc. Linked to source Linked to source Freeland Industries Sustainable Design Group American Agritech Craig Kloeden Sustainable Design Group Public Domain Nelson & Pade (Linked to source) Judy Baxter Edgar Sanchez (Linked to source) Linked to source Linked to source Linked to source Linked to source General Electric Sustainable Design Group Linked to source Linked to source Linked to source Linked to source Public Domain CDC, Public Domain Sustainable Design Group Jessica Clark Public Domain Pubilc Domain Eric Engbretson Public Domain Cargill Sustainable Design Group Sustainable Design Group Linked to source Sustainable Design Group Linked to source Linked to source Wendy Gross Annette Nelson Public Domain Library of Congress Sustainabel Design Group PJ Chmiel Christopher Hansen Public Domain Sustainable Design Group Public Domain Judy Baxter Susy Morris Mahmood Hassan Linked to Source

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The Aquaponics Guidebook Contents

About the Author

Bevan Suits is an industrial designer and writer with over twenty years of research and development of sustainable systems. His experience includes designing exhibits on science and technology for museums, internationally. He has written and produced various high-profile multimedia projects that interpret concepts of science and technology for a public audience. He is a 1985 graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art & Design and lives in Decatur, GA with his family and a small aquaponics system.

About Sustainable Design Group

Atlanta-based Sustainable Design Group is a multidisciplinary team committed to research, design/build and communication about aquaponics and related technologies. http://www.accesstoaquaponics.com

Broken Links? Comments? Questions?

Links have a habit of disappearing over time. Let us know if any links are broken and well send you a new PDF. Otherwise, let us know what weve left out. What topics will Volume 2 feature? Tell us what interesting local food stories deserve video coverage. Email us.