Aquaponics

How to Build Your Own DIY Aquaponics System for Beginners

Have you ever wanted to start your own farm? Live off of the food you produce? I imagine if this thought has ever crossed your mind then the next thought is what if I don’t have a lot of land?

Farms and gardens can be huge establishments and take up a lot of space but, they don't have to. With Aquaponics systems you can create a self sustained farm with limited space and resources to grow your own food. The best part of Aquaponics is, it can be done indoors too. In this “how-to” I will be focusing on a DIY basement Aquaponics system.

What Is Aquaponics

Aquaponics is the combination of raising fish (aquaculture) and soil-less plant growing (hydroponics). Together, it creates a closed loop environment providing all of the necessary elements to raising fish and growing vegetation. In short, fish waste provides the nutrients to the plants for them to grow and thrive. Then, the plants act as filters absorbing bacteria that would be harmful to the fish. The plants are able to use this bacteria as their food source benefiting both the plants and the fish. Once the water cycles through, it is then returned to the fish as clean water.

Aquaponics VS Hydroponics

Aquaponics

As mentioned above, Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. The biggest difference between aquaponics and hydroponics however, is the source of plant nutrients.

Starting with aquaponics, the plants receive nutrients needed to grow and produce vegetables through waste of the fish.

A little more in depth, fish waste produces ammonia which in nature attracts microbes called nitrites. From nitrites, these microbes continue to convert the ammonia into nitrates which is a form of nitrogen that plants are able to use as food. 

Within this system, ammonia and nitrites are both harmful in large quantities to most fish. Therefore, with the presence of these nitrifying bacterias we are able to cycle the water through the aquaponics system both creating food for plants as well as filtering the water for the fish to remain health.

On the other hand, we have hydroponics systems..

Hydroponics

This form of plant growing, like aquaponics, generally uses a soil-less media to maintain plant root structure. However, unlike aquaponics, there are no fish involved. Instead, the nutrients needed for plant growth are derived from man-made solutions which usually contain different types of chemicals safe for plants. 

Hydroponics is still an effective alternative to traditional soil farming however, not only are you limited to one product (plants vs plants and fish) but, hydroponics systems also require more attention to additives in order to maintain sufficient nutrients are readily available to the plants to ensure efficient food production.

In this article, I have included a 13 step how-to guide for creating your very own DIY aquaponics system. This guide is based off my first aquaponics system design.

We will go through the steps from start to finish to get your system up and running ready for growing as well as you becoming an aquaponics gardener.


Estimated Cost: $350 USD

Difficulty: Advanced

Time to complete: Construction - 6 hr Cycling - 5 wk

Tools needed: Miter Chop-Saw 

Power Drill 

Hole Saw Drill Bit 

Utility Snips  

Materials needed: 50 Gallon Aquarium Tank - Facebook Marketplace

Water Pump (550 GPH) 

Freshwater Aquarium Water Test Kit 

Grow Media (2) 

Grow Light 

Storage Containers (3) 

Screws - 3" & 1"

Plywood - 48”L x 21”W x 0.75”H

1x4 boards - 15” L (16)

2x4 Studs - 64”L (2), 58½”L (4), 47”L (4), 20”L (2), 17¼”L (2), 15”L (6)

4x4 Posts - 12”L (6)


Step 1: Gather Tools

Having the right tools and a good area to work in will make the worlds difference in any project you encounter. In addition, I would recommend organizing your tools and materials in whichever way works for you so everything is easy to find when you need it. Nothing worse than losing the tool you just used and needing it again.

Although not mentioned as tools needed, it is always a good idea to have and use proper protective equipment (PPE, i.e hearing protection, and eye protection) whenever using power-tools and even hand-tools

Step 2: Assemble Base

  • Layout 2 of the 4x4 posts cut at 12” on a flat surface. Using 4, 3” screws fasten a 64” 2x4 flush with the outside top of the posts (1 on each end of 2x4). 
  • Next add a third 4x4 post on center of the 2x4 flush to top (roughly 31¼” from each end).
  • Repeat this for other side of base.
  • Attach legs using 20” 2x4’s on outside of the ends just built (4x4 posts facing inwards). 
  • Lay plywood board on top of the frame on center (roughly ½” overhang on sides) 
  • Using 1” screws, fasten plywood every 12 inches or so.
  • For added support, attach a 17¼” 2x4 underneath the base surface on each side of the center posts fastening with 3” screws (2 from outside of frame and 2 through support into center post) on each side of both supports.
  • Additionally, I taped out the dimensions of my fish tank to ensure enough room for placement. - Lastly, add 2 anchor supports to base surface using 15” 2x4’s approx. 5” from ends and 3½” from sides (about [4] 3” screws should do anchoring straight through to the 4x4 posts).

Step 3: Assemble Grow Bed Frame

  • Layout [2] 47” 2x4’s laying [2] 58½” 2x4’s across
  • Leave about 1½” on each end of horizontal 2x4's and fasten 1 flush to top using [3] 3” screws on each end
  • Measure down 11½” from the top of the 47" 2x4 and fasten second 58½” 2x4 (still leaving the 1½” space on ends). 
  • Next, join the sides together using the remaining 15” 2x4’s lining them up with the horizontal 2x4’s and fastening using [2] 3” screws on each end (given the 1½” space, the boards should line up with no overhang)
  • To reduce weight for transport I left the shelving off until the whole unit was in place.

Step 4: Attach Body Frame to Base

Leaving these 2 pieces separated allow for an easier time moving the unit especially if you are by yourself. 

  • Place the grow bed frame on top of the base then align the vertical posts on the outside of the support anchors on the base surface.
  • Using [2] 3” screws on each post, fasten the base of vertical posts to the support anchors from the outside, in.

Step 5: Place Shelving

For this step I began running out of material which actually ended up working to my favor. I had some reclaimed pallet wood (approx. 1x4) that I cut 15” each. Since it is not one large solid board I figured I could use this as an advantage to allow room to feed piping through the shelves as opposed to on the outside of the unit taking up more room. 

  • Simply “eyeballing” the spacing, place [16] 1x4” boards evenly between the 2 shelf frames. 
  • Fasten boards using [1] 1” screw/nail on each of the ends.

Step 6: Assemble Grow Beds

  • With a ½” hole saw drill bit, drill a hole in one of the ends in both grow beds.
  • Use a sharp razor blade to deburr the rough edges from hole exit.
  • Remove large burrs or widen hole if necessary using utility snips
  • Fasten bulkhead to the container following directions provided in packaging.
  • Using ¾” PVC cut 3” pipe for each grow bed.
  • Thread a ¾” Male x slip PVC adapter to top-side of each bulkhead then sliding the 3” cut into the opening.
  • This height will be what determines the max water level of the grow beds therefore may be a different measure if you use a different container
  • Place the grow beds on the top of the unit aligning the bottom of the bulkheads to they are placed in between the shelf panels.
  • Using the same process, add another bulkhead to a third container then place on the second shelf. This will act as a sump tank to help maintain the water level in the fish tank.

Step 7: Build Bell Siphon

A bell siphon is a key component to the design of a flood and drain (or ebb & flow) system. Using the flood and drain system design the grow beds will fill with water until the max level which is set by the height of the drain pipe attached to the bulkhead in each grow bed.

Next, with the help of a bell siphon the water is drained faster than filled until air reaches the bottom of the siphon and breaks the suction. 

The frequency and speed of this process of flood and drain can be regulated with timers and valves to accommodate plant food production needs and water filtration. 

  • Cut a section of 4” PVC the slightly higher than the top of the grow bed.
    • Either drill holes or cut slits around the pipe to allow water drainage. However, make holes small enough to screen out any large debris.
      • This section will act as a screen for the grow media keeping it out of the way of the siphon.
  • Cut a section of 1¼” PVC to a height roughly ½” above the drain pipe.
  • Attach a 1¼” slip-on cap to one end of the PVC
  • On the other end of the 1¼” pipe, drill or cut holes around the bottom only reaching 1½” from base.
    • (Optional) Drill a ¼” hole on the side of the top of 1¼” PVC cap
    • Insert a standard airline tube into the hole pushing in only ¼”
    • Tube should naturally hang straight down, if not a rubber band would do.
    • Cut tube slightly lower than the highest drill/cut hole
      • This will assist with air intake to break the siphon once the water has drained
  • Slide newly made piece over drain pipe in grow bed
  • Place 4” PVC screen over whole drain unit

Step 8: Lay out Plumbing


  • With another ¾” male x slip PVC adapter, thread into bottom of the grow beds as well as sump tank
  • Attach ¾” PVC cut at 3” on the bottom of the grow beds  
  • Place 90º PVC elbow on the ends coming from grow beds facing towards the center of the sump tank below.
  • Add ¾” PVC cut at 8” to drain assemble still facing the center of sump tank
    • (Optional) Place another 90°PVC elbow at the end of assemble facing downward to angle water flow more accurately.
    • Slip a ¾” PVC pipe cut at length to reach the water level in fish tank from sump tank.  

Step 9: Secure Lighting

Aquarium Light

  • With provided hardware, secure chains to ‘S’ hooks attached to light
  • Wrap chain around shelf panel on each end attaching back to the hook

Grow Light

  • Drill [2] holes on the ends of support frame containing the light pulley
  • With 3” screws drill only the pulley frame to an open beam (or improvised fixture)
  • Using provided hardware, fasten grow light to the pulley ropes.
  • Note* this product comes with a complete metal frame. If the location prohibits a permanent fastener to the building, the frame will work just as well and is able to be placed over the grow beds.


Step 10: Configure Water Pump

Originally I used a 300 GPH fountain pump with a 5ft lift I found from Lowes. However, the water barely made it to the top and would fill unevenly. That is when I found a much cheaper option on Amazon that runs 550 GPH. It fills the grow beds fast but I added a power timer to regulate the frequency to the roots get enough dry time.  

  • Place water pump close to center of fish tank
  • Using a ½” water tube, attach to water pump running the other end to the top of the grow beds
  • With a ½” ‘T’ Split the water tube with one tube running to each grow bed
  • Use 1” screws to drill 2 hose clamps to the backside of the unit frame
    • Use these clamps to fasten a craft stick vertically to support the water hose.  

Step 11: Leak Test

  • Fill fish tank slightly higher than the water pump keeping pump fully submerged once grow beds begin to fill. 
  • Plug in water pump allowing the water to cycle throughout the whole system several times.
  • Inspect all joints and connections for leaks or potential weak spots.
  • Make adjustments to bell siphon to manage water levels .
  • Adjust water pump speed to regulate how fast or slow the grow beds fill with water.
  • Make any repairs if necessary.

Step 12: Add Clean Grow Media

Choosing the grow media can be based upon what you plan to grow.

Certain media will be more suited for different root systems whether they need more or less support in order to prosper. Depending on the media you choose, some things may need to be considered such as pH levels. Certain media are naturally more acidic or alkaline which may result in the need for a stabilizer. I use Clay pellets here because they are close to a neutral pH making it more easy to adapt to the environment I implement. Plus, the porous surface holds more water keeping roots moist for longer time so they do not dry out. 

  • Following the directions on the packaging, be sure to rinse the pellets thoroughly to remove any dust particles or other debris that may have got in upon packaging and transport.
  • Add media until slightly lower than the top of the grow bed
    • Based on the water level height set by the bell siphon drain, this should give you roughly 2” of dry media on the top of the beds at all time.

Step 13: Cycle Aquaponics System

In order to establish your aquaponics system, it is necessary to cycle the entire system.

This process can take anywhere from 10 days up to a 5+ weeks. To begin cycling all you need to do is run your system with an ammonia presence for a few weeks until the system begins producing nitrates which we can track weekly using a freshwater aquarium water test kit

  • Start by filling the fish tank the rest of the way with water. 
  • Using the water test kit, test the water (especially if city tap water) to ensure it is safe for fish which should include a pH close to 7.0 ammonia level of 0 ppm and nitrite level of 0 ppm. (*Most pet stores will test aquarium water samples for free.)
  • Add 1 cap full of 100% pure ammonia to the water (to simulate fish waste) 
  • Let the system cycle the ammonia throughout the water for at least 3 days 
  • Test the water for ammonia levels (you are looking for a level of around .50 ppm ammonia for the system to begin producing nitrites. 
  • Keeping the ammonia levels consistent throughout the process, continue testing every 3-5 days adding small amounts of ammonia if necessary.
  • After 1-2 weeks (earliest) nitrifying bacteria should be present which at this point you should begin testing for nitrites as well as nitrates.
  • The ideal system fully cycled will have little to no ammonia or nitrites and a low level presence of nitrates.
  • Once the water test validates the presence of nitrates then the system is established and ready for fish and plants.

Step 14: Introduce Fish and Plants

There are many factors that go into choosing which fish to use in an aquaponics system. For example, the climate will play a big role on what kinds of fish will thrive in certain temperature environments also, if you plan to eat the fish since some fish are not the best for eating.

To establish my system, I started with 3 tiny calico goldfish.

  • Add fish to the aquarium as per pet store instructions (allow fish transport water to acclimate to the temperature of the aquarium about 15 minutes then scoop fish out of bag not to mix in the transport water. 
  • For a system still in the infancy stages planting already started sprouts would be recommended however starting from seed is still possible.
  • In this guide, I simple scattered a handful of lettuce seeds.

There you have it, 14 steps on how to build your very own aquaponics system.

Now you have everything you need to start growing your own vegetables and raising fish whether for pets or a secondary food source. There are many other system designs by many other aquaponics gardeners out there all dependent on personal preference, space available, supplies available, and location. I encourage you to explore many options and use this guide as a reference to customize and create your own system designs.

 Aquaponics can be a fun and great project to share with family, friends, schools, and businesses. This type of farming gives everyone the opportunity to explore and experience the fulfillment of growing and raising your own food from home. However, don’t be mistaken, commercial aquaponics as well as hydroponics already supplies a very large portion of everyday produce we buy in stores around the country.