Backyard Aquaponics: Basic Setups, Methods, Upkeep & Tips

If you enjoy spending time in the backyard, water, fish, and growing things, backyard aquaponics could be the perfect hobby for you.

There are few pastimes that are so educational and enjoyable for those who enjoy alternative gardening methods and spending time outside.

What is backyard aquaponics? Backyard aquaponics is an outdoors version of an aquaponic system, typically homemade. These backyard aquaponic systems include a tank and growing bed that work in a simple cycle: the fish create nutritious waste that feeds plants, and the plants clean the water so the fish stay healthy.

Read on below to find out everything you need to know to get your feet wet with backyard aquaponics, including methods, upkeep factors, and tips.

Backyard Aquaponics Explained: The Basics 

The principle of backyard aquaponics is rather straightforward; fish waste is converted into nutrients for plants by worms or microbes and in turn plants filter the water. This unique relationship is a perpetual cycle that results in healthy organic crops and fish.

How Aquaponics Works, Basic Setup & System Components 

Aquaponics is a form of hydroponics that involves fish creating food for plants, rather than the gardener adding in liquid nutrients. Likewise, in aquaponics, the plants act as the main filter for the water instead of expensive water filters that are utilized in other forms of hydroponics.

The basic aquaponic setup is relatively simple:

  1. A tank is prepared for the fish to live in and create waste
  2. An air pump and air stone(s) aerate the water
  3. A water pump forces water, nutrients, and air to a growing bed with plants
  4. Plant roots anchored in a growing medium soak up the water, air, and nutrients
  5. A drain pipe gravity feeds the water back into the fish tank
  6. The cycle repeats itself perpetually

The main system components for aquaponics are:

Fish Tank

One of two main containers used in aquaponic setups. The fish tank should be large enough to hold numerous fish. Keep in mind, you need at least one fish for every plant you plan on growing.

Water Pump

One of two main pumps involved in aquaponic systems. The water pump moves water from the fish tank to the grow bed. It should be strong enough to push water up and out of the fish tank.

Grow Bed

The grow bed is the second container used for aquaponics. It holds the growing medium, plants, and the bulkhead that connects the drain pipe which returns the water to the fish tank.

Growing Media

The growing media, typically clay pellets, lava rock, or gravel, fills the grow bed. It provides anchoring for the roots of plants growing in the system.

Air Pump

The second pump utilized in aquaponic systems, the air pump connected an air hose to air stones that aerate the water in the fish tank.

Air Stone

The air stone connects to the air pump via a thin air tube and oxygenates the water for both fish and plants.

Pipes or Tubes

The pipes or tubes in aquaponics are typically PVC, though sometimes are vinyl or rubber. They connect to the water pump and allow a channel for water to flow from the fish tank to the grow bed. They also provide a drainage channel from the grow bed to the fish tank.

Bulkheads or Seals

The bulkheads are connectors inserted into the bottom or side of the grow bed. Once the water runs through the growing medium and provides nutrients and air to plants’ roots, it passes through the bulkheads and runs down the drainage pipe or tube.

Aquaponic Methods for the Home Gardener

Your imagination is the limit when it comes to backyard aquaponics. That said, there are three main aquaponic methods for home gardeners that are tried and true:

  • Media Bed. The media bed aquaponics method is the most basic and is commonly used for backyard aquaponics. In this system, a grow bed filled with media and plants sits on top of the fish tank.
  • DWC. Deep water culture, or DWC, is another extremely popular form of backyard aquaponics. In this method, the fish tank has a lid on top with grow sites filled with growing media and plants.
  • NFT. The nutrient film technique, or NFT, is an effective but somewhat more complex type of aquaponics system. NFT works similar to media bed systems, except it involves grow pipes with a constant trickle of water flowing through them rather than a bed that’s flooded and drained.

IBC Tank for Backyard Aquaponics

The term IBC stands for intermediate bulk container. Large water containers that hold several hundred gallons of water, typically with metal cages around them, are the most commonly used containers for IBC tanks.

This method is often referred to as a “chop and flip” aquaponics system.

Setting Up An IBC Tank

Setting up an IBC tank for backyard aquaponics is relatively simple, though you will need a power saw of some sort. 

Start by measuring how large you want your media bed to be and mark the cage at the proper height. This will be the support for your media bed. Next, use power tools to cut through the cage, remove it, and set it upside down and to the side. 

Once the cage is removed, use a saw and cut the top of the tank off. Make sure it matches the amount of cage you removed. Now, flip it upside down and place it inside the section of the cage you removed. Your media bed and its support are now complete.

The remainder of the cage should be around three times larger than the media bed. At a minimum, it needs to be twice as large. That said, it can be as much as four to five times bigger than the media bed.

Thoroughly clean both tank and media bed and then set them into place. The media bed should sit sideways on top of the tank. At this point, you can add all of the basic components as well.

A submersible water pump goes into the fish tank, as well as an air stone that connects to an air pump that sits outside of the tank. Run a pipe or tube from the water pump outlet to the top of the media bed. 

Install a bulkhead or seal low-down on the side of the media bed, and connect a small PVC drain pipe directed into the fish tank. Add growing medium to the grow bed, water and fish to the tank, and plants to the growing medium.

Pros

The IBC tank method is great for large-scale backyard aquaponics or even commercial operations. It allows for a larger amount of both fish and plants to grow. The method also utilizes a single tank that is split in two. 

Cons

IBC systems take a bit more time and effort to set up than typical fish tank setups. It also requires more money, as IBC containers are more expensive than fish tanks, totes, or wooden frames with plastic liners typically used in backyard aquaponics.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) for Backyard Aquaponics

The NFT system is another widely popular form of backyard aquaponics. With NFT, a reservoir houses fish and grow pipes hold several netted pots that anchor plants into position.

A water pump and air pump with an air stone circulate a thin but consistent flow of water (known as the film) through the system.

Setup

To build an NFT system, start with a tank for fish and a submersible water pump and air stone. Just outside of the tank, position the air pump with an air hose connected to the stone. This tank can be a barrel, large tote, wooden crate with plastic lining, or some other type of waterproof container.

Next, decide how you want to orient your grow pipes. The most efficient way is stacking them vertically. Most systems consist of at least three of four separate pipes. 

Use a measuring tape and marker to mark spaces between each spot you want a grow site. The easiest way to do so is by tracing your net pots. Space your grow sites anywhere from a few inches apart (for small leafy greens) to 18 or 24 inches apart (for larger plants like melons or tomatoes).

After your grow sites are created, take your matching PVC end caps and drill one hole in each one. Each pipe should have one end cap with a hole up high, and one end cap with a hole down low. This will allow the water pump and gravity to do their jobs.

Once the holes are drilled, insert pipe fittings into them so that you can connect a tube from the water pipe, as well as smaller tubes with elbows from one grow pipe to the next. These smaller tubes act as drains.

From the fish tank, connect a PVC tube or vinyl hose up to the highest of the grow pipes. Once the water is pumped up, it will trickle down through each of the grow pipes in the system passing each grow site as it flows.

The water eventually makes its way back into the fish tank and recirculates through the entire system again.

Pros

The NFT is water-efficient, as it recirculates the same water over and over with very little evaporation. It also is extremely space-efficient compared to other aquaponic systems, as most NFT systems are stackable and have a rather thin width. Further, NFT aquaponics are cost-effective as DIY systems.

Cons

The main drawback to building an NFT system is that it takes a bit more time and effort than other methods. It also requires some basic knowledge of tools and plumbing components. Otherwise, there is a decent learning curve involved. Even more, NFT is not the greatest system for larger plants.

Maintaining a Backyard Aquaponic System

Depending on the sort of system you install, the maintenance routine involved may vary slightly. That said, here’s a quick rundown of what backyard aquaponics maintenance looks like:

  • Monitor water temperature regularly
  • Keep water levels topped off
  • Check pH levels regularly
  • Adjust pH as needed
  • Keep fish population regulated
  • Move surplus fish to another tank
  • Remove dead fish immediately
  • Check for pests on plants
  • Change water and clean components
  • Check for leaks or broken equipment

Selecting Fish for Your Backyard Aquaponic Garden 

The best fish for your backyard aquaponics garden depends on several factors. The most important considerations to keep in mind are what sort of plants you’re growing, what climate zone your backyard is in, and whether or not you plan on eating or selling the fish.

For the average aquaponic system, carp, crappie, catfish, goldfish, tetra, and tilapia are the safest species to choose. But, make sure to do some research before selecting your fish.

Are There Backyard Aquaponic Kits Available?

Backyard aquaponics kits are available on the market, generally speaking. But, they are much harder to find, and cost more, than standard aquaponic kits.

The kit below is a great example of a high-quality backyard aquaponic kit:

Professional AquaBox Complete Kit

These professionally made AquaBoxes are complete backyard aquaponics kits. Handcrafted by manufacturers in Northern California, each unit is totally unique. Even more, they are absolutely pleasing to the eye.

Each kit includes a customized wood reservoir frame and media bed frame, reservoir, flood table, water pump, tubes, and fittings. The kit also comes with detailed instructions as well as an aquaponic cycling kit and high-quality clay pebbles.

Check Price On Amazon

Pros

  • Comes with everything you need
  • Built by professionals
  • Includes instructions
  • Custom made, tailored to your order
  • 30-gallon reservoir

Cons

  • More expensive than standard kits
  • Shipping may add quite a bit of cost

Backyard Aquaponics – Tips for Success 

Now that we’ve covered all of the basics of backyard aquaponics, let’s have a look at some key tips for success:

  • Choose the right location, these systems are far from portable
  • Select the best fish for your local environment and plants
  • Keep your system well maintained and equipment cleaned
  • Stick to the basics, don’t try advanced techniques at first
  • Keep fish well-fed, but avoid overfeeding them
  • Maintain a good balance of fish-to-plants
  • Avoid overcrowding the fish tank, move baby fish to another tank
  • React to situations as they arise, don’t dilly dally
  • Keep a notebook and track progress, learn from mistakes and successes

Related Questions 

How Much Does It Cost To Build an Aquaponics System? 

The cost to build an aquaponic system varies greatly depending on the type, size, and quality of materials. A basic system may cost several hundred dollars if built on a tight budget. However, most systems will cost well over $1,000.

Can Aquaponics Be Added to an Existing Hydroponic Setup? 

An existing hydroponics system can be converted into an aquaponic system with a few adjustments. The reservoir may need to be changed or modified, to support aquatic life. Water pumps, filters, and other components may also need to be upgraded.

Closing Thoughts About Backyard Aquaponics

Backyard aquaponics may be the perfect hobby or commercial venture for those who love the outdoors, growing things, and have an eye for details.

Hopefully, our guide helps you make the decision of whether or not aquaponics is right for you and your backyard.