Designing An Aquaponic Unit

Designing An Aquaponic Unit

Designing An Aquaponic Unit


Aquaponics is the integration of recirculating aquaculture and hydroponics in one production system. In aquaponics, the aquaculture effluent is diverted through plant beds and not released to the environment, while at the same time the nutrients for the plants are supplied from a sustainable, cost-effective and non-chemical source. This integration removes some of the unsustainable factors of running aquaculture and hydroponic systems independently. The technology presented in this document, provides a description of the concept of aquaponics and an overview of the three most common methods of aquaponics being utilized at present. In addition, the factors to consider when selecting a site for an aquaponic unit and the components essential for any method of aquaponics are described in details in this document.



Aquaponics is a technique that combines hydroponics and aquaculture in a single system that cultivates plants in recirculated aquaculture water (Figure 1). 

Hydroponics is the most common method of soil-less culture (growing agricultural crops without the use of the soil), which includes growing plants either on a substrate or in an aqueous medium with bare roots. The substrate provides plant support and moisture retention. Irrigation systems are integrated within these substrates, thereby introducing a nutrient solution to the plants’ root zones. This solution provides all of the necessary nutrients for plant growth.

Aquaculture is the captive rearing and production of fish and other aquatic animal and plant species under controlled conditions The four major categories of aquaculture include open water systems (e.g. cages, longlines), pond culture, flow-through raceways and recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS). A RAS is the most applicable method for the development of integrated aquaculture agriculture systems because of the possible use of by-products and the higher water nutrient concentrations for vegetable crop production.

Aquaponics is a form of integrated agriculture that combines two major techniques, aquaculture and hydroponics. In one continuously recirculating unit, culture water exits the fish tank containing the metabolic wastes of fish. The water first passes through a mechanical filter that captures solid wastes, and then passes through a biofilter that oxidizes ammonia to nitrate. The water then travels through plant grow beds where plants uptake the nutrients, and finally the water returns, purified, to the fish tank. The biofilter provides a habitat for bacteria to convert fish waste into accessible nutrients for plants. These nutrients, which are dissolved in the water, are then absorbed by the plants. This process of nutrient removal cleans the water, preventing the water from becoming toxic with harmful forms of nitrogen (ammonia and nitrite), and allows the fish, plants, and bacteria to thrive symbiotically. Moreover, the converted fish waste provides all of the fertilizer required by the plants. Thus, all the organisms work together to create a healthy growing environment for one another, provided that the system is properly balanced.

Aquaponics is a technique that has its place within the wider context of sustainable intensive agriculture, especially in family-scale applications. It offers supportive and collaborative methods of vegetable and fish production and can grow substantial amounts of food in locations and situations where soil-based agriculture is difficult or impossible. Aquaponics is most appropriate where land is expensive, water is scarce, and soil is poor. Deserts and arid areas, sandy islands and urban gardens are the locations most appropriate for aquaponics because it uses an absolute minimum of water.

Aquaponic systems are expensive because they require the installation of a full aquaculture system and a hydroponic system. Despite this, units can be designed and scaled to meet the skill and interest level of many farmers. Aquaponics is quite adaptable, and can be developed with local materials and domestic knowledge, and to suit local cultural and environmental conditions. It will always require a dedicated and interested person, or group of persons, to maintain and manage the system on a daily basis.

Types of aquaponic units:

a) Media Bed Technique (MBT):

Media-filled bed units are the most popular design for small-scale aquaponics. This method is strongly recommended for most developing regions. These designs are efficient with space, have a relatively low initial cost and are suitable for beginners because of their simplicity. In media bed units, the medium is used to support the roots of the plants and also the same medium functions as a filter, both mechanical and biological. There are many designs for media beds, and this is probably the most adaptable technique. Moreover, recycled materials can easily be repurposed to hold the media and the fish (Figure 2).

b) Nutrient Film Technique (NFT):

The NFT is a hydroponic method using horizontal pipes each with a shallow stream of nutrient-rich water flowing through it. Plants are placed within holes in the top of the pipes, and are able to use this thin film of nutrient-rich water. This technique is far more complicated and expensive than media beds, and may not be appropriate in locations with inadequate access to suppliers. It is most useful in urban applications, especially when vertical space or weight-limitations are considerations. In addition, this technique requires separate mechanical and biofiltration components, in order to respectively remove the suspended solids and oxidize the dissolved wastes (ammonia to nitrate) (Figure 3).

c) Deep Water Culture (DWC):

The DWC method involves suspending plants in polystyrene sheets, with their roots hanging down into the water. This method is the most common for large commercial aquaponics, growing one specific crop (typically lettuce, salad leaves or basil), and is more suitable for mechanization. On a small-scale, this technique is more complicated than media beds, and may not be suitable for some locations, especially where access to materials is limited. As in the NFT, separate mechanical and biological filters are needed (Figure 4, and 5).

However, the aquaponic DWC units can be designed without a filtration system. These units carry a very low stocking density of fish (i.e. 1–1.5 kg of fish per m3 of fish tank), and then rely mainly on the plant root space and the interior area of the canals as the surface area to house the nitrifying bacteria. Simple mesh screens capture the large solid waste, and the canals serve as settling tanks for fine waste. The advantage -of this method is the reduction in initial economic investment and capital costs, while at the same time eliminating the need for additional filter containers and materials, which can be difficult and expensive to source in some locations (Figure 6).

Consideration while designing an aquaponic unit:

1. Site Selection:

Be sure to choose a site that is stable and level. Some of the major components of an aquaponic system are heavy, leading to the potential risk of the legs of the system sinking into the ground. This can lead to disrupted water flow, flooding or catastrophic collapse. Find the most level and solid ground available. Concrete slabs are suitable, but do not allow any components to be buried, which can lead to tripping hazards. If the system is built on soil, it is useful to grade the soil and put down material to mitigate weeds. In addition, place concrete or cement blocks under the legs of the grow beds to improve stability. Stone chips are often used to level and stabilize soil locations. Moreover, it is important to place the fish tanks on a base; this will help to provide stability, protect the tank, allow for plumbing and drains on the tank bottom, and thermally isolate it from the ground.

a) Exposure to wind, rain and snow:

Extreme environmental conditions can stress plants and destroy structures. Strong prevailing winds can have a considerable negative impact on plant production and can cause damage to stems and reproductive parts. In addition, strong rain can harm the plants and damage unprotected electrical sockets. Large amounts of rain can dilute the nutrient-rich water, and can flood a system if no overflow mechanism is integrated into the unit. Snow causes the same problems as heavy rain, with the added threat of cold damage. It is recommended to locate the system in a wind-protected zone. If heavy rains are common, it may be worth to protect the system with a plastic-lined hoop house, although this may not be necessary in all locations.

b) Exposure to sunlight and shade:

Most of the common plants for aquaponics grow well in full sun conditions; however, if the sunlight is too intense, a simple shade structure can be installed over the grow beds. Some light sensitive plants, including lettuce, salad greens and some cabbages, will bolt in too much sun, go to seed and become bitter and unpalatable. Other tropical plants adapted to the jungle floor such as turmeric and certain ornamentals can exhibit leaf burn when exposed to excessive sun, and they do better with some shade. On the other hand, with insufficient sunlight, some plants can have slow growth rates. This situation can be avoided by placing the aquaponic unit in a sunny location. If a shady area is the only location available, it is recommended that shade-tolerant species be planted.

On the contrary, the fish do not need direct sunlight. In fact, it is important for the fish tanks to be in the shade or covered with a removable shading material that is placed on top of the tank. However, where possible, it is better to isolate the fish tanks using a separate shading structure. This will prevent algae growth and will help to maintain a stable water temperature during the day. Moreover, fish tanks are vulnerable to predators. Using shade netting, tarps or other screening over the fish tanks will prevent all of these threats.

c) Access to utilities:

In site selection, it is important to consider the availability of utilities. Electric outlets are needed for water and air pumps. These outlets should be shielded from water and equipped with a residual-current device (RCD) to reduce the risk of electrical shock. Moreover, the water source should be easily accessible, whether it is municipal water or rain collection units. Similarly, consider where any effluent from the system would go. Although extremely water efficient, aquaponic systems occasionally require water changes, and filters and clarifiers need to be rinsed. It is convenient to have some soil plants located nearby that would benefit from this water. The system should be located where it is easy for daily access because frequent monitoring and daily feeding are required. Finally, consider if it is necessary to fence the entire section. Fences are sometimes required to prevent theft and vandalism, animal pests and for some food safety regulations.

2.  Water quality in aquaponics:

Water is the life-blood of an aquaponic system (Figure 7). It is the medium through which plants receive their nutrients andfish receive their oxygen. It is very important to understand water quality and basic water chemistry in order to properly manage aquaponics.

There are five key water quality parameters for aquaponics: dissolved oxygen (DO), pH, water temperature, total nitrogen concentrations and hardness (KH). Each organism in an aquaponic unit has a specific tolerance range for each parameter of water quality. The tolerance ranges are relatively similar for all three organisms, but there is need for compromise and therefore some organisms will not be functioning at their optimum level.

Ideal parameters for aquaponics as a compromise between all three organisms

Water testing is essential for maintaining good water quality in the system. This starts from the selection of the water source: rainwater, aquifer water, tap water. Continue to test and keep records of the following water quality parameters each week: pH, water temperature, nitrate and carbonate hardness. Ammonia and nitrite tests should be used especially at system start-up and if abnormal fish mortality raises toxicity concerns.

3.  Essential components of an aquaponic unit:

a) Fish tank

Fish tanks are a crucial component in every unit. As such, fish tanks can account for up to 20 percent of the entire cost of an aquaponic unit. Although any shape of fish tank will work, round tanks with flat bottoms are recommended. The round shape allows water to circulate uniformly and transports solid wastes towards the centre of the tank by centripetal force.

It is recommended to use strong inert plastic or fibreglass tanks, because of their durability and

long life span. If using plastic containers, make sure that they are UV-resistant because direct sunlight can destroy plastic. In general, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) tanks are preferable because of their high resistance and food-grade characteristics. Other options include second hand containers, such as bathtubs, barrels or intermediate bulk containers (IBCs). It is very important to make sure that the container has not been used previously to store toxic material. Contaminants, such as solvent-borne chemicals, will have penetrated into the porous plastic itself and are impossible to remove with washing.

Regarding the tank color, white or other light colours are strongly advised as they allow easier viewing of the fish in order to easily check behaviour and the amount of waste settled at the bottom of the tank. White tanks will also reflect sunlight and keep the water cool. Alternatively, the outside of darker coloured tanks can be painted white. All fish tanks should be covered. The shade covers prevent algae growth. In addition, the covers prevent fish from jumping out (often occurs with newly added fish or if water quality is sub-optimal), prevent leaves and debris from entering, and prevent predators such as cats and birds from attacking the fish. Often, agricultural shading nets that block 80–90 percent of sunlight are used. The shade cloth can be attached to a simple wooden frame to provide weight and make the cover easy to remove.

b) Sump tank

The sump tank is a water collection tank at the lowest point in the system; water always runs downhill to the sump. This is often the location of the submersible pump. Sump tanks should be smaller than the fish tanks, and should be able to hold between one-fourth and one-third of the volume of the fish tank. For ebb-and-flow type media beds, the sump needs to be large enough to hold at least the entire volume of water in the grow beds.  External sump tanks are mainly used in media bed units; however, for DWC units the actual hydroponic canal can be used as a sump tank / pump house also.  

On the other hand, very small units with fish tanks up to 200 litres can simply pump water from the fish tank to the grow beds, from where water trickles back down into the fish tank. In this case the use of a sump tank is not required.

c)  Filtration system

Some level of filtration is essential to all aquaponics, although fish stocking density and system design determines how much filtration is necessary. Mechanical filters separate solid wastes which are then removed from the system to prevent toxic gases from being released by harmful bacteria that feed on accumulated solid wastes. Moreover, the wastes can clog systems and disrupt water flow, causing anoxic conditions to the plant roots. For aquaponics, mechanical filtration is arguably the most important aspect of the design.

There are several types of mechanical filters. The simplest method is a screen or filter located between the fish tank and the grow bed. This screen catches solid wastes, and needs to be rinsed often. Similarly, water leaving the fish tank can pass through a small container of particulate material, separate from the media bed; this container is easier to rinse periodically. These methods are valid for some small-scale aquaponic units, but are insufficient in larger systems with more fish where the amount of solid waste is relevant. There are many types of mechanical filters, including sedimentation tanks, radial-flow clarifiers, sand or bead filters and baffle filters; each of them can be used according to the size of solid wastes that needs to be removed. For small-scale aquaponics, clarifiers or radial swirl filters are the most appropriate filters.

Biofiltration is the conversion of ammonia and nitrite into nitrate by living bacteria. Most fish waste is not filterable using a mechanical filter because the waste is dissolved directly in the water, and the size of these particles is too small to be mechanically removed. Therefore, in order to process this microscopic waste an aquaponic system uses microscopic bacteria. The biofilter is installed between the mechanical filter and the hydroponic containers. Many types of media can be used, including purpose-designed plastic pieces, volcanic gravel, plastic bottle caps, nylon shower poufs, netting, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) shavings and nylon scrub pads.

The media beds themselves act as both mechanical filters and biofilters when using this technique, but additional mechanical filtration is sometimes necessary for higher fish densities (15 kg/m3). In a unit without the media beds, such as in NFT and DWC units, standalone filtration is necessary.

d) Aeration system

Another required component for aquaponics is aeration. Fish and plants need oxygen to breath, and nitrifying bacteria need adequate access to oxygen in order to oxidize the ammonia. One easy solution is to use air pumps, placing the air stones at the bottom of the container. This ensures that all the living organisms have constantly high and stable dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations.

Venturi siphons are another technique to increase the DO levels in aquaponics. Venturi siphons use a hydrodynamic principle that pulls in air from the outside (aspiration) when pressurized water flows with a faster speed through a pipe section of a smaller diameter. As the water in the main pipe is forced through the narrower section, it creates a jet effect.

e) Water movement

Water movement is fundamental for keeping all organisms alive in aquaponics. As mentioned before, the flowing water moves from the fish tanks, through the mechanical separator and the biofilter and finally to the plants in their media beds, pipes or canals, removing the dissolved nutrients. If water movement stops, the most immediate effect will be a reduction in DO and accumulation of wastes in the fish tank.

It is recommended to use a standard pump as the heart of an aquaponics unit. Most commonly an impeller-type submersible water pump is used. When installing an aquaponic unit, be sure to place the submersible pump in an accessible location because periodic cleaning is necessary.

Airlifts are another technique of lifting water. They use an air pump rather a water pump. Air is forced to the bottom of a pipe within the fish tank, bubbles form and burst, and during their rise to the surface the bubbles transport water with them.

Some aquaponic systems have been designed to use human power to move water. Water can be lifted in buckets or by using pulleys, modified bicycles or other means. A header tank can be filled manually and allowed to slowly drain throughout the course of the day. These methods are only applicable for small systems, and should only be considered where electricity is unavailable or unreliable.

f) Plumbing materials

Every system requires a selection of PVC pipe, PVC connections and fittings, hoses and tubes. These provide the channels for water to flow into each component. Bulkhead valves, uniseals, silicone sealant and Teflon tape are also needed. In addition, some general tools are needed such as hammers, drills, hand saws, electric saws, measuring tapes, pliers, channel-locking pliers, screwdrivers, levels, etc. One special tool is a hole-saw and/ or spade bit, which is used in an electric drill to make holes up to 8 cm, necessary for inserting the pipes into the fish tanks and filters, as well as for making holes in the PVC or polystyrene grow beds in NFT and DWC systems.

Make sure that the pipes and plumbing used in the system have never previously been used to hold toxic substances. It is also important that the plumbing used is of food-grade quality to prevent possible leaching of chemicals into the system water. It is also important to use pipes that are black and/or non-transparent to light, which will stop algae from growing.

g) Water testing kits

Simple water tests are a requirement for every aquaponic unit. Colour-coded freshwater test kits are readily available, fairly economical and easy to use, and thus these are recommended.

These can be purchased in aquarium stores or online. These kits include tests for pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and water hardness (GH and KH). Be sure that the manufacturers are reliable and that the expiration date is still valid.

Other methods include digital meters or test strips. If using digital meters for pH or nitrate, be sure to calibrate the units according to the manufacturer’s directions. A thermometer is necessary to measure water temperature. In addition, if there is risk of saltwater in the source water, a cheap hydrometer, or a more accurate but more expensive refractometer, is worthwhile.

The basic aquaponic system works in a wide range of conditions, and units can be designed and scaled to meet the skill and interest level of many farmers. However, its success is derived from the appropriate selection of the locations while considering its limitations, the maintenance and management of the system on a daily basis by a motivated farmer or group of farmers..

There is a wide variety of aquaponic designs, ranging from high-tech to low-tech, and from high to reasonable price levels. The three most common methods of aquaponics and their management are described in the following technologies:

1.   Designing an Aquaponic unit

2.   Media Bed Aquaponic Unit - Step by Step Description

3.   Nutrient Film Aquaponic Unit – Step by Step Description

4.   Deep Water Culture Aquaponic Unit – Step by Step Description

5.   Management of the Aquaponic Systems

See also

Management of the Aquaponic Systems

Deep Water Culture Aquaponic Unit – Step by Step Description

Nutrient Film Aquaponic Unit – Step by Step Description

Media Bed Aquaponic Unit - Step by Step Description

Further reading

Small-scale aquaponic food production - Integrated fish and plant farming (FAO, 2014):

7 rules-of-thumb to follow in aquaponics:






soilless culture


Fishery & aquaculture


Central Asia

East Asia and Pacific

Latin America and Caribbean

Created date

Wed, 03/06/2015 - 16:19


Fisheries and Aquaculture Department (FI) in FAO

Fisheries and aquaculture have the capacity – if supported and developed in a regulated and environmentally sensitive manner – to contribute significantly to improving the well-being of poor and disadvantaged communities in developing countries and to achievement of several of the Millennium Development Goals, especially those related to poverty reduction and food and nutrition security, environmental protection and biodiversity. As part of a long-term strategy, the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department (FI) is envisioning a world in which responsible and sustainable use of fisheries and aquaculture resources makes an appreciable contribution to human well-being, food security and poverty alleviation. In this regard, FI works towards strengthening global governance and the managerial and technical capacities of members and to lead consensus-building towards improved conservation and utilization of aquatic resources. The activities of FI reflect the main FAO mandate of managing knowledge and information, assuring a global neutral forum for Members and providing technical assistance at national, regional and global levels.

In addition, the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department undertakes capacity development activities for marine and inland fisheries as well as aquaculture. These include training at different levels, preparation of training and extension materials for general or targeted training, awareness raising through workshops, and collaboration with partner training institutions.  The FI is also involved in the development of appropriate technical guidelines and the promotion of participatory approaches in sustainable and responsible aquatic resources management, including gender aspects.

The Aquaculture Branch of FI (FIAA) is particularly responsible for providing technical assistance towards sustainable and responsible aquaculture development and management in support of improving food and nutrition security and alleviating poverty, globally.

The Products, Trade and Marketing Branch (FIAM) of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of FAO, assists FAO member countries on all aspects related to post-harvest. FIAM provides technical assistance in areas such as marketing, trade, handling and processing and preservation of fish products, food safety and nutrition. As such, FIAM supports activities along the value chain aiming at a sustainable supply of fish and fishery products in the market, while securing greater benefits for actors in the value chain. FIAM has broad experience in the field of promotion fish consumption, through the dissemination of knowledge on the nutritional value of fish and fishery products, including the promotion of good hygienic practices at any level of the supply chain (on board canoes/vessels, landing sites, aquaculture farms, factories and sales points).  Local fishermen and processors are assisted to adapt best practices in order to reduce food losses and waste, and to promote an optimal use of their fishery by-products, improving their returns, minimizing the environmental impacts and contributing to food security. Finally, as fish and fishery products are among the most traded food commodities worldwide, FIAM coordinates the implementation of Globefish, a programme collecting and disseminating information on markets and fish trade. Globefish produces a number of publications including fish price reports (European Fish Price Report), market studies (GLOBEFISH Research Programme) and trend analysis (GLOBEFISH Highlights).


Contact person: 

Aquaculture Branch of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resource Division

Contact email:

Contact person: 

Alessandro Lovatelli (Aquaculture Branch)

Contact email:

Contact person: 

Aina Randrianantoandro (Products, Trade and Marketing Branch)

Contact email:




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