Aquaponics – the Automated Ubergarden of the Future

tamaterAn Introduction from MMM:

I was late to the party in learning about aquaponics, but it made a big impression on me when I toured a massively creative food facility two years ago.  

The slightly wild entrepreneurial founder had converted some cheap, remote industrial buildings in Loveland, Colorado into a spectacularly productive indoor farm. Expensive herbs, heirloom tomatoes and fluffy fish were popping out at high speed, with (mostly solar) energy and sparse human labor as the only inputs. With over 40% of the Earth’s land area already converted to farms, I was excited by the idea that someday we may be able to get much more food out of much less land with a lower input of oil and chemicals.

This kicked off a bit of an aquaponics reading binge on my part. And quite coincidentally, a reader named Jeremiah wrote to me towards the end of it to tell me about his own inventions in the field. I was impressed, because he has combined the art and science of Aquaponics with a Mustachian ethos of time and money efficiency. According to Jeremiah, you don’t need to be an advanced entrepreneur or scientist to build up a fancy food factory of your own.

So we collaborated over the past four months to create something worthy of sharing with you. And by “collaboration”, I mean I made the unrealistic demand of a “Zero to Hero” lesson in Aquaponics that would culminate in something readers could actually build, and Mr. Robinson diligently cranked it out with a summer of design and documentation. I am thankful for his generous work on your behalf, and I hope this great article he wrote becomes a primary source on the Internet for learning about the craft. It’s a great read.

High-Tech Gardening and the Kick-Ass ROI
by Jeremiah Robinson

MoneyGroceriesA new gardening technique is about to save you a crap-ton of money on your food bills.

Can you guess what it is?

I’ll give you a hint.

It was invented separately in ancient times by some badass farmers in both China and the Amazon.

In China, it allowed subsistence farmers to survive on plots of mountainside land that no traditional farmer could ever survive on.

It helped the indigenous residents of ancient Bolivia and others the power to develop a wealthy and sophisticated agricultural civilization atop worthless soil for 1000 years.

For the past 2 millennia, these farmers quietly developed the most efficient and sustainable method of growing food known to man.  And nobody noticed.


Nobody, that is, till 40 years ago the New Alchemists and others put 2 and 2 together.  Their modern methods, combined with the ancient techniques, got rid of most of the work associated with traditional growing (eg. weeding, watering, mulching, soil building, etc…), allowing for much higher production output at a much higher quality.

This ancient-turned-modern method of growing is called aquaponics.

It combines the raising of fish (aquaculture) with the growing of plants in nutrient-rich water (hydroponics).  The fish fertilize the plants, and the plants clean the water.

Hotter than Carhartt, aquaponics is beginning to revolutionize the world of home-grown healthy food.

DesertPonicsNow it’s much easier to grow your own safe, local, healthy food yourself in your own backyard, roof, balcony, or basement.

It doesn’t matter where you live.  It works in the desert.  It works in the tropics.  You can do it urban or rural.  I live in Wisconsin where the polar vortex gave us -25°F (-32°C), and it works here all winter long (actually improves the taste).

For the Zero-to-Hero system I’ll describe later, you just need an area that’s 5′ wide by 14′ long, exposure to either the sun or some fluorescent lights, and a weekend to build it.  To make a smaller system, you just use smaller parts.

The Math

SpinachThe ROI (return on investment) on this thing will kick Warren Buffet’s ass.

I haven’t run the Zero-to-Hero (Z-H) system long enough for good measured data on its output, so I’ll tell you about the larger system I use.  The Z-H system should give proportional results until you decide to upgrade.

My 8’x16′ aquaponics greenhouse (which is about 2x larger than the Z-H system) cost me $3,000 to build, soup-to-nuts.  In one year my system can grow the following fish and better-than-organic produce (local farmers’ market prices in parenthesis):


  • 50 lbs of fresh trout fillets ($15/lb)
  • 100 lbs of fresh, cold-finished, food-purged tilapia fillets (Not sold anywhere.  If they were, $10/lb?)
  • 75 lbs of pristine basil leaves for pesto ($20/lb)
  • 50 lbs of winter spinach ($5/lb)
  • 40 lbs of fresh unwashed lettuce ($4/lb)

Basil Prices

Add all this up and I get a yearly gross output of $3,660, not to mention eating like Louis the XIV.

Here are my yearly costs:

  • Electricity ($0.12/kWh) – $120
  • Fish Feed ($40/bag) – $400
  • 7-8″ Tilapia ($3/fish) – $300
  • 7-8″ Trout ($2/fish) – $100
  • Water ($2.80/1,000 gal) – $15
  • Seeds (prices vary) – $15

Add these up and you’re looking at $1,030/yr.

As a good Mustachian who goes shopping with your middle finger, let’s say that somehow you find a way to pay half the farmers’ market price, or $1,830/yr. Subtracting out the $1,030, you still bank $790, for a simple ROI of 27% or a four-year simple payback, which is very good.

The Z-H system is ¼ the price for ½ the size, so your ROI would be even better.


System BuildBut, you object, the missing element in my budget is obvious: labor.  So true!  I haven’t included it for three very good reasons:

  1. Building it is fun: With good instructions and ideally with the help of good friends, building an aquaponic system is one of the most fun projects you’ll ever do.  It’s the sort of thing I hope to fill my time with after I quit the rat race.  As MMM says, hard work can be joy-filled and life-giving, especially in small doses.  This past weekend I built a Zero-to-Hero system with a group of 10 people in a few hours at a permaculture workshop.  I’ve rarely had such an enjoyable time!
  2. Checking on my fish is the best part of my day: I love checking on my greenhouse, feeding my fish, and harvesting food, especially when the neighbor kids come and help. You’d have to pay me not to do it.
  3. Nearly zero ongoing labor: This is especially true compared to soil gardening.  Unless you make some dumbass mistakes that you have to fix (which happens while you’re still learning how it works), the only time is daily feeding (5 minutes), weekly water testing (5 minutes), monthly planting (2 hours), twice/year runs to the fish hatchery (3 hours), and harvesting whenever you want to (5-20 minutes—you don’t have to clean your veggies, but you do have to clean your fish).

Another objection you might raise is that you want to visit your long-lost relatives in Azerbaijan, or attend the MMM gathering in Ecuador.  Don’t you have to be home every day to feed your fish, or at least every week to check your water?

Actually, you don’t.

Fish routinely go for 3 to 5 months without eating.  In my area, they do it every winter.  They survive these fluctuations just fine, if a little leaner by the end.  With no food in the system, the water chemistry remains stable as the plants slowly absorb all the excess fertilizer.  So go ahead.  Throw some basil or spinach seedlings in the system and come back in 3 months to full grown plants.  If you want, find a neighbor kid and teach them to how to throw some food in the tank and use the water test kit once per week.

I monitor my system online using an Arduino controller along with Xively.  Incorporate Zapier and you’ll get a text message when there’s a problem.

It’s high-tech, low-maintenance gardening.

The Zero-to-Hero Aquaponic System

SystemDiagramThe Zero-to-Hero system offers you a simple jumping-off point if you’re interested in this kind of growing.  You can buy all the products in an afternoon for about $730, build it in a weekend, and grow a significant portion of the fresh greens and herbs that a family or a frat house can eat.

It will allow you to grow year-round in USDA zone 7 or warmer.  To grow in winter in colder climates (like I do) you’ll need to make some additional improvements, such as a small hoop house to store it in. You can also shut down for the winter, and harvest your fish in October.

While you probably won’t see the kinds of outputs described above in year one, you will see them as you learn to operate your system better, which fish you can find locally, and what plants you eat the most of.

It’s difficult to exaggerate how convenient it is to have mostly maintenance-free and exceptionally fresh / tasty food right at your doorstep.

However, one point worth emphasizing is that while aquaponics is very easy and labor-free to manage once you’ve got it working, the process of making it work is a learning curve. It will take about a year and result in some dead fish, dead plants, and problems you’ve got to solve.  I’ve never met anyone for whom it didn’t, though I’ve also never met an aquapon for whom solving these problems was beyond their reach.

On these occasions, your best resources are the online forums, which are full of helpful people eager to answer your questions.  After that (or if you don’t have time) you can contact most any aquaponics instructor or product seller and they will help you for a reasonable fee.  There are also a number of books that can help you on your journey as well.

Growing this way is a lot of fun, and can be habit-forming—in a good way.

The Zero-to-Hero system plans are available for download free for MMM readers at the page linked to below.  To get them free, type in the coupon code mr_mmm at the checkout page.

Link to Zero-to-Hero system plans.

Aquaponic Farming

Some of you might be thinking the following thought:

If this works so great on the small scale, I’m going to cash out of my bank account, scale up, and start farming!

CommercialFarmIf this is you, I offer this caution: Aquaponic farming is still farming.  Nobody gets rich off it.  If you have the unique combination of skills to make it work it can be profitable.  But you still have to plant, harvest, market, transport, and sell your products, as well as manage employees.  This is hard, challenging, sometimes unrewarding work.  Many aquaponic farms go out of business after a few years.

Because the USDA is behind on their regulations regarding fish, organic certification is hard to get for aquaponic vegetables and nearly impossible for fish, even though any unhealthy fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, or fungicide (even those used on organic farms) would immediately kill all your fish.  This means you have to convince your customers that your products carry a higher value than conventional produce and fish from China, in most cases without organic certification.  This is more difficult than you might think.

Many aquaponic farmers live off grants and free intern labor, while a few market brilliantly and make a profit selling to high-end restaurants and grocers.  If you’re interested in growing commercially, I recommend you do the following:

  • First, build the zero-to-hero system, operate that for a while, read all you can on aquaculture, horticulture, and greenhouse design, visit some farms, and start getting involved in forums.
  • Next, scale up your backyard greenhouse system, trying new designs and keeping up the research and experimentation.
  • Once that’s running smoothly for a couple of years, contact Nelson & PadePentair Aquatic EcosystemsFriendly Aquaponics, and Green Acre Aquaponics, and ask if there are any farms you could contact to inquire about an apprenticeship.
  • Also, make sure you find some farmers that have gone out of business and talk to them about what went wrong, asking them if they think your plans can work when theirs didn’t.

It can be done.  Maybe you’re the one to do it.

Aquaponic Investments

FairOaksThere are a number of existing farms out there that would be happy to accept investment funding to expand their operations.  It will take you a lot of due diligence to ensure that their farm is profitable and likely to remain so because – as I’ve said before – farming is tough!

One interesting investment opportunity I stumbled across this year is Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana, a combination farm and tourist destination with a fascinating ownership structure. They are getting a lot of people interested in farming, which is a good thing as most farmers these days are late-middle-age or older. Currently expanding into aquaculture, they are likely to include aquaponics in the next couple of years. Give them a call to talk about investment opportunities if you’d like to invest in this space.

Aquaponic Produce

ASCMagIf you’re not the farming type, aren’t looking for new investments, and can’t find a weekend (or the space) to build a Z-H system, you can still take advantage of aquaponic produce and fish.

Because you and I know that it’s better-than-organic while not actually certified, we can get the high-quality food for a cheaper price.

While there’s no directory of aquaponic farms, you can google “aquaponic farm” in your area and find out where they sell, or if they sell direct.

Give it a shot.  Once you go aquaponic you’ll never go back.

– Jeremiah Robinson
Frosty Fish Aquaponic Systems

  • Andrew October 22, 2014, 8:45 pm

    I’m totally amped about the timing of this article. I’m a mustachian trying to get a small business off the ground (www.smartbarn.co) doing remote wireless monitoring and controls, and I was just thinking the other day, “I wonder if aquaponics needs sensors” and now i’m totally going to build my own aquaponics garden to try it out. But also if MMM or anyone else (Jeremiah/Frostyfish?) wants to eval my sensors for their projects I might be convinced to give you some for FREE. We can sense temperature, humidity, light levels all remotely but I’d love to try things like pH, dissolved gasses, anything you need. I will be emailing frostyfish and MMM too cause i’m all excited about this now.

    • Jeremiah October 23, 2014, 4:39 pm

      There’s a gap in the electronics world at the moment, between expensive and inflexible turnkey controls and start-from-scratch Arduino / RaspberryPI solutions. A modular kit that had all the components in a bag, along with instructions on how to assemble & program them might find a niche.

      I’d be happy to work with you on this.

      • Roop October 26, 2014, 6:21 pm

        Hey Jeremiah,

        I have a complete touchscreen environmental sensor and control which is highly flexible. it’s based on the BeagleBoard black (similar to Raspberry Pi) and a fully completed single unit costs about $200.

        Hit me up and I can send you a sample or work with you for a custom design, pro bono since you’re mustacian :)

        roop at krda dot ca

    • Andrew October 23, 2014, 7:55 pm

      Hey Andrew,

      What a great name! ;) The type of sensors I think aquaponics will eventually need (beyond the ones you mentioned) is nitrate, nitrite, and ammonia sensors that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Do you think that can be done affordably?

      • AndrewK October 24, 2014, 9:03 am

        That’s gonna get confusing, I think I’ll use Andrew K :-)

        As far as I can tell actual sensors for ammonia, nitrate, nitrite are pretty pricey and run in the $100 range. There is another way though using color changing chips and a cheap spectrophotometer connected to the web. I just googled and found a cool commercial product called Seneye (http://www.seneye.com/) that does this. You have to spend around $150 to get started and then around $12/mo for the consumables. It does temperature, ph, ammonia, and light level but not nitrate and nitrite.

        • Jeremiah October 26, 2014, 9:00 am

          You know, one a system is up and stable those items (other than temperature) aren’t something you need to check that often. Electronic sensors for nitrogen are less accurate than the dropper tests anyhow. That’s why many large commercial setups still use dropper tests.

          The thing that’s the most urgent to know about from a distance (i.e. get notifications) is dissolved oxygen (DO). That’s caused at least 75% of my fish kills.

  • Nick October 22, 2014, 9:14 pm

    Very cool! I am very excited about this, I’ll have to read up on it some more but I definitely want to give a try. Just missing the key component of having somewhere to build it…

    • Jeremiah October 26, 2014, 8:11 pm

      Thanks Nick – I’m excited for you! It’s tough when you don’t have somewhere to build. I was in that boat for many years.

      Sadly, aquaponics doesn’t make for much of a guerrilla gardening technique :)

  • Emily H. October 22, 2014, 9:49 pm

    How cool! Read a blog from a guy in Colorado and find someone in my own backyard! I live in Middleton. :-)

    Life as a grad student with 2 roomies in a small apartment doesn’t lend itself to hydroponics or aquaponics, but I may have to come check out your setup sometime for the “future house” file.

    • Jeremiah October 23, 2014, 4:42 pm

      I’ll have something in a few months that you could do in your kitchen. It’s all been tested but still need to write it up and Mustachify (i.e. do it cheaper). Stay tuned.

      • Emily H October 25, 2014, 9:19 am

        Looking forward to seeing that!

  • Jake October 23, 2014, 5:34 pm

    Long time lurker here…first time poster. I’ve ran an aquaponics system for 1.5 years in my basement. Word of warning…energy costs will eat you alive if you have to run lights to fuel your veggies. It is not worth it unless you harness the power of the sun. After becoming a mustachian, I ran the numbers and eliminated my aquaponics system. My energy costs dropped significantly. I do plan on building it outside eventually.

    Other than that, aquaponics rocks! I’m glad to see my favorite blog promoting this!

    • Jeremiah October 23, 2014, 9:18 pm

      Spot on Jake. Great comment. The “kick-ass ROI” can become a money-sucking vampire if you try and do it indoors with lights. This is especially true for fruiting veg like tomatoes. I say “can” because it is possible to grow a small number of lettuce and herbs with a few small fluorescent lights in your kitchen, though hydroponics is much simpler than aquaponics in this situation.

      Outdoors in winter, you still need a couple hours of supplemental fluorescent lighting at sunset if you want to grow when the days are short, but it’s nothing like those 1000 watt stadium lights that folks use indoors.

      • Jake October 28, 2014, 12:54 pm

        The species of fish you pick can also have an impact on your ROI. It is important to pick fish that can withstand your climate otherwise you are going to pay energy costs to heat the water in winter. That was another mistake I made.

        • Jeremiah October 28, 2014, 5:58 pm

          Great point Jake! To take it one step further, you should include in your ROI calc a variety of fish stocking sizes. If you get big enough stock of a fast-growth fish, you can grow out in 6 months and switch seasonally. Of course larger stock are more expensive so you should do the calc. based on your local costs.

          • Jake October 29, 2014, 9:08 am

            True…I need to get my system back up. :)

  • Andrew October 23, 2014, 5:47 pm

    so I had a question about Fair Oaks Farms. You mentioned that they have a fascinating ownership structure, where did you find out about the ownership structure? I couldn’t find anything about ownership or investment on their website.

  • Amy October 23, 2014, 6:21 pm

    Can we use PEX pipes with this aquaponics system? Other than basic washer replacements for my faucets, this would be my first real experience with plumbing, and I’d like to start off with Pex, since MMM makes it look less accident prone than I figure regular plumbing is.

    Thank you for the deal! I’ve been on again, off again interested in hydro and then aquaponics, and your plans are the wake up call I needed.

    • Jeremiah October 26, 2014, 8:05 pm

      I’m sorry but you can’t use PEX for this setup. It would be awesome if you could, but here are three reasons it won’t work.

      1) The Uniseals are designed to accept that specific size and rigidity of PVC pipe.
      2) PEX fittings are narrower than the tubing, which makes a place that solids can build up into a clog.
      3) The minimum tubing size you should ever use in aquaponics is 1″, and 1″ PEX tubing and fittings are expensive and can be hard to find.

      I’ve done a lot of plumbing over the years, and you’re absolutely right that PEX is loads easier to use than any other kind of supply pipe. However, for this application I think you’ll find that PVC is quite reasonable as well. Just remember to measure twice, cut once, and dry fit before you glue. You’ll be fine :)

      • Amy October 28, 2014, 3:03 pm

        Thanks Jeremiah! And thank you for listing out the very real reasons why PEX won’t work in the instance.

  • Val October 24, 2014, 7:56 pm

    Downloaded the plans and will be perusing them with my sweetie this evening. I have been enjoying gardening more and more. Thank you Jeremiah!

    • Jeremiah October 24, 2014, 9:18 pm

      I do believe this is the first time anyone ever used my plans as a date night activity.

      I hope you find much romance in its pages :)

  • Michelle October 25, 2014, 12:10 pm

    I am living in an RV traveling the US. I’d like to build a tiny system 5W x 1D x 2H. Any suggestions? Will the fish/system do OK with the movement?

    • Jeremiah October 25, 2014, 5:01 pm

      Gosh. That’s a stumper. For your circumstances I don’t think aquaponics is a good fit. Too much water. Hydroponics would be better. You could put the solution in a water-sealed container and shut off the pump when you’re driving.

      • Michelle October 26, 2014, 10:16 pm

        Thank you for your reply. I love fish and was hoping that we could factor that in. Not only is the water heavy, but it can splash and contribute to humidity. I will focus my research on hydroponics especially if I can have it in a water-sealed container. I saw some planting system using gutters that may work for us.

  • The Big Monkey October 26, 2014, 10:54 am

    What a fantastic post.

    We are just about to start an allotment. Not sure what you call an allotment in the US, but it’s a small patch of land you rent (for a nominal sum, say £20 per year) to grow your own fruit and veg on in the UK.

    This might be the perfect route forward.

    I’ve just downloaded the plans. I’m looking forward to going through them.

    Thanks Jeremiah, for taking the time to put this together.

  • Jonathan October 28, 2014, 8:14 pm

    This article reminds me of the Garden Pool concept, one that has always struck me as a fantastic idea:


    It’s much more comprehensive than this tutorial, but that also means it’s considerably more expensive up-front.

  • phred October 29, 2014, 8:34 am

    Obviously an interesting past-time for the gadget happy. Let’s see, if a million people did this at $3000 a piece, that would be an outlay of three billion dollars. Since aquaponics uses a lot of petro derived plastics (pond liner, piping, pumps, greenhouse skin, and so on), that three billion is yet another environmental load on Earth’s resources.

    A better and longer lasting use of three billion dollars would be to use it as seed money to start cleaning up the Gulf — especially the dead zone south of New Orleans. Once that aqua environment is restored we would have fisheries that would be self-stocking, self-feeding, self-energizing (wind & sun). The Gulf could then provide all our needs in fish, shrimp, lobster, clams, oysters, plant life — both seaweed and shore based plants.

    Anyone familiar with the Gulf side of Florida knows of the vast shell mounds left by the First Americans. Living was easy and food was plentiful before 1492

    • Jeremiah October 29, 2014, 8:58 am

      Hey phred.

      The ZH system is $730, actually. So if a million did this it would be $730 million. Still a lot, to be sure, though it would also offset a whole lot of food miles. The oil inputs of pond liner, etc… aren’t all that much compared to, say, a 45 minute drive to work in your car.

      The advantage to something like this is that it gets people involved and thinking about our food system. In my experience that tends to lead people to more educated choices. Long-term it also leads to money savings, which folks could stash in Vanguard and eventually donate to a worthy cause like the one you mentioned.

  • 205guy October 29, 2014, 6:13 pm

    Very cool, MMM is starting to remind me of one of my favorite magazines: Mother Earth News. For anyone with an inkling for gardening or small-scale farming, they cover lots of DIY methods and topics (such as seed varieties, chicken breeds, etc.).

    I’d love to try aquaponics some day, but I don’t have a year of fiddling time to get it working right now. What I did build is a gutter garden, which I recommend as a simple way to raise food at home. Google “gutter garden” for images, but the basic idea is that plants live in pots placed in a gutter, and a pump on a timer runs water 2-3 times a day through the gutter and back to a barrel. The plants soak up water, so all you need to do is top off the barrel once or twice a week and add a bit of liquid fertilizer. I built mine out of 4 plastic gutters and wood from 2 pallets that I disassembled (get good ones), but it would be easier using long 2×6’s. Some people hang them on a wall or fence, but I built what looks like very long saw horses, the length of the gutters, with one gutter on each side (I have 2 of these supports, so 4 gutters of 10-12 feet each). For the barrel, I bought an oak half whiskey barrel from Home Depot, along with a small fountain pump and some black plastic tubing, elbows, and tees. Total cost $150 and it’s been running fine for 2 years and growing tons of salad and herbs to eat.

  • Jeremiah October 30, 2014, 7:49 am

    This is kind-of hilarious, but yesterday I was asked to write a series of articles for Countryside & Small Stock Journal, a magazine frequented in large part by a group of folks who are in some ways the ultimate Mustachians – the Amish.

  • Ani November 2, 2014, 4:58 pm

    The Garden Pool = Badassity = http://vimeo.com/60089919

  • Wendy November 5, 2014, 9:09 am

    Wow, at the hinterlands of comment-land here, but I just wanted to say thanks for your offer and effort. I’m converting a suburban lot to high productivity (eventually, it’s slow-going) based on permaculture principles, etc., and aquaponics might just be one of the functions I can fit here. Can’t wait to read your plans and conceive of an option for my site.

    • Jeremiah November 5, 2014, 9:56 am

      Hi Wendy,

      Thanks for the comment way down here. I’ll look forward to hearing how your system goes :)

      • Wendy November 5, 2014, 2:16 pm

        I see you’re no stranger to permaculture!
        It turns out that I’m in a climate almost diametrically opposed to yours (hot/dry summers, cool/wet winters – if we’re lucky and the drought eases up). Would you recommend aquaponics practices different in my situation than what you’re teaching at frostyfish?

        wouldn’t you know it, my chest freezer died two weeks ago… :)

        • Jeremiah November 5, 2014, 2:57 pm

          Hm… I don’t think so. The only difference might be plant selection – choosing plants that will thrive in your climate and resist fungal infections in your cool wet winter. Depending how hot it gets, you might want shade cloth.

          Are you in the pacific northwest?

          • Wendy November 7, 2014, 8:12 am

            I’m near Sacramento – in the valley where we don’t get a maritime benefit. I’ll have to investigate who’s doing aquaponics here.

            Thanks again for this offer. I’ll head over to look more at your site (saw the video of your garden :) ) and your recommended resources. Good luck with your business!

  • Justin November 27, 2014, 8:29 am

    Aquaponics is on my long term to do list, however I’m running a 16 site hydroponic system on my patio for much less operating / build cost. My hydroponic nutrient cost for a year is about $80-$100, and I incur minimal electricity costs to run the drain and fill pumps and an air pump in the reservoir. System build cost was about $500, but there are potential costs saving measures, including finding food grade buckets from a local restaurant for free. The system is almost entirely automated, requiring checking water and adding nutrients about once per week, and the yield with hydroponics is very high. ROI may suffer since fish is a big money item in the calculation but combine a patio system with a pressure canner and some hard work and you can have fresh vegetables all summer and canned vegetables for the winter.

    I have some pictures of the system here if anyone is interested:


    not much detail on the design there, but I’d be happy to discuss further with anyone that’s interested.

    The main attraction of aquaponics to me is getting away from dependence on fertilizer companies to run the system. In my internet travels I came across this family who turned an old in ground pool into a closed loop food factory. That would be the ultimate end goal for me. Link to the article is here:


    • Gustad June 29, 2016, 2:51 pm

      Justin, I would like to replicate you system. I’ve never done hydroponics before…. can you tell me more please?

  • Pamela Cochran February 23, 2015, 11:31 am

    I am a newbie just getting my peach fuzz going but I have a ton of ideas! Soon I plan to move to barrow Alaska for work in the hospital up there and I have a question. Nobody grows food up there and I am interested in giving it the old college try since I will probably be there for several years and there are no local farms that far North. Temperatures in the arctic circle are routinely negative numbers and summer only lasts about 2 months but the sun is up the whole time. Do you think a system like this could possibly work in that climate ?

    • Jeremiah January 5, 2017, 7:23 pm

      Hey Pamela. It could work, especially in the sunny season. In the winter you’d need lights to grow anything. Might as well just put it in the garage or basement at that point. For plant selection, check out “The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual.” Good luck!

  • Jennie May 19, 2016, 7:44 am

    This alone was worth going through all MMM posts! And I love that the coupon code still works two years later! Thanks frosty fish!

  • Karl August 18, 2016, 11:35 am

    Now thats its been almost 2 years since this article, could there be an update as to how the Z-H system has preformed?

    • Jeremiah January 5, 2017, 7:28 pm

      Hi Jennie. I’d love to hear the answer to that myself :) I’ve interacted with enough people that I have to think that someone’s built and run one for at least a year now, but I haven’t heard back. Anyone?

      I still haven’t run the ZH system through a full season. I have no reason to think that the results would be different than the system I have run though. The heat transfer conditions are actually a little bit better with the ZH system.

  • Nolan Hergert January 2, 2017, 10:41 pm

    Hey, just wondering if you’d be open to fixing the images on this post! It looks like they’re available through Archive.org, and I can either find or create a script to get the images and update your html, assuming you have the rights to use them from Jeremiah or whoever. Email me back!

    • Mr. Money Mustache January 3, 2017, 7:58 pm

      Thanks Nolan, I have emailed Jeremiah to see if we can get copies of the images and such to resurrect this article.

      • Jeremiah January 5, 2017, 7:29 pm

        Frosty Fish is back up. Apparently the issue was a PHP versioning issue that crashed Google Analytics. Thanks for the heads up!

  • Andy Wright January 25, 2017, 1:31 pm

    I’m building my first aquaponics system and stumbled on your site. Very informative. Thanks

  • monkeyboy March 31, 2017, 12:37 am

    I would be interested in an update. What happened to your aquaponic system, do you still use it?

    • Jeremiah May 17, 2017, 8:32 am

      Hi Monkeyboy. Good question.

      Actually my wife and I had a kid two years ago and I found that the time when I really enjoyed working on the AP system became less enjoyable. So I’ve shut it down until my daughter becomes old enough to become interested and childcare becomes less all-consuming-0f-my-free-time. I loved gardening that way, and I’m sure I’ll love it again when life becomes a bit more sane.

      In other news, I did build a farm-scale system last year, which you can see here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZ94uP5gP5k. It’s not running anymore (business partnership issues), but was really fun to build.

  • Keren July 26, 2017, 11:49 pm

    Hi MMM, several images in this page are broken links.

  • The Blue Dove November 28, 2017, 11:12 am

    Fascinating. I just pinged an aquaponic farm in my area to see if I can have a look. FYI – the photos on this page aren’t working. – Kerry

  • Dena November 21, 2019, 3:45 am

    I’m a longtime fan, MMM…and as the rest have said, it’s lovely to be googling around for something else and find you’ve covered it.

    Sorry, I’m not big into the forum and I didn’t quite make it through the comments. I did scan and I didn’t see an answer to this question. (Also this is an old post….not sure my comment will even ping on anyone’s radar, but here goes.)

    Do you guys have any opinion on the small aquaponics units? I’ve been eyeing these for awhile….things you’d sit on your kitchen windowsill….that type of thing. We recently renovated our kitchen (for a very low price, using recycled materials and second hand appliances!) My goal was to create an ecofriendly kitchen space. So, I’ve also been eyeing these little kitchen aquaponics kits. They seem crazy….like a betta fish under a potted plant. I don’t want to enslave some poor little fish in a miniture aquaponics fish slave camp. The idea for me is whether or not I can use aquaponics to facilitate an indoor herb garden. The added bonus is displaying the process so my young kids can watch and appreciate. And then we get the herbs….win win if it’s not a terrible idea. But I’m a working mom, not all that handy….so buying an affordable product appeals. (Was considering asking my husband to make this a xmas gift to me, actually.)

    I should add that I don’t know anything about fish. I kept a betta in college and PETA would probably banish me from ethical community because he was in a smallish container. I hope he was happy though….he lived almost a decade! (All this to say I am a nice person–we have three rescue pets!)

    Thanks for any thoughts

    • Michael January 15, 2020, 8:20 am

      Hi Dena

      I was doing a read-through on some of the older articles and stumbled on this. I’ve done a good bit of consulting on a few aquaponics systems big and small. The countertop units with the betta fish have 2 main issues – 1) The betta can’t produce enough ammonia by itself to get the lush herb garden pictured on the box and 2) If it did the pump included is not capable of circulating the water fast enough to keep ammonia from building up and killing the fish. If you like the look of the tank with just the betta in it, you can certainly put an organic mint plant or something of the like in there and it will stay green provided it gets enough light. Just know that it will be for aesthetics and not for preparing a mint sauce every week =)

      For a small-scale, educational system you can use a simple 10 gallon fish tank with goldfish in it, not more than an inch of goldfish per gallon of water. You can use shallow rubbermaid tubs as your growbeds and fill them with expanded shale hydroponic medium. For best results, most plants like their roots to not be submerged 24/7 so this is the part where it gets beyond the level of complexity most people are looking for.

      You should have the water from the fish tank circulate through the beds and then drain back into the fish tank about 3 times per hour. The easiest way of accomplishing this is something called a bell siphon, which starts draining when the water reaches a certain level with no moving parts. You put that in a hole you’ve drilled in the tub and the water drains back to the fish. Volumes have been written on bell siphons so I will leave that to you. As a rule of thumb, you should have a 2-1 ratio of growbed volume to your volume of water. For a 1o gallon tank, that’s about 1′ x 2′ x 1′, so 2 cubic feet. That means you need about 4 cubic feet of rubbermaid tub to make sure your plants are growing well and keeping the water clean. The main caveat is that you also need either direct sunlight or a very good growlamp to grow the plants which is why most people do larger systems in green houses instead of small hobby systems. I built one of these with a friend and it did work well, but the grow lights to run it in his living room took it from a nearly free hobby project to about a $200 project. Every little while, you have to pull out the plants and clean out the planting medium to keep it from getting overgrown with roots and not circulating the water, so that’s another aspect to keep in mind.

      The long and short of it all: Unless you are crazy about aquariums already and like to fiddle with plumbing and siphons and such, you are probably better off putting together a small raised-bed garden outside your kitchen window. Then you can put up some kind of greenhouse covering to get a longer growing season out of it. If you still want the betta, put him in a 2 gallon aquarium with a good filter, a bright light, and some live plants and then you have the best of both worlds with less maintenance.

      Have fun!

  • TunaFishTuesdays May 16, 2020, 12:22 pm

    Hi Jeremiah, thanks for the plans – I’m looking forward to reading them and seeing if maybe this would work somewhere in my yard. At 0.17 acres every square foot is precious! :)


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