Skip to main content

Aquaponics Setup: How to Build a Functioning System

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Zach's writing ranges from matters of gardening, cooking, aquariums, and fish to more niche topics like coin collecting.

This is a functioning ten-gallon aquaponics build.

This is a functioning ten-gallon aquaponics build.

The Aquaponic Setup

While it might sound a bit dry and boring, setting up a functioning system really is the most exciting stage of any aquaponic build. Your creation finally comes to life, and—best of all—your first harvest of homegrown produce is right around the corner! But let's not get ahead of ourselves too much; there's still much to cover.

This article will discuss key aspects of the nitrogen cycle, stocking your aquarium, water pump and light usage, and planting your first aquaponic seeds. After you're through with this stage, you can truly say that your aquarium works for you!

Aquaponics Nitrogen Cycle. © Joe Macho

Aquaponics Nitrogen Cycle. © Joe Macho

The Aquaponics Nitrogen Cycle

  1. Fish wastes, combined with the decomposition of excess food and plant materials, release ammonia into the aquarium water.
  2. Nitrifying bacteria present in an established aquaponic system convert the ammonia into nitrites and then finally into nitrates.
  3. Growing plants quickly consume the readily available nitrates, thus returning filtered water back into the aquarium.

Stocking the Aquarium

This part seems to be the trickiest, especially for beginners. The guidelines for stocking an aquarium seem to be hazy at best, with the rule of one inch of fish per gallon proving to be not true. If you really want to maximize the efficiency of your aquaponic system, you'll want to glance at the following criteria.

  1. Choose fish that are size appropriate for your aquarium! The goal here is not to torture fish but instead to provide them with a happy and healthy living space. The best practice is common sense! The fish for a 10-gallon tank is a two-inch minnow, not an eight-inch cichlid!
  2. Stock in stages, adding only a few fish at a time. Introducing larger numbers of fish can quickly overload the established bacterial colonies, leading to excess ammonia in the water. These poor water conditions can lead to fish fatality in a rather short amount of time. To prevent poor water conditions from developing, add a few fish, then wait a week for the bacterial colonies to adjust to the added workload before adding more.
  3. Slightly overstock the aquarium. The growing plants use a great deal of nitrates and can handle the extra load of a few more size-appropriate occupants. For example, the 10-gallon aquaponic system shown at the top of this article contains three fathead minnows, five white cloud minnows, and 10 ghost shrimp. The aquarium occupants all have enough space to swim freely, but they also live in great enough numbers to support the hungry roots of growing crops!
Here are some of the fish in the 10-gallon aquaponic setup: fathead minnows, white cloud minnows, and ghost shrimp.

Here are some of the fish in the 10-gallon aquaponic setup: fathead minnows, white cloud minnows, and ghost shrimp.

Light and Water Pump Usage

Venturing out of the aquarium, we now shift our focus to the veggie grow bed. For healthy crops that continue to thrive, it's essential to pay close attention to photoperiods and water delivery!

  • Light Usage: The spectrum of light and the length of the photoperiod (time exposed to light) will be different for each stage of plant growth. Though some species of plants will differ, the table below illustrates general photoperiod lengths and light spectrums for each stage of plant growth.
  • Water Pump Usage: Since plant roots need oxygen when the lights are turned off, the water pump should only be set up to run when the lights are on. Now, when it comes to how long the pump should run for, it seems to be more of a personal preference. Many people choose to run their pumps for 15 minutes every couple of hours. I, on the other hand, allow my pump to provide a continuous drip the whole time the lights are on. Tinker around a bit with your aquaponic setup and see what works best for you!
Growth StagePhotoperiod LengthSpectrum of Light

Seedlings/Very Young

18–24 Hours



14–18 Hours

Heavy 6700°K, with 2700°K


10–12 Hours

Heavy 2700°K, with 6700°K

Here are some of my small aquaponic vegetables. From front to back: Arugula, Gem Romaine Lettuce, Dill, Broccoli Raab, Sweet Basil.

Here are some of my small aquaponic vegetables. From front to back: Arugula, Gem Romaine Lettuce, Dill, Broccoli Raab, Sweet Basil.

Planting Aquaponic Seeds

With your system tinkered to your liking, the first seeds can finally be sown! Again, many gardeners will have their own preferences as to how the seeds are started—but really, there are a bunch of correct ways. Personally, I like to plant the seeds in rockwool for germination. This inert grow medium has near-perfect water to oxygen ratios, allowing for quick and healthy seed germination.

Germinating aquaponic seeds.

Germinating aquaponic seeds.

Ensuring That Seeds Have the Right Conditions

  • Seeds Requiring Light to Germinate: These types of seeds are the easiest to germinate, as they can be placed directly into the grow bed to sprout. During the germination time, the lights can be left on 24 hours a day. The rockwool should also be hand-watered so that it is moist, but not soggy. Usage of the water pump may begin once the seeds have sprouted.
  • Seeds Requiring Darkness to Germinate: Some seeds will not need any light to germinate. For these types of seeds, place the moist rockwool containing the seeds in a dark and preferably warm place until the seeds have sprouted. Once germinated, transfer immediately to the aquaponic grow bed.

From Regular Fish Tank to Aquaponic System

Alright! With the seeds finally planted, your once regular fish tank has now officially been converted into a full-on aquaponic setup. That's pretty sweet, if I may say! It's been quite the journey thus far, and with all the hard work now out of the way, all that's left is aquaponic maintenance, which I cover in my next article. As for now, thank you for reading this article on creating the functional aquaponics build! Please feel free to leave any questions or comments that arise!

Want to See My Setup in Action?

Curious? I know I would be! After talking all this time, seeing a video example of the 10-gallon aquaponic setup would be pretty cool, right? Well, you're in luck! Below is a video of my experimental small aquaponic setup. The plants growing above are about three weeks from seed. Enjoy!

Aquaponics Basics

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.