Practical Aquaponics: Maintaining the System

Updated on June 7, 2017

While the work associated with upkeeping your mini aquaponic system is generally very easy, there are a few key practices that you'll want to stay on top of! These practices are, of course, proper dechlorination, water changes, testing water parameters, and keeping an aquaponic journal. Stay up-to-date on these, and your aquaponic aquarium will continue to thrive for an infinite amount of time! So, without further ado, let's dive into aquaponics maintenance.

Ghost Shrimp, like all aquatic life require dechlorinated water to survive.
Ghost Shrimp, like all aquatic life require dechlorinated water to survive.

Proper Dechlorination

This is a big one! Properly dechlorinating all water to be used in your aquarium aquaponics system is an absolute must! Chlorine and/or chloramines used in city water systems are extremely harmful to aquatic life, and will cause fish fatalities if not removed from the water. Since both chlorine and chloramines are used as disinfectants, they will also adversely affect beneficial microbe colonies if allowed to enter the aquarium. Overall, the stuff just flat out needs to go! Here's a look at the two most practical methods for dechlorination:

  • Aging - If your city water is only treated with chlorine, aging the water is the way to go! Just allow the water to be used to sit out for 24-48 hours beforehand. During this resting time chlorine gas dissipates, leaving clean and dechlorinated water. To speed the process, place a small air stone into the bucket. The constant movement from the air stone allows the chlorine to dissipate from the surface area quicker. Generally, aging is not recommended for the removal of chloramines as these can stay in water for several weeks.

  • Ascorbic Acid - Tablets of pure ascorbic acid (aka Vitamin C) are perfect for dechlorinating water. Neutralizing both chlorine and chloramines, only a tiny bit of vitamin c is needed, making this the most cost effective option! To use, crush the correct amount of ascorbic acid into a powder and mix with water before placing into the aquarium. The neutralization of chlorine and chloramine is instant.

Generally speaking, one ascorbic acid tablet (1000mg) will treat 100 gallons of water. With that said:

  • 1/2 Tablet = 50 Gallons Water
  • 1/4 Tablet = 25 Gallons Water
  • 1/8 Tablet = 12.5 Gallons Water

An aquarium gravel vacuum or siphon is essential for water changes.
An aquarium gravel vacuum or siphon is essential for water changes.

Water Changes

Since we were just on the topic of proper dechlorination, it's now appropriate to focus on water changes. Yes, water changes! I definitely wish that I could be the bearer of good news and say that with the aquaponic plants filtering and cleaning passing water that you wouldn't need to do water changes, but just the opposite is true! While nitrates and other minerals will be taken up by the plants, fecal matter and salts will still continue to accumulate in the aquarium water. For these two reasons, water changes should be performed routinely! Here's a basic outline to use when performing water changes:

  1. Remove 15-25% of your tanks total volume weekly. You'll want to siphon off any food wastes and fecal matter present on the substrate.
  2. Replace siphoned water with tap water that is near the same temperature of the water in the aquarium. ALWAYS DECHLORINATE!
  3. Every other week, gently stir up half of the substrate in the aquarium before siphoning. This helps catch organic matter that may be stuck, and also prevents anaerobic conditions from occurring in your substrate.

Aquaponic test kit.
Aquaponic test kit.

Testing Water Parameters

Sure, everything looks visibly correct, but what about all the things you can't see? Do they really even matter? Oh, you bet they do! Invisible factors such as ammonia, pH, nitrites and nitrates can all cause your aquaponic setup to go haywire if allowed to run a muck. So, how do you keep these seemingly impossible factors in check? You guessed it, test the water!

You'll Need:

  • Liquid Aquarium Test Kit (Recommended) or,
  • Multi-Read Aquarium Test Strips

Follow the directions on your testing kit to receive your water parameters. Here's how the idealistic parameters pan out:

  • pH - The pH test describes either a water's acidity or alkalinity based on a scale of 1-14. Water on either extreme can be detrimental to plants and aquatic life, so generally speaking, a range of 6-8 pH is acceptable. Take into consideration that most growing plants and vegetables prefer a slightly acidic pH, therefore a pH of 6.1-6.8 would be ideal.
  • Ammonia - Ammonia just so happens to be the immediate by-product of fish respiration. It can also be caused by decaying food and other organics. While ammonia will be present during a the cycling of a new tank, the bacterial colonies of an established tank should be quickly converting these poisonous molecules. Ammonia levels should read 0ppm.
  • Nitrites - As ammonia is converted to it's final form as nitrates, it first takes the shape of nitrites. Nitrites are very poisonous to aquatic life, but like ammonia, should be quickly consumed by bacterial colonies in an established aquarium. Nitrite levels should read 0ppm.
  • Nitrates - The final form of ammonia is as a nitrate. This molecule is much less toxic to aquatic life and is also a form of nitrogen that is very easily taken up by plant roots. Healthy aquaponic systems will register small levels of nitrates. Nitrate levels should read 10-25 ppm. Readings below this may be an indicator that there's not enough nitrogen to sustain plant growth. In excess, nitrates can adversely affect aquatic life.

Aquaponic Basil & Little Gem Lettuce.
Aquaponic Basil & Little Gem Lettuce.

Keeping an Aquaponics Journal

Seriously, what's the point of a meticulous routine of cleaning and testing your mini aquaponics setup if you're not keeping track of what's happening? Jotting down the results of a test, or a few notes from time to time is a step that I stress you not forget! Keeping a log of your system's status can prevent issues from ever occurring, and just in case they still do, at least you'll have a written history of your tank as reference. Here's an example as to how I keep track:

Trust me, your aquaponics journal doesn't have to be much, it just has to cover the basics!

Date:
pH -
Ammonia -
Nitrites -
Nitrates -
Comments -
1/15/13
7.4
0ppm
0ppm
15ppm
3 Gallon Water Change
1/19/13
-
-
-
-
10 Ghost Shrimp Added
1/21/13
7.5
0ppm
0ppm
10ppm
3 Gallon Water Change. 1 Shrimp Dead.
1/23/13
-
-
-
-
Aquaponic Plants now 3 weeks from seed. All but arugula is thriving.
1/28/13
7.5
0ppm
0ppm
10ppm
3 Gallon Water Change

That's it! With your journal in hand for recording purposes, you're now ready to tackle aquaponics maintenance. Though the practices might seem a bit technical at first, once you get the hang of it, your maintenance routine many only take up a half an hour weekly. Not so bad after all, right? Keep up your end of the deal, and your aquaponics setup is bound to provide! Thanks for reading this article on maintaining the practical aquaponics system.

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