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Set up an Aquaponics System for Cannabis – Step by Step

Setting up a system where you don’t need to water on a schedule and growing at the rate of hydroponics while maintaining my organic growth has always intrigued me. After doing extensive research and applying techniques as my grow style evolved, I have achieved the ability to build such a system at a low cost to start up. That’s by building an aquaponics/bioponics system.

So, let me walk you through what this system is, how to build it, and everything in between.

Set up an Aquaponics System for Cannabis

What is Aquaponics/Bioponics?

Put simply, it’s a system that produces a lot of nitrogen using natural bacteria.

There are two types of bacteria that are focused on in this system. The first one is Nitrosomonas. This bacterium takes ammonia that is produced in the system and converts it into Nitrite. Once the ammonia is converted into Nitrite, another bacterium comes into the mix. This one is Nitrobacter.

Nitrobacter will take the nitrites and start to break them down once more into nitrate. It is that nitrate that the plants will feed off and help keep the system healthy.

Now, this only creates a nitrogen-rich environment. This doesn’t produce as many micro and macronutrients.

There are water additives that are made specifically for systems like this. Though, there are ways around this. The first one is either a dual root system or a wicking system. These methods are very similar to use. You will put a pot of soil with 1 inch of the media found in your grow beds at the bottom. These methods will allow you to use the soil to make up for the micro and macronutrients. This will also help you keep those nutrients in your system as well.

Another way to accomplish this is to use both compost leachate and green compost. This will serve two purposes. The first is to feed the fish; the second is to add those nutrients into your system naturally. That’s a basic explanation of what Aquaponics/Bioponics is.

Set up an Aquaponics System for Cannabis

Why Grow Cannabis with Aquaponics/Bioponics?

There are farms starting to open, growing with these systems with immense success and amazing growth. But that’s just the frosting on top of the cake. More than that makes these systems great to use as a grow style.

The biggest pro, to me at least, is the amount of water consumption saved.

On average, these systems use upwards of 98% less water than any other growing method. The reason behind this is that the system is in constant flow. Combining that with biological filtration and bioreactors, you constantly reuse the water in your system.

Then there’s the versatility of adding nutrients to the system. As stated before, there are many ways to add nutrients. All methods are organic, so there’s an added benefit.

So, you don’t need to go out and buy bottles of expensive, salt-based or inorganic nutrients. You can put a bag of alfalfa, grass clippings, and other green organic and carbonous materials into the fish tank or sump tank to be broken down and added to your system. As well, some of that material will feed the fish. Depending on the fish, you can even feed them worms, caterpillars, and other pests you may find in your garden.

Then, there are the capabilities of rearing fish that you can eat. Trout, guppy, and many others can be put into this system and reared for a year or two, then cycled out with new fish, giving you an organic meat source that is healthy and tasty. It won’t cost you an arm and a leg at the supermarket.

So, organically grown cannabis that needs less water and, every now and then, yummy fish to eat!

Equipment Needed to Set up an Aquaponics/Bioponics System

Growing Space

This system holds ample water (my specific system holds almost 120 gallons of water, and that’s with a 55-gallon fish tank), so you will want to set up your space properly to avoid a very wet mess!

Fish and Sump Tank

The size depends on the space you have to work with. Can be bought from most pet shops or onine.

Set up an Aquaponics System for Cannabis

Drainage System

The three most used are the flood and drain using a bell siphon, the continual drain and the NFT, “river.” Now there are filtration systems that you can build as well. If you are going to do in-home systems, where room can be a factor, you can also use your sump tank as a biofilter.

Pump and Grow Beds

You don’t need a strong pump for small systems like mine. Mine is an 800 GPH pump and runs the whole system just fine. Now, if you are going to go to more of a larger scale, then the size of the pump will also need to increase since it will not only have more water to push but at a greater distance.

Set up an Aquaponics System for Cannabis

The Small Stuff

You will want some sort of bio-media. There are different types of plastic bio-media, most of which are made from recycled plastic. This will allow a place for bacteria to grow and thrive. Putting it in an area with a decent amount of flow will allow new bacteria to constantly be produced.

Then there are certain types of stone media (this type of media tends to sink, as opposed to the plastic media, that will tend to float) that are also great to add. This media tends to have holes or pockets in which the bacteria can culminate, making a rich water environment for your plants. This you will want in your sump tank because it will sink. It is recommended to get a fish water test kit, whatever bio-media you choose. You can get these at a pet store, fairly cheap.

The final item you may want to have is activated charcoal filters. These will help keep the bacteria nice and healthy while filtering out the unwanted bacteria and any excess minerals and nutrients. The only other things you will need to make sure you get, and this will be dependent on your system, are the fish and the fish food. Now to explain how I put my system together.

Set up Aquaponics: Step by Step

1. Design your Area

Make sure you include any external biofilters that you are going to use. I would also include empty emergency overflow tanks so that you can set up an emergency overflow system. Just in case something happens, you won’t flood your area. The way my system is set up is how I designed it, using only graph paper and a pencil.

2. Buy or Source Materials

Your fish tank, for example, will you buy new or used? Are you going to make your own? Then there’s the PVC pipe and fittings. My system runs a 1-inch PVC schedule 40 pipe primarily. Since my system is small, that allows for a decent flow rate without taking up too much space.

A small section of pipe runs from the pipe’s crossway leading from the pump to the fish tank. There are two reasons for this. The first is to create enough pressure, and the second is to create a flow rate slightly stricter than the out-flow of the overflow pipes. Another material to think about is your grow bed material. Are you going to use expanded clay or possibly lava rock?

3. Get your Tools Together

The big three are a drill, saw and pipe-cutters. Depending on how you decided to build the system, you will also need screws, pure silicone (if you are going to use a used fish tank, you’re going to want to reseal the tank), and other small materials you may need.

4. Lay Everything Out

This is where you are going to start measuring and cutting everything. Since you are just laying everything out, you don’t have to worry about putting everything together. This is just to ensure you measure everything properly and make proper cuts. Lay everything out flat so you have a good visualization of what parts go where.

5. Begin Assembly

This phase is where you’re going to fine-tune your measurements. If you plan on upgrading your system or possibly moving it in a future date, I recommend using Teflon tape at the ends of the pipes and then slipping the fittings on.

This way, you create a water-tight seal, but you can easily deconstruct the system without buying more materials. It’ll save you a whole lot of time as well. But, if you know the system will be stationary, without any plans to tear it down, then glueing the pipes to the fittings is perfectly fine. This is also the best place to tweak where things go. For example, I originally had a different sump tank that I decided to swap out. So, I moved the sump tank and the portable AC unit around.

6. Filling the System

Though this may sound mundane, I assure you this is important. With this system, filling from the sump tank and having the main pump in the sump is easier. This way, the fish tank is filled via the sump tank. And as the water fills the fish tank to the point of draining, you will help prevent any type of overflow issues. Now, at the same time, you can start to tune your grow bed draining system while you fill up, especially if you are using bell siphons.

7. Test the System

Technically, you will start this process while filling up the system with water! But this step is to expand upon that. Once you have your system filled, now you need to adjust your pump’s flow rate to match the draining flow rate of your fish tank. Too fast, you can end up overflowing the fish tank. And it’s the opposite with too low of a flow rate. Too slow, the draining action won’t take full effect, depending on your system design.

8. Cycle the System

This is the longest part of the whole setup process. The reason being, is you need to build up the stores of bacteria. Now, without adding anything to the system, it could take upwards of 6 weeks for the bacteria to build into the system. But adding things like fish emulsions or seaweed extracts will help boost the system. There is also water sold at the pet store that already has the bacteria you need.

Adding any booster, especially weekly, can end up with a fully cycled setup within 2 weeks. This part is the most important part, though. Without cycling, you won’t be able to add fish or plants to the system. To know if the system is cycled fully, you will want to test using a fish water test kit. This will, at least, tell you the PPM of ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, and PH of the water.

9. Add Living Material

Your system is fully cycled and running smoothly. Now you can finally add your fish and green compost. When adding the fish, you will want to make sure you allow them to adjust to the specific water in your tank. If not, you can shock and kill the fish overnight. To do this, you just leave the fish in a plastic bag of the water they originally arrived in and place them in your water.

This will equalize the temperature of their water to your water temperature. After 24 hours, you will add some of your water to theirs. Wait another 24 hours, then replace half of their water with yours. By the third or fourth day, you should be able to fully release the fish into the fish tank. It is recommended to talk to the seller to know the best way to climatize the fish to your tank.

10. Get Growing

Your system is ready to plant your plants in. If you are doing a dual root or wicking system with cannabis, you will see some amazing growth. If you want to adjust the water temperature with the environment temperature, you can bring out some amazing colours and flavours.

Set up an Aquaponics System for Cannabis

Though this is an advanced technique, give it a try. You may be surprised at what this system can do.

Cultivation information, and media is given for those of our clients who live in countries where cannabis cultivation is decriminalised or legal, or to those that operate within a licensed model. We encourage all readers to be aware of their local laws and to ensure they do not break them.

Chris Staniszewski