Aquaponics consists of two main parts, with the aquaculture part for raising aquatic animals and the hydroponics part for growing plants. Aquatic effluents, resulting from uneaten feed or raising animals like fish, accumulate in water due to the closed-system recirculation of most aquaculture systems. The effluent-rich water becomes toxic to the aquatic animal in high concentrations but this contains nutrients essential for plant growth. Although consisting primarily of these two parts, aquaponics systems are usually grouped into several components or subsystems responsible for the effective removal of solid wastes, for adding bases to neutralize acids, or for maintaining water oxygenation. Typical components include:
Depending on the sophistication and cost of the aquaponics system, the units for solids removal, biofiltration, and/or the hydroponics subsystem may be combined into one unit or subsystem, which prevents the water from flowing directly from the aquaculture part of the system to the hydroponics part. By utilizing gravel or sand as plant supporting medium, solids are captured and the medium has enough surface area for fixed-film nitrification. The ability to combine biofiltration and hydroponics allows for aquaponic system, in many cases, to eliminate the need for an expensive, separate biofilter.
Aquaponic systems do not typically discharge or exchange water under normal operation, but instead, recirculate and reuse water very effectively. The system relies on the relationship between the animals and the plants to maintain a stable aquatic environment that experience a minimum of fluctuation in ambient nutrient and oxygen levels. Plants are able to recover dissolved nutrients from the circulating water, meaning that less water is discharged and the water exchange rate can be minimized. Water is added only to replace water loss from absorption and transpiration by plants, evaporation into the air from surface water, overflow from the system from rainfall, and removal of biomass such as settled solid wastes from the system. As a result, aquaponics uses approximately 2% of the water that a conventionally irrigated farm requires for the same vegetable production. This allows for aquaponic production of both crops and fish in areas where water or fertile land is scarce. Aquaponic systems can also be used to replicate controlled wetland conditions. Constructed wetlands can be useful for biofiltration and treatment of typical household sewage. The nutrient-filled overflow water can be accumulated in catchment tanks, and reused to accelerate growth of crops planted in soil, or it may be pumped back into the aquaponic system to top up the water level.
An aquaponic system depends on different live components to work successfully. The three main live components are plants, fish (or other aquatic creatures) and bacteria. Some systems also include additional live components like worms.