What is aquaponics?

Aquaponics could be defined as any farming or agricultural setup that utilizes aquaculture, or fish, to create a sustainable environment for growing both fish and plants.

It is a fascinatingly simple concept that offers great promise.

Aquaponics basically always consists of the following:

  • A fish tank is used with a pump that takes the water out periodically. The fish are fed, and their waste is pumped out and the solids are separated from the liquid. This can be done in a variety of DIY Solid Waste Separation Tanks.
  • The waste is then put into a tub which grows plants. The garden bed can be full of a variety of substrates, but the most common two are Clay Pellets and containers full of Water. The substrate could be many things, some have even used gravel though it isn’t necessarily the best option. The main factors you must look into is that it will allow the water to drain out. Sitting water could cause mold or fungal issues within your system. Additionally, the substrate must be porous. This allows the surface of the substrate to hold moisture, which will allow healthy bacteria to thrive, which we will get to in a moment.
  • The plants absorb certain minerals and vitamins from the fish-manure-rich water. They essentially are the filter of your tank. The fish produce waste, its lightly filtered through the solids filter, then the plants take care of the rest.
  • The now clean water is cycled back into the fish tank!

It’s a fairly simple concept, but it can be built to great complexity.

Note: It is important to know that Hydroponics and Aquaponics are actually not the same thing. Aquaponics uses organic methods involving fish fed high-quality food, and no chemicals or additives used in the system, as it may harm the fish. Check out our article on the differences!

Hydroponics, however, uses only water and synthetic substances such as chemicals or fertilizers. I have not found an organic way to do this. Every method I’ve found includes a main holding tank of water and chemicals, as the plants need some source of nutrients.

I’m obviously against this unless you can do it with no synthetic materials.

Anyway, back to the natural version.


The Three Components of an Aquaponics Setup

Aquaponics systems can be very simple and easy to set up. They consist of three things:

Fish

Bacteria

Plants

Fish

The fish are important as they provide the nutrients for the plants. The fish waste produces ammonia, and in fact, ammonia can also be created from dead fish.

You must check on that or your ammonia levels could get too high.

Fish food also produces ammonia, so you must get your feeding schedule and amounts down as tight as possible.

Food floating around not being eaten will eventually affect your ammonia levels, which will become toxic to the fish.

Imagine floating around in your poop all day…

Bacteria

The specific type of bacteria that is commonly found is nitrosomonas bacteria.

This bacteria will grow in response to the ammonia levels in the water.

The bacteria consumes the ammonia, and converts it into Nitrites.

Note:

It is recommended to allow an aquaponic setup up 4-6 weeks to stabilize before adding fish or plants. Adding them too early could harm them if they Ammonia/Nitrite levels are unstable.


The level of nitrites allow for the colonization of Nitrobacter-Bacteria.

This bacteria consumes the Nitrites and converts them to Nitrates.

This process does take time to happen, so be patient and allow the system to cycle while keeping a close eye on changes in water levels.

Plants

After the bacteria converts the ammonia to nitrites, then the nitrites to nitrates.

Finally, the plants are ready to eat.

The nitrates are what the plants consume, so after this beautiful bacterial process, the plants now have a viable food.

The plants consume the nitrates, and clean out the water.

The water is then cycled back into the fish tank to start again.

It is important to oxygenate the water by either having the water fall fromabove the tank, or using a little air stone. The oxygen is important to the fish, bacteria, and plants.

Main Types of Setups

There are two main aquaponic system “types.”

Deep Water Technique (DWT)

This system uses a “float” to hold the plants. The float could be a piece of styrofoam that floats on top of the water.

The water is cycled from the fish tank to the plant container, the compounds are converted as previously described, then the water is pumped back into the fish tank.

The seedlings are grown in small baskets. Then the seedlings are inserted in small holes cut into the float. This means the seedling roots are places directly in water, and float in their starting basket. This method allows the plants to have nutrients readily available in the water surrounding them.

Media Filled Bed

A media-filled bed is just like a garden bed.

It could be an actual wooden garden bed, or a plastic tub or barrel. The container is then filled with a substrate, which could be gravel, clay pellets, lava rocks, or a plethora of other grow mediums.

The water is pumped from the tank into the plant container, typically filling it up before draining back into the fish tank. The point is that they provide good drainage so that water doesn’t sit and allow bad bacteria or fungi to grow.

The face of the medium should be porous however, so that when the water drains back into the fish tank the face will stay moist. This will allow the beneficial bacteria to continue to do their jobs.

Why Aquaponics Could Be A Better Option Than Traditional Growing

Growing Speed and Nutrient Absorption

One of the best parts of Aquaponics?

The nutrients literally just float around completely available to all the roots constantly.

The plants are able to grow far more efficiently by pretty simple and sound logic.

Traditionally, plant roots have to work through the soil, using massive amounts of energy to search for more water and nutrients within the ground.

With Aquaponics the nutrients are always readily available. That allows the plant to use a larger portion of its resources towards growing.

The comparisons are amazing!

People are able to consistently grow lettuce to a harvest-state in around 28 days with aquaponics!

Using a traditional method typically takes around 50 – 60 days, so you can almost cut your grow time in half.

If you can cycle what you grow, you could consistently have fresh organic vegetables at any given time! You could harvest once a week and cut your grocery bill down significantly.

Versatility and DIY-Ability

There are tons of ways to start a DIY aquaponics setup at home.

It doesn’t require a complicated setup, and it is completely scalable.

That just means if you have one simple set up, you could easily make that one larger by adding fish and plants. Or easily starting a new one, since you would already have experience maintaining a system.

You could make a DIY aquaponics setup with just a fish tank and a plant container, which could be;

55 gallon barrels cut in half

Plastic tubs from Walmart

A wooden bed

Even Kiddie pools!


I’ve seen all kinds of set ups.

The main key is understanding the process of converting the different compounds. If you don’t understand that, than any setup you attempt will be likely to fail.

Make sure you do your reading!

Water Use

Aquaponic setups are incredibly efficient with using water.

Since it is a closed system, water only leaves through evaporation, or something like a leak.

Instead of watering the plants every day, the water is constantly cycled through the plant container, and subsequently always moving and being filtered and reused.


Note: It is important that the water is cycled regularly. The typical recommendations suggest that the volume of the tank be pumped every 1 – 2 hours. That means if you have a 150 gallon tank, you should cycle that entire 150 gallons every two hours at least. The pump could move small amounts of water every 15 minutes or half hour on a schedule, as long as the entire volume of water is moved. Otherwise, the water will become too dirty, and rising amounts of the ammonia, nitrites, or nitrates could be harmful to the fish, and subsequently your plants.

Plant Disease

Another benefit of growing plants within a closed system is the ability to limit the spread and possibility of disease.

With traditional growing things like diseases, harmful bacteria, or fungi have much easier access to your plants.

While there are organic remedies for these types of situations, it is much more controllable with an aquaponics setup.

The closed system makes it harder for bad bacteria, fungi, or disease to infiltrate and grow in the system.

Issues that could arise can also be detected and remedied quickly.

For example, leaving your tank near direct sunlight could cause algae to grow. This could pose a threat if it worsens. To fix this you could;

A) Move the tank out of the sunlight.

B) Block the sunlight from directly entering the tank.

C) Introduce fish species that consume algae.

See? No Chemicals!

Provides More Plants With The Same Amount of Space

With aquaponics, you could grow 4 heads of lettuce per square foot!

That means if you were to use the DWT (Deep Water Technique), you could purchase plastic tubs from Walmart that are;


4’ long x 2’ wide

= 8 Sq. Ft.

8 Sq. Ft. x 4 plants/Sq. Ft. = 32 plants!

So with a space the size of a small table, you could have 32 heads of lettuce or kale ready consistently!

In fact, there are huge aquaponic operations that use this technique at a large scale.

They typically have long tanks, say 100’ x 10’. The rafts are placed in the bed, then pushed down the length until they are finished growing.

The reason being they now can start rafts that have possibl thousands of seedlings planted every day!

They would just push down the line every day, and as the plants get down the line they become more and more mature until someone goes to that end of the bed and harvests!

I am grateful more people will learn about this.

With the efficiency that this shows, we could have fresh, organic vegetables available for entire communities by using far less space!

We could feed a whole city just by running a handful of local aquaponic operations. This would provide food much more efficiently as well as providing a boost for the local economy.

Aquaponics Can Produce Fish as Well

For our non-vegan friends, aquaponics can also be used to breed fish!

You could sell these fish for a small profit, or provide your family a sustainable way to harvest fish.

There are quite a few factors that go into this, and obviously we aren’t interested in doing this. I am no expert on fish breeding.

There are also a variety of fish that you could grow too.

The best fish for aquaponics are:

Tilapia

Crappy

Koi

Goldfish

Pacu

AngelFish

Guppies


So, there are some that you can eat and some that you could sell.

But do your research! For example, Koi fish can lay up to 1,000,000 eggs!

Continual Production

One of my personal favorite perks of this method is the ability to continually grow food.

As I mentioned earlier, with the DWT (Deep Water Technique) you could have a head of lettuce available in around 30 days.

And the companies that I mentioned use that to their benefit while cycling the produce. The heads of lettuce float in rafts that get moved down periodically.

Once the row of styrofoam boards are moved down, a new styrofoam full of plant babies is started.

This means that week after week, for as long as that process is kept going, there will always be food readily available. Not to mention that the process:

  • Produces food much faster
  • The food is organic
  • The food is fresh and full of nutrients
  • The water usage is minimal
  • The fish could become another source of income

And the list goes on…

As does mine…

No Weeds or Pests

Without using soil, the grow bed won’t be able to grow weeds.

Pests could still become an issue, but obviously with the amount of control that you can have over these systems it should be easier to mitigate issues with an aquaponic system.

There are plants that you could grow proactively to lower the possibility of finding pests around your plants.

This is a benefit for those with physical limitations with bending, or squatting, or other joint issues. You can still grow tons of beautiful plants without having to break your back outside all day.

Environmental Impact

Our methods of farming are well known to be dangerous to the environment.

Harsh chemicals and fertilizers, bad crop rotation methods, and other factors are leading to inefficient food production.

Being able to grow large amounts of food within a small amount of space provides a lot of promise. Rather than taking up vast amounts of land we could grow within a confined space.

This would be useful in areas of production such as palm oil. As you have probably read, there are large amounts of natural areas being destroyed directly because of our demand for palm oil.

There can always be excessive consumption.

Conclusion

Aquaponics is a modern version of an ancient technique.

The Aztecs were using these methods within their farming communities. They would grow food within water near their homes. The fish in the local waters produced the waste that naturally fed their plants.

We are just now understanding the potential of aquaponics.

This could push us significantly in the direction of localized food production. Doing this would make access to fresh organic produce much easier and cheaper.

There are a variety of plants that are able to grow in aquaponics systems, but leafy greens seem to be the most typically used types; Lettuce, Kale, Bok Choy, etc.

Check out our blog on Fungi, it goes into how sea life and fungi are responsible for life on land. I would say that this is relevant, because there is proof that fungi was the orignal land inhabitant.

The sea plants thrived because of the thriving biodiversity underwater 450 million years ago. The sea life led to the nourishment of plants as nutrients are always readily available, later transitioning to being able to thrive on land.

Anyway, back to trying to wrap up this post…

As always, do further research if you are interested.

If you have an aquaponic setup, leave a comment below telling us about your experience!

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