Today you can find almost anything on the Internet. But when you search for reliable aquaponics source you get stuck.
Aquaponics is our passion for more than 5 years. In all these years we culdn’t find the unique source of practical information about aquaponic systems online. Many will try to sell you guides and curses but what about free information and practical guides? For that reason we have created this blog, to help you get free knowledge about the topic.
If you are an aquaponic beginner in this article you will find all the basic and relevant information about aquaponics theory.
Also, we will present a couple of different sustainable techniques that will enable you to build your own aquaponic system. You can grow 100% healthy organic food for your family only or you can build functional commercial system and make profitable business around it.
What is aquaponics?
Aquaponics is completely sustainable technique for growing healthy organic food.
Aquaponics refers to a system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water), in a symbiotic environment.
It is a system in which the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic animals, supplies the nutrients for plants. Plants are grown hydroponically and they are purifying the water for fish.
Aquaponics is an ecological and sustainable system of healthy organic food production without using soil. Having in mind that we are growing plants without soil and fish at the same time it is clear that aquaponics combines many different techniques.
For that reason, making a good aquaponic system is not an easy job. It requires a lot of knowledge and many trial and error experiments. But first things first.
Why aquaponics ?
Aquaponics systems are a great solution for an organic food production. They:
- produce fresh and organic fish and vegetables
- are easy to build and maintenance
- require 6x less space than traditional farming
- require 90% less water than classical farming
- are an easily expandable system for commercial purposes
- are employing the whole family in sustainable farming
Basic aquaponic system elements
SOIL-LESS is a farming technique in which we grow plants without soil or any soil-like medium. Instead of using soil we are using different growing media that are also called soilless substrates.
What distinguishes aquaponics from hydroponics is that in aquaponic systems we are not using growing media only for the perfect balance of water permeability, that keeps water and oxygen. We are using it also for another very important reason. To have a biological surface for micro bacterial and chemical reactions.
Without bacteria that are performing complex biological operations in growing media, ammonia that is produced by fish would become toxic for plants and fish itself. However, in aquaponic systems, right environment settings of the pH neutral medium, as well as specific water filtration, are creating perfect conditions for producing useful bacteria.
For this reason, main participants in the aquaponic system are fish, plants and bacteria that is transforming fish waste into fantastic fertilizers for plants. Fertilizer that is created in this process is made out of cold-blooded fish that does not transfer Escherichia coli or salmonella as it is the case with fertilizers from other animals.
Also, in aquaponics, we are not using any antibiotics for fish or other chemical pesticides that can harm plants. You probably ask how it is possible to grow healthy fish with no additives ? Well, in aquaponic systems, fish is simply never sick.
We do not have to worry about the excessive use of antibiotics in fish farming.
“… use of large volumes of antibiotics can only be explained by excessive and prophylactic [preventative] use. Excessive and prophylactic use of antibiotics in animal husbandry is, in general, the result of shortcomings in rearing methods and hygienic conditions that favor animal stress, and opportunistic infections and their dissemination.”
Naturally produced fertilizer, created in aquaponic systems, that feeds plants, creates perfect conditions for faster plant development. These organically produced fertilizers are created from fish and microbiological waste such as plant parts. With these fertilizers, plants grow almost twice as fast and produce more products in the end.
Thereby, because of organic nature of aquaponic systems, this way we get 100% healthy organic food.
Although it is not necessary, it can be very useful to include worms in the aquaponic system as another very useful element. Worms can play very important part in water filtration and plant nutrients creation.
Efficiency of aquaponic systems
When we water plants in traditional farming we are spending a lot of water because a large part of it evaporates or goes deep in the ground.
Aquaponics is using up to 90% less water than traditional farming because we do not waste any water anywhere. In aquaponic systems, we are using the same water all the time. Water circulates between fish tank and plants and the only water we spend is what is absorbed by plants. Very small part of water evaporates from the fish tank but this is negligible.
The Problem with Traditional Vegetable Gardening?
“Traditional vegetable gardening techniques are focused on problems. Have you noticed that gardening books are full of ways to fix problems? I was a traditional gardener for many years and I found that the solution to most problems simply caused a new set of problems. In other words, the problem with problems is that problems create more problems.”
In aquaponic systems, efficiency is achieved very easy. The water circulates between fish tank, through filters, to plants growing beds and back to fish tanks. In filters, fish waste is removed with mechanical filters for removing solid waste and then through biofilter that process dissolved waste. Biofilter, that is developed in plants growing media with bacteria and microorganisms, transforms waste into nitrate that is very nutritious for plants. This process is called nitrification.
If we would remove plants from this system and return water directly to fish, ammonia would accumulate and this would be very toxic for the fish.
Aquaponic systems are very productive especially in situations when we have limited surface and water resources. They can be quite technically complex and require some startup investment. On the other hand maintenance of aquaponic systems is extremely simple and cheap.
Aquaponic systems are ecologically sustainable systems that produce two healthy organic products: fish and vegetables.
Commercial efficiency of aquaponic systems
The aquaponic system allows you to produce not only healthy organic food and fish for your household but also to develop large-scale systems for commercial use. This way you can produce and sell healthy organic fish and vegetables on the market and develop the profitable business around it.
You could sell your organic aquaponic products:
- At your farm or facility
- On farmers market
- To restaurants
- Grocery stores
- Through community supported agriculture initiatives
- To institutional buyers
- To other producers
- Via wholesale
- On a roadside stand
One great example of the commercial urban aquaponic system is this farm in Brooklyn that produces 30 to 40 pounds of basil per week thanks to the help of 150-180 tilapia fish. The farm is currently in pilot mode and has been experimenting with LED lights which consume less energy than fluorescent lights and help the plants grow faster.
The final goal is to make aquaponics a sustainable and profitable way to provide local produce to cities all over the world, says Crettien, who has worked in hydroponics farms and has an MBA in sustainability.
Ecology efficiency of aquaponic systems
Besides efficiency there are several proven ecology effects of aquaponic systems that are mostly important:
- Water preservation – aquaponic systems use 90% less water than traditional farming. In aquaponic systems, water is recycled in closed loop that preserves it
- Protection of rivers and lakes – for traditional land farming to be effective vast amounts of fertilizers are used that eventually end up polluting our rivers and lakes. With aquaponic systems, we use absolutely no fertilizers and pesticides
- Energy efficiency – we only use electronic energy in aquaponic systems. This way alternative energy sources like solar panels, wind turbines or any other system for producing renewable energy can be used to power your aquaponic system farm
- Space efficiency – aquaponic systems enable us to grow 6x more plants per square meter than traditional farming
Besides these important advantages of aquaponic systems, compared to traditional farming, we should underline another very important advantage over hydroponic systems. Because of high concentration of fertilizers that are used in hydroponic systems, “toxic circle” can be created. Because of these toxic effects and nutrient deficiencies, plant roots can rot and plants can die. In aquaponic systems, because of natural conditions, we have no such effects and the toxic circle does not exist.
Although aquaponic systems require some startup investments, because of its low maintenance costs and sustainable effects, they are one of most efficient ways to grow healthy organic food.
Through exploitation aquaponic systems save a lot of money, water, energy and other valuable resources. It also eliminates back pains as there are no weeds, bugs and insects that you have to manually dispose of.
There are fewer jobs and responsibilities in your garden and only pleasant activities remain such as feeding your fish and tracking results.
Instead of using dirty soil and chemical solutions for growing your crops, aquaponic systems use highly nutritious fish waste. This waste contains all the ingredients and nutrients for optimal growth of your plants. Water that circulates in the aquaponic system can be used permanently and you only need to add the amount of water that your plants absorb and that evaporates due to water circulation.
Basic aquaponic system techniques
There are two main techniques for designing your aquaponic system:
- Floating systems
- Media-based systems
Floating aquaponic system
Floating aquaponic systems are made on the rafting principle in which the raft made of styrofoam is floating in the pool or channel that is filled with water. This water is nutrient rich and we are filtering it for optimal results. It is very important to note that we must filter solid waste because otherwise new ammonia will be created that is toxic for the fish. Plants are located in holes in rafts while their roots are floating in the water. This method is very suitable for specific cultures like lettuce, spinach, basil, oregano etc.
The idea for this method is taken from the old Aztec tribes that have used it to grow crops on lake and river rafts 2000 years B.C.
Media based aquaponic systems
In media based aquaponic systems the plants are grown in internal mediums. There are a couple of widely used mediums that we will present here.
Gravel is easy to handle and you can find it in local rivers. It is cheap but can contain limestone that will increase water pH in time.
Agroperlit is a type of styrofoam and can have different granulations. Biggest granulation would be most suitable because of higher capacity for drainage and oxygen retention.
Hydroton and clay balls or LECA for short are in fact expanded clay balls baked on 900 degrees C. You can find them in different dimensions but larger balls are recommended for better drainage.
Coco peat – is a natural product of coconut. It is renewable resource and neutral organic grow media with excellent water retention and drainage characteristics.
Vermiculite is natural mineral. Natural vermiculite can contain asbestos that can be dangerous for health and you should get it from industry regulated sources so that its safe for usage.
Medium based aquaponic systems are most appropriate for urban farming and small spaces.
Aquaponic system challenges
As I have written in my first article about my aquaponic journey and how it all started, many sciences and different techniques are involved in designing and building of aquaponic systems.
One of the main challenges is the calculation of quantity and relation of different elements:
- Suitable grow media
In hydroponic systems, you can grow only monoculture (only one type of plant). On the other hand, in aquaponic systems you can grow different plants together and garden crop rotation is not necessary.
The main characteristic of aquaponic systems is the circulation of ammonia, as one of the most important plants growing factors. We get ammonia by feeding fish because fish food contains a specific percentage of proteins that is dissolving in specific biological processes. This is also called the “input to the bioreactor”.
After this dissolved ammonia meets bacteria that are present in growing media. Bacteria further dissolves ammonia into nitrite and then to nitrate.
We could say that nitrate is actually ammonia that is suitable for plants. The plants are absorbing this type of ammonia and by doing this the plants are chemically filtrating water. Not only that plants are filtering ammonia but they are also creating an additional molecule of water making the water suitable for fish.
In this environment, where we have symbiosis of fish and plants, the alkalinity of water plays an important role.
Alkalinity and power of nitrogen (pH value) are very important for nutrient absorption by plants. Plants are absorbing specific nutrients only on specific levels of pH and alkalinity.
Nutrients that we get from fish waste are not available to plants if pH value of water is not correct. This is why it is very important to continuously track pH values of water and to pay attention to every change and every detail.
Aquaponic systems can be the perfect sustainable system if we have set it up correctly.
However, to get most out of it and to have great products we encounter many obstacles that are mostly due to lack of information and knowledge about processes that are present in aquaponic systems.
Main plant problems in aquaponic systems are:
- Insufficiency and toxicity of nutrients
- Slow growth
- Uneven yield
- Low yield
Main fish problems in aquaponic systems are:
- Lowered mobility
- Food rejection
- Lack of oxygen
- Gills disease
- Fish pestilence
Main aquaponic system design problems are:
- Water leakage and loss
- Alkalinity and pH problems
- Water filtration problems
- Water flow problems
- Wrong growing method
- Inadequate medium
- Pump problems
- Light problems
Main water problems in aquaponic systems are:
- Algae bloom
- Low oxygen level
- Low nutrients levels
- Hardness of water
- pH level
Each of these problems you must address seriously in order to have an efficient aquaponic system. This is because each problem is in connection to another problem and solving one can cause other problems to appear.
Real life examples
Aglaee is an essential part of the ecology and they are present in every aquaponic system. It is important to know their nature and how they affect our aquaponic system. A lot of factors can create smaller or bigger problems that you can not see with your naked eye. That’s why it is important to be aware of obstacles that we can encounter in aquaponics.
How can we know that our aquaponic system is able to feed our plants?
The aquaponic system can be perfect only if you follow all the rules of nature and pay attention to every detail when designing your aquaponic system.
Also, besides these problems, it is essential to understand the importance of crop selection that we want to grow. Different methods are more suitable for different crops.
Because of startup costs we should have in mind profitability of every aquaponic system.
We need to harmonize:
- Surface that we have at our disposal
- Evaluation of markets where we plan to distribute our products
- Space we have at our disposal for scaling our system
- Input material costs
Smart gardening with aquaponics
Today smart housing is becoming very popular as it helps our fast and healthy life in 21. century. Smart gardening is also following this trends and it is becoming more and more popular around the world. There are new technologies and products emerging on a daily basis.
Today, we can have our aquaponic system connected to one information system where we can track and manage everything remotely.
Rather than taking us away from the natural world, these technologies are new gardening assistants making it easier for us to partner with nature.
Aquaponics is a very specific system. It allows us to grow many different crops on one place and up to 6x more of them compared to traditional farming. This is very suitable for cities and urban areas, small spaces and places where water is hard to get.
The aquaponics can be just a hobby or profitable commercial system. In the fight for the environment and against agriculture corporatism, aquaponics is gaining significant traction in the world.
Local food production is trending around the globe and this significantly lowers transport costs and CO2 emissions.
The aquaponics system is especially contributing to achieving a healthier life and personal pleasure of the people who are involved in aquaponics. It also encourages local communities to take an active part in local organic food production.
The aquaponics brings revolution in the production of healthy organic food in which the whole family can take part.
When you follow all the rules and build your aquaponic system the right way, it is very easy to maintain. You only need to track basic water parameters, feed your fish and track your plants progress.
We hope you have enjoyed reading this article and that it has helped you to gain basic knowledge about aquaponic systems.
In next posts, we will be focusing on specific elements and give you all necessary information that will enable you to build your own aquaponic system.
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We would also very much appreciate your involvement so if you have any questions about specific topics just drop us an email or leave us a comment on this page, we would be more then happy to help.