Hydroponics vs Aquaponics, What’s This About Fish Feeding Plants?
You’ve been gardening hydroponically for several years now, and you want to expand, try something new and intriguing. You’ve heard about aquaponic gardening but don’t know much about it except for the fact that it involves fish. The idea of cleaning out a smelly and messy fish tank doesn’t appeal to you as you remember how you conveniently “forgot” to do that job when you were a kid.
What if you didn’t have to do that smelly clean up and you could get fish to eat in the process? That alone is a gamechanger for many as aquaculture provides several advantages over hydroponics. What if you could get higher yields from your crops? You can do with aquaponic growing. It’s possible because your fish will feed your plants, not the other way around. That smelly fish waste ends up being the key to a thriving aquaculture system.
Aren’t Aquaponic Systems Hard to Maintain as Well as Expensive?
If you have already successfully grown plants hydroponically, you can become a successful aqua gardener because it combines the techniques of hydroponic gardening with raising fish. Just as with hydroponic gardening, you’ll have some trial and error during the learning phase, but you already have a lot of the necessary knowledge.
When it comes to expense, we’re not going to sugarcoat it, the set up for aquaculture is much more involved than it is for a traditional hydroponic growing system because you’re combining two different ecosystems in a controlled environment. According to FoodPrint, initial setup costs could be significant depending on the scale, system design, and location of your operation. Plan on purchasing equipment such as fish tanks and associated pumps and tubing, lighting, and the like.
Ongoing costs will primarily encompass feed for the fish as well as higher energy bills to maintain the fishtanks at a suitable temperature. You can also buy pre-assembled kits and start on a small level to minimize initial cost and determine how involved you want your setup to be.
A Perfect Marriage Made in Water
Aquaponic gardening is a perfect marriage between hydroponics and the aquaculture of raising fish. Permaculture News calls it a symbiotic relationship whereby plants are fed by the waste from fish and other aquatic creatures that you may decide to raise. The crops you grow clean the water that goes back to the fish. Microbes also play an essential role in feeding plants as beneficial bacteria help convert the fish waste into substances that plants can use to grow.
Aeroponic systems are a type of controlled environment agriculture, as noted by Purdue University, where plants as well as fish in aquaculture, grow and mature in enclosed spaces year-round. These systems can yield up to 11 times more crops with up to 90 percent less water use than produce in the field.
Several systems for raising fish and growing plants in this manner are common. The following are the most common systems used by aquaculture growers.
Flood and Drain
This system has the most straightforward design as it uses a 1:1 ratio of media bed volume to fish tank volume. It operates by pumping water from the fish tank into the plant media bed and then allowing the water to drain back into the fish tank. Low water levels can be stressful to fish, so growers must ensure that proper water amounts are maintained.
CHIFT PIST or CHOP
These acronyms, short for content height in the fish tank and pump in the sump tank, along with constant height one pump, is similar to the above system with the addition of a sump pump, which allows the fish tank levels to stay at a constant height. Water from the fish tank overflows into the growing beds and then drains into the sump tank. Sump tanks need to be lower than the media beds, which ned to be lower than the fish tank for this system to work correctly.
This alternative way to set a CHOP system. The most significant difference is the fish tank doesn’t need to be the highest component. It’s similar to a double loop system that runs the growing beds and fish tank to the sump tank. The latter is responsible for pumping the water into the growing beds and the fish. This system is more flexible because it treats the fish tank as another growing bed.
So Why Should I Bother If I Like Hydroponic Gardening?
Well, that answer is rather simple. You know how to do this, right? Then why not take the next step and see what the similarities are, especially if you already know how to garden hydroponically. If you have previously gardened hydroponically, you already know what to do to feed your plants, namely give them the nutrients they need to grow properly.
As a hydroponic gardener, you’re probably already growing a lot of the crops that are well-suited to aquaponic gardening. Richard Tyson of the University of Florida Extension notes that plants such as leafy greens like lettuce and spinach, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are ideal. Growers can also use some of the same growing systems for the plants such as nutrient film technique and media beds made of perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, hydrocorn, and other popular materials to anchor roots of plants. Thus, setting up the portion of the system to grow your plants is essentially the same.
Hydroponics vs Aquaponics, It’s All Water, So What is the Difference?
Both methods produce noticeably higher yields than traditional gardening or farming, but you’ll find noticeable differences between the two. In hydroponic gardening, nutrients. Although fish are typically raised in outdoor ponds in traditional systems of this type, you can easily bring the operation indoors. Obviously, not using soil is a significant advantage, but beyond that, aquaculture can provide you with many benefits. Here is how it differs from hydroponic culture.
The entire culture surrounding fish tanks indicates that any growing system involving aquaculture needs additional consideration. Oklahoma State Extension notes that aquaponics holds several advantages that include:
- Water efficiency
- Media beds double as a surface for nitrogen-fixing bacteria
- No additional nutrients needed
- No pesticides
- No weeding
- Year-round production
- Less prone to disease
The Hydroponics Planet notes that that aquaculture has a number of differences that make it superior to those who can navigate its somewhat confusing waters when trying to set up a viable system.
One of the most significant drawbacks is you need to put a lot of time into starting this system, while daily maintenance is also more intensive. Another big difference is the fish needed to make this system work. The critical component in making this system work is the fish waste, which ends up being processed by the system operator into nutrients that the plants can use. Aquaculture may be all about getting a better yield, yet will it work for you?
Hydroponics vs Aquaponics More Than Just Setting Up Fish Tanks
Before diving into this type of gardening, make sure you educate yourself about what’s involved in raising fish and plants together. The Aquaponic Source recommends that beginners take a class with hands-on training with someone who has been involved in the aquaponic industry for at least five years. Beginners should try to gather as much knowledge as possible before committing to purchasing or building a system.
Determine what your goals are for the system, whether you are just experimenting, whether you want to eat your fish or sell, them, what types of crops you want to grow, etc.? Thoroughly assess your goals so you can acquire the best system to meet your needs and enhance your chances of success.
You’ll also need to evaluate the space where your system will go. Will the floor be sturdy enough to support the weight of the fish tank or tanks, and can it be easily mopped and cleaned when wet? Is there a water source without chlorine nearby for system fills and top-offs?
Even if you are a dedicated do-it-yourselfer who loves to build things, you may want to consider starting with a proven system that comes with instructions on setting it up and has access to technical support. Once you get the hang of growing fish and plants together, you can then build expansion tanks, if you so wish.
As part of educating yourself about aquaculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture Extension Specialist D. Allen Pattillo from Iowa State University provides tips on what you need to know when starting your aquaponic adventure. The first video in this series covers common questions, while also showing what you need to set up your system. Other short videos in this series cover topics such as choosing the best lighting, buying fish food, adding iron nutrients, how to protect fish and plants, how to plant a seedling, and more. These short videos will give you a basic understanding of how to run your aquaponics system.
What If I Don’t Like to Eat Fish?
You have a couple of choices if you don’t want to eat the fish you raise. One, you can sell them to restaurants or markets that want fresh, sustainably raised fish. Another option involves raising tropical fish, which you can provide to pet stores. Whichever route you choose, some fish thrive better than others in an aquaculture environment. Make sure you buy fish from a licensed fish breeder for the best results.
The Southern Region Aquaculture Center notes that tilapia is the most commonly grown fish in aquaculture settings, primarily in commercial settings. Other choices are channel catfish, crappies, largemouth bass, rainbow trout, common carp, Asian sea bass, and Murray cod. Most freshwater species will also tolerate the crowding that can occur in these tanks. One species that performs poorly is hybrid striped bass as they cannot tolerate high levels of potassium that sometimes must be added to these systems.
Nick Brooke, author of Aquaponics for Beginners, recommends even more fish that you may want to try such as salmon, bluegill, perch, arctic char, and walleye, some of which are suitable for colder climates. Each has specific advantages and disadvantages, so choose carefully when deciding what you want to raise.
If you wish you can also raise crustaceans such as shrimp or prawns, and yabbie, a type of crayfish. However, Brooke indicates that you have to keep crustaceans in a separate tank as many fish will prey upon them. Tropical fish that do well in this setting include goldfish, ornamental Koi, common and Endler guppy, and a wide variety of tetras.
Hydroponics vs Aquaponics Doesn’t Have to Be an Either/Or Proposition
Hydroponics and aquaponics follow many of the same principles, even though the methods of nutrient delivery differ. While fish tanks are a necessity for aquaculture, system designs are similar for both. For home growers, the decision on which system to use will revolve around how practical each is for you as well as how much space you have. Startup costs for aquaculture will soon negate due to the additional crop yields as well as the ability to eat your fish or even sell them.
The University of California Davis notes that small-scale aquaponic operations for personal consumption are easily manageable once growers master the knowledge needed to raise fish and ensure that ammonia levels don’t become too high. Your return on investment will range from break-even to being able to provide extra crops and fish for relatives and friends.
The most significant rewards come from growing two different food sources and controlling the environment. Just like hydroponic gardening, raising food in this manner allows you to know what nutrients are going into your crops and fish while also avoiding the use of pesticides. Aquaculture is a natural outgrowth of hydroponic gardening, so why not give it a go, especially if you’re someone who likes a challenge.? You’ll be glad you did. So Hydroponics vs Aquaponics may not be a problem at all.