As the country grows more interested in sustainability and seeks a balance of how to feed all of its people, aquaponics is the answer. Whether backyard aquaponics or commercial aquaponics, creating a sustainable system that will conserve water and create food is a win-win for you, your wallet, and the resources of the environment.
What is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is a symbiotic relationship between plants and animals in a fish tank. This sustainable way of growing fish and vegetables uses the natural attributes of each to help the other to grow. According to experts, aquaponics uses 1/6th of the water to grow 8 times more food per acre compared to traditional agriculture. Aquaponics is an art and a science, combining aquaculture where fish live in a tank, with hydroponics, where plants are grown without soil.
How does Aquaponics work?
In aquaponics, the fish create nutrients in the water that are used to fertilize the plants. When they excrete waste, good bacteria convert their waste to nutrients which help the plants grow. The plants, in turn, purify the water in which the fish live. The only regular addition needed to the aquaponics fish tank is that the fish need to be fed.
Aquaponics system key components defined
Whether indoor aquaponics, outdoor aquaponics, or commercial aquaponics, there are three key components to an aquaponics system. These include the plants, the fish, and the bacteria.
The plants in an aquaponic system have a very important role. They clean the water in which the fish live. Leafy green plants work best in this environment, as they are not as nutrient-dense as some other plant choices.
The fish are at the heart of the ecosystem and choosing the right fish for your aquaponic system is imperative. Choose a fish that can stand the confines of the tank, something that can live in a dense situation, and fish that would be good for eating. For these reasons, many people choose tilapia or perch.
The bacteria use the process of nitrification to convert the waste products of the fish to fertilizer for the plants. Ammonia from the fish urine is converted to nitrites by Nitrosoccus bacteria. In the second stage, Nitrosoccus converts the nitrites to nitrates, which then serves as fertilizer for the aquatic plants.
Secondary elements of aquaponics systems
Though the fish, plants, and bacteria are the stars of the show, there are other important elements for your aquaponic system.
Grow beds, as the name suggests, are the place in your aquaponic system where the plants grow. In this soilless system, plants grow in a medium such as clay pebbles or lava rock. In general, you should have grow beds and rearing tanks at a 1:1 ratio. A deep-water raft aquaponics system is often used, where the seeds actually grow on rafts and the water can flow around freely.
These rearing tanks are where the fish live. Consider the size and shape of the system you are creating because once you fill your tank with water you will not be able to move it easily. Choose a fish that doesn’t mind living in a densely populated environment.
A biofilter is important because it allows the good bacteria in your tank to colonize. The bacteria still do all the work, but this offers them the surface area they need to convert ammonia to nutrients.
Other elements of aquaponic systems
Along with the parts above, the following elements are integral to running a successful aquaponics system.
- Pipes: The water runs through pipes, which allow the plants to be watered and the fish to have clean water.
- Lights: Grow lights will help your plants to flourish
- Pump: The pump helps the water flow through the system.
Aquaponics pros and cons
Just like anything else, there are pros and cons to an aquaponic system.
- Aquaponics Is a sustainable system.
- The plants grow faster than in traditional gardening.
- It can feed your family both vegetables and proteins.
- It saves on water.
- It saves on fertilizer.
- Cannot grow every type of vegetable, such as tuber or root vegetables.
- There is a high start-up cost.
- The system needs to be installed by a professional.
- The system takes some time to get going.
- Aquaponics will use a lot of electricity.
Key benefits of using Aquaponics
Whether commercial aquaponics or home indoor aquaponics, the benefits outweigh the detriments.
- The primary benefit of aquaponics is the small amount of water it uses. “The Aquaponics Journal” states, “Hydroponic production of food plants requires only 10% or so of the water needed by field crops.” This helps the planet conserve water.
- Another major benefit is that raising fish and vegetables will help feed people. There are “10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050, and the demand for animal protein will increase by 52 percent.”
- The plants grow up to 3 times as fast because of the constant nutrient source.
- Aquaponics systems can grow vegetables year-round, no matter what the climate
- Aquaponics reduces pollution.
- Helps a family or a farm experience food security.
- Commercial aquaponics can have a big impact on the environment, saving money and resources.
- This is a great hobby for families and can teach your children about the cycle of nature.
What grows best with Aquaponics?
Most vegetables grow well in an aquaponic environment. Some of the easiest to grow include leafy vegetables or herbs such as lettuce, swiss chard, kale, basil, and others.
The more nutrient-dense vegetables will require a denser fish population in order to create enough fertilizer to sustain them. These plants include cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, and peppers.
Because tuber or root vegetables require soil to grow, these are not recommended for an aquaponic system.
Can I convert my soil plants over to Aquaponics?
Many aquaponics growers find good luck by starting their seeds in soil. After germination, the young plants can be transplanted to a growing bed for use in an aquaponic system. All that needs to be done is to rinse off the soil and plant carefully in the growing medium.
Can I convert Aquaponics to soil?
This is a good technique in case you want to get your growing season started and then transfer the plants to an outdoor garden. If you start the plants in a growing medium such as lava rocks or shale, once the plants germinate and the weather breaks, they can be transplanted to your outdoor garden.
Many hydroponic system designs can acquire their nutrients from an Aquaponic setup.
There are three major types of hydroponic systems that you could consider pairing with an aquatic system for growing fish: the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), Media Bed (Hydroculture), and Deep Water Culture (DWC) could all benefit from a combined relationship with a fish tank so that the fish waste could feed the plants and the plants could clean the water for the fish.
Adding an aquaponics fish tank to any of these systems automatically reduces your fertilizer and water consumption, while also offering you the benefit of fish to eat. If you are already growing vegetables hydroponically, consider adding a fish tank to complete the cycle of sustainability.
Maintenance and cleaning
Proper maintenance and cleaning are very important to the health of your tank and grow beds. Because of the living organisms and the waste they can produce, follow these keys to keep your tank clean.
- If your grow beds and media are clogged with a lot of solid material, you need to rinse them thoroughly.
- Keep your pipes running smoothly with a blast from the hose to get rid of any debris or buildup inside them.
- Periodically replace some of the water with clean, dechlorinated water to make the system cleaner for your fish. You will want to drain and replace about ⅓ of the water.
- Clean out plants that are no longer viable so that there is no dead or diseased material present.
- Manage the temperature, humidity, and pH levels to keep the water as fresh and clean as possible.
If you are looking for a great way to feed your family and be part of the solution of sustainability, look no further than aquaponics. Not only can you conserve water and create a sustainable system, but you will have control over what type of fish and vegetables you grow. Whether commercial aquaponics or indoor aquaponics, using the natural attributes of fish and plants to take care of each other is a win-win for your family and the environment.