What is Aquaponics and How does it Actually work?

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Aquaponics has gained traction over the past ten years as more and more people are seeking sustainable ways to organically grow plants.

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (growing fishes in tanks) and hydroponics (growing plants in nutrient rich water), where microbes converts the waste from fishes to nutrients or fertilizer, for plants to grow, in a recirculating system.

The subject may seem taboo for some people, seeing plants grow without soil. But in essence, it’s just science and nature at work. What is even more appealing is that crops grown in aquaponic systems are totally organic

Crops which I have found to thrive in aquaponic systems includes :-lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes, pak-choi and seasonings.

Build a successful system with these affordable equipment from amazon, that I’ve tried & tested on my setup.

Click on the links to see them

What does Aquaponics Mean?

The word Aquaponic is essentially a combination of two words

Aqua – which is derived from Latin which stands for water, liquid or a solution or something that takes place in water.
Ponics – The ponics part of the word also has a Greek root, ponein, “to labor or toil.”

Aquaponics cycle

How does Aquaponics Actually Work?

Have you ever wondered why fish lovers and fish enthusiasts alike, have plants in their aquarium? The plants not only adds a pretty look to the aquarium. It has a a very important purpose.

Fishes produce waste when they eat food and carrying about their normal daily cycle. This waste contains ammonia, a very toxic chemical if allowed to build up in the the aquarium, which can eventually kill the fish.

Adding plants to the system reduces the ammonia produced from the fish poop and creates a very comfortable environment for the fishes to thrive.

This is Aquaponics at work!

In aquaponic systems there are three main components – Fish, Plants and Microbes. 

The fish provides nutrients in the form of their waste. You may be wondering. How on earth poop can be good? Actually it can!

The waste from the fishes contains nitrogen in the form of ammonia (NH3).  Plants love nitrogen and they use it to grow and produce green leafy branches.

We know that Ammonia is toxic to the fishes and luckily in aquaponics, there is a friendly bacteria which changes the ammonia into a nutrient that plants love.

There are two very important types of bacteria responsible for the conversion which takes place in two steps.

Nitrifying bacteria converts the ammonia firstly into nitrites, which is an intermediate step, then to nitrates which plants use as nutrients to grow.

Nitrifying bacteria, Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter are important microorganisms that help keep an aquaponics system in balance. Nitrosomonas converts ammonia to nitrites and Nitrobacter sp. converts nitrites to nitrates.

This forms a continuous closed loop system where plants and fishes live and thrive in symbiosis. Its basically an ecosystem where plants fishes and bacteria live in harmony.

JayLea Aquaponic System
My Small Aquaponic setup

What is the purpose of Aquaponics?

The purpose of aquaponics is to provide a food source in a sustainable manner.

The American Public Health Association (APHA) defines a sustainable food system as –

One that provides healthy food to meet current food needs while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come with minimal negative impact to the environment.

An aquaponic system does just this, by raising fishes and growing crops while minimizing the impact on the environment. The water is recirculated and continually reused while there is no need to add fertilizer for the crops to grow.

Components of an Aquapoincs System

The components that make up an aquaponics system are.

  1. The Fish tank
  2. Mechanical filter
  3. Bio Filter
  4. Growing medium
  5. Sump
drawing of NFT system

1. Fish Tank

This is where the fishes and aeration mechanisms are housed . Fish tanks can vary in sizes depending on the amount of plants in the aquaponics system which determines the number of fishes required to produce the required nutrients.

Sizing the tank for the amount of fishes required is an important factor in aquaponics to get optimal output from the system. Aeration is also important as it provides air for both the fishes and the plants.

There are many different types of fishes and aquatic animals which can be used in aquaponics, all of which are housed within the tanks.

2. Mechanical filter

This is the first stage of filtration in an aquaponics system and is where most of the heavy poop matter ends up. This filter makes it easy to remove the heavy matter through drains and cleaning mechanisms.

If the waste is allowed to build in a system, the ammonia concentration will also build. The resident friendly bacteria may not be able to handle the overload and as a result, the fishes would die.

There are many types of mechanical filters, all of which perform the same important function.

3. Bio Filter

The biofilter is the secondary part of the filtration system and is where the clean up action takes place where the bacteria converts the ammonia into useful nitrates for the plants.

The biofilter contains medium which greatly increases the surface area for helpful bacteria to live.

Biofilters are simple and easy to construct helps perform the most important task in an aquaponic system.

Aquaponics biofilter

4. Growing medium

The growing medium is where the plants are grown. Growing medium can be made from from gravel, hydroton balls, PVC pipes or floating rafts.

Th primary purpose is to hold the plants in place for them to absorb the nutrients from the water.

5. The Sump

The sump is small part of the system. It houses the water pump which circulates the nutrient rich water throughout the system.

This may seem a simple task but if the pump fails, the entire system will also fail. For this reason many aquaponic farmers install critical of backup systems to prevent things from going belly up. Literally!

what is Aquaponics

Types of Aquaponics systems

There are three types of aquaponics systems.

  1. Deep Water Culture (DWC)
  2. Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
  3. Media bed or Grow beds

1. Deep Water Culture (DWC)

In this method the plant roots are suspended in a solution of nutrient-rich water. This can be done by placing plants in rafts which floats on the surface of the water.

2. Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

This is where the roots of the plants are just touching the surface of the running water. It may not seem like much but this method has many benefits compared to other techniques.

3. Media bed or Grow beds

Grow beds contain growing medium such as gravel, hydroton balls or other substrates which the plant roots can hold on to.

The growing medium simply provides support and not nutrients for the plants like what normal soil would do.

Tour of my Aquaponic Setup

How easy it is to start an Aquaponics System?

Aquaponics systems are simple to set up. On a difficulty scale from 1 to 10, I would say a small DIY backyard setup is at 5. With just a tank and a few fish anyone can start an aquaponic system. Even if you have fishes in an aquarium, you can start from there.

If you are looking to provide your family with a sustainable source of food, this is for you. This type of system is also suited for those who are interested in off the grid type of projects.

Once you start to see the benefits and the yield of crops your produce within the short space of time you may want to scale your project so it can even bring in some income.

IBC aquaponic setup

Is there Money in Aquaponics?

Yes there is! When you get your system up and running, you would get a feel for the cost it requires to produce the crop.

This will allow you to scale your system to not only provide for your family but also to make a profit from the sales.

Remember you have both fishes and plants that run your system. Apart from the plants that grow and produce food, you have the fishes which in turn reproduce and make more fish. So its a win win.

Aquaponic startup cost

The Pros and Cons of Aquaponics

Less WaterUnsuspected Failure
Less SpaceElectricity consumption
No WeedsNot many crops Available
Fast GrowthHigh initial cost
Continuous Production
Environmentally Friendly
Easy to Maintain
Good Source of Income
Aquaponics Pros and Cons

Aquaponics Compared to Hydroponics

The difference between hydroponics and aquaponics is that aquaponics uses fish to provide nutrients, and hydroponics uses formulated solutions.

The solutions which is use to provide the plant with nutrients in hydroponics systems must be always monitored and kept constant. Each plant requires its own blend of formula to get optimal growth.

Aquaponics is much easier to control and is suitable to cultivate multiple crops in the same circulating solution. The added benefit of aquaponics is that you also have fishes to provide that much needed protein in your diet.

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JayLea has a passion for plants and has been gardening since 2015. He has valuable knowledge about gardening and houseplant care and can answer everyday practical questions that every plant owner has.

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