About aquaponics

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Aquaponics

What is aquaponics?

Have you heard about aquaponics and are you interested what is the purpose of this agriculture changing system? Which vegetables can be grown in aquaponics and which fish to breed in tanks? What is needed to run aquaponics?

Aquaponics is a combination of breeding fish and growing vegetables or fruits in a recirculating system. Fish excrements are turned into nutrients, which plants can absorb as a food, the clear water is then returned to a fish tanks. This way it is possible to breed many kinds of fish and grow large scale of vegetables, herbs and even fruit. Water consumption is minimal compared to growing in soil medium and nearby environment isn’t polluted by a water from fish breeding, that would have to be changed regularly. System like this is an ideal in locations where is not enough ground or bad conditions for the classical agriculture methods or hard access to clean soil and water.

An aquaponic system is made out of three parts, which can’t operate without each other. Fish food – commercial fish granule, ecological feed, but also processed kitchen waste serves as basic food for bred fish. They’ll use part of it to grow, however their imperfect digestive system excludes lots of nutrients back into the water. The substances are not available for the plants yet, but the substances are eaten by bacteria and other microorganisms and are changed into basic substances. Plants can absorb those basic substances through the roots and use them to grow or create fruits. This clears the water at the same time, so it goes back to the tanks. This cycle works naturally in every pond and is cleverly used in aquaponics to grow foodstuffs. In aquaponics it is also called Closed-loop System.

Fish

Breeding fish creates a lot of waste. But that can be used to grow plants. The Cycle begins with feeding fish and is very similar to nutrient flow in the nature. Fish can be decorative for example Koi Carp. Tilapia is the most common consuming type but also many kinds of carps, salmonidae or percidae fish. Fish are bred in big tanks, which should meet requirements for good water circulation. More about tanks in part Systems Types.

Bacteria

Fish waste is decomposed by helpful bacteria and other microorganisms to simple nutrients suitable for plant growing. In aquaponics there are two the most important processes that are handled by helpful bacteria. It is nitrification and mineralization. More about them can be found in part Biology and chemistry. The process of changing nutrients couldn’t work without the bacteria. You can’t use antibiotics or other drugs in an aquaponic system, because you would lose the most important part of the system.

Plants

Roots of plants are bathing in the water, which contains many nutrients that are available for plants. Roots work as a delicate filter, which catches only what plant needs to keep growing. Plants can grow in some of suitable substrates, or on so called rafts, which flows on the water; however they can also be bathed by dispersed water in an aeroponic system. There are many ways how to grow plants in aquaponics. More about them is written in part Systems Types. Cleaned water returns back to tanks and whole cycle begins a new.

History of aquaponics

What is the history of aquaponics?

Even though aquaponics represents big revolution in today’s agriculture and many see big future in it, it isn’t a novelty. It has rich history with natural nations. It was known by Aztecs for example. Read the history of aquaponics.

Aztec Indians in Middle America were probably the first who has used principles of combine breeding fish and growing plants. Crops were grown on artificially built islands Chinampas in lakes in Mexican valley. Farmland created this way was watered by shallow lake water, which was rich with nutrients. On these rectangle fields they were growing corn, tomatoes and beans and were fishing in canals in between them. Some of those artificial islands were preserved to nowadays and are on the list of UNESCO. In old China they have used carps and catfish to fertilize rice fields.

Present term aquaponics probably originates from the 70’s. Aquaponics as a combine system of breeding fish and growing plants was discovered by American aquaculture f armers, who were looking for solutions to lower their dependence on large amounts of fresh water for their breeding and to use the waste water for growing plants. Fish are traditionally bred in half-open offshore farms on the coasts of all seas or in freshwater ponds; however aquaponics originated from so called Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS). Their advantage is that fish can be bred in larger amounts and in lower volume than in natural reservoir. Disadvantage of those intensive systems is fast accumulation of waste, which have to be released back to watercourses. Polluted water from these fish farms has to be replaced with the fresh one. This breeding consumes a lot of fresh water and releases lots of nutrients, which burdens the environment. Many kinds of filtrations and various water plants were tried for cleaning and reduction of water consumptions. Later we went to plants planted in inert substrate like for example sand or gravel. It was found that this system is also good for growing various edible plants.

The beginning of aquaponics is most often connected with work of Dr. Mark McMurtry at the North Carolina State University. In 1969 he has established the New Alchemy Institute, where he dealt with various concepts of permaculture growing. At about the same time doctor James Rakocy has created and examined an aquaponics system as his doctor’s work at the Auburn University in Alabama. After finishing his studies, he has moved to the University of the Virgin Islands in Caribbean, where he established aquaponics research program for breeding Tilapia. In 1997 James Rakocy and his colleagues invented the first big aquaponic system using the so called rafts, thus floating plates with planted vegetables in shallow tanks connected with fish tanks. Until then plants were only grown in some type of substrate, through which the water flew through.

Aquaponics in the world

Aquaponics in the world: Look where it works

Aquaponics is running successfully on many different places all around the world. It is developed and researched by prominent companies in the USA, England, Switzerland, Germany or northern states. Look where are aquaponics farms celebrating success.

North America and Australia

Aquaponics as a concept of alternate growing of plant and breeding fish was researched and tested in many places during the last 40 years. The first aquaponics research originated in the USA and for many years they were only experimental systems and testing of its many variations. Probably because its climatic conditions the Australia is nowadays considered a superpower with its thousands aquaponics.

Probably the biggest and most experienced company which deals in an aquaponics systems in the USA is Nelson and Pade. Till 2014 this company has built projects of total area of a few hectares. Small projects are appearing in American’s jails, to give work to inmates and also to give them new skills which they can use after returning to freedom. Many American schools and colleges have an aquaponics system nowadays as a part of agriculture research and teaching, because an aquaponics system includes problematic of many fields (engineering, agriculture, fishing, biology, chemistry, physics, construction or agribusiness).

Europe

Aquaponics got to the Europe in the last few years. Basel in Switzerland is home to company UrbanFarmers AG, which focuses on designing and realization of roof aquaponics farms in cities. They are using old ship containers, whose are rebuilt into growing systems. Berlin is home to their franchise Efficient-Farming Systems (ECF) that has opened the first bigger aquaponics farm in Germany. The farm is part of conversion of an old malt-house.

The most successful in England is GrowUp Farms Ltd., which focuses on projects in cities. Same as swiss UrbanFarmrs AG started with demonstrative ship containers that they rebuilt. GrowUp has successfully built aquaponics farm in an empty warehouse that they named „Unit 84“. The farm takes an area of 6 000 square feet in London – Beckton and produces over 20 000 kg salads and herbs and 4 000 Kg fish yearly.

Aquaponics systems are also tested within scientific grants in northern countries like Germany or Iceland. In 2013 the European Union has announced, though their scientific cooperation program with COST, memorandum about cooperation of member countries in the research of aquaponics systems as the relevant technology for sustainable production of fish and vegetables in member countries of EU.

Aquaponics projects can be found all over the world. Other countries where aquaponics is being developed are Israel, India, China and Africa.

SYSTEMS TYPES

Look at existing types of aquaponics systems

There are many kinds of aquaponics systems. They mostly differ by the arrangement of their elements, type of tanks, used technologies and size. Here you’ll find their overview.

The most common kinds of fish in aquaponics

The most bred kind of fish in aquaponics is the Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis Niloticus). The Tilapia requires warmer water, but offers good meat, endurance and fast growth. In the USA it belongs into the most favorite freshwater fish and therefore it’s breeding and selling there is relatively easy. Others, mostly in Australia bred fish are various percinae fish (breeding of Nile Tilapia is banned in Australia). Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is the other possible choice for aquaponics breeding. This kind is also perspective for Europe conditions because it is popular consuming fish there, but it requires high quality water. Another fish that can be bred in aquaponic systems is grass carp or pangasius, eventually even carp. Koi and decorative Crucians are the most common bred fish that aren’t used to consumption. They are mostly used in demonstrative systems or in decorative aquaponic ponds.

The most commonly grown plants in aquaponics

The oldest and still grown plant is Watercress, Nasturtium officinale. It is an undemanding water plan with little spicy taste, which is used in salads and is popular in France. Nowadays the most grown plants are mostly various kinds of salads and leaf vegetable, which grows very well on floating rafts. Other vegetables are tomatoes, paprika or chili peppers. Some growers are experimenting with root vegetable. Many kinds of herbs are also very favored, for example basil. From fruits, which is also very popular in aquaponics, strawberries are the most popular. These are usually grown in NFT systems or vertical towers (read below).

Biology and chemistry

Biology and chemistry: Key basics of aquaponics

Aquaponics couldn’t work without natural processes. Problematic of biology and chemistry in aquaponics systems is very extensive and complicated. Look at basic mechanisms of the most important processes, whose right adjustment and control is indispensable for good working aquaponics system.

Good knowledge of biological and chemical processes is the key of successful aquaponics growing. However that requires large volume of knowledge from the grower or serving staff of the farm that can be compared to professional personnel of large fish or hydroponics farm. Operating an aquaponics farm means putting those two professions together. This fact is the biggest peril of the whole aquaponics and its development.

 

Pros and cons

What are pros and cons of an aquaponics system?

Aquaponics growing of plants and breeding fish has many advantages but also some disadvantages. Are you interested what positives an aquaponics farm brings and which negatives to look out for? We have made detailed comparison for you.

Advantages of aquaponics systems

Advantages of an aquaponics system against ordinary growing in soil medium are (according to external sources):

  • More than 90 % less water consumption during plants growing than growing in a soil medium.
  • 4-10x larger production of plants on area unit (different growers show different results).
  • It is possible to reach total absence of artificial fertilizers (in many cases it is required to supply the system with some microelements).
  • Operation is environment friendly (aquaponics doesn’t burden nearby surface waters with waste from aquaculture).
  • American growers say that they need about half time to harvest vegetables (primarily thanks to larger plants production to area and time unit).
  • Less pest occurrence, especially of those that are bound to soil.
  • Usable in every climate zone. The system is very adaptable.
  • Highly modular system that allows many different configuration and „turnkey“ building.
  • System is suited for whole year growing of plants and breeding fish, even in areas where there is a lack of water or appropriate soil.
  • System works the best in environment of controlled greenhouses, where growing is possible during whole year without regard for climate zones.
  • The big heat capacity of water can partly heat a greenhouse during winter months, where is it possible to grow other than only aquaponics plants.
  • Growing and selling products from aquaponics sounds like interesting investment and can bring the grower into spotlight with his customers and even attract new ones.

Disadvantages of aquaponics systems

  • The need of electric energy and having a backup generator for water pump and airing (if present).
  • Building and successfully running an aquaponics requires certain „know-how“ and relatively big initial investment.
  • In some cases it is needed to supply some nutrients for a healthy plants growth (mostly iron – Fe and calcium – Ca, eventually potassium – K). Quality of plants nutrition is based on quality of fish feed.
  • The need for additional heating of the greenhouse in winter in colder climate zones.

The future of aquaponics

What is the future of aquaponics?

For many years was the aquaponics only domain of enthusiasts in some English speaking countries. Nowadays there are appearing many new half commercial or commercial projects that move the aquaponics growing to higher level. Number of farms and organizations that have aquaponics as one of many activities is rising.

Some of the obstacles of extension of aquaponics growing between farmers are high initial costs, big volume of required knowledge and know-how. Even though aquaponics firstly started gaining popularity in north American environment, which is very different from the European one (market, agriculture conditions, land costs), the number of subjects dealing in aquaponics is also rising in Europe.
An issue is relative difficulty of operating an aquaponic system and large requirement of knowledge about its functionality. This could be solved in the future by developing intelligent sensors and applications that would give full and understandable information to the user and helped with controlling and running the whole system.

One possible application of aquaponics is a city vertical farm that could use many linked production systems and renewable power sources.
If the issues of an aquaponics are able to be solved in near future, we can expect its expansion as a new source of producing certain foodstuffs. But for that there will be one required the most important thing, stable demand for ecological, local and fresh foodstuffs. Exactly what an aquaponics can offer.

Aquaponics on Mars

The aquaponics is talked about as a technology that will be used in conquering the space, because it is highly effective in space, water and material requirement. Aquaponics could be the first technology that would produce animal proteins as fish meat to future colonists; however, it will not happen in the first phases of Red planet’s colonization. First settler will have to be strictly vegetarian and mostly use highly effective hydroponics growing.

FAQ about aquaponics

Frequently asked questions about aquaponics

What conditions do you need to successfully run an aquaponics? What kinds of vegetables can you grow on an aquaponics farm? Does fish suffer in a tank? Read answers to the most asked question about aquaponics.

 

Does aquaponics work as a closed system that produces vegetables and fish for free?

Aquaponics isn’t a Perpetuum mobile, but is called a Close-loop System. From technological look it is a recirculating system of intense fish breeding in artificial tanks and with pumping water into hydroponics part, where plants take nutrients for their growth, water is biologically and mechanically cleaned and goes back to fish tank. Unlike in normal fish breeding the polluted water isn’t released into environment, but circulates in the system forever and is used as a nutrient solution for the plants. Fish excrements then serve as a fertilizer for grown vegetables. So, we have to add fish feed into the system at least. And in some cases, even trace element, which aren’t present in enough volume to allow plans to grow properly. Another assumption is enough of lighting and heat for growing plants. Even then it is almost closed (eco)system that works on the same principle as ponds, but is artificially controlled. More about that here.

 

Is it possible to run successful aquaponic system in European conditions?

The biggest problems for commercial aquaponics in European conditions would be climate and sales on the market. Cold climate raises costs for heating, lighting, used materials and technologies. However, the rule is bigger the farm, lesser the costs for produced kilogram.

 

Does any big commercial aquaponics growing projects exist in foreign countries?

They do, countries like the USA or Australia have commercial aquaponics farms. This way farmers supply fresh fish meat and vegetables to local farmers markets or to system of Community supported agriculture. Most of these farms were created only recently. An aquaponics growing for commercial purposes is the question of the last few years.

 

Can anyone run an aquaponics?

For long-term and successful running of an aquaponics you have to have much knowledge about breeding fish, chemical processes and needs of plants. But even inexperienced growers can have partial success in the beginning, however if the system gets „of the rails“ they are often helpless and may not find cause of the problem. In that case loss of fish and plants can get very big.

 

What kind of fish and plants are the best for an aquaponics?

Nile Perch (Oreochromis Niloticus) is the most commonly bred fish. Other common kinds are perch and decorative fish for example Koi and Crucian. The most commonly grown are many kinds of leaf vegetables, tomatoes and paprika. Older aquaponics systems used to grow for instance water loving and undemanding Watercress (Nasturtium Officinale). Various kinds of herbs are also favored, mostly Ocimum. From fruit strawberries surely win. Curiosities might be for example pineapple or banana tree. Some growers are trying root vegetables, although it doesn’t prosper very much in periodically flooded substrates.

 

Does fish suffer in an artificial tank?

The most bred fish in an aquaponics are naturally forming flocks, so higher number in a tank is ideal for them. Circular or oval tanks aren’t stressful to fish; on the contrary they allow good water flow, which helps with healthy activity and supply of oxygen and fresh water. It is responsibility of every breeder to provide good conditions for his fish, including right temperature and pH of water and enough oxygen and food.

 

Is it possible to build and operate an aquaponics based on the informations available online? (youtube, internet forums etc.)

You can find many videos, advices and guides about aquaponics on the internet. But certain care has to be taken with their acceptance, because not everything that looks very effectively on the internet, works on reality. Many aquaponics enthusiasts are publishing their advices, although they have none long-term experience. Therefore it is good to take information from people, who spent some time in aquaponics and have made several successful projects.

 

Is there interest for this type of agriculture in the Europe?

There is a small one, but it is slowly rising. The biggest obstacle of aquaponics is unknowingness and novelty of this agricultural type.

 

It is possible to support yours family with an aquaponics in case of society breakdown?

That would be very hard. An aquaponics can produce fish meat, vegetables and some kinds of fruit. That of course doesn’t cover every nutrition and culinary needs of a human. Garden aquaponics systems mostly serve as an interesting element, which can complement family’s consumption off fresh foodstuffs. If you want to live independent of the society and have so called food self-sufficiency, then the best strategy would be to have a family farm in countryside, where an aquaponics farm could produce large volumes of vegetables and fish food for whole year. In case of any crisis it would be faster and less difficult to grow vegetables classically in soil than to design and build and aquaponics systems. These situations really happened during the First and Second World Wars, when city parks in the USA and Europe were plowed and created so called Victory or War Gardens. aquaponics could be used within some strategy towards higher diverse of food supplies in regions and local production of fresh foodstuffs in cities.

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