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Aquaponics vs Hydroponics: How to Pick the Best Approach
Growing fresh produce or aesthetically pleasing greenery will always root itself in the everyday world. Whether the goal is food, income, or showing off to friends and family, gardening and farming will effectively cover all three bases and more.
The concept of soil, water, and sunshine to produce happy healthy plants is the common perception of growing—yielding many analogies to all life. However, in recent years, the concept of “soilless” gardening has grown exponentially in popularity for multiple reasons we will discuss in this article.
Overall, hydroponics and aquaponics are the two front runners in this hydro gardening, soil-less realm. Both of which provide great benefits for food, income, and showing off, but the slight differences between them are important to understand so that you can choose the best hydro gardening approach for your application and preference.
What is hydroponics?
Hydroponics is gardening or farming without soil. A fancy name but it only means soilless gardening, the more complex part comes about with the different systems and setups that can be created using the hydroponic, or soilless, gardening method.
Hydroponic systems take soil out of the equation and allow plants to grow by suspension in or around a nutrient water solution. Since the nutrient availability and hazards are taken out of the plant’s life, the soil is not necessary and a hydroponic system can be utilized for efficient plant growth.
For example, floating water plants achieve this similar setup in the natural world; but thanks to hydroponics, non-aquatic plants that normally could not grow this way can now thrive. The plant roots in a hydroponic system will freely absorb nutrients from the water solution and grow, considering sunlight, space, and other growing conditions are already checked off the list.
Many home remedies and industrial offshoots of hydroponics exist for growing plants. Customizability is highly achievable with hydroponics, even more so if adequate monitoring equipment is available for temperature and dissolved oxygen (to name only a few).
In this way, hydroponics can tailor to all plant varieties for optimal growing conditions and results. You may have seen a setup at your local greenhouse even. Nevertheless, all the hydroponic systems that exist funnel down into six main types of hydroponics: Aeroponics, Wick, Water Culture, Ebb and Flow, Drip, NFT (Nutrient Fluid Technique).
What is Aquaponics?
To demystify the confusion immediately, all aquaponic systems are a form of hydroponics, but not all hydroponic systems are aquaponic. Hydroponics is the umbrella term for soilless gardening, and aquaponics is a very special form of this approach with the addition of live fish.
Using what was discussed previously as background, aquaponic systems use a similar approach to hydroponics (no soil, manually controlling nutrients in solution) but instead of adding nutrients, one would add live fish and then only fish food.
This aquaponics method is usually used to combine fish and plant farming into one closed system. A nice self-sufficient ecosystem that naturally automates once properly balanced. The idea behind the addition of fish is that they will produce waste, which then turns into nutrients for plants (i.e. nitrates and ammonia).
Ideally, in a properly balanced aquaponic system, the fish live happily, the plants will clean the water, and all parties flourish; however, the balance can be tricky due to the potential of dirty water killing the fish or not enough fish waste to feed the plants.
What’s the difference between aquaponics and hydroponics?
In this article we will break down each hydro gardening approach (aquaponics versus hydroponics) with 6 attribute categories:
- Cost of nutrient solution
- Nutrient balancing
- Maintenance of the system
- Sustainability and environmentalism
- pH consideration
Cost of nutrient solution
For starters, an aquaponic system requires no nutrient solution. The plants will turn the fish waste into food for themselves, making your life easier. However, you will still need to feed the fish. That being said, fish food is much more cost-effective than most expensive nutrient solutions.
On the other hand, hydroponic systems will require a delicate balance of properly managed nutrient solutions. Various pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and conductivity probes can be used to manage these levels more easily—indicating when it’s time for more nutrient solution or changing the water.
Some hydroponics setups are more conducive to using less nutrient solution than others, but generally speaking the cost in this comparison is favored by an aquaponic setup.
Aquaponics: Fish food is much cheaper than the nutrient solution.
As discussed above, various probes will be useful in properly managing nutrient levels in the hydroponic or aquaponic systems. Both approaches will benefit from preventive maintenance like using a pH probe to monitor if pH levels are staying within acceptable levels for the plants and the fish.
In an aquaponic system, the initial nutrient balancing will come about during the setup of the system. It will take a bit of tweaking to get the balance right. Remember, you will need enough fish waste to feed the plants, but not too much as to where it would kill the fish. And the pH needs to stay close to neutral 7.
In this setup stage, it is also critical to ensure proper dissolved oxygen levels in the tanks. Fish require dissolved oxygen levels usually between 5 and 15 mg/L. Additionally, it is recommended to remove any uneaten fish food half an hour after feeding as not to dirty the tank water with unused food.
On the other hand, a hydroponic setup will be easier to start up, normally just plants, the grow bed, water tank, and nutrient solution for basic systems. But this approach will require constant rebalancing every couple of weeks (as indicated by your water quality probes from Atlas Scientific). This rebalancing can involve adding measured amounts of nutrient solution, or replacing all the water and starting from a neutral solution as in the beginning.
Overall, a hydroponic system will require less initial setup in terms of nutrient balancing and fine-tuning but will require more effort with the nutrient re-balancing later in the growing cycles. Whereas the aquaponics setup will be more time-consuming to kick off a healthy environment, but once it’s running it will be self-sufficient with no need to change the water (unless something drastic happens, or a widely different plant/fish population is introduced).
Either way, it is recommended to monitor at least dissolved oxygen, pH, and conductivity levels in these systems to indicate healthy to unhealthy growth conditions.
Hydroponics: Both require nutrient balancing (with probes for best results). However, the user will have much more control over nutrient levels than in an aquaponic system that yields more uncontrollable variables with the fish.
Maintenance of the system
Most of the maintenance will happen in the form of nutrient balancing and monitoring as discussed previously. In this case, aquaponics will have little to no maintenance once the system is setup. Checking in on pH and ammonia levels every couple of weeks is recommended to catch any rapid changes in water chemistry.
On the other hand, a hydroponic setup will require more frequent maintenance with adding the nutrient solution, changing out the water, etc. This can be rather easy in basic systems and should not be feared as a large chore if you don’t mind watering a garden as is. The main difference is that the nutrient levels and water chemistry should be closely monitored every week.
Usually, both aquaponics and hydroponic systems will have aeration and flow pumps in the setup, even flow meters and valves in advanced setups. Basic hydroponic systems can do without these, but any large scale setup will have aeration and flow pumps to ensure proper water chemistry and nutrient availability for the plants.
In any case, if these pumps stop working and need to be fixed or replaced, a much larger cost and effort will be required. In general, the water chemistry probes will provide a quick notification to a pump going down (i.e. if dissolved oxygen levels quickly drop from normal, stable values).
Aquaponics: Once properly setup, an aquaponic system will have practically zero maintenance throughout the growth cycle.
Sustainability and environmentalism
If you haven’t noticed already, the hands-off, self-sustaining, approach to aquaponics is a large favorite for sustainability considerations. Besides the addition of fish food, the whole system emulates the natural world or a self-sustaining ecosystem and uses much less water. For this reason, many fad followers are drawn to aquaponics for the organic, environmental appeal.
On the other hand, hydroponics is also very water-efficient compared to traditional soil gardening and therefore has strong sustainability benefits. In some cases, a hydroponic setup will save 90% more water than traditional soil gardening. However, the water will still need to be replaced more often than an aquaponic system.
Hydroponics also requires the use of artificial nutrients to create the proper nutrient solution levels and can, in turn, be portrayed as less sustainable for this reason.
Aquaponics: Sustainability is the golden rule for this self-sustaining ecosystem, even though both setups save large amounts of water.
Since both hydroponics and aquaponics do not use soil, insects and other harmful critters are less of a concern. However, especially in large scale operations, the presence of thrips and mites can occur (which are unwanted).
Traditional chemical pesticides can be used to rid these pests in hydroponic systems, but care should be taken by monitoring water chemistry levels as you use the pesticides. The large difference with this attribute is that aquaponic systems will require a natural way of removing these pests, as chemicals can kill the fish.
Hydroponics: Easier to use and more readily available chemical pesticides can be used in hydroponic systems but not in aquaponic systems.
The pH value for optimal growth conditions will vary depending on the type of plant you wish to grow; but generally, this value will be slightly acidic to mimic natural and most efficient growing conditions. In-line and pencil-like pH probes will allow for the best measurement accuracy and maintenance of pH levels.
Hydroponic systems have the unique ability to tune the pH to this slightly acidic level of 5.5-6.5 by using the nutrient solution and potentially other chemicals. In this way, hydroponic systems are easier to maintain the desired pH level.
In an aquaponic environment, the pH will need to remain closer to a neutral 7, maybe dipping down to 6.8 or so, to ensure the fish will not be harmed by the more acidic water chemistry. Natural ecosystems are great at maintaining neutral water chemistry if given the proper space and resources, but non-chemical approaches will need to be taken to alter pH if it becomes too acidic or too basic in an aquaponic setup.
Hydroponics: Fewer factors influence pH, and this approach allows for chemical alteration of the system—making it more convenient than an aquaponic setup.
Aquaponics vs Hydroponics
As you may have noticed, the score is tied 3 to 3 in our differences matchup. But in reality, many factors should still be considered when choosing the right hydro gardening approach for you. If you’ve made up your mind already, great! If not, we will discuss more of the similarities and benefits of each system and how they can be more beneficial for certain circumstances.
How are aquaponics and hydroponics similar?
To revisit the fundamentals, both utilize the soilless gardening technique that saves large amounts of water and produces high-yield crops all year round. This idea brings the discussion to the first similarity between hydroponics and aquaponics, the growing season.
Most hydroponic and aquaponic systems are grown indoors for easier monitoring and management. In this case, plants and food can be grown year round even if they are not technically “in season.” This is a large perk in either option for farmers or plant lovers alike.
As discussed previously, saving water, space, and still producing favorable harvests lends a shiny gold star to those striving for more environmentally friendly gardening. Then in aquaponics, if set up correctly, the whole system can run without human involvement just like the natural world.
Both hydro gardening approaches produce 30 to 50 percent faster growth times and yield rates than traditional soil gardening. This is a huge advantage, especially for large scale business operations looking to stay in business. The increased effectiveness is primarily due to the reduction of insects and the ability to consistently have food and water available for the plant to absorb, whereas in a natural environment these resources can be more intermittent resulting in slower growth.
Lastly, on the topic of healthier or more nutritious produce, neither system has been proven to outperform the other in this regard. They both produce efficient, healthy crops but no scientific research has proven a health benefit on hydroponics over aquaponics or vice versa. That being said, aquaponics does draw a larger health fad crowd due to its self-sustaining, organic gardening approach.
Other benefits and drawbacks of hydroponics
Hydroponics, in general, will have a much quicker setup time, and therefore makes it easier and much simpler to get off the ground—especially for small-scale, residential setups. If you find out hydroponics is your cup of tea, there are many different setups with increasing effort and maintenance levels that will serve any type of plant or growth condition necessary.
One of the largest concerns in hydroponics, since the plants are always around water, is root rot. By maintaining a lower temperature, and ideally a sterile environment, this fungus is usually kept at bay.
Hydroponics is also great for specific crop setups, especially growing a single type of plant or mono-cropping. Then, maintaining water chemistry and timing out plant growth can be finely tuned to perfection. Hydroponics can be a little more difficult in balancing the nutrient flow with the various hydroponic setups (i.e. pumps, misters, etc), but you get what you sign up for as you increase the complexity of the different hydroponic systems.
Other benefits and drawbacks of aquaponics
If it is not clear already, the usage of live fish creates a strong marketing appeal for anyone who wants to view the actual growing process. By using local fish and plants, it can be much easier to maintain and correct the system as well as replace the fish or plants.
Combining both these attributes creates a strong business case at the local farmers market for those seeking organic, local, sustainably sourced food (which is not saying that it’s more nutritious than other growing methods). People usually buy into all these factors plus the reduction of harmful environmental impacts.
Additionally, monitoring temperature and bacteria growth are not much of a concern with aquaponics. The natural cycle takes care of this as the fish eat and the plants clean, reducing the added cost of keeping water temperature lower.
Overall, aquaponics does not have any large benefit of growth rate or yield over hydroponics and frankly takes more initial investment to start up. But it can be extremely rewarding if you have the time and money to spend on this hydro gardening approach.
Aquaponics vs Hydroponics: Choosing the Best Method
To state outright, if your goal is to grow crops in a smaller area, with less water, and higher yields then you cannot go wrong with either hydroponics or aquaponics. The choice then boils down to your preference, your intended market for produce, and potentially the type of plants.
If harvesting plants and fish are necessary then aquaponics is clearly the winner. However, for the consideration of plant performance, both methods will produce great results.
Smaller startup time and cost will lend themselves more towards hydroponics, as this is usually the preferred method for hobbyists and those trying their hand at hydro gardening. It’s also a quicker turnaround time for profit if business considerations are taken into account. Lastly, on the topic of business, aquaponics has lower production cost once setup (without expensive nutrient formulas) and a greater organic appeal at local farmers’ markets for potentially higher sales.
As you can see, the water flows back and forth on which method is the outright best choice, because it’s difficult to answer. The best way to find out is to try both methods. Grow and eat from hydroponic and aquaponic systems. See how much time, money, and effort it takes, but keep in mind your end goal in this gardening endeavor.
If you are unsure exactly which pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, and/or temperature device will best suit your needs, do not hesitate to reach out to the world-class team at Atlas Scientific.
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