Frequently Asked Aquaponic Questions

Frequently Asked Aquaponic Questions

The following are the top 25 questions asked regarding aquaponics.

1.  What is aquaponics?

Aquaponics is technique that blends growing vegetables with fish.  This closed-loop system is highly efficient, yields more food than traditional farming and has virtually no waste.  The reason why aquaponics is super sustainable and highly efficient is because of the healthy symbiotic relationships that the plants, fish and nitrogen-fixing bacteria have with one another. As fish excrete into the water, the water is then pumped up to the plant beds.  Here the bacteria help break down the fish excrement so the plants can absorb it.  The water is naturally cleaned and returned to the fish tank.  As a result, plants typically grow in half the time and a jam packed with nutrients that out perform most organic farms.

2. How is it different from hydroponics?

Hydroponics is the process of growing plants in a soil-less medium (such as gravel, pelletized clay, rock, etc.) where nutrients are added to the water for the plants to absorb.  These systems are not as sustainable as aquaponics because they require the addition of fossil fertilizers or other supplemental nutrients so the plants can grow.  Over time, the water quality will decline and will require it to be discharged. If the water is not properly disposed of, potential contamination of streams and other water sources can occur.

Aquaponics incorporates fish to provide the natural fertilizers and nutrients plants need.  This simple addition, eliminates the need to add “food” for plants.  Best of all, aquaponics has a built in self cleaning and filtration system that returns clean water to the fish.  The only water you will be adding is to replace what the plants take up and from evaporation.  There is never a need to discharge your water (with the exception of a major problem if your PH or ammonia levels are too toxic).

3. Why is aquaponics the best way to grow food?

There are many benefits to growing food using an aquaponics system.  In addition to having continuous access to healthy, fresh, organic, GMO-free produce, you also have the added benefit of protein from fish.   Food grows in half the time of traditional farming and you can grow year round.

In May, 2013, we had a researcher test the BRIX level of the produce grown at Ingenuity Innovation Center.  This scale is commonly used in the food industry and measures the quality of food by assessing the carbohydrate and mineral value by using a refractometer.  High BRIX foods have greater carbohydrate and mineral levels.  This researcher discovered that traditionally grown organic farms produce he had tested scored out at a 4.  Our produce scored over a 6!  This means that produce grown in aquaponic systems is more nutritious and healthy than produce grown on organic farms.

4. What can you grow in aquaponics?

Ingenuity Innovation Center is discovering that you can grow almost anything using an aquaponic system.  The more appropriate question is what can’t you grow in an aquaponic system?  From fresh leafy greens such as lettuces, kales and chards, to countless varieties of tomatoes, the possibilities are endless.  We have learned that vine-like produce such as zucchini, squashes and cucumbers love to climb out of the beds and use the tables and legs to expand out and grow on. Peppers, jalapenos, peas, green onion and asparagus thrive.  Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregon, cilantro, sage, chives, basil do incredible.  Fruits such as lemons, blueberry, raspberry and strawberries do well.  Even root vegetables can be grown in systems with some basic modifications to encourage the root to grow downwards.

5. Do the produce taste “fishy?”

Produce grown in the aquaponic system DOES NOT taste fishy.  Plants are absorbing the vital minerals and nutrients that are broken down from fish waste using microbes and worms.  If anything, the produce tastes the same if not better than traditionally grown produce.

6. How much food can you produce in a year?

Aquaponics systems produce twice as much as traditional gardening.  Considering that you can grow year round with these systems, the amount of produce that can be grown is astounding.  We have been able to demonstrate that it takes 25 square feet of grow space to sustain one person for life.   Depending on what you grow and the season you are in, the yield can vary.

7. What is the growing season of aquaponics?

You can grow year round with aquaponics.

8. What grows during different times of the year?

There are certain kinds of vegetables and fruits that do better during certain times of the year.  However, with technological advancements of LED lighting and heating and cooling solutions, some aquaponic growers are pushing the limits of what can be grown regardless of the season.  In our own experience, fruits such as melons, berries and tomatoes do better in the summer months.  Whereas, lettuces and kale do not like the warmer months.  Chard does well year round along with peppers, thyme, cilantro, sage, rosemary and green onion.

9. What kind of fish are best to partner with in aquaponic systems?

There are many kinds of fish that serve as helpful partners in an aquaponic system.  Ingenuity Innovation Center works with tilapia.  These fish thrive in temperatures of 74 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  The reason we like working with tilapia (besides that they are a popular choice), is that it requires us to heat the water.  During wintertime, it allows us to grow year round because heating the water provides a “hot tub” for plants in their growbeds.  Therefore, we do not have to spend large amounts of money heating our greenhouse.

Other freshwater fish such as perch, carp, catfish, sleepy cod, koi and goldfish do well in the system.  People have even been working with freshwater river prawns, crawfish and crab in their systems.

10. Where is the best place to put an aquaponics system?

Determining where the best place is for an aquaponic system starts with what size will work best for you.  We have several choices and options that can fit any budget.  After that is established, the next step is to consider if you would like a system to be indoors or outdoors.  If you place your system outdoors, you will need to provide some sort of covering (greenhouse, lean to, shed) to put your system in.  Covering is essential to prevent precipitation from ending up in your system that can alter the PH and symbiotic relationships of your microbes, fish and plants.  We recommend choosing a place that is level and has easy access to power or other renewable energy solutions.

11. How expensive are aquaponic systems?

There are many different kinds of aquaponic systems out there to choose from that range from full turnkey systems to do-it-yourself plans you can build using repurposed materials.  Ingenuity Innovation Center has done extensive research on what is available.  With so many to choose from, we started to evaluate different systems using these criteria:

  • Total cost.  We looked at what the total cost is to build a system and support it.  We added up start up costs and examined what type of financial commitment would be required to maintenance the system.
  • Failure points.  We evaluated system designs based on the extra work you would have to do in order to ensure your system works properly (timers, filters, cleaning media, etc.).  The more steps you have to take or remember to do, the more opportunities there are for things to go wrong and present major issues.  We sought out system designs that were simple and easy to use and that naturally take care of problems.
  • Maintenance Time.  We evaluated different aquaponic systems based on how much maintenance time you spend per day, week, month, semi-annually and annually.
  • Longevity & Efficiency.  We looked at the quality of materials that are used in aquaponic systems.  We evaluated materials based on UV resistance, durability and chemical composition (including off-gassing and leaching).  For pumps, aerators and heaters, we examined components for longevity and energy efficiency.
  • Quality of Symbiotic Life. We examined systems that provide a high quality of life for every living being in the aquaponic system.

Through our research, we have been able to bring about some very innovative solutions that will meet anyone’s budget and living situation.  From mini kits you can build yourself for less than $100 or a full blown large system for $2,000 that will feed two people for life, we have worked to bring the designs forward while building community and knowledge around what you can do, build and grow using aquaponic systems.

12. How much space do I need to grow enough food to support myself?

A total of 25 square feet of grow space will support one person for life.

13. How efficient are aquaponic systems?

Aquaponics is highly efficient.  Consider these areas:

  • Water.  In aquaponics, there is only 7% water loss through evaporation and plant uptake versus 90% in traditional farming.
  • Energy.  We have designed our aquaponic solutions with energy efficient components (aerators, pumps, heaters and lighting) that can be also tied in with renewable and off grid solutions.  In the Ingenuity Innovation Center greenhouse, we have one pump that runs an entire row (1, 300 gallon fish tank, 8, 100 gallon beds of aquaponics,  and 1, 200 gallon sump tank) for the energy it takes to run a light bulb!
  • Waste.  There is virtually no waste from this system.  Unlike hydroponics that requires the water be discharged from adding in nutrient again and again, aquaponics has a natural cleaning and filtration process using the rock media beds.  Worms and microbes help break down nutrient rich fish waste so the plants can absorb the nutrients.  Extra organic material from the plant beds can be composted.

14. Can you do aquaponics indoors?

Aquaponic systems can be done indoors.  Placing systems near windows or adding in supplemental grow lighting make growing easy.

15. How easy is it to maintain an aquaponics system?

Depending on what type of aquaponic system you choose, the maintenance could be a lot or very little.  Ingenuity Innovation Center has chosen a system that is very easy to maintain.  For example, for general maintenance and fish feeding, we only spend about 15 minutes a day in our 1,500 square foot greenhouse that is full of aquaponics.  For planting and harvesting, we may spend 2 hours a week.

16. What type of aquaponic system do you use at Ingenuity Innovation Center?

Ingenuity Innovation Center uses the Constant Height, One Pump (CHOP) system. Here, each of our plant beds are set up on tables that are the same height.  One pump circulates water throughout the whole system.  This highly efficient, special pump is able to pump 1 1/4″ solids into the plant beds that are filled with 3/4″ river rock.  The rock serves as a natural filter for the water (thus eliminating the need to buy or add in special filtration systems).  Worms naturally show up in the system and help break down solid fish waste for the microbes and plants to absorb.

We use a Flood and Drain system.  Here water is always flowing and fills the growbed.  As the water fills the growbed up, it eventually hits an auto siphon which will cause the water to drain.  After the water drains, the growbed will fill up again and the process will repeat.  We do not use any timers (as we consider this another potential fail point).  This simple, efficient, and easy to use system easily expands or shrinks depending on your needs.

17. What kind of grow lights do I need if I am growing vegetables indoors?

We recommend selecting lights that mimic the sun.  Lights are categorized by their color temperature.  Light spectrums starting at 5,500 to 6,500 will work for growing indoors.

18. How do I keep the water the right temperature for the fish?

There are several different types of solutions for keeping your water the right temperature.  We recommend starting with the location of the fish tank.  If the fish tank is going to be extreme conditions of heat or cold, consider looking at solutions that you can insulate the tank.  This will help keep the water from fluctuating in large increments.  Secondly, get an aquarium heater that will turn on and off when a certain temperature is established.

19. Do I have to heat my greenhouse in the winter time?

Depending on what type of produce and/or fruit you are growing, you may need to add in an additional envelope within your greenhouse to prevent loss.  This extra barrier will help provided heated insulation for plants that need extra warmth.  If you are partnering with a fish that thrives in warmer temperature conditions (such as tilapia), the water will act as a natural heat sink and provide a space for plants to stay warm.  Since the plants are “hot tubbing,” you may not have to heat your greenhouse.

20. What other nutrients do I need to add in order to maintain the health of the system?

Aquaponic systems naturally lack certain minerals and require them to be added from time to time.  They are potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium.  Your plants will tell you when it is time to add these minerals into the system.  Often times, they will turn colors on the edges of their leaves.

  • Yellow Coloring on the Leaves = Iron Deficiency. Since we are dealing with a constant influx of nitrogen within the system, this is not a nitrogen deficiency issue.  This is usually tied to an iron deficiency.  You will also be able to see this that the veins of the plant stay a darker green.  To remedy this, simply add chelated iron into your growbeds in either the auto siphon or water spout that fills the growbed with water.  We recommend that you watch for changes over the next few days.  The new growth will be not be yellowed and will return to a darker green.
  • Brown Coloring on the Leaves = Potassium Deficiency. For a potassium deficiency, you will notice a brown discoloration all the way around the leaf.  To remedy this, add a small amount of cream of tartar to your system (the same way you address an iron deficiency).
  • Spotting on the Leaves = Calcium Deficiency. For a calcium deficiency, you will notice spots on leafs and at times, rot on fruit.  We use calcium to buffer the PH because the system is always trying to move toward a more acidic condition. Simply take egg shells and put them into the microwave and heat for 20 to 30 seconds to remove any life.  Put them in an old nylon stocking and put them in plant beds under the water supply or put them in the sump.  Over time, they will dissolve releasing the calcium into the system.
  • Curling, Spotting and Browning of the Leaves = Magnesium Deficiency. For a magnesium deficiency, you will notice a combination of what may appear to be a calcium and potassium deficiency. The curling and spotting of the leaves along with brown coloring may indicate that there magnesium

21. Where can I source parts to make my own aquaponic system?

If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you can make you own aquaponic systems using a variety of parts found locally.  Creating your own systems can save you a lot of money and provide a wonderful fun learning experience.  When sourcing materials, we recommend building off of a solid aquaponic plan.  (We have several that we can suggest.)  Large intermittent bulk containers (IBC’s) are popular choices because of their size and accessibility.  Many can be found on your local Craigslist or want ads.  Other containers can be found by going to your local agriculture store and looking for feed and watering (stock) tanks for animals.

Regardless of where you get your parts from, take time to consider what they are made out of. Remember that you will be growing plants and fish in the system. Sourcing materials that will not leach into the water will help make sure your aquaponics system does not turn into a toxic waste site.

The following plastics are OK to use in aquaponic systems:

code2.gif HDPE (high density polyethylene) is used in milk, juice and water containers in order to take advantage of its excellent protective barrier properties. Its chemical resistance properties also make it well suited for items such as containers for household chemicals and detergents. Most five gallon food buckets are made from HDPE.  Examples: Milk bottles, shopping bags
code3.gif Vinyl (polyvinyl chloride, or PVC) provides excellent clarity, puncture resistance and cling. As a film, vinyl can breathe just the right amount, making it ideal for packaging fresh meats that require oxygen to ensure a bright red surface while maintaining an acceptable shelf life.  Examples: Plastic food wrap, shrink wrap, garden hoses, shoe soles
code4.gif LDPE (low density polyethylene) offers clarity and flexibility. It is used to make bottles that require flexibility. To take advantage of its strength and toughness in film form, it is used to produce grocery bags and garbage bags, shrink and stretch film, and coating for milk cartons.  Examples: Squeeze bottles, dry cleaning bags
code5.gif PP (polypropylene) has high tensile strength, making it ideal for use in caps and lids that have to hold tightly on to threaded openings. Because of its high melting point, polypropylene can be hot-filled with products designed to cool in bottles, including ketchup and syrup. It is also used for products that need to be incubated, such as yogurt. Many Cambo, Tupperware and Rubbermaid food storage containers are made from PP.            Examples: Bottle caps, take-out food containers, drinking straws

Source: US Food and Drug Administration

For more information on what types of materials may be helpful, join in on our Google Helpout.

22. What kind of aquaponic system is best for me?

To select the best aquaponic system for your situation, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much food would I (or others) like to eat from the system (vegetables and fish)?  In other words, do I plan on desiring to have it supply all of my food or help supplement what I may already be buying?
  • What kinds of fruits and vegetables would I like to grow?
  • How much space do I have (indoors and/or outdoors)?
  • What is my budget?

After you have the answers to these questions, the next thing is to look at what system would work the best.  In situations where space is limited, you may have no other option other than to buy or make a smaller system.  If you have space, the next thing is to consider looking at how much square footage for growing space will be required to grow the types of fruit and vegetables that are appealing to you. Again, the typical rule of thumb is that it takes 25 square feet of grow space to generate enough food to sustain one person for life.  However, this can vary depending on what you are planning on growing and how long it may take a plant to mature.  These are all considerations that need to be factored in which is where Ingenuity Innovation Center and our growing aquaponic gardening community can help with ideas and suggestions.

Lastly, the next step it to determine if your ideal aquaponic system can fit within your budget.  This will determine if you may be looking at creating a solution you build yourself, or if you may wish to purchase a turnkey solution.  Ingenuity Innovation Center’s kits are designed to be affordable.  We also have ways to help finance through payment installments.  If that is not an option, we can assist with designing your system so you can add onto it when you have funds or resources available.  This is why we love the Constant Height, One Pump (CHOP) System we use at Ingenuity Innovation Center so much.  Our system can grow with you!

23. Are there any benefits to purchasing a kit from Ingenuity Innovation Center?

There are many benefits to purchasing an aquaponics kit from Ingenuity Innovation Center.  Here are just a few:

  • We Reinvest.  All profits go back into funding other community projects.  Everything we do and build here is shared using an open-source platform.  Funds generated help us build our knowledge and educational programs.
  • We Create Community. You get to be involved in a growing aquaponic gardening community.  Our platform is helping to connect other aquaponic enthusiasts from ALL over the world so that together we can share knowledge, experience, at best practices using a variety of aquaponic systems.
  • We Develop Others Passion. We help fund other aquaponic entrepreneurs who can assist others in designing, building and troubleshooting their systems.  We can’t do this alone, so we develop others so everyone wins.
  • We are a Benefit Company. Because Ingenuity Innovation Center is one of Oregon’s first benefit companies, we are committed to showing that business can be a very viable solution in helping build resilient communities by meeting the social and environmental needs while creating prosperity for all versus a few.  We are all about paying it forward for future generations to come.
  • We Pay It Forward.  We are close to setting up a rewards program where you can earn cash or credit when you help make referrals that result in the purchase of aquaponic kits.  Stay tuned for details!

24. What kind of training and support does Ingenuity Innovation Center provide?

We provide lots of help and support to ensure that you feel confident growing using an aquaponics system.  Whether or not you a DIY’er or want a turnkey solution by purchasing on of our kits, we have lots of ways you can get the answers you need when you need them.  We are growing an aquaponic community where together we can share, learn and discover how to grow using this system.  Get access to tips, tricks and knowledge by getting involved in our forum.  We regularly host classes and workshops both here at Ingenuity Innovation Center and online. For additional one-on-one help you can also schedule a Google Helpout with us. The point is, we are here for you.  We are so passionate about aquaponics being such a wonderful way to grow healthy food, that we want to help see systems get out to the masses.

25. Why aren’t we seeing more aquaponics being done?

People are starting to discover aquaponics.  This relatively new way of gardening (which has really emerged over the last 30 years) is going global.  However, it hasn’t been until recently that we have seen it take off in commercial applications.  With so many options of systems and ways to do it, the expense can be a put off to many.  We feel that the biggest challenge around aquaponics is people seeing a live, thriving system in person and showing them that it can be super easy and affordable. This is why we have designed and refined our system to be super easy to build, run and maintain without extra hassles and failpoints.  Best of all, our systems and plans are designed to grow with you!