Introduction to Aquaponics

What is Aquaponics?

The word Aquaponics comes from the joining of ‘aquaculture’ (growing fish) and ‘hydroponics’ (growing plants using nutrient enriched water).  This incredibly abundant hybrid system is actually far more unique because of the way it incorporates other living systems.

Aquaponic systems have three main components – fish, plants and microbes. The microbes are commonly overlooked as a part of an aquaponic system. As it turns out, these biological helpers do the most of the important work in the nutrient cycle. Aquaponics uses no soil at all.  Instead, this system uses alternative growing media such as clay pebbles, rock or the plants can simply be grown in the nutrient rich waters coming from the fish tanks.  These system create a tremendous amount of abundance.  Here are just some of the benefits:

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  • The best tasting home-grown vegetables
  • Organically grown produce in your own system
  • No unnatural herbicides, pesticides or fossil fertilizers
  • The freshest, cleanest vegetables possible
  • Uses as little as 2% of the water normally needed
  • Higher growth rates and yields
  • No soil is needed
  • Can be easily used in small, urban areas.
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  • Healthy, clean, home-grown fish
  • No genetic manipulation of the fish
  • Fish are a healthy source of protein
  • Water quality is high, so the taste is high
  • Water recirculation reduces pollution
  • Local production reduces “food miles”
  • Fish and vegetables are the healthiest diet
  • Aquaponics is a wonderful hobby or business

The Aquaponics Cycle

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The Aquaponics Cycle

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Fish produce waste and ammonia.  Highly concentrated amounts are harmful for the fish and decrease the quality of the water. Aquaponics leverages this waste by pumping water into a plant growbed.  Here billions of naturally occurring, beneficial micro-organisms break the ammonia down first into Nitrite and then into Nitrate.  Nitrate and other nutrients are then able to be easily absorbed by the plants to assist in their growth.   In turn, the plants serve the fish by helping to clean the water.  Media in the growbeds also serves as a natural filter that helps capture solid waste.

Clean water is now returned to the fish tank increasing the water quality and providing the oxygenated water that the fish need. This is a natural and sustainable process that mimics an ecosystem and produces high quality food without any chemical inputs.

Ingenuity Innovation Center prefers using river rock media because worms naturally show up in the system.  They are incredibly helpful in breaking down solid wastes so the plants and microbes can absorb the vital nutrients. This addition dramatically increases the health and vitality of plants, fish and microbes and yields highly abundant results.


Types of Aquaponic Systems

There are several different types of aquaponic systems that have developed over the past 30 years or so. Each can be used in different ways depending on your situation. There are several common components and three (3) widely accepted and used systems.

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MFG – Media Filled Growbeds

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Applications: Home Systems, Small Commercial, Hybrid Systems[/wc_box]

Media Filled Growbeds (MFG) are the simplest form of aquaponics.  Ingenuity Innovation Center prefers using this system because of it’s ease and affordability. Here, growbeds are filled with a suitable growing media such as rock, expanded clay balls, pumice stone, etc. Water from a fish tank is pumped into the growbeds where plants grow in the rock media.

MFG systems can be run two (2) different ways.  A Continuous Flow Solution enables water to flow over the rocks continuously.  A Flood and Drain Solution is designed to fill the growbed with water and then drain it after it reaches a desired height.    The growbeds should be about 12″ in depth as this has been proven to be the most effective depth for plant growth and the cultivation of a beneficial ecosystem in the beds.  Growbeds deeper than 12″ may promote an unhealthy form of anaerobic bacteria that will keep plants, microbes, worms and fish.

Ingenuity Innovation Center uses a Flood and Drain Solution.  Once the water reaches the appropriate level then it will be drained from the growbed (we use an auto siphon which causes the water to drain quickly) which pulls the oxygen down into the river rock.  Here plant roots, worms and microbes are able to get access to oxygen which aid in the aerobic health of the system.   This cycle then continues regularly and provides the plants with all of the nutrients that they need to grow extremely abundantly and naturally without any added pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.

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NFT – Nutrient Film Technique
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Application: Small Commercial, Hydroponic Conversions, Hybrid Systems[/wc_box]

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) is commonly used in hydroponics. Here, nutrient rich water is pumped down small enclosed gutters. Plants sit in small plastic containers allowing their roots to wick up a water and nutrients that usually flow as a small trickle at the bottom of the gutter.

NFT is limited for what types of plants it can grow.  There are certain types of plants such as leafy greens and herbs that will thrive in this system.  Selecting the right plant involves examining how big their roots grow.  If they grow too big, they will cause clogs.  In addition, some plants may become too heavy for the lightweight growing gutters which may cause them to break.  Given this, NFT systems tend to severely limit what types of produce can grown.

NFT is more commonly used in commercial aquaponic systems. However, it can be successfully used in a smaller systems provided that the water is filtered before it is used in the NFT channels.  Unfiltered water from the fish tanks will contain many particulates which will attach themselves to the plant roots. Ultimately too much build up will cause the plant to suffocate. A perfect and inexpensive solution to prevent this is to use a rock media bed to filter out solids and then have it pumped to an NFT system.

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DWC – Deep Water Culture system
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Application: Commercial Systems, Hybrid Systems[/wc_box] Deep Water Culture (DWC) systems employ the idea of having plants float on a barge or raft  on top of the water.  Here, roots to hang down into the water to absorb vital nutrients. DWC can be done in a variety of ways.  DWC is the most commonly used method in commercial aquaponic systems as it provides the versatility to grow a relatively wide variety of leafy plants and herbs.  These systems can be set up relatively inexpensively, but using various types of foam float rafts can add up to more than $1 per square foot.

DWC can be done by floating a foam raft on top of the fish tank.  However, more recent systems are now using a common method to grow the fish in a fish tank and pump the water through a filtration system.  The water is then sent into long channels where rafts filled with plants float on the water surface and extract the nutrients.  The water must be filtered before it reaches the channels.  If it is not filtered, particulates and solids in the water will eventually clog up the root systems of the plants and will inhibit their ability to absorb oxygen and nutrients.

Care should be taken when sourcing the right foam floating rafts for plants.  Selecting the right kind of foam is essential in preventing the leaching of chemicals into your system.   The best kind solution for floating rafts is to purchase an extruded foam.