Aquaponics vs Hydroponics – What’s The Difference and Our Recommendations
When it comes to growing techniques, many novice growers are torn between aquaponics vs hydroponics. Both have their benefits, with aquaponic systems enticing growers with the appeal of living creatures, while hydroponic systems attract with its control and precision.
A quick search online will pull up a barrage of opinions and facts on the subject. Unfortunately, most of them use generalizations, blanket terms, and are biased towards one technique or the other.
This article looks at both techniques in an unbiased manner, outlining the advantages, disadvantages, and challenges of aquaponics vs hydroponics.
Here’s the thing; it’s not as simple as saying one technique is better than the other. Both have merits and demerits, and when it comes to choosing one, you must carefully consider your specific situation and what you hope to attain. The difficulty, set-up, materials, and costs involved in both techniques need to be considered.
One major difference is the presence or absence of live fish. Simply put, an aquaponic system uses fish to create nutrients, while hydroponics uses formulated solutions.
Table of Contents
- Aquaponics Systems
- Hydroponics Systems
By definition, aquaponics is a system of aquaculture where farmed fish waste used to supply the nutrients for plants that are hydroponically grown. This in turn purifies the water.
What are the Benefits of Aquaponics?
- Minimal weeding: With aquaponics, the soilless cultivation translates to a minute number of weeds appearing in your growth. This gives you enough free time and less stress to enjoy the farming.
- Gardening all year round: Compared to other growing methods, using an aquaponic system enables you to farm all through the year. It does this by regulating the water temperature in relation to the growing plants.
- Low water usage: A massive benefit of aquaponics is that it uses minimal water when compared to traditional farming. While the term “aquaponics” implies water, the technique uses about 90% less water than conventional agriculture. You don’t have to discard or change the water since it is repeatedly recycled by the system.
- Increased yield: In an aquaponic system, plants tend to grow faster. This is attributed to their constant access to 100% natural nutrients.
- Healthy food: Aquaponics enables you to grow your plants without the use of fertilizers or chemicals.
- Smaller environmental footprint: Aquaponics farming doesn’t require a lot of fertile soil. By design, it can be successfully done just about anywhere – land, gravel, rocky surfaces, and even on infertile lands.
What are the Challenges of Aquaponics?
While aquaponics can be a great growing method, it is not without its challenges.
- Set up can be complicated: An aquaponics system is complex. While this can be a blessing, it can also be a curse as it makes setup even more difficult. By adding fish tanks, the plumbing systems need to be split and that requires more space to be created for the fish sector of the aquaponics system. Hobby growers can find a way around this by using a media bed located above the tank. However, this still requires more space compared to a hydroponics system.
- Cycling time: One pertinent constraint associated with an aquaponics system is the delayed starting time. To develop the healthy microbial ecosystem and need for nutrient cycling, an aquaponics system has to first go through a 6-week fishless period before planting can occur. After that, aquaponics systems might experience lower production yields as the microbial ecosystem stabilizes. Once established, aquaponics systems can experience the hallmark benefit of increased yields.
- Beginner mistakes: The inherent learning curve associated with using a complicated system is another major challenge with aquaponics. Management errors can quickly snowball into bigger issues. For instance, the death of a fish can negatively influence the plants, microbes, and other fish in the system. There are more tasks to handle, with biology and plumbing issues to troubleshoot if problems occur.
- Higher initial setup costs: Another demerit when it comes to the Aquaponics vs Hydroponics debate is the fact that an aquaponics system will generally cost about 45% more to create and implement over a comparable hydroponic system. This economic fact places aquaponics growers at a disadvantage, particularly if they are in a direct price war against hydroponic growers.
Hydroponics is a horticultural technique of growing plants without soil. It uses different materials to support the roots of plants while using nutrient-rich water to grow crops directly.
What are the Benefits of Hydroponics?
- Low water usage: Hydroponics, on a large scale, is estimated to consume 90% less water than conventional farming methods. This is because hydroponics uses recirculation techniques to minimize waste.
- Diversity: Hydroponic systems enable farmers to grow plants just about anywhere. For example, these systems can be set up in greenhouses, homes, basements, or any indoor area.
- Continuous production: Hydroponic systems provide continuous production with no need for the production management associated with conventional agriculture. This means plants can be grown and harvested all year, thereby increasing supply.
- Predictable costs: Depending on the sourcing, management, and size, hydroponic systems tend to have consistent costs. This can lead to a sense of financial stability which makes ordering and accounting much easier. The nutrients used in hydroponic growing are formulated, meaning they don’t vary from one month to the next.
- Reduced toxins: Compared to conventional growing that heavily relies on chemical pesticides and herbicides, all hydroponic systems do not require these toxic applications. This is because soil, where the pathogens live, is absent and very few diseases and pests can survive in a hydroponics system. While chemicals can still present in hydroponic growing, the majority of the systems used at home remain free of harmful agrochemicals like pesticides.
- Control: Compared to traditional growing methods, which are influenced by numerous conditions such as light, pH, tilth, microorganisms, air temperature, and more, hydroponic systems can be mostly controlled. This control is possible due to the absence of a natural ecosystem. What you get with hydroponics is a controlled system created to develop an optimized growth ecosystem. A nutrient solution, which is typically a mix of trace elements, minerals, fertilizers, and water, is fed to the plants.
What are the Challenges of Hydroponics?
- Nutrition: The nutrient levels of hydroponically grown produce tends to vary. There are similar vitamin levels found in hydroponically grown veggies and traditionally grown ones, however. While hydroponically grown plants can be just as nutrient-dense as traditionally grown ones, not every plant from a hydroponic system has the same mineral content.
- Financial cost: Hydroponic farms, especially large-scale ones, require significant infrastructural investment which can fetch a hefty price tag. Even small-scale systems can be quite expensive depending on the accessories and requirements.
- System vulnerability: Depending on the design, hydroponic systems can be extremely complicated. So complicated that if a piece such as a timer, string, or pump fails or is incorrectly installed, the whole crop yield could be at risk. Just as with all scalable systems, hydroponics substitutes efficiency for resiliency.
- Environmental impact: While hydroponic growing saves water, it does require substantial infrastructure by design. A vast number of containers and tubing are manufactured. This can be a major drawback to hydroponics. Perhaps in the future, there will be a development of less material-intensive methods.
The environmental impact can be significant when grow lights are added to the system. Grow lights consume a lot more energy compared to traditional outdoor agriculture. Additionally, while hydroponic systems on a large scale can save water when implemented with recirculation techniques, smaller systems used by home gardeners might not result in water saving.
This kit represents a symbiotic system of plants, microbes, and fish. The complex combination enables you to sprout different types of seeds, which can be useful for the budding indoor grower. It is also suitable for growing flowers and plants.
The self-cleaning filtration system cycles the dirty water to the plant roots from the tank. The Huamuyu has been designed to require 50% less cleaning than other aquaponics systems. Thanks to the automatic siphon design, the tank’s water level fluctuates like a tide ensuring the roots can properly breathe without any addition of fertilizer or water.
- Natural oxygen supply feature
- U-shaped design aids cleaning
- Ceramide stones
- Mini ecosystem
- Hydroponic filtration system
The Penn Plax Aquaponics Betta Fish Tank is a 1.4-gallon aquaponics system that provides additional beauty to any home décor. This design is specially created to promote a healthy ecosystem for both fish and plants.
The fish tank is constructed from high-quality plastic materials to ensure maximum quality. Inside its plastic bowl are planting stones made from a ceramic substrate. This material is perfect for indoor planting. The planter creates healthy habitat for fish by reproducing nature’s cycle.
- Ceramic substrate planting material
- Easy to clean
- Made from high-quality plastic materials
- Can be used as a planter only
- Comes with educational material on aquaponics
This aquaponics system is the Back to the Roots Water Garden Duo. It enables even the newbie indoor grower to grow a houseplant or succulent garden all through the year. It comes equipped with everything you could need. The design is easy and convenient, enabling you to harvest organic microgreens in as little as 10 days.
The water garden is transformed into a self-cleaning fish tank, which also provides nutrients to the plants grown on the top.
- Betta fish and fish food
- Grow stones and gravel
- Silent submersible water pump
- 3-gallon fish tank
- Comes with organic wheatgrass and radish sprout seeds
The AeroGarden Harvest is an elegantly designed garden full of versatility to grow just about anywhere. It comes with room for 6 plants, meaning you can grow an endless supply of salad greens, vegetables, flowers, or herbs to enhance your life, home, drinks, and food.
There are specially tuned, energy-saving LEDs included providing optimum sunlight effects. The built-in sensors help to turn the lights off and on every day, reducing guesswork.
- Comes with a gourmet herb seed kit
- Easy-to-use control panel
- LED grow lights
- All-natural plant nutrients formula
- Small energy footprint
The Vivosun hydroponic grow kit comes equipped with a nutrient film technique that helps boost crop production yield. The hydroponic kit comes with a timed circulation system that can be automatically or manually operated. In addition to saving the nutrient solution, this also improves pump durability and boosts plant growth potential. The hydroponic system is easy to assemble and use, making it a great choice for beginners.
- Easy to use
- Timed circulatory system
- 3-layer planting cups
- PVC pipe durability
- Reusable plastic baskets
The DreamJoy Hydroponic Grow Kit comes with 8 pipes and 72 plant sites to create the ideal water garden system. It can be used outdoors, in a greenhouse, or indoors, thanks to its drain-lever design which enables users to switch from a re-circulating deep water culture to an ebb and flow culture.
The system is designed using food-grade materials to ensure plants are safe to consume. Oxygenated nutrients and water are directly delivered to the roots through PVC-U water pipe specifically built to lower water resistance.
- Wide application
- Easy to assemble and use
- High yield design
- Food-grade materials
- 72 sits soilless cultivation
As you can see, there is no such thing as one product or method being better than the other. You simply have to find the growing medium that best suits your desired gardening system.
There is one trend, however, that all indoor growers should be aware of: aquaponics is generally used by unique niche or smaller-scale growers, while hydroponics is used by large-scale or commercial growers.
While there are differences between the two growing techniques, your decision should be influenced by the various pros and cons of each.