Commercial Aquaponics for Beginners: Integrating an Aquaponics System

July 25, 2018

An Overview of Aquaponics for Beginners

Aquaponics is a unique hybrid of two practices: aquaculture, or raising fish in tanks and ponds, and hydroponics. Fish release waste that is rich in nutrients, which becomes a natural fertilizer taken up by plants. In return, the plants provide clean, purified water for the fish. It’s the perfect symbiotic relationship.

An aquaponics system is especially valuable for those with limited or no access to arable land and water. Because the water in aquaponics is recycled, crops can even be produced during droughts. Those who are starting aquaponics have a wealth of benefits to look forward to, such as increased water efficiency, no need for soil, faster growing and low risk of pests and disease.

Starting aquaponics is a fantastic way to learn about controlled environment growing and can boost the profitability of a grow space. The combination of higher yields with lower operating expenses is a recipe for maximizing profits, no matter where the grower is located.

Creating the Right Aquaponics System

Aquaponic systems come in three distinct styles: Deep-water culture (DWC,) nutrient-film technique (NFT) and media beds. In DWC systems, crops are planted in foam rafts that float on top of nutrient-rich water and solid waste is filtered out before it can reach the plant. With NFT, slowly moving water is funneled into narrow channels and circulated back to the fish tank. Filtration equipment is used to clear water of biological waste before it is recirculated. DWC and NFT are commonly practiced in commercial settings. Media beds are simply containers filled with porous rocks, usually clay pellets, where water from the fish tank is pumped to the container. Water can either be pumped continuously or by flooding and draining the container. The flood and drain method, also known as ebb and flow, is easy to maintain. Media beds are strongly recommended for beginners, as they are simple to operate, affordable and require no additional filtration.

Before picking out fish for the aquaculture tank, growers must consider the quality of their local water source, what feed sources are available and if selling fish to a local market is viable. There are a wide variety of edible and ornamental fish to choose from, including tilapia, trout, bluegill, brim, koi and goldfish. Different fish require different temperatures and feed to survive, so be sure to match the fish with the right environment and intended purpose. For instance, if a grower isn’t interested in eating their fish, ornamental breeds like koi and goldfish are good choices, since they are much easier to care for than some edible species.

Growers starting aquaponics are encouraged to get an appropriately sized system from a reputable seller to ensure there are no equipment failures. Those who want to go commercial are strongly advised not to build their own setup, since it’s hard to confirm that a homemade system is correctly sized, or that reused containers aren’t leaching chemicals into the water.

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Succeeding in Commercial Aquaponics

To thrive in commercial aquaponics, follow three rules – don’t ignore bugs, keep the fish tank healthy and accessible and maintain high-quality water. Although aquaponics crops are less likely to suffer from a pest infestation, they can still succumb to aphids, spider mites and white flies, which often hitch rides on seedlings purchased from nurseries. Predatory insects, like beetles, ladybugs or ladybirds, help to naturally control the presence of unwanted insects. In some cases, unwanted insects can even be fed directly to the fish as a source of extra protein. There’s a wide array of both organic and chemical sprays designed to repel harmful bugs in aquaponics systems as well.

Hot summer days can send water temperature soaring, throwing off pH and potentially harming fish. Air conditioners or fans can help maintain the temperature fish require. Aquaponic growers must also balance the fish to plant ratio, because too many fish can kill both fish and plants. Secondly, the fish tank should always be readily accessible. It’s common for growers to mount grow beds on top of fish tanks to save space, but this can make it hard to observe what’s going on inside the tank, change the water and catch the fish. Be sure the layout of the fish tank and growing channels are arranged in a way that makes it convenient to observe and interact with the fish on a regular basis.  

One common misconception about aquaponics is that it is a complete ecosystem. Although it’s highly sustainable, most commercial aquaponics systems need supplemental nutrition to succeed. Growers are encouraged to supplement their water source with chelated iron, calcium or potassium carbonate and some micronutrient in order to keep pH levels in check. In addition, fish produce a lot of ammonia, which can be deadly to fish when levels get too high. Check ammonia levels weekly with a test kit to make sure the water is low in ammonia and high in nitrates. Excess ammonia in the water tank should be diluted, removed or converted. Lastly, growers should aim to maintain a high level of dissolved oxygen in order to avoid having sick fish. Oxygen tanks and air pumps will keep dissolved oxygen levels up and infestations at bay.

Another issue that commonly plagues aquaponic systems is green algae, which loves sunlight. Algae overgrowth can drastically reduce oxygen and throw off pH levels. Growers can easily curb the growth of algae by shading fish tanks with dark tarps, painting the tank black or adding rocks to media beds until the water’s surface is covered.

What makes aquaponics exciting is that there are so many different growing techniques, meaning a setup can be as straightforward or complex as the grower is comfortable with. Whether it’s for a small-scale grow room or a large commercial space, a ready-made aquaponics system can empower growers everywhere to get their business up and running quickly, so they can focus their energy on harvesting.

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