Aquaponics vs Hydroponics (The Difference, and Which is Better)

Due to the way in which the two systems look alike, aquaponics and hydroponics are often confused with each other.

However, although they may share some basic elements and are both known for being more productive than soil-based growing methods, the two are completely different when it comes to how they work.

Here’s everything you need to know about aquaponics vs hydroponics.

What is Hydroponics?

Hydroponics is a growing technique that produces healthy and productive plants without the use of soil. Instead, plant roots are exposed to a nutrient-rich solution, along with plenty of oxygen, to give them all they need to thrive.

There are several different hydroponic systems out there that each work in their own way, but they all share similar results when it comes to achieving 20-25% higher yields than soil-based growing systems, with plants being 2 to 5 times more productive.

What is Aquaponics?

Aquaponics is another growing method that doesn’t require the use of soil, borrowing some elements from different hydroponic systems in this sense.

However, instead of nutrients being provided through a man-made nutrient solution, aquaponics uses the organic matter produced by fish to feed plants.

A specific aquatic environment is created for the fish, so that the waste excreted by them is broken down by natural microbes, making them available for plants as usable nutrients.

In turn, the plants suspended in the water act as a filter, giving the fish a clean and healthy environment to live in.

Let’s watch this video:

The Main Differences Between Aquaponics and Hydroponics

Size

One of the main differences between aquaponics and hydroponics is the size of each system.

Hydroponic systems vary greatly in size. While many commercial growers use hydroponic systems to produce vast amounts of crops, many systems are simple and easy enough for home growers to set up on a small scale too.

However, since an aquaponic system needs to accommodate both plants and fish, it needs to be significantly larger. The smallest that you could have a grow bed would be around 12 inches deep, as the fish need enough room to move around in their environment without getting tangled up in plant roots.

Cost

Some hydroponic systems, such as the wick system, are extremely inexpensive to set up. Many of the components can be found around the home, meaning that initial investments are minimal.

However, aquaponic systems come with a higher startup cost. This is not only due to the need for a suitable growing medium, in order to encourage the growth of beneficial microbes, but the fish themselves cost money too, especially if you go for the prettier or rarer varieties.

On the other hand, running costs for hydroponic systems tend to be higher. Even though aquaponic systems make use of more electricity, since the growing environment needs to be more oxygenated for the fish to survive, hydroponic systems make use of purchased nutrients that can end up costing you more than fish food.

Speed

If you’re looking to get growing immediately, then an aquaponics system isn’t for you. It takes time for an aquaponics system to get up and running – you will usually need to wait between 3 to 6 months before your aquatic environment is suitable for growing plants in.

This is simply down to the time it naturally takes for the microbes in the aquatic environment to begin breaking down fish waste. If you start adding plants to an aquaponic system before this happens, there won’t be enough nutrients present for your plants to absorb.

On the other hand, most hydroponic systems only need a day or 2 of adjustments before plants can be added in. Some of the simpler systems can be used immediately after being set up, meaning that you would be able to enjoy a couple of harvests from a hydroponics system before an aquaponics system is even ready to be used.

Maintenance

Some hydroponic systems are relatively low-maintenance, while others require much more input. However, they all require growers to mix up nutrient solutions and keep reservoirs topped up, while also regularly checking equipment.

Monitoring pH and nutrient levels are important tasks that need to be done regularly when growing hydroponically too, and most systems will also require their nutrient solution to be flushed and replaced.

Aquaponic systems differ from this in the way in which they require minimal adjustments. The system acts as a sustainable ecosystem in itself, meaning that everything stays relatively balanced naturally.

Plants

Just about any type of plant can be grown in a hydroponic system, since there are so many different system variations out there.

However, since nutrients are limited in aquaponic systems, these are best suited to plants that don’t require high nutrient levels, such as:

  • Lettuce
  • Spinach and other leafy greens
  • Herbs
  • Strawberries

This is similar to the simpler hydroponic systems out there, which are only able to support small and fast-growing plants that don’t have an extensive root system. However, the larger and more complex hydroponic systems can support a much wider variety of crops, making them more versatile in that sense.

Dealing with Pests

Pests are usually pretty rare in both hydroponic and aquaponic growing systems. This is because neither of them use soil, which is often where pests lay eggs and multiply.

However, certain stubborn pests can still be a problem in soil-less growing systems, especially when it comes to the likes of spider mites and thrips.

These tend to be easier to deal with in a hydroponics system. Whether you go for an organic or chemical pesticide, it’s usually pretty easy to find a product to help deal with your pest infestation.

However, in an aquaponics system, you need to keep the health of your fish in mind. This can be quite limiting when it comes to the pesticides that you are able to use in your system, meaning that you may need to explore more creative pest control options instead.

The Similarities Between Aquaponics and Hydroponics

As you can see, aquaponics and hydroponics are pretty different when it comes to the way in which they each feed plants. However, there are some similarities between the two as well:

  • Both aquaponics and hydroponics grow plants without using soil, meaning that weeds and pests are minimal.
  • Plants can easily be grown indoors with both systems, meaning that you can significantly extend your growing season.
  • Aquaponics and hydroponics both make use of a nutrient-rich water to feed plants, although the nutrients are provided to that water in different ways.
  • Both aquaponic and hydroponic systems are known for being more productive and efficient than soil-based growing techniques.

Some aquaponic systems also make use of particular elements from various hydroponics systems.

The most common is the deep water culture (DWC) aquaponic system. This sees plants being suspended in net pots at the top of a fish tank, with their roots able to absorb all of the nutrients and moisture they need.

Another popular alternative is the nutrient film technique (NFT) aquaponic system. This still makes use of a nutrient-rich water composed of fish waste, but sends this in a continuous stream down growing channels, with plants suspended above so that their plant roots can soak up what they need from the constant flow of nutrients and water.

Pros and Cons of Aquaponics

Pros:

  • Fish tanks and ponds add a beautiful visual appeal to a growing environment, which is something that hydroponics simply cannot compete with.
  • Aquaponic systems are easy to scale up, making them suitable for both small-scale home growers and large-scale commercial growers.
  • In addition to harvesting plants, some aquaponic growers also harvest their fish, meaning that even a small-scale aquaponics system could provide you with a complete and nutritious meal.
  • Aquaponics makes use of a completely natural ecosystem to grow plants, making this an extremely organic method of growing.
  • Aquaponic systems produce zero waste, since you never need to replace the water.
  • There is more flexibility when it comes to the temperature of the water in an aquaponics system compared to a hydroponics system. This is because the fish and the microbes in the growing environment naturally inhibit fungal formation, so a consistently cool temperature is not needed.

Cons:

  • An aquaponics system can be quite complicated to set up.
  • It takes a few months before an aquaponics system is ready to be used.
  • Aquaponics limits you when it comes to how many plants you can grow – this will all depend on the size of your fish tank.
  • Aquaponics can also be quite limiting in terms of the type of plants you can grow – only small plants with simple root systems will thrive in an aquaponics setup.
  • Although low-maintenance when it comes to your plants, the fish in an aquaponics system will still need to be regularly fed, and you will also need to ensure that filters stay clean.
  • It can also take quite a bit of work to ensure that your aquaponics system stays well-balanced – any fish diseases or pathogens could be fatal for both your fish and your plants.
  • Aquaponic systems come with a higher initial investment than hydroponic systems.
  • Mechanical failures are more common in aquaponic systems, because the waste produced by the fish can end up blocking parts of the system.

Pros and Cons of Hydroponics

Pros:

  • There are many different types of hydroponic systems out there, making it easy to find one that fits your specific requirements. They can also be adapted to even the smallest of growing spaces.
  • Hydroponic systems give you complete control over the growing process. While you will still have good control with an aquaponics system, external factors, such as the weather or the appetite of your fish, can affect the growing environment.
  • Hydroponic systems are cheap and easy to set up, with many requiring only a minimal initial investment.
  • You can start growing immediately with many hydroponics systems.
  • Many hydroponic systems can be automated, meaning that you can get away with not checking on them for a few days, or even a couple of weeks. This is perfect for those who need to travel. However, with an aquaponics system, your fish will need regular attention.
  • Many hydroponic systems don’t require the use of a growing medium.

Cons:

  • Hydroponic systems don’t look as visually appealing as aquaponic systems – there’s something about having living creatures supporting a growing environment that makes an aquaponic system so captivating.
  • Hydroponic systems can never be self-sufficient or sustainable, since you will always need to buy nutrients.
  • Salt buildups are common in hydroponic systems, which can end up being toxic for your plants. This rarely happens in aquaponic systems, since fish waste has a very low natural salt content.
  • Rot is a common problem in some hydroponic setups, even if the growing environment is kept completely sterile. However, this doesn’t happen in aquaponic setups – the beneficial microbes in the aquatic environment seem to strengthen plant immunity.
  • Hydroponic systems are more wasteful in terms of nutrients and water than aquaponic systems.

Aquaponics vs Hydroponics: Which is Better?

When it comes to the question of whether an aquaponics or a hydroponics system is better, there isn’t a clear-cut answer.

Each system excels in its own unique way, from the natural, low-maintenance ecosystem created in an aquaponics system to the easily-controllable and highly-accurate environment created by a hydroponics system.

Some growers will find that an aquaponics system is better suited to their requirements, especially if they also have a personal interest in raising fish, while others will find a hydroponics system easier to run and more useful in terms of plant varieties that can be supported.

Either way, when deciding which system is better for you, keep your specific requirements in mind, as well as your personal preferences when it comes to which system appeals to you the most.

Aquaponics vs Hydroponics, which one is the best one for you? Let’s find out:

Conclusion

Soil-less growing systems are becoming more and more popular, making it no surprise that aquaponics vs hydroponics are being increasingly compared.

One makes use of a sterile growing environment and a man-made nutrient solution to nurture plants, while the other takes elements of this to create a sustainable ecosystem that can support plant growth, with the added advantage of being able to raise fish too.

Whichever you choose, both methods will reward you with greater productivity and higher yields than what you could have achieved with the more traditional, soil-based growing methods out there.

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Jill Sandy

Jill Sandy

Jill is a sustainable focus gardener. She loves decorating her home backyard with beautiful landscape design and creative garden care techniques she develops herself. You can reach her at [email protected]

Chanh Ho (MD, MPH)

Chanh Ho (MD, MPH)

Chanh is our Head of Medical Review. He is a research physician at Oxford University Clinical Research Unit. After accomplishing the program of level 1 sub-specialty in Pediatrics, he was awarded the Chevening Scholarship for his Master’s degree of Public Health in the University of Edinburgh in 2019

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