The NO-B.S. Breakdown of Aquaponics


Harvesting food from Aquaponics seems to be a topic that a lot of preppers and homesteaders are interested in today. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation, grandstanding and downright B.S. out there about the realities of aquaponics. Today we’re going to dive right in and separate the facts from the fiction when it comes to using aquaponics as a food production system.


What is aquaponics and why should I care about this?


Aquaponics is essentially a modified form of Hydroponic gardening. These two systems use a water-based solution and a soil-substitute medium instead of traditional soil for plants. In a hydroponics system, plant nutrients are added to the water solution to promote better growth and yield. In Aquaponics, these nutrients are supplied mostly by waste from living fish that are kept in a tank within the system.


The main advantage to aquaponics compared to hydroponics is that the fish in an aquaponics system are supplying the nutrients to the plants, which means you do not have to add additional nutrients to your solution.


Oh yeah, and you can eat the fish too!


Can aquaponics produce 100% of my food?


This is probably the most-hyped claim for aquaponics systems. The fact of the matter is that aquaponics can provide an abundance of vegetables and supplemental protein from an enclosed, fairly easy to maintain system…..to a point.


The idea that you could provide 100% of your food with aquaponics is a little far-fetched unless you’ve invested in (and spend a lot of time maintaining) a very large aquaponics system. For the majority of people, this type of setup is just not practical and therefore, no, an aquaponics system is probably not the end-all / be-all answer to your food production needs.


How much food can a small aquaponics system realistically produce?


One of the most popular aquaponics designs (because of the low cost of setup) is using 300+ gallon plastic IBC containers as fish ponds and 55 gallon tanks or drums as garden beds. This setup is on the smaller end of aquaponics systems and still requires a decent amount of space.


There’s no definitive formula for how much food you’ll be able to harvest from a system like this but it’s fairly easy to guesstimate.


The 55 gallon tanks have a surface is that is usually no larger than a couple feet square. At most, you’ll be looking at no more than 4 small plants per tank at one time. Although plants grown using aquaponics do tend to grow much faster and have a higher yield than a conventional garden (if done right), the fact is that 4 plants is a pretty small amount of food.


Realistically, in a perfect small setup like this you would be able to reliably harvest 1-2 fish a month (during a typical growing season) and with the right climate and temperatures, about 4-5 separate vegetable harvests per year.


Realistically, even a fully-optimized, full-time aquaponics system of this size wouldn’t be able to produce much more than about 5-10% of an average person’s required calories per year.


Obviously adding additional or larger systems could increase that percentage significantly; however the upkeep on these larger systems is a lot more than a standard IBC container/55 gallon tank system.



What do you have to do to maintain an aquaponics system?


Maintaining an aquaponics system can take less than an hour a week or it could be a full-time job depending on the size and complexity of your setup. For a smaller, more typical setup you have to make sure that the temperature stays consistent, the fish are fed, the PH levels in your pond are in line with what you need for the plants you’re growing and most of the other basic maintenance tasks for a conventional garden.


Realistically, the setup of the aquaponics system is the most time and resource intensive part. Maintaining it doesn’t require much more time than a regular soil garden.


What types of plants can I plant in an aquaponics setup?


One of the major benefits of using an aquaponics system is that as long as you can maintain the right PH, temperature and sunlight, you can pretty much grow whatever you want. This means that you can grow plants that normally wouldn’t grow in your area, as long as you can replicate their typical growing conditions.


How much does a small aquaponics system cost to set up and maintain?


This is the most commonly asked question about aquaponics. The cost of an aquaponics system ranges from dirt cheap to ridiculously expensive. A D.I.Y. setup using an IBC tank and 55 gallon drum shouldn’t cost more than a few hundred dollars from start to finish. A larger system using specialized tanks and growing beds could potentially cost $10,000 or more to design, build and install.


Conventional gardening seems a lot easier and cheaper. What makes aquaponics a better choice?


Conventional gardening is a lot easier and it’s definitely a lot cheaper to set up. However, the benefits of aquaponics could make it worth the learning curve and expense. Besides the obvious advantage of being able to harvest fish, plants grown in aquaponics systems typically grow much faster and have higher yields. It’s also possible to grow many plants you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to grow in your conventional garden in an aquaponics system. It’s really up to you if those benefits are worth the hassle.

Aquaponics 4 You
If the world as we know it came to an end tomorrow, would you still be able to use aquaponics to feed yourself?


Aquaponics could definitely make a dent in feeding an off-grid homestead but it’s unlikely it could be a primary food source for most people. You would have to have an extremely large aquaponics system to make it your primary source of food. Most fish take well over a year to mature and unless you have a way of introducing new fish into your system every time you pull one out to eat, they’re not going to last long. It would take a lot of fish to make that completely sustainable on its own. It would also require a decent amount of power to run pumps that would have to come from solar or other alternative power methods.


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1 comment

  1. Gil Palmer

    Thank you so much for getting to the point with this article. I’ve read many pieces about aquaponics. There are so many cheerleaders out there who fall in love with the beautiful symbiosis of fish and plants but who don’t ask the basic questions: If self-sufficiency is your goal is it worth the expenditure? Is it sustainable and robust?

    The answer, I think, is no. First, you’re not going to produce enough fish protein to warrant their use and the expense of the system as a whole. Second, these set-ups are so finicky and operate under such tight tolerances that one malfunctioning pump while you sleep, for instance, and you wipe out your fish and you’re back where you started. (And it happens to everyone at least once. Tell me it doesn’t.) Third, it’s not a completely closed system in that it still requires the inputs of electricity and fish food, not to mention time, labor and money.

    Aquaponics? Interesting and appealing parlor trick. Better idea?: Invest the money in a sustainable, self-perpetuating 1/8-acre fish pond and grow vegetables and fruit in and around it. Watercress, water chestnuts, water spinach (kang kong), taro potatoes, mulberries, lotus root, wild rice, crawdads, shrimp, fresh-water mussels, etc. Add some ducks for eggs and meat. Now you’re talkin’.

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