Hydroponics and aquaponics are two new gardening techniques that have often been confused for one another. This is mainly because both hydroponics and aquaponics use water to grow plants instead of soil.
Yet, they have one striking difference. Hydroponics focuses solely on plant growth using water, while aquaponics strives to maintain a balance between sustaining fish and plant.
This article rounds up the differences between aquaponics VS hydroponics gardening to help all DIYers select the better option for their gardening goals.
What is Hydroponics?
Hydroponics is a gardening system through which plants can be grown without using soil. Instead of soil, this method only uses chemical nutrients and water to ensure the plants thrive. Contrary to popular belief, hydroponic systems can help grow plants and vegetables faster than outdoor gardening in soil.
The best part about hydroponic systems is that they can be used throughout the year, and the plants often yield more than conventional gardens. Furthermore, this system requires lesser space and water than conventional gardens, therefore saving up on resources.
Hydroponic systems mainly strive on 5 main elements, which are:
- Freshwater with a pH level ranging between 6-6.5
- Leaving spaces between the base of the plant and the water reservoir to allow it to breathe
- Root support through vermiculite, perlite, or coconut fiber
- The nutrient solution in the water
- Enough light
There are other factors to be considered for growing plants through a hydroponic system, like CO2 supplementation. But the ones mentioned above are the most important.
What is Aquaponics?
As the name suggests, aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. It is a sustainable system that seeks to grow fish and plants together, helping grow plants with lesser water, land, and labor.
This system works in a manner such that the nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks is transferred to plant growing beds. This acts as a fertilizer for these plants, allowing them to thrive. Consequently, water released from these plants through transpiration is transferred back to the fish tanks.
It works like a well-balanced ecosystem that can sustain itself without human interference. The plants get their nutrients from fish tanks, and the fish tanks get clear water from the plants.
These systems are often used in homes, schools (as a biological cycle model), food banks, and missions, and commercially as well.
Advantages of Aquaponics and Hydroponics
Both aquaponics and hydroponics have numerous advantages. Looking at the same will help DIY gardeners differentiate between aquaponics VS hydroponics.
The advantages to an aquaponics system are:
- Faster Plant Growth
Using nutrient-rich fish tank water, aquaponics systems help plants grow much faster by providing nutrients and an oxygen-rich environment.
Not only do vegetables in aquaponics systems grow three times faster than conventional gardens, they even have a better flavor. This is because the plants can focus on healthy growth rather than focusing on extending their roots to find water.
Just as one has control of the quality of water fish live in, one can control the quality of the vegetables produced in aquaponics.
An aquaponics system helps eliminate all toxins that would’ve otherwise entered a fish’s body, thus ensuring they are of nutritional quality.
- Reduced Chemical Usage
When set up indoors, in greenhouses, or inside an insect mesh, the aquaponics system has few bugs to control. This eliminates the need for pesticides which would otherwise be harmful to an aquaponic system.
Since chemicals cannot be introduced into this system, the vegetables and fish grown remain free of toxins and are completely organic.
- Year-Round Gardening
As opposed to conventional gardening, aquaponics allows one to grow vegetables and herbs all year round. This is possible by providing favorable temperatures using a greenhouse.
- Reduced Water Usage
Aquaponics utilizes 90 percent less water than traditional gardening. Water is continually recycled between the plants and fish tank in an aquaponics system. Thus, the only water lost is through evaporation from the fish tank (when exposed) and through transpiration from the plants.
- Small Footprint
There is no need for farmland with fertile soil since aquaponics can be successfully done anywhere. It is ranging from any land, cement surface, rocky surfaces, and even drought lands that cannot be used for conventional gardens.
Other than that, aquaponics even has less waste build-up in the system that causes water to become toxic. Instead, the waste is converted to nitrates which are used by plants as an additional nutrient source.
Aquaponics is a popular choice when it comes to growing plants – for the above-mentioned reason. However, hydroponic gardening systems are no less.
The advantages of a hydroponic gardening system are as follows:
- Maximizes Space
Hydroponic systems require lesser space than conventional gardens. When combined with vertical gardening, they use almost 99% lesser space than traditional gardening techniques.
Even these systems have a smaller footprint because the roots of hydroponic plants do not have to spread out searching for nutrients and moisture. Instead, water and nutrients are directly supplied to the plant through this technique.
This results in the roots of each plant taking up much lesser space, therefore increasing the ability of plants to grow in smaller spaces.
- Saves Water
Hydroponic systems use less water than conventional gardening. To elaborate, hydroponic plants grow with up to 98 percent less water than the others.
Approximately 0.1 percent of the water taken in through a plant’s roots is utilized by the plant. The majority of the remaining water is then discharged into the atmosphere by evapotranspiration.
Recirculated water is used in hydroponics systems, enabling plants to absorb what they require and then return the rest to the system.
- Produces Higher Yields
Creating optimal circumstances ensures that plants acquire the right amount of nutrients, which are sent directly to the roots. Microclimates also enable year-round growth and shorter crop rotations. All of this combines to provide significantly better yields than traditional agricultural methods.
- Less Labor is Required
Hydroponics relieves laborers of the burden of tilling, weeding, herbicide, and pesticide application, and other labor-intensive farm tasks. It can be managed with considerably fewer man-hours. This lowers the cost of raising crops while also freeing up time for alternative gardening activities.
Both aquaponics and hydroponics have their pros. Depending on what a DIY gardener’s needs are, they can choose a system better suited to fulfill their gardening requirements.
Disadvantages of Aquaponics and Hydroponics
Like all other things in gardening, even aquaponics has some disadvantages to go with its advantages. A few of these disadvantages are:
- Costly to Set Up and Maintain
Predictably, one of the most significant disadvantages of an aquaponics system is that it is costly. The bigger the aquaponics tank, the larger is the cost of setting it up and maintaining it.
However, there are many DIY aquaponics systems you can build using little money.
May Not Be Suitable for All Fish and Plants
Specific plants like tuberous plants and root crops cannot grow in aquaponics systems as they require soil to grow and thrive. Even large crops are hard to grow in aquaponics systems as they include more nutrients and water needs.
A few examples of plants that cannot be grown in this system are:
- Chrysanthemum. E
Even a few fish species are not recommended for growing in aquaponic systems. These include the likes of trout, salmon, and yellow perch.
- High Electricity Consumption
Temperatures in fish tanks are intended to be maintained at specific levels throughout the day. Water pumps also work throughout the day, which consumes a lot of power. Therefore, this makes aquaponics systems tough to function in areas where electricity isn’t accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
- Has to Be Professionally Installed
The aquaponics system is complicated and needs a great deal of expertise and experience to build and maintain. If it is not built correctly, fish and crop/plant losses will occur, wasting valuable time and money.
Most times, aquaponics growers lack understanding about fish, microorganisms, plants, and many other minor components in the system. This leads them to make mistakes like overloading fish tanks, using inappropriate pumps and pipes, and not cleaning waste often.
- Chances of Failure
An aquaponic system acts like our circular ecosystem. If all elements in this system are not well-balanced, it is bound to fail. Keep in mind the fish and plants need almost ideal conditions to thrive.
Hydroponic systems do have a few disadvantages too. A few of these disadvantages are:
- Vulnerable to Power Outages
A power outage will lead to a halt in these functions, therefore becoming detrimental to plants.
All hydroponic systems depend on the continuous flow of electricity to function well. This is because electricity helps power the several different components of a hydroponic system. Even if one of these components fails, DIY gardeners can go into losses worth thousands of dollars.
These components are the fans, grow lights, water pumps, and aerators.
- Constant Monitoring and Maintenance Required
Hydroponics need more monitoring and micromanagement than traditional plant cultivation. All system components, including lighting, temperature, and several characteristics of the nutrient solution, such as pH and electrical conductivity, require continual monitoring to create a precisely regulated growth environment.
To avoid excess accumulation and to clog, the nutritional solution must be drained and changed regularly, and the system parts must be cleaned often.
A hydroponics system is more expensive to buy and install than a regular garden. The cost of a system varies based on its kind and size, as well as whether it is prefabricated or assembled using individual components to produce a bespoke design.
Despite these disadvantages, a hydroponics system is extremely sustainable if set up properly.
Additional Differences in Aquaponics VS Hydroponics Systems
Even though aquaponics and hydroponics both replace soil for water when growing plants, there are multiple differences between both systems. A few of these differences are:
- System Design and Components
The main difference between aquaponics and hydroponics is in the structure of the grow beds. Usually, hydroponics need a 6” deep grow bed in which roots can spread easily without worrying about compaction. While aquaponics need at least a 12” deep grow bed to allow the fish to move around freely.
The two systems even have varying components. Hydroponic systems are sterile and do not need any growing media for their plants. In contrast to this, aquaponics needs an environment around the roots for beneficial microorganisms.
- Start-up Cost and Speed
The start-up costs of an aquaponic system and a hydroponic system differ based on the fact that an aquaponic system needs more materials. Basically, an aquaponic system is typically more expensive as it requires growing media and fish to function.
Other than that, the start-up speeds of both systems differ too. After putting together a hydroponics system, the nutrient solution just needs to cycle for a couple of days to settle before adding plants.
Due to the fish, aquaponics systems take longer to get up and to run. It takes a month at the very least to produce the nitrifying bacteria needed to break down fish waste. Most aquaponic systems need up to three months to stabilize the environment enough to introduce plants.
An aquaponics system would be rated as more sustainable than a hydroponic system since it does not need external nutrients to function once set up.
Sustainability means that something can be maintained at a steady level without depleting natural resources beyond the ability to replenishment. It also means that the system is maintained in a manner that does not damage it.
Keeping this in mind, we may conclude that hydroponics is not viable in the long term since nutrients must be supplied in the aquatic solution regularly. On the other hand, aquaponics is sustainable since every component given is necessary for the system’s life, and little inputs are required.
Other than the composition of the two systems, the nutrient factor is the biggest difference in aquaponics VS hydroponics systems.
When growing plants in a hydroponics system, all gardeners must regenerate new aquatic solutions regularly. Further on, the solution should be mixed with fertilizers to get the proper nutritional levels.
Unnatural nutrient levels in aquaponics are low. Instead, fish excrement acts as a natural supply of nutrients in the water, allowing plants to develop properly.
- Maintenance Needs
Gardening with an aquaponics system in place requires far less monitoring than hydroponics once the system is established and functioning at its peak. In hydroponics, the aquatic solution must be regularly monitored to check the EC, pH, total dissolved solids, and nutrient concentrations. But again, in aquaponics, the pH and ammonia levels must be examined weekly or if the fish appear stressed.
Because of the sustainability of aquaponics and the naturally occurring mechanisms that keep nutrient levels in control, there is no need to cleanse and replenish the nutrient solution.
Bonus Tip: As salt levels rise in hydroponics, it’s important to drain the aquatic solution and replace it with a new batch regularly.
The Better Option Between Aquaponics VS Hydroponics
There is no definite answer to what is better between aquaponics and hydroponics since they both have clear benefits and disadvantages. Although they have multiple differences, too, none of them make one system better than the other.
For some people, aquaponics is the better option since it allows them to nurture fish along with plants. Furthermore, it even forms a self-sustaining system wherein the nutrients flow from the fish to the plants.
An aquaponics system also requires far less maintenance which is desirable for many overly packed DIY gardeners. Yet, hydroponic systems are widely used by hobbyists and commercial growers.
The primary reason for this is that a hydroponic system is simpler to set up, looks neater when placed indoors, and has more return on investment.
Therefore, it cannot be concluded whether aquaponics is a better gardening system or hydroponics is. Yet, one way to choose between the two would be to list down what factors are important to your gardening goals.
Both hydroponics and aquaponics typically follow the principle of growing plants in water. Yet, they cannot be used synonymously because of their considerable differences.
By understanding the differences between aquaponics VS hydroponics, all DIY gardeners can make a precise, calculated decision and begin achieving their gardening dreams swiftly.
Bonus Read: For those of you gardeners who’ve decided to invest in hydroponic systems, these 7 outdoor hydroponic system set-ups shall give you ideas to get started.