Mythconception #6 – Aquaponics is Easy

There are some people who would have you believe that operating an aquaponics system is just…..easy!

The  people most likely to tell you that aquaponics is easy are those who want to sell you aquaponics kits or equipment – so their interest is fairly obvious.  You’re much more likely to sell something to someone if you can convince them that it requires little or no effort or learning to operate.

Others like Dr Mike Nichols  (a horticultural research scientist at the College of Sciences at Massey Universtity, Palmerston North NZ) have a different view. 

In the March/April 2009 issue of Practical Hydroponics and Greenhouses he reported:

 “Sadly, I must report that aquaponics may be too difficult for many people.  Theoretically, it should involve an equal marriage of aquaculture and hydroponics in which the two separate disciplines respond synergistically, and the nutrient waste from the fish is ‘purified’ by the bacteria and the plants and the clean water is then returned to the fish.  In fact, because of the difference in the skills required for aquaculture and for hydroponics, it would appear that in many cases the synergy does not exist.

The majority of the income from aquaponics comes from the horticultural component, but as the majority of aquaponics projects evolve from aquaculture there is a distinct lack of horticultural knowledge by the participants.  The result is that the aquaponics producer has to compete with the specialist hydroponics grower, but without the necessary skills base.  It is my view that aquaponics (except on a very small scale) requires two specialists, an aquaculture specialist and a hydroponics specialist.  Without this any large project would appear to be at risk.”

While Dr Nichols makes it clear that he’s talking about  commercial aquaponics systems, I believe his contention  is just as applicable to any aquaponics system – large or small.

While I acknowledge that the financial cost of incompetence may be far greater in a commercial operation, the practical outcome is the same….dead fish and plants that fail to thrive…..regardless of the size of the operation.

I guess I’m puzzled (and faintly suspicious), therefore, at how quickly many people (who have no previous experience of either aquaculture or hydroponics) develop confidence in their ability to undertake aquaponics.

Their excitement and confidence is understandable when you realise that it is the product of what they are told – that that the mere combination of these two disciplines creates something which is somehow easier to comprehend than either of the component parts. 

They’re told that “the fish produce waste that the bacteria convert to plant food.  The fish feed the plants and the plants clean the water for the fish.”

“It can’t be that simple” say the interested onlookers.  “There must be more to it than that.”

At this point, the kit maker or their agent produces a few ”guidelines” – sage little wisdoms that are easy to remember and which still leave the novice with the illusion that aquaponics is easy to do. 

The ”guidelines” include:

Tart these ‘guidelines’ up with a few exaggerated claims about sustainability (see Mythconception #5 – Sustainability) and productivity and our onlooker is (with pen poised over the order form) rushing headlong into a Damascus Road conversion to aquaponics.

While the symbiotic relationship between fish and plants is the essence of aquaponics, the simplistic fish/plant dialogue trotted out by some vested interests is a very long way from explaining its intricacies. 

My own experience of small-scale food production spans 30 years.  In that time, we’ve kept all sorts of birds and animals and attempted to grow many types of plants using a variety of production systems and achieving proficiency in aquaponics has been as big a  challenge as any of them…..and it is ongoing.

Now, having spent this time attempting to convince you that aquaponics is not as easy as some people would suggest, I don’t want you to believe that it’s beyond those who are prepared to make a reasonable effort to learn. 

Aquaponics will, of itself, offer a reasonable return on your investment of time and money.   Like any other investment, however, aquaponics may prove risky for those who are too lazy to do some basic research.

If your interest is in small-scale aquaponics, there are several books available.  My personal favourite is  The Urban Aquaponics Manual – 2nd Edition.   While I confess to a certain bias (I wrote it), it is also the most up-to-date publication of its type in the world.

If you’re still itching for more on recirculating aquaculture – and if you’re well-healed – I’d recommend Recirculating Aquaculture Systems by Timmons, Ebeling, Wheaton, Summerfeldt and Vinci.  It even contains a 40 page section on aquaponics.

Couple that with some reading about hydroponics.  I recommend:

  • Hydroponic Food Production by Howard Resh
  • Commercial Hydroponics by John Mason
  • Hydroponic Crop Production by Joe Romer

By the time you’ve digested these books, you’ll be in the top 2 percentile (in terms of your knowledge of aquaponics) in the world.

If you’re just starting out in aquaponics, you will have a distinct advantage over those who have gone before you.  Notwithstanding the hocus pocus, there’s more information out there than ever before.   You’ve just got to sort the wheat from the chaff (like this little gem from another kit maker)……..

“Running an aquaponic system CAN be easy… I know of people who had no idea about fish keeping and no idea about growing plants yet with a few simple guidelines they are producing and harvesting their own produce from their systems.”

And here’s my point…..everything is easy until something goes wrong.  When that something happens, the simplistic little guidelines don’t prevent the fishkill……or the subsequent anguish and the inevitable loss of confidence that occurs.

Forums like www.aquaponicshq.com/forums chronicle the trials of many people who have taken such advice and had bad experiences.  But for these forums, and the technical support (and the occasional bit of group therapy) that they provide, such people would simply founder and drift away from aquaponics.

To summarise, aquaponics will provide:

  • crops of plants and fish for the same amount of water that it would normally take to just grow the plants.
  • clean, fresh, affordable food for you and your family.

…..but, like any worthwhile pursuit, your rewards will be commensurate with your efforts.  The more you know; the more you grow!

-o0o-

Comments

  1. Arthoz says

    “everything is easy until something goes wrong…”

    True, true. I had sleepless night and always woke up in a fright every morning during the first three months when I first started due to many problems. It took a year until my system is fully tuned that it is running quite well and I could leave home for a few days without worrying that somewhere in system the piping would leak out water or the aeration got dislodged and kill all my fish and plants. Some people even commented: why do you study engineering and do all this stuff and waste your time? Why don’t just take up agriculture….

    That make my cheeks got all red with embarrasment until the day that I could happily net out fishes and pluck fresh vegetables everyday to cook at home. It is never easy but just like you’ve said, it is a worthwhile pursuit–as long as you are always humble enough to learn and willing to study the related diciplines. ;P

  2. Frank says

    You are absolutely right Gary! Aquaponics is Easy! Since buying Murrays Kit system – I havent lost a single fish, How easy is that., I dont have any aquaculture experience. None at all. Why I couldnt even raise a bloody gold fish without killing it through over feeding it. Here I am 9 months later with 60 Jade Perch growing like fat little pigs.I havent lost a single one! How Easy is that? I’m laughing every day. The other Easy misconception is that I have no horticulture experience at all. None. Nada. Zip. Guess what Gary? Have you seen the bloody size of my Cucumbers on Murray’s Forum? They grow themselves into Monsters Gary! Frigging Huge things! The truth is Gary – Its too bloody Easy!

    • says

      Frank…….I congratulate you on your achievement……..and I hope that it always continues that way for you. As I pointed out, it’s alway easy……until something goes wrong. One way to minimise the risk is to develop your knowledge and skills in both aquaculture and hydroponics.

  3. Old Trout says

    Frank, perhaps worth considering is that you may find aquaponics easy because many people have done the hard yards for you. There is a lot of experience built into the design of Murrays system. They are designed to make things easy. Building your own and raising fish is another matter entirely. Also remember that thanks to people like Gary who day in day out provide us with information and answers that enables aquaponics to be a little easier for us all.

  4. says

    please let’s not exaggerate either the compexity or the ease of aquaponics
    like most things aquaponics needs concentration and education to be successful
    but nothing more than that:
    anybody can do it on a small scale with a little dedication
    and the risks are minimal
    to be optimal and commercial, that is a different ball game
    you need more refined and other skills and continuous schooling to keep up
    thanks for helping with this, Gary
    Frank

    • says

      Frank.………

      ……like most things aquaponics needs concentration and education to be successful
      but nothing more than that:

      I agree. This post was motivated by a succession (dozens in fact) of sad tales of people who were killing fish (and their confidence) because they had been given simplistic instructions about how to run their systems. Their ‘advisors’ seem to have overlooked the fact that, once the oxygen levels in a system drop below a certain point (for a variety of reasons), fish deaths become inevitable.

      Most of us would agree that driving a car without appropriate instruction and practice might be dangerous if not fatal. Why would aquaponics (or any other process that seeks to manage living organisms) be any different?

      Frank……thanks for your interest and your support.

  5. says

    Hi
    as any question that it’s answer is not quantifiable – the answer to weather aquaponics is easy or not is a very much subjective one. to support the not-so-easy notion are the arguments that some level of technical skills, biological and chemical understanding and undulated curiosity are essential to run the little food factory. more so if you wish to be successful and innovative.. but this can be said about almost any hobby / extra-curriculum activity. obviously some extent of passion is required, and considering the odd hours you find yourself dealing with fish goo or a renegade siphon a lot of patience is eminent.. but – having said all that – the kits I’ve seen (well, I’ve only seen the ones Murray & Gary use) seem to make the beginning a lot easier, and after that it’s up to you if you will be successful or not. i say that if you are keen on gardening, there is no reason you shouldn’t fly on aquaponics.. i guess if you love doing something, it’s never too difficult. especially with the support and encouragement of forums and sites as this one.
    and let’s face it – business is business, you sell a life style not a car bla bla bla, people should know better than to believe anything told to them.
    so – a perky question – if one should think of the perfect starter kit, how would that look like? would the fish tank be round (like in all aquaculture facilities for numerous reasons) or square? which is the best solid removal solution for beginners? which way to go – drain & flood or fast fill slow drain? CHOP? DWC? I ask because even if there is no one correct answer, experience goes a long way . and i really have to be persuaded that square tanks better for the job..
    happy sunday

    • says

      Tomer…..the problem (as I see it) is that that provision of simplistic advice (often for the purpose of getting people to buy products) is just setting them up to fail. Aquaponics is like most things….if you make the effort to acquire the required knowledge and skills, you’ll be rewarded. The “just add water and shake” approach to aquaponics is not in anyone’s long term interest.

      The idea of a “perfect starter kit” is an interesting one……and one which has (no doubt) occupied the minds of many people. For me, it’s probably the minimum that you need to create an aquaponics eco-system while leaving you positioned to explore the many options that exist. The choices that people make after than will be driven by their particular needs and preferences.

      I use square or rectangular tanks because they are easy to cover (in the interests of child safety and temperature/algae control). They allow for vertical stacking of components and they make more efficient use of space……all of which are important in a backyard aquaponics context.

      I also see benefits in using circular tanks, too……particularly those that have a cone-shaped bottom. They certainly lend themselves to easier solids removal.

  6. says

    It’s a classic catch-22: the enthused beginner should work his way through the aquaponic check-box: rectangular or cone shape? siphon or timer? gravel, tuff, hydroton or a cocktail of sorts? which fish? which feed? and the list, of course, goes on and on. alas… to begin answering any of these innocent simple questions, you need the experience, and heeps of it. so here enters the seasoned supplier, telling you (the youngster) what you need to get by, and preferably in a ready made kit. this concept in it’s essence is good and fine, as education pays, so to speak, but the twist is that there are seldom two identical conditions in which these systems need function.. and here enters the individual specific needs of peoples in various locations, climates or wants. now i can confidently say that Tilapia require a cone shaped bottom, heafty solid filters, warm water etc. so there is a majik solution, perhaps, but it need be local, as opposed to generic.
    are rectangular shaped tanks not much more taxing in cleaning? do they not harm the natural tendency of fish to swim is circles? are they not more expensive to produce (more material / less volume)?
    again, it’s not one solution over another, just wondering about considerations.. (if this is the correct venue at all..)
    regards

    • says

      Tomer……the “one size fits all” approach to aquaponics is, as you’ve identified, limited in its application.

      Everything that I say about square or rectangular tanks is limited to systems in the 600 to 2,000 litre range. This is the area in which I’ve specialised so far. Square or rectangular tanks at this level present very few cleaning issues.

      Fish only tend to swim in circles in circular tanks. In larger bodies of water, they swim at random.

  7. says

    Hi Gary
    well, if from your experience rectangualr tanks pose no more difficulty than round one’s thats good enough for me. as for the fish swimming, from my knowledge fish that swim in circles have the “feeling” of expanse, as they do not seem to be affected by the slight angle. so the question is perhaps a matter of giving fish the feeling of space..
    so to summarize, I’d say that the more you love aquaponics, the easier it gets?! ?!

    • says

      Tomer…….the best fish tank you can afford is the one to go with. In Australia, mega bins are available ‘off-the-shelf’ and, compared to purpose-built fish tanks, they are relatively inexpensive. Circular tanks with cone-shaped bases (allowing for easy removal of solid wastes) are the best overall……but they are usually quite expensive.

      As for your summary……..love is part of it. Aquaponics is like a marriage……you have to work at it if you want it to be really good.

  8. Phil says

    “I also see benefits in using circular tanks, too……particularly those that have a cone-shaped bottom.”

    I see no reason why the cone effect could not be achieved in a rectangular or square tank. Off the shelf purchase would probably be more difficult, but the stackability issue would be no different….

  9. says

    Phil…….purpose-built circular aquaculture tanks (with a cone-shaped base) are probably the ideal tank…..but they are expensive.

    You won’t get quite the same effect from a square tank (with a cone-shaped base) because the circular tanks rely on water movement to direct solid wastes to the centre drain.

    Square tanks are good for a variety of reasons but circular tanks have their distinct advantages, too.

  10. Paul V says

    Wow Gary that was a read…

    Again, I am here to disagree with you to some extent.

    Aquaponics is quite simple with a system designed by professionals and supported. From my experience, we designed a system for a starter with only golfing knowledge (ex pro golfer), gave him solid guidelines and access to us for any issues that arose and it only took him 3 months to gain the required skills to operate without the usual once a week phone call to me without any losses at all. Seems pretty easy to me.

    There is no difficulty in small systems, just poor designs and half baked ideas about how to run them. I would not recommend anyone attend an online forum to gain information about the topic unless that forum actually had professionals running and advising on it. Which is not the case. This is where I agree with some book reading as you suggested.

    This is where we come back to asking the supplier some key questions before purchasing. If they can not answer them and back them up with the appropriate formula, they are clearly full of it. I have asked these same questions of suppliers and they profess these numbers are intellectual property at which point I discontinue any further communication with them.

    If the supplier can not offer the answers or does and you are dubious about the motives, ask a professional to assess if it is worth it.

  11. matt says

    “Have you seen the bloody size of my Cucumbers on Murray’s Forum? They grow themselves into Monsters Gary! Frigging Huge things! The truth is Gary – Its too bloody Easy!”

    hmmm.. Franks testimony sounds more like a blatent ad campaign than anything else! I think that he is taking an over-simplistic approach to what is an involved science.

    • says

      Matt…….you may be better able to understand why Frank is so enthusiastic about Murray’s cucumbers…..and systems. He produced Murray’s DVD’s…..so every time Murray sells one, Frank gets a warm inner glow……and his cash register rings.

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