The advent of soilless agriculture has revitalized how farmers grow crops. Hydroponics and aquaponics are currently the most sought-after food production systems due to their efficiency and sustainability. If you’re considering venturing into either system, you might be wondering which one is more profitable.
Aquaponics has shown potential to be more profitable than hydroponics if farmers focus on growing a wide variety of plants and selling them at a higher price. Hydroponics and aquaponics are both profitable, withstanding certain factors, including input volume, market demand, and operational costs.
In this article, I’ll explore the working mechanisms of hydroponics and aquaponics, including their advantages and disadvantages, and factors that affect the economic aspects of both systems. Moreover, we’ll compare hydroponics and aquaponics based on these factors to gauge their profitability. Read on to learn which system could be more profitable for you.
Potential Profitability of Hydroponics vs Aquaponics
Hydroponics and aquaponics have the potential to be profitable if farmers minimize operational costs and maximize the output. Though the two systems have a similar start-up and operational costs, aquaponics can be more profitable if some factors are altered.
Start-Up and Operating Costs
Both hydroponics and aquaponics have higher start-up costs than conventional agriculture. The two systems have almost similar initial costs, but aquaponics can be more costly. This is because the buying cost of fish may be higher, depending on the species. Generally, aquaponics takes more cycling time, which may increase the start-up cost.
Operating costs may vary between the two systems. For instance, there’s a need for a constant supply of fertilizers in hydroponics. On the other hand, aquaponics has higher energy consumption, as the system requires maximum aeration for the fish to survive.
The cycling period in hydroponics is shorter than in aquaponics. Therefore, cycling the nutrients in hydroponics only takes a few days more than the 6-8 weeks required to build a bacterial colony in aquaponics. Not to mention, any mistake made during cycling can cause a system collapse in aquaponics, leading to additional costs.
Nutrient Provision and Sustainability
Both systems require a constant supply of nutrients to remain viable. The farmer has to add the nutrients manually and replenish them consistently in hydroponics. As a result, they’ll incur operating costs while regularly purchasing these artificial nutrients.
Contrastingly, in aquaponics, there’s no need for manual addition of nutrients, as they’re obtained from fish waste. The farmer only has to feed the fish daily (2-3 times) and even prepare fishmeal at home. Thus, the overall cost of nutrient provision could be higher in hydroponics than in aquaponics.
Maintenance and Waste Disposal
We’ve seen that aquaponics has a higher start-up cost than hydroponics. However, the maintenance requirements dwindle once the system is well-cycled and running. Particularly since you don’t have to carry out daily parameter checks or flush out the system often.
Contrastingly, hydroponics has more maintenance costs, as you have to test vital parameters, including pH, electroconductivity (EC), and temperature daily. Hydroponics also requires regular water exchange since the buildup of minerals can be harmful to the plants.
When it comes to waste management, there are no operational costs incurred in aquaponics since the system is self-cleaning (wastes converted to nutrients), and the water is purified and recycled. But, in hydroponics, wastes are disposed of outside the system. Hence, a farmer will incur some costs during waste management.
Due to its complexity and cycling requirements, aquaponics is more prone to mechanical failure than hydroponics. For instance, if the mechanical filters are ineffective, the solid wastes can contaminate the whole system, resulting in plant and fish death. Additionally, if the aeration systems malfunction, anaerobic conditions occur, threatening the survival of fish and plants.
Hydroponics: Basic Principles and Effectiveness
Hydroponics is a form of agriculture that entails growing crops using water and nutrients only. Plants grow in a soilless medium or suspended in nutrient-rich water, obtaining essential nutrients from a nutrient-charged aqueous solution.
Hydroponics has gained popularity worldwide due to its advantages, including water conservation, space optimization, and all-year-round food production. Plus, plants have all the requirements needed for growth, including nutrients, water, and light. Unlike traditional agriculture, hydroponics removes the need for soil, as plants can obtain nutrients from the nutrient-rich aqueous solution.
Although hydroponics has been practiced for ages, modern-day hydroponics resulted from the extensive work of American scientists. They explored the potential of this soilless technique in food production. After studying the fluid dynamics of water, they discovered that plants growing in the water had a better uptake of nutrients than those in a soil-based medium.
Over the years, scientists have formulated the essential combination of macro and micronutrients that plants need to thrive in a hydroponic unit.
How Hydroponics Works
The basis of hydroponics is to provide plants with the vital requirements for plant growth in a soilless environment. Therefore, in hydroponics, plants uptake nutrients from a nutrient-charged aqueous solution flushed over the root zone. Plants can absorb these nutrients using two methods, which include:
- Active system – uses pumps to circulate the nutrient-rich solution throughout the hydroponic unit. The pumps also facilitate aeration.
- Passive system – doesn’t utilize pumps, as the nutrient-rich water reaches the growing beds via gravity, flooding, and capillary action.
Hydroponics also involves the creation of a controlled environment, where a farmer removes the unpredictability of the conventional form of food production.
Apart from providing nutrients, a hydroponic gardener controls other parameters, including temperature and pH. This minimizes risk factors that inhibit plant growth, such as diseases and pest invasion, allowing plants to grow optimally.
Six types of hydroponics systems exist, including:
- Wick system
- Ebb and flow
- Water culture
- Drip system
- Nutrient film technique
However, all these techniques revolve around the same principle and have the following basic components:
- Water: The most vital constituent of hydroponics, water is the transport medium for minerals, eliminating the need for a soil-based medium to grow plants. Water circulates throughout a hydroponics unit normally (via gravity) or through pumping.
- Nutrients: These include both micronutrients and macronutrients. They’re dissolved in water to form a nutrient-rich solution delivered to the root system. Nutrients are added to the hydroponic unit manually.
- Grow beds: These are plant-growing sites madeof netted pots or sponges supported by perforated grow trays or floating platforms. The netted pots are more efficient than conventional clay pots, as they support the plants and expose the roots to nutrient-rich water and oxygen.
- Soilless medium: This porous material anchors the plants, enabling them to dangle in the nutrient-rich aqueous solution. Unlike soil, this Medium doesn’t provide any nutrients to the plants. However, it’s an inert substance that retains both water and nutrients for optimum absorption by the plant roots. The most commonly used soilless media in hydroponics include vermiculite, rock wool, and coconut coir.
- Plants: Even plants that aren’t naturally aquatic can grow in a hydroponics system. The most common crops in hydroponics include vegetables and herbs, including lettuce, basil, kales, and tomatoes. Plants have maximum exposure to nutrients and don’t require a lot of energy to obtain them.
- Supplemental lighting: Apart from water and nutrients, plants need light to grow. Using hydroponics, a farmer can utilize supplemental lighting to boost plant growth, especially for indoor plants. Supplemental lighting includes electric bulbs that are switched on and off, imitating the natural daylight and darkness cycle.
Financial Advantages of Hydroponics
Hydroponics is an effective and sustainable system providing many benefits that could help to solve food production challenges. Not surprisingly, due to its predictability and potentially high production, it’s gaining popularity worldwide.
Predictable and Consistent Costs
Since hydroponics is a controlled farming technique, food production is consistent. For instance, you can determine how much water, nutrient supply, or supplemental light you need within a specified duration. This also makes it easy to predict the cost of production all year round.
Most hydroponic systems involve greenhouses or indoor units, allowing farmers to have total control of the growing conditions, including lighting and the provision of nutrients. Therefore, plants don’t face growth-inhibiting factors and can grow in and out of season.
In general, hydroponics is best-suited for commercial food production, as farmers can predict how much they’ll produce in a given period. Moreover, the ability to grow crops throughout the year allows them to plan and enjoy financial stability.
Plants utilize only 0.1% of the absorbed water and lose the rest to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. Interestingly, a hydroponics system uses approximately 98% less water than conventional soil-based agriculture. The unused water recirculates in the system, making hydroponics a water-efficient farming technique.
Water conservation is an emerging issue, as most parts of the world are prone to water shortages. As a result, conventional farming methods are becoming less popular due to their high water demand. However, hydroponics has proven to be more profitable than traditional forms of food production due to its water efficiency.
You don’t need large tracts of land to practice hydroponics. Hydroponics eliminates the need for large farming spaces due to vertical growing planes. So, even if you’re an urban dweller, you can still grow your desired veggies and flowering plants through this farming technique.
A hydroponics farmer will experience higher yields than a traditional farmer regardless of the weather or climatic conditions.
This is because hydroponics creates a microclimate for the plants, eliminating negative environmental factors like weeds, pests, and diseases. Additionally, they can grow all year round due to the consistent provision of nutrients. In general, plants take 30-50% less time to grow and mature in hydroponics than conventional farming.
Financial Disadvantages of Hydroponics
Hydroponics is popular, even among amateur gardeners, due to its benefits. Still, despite its merits, hydroponics has its share of shortcomings, and it’s crucial to know what to expect from this system before venturing into it.
High Initial Startup Cost
It’s costly to set up a viable hydroponics system. You need to buy several equipment and materials, including water pumps, pipes, and greenhouse components. Plus, the unit will require electricity for supplemental lighting.
Since hydroponics also requires the consistent nutrient provision, a farmer incurs high operational costs while continuously buying nutrient formulas. Unfortunately, high energy consumption results in hefty monthly bills.
After setting up your hydroponics unit, you need to ensure it’s always up and running. Regular maintenance is required, including testing the pH levels and monitoring the plants. It’s important to schedule the maximum possible time to your system to ensure the plants always have enough nutrients and are doing well.
Steep Learning Curve
Although hydroponics is attractive to newbies, it requires hands-on knowledge and technical skills. A farmer needs to learn how to operate equipment, test, and monitor parameters to keep the system afloat. If a farmer doesn’t meet these requirements, they can hire a professional laborer, incurring extra costs.
Low Return on Investment
Despite the high yields obtained in hydroponics, some factors may lead to a low return on investment. For instance, a persistent power outage may result in plant death. Also, the high start-up and operational costs may outweigh the revenue, especially in large-scale systems.
Spread of Pests and Diseases
Although hydroponics minimizes the risk of exposing plants to pests and diseases, invasion can still occur. Unfortunately, since it’s an enclosed system, pests and diseases spread faster and may lead to a total collapse. Additionally, poor aeration causes anaerobic conditions and plant diseases such as root rot.
Aquaponics: Basic Principles and Effectiveness
Aquaponics is a farming technique that combines hydroponics and aquaculture (fish-keeping). It mimics a natural ecosystem since the organisms (fish, plants, and bacteria) have a symbiotic relationship. It comprises three major systems, DWC, NFT, and media-based grow bed.
Like hydroponics, aquaponics is a soilless farming technique proven to be more efficient than conventional agriculture. The reason for this is that plants receive nutrient-rich water comprising fish waste, organic debris, and uneaten food from a fish tank. The system also involves filtration to prevent the buildup of wastes and toxins.
Since aquaponics is a combination of two systems (hydroponics and aquaculture), it experiences a compound of benefits. Still, the technique can also face many shortcomings arising from the two techniques. Overall, aquaponics is more complex, and system optimization for both fish and plants could be a challenge.
How Aquaponics Works
In aquaponics, the fish are the most important component, as they provide nutrients to nourish the plants. However, the fish waste isn’t in a form that plants can benefit from. Therefore, nitrifying bacteria must convert the waste (in the form of ammonia) to plant-friendly nutrients (nitrates).
The nitrifying bacteria are also part of the system’s filtration components. Generally, they’re referred to as a biofilter, and they break down organic wastes into plant nutrients. Mechanical filtration is also crucial in aquaponics since it sieves out solid wastes contaminating the system.
Three forms of aquaponics systems exist, including:
- Media-based grow bed: This entails planting crops in grow beds comprising inert media such as expanded clay pebbles or lava rock. The media support plants and also house the bacterial colony.
- Nutrient Film Technique (NFT): This is a space-efficient technique that involves planting crops on vertical planes and horizontal pipes. It’s a media-free system, as plants dangle in a thin film of nutrient-rich water flowing through gutters.
- Deep Water Culture (DWC): This highly efficient technique entails suspending plant growing on floating rafts in nutrient-rich water. Like NFT, DWC is a media-less technique, but it utilizes a higher volume of water than NFT.
Regardless of which you choose, the essential components of any aquaponics system include:
- Fish and fish tank: The fish are the nutrient-providers in the system and are housed in a fish tank.
- Biofilter: This comprises a bacterial colony that carries out biofiltration. So, the bacteria break down toxic fish wastes (ammonia) and decaying organic matter into beneficial nutrients (nitrates).
- Mechanical filters: These consist of sieves that remove solid wastes from the water before leaving the fish tank to the growing beds.
- Growing beds: These are the sites where plants grow. So, they receive nutrient-rich water to nourish the plants.
- Sump tank: It’s usually the lowest position in an aquaponics system where the liquid run-off accumulates. It’s also where the nutrient-rich water is pumped to the growing beds.
- Water and a pump: Water has a crucial role in aquaponics as it’s the medium where fish live and plants obtain essential nutrients. It circulates throughout the system, undergoing filtration and purification before being pumped back to the fish tank. A pump aids in circulating water in the system. It also facilitates aeration.
- Standpipes or siphons: These drain water from the growing sites, taking it back to the fish tank for the continuity of the water cycle.
Financial Advantages of Aquaponics
Since it’s an innovative farming technique, aquaponics has gained popularity worldwide. Like hydroponics, the system has an advantage over conventional farming due to its efficiency and sustainability. For instance, it’s space and water-efficient, plants grow faster than in a soil-based farm, and facilitates all-year-round food production.
Aquaponics is like a natural ecosystem where the organisms benefit from each other. Since the fish are the nutrient-providers in the system, a farmer doesn’t have to add nutrients manually. Instead, the bacterial colony bridges the nutrient gap between the plants and the fish.
Water circulation in the system also facilitates nutrient provision and filtration. Therefore, there’s no need to replace the water, unless on special occasions like restarting the system. Rather, you only have to top up water to replace the water lost via evaporation.
Lower Labor and Maintenance Requirements
Aquaponics is labor-efficient, as most of the work is required during installation. Once the system is cycled, it’ll run smoothly with few maintenance requirements. The farmer is only responsible for conducting regular monitoring tests to check parameters, including pH, temperature, and ammonia levels.
Unlike conventional farming methods, pesticides and fertilizers are non-essential in aquaponics. The system is exclusively organic, as fish wastes are the major source of nutrients. Basically, the system utilizes organic-based methods to get rid of insects, as chemicals can be harmful to the fish.
Improved Plant Density
Aquaponics involves the suspension of plant roots in nutrient-rich water. Essentially, plants don’t utilize high energy in search of nutrients, resulting in a smaller root base. Thus, most of the energy is geared towards developing plant density.
Overall, aquaponic-grown vegetables have larger leaves and appear healthier than those grown in traditional farming.
Less Vulnerable to Pests and Diseases
Aquaponics is also a controlled farming technique since it minimizes the exposure of plants to pests and diseases. Notably, the system is less prone to pest invasion than hydroponics. For instance, Pythium (better known as root rot) isn’t a common problem in aquaponics since the microorganisms help to boost plants’ immunity against the disease.
Different environmental or climatic conditions don’t limit aquaponics, allowing for the practice of this farming technique whether you’re in a tropical or a temperate region. However, you can still rear fish or grow crops with similar environmental requirements to your locality.
Financial Disadvantages of Aquaponics
Despite its many benefits, here are some disadvantages of aquaponics that may impact overall profitability to consider.
Limited Choice of Plants
Not all plants will do well in aquaponics. The system only relies on nutrients obtained from fish waste, and the volume depends on the stocking density. For this reason, the system is better suited to accommodate low-nutrient crops.
Complexity and High Investment
Since it’s an integrated farming technique, building and installing an aquaponic system is difficult. Aquaponics requires a well-established plumbing system to facilitate nutrient delivery and aeration, and a high start-up cost is typically incurred purchasing required materials and equipment.
According to some studies, setting up and implementing an aquaponics unit costs 30-50% more than a hydroponics unit.
High Energy Consumption
Aquaponics requires a consistent energy supply (electricity) to keep the system running. Notably, since the system can operate indoors, it utilizes energy to supplement lighting for maximum plant growth. Ultimately, this can lead to some substantial utility bills.
Prone to System Collapse
Since aquaponics is a blend of two techniques, the system requires a strict balance to maintain its good shape. A farmer needs to initially cycle the system after setting it up to create a bacterial colony to create a favorable environment for the fish and plants to thrive. Ultimately, this cycling period delays the output, as it can take up to 8 weeks to have the system ready for food production.
Hydroponics and aquaponics have many advantages over conventional agriculture. But, both systems also have their shortcomings. Although it’s not easy to decide between the two, aquaponics has the potential to be more profitable than hydroponics.