Aquaponics vs. Hydroponics – Which One Is Right for You?

In your adventures and struggles with prepping you may have come across these two words. Hydroponics and Aquaponics are quickly becoming a popular method of providing food for homesteaders and preppers alike.

If you haven’t heard of those two approaches before, you are in luck, because we will be going into detail on the pros and cons of these two systems and how they benefit us.

hydroponics plants
hydroponics plants

This article is also directed to those that know about aquaponics vs hydroponics – even if vaguely – and are looking for ideas on how they can implement them into their greenhouse, garden, home, or backyard.

Whatever your plan is, you will be able to apply these to your prepping plans or your (urban) homestead.

Hydroponics vs Aquaponics

Which One Is Better For You?

Each of the two methods of growing have their pros and cons and surprisingly enough, it really does depend on your personal style of growing.

There are obviously other things to consider such as associate costs (both initial and ongoing), level of skill required, energy consumption, and what you’re actually growing.

In general, hydroponic systems are used by hobbyist and professional growers alike. Aquaponic systems are generally used by individuals who are looking for a low maintenance, self-sustaining way of growing plants. It’s more of a niche within the hydroponic umbrella.

Either of them can be learned over time but there are a few differences to remember.

Startup/Maintenance CostsPower ConsumptionLevel Of Skill
HydroponicsCan be minimal depending on crop size.
Initial startup cost can be as low as $300
Maintenance costs are from added nutrients.
The biggest power consumers will be your lights, air stones, and fans.

The level of skill is a result of the complexity of your project.
Can be a simple bucket and airstone system.
Great for beginners
AquaponicsMore expensive since you have to purchase the fish.
Initial startup costs start around $1,000 for a simple setup
Maintenance costs are varied since fish food isn’t free.
The tradeoff is that you don’t need to purchase synthetic nutrients.
Needs additional biofilters, pumps, and oxygenators.
Needs more room for the added fish. Usually an additional tank for circulation.
Requires more labor to take care of the fish.
Additional understanding of climates, disease prevention, and biology are assets
A great stepping stone from hydroponics.

Hydroponics

Pros

  • Conserves water – Since you are recycling the water that is being used there is very little waste. The only time you’ll have to fill it is when the water is soaked up by the roots or evaporated.
  • Creates a microclimate free of pests – Insects need a growing medium to breed and live. Since you don’t use soil in hydroponics there is less of a chance for infestations.
  • Minimal labor requirements – All you have to do is ensure your grow space has the proper climate, fill the water and nutrients, and observe your plants. It can even be an automated process with a few adjustments.
  • Produces higher yields – Since the roots of your crop are in direct contact with a nutrient dense solution, they can uptake whatever they need at any time. This produces a balance for the plant to reach its full potential.
  • Grows much faster than in soil – Due to the same reason as above you’ll notice that your plants will explode with growth. Having consistent access to vital nutrients encourages the plant to work harder.

Cons

  • Initial costs can be steep – Since this is an indoor growing system you’ll need to purchase lights, fans, pumps etc. This is a much higher cost than just using a seed and shovel.
  • Power is required for it to work – If the power to your system is cut off then you’ll have a hard time circulating water, keeping your plants oxygenated, and having your lights on. This is one of the major pitfalls of hydroponic growing.

To put it simply, it is a method of growing vegetables and produce without a growing medium like dirt. For this to work, you will have to water the seedlings with a nutrient dense water solution.

This is typically done with piping properly spaced out, and a water pump to pump the water solution onto the seedlings. When done correctly, you can expect massive yields in a shorter amount of time than a traditional garden.

Hydroponics is a very popular method for growing leafy greens and some fruits. It’s also very successful at growing vines like cucumbers and tomatoes.

In theory, you can grow anything through hydroponics, the only thing to keep in mind is that some plants need different nutrients, so your solution will have to change to accommodate this.

This system can be relatively simple to set up, or it can be expensive and less time-consuming.

In regards to hydroponics, you will find that there are cheap ways that are meant to last even in the worst case scenarios, or you will have systems that require more initial investment, but when they are done right, you will have tremendous yields.

Undoubtedly, the money you invest into a hydroponic system will pay itself in full with a little patience from you. But first, what is a hydroponic system?

The first thing you want to address is how much you are planning to invest into a system like this, and if your plans include pumps that require electricity.

You will want to make sure that you can keep them going if the power goes out. Without those pumps, you won’t be able to keep your system running.

The best idea is to start small and focus on a group of plants that are easy to grow in a system like this. You need to supplement the water regularly to provide the right nutrients that your plants will need to thrive.

Start with your favorite lettuce and master growing it in a hydroponic system. Stockpile the nutrients that it needs, and slowly implement other lettuces and leafy greens.

They will need the same nutrients, so the additions/transitions won’t cost you extra, and it won’t be a huge hassle for you to change or adapt to what you are already used to.

One of cheapest ways to get started is to buy one of those moving/packing totes and set it up as a bubbler hydroponic system.

You will need to get an aeration device – hence the term bubbler – along with the necessities that are needed for most hydroponic systems – mesh pots, growing medium, and solution.

Then you will cut holes in the tote lid for the pots to sit in with the growing medium.

The water inside the tote has to come up to the level of the pots, and the aeration system(an aquarium aerator works perfectly) needs to run to keep the water and growing solution mixing through the growing medium.

There are many guides you can find on this particular set-up on the internet.

Of course, if the power goes out, your pump won’t work, and that includes your ability to grow.

Like with all of these systems, you will want to prepare for power outages through solar panels, or any other alternative energy source to keep your hydroponic system operating.

Most of these systems need quite a bit of water and oxygen running through it for it to be successful.

There are special pots, growing mediums, and aerators for air flow while some people have their system “drip” continuously, and others will run the system multiple times a day to achieve the right water flow.

The best advice in regards to this is to find what works for you. If you prefer to micromanage your system, it is probably better for you to turn it on and off while keeping a close eye on your hydroponic garden.

If you are forgetful, a continuous drip may be best. Just remember that your solution will need to be more diluted because it is dripping on the plants constantly, and make sure that water never becomes too stagnant.

Once you have mastered this, start experimenting with other plants that you desire. Just remember, if you are faced with a SHTF scenario, you won’t be able to go to your local garden center and get that blood meal or bone meal that your solution requires.

Stockpile these supplies and growing solutions when you can so you will be prepared. You might want to also invest in a solar panel or two to keep your pump running in these situations.

Almost all leafy lettuces will work in a hydroponic system. Along with the lettuce, most hydroponic growers have great success with tomatoes, and you can even make some good money growing hydroponic tomatoes.

Vines like cucumbers, strawberries, and grapes are also prized in a hydroponic garden, while many people have been successful growing other fruits like blueberries and various melons.

You can even grow most herbs, but the more popular herbs you find in a hydroponic garden are basil, rosemary, and oregano.

It’s important to remember that even though you are providing them with at the nutrients that they need to grow, they still need sunlight to thrive.

If you’re planning to grow indoors, the system will need to be by a window that gets a minimum of 8-hours of sunlight, or you will need to invest in grow lights.

Keep in mind that these will require even more electricity than the pump, and will have to run for quite a while.

Plan ahead with your power consumption with these lights, and put in fail safes in case the power grid goes down – i.e. solar panels, wind turbines, or a fuel powered generator.

One final tip for those preparing for the worst: look into building a ram pump to keep your hydroponic system going if the power grid goes down.

These are mechanical pumps, meaning that once you start it, it will continue to pump water till you stop it.

The water flowing through it is what keeps the pump running, and without a doubt, one of the most useful garden tools for homesteaders and preppers with a garden when the power grid goes down, and you need water pressure.

The pros are nearly countless, and the cons are limited to the initial investments and the power grid shutting your pumps or lights off.

Whether you are in a house, apartment, or massive property out in the country, you won’t regret turning this idea into reality.

aquaponics system
an aquaponics system

Aquaponics

Pros

  • Self-sustaining operation – The entire premise of aquaponics screams sustainability. Using the fish waste as a way to provide vital nutrients completes a complex cycle that is repeatable.
  • Multi-farming – Aquaponics is the result of two types of farming, aquaculture and hydroponics. This enables you to farm fish responsibly (if you eat them) and grow your own crops
  • Maximum nutrient utilization – The plants use over 70% of the matter coming from the fish as a supplement for fertilizers. This makes the tanks easy to clean
  • Affordable means of growing – Aquaponics is a money saver because of how it creates its own nutrient solution. Nutrients are quite expensive and having to use them on your crop for several months can add up.
  • Doesn’t need a lot of square footage – The nice thing about aquaponics is that you can build the system vertically instead of outward. This means that you can have quite the sophisticated grow system in a small footprint.

Cons

  • Limited crop availability – You need to grow specific crops in an aquaponics system. Root vegetables don’t do very well since they do a lot of their processes from within the soil they grow. Without soil, they don’t do very well.
  • Uses a lot of electricity- Since there are live creatures involved, you will need to have electricity powering your system 24/7. Pumps need to circulate water through the filters while the airstone oxygenates the water for your fish. A power outage could be devastating for your aquaponics garden.

If Hydroponics is a Trans-Am, then Aquaponics is a Ferrari. Essentially a variation of the hydroponic system, with one significant addition.

The aquaponic system includes a fish tank that will be used to fertilize the plants that the hydroponic system would do while providing you with fish to eat.

Now that is an easy way to describe it, but that is essentially what it entails. Obviously, this system will need a little more work than the hydroponic set-up, but you will reap many more rewards from it than the previous system we discussed.

Like hydroponic systems, there are many ways to put this one into practice. You will need to ensure a few critical points for it to thrive, though.

The water that you pull from your fish tank has to drain through the medium you decide to use and go back into the fish tank.

That is the beauty of this system. You won’t require those additives that are needed by the hydroponic system to grow the vegetables because the waste from the fish is ideal for growing most plants.

When the water works through the medium, it is filtered into clean water and recycled back into the fish tank.

The medium is imperative because it must be able to filter the water; unlike hydroponics were yhou can get away with no medium at all.

Popular mediums that are used are perlite, some gravel types, or specialized mediums you can get from aquaponic/hydroponic suppliers.

Like the hydroponic system, you will need pumps and pipes to move the water to the plants and back into the fish tanks. You will have to take this one step further because of the fish, though.

An aerator is needed for the fish tanks to give them a constant supply of oxygen, and it needs to be running 24/7, just like a fish tank.

For a grid-down scenario, you will want to invest in a solar panel to keep the aerator running at a minimum.

The ram pump idea can keep the pump system running, but since you may have plans for the aerator to be solar powered, you might want to make the full investment and get your pumps running on solar power as well.

Now, it’s important to note that these fish don’t have to be eaten. If you are a vegetarian, you can still have a successful aquaponic system for your veggies and fruits. Some people grow ornamental goldfish, or koi and sell them once the tanks have got too full.

If you do plan to eat the fish you are growing there are some that do better than others, and it’s best to stick to what works till you get your hands truly wet(pun intended). Without a doubt the most popular fish for aquaponics is tilapia.

These beauties, like most fish in this system, will need warm water to breed and grow. What makes them unique for this method is their ability to thrive in less than ideal water conditions, which can be a problem with aquaponics systems; especially for inexperienced practitioners.

The next edible fish we will discuss is trout. The reason for this is because they are an option you want to take if you are living in colder climates. They are one of the few that can thrive in more frigid temperatures and aquaponic systems.

If you are having trouble with other species due to your cold climate, trouts may very well be the solution to your problem.

Other favorite fishes for aquaponics are catfish, carp, and many varieties of bass. These three can successfully breed and grow in most conditions.

The important thing to remember is keeping your water as clean as possible. If you have a good medium for your gardening area, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Experiment with different fish and see what works best for your set up. For instance, you may grow catfish one year, but the next year you grow bass and find out you prefer them, and they grow faster because of your climate.

It’s crucial that you don’t overstock your fish tanks. Excellent systems will have roughly a fish for every 1-2 gallons of water, but throwing caution to the wind and trying this can kill all the fish and destroy your plants.

The best method is to start off with one fish for every 7-10 gallons. If your system is filtering the water well, add more over time gradually. Just remember, no fish means no plants.

You will always need fish to grow the plants, and you will always need a medium to filter the water so the fish can thrive and fertilize the plants with various nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium. Understanding the intricacies of this system will guarantee your success.

This system, once applied correctly, is a self-contained ecosystem. Meaning that little interaction is needed on your part to keep this thing thriving.

You may have to transfer fresh water from time to time, but this is usually the only maintenance that is required, giving you more time to prepare or take care of the things that matter to you.

Since aquaponic systems are self-contained ecosystems, they are becoming one of the most popular routes to self-sustainability. People are incorporating them into their greenhouses, garages, and apartments.

The amount of food that they can provide you is unparalleled to any other system at the moment, and because you don’t have to buy additives continually, it is a far better option than hydroponics.

Hydroponics only outweighs aquaponics with the initial investment. The money you will save growing your fish, not buying additives, and growing the same(sometimes more) amount of produce as a hydroponic system far outweigh the negatives, though.

Our last note from a prepper’s standpoint is electricity. These things will always require it in some form or another if you haven’t taken steps to make it completely free of electricity.

There are options we have mentioned for the water pump – using a ram pump – and you can find many ways to set up an aeration device that can run without electricity.

It is entirely possible to have an entire system – hydroponic or aquaponic – without electricity, and if the SHTF, you will wish you did.

If you have to grow indoors and need the lights, you have a few options that will help keep your system running. It’s important to state that in a disaster like an EMP, your system will not work anymore if you rely on lights and electricity for your pumps and aeration.

Both systems are more than worth the investment for homesteaders and preppers. They provide a crazy amount of food compared to the traditional methods; and due to the typically closed off environment, don’t fall victim to the pests and diseases that creep up in our gardens.

If you happen to set up the system/s with solar power, then you can look forward to food indefinitely as well.

Whether you plan to start small with hydroponics or dive into the deep end with aquaponics, there is one thing that is certain; you are taking the right steps in preparing.

You can look forward to fast growth, food all year round, and a setup that requires minimum effort once it’s set up. This gives you more time to worry about what really matters and not about putting food on the table.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you’re just starting out then you might have a few questions specific to the system you’re trying to build. Here are some examples of questions that first time growers might have.

What is the build up on the bottom of the tank in my hydro/aquaponic system?

This could be anything from bacteria or algae building up in the tank.

All of these will do nothing positive for your tank environment as they rob oxygen and nutrients from the fish or plants. It’s the result of light entering your water tank or reservoir.

How often should I change the water in my hydroponics system?

It really depends on the size of your tank and any filtration systems you have installed. You should be replacing about 2 gallons weekly in a 5 gallon tank. This means the water is cycling every 5 weeks.

What are the best plants to grow in aquaponics setups?

Generally, leafy greens, herbs, flowers, and fruiting plants will do very well in an aquaponics system. Spinach, peppers, broccoli, and mint are good examples. If you are using wick systems then growing carrots is a good crop.

Final Thoughts

Both hydroponics and aquaponics have their strengths and weaknesses. Starting out with a hydro system is the best way to ease into that style of growing where aquaponics takes it a step further and gives you a sustainable cycle for growing plants.

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