What's The Difference? Aquaponics Vs. Hydroponics



Pretty cool when you think about it, aquaponics is the ultimate recycling system. 

No need for hauling empty pop cans to the store or putting plastic containers in the blue bin, aquaponics reclaims and reuses all on its own. How nifty is that?

If you are wondering how it all works, like I was, here is the low-down on aquaponics.

Aquaponics is a system of aquaculture. The waste produced by fish, or other aquatic animals, supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which means in water, not soil. 

Those plants, in turn, purify the water. What a unique system! 

Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture, which is raising fish, and hydroponics, which is the soil-less growing of plants. 

Aquaponics grows both fish and plants together in one integrated system. 

Aquaculture is raising fish in a controlled environment. Ponics is Latin "to work," in reference to growing in soil-less media. 

A very simplified explanation is that fish eat and produce ammonia. Beneficial bacteria convert that ammonia into nutrients. 

Plants absorb this natural fertilizer from the water that is continuously recirculated through the aquaponics system.

A close cousin, hydroponics is a system of growing plants without using soil. In the place of soil, this system uses a mineral solution in a water solvent. 

This allows the nutrients to be taken up by the plants in a more efficient way than what soil allows. 

Unlike hydroponics which used added nutrients, aquaponics use live fish to fertilize the water. The fish can also be harvested in an aquaponics system. 

It could be considered a bit on the dubious side to think about raising fish for food. That is what Kroger is for. 

Maybe you can get some from the nearby lake, but you would not imagine being able to harvest from your backroom. 

In this method of growing, you are literally putting the fish to work. 

Anyone who loves to fish should appreciate that having worked hard to catch a fish, there is finally a method that the fish works for you!



Aquaponics is As Old As The Hills

Aquaponics is an ancient farming method. Developed more than 1000 years ago, Maya and Aztec farmers in Mexico planted on man-made islands called chinampas. 

Constructed in freshwater lakes and marshes, these smart farmers made use of the nutrients supplied by fish, crayfish, and worms to harvest a wide variety of crops. 

In Southern China, those farmers grew rice and other crops in water that was fertilized by ducks, crayfish, and finfish.

Aquaponics is Efficient

One of the greenest ways to grow food, the only energy required is electricity. If you run your system off wind or solar, you will use virtually no energy. 

This would allow you to operate a system off the grid.

You might think because it is an aquaculture system that it uses lots and lots of water, right? Wrong! 

This type of system requires just 10% of the equivalent needed for field-based farming. In an aquaculture system, water is not wasted but recirculates. 

The only water needed to be replaced is that which is lost to absorption and evaporation.

Year-Round Crops from Aquaponics

In my native Michigan, the growing season is limited, and the success of crops is dependent on the whims of the weather and what the bunnies choose to leave behind. 

While I never begrudge the bunnies, it would be nice to have a crop that you could depend no matter the external circumstances. 

With an indoor aquaponics system, you can grow your food year-round. 


aquaponics fruit


You could have fresh salad greens in Michigan in February even when the primary mode of transportation is a toboggan. 

Incredible to think of picking tomatoes to dress the tilapia when frost is on the windows! 

Aquaponics Almost Anywhere

Even if you live in the city, if you live in the heat of Arizona or the cold of Alaska, aquaponics can provide you with fresh food. 

You might be located where the soil is at a premium or non-existent. You can't get more local than growing your own crops. 

You will know exactly what is in your food and that it is pesticide and chemical-free. Lettuce, spinach, bok choy, kale, and herbs will thrive in an aquaponics system.

Benefits of Aquaponics

  • Efficient, sustainable and productive
  • No manufactured fertilizers
  • Continuous production of food
  • Eliminates soil-borne diseases
  • Produces a vegetable and protein crop
  • Uses all-natural fertilizer: fish waste
  • Fish have no growth hormones or antibiotics
  • Compared per acre, uses ⅙ of the water to grow eight times more food than soil crops
  • Environmentally friendly


There are a multitude of designs for an aquaponics system. Being the clever and resourceful person you are, a little guidance is all you need to be able to set up your system. 

The beauty of this type of gardening is that you can set it up and adapt it to the space you have. 

Aquaponics can be used virtually anywhere. There are multiple adaptations that can be used. 

Unlike a traditional garden where you are limited by the amount of land and the soil's quality, an aquaponics garden can be on a desktop, backroom, or in a warehouse.



Because the styles and setups are varied, we have included some videos to show what others have done. And here is a great DIY Aquaponics course.

Believe it or not, you could set up a system in a mason jar! How To Build A Glass Jar Aquaponics Herb Garden

This system would fit in a laundry room, basement, or a large closet. This could be an inexpensive way to try this method of growing crops. Easy & Affordable DIY Aquaponics System

As I said, people are clever. Never would have thought of using utility shelves to make an aquaponics system, but they did: Introduction to Shelfponics

This guy would have been a survivor no matter what decade he had been born into. Backyard aquaponics as self-sustained farm in (sub)urban LA:

Rob Bob (I am not kidding) has an impressive beard and all kinds of experience with aquaponics. 

He is happy to share his knowledge, and his plants are even more impressive than his beard. 

Aquaponics Design - 3 Easiest System Builds for the Backyard



Without fish, there would be no nutrients in an aquaponics garden. So, you know that you need fish, but what type of fish? Does it make a difference?

Before that issue is addressed, it is good to thoroughly understand the relationship between the plants and the fish.

Plants in an aquaponics system grow by taking up the dissolved nutrients that are in the water. 

These soluble nutrients are natural chemicals that are generated by was put into the aquaponics system in the form of fish food and what comes out of the fish as waste. 

It is important to know that the soluble nutrients can harm the fish if they reach high enough levels as they build up over time. 

While that may sound dire, the problem is solved when you harvest the plants; you are removing the soluble nutrients. 

When your aquaponics system is balanced correctly, the cycle mentioned above keeps dissolved nutrients at a low enough level to remain safe for the fish.

You need fish for all of this to work, and so you need to determine the fish you will choose to stock your system with. 

Where Will You Set Up Your Aquaponics System?

First, decide if your system will be inside, outside, or will you move it between indoors and outdoors depending on the season?

Let's say that you decide your system will be outside for part of the year. 

You will need fish that can handle the highest and lowest water temperatures your area will have in summer and winter.

Coldwater fish like trout or yellow perch would be good if you are located in a cold country. A warm location would be great for tilapia. 

If you have your system out of doors and your area gets very hot in the summer and cold in the winter, that will require you to insulate the fish tank. 

Water should be run through a solar heater in the daytime when it is cold to keep the water warm enough for the fish. 

They might even need to be moved indoors when it is too hot or too cold, so make your decision to locate your system very carefully. 

It is certainly not the type of set up you want to be moving back and forth. 

If you are going to establish your aquaponics inside, then you would be able to use tropical aquarium fish if you wanted to. 

Warmer water fish can be used in an outdoor system as long as it is in an environment that is always warm, like Florida.

To Eat Or Not To Eat

Here is another consideration: do you want fish that you can harvest or fish that will just fuel the aquaponics system? 

An aquaponics system grows plants the best. So if you are primarily interested in growing vegetables, then power the system with non-edible fish. 

Catfish, perch, tilapia, and similar types of fish are considered edible. If the area that you have to establish an aquaponics system is small, non-edible fish is the way to go.



If having non-edible fish is the direction you are going to go in, you might want to consider goldfish. 

Goldfish are hardy and inclined to be tolerant of temperature swings. Goldfish are also inexpensive to obtain from a pet store. 

Another advantage is that goldfish will eat most kinds of manufactured fish food. A disadvantage is that goldfish produce a lot of ammonia. 

When you start to establish your garden, make sure that you do not overfeed the goldfish so that this does not happen.

If non-edible is the way you will go, any fish that breathes through its gills and poops will work in an aquaponics garden. 

When combing different types of fish, make sure that they can live peacefully together. 

Colorful fish like guppies and mollies will brighten up your garden and be attractive to look at. 

Neon tetras and electric yellow cichlids will work fine and be fun to watch. In this area, the price of the fish might be your only consideration.

Catfish for Aquaponics

Catfish are prevalent in almost every naturally occurring body of water in the world. They do well in waters that don't get below 35 degrees or above 85 degrees. 

Catfish are robust and will eat anything. Depending on the species, they can range from a few inches to several feet when fully grown. 

If your tank is going to be on the smaller side, get ornamental or fingerling catfish.  They are less picky eaters than tilapia, trout, and bass. 

Catfish are also more tolerant of if the power goes out and your air pump isn't working for a while. 

However, catfish are much like their namesake, the house cat. They love to explore, in the same manner Fluffy does. 

Like their feline friends (maybe friends is going too far!), you will need to make sure the catfish can't get out of the tank. 

They will strike out to explore greener fields if they have the chance. 

So turn on the light in the morning before checking on the aquaponic system, as you might have an escapee on the floor, and you don't want to step on the intrepid explorer.

Tilapia's Popularity for Aquaponics 

Very similar to perch, tilapia are found in water almost everywhere in the world that does not get colder than 60 degrees. They will die in colder water. 

Tilapia are a hardy breed of fish and will eat a variety of foods. In a small tank, you can get tilapia-like fish called cichlids. 

In a large tank, tilapia can grow to one pound in six months, and about seven pounds in three years. 

You do need to be cautious if you choose tilapia for your system. Tilapia, if they get into waterways, will out-compete native fish. 

They have an exaggerated ability to adapt, and this causes a big problem. 

You will need to check with your local State Fish and Game department as this extreme adapter is illegal to possess in some areas. 

Tilapia, while a great fish to harvest, is an omnivore in the fish tank. Tilapia that are smaller than six inches will eat all smaller fish they are among. 

Once they are over six inches, they are too slow to catch smaller fish and are safe to be in a tank with them. 

They also are a spiny fish, so you will need protective gloves to handle them. 

The more you know about tilapia, the more Kroger sounds like the best place to get your tilapia!

Koi, or Ornamental Carp

Koi can be found in the same areas of the world that tilapia are. They eat the same food, and like tilapia, they will eat smaller fish. 

Koi also will look very attractive in a tank with its colorful varieties. 

They are easy to keep, and as long as you feed them, they take care of themselves and are not escape artists like the catfish. 

Here is another bonus that you might be able to take advantage of: Koi breeders will select their fish by color and patterns. 

These breeders will discard a vast amount of fish that hatch out because they do not meet their criteria. 

There is nothing wrong with the discards for an aquaponics system, so if you can locate a koi breeder, you might be able to get "discards" at a discount.



Transporting Fish

When buying fish, get them home as quickly as possible. Your transport tank can be a bucket or garbage can. 

Don't leave them in a hot car. Make sure the water in the transport container is on the cool side. 

Air Pump

You should have an air pump with an AC adaptor connected to an airstone in the transport tank and have it on. 

You can get an AC adaptor for under $20 at a hardware store. 

Plug the adapter into the charging socket in your car and then plug the AC air pump into the adapter, and you will have aeration for keeping the fish alive while transporting them.

Flying Fish

When you are trying to catch them, fish will try to get away. Wear safety glasses in case of flying fish to the face. 

They are the flight mode and will try anything to get away.

If buying from a pet store, your fish will be in an oxygenated bag of water. 

Put the unopened bag in the tank for about an hour before you let the fish go.

Use a larger net than the fish (seems obvious, but I mention it anyway).

Easy Does It

Handle your fish as gently as you can. When transporting fish in a bucket or garbage can, fill the container to the top with water. 

This will keep the water from sloshing around. Sloshing stresses the fish; it would stress me too in the same situation. 

Handle the fish as little as possible and as carefully as possible during transfers.

Dispose of Responsibly

If you have fish that you need to get rid of and you aren’t going to eat them, well, Fluffy might want to. 

Know that it might not be legal to release fish into streams or ponds, even if you got them out of that same pond. 

Again, call your local State Fish and Game department to find out what is legal. Or let Fluffy handle it for you. 

Don’t Get Stuck

If you use fish flesh for compost, make sure to remove the bones as they can be like a lethal weapon when turning your compost pile. 

You would not want to step on one or get one stuck in your hand. 

In Conclusion

There is much to be said for being self-sufficient. It is also good to know how various systems work, whether it be aquaponics or hydroponics. 

The more you know about how the world around you works, the more you are able to take care of yourself and not be as reliant on others. 

Aquaponics is a great way to grow our own food, one that had been used centuries ago. It worked then, and will work for you today. 

Here is the website for the National Agricultural Library  of the United State Department of Agriculture for additional information: Aquaponics | Alternative Farming Systems Information Center

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