Aquaponics Vs Hydroponics – What’s The Difference?

Ah, the great alternative gardening debate of hydroponics vs. aquaponics. We’ll settle things once and for all so you can finally choose if you just want to grow veggies, fish, or even some crayfish. Here’s everything you need to know about these water-based systems.

the Difference Between Hydroponics and Aquaponics

Hydroponics and aquaponics are alternative farming techniques that have the same growing concept and end goal. Both systems use water instead of soil for growing plants. 

What are the perks of using water instead of soil? Your plants mature faster. The controlled environment paired with access to nutrients is the perfect environment for vegetables, fruits, and plants to flourish. No soil also means fewer plant diseases and less maintenance (1). 

difference between hydroponics and aquaponics graphic

Most importantly, you can harvest year-round because your seedlings are safe from weather changes. You can even maximize small spaces and available light using vertical growing setups. 

The water-based, soilless system of the two causes a lot of confusion among gardeners. Some even interchange them. To get the facts straight, we’ll dive down deeper. Here’s a crash course about aquaponics vs hydroponics.

Hydroponics System = Growing Plants Without Soil

Hydroponics is the general term for growing plants without soil. You use either organic media bed, like coco noir and peat, or inorganic media like perlite and gravel.

Nutrients get into the plants using a watering system. Usually, the plants are in a tray above a water reservoir with added nutrient solution. A water pump circulates the nutrified water up to the plants. The extra water either drips back down to the reservoir or goes through the drainage path. 

So in a hydroponic system, you have a growing medium, plants, water, and a nutrient solution in one system.

For some inspiration on how you can use hydroponics to create a produce garden, check out our article on Tower Garden alternatives and our review of the best AeroGarden.

Aquaponics Systems = A Type Of Hydroponics

Now, aquaponics is a type of hydroponic system combined with aquaculture. In this water system, you’ll need plants and fish.

The setup is similar to the one we mentioned earlier, but the reservoir has fish and other aquatic animals like crayfish inside. Here’s an example of a simple aquaponics setup.

Raising fish and plants together in the same environment creates this cool cycle where the plants clean the fish’s water. And then the fish provide nutrients for the plants. You just have to feed the fish first.

Hydroponics vs Aquaponics: which should YOU choose?

Now you have a clear understanding of hydroponics and aquaponics. Let’s break down the standard components of these water systems to see which works best for you. We included a winner in each category so you can have a more sustainable system in the long run.  

Nutrient Control

First up in our hydroponics vs aquaponics match is the nutrient levels and control. There is always a nutrient source for hydroponic systems. You have two nutrient sources in aquaponics: Feed for the fish and fish waste for your plants. Correctly raising plants is all about the nutrients because water itself doesn’t have the elements that plants need to grow. At the same time, water quality is vital for fish growth. 

Hydroponics System

These nutrients are entirely human-made and controlled. You can make your solution by following online guides. Essentially, these nutrient solutions are liquid fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. They also have mineral salts and micronutrients (2).

You control how much water and fertilizer you feed to the plants. The downside is you’ll have to spend some time learning about plant nutrients and properly using them. Moreover, hydroponics fertilizer options are a bit limited and expensive.

Aquaponics System

Nutrients in aquaponics come in two forms: feed for your fish and fish waste for your plants. But it all starts with the feed. Different feeds literally come out differently. It’s important to give the right food to your fish because what comes out affects the water quality (3). 

Water quality is the name of the game for growing fish. If you have poor water quality, you’re probably going to have sick or dead fish.

Water quality also affects your plants because it is their nutrient source. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria turn fish waste into something that plants can absorb. So if the waste quality is terrible, then your plants won’t get enough nutrients.

An aquaponics system is more sensitive and needs more attention compared to a traditional hydroponic system. It would be best to learn about how fish feed, fish waste, and plants work together to make this system run smoothly. When it does run smoothly, it becomes almost self-sufficient.

Winner: Aquaponics

Space Requirements

Arguably the most important and first question you should ask when choosing: how much space do I have? Your situation limits your options based on your available space. You can set up hydroponic and aquaponic systems compactly by stacking. Let’s see just how much space you need for each setup.

Hydroponics System

Building hydroponics systems can be elaborate or simple. You can create a complex hydroponic system on your own or buy hydroponics starter kits if you want to make your life easier. Whatever you pick, always grow plants hydroponically based on how much effort you want to put into it. 

Hydroponics requires less space since you are not dealing with housing for fish. You can have a tiered system like a tower garden for over two dozen plants within 2-3 square feet.

Aquaponics System

This system needs more space since it’s a two-part system. First, choose a spot for your system. Just remember that fish need 5-7 gallons of water per pound of body weight (4). Dimension-wise, that’s around one sq. ft per pound. A Tilapia ready for harvest weighs around a pound. So for five fish, you need 5-7 sq. feet. 

Larger systems stay more stable. But we’re just talking about home-scale plans, so we’ll keep it relatively small. For a compact setup, you want to stack the plant bed on top of the fish tank. So you end up having equal space for plants at the most. 

Winner: Hydroponics 

Equipment And Setup

Generally speaking, you need more equipment for aquaponics than you do for hydroponics. That’s just because you grow two systems. Check out what you need for each setup.

Hydroponics System

This system needs a water reservoir, a grow light, growing media that fit into the seedbeds, and a water pump. It’s pretty straightforward and easy to assemble. 

You just put your pump at the bottom of your reservoir, fill it with water, and put the growing trays on. Water starts to circulate, and you can put the growing media with seedlings or seeds. The media or the root system should touch the water. All that’s left to do is turn on the grow light and pour some nutrient solution. 

Aquaponics System

This dual system is harder to set up. You need a big tank for the fish, filters and two sets of pumps. A water pump pushes the water up to the plants, and an air pump supplies oxygen for the fish. 

Aquaponics systems take a longer time to set up because you need to acclimatize the fish and let the water cycle before adding the plants. Cycling is when you wait for bacteria to start doing their thing. 

Plants can’t use the fish waste right away. The bacteria have to break it down into something that the plants can use.

After cycling, you can add the plants. The plants’ grow beds have a growing medium and a watering channel that brings the fish water to each plant. You can put the plants either above or next to the fish tank. If you put it on top, you don’t need a second water pump to direct water back to the fish. It also takes up less space. 

Winner: Hydroponics

Upkeep Requirements

Setting up is the easy part. Maintaining the systems is where the real work starts. Both hydroponic and aquaponic systems need specific growth parameters to work efficiently. 

Hydroponics

Maintaining a hydroponic system is relatively easy. You just need to monitor the water and nutrients. Usually, the kits have a reminder for these things. Otherwise, you add water every other day and nutrients every two weeks. The grow lights always stay on and just need adjustments as the plants grow. But don’t forget the importance of temperature in hydroponics (5).

The intensity of light is also related to the temperature. When the light is more intense temperature will rise accordingly.

Plants stay in the system for up to 6 months. The longer you keep them, the more maintenance you have to do. Pruning makes sure your plant doesn’t get out of control. And root trimming is important to keep your water pump free from blockage. Mixing your own nutrient solution is another thing you need if you are managing a DIY aquaponics system.

Poor maintenance of hydroponic systems leads to low yield, root rot, and algae. Or basically, your system fails.

Aquaponics

You need more work and know-how to maintain an aquaponics system. There are so many factors that you need to check (6). Water quality parameters like pH, dissolved oxygen levels, and temperature need daily monitoring. You also need to check the nitrogen parameters weekly and micronutrients twice a month. Plus, the fish also need daily feeding.

Since the entire setup depends on each other, one wrong move (like poor management) can affect the system’s yield output efficiency.  

Many aquaponics growers also prune their crops they get bigger. And you have to make sure that the light doesn’t get to the fish tanks. Otherwise, algae start growing and compete for the nutrients of the plants. Some species even clog up the pipes. You end up with a whole lot of things that need fixing.

Winner: Hydroponics

Costs involved

Each of these systems can save and make you money in the long run. But you need to shell out some cash for the setup and maintenance too. 

Hydroponics System

You spend less on a hydroponic setup because you’re not buying additional equipment to raise fish. However, you will pay more for maintenance. 

Water is not usually recycled in a hydroponic system. The plants use it up, and you keep refilling as needed. Remember that you need distilled water for this setup since tap water tends to be too harsh for the plants. 

Other things you constantly spend on are light, electricity, and nutrients. Buying nutrient commercial nutrient mixes is expensive. And although you can make your own, it can become more costly because you need to buy many components. You’ll also have to consider your electric bill since you’ll need to have grow lights and pump 24/7.

Those are all compounded depending on how many systems you have going.

Aquaponics Systems

The initial costs of an aquaponics setup are big. You buy the equipment, fish, feed, and testing gadgets. But after the initial expenses, aquaponics would only cost the price of maintenance and seeds. You also get more growing options with this water system.

You compensate for the huge investment with a higher overall yield. That alone makes it extra worth it.

You can save more money from the free fish nutrients that compensate for fish feed being cheaper than a nutrient solution. You don’t need grow lights for an aquaponic setup if you have the space for it outdoors. 

Winner: Aquaponics

Which Method Yields Better Crops?

The battle of the water systems is a close fight. 

Both hydroponic and aquaponic setups yield better crops than soil gardening. Many variables in the soil can affect plant growth. Some variables include pH levels of the soil, the amount of fertilizer, and any contaminants in the soil. 

Both water systems operate without needing to weed or worry about soil pests. So it really boils down to how well you manage your systems. 

The nutrient mix is also a deciding factor. It’s easy with the premade solution that a hydroponic system uses. If you consider the richness of fish waste, you should get slightly better crops than hydroponics. But that’s only if you do everything right with nitrogen fixation and fish waste management.

The Pros And Cons Of Soilless Systems

Now that we’ve broken things down let’s summarize the pros and cons for each soilless method of growing.

Pros And Cons Of Hydroponics Growing System

ADVANTAGESDISADVANTAGES
Smaller space requirementsUses more water
Less overall maintenanceExpensive maintenance
More yieldThe nutrient solution is hard to make
Uses less spaceGrow light needed indoors
Faster startupYou need to dispose of wastewater

Pros And Cons Of Aquaponics Growing System

ADVANTAGESDISADVANTAGES
You can grow at least two cropsExpensive setup
More variety yieldConstant parameter checks
Almost self-sufficientNeeds more knowledge and skills
Saves more waterIt takes up more space
No wastewater disposalSlow startup because of cycling

What’s the Verdict?

Both hydroponics or aquaponics are great gardening alternatives. But overall, hydroponics has a slight edge when it comes to ease of maintenance, better control, and initial setup. Plus, you can minimize errors because there are fewer factors involved. Just be sure you have the money for the upkeep.

On the other hand, aquaponics is best for individuals who have the patience and time to dig deeper into science. You’ll have fun working out different growing parameters and use various gadgets to maintain the system. 

Both methods are something to be considered when starting to grow plants. Have you dipped your toes into hydroponics or aquaponics? What did you think? If you have any questions, comment on them down below!

FAQs

Yes, both aquaponics and hydroponics use organic gardening methods. Hydroponics uses a special liquid fertilizer. Don’t worry. There are no synthetic chemicals used to boost plant growth. All nutrients are naturally occurring in the soil. 

In an aquaponics system, you’re going to rely on fish waste, which naturally occurs. You don’t use pesticides for the plants either because pests are not a problem.

You don’t use fish for hydroponics. You just need a plain water reservoir. The nutrients of hydroponics come from liquid plant food.

For aquaponics, you can use both decorative and consumable fish. Just make sure that the fish are hardy. Choose fish that tolerate a wide range of temperatures and are not sensitive to pH changes. Some examples of common consumable aquaponic fish are tilapia and catfish.

A wide variety of plants grow well using aquaponics. Lettuce, tomatoes, and a range of herbs are the most common food plants. But roses and other ornamental plants do great in this system too. You can even plant root vegetables!

For practicality, choose plants that grow fast and that you consume often.

Yes, aquaponics needs sunlight for the plant system to grow optimally. The fish system usually stays away from direct sunlight. That’s because algae forms, and it competes with the nutrient source of the growing plants. They can also cause plumbing problems. If sunlight is not available, grow lights work just as well but cost more electricity.

The kind of light you need for hydroponics is the one that comes closest to the quality of direct sunlight. Remember, plants grown hydroponically need more than 10 hours of sunlight per day. It’s more common to use grow lights for indoor hydroponic setups. That way, light doesn’t limit the growth of the plants. 

  1. Home Gardens/Vertical Farming, Hydroponics, and Aquaponics. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/land-water/overview/covid19/homegardens/en/
  2. The Beginner’s Guide to Mixing Hydroponic Nutrients. Retrieved: from https://university.upstartfarmers.com/blog/mixing-hydroponic-nutrients
  3. Aquaponics – How To Do It Yourself. Retrieved from: https://www.ncrac.org/video/aquaponics-how-do-it-yourself
  4. Aquaponic Gardening Rules of Thumb. Retrieved from: https://www.theaquaponicsource.com/aquaponic-gardening-rules-of-thumb/
  5. The Effect of Using LED Lighting In The Growth of Crops In Hydroponics. Retrieved from: http://www.ijsgce.com/uploadfile/2017/0419/20170419111137448.pdf
  6. Important Water Quality Parameters in Aquaponics Systems. Retrieved from: https://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_circulars/CR680/welcome.html
Aquaponics Hydroponics

1 thought on “Aquaponics vs Hydroponics (and how to choose)”

  1. Myself, I had a rough time with the solution for hydroponics. I don’t believe it would have taken long to figure it out, but I moved pretty quickly to try aquaponics. I do agree regarding more effort for the set up. Overall I am glad I did it though. It has been a fun adventure to learn about fish, their habitat, ways to use and dispose of the dirty water, learning the plants and which system (drip line, nft, floating raft…) for what your growing. Still learning as I go. Hope you all have success with whichever system you choose and grow happy!

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