So you want to start an aquaponics system at your home, apartment, cave dwelling wherever. I’ve been there and the most exciting part about aquaponics can be learning how they can be adapted to fit almost any environment you wish to put them in. Whether it’s a closet, basement, attic, roof, side yard, backyard, neighbors yard, parking lot, wherever you can dream up you can make a system that would work in that setting. However, just because you COULD make something work doesn’t mean that’s an ideal setting for you.
So in this article, we’re going to explore the 5 things you should consider before placing your first aquaponics system. Where you put your system determines almost every factor of your success, it will determine your labor needs, your heating and electrical needs and costs, your ability to grow certain crops or not and so much more. So when deciding on a location you need to pick one that will meet or exceed your growing goals on the budget you can afford.
So let’s dive right in.
Indoors or Outdoors
This will be your biggest decision. All the factors mentioned after this will help you make a final decision on inside versus outside. But this decision for inside or outside will end up being the biggest factor in determining your costs for your system. The first consideration to make is what’s your natural climate. Do you experience harsh winters with cold temps and or lots of snow? Or do you live somewhere that gets very few frosts and has abundant sunlight all throughout the year?
If you get very few frosts then outside is almost always going to make more sense than inside. The sun is free, and its expensive to replace so if you can take advantage of that free abundant source of light for your plant’s growth you should. Even if you like in a northern climate outside can still make more sense than inside.
If you plan to grow year round you will need a greenhouse so you can protect your plants from frosts and snows. With aquaponics, you will have a large water mass which will help create stable temperatures in your greenhouse. In addition, it allows you to heat your water instead of your air. It’s fine if the temps drop below freezing as long as you have cold tolerant crops and your water remains at or above 55℉ your plants will be just fine. You won’t get the same growth rates in the winter but you’ll make up for it ¾ of the year by not having to pay for sunlight. You can also always add supplemental lighting to help you out by adding a few extra hours of light at the end of the day. Still better than being inside and lighting for 12-16 hours.
When indoor makes sense is if you are growing small scale, are not worried about the extra costs of lighting and want convenience over cost savings. For example, many people would not be thrilled at the idea of having to trek through the snow in their backyard to get to their greenhouse every day to feed the fish, maybe knock snow off the greenhouse, harvest their lettuce for lunch etc. They’d rather keep a small system in the basement that’s always a comfortable temp and can grow the same crops year round. It all comes down to what your goals are and what you can afford. If convenience trumps budget indoors may be best, if budget trumps convenience outside is likely best.
The next thing to consider is the weight of the aquaponics systems. Every gallon of water running through that system weighs 8 pounds. Even relatively small systems will likely have 250-1000 gallons running through them if you are trying to grow enough food to supplement a part of your groceries. That’s 2,000-8000 pounds. That’s a light car on the low end. So if going inside unless you have industrial floors you probably can’t keep that weight in your living room. In this case, basements and garages make the most sense.
Even outside, you just need to know the land you’ll be placing the system on. Wetlands obviously won’t work. And on normal land, you just want to make sure there’s no tunnels or anything below you that might collapse under that weight. You want solid ground beneath you.
Obviously, if we’re outdoors we’ve got the sun so our lighting is pretty much taken care of. But if you are in a very northern or southern climate you will have periods throughout the year where the sun is out for less than 10 hours a day. When that happens our plants basically start to hibernate. They will still be alive but we won’t see any noticeable growth week to week until the season turn and the sun comes back out for more than 10 hours a day. In this case, if growing outdoors you will need to add supplemental lighting like LED lights to extend your daylight to 12-16 hours depending on what you are growing.
If you are growing indoors then you’ll need to replace the sun entirely. The most affordable option (at least longterm) is currently LEDs. The technology has caught up to HPS and other alternatives and can match them in output using significantly less wattage and significantly less ongoing upkeep costs. Still a bit more upfront but the cost savings over time more than justifies it.
It may be weird to think of terrain when considering an indoor option but what we need to have a system that will work well with proper water flows. If you don’t have even terrain you may not be able to take advantage of gravity to move water around your system, it could lead to floods from water pooling at one end of a grow bed and conversely dry spots because of one side is way too high.
This can also be the biggest reasoning for people to actually choose to go inside even if they live in a nice climate. If they don’t have even terrain it may not be worth the time or effort to level your ground just to take advantage of the sun. I’ve personally hand leveled a 1000sqft greenhouse in my early days and it takes forever. Took about two weeks to build the system, took about two months to level the ground. When one side of your greenhouse is 17 inches higher than the other end, that’s a lot of dirt to be moving around and without big machinery, it takes a long time!
This last one may seem obvious but it’s super important that your system is easy to access, easy to work on and convenient for you to integrate into your lifestyle. It may be that you can get free land from someone to put a system outside, but if that comes with 45 minutes of travel time just to work on it, it likely won’t slip into your lifestyle. You want it to be close by. You want it in a space where you can work on each part within easy reach. You don’t want to have to climb or stretch to reach your plants or your fish.
This is another area where convenience may trump indoors over outdoors. If your only flat land is not easy for you to access, or you have harsh winters and don’t want to spend them digging out paths to a greenhouse a basement or garage set up may make more sense for you despite being a bit more pricey to maintain.
At the end of the day, it’s a weighing of factors that will determine the best place for your aquaponics system. You need to decide what your goals are and only you can answer whether convenience will trump cost inputs for you. There’s no one hard answer of outdoors beats indoors or visa versa. It all comes down to these considerations. Your goals and setting will be different from mine and what is important to me may not be important to you. But we all should be making our decision on where to put our systems by taking these five factors into consideration.