Editorial Team   |   October 24, 2017

Aquaponics For Your Grow Operation

Commercial aquaponic operations have been producing crops such as lettuce since the 1990s, but a well-established system can produce high-nutrient crops such as cannabis.
Our CannabisTech writers come from a wide variety of backgrounds with a passion for cannabis and technology, matched only by their desire to educate the world about the cannabis industry.

 

Commercial aquaponic operations have been producing crops such as lettuce since the 1990s, but a well-established system can produce high-nutrient crops such as cannabis.

Aquaponics, also known as organic hydroponics, combines aquaculture with hydroponics in a self-sustaining symbiotic closed loop system that produces two crops in one facility: fish and plants. Simply put, fish produce waste (mostly ammonia), bacteria convert the ammonia to nutrients, plants take up the nutrients and filter the water, and the toxin-free water cycles back to the fish.

 

Why You Should Use Aquaponics for Growing Cannabis

For a whole host of reasons, aquaponics has become an exciting option for the cannabis industry now, and could make it a leader in sustainable agriculture.

Plant size and plot size

Cannabis plants grown by hydroponics or aquaponics tend to produce larger plants, and you can grow more plants per square foot in comparision to plants grown in soil. However, a hydroponic system in comparison to an aquaponic system involves a lot more labor, waste, chemicals, and expense.

Low-tech and efficient      

Once an aquaponics system is running smoothly, it requires almost no daily labor. You do have to deal with fish and plants. But you don’t have to deal with tilling soil, potting plants, adding fertilizers, fighting off soil pests, flushing plants, and getting rid of used up soil. And you don’t have to manage a complex system for handling wastewater.

Organic

Because of all the chemicals involved, hydroponic cannabis is not a good solution for cancer patients and other people who want to avoid chemicals. Because it is organic, aquaponic cannabis is healthier, smoother, more aromatic, and tastes better. 

Sustainable

Water conservation is a critical issue today, and the situation is getting worse as climate change continues to wreak havoc. Aquaponics uses significantly less water than hydroponics, and 90% less water than a soil operation.

Wastewater management is a struggle for all jurisdictions. Aquaponics doesn’t produce any wastewater, because the water is filtered and recycled back to the fish tanks. Water can be recycled in a hydroponic system as well, but that requires an immense amount of extra effort.

Innovations in the solar power industry are enabling aquaponic farms to operate off-grid by installing a nanogrid to supply all their energy needs.

Lower operating costs      

Aquaponics uses less power, less water, less labor. Now subtract fertilizer costs, normally a huge expense in cannabis cultivation. An aquaponic operation has no major fertilizer costs.

Expanding on what you already have     

If you already have a hydroponic operation, there are several reasons to convert it to an aquaponic system by adding the missing half. As discussed above, aquaponics produces less waste, costs less to operate, and is better for the environment. And you get to harvest both plants and fish.

 

Challenges

There are challenges, of course. Nothing is that easy.

Developing the bacteria colony

The bacteria in the bio-filter are what make this symbiotic system work. You have to wait at least six months for the bacteria colony to mature. What is required of you is patience, regular testing, and making adjustments. Once the balance between fish, bacteria, and plants is right, the system is self-sustaining.

Cannabis needs more nutrients than lettuce

Cannabis has very high nutrient needs. To flourish in an aquaponics system, cannabis needs a mature bacteria colony and a densely populated fish tank.

Additionally, cannabis needs extra natural nutrients at the flowering stage, but that could harm the fish. There are several workarounds for this. One is to use separate chambers for the budding stage. Another is to use a dual root zone system where supplements can be added to the plants, but a barrier keeps residue from draining back into the system and harming the fish. Or you can incorporate vermicomposting – worms can help process the nutrients from the fish and provide additional nutrients from their castings.

Researchers are constantly coming up with new solutions for this challenge.  Maybe you can find a new one.

Managing your fish

Aquaponics works with ornamental fish, food fish, crayfish, prawns, shrimp. Some people are trying lobster. You want hardy fish that will tolerate crowding and a slightly acidic environment.

An important aspect of your planning is what to do with the fish. Find out what you can sell to restaurants or to ornamental fish suppliers. Tilapia is a popular aquaponics fish, for its taste and its health benefits. Koi and goldfish are ornamentals that can thrive in less than perfect fish environments.

What will you do with fish that die? How often will you add young fish?

Have all of this figured out before you start. 

 

Image courtesy of the Minnesota Tribune

 

Design Considerations

Do not guess about even the most insignificant design elements.  As carpenters say, “Measure twice, cut once.”

This may be the most time-consuming aspect of your enterprise. Whether you are doing a conversion or starting from scratch, the research and planning is essential. You can easily find experts who can provide the information and formulas you need for your design, so seek them out and use their information. Measure twice, cut once.  

The basics

- The size of your space

- Your geographic location (type of building, lighting, cooling, water chilling)

- Specs for piping, aeration, water pumps, water velocity

- Going vertical (for aeration and saving space)

 

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