Aquaponics and Apartments… oh yes!

Photo Courstey: AquaBundance Aquaponics System $1295 retail

With more people moving into apartments from single-family residences, property managers have begun to encounter resident hobbies and behaviors that can be challenging. One of these is the practice of aquaponics, or raising fish and plants together in a tank and plant medium system. 

How does it work? A very organic process recycles the fish excrement into plant fertilizer and as the plants grow they reciprocate by purifying the fish tank water.  (Goldfish owners take note.) System owners must feed the baby fish, of course, but they can eventually eat some of them along with the fruits and vegetables produced. 

Some proponents believe the system’s simplicity, synergy and efficiency  place it on the list of  top technological solutions that can eliminate world hunger. For those naysayers who think aquaponics is for old hippies, naturist communities or weird old men with a fish fetish, think again. To our surprise at Green Landlady, an article last year on aquaponics has retained a consistent third or fourth position as a top landing site on our website. Alas, fish tanks are a lot less fragile than waterbeds used to be, so property managers can relax. 

For those of you interested in aquaponic gardening, a community site aptly titled AquaponicsCommunity.com will have the basics and sells supplies like the system pictured above. We should point out that although the systems are synergistically designed, there is some technical management necessary. Here are a few highlights: 

  • Fish are living things and need a certain amount of oxygen in the water to keep from dying. Ergo, for beginners, it is critical that the water quality be monitored and corrected occasionally, similar to swimming pools. Of course, little kits are sold and easy to use.
  • If your tank water is warm, overstocked, mechanically aerated, etc., even a short power outage could result in suffocated, e.g., dead fish.
  • Water management monitors nitrate, ammonia and oxygen levels.
  • Correct ratios of fish to water to plants are critical for a healthy operating system.
  • A system’s circulation, filtration and aeration must be adequate to support the fish and support the plants.  Just as too many fish can overload a system, too few can underload it.

There are also some legal restrictions on aquaponics, as municipalities may not allow the non-commercial raising of some kinds of fish without special permits. Generally all fish are suitable for aquaponics systems, but those that are legal generally and recommended include smallmouth bass, Chinese catfish, tilapia, koi, crappie and bluegill. If you are going to invest in fish, make sure you investigate your county’s regulations. 

Of course, if this is more than a passing fancy and you learn best in a Caribbean setting, you may want to take the short course offered by the University of the Virgin Islands. After flying to Kingshill, for another $870 you can be one of 63 students who master Aquaponics and Talapia Aquaculture at the Agriculture Experiment Station. If this all sounds a little too fantastic – even in February – here are the basics from an article in OnMilwaukee.com about Sweet Water Organics, a for-profit startup that uses aquaponics: 

The basics are this. Water from the channel is pumped upwards into two levels of pea gravel. The water then flows across the pea gravel where hard-working bacteria break down extra food and ammonia from fish wastes, converting it into nitrates that plants can absorb. 

In the middle bed this nutrient-rich water is filtered by tiny watercress plants, and in the top bed it fertilizes potted herbs, sprouts, and vegetables. Then the naturally cleaned water pours back down to the fish channels. 

If all this commercial-sized symbiosis is too much for you, how about a countertop system? Friendly Aquaponics, Inc. offers DIY plans for $49.95 to build an apartment-sized 2.5 sq.ft. countertop system at a materials cost of about $65. The plans also include instructions for a larger 32 square foot grow bed model at about $250 for required materials.  For indoor systems with limited space they suggest: 

Indoors: These systems are appropriate for anyone who is limited to growing indoors, or for those who only have limited space outdoors. They are perfect for getting your fingers wet in aquaponics without spending a lot (pun intended!). They can easily be set up in an apartment or condo, on a balcony,  inside a garage or outbuilding, inside a spare room, or even a closet. You can use them for the centerpiece of a living room or family room to show off to your friends. Best of all, they produce food! If you have light and heat you can grow vegetables and fish! 

If it is sounding as if these DIY aquaponic kits are going mainstream, they probably are. With an estimated 13.3 million US families owning 171.7 pet freshwater fish and another 700,000 families owning an additional 11.2 million saltwater fish, there is a ready-made marketing opportunity. 

Of course, never assume the municipal water supply can be used for an aquaponics venture without pre-treatment to remove chlorine or chloramines.  Many public water utilities have switched from chlorine bacteria-killing disinfectants to chloramines. Why?  Unlike chlorine, the toxins will not dissipate naturally through evaporation from tap water. In fact, chloramines accumulate in water and are fatal for fish or other animals, such as amphibians, that absorb water directly into their bloodstream. Some water utilities in Massachusetts and other states have been using chloramines for decades and some have recently made the switch. 

If all chloramines – and chlorine in higher concentrations - are not removed, the result is unfortunately dead fish. The good news is that chloramines can be removed from drinking water with charcoal filters. 

As the great-granddaughter of a mariner and fisherman, however, I would offer some final advice. If you intend to eat your system’s fish, avoid feeding them by hand, responding to their attempts to gain your attention or naming them. In other words, don’t make them pets for your own sake, if not theirs. 

Other Articles of Interest: 

Permaculture: Refined for Apartment Living 

How Compatible are Window Farms, Aquaponics & Apartments? 

Can Apartment Culture Embrace Urban Agriculture?

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