Aquaponics is a fascinating method of growing. Creating a micro-eco-system (can you double hyphenate?) is a challenging, interesting, and often expensive endeavor. I enjoyed the research and the fruits of that labor. But, in the Northwest, I found it to be a greater challenge to make it economically practical on a small scale.
Perhaps if I were to use native species of fish and allowed the system to go dormant during the cold and dark season, it may have been more practical. But I wanted to grow year-round and grow whatever I wanted. This turned out to not be financially practical. Heating and lighting were expensive no matter the method.
My original goal was to build a system at a cost, size, productivity, simple to run, and level of labor consumption that was practical for the average household. I was relatively successful other than cost and productivity.
In the Northwest, we receive the lowest amount of BTUs of sunlight in the continental US. So in a greenhouse, supplemental lighting and heat were essential. Bio-mass or wood/pellets is pretty much the least expensive fuel. But electricity is still necessary to move the water and operate the lights. So operating costs for our 12 x 15 greenhouse and 1000 gallons of water was about $200 - $250 a month for October through March/April.
Therefore for seven months or so out of the year there were significant costs to operate and little return. Some of that is due to experimenting, and choices of produce. But most of the deficiency was due to inadequate light. To increase the light to the levels recommended for optimal plant growth would have doubled our operating costs, not to mention equipment costs.
I think some of that could have been remedied by plant selection again, but I wanted to grow what I like to eat. The reality is that to have changed the plants to that which would have grown would mean growing a low dollar crop in a high dollar environment. So it still wouldn't have made economical sense.
From the perspective of nutritional value reaped, it would make more sense for me to support a commercial greenhouse farmer and get the produce I wanted for less cost than what I was producing. This is based on fresh produce grown out of season in a high dollar environment.
If I were to dedicate enough time and space, I could grow all I would need in a soil garden in a seasons time. Provided I was willing to can, freeze, and dry that food that would spoil before used. This could all be done at a fraction of the cost of that produce grown aquaponically. BECAUSE I have an abundant amount of fresh water, good soil, a mild climate, and the space to do it in.
For those without access to produce at a reasonable cost, or those that have a poor, scarce, or an expensive water supply, surrounded by depleted and/or toxic soil, lack access to soil, and have a warm climate aquaponics may be a part of the solution. I also think that aquaponics is viable on a very large scale. Hydroponics has already proven itself profitable, aquaponics is not that much of a leap.
Environments where space or resources are shared may be another solution. Adding a solarium to the home where heat is shared, industrial waste heat, access to geo-thermal, etc. may also remedy some of which made it difficult.
I will be producing a considerable amount of waste heat and organic nutrients with my new business. I will take advantage of that with my new greenhouse.
I write this for the new aquaponic enthusiast so they look at all the costs and evaluate them critically before starting. I write this for the experienced practioners so they may evaluate what they are doing, and if they have found solutions to some of these issues to share them.
I am still enthusiastic about aquaponics. But I believe there are a number of issues to be addressed before it will replace conventional methods. Also year-round production on a small scale needs to be evaluated to make sure you are getting better nutritional value for your dollars spent. Those of you that enjoy what you are doing and care less of the cost should ignore all that I have said.
This is only my opinion and my experiences in my region, with my limited resources. I realize other regions, financial depth, experience, expertise, and perspective will greatly affect what can be done. I welcome your thoughts and comments. I hope this will develop a positive and engaging dialogue. I do not want to offend anyone or dampen their enthusiasm.