The Truth About Aquaponics

Aquaponics is not the panacea many would like to have you believe.  I've spent over a year, thousands of hours and thousands of dollars only to discover aquaponics is more difficult than many videos would have you believe

If you are thinking you would like to design an aquaponic system, and grow and abundance of food in a perfect nutrient cycle - Then read this first.

What about those claims of "Lettuce in 5 weeks"?  Is it true? 
My lettuce at 52 days Utility cost $67.00 (I now use a 400W CMH)
Rob Torcellini's lettuce at 58 days no supplemental light. Dec - Feb
My lettuce grown outdoors 49 days Dec19 - Feb 6

The last two pictures were grown in full sun the difference is the temperature.   The lettuce in the raft (2nd picture) was kept at about 68F degrees 20C,  This photo was taken from a Rob Torcellini's video.  There is a good discussion about it at THIS LINK

ON THE OTHER HAND some folks do have amazing results.  Maybe it's location.  Here's a Hydoponic grower who produces big beautiful lettuce in 4 weeks. It may be that he grew this in late spring  when the temperatures were perfect or it may be  hydroponic solutions offer a more precise nutrient mix. I'm not saying it's not possible, but most aquaponic growers do not achieve these results.

Here's how production is optimized in one commercial Hydroponic Farm

The catfish in the picture above were purchased 16 weeks ago on October 16.  They were all about the size of the small fish which have been kept outdoors in 50F water.  The larger fish have grown much faster in 70F water.  The cost of heating the system must be considered, but without year round warmth the growth rate will be substantially slower.  

Here is a typical aquapponic forum discussion

You may have heard about the balance aquaponics brings to gardening.  Supposedly the fish food will provide all the nutrients, save maybe the chelated iron.  If so why is there so much discussion about balancing nutrients within the system? 

The claims that vegitables will grow faster stronger more disease resistant can be made by a few growers, but aquaponics is not that simple. Some aquaponic farms consistently produce above average crops, but be aware they do it with professional farming techniques, and pay close attention to the details.  It works if you are well trained to do the job and the temperature, and light are held within the perfect specifications.  Failure to provide the perfect environment will bring disappointment.

So you say "I'll take a class and become a professional aquaponic farmer".   I'm not going to tell you all these classes are a sham, but the variety of problems is so wide that class room knowledge would require a lot more than a weekend. 

You may be wondering why I still practice aquaponics.  It's certainly not for profit, or to lower my food bill.  I simply like doing it, but after one year I have decided to sell my fish, and convert to Bioponics.    I like to say aquaponics is hydroponics with complications.  I've also decided to plant with the seasons and not expect much growth during the Winter.  No more heating bills. No more lighting bills. No more fish food.

Good luck I hope you are one of the few that has success, and grows large lettuce heads in 5 weeks.  If so tell me how.

Up Date:
Below is part of a discussion about the expectations of aquaponics.  This is only part of the discussion.  Please click on the link directly below for the entire discussion.

Vlad Jovanovic commented on Rob Torcellini's video "Aquaponic Lettuce In 5 Weeks?" on Aquaponic Gardening

To view the entire discussion, visit:


(  The chronological order of this thread starts at the bottom and reads upward )

I've had several people tell me that they've heard you can grow lettuce and have it ready in 5 weeks. I've been growing lettuce for a few years using a variety of methods and have never gotten it to grow that fast.

Comment by Vlad Jovanovic 22 minutes ago
(the three comments below were typed as one...there's a 4000 character limit sorry...
Bob, here's a pic of that same lettuce at about my 5 week mark. Taken Jan.29th (you can check my dates on the my photos page :) ... Definitely not sell-able size, but I was not expecting them to be...hype is just that...hype

Comment by Vlad Jovanovic 31 minutes ago
Sorry for the silence...It's been crazy here...our  orders for veggies just keep getting bigger and bigger (which is good) and I'm trying to get a million other things done before I leave for Cali...
Rob makes a good point about climate...There are those (I won't call anyone out by name) who claim(ed) lettuce in 4 weeks, which even for those climes (a tropical island) is a still bit misleading...because it turns out "what they really meant was..." that's 4 weeks in a growout trough, they forgot to mention the 10-15 days the lettuce spent on the seedling table...etc...etc...etc...then there are those who for some reason feel the need to repeat such claims publicly...while not having achieved (or even tried to) or verified those results in their (or any for that matter) set and setting. I've not EVER been able to get a harvest-able head of lettuce in 5-1/2 weeks (and even that is pushing it, they could have been left to grow another day or two), and that was in super duper ultra everything 'optimal' conditions...combination mineral and organic hydro...controlled temps, ventilation, all 13 essential elements in their proper amounts (EC 1.3 to 1.4), LOTS of O2, growth regulators (auxins and cytokinins), temp and humidity sensors, MH lighting etc...So no, I didn't think for a second that I would have AP lettuce in 5 weeks. AP has it's benefits, but it's not faery magic folks...It is still an input/output system...Anyhow...
Basically my strategy for the winter is this: I plant 164 net pots (hydroton) with 328 seeds, so 2 to a pot (I do this to save a bit of electricity as you'll see later on). I germinate them where it is always warm (in the house). Water is done with a spray bottle. Some sprout within 24 hours but most at about 36. After a couple days when they start stretching out...I put 328 seedling in the GH in an enclosed insulated space under a table (it's insulated with bubble wrap tin foil). There is a 250 MH bulb and ballast under there as well for both heat and light. At night, they are under the table with the light on...Same goes for on cold days (This is where I save on my electricity by having them 2 to a pot...One 250Watt MH can cover that area when small seedlings are in question...This would not be the case if they were all in their separate net pots and took up twice the foot print because I'd then need another light. On sunny days they go on top of the table and I turn the light off. I air prune the roots which kills the tip of the first tap root and causes many lateral roots to then emerge. Every 8 to 10 hours I'll float them in AP water for about 10 minutes. They put on a lot of leaf mass really quickly in those first 10-12 days. Then I separate them one to a net pot and put them in a nursery trough. There is a piece of polyethylene film (like a tent) surrounding the nursery trough. Closed at night with the lights on. Open during the day...unless it's super fucking cold in which case I only leave one of the two 400Watt MH bulbs running one hour off, one hour on (timer) to keeps things nice and warm. Needless to say, here they put on a hell of a lot of leaf mass really quickly (week or so). I then put them out into the main production troughs to fend for themselves with the crappy low winter sun and the cold temps. 

Comment by Vlad Jovanovic 32 minutes ago
They do a much better job of utilizing what little sunlight there is, because I spent the previous couple weeks building up there leaf mass/surface area...and they are not piddly scrawny seedling, but robust leafy seedlings...more leaf mass, means more photosynthesis. They continue growing well, instead of languishing all puny and small forever...Yes, it uses some electricity sure, but it beats waiting 3 or 4 months for them to grow to sell-able size. The electricity more than pays for itself in the volume of produce within a (shorter) given time frame that I am able to sell the lettuce, bok choy, nappa cabbage etc.... I already can't keep up with demand. When its warmer out I'll be able to up those numbers but for now 328 every 10 days is about all I can do (or all I'm willing to this year) with what I have...

Comment by Vlad Jovanovic 33 minutes ago
I don't heat any of my water. My daytime temps range from 3C to 18C...but mostly around 8-12
My pH started at 8.2, (since my kH was sky high) but is now slightly under 7 or slightly above 7 depending on the time of day (the ol' diurnal pH swing...very slight though...not much algae in the system)...
I've been torture testing my system...starving NH3/4 and bringing nitrates down to 0...then seeing how fast I can reach 50ppm NO3. Bio-filtration is working better than my wildest dreams at these crappy temps (the books and charts had me scared). I've quit doing this kind of testing last week because it's impacting production, and will keep NO3 in the 50-60ppm range...
People definitely need to adopt strategies that will work in their particular micro-climate, and will help them achieve their particular AP goals...whether that means a low input/low maintenance easy as pie Zen Garden type eco system, or a high density, highly productive system (which is then high maintenance and takes a lot of work and know how, to run) that cranks out X number of veggies at a predictable rate in a consistent manner. You really can't have it both ways...The marketing ploys (balanced low input eco system model) used to sell the romantic idea of AP, is obviously (or should be obvious at least) different from the realities of running a high density agricultural method of food production [model] (this is also used a part of the marketing...particularly the part about plant densities and grow out times...the two don't really quite go together...In the's all just zero's and ones...input/output folks...there's is just no way to escape it...That said, I doubt 95% of folks doing AP even know what or in what numbers plant essential elements comprise their fish food, and how much of those elements their breed of fish recovers as much is left for their much their particular cultivars need of what (and not only essential elements, but at what temp is a root fully much light does that plant need etc)...What is it that their bacteria need to function well (there's more to it than just pH NH3 and temps)...This type of stuff should be pre-requisite knowledge. It is at the core and is the basis of everything. It will explain why something is doing great, or not doing that you can then go about rectifying the situation...Input/output...
I'm gonna go read that post now wife is gonna kill me...
Comment by Rob Torcellini 2 hours ago
It's too bad that you've stopped AP, but I can understand the frustration with the misinformation that's out there.  It's one of my goals in my videos to make sure everyone understands what's involved with AP growing...the good and the bad.
(Trying not to insult anyone) I think one of the main problem is that many growers are in climates where it is easy to grow so they say, it's easy and quick.  The rest of us live in far harsher climates and have to twist mother nature's arm a bit more.
When people come to me for AP advice (they usually want to start by installing a commercial operation), I tell them, to start small, learn what works in their micro-climate, and calculate all their operating expenses (and then double it! LOL).  Then I tell them to revisit a larger scale system after growing for at least 2 full seasons with their test system....they usually don't like that since they are too impatient!  
Comment by Bob Campbell 2 hours ago
Delete Comment
@Vlad Jovanovic-  I feel that I was mislead by a lot of hype, and have turned my gardening focus back to good old soil based gardening.  I would like to hear your advice to Rob.  I just wrote a scathing post about the wild claims aquaponic sellers often quote.  But if we are doing something wrong I'd gladly retract my statements.
Comment by Rob Torcellini yesterday
Yeah, I know it's slow...but I was getting tired of people claiming 5 weeks so I threw this number out there to lower the bar a bit.   Nothing wrong with creating a bit of controversy once in a while!
I will admit that I put no effort into these.  I drop a couple of seeds into each pot and don't touch them.  If I get 2 plants per pot, I thin them out.  pH is right at 7.0, very low on NH3, NO2, and NO3.  Iron levels are good.  O2 levels are unknown, but the Koi seem to be happy.    Roots are nice and clean.
I'm trying 4 different varieties (I can't recall the names at the moment).  One which said it did well in the cold...I notice no different from the others!  What types are you growing?
What temp to you keep the water and the air during the day?
Once it warms up a bit and I get a bit more light, they will take right off!  During spring-fall, I have more than enough!

Comment by Vlad Jovanovic yesterday
Rob I gotta tell ya, that's really damn slow. Now, I fully agree that there are some un-realistic numbers being thrown about in AP-Land...But christ on a crutch that's slow! (I'm not trying to rub it in, I'm just surprised is all) water temps are almost half of what yours are...I do heat the GH at night but I only keep it in the +3 to +5C range...Daytime temps obviously vary...I'm working on my 3rd 'batch' of lettuce...Since November...the first of which sold out long ago, the second batch is almost all sold (by the end of tomorrow it'll be totally gone)...Yesterday, and the day before I planted out 16 more rafts (18 holes per raft) with seedlings that look about as big as many of yours do...only I planted the seeds a few weeks ago...I'm averaging about 10 weeks (give or take) with the lettuce (from seed to full grow out size not 'baby heads' or anything). And it gets damn cold and cloudy up in these hills in Serbia...
Taken the 8th of Nov.

Here's are the same plants 8 weeks later...pic taken Jan 7

Now, I did not leave this kind of stuff entirely to chance...If you want you can PM me, where you can outline what/how/method you are sprouting and planting out...and I can tell you what my strategy for dealing with this type of issue has been. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with location and everything, but I think you could probably do better...At least I'd sure like you to be able to 

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