The Aquaponics Guidebook (an e-Book)
The Aquaponics Guidebook by Bevan Suits is a solid, informational e-book with practical suggestions for starting your own small- or large-scale aquaponics operation. By the time you finish this book, you’ll have all the knowledge you need to get started creating your own aquaponics farm.
For the record, the author provided me with a complimentary review copy of the e-book. If I hadn’t found it to be an excellent resource, you wouldn’t be reading this review; we refuse to review any book or product unless we feel positively about it.
Fish and Plants Growing Together
But just what is aquaponics? Here’s how Suits explains it:
Aquaponics is growing fish and plants in one system, with fish waste feeding the plants. It works in many variations of scale and form, though the basic concept does not change: Fish, bacteria and plants working together in a recirculating, soil-less system. It resembles a living organism, with a heart (the pump) and lungs (aeration). The bacteria remove waste like the kidneys and the liver. It will teach you a lot about food and this ecosystem we call home.
Perhaps, like me, you have walked past ponds and swamps without considering the symbiotic relationship between the plants and the fish living together in the same ecosystem. I’ve heard of growing tomatoes and other plants without soil, but I never gave a thought to growing vegetables together with tilapia, bass, or koi. Yet it makes sense. It happens in nature all the time.
Still, at first, I was only mildly interested in the concept of farming fish and vegetables in a controlled system. But, Suits’ writing style is warm and welcoming, and he quickly drew me in. He carefully describes how an aquaponics system works, what you’ll need to set one up, what pitfalls you might encounter, and how you can make money from your aquaponics farm.
A Simple Chemistry Lesson
To be a successful aquaponics farmer, you need to have a basic understanding of the nitrogen cycle. Suits explains in sufficient — but not burdensome — detail how the nitrogen cycle works and why this is important.
If you think of aquaponics as a system of fish and plants, you’re leaving out the most important group: bacteria. Without bacteria there is no connection between the fish and the plants. The ammonia from the fish would kill the plants.
All of life on earth depends on bacteria converting waste matter to nutrient matter. This is called the nitrogen cycle or nitrification. Growing “organically” means to strengthen and support this natural process, without using anything synthetic or man-made.
What makes aquaponics so unique is that it contains bacteria and uses nitrification in the system.
It’s been (ahem) a “few” years since my college biology days, and I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about the nitrogen cycle. Suits lays it out clearly with a simple diagram, text, and even a chemical equation. If you don’t understand by the time he’s finished explaining it, you haven’t been paying attention:
If the nitrogen cycle gets out of balance, the fish or the plants — perhaps both — will die. Suddenly, biology and chemistry lessons matter in the real world. If you’re homeschooling your kids, setting up an aquaponics system is a perfect opportunity for hands-on learning about life and death in an ecosystem.
One of the most basic choices you’ll make if you try aquaponics is which kind of system you want to set up. The Aquaponics Guidebook provides simple drawings to illustrate three main choices for most small-scale operations: the Basic Drip System, the Ebb & Flow System, and the Hydroponic Raft System. For those of us with larger ambitions, he also provides a schematic of the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) system, which he dubs “one of the largest and most productive aquaponics systems.”
While there’s enough detail included for even the most avid aquaponics enthusiast, Suits makes setting up a household-sized aquaponics system look easy enough for anyone who can read. What’s more, he shows in photos that a small system is doable on a small budget. Even discarded bathtubs and plastic rain barrels will work to hold the fish and the plants. (By the way, the fish and the plants are in separate tanks, with the same water circulating through both.)
As the “heart” of the system, the pump is an essential element. Suits provides the pros and cons of various types of pumps. He also tells the reader just what kind of tubing works best to connect the plumbing system. It would be hard to go wrong on the basic setup with his excellent guidelines.
Added to the text are loads of links to websites with additional information. The links, by the way, provide an advantage of e-books over paper books that I hadn’t considered before this. When the author wants to give more detailed reference information that might bog down the reader, he links to a website for further research. It’s a great way to maximize the power of the content without adding pages.
Suits has obviously done his research. And he makes it easy for the would-be aquaponics farmer by providing loads of tips, diagrams, and tables for easy access. He includes such helpful charts as these and others:
- Water pump performance curves
- How to plan water temperature to match tank size
- Calculating water heater size in Watts
- How many lights do you need for your growspace?
- Water quality parameters for different kinds of fish
Art and Science
One of the things I like most about the book is Suits’ approach to the topic. Throughout, he encourages the novice to get started, to begin with a small system while learning, and then to expand once the process is familiar. His approach is comforting and virtually stress free.
There is both art and science to raising fish. The art is in the intuitive nurturing that we know as gardeners, pet owners and parents. There is a lot of creative freedom in putting your system together and making it fit your space, conducting experiments out of curiosity. The fish are beautiful to watch. Seeing plants grow so quickly is encouraging. Hearing the splash of flowing water is relaxing. This is technology that feels right, a model of an ecosystem.
He blends wisdom with instruction, without being heavy handed with either. I particularly liked this line:
After you grow successfully with aquaponics, you may feel like an expert, but it’s the failures that create experts.
Yes, the failures are what give us the experience to meet challenges with confidence the next time. I’ll remember that line, long after I’ve forgotten (again) how the nitrogen cycle works.
Do I Have to Eat Them?
In our house, we’re striving to be vegetarians. We aren’t entirely there yet, but we’re well on our way. So, when Suits writes about raising fish for food — and shows beautiful fish in an aquaponics system — I cringe. I can’t even buy tilapia at the grocery store because they’re swimming in a tank right there at the meat counter. If I ask for tilapia, the butcher will take it out of the tank and kill it — for me. No can do. So, if I can’t handle it at the grocery store, how could I possibly raise these beautiful creatures and harvest (kill) them myself?
Suits has an answer for that, too.
If you just want to look at the fish and use them as waste producers, that’s just as valid and easier because you don’t have to kill them. In that case, koi are ideal.
But for those who do want to raise fish for food, he has some sage advice:
Call them Oreochromis. Avoid names like Bubbles or Franny….
If you grow fish as crops, then you’re an aquaculturist. They are an investment that you expect will pay you back in food, cash or trade in a few months’ time. Do not give them names. It’s easier that way at harvest time.
A Sustainable Solution
Aquaponics can be a profitable hobby, or just a fun new way to grow vegetables and raise fish. But it can also be more than that. Suits proposes aquaponics as a very realistic way to help meet the challenges of world hunger that will face us in the not-too-distant future. With water shortages becoming an increasing problem, a self-contained system that requires the addition of very little water (to compensate for evaporation) will be an important food-production tool.
But we don’t have to wait for the future to come calling. We can use aquaculture effectively to remedy some of society’s ills today.
When the economy goes down, there is opportunity to put people to work in more sustainable ways. Aquaponics can help sustain communities when there are fewer jobs, sustain our spirit when we work together and sustain our health when eating local food.
Suits’ optimism is contagious. I’m already thinking of ways to implement aquaculture in my local community. How about you?
Where to Buy It
The Aquaponics Guidebook is available for purchase on the web for $30 at the time of this writing. Suits is planning additional texts about aquaponics, for those who want to set up more complex systems or to learn more in depth information. For all the rest of us, this book is the place to start. It’s a solid value for the investment, and an essential tool for the novice aquaponics farmer.
As Suits says,
Take what you read online and in this book with a grain of salt. Take some risks and experiment. The best knowledge comes from your own experience and research. Expect some errors. If you are a “by-the-book” perfectionist, aquaponics is probably not for you. (On the other hand, you need to be technically-inclined and disciplined…this is farming, not gardening.)
Update from the Author
1/15/09: Author Bevan Suits sent the following update by email:
The book is designed to go beyond the typical “how-to” and actually serves as an introductory workshop/reference book, making active use of the internet and putting the reader at the gateway of a worldwide community. Also, those who buy the book are charter subscribers and will have the option of continued access to new material as it comes available.
My new partner and I, Wayne Dorband in Colorado, are going to be putting to use 80,000 square feet of greenhouse, north of Boulder, for the purpose of community aquaponics, and we will be updating everyone as things progress with new material, webinars, new learning. So there are many types of added value in The Aquaponics Guidebook.
Attached is a photo of Wayne in one of the greenhouses. He was able to buy a complete PetSmart aquarium wall, with filtering system, for super cheap, which we’ll be implementing into the greenhouse, so our goals are ambitious.
Discussion is also under way for TV programming called Earth: Agents of Change based in Costa Rica at EARTH University in April, where we would be doing workshops. Wayne, by the way, is a successful entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in aquaculture. — Bevan Suits
The Small Print
DISCLOSURE: Blue Planet Green Living received a free copy of the Aquaponics e-book from the author.
Blue Planet Green Living’s policy is to only review those books we feel merit an overall positive review. If we do not like a book more than we dislike it, we do not review it. We are not influenced by any free copies and provide our honest opinions, both positive and negative.
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