While you can design a commercial aquaponics system around practically any property you already own, it’s just as acceptable to lay out your ideal design and then shop for land that will work with the plans. Knowing an estimate of the size, layout and structural requirements of the system is essential to determining which property will work best for you. However, there are plenty of considerations that are universal to all aquaponics and hydroponics businesses that can help guide your choice.
Considerations for the Raw Land
Even if there are existing structures on the property you purchase for the business, it’s the raw land itself you should be most concerned with during the shopping process. Unless you plan to build a costly and inefficient indoor system, your fish tanks and plant troughs will be supported by the ground itself, even if the dirt is covered with weed barrier or other materials. Weak soils, steep slopes and heavy tree cover can all make an affordable property less than ideal for aquaponics.
Support for Tank Weight
Most soil tests for stability are designed around the weight of an entire home or other structure, and it’s true that the aquaponics tanks won’t weigh quite as much as buildings. However, the weight of thousands of gallons of water quickly adds up with each gallon weighing around eight lbs. Loose, sandy and unstable soils may hold the weight of the tanks just fine for years until a rainstorm or flooding event destabilizes the ground and leads to extensive crop losses and costly equipment damage.
The entire U.S. has been mapped by thorough geological survey. You can find maps on the USDA website that go into fine detail about the particular soils present on any given property. Reading up on their composition can help you determine if the ground has the right weight supporting capacity or not. You should still follow up with testing from a soils engineer who can tell you exactly how much weight the ground can support.
Grading and Clearing Costs
Even perfectly flat properties will need extensive clearing if they’re covered in brush and trees. Most properties affordable enough to use for commercial aquaponics will fall into this category, as cleared areas tend to cost much more for their appeal to buyers ready to build homes. If there are any slopes on the land, you’ll also need some amount of grading to create flat areas for the tanks and troughs. Slopes are inherently less stable than flat land and increase the chances of a system collapse or landslide. Setting up the tanks along a slope may allow for gravity-fed water flow, but it also tends to lead to erosion under and around the system. Don’t forget to work in the costs of site preparation when comparing properties. If a piece of land is $10,000 less than anything else you’re considering but the grading company gives you a quote for $20,000 to prepare it for proper use, you’re losing both money and time on the deal compared to ready to use plots.
Most people interested in starting an aquaponics business are at least tangentially concerned about the environment. Yet, aquaponics facilities can still contribute to topsoil loss and waterway degradation if you are careless about erosion control during both the construction and ongoing operation phases. Bare soil should be covered as soon as possible, even if it’s just with a layer of gravel or straw. You’ll need to establish some kind of living groundcover like turf grass around outdoor systems, and even greenhouses need proper liners on the ground to keep dirt from being carried away by running water. Hillsides and slopes are particularly prone to erosion, so look into geogrids, straw ballasts, and hydroseeding to prevent these areas from becoming a problem.
Planning for Utilities
Aside from the suitability of the land itself, access to affordable utilities is one of the most important parts of site selection. Affordable properties are usually located far from power and water supplies, leading many entrepreneurs to dream of completely solar- or wind-powered businesses. However, the need for constant and relatively high levels of electricity makes this far more expensive than most realize. Locating your facility near existing utility suppliers is much smarter than trying to design an entire power and water supply system from scratch.
Electricity is the number one most important utility for aquaponics. Water can be trucked in if necessary and waste products and water can also be shipped out. Yet, without electricity, it’s impossible to power the pumps, aerators, water quality monitors and other tools necessary to raise fish. If you are set on running an off-grid and electricity-free business, hydroponics is likely your only option.
Verify that power is available in the area you are considering and ask for average KW costs from the potential providers. A difference of 1 cent per KW may sound like nothing at all, but when you factor in those extra pennies piling up over years and decades of operation, you’ll find the cost quite surprising. Buying a property at a higher price that’s in an area with low electricity rates will result in long-term savings over the life of the business.
It is possible to bring in fresh and conditioned water by truck, but this is very expensive for the initial setup and inflates the costs of operations permanently as you continually bring in replacement supplies. Purchasing a property with a well, municipal connection, lake, water access to a river, or any other water source is a much better solution. You may need to purchase water rights separately in many states in order to install new wells or tap into natural water supplies, especially if they’re shared by multiple properties.
Electrical heating is the best option for greenhouse and indoor aquaponics because there are no fumes produced. Invest in a heavy-duty generator to ensure you can continue to run essential heaters and aerators when the power goes down, especially if you’re relying partially or entirely on renewable energy sources.