AnnouncingFAO Manual on Aquaponics available now in resources!
FeaturesPricingSupportSign In

21.4 Assessing Enclosure Typologies and Possible Applications

4 months ago

6 min read

The actual performance of aquaponic farms depends on many case-specific factors. Some preliminary conclusions about enclosure typologies' advantages, challenges, and possible applications can be drawn from the comparison of a relatively small set of case studies. An empirical study of a more significant number of existing case studies will be needed to establish a correlation between enclosure type, geographic location, and commercial success.

Medium-tech greenhouses offer a commercially-feasible option for aquaponic operations only in temperate climates with mild winters and moderate summers, due to their limited environmental control capability. In locations that do not require much heating and cooling, farms using this greenhouse typology can operate in a resource-efficient manner with lower upfront investment for their enclosure. These farms usually operate on a lower budget and include the fish tanks in the same greenhouse, which limits their selection of fish species to those with a large temperature tolerance and draws their commercial focus to the production of lettuce, leafy greens, and herbs.

Passive solar greenhouses rely on passive systems, specifically the use of thermal mass, to control the indoor climate. The use of this typology for aquaponic systems is advantageous since the large volume of water in the fish tanks provides additional thermal mass. Due to their energy efficiency, they are often used in northern latitudes where conventional greenhouses would require a high level of supplemental heating. However, operating any greenhouse in those regions relies on the use of supplemental lighting due to low light levels and short daylight hours during the winter season. Although passive solar greenhouses in Europe and North America are currently used on a small experimental scale, the more general successful application of these single-slope, energy-efficient greenhouses on 1.83 million acres (0.74 million hectares) of farmland in China shows that this typology can be successfully implemented on a large scale (Gao et al. 2010).

High-tech greenhouses, especially large Venlo-style, gutter-connected systems, are the industry standard for commercial hydroponic production. The largest wellfunded commercial aquaponic farms use this typology for their hydroponic growing systems in conjunction with a separate enclosure for their aquaculture infrastructure. This setup guarantees the highest level of environmental control as well as crop and fish productivity. Technically, this type of greenhouse can be operated anywhere, as long as the revenue produced pays for the high energy and operation costs in extreme climates. However, this type of operation may not be environmentally sensitive in some northern latitudes due to the extensive need for heating and supplemental lighting. The exact environmental footprint of a high-tech greenhouse can only be assessed on a per-project basis and depends mostly on the quality of energy sources used for supplemental heat and light.

Most rooftop greenhouses are Venlo-style high-tech greenhouses constructed on rooftops. Whilst similar benefits and challenges apply, the construction of rooftop greenhouses is even more expensive than that of regular high-tech greenhouses, primarily due to building codes and architectural requirements. The structural system of rooftop greenhouses is often over-dimensioned to comply with building codes for commercial office buildings, which are stricter than building code requirements for agricultural structures. Furthermore, aquaponic operations on rooftops need additional infrastructure to access the roof and comply with fire and egress regulations, which has generated a sprinkler equipped-greenhouse in a recent example (Proksch 2017). The most promising application of rooftop greenhouses is on top of host buildings in urban centers. Urban roofs often offer ample access to sunlight, which greenhouses require to function effectively — a resource that is usually lacking, or at least is not consistent due to shadowing, at ground level in dense urban areas (Ackerman 2012). If purposefully designed, host buildings can offer other resources such as exhaust heat and COsub2/sub that can make the operation of a rooftop aquaponic farm more feasible. This type of integration with the host building can generate energy and environmental synergies that improve the performance of both greenhouse and host building.

img src="" style="zoom:75%;" /

Fig. 21.10 INAPRO aquaponics enclosure with two sections, opaque for fish and greenhouse for plants (Murcia, Spain)

Indoor growing spaces depend entirely on artificial lighting and active control systems for heating, cooling, and ventilation, which results in a high level of energy consumption, environmental footprint, and operation cost. This typology is most applicable in areas with cold winters and short growing seasons, where the natural exposure to sunlight and heat gain is low and extensive supplementation is needed to operate a commercial aquaponics greenhouse. The use of an opaque enclosure allows high levels of insulation, which reduces heat loss during winter months and provides autonomy from external temperature swings. Besides its dependence on electrical lighting, indoor growing exceeds the productivity of greenhouses as measured in other resources, such as water, COsub2/sub, and land area (Graamans et al. 2018). Additionally, the production per unit of land area can be much higher through the use of stacked growing systems. Regarding the urban integration of aquaponics in cities, indoor grow spaces allow for the adaptive reuse of industrial buildings and warehouses, which can reduce the up-front cost for the construction of the enclosure and support the integration of aquaponic farms in underserved neighborhoods.

The Innovative Aquaponics for Professional Applications (INAPRO, 2018) project set-up included the comparison of the same state of the art aquaponic system and greenhouse technology, across a number of sites in Germany, Belgium, and Spain. The aquaponics system located in China was housed in a passive solar greenhouse. The INAPRO aquaponics facilities in Europe utilized a glass-clad greenhouse type for plant production and an industrial type shed component for fish tanks and filtration units (Fig. 21.10). The INAPRO project demonstrates that greenhouse technologies need to be adapted and chosen to suit local climate conditions. The Spanish INAPRO team found, that the selected enclosure was well suited for the cooler northern Europe regions, but not the warmer, Mediterranean regions in southern Europe. This observation highlights the importance of more research on the performance of greenhouses typologies to advance the field of commercial aquaponics operations.

While the comparison of the different typologies reveals certain performance patterns between typology, location, and investment (Table 21.3), for a comprehensive understanding of farm performance and environmental impact, a more robust system for the analysis and design of farm enclosures is needed.