Introduction: Build a Vertical Aquaponic Veggie & Fish Farm for Small Yards & Houses

This low-cost vertical aquaponic system can grow leafy greens, herbs and raise fish for a small family year round, and it fits in a 5' by 3' space. Sean Brady, the aquaponics projects coordinator at the Center for Sustainable Aquaponics and Nourish the Planet in Loveland, Colo., showed us how to build a system from scrap he found around the greenhouse. We published a version of this how-to guide at engineeringforchange.org, and it's one of the good ones, so we'd like to share it with Instructables, too.

What it is
A vertical aquaponic system grows vegetables without soil in columns above a fish tank. By growing vertically, you can produce about twice the amount of plants as you can with a hydroponic system of the same area. One five-foot tower can produce more than 200 heads of lettuce per year. And it uses a small fraction of the water needed to grow crops in soil.

The system puts fish waste to work as fertilizer for crops. A small pump draws nutrient-rich water from the fish tank to the tops of the vertical columns. The water trickles down through the roots of the plants, gathering oxygen from the air as it falls back into the tank. It releases almost no waste and, because it's soil free, there's no need for fertilizer or most pesticides. Also, if you do it right, you won't have to clean the fish tank much.

You do have to replace lost water as needed, power the pump and feed the fish. Try raising crickets for fish food, or buy them flakes. It might not be too hard to power one of these pumps with a small solar panel or some other renewable energy. If anyone has an idea, please share.

This is how to build Sean Brady's low-cost vertical aquaponic system This build is for the simple design in the cover photo, and we're including pictures of other, fancier systems built with mostly the same materials to show what's possible. For credit, Brady took all of the photos. For more information on aquaponics, please see CSA's and NTP's sites. 

Materials
You can use these or swap out anything for whatever you have on hand. Measurements are in feet and inches. Sorry, rest of the world.

*Pipes
15-20 ft. of 4-in. diameter PVC or ADS
Four 4-inch elbows
Four 4-inch T connectors
*Two 50-gallon drums
*15-20 ft. of pex tubing, or aquarium tubing
*Plastic cups
*Strips of cloth, such as burlap sack, cable ties or another fastener
*Scrap wood
*Two rolls of electrical tape
*Pumps
One water pump - the size depends on how much flow it would need. An aquarium pump is enough to keep the flow going.
One air pump (optional). The system can aerate itself but it can produce more if it has an air pump.

Tools
*Power drill or hand drill
*1-in hole saw
*3-in hole saw

Build time 
About two hours.

Recommended plants and fish
Leafy vegetables, tomatoes and herbs do well in these systems. So do flowers. You can experiment to find which do well and fit your needs.
Tilapia and trout do well, they grow quickly and they're delicious.

Step 1: Prepare the Base Pipes

Cut the pipe into six 1ft. sections for the sides and two 14in. sections for the ends.
Drill two 3in-diameter holes in each of the 1ft side pieces.
Drill a 1in-diameter hole into the side of one of the end pieces.

Then assemble the pieces with electrical tape

Tip
You can use any kind of durable plastic or pipe, not just what's pictured.

Step 2: Vertical Pipes

Cut the vertical pipes to whatever length you like. The ones pictured are cut at different lengths, from 2ft to 4ft, to show what they each look like. But you would usually cut all four to the same length.

Drill 1in-diameter holes in the vertical pipes, evenly spaced.
Insert the vertical pipes as shown.

The photo on the right shows the finished system to give an idea of what you're building.

Step 3: Cups and Drain

Perforate the bottoms of the plastic cups and place them in the holes you drilled in the side pipes.

Cut a piece of 1in-diameter pipe to insert into the 1in hole in the end pipe to make a drain.
The drain should pour into one of the 50-gallon drums.

Step 4: The Fish Tank

You can use two 50-gallon drums like these or any other kind of container that holds water for fish. You could even scale this down and put it on top of an indoor aquarium.

Cut the tops off below the rims.

Step 5: Finished

This is the assembled garden structure on top of the drums, seen from two slightly different angles.

Adjust the structure's balance and support its joints with wooden boards. You could tilt the structure slightly toward the drainpipe to improve the water flow.

Cut strips of burlap (or another material), fasten them to the tops of the vertical pipes and drape them down the inside of the pipes. This gives the plant roots something to latch onto.

Next, cut and assemble the tubing so that you can pump water from one barrel up to each of the four vertical pipes. You could also pump water from the barrel that receives drainage to the barrel that feeds the system.

Step 6: Scaling Up for Bigger, Fancier Systems

These systems can scale up to commercial size, like this greenhouse at the Center for Sustainable Aquaponics.

Step 7: Creative Designs

This arrangement shows some of the creativity and beauty possible with an aquaponic system. There is a rocky waterfall into the fish tank and a drip-irrigation system watering soil-free plants in a rock bed.

Step 8: Harvest

Sean Brady shows what these systems can produce. He's holding a trout here.

Comments

author
Suresh Boganatham made it! (author)2017-06-15

I need more information regarding vertical aquaponic veggie and fish farm I had 1008 sq mte poly house.I want to convert. Expecting reply. Thanks. Suresh Boganatham

author
sh1n0b1 made it! (author)2012-03-29

I don't know where you live, but trout requires cold water.
I'm in AR working on the same kind of solution but can't use trout due to the water getting too hot. A water cooling system needs added for it to work.
Just my 0.000000002 million dollar worth.

author

This build is in Denver, Colo. Part of the challenge in colder areas is to get the system through the winter. We saw a system that heated the water, rather than the entire greenhouse, and it saved tons of power, especially compared to dirt farms in greenhouses right next door.

Cooling the water, though, hasn't been an issue. We'll ask about it...

author
mruizcar made it! (author)mruizcar 2017-05-31

How does cooling the water only, help the plants not freeze? That is an interesting idea that can save lots of money.

author
rclaessens made it! (author)rclaessens2013-10-28

see my post on cooling the water using a swamp cooler
works here in nevada



please get rid of or limit the captcha thing to 1 at logon ....... please
so annoying

author
ElizabethB141 made it! (author)ElizabethB1412016-05-22

How do I find your post on coolong with a swamp cooler?

author
ElizabethB141 made it! (author)ElizabethB1412016-05-22

I am building a system now in Austin and cooling the water may be a good idea as summer comes. Please help me think of s way to do this.

author
rubyslpr made it! (author)rubyslpr2012-08-13

Think of native Arkansas fishes such as the yellow perch and bluegill. We are in Red River County TX near the AR line and both of these species do very well, especially in small setups.
b
BTW, I don't have a pic and I'm not at the house right now but, we just use a large child's one piece (hard) plastic wading pool with river rock in the bottom, a small tiered structure and rubbermaid type tubs with aquarium sand. I use a fountain pump in the pool to pump water up through aquarium tubing into the top of the tubs. The tubs are on a slight incline with the low end over the pool, with a drainage hole about 1/2" from the bottom. Plants are started in baskets with rock wool or other hydroponic medium and the baskets set in the sand. The sand is an amazing filter and helps hold the nutrients. The water simply cascades from the overhaning holes into the pool below. Good oxygen and the fish love the motion of the water.

author
mjreller made it! (author)mjreller2015-10-22

Sounds like a great opportunity for you to make an 'ible. Would love to see pics of your operation. Especially since its been in use a while now.

author
rclaessens made it! (author)rclaessens2013-10-28

see my post on using a swamp cooler to chill the water



does anyone else hate the captcha security thing .... every post ! sheesh

author
AmirJ14 made it! (author)2016-05-29

what kind of materials can i use against soil or stone in this system to

Stabilize vegetables ? seems it get very heavy if use stones and need Light

materials.

author
wdyasq made it! (author)2012-09-04

The pump MUST have enough 'head' and flow to keep things circulating.

I have a flood and drain system (not raising fish) that took a few weeks to get established.

Fish must meet the requirements of the local climate or provisions must be made to make the climate required by the fish/system.

In Texas, (DFW Area)at times the system will get too hot to support many fish or produce many plants. And, in the winter, the tanks will freeze. Neither is good for tanks or fish.

Ron

author
rclaessens made it! (author)rclaessens2013-10-28

tanks wont freeze in texas though they might real cold
try my swampcooler system to coll it down in summer
trout in the winter and talipia in the summer put the whole thing in a green house

author
ElizabethB141 made it! (author)ElizabethB1412016-05-22

Where will I fond your swamp cooler system?

author
biggestdog420 made it! (author)biggestdog4202012-09-17

solar.

author
amc21769 made it! (author)2012-10-22

I do not know if another person submitted this comment yet, but, you need to focus on one type only. In the pictures you show three difference kines of aquaponic gardens. Please focus on one type. Also provide all pipes sizes and lengths. This is a great idea with lots of potential but it is very confusin.

author
ronbo1969 made it! (author)ronbo19692012-10-31

I have a water system that has been running for a year and a half trouble free...the only thing i have to do is add water as needed. My plants thrive and so do my fish. I currently have over 25 fish of different sizes. I am using Koi and my set up has approx. 450 gallons of water. The filtering system works great without any issues what so ever. I am fixing to add my piping for my aquaponics system now that I know my fish and water filtering system works properly. If you would like more info on my set up let me know. I will also be adding photos of my piping in the future.....it is a unique and experimental system.

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author
ElizabethB141 made it! (author)ElizabethB1412016-05-22

Please send more info

author
Chakazuluu made it! (author)Chakazuluu2015-10-22

I would like to know about your system - I am trying to learn as much as I can about different systems so I can settle on one & build it...

author

This looks awesome. You should post an Instructable on how to make it.

author
rclaessens made it! (author)rclaessens2013-10-28

standard waterfall tubs ....... ingenious
add your grow beds or vert/horz pipes and more fish ....

author
Dirt Dobber made it! (author)2015-11-12

They didn't explain that the barrels are to be hooked together with a drain line in the upper section. this will drain the top water off the first barrel with the fish. the pump should be in the second barrel to feed the plants. this way the water doesn't go up and down on the fish and stress them out.

author
MrInfinite made it! (author)2015-11-12

why didn't you explain the pump setup?

author
MrInfinite made it! (author)2015-11-12

why didn't you explain the pump setup?

author
belsey made it! (author)2015-10-22

I don't understand the water circulation in this design... As far as I can tell from photos and description, you have water being pumped up from one barrel to the four vertical pipes, then circulating past the plant roots and back into that one barrel. What's the second barrel doing here?

author
Amarilis AmyR made it! (author)Amarilis AmyR2015-11-10

to grow more fish remember you need 1/2 to 1 gallon per fish inch you connect the tank with a pipe for the water to drain from one tank to the other use a T to split the aquarium tubing that goes out of the pump and the one that goes into the pump

author
harkejuice made it! (author)harkejuice2015-10-22

From what I understand, second barrel is there to hold it up, or you could use it to store water, or split the water between two tanks.

author

That's right, thank you.

author

Looks like someone already responded but in case it helps, here's a note from Step 5 that mentions what you can do with the barrels:

"...cut and assemble the tubing so that you can pump water from one barrel up to each of the four vertical pipes. You could also pump water from the barrel that receives drainage to the barrel that feeds the system."

Hope that helps.

author
warpath7a1 made it! (author)2015-10-31

I really want to build one of these with my existing pond. only question is how to sprout the veggies to use in such a system? The starters seem difficult to come up with

author
DoaaA4 made it! (author)2015-10-30

thumbs up ,, thanks for sharing

author
primosanch made it! (author)2015-10-29

Very impressive! Thanks for sharing.

author
dsweitzer made it! (author)2015-10-29

The CSA website says the domain name has expired, ... perhaps you should pass on the word (or could the link be wrong?). The web address is:
http://centerforaquaponics.com/

author
jorricks made it! (author)2015-10-24

Very good idea nice job.

I came across another web site that the readers may be
interested in.

If so go to this web site http://www.fastonline.org/?page_id=32

Once there click on button that reads, “The Barrel-Ponics® Manual” this
will down load a PDF file with full directions..

author
diy_bloke made it! (author)diy_bloke2015-10-29

thanks for that link. Very worthwhile

author
SuzanR made it! (author)2015-10-23

I haven't noticed if the water movement requirement is continuous or cyclical - if cyclical, and considering the diagram in the 1 may post - the flow pattern could be created by manually elevating and lowering the sump tank at the right side of the diagram - some design modifications would be needed but nothing very complicated and the need for a pump is avoided -

another alternative would be to use a mechanical pump - a manual pitcher type hand pump - to periodically transfer water from the lowest sump tank to an elevated storage tank to drain by restricted gravity flow into the fish tank ----Source http://verticalaquaponicsystem.blogspot.com/

active-aqua-venturi-300x213.jpg
author
kakipancingMUARb made it! (author)2015-10-23

hello, great project. but maybe i read not correct. can you show me picture of the water pump and how to install?thank ya

https://cdn.instructables.com/FVL/NOL8/H0A003F3/FVLNOL8H0A003F3.MEDIUM.jpg

author
kakipancingMUARb made it! (author)2015-10-23

hello, great project. but maybe i read not correct. can you show me picture of the water pump and how to install?thank ya

https://cdn.instructables.com/FVL/NOL8/H0A003F3/FVLNOL8H0A003F3.MEDIUM.jpg

author
pdionne made it! (author)2015-10-22

I did hydroponics for three years. Had a fair crop the first year, got snooked the second year and got a total of 6 tomatoes this year. I had fish and used an organic fertilizer, which did not harm the fish, this year. My son planted some plants along the house. He took four bags of started mix and spread it along the 24 foot long side of the house. He ended up with 5 or 6 real good sized pepper plants and 20 tomatoes plants that were over 6ft tall. I give up and am going back to soil, but will be using the watering system from my hydroponic system, but I'll have it on a timer.

author
Chakazuluu made it! (author)2015-10-22

So vegies like tomatoes & squash will have to grown in half barrels would they not...

author
BenW7 made it! (author)2015-04-28

Nice write up. Here's the system we just built (we'd like to add an NFT to it as well):

http://www.weeksfamilyeco.org/blog/2015/april/our-first-outdoor-aquaponics-ibc-system/

author
retav made it! (author)2014-12-07

Hi every body,

I used to have big problems on how to build a vertical aquaponic system , but am getting in better mind now. Here's a good site I found that really helped. It gave me great methods,and showed me what I was doing wrong before...there's even lots of free articles on the site...http://verticalaquaponicsystem.blogspot.com/

author
masterbuilder made it! (author)2014-10-17

1) If you plant the plants in the plastic cups, then what are the vertical pipes with holes drilled in them for?

2) Wouldn't the pump eventually get clogged from running all the dirty water through it?

author
315tiye made it! (author)2012-07-25

I am trying to drill the 3 inch holes in the pvc pipe but the drill keeps kicking back. Any suggestions. It's very dangerous and I don't want to give up. I'm almost there!
Thanks!

author
treekids made it! (author)treekids2014-07-10

V grooved block of wood bolted in good alignment under a drill press. Freehanding onto a convex curve is difficult and dangerous.

author
rclaessens made it! (author)rclaessens2013-10-28

slow down and rock the drill in a large circle

author
moonchylde made it! (author)moonchylde2012-07-25

Have you tried a hole saw?

author
315tiye made it! (author)315tiye2012-07-30

I was using a drill with a 3" hole bit but had bad technique. However, my boyfriend drilled the holes successfully.

author
treekids made it! (author)2014-07-10

Re solar:

I played around with an adafruit $19.95 peristaltic pump and a $45 12V DC 15watt solar panel from harbor freight tools yesterday. Ran great. Just a simple direct connect.

For safety, I'll bolt down the motor and add a fuse, I think, before I leave it running.

In fact for my immediate needs I'd rather run it slower and quieter, so I'm getting a current limiter for it. I did run it off a 5V USB battery (portable phone charger and it ran competently with that too, tho a lot slower. More of the kind of quiet slow drip I'm looking for as I get started.) Ultimately I think I'll want to get red/blue LEDs and run 24 hours a day (apparently plants don't need to sleep)

Also ran it through a float switch from Amazon- it powered right up when liquid was present, and turned of when it was gone.

Eventually I hope to make a more decorative version of this for my urban home patio (two and three-story walls mean we get sunlight only up the walls- if it's not pretty the neighbors will complain.)

Another comment re solar:

Fish do need to breathe!

author
DaveM50 made it! (author)2014-05-02

Why not put two tees in each end and run additional horizontal pipes instead of the "towers"? Seems to me that the towers will be difficult to keep waterere evenly, not to mention holding growth medium. And sticking to horizontal growth beds will allow on to use a smaller (or at least, lower working head) pump).

It would also be easy to add additional growth bed space, at least to a small system, by hanging up a few "topsy-turvy tomato planters" or similar.

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