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

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

About: E4C’s mission is to improve the lives of underserved communities by better preparing the global development workforce, optimizing the solutions development cycle, and ensuring public health and safety.

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.

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121 Discussions

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

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.

8 replies

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...

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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



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

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.

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

3 replies

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

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.

4 replies

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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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...