Build a vertical aquaponic veggie & fish farm for small yards & houses

Picture of 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, 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. 

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.

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
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.

*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.
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retav2 months ago

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...

masterbuilder4 months ago

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?

315tiye2 years ago
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!
treekids 315tiye7 months ago

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

slow down and rock the drill in a large circle
Have you tried a hole saw?
I was using a drill with a 3" hole bit but had bad technique. However, my boyfriend drilled the holes successfully.
treekids7 months ago

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!

DaveM5010 months ago

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.

lward1611 months ago

Best thing everyone with questions could do would be to contact your local agriculture co-op and ask them to put you in touch with local aquaculture co ops in your area!

Cpt_Cosmos11 months ago

I think it is a bit of a disservice to imply that Trout or even Tilapia could be successfully raised in 55 gallon barrels. A system this size could work for goldfish or other carp, but would simply be too small for Trout.

lward16 Cpt_Cosmos11 months ago

Actually it is very simple to raise trout, catfish, bass, tilapia and other breeds of fish in barrels and it is not too small. My family has a fish farm and raise thousands of pounds of striped bass fish in individual cages by getting them as fingerlings and raising them til they reach a pound in weight then sell them. Also have cages full of other types of fish.

315tiye2 years ago
You never really explain how the watering system works on this unit. Where and how do you connect the incoming water? I have made a tube for the drainage but I am perplexed as to how I get the water to run through the tube. How perforated should the cups be to allow the roots to grow through it?
Thank you in advanced for your answers to my questions.
Yeah, it isn't exactly detailed enough on the actual "here is how it all works!". The water pump needs to pull water from the bottom fish tanks up to the hydroponic part for the plants; you add water periodically due to absorbing and evaporation. No water is "hooked up" to it.
a small pump lifts the water up to your growing media runs over the plants and
falls back into the fish tank yo'all need a pump
sh1n0b12 years ago
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.
Engineering for Change (author)  sh1n0b12 years ago
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...
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
see my post on using a swamp cooler to chill the water

does anyone else hate the captcha security thing .... every post ! sheesh
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.
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.
Engineering for Change (author) 2 years ago
We'd like to do some kind of clean-energy-powered pump, too. We'll look into it.
build a 4'x4' solar panel and get a 12 volt bilge pump and a car battery
That would be great. If you had a solar-powered pump, and you used the vegetables you grew to feed the crickets to feed the fish, you could close the loop!
There are solar powered sump pumps out there. How about rigging a couple of them?
How about human power? :) Using my system above, drain (small holes covered with burlap) water from the BOTTOM of the fish tank into a container and pour the contents into a container above that flows into your tubs... no power required except elbow grease!
wdyasq2 years ago
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.

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
lmorrow22 years ago
Thanks for the great idea however I have an idea that with make it less labor intensive as far as adding water to the fish tank when it is necessary. On the ends of the fish barrels, up high above the water level, add a simple swamp cooler water valve and float switch
. U would simply need to drill 1 3/8 in hole for the water walve and incert it into the top of the barrel with the float switch in the tank and u can adjust the float switch simply by bending the metal bar on the float. works just like a toilet bowl swith that shuts off water at a certain level excepy simpler and way less expensive. Less than 10 dollars for the float and switch. U wouls need 1 setup for each fish barrel. Then plumb in the tiney water lines that feed water to each switch.
U will pehaps need another special valve to attach to your main water soarce. These valves are about 6 to 8 dollars at Home depot. If it were me id figure out a way to Y from this valve so u need only one of these valves. The Y then feeds each fish barrel switch perspectivly.
All parts are available at HDepot incluging the tiny black tubing which is very cheap...Thanks again, Phil Riddle
phil great idea !

suggestion .... a little resident program that I depend on called
tinyspell ....... on the fly spell checker
amc217692 years ago
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.
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 is a unique and experimental system.
This looks awesome. You should post an Instructable on how to make it.
standard waterfall tubs ....... ingenious
add your grow beds or vert/horz pipes and more fish ....
nidobrito1 year ago
So, does anyone figured out how the biofilter of this system works?
yes the fish produce complex nitrates [ammonia] worms and bacteria in the media
convert it to nitrides and then to nitrates which the plants use the filtered water goes back to do it all again ....... oxygen [air] improves the process just add a little waterfall
DearOldDad1 year ago
We have a neighborhood fish farm I wonder if they've thought about doing this on a large scale (pun intended)! I've been to their store where they have the tanks of fresh farm raised perch and lake trout. Maybe we could do a project!? Hmmm?
good idea !
I was all gung ho about this, until I found that it is next to impossible to get tilapia fingerlings in Ontario Canada. I wonder if goldfish are good to eat.
try trout ....... it stay pretty cool up there doesnt it ?
if your water gets to warm run it through an evaporative cooler loses some water but cools it a lot actually made my hand ache on a hot 105' day
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