Introduction: Compact, Cheap, and Expandable Hydroponics System
I know there are a ton of other instructables out there that deal with hydroponics but I wanted mine to fulfill a certain set of specifications. When I sat down to design my new hydroponics system for my apartment I had a few goals in mind. The system had to be cheap, since I'm on a college kid on a college budget. The system also had to be expandable, just in case I wanted to add some new plants. I really liked the ebb and flow system since it can be powered by a cheap aquarium pump and does not have to run constantly. I thought of every-day, cheap, household items that I could use for the containers in an ebb and flow system. I also needed to be able to construct everything with very limited tools. I only had a dremel with various attachments, some pliers, and wire cutters. As a result, I came up with a complete ebb and flow system consisting of a three container system and pump for around $20. If more containers were desired, it would only cost around a dollar per container.
I wanted the system to be expandable but I was also pressed for space since I am living in a very small apartment with three other individuals. The final parameters were: the system had to be easily managed and easily transported. Easily managed because I'm sometimes lazy when it comes to upkeep and easily transported because the system is not going to be set up in a permanent residence; I will be moving at the end of the semester. Since my apartment receives very little lighting I decided to make a grow light stand as well. Since grow lights can get up into the hundreds of dollars, this adds quite a bit to the total cost of the project. Although this allows you to put your plants where ever you please, it is by no means necessary as long as you have sufficient lighting.
Step 1: The Containers
The main focus of this project is on the containers. I chose the screw top Ziploc containers for the reservoirs because they formed an airtight seal but could be easily opened easily when the nutrient solution needed to be changed. The Ziploc brand containers were $2.97 for three. There are also generic brands out there that I have seen for around $2.00. For the actual pot I used the top of a 2-liter. I used these because they can usually be obtained for free. To power the system, an aquarium pump and some tubing is used. To keep the system automated, you can purchase cheap lighting timers from your local hardware stores. The complete parts list is below.
1 x $3.00 - 3 Pack of Ziploc Screw Top Containers
1 x $1.50 - Length of Aquarium Tubing
1 x $5.00 - Aquarium Pump
1 x $5.00 - Light Timer
1 x $3.00 - Silicone Sealant
3 x $0.25 - Rubber O-Ring
3 x $0.55 - Straight Connector
3 x $0.00 - Empty 2-Liter
Three Addition Containers:
1 x $3.00 - 3 Pack of Ziploc Screw Top Containers
3 x $0.25 - Rubber Washer
3 x $0.55 - Straight Connector
3 x $0.00 - Empty 2-Liter
To make the 2-Liter containers look nicer I scrubbed all of the glue and label off. If you've ever tried to do this for other projects, it's quite a hassle. An easy way to clean the 2-Liters off is to fill them up with hot water and cap them. Next, submerge them in hot soapy water and let them sit for a few minutes. You should now be able to scrub the label/glue off with a coarse dish scrubber as shown in the pictures. The glue and label free tops can now be cut off.
To start the construction of the containers I traced the 2-Liter onto the lid and started to grind away with my dremel. It is important that you get close enough to the size of the 2-Liter while not cutting too much or too little plastic away. If you don't get a big enough hole, the lids will crack when you try to screw the 2-Liter in there. If the hole is too big, you will need to patch up a lot of space. I found these #18 O-Rings at the hardware store. They fit nice and snug around the 2-Liter. The caps need a hole for the aquarium tubing to fit through and the tube has to reach all the way to the bottom of the reservoir. When the reservoir is pressurized, the nutrient solution will be forced up into the plant. To put it all together I fit the O-Rings on the 2-Liters and screw them through the lid, applying silicone sealant to the base of the threads. I then fit the cap on and tighten. You should also smear sealant where the aquarium tubing goes into the cap to prevent an air leak. Next, the straight connectors are cut in half and holes are drilled for them. Sealant is used here as well. Remember that one of your containers will only need one port while the others will need two to pass the air pressure on.
Step 2: The Light Stand
I wanted the light's height to be easily adjustable so as my plants grew, I could raise the light accordingly. To make it as simple as possible, I used PVC tubing and PVC connectors. The stand costs around $8. I found a modestly priced 2 foot grow lamp for $27 at a local hydroponics store that provided ample lighting for the plants I was planning on growing.
Light Stand Parts List:
2 x $2.50 - 10 foot lengths of 1/2 inch PVC pipe
4 x $0.25 - 1/2 inch T connectors
4 x $0.25 - 90 degree connectors
1 x $1.00 - length of chain to hang light
The first step in the construction involves cutting all your PVC parts to length. I roughly estimated the length needed for my 2 foot grow lamp. Once all the parts are cut, the stand is assembled. My grow light came with some hardware to mount the light to a flat surface such as a wall. I wanted to hang mine from my stand so I unlinked some chain and wrapped it around the stand and the brackets. To provide adjustable light height, the legs can move from straight up and down to spread out. Since the grow light wasn't heavy, I didn't have to worry about the legs of the stand flattening out. The pictures show how the adjustable height works. My light also came with a convenient expansion feature. The connector pictured below allows you to add another light to the setup that will use the power from the original light. I built two sets of legs, one short set (for germination of new seeds) and one long set (for full sized plants). Germinating seeds will not need light while sprouting but once they start to grow, they will need plenty of light to get going.
Step 3: Info and Tips on Getting Your Garden Started
Ebb and flow systems work by flooding a nutrient solution to the plant roots 2-5 times a day. After a nice bubbly soak, the nutrient solution drains away. I have run an ebb and flow system using just plain tap water and some liquid miracle grow fertilizer as the nutrients. Although it worked, I wanted to increase the rate of growth and yield. I did a bit of research and reading about the main aspects of hydroponics.
Nutrients and pH
I bought this nutrient solution ($11.95), as well as this pH tester ($4.95), at a local hydroponics supply store. The nutrient solution is mixed according to the label and put into the reservoirs. The solution will need to be changed EVERY TWO WEEKS! Failure to change the solution can result in the production of chemicals that are toxic to your plants. This will poison and kill them. Depending on the size of the plants, the system should be "flooded" 2-5 times a day for 15-30 minutes. Be aware that many nutrient solutions come with two or more parts that are mixed in different proportions depending on if your plants are in the growing stage or the budding/flowering stage. The nutrient solution I bought is just for growing since I am growing cilantro, parsley, basil, and thyme and don't want the plants flowering and creating seeds. The pH tester was just a few dollars and is nice to have. If the plants start to deteriorate, the pH can be tested to see if that is the underlying problem. If the pH is fine, you know it has to do with something else. The pH should not be a problem if you buy a nutrient solution since the solutions are designed to have the correct pH for growing.
Lighting and Temperature
If you are using artificial light, another timer should be set to give the plants around 14 or 15 hours of light a day. While seeds are germinating, there is no need for sunlight. However, once the seeds sprout, they will need plenty of light to grow. I also bought a thermometer to monitor the temperature. Many plants have ideal growing temperatures and this cheap, $1.00 thermometer is a good tool to have and will help you monitor the ambient temperatures in your growing area.
Getting Started and Tips
I am using expanded clay ($9.95 for 10 pounds) in my system. The clay pellets rub together in transit to stores and produce a fine powder. They should be washed before use. Before transferring plants into your system, make sure there are no leaks by doing a quick test. I saved one of the bottoms from a 2-Liter to act as a stand when changing the solutions. The more containers that are used, the bigger the pump that will be needed to keep the flooding process going at a reasonable rate. A smaller pump may work but it may also take 10 minutes for all of the containers to flood completely. Also, be sure to check for leaks in your pots. One small leak will greatly reduce the air pressure in your system and drastically slow down the flooding process. One benefit of an ebb and flow system is that the roots of the plants do not grow to be very large since the nutrients is delivered directly to them. This allows for smaller pots and a more compact design.
Step 4: Conclusion and Results
Some Cheap Alternatives
I wanted to go all out and get some real hydroponics equipment but it's not needed. My old system, as stated above, used tap water and just liquid fertilizer (~$3.50) as nutrients to grow an aloe vera plant and did fairly well. Instead of expanded clay, or any other hydroponics media, I just used some aquarium gravel I bought for a few bucks. Instead of buying a light, you can use the sun as long as there is a good location that receives a decent amount. You don't need to spend a lot of money to make your system work. Buying good equipment does provide benefits but it is definitely not needed for the amateur hydroponics enthusiast!
I decided to order some small herb plants online since starting them from seeds taking way too long and is often quite difficult. I got my plants in the mail and transplanted them. The cilantro started to droop and most of the plant died off... but! there was one little sprout in the middle that survived! In a few days it doubled in size and then I noticed more little sprouts starting to grow, so it's coming back to life! The parsley is doing well, a leaf or two started to die off, most likely due to the shock of transplanting them. I was a bit rough trying to get the dirt off the root. The majority of the plant, however, is deep green and looking good. The basil is pretty small but is responding to the light and directing its leaves toward it. The thyme is surviving. No real signs of it flourishing though. I also bought a few small spinach plants but I haven't had time to make more containers for them yet.
After I had transplanted my herb plants I noticed that the nutrient solution was not coming up the whole way in some of the pots. This was due to the fact that one pot had less solution than the others, allowing it to push all of its nutrients up into the plant and bubble, releasing the pressure needed for the other pots push the water up. In order to fix this, flood the system by turning the pump on. When one container starts to bubble, add more water/nutrient solution to it. When you add more, it takes more pressure to make it bubble and allows the other containers to fill up higher. It took me a bit of filling up but I eventually got it all evened out.
I hope this is all straightforward!!! Message me with any questions or comments, I love to help!!! Thanks for viewing!