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Zero Power, Self-Watering, Self-Regulating Container Garden

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Picture of Zero Power, Self-Watering, Self-Regulating Container Garden
This was inspired by another instructable that shows how to build your own earthbox. My design adds a gravity fed, zero power consuming irrigation system that can water multiple containers automatically.The whole project is built using common, easily found parts at potentially zero cost.

I live in an apartment that doesn't have a garden, but I do have a small roof outside my bedroom and I wanted to start a vegetable container garden on it. The idea of self watering containers appealed to me, but even with self watering containers I would still have to crawl out my bedroom window with multiple buckets of water every few days to keep the containers full.

What I needed was a way to keep multiple containers watered from a central reservoir that was easily accessible. I couldn't just connect the feed tubes straight from the containers to the reservoir because then it would just empty out, unevenly watering the containers and over watering the plants. However I didn't want wires hanging out my window, so I didn't want something that required electricity. It also had to be simple, so it could run with no need to dig it up and fix it, and it had to be cheap (or free), so I could repeat it on multiple containers and expand my garden without spending a lot of money.

The containers I've designed use the same self watering system as the earthbox concept, but I added an automatic shut-off valve to each container so that multiple containers can be gravity fed from the same reservoir. Each container regulates how much water it takes from the reservoir so, however many containers you have in your garden, all you have to do to keep them all watered is to make sure the reservoir stays full, no need for electricity, pumps or timers.

Construction is fairly simple and all parts are readily available for very cheap (almost all are very common and could be found for free if you are so inclined).

If you do decide to buy all the parts, it will set you back about $10-$12 per container
 
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Step 1: Parts

What you will need for each container, (almost all parts are available at a good dollar store, except maybe the hose and hose connectors which you can get at a hardware store):

- A container with a lid (can be anything, I used two 5-gallon buckets and a big rubbermaid storage box).
- A plastic colander or basket that fits with plenty of room into the bottom of your container.
- A small rectangular tupperware container that can fit alongside the above mentioned basket in the bottom of your container.
- A toilet ballcock mechanism, the simplest, cheapest type with the float on an arm.
- A rubber ball that floats
- Some small gauge threaded rod (or you can just use the arm that came with the ballcock mechanism, if it can be cut down)
- A few feet of hose
- A nylon hose barb the same gauge as your hose (and barb T's, to add extra containers)
- Waterproof adhesive in a caulking gun

Step 2: Constructing The False Bottom

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This is the part that borrows from the original earthbox idea.

You want to make a false bottom to your container, creating a separate chamber in the bottom with a hole cut in it for the colander or basket to sit in.

The original earthbox instructable suggests doing this by placing one container inside the other. This is fine, but I'm a cheapskate and I don't want to have to use two containers, so I just used the lid that came with the container.

1. Trace the outline of the basket on the lid
2. Trace the outline of the tupperware container alongside it (note: In the picture this is a circle, but this was for the first version of this project which didn't work, yours will be a rectangle)
3. Trace around the bottom of the container onto the lid to create the edge that will fit into the container
4. Cut out the container outline and the two rectangles

(construction note: when I cut the lids of the 5-gallon buckets I used all purpose snippers and discovered that the material is waxy and cracks easily, so cut carefully, the cuts don't have to be exact or tidy and most cracks can be fixed when you mount it, but you don't want the material to crack completely)

Step 3: The Shut-Off Mechanism

Picture of The Shut-Off Mechanism
This is the fun bit.

We're going to use the ballcock assembly to make the shut-off valve, but since the water will be coming from the top, not the bottom (as it was designed to do), we're going to have to flip the valve around so that the fulcrum is on the other side.

Also, this whole assembly is going to fit inside the small tupperware container so the float arm will have to be shortened and a new, smaller float put on the end.

This may seem a bit complicated at first, but if you read through all the steps and understand what you are trying to achieve in the end it's actually pretty simple and can be adjusted for the specific design of ballcock mechanism you have. Also, once you've done one you'll be able to do additional ones pretty quickly and easily.

Step 4: Shut-Off Valve Step 1

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Take the float arm off the assembly, take out the top adjustment screw and remove the fulcrum pin of the ballcock valve mechanism so you can remove the top lever.

You will probably have to cut off all extra bits to pare the lever down to a basic block, so that it will still be able move freely when you flip it around.

Step 5: Shut-Off Valve Step 2

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You will have to drill new holes for the adjustment screw and the float arm in the other side of the lever so that you can flip the lever the opposite way around.

1. Drill a new hole for the adjustment screw in the other side of the lever.

2. Depending on the exact design of the ballcock valve, you may need to drill a hole for the float arm in the opposite side of the lever. If the mechanism you are using has a metal arm that screws into the valve lever, you may not have to do this as the hole is already there.

3. You will probably need to drill a new hole for the fulcrum pin so that the adjustment screw sits on top of the valve when the lever is reversed.

Step 6: Shut-Off Valve Step 3

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Cut off the feed pipe of the ballcock assembly about an inch from the valve.

Step 7: Shut-Off Valve Step 4

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Mount the lever, reversed, back on top of the ballcock valve (I used a nail bent and snipped off at one end as the new fulcrum pin).

1. Screw in the threaded rod (or the original float arm if your particular ballcock assembly allows)

2. Cut off the float arm so that the whole thing fits into the tupperware container.

3. Screw the rubber ball onto the end of the arm as the new float.

Step 8: Shut-Off Valve Step 5

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Cut a hole in one side of the bottom of the tupperware container so that the new valve can fit inside with the shortened feed tube sticking out the bottom.

Use the waterproof adhesive to glue the whole shebang into the tupperware so the feed tube sticks out the bottom. You may have to bore out the feed tube so the hose fits snugly into it.

Also, you will want to fill in the secondary, smaller feed tube with adhesive otherwise the water will come out of there too, and probably fill your valve mechanism with dirt.

Voila! You have a miniaturized float shut off valve in a box, and you only had to cannibalize one toilet to make it.

Also, you are going to want to screw the adjustment screw all the way in so that as soon as that ball starts floating the valve will engage.

Step 9: Mount the Whole Thing in the Container

Picture of Mount the Whole Thing in the Container
Using the waterproof adhesive, glue the basket onto one side of the cut out lid from step 2, and glue the tupperware containing the valve mechanism onto the other side.

1. Stick the whole thing, basket side down, into the container and glue it around the edge to seal the false bottom in there nice and tight (don't worry it doesn't have to be watertight or anything, you just don't want the bits to move around when you put the soil in).

2. Drill a hole in the side of the container above the valve feed and screw in the hose barb so it sticks out the side of the container.

3. Connect the inside of the hose barb to the valve feed with a bit of hose.

(Note: If you want to save money on those expensive hose barbs, you can just drill a hole and have the hose sticking out the side, I just like the barb because it makes the container easily connected and disconnected to a group of containers. Also, there's no reason you have to put the hose out the side of the container. You can have the feed hose just stick out the top, I just wanted to make sure that the feed is below the level of the reservoir without having to put the reservoir up too high.)

You may notice in the picture that my container is a big mess of adhesive, that is because this project went through several incarnations before I found a shut-off mechanism that worked properly (the one I have described in this instructable). Each of the three versions I went through was torn out and retrofitted with the next, resulting in an ungodly expenditure of adhesive as I had to fix where I had cut before. Yours should be a lot neater, but even if it isn't, it doesn't much matter since the whole thing will be buried under soil anyway.

Step 10: Connect All Your Containers to a Single Reservoir

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1. Get another container (your reservoir), drill a hole in the side at the bottom of the container and screw another hose barb into it

2. Using the T barbs to branch the flow, connect all your containers the reservoir.

The cool thing about this design is that, since the shut-off valves in the containers will make sure they won't just keep filling, the reservoir is simply topping off the containers when the water level drops, meaning that, no matter how many containers you have or how big they are, the size of the reservoir doesn't matter, you simply have to keep it full.

To show it in action, here's a picture of my girlfriend filling up the reservoir for our three containers with ease and aplomb, out of our bedroom window. Now isn't that easier than keeping track of the water levels of multiple containers and having to lug multiple buckets of water out of a window to fill them up?

I will update this instructable when our veggies start blooming.
This is awesome and I'm so excited about building one.
I'm changing it slightly and using an evaporative cooler float valve instead, will maybe write an instructable if it's successful.
You wrote you'd update when the veggies bloom but I don't see an update- did you get too busy or was there a hitch? Did this work out for you?
Did that work? Did it need to be modified. Seems an easier solution than fussing with a toilet float valve.
this is my unpublished instructable: http://www.instructables.com/id/Self-Regulating-Container-Garden/ results: mixed. The peas love love love it and I'm having to go up to the roof every other day to detangle them from each other and wrap them around the poles. the soybeans and greenbeans are doing well too. All 3 of them developed roots all the way down to the water bucket. The carrots/chives were a horrible algae mess and the 2 transplants i bought (tomatoes and peppers) can't seem to decide what they think. I'm new tyo gardening, so I welcome any suggestions or theories on the failures. Here are current pics, about a month after building.
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kingnemo (author)  olddirtyspatula5 years ago
This is awesome!! So glad it worked out for you. I'm absolutely going to do mark II with those evaporative cooler float valves. So much easier. Great instructable!

Your basic problem is not how you are transporting water. The problem is that without a barrier "the barrier can be a couple of inches of air" your soil can take up all the water in your reserve whether the plants want that much water or not. For most plants the answer is no. The only passageway from your water level to your soil level should be a larger plastic go up or instant coffee bottle tall enough to sit on the bottom of your container,you should mark how high the water level is. It should continue through your air gap. Mark where it enters the soil and comes within at least one inch of the top of your soil. Take the container out drill lots of holes under the line you marked where it entered the air. Start at the level you marked where it entered the soil. Drill lots of holes from that line up to the top. Fill the container with soiless potting soil mixture or sand. The container should not shift. Dirt should not fall from around the edges into the water. The container should fill with water around the sand or mix. If the soil around the cup is dry it will wick up the water mixed in the container. More water will enter the bottom holes. Once the soil around the cup is wet it will send that water to the drier parts of the soil. Only when the soil around the cup has given up enough water to the other soilwill it be able to wick more water from the cup. If your gardening container is large, place a second wick cup away from the first.

kingnemo (author)  kingnemo5 years ago
Actually, I just googled the valves. They way cheaper too!
Thank you so much, and thank you for your insructable on which mine is based. After reading yours I fell in love with the idea. question: how did your plants go? Did you also have mixed results or were they consistent? Did you get any algae? Did you start seeds and transplant or sow directly to the ground? Did you water overhead at all or just use the main reservoir? Like I said, new to gardening and learning it all by trial and error.
Attila-RT1 year ago
I think this is a great solution! I look forward to the results! Thank you for posting your experiment! :)
msnyder42 years ago
this is a great idea. I was wondering about root rot. Have you had any trouble?
Good question... Anyone know?
lickapop6 years ago
i dont think you can claim self watering when you have to 'physically' fill the reservoir. I got all excited for about 2 min Nice thought though
You can automatically fill up the reservoir with another float valve hooked up to a water supply, that way when the reservoir level goes down the water supply refills it, much like a toilet.
I think this comes about as close as you could ask for to a self watering system. yes someone still has to fill the initial reservoir but what did you expect? if you put it under a gutter or a water collector from your roof then it might help but this is already freaking great!
cooljamesx12 years ago
If you seal the top of your reservoir air tight, (perhaps this would require a different container for the reservoir, I'm thinking like a water cooler bottle with a screw lid), you would not need the float valves, as air pressure would keep the water in the bottle which would only flow out when water levels in the planters fell to where air could be sucked in through the watering tube. Then, only the level of the watering tube end in the planter would determine the water level. This method would probably require a slightly larger watering tube diameter, to account for water surface tension, to allow air to flow in while water escapes. The tubes would also need to be kept at a continual slope, so as not to trap air, which you have already achieved, although it is unnecessary for your system. Thanks for your work!
This guy has the idea:

http://lifehacker.com/5891194/build-a-self+regulating-automatic-plant-watering-system-with-a-plastic-bottle-and-a-tray

no need for complicated valves! just air pressure. yay!
Nevermind about the continual slope, I was looking at the pics posted from olddirtyspatuala haha!
gkaneto3 years ago
Hello, everybody!

I just wrote an instructable about self-watering (mainly for indoor plants, but will work for some outdoor setups): really self-regulating, and no powering needs.

It is here: http://www.instructables.com/id/Self-regulating-watering-system

Hope someone find it useful.

Best wishes,
Gustavo.
tinker2344 years ago
wow going in my garden
FeedTheGrid6 years ago
Great concept. I'm wondering if this type of mechanism might even work on a larger scale; like my front yard. This is the second instructable within two weeks which I've seen that toilet-valve used; useful, indeed! Thanks for sharing! FTG
kingnemo (author)  FeedTheGrid6 years ago
I don't see why it couldn't. The shut-off valves keep the containers from over watering, so in theory you could have as many containers as you wanted running off one reservoir. I guess you could also hook it up to a garden hose instead of the reservoir and never have to water your plants again.
or hook it up to a rain barrel
i think im going to try this when i have time with a Kerick float valve M252 and mod the float
andybuda5 years ago
do you think a rubber ball pushing against a washer would do when the water level increases in the reservoir it would cause a seal they did use something like that in ancient plumbing systems
ralls19355 years ago
I'm not sure what part of the country you are from, but here in the southwest there are still a lot of swamp coolers in use which use a very small float valve to maintain a proper water level. Therefore doing away with modifying a flush valve. the 1/4 in plastic line is connected to a hose bib with a needle valve. I'm not sure what part of the country you are from, but here in the southwest there are still a lot swamp coolers in use. These coolers use a very small float valve that will eliminate modifying a flush valve plus you only have to drill a 3/8 inch hole to install it. A 1/4 inch plastic hose connected to a hose bib with a needle valve and your in business. If you do not have a water faucet close by connect to your 5 gal bucket.
saxien6 years ago
You could always try the vacuum system with no floats or anything, just keep everything level , the outlet from your reservoir has to be the same level for all grow boxes you want to hook up, say 3cm from the bottom, then into the first growbox you need an air line at the same level, then run that to nearly the top of your reservoir, you only need one air line, but the reservoir must be airtight, use those plastic containers with the screw on caps, the water will fill to the top of the inlet and when it drops it exposes the air line and lets more in again until the airline is covered with water, you just make up a manifold to fill the other boxes from your first inlet, all the boxes will fill to the same level
trebuchet036 years ago
Just curious - is there any benefit of using a mechanical valve as opposed to a siphon (that would not require lifting the reservoir bucket)?
joen6 years ago
Great idea. If you live in the southwest or western deserts you could use evaporative cooler float valves. They are ultra simple to install and you can shorten the float lever arm just about as much as you need to fit. There is nothing to take apart or re-fit. Just make sure the hole you drill for it is the right height, hook it up and you're done. They're available at almost any home center here.
jimtran93 joen6 years ago
using evaporative cooler float valves is a great idea, and would prob save a ton of time spent on modifying the toilet float.
Mr. Rig It6 years ago
If you could get this near a rain down spout it could refill itself during the rain showers. I think this is a great idea and well written. Good job!
drawe216 years ago
Replace the shutoff valve with 2 sizes of pvc and a pingpong ball.
kingnemo (author)  drawe216 years ago
i tried that on the first version (that's the stuff you see ripped out in the photo), the pressure of the water in the bottom of the bucket isn't enough to shut off the flow, the ping-pong ball ends up just bobbing around while the reservoir empties in into the bucket rendering the whole shutoff valve useless. Good idea though, I wish it had worked, it would have been simpler.
iancremona6 years ago
Great idea, I'm going to blog this at emotioned.com