Introduction: Build Your Own Aquaponics System in One Day - 6 Steps
If you've ever wanted to build an aquaponics system, here's a simple indoor system that won't break the bank and is small enough to fit inside your house or on a balcony. This 55 Gallon Setups can produce both vegetable matter and animal protein from one food input(fish food) and about 10-15 watts of electricity.
The youth of today are part of the next generation of space explorers and likely the first extraterrestrial colonists. Growing plants without soil will be essential and methods like this may be a key to survival when we begin to colonize Mars! Projects like this can be a powerful learning experience for kids as well as produce fresh veggies and fish for the family.
What is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture, which is growing fish and other aquatic animals, and hydroponics which is growing plants without soil. Aquaponics uses these two in a symbiotic combination in which plants are fed the aquatic animals’ discharge or waste. In return, the vegetables clean the water that goes back to the fish. Along with the fish and their waste, microbes play an important role to the nutrition of the plants. These beneficial bacteria gather in the spaces between the roots of the plant and converts the fish waste and the solids into substances the plants can use to grow. The result is a perfect collaboration between aquaculture and gardening.
If your curiosity is on fire now because you like to grow fish and vegetables and you can combine them to have a fully functional garden, you can experiment with the aquaponic system here and see how it turns out for you.
Benefits Of Aquaponics
Major benefits of aquaponic food production:
• Sustainable and intensive food production system.
• Two agricultural products (fish and vegetables) are produced from one nitrogen source (fish food).
• Extremely water efficient.
• Does not require soil.
• Does not use fertilizers or chemical pesticides.
• Higher yields and Organic like management and production.
• Higher level of biosecurity and lower risks from outer contaminants or pests.
• Can be used on non arable land such as deserts, degraded soil or salty, sandy islands.
• Creates little waste and can be grown in very small spaces
• Daily tasks, harvesting and planting are labor saving and therefore can include all genders and ages.
• Economical production of either family food production or cash crops in many locations.
• Construction materials and information base are widely available.
Here's a list with everything you need to build a functioning Aquaponics system. You may be able source some PVC or barrels locally at a lower cost to free if it's up-cycled. You're most expensive item will be the expanded clay pebbles. You can use other grow media rock, but these work the BEST.
I just compiled this list to make it simple to do from Amazon.
Amazon Order List:
1 Growbed tub - Tuffstuff KMM100 ($70)
1 2" PVC Cap Piece ($4)
1 3/4" Uni-seal Tank Fitting ($5)
1 1" to 3/4" reducer ($5)
1 300 GPH Water Pump ($20)
1 50L Bag Expanded Clay Pebbles ($70)
1 55 Gallon Drum Food-Grade Polyethylene (you may be able to find these locally for less. Just be sure they're food grade)
Hardware Store PVC List:
2-3 Feet 3/4" PVC pipe (stand pipe)
1 Foot of 2" PVC Pipe (bell siphon)
1 Foot of 4" black drainage pipe or 4" PVC Pipe. (bell siphon protector)
Step 1: Gather Your Pieces and Setup
Be sure you have all of the piece on the list and place the mixing tub on top of the 55 Gallon Drum. I placed the siphon hole in the center of the mixing tub, centered on the barrel. Now is a good time to mark that center point.
Step 2: Time to Cut the Holes
Use a circular saw to make you initial cut, then use a hand saw or sazaw to complete the window. You can do an oval or rectangle, just be sure it's on the upper 3/4 of the barrel to ensure you can hold a good amount of water.
LID AND GROWBED:
Make a 3/4" hole for the PVC pipe to go through the barrel lid. I wanted to make a little more space up front on the top of the barrel, so I set my grow bed a little off center. You can go perfectly center or a bit offset.
You'll need to make a hole in your growbed. BE SURE TO SIZE THE HOLE TO YOUR UNISEAL OR BULKHEAD FITTING. Once it's cut, it's cut.
You'll also need a hole for the 1/2in tubing and the pump's electric cable to go out of your tank and feed into the grow bed. You could just run the tubing directly into bed, but it'll likely kink/fold on that 90 degree turn. This is why I suggest using a 1/2" elbow into the side of the grow bed.
Step 3: Build Your Bell Siphon
THE BULKHEAD FITTING:
This is the piece that allows your tube to go through the bottom of your growbed. You can do this 2 different way. In these images, you can see I used the "Uniseal" bulkhead fitting that I linked to on the supply list.
If don't have a bulkhead fitting, watch my video, I'll show you how to make a bulkhead fitting using a piece of inter-tube and some PVC pieces you can get at Home Depot. The video will also show you basic bell siphon construction.
STAND PIPE LENGTH:
The key is, the stand pipe determines the depth of the water in the growbed. I suggest making sure it's height is about 1-2 inches underneath the the top surface of your grow media.(expanded clay pebbles). A total height of 5-6 inches is usually good.
Next you'll need that 2" piece of PVC and the 2" cap. Glue the cap on and cut so that the top of the bell is about 2-3" above the stand pipe. Cut 1/2" notches along the bottom of the bell(see image).
The 4in drainage pipe will allow water through, but won't allow rocks to get in and mess up your siphon.
INTO THE FISHY TANK:
For the pipe going down into the fish tank have it make a 90' turn and add an extra piece of PVC. This will ensure your siphon doesn't break water pressure.
Step 4: Getting the System Ready to Run!
TEST IT WITH ONLY WATER 1ST!
Let's get it put together, PVC glue all relevant pieces, fill the tank with water and get your pump running. What we're looking for is that every time the water level gets to the top of the stand pipe, the siphon will kick in and suck all of the water back out. This is the function of a "Flood Drain System".
As you can see I got creative with PVC pipes feeding water into the grow bed. I wanted to make 2 exits to disperse the fish poo more evenly. This is not important. The main concern is that you have water going into the growbed and it's flooding and draining.
Step 5: All About Grow Media
ADD YOUR GROW MEDIA:
While I suggest expanded clay, you can use certain other types of rock. However, if you're going to use another rock, here are your main concerns.
1. Does it have a high calcium content? Anything with a high calcium content with spike your PH and give you nothing but trouble. One way you can test rock is to put it in vinegar. If it fizzes a lot, it probably has high calcium. Obviously this makes limestone and other similar rocks a poor choice.
2. Will it hurt your hands when you're using it and or is it so rough/porous that it hold on to debris, scum and fish waste. I think smoother rounded rocks are better and keep your beds from clogging up.Expanded clay pebble are doubly expensive in Costa Rica so I've used small 3/4" volcanic rock successfully, but it's not nice on the hands. I would like to test out small pea gravel in my next iteration.
3. How big?
IMO, 1/2"-3/4" is good.
4. Toxicity concerns.... Just remember that if whatever you using as grow media leeches a chemical, heavy metal or environmental toxin, your plant will uptake it.
I put a video of my system using volcanic rock. This 55 Gallon Drum system in basically my system minified.
Step 6: Cycling Your System
This is a subject you'll here a lot of different perspective on getting a good bacterial colony going.
Your goal is to get bacteria to convert ammonia(fish poop) into Nitrite, the nitrites into nitrate. The plants will in turn take up the nitrates. Don't worry! These bacteria will appear on their own. I would let the system run for a 5-7 days to get the any chlorine out the water and start growing bacteria. Then drop in 5-10 baby gold fish and and let them grow along with your system. Start off with some simple basil plants(no dirt!) or basil cuttings and get them going.
USE A WATER TEST KIT LIKE I USE IN THE VIDEO. This will track your PH, Nitrites, Ammonia, and Nitrates essentially giving your the health of your system. Video Attached.....
Amazon Link: Master Test Kit ($22)
Step 7: Getting Fancy
I added in a wireless led light to help see the fish. I also added in some chopped up tubes to make nice hiding places for fishies and help see the fish in the dark barrel.
Get creative and have fun!
Participated in the
Indoor Plants Challenge