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.
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
*Strips of cloth, such as burlap sack, cable ties or another fastener
*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
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
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.
SuzanR made it!