I saw a youtube video on aquaponics a long time ago. It looked so cool that I knew that I had to do something like this on my own (simpler–without the arduino, for now). Here’s the video, I hope you get as excited about it as I did.
The idea settled in my brain and slept for a long time. For whatever reason, I recently thought, “What the hell?” and decided to go through with it and build a setup of my own.
I’m doing this without much research, just going with an idea I have and learning by doing.
I decided I wanted to do it indoors, so my plants would be free of insects. This way I can grow berries and other foods without needing to use pesticide or worrying about birds or other critters up in mah gardenz, eatin’ mah foodz.
I had a basic idea in mind. I wanted to buy some fairly cheap, portable shelving (four shelves), the top three of which to hold the bins which contain the plants and solid medium (clay pellets, cinder, lava rock, or whatever), and the bottom bin to hold the fish. In my mind, I imagined a water pump down in the bottom tank which would send the water to the topmost bin and let gravity make the water flow down through drainage points in the bottoms of the top three bins, from one to another until the last bin drains back into the fish tank/bin.
For materials, I took a trip to Lowes and asked for help. I told an employee in the plumbing department what I had planned, and he pointed me to a small piece of equipment which had threading which could be fastened onto the bottom of the bin through a hole. (I affixed it to the bin very tightly and used silicon aquarium sealant (the kind which cures/hardens) as an added measure of water-sealing.) NOTE: I had to remove the black part, which is a cushiony “washer.” When I tried to tighten it in a manner I found sufficient to prevent leakage, the washer got pushed outward, and a gap was present. There is a rigid, slippery washer that was necessary to keep on, because the threading stops too early.
That is a Watts Lead Free Bulk Head Union, PL-1871.
To this unit you can screw in a Watts Lead Free Nylon Hose Barb, A-387.
And to that affix some tubing to control the direction of the water drainage.
I purchased Rubbermaid Roughneck Clear Storage Bins of various sizes to contain the fish and the plants. For the plants, I purchased 3 long, narrow bins (26.7″ L x 15.8″ W x 6.9″ H).
For the fish, I purchased one with approximately the same width and length but with a greater height (26.7″ L x 15.7″ W x 14″ H).
In addition to these I purchased a very long, wide, and high bin which was supposed to go underneath the whole thing, shelving and all, to serve as a safety measure… so that if anything ever overflowed or leaked, it would harmlessly drain into the underlying large bin, saving my carpet and avoiding a mess. But, alas, I measured incorrectly. I keep the “fish tank” bin in this larger bin on the bottom shelf anyway. It can catch some overflow. Something is better than nothing.
The Roughneck bins are made of polypropylene which I have read is safe. These products are not officially for food storage; they are for item storage. So I cannot state that I know that these are safe for growing edible plants and do not have any harmful chemicals which may leak out. However, I doubt it. Polypropylene products have recycle code 5, which many Roughneck products have on them. Some of these bins did not have the 5 imprinted upon them, but the same products (clear Roughneck bins) of other sizes did. I am assuming they are all made of the same material. They feel and look that way.
Anyway, just a disclaimer: I’m chosing these products at my own risk, and if you do as well, you are taking the same risks. I do no claim to be an expert on this matter, and there may be something important about these products regarding safety that I do not know.
I am taking an educated guess in figuring that these products are food safe because they are polypropylene and Rubbermaid has made an effort to stop creating products with BPA.
For the water pump, I chose a PP40006 : 400 GPH, Submersible, Aquaponics/Hydroponics/Fountain/Pond/Aquarium Pump – 6′ Cord. This pump is a little too powerful for my current setup, I think. I believe it will only need to run one minute once I put in the clay medium into the plant bins to support plant growth, root stability, and bacterial growth.
For the air pump, I chose a Tetra 77849 Whisper Air Pump, up to 60-Gallon.
For the air-stone to diffuse the air from the air-pump into the water in the fish bin, I chose a Jardin Aquarium Fish Tank Ponds Ceramic Air Stone Diffusers, 40mm Diameter.
I learned that the water-pump pushes the water at a rate faster than the drainage. This combined with the fact that many plants do not like their roots continually wet led me to believe that I need, as I mentioned above, to turn the water on for a brief period of time, allowing it to rise to a decent level, saturating the clay medium, and then turning it off to let the water drain. Because the bulk head union has a height of around an inch or so, I decided to drill holes into it. The water level will remain at a little less than an inch. I think this may be acceptable. We’ll have to see. If the plants don’t like it, I’ll have to arrange something else.
So, I had to buy a timer to provide temporary power to the water pump. It turns out that with this timer, I can turn on the water for a minute once every three hours. The timer has 8 programmable on/off settings. That is, 16 settings total, 8 for on times and 8 for off times. Here is an important note: WITH THIS TIMER YOU MUST push the reset button before programming it. In the comments on Amazon, a user complains that the timer never goes on when it should. I experienced this same error because I didn’t follow the instructions which said that the first step after plugging it in was to hit the reset button. I believe that powering it on may produce garbage in the memory which affects its functioning, and the reset effectively zeroes things out (pure speculation on my part).
The timer is a Hydrofarm TM01715D 7-Day Digital Program Timer.
Here is an image of the current setup:
I took three caps from Soda Stream syrup bottles and drilled holes in them. I used the curing silicone aquarium sealant to bind them in place on top of the bulk head unions. This is to provide protection from little rocks and other pieces of debris getting into the drainage holes and pipes, producing clogs which may lead to water overflow.
I affixed tubing, which I think is the same size as fits on the water pump, to the nylon hose barb to control water drainage flow. In the plant bin which is most distant from the one below, I had to use the silicone sealant to affix the drain tube to the underlying bin. The tube dangled precariously, and I feared movement which might lead to water draining in places I didn’t want it to go.
As you can see from the picture of the entire setup, I placed the shelves varying distances from each other. The topmost has the most room for vertical growth, up to the ceiling. The next one down has about two feet (just eyeballing and guessing here). The last plant bin has only a few inches above it. I plan to grow berries and perhaps microgreens in this one.
I put fish in my setup after conditioning the water for clearing chlorine, chloramine, and ammonia. I also used some starter conditioner to add bacteria and what-not to the water. The fish have been in the tank over 24 hours at the time of writing this piece. One has died. The rest seem healthy if a big sluggish. They don’t seem to be eating. Perhaps the shock of transition did one in and is making the others feel icky. We’ll have to see. I’ll post updates. I do not believe the bins are toxic to the fish. I’ve started aquariums before in which this has taken place. I expect more casualties before a good nitrogen cycle can get going. These are feeder fish, so no big loss… and they are getting at least a chance at survival.
Once I put the clay medium and the bacteria start growing, I expect them to do better. I have also read that oyster shells provide natural filtration and purification, so I am going to get some of them as well and put them in the plant bins.
One last pic here, I affixed the tubing attached to the water pump to the back support of the shelving with zip ties. I attached strong velcro to the tube and top of the topmost bin with gorilla glue (the brown kind that uses a little water to activate it). This way, I can affix and direct the water flow tube on the topmost bin. It’s a pretty sturdy connection.
I hope you’ve found my article on my DIY aquaponics setup informative. I have seen videos and articles by others, and it always irritated me that they left out many specifics, especially where to buy the parts and exactly which parts to get. I’ve left out a few here, but those were things like zip ties, tubing, and gorilla glue. Those are easy to find. The tubing for the water and air pumps are found on the pages for the pumps on amazon, and you just have to google zip ties and gorilla glue to find those items.
Please check back periodically for updates. I should make another post within a week or two.