Saturday, June 23, 2012

Backyard Aquaponics System

 Read all *BOLD and *UNDERLINED notes in each section before you start.

 This is my first system and I am not, in any way, shape or form and expert in Aquaponics or gardening. I am just a guy that likes to garden and has always wanted a pond.

 The above specs are based on the barrel I used. You will need to measure the container you use and adjust accordingly. If you use a 55 gallon drum that measures 23” x 37” you can pretty much follow this guide as stated.

 The barrel:
*It is important that you have one port (capped hole) on each piece of the barrel. *You should not cut through the ports!
*When cut in half you will have one port on each half.
*You can use these as a secondary drain later if need be.
*I made sure both ports were facing the same side of the system. That way I only need to remove one support leg if there is a problem or to access the drains.
*Take your time and cut along the line as best you can.
*The straighter the cut, the easier it will be to mount the barrel halves into the frame. You can pre-drill you screw holes for the frame-barrel steps. This may save your fingers as the screws take a minute to bite. (Hard lesson)

  • Measure twice, cut once.
  • Measure across the top and mark the center at 11.5”.
  • Turn the barrel 90 degrees, measure and mark again at 11.5”. (Use the seam as a guide for the center)
  • You should now have an “X” on the top of the barrel with the center point being at 11.5”.
  • Use a level to trace a line from edge to edge along the mark.
  • Now flip the barrel over and repeat these two steps on the bottom.
  • Extend the lines over the edge onto the sides of the barrel about 1 or 2 inches.
  • Lay the barrel on its side and, using the marks on the top and bottom, line up the level with these marks and trace a line along the side.
  • Turn the barrel and repeat this step.
  • Once you have the whole barrel split with a line, you can start to cut.
  • If you are suing a sawzall or jigsaw, you will need to drill a hole in the barrel along the line to allow the blade to fit inside.

The frame:

6 – 2x4x8
1 - 1 lb box of 3” screws
1 – 1lb box of 1 5/8 screws
4 – Clamps

Grow Bed
 37L x 26W x 40H

2 @ 37” – lateral brace – f/b
For grow bed, mounts on outside of  23’s

2 @ 23” – lateral brace – l/r
 For grow bed, mounts on inside of 37’s creating a 37x26 rectangle.

6 @ 40” – Legs.
 Mounts to 23” sides – flat on the outside - three per side.

 37L x 26W x 15H

2 @ 37” – lateral brace – f/b
For grow bed, mounts on outside of  23’s

2 @ 23” – lateral brace – l/r
 For grow bed, mounts on inside of 37’s creating a 37x26 rectangle.

·         Measure twice, cut once.
·         Make your cuts based on you barrels dimensions.
·         Build you frame for the top and bottom, without the legs.
·         You should have two 37x26 rectangles. (Or you dims)
·         Slip one half of the barrel into one frame and line the top edge of the barrel up to the top of the frame. The frame and barrel edge should be as flush as you can possibly get it.
·         You will have to use some type of clamping device to hold the barrel to the frame while you put a couple screws in. I used four, two on each side, top and bottom.
·         I used 1 5/8 screws to secure the barrel to the frame.
·         Place a screw about every four inches all the way around.
·         You should screw from the inside out, the screw heads will be on the inside of the barrel.
·         Repeat these steps for the other half.
·         Attach the legs to the 26” sides of the grow bed.  You should have three per side, evenly spaced.
·         Tank frame must be screwed to the legs of the grow bed; should fit snugly inside.
·         Once the grow bed is attached you can insert the tank into the bottom of the assembly and screw it to the support legs.
·         Mark your desired height on the inside of the support legs and line the top of the tank up with them. Measure from the bottom up on the legs. Mine is set at 15” from the bottom.
·         Lay the barrel on its side again and insert the tank. (This just makes it easier.)
·         Make sure you square the legs up BEFORE you attach the tank.
*I laid the barrel on end and clamped two legs at a time to the side.
*Then I pre-drilled and screwed them to the frame.
*I pre-drilled all holes for the frame assembly.
*This decreases the chance of splitting the wood.
*It also allows for an easier counter-sink, if you are not using a tool for that.

Bell Siphon
 This depends on the outflow size you want. Bulk head or thru-hull fittings can be purchased in a range of sizes. The size I used had a 1” threaded outside diameter and a ½” threaded inside diameter.

My Bell Siphon materials:
 1 - 10” threaded PVC nipple.
 1 – 1” to ½” reducing adapter – female 1” and male ½”.
 1 – 12” stick of 3” ABS.
 1 – 12” stick of 4” ABS.
 1 – 3” Slip Cap
 1 – ½” x 12” threaded PVC nipple.
 2 – ½” threaded PVC caps.
 1 – ½” PVC close nipple (usually 1 3/8-1.5”)
 1 – ½” PVC slip tee.
 1 – Screw, size doesn’t really matter that much, but at least 1”.
 1 – PVS/ABS glue. I use “Red Hot’s” or a single application cement.

The Drain:
 The 55 gallon barrel depth will be approx 11”.  The bulk-head (BH) fitting will stick up into the grow bed approx ¼”. The adapter will be approx” 1.5” long. You will need to decide how high you want to fill your grow bed and cut the nipple off accordingly. I cut my nipple at 7” and with the fitting, the fill line is right at 9 inches. This leaves it about one inch below the top of the rock in the grow bed. You do not want the actual stem of the plants to be watered, just the roots. The adapter screws into the BH fitting and the 1” nipple screws into the adapter. Use Teflon on all threads.

The Bell:
 Cut the 3” ABS pipe about one inch longer than your combined nipple drain length. (Adapter+Nipple) Now glue the 3” cap onto the 3” ABS pipe. I put a screw with Teflon on the threads in the top of the cap to give me something to grab when pulling it out.

The Rock Guard:
 Cut the 4” ABS pipe to 10 or 11 inches. This will depend on your chosen medium (Lava rock, gravel, clay balls) depth. You want the guard to extend just above the surface of the medium, but not below. Drill several holes in the pipe as to allow the flow of water, but not rock, into the interior.

 The bell siphon works by creating a vacuum. As water fills the bell, it pushes air down and out of the nipple. As the water starts to overflow the nipple, it will pull the remaining air out of the bell and create a self sustaining siphon. However, the siphon will remain active, to some extent, until the vacuum is broken.

Pumping apparatus:
 I will not give instructions on how to set up and plumb your pump. I work for a filtration company and I have access to things you may not have so I don’t want to send you running around for things you might not be able to find at a big box store.
 Also, my pump is not submersible and requires a different piping system than a submerged one. You can see from the pictures how mine is set up. Keep in mind though; the pump I am using cost about $140.00 and has a GPH of 180 @ 5 feet.. You can get smaller submersibles for less than $50.00.

 Once your system is plumbed and your pump is running, you will need to check the water level inside of the 4” pipe after the siphon completes a drain cycle. (It will still drain, but the volume will decrease considerably. You will need to cut a notch or drill a hole into the lower section of the 3” bell, just above the waterline. I let my system flood and drain, and then once the siphon slowed, I removed the bell and drilled a small hole just above the waterline on the 3” bell. After putting the bell back into the guard I flooded the bed and verified that the siphon engaged to drain the bed and disengaged when the waterline reached the breather hole. You may have to play with this a bit. I recommend starting low and working your way up.

 The Lower Drain/Aerator:
 Cut the 12” x 1/2” PVC nipple in half, so you have two 6” pieces. Drill a few holes into one side of each nipple. I drilled six per piece for a total of 12 holes. Glue the caps onto the slip ends of each piece. Now screw the capped nipples into the ½” tee. Insert the close into the tee and screw the whole apparatus into the BH fitting outlet. You should now have a tee with 6 drains holes per side. Make sure these drain holes face down and that you use Teflon on all threads. There are many different options for the drain/aeration system and you should play with it a bit and design one that is best for your system. Fish mass vs. water volume is critical and needs to be balanced.

 Once you are done with the assembly, fill the tanks and run the system a few times, just to work out the bugs, because there will be bugs. You will need to make sure the grow bed drains faster than the pump brings water in. This may require a larger drain pipe or a ball valve on the pump out let to restrict the flow. I used a ball valve.

 I also have a small carbon bed filter in-line just after the intake. This will filter out any solids. I also have a screen over the intake to prevent large solids from passing through the pump and keep fish from getting sucked up.

 Once it was set up, I left it running for a few days then bought 10 gold fish and 20 rosy reds to condition the tank. One week after I bought the fish I had 12 left; 3 rosy reds and 9 goldfish. You should expect to lose at least half in the first week. This is not a big deal as you are just conditioning the tank and filtering the water. Once your tank is conditioned and growing bacteria, you can add plants and food fish.

 I think I have covered just about everything, but feel free to email me if you have any questions.

 The following pictures show the system set up and running with a few newly transplanted plants. I still have one support leg per side to attach, but the bones and guts are complete. In the near future, the frame will be covered partially with a nicer looking wood and stained to appease my wife. Once I have it finished I will upload pictures of the finished system.

 The video of the semi complete running system is HERE.





  1. How is this system working for you? Have you made any mods to it?

    1. I actually upgraded a two years ago to a 280 gallon IBC, but the system worked great until then.

      I'd recommend it to anyone, whether just starting or not.


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