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How We Made a Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System

A new year means a new wave of projects for Ian to delve into, and he wasted no time setting up a home-based aquaponics system right in our pantry.

Actually, saying Ian waited till the New Year is putting it too strongly. He had the system set up in our pantry back in early December, and I was forced to verbally combat him in numerous lengthy arguments over why he couldn’t justify buying fish early and getting a fish sitter through the holidays. Yes, these are the kinds of fights that define our marriage- Ian begging for new pets and me never quite managing to talk him down (our second dog, anyone?)

In any case, I think he nailed it with this latest project. Who knew it was this easy to raise your own edible fish right in the pantry? We now have tilapia to join our worm bin as a kitchen-friendly self-sufficiency boost for our daily lives. In fact, I think this system is so great I’m going to try to convince you to build your own.

Wait…Why Raise Fish Exactly?

Check out this cute fish tank that does double duty as an aquaponics system!

As the outside political situation becomes increasingly tumultuous, I value the things we can control in our own lives even more. I passionately hope to someday live in an energy-secure world that doesn’t create food at the cost of irreplaceable fossil fuels, and one way Ian and I strive to bring about that change is through producing as much of our own food as we can. We already raise our own rabbits, chicken and pork, so why not add fish to the mix?

This homemade system isn’t perfect, and it still uses fossil fuels for the heat lamp and pump. (Maybe not for long… Ian recently got certified in solar panel installation!) But it’s a step closer to taking charge of our food footprint, and it’s been pretty fun in the process.

If you’re intrigued I encourage you to look through this post and get inspired to set up your own aquaponics system, at whatever scale makes sense for you..

The Basics of Aquaponics

First, let’s define what aquaponics really means. The term is actually a blend of ‘aquaculture’, the cultivation of fish, and ‘hydroponics’, growing plants in water instead of soil.

What is the benefit of combining these two ideas into an aquaponics system? Put simply, the plants and fish actually help each other thrive. Fish poop and uneaten food scraps infuse the water with nutrients, which act as a natural fertilizer for the plants growing above. In the same way, the work of the pump in the system aerates the water for the fish, keeping them healthy. It’s a closed loop system where waste is constantly recirculated for the benefit of all organisms.

Want a deeper understanding of basic aquaponics? Check out Aquaponic Gardening by Sylvia Bernstein.

How We Built Our Rain Barrel Aquaponics System

There are dozens of ways to make your own homemade aquaponics system, but we chose to make our system with a material we had on hand: rain barrels. It may not have the elegance of other, more professional systems, but it works surprisingly well for our needs and has a tremendous capacity for raising 20+ tilapia.

A Note: My understanding of how this system actually got put together is rudimentary at best, (I’m not the mechanically minded one in this marriage)  so this post isn’t meant as a DIY guide. If you want to know the nitty-gritty details for putting together your own rain barrel aquaponics system, look through the instructions we followed, which can be found here.

Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System
There are major benefits to living on a nonprofit, not the least that college kids come to help us with our projects! Engineering students from the University of Dayton took a weekend out of their busy semester to help us out. Building an aquaponics system was a hands on lesson in appropriate technologies for our guests.
Look how pleased Ian is to make college kids do his projects for him
Drilling holes into the PVC gravel guard to prevent the bell-siphon from getting clogged when the water flows in.
Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System
Cutting away the opening to create an access point to feed the fish.
Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System
The top of the hydroponics part of the system, with the gravel guard in place.
Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System
Testing it out- the best part of any DIY project!
Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System
Adding the hydroponics top into the aquaculture base.
Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System
An inside look at the pump drainage system in action.

After the students returned to college, Ian tackled the rest of the project and built a Plexiglas window in the base, purely for the added pleasure of getting to watch his fish.

Drilling holes to create the window.
At work with power tools!

Essential Hydroponics Supplies

Setting up the hydroponics part of this system certainly took the most new equipment. Below are some of the essential supplies we used to set ours up.

Hydroponic red-blue grow light
Clay pebbles growing medium

Slotted net pots for hydroponic growing

Once it was proven Ian’s Plexiglas window was watertight, he set up the system in our pantry and got to work planting kale and spinach seeds in the top. Cool temperatures have caused them to get a slow start in life, but our seeds are slowly starting to sprout!

Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System
A baby kale plant, nourished through life with baby fish poop.
Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System
The system is heated through a red-blue grow light specifically suited for hydroponics. It certainly adds an otherworldly eeriness to our pantry.
Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System
Did you know you can order fish through the mail? I didn’t. But thanks to modern technology we now have 23 baby tilapia swimming in our modified barrel.
Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System
This definitely satisfies Ian’s long time obsession with fish tanks…for now. I assume it’s actually only the beginning.
It’s hard to believe these little cuties will soon be big enough to eat.
Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System
As an added benefit, our new fish tank makes the perfect cat sitter- though Pepper’s constant batting against the side is evidence he hasn’t quite figured out the role of the plexiglass yet.

Will It Actually Work?

Who knows? So far everything in the system seems to be working as it should. Our plants are sprouting and the fish are still happily swimming in circles. We don’t know how long it will take for the fish to reach full size (that depends a lot on temperature) or how much fresh produce we’ll actually harvest from the top. It’s unknown how much electricity it’s taking to run the small aquarium pump as well.

Nonetheless, this DIY aquaponics system has been a great experiment for us in self-sufficiency. Most of the supplies came right from our property, and it’s certainly an innovative alternative to a regular aquarium. I’ll keep you all updated as things unfold in future months, but for now, I consider this project a big success.

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2 thoughts on “How We Made a Homemade Rain Barrel Aquaponics System

  1. Very cool idea. Just skimming through this looks like something I’d love to do myself if I had the time and help.

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