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Low-Cost Rain Barrel Aquaponics System: Create an eco-friendly aquaponics system that will provide your family with fish and fresh greens for years to come.

As homesteaders, we're always experimenting with new functions for old or unused things. This is especially true of rain barrels, which we often have an excess of on our property. Our Appalachian homestead runs entirely on rainwater, so these barrels are invaluable to us, but sometimes we have far more than we need. Luckily, my husband found an innovative way to use them by creating an eco-friendly, self-sustaining aquaponics system that fits right in our home. For less than the cost of a regular fish tank, we can raise our own food for a miniscule amount of fossil fuels. It's an exciting step for us toward self-sufficiency.

In the past couple of years, we've experimented with many different forms of livestock and home-based butchering. We've successfully mastered raising, breeding, and butchering our own meat rabbits, and we've even raised our first pig in a pallet-constructed pen before butchering him on our property. But starting an aquaponics system was decidedly more tech-involved. Nonetheless, we think it was well worth the effort, as it'll benefit our homestead for years to come.

What's Aquaponics?

By definition, aquaponics is a blend of aquaculture (the cultivation of fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water instead of soil). The benefit of combining these two ideas is that plants and fish actually help each other thrive. Fish feces and uneaten food scraps infuse the water with nutrients, which act as a natural fertilizer for the plants growing above. And the pump aerates the water for the fish, keeping them healthy. It's a closed-loop system in which waste is constantly recirculated for the benefit of all organisms.

Plenty of professional aquaponics systems are on the market, but none come as cheaply as our simple rain barrel model. Best of all, our system has the capacity to hold more than 20 full-grown tilapia, ensuring that it's well worth the space it takes up in our pantry.
Materials & Tools

* Food-grade 55-gallon barrels (2); 1
  whole, 1 with at least 12 inches of
  the bottom intact

* Drill with 3/8-inch bit

* Jigsaw

* Plexiglass

* Permanent marker

* Tape measure

* Box of 1/4-by-1/2-inch stainless steel
  carriage bolts

* Box of stainless steel washers

* Box of Vi-inch stainless steel nuts

* Aquarium-safe silicone

* Wrench

* 3/4-inch hole saw

* 3/4-inch tap

* 1/2-inch PVC male adapters (2)

* 1/2-inch PVC female adapters (2)

* 1 foot of 4-inch PVC pipe for
  media guard

* Bell siphon and 1/2-inch ball valve
  10 feet of 1/2-inch PVC pipe, or
  scraps and fittings, for inlet pipe

* Submersible aquarium or pond
  pump, 400 gallons per hour (gph)

* Gravel or expanded clay

Steps for Success

The first part of any project is to gather up the tools and materials you'll need (or pilfer them from other projects). For this project, you'll need two food-grade barrels. The first barrel will function as the fish tank, and needs to be complete. The second barrel will be the grow bed, and since you only need the bottom 12 inches or so, you can cut a whole barrel or salvage what you need from another project. See "Materials & Tools" at left for the full list of what you'll need to get started.

[1] Drill a hole into the top of the first barrel (fish tank) as a starting point for the jigsaw. Using the jigsaw, cut away the barrel's top or lid, but be sure to leave a small lip so the second barrel (grow bed) can sit on top later. Next, cut out two squares in the top third of the first barrel to serve as access points to the fish.

[2] Next, you'll need to cut the plexiglass to add a window to the fish tank barrel. Use the permanent marker to mark the plexiglass to your desired size, and then apply masking tape on the other side of the plastic over the marks. The tape will help prevent the plexiglass from fusing back together after it's cut. Then, use the jigsaw to carefully cut the plexiglass.

[3] Using the marker, designate the locations of bolt holes on the plexiglass. We spaced the holes about 2 inches apart and 1 inch in from the edge. Then, applying as little pressure as possible so as not to crack the plexiglass, carefully drill the holes.

[4] Preheat your oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat the plexiglass for about five minutes, or until it becomes pliable. Be sure to keep a close eye on it, or you could end up with a nasty mess of melted plastic in your oven. Wearing heatproof gloves, carefully remove the plexiglass from the oven, and place it inside the barrel in your desired window location. Hold the plexiglass in place for 10 minutes, or until it has cooled and molded to the shape of the barrel.

[5] Now, using the holes you've marked on the plexiglass as a guide, start at a middle hole on the top edge and drill through the barrel. Once you've drilled a hole, insert a bolt from the inside, adding a washer and nut in the process. Continue drilling from the middle out, securing the bolts as you go.

[6] After the plexiglass has been completely bolted to the barrel, use the marker to draw a window on the barrel 1 inch in from the bolts. Remove all the bolts and the plexiglass, and cut out the window using the jigsaw.

[7] Run two beads of silicone around the window cutout on the inside of the barrel, one above the bolt holes and one below. Replace the plexiglass, and bolt it into place. Make sure each bolt is finger-tight before tightening them all with a wrench. The tighter you can make each bolt, the more watertight your barrel will be, so take your time! Once the bolts are secure, seal them with a bead of silicone.

[8] Next, you'll make the grow bed using the partial barrel. Use the hole saw to drill two holes in the bottom of the second barrel: one in the middle for the drain, and one closer to the side to feed the pump. Tap each hole with the 3/4-inch tap, and thread in the male adapter from the top, adding the female adapter to the underside.

[9] The next step is to create a media guard that will prevent debris from entering the pump. Pick up the 4-inch PVC pipe and, on one end, drill a series of holes to allow water to flow through.

[10] In the middle hole of the grow bed, set up the media guard, bell siphon, and inlet pipe. Make sure the end of the media guard with drilled holes is at the bottom of the barrel. If you're not sure how to set up a bell siphon, check out a guide from the University of Hawaii, Manoa, at B10-10.pdf.

[11] Attach the pump to the underside so that it pumps water from the bottom barrel up to the grow bed before draining out of the middle.

Now, it's time to fill the grow bed with gravel or expanded clay, and start your plants. Once you add water and fish to the base, your system will be ready to go!

The original instructions we followed can be found at Search for "food-grade barrel aquaponics system."

We couldn't be happier with how well our rain barrel aquaponics system turned out. We've been able to harvest plenty of salad greens from the top, and the fish tank has supplied an abundance of fish dinners to share with friends and family.

Lydia Noyes is an Appalachian homesteader. You can read more of her writing on natural living and sustainability on her blog,, and connect with her on Instagram @First_Roots_Farm.

Caption: As a final touch, add a clamp light to the fish tank to enhance visibility.
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Title Annotation:Homestead Hacks: Projects from Our Readers
Author:Noyes, Lydia
Publication:Mother Earth News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2019
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