Aquaponic Gardening

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Hi folks,

Described earlier stages of this project in "what's your aquaonics set-up?" thread but will continue here in this new discussion devoted only to this project.

First things first:  hats off to Glenn Martinez of Olomana Gardens in Hawaii.  The aquaponics part of this project is based on his "tray-ponics" design.

Justin, thanks for offer of additional help, but had trouble reaching you by email, and my time to devote to this lately has been in small chunks.  

Here's the basic overview:

Door is on the right.  Plant trays are arranged in a U-shape on tables.  Fish tank will be under the table in the foreground on the right in the picture above.  

That table is now raised about 18" higher than the other tables, as shown in photo above.  That is because the 3 trays on that table will be ebb-and-flow media beds, and the drain pipe under those trays will dump into the first raft tray, immediately to the left of the raised tables.  

The three media bed trays are "ganged", ie plumbed together, along with an external autosiphon in a bucket (aka "bucket siphon".)  A pump in the FT under the table will bring water up into the media beds.  The water level in those beds and in the autosiphon will rise and fall together as if they were all one tank.  This shot shows the position of the bucket siphon relative to the media beds (sans pipes):

Here's another shot of the bucket siphon, plumbed, without the bell in place:

The three media beds are double trays: a top tray with a bunch of holes in the bottom sits on top of each media bed tray.  The top perforated trays hold all the media.  Water flows through the holes into the bottom tray, where there's about 1" of space that's clear of media.  Once the water reaches that bottom tray, it goes out a drain in the bottom.  Having that clear space under the media should help prevent too much biogunk from clogging the media.  Here's top tray lifted to show bottom tray and drain:

The scraps of PVC are to make sure the bottom of the perforated tray doesn't sag too much with the weight of the media.

All the other trays to the left and around the U are raft trays, all connected to each other so that water will flow from one to the next and so on, clockwise around the U.  Here's are some raft trays plumbed together:

The last raft tray in the series will have a standpipe that will set the raft trays' water level.  Water will drain from there back to the FT by way of a pipe under the table tops, tracing around the U counter-clockwise.  

[In the picture above, the big white horizontal strip is the drain pipe.  Water flows from right to left in this picture.  The shiny diagonal slash at the top of the picture is part of the metal framing of the table.  What looks like it might be another pipe in the upper left corner of the picture is actually just the rounded edge of the plastic table top.  The box in the lower left has my shade cloth, which will replace the temporary green tarp I have up now.]

This system has no sump tank.  Water level in the FT will fluctuate a bit.  Oh well.  This system also relies on the media beds (and the worms in them, if I follow Glenn's way in that too) to clean the water enough so the roots in the raft tanks don't accumulate too much biogunk.  We'll see.  If it doesn't work, may have to add a clarifier of some sort.

Picture below show more of the drain pipe under the table tops. Water would flow from right to left in this picture.  FT would be on the left, more or less out of this picture:

Next:  waiting on some uniseals to arrive so I can finish connecting the rest of the raft tanks.  Then will move the FT in and start testing the plumbing.  Etc. etc.!

Hope to be able to incorporate plant towers in this set-up at some point in the future--phase II.

Any and all comments and suggestions greatly appreciated.

Now, off to Wisconsin for a week to visit Growing Power, Nelson & Pade, and Sweet Water.

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Replies to This Discussion

looks good! but does the county call this type of green house a structure? it looke like it could be moved with a ford ranger or s10 pickup truck in 1 hour. you could call it easy-up-aponics.

i dont have any kind of aquaponics setup so all i can do admire.

you should take lots and lots of photos while in wisconsin and share them with us all. it would be nice to have more ideas on designs or capablitys of larger aquaponic systems!

Hi Loki, not sure about County requirements.  I'm in City limits.  City of Sacramento considers this an "auxiliary structure" for building code purposes, and for an auxiliary structure of not more than 120 square feet, they do not require a building permit.  (It's not a coincidence that this one is exactly 10 x 12, not 10 x 13, for example.)  This GH is located in an Historic Preservation district, however, so even though I didn't need a building permit, a "Certificate of Appropriateness" was required (along with a fee for staff time).  

I did secure the GH to the ground with four 2.5' stakes made of rebar so that it doesn't fly away in a big wind.

Hope to take lotsa pictures and will certainly share.

loki said:

looks good! but does the county call this type of green house a structure? it looke like it could be moved with a ford ranger or s10 pickup truck in 1 hour. you could call it easy-up-aponics.

i dont have any kind of aquaponics setup so all i can do admire.

you should take lots and lots of photos while in wisconsin and share them with us all. it would be nice to have more ideas on designs or capablitys of larger aquaponic systems!

i know that the county of sacramento bulding code says that 120sq.ft. is the max area and needs to be a single story structure. or you'll need to file for a permit. but they never said that you couldn't have more than one out building. 

i looked on the member map and it shows that you live either in a park or in the middle of a street. or google street view is that ............ well messed up! but i have known that the downtown area is a historic district.but it looks like you are makeing due with what you got.  but like i said i dont have a aquaponic setup of any kind.well other then the one in my head and its a helluva nice one.

Looks good Paul!


This is an example of simple yet extraordinary.  You can show this system to anyone and it will be admired and yet anyone could build it.  People will see this and say 'Yes I can do that!'

you been having fun

lots of progress on this set-up since end of State Fair, although it doesn't look that different from previous pictures!

--dry-fit plumbing and then tested for leaks, of which there were several.  Mostly where Uniseals contact the hole in my raft trays.  Quick search on internet turned up cause:  tray wall is very thin (~1/16"), and Uniseals work better with thicker tray (tank) wall, because the tightest part of the seal is made away from the flange (if that makes any sense).  A koi hobbyist's internet post also provided my preferred solution:  add a spacer between the flange of the Uniseal and the tank wall, which pushes the tank wall away from the flange and out to the better-sealing part of the Uniseal.  For the spacers I used 3/16"-thick corrugated plastic sheet from salvaged campaign lawn signs--free and easy to work with.  Had to disconnect 40 Uniseals (argghh!!! my aching elbow!), add the spacers, and put them all back together again.  Needless to say I tested for leaks as I went.  All good now.  

--reinforced the table tops that hold my media bed and raft trays.  I thought Glenn Martinez in Hawaii was able to do a system like this without reinforcing the tables, but mine were sagging under the weight of the water on them.  3/4" ply stiffened them up nicely.

--added goldfish to fish tank/sump tank:

(half the things you see in the water there are reflections of pipe etc under the table that sits over the tank).

--started circulating water through media beds.  They're not planted yet, and the raft trays are not yet connected to the pumping circuit.  But the bacteria can begin growing in the media beds for now.  Bucket siphon worked perfectly from the first trial; very satisfying.

--added a float switch.  It's the black ball floating in the center of the tank in the picture above.  That way if too much water evaporates or if there's a leak somewhere in the system, the pump will automatically shut off before draining the whole tank, saving both fish and pump.

Next:  get the raft trays up and running.  Maybe next week.  Then plant fall crops, winterize, etc.  

Brilliant. I had to walk AFK when I saw the pictures of the PVC scrap to support the trays. Nice!

One concern I thought of, and maybe you have too: Idk if you'll have enough push from the fill and drain to push the water all the way through the system. Especially since you have two 90 degree angles. A lot of the energy will perhaps bounce back. Also, the tubes may inhibit much of the flow, bottle necking, and still bouncing energy back. That is if I correctly understanding how your system works...

I apologize if all of this has already been discussed, I haven't had time to read the other comments.

I've seen something like this, and although it worked, it also involved air-rocks to help push everything through and keep things moving. 

With assist from extended warm weather, just finished getting my greenhouse covered before winter.  View from north side:

Black material is to absorb as much of sun's warmth as possible.  It's also a closable low vent to allow cool air in when necessary.  Photo shows it in the up position.  There's also a full-length ridgeline vent (hard to see in this photo) to let hot air out.

View from inside:

You can see the ridge vent pretty well in this photo, and some of my lettuce too.  

Shade on right side of photo is from a neighbor's weed tree (ailanthus, aka Chinese Tree of Heaven) that's now huge.  With lower sun angle of fall, that tree is giving me shade I hadn't anticipated.  

There will be more tweaks of the GH covering in coming weeks, but it's basically functional now : )

Costs incurred for the covering:  $80 in plastic (scraps from's Steals & Deals section - thanks for the tip Jane) and screws, plus some surplus black ground cloth I had.

Thanks to Tim Mann for sharing basic solar greenhouse concepts in a video of his 2011 Aquaponics Association Conference presentation posted on

Very jealous.

Hi friends,

Just completed a major rebuild of most the AP system inside my 10' x 12' greenhouse in downtown Sac.  First, thanks to Luke Swanson and Ryan Bautista for the help! 

So here's the scoop:

In initial design, biofilters and growbeds were all 2'x3' plastic mortar mixing trays supported by standard store-bought folding party tables.  The tables didn't end up being strong enough (even when reinforced by 3/4" plywood), so they bowed in the middle, and I couldn't keep water levels consistent from one tray to the next.  On occasion this led to overflow of one tray or another.  The spilled water accelerated the natural settling of my sod greenhouse floor under the table legs, so the tables started tilting, which made the spillage worse, and so on in a vicious feedback loop.  Lesson learned:  need strong stands with a sturdy foundation that won't sink!

Also, most of the plants I grew in the biofilter trays grew roots past the bottom of the trays and into the plumbing, requiring laborious cleanout more often than I care to remember.  Lesson 2:  need deeper media growbed/biofilter.  So:

New biofilter/media growbed:  single 40-gallon stock tank.  Actually, two of those nested.  Top one has beaucoup holes in bottom to act as a grate to hold media above bottom of lower one, leaving a 1" media-free space at the bottom for improved water flow.  And new stand made of steel struts for horizontal members, 4x4 lumber for vertical members, and pier blocks for support at ground level.  Solid (I hope!):

Taller biofilter meant a standard 5-gallon bucket would no longer be tall enough for bucket siphon.  With some searching was able to locate a 7-gallon bucket on the internet that's just the right height.  Unfortunately it cost quite a bit more than 7/5 times as much as a 5-gallon.

In the picture, bucket is wrapped in Reflectix (bubble wrap faced with shiny silver plastic) to keep sunlight out.

Top of biofilter, showing week-old mizuna sprouts in foreground, smaller chard sprouts toward the back:

The three thicker white items are tops of slotted PVC pipe leading to bottom of tank.  Plan is to float fishing bobbers in those.  Bobbers will each have a long plastic rod sticking up out of the top of it, so one can judge water height by the height of top of plastic rods.

Bucket siphon external plumbing:

Black irrigation tubing in the middle is the water supply into bucket from the pump in the sump tank (not in view).  2" PVC on left is connection between bucket and biofilter tank.  Because biofilter tank and bucket are connected, it doesn't matter whether supply water enters bucket or biofilter - they fill simultaneously.  It was shorter to route it into the bucket, and it's easier to clean out there too.  1" PVC on the right is the outlet from siphon to raft beds.

Internal bucket plumbing:

Upper left is outlet to biofilter tank; bottom center is siphon bell, with clear top for watching the siphon in action.  Water inlet from sump tank is barely visible at top of siphon.

Same, with bell removed:

Standpipe has funnel on top, a la the mighty Affnan.  Siphon works like a charm, very dependable.

General U-shaped configuration of raft growbeds:

Flow is from lower left in the photo to upper left to middle to upper right to lower right.  Return to fish tank follows that path in reverse via 2" PVC drain pipe underneath.

Growbed 1 with spare rafts stored underneath, and black sump tank below that:

Saved a few bucks by using a used bed frame from a thrift store instead of struts for the horizontal supports.

Found out that hydroponic trays come in "ID" and "OD" sizes.  "ID" means the stated size refers to the inner dimensions of the tray.  So when you add in the width of the lips at the top, the tray measures larger than the stated size by a few inches.  "OD" means the stated size refers to the outer dimensions of the tray.  So the overall tray measures exactly the stated size, and accounting for width of the lips, the inner portion of the tray is slightly smaller.  All this is important if you're building in a constrained space.  I got away with the larger white ID tray on the left side, but two of them would not have fit on the right side; had to use OD trays there. 

Either way, in this system, the rafts don't actually float on the surface of the water like traditional foam rafts.  They are supported 2" above the water surface.  I tried using empty disposable water bottles as floats to hold up the rafts, but that didn't work.  So I added PVC supports in all three trays, as shown here:

With this system, I was trying to avoid needing to pump air into every growbed and to avoid using foam, which is not recyclable.  Indeed I haven't needed to pump air in, and the corrugated polypropylene sheets I use for "rafts" are supposedly recyclable (as well as relatively cheap and easy to maintain), but I did have to use that additional bit of PVC, which is not recyclable.

Other upgrade I made last winter was to replace greenhouse film covering with twinwall polycarbonate.  Much pricier but much more durable and much easier to take on and off, as I do seasonally for this small greenhouse.  Here's the greenhouse with tomato plants growing up the sides to shade lettuce in the summer.  Tomatoes not as productive as last year - I didn't manage them as well:

That's all!  Any ideas or suggestions or questions are welcome.

By the way, I'm doing a free 2-hour intro to AP the morning of 9/20 at my greenhouse.  Let me know if you or someone you know are interested.

on your external bucket siphon, how do you break the siphon ?

Is it because the external bucket bottom is lower than the bottom of the grow beds so in the end the grow bed will be sucking air and therefore breaks the siphon ?


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