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Ultimate Comprehensive Guide How To Build Barrelponics DIY Aquaponics

DIY Barrelponics Aquaponics… one of the easiest DIY methods to get into aquaponics…

Aquaponics is a great option for any budding home grower looking to get the most out of their space, as it provides the option to raise and harvest fish and plants in the same, closed-loop, but decoupled/modular system, which not only provides you more produce, it also saves on water, nutrients, and power usage. When it comes to compact home setups, DIY Barrelponics Aquaponics setups take up such a small footprint that it can be placed, in any room of the house, e.g. the living, kitchen, the garage, garden and/or balcony. With placement affecting temperature, lighting, and overall easy of accessibly, having the option to setup almost anywhere in the home gives you a great starting point for your ecofarming journey.

Barrelponics offers an easy and affordable sustainable farming solution that anyone can setup in their home, with minimal investment, and although it’s a top choice for home growers, it’s not difficult to scale up for commercial growers looking to maximize produce options and yields. It may not be the most efficient technique to do so but in certain scenarios it can be beneficial in which case, there’s certainly no reason why you shouldn’t.

55 Gallon Drum Barrelponics
Image Credit: Aquaponic Barrel System Build, Chop & Flip Style. Rob Bob's Aquaponics & Backyard Farm, Youtube, 2017.

Complete Guide to DIY Barrelponics

There are three main aquaponics techniques, Deep Water Culture (DWC), a.k.a. the Floating Raft Method, the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), and Media Based Systems. Barrelponics is a variation of the media based technique, essentially stripping the method down to its simplest form.

In this article we’ll take look at the barrelponics technique, how it works, and how you can easily setup a DIY barrelponics setup with a few simple bits and bobs; all readily available from your local hardware/DIY store, or from your favorite online provider.

What is Barrelponics?

The Barrelponics Concept

Barrelponics refers to a simple aquaponics systems that utilizes a 55-gallon drum and can be run on just 40 watts of power,

In a similar manner as a DIY IBC tote method and CHOP and Flip aquaponics systems*, DIY barrelponics aquaponics also begins by cutting the barrel in two, then inverting one part to become the grow bed, whilst the other remains as the fish tank.

Barrelponics Process
The fish tank contains a submersible water pump that moves the water up to the grow bed, the water is passed through a simple solid separator filter, typically several layers of mesh, to remove the large waste particles from the fish water.

The nutrient-rich water then fills the grow bed which contains the plants supported by a grow medium such as clay pellets, gravel, lava rocks or expanded shale. The grow media also acts as a biofilter; providing adequate space for the beneficial bacteria to colonize, so it can perform the all-essential nitrification conversion of ammonia fish waste into nitrites for plant feed.

Installed within the grow bed is a bell siphon. This device is responsible for regulating the water level, which allows the nutrient rich water to saturate the grow bed, to feed the plant, then trigger the siphon to fire and drain once it reaches a level determined by the internal height of the “” pipe, the drain pipe inside the siphon.

The water, essentially cleaned and filtered by the solid separator, nitrification and the uptake of nutrients from the plants, is drained back into the fish tank where it’s immediately recycled back into the system to be used again.

Just like any aquarium, you’ll need to feed and take care of the fish to keep them healthy and alive, However this will be the only food source you need to add manually since the plants will feed off the nitrogen produced by nitrification stage.

This method not only maximizes use of materials, it also requires minimal floor space, even when configured in its larger horizontal layout, and have an extremely low power, water and nutrient requirement.

The barrelponics method is commonly used for home systems, set up either in or outdoors, largely due to the ease with which DIY systems can be constructed, and the cost of these DIY home built systems being one of the cheapest options to get an aquaponics system up and running.

Constant Height One Pump
There are two main approaches to setting up your barrel aquaponics system, either to CHOP and Flip the 55-gallon drum, or to use the Split Barrel technique. 

The Chop and Flip method appears to be aptly named as a clear reference to the build process, however, the term CHOP isn’t actually the action of cutting your DIY aquaponics tank, but instead is an acronym that stands for Constant Height One Pump. This term refers to the workings of the technique that utilizes a single

Pump, together with the power of gravity, to keep a consistent flow of water moving with much lower energy requirement.

However, with the term truly looking like onomatopoeia, that’s generally what most people assume it means, and it fits. Plus, since the acronym Constant Height One Pump isn’t regularly used, it’s likely that a notable of growers employing this very technique still assume it means Chop/Cut and Flip, and there’s nothing wrong with that, in this case especially, no harm no foul. Just interesting to know!

Advantages and Disadvantages of Media Based Barrelponics

As with all aquaponics methods, Barrelponics has its own pros and cons. By understanding the benefits and any potential downsides, you’ll also get a better idea whether barrelponics is the best option for you.

Advantages of Barrelponics

Suitable for Most Plant Species: Essentially utilizing the media based technique; barrelponics supports a wider variety of plant species when compared with NFT and DWC setups. This is because the grow media offers better physical support for larger, heavier, fruiting plants and vegetables, etc.

Efficient Nutrient Delivery: The flood and drain technique delivers nutrients with high efficiency due to the flooding and draining action of the water, which allows plenty of time for roots to uptake nutrients.

Easy Setup & Operation: DIY barrelponics is extremely easy, and straightforward to build, setup and operate.

Small Footprint: Whether the barrel is cut horizontally or vertically, DIY barrelponics are amongst the most space efficient aquaponics setups, especially when taking into account the potential yields, which are plentiful for the size of the system.

Easier Biofiltration: Grow media acting as the biofilter removes the need for an additional component.

Easy Cleaning Maintenance: Constant flood and draining keeps the grow media clean as it repeats and washes away debris. This does of course require the solid separator and fish tank to be kept clean, but that’s a simple as replacing the filter and performing a partial water change, or directly collecting debris from the bottom using a vacuum or good old elbow grease.

Easy & Affordable DIY: DIY barrelponics has to be the easiest and cheapest way to set up an aquaponics system. Crafted from a simple 55-gallon drum, which if you can’t find for free will only run you a few dozen bucks, it’s considerably cheaper than IBC totes, and a lot easier to slice in two. A good quality water pump, and grow media is all you really need to get started, although there are a few devices and other components that are often suggested be purchased along the way.

The design of media based systems can be easily constructed from off-the-shelf components with very little work required for the amount of customization possible. Not only does this make it straightforward to build your own, it’s also inexpensive.

Disadvantages of Barrelponics

Scalability: Similarly to other media based systems, whilst it is possible to scale up, it does often require a little more work and a few more parts than when scaling up other systems.

Blockages: Depending on how well you bell siphon works, in conjunction with the type of grow media, some systems can be prone to clogging. However, once you’ve got the bell siphon firing, the flow of water correct, and the grow media packed to the right concentrations, then blockages should be a thing of the past.

Weight: The deep grow bed adds weight to the system, which isn’t normally an issue, however, DIY barrelponics are so versatile with placement possibilities that it’s worth noting the importance of ensure there’s solid ground supporting the setup, as it may be suitable for balconies, in the right circumstance of course.

Components of Barrelponics Aquaponics System

When it comes to sourcing materials to build a barrelponics system there really isn’t too much to compile before you can start building your own DIY system. Not only are the parts affordable, they’re easily accessible, and in many cases can be free if you hunt around for people getting rid of materials that are still perfectly good to recycle. If you can’t find use materials then you’ll find all parts available from your local DIY store at reasonable prices.

55-Gallon Barrel: To repurpose as the fish tank and grow bed.

Grow Media: To support the growing of plants. Also acts as the biofilter where beneficial bacteria can colonize. Suitable grow media barrelponics include clay pellets, expanded shale, lava rocks and/or gravel.

Water Pump: To move water from the fish tank to the plants in the media bed. Water pumps must be highly reliable, as they’re required to run consistently, 24/7, so it’s a good idea to buy the best your budget allows.

Bell Siphon: To regulate the flood and drain process of water in the grow bed.

Solid Separator: To remove large waste particles from the water. Simplest DIY method employs use of multiple scouring pads/sponges; alternatively you can install an external solid separator tank.

Grow Lights & Shading (optional): depending on the placement of your setup, together with the lighting/darkness requirement from the different stage of your plants growth, you may need to employ the use of lights or shading to manipulate and control the amount of day, light, and night your system experiences.

55 Gallon Barrel Barrelponics
Image Credit: Aquaponic Barrel System Build, Chop & Flip Style. Rob Bob's Aquaponics & Backyard Farm, Youtube, 2017.

How to Set Up Your Barrelponics System

DIY Barrelponics Configuration: There are a couple of different way you can approach setting up your barrelaquapoincs systems. In order to repurpose the barrel in to a grow bed and fish tank, you’ll have the option off cutting/chopping your barrel horizontally, or vertically, with these two configurations typically referred to as

  • Chop & Flip (horizontal): reduces floor space requirements but offers less room to grow plants.*
  • Split Barrel (vertical): requires use of an extra barrel/drum and takes up more floor space, but provides more area to grow.

* As noted, the term CHOP is actually an acronym standing for Constant Height One Pump, however, since the action of cutting the barrel, or IBC is two still fits with the term Chop, as in Cut, it appears to be used interchangeably without any confusion.

Regardless of the configuration, the basic operating process remains the same.

Barrelponics Basic Operating Process Step-By-Step

a) It essentially starts in the fish tank stage, where the fish are raised and fed to produce ammonia-rich waste that the beneficial bacteria can convert into nitrites for the plant food.
b) A water pump is utilized to move the water from the fish tank to the grow bed, which contains the grow media, beneficial bacteria and plants.
c Prior to the water entering the grow bed it is filter by solid separator to remove larger waste particles.
d) The water then fills the grow bed, and saturates the grow media where the beneficial bacteria can perform the conversion to create the plant food.
e) The nutrient rich water and saturate grow media provide ample time for the roots to uptake the freshly converted nitrites feed, which also provides the last bit of filtration for the water to be purified so it can be recirculated back into the system.
f) The bell siphon regulates the water level in the grow bed. It allows the grow bed and media to flood, then drain back into the fish tank once the water reaches a threshold set by the height of the internal standpipe, just below the surface of the grow media.
g) Once the water reaches in the internal height of the standpipe/drainage pipe within the siphon the divide is triggered and the water is drained from the media bed, where it then automatically refilled once the water has been drained and is ready to start over.

Other Key Factors 

Location: Your location and the placement of your barrelponics system can affect the temperate and amount of light the setup is exposed to. If you’re setting up outside, on the balcony or in the garden, you’ll also need to account for weather conditions, as well as birds and pests.
Light Exposure: Min 6-8Hours per day, 12Hours+ for fruiting/flowering
Ideal water temperature: Ranges may change depending on the species but in general, Coldwater Fish = 18-21°C/65-70°F and Warmwater Fish = 22-32°C/71-89°F Algae growth can suffocate the system so try to keep light exposure to a minimum to prevent unwanted algae growth.
Plants Selection: Like other media based systems barrelponics have the ability to support a wider variety of plants thanks to the additional support provided by the deep grow bed full of grow media. Some of the best plants to grow include leafy greens, herbs, fruiting plants, root vegetables and flowers.
Fish Selection: There are several coldwater and warmwater fish that thrive in aquaponics systems. It’s advised to select a hardy fish that’s suited to the natural climate of your location that can also tolerate changes in its environment so that you have the best chances of keeping your barrelponics healthy and alive. Popular warmwater fish for barrelponics include tilapia, goldfish, catfish, whereas good coldwater fish include trout, perch and salmon. Balance
Stocking Density: Another factor than can greatly affect the efficiency, with which the plants and fish thrive in symbiosis together, is to stick with the recommended fish to plants stocking ratio. This gives both fish and plants adequate room to survive without the need for struggling over nutrients, staying away from temperate fluctuations and maintaining relatively stable exposure to light/darkness on a daily basis. Although different species will have different requirements, largely depending on their size, the general rule of thumb is to use a ratio of 1:2 / fish:plant.
Oxygenation: Another factor to consider if your system isn’t producing enough Dissolved Oxygen. It’s common for some setups to require the installation of an air pump and airstone, or even a waterfall or cascading water features, the latter two of which may not be suitable for the compact form factor of barrelaquaponics. The idea here is really to have as much DO as possible, although the min ranges are between 3-5PPM. Nitrification
Cycling Barrelponics: All aquaponics systems must be cycled prior to use. This is carried out to give time for the beneficial bacteria to colonize in sufficient enough numbers to perform the nitrification conversion effectively. This can be done with or without fish, but essentially requires you to add ammonia to the system, together with the Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter nitrifying bacteria, to ensure the process begins; then waiting for it to complete. You can speed up the process slightly by introducing the nitrifying bacteria yourself instead of waiting for them to appear. The initial cycling process typically takes between 4-6 weeks, so be patient, and don’t start prematurely as the system will likely never get off the ground. Hit the link for a complete in-depth guide on the Nitrification Process, why and how you should cycle your system prior to growing.

Barrel Barrelponics Aquponics
Image Credit: Aquaponic Barrel System Build, Chop & Flip Style. Rob Bob's Aquaponics & Backyard Farm, Youtube, 2017.
Barrel Barrelponics Bell Siphon
Image Credit: Aquaponic Barrel System Build, Chop & Flip Style. Rob Bob's Aquaponics & Backyard Farm, Youtube, 2017.

How to Maintain Your Barrelponics System

Daily Monitoring and Maintenance
The best way to ensure your system survives and produces the highest yields, is to monitor and maintain a set of levels on a regular basis, even multiple times per day. As you gain experience, with your particular setup, you’ll start to learn what needs monitoring, and adjusting, when and how frequently, but since every system is different, it’s always been to learn this for yourself based on experience, rather than reading the first article you come across online.

Should you notice any changes with the important parameters and parts of the system remember to act as quickly as possible to get things back into safe operating ranges. Top parameters, levels and factors for multiple times per day monitoring include:

Bell Siphon: In conjunction with your water pump, the bell siphon governs water flow, and also regulates the water level in the grow bed, allowing it to drain once it reaches a set height. Ensure the bell siphon is full functional and working smoothly, this will in turn ensure the system keeps running automatically.

For more in-depth information about how to make your own DIY bell siphon, hit the links to check out our Introduction to Bell Siphons as well as our Guide to Building Your Own DIY Bell Siphons.

pH: A stable pH level is important for all living organisms in the system. Fish typically require pH between 6.8-7.0, plants generally prefer pH between 6.5-7.0 and beneficial bacteria enjoy levels between around 7.0 pH. Ranges will vary depending on species selected, the idea is to find the perfect balance so all three thrive in the same system.

Dissolved Oxygen (DO): As noted DO is extremely important for the survival of the fish and therefore the plants too. Having too much DO in thee conditions is highly unlikely, so you can be shooting for ranges between 3-5PPM. Note: some fish species require higher concentrations so be sure to check up on this prior to transplanting your fish into the system.

Plant Health: Be sure to check your plants regularly for signs of stress, pests and/or disease. This can be caused by lack of nutrient, poor hygiene, or outside contamination. If you do spot any problems remember to act quick for the best chances of fixing the problem.

Fish Health: Also check your fish regularly for signs of stress and/or disease, and just like all important factors, if you noticed any issues arise, then act quickly as the sooner you can resolve these problems the better.

Pests & Disease
No matter where you set up, disease and pests can be a real issue for both plants and fish. Of course setting up outdoor heightens these issues with additional exposure to birds, easier access for pests as well as other animals that don’t normally pose a problem when setting up indoor.

Regardless of barrelponics placement you’ll want to regularly monitors for signs of disease and pests, and act quickly should you see anything out of the ordinary. There are a number of help apps online that can help you identify common disease and cases of malnutrition, so if you’re not sure what you’re doing then thee can be of great use for beginners.

Algae Growth: Algae growth is one of the major problems that can cause your system to collapse. To limit the unwanted growth of algae simply limit the amount of light parts of the system received that don’t need it, and do not over exposure the parts that do with too long a duration in either direct or indirect sunlight.

Root Rot: Often the results of poor water flow and uncleanly hygiene, the lack of oxygen and buildup of clogging can lead to the presence of fungus, bacteria and/or mold which can all contribute to this problem.
Root rot can stunt the growth of plants and eventually cause them to wither and die. To avoid this ensure your aquaponics system is sufficiently aerated, and if your plants begin to develop this disease, you can add beneficial microorganisms that will help combat the root rot.

Pests: Pest can be attracted to any and all grows, so you’ll need to be careful when handling them, always use hygienic tools and was your hands prior to handling. If you’re setting up outside it’s a good idea to employ additional production to keep away unwanted birds, insects and pests.

Should you need to prevent bugs from infesting your plants you can try using neem oil or a citrus-based insecticidal oil. Or if you already have an an infestation and need to get rid of it then yiou can try the organic option or utilizing natural predators such aphid midges larvae, ladybugs, or lacewigs, all of which have the ability to attack and eat the unwanted pests. 

Barrel Barrelponics Grow Bed
Image Credit: Aquaponic Barrel System Build, Chop & Flip Style. Rob Bob's Aquaponics & Backyard Farm, Youtube, 2017.

How to Prune Your Brrelponics Crops

Pruning may require slightly different technique depending on the species, however it general involves removing dead leaves, cutting back branches, and limiting the height by pinching the tops.

Pruning plants helps to keep them healthy and free from disease. It also prvoidprovides easier viewing and access so that monitoring and maintenance becomes a little easier.

How to Harvest Your Barrelponics Crops

The time till harvest will vary from species to species, so it’s a good idea to research your choices so you know what to expect. Harvest occurs when plants, fruits, flowers are fully mature, or some cases, slightly prior to, in which case they’re left to rippen outside of the grow media.

Harvesting gives you the fruits of your labor, quite literally, and also promotes a new a growth cycle so you can replant and get the most out of your barrelponics.

Barrel Barrelponics
Image Credit: Aquaponic Barrel System Build, Chop & Flip Style. Rob Bob's Aquaponics & Backyard Farm, Youtube, 2017.

In Conclusion

Barrelponics aquaponics systems are perhaps the easiest way to start sustainable farming at home thanks to its low cost, few materials required, and super straightforward construction. Based on the media based, flood and drain type aquaponics, Barrelponics can support a wider range of plant species when compared with NFT or DWC systems because it utilizes a grow bed and grow medium that provide more support for larger root systems.

Ideal for beginners and experts alike, with an unbeatably low budget requirement, barrelponics offers a way for almost anyone to build their own DIY aquaponics system with minimal effort, and from the comfort of their own home.

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