A Guide to Barrel Aquaponics System

Many people are turning to aquaponics these days because it allows them to grow fish and plants in a closed system with minimal maintenance. However, pre-made aquaponics systems can be expensive. That is why many aquaponics enthusiasts have resorted to creating their own aquaponics setup using recyclable materials, and the results are excellent and creative. 

One type of aquaponics system that is popular with DIYers and aquaponics beginners is the barrel aquaponics system or barrelphonics. A barrel system will allow aquaponics enthusiasts to delve into aquaponics with little space available and without spending too much money.

In this blog, we will discuss the barrel aquaponics system and explore its components, mechanics, and the steps involved in building and maintaining your own system. Whether you're an urban dweller with limited space or a gardening enthusiast seeking a new challenge, barrel aquaponics offers an innovative solution for growing fresh produce and raising fish in a symbiotic environment.

An Overview of Barrel Aquaponics Systems

Barrel aquaponics systems are a compact and versatile variation of traditional aquaponic setups. Instead of large, elaborate structures, these systems utilize repurposed barrels or containers as the main components. 

Usually, one or more barrels serve as fish tanks, while others are converted into grow beds for plants. The interconnected barrels create a self-contained ecosystem where fish waste fertilizes the plants, and the plants‌ clean and oxygenate the water for the fish. Barrel aquaponics systems are particularly well-suited for small-scale or urban environments because of their space-saving design and easy customization.

Benefits of Barrel Aquaponics System:

  1. Space Efficiency: Barrel aquaponics systems are ideal for areas with limited space, such as urban balconies, patios, or small yards. Their vertical design and modular components allow for maximum utilization of available space.
  2. Cost-effective: Barrel aquaponics is a budget-friendly way to get started with aquaponics. It requires minimal materials, readily available from hardware stores or even upcycled from home.
  3. Small footprint: This system is ideal for limited spaces like balconies, patios, or even indoors with proper lighting. The compact size makes it a great option for urban gardeners or those with minimal outdoor space
  4. Sustainable: Barrel aquaponics is a closed-loop system, minimizing water waste and promoting resource conservation. The fish waste provides natural fertilizer, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers or additional water changes.
  5. Low maintenance: Once established, barrel aquaponics requires minimal maintenance compared to traditional gardening. The system is relatively self-sufficient, requiring occasional monitoring of water levels, fish health, and plant growth.
  6. Year-Round Harvest: With proper management, barrel aquaponics systems can provide a continuous supply of fresh produce and fish regardless of the season.
  7. Educational Value: Barrel aquaponics systems offer a hands-on learning experience for individuals interested in sustainable agriculture, biology, or DIY projects.

Who is This System For?

  • Beginners: The simplicity and manageable size of a barrel system make it an excellent choice for those new to aquaponics. It allows you to learn the basics of this symbiotic relationship between fish and plants without a significant investment.
  • Small space dwellers: Limited on space? No problem! Barrel aquaponics thrives in balconies, patios, or even sunny indoor locations.
  • Sustainability enthusiasts: If you're passionate about eco-friendly practices, barrel aquaponics is a perfect fit. It promotes resource conservation by minimizing water waste and utilizing natural resources for plant growth.
  • Anyone who wants fresh, homegrown food: Enjoy the satisfaction of cultivating your own healthy herbs and vegetables. The system allows you to have a taste of self-sufficiency and enjoy the rewards of your own little ecosystem.

Components of a Barrel Aquaponics System

  1. 55-gallon drum: This will be the fish tank and grow bed.Choose a food-grade plastic drum that's in good condition and free from harmful chemicals.
  2. Grow media: This provides support and anchorage for your plants while allowing water to circulate freely. Popular options include hydroton (expanded clay pebbles), lava rock, or gravel.
  3. Plumbing supplies: You'll need tubing, connectors, and a bulkhead fitting to create the water flow between the fish tank and the grow bed.
  4. Water pump: A small submersible pump is essential to circulate water from the fish tank up to the grow bed and back down again.
  5. Fish: Select fish that are suited for aquaponics, such as goldfish, tilapia, or guppies. Start with a small number of fish to avoid overwhelming the system with waste.
  6. Plants: Choose plants that prefer a slightly acidic to neutral pH level. Leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, and kale are excellent options for beginners.

How to Build Your Own Barrel Aquaponics System

A. Choosing the Right Barrels:

  1. Material Considerations: When selecting barrels for your aquaponics system, opt for food-grade barrels that are safe for containing water and fish. Avoid barrels that previously held toxic substances or chemicals.
  2. Size and Number of Barrels: Consider the available space and your specific needs when determining the size and quantity of barrels for your system. The size of your fish tank and grow beds will influence the size of barrels you require. Additionally, assess the number of plants you intend to grow and the stocking density of fish to determine the appropriate number of barrels for your setup.

Assembly Instructions:

1. Cutting the Barrel:

  • Carefully clean and wash the drum.
  • Use a drill or rotary tool to create two holes in the sides of the barrel – one near the top for the water return from the grow bed, and another a few inches from the bottom for the water pump to draw water out of the fish tank.
  • Cut the top rim of the barrel to create a separate lid for the fish tank.

2. Creating the Grow Bed:

  • Place a screen or mesh over the top rim of the barrel to prevent grow media from falling into the fish tank.
  • Fill the top section of the barrel with your chosen grow media, leaving enough space at the top for plant roots.

3. Plumbing Setup:

  • Install the bulkhead fitting through one of the holes you drilled earlier, creating a watertight connection for the hose that will carry water up to the grow bed.
  • Connect the water pump to another hose and place it inside the fish tank through the lower hole.
  • Run the pump hose up to the grow bed, allowing water to disperse evenly over the grow media.
  • Finally, connect another hose from the bottom of the grow bed back down to the top of the fish tank, completing the water circulation loop.

Tip: Apply a sealant around the rim where the lid meets the barrel to prevent water leaks.

Barrel Aquaponics System

Maintaining Your Barrel Aquaponics System

Your barrel aquaponics system is up and running – congratulations! But remember, a thriving ecosystem requires ongoing care. Let's explore the key aspects of maintaining a healthy balance for both your fish and your plants.

1.  Water Management:

  • Filling the System: Initially, fill the fish tank with clean, chlorine-free water. You can use tap water, but be sure to let it sit for 24 hours to allow chlorine to dissipate.
  • Monitoring Water Levels: Regularly check the water level in both the fish tank and the grow bed. Top up with clean water as needed to maintain consistent levels.
  • Testing Water Quality: Water quality is crucial for the health of your fish and plants. Invest in a simple liquid aquarium test kit to monitor essential parameters like pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels. Aim for a slightly acidic to neutral pH (around 6.5-7.0) and keep ammonia and nitrite levels close to zero. Regular water changes (around 10% weekly) can help maintain optimal water quality.

2.  Fish Care:

  • Feeding: Choose a high-quality fish food formulated for aquaponics systems. Feed your fish a small amount 1-2 times a day, only what they can consume within a few minutes.
  • Monitoring Fish Health: Keep a close eye on the behavior and appearance of your fish. Healthy fish are active and have bright coloring. Signs of stress or illness include lethargy, clamped fins, or gasping for air. If you notice any concerns, adjust your feeding habits, water quality parameters, or consult a fishkeeping guide for troubleshooting.

3.  Plant Care:

  • Selecting Plants: Choose plants suited for a hydroponic environment and that thrive in a slightly acidic to neutral pH range. Popular options for beginners include leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, and herbs like basil and mint.
  • Planting: Once your water quality is stable, plant your chosen seedlings directly into the grow media. Ensure proper spacing to allow for growth.
  • Harvesting: Enjoy the fruits (or rather, vegetables!) of your labor! Regularly harvest mature leaves or herbs, promoting new growth for a continuous supply of fresh produce.

Tip: Keep a logbook to record water test results, feeding schedules, and any observations about your fish and plants. This helps you monitor trends and identify potential issues early on.

4. Algae Growth:

Algae growth is a common issue in aquaponics systems, particularly in systems exposed to sunlight. To address algae growth:

  1. Reduce Sunlight Exposure: Place your aquaponics system in a location with limited direct sunlight or provide shading to reduce light exposure.
  2. Implement Light Blocking: Cover the sides of the fish tanks and grow beds with opaque materials to block light penetration.
  3. Maintain Water Quality: Ensure proper water circulation and filtration to prevent nutrient buildup, which fuels algae growth. Regularly test and adjust nutrient levels to maintain a balance suitable for plant growth without promoting algae.
  4. Introduce Algae Eaters: Consider adding algae-eating fish, such as plecos or algae-eating shrimp, to help control algae growth naturally.

5. Clogging in the Plumbing System:

Clogging in the plumbing system can impede water flow and disrupt the functioning of the aquaponics system. To address plumbing clogs:

  1. Regular Maintenance: Routinely inspect and clean the plumbing system, including pipes, valves, and filters, to remove debris and prevent clogs from forming.
  2. Use Proper Filters: Install appropriate filters, such as mesh screens or filter socks, to trap debris and prevent it from entering the plumbing system.
  3. Monitor Fish Feeding: Avoid overfeeding fish, as excess food particles can contribute to clogs in the plumbing system. Feed fish small, frequent meals and ensure they consume all the food provided.
  4. Adjust Water Flow: Optimize water flow rates through the plumbing system to reduce the likelihood of clogs. Avoid sharp bends or narrow sections in pipes that may restrict flow and accumulate debris.


A barrel aquaponics systems offer a sustainable and efficient method of growing fresh produce and raising fish in a symbiotic environment. But as you embark on your aquaponics journey, remember to start small, prioritize regular maintenance, and embrace experimentation with different plant and fish combinations. With dedication, patience, and a willingness to learn, you can create a thriving barrel aquaponics system that not only provides a sustainable source of fresh produce and fish but also enriches your life and connects you more deeply with nature.

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