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Budget Prep: Aquaponics System

Build Your Own Self-Sustainable Ecosystem

Lowering your cache into a pond.

You can make your own aquaponics sytem.

Photograph by Rick Austin and Survivor Jane, Aleven Goats Media, Inc.

Inspired by prepper Kevin Barber's aquaponics ecosystem, but lack the outdoor space for such a large set up? We're bringing you budget versions of the preps inspired by our very own season three prepper builds.

What is Aquaponics?

Explaining aquaponics is a lot like trying to explain a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The jelly and peanut butter can both stand alone on bread but when you put the two together, you have the best of both worlds.

The same principle holds true with aquaponics, which is the combination of aquaculture; the raising small aquatic life in water tanks, and hydroponics; the growing of plants in water. In aquaponics, the water from aquatic animals (fish, etc.) is used to feed the plant roots. Then the plant water (cleaned up by the plants) is given back to the fish.

Aquaponics systems can be as big and elaborate or a small and compact as you wish to make.

Our focus for showing you how to create your own aquaponics system will be in a doomsday scenario where space, time, and food could all be scarce. We will show you how you can have freshwater fish, snails, crayfish, prawns, tilapia, perch, catfish, cod, and a vast array of your choice of garden veggies like lettuce, basil, tomatoes, okra, bell peppers, beans, peas, radishes, strawberries, onions, parsnips and herbs, to eat from a small amount of space with little to no energy exerted to maintain. And this type of system can fit into practically any living situation whether a high-rise apartment, a house in the suburbs or a rural farm.

The concept of the aquaponic system is pretty simple. You have two containers: one for fish on the bottom (acquaculture) and one for plants that sits above the fish container (hydroponics). A small aquatic pump is placed in the bottom container, which pushes up the fish effluent (the fish poop water and ammonia) into the plant container, where the ammonia (the toxic part for the fish) is broken down by nitrogen-fixing bacteria (what is known as biofilm), and turned into nitrates and nitrites, which are nutrients that are absorbed through the plant roots submerged in the water. Then the water goes back down into the fish container through a spout and the cycle begins again.

Things to Consider:

Depending on the fish you raise, you may or may not have to maintain a certain water temperature. Tilapia, for example, are a tropical fish, and need more warmth. On the other hand, catfish are not as susceptible to temperature.

Each gallon of water can support between one half to one pound of fish stock depending on how grandiose a system you make. And each gallon of fish water, can support 1 square foot of plants life. Another consideration is lighting. If your system does not have natural sunlight, you will need some sort of artificial lighting.

Get Building:

Begin by procuring two containers. We chose the typical storage container you see pick up in any big box store. You will need one container for the aquaculture (fish) portion and one for the hydroponic (plant) portion.

You will also need a foot or so of PVC pipe that is 1 ½ inches in diameter, as well as a 1 ½ inch locknut fitting, a 1 ½” male adapter and a 1 ½ inch elbow.

You need to begin by determining where the containers are going to be placed and how much distance there will be from the plant container to the fish container. (The plant overflow tube will need to be able to reach back into the fish container.) Once this is determined, you can start your build.

Parts and materials.

The Steps:

  1. Trace around the threads of the locknut fitting (take the washers and the nut off first).

  2. Cut a hole with the 2-hole saw.

  3. Place the paper flange and rubber washer on the locknut fitting and push fitting through the hole.

  4. Place the other rubber washer on the backside of the hole over the locknut fitting and then screw down the fitting with the nut provided. Tighten the nut with a pipe wrench.

  5. Screw the threaded male adapter into the front of the finished locknut fitting.

  6. Mark the pipe so that the elbow will protrude enough so that the water will drain from the plant tank into the fish tank.

  7. Cut the pipe.

  8. Insert pipe into the male adapter. (There is no need to glue these pipes and fittings at this time).

  9. Press the elbow on the pipe end and face the elbow down. Then place another small piece of pipe on the down facing end of the elbow (facing into what will be the fish tank).

  10. Level the space that the tanks will be resting on. (Make sure it is level in all directions.)

  11. Place the tanks in their respective positions (fish tank on bottom, plant tank above).

  12. Prepare your submersible pump by connecting fittings and a tube to push water from the fish tank into the plant tank.

  13. You can get specific fish tank plastic tubing or you can use an old laundry hose, by cutting off one of the ends.

  14. Push the fitting on to the hose.

  15. Connect the hose and fitting to the pump.

  16. Fill the bottom and top tanks with a few inches of water to start with. (Do not run the submersible pump unless it is under water.)

  17. Place the submersible pump in the bottom tank of water so that it completely submerged.

  18. Test the pump by plugging it in to see if your pipe and pump work to push the water into the top tank.

  19. Get a piece of Styrofoam and measure the inside of the top tank. Draw a line so that you can cut off excess Styrofoam so that the piece will float inside the tank.

  20. Cut the Styrofoam with sharp scissors.

  21. Make small holes in the Styrofoam to hold the stems of your plants.

  22. You can transplant existing plants and push the roots through the Styrofoam, or you can grow your plants from seed and seedlings as discussed in the article.

  23. Fill the top tank to the bottom of the outlet (locknut fitting) and place your plants and Styrofoam raft into the top tank.

  24. You can plant multiple different types of plants into each Styrofoam raft.

  25. Fill your bottom tank to an adequate level and turn on the pump. (You can adjust the flow of the pump using the switch on the side of the pump- so you can speed up the water circulation, or slow it down.)

  26. Now you are ready to insert the fish. (Make sure that the fish and the water in the tanks are at about the same temperature before placing the fish into the water. You can shock them with a big temperature change.)

  27. You now have an aquaponics system.

The Doomsday Preppers articles, videos, links, images, and instructions (“Content”) are for entertainment purposes only. The National Geographic Channel makes no express or implied representations regarding whether the Content is up-to-date, complete, or accurate, and shall not be liable for any consequential damages, claims, losses, or demands of any kind based upon reliance of the Content. Do not rely on this Content for disaster, medical, health or safety advice.

Steven Fu
Steven Fu

I belief diy aquaponics is the way to go for a sustainable and healthy food production. What's great about it is that you can design the system to suit the space or land that you have available and you can save of the materials cost by re-using items you may already have stuffed in your garage as mentioned by Patrik below. You can find a good write-up on this at:

Patrick Kaa
Patrick Kaa

I've tried several systems that claimed to work at home and have had mixed results, some just flat out failed and I lost allot of produce! Just recently I found a diy aquaponic system that cost me next to nothing to build and it took me a day to build from materials that were laying around the backyard and in my garage.

Chad Hudspeth
Chad Hudspeth

I have concerns about these type of designs long term since there is no filtration for the solids. In my experience running the water directly from the fish tank into a raft bed will work for awhile, but then suffocate the plants since the solids have not been filtered out. It would work if a filtration system was installed or if the water ran through a gravel bed to filter it before entering the raft.

If you would like to build a tried and true system we offer a Do It Yourself plan or ready made kits at

Anthony Gutierrez
Anthony Gutierrez

I didn't see in the instructions what these  items are for?

  • Vacuum Seal Bags - Quick Tip: Each object or group of objects should be sealed individually
  • Kitchen electric vacuum sealer
  • Monofilament fishing line 250’ of 30 lb. test -$2.86
  • Bobbers -$1.26 for 6
  • Camouflage paint -$3.67/can