Aquaponic towers are an excellent way to create more space in your garden. By planting vertically rather than horizontally, more ground space is freed for other equipment and a better overall arrangement. Ready-made towers can be quite expensive, so if you’d like to make yours instead, this guide has you covered.
Here’s how to make an aquaponics tower:
- Plan out your project.
- Find an appropriate workspace.
- Gather your tools and materials.
- Cut and size your pipes.
- Assemble the tower.
Rather than simply giving you a quick checklist, this guide will walk you through each step, highlighting everything you’ll need to know to successfully take on this project. Read on if you’d like to learn everything there is to know about making an aquaponic tower!
1. Plan Out Your Project
A key reason why most DIY guides never give you the help you need is that they throw a lot of random factors you’re not familiar with at you. How can I expect you to know how to properly place the piping if you’re not sure what the purpose of a pipe is?
Once you start to understand each part of the tower and how they work to create a proper aquaponics system, it’s a lot easier to put the whole thing together.
Another key benefit of understanding the theoretical components before you build is better management. A regular set of instructions might give you enough material to build the tower. However, using this guide in the way it has been intended will give you enough knowledge to make proper maintenance checks and even tweak my outline to your specific needs.
The first thing to know about an aquaponic tower is that each part is built with both efficiency and verticality in mind. The core purpose of aquaponics is to create a symbiotic system between a hydroponic and aquaculture system.
This concept is still important with a vertical tower, but it’s actualized vertically instead of with a conventional grow bed.
The overall idea is to create a system with the fish tank at the bottom of the build. Attached to the fish tank is a series of pipes that become the growing area for your setup.
As long as you keep this idea in mind as you start to build, it’s easy to see that there is no one right way to build an aquaponic tower. As soon as you have enough personal experience with yours, you can start to make adjustments to suit your needs.
Here are all the parts involved in an aquaponic tower:
- Grow tubes
- Inlet and outlets
- Net pots
- Fish tank
You’ll probably need a few of components depending on the tweaks and changes you’ll want to make, but this list covers all the major elements of any aquaponic tower, regardless of style.
The grow tubes are the central part of your aquaponic tower. They are not the only component you’ll need, but they are by far the most important. Grow tubes are analogous to conventional grow beds.
Consequently, grow tubes serve as a mechanical support for the plants, giving them space to grow. If you’ve ever seen an aquaponic tower, then you can easily identify these essential elements. Essentially, the pipes are the towers, and everything else is simply an attachment.
This distinction means that if you can wrap your head around the towers’ purpose and get them fixed properly, then much of what is left is significantly easier.
The grow tubes are long hollow structures usually made out of PVC pipes. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is one of the most widely used forms of plastic, and for a good reason. Made from the polymerization of vinyl chloride, it is widely recognized for its versatility.
The chemistry behind the process is complicated, but once the polymerization process is done, many additives are introduced to the final product. These make the product strong, durable, and stable – features that make it perfect for aquaponics.
Why Not to Use Concrete or Metal
You can use materials like metal or concrete, but they don’t work as well.
First, a metal pipe can be incredibly difficult to work with, especially if you’re a beginner. You will be drilling, sawing, and heating while making your tower, and these are things that are significantly easier to do on plastic.
On the other hand, concrete can also be a problematic material. Its most prominent disadvantage is that it is far less durable than PVC and metal. Since water will constantly run through these grow beds, the concrete can very easily wear away with time.
Since plastic is significantly easier to work with, it’s easier to make alterations on as well. With time, increased productivity, and more knowledge, you will eventually want to make minor or major alterations to your system. For this reason, you’ll want to use a material that won’t give you a hard time later on.
Both options are also significantly more expensive than using PVC pipes.
Once you have a general understanding of the growth tubes, the rest of the elements involved are much easier to recognize if you already have some general knowledge regarding aquaponic systems.
Filters are a key feature of any system, and aquaponics are no different.
Types of Filters
There are two main uses of filters, with each having a different type of equipment attached to them.
Biofilters are responsible for biofiltration which is a key part of how ammonia from your tank is converted into usable nitrates for your plants. They are the most important out of the two and because of this, having a biofilter is essential.
Mechanical filters filter out solid waste, preventing it from going to the rest of the system, where it can cause significant problems. For example, if the solid waste gets to the biofilter, it can reduce the total surface area of the filter available for conversion leading to reduced nutrients for your plants.
Are Filters Necessary?
Filters are not always necessary in aquaponics. However, the necessity of these components is highly dependent on the type and scale of your system. If you run a large system with hundreds of fish and a concordant amount of waste being produced, then you will likely need dedicated filters.
On the other hand, you rarely need dedicated filters if you use a media-filled bed. In this type of system, the media and grow bed replace both types of filters.
It is best to have a mechanical filter in a vertical aquaponics system. Vertical aquaponic systems operate similarly to the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT). Although they are not the same, with one being highly vertical, their similarities are enough for the knowledge to be transferable.
One key downside of NFT systems is how easy it is for the piping to get clogged. The increased clogging risk is inherent to the technique. Since the plants are placed in pipes for water to flow through instead of beds, the narrow channel can easily get clogged with waste from the tank or external debris.
The risk of this phenomenon happening is lower in aquaponic towers since the towers are vertical and gravity can help with debris that gets into the system. However, the risk is still there, and it’s best to have a mechanical filter in place to avoid it.
With a tower, it’s also important to have a biofilter to aid in nutrient absorption. Of course, you could leave the plants and media to do all of the biofiltration. However, given that in the future you might want to make your towers shorter or reduce the number of plants per tower, it’s usually just better to have an external biofilter in place.
Inlets and Outlets
The inlet lets water into the grow tubes, and the outlet takes it out. They are usually attached to opposing ends of the grow bed to ensure that water is kept circulating in the proper direction.
Ideally, you’ll want your inlet attached to the top of the tower. It might seem a little counterintuitive given that the inlet in a normal system is closest to the tank. However, it’s a lot more practical to have your tank at the bottom of the setup.
You can then have a pipe leading to the top of the tower to serve as an inlet.
Net pots are the structures you’ll be using to hold your plants in place. If you’ve ever transplanted seeds or used plugs, then you’ll be very familiar with these components.
Your grow tube is essentially a pipe filled with holes. The holes are there for the plants. However, plants are extremely slim, and trying to fit one into said holes you make can be next to impossible.
Using a net pot makes this process far easier. Since net pots have a wider surface area than plants, you can fit them into the holes in the towers and place plants in them to grow.
You can also use a few other options that fulfill the same purpose if you can’t get your hands on net pots.
One excellent alternative is using a perforated plastic bottle. A bottle will give you the staying power you need to hold the plants in place, and perforating it will ensure that your plants get all the water they need.
You can’t have an aquaponics system without a fish tank, of course. Otherwise, it’s just hydroponics!
Your tank doesn’t need to change much if you’re planning to make an aquaponic tower instead of a horizontal setup. The main element you’ll want to get right with a tank is its placement. You might end up wanting more than one tower, so you’ll have to position your tank to circulate water as best as possible.
With fewer towers, you can get away with having them feed directly back to the tank. However, if you have many towers, you’ll need to install separate piping that can collect all the effluent and lead it back to the enclosure.
2. Find an Appropriate Workspace
With the amount of work you’re about to do, it would be best if you got a dedicated workspace to do all of the heavy-duty work and assembly in. Most people either carve out a space within their farm or set up an entirely different area.
I find that usually it’s best to opt for a mix of both. For a lot of the precursor work like drilling and cutting, it’s best to have a dedicated workspace. However, once you’re done with these processes, it’s a lot easier to do the rest of the work where you plan to set up your system.
3. Gather Your Tools and Materials
Now that you know how the core parts of your tower function and hopefully have a space to comfortably work in, you can start to gather some tools and materials you’ll need. If you’ve closely read through the previous sections, most of the elements I’ll list in the following paragraph will be easily recognizable.
Here are the tools and materials you’ll need to build your aquaponics tower:
- 3-inch (7.62-cm) PVC pipes
- ½-inch (1.27-cm) conduit pipes
- Marker or pen
- Torch or heat gun
- Water pump
- Hack Saw
- Biofilter media
- Net pots
- Tape measure
- Dowel or wooden wedge
- Wooden support system
- Damp cloth
- Silicon or PVC tubing
These are all the components you’ll need to create your vertical tower. Depending on preference or budget, however, you could always use alternatives.
Make sure you use the appropriate safety equipment as needed. It’s crucial to keep yourself as safe as possible when working with power tools.
4. Cut and Size Your Pipes
Once you have all the materials you need, it’s time to get started. I find that oftentimes it’s much easier to divide the process into two practical steps. By doing so, the whole task will seem much more manageable.
The first of these steps will be covered in the following paragraphs, and it involves everything you’ll need to do with the pipes you’ve chosen before you start assembling the towers:
Trim the Pipes With a Hacksaw
Cut the pipes to your desired length using a hacksaw. If you’re not completely sure what length is best for you, then you can go with the standard 6 inches (15.24-cm) of pipe length to be safe. This length gives you enough room to grow at least 20-30 plants per tower.
Alternatively, if you want to plant fewer aquaponics crops, you can always opt for shorter pipes.
Mark Planting Sites With Lines
Mark out your planting sites with horizontal lines. Marking it out first gives you a clearer vision of what each hole will look like and how the spacing should be.
If you want to err on the side of safety, allow at least 3 inches (7.62 cm) of space between each hole. When marking out these holes, make sure you use the entire pipe. A good rule of thumb is to try and fit at least 3 to 4 holes at each height.
Cut Lines Into the Pipe
Next, you’ll cut lines into the pipe with a saw. Try to follow the lines you previously marked out and make sure the lines are close in diameter to your net pots.
Soften the Slits With a Torch
Put the torch on as low a temperature as possible. Move it gently but steadily side to side to soften the line until it becomes pliable.
While doing this, try to make sure you don’t pause on a single area for longer than a second to avoid damaging the pipe. If you’re still not confident on your torching skills, experiment on some spare pipe first to get the technique down.
Widen the Slits Into Holes
Using your wedge or dowel, widen the slits into holes. Do this while the pipe is still soft from the torch. Slide the dowel into the slit and gently use it as a wedge to widen the hole until it’s a suitable size for the net cups and plants.
Once it reaches the necessary width, place a damp cloth on the hole with the dowel still in. Leave the cloth on until the plastic hardens.
Drill Holes Into the Pippe Ends
Then, drill ½-inch (1.27-cm) holes into the ends of the pipe using a drill bit. These holes are where the tower will attach to the vertical support to keep it upright.
Make Holes in the End Cap
Perforate the end cap with holes smaller than your media. You can use a drill bit for this, but if you don’t have one small enough, a sharp, pointed object should do fine too.
These holes will attach to the ends of the cap facing downwards. The point of the end cap is necessary to keep your filter media in place while also allowing water from the tower to pass through it.
Repeat as Needed
Repeat the steps above for as many towers as you need. Once you’re done with one tower, but think you don’t have enough space, you can easily make another by following the same steps all over again. It should be easier the second time around and even more so from that point on.
To see a visual of how to do this, check out this YouTube video:
5. Assemble the Tower
Now that you have the pipes sorted out, you can start assembling your system. If you have a separate workspace, you can now transport all your pipes and equipment into the aquaponics garden.
When assembling the towers, one of the most important factors to keep in mond is to do it slowly and carefully. If you sorted out the pipes first, this part should be significantly easier.
Here’s how to assemble your tower:
Attach the Towers to the Upright Support
You will be attaching these towers to the support at the ½ inch (1.27-cm) hole you drilled in step 6 of the previous section. Attach the pipes to the support using the bolts, nuts, and washers to hold them firmly in place.
Connect the End Cap & Tower
Connect the end cap to the bottom of the tower. You can attach the cap using a bolt or some form of adhesive material. A bolt is preferable here to make it easier to detach and clean later, but adhesive also works in a pinch.
Add Your Growth Media
Once the pipe is upright and covered at the bottom with the end cap, you can fill your media into the pipe. Try to keep it as full as possible but make sure it isn’t too tightly packed. This arrangement will slow down the amount of time it takes for water to pass through, increasing its contact time with the plants.
Attach the Inlet & Pump
For this step, you’ll have to use tubing to attach to the pump and feed it through each pipe. If you only have one tower, you can simply let a single pump hang onto its structure, but you might need to attach more if you have multiple towers.
Run the System and Check for Leaks
You’re onto the final step! Once everything else is sorted, run water through the system and ensure that everything works as it should.
Ideally, you should have water begin to circulate in the system with no faults or blockages. If you have leaks at any attachment areas, use an adhesive material (like glue) to seal it.
Congratulations, you’ve hopefully just made your first aquaponics tower! One final element you’ll want to be aware of is that it’s best to let this system run on its own for a few hours to ensure that everything is attached properly and no component is faulty.
Are Aquaponic Towers Worth It?
With all the steps required to make a functioning tower, you might be wondering if going through the trouble is even worth it. This stance is understandable as a tower can be a significant undertaking depending on your DIY skills.
Aquaponic towers are worth it. In terms of efficient use of space and overall compatibility, you would be hard pressed to find a better alternative. Aquaponic towers save space while keeping your system running efficiently.
If you’re not sold on aquaponic towers just yet, here are some alternatives:
- Raft system
- Recirculating aquaponic system (RAS)
- Nutrient film system
- Media-filled beds
How Much Does an Aquaponic Tower Cost?
Aquaponics can be expensive, and if you choose to use an aquaponic tower, you’ll have to make a hefty investment even if you choose to do it yourself. With that in mind, you might be asking yourself, “How much will I have to pay for it?”
An aquaponic tower costs between $150 and $600. The price of the tower will vary depending on the quality of its materials and the number of features attached. If you’re buying a pre-made alternative, the brand you’re buying from is also a factor that affects the costs.
With the price being so high in contrast to a regular media-filled grow bed, it might seem like going vertical is not worth it. However, with a DIY system like the one explained in this article, the project can be much more affordable as long as you have the right tools and skillset.
When it comes to a DIY system, you can make most of your tower with tools and materials you already have at home or would have used in your aquaponic system anyway. For example, filters, pipes, and so on.
Are Aquaponics and Hydroponic Towers the Same?
Aquaponic and hydroponic towers are not the same. The key difference is that hydroponic towers usually do not have inlets feeding in from the tank. Rather, the water is obtained from a fresh source.
Apart from this, both towers are almost identical.
Therefore, if you already have a hydroponic tower and want to turn it into an aquaponic setup, you can easily make the switch with a few simple adjustments. You’ll usually just need to add some tubing to recirculate the water rather than emptying it each cycle.
When doing any form of DIY, it’s a lot easier to get by if you take a little extra time to understand the core concept of each step. Hopefully, this guide has made the process of DIY-ing an aquaponics tower more manageable for you, and you’re now ready to start building your own.