IBC Aquaponics System – Everything You Need to Know

IBC Aquaponics

Breeding fish and growing plants is an exciting idea, whether you do it to add a bit to your garden décor or you simply want free and organic food. It is an effective way to provide food for your family without spending too much money – not to mention helping the environment as well. All in all, if you have ever grown anything (even some grass on your lawn with seeds), chances are you know how much excitement you will get once plants pop out and start growing.

With all these, an aquaponics system involves more than just throwing some fish in the water and pumping the water around your plants. IBC aquaponics represents a cost-effective way to start your venture in this industry. It is a budget-friendly choice that feels relatively simple to implement, without too much hassle or any experience at all. So, what do you need for this system and how does it actually work?

Understanding the IBC aquaponics system

Pretty much everything in your aquaponics system is important. One thing will not work without the other – and this rule applies to more than just fish and plants. However, one thing stands out in the crowd and that is having the optimal container for your system. Your system will require one container for your fish – you can use more containers for your plants, yet some people stick to one only. The IBC tote can be everything – useful for both the fish and the plants.

This tote can go in two directions. While designed like a box, you can cut the top 30% of it. Flip it over and you have two different containers – what else do you need then? The IBC tote is quite common these days and easy to find in commerce – Intermediate Bulk Container. It is used to hold large amounts of liquid, so you might have seen some of these totes in industrial places or perhaps petrol stations – common in places that use AdBlue.

IBC totes

Most commonly, these boxes are based on plastic. The plastic is hard and not fully clear. The box does not stand by itself. Instead, it is covered in a metallic frame and has the main role to add a bit of protection. The unit is quite sturdy, but you need light to go through. Otherwise, a dark environment is likely to stimulate the growth of algae. Sure, the plastic is normally semi-clear, but spraying the outside will allow more light in.

When it comes to finding IBCs, they are pretty much everywhere. You can find them in hardware supermarkets, large DIY stores or even online. There are stores specialized in IBC totes – different sizes as well. You can also find such things on auction sites – common, inexpensive, yet difficult to handle. If you find a place that sells by collection only, you may need a van or a pickup truck to get it – too large for most cars.

Some people choose the cheaper option, which implies recycling the container. They get a used one from different sources. It looks like a great idea to cut your costs, but there are a few rules then. Most importantly, the container should be food graded – in other words, it has to be made of safe materials. You do not want harsh chemicals leaking into your potential food, harming your fish, plants and your family.

You will also have to clean it accordingly. If it was used in an industrial environment, it might be full of fuel, Ad Blue or other deadly chemicals. They will contaminate the water, your fish and plants. Such issues would be out of discussion if you use a food graded IBC. But at the end of the day, it pays off clearing out all the potential risks. Therefore, give the container a few thorough washes to ensure there are no potential problems.

Give the container a quick rinse to clear out liquids. Refill it with water and add some classic fish detergent. Leave it there according to the instructions, then rinse and flush again until there is no soap coming out. If you choose to cut the top, scrub both parts with fish detergent and rinse. The tote is extremely versatile and allows setting up of different systems. But if you lack experience, the classic flood and drain system is probably your best choice.

What you need for a standard IBC aquaponics system

1. The Container

First of all, get the actual container. Most totes are about 250 gallons – this is the standard size, yet you can find others as well. You will get around 150 gallons of water for the fish, which is more than enough for most newbies. Second, get a saw in order to cut the tote. Any power saw will do – there might be some sharp edges left, so get a file too.

You will need to make some connections, so get a drill too. Most pipes are about an inch in diameter, so you will have to get some holes. 1.25 inch holes are ideal for the job.

2. Growing media

Growing media is also needed – more options out there. River rock is great – more bacteria growth and slow water drainage. Lava rock is also good, not to mention gravel or clay pebbles. Also, get a water pump to move the water. You need a pump that can move all the water within an hour.

3. Air pump

The air pump is not to be overlooked either. While not mandatory, it is safe and can prevent potential issues. If you get a classic IBC tote, you will require about 15 to 30 fish weighing a pound each. Assuming you get 20 fish, they will weigh 20 pounds – about nine kilograms. Multiply the kilograms by 800mg and you will get 7.2 grams per hour. Add an extra gram – 8.2 grams per hour. Divide 450g by these 8.2 grams per hour and you will get 54.8.

About 750 watts of power divided by 54.8 will give you 13.6 watts. Multiply by 90 and you will get 1231 liters per hour. Divide by 60 and you have your number. You will need a pump that can move 20.5 liters every minute. Next, get a filter too. Large debris and waste must be filtered away. These things are simple and inexpensive. Their role is critical because they can prevent blockages. A blockage will cause your system to fail surprisingly fast.

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4. Plastic pipes

Next, you need some plastic pipes. One-inch pipes are more than enough. Get a reducer to move water from the fish tank to the grow bed. The grow bed is normally located about the fish tank, so the bell siphon must be installed to ensure a straight water circulation from the bottom of the grow bed to the actual tank. Last, but not least, get a pH testing kit to ensure you have the optimal requirements for your fish and plants.

5. Fish and plants

The last step implies getting the fish and plants. There are lots of options out there. Take your time to analyze different types of fish, as well as their pros and cons. Even if you like particular fish and plants, they may not work together. You have to find the perfect balance in terms of requirements – pH, temperature, lighting conditions and so on. Then, keep in mind that grow light helps plants only – it will also encourage the growth of algae, so stick to natural light.

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How to make your own IBC aquaponics system

So, you have everything you need for your IBC aquaponics system. Here are the steps to get it done.

1. Cut the IBC tote

First, cut the IBC tote. Remove the metallic cage first. Measure about 14 inches from the top, then cut the unit at this size. Cut it round. It will be a square thing and this will be the actual container for your plants. File edges and ensure they are smooth. You can reattach parts of the cage – this way, you will get a solid base for the system as well. You will notice the cage relies on bolts, so removing small parts is fairly simple.

2. Location

The second step implies deciding on a location. There are a few different rules here. You need to decide on the amount of sunlight coming over, as well as the accessibility – how easy is it to access your system? You can, for example, keep it inside a greenhouse. You can also do it inside the home if you have plenty of rooms, but you need space and there is a small risk to end up with splashes or leaks.

3. Metallic base

Bring in the metallic base, as well as the containers. Make sure the containers are on a flat and level surface. Get a valve cover and screw it into your cage. If exposed, it comes with some risks. Someone might accidentally turn the valve and let all the water out – imagine that in your house. Plus, the issue is also going to affect your plants and fish. A valve cover can be easily screwed into the cage without too much hassle.

4. Setting the tank

The next step implies setting the tank. Wash it thoroughly, even if it is food graded. Put it inside the metal cage. Get a couple of pieces of wood across the top – strong and not rotten. You need this type of support for the grow bed. Resting it on the fish tank is not a good idea because it could damage the system. The wood should be relatively wide, but it should not cover the whole tank. If the setup is too tall, you can remove parts of the metallic cage from the bottom.

5. Water pump

Get the water pump in and make sure you get something suitable for the size of your system. You may also need reinforced kink free pipe and a reducer. Some pumps come with these parts, but you can also buy them separately. Get a few taps, T fittings and perhaps some stainless steel clamps. The pump goes in the base of the fish tank. The pipe must have a few 90 degree bends and sit comfortably on the top of the grow bed.

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6. Bell siphon

Get a bell siphon too. This is the part that ensures your system is self-sustainable. When you check it out, pay attention to the standpipe. It must be about 10 inches in depth, only to ensure the water will never get to the top of the grow bed. This type of setup prevents the development of algae. You need a bit of experience to do such things yourself, especially as you will need to drill holes and come up with a technical installation – not impossible though.

7. Grow media

It is time for the grow media then. Get it into a sieve to remove debris. Once in, test the system. You will notice that the water is a bit cloudy. There is nothing to be concerned about – it is perfectly normal. Leave it for a few days and this issue will go away. If you use tap water, expect chlorine and a few other chemicals – all these things can be harmful for fish. Let the water settle and this issue will be gone in no time.

8. Bacteria

The IBC aquaponics system also requires some bacteria. You will need to test the water multiple times as bacteria develop – part of creating the perfect environment. Finally, add the plants and fish and you are ready to go. If you use plants that were initially planted in soil, clean them properly. You do not want all those particles in the system. Keep monitoring the pH levels on a daily basis to ensure you have the optimal environment.


Bottom line, the IBC aquaponics system follows the same principles. Every aquaponics system is the same, yet there are plenty of different setups out there. The IBC system is large and inexpensive, but it will also give you a good experience – especially if you are new to aquaponics. Common sense and a bit of experience will work wonders when setting up your own system – keep in mind that aquaponics is also based on trial and error.

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