Aquaponics systems can range from as small as an indoor aquarium to large-scale fully automated systems. Regardless of the size, the basic concept always holds true where plants and fishes coexist in a symbiotic relationship.
Starting an IBC aquaponic system using an IBC tote can be done by
- Selecting a food grade tote
- Preparing a leveled area to site the tote
- Cutting the tote horizontally with a saw
- Placing the grow bed above the fish tank
- Installing a bell siphon
- Installing the piping correctly
- Filling with grow media
- Stocking the fish tank
Aquaponics is an easy way to recycle an IBC tote. For many aquaponic beginners, using IBC totes is a cost-effective way to starting a new aquaponic hobby.
An entire aquaponic system can be made from a single IBC tote which when installed correctly can have benefits such as a very small footprint and is easy to manage. This makes the IBC tote ideal for beginners wanting to start small.
This type of system is called a Chop and Flip IBC Aquaponic system
However, there are some things to consider to get the most value out of these totes when using it in an aquaponic system, which we discuss further in this article.
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Selecting a Food Grade IBC Tote
IBCs are designed for the high mobility handling of bulk liquids, semi-solids, powdered food, food syrups. They usually come in sizes of 275 gallons and 330 gallons. The more commonly available 275-gallon IBC tote is widely used for small-scale and backyard aquaponics.
When selecting an IBC tote you should always opt for a food-grade tote.
Food grade totes are represented by the numbers “1, 2, 4, or 5” on the labeling at the side of the container.
IBC totes with the numbers 1,4 and 5 are good food-grade containers but the number two label provides some extra benefits.
The “2” represents HDPE or high-density polyethylene which is used for long-term food storage since it’s the most stable form of plastic. This is also UV Stabilized Plastic meaning it can withstand total sunlight without breaking down.
This means that when used in an aquaponic system there will not be any type of breakdown of plastic compounds to be released into the water system and would last very long without degradation.
This makes IBC tote safe to use in an aquaponic system.
- HDPE Tank & Galvanized Steel Cage
- Food Grade
- 6″ Lid & 2″ Ball Valve
- 4-Way Skid Access
- BPA Free
The IBC tote is essentially a square plastic container surrounded by a galvanized steel cage. The galvanized steel cage gives it its rigidity and without it, the plastic container would warp when filled with water.
It is also fitted with a 6-inch cap at the top and a 2-inch ball valve at the base. The cap will serve little or no purpose when flipped and used as a grow bed.
The 2” ball valve at the base will serve as a drain port when the time comes to clean the fish tank.
Additionally, the 4-way skid access which it is equipped provides raised support as the plastic container does not touch the ground and is protected from being punctured.
Preparing a Leveled Area to Place the IBC Tote
Before purchasing an IBC container the area on which it is going to be placed should be properly prepared. This is to ensure that the tote does not sink or tilt over the course of time due to its heavyweight.
Tilting and sinking would cause stress on the pipes connected to the IBC tote which would lead to failure.
Preparation should take into account the entire aquaponic system layout. This includes the placement of the mechanical filter and the grow bed relative to the fish tank.
A 275-gallon IBC totes have the dimensions of
- Length – 48 inches
- Width – 40 inches
- Height – 46 inches
- Weight – 130 pounds
The fish tank will be the major section of the IBC tank.
The height of the fish tank should be approximately three quarter (¾) of the tote’s height or 36 inches high.
The grow bed will therefore be, ¼ or 12 inches which gives enough space for roots to grow down into the growing media.
Many aquaponics enthusiasts stress the importance of having a biofilter, however, this type of system doesn’t require one. This is because the grow media creates a lot of surface area for bacteria to adhere to and thrive.
On the other hand, it having a biofilter also removes waste material from the water which would, in turn, end up in the grow bed.
So I would recommend using a biofilter with this system.
So with that being said, taking into account the biofilter and mechanical filter, you should prepare an area of 6ft by 6ft square for an IBC tote aquaponics system.
This gives enough space to comfortably walk around the system and carry out routine maintenance.
Water is a heavy substance with a weight of 8.34 pounds per gallon which equates to 2293.5 pounds of water if a 270-gallon IBC tote was filled with water.
Adding the weight of the tote and water,
(2293.5 pounds + 130 pounds) = 2423.5 pounds
Now that’s a bit heavy!
Although the amount of water would be less since you’re cutting off ¼ of the tote for the grow bed. You would still have to ensure the ground has a proper foundation to support the weight
If you don’t already have a good foundation, concrete poured onto steel frame rebar on a 6 ft by 6ft area would work as a good foundation.
Preparing the IBC tote-
Step By Step Instructions –
- Flip the IBC tote to the side
- Mark the area on the plastic container where you will be cutting
- Remove the hold down bars which holds the plastic container onto the framing using a T45 bit driver
- Remove the plastic container
- The galvanized farming should now be exposed.
- Remove the base from the framing
- The framing should be cut horizontally using a grinder saw or a reciprocating saw using the top horizontal support as a guide.
- Flip the top and the bottom parts of the frame.
- Cut a feeding port for the fishes into the framing.
- Completely mark the plastic container all the way around where you previously marked.
- Measure 6 inches above the mark and mark all the way around again.
- These are the marks you will be using to cut the container.
- Cut the plastic container where you marked.
- Clean up any rough spots and burrs created when cutting.
- Place bottom plastic back into the cage and flip horizontal.
- Replace the hold down bars back onto the top of the cage
- Flip the top of the cage and place on top of the bottom cage.
- Place the top cut part of the plastic container into the flipped top cage.
- Install bell siphon and ensure to seal the 6” cover with aquarium grade silicone to prevent leakage.
- Install biofilter and mechanical filter
- Connect piping from the fish tank to the mechanical filter and bio filter
- Install water pump in the sump
- Fill grow bed with grow media
- Fill the system with water and give it a test run.
Here’s a video of the exact process.
IBC totes can also be used just for fishes and the entire 275 gallons of water can be used to keep the fishes. Here the plants can be grown in floating raft or nft systems.
Video for Cutting an IBC tote for use only as a fish tank
Problems with IBC totes
Since IBC totes are translucent, they allow some degree of light into the fish tank and grow beds. When this happens it gives algae light to grow and thrive and eventually, the walls of the system will be covered in algae.
Algae can reduce both the oxygen and nutrients in an aquaponic system causing both plants and fishes to suffer, so preventing this from happening is a must.
The only way to prevent this from happening is to cover or coat the IBC tote.
How to Cover an IBC Tote
An IBC tote can be covered by using foil wrap to cover the outside or by using any materials such as laminate or PVC to make a complete wrap around the tote.
I have tried painting the plastic container with oil paint. It worked, but after some time it just flaked off so I won’t recommend doing that.