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Build Your Own Hydroponics Bucket Drip System

Even though this system is designed to grow 4 plants in 5 gallon buckets, you can easily adapt it to grow more or less plants as you wish, as well as in larger or smaller containers/buckets. You should be able to get all the materials needed at local stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, Target, Big lots, Kmart etc. I got the five gallon buckets at Home Depot for about $2.50 each, and the 18 gallon storage tote at Wal-Mart for $3.50. The black vinyl tubing and “T” connectors, I got at Lowe’s. I also got the fountain pump from Lowe’s (in the gardening section). That was the most expensive part of the whole system. The pump was about $40, but for this system you don’t need a pump as large to do the job, but it does allow you to expand on the system in the future.

Just make sure any pump you use has a removable filter, If not you will want to create one to keep debris out of it. The Through holes/Bulkhead fittings come in all sizes and shapes. They are used in all sorts of industry’s, but most home improvement stores carry them somewhere in the store, and very likely have them in more than one place. The Through holes/Bulkhead fittings come in all sizes and shapes. The ones that I used for this system I found at Home Depot for $1.97, right next to the electrical conduit.

System Parts List

  • 4 Five Gallon Buckets (for plants)
  • 4 Through Holes (also called bulkhead fittings)
  • Black Vinyl Tubing (for both fill and drain lines), also blue Vinyl tubing from a
    hydroponic supply shop will work fine.
  • 1 Submersible Fountain Pump
  • 18 to 30 Gallon Storage Tote (for reservoir)
  • Inexpensive Lamp Timer (with lots of on/off cycles to turn pump on and off with)
  • Hydroponic Growing Medium (to support plants and hold moisture for the roots)
  • One Inexpensive furnace Filter (to keep growing medium from getting in the tubing)
  • A Few “T” Connectors that Fit the Vinyl tubing your using (how many depends on your
    final configuration)
  • Two Cans of Inexpensive Black Spray Paint, and Two Cans of Inexpensive White Spray
    Paint (in order to light proof the buckets and reservoir)
  • (Optional) A small amount of PVC tubing and connectors (for return line ends)

You will need to make sure the end of the through hole that the vinyl tubing will go on (end without the threads and nut), will fit the size tubing you are using. The ones I used will fit 5/8 inch inside diameter tubing. If not you can use two sizes of tubing and/or using a hose clamp to tighten it up. Also you may find that a old garden hose will fit just fine, and can be substituted for the vinyl tubing for the return (drain) lines.

Getting Started
First step is to trace the side of the through hole with the thread and nut, on the bottom of all 4, five gallon buckets. You’ll want it to be close to the edge of the bucket, but not so close you wont be able the thread the nut on in order to install it (about an inch). That’s so you will be able to set it upright on a table or bench, and most of the buckets weight will still be supported and it wont tip over.

I use a rotary tool to make the holes, but if You don’t have one you can make the holes any way you want. Even a hot metal coat hanger will be able to melt the plastic nicely, then just scrape any burs off with a razor blade to make the edge soothe. It’s important that you don’t make the holes too big, or it may leak. It should be just big enough to stick the threaded side of the through hole in, without noticeable gaps. Now insert the through hole and tighten it up. Just make sure you have the rubber gasket on the right side. In most cases (depending on the particular through holes your using) it will most likely be on the outside of the bucket, and only the nut on the inside.

Now you’ll need to light proof the buckets. Turn the buckets upside down, and put tape all around the through hole (so you don’t get paint on or in it). Give the buckets a couple of coats of black spray paint, or as many as needed to block all the light. Then because the color black absorbs heat, give the buckets a couple of coats of white spray paint. This will reflect light and help keep the root zone temperatures from getting hot. Make sure you only paint the outside, you don’t want paint to come in contact with the roots or nutrient solution.

The reservoir is quite simple, just paint the base and lid (outside) of the 18 to 30 gallon storage tote the same way you did the buckets. Painting it black to block light, and then white to reflect light. Once painted, cut a notch in the lid for the electrical cord and hose from the pump to go through. Then another hole or two for the return line/s where you plan it to be.

Setting the system up
There are so many different configurations to setting up the system,  there’s no way to explain  them all. The buckets can be setup on a table, bench, wall etc.. But the one thing that you need to be sure of is that the reservoir is at least 6 inches below the buckets. Otherwise the nutrient solution wont be able to flow back into the reservoir. The design is simple, the pump pumps the nutrient solution up to the top of the buckets, where it drips down through the bucket, and out the through hole at the bottom. Then the return tubing drains it back into the reservoir.

You can run the return lines different ways, but it should be a gentle slope all the way back to the reservoir. You can see that I connected the return lines from two buckets together with a “T” connecter, then back to the reservoir. The PVC at the end of the line’s going back into the reservoir is not necessary, although it does help keep the flow draining back more even. The tube coming out the side of the reservoir and looping back up through the center of the table, is the line that pumps up the nutrient solution from the pump to water the plants.

Getting the buckets ready to put the plants in is also quite simple, but just a few steeps. First cut the filter part out of the furnace Filter, then cut a piece off to place over the through holes. This will keep the growing medium out of the tubing, but still allow the water to flow easily out the bottom. Now that you have the filter in place, place some rocks on top of that. I would fill about the bottom third with rocks. This holds the filter in place, and adds weight to the bucket keeping them firmly in place. (Note:) Be sure to clean and sanitize the rocks first by soaking them in bleach water for about an hour, then rinsing again. This reduces the chances of any root diseases.

On top of the rocks place the growing medium. I like coco chips myself, and that’s what I used when building this system. Coco chips and coco fiber are Basically the same thing, but the chips just larger partial sizes. Now make a loop using the vinyl tubing and a connecting “T” for all 4 buckets. These will be the dripper’s that will water the buckets. Once you have made them, take a paperclip and heat one end up with the flame of a candle, then poke some holes in the tubing ring with it. Notice that I cut a notch in the side of the buckets just large enough to hold the watering line in place snugly.

As with the drain lines, the feed (watering) line setup will depend on the configuration and positing of where you place your buckets. In this picture you can see how I have run the lines to my buckets. The feed line comes up through a hole in the center of the table. Then is split into 2 lines using a “T” connector, then each of those lines is split into two lines again using the same “T” connectors. Essentially splitting one feed line into 4 separate lines (one to each bucket).

I used a digital timer with this system (I already had it), but I later got another one for a different system for $5.95 at Kmart. It had plenty of settings and even a cover over the dial. For best results with the timer, make sure it ‘s rated for 15 amps (usually called heavy duty). You will also want a timer that has pins for the on/off cycles all around the dial, not just a few (for analog timers). That’s because it will need to be turned on and off many times during the day. Digital timers usually have many on/off cycles that can be set.