Deep water culture (DWC) hydroponic bucket systems are a great way to grow for indoor and outdoor gardeners. For about $20 more than you’ll pay for a cheap pre-built system, you can build your own DWC buckets with high-quality components that’ll keep even the most demanding plants happy.
So how much skin are we gonna have in the game? This 5 gallon bucket DWC system will set you back about $70, but you can use it to run 1 or 2 buckets. The 2-port Active Aqua aerator I’m going to talk about below is strong enough to run 2 buckets, with a single air line going to each bucket. If you choose to go with the 2 bucket setup, then it’s actually cheaper than most of the “pre-built” kits you’ll find online.
A supply list, with links to products is listed below the How-To guide.
What is Deep Water Culture?
Deep water culture (DWC) is a plant cultivation method that suspends plants directly over a nutrient reservoir. The root mass of the plant grows in the nutrient solution, which is oxygenated by an air pump (aerator). If any of this is confusing, keep reading. The how-to guide below will walk through each component of the system in detail.
Contrary to the name, DWC systems don’t need to be extremely “deep”. As long as the container is deep enough to hold plenty of water and nutrients to support the plant or plants, everything will be good.
How To: DIY Deep Water Culture Bucket System
This 5 gallon bucket DWC system is really easy to put together. These steps will help get you up and growing in no time!
Total Time: 20 minutes
Step 1: Plan the Hole Layout
The first thing you need to do is decide what you’re going to be growing in the DWC bucket. If you’re growing small plants like lettuce or basil, you may be able to squeeze 4 plants onto the surface of the lid.
If you plan to grow multiple plants in a single bucket, you may want to go with a 2″ net cup. I’m making this bucket to grow a single sweet pepper plant, so I chose to go with a 3″ net cup positioned in the center of the lid.
Once you’ve decided on your hole configuration, use a permanent marker to make a mark at each location where you’re going to drill or cut a hole. This whole thing is a lot faster and easier if you have a hole saw that matches the size of your net cup.
Step 2: Make Sure You Cut The Right Size Hole
So, in case you don’t know…net cups are sized by their inside diameter. A 3″ net cup has an outer diameter between 3 1/8″ – 3 1/4″. A 3 inch hole saw will cut a perfect diameter hole for a 3 inch net cup. The same is true for larger and smaller net cups.
Make sure you cut the right size hole. If it’s too big….well at least the lids are cheap ??
Step 3: Cut the Holes
Now for the fun part! Grab your drill and correctly sized hole saw, line up the drilling bit with the mark you made in Step 1, and cut the hole for the net cup.
If you don’t have a hole saw, you’ll need to draw out a hole pattern onto the lid and cut it out manually with something like a box cutter. Be careful, safety first!
Note: If you are serious about experimenting with hydroponic gardening, do yourself a favor and buy a cheap set of hole saws on Amazon or at Harbor Freight. Even the cheap sets work just fine for cutting plastic, and they will save you a TON of time!
Step 4: Test Fit the Net Cup
Once you’ve cut the hole in the lid, test fit the net cup. This 3″ net cup fit perfectly. Using a hole saw is so much nicer than cutting circles with a razor blade. Been there, done that, got the bandaids to prove it!
Step 5: Drill Holes for the Air Lines
We can’t have a DWC bucket without airflow, so it’s time to drill holes for the air line, or air lines depending on your personal preference.
Tip: Drill holes at least 2 inches from the edge of the lid. Doing this will keep the air stones away from the bucket wall, and allow them to oxygenate more water.
I used 3/8″ rubber grommets to protect the air line from rubbing on the bucket lid, and also to block light from entering the hole into the nutrient reservoir.
Why did I use 3/8″ rubber grommets? The 3/8″ grommets have a 3/8″ outer diameter (OD) and a 1/4″ inner diameter (ID). This works great for snuggly securing the air lines.
If you’re using 3/8″ OD grommets, you can drill holes using a 3/8″ drill bit.
If you choose to forego the grommets and run the air lines through the open holes, a 1/4″ drill bit should work fine.
I drilled 2 holes here because I’m going to run both air lines to a single bucket. If you’re planning to aerate 2 buckets with the Active Aqua, which it’s more than capable of doing, then you’ll only want to drill 1 air line hole in each bucket.
Step 6: Measure & Cut Air Line
This step depends on your personal preference. I cut my airlines a little bit long so I can trim them to fit once I have the system situated in its permanent position.
To “measure” my lines, I simply stuck one end of the line in the bucket and unrolled enough line to reach the aerator on the floor with plenty of extra line in case I need to make any final adjustments. I know….super scientific right?
Step 7: Connect Air Stones
Feed the airline through the drilled hole in the lid, and place the air stones in the bottom of the bucket. This photo illustrates why I like to drill holes further from the edge of the bucket. The air stones have more area to create bubbly, oxygenated water than they would if one side was up against the wall of the bucket.
Step 8: Connect Air Lines to Aerator
Once you’ve routed the air lines out of the top of the lid, it’s time to connect them to the aerator. The barbed fittings will be a bit of a tight squeeze, but they’ll go on.
I’m using the Active Aqua 2-port aerator, and I love it. It’s only a 3 watt unit, but it can easily oxygenate up to 15 gallons of water. It’s also pretty inexpensive, normally costing less than $30.
Note: It’s a good idea to add one-way check valves to each air line to prevent water from getting into the aerator. That would be bad.
Step 9: Fill the Bucket & Secure the Lid
Now is a good time to give the interior of the bucket a quick scrub down, and rinse.
Once you’ve rinsed out the bucket, it’s time to add water, and your favorites nutrients. Fill with water until the water level comes up just past the bottom of the net cup. This is most important if you are transplanting a seedling with little or no root protrusion into the system.
I’m partial to using rockwool and hydroton with most of my systems, but use whatever you like!
Step 10: High Fives All Around
Congratulations! You’ve successfully built a deep water culture bucket system!
All that’s left to do know is plug in the aerator, and proudly dance around victoriously!
Estimated Cost: 70 USD
- 5 Gallon Bucket
- Bucket Lid
- (2) 3/8″ Rubber Grommet
- (2) 4″ Soapstones
- Air Line Tubing
- Net Cup
- 17/32″ or 3/8″ Drill Bit
- Hole Saw
Full List of Supplies
Active Aqua 3w Aerator – This is one of my absolute favorite air pumps for small to medium systems. For less than $30, it’s hard to beat! Note: This pump does NOT come with air lines.
Vivosun Air Stone 4″x2″ – 2 Pack – Larger air stones will produce more bubbles. More bubbles means more oxygen. More oxygen means happy plants.
Jungle Deep Black Air Line Tubing – 25FT – This tubing is super soft, and I like it a lot better than the tubing that comes with cheap air pumps.
One-Way Check Valves – Use these to keep water from coming back up the air line and reaching the aerator.
Rubber Grommets – I get it, this is a 180pc set of grommets. If you’re going to be experimenting with hydroponic systems, buy it. You’ll use them more often than you can imagine.
What Can This System Grow?
You can grow just about anything you’d like to with this DWC system. Many of my reader love to grow deep water culture tomatoes from buckets just like these. They work especially well if you live in areas that get a lot of sun. I have a friend in South Florida who grows tomatoes in DWC buckets on his back patio all winter long.
This bucket system is well suited to growing dense plants, like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. Don’t let that convince you that buckets are only for big plants. You could just as easily use one to grow lettuce, spinach, basil, and all the other fun leafy greens and herbs.
Part of the fun of hydroponic gardening is getting to experiment with new things!
Time to Show Off!
Whether you built this DIY deep water culture bucket system, or you have your own spin on the technique I’d love to hear from you!
Contact me with ANY questions or comments about this DIY, or anything else that’s on your mind….related primarily to hydroponic gardening!
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