Automatic watering for self watering containers

emgardenerJune 24, 2007

Below are some pictures of a water system using floats with self watering containers.

I learned a lot in this forum, maybe this will be of use to others.

Also, I'd really like to get feedback from others who have set up automatic watering systems with self watering containers.

What has been your experience? results? lessons?,.....This is my first year trying it, although I've been growing in containers hand watering for a few years.

At first I used the same "high quality" potting mix that I used last year in a hand watered system with some compost mixed into some of the pots. The ones with extra compost became waterlogged and the plants died. The pots that had just the mix in them became dry at top and waterlogged at the bottom. The beans didnt mind this situation, but I had to rewet the eggplant and peppers and resume top watering.

For tomatoes IÂve gone to using a 1/3 peat, 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 compost for the tomatoes. Hopefully this will work with the automatic watering.

Next I plan to test out AlÂs mix (3 parts pine bark, 2 parts Turface, 1 part sphagnum peat) with organic fertilizer.

In particular I want to get a system that is organic, can stay automatically watered all season long without water logging.

Much of the self watering with floats concept has already been discussed, but here are some comments:

 A large trash bucket feeds a separate 5 gallon bucket that has a float set to ~2". The bucket then feeds to the homemade Earthboxes. These EBs are all on the same level as the bucket with a float.

 I put a float directly in one EB since it sits at another level. Someone mentioned roots might clog this, so this might not have been a good idea, but IÂll find out later in the season.

 To get a simple waterproof connection between the buckets and the ¼" drip line, I first drilled a hole using a 3/16" drill bit, then using a big spike nail and twisted it into the hole. This made the hole bigger on the outside and slightly bigger on the inside of the bucket. Then cutting a sharp angle in the drip line, squeezed it through. If you do this, I suggest practicing first on a bucket or piece of plastic you donÂt need. ItÂs simple, but you canÂt let the hole get too big.

 I ordered the float valves from

 Use the ¼" inlet float valve. If you use, be sure to disassemble it carefully and keep the 2 small pieces of plastic in the inlet. Notice how they are arranged when unscrewing, so you know how to put it back together after you insert the ¼" drip line.

 At first, in 2 of the EBs, I drilled holes into them for the ¼" drip line used to water them. Added a small shutoff valve, so I could turn off and let the soil dry out if necessary (which it will be with the potting mix I bought).

 Better then drilling holes in the EBs though is to just rely on siphon action and put the drip line in the aeration holes. This way you can easily move the EBs around without having to cut the drip line connection first. I used 2 right angle connectors in order to get the drip line into the EB in such a way so that the end stays low. You need to make sure water is flowing through the drip line before sticking it into the EB.

 When I go on vacation, I plan to use a Hudson water valve to make sure the water 50gallon can is kept full.

It seems that in order to keep from having to water regularly, I end up spending probably 10x the amount of time trying to set up an automatic watering system than if I just did hand watering, but it is more interesting.

Regards to all,


P.S. To learn to post pictures for me required the guidance from by 11 year old son, and using

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Bravo on the containers and the setup! The thought of 11-yr olds running the show or controlling the world is scary.

Your soilless mix for tomatoes may prove to be problematic if used in a closed system - too wet. I'm not sure by automatic watering setup, you are referring to self-watering, drip irrigation, sub-irrigation, hydroponics in a closed or open system or what growing method.

While not prohibited and disclosed, the use of vermiculite is not "organic" especially if the mix is manufactured and contains a wetting agent. Vermiculite also naturally contains some level of asbestos (2 to 3% asbestos fibers). This natural source of contaimination of this carcinogen is from the ore which it is mined. Moreover, if you are using 1/3 peat already in your mix, you don't need to use vermiculite as their properties or functions are interchangeable and thus no value is added. My potting mix is perlite based. Perlite serves my purposes in that it is comparable to peat in ion exchanges and conductivity but longer lasting w/o compaction, multi-functional, neutral in pH, and light weight perfect for balcony gardens or small gardeners (women, seniors, and children). I amend my mix with peat or pinebark for a good pH range for certain plants. For all these reasons and your organic gardening objective, I would replace vermiculite with perlite.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2007 at 6:06AM
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i like it, but as an engineer i like to keep it simple with no moving parts if possible. i don't want to go on vacation and find out the power went out or something broke and my plants all croaked.

i use a different system for automatic feeding. i run a tube down into the bottom of the planter reservoir and run that tube up and over into a long rubbermaid-type container that's wide and long enough to hold 2 5-gal water cooler bottles. i cur holes in the lid for the rubbermaid to keep the bottles in place as they'll be upside down.

i fill the planter reservoir with water and then the rubbermaid up to the same level as the overflow holes in the planter. then i suck on the tube to fill it up from the planter reservoir and shove it into the rubbermaid, i.e. creating a siphon. so now as the plant sucks up water from the planter reservior, water is drawn in from the rubbermaid reservoir which holds another 3 gallons or so.

then i fill the 5-gal water cooler bottles with water and cap them and drill a hole in the neck just a bit less distant from the cap as the water level in the reservoirs are tall. so if the water level in the rubbermaid and planter works out to 2.5 inches, the hole is drilled so that the bottom of the hole is no more than 2.5 inches from the top of the cap.

this is based on an old chicken feeder. when i turn over the bottles and shove em in the rubbermaid, the water level covers the holes and no water can flow out. but after the plant drinks enough water from the planter reservoir, water is drawn from the rubbermaid and the level in the rubbermaid drops below the holes in the bottles, opening them up to air and water flows out of the bottle until it covers the holes and water stops flowing.

i also have a little extra room in the rubbermaids so i stick in a few 1-gal water bottles, drilled in the same manner as the 5-gal ones. overall, one of these rubbermaids will add about 16 gallons of water to the overall reservoir of the planter.

i use one rubbermaid per 2 tomato plants and the water lasts about a week with no moving parts or electrical doodads to worry about.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2007 at 10:34AM
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jethrojames(7 Raleigh, NC)

emgardner wrote:

"It seems that in order to keep from having to water regularly, I end up spending probably 10x the amount of time trying to set up an automatic watering system than if I just did hand watering, but it is more interesting."

This may be true, but if you use the same setup next year, you will find the effort this year has paid off.

I have developed an automatic watering system of my own, and have been using it for 3 years now, with this year being my fourth. I developed this because I hated having to check the water reservoir on the EB's all the time. So I developed a device that keeps the soil moist and is hooked directly to the faucet, so the system never runs out of water. And it can be used in any type of container; I grow everything in 18 gallon totes. This was my other reason for making such a device: I think ~$40 per EB is a bit steep for a simple system. And then another $50 for an automatic solution?

As far a failures are concerned, I have had two failures in the 3 -1/2 years I have used them. Steps have been taken to keep this from happening again. And total water loss was probably less than 50 gallons.

Good luck with your system! It looks like a real winner. If you think it is good enough, you should try to patent it and sell it. That is what a free market is all about!


    Bookmark   July 13, 2007 at 10:29PM
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Nice post emgardener. I've been looking around for a cheap automatic watering system, yours makes a lot of sense.

What do you think of this idea -

Why not put the Hudson valve in the 5 gal bucket and then you could get rid of the reservoir? If you mount it high enough on the side, you should always have enough water to keep the feeder/outlet tube under water (and preserve the siphon effect to the rest of the containers.) Or am I missing something?

I'm going to try it on the 30 homemade boxes I've got on my garage roof. My pics are here:

    Bookmark   February 25, 2008 at 8:28PM
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michaelbrehm(5 IN)

emgardener: any update as to the float in the one EB that was on another level? Did the roots get in the way of the float working during the growing season? Any other bits of wisdom you care to share about the success of your setup?

bruce825: that sounds like a good alternative to me to having the extra water storage bucket if you are going to be connected to water source other then a larger holding tank.

I have my supply's ready and plan on setting up my system this weekend! I am going to be using a 1 5 gal bucket at each level that I have self watering containers. My containers are 5 gal buckets and approximately 4 gal buckets that originally held Cat Litter. I do not think that I would have the room in to have a float in the bottom. Also if there was a problem I would not be able to repair it mid-season.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2008 at 4:32PM
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Just saw your post now. WOW, WHAT A SETUP! How much produce did you get from it?
I had thought about putting a Hudson in my 50gallon reservoir. But I'm concerned that if anything went wrong while I'm away, there could be a hose going full blast on the deck. Last time that happened, it cost a lot of money for just one day of water flow.

One poster recommended using an irrigation timer. I might do that later. Put a plastic float in the 50gallon container and hook it into the yard drip system. Will just need to make sure that enough water can be delivered to feed all the plants in the peak hot season.

You could put a drip line into the 5 gallon water distribution bucket and just leave the water on all the time, similar to what the earth@box system does. I just don't like leaving the water pressure always on, in case of a leak/break/.... Also with the 50gallon reservoir, I can easily track how much water is used.


Good timing. I just posted a couple days ago an update. See:

If the link doesn't work, see the recent post titled:
"Float valve in Self Watering Container worked"

I have put one of the floats in a 5 gallon double-bucket SWC. I had to move the soil wick off to the side of the bucket, since the float needed to go through the center of the bucket. It works now its all set up. If its ok by the end of the season, I'll do it on all my 5 gallon SWCs.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2008 at 9:52PM
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I must commend all of the D.I.Y. brilliance I've read here.
I've been reading up and doing some R & D to set up a system using wooden planter boxes and an "earthbox-like" watering system. As I just had to repair my toilet this week, I had an idea that I could use a toilet float valve to keep my resevoir tank at the right level. They's cheeeap (10 bux), reliable, and have 5-year warranties.
Anybody have any thoughts or experience with this?

    Bookmark   August 27, 2008 at 8:39PM
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I wrote a blog post showing how my wife and I irrigate our containers and beds. We have a system which is about as simple as you can get, has good feedback (you can see whether it is working), and is cheap. Let me know what you think.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2010 at 9:55AM
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Worked out the cheapest, most compact and most simple automatic watering system for me. Uses 3 buckets, one float valve, simple barbed fittings and clear 1/2" tubing. There are no penetrations below water level and no alterations to planters.

Top bucket only holds 5 gal, so you can hook up to larger tank if you desire. Use only clear tubing to detect any air bubbles. I am going to use Hudson valve to feed top bucket when away from home.

Used 3 Lowe's buckets.

Top Bucket - no alterations
Bucket 2 - Cut off top below the expanded "ring" for spacer to lift top bucket up additional 2 3/4". Discard bottom.

Bottom Bucket

Installed 1/2" US Plastics #23136 float valve slightly above desired water level.

Installed barbed elbow on float inlet.

Installed clear 1/2" tubing from elbow over the top of top bucket to reach bottom.
(Siphon action feeds float valve on bottom bucket)

Ran 1/2" tubing from bottom of bottom bucket through side (above water level) to barbed connector.
Ran 1/2" tubing from the barbed connector to barbed "Tee" at top fill pipe of first container.
Ran 1/2" tubing from "Tee" to bottom of fill tube.
Tubing runs from bottom bucket to "Tee" on first container, to "Tee" on second container, to "Tee" on 3rd, etc.
(Last container doesn't have "Tee", tubing runs directly from last "Tee" to bottom of container fill tube.

Primed siphon of container tubing by holding end of tube in bottom bucket to garden hose.
Put top bucket into bottom bucket and fill.
Primed siphon of top bucket to float valve.

Note: Fill planting containers first, as the siphon action to the float valve only supports a small but adequate flow rate.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2010 at 12:31PM
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Watering system working fine so far. Watering 3 large containers and 2 bucket planters at present, but feel that it will handle several more without problems. I am considering using 1/4" clear tubing with seperate runs to each container next year to eliminate minor air getting into "T" barbed connectors. Will bundle tubing with electical ties. It's nice having the single float in a seperate bucket rather than in one of the containers for ease of access/adjustment in addition to keeping it clean. In addition, the top fill bucket allows chemicals in the water to leach out in the Sun.

Also trying similiar buckets to mine:

    Bookmark   September 13, 2010 at 1:03PM
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Finished setting up my self-watering system for this year. Using 1/4' contineous tubing to avoid last year's air leaks.

Would be glad to post picture and diagram if someone will tell me a simple way to post jpg and pdf files. It is a good, simple, one-float system and easy to build. No penetrations below water levels, so no leaks. No modifications to standard 'earthbox' type tanks and buckets required.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2011 at 1:08PM
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I'm thinking about adding a trellis similiar to:

I would replace my filler pipe with the 1 1/4" pvc and locate the feeder hole to accomodate my watering tube.

Any thoughts?

    Bookmark   May 10, 2011 at 10:52AM
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Finally, success. Found forum post suggesting grommets for below water level tubing. Removed all my "siphons" and connected the containers below water level with clear 1/4" tubing. Cheaper and works like a charm and, of course, no air bubbles. When I want to add a container, I just connect with a tee. My watering tank with one float valve continues to work great. This way, no roots can reach the valve like in using individual valves in each container. All containers do not have to be absolutely level, as water level in highest tank dictates float level. I do insure that I have a couple inches in each container. At worst, more air space is available below the roots.

    Bookmark   June 2, 2012 at 1:49PM
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My self watering system is working well, but I am unable to find fitting to connect a plastic bucket to a half inch plastic tube. Tried grommet, but leaks. Need something that I can install in bucket for 1/2" barbed tubing.

Any ideas?

    Bookmark   June 27, 2012 at 10:28AM
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Check out the posting linked below. The bottom of it explains how I put a 1/2" poly tube into a bucket w/o leaks.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2012 at 12:26PM
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