Fall 2023 Update

AutoAquaponics Progress From Fall of 2023
Added by Marcos Sanchez 3 months ago

AutoAquaponics ended the year strong; we made meaningful progress towards a more efficient system, and we have much to look forward to in the coming year. To advance our goals, our team received a McCormick Student Advisory Board grant, and we are forever grateful for their support. We also saw new members join our team, Lily Li, Samreen Ibrahim, Adam Elsharkawi, and Lev Rosenburg;. Welcome to the fish bowl y’all!

To continue engagement with the Chicagoland community, our team gave a tour of the system to high schoolers participating in NU Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers’ High School Initiative Program! These high school students, primarily from minority and low-income backgrounds, come to Northwestern to discover what higher education in STEM has to offer. This includes our magnificent system! Special thanks to NU Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers for presenting this opportunity and to our lovely volunteers, Andre and Aliza, who came to help with the tour!


While we waited for membrane filter funding, our team got to work on some other improvements and exciting projects. The final design for our UV light filter was designed and installed in the system. Now, we should not have algae overgrowth.

Our members played around with the idea of a black soldier fly farm to provide a continuous source of food for the fish tank. The idea is to have flies lay their eggs in a container with compost that traps the fly larva and leverages inherent biological processes of the soldier fly life-cycle to automatically collect larvae once they mature. The larva will then be processed and fed to the fish.

Construction of the first few prototypes:

Unfortunately, Evanston got too cold for flies to be out, so our experiments could no longer continue. Check back in the spring when the weather is warm!

As a supplement to the black soldier fly farm, the plumbing team worked on a compost reactor to supply the black soldier farm with a steady stream of new food when the farm is up.

To evaluate the conversion of ammonia to useful nitrates and ensure fish and plant health, the plumbing team decided to add another dissolved oxygen(DO) sensor to the aquaponic system. Workflow has been automated and is now conducted by the biological team.

Hooking up the sensor to the sensor box for readings:

Experimenting with the readings from the DO sensor:

Because our team ran into issues with refilling the sump tank, we came up with a method to get water from the sink one room over (thanks to the NU Formula team for letting us use their room!) instead of carrying buckets of water from the bathrooms.

Algae also plagued the system over the summer, which was a cause for concern. Our plants were not growing optimally because of it, so we got to work. The Plumbing and Biology teams worked together to find a cause and adequate solution. The combination of too much light shining on water led to algae growing on grow cubes and on growbed grow media. For this reason, tinfoil was added to grow cubes and the U-siphon height was lowered so that water is not exposed to the growbed lights. Additionally, the plumbing team reworked solids lifting outlet and membrane filtration to improve fish waste collection in the system and stabilize ammonia and nitrate levels.


On the software side, we worked hard to improve internal workflow efficiency through a variety of means. We used GitHub releases and automated workflows to manage deployments, fixed a npm package dependency conflict by rewriting the typing animation feature, moved firebase security rules and indexes, and added script to run with emulators for backend resources for development purposes.

Alongside these improvements, the dashboard page and control panel now update in real time. This means that the dashboard will display data and the time updated when the system sends the data; the control panel no longer needs to refresh if other users change options. The dashboard page will no longer crash when hovering over a data point with non-existent data as well!

Control panel with no refresh button needed: Lev and Zach making updates to the website:


Due to a lack of personnel on the electronics team, the team paused work on the colorimeter and automatic fish feeder. Fortunately, the team managed to work on transferring the sensors to our newly developed PCB board now that we were able to get wires necessary to hook up the sensors. Next quarter, our sensors will be back online and will be able to monitor the system remotely again.

Our members also continued work on a window-cleaning robot from Spring and the outlet box code to improve its function. By the end of next quarter, we should have these tasks completed!


In terms of biology, we welcomed 6 new fish(tetraquads and guppies) to the tank after we set up our quarantine tank!

Along with new fish, our team aquascaped by adding decorations to the tank. Our fish now have more hiding spots and variety to enjoy.

Adjusting decorations in the tank:

The team attempted to grow kale, basil, mint, spinach, and radishes and successfully harvested said kale, basil, and mint. Unfortunately, the spinach and radishes did not grow in the system, but we have identified the grow cubes as the point of failure. In the future, we now know how to avoid these growth problems.

Smell ya later!

With a heavy heart, we said goodbye to Lester Tai as one of our project managers at the end of the quarter. From 2022, Lester worked tirelessly for the greater good of the club- first as a software team member and later as project manager. A Chicago native and one of the zaniest members of the team, he provided a reliable source of knowledge and labor for our electronics and software teams. We couldn’t have reached milestones without his enthusiastic support and will always remember his wide grin and clever jokes during meetings. Although he's stepping down, he'll back in the spring. It's more of a smell-ya-later than a goodbye for now, so you might see him in the spring quarter blog :) We wish him the best of luck at his Co-op and will miss him dearly!

With all that being said, we are proud of our progress this year and excited to see what the new year brings. Hope to see y’all there :)


Spring 2023 Update

AutoAquaponics Progress From Spring of 2023
Added by Lester Tai 10 months ago

This Spring quarter was a season of change and growth for AutoAquaponics – and one filled with so many proud moments.

If you are new to this blog, have a look at this recent video story from Sarah Aie of The Daily Northwestern outlining the history and future of AutoAquaponics, featuring co-project managers Lester Tai and Marcos Sanchez as well as ESW co-president Yanni Wilcox .


Our plumbing team made many necessary improvements to optimize current solutions in the physical system. We also have some exciting new projects in the works!

Our sump tank and filter bottles were fitted with laser-cut, acrylic lids to prevent evaporation of water in the system. This will reduce the number of laborious sump tank top-offs that our team needs to do.

To prevent the infiltration of hazardous pathogens, we started the design and construction of a UV light filter to be attached after our 3-stage filtration process. We constructed a prototype, but we will need to adjust the residence time to achieve a contact time of 10 seconds by potentially increasing the pipe diameter of its housing.

After experimenting with a bell siphon idea, we ultimately decided on a U-siphon made of PVC pipes to create a greater difference in water levels when flooding and draining the bottom grow bed.

Due to the plumbing team’s sheer number of projects, creating adjustable light fixtures for the top growbed was outsourced to a Northwestern DTC team, led by our very own Kyan Shlipak, to dedicate a quarter to finding a solution. And find a solution they did!

The VertiGrow was completed and successfully raised grow lights according to the needs of the plants growing in the beds. We’re extremely proud of this team for constructing a working prototype! They’ll be adding improvements later in the Fall, so be sure to keep an eye out for them!

The biggest feat that our plumbing team completed was a full redesign of the membrane filtration process! We came to the conclusion that our current membrane filter did not facilitate removal nor the cleaning of filter pads and also allowed for some particles to pass through. For this reason, our team redesigned the membrane filter. Construction will begin in the Fall with the addition of new funds.


On the software side, we finalized user authentication and added a login page to our website. Incoming users will request an account to make modifications towards the remote system:

Recent updates to the control panel and Raspberry Pi code mean user inputted values are sent to our database to be read by the Raspberry Pi automating our system. Now that the RPi code is streamlined, the RPi can easily be phased out and functionally replaced with an ESP32 in the future:

We also made our website even more beautiful by adding animation features, a responsive design, and useful error checking messages to our UI.

And toast notifications:

New, subtler features include adding Firebase App Check to protect the backend from being tampered with by fraudulent clients, fixes to Google Analytics, and a README file.


Our electronics team kept up with the latest software developments by developing a printed circuit board (PCB) to replace the sensor box components currently hooked up to the Raspberry Pi interacting with our database. The latest update to the sensor box includes a new distance sensor.

Preparing the sensor box for the new PCB….

We also started work on a colorimeter this quarter that will be used to detect the precise color of our nitrate tests! Unfortunately, the project ran into some trouble with the color sensor, so next quarter, we’ll be starting up with a new color sensor that can output precise values.

Intense discussion on how to adjust RGB values to output the correct color

Tinkering with the colorimeter code

As an update to the previous quarter, we have working timers in our outlet box code, requiring some further integration with existing code to allow for bluetooth connectivity. Finally, we have made progress on streaming video of our system on our website. The code for our ESP32-CAM requires implementation in our system and automatic window cleaning robot.


In preparation for an exciting end-of-quarter harvest day open to the Northwestern community, our biology team added scallions, leeks, and basil to our already exciting lineup of plants.

Conducting water tests for plant checkups:

To accommodate new additions, we expanded plant growth to our upper growbed and rearranged larger plants here to prevent crowding.

Preparing grow cubes for plants:

Due to the Camallanus worm infection from the previous quarter, our tiger barb had to be euthanized with clove oil. However, it was the last fish to be infected, and our remaining fish in the system are healthy. The biology team finished preparing the quarantine tank to settle new fish into the system. Get ready for new life this coming Fall!


AutoAquaponics members know how to enjoy themselves after a hard day’s work. Have a look at these pictures from some of our socials:

Chilling in the pool at the Norris Aquatics Center:

Fay-ling Laures , Lynna Deng , and Marcos Sanchez prepare a wheatgrass smoothie during ESW’s harvest day during engineering week (E-week) at McCormick:

Members of the Northwestern community receive a tour of the AutoAquaponics system:

The software team has a senior send-off dinner at Todoroki in downtown Evanston. Thanks Ben Caterine , Bill Yen , and Edward Lee !

As we neared the final weeks of the quarter, the AutoAquaponics project group secured a grant from the McCormick Student Advisory Board (MSAB), which is exciting news for our projects to be continued in the Fall!

Thank you!

With heavy hearts, we will also be saying goodbye this quarter to our wonderful seniors and our faculty advisor, Professor Harold Kung .

Professor Kung retired at the end of this year, so ESW-NU exec decided to give him a parting gift for serving our chapter for nearly 15 years. We are eternally grateful and wish him the best in retirement!

We officially said goodbye to 5 graduating seniors this year: Bill Yen , Niv Landau , Alejandra Almonte , Ben Caterine , and Edward Lee . 3 of our seniors, Raymonde Council , Aymen Lamsahel , and Johnny Chen will be returning in the fall to pursue graduate degrees or complete a minor at Northwestern. All contributed not only their minds to the project, but they contributed their hearts to the team.

A few seniors pursuing graduate degrees and most of our graduating seniors pictured below: Johnny, Alejandra, Bill, Ben, and Ray. (peep Sandra’s guest appearance!)

Niv Landau

Niv was a dedicated member of the electronics team. He has been with AutoAquaponics from the very beginning, working towards the effective implementation of our sensor and outlet box. He also bravely faced the most daunting beast of the electronics team: the outlet box code. He’s our beloved trooper and resident Florida Man. We wish him the best of luck beyond Northwestern and will miss him dearly!

Alejandra Almonte

While Alejandra joined our electronics team relatively recently, she still found her niche and fulfilled it well. While on the team, she worked on implementing a new distance sensor and preventing the frequent water damage faced by sensors in the sump tank. Her energetic personality charged up the team to advance forward, inspiring people to do their best work. Alejandra was always there to bring people together towards a common goal; for this, we will miss her and her demeanor dearly! We wish her well on her travels and furthering her education!

Edward Lee

Edward is a longtime friend of Bill’s who earlier transferred to Northwestern. When Edward arrived at the school, Bill made sure to recruit him to AutoAquaponics over a lunch reunion – we know talent when we see it! Edward has played a large role in setting up our database, making a great-looking front-end, and providing any assistance to other software team members with warm welcome. If there’s one thing better than his software development skills, it’s his dance moves on Dillo Day. Thanks for being such a serious and funny guy in all the right moments!

Ben Caterine

Ben, our previous software subteam lead, was a charismatic, software engineering powerhouse. He was one of the members that have stuck with the club since the very beginning, laying the groundwork for our website’s control panel and sensor reads. It’s insane how much work he’s put in over the years – from debugging features to mentoring the next generation of software subteam members. Because of his determination and dependability, Ben has secured the future of the AutoAquaponics software team. Thank you for your service Mr. Caterine; we wish you the best of luck in the workforce and will miss you dearly!

Bill Yen

Bill - AutoAquaponics founder, previous PM, and our friend- was always there for our team when we needed him. For every team he worked on, he disseminated a plethora of knowledge and support. He was always our biggest advocate, celebrating our successes and lifting us back up after setbacks. He was the rock upon which AutoAquaponics was built upon, and for that, our club will forever commemorate his dedication towards engineering a more sustainable world. We could not have asked for a better leader these past couple of years; we wish him nothing but the best at Stanford! He deserves it!

And that wraps up our academic year. There are so many more avenues of development and more proud moments to make. Stick around for them next Fall!

Winter 2023 Update

AutoAquaponics Progress From Winter of 2023
Added by Bill Yen about 1 year ago

This quarter, AutoAquaponics made strides in all aspects of our project and welcomed David Kim and Emi Saegusa to our team. We also continued our involvement in community education by giving a tour of the system to middle and high schoolers from the Chicagoland area as a part of Society of Women Engineers’ (SWE) Career Day for Girl event. Our team members showed them everything from the plumbing system we built to our software platform, which many of our visitors were especially excited about. We hope to impart to them that engineering is for everyone and demonstrate the importance of diversity in science with our own various backgrounds and identities. Read more about AutoAquaponics’ involvement in SWE’s Career Day for Girls at McCormick’s recent article here .

Our plumbing and software team representatives (Hannah and Talia) giving a presentation of our system:

AutoAquaponics is also honored to receive Northwestern community’s recognition this quarter by accepting the Wildcat Impact Award for Discovery . Our current Project Manager (Bill Yen) was selected for this award among the entire student body for his work on starting AutoAquaponics over the pandemic and transferring his leadership and engineering skills over to the next generation of student leaders. Our incoming group of leaders will be Marcos Sanchez and Lester Tai (AutoAquaponics Co-Project Managers), Kyan Shlipak (Plumbing Lead), Yanni Wilcox (Electronics Lead), Andre Chen (Software Lead), and Eduardo Andrade (Biology Lead).

On the project side, our software team focused on improving the security of our web app by implementing website login and authentication via Firebase. This includes secure writes for all of the developed pages on our control panel. They also improved our website's mobile performance and set up Google Analytics to monitor traffic so we can better understand how to improve our UI design. Next quarter, we plan to revamp the home page by introducing an interactive diagram of our AutoAquaponics system in place of the static image right now.

Mobile view of the dashboard:

As for electronics, we are in the process of replacing our current ultrasonic distance sensor with a more robust product that can sense water levels without getting corroded over time. We also continued our work in designing our electronics box PCB and fully reworked our outlet box code to get it ready for implementation. Some of our members began designing a window-cleaning robot, which we hope to use to keep our fish tank's front glass panel algae-free. We got the encoder working and fitted the motor shaft to our 3D-printed rim, and our next steps will be to laser-cut holders for magnets to sit in so the robot can stay attached to the glass. Winter Quarter likewise marked the official end to our fish feeder team's time in Northwestern's Interdisciplinary Design course, and they ended the project strong by creating a new prototype fish feeder featuring a custom-designed PCB that allows the feeder to actuate motors and record how much food was being fed with high degrees of accuracy.

Our members working on the outlet box:

Soldering components to the custom fish feeder PCB using a microscope:

Our plumbing team put their efforts into 3D printing a better intake screen for the solids lifting overflow (SLO) and also modifying the membrane filtration tank by installing a bracket to hold the filtering membrane. They also prototyped a new custom-designed bell siphon for the lower grow bed in order to improve flow and increase the water level in the grow bed so that seedlings can grow faster.

Waterproofing and removing supports from the 3D printed bell siphon:

Members getting laser-cutter trained and then applying their new skills to manufacture brackets for the membrane filter:

Some unfortunate development occurred on the biological side of AutoAquaponics. Namely, our fish became infected with camallanus worm, which is a type of intestinal parasite that will eventually starve the fish of nutrients and kill them. See the red worms exiting their recently deceased host in the picture below:

To combat this, we are dosing fenbendazole and levamisole in the form of medicated fish food, both of which are known to kill nematodes. The biology team spent most of their efforts this quarter trying to cure and save as many fish as we can, as camallanus worm is especially difficult to get rid of since they are unaffected by medication in the water. This means that if the fish stops eating due to the sickness, it becomes impossible to kill the worms.

Our biology team member putting medicated fish food into the commercial automatic fish feeder we use:

The parasites have mostly only affected our smaller fishes (tiger barbs and mollies), and larger fish like the Raphael catfish here seemed fine:

We also continued to grow our plant produce and added mint and spring onion to our crop list:

At the start and end of Winter Quarter, AutoAquaponics hosted harvest day socials for ESWNU to turn the plants we grew into delicious food and share them with the whole club. Here are some pictures of our team processing our produce into wheatgrass smoothies, mint creme brulee, and scallion pancakes:

And of course, we composted all of our waste at the designated bins run by Cats Who Compost :

That's all for this quarter, thank you so much for your continuous support, and stay tuned for more updates from AutoAquaponics in the Spring!

Message From the Writer

Hi there! I'm Bill. This is the last blog post that I will do as the founder and Project Manager of AutoAquaponics since we are transitioning to new leadership in the Spring so I can (finally) graduate. To our dear readers (whoever you are), I want to personally thank you for reading this blog and keeping up to date with our project. I also want to thank all of my ESWNU teammates (past and present) for sticking with me and spending countless hours building an indoor farming system just because it’s “cool”. Because of them, we were able to turn this simple idea into a fully working system that improves our understanding of aquaponics and teaches children from the Chicagoland area about sustainable agriculture. When I started AutoAquaponics 3 years ago with just 1 other person on Zoom and a Raspberry Pi, I never thought it could’ve had this much impact on Northwestern and become the beautiful community it is now. I was initially motivated by my curiosity and drive to do something different in sustainability, but eventually I realized what made me step through the door of our meeting room week after week were the faces behind it, not the prototypes or circuits we built. It has been a privilege and a gift to lead such an amazing team to tackle this incredibly complex and interdisciplinary project, and seeing younger members’ eyes light up with excitement as they study our fish and the systems we designed to support them has been nothing short of magical. There is still more work to be done with AutoAquaponics, but I know the future is in good hands with our excellent group of new Project Managers and Sub-Team Leaders, many of whom I call my friends. It has been a crazy, rewarding, and at times, difficult ride, but I’m grateful for all of it because of how it shaped me as a person, leader, and engineer for a sustainable world. ESWNU - thanks for the last 4 years, and I love you all <3

Signing off,

Bill Yen

Fall 2022 Update

AutoAquaponics Progress From Fall of 2022
Added by Bill Yen over 1 year ago

AutoAquaponics ended 2022 strong by significantly expanding our membership through increasing the frequencies of our social/recruitment events. In addition, we formed our new Biology sub-team, which aims to improve our understanding of the fish, plants, and microbes in our system so we can make better design decisions. We welcomed Seeley McGillis, Annie Ho, Daniel Soto, Edward Lee, Lianne Kim, Miya Liu, Varoon Enjeti, Zeeshan Razzaq, Andre Chen, Gracelyn Shi, Talia Ben-Naim, Calvin Davies, Jack Doheny, Hannah Wilks, Aliza Campbell, and Kyan Shlipak to our team. We are also honored to receive the continued support of Northwestern's Associated Student Government (ASG) and ESW Global this quarter with the ASG Sustainability Grant and ESW Global Project Grant. In September, we began our partnership with Northwestern's Segal Design Institute by turning the automatic fish feeding part of our project into the capstone assignment for the Interdisciplinary Product Design course.

Beach social:

Making our ESWNU club banner for Homecoming:

Recruiting freshmen at the Morning with McCormick event:

Photo from our Sunday whole-team meetings:

Students hard at work to design our automatic fish feeder for their design capstone;

After their continuous effort over the course of the past year, the software team has successfully launched the AutoAquaponics 2.0 platform, which is a web application that anyone with an Internet connection can access to monitor the state of our system in real-time through the Dashboard tab. Check it out at! Note that the website currently does not support mobile devices or Safari, so users accessing it through these methods may experience some bugs for the time being.

Home Page of our web app:

Dashboard with live data:

The team behind this magic:

Next steps with the AutoAquaponics 2.0 platform would be to add control capabilities in the Settings and Control Panel pages and also a live video stream of the system. The software team will be working closely with the electronics group to make this happen in 2023.

Speaking of the electronics team, they have been focusing their efforts in integrating more sensors into our system and improving their accuracy. They've installed two hall effect flow sensors and a number of analog signal isolators to prevent our pH, TDS, and dissolved oxygen sensors from interfering with one another.

On the plumbing side, we worked on enhancing the performance of our solids removal system by building a bracket for our membrane filters. This is intended to ensure that the filter pads tightly fit around the edge of the filter tank so sediments won’t bypass them through those gaps. We also began using an additional water pump with custom 3D printed outlets to push solids from the corners of our fish tank to the solids lifting overflow (SLO) intake so they can end up in the settling tank. Furthermore, we have been continuously redesigning components like our SLO intake and overflow intake screen to prevent fish from entering while allowing sediments to go through.

New SLO intake screen CAD design:

Installed new overflow screen with side grates:

Members working as a team to prototype their membrane bracket design:

Last but not least, the Biology team made a lot of progress this quarter by introducing a number of new aquatic species to our system. Namely, we've added a red-tailed shark, Raphael catfish, firemouth cichlid, snails, and a number of mollies to the fish tank. We also successfully grew wheatgrass in our media bed to test how different plant types grow in AutoAquaponics while making some healthy green juice at the same time. Due to aggression from some of the fish in the tank, we have seen a couple injured occupants, so we set up a separate quarantine tank to allow them to recover and receive medication if necessary.

Red-tailed shark and Raphael catfish being transported to the tank:

Our new mollies playing with the tiger barbs:

Firemouth cichlid patrolling his new territory:

Wheatgrass' journey from seeds to lawn and finally juice:

Quarantine tank:

We are excited to continue working on AutoAquaponics in 2023. Please stay tuned on our project and feel free to reach out with any questions. If you would like to contribute to our software platform or see our code, take a look at our AutoAquaponics v2.0 GitHub repository. This is an open-source project, so any idea you have would be very welcomed!

Happy New Year from all of us :)

Spring 2022 Update

AutoAquaponics Progress From Spring of 2022
Added by Bill Yen almost 2 years ago

After 2 years of hard work, we are happy to announce that AutoAquaponics is officially growing fish and plants! At the same time, we welcome Alejandra Almonte, a third-year mechanical engineer, to our electronics sub-team. We are also honored to be featured in Northwestern's Earth Day special this quarter as a student group that works to build innovative technologies to improve sustainability on campus. Here's a picture of our (now operational) system as well as our fish friends:

We introduced 35 tiger barbs to our system and will likely add more to up our nitrate production:

Centerpiece fish - a South American cichlid known as the green terror cichlid! Our fish is a juvenile and will grow to around 10".

On the produce side, we planted kale on the top grow bed and basil + cilantro on the bottom:

This quarter, we completed building the floating raft necessary for our deep water culture grow bed and 3D printed various components to keep our hydrocorn growth media from entering our PVC pipes for our bottom media grow bed. Below is a top view of the system showing both our grow beds, and a closeup of what the bottom grow bed looks like before planting with our two 3D printed screens keeping our inlet and outlet pipes clear of the media.

Speaking of 3D printing, our plumbing team also created a number of custom parts for our fish tank that does everything from improving our solids management to keeping fish and fish food where they are supposed to be! They made a fitting for our 1" solids lifting overflow that lets us suck water from the very bottom of the tank where fish waste sinks to. The team also designed a feeding ring that we placed under where our automatic fish feeder dispenses food so that the floating flakes wouldn't get sucked into the overflow skimmer in the tank. On top of that, a carefully designed screen on the overflow prevents our fish from making their way into the filter bottles without throttling our flow too much (can be seen in top view above). Lastly, by taking advantage of our fluid mechanics knowledge, we designed a venturi aerator for our top grow bed that can keep the deep water culture plant roots oxygenated without adding any moving components/electrical parts to the system.

Feeding ring:

Venturi aerator that injects small bubbles into the water whenever the pump forces water through it:

In addition to 3D printing, the plumbing team leveraged other rapid prototyping techniques like laser cutting to build larger screens for our biofilm reactor bottle. Earlier in the quarter, we ran into issues with our moving K1 media clogging up the reactor's drainage pipe screen as we increased flow, so we decided to cut a large screen to segregate the media to the top 2/3rd of the bottle. Since the surface area of the new screen is so big, the relative hydraulic resistance caused by the media pushing up against it became much smaller, allowing us to nearly double our flow rate without causing the tank to overflow.

Team member operating the laser cutter to cut a large sheet of acrylic into the exact shape we need:

Finished product:

Screen installed with some spare filter pad to fill the gap and zip tie to put everything together:

A couple weeks into the quarter, the plumbing team also realized that the Home Depot bucket we used as the stand for the biofilm reactor tank began to crack. Despite trying to salvage it by riveting acrylic supports to it, the cracks kept on growing:

After careful assessments, we decided to scrap the bucket and build a custom stand out of wood instead. If anyone is interested in using 5 gallon water jugs as filters for aquaponics/aquaculture, this is what we recommend since the Home Depot buckets we tried earlier are much more flimsy (though they do look cooler and are less time-intensive to build).

Members draining the biofilm reactor to remove the bucket stand:

Cutting wood and drilling holes for new stand!

Spot our beautiful orthographic drawing on the bottom left corner of this picture :)

Coated with more epoxy and let it cure to make the stand waterproof:

On the software and electronics side, we continued to make improvements on our control system. Right now we have our smart outlet box running numerous lights and motorized ball valves on timers to automate the flood/drain and lighting cycles. However, we currently cannot toggle these settings from our GUI, so our electronics team members are continuing to build the version of our software that will allow us to toggle our devices and adjust their timer settings through the GUI itself so that remote control can be possible. Because the front end of our Python GUI is mostly done, our software team is pivoting to creating AutoAquaponics 2.0, an exciting new version of our software that upgrades our graphical user interface from a Python application to a full-fledged website! With AutoAquaponics 2.0, anyone would be able to log onto our website with their Google accounts and check out how AutoAquaponics is doing at Northwestern by seeing our live sensor plots and live stream video. Members who have advanced access associated with their Google accounts would also be able to adjust system parameters on our website and see that change happen in real time. The biggest benefit this shift from a local Python GUI to a website has would be offloading the GUI processing task from our little Raspberry Pi to the cloud, which will drastically improve system performance. It would also allow for more flexible layouts and new exciting features, so stay tuned for more as we continue to work on this next iteration of our software!

Sneak peek to what 2.0 will look like:

Since AutoAquaponics' ultimate goal is to become a resource for those interested in learning more about automation and aquaponics, this quarter we conducted a tour for a junior chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and invited middle schoolers from Evanston to check out our system. It was amazing seeing their reaction to what we built together, and we thank NSBE and McCormick for this awesome opportunity!

Furthermore, the one and only Dean Ottino asked three of the leaders in AutoAquaponics to present our project and how we grew from the small team we had during COVID to our present state to the McCormick Advisory Council, a group of prominent alumni who advises the dean to shape McCormick's strategy. We are beyond honored to be able to show them AutoAquaponics, and we appreciate everyone's enthusiasm on our project!

Our three presenters all dressed up:

After the presentation, we received an invite from one of the board members present to visit Farm on Ogden , a nonprofit commercial scale aquaponic system in Chicago that is affiliated with the Chicago Botanic Garden. It was super cool seeing how their system works, and we got a ton of useful insight from the professionals there on the O&M of an aquaponic system and ideal plant parameters.

To further build the camaraderie on the AutoAquaponics team, we did two pizza sales to raise money for some cool ESW-AutoAquaponics hoodies for our members.

Sale 1 (slightly colder weather):

Sale 2 (we could finally be outside now!):

Hoodie design front & back (ESW logo in the front, AutoAquaponics' official logo on the back):

hoodie1 hoodie2

End of the year team photo featuring our new hoodies:

Before we wrap up this end of the year blog, we want to congratulate our friend and team member Sandra Chiu for completing her last quarter on Northwestern campus! Sandra will be studying abroad next year in Copenhagen and graduating in Spring of 2023. She has been an integral part of AutoAquaponics' development and contributed ever since our fully-remote days by designing/building our electronics box, secondary containment berm, fish tank, and grow bed. Sandra also served as the main lead for our automatic water tester sub-project, which we hope to complete next school year. Last but not least, Sandra was the aesthetics consultant of AutoAquaponics, and is responsible for not only the color layout of our fish tank/grow beds but also our official logo. We are grateful for the time Sandra spent with us, and we wish her the best in her future endeavors!


That is it from AutoAquaponics this school year. Thank you for your support as always, and keep an eye out for more from us in the Fall!

Winter 2022 Update

AutoAquaponics Progress From Winter of 2022
Added by Bill Yen about 2 years ago

Though Northwestern began the quarter with a 2-week quarantine period due to the threat of Omicron on campus, AutoAquaponics continued our momentum by finishing out the plumbing build of our system, a fully-functional version 1.0 of our software prototype, and most of our smart outlet box build. We also got a new recruit, Natalie Brewster, who will be joining our software team to begin creating an exciting new version of our current GUI program starting Spring Quarter. On the plumbing side, we spiced up our fish tank and grow beds by spray painting them a very Northwestern purple (color scheme designed by Sandra Chiu):

Our final product looked like this:

In addition, our plumbing team also built the 3-stage water filtration system we designed last quarter (see the blog post from Fall 2021 for the detailed diagram) and plumbed the fish tank, grow beds, sump tank, and all three of our filter tanks together. We are currently in the process of “cycling” the overall system, which involves dosing controlled amounts of ammonia in the water to build up the nitrifying bacteria population in the filter so that they can support the bioload our fish will apply on the system once we introduce them in the Spring.

Our members drilling the fish tank to get them ready for bulkheads:

Building a wooden stand to bump up the filter tanks:

Filter stand in the middle of being coated in Pond Armor for waterproofing:

Cutting up 5 gallon jugs to turn them into our settling tank, membrane filtration tank, and biofilm reactor:

Assembling the system bit by bit with PVC cement:

Almost there…

Little adjustments here and there…

Completed system:

The tank closest to the fish tank is the settling tank, and it has a minimal amount of flow (only through that 1” pipe) coming from a solids lifting overflow (an overflow pipe that takes water from the bottom of the fish tank) to allow large solids to settle. This water (now free of larger solids) then overflows from both the top of the fish tank and the top of the settling tank into the membrane filtration tank (middle tank with pink floss in it), which removes the smaller solids. Finally, the now solids-free water goes into the biofilm reactor (tank on the right, empty in the picture) where a fluidized media with nitrifying bacteria growing in it removes ammonia and turns it into nitrate, which our aquaponic plants will uptake as their nitrogen source. The settling tank is a critical part of the design because it removes the larger chunks of fish waste from the fish tank that would’ve otherwise clogged the membrane filtration tank, which will greatly extend the longevity of our filter and allow us to go longer without cleaning the filter.

Team members water testing the system, hunting for leaks, and generally having a great time :)

Biofilm reactor with fluidized media (K1 filter media) inside:

While our plumbing folks were busy finishing out their part of the system, our electronics team put their focus on building our smart ESP32 controlled outlet box. We designed a CAD of the box and laser cut it out of acrylic, which houses not only the outlet strip itself but also a number of transformers, screw terminals, and a 3D printed switch that allows the box’ integrated ESP32 to be either plugged into a micro USB connector (enabling users to reprogram it) or be directly powered by the outlet box internally. Our NodeMCU ESP32 breakout board does not allow it to be plugged into a micro USB cable and a 5V power supply at the same time, so this clever workaround will allow future members to improve the control system of the outlet box without having to open it and take out the microcontroller. The screw terminals on the outlet box will be used to power actuators such as our electric ball valves, which have since replaced our original solenoids for indexing water to the grow beds due to the fact that they are much quieter, have significantly less pressure loss, and can close slower to eliminate water hammer. The box also features a laser-etched AutoAquaponics logo:

Because laser-etching is so much fun, we also spiced up our Raspberry Pi enclosure with our new logo:

Lastly, our software team worked on fleshing out the format of the weekly update email that our program sends subscribed users, which includes a plot of each of our system parameters (not shown in image below) and also a table detailing their weekly high, low, and average values:

We also finished the BLE code on the Raspberry Pi side, allowing users to send BLE messages from the Raspberry Pi that encodes what devices should turn on when for the outlet box. The outlet box side of the code is projected to be finished early Spring Quarter, allowing us to run lights, valves, pumps, and other devices on various types of timers (daily timer, interval timer, etc.). More detail will come in our wiki upon the completion of the system. Finally, some of the Control Panel pages have been restructured for better user experience.

AutoAquaponics will introduce fish and plants at the start of Spring Quarter after the cycling process, and we hope to produce our first batch of crops around May of this year. We are also happy to announce our new sub-team leaders: Marcos Sanchez and Aymen Lamsahel (Plumbing sub-team), Ben Caterine (Software sub-team), and Yanni Wilcox (Electronics sub-team). They are all driven, dedicated members of AutoAquaponics who have a proven track record of leadership and success on our team, and we can’t wait to see where they will take our individual subsystems Spring Quarter and beyond!

AutoAquaponics team, Winter 2022

First row: Vianey Guadian, Bill Yen, Marcos Sanchez

Second row: Raymonde Council, Kobe Chamba, Natalie Brewster, Johnny Chen, Sandra Chiu

Third row: Kaitlyn Hung, Ben Caterine, Lester Tai, Yanni Wilcox

Last row: Aymen Lamsahel, Spencer Huie

Not pictured: Niv Landau

More fun laser cut products featuring our logo (wooden and acrylic keychains for our members):

wooden keychain acrylic keychain

Thank you for your support as always, and don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions! Keep an eye out for more from us in the Spring!

Fall 2021 Update

AutoAquaponics Progress From Fall of 2021
Added by ESW NU over 2 years ago

AutoAquaponics kicked off the year with a strong start and greatly expanded the number of first and second year students on our team. This quarter we welcomed Spencer Huie, Lester Tai, Yanni Wilcox, Ian Viegas, Vianey Guadian, Anabel Sanchez, Ellie Lind, and Ally Lazar to the team, and we were finally able to have in-person meetings for the first time. We were also recognized in a variety of Northwestern press such as the NU Declassified: Exploring Engineering podcast, The Daily Northwestern's article on climate advocates on campus, and the official McCormick School of Engineering Fall 2021 Magazine for the unique projects and welcoming communities we created. As a result of increasing membership and the solid foundation established by our existing member's research and design, AutoAquaponics was able to achieve the following in each of the sub-teams:


  • Reattached a glass panel to the fish tank and successfully water testing the tank (it holds water with no leak!!!)

  • Completed a secondary containment berm around the entire aquaponic system with a combination of laser-cut clips, waterproof tarp, 3D printed brackets, and leftover plywood to prevent minor spills from reaching the carpet

*Big thanks to SmartTree members for helping us clear the room so we can slide the containment berm under both of our shelves!

  • Plumbed the grow beds and the fish tank together with PVC pipes and bulkheads

  • Redesigned the water filtration system to decrease the flow rate to the settling tank to boost efficiency

  • Designed a color scheme to paint the grow bed and fish tank (stay tuned for next quarter's blog to see what it looks like :D )


  • Resolved the common issue of TDS sensors shorting pH ion selective electrodes and affecting each other's values

  • Created a concept and began 3D printing parts for a 2-motor design for the automatic water tester

  • Generated part of the CAD for a new outlet box enclosure that will allow for energy monitoring and a switch to enable "programming" mode for the ESP32
  • Tested mixing mechanism with magnetic stirrers for the automatic water tester reagents
  • Debugged automatic fish feeder stepper motor issues


  • Resolved GUI crashing issue and memory build-up from matplotlib
  • Reduced system lag by decreasing plotting frequency
  • Created a branch of the main repository to experiment with using blitting to speed up plotting speed
  • Train new members on Python programming, specifically how to use TKinter to create graphical user interface

The system design went through quite a few changes due to our recent discovery that indexing valves do not work as well as we thought (special shoutout to Kaitlyn Hung for leading the team on troubleshooting the valve and communicating with the manufacturer!), so we will instead be using two solenoids to control which grow bed gets water. Luckily, our electronics team was able to make the necessary (although slightly painful) adjustments to accommodate for the additional actuators we need to control. Next quarter, the team will aim to completely finish the outlet box (software and hardware portions), solenoid installation, and water filtration system so we can do a trial run of everything before Spring Break.

Photo of a now in-person AutoAquaponics whole-team meeting:

ESWNU team photo (includes our friends from SmartTree and the ESWNU exec board!):

Fun picture - the new official AutoAquaponics logo (designed by Sandra Chiu) on vinyl stickers that our members can use to show off their ESW pride:

Thank you for your support, and keep an eye out for more from AutoAquaponics in the Winter!

Spring 2021 Update

AutoAquaponics Progress From Spring of 2021
Added by Bill Yen almost 3 years ago

This quarter marks the 1-year anniversary of AutoAquaponics! Our work is far from over, but we have gone quite a long way from where we started with the outstanding innovation and determination of our members and the great support we have received from both Northwestern and ESW Global. Throughout this past year, we have been fortunate enough to be featured on a number of Northwestern's media as a result of our work. Check them out here:

  • McCormick Engineering Magazine, Spring 2021 (we made the back cover!)
  • The Daily Northwestern discussed how AutoAquaponics received funding from NU's Associated Student Government grant, which was put in place to eliminate barriers for students with creative projects
  • Northwestern's One McCormick webinar featured us as one of the leading student groups who continued to engage students in the NU community despite the COVID-19 pandemic

Now on to project updates, AutoAquaponics finished the year strong by completing the following during Spring Quarter:

  • Two 40 gallon grow beds that hold water
  • The structure and waterproof coating of our 110 gallon fish tank
  • A stand capable of supporting the full weight (~1000 lbs) of our fish tank
  • 3D CAD model of the entire plumbing system minus the PVC pipes
  • New features on our GUI program - export/indexing data by time and also more Control Panel subpages!
  • Approximately half of the controlling software that will allow us to toggle our remote-controlled outlet box and set it on a timer via Bluetooth Low Energy and an ESP32

This quarter we also welcomed Johnny Chen, Jake Turner, and Kayd Bhagat to our Electronics (Johnny) and Plumbing (Jake and Kayd) teams. They have all made tremendous contributions to the design and construction aspects of our project, and we're super excited to have them be part of AutoAquaponics! Over the summer, a few of us will continue to chug along with the plumbing and software portion of this project. We've plugged a number of lights into our remote-controlled outlet box and angled the camera attached to our Raspberry Pi at those devices so our Software/Electronics member can work on timing actuators and see them work in real time wherever they are.

What our setup in the club room looks like (camera is taped to cabinet on the right, and the outlet box/lights are on the left):


What members can see on our GUI (controlled devices are circled in red):

New feature on our GUI program - export/index data as CSV or plot them for further analysis:

The user interface we hope to integrate so that each light can be set on a timer:

Close-up view of the outlet box with an ESP32 microcontroller inside and a 16 channel relay:

outlet box

On the plumbing side, we've spent a lot of our effort completing the epoxy coatings on the two grow beds, water testing them, and building the fish tank. Building the fish tank was especially challenging, as most of our lumber and plywood arrived warped, which meant that our pieces would not match up well unless we bent each of them straight. This was achieved through a series of clamps and a lot of determination, and in the end we were able to ensure that the structure of the tank is strong enough to resist water pressure. All that's left for the fish tank now is to install a sheet of glass to cover up the cutout window on the front panel. At the same time we were doing physical construction, we were also creating a 3D CAD model of our overall system to help estimate our PVC pipe requirements later on. Enjoy these pictures of our construction process below, and a detailed tutorial of how we built these tanks will be released upon the completion of this project!

CAD of our entire system minus the PVC pipes:

It was important for us to sand/vacuum all the surfaces we applied epoxy to so that it adheres properly:

Our team member filling up our two grow beds to an appropriate depth and checking for leaks:

Our fish tank's humble beginning as pieces of lumber and sheets of plywood:

Cutting a window cutout on the front plywood panel with a jigsaw for our eventual glass installation:

Putting the tank together piece by piece:

Look at all the different types of clamps we used!

Completed back frame of the fish tank. The thick lumber support will prevent our plywood from bowing out from the water pressure:

We coating the inside of our fish tank with the same non-toxic, low VOC epoxy we coated our grow beds with. It took many coats and a lot of sanding/waiting for the epoxy to dry, but the gorgeous, glossy surface we ended up with made it worth it.

Coat 1, with just enough epoxy to soak into the wood and provide a good surface for later coats to bond to:

Having fun while painting:

The seams of the fish tank were reinforced with epoxy-saturated fiberglass to prevent water from escaping through the gaps between our plywood pieces (check out how shiny our dried epoxy looks!):

After we finished coating the fish tank, we attempted to install our fish tank glass. Unfortunately, we did not apply enough silicone to fill up all the gap between the glass and the front wood panel, which resulted in the tank leaking. We will be reinstalling a fresh piece of glass in the Fall with ample silicone to finish up the fish tank.

Fish tank after first glass installation attempt:

Our semi-completed fish tank (glass removed) stacked on the fish tank stand with our grow beds and sump tank:

A detailed list of our goals for the Summer and Fall can be found in our Project Completion Plan below, which we formulated for the ESW Project Grant committee. Northwestern is projected to return to all in-person mode in September, so we are optimistic that we will be able to get more timeslots in the machine shop and finish building everything we need. We are looking forward to having the first AutoAquaponics prototype up and running by the end of December. As always, we really appreciate your support, and please keep an eye out for more updates from us!

Not pictured: Raymonde Council, Jake Turner, Kayd Bhagat, Anna Lis

Winter 2021 Update

AutoAquaponics Progress From Winter of 2021
Added by Bill Yen about 3 years ago

Now that the majority of our team members have returned to Northwestern's campus, AutoAquaponics has shifted its focus to building the plumbing and electronics portion of this project. We also welcomed Marcos, Anna, and Kaitlyn to our team, and we were thrilled to have them join this quarter and contribute to AutoAquaponics both virtually and in person. As a result of everyone's effort, we successfully manufactured two 24 gallon grow beds out of lumber and plywood. In Spring quarter, we will coat the grow beds with epoxy to waterproof them and get them ready for our plants, and build a much larger, 110 gallon container out of glass and wood for our fish tank.

Everyone helping to clear out space and unload materials for our system:

Team members working hard to build the two grow beds:

Completed product:

On top of plumbing construction, we also continued developing the electronic hardware portion of AutoAquaponics, namely a remote controlled outlet strip and an automatic water tester. Next quarter, we will aim to integrate these to our Raspberry Pi's GUI program by having the Raspberry Pi communicate with a number of ESP32 microcontrollers via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). As a result, we will be able to cut down on the amount of hardwiring we have to do and have a more modular and reliable system.

3D printed prototype of a peristaltic pump that can dispense very precise amount of water:

Raspberry Pi controlled outlet strip turning grow lights, heaters, and fans on and off fully automatically:

While the Plumbing and Electronics team rolled up their sleeves for construction, the Software team continued to add more functionalities to the AutoAquaponics GUI. This quarter, we completed the Settings page of the program, which allows the user to specify their preferred environmental parameters, and receive text messages when the detected parameters are not within the "safe" level. They can also enter their email to receive a weekly summary of what the state of the system is. In addition, we began adding subpages that the user can use to control the actuators in the aquaponic system. Eventually, we plan to have one subpage per actuator in the system so users can change their settings to whatever they like without needing to code.

Completed Settings page:

Water Pump page users can utilize to control the system's water pump:

Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for more from NU AutoAquaponics next quarter!

Fall 2020 Update

AutoAquaponics Progress From Fall of 2020
Added by Bill Yen over 3 years ago

Northwestern continued its online mode for the Fall of 2020 and kept its first and second years off-campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that did not stop us from our goal of turning AutoAquaponics into reality! Over the course of this quarter, AutoAquaponics was able to secure both the Wild Ideas Grant (courtesy of the NU Associate Student Government) and the McCormick Student Advisory Grant. Furthermore, we were able to expand our team from just seven people to a total of fourteen members as a result of our recruitment effort. Shoutouts to Daniel, Sandra, Ray, Allison, Larina, David, Ben, and Louis for all of their outstanding contribution during their first quarter in AutoAquaponics! Since many of our new members are CS majors, we have been able to significantly progress the software aspect of our project, and have completed a new Video Stream page in our graphical user interface (GUI) program on top of revamping the Dashboard and Settings page to run even faster and with another cool feature - text messages! With the implementation of into the GUI, users can now input their preferred phone numbers and carriers to receive real-time warning messages when one of the six sensors connected to our Raspberry Pi detects unsafe conditions (defined by the user in Settings). We are also redoing our Control Panel page to make it even more user-friendly and accommodate a slew of new features we hope to implement on the electronics side. For more detail on what our program is capable of doing right now, check out the README in our GitHub repository.

New GUI Dashboard:

Video Stream page displaying live feed from our Raspberry Pi's camera:

New Control Panel format with a sneak peak to what future actuators we will include:

Speaking of sensors and cool features, our Electronics Team has also been hard at work with improving the hardware side of our AutoAquaponics prototype. Namely, we have completed a fully functional environmental monitoring system that works in conjunction with the software described above to log and display sensor values on our GUI. This quarter, we added a bunch of new sensors (measuring water level, water temperature, air temperature, relative humidity, and total dissolved solids on top of our existing pH sensor) to the Raspberry Pi, and put everything together in a laser-cut electronics box that we designed and built remotely. The sensors that we implemented are currently being tested in an existing aquaponic system at the home of one of our members. In addition to developing the “eyes” of AutoAquaponics, we are also working on building a number of actuators, which includes a Raspberry Pi controlled outlet strip, an automatic fish feeder, an atmospheric water generator, and an automatic water tester to help us do water tests for chemicals that are hard for our sensors to detect (nitrate, ammonia, etc.). Similar to the electronics box, we are approaching these builds completely remotely with CAD, home prototyping, and 3D printing/laser cutting. Since most of our members cannot be on campus to build things in the shop, our off-campus members made CAD files instead and sent those to our on-campus collaborators for 3D printing.

Laser-cut electronics box with water resistant sensor ports:

3D printed automatic fish feeder that can dispense food based on weight:

One of our members doing some soldering at home for the outlet strip build:

Finally, our Plumbing sub-team has been continuously refining our overall plumbing schematic, and has successfully been paired with an industry mentor from the ESW Mentorship Program to aid in the design of our overall system and filter. We are now in the process of sourcing materials to build our fish tank, determining what fish species to stock our tank with, and coming up with a clog-free filter intake design. In the Winter, we aim to begin building our overall system, starting with the plywood aquarium.

Overall system/plumbing schematic:

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for our update next quarter!


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