Building our own fishroom 1

An article by Frank Panis

Some time ago, Dr. Michael K. Oliver suggested to us to write an article concerning the building of a fish room, as he is planning to build one for himself, and there is not much information available in the internet about this topic. We liked this idea allot and we joined our knowledge and forces to work out all the possibilities for his basement - At the same time, one of the authors (Frank) started building a giant 3000L/800G aquarium in his own cellar.

 Why do we need a fish room? Sooner or later, every cichlid hobbyist will be confronted with the need for extra tanks. One or more of them is really no luxury and actually more a must for every advanced and devoted enthusiast.

Diseases and casualties: To reduce losses, new bought fish should be kept in a quarantine/ tank for several weeks (quarantine tank = mostly bare bottom tank in a quiet corner with an exact known volume - important for medication dosage - and without decoration, so it's easy to clean). Sick and damaged fish should be also be kept in such a hospital tank, so they can be treated or fully recover from their wounds without infecting the others. An extra advantage of a separate tank is that it can be blinded to prevent the breakdown of delicate medication. 

Breeding: Occasional or semi-professional…When your cichlids finally spawned and you're sure you want to raise the fry (for replacing the parents when they're old or for selling/donating them to others), a stressing floating hatch container in the main tank or a large fish net won't do the job. Juvenile cichlids simply need a separate aquarium to ensure a fast and steady growth.

A. Location

One or two small tanks) in the same room as the main aquarium can be a solution, but this usually won't be appreciated by the other inhabitants of the house, as this can get really messy if you're not that handy. If you plan to become a semi-professional breeder you'll soon need at least 10 tanks in different sizes. The real solution is a separate room or a corner in the cellar or garage that usually is occupied by old rubbish. All you need is the courage to finally throw away the stuff that is a waste of space and never will be used again. If you have the choice between different rooms, you'll have to find out what's the most suitable place in terms of accessibility, costs and how important they are for the hobbyist.




Cellar/Basement * Temperature stable through all the seasons
* Plumbing and electricity mostly available
* Water spills not dramatic
* Extra pump and barrel needed to bring water to ground level
* No daylight
* Accessibility (ceiling height/steep stairs?)
Garage * Plumbing and electricity mostly available
* Water spills not dramatic
* Daylight (maybe through a skylight)
* Temperature unstable if not insulated
Normal room in the house * Located near the main tank
* Daylight
* Plumbing mostly not available
* Moisture/mildew problems
* Water spills not desirable
Greenhouse/closed porch * Daylight
* Water spills not dramatic
* Plumbing mostly not available
* Temperature unstable if not insulated

 B. Utilities

 1. Racks

We definitely need to pay very much attention to the racks that’ll be used to put the tanks on, both to minimize safety risks and to preserve a good functionality. The best materials for such a construction are wood, iron and aluminum.

Wooden racks are easy to dismantle and a pleasure to look at, but need proper treatment with several layers of wood protector and waterproof varnish to last for a long time in a moist environment. An advantage of this material is that it’s relatively cheap, especially when you assemble it yourself. With a minimum of tools like an electric drill, a level, good screws, carpenter glue and basic DIY skills, they’re easy to build. Be sure to use thick enough beams to carry all the weight. Compared to iron and aluminum the bulk of wooden racks limits the space available for tanks. Of course the price of such racks depends on the kind of wood that's used. Pine is the cheapest, but if you want better quality like beech, chestnut or oak, you'll definitely pay a higher price. As we fish keepers have a bit an ecological heart, tropical wood definitely should be avoided. All we have to do is take accurate measures, go to the lumber yard and let cut all the parts needed for the rack

Iron is cheap, but a professional welder must do the construction. Few people have such an apparatus in their toolbox at home, and it’s quite questionable they’re able to assemble a safe rack with strong connections. Can you imagine a rack full of tanks collapse when you’re in the neighbourhood? A drawback of this material is its sensitivity for corrosion, especially in a moist environment. Several layers of a good quality paint (some brands can be put on the iron and even directly on rust) and a yearly repaint is a must. There is also a possibility to let "powder coat paint" the complete frame. In this procedure the paint is sprayed as a fine powder, not a liquid. After the powder has been applied, the heat from an oven liquefies and hardens the paint. Also electroplating is a possibility. Plastic pads under the legs of the rack helps to protect it from rust at the most critical part of the construction.

Aluminum is the perfect material for building racks. It's light and practically immortal, and if you additionally use electrostatic coated beams, then you can forget about it once and for all. You can also choose any color that matches that of your basement. Aluminum is very expensive compared with wood, iron or electroplated iron. The construction of racks must be done by a professional,  and his wages are also expensive, although the tools needed for such constructions are cheap and easy to use. All you need is a clinch tool and rivets. There is a special technique to fit the beams together. The best craftsmen use aluminum profiles in the joints that they can fit within the beams, so the rivets do not rumple them when clinched and practically the beams’ thickness and durability is doubled. Additionally the joints are not evident.


You can choose between glass and acryl tanks. Acryl is best avoided for a fish room as it is expensive, scratches easily and colours from medication and other dyes as time passes. The advantage of this material is the lightness and the ability to drill holes in it whenever you feel like doing this. Despite the weight, the thicker plates needed for equal aquarium dimensions and the need for holes to be drilled in advance, glass is preferred by far, as it is cheap and easy to construct by you. All you need is a good quality aquarium silicone (Den Braven, Bayern, General Electrics…), a silicone pistol, lots of toilet paper, a razor blade, adhesive tape, a measure, alcohol or acetone to degrease the glue surface and some sanding paper to sand off the sharp edges of fresh cut glass, as they can make nasty wounds. Make sure to check all measurements very good in advance to prevent plates to be too short or too long. After cleaning all the plates you can start assembling the tank with gluing the first long side glass plate to the bottom glass and next the first short side glass. Be sure not to forget any joint as silicone sticks to all materials when it's fresh and will cause a huge mess. When all sides are glued together adhesive tape is used to press and secure all the plates. The excess of silicon that comes out of the joints after this gentle pressure can be spread in the inner corners of the tank with a wet fingertip. This will enhance the solidness of the tank. The excess of silicones that come out at the outside will be left alone to dry and to be cut with a razor blade the next day. By then it's time to glue both the transverse and length glass strips that will prevent our construction from breaking. The same procedure with the excess of silicones is repeated the next day as mentioned above.

3. Filters

Different techniques are available for operating many small tanks in a fish room. Central filter systems, that only have the small advantage of keeping electricity costs down, definitely need to be avoided, as diseases can spread in no time with very high mortality among your carefully collected and selected cichlid population as a nasty consequence. We suggest:

Air operated filters are very economical, as they only need one large central air pump that services all the airlifts in each separate tanks. Be sure to buy a good quality pump, as all the tanks depend on it for their filtration. For demanding applications these airlifts can turn out to be a little weak.

Power heads in each separate tank is the most expensive, but best solution. One pump failure won't affect the other tanks, so losses will be limited to only one tank if something really goes wrong. These pumps are capable of moving a fair amount of water without consuming too much electricity. Most of the mid sized power heads only need 5 to 20W. Try not to save too much in buying these pumps, as this mostly has a direct impact on reliability. If there is a flow control on the pump, this is a plus, as this permits you to regulate the output flow. Power heads are mostly built-in in an internal 3-compartment glass filter with an inlet chamber that mostly houses the electrical heater. The second chamber holds both the mechanical and biological filter media, while the last is the pump compartment. The choice in filter media doesn’t differ much from that used in normal tanks and isn’t critical, as long as you’re sure it meets the minimum requirements of mechanical and biological filtration. Also easy maintenance is a plus. Using sponges as prefilter can be very handy, as they’re easy to rinse.

Another utility that can be added on each of the tanks is a hole drilled inside the one of the three filter compartments (preferably in the compartment that the water pump is housed in). This hole can have a diameter of 2,7 - 2,8cm, to mount a ½’’drainage fitting. With a small ball or gate bulb, connected after the fitting we can empty our tanks easily, fast and with avoiding a messy and wet fish room. 

In the MCH page http://malawicichlidhomepage.com/haps/whole_tank_hydraulic.html, you can get an idea about this utility. You can look at the drainage fitting on the diagram, that our 3D designer, Takis Tsamis, has prepared for this purpose.

This is the type of fittings’ kits I used. They are made for aquarium use only and they are sold with their flanges, grates and elbows. Later I found out bulk fittings that are used for boats, that they could be used for the same purpose, with ten time’s lower price.

 Internal power filters can also be used, but can turn out to be a bit expensive, especially when cartridges from that specific brand are needed. They also need to be replaced completely when they break down, especially with smaller and cheaper models.

For mechanical and chemical media we'll use the market available ones (aquarium moss, charcoal, peat etc). For biological substrate we can use, except the commercial plastic bio- or bactoballs and ceramic cylinders manufactured for aquarium use, all small plastic material that is used for food purposes, as that normally doesn't contain hazardous additives (stoppers of lemonade bottles, etc... test them in an running aquarium system to check if they become slippery = growth of bacteria)

4.Electrical installation & safety

For our own good, we have to pay very much attention to our electrical installation. It’s recommended to protect all sockets against splashing water, what can be done by installing wood or plastic shields around them. Silicones can be applied to seal cable entries at sockets. Install circuits for all equipment, like heaters and pumps enables you to switch them separately, what is very useful during water changes: the lights will still be on, but you won't risk a shock because all other equipment will be off. Sensitive fuses have to be used AND also an earth leak / ground fault circuit interrupter. Even if a system is properly grounded, minor faults in a circuit can cause dangerous shock to a person using an electrical appliance in a damp location or near water. For this reason, it's recommended to use a GFCI to be connected to all outlets to our tanks and all other locations in the house close to water. The GFCI senses the flow of electricity through a circuit. If more current is flowing through the black (hot) wire than the white (neutral) wire, there is a current leakage. The most sensitive GFCI can sense a ground leak of as little as 0.005 amps, and will shut off the current in 1/40 of a second, which is fast enough to prevent injury.

If you do have GFCI, it is recommended that you test (and reset) them monthly. When you push the test button, the reset button should pop out, shutting off the circuit. If it doesn't, the breaker is not working properly. If you don't test them once a month, the breakers have a tendency to stick, and may not protect you when needed. Ask your local electricity dealer for more info.

This is a European 220V model that shuts off at 0.03 amps. It should be installed on EVERY aquarium without exception!

5. Lightning

Normal or compact fluorescent tubes are best suited for fish rooms, as they’re economical and don’t consume too much space. One lamp for each tank will be more than satisfying and using more lamps will only cause an increase of the electricity bill. The use of waterproof sockets for the bulbs is advised (see above: electric safety) A central timer circuit can control all the lamps. Natural light that comes through a window or a skylight in the fish room can also be used to save on lamps: it’s free and it goes on and off automatically day in day out, but not suited for people who have daytime jobs!

Watertight end caps to connect standard fluorescent tubes

 6.Insulation & heating

Heating the tanks can be done by installing electrical heaters in each separate tank. This allows us to set different temperatures for each individual tank (breeding, treating disease), but can also cause an increase off the electrical bill. A combination of central heating and a thorough insulation of our fish room can help to cut down operational costs. A radiator connected to the central heating can keep the temperature up to the desired level. Styrofoam is best used to insulate the fish room, as it is highly resistant to water and water vapour. It won't rot, mildew or decompose, and retains virtually all of its insulating power even in extremely damp environments. Both walls and ceiling should be covered with these plates. A good air-conditioning in extremely hot areas can also help to get control on the temperature in our fish room.

7.Plumbing & sink

At first we need a cold and hot water tap to fill and change the tanks with water with a correct temperature. A single faucet leaver, or better a thermostatic tap is recommended for our and the cichlids comfort. Quick connections can be used to attach a garden hose to this tap. If there is only cold water available, a small electrical boiler will help heating the water. Also some extra empty tanks can be filled with fresh water. A heater will heat it and meanwhile all tap chlorine will be evaporated too. A large and deep sink with a large water resistant counter is essential for many jobs as rinsing and cleaning equipment and filter foam and handling the brine shrimp hatchers. A drain in the floor will help clean up water spills. For cellar fish rooms under street level, a large barrel - normally used for collecting rain water - combined with an automatic submersible pump can make water changes in a fish cellar very easy. All used water can be collected in that barrel and when the level rises above a certain level the pump will start pumping it up to a sewer system or the garden.


When you're planning to build a fish room with about 10, 20 or even more tanks, and you master the basic DIY (=do it yourself) skills like installing electricity, construction, insulation, lightning and plumbing, there is a lot of money that can be saved. Obviously when you have time to run a fish room, you'll have oceans of time to spend much time on building it yourself. Using materials from a DIY shop (be sure to compare build quality) instead that of an LFS will surely yield some profit. The companies that manufacture aquarium products keep prices high, because their target consumer group is small, compared with that of other manufacturer companies (water/boat related equipment companies for instance). Simply use your imagination like Andreas did with his fittings.

9.Additional tools + hints & tips

*Above the sink we'll install our brine shrimp hatchers. These plastic cones are used to cultivate Artemia Salina, the best food to raise fry.
An old (not working) refrigerator can be used to store drugs and foods, as it is dry, dark and insulated.
*A wet/dry cleaner can be very useful to keep the floor dry after a messy water change.
*Tank dividers can be used to separate tanks in compartments, so the diversity of the species that you keep can be increased.
*Use the lower tanks for quarantine, hospital and breeding purposes, the upper tanks as water containers for partial water changes.
*Used water can be applied for the garden, as it is a natural fertilizer (only if it's free of medication).
*As the lower tanks stay cooler in a fish room with central heating they can be used for fish that like a slightly cooler environment.
* Use different nets for each separate tank to prevent the spreading of diseases.

As examples, each Michael's and Frank's projects will be handled in their separate articles Building our own fish room II (Michael's project) and Building our own fish room III (Frank's project)


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