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Greater Seattle Aquarium Society

The Gadget Corner: Fishroom!

by Erik Olson
November 1998

We used to live in a one bedroom apartment, along with some sixteen small fish tanks for breeding our dwarf cichlids. Most of these were in a single rack in the kitchen, crowded together and turned "end-on" so that we could get four ten-gallon tanks in a four-foot wide space. That all changed when we moved a year ago. Our house now has a furnished basement that would make a perfect recreation room...or a fishroom! We were finally able to turn the tanks so that we could see the fish, not just breed them, and we took the opportunity to replace some of the tiny 10 and 6 gallon tanks with more 20’s.

The Racks

There are two racks, both based on 2x4 lumber. It’s cheap and fairly easy to work with. Depending on the row, tanks sit either directly on a pair of 2x4 "rails", or on a thin sheet of plywood attached directly above. The rails are screwed into support posts at the ends (or in the case of the larger rack, at the center as well). For maximum strength, I cut dados, 2x4-shaped notches in the support posts. Small 15" long side pieces complete the frame, and the whole mess is attached to the wall with brackets so the rack doesn’t shake. The smaller rack is five feet long, and has posts on the two ends, but the larger rack is ten feet long and needs an extra pair of posts in the middle.

Our house has a pretty uneven basement, and we originally figured we’d cut the posts to different lengths on the bottom to make up for the difference in levels. In a pinch, I ended up "shimming" instead, stuffing pieces of wood and cardboard underneath.


One thing that makes our fishroom a little different from others is that we have lots of light to grow plants. Our schedule doesn’t allow us to change water as often as we’d like (who really can?), and the plants help with this by keeping the tanks low in nutrients. Lighting is provided by commercial four-foot T-8 bulbs and ballasts. Most of our "fixtures" are 5 and 10-foot sections of plastic rain gutter attached to the rack. I found some fluorescent replacement "clips" which can be screwed into the rack through the rain gutter as well. The ballasts themselves are mounted directly on the posts. To keep a marginal degree of safety, I run the wires inside small PVC conduit.

Light intensity ranges from 1-2 watts per gallon, depending on the tank. In the lower-level tanks, we grow Java fern, Anubias, Java moss and floating plants. In some of the higher-light tanks we’ve started keeping more demanding plants, and injecting CO2.

When we first built the large rack, there was a tremendous amount of light escaping into the room from the seven tubes. I fashioned some "blinds" out of beaver board. This stuff comes in 4x8 sheets with a white enamel on one side. Most people put it up in bathrooms to give them that "whiter than white" look, I guess. We also use it for dry erase boards. At any rate, it makes a good reflector with the white part turned in. The only downside is the flaps can be a pain during feeding time.


We do not use central filtration or heating. It’s a bit expensive having to buy all those submersible Ebo Jäger heaters, but we live with it.

Most of the tanks are filtered by simple air-driven sponge filters (we like the Hydro types because of their nice heavy base that stands alone in the tank). We have switched back and forth on the idea of getting one big pump vs. several small ones...currently we’re in the "several small ones" camp after the big pump has broken a few times. We’ll probably get that $200 Wisa someday. I don’t really like the sponge filters in the hard water tanks, because they tend to clog and get slimy, so we’ve started using AquaClear Mini power filters for some of those tanks. In addition to the improved mechanical filtration, we can keep small houseplants growing out of the back of them!

Water Changes

The biggest pain of having so many fish tanks is cleaning them all. I’ve got the regimen down to two hours for a "quick" cleaning of just draining and filling tanks, longer for more detailed work. The key is having a 20-gallon fill bucket slowly pumping water in some tanks while I’m working on the next ones. I have an old Beckett submersible pump going through a vinyl tubing, ball valve, and some PVC pipe that hangs over the tank to return the water. Unfortunately, since I’m not paying attention to what the refill system is doing all the time, this often leads to spills on the carpet, so I’m working on some kind of alarm system to let me know when a tank is full. I’m also experimenting with an "octopus" slow refill system that adds water to six tanks at a time. If I were rebuilding the room from scratch, I’d probably have drip irrigation returns snaking to every tank in the room and the ability to shut each off by a valve. I may yet do this for the current setup!

[Big Fish Rack]
The larger rack. Top row: 10-gallon, two 20-longs, two 10’s (all Apisto spawning tanks). Middle row: 30-long, 10, 20-long and a 15 (Lake Tanganyika shelldwellers and Julidochromis habitats). Bottom row: four 20’s (Apisto grow-out and spawning tanks). Also note the old 6-gallon tanks in storage under the bottom row, and the pressboard light blinds.

[Small FIsh Rack]
Smaller rack. Top row: two 20-long shelldweller habitats. Middle row: 20-gallon west african Pelvicachromis environments. Bottom row: 60-gallon Apisto and plant growout tank. The bottom and middle rows have CO2 injection. Top and middle rows use aquaclear mini’s; bottom row uses powerheads. Top row has plants growing out of the filters.

[75 Gallon Plant Tank
Planted tank. This is a CO2-injected display tank with high lighting. Details on this tank can be found elsewhere on the web.

Addendums by Kathy Olson

We have different wattages of light over the rows to allow different plants to be grown...from low to high tech. On rack has CO2 as well. The lights are housed in white rain gutter (DIY lighting) with end pieces...looks quit good from an aesthetic point of view. Are old light blinds were wood which is cool, this set isn’t...always trying new things.

We do have a futon in our fish room opposite the gorgeous planted tank. Have held more than one fish party in the room (it is carpeted in the basement), and people crashed on the floor. The futon also lets out to a full sized be for those who "want to sleep with the fishes". One guest’s comments was on the ambience provided by the heaters as night lights.

There is stereo piped in. The whole house is hooked up to and controlled by the computer. Including the water for my rose garden as well. There are also conveniently placed control pads in other rooms besides the TECH room (home of The Krib).

It is fun to come home and crash, relax and eat dinner with Erik down in the fish room.

We also have a few other tanks not seen in Eriks article...including the oak leaf tank, the 75 gallon planted, another crypt tank, a terrarium, and a 50 cylinder. We dream about a 125 gallon....but don’t think the upstairs would hold it and don’t want to give up the futon for downstairs. The next house :)

There are definetly trade offs, convenience for tanks. It is nice to dream and think of things to change.

Further Addendums by Erik

Kathy’s right, what I totally forgot to mention is the feel of the room. Most fishrooms are more "workroom-like", while ours tends to be more like another room in the house, like the living room. The floor is carpeted, not concrete. We hang pictures on the wall. The main lighting is recessed. And the slop sink is in the nearby laundry room.