Building a Fishroom

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There are many reasons and ways to build a fish-room. It can be a complicated process and some very bad results can occur if you're not careful. We've built or played a major role in building eight different fish-rooms and hatcheries ranging from 70 aquariums all the way up to hundreds of tanks. We've also rebuilt a few of them after they were up for a decade or two. We've had our share of disasters to go along with things that went very well. This will be the first in a series of articles sharing what we've learned. We will discuss the pros and the cons of having a fish-room as well as the techniques and challenges of actually building one.

First, why should you even consider a fish-room? Well, at some point if you accumulate enough aquariums, water changes will become a chore, heating them will become expensive, space will be at a premium (like when 2 or 3 of them are on your kitchen counter), you'll accumulate (by the dozens) inefficient small air pumps that don't work and you'll start to look for ways to either make things easier or to reduce the number of aquariums. Now, we don't want to see you get rid of any aquariums, so let's take a look at some of the obvious and not so easily seen advantages of a properly designed fish-room.

Labor and Time Savings - Water changes become not only much faster, they usually save water, keep your carpets and furniture from having water damage, and allow you to easily do them more frequently. Walking from one tank to the next is usually one step, so there is less wasted movement. A good fish-room has a sink, water connection and drain nearby. Food, nets, siphons, brine shrimp jars, specimen cups, etc., are all at your finger tips. Until you have a fish room, you can't believe how much time is wasting just getting from one place to another.

We can do a 50% water change on 75 (30-gal tanks) in approximately one hour - all by hand (siphon to empty and hose to fill). With a bucket brigade and tanks scattered about, you'd be luck to be able to do 6-8 in that time frame.

Costs Savings - A well built fish room will be heavily insulated. This allows for a very efficient use of energy. It will stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. In our northern climate, we can keep a fishroom at 80 degrees in January without any heat added other than that given off by the air pump, lights and other electrical items that we use regardless of temperature. Our first fishroom (70 tanks) in 1983 resulted in our electric bill dropping by approximately 60% over having just 15-20 tanks scattered about with heaters and full hood lights. Your degree of savings will depend on several factors. How cold your winters are, how well insulated your fish-room is and how far you have to raise the temperature over the surrounding areas.

Humidity Control - Placing all your tank into one smaller enclosed space will allow you to control the humidity levels in your building. I've seen people actually ruin a house from moisture damage coming from their poorly designed fish-room, so this part is important. Properly designed fish-rooms allow you the option of not putting a cover or hood on each tank. Without hoods, everything is easier and faster. Feeding, water changes and cleaning all go much quicker. If any significant number of tanks are without hoods when scattered around your house, humidity damage is a large probability, especially in climates where the humidity is already high, or in newly built houses that are constructed tightly.

The following tips should help you avoid some major mistakes when building your fish-room. Don't be penny-wise and dollar-foolish.

Often it pays in the long term to put a little more into the room up front and recover substantial savings and other benefits down the road. Heating costs are major and buying insulation is far cheaper in the long run than paying for wasted heat. Remember, the insulation material must be waterproof. Fiberglass is not good for fish-rooms. It will usually get wet from condensation unless all spaces around it are heated. Sprayed foam is the best. Rigid Foam boards are next best, providing you have no air gaps on the edges when installed. Our fish-rooms all have a minimum of R30 in the ceilings and R19 in the walls, even the one in the middle of my house in the heated basement. If you are putting up a stand-alone fish room with very cold weather on the immediate exterior higher R-vales are recommended. The fish-room door should also be insulated. We usually end up making our own door in order to get this. Metal doors will cause warm moist air to condense on them if the outside temperature is much colder than the fish-room temps. Keep in mind, any wood that touches concrete floors or walls should be pressure treated.

If you are so early in the construction phase that you can plan for radiant floor heating, do it. It is by far the best way to heat a fish-room that needs heat over and above what will be generated by the electrical devices.

For optimum heating efficiency when using electricity to heat the room - cover each tank and add a tank heater. Evaporation gives off heat, so covering the tanks retains this heat. Tank covers will make for more work, and heaters can be a pain to work around, so carefully weigh the advantages of each in your situation.

You must have a vapor barrier unless every tank is completely covered. The easiest-to-do vapor barriers are foam insulation boards with taped seams. All electrical outlets must also be sealed against vapor. This means completely sealing around them with no air gaps. If you do not do this, there is the potential for cold moist air to condense on the electrical outlet, causing it to trip the breaker.

All electrical lines must be on a ground fault circuit. Ceiling outlets tend to be the most convenient, by far. The lighting circuit should be separate and it's best to wire it with an inline timer to control lighting. Any technical questions on electrical requirements should be addressed by your electrician. Just tell him what you want and let him determine exactly how to get it.

An airtight room needs fresh air and humidity control. We highly recommend the most efficient Heat Recovery Ventilator you can find. They can be put on a timer to regularly bring in fresh air while exchanging its heat value with the outgoing air. We've had good luck with those made by Lifebreath, but there are other good ones. Now, the tricky part with these units is to properly install the incoming and outgoing air ducts. The key is to create a negative air pressure in the fish-room. This will force air into the room and out the air exchange unit. If you don't create this negative air pressure, the humid air will force its way into your building, exposing it to possible mold hazards. Here's how you do it:  The outgoing duct takes all of its air from the fish-room and expels it outside. However, the intake duct must be split in two, with only half going into the fish-room and the other half going to another part of the house. This will create the negative pressure in the fish-room that is so desirable.

Construction: We will split this into four areas of concern. One will be the racks that hold your aquariums. Another will be the air system to run your filters. We'll also discuss tank lighting. The last will be the water supply concerns that you'll want to address.

The racks: We've found it better to arrange tanks to be in the center of the room. This will usually decrease the number your room can hold, but it will have other advantages. First you can see into them better, but more importantly, it keeps mold from developing on the walls. In this high humidity situation, a row of tanks up against a wall will hold moisture longer and greatly contribute to mold growth.

When building racks, design them so there is enough space between rows to work comfortably and to remove tanks from a rack as needed. If you stack the tanks in tiers (which allows you to keep substantially more tanks in a room), make sure you can easily get specimen cups, nets, filters, etc. between the tiers. We can't give advice on the actual construction of racks, but will say we've found it adequate to support just the four corners of each tank, or in such a way that the 4 corners over hang the support beam by an inch or two. As long as the two support beams are parallel, with all corners supported evenly, we've never had a tank crack when supported in this manner. If you have a low corner, wedge it.

We make our racks from pressure treated wood. Any other type of wood will not last and the labor to rebuild is not worth any savings on un-treated wood. We've seen racks made from other materials like concrete blocks and metal tubing, but prefer wood for the ease of building, cost, space saving considerations and the ability to cut it to fit any space.

Air System: It's worth putting in a central air system. 99% of hobbyists with a fish room will not use individual power filters. They are expensive, take up a lot of space, are labor intensive and do not work any better than simple sponge filters. Small individual air pumps are a huge pain, leaving a central air system the only practical way to handle most fish-rooms. Build the system with PVC pipe, using the largest diameter you can. The smaller the diameter the greater the resistance to the airflow, which will reduce the number of outlets you can run. Make sure to seal it well. Even a small leak can lose enough air to run many outlets. The best systems bring the PVC as close to the tanks as possible to enable the use of the shortest possible airline drops to your filters. The less airline, the better your system will work. If building the system with a blower, you must have a loop in the PVC with no dead ends. The first 10 feet off the blower must also be a straight run. With blowers, it's much more important to use larger pipe. A minimum of 1.5" diameter PVC is needed for efficiency. For reasons of noise, ease of building and flexibility, most will go with a linear pump like an Alita.

Tank Lighting: Make sure the lights are directly over the tanks. Lighting in the aisles will tend to spook the fish. It can create a shadow in the tanks as you walk by. It's also more natural for it enter from above rather than from the side. We like to use the compact fluorescent bulbs. They work better in high humidity and last longer than most.

Water Supply: Some people like to store their water before using it and other make their own with reverse osmosis filters. This also has to be stored. If you store water, be sure to sterilize the storage container at least once each week. It will grow undesirable bacteria if you don't. In our fish-rooms, we simply bring a hot and cold water line into the room and then mix the two to get the proper temperature before putting it directly into our tanks. This technique works for most people as long as they remove any chlorine/chloramines as it goes into the tanks. It also should be put in under heavy aeration. This removes the dissolves gases and oxygenates the water which is a must. We also think every fish room should have a faucet with a sink in the fish-room. The convenience of this can't be overstated. You will also want a floor drain or sump pump in the room to help with water changes.

Hopefully, this article helped to answer some of your questions and concerns on building a fish-room. There are many considerations we didn't cover, and every fish-room is a bit different, with some considerations others don't have. Hopefully this will get you started. Good luck.

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