By Ted Judy
When people visit my fishroom one of the questions that usually comes up is how I find the time to maintain more than 60 aquariums. My room is small, compared to many, and I do not have a system-wide automated water changing system. I dream of having one someday, but that will not happen until I build the next fishroom and can start from scratch. At the start of this contest I was draining each tank with a siphon and refilling from a 150-gallon aging vat. The system worked pretty well for five years, but recently (ever since I took a real job), what I thought was an easy system suddenly became a burden.
The most time consuming aspect to the drain and refill system is paying attention to water levels. If I drained 150 gallons of water from various tanks in the fishroom it would take me an hour or more just watching the tanks refill. Other problems with my old system were that I could only change 150 gallons in a session, and I had to carefully plan days for changing soft water tanks different from hard water tanks, because I only have one aging vat. All of the aquariums in my house add up to 1541½ gallons of water, so if I wanted to do a 50 percent water change on all the tanks once each week I would have to refill the aging vat five times. If I am using RO (two vats per week on average) it will take about 20 hours to just fill it up (my RO machine makes 180 gallons per day), plus the time to age it.
The total result was that I was spending time in the fishroom every day doing water changes, and since that was not always possible the tanks were sometimes not getting the regular maintenance they needed. When my time became more limited the problem was compounded, and what was an hour or two per day in the fish room became five or six hours two or three days a week. Unacceptable… to my wife.
The solution was to find a way to multitask. If I could figure out a way to walk away from the tanks as they drained and filled I could do other things in the fishroom at the same time. The answer was to start using a combination of old-school and new technologies.
Before the days of drilling tanks aquarists looking to automate their aquariums used a home-made device built from a piece of flexible tubing coiled into two loops called a self-leveling siphon. This apparatus sits at the top of the tank and will automatically drain water in the tank down to a specific level. The siphon itself has a high loop and a low loop. The high loop sits on the edge of the tank with its open end extending into the water a few inches below the level the water will be maintained at. The lower loop sits outside the tank, and the top of this loop is set at the level the water is to be maintained at. An air hole is drilled in the top of the low loop. When the siphon is started the hole is covered and water is allowed to flow through the loops. Once the water is flowing the hole is uncovered and the flow rate slows down, but it will keep flowing until the water in the aquarium is down to the same level as the hole in the top of the lower loop.
PVC pipe fittings make the construction of a self-leveling siphon easier and more adaptable. I know aquarists who have installed them on the back side of every tank in the room with the level set at a couple inches below the top rim of the aquarium. All that is needed to change the water is to add new water to the tank that is slightly cooler than the tank water. The cool new water sinks and worm old water exits via the siphon at the top. An automated refill can be set up so that new water runs into the tank for a few hours on a regular schedule (just like an auto change system with a drilled tank would be set up to do). What a lot of self-leveling siphon users do is go around the room with a hose and fill the tanks up to the brim quickly and let the siphon drain it back to the starting level. Both methods take a lot less time to do than draining and refilling.
Unfortunately, the expense and space needed to put a siphon on every tank in my fish room was too much. Instead, I made a siphon that I hooked to the end of a drain hose that I could move from tank to tank and have flow through water changing one tank at a time. This is a compromise that allows me to do other things in the fish room while a tank’s water changes.
The problem of having a limited amount of return water in an aging vat was solved by the use of new technology. Instead of using the aging vat for all the water I filled with I set up a filtration system using household water treatment filters. I set up four canisters inline on a hose that I connect to the faucet. The first canister has a 5 micron sediment filter, the second canister has a 10 micron carbon block, the third a 5 micron carbon block and the last canister has a 1 micron sediment filter (to catch carbon dust and anything that makes it through the first three filters). The filters remove all the chlorine from the tap water. I change the front-end sediment and carbon cartridges once each month and the back-end cartridges every three months.
I use this new system to change water in all the tanks that do not need soft water or water that has been aged, which includes about 80 percent of my fishroom. All I do is put the self-leveling siphon on a tank and get it started. Then I run filtered water from the faucet into the tank at a rate of about 1½ gallons per minute (any faster and the siphon cannot keep up). A 10-gallon tank gets a 50 percent water change in about 5 minutes… but I do not have to pay attention to it during the process. I will let the system run on a 75-gallon tank for 20 to 30 minutes. I can still use the system to do changes on soft-water aquariums, but I refill from the RO vat rather than the sink.
The system even works for small fry. I cover the end of the siphon tube with a piece of foam and refill the tank from a larger aquarium above the fry tanks using a piece of airline tubing gravity feed water into the fry tanks. The flow of water is very slow, the temperature is the same as the fry tank and the water is well aged.
I like the new system, but it does not take any less time to do the water changes (water flow is water flow). What it permits me to do is other things at the same time, so my overall time spent in the fish room is reduced. I do not even need to be in the fish room. While writing this blog entry I did 50 percent water changes on three 75-gallon tanks.