Doing It Yourself

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Self sufficiency is fun! Don’t pay for something you can learn to do yourself.

This article is contributed by Aquarium Advice member justDIY

As with almost any hobby, there are several ways of reaching the same end. You can buy your way there or you can build your way there. The hobby of aquarium keeping is no different. Buying your way to a complete tank, be it salt or freshwater is faster, but that speed comes with several costs. The first cost is actual cost! Prefabricated, machine made parts although inexpensive to manufacture always have a tremendous markup attached, as most hobbies are luxuries, and those selling the equipment feel it is alright to charge extreme prices. Now I don’t mean that your favorite retailer or e-tailer is the one doing the gouging, most likely it is the factory or the distributor that is gouging on the prices, then the retailer has to add their margin. The second cost of buying pre-fab equipment is the trade-off in design. You have to accept what someone else designed, and design your tank or system to work with someone else’s design.

Building something yourself is not without drawbacks. Firstly, finding all the right parts is sometimes a time consuming challenge. Depending on the complexity of the device you’re building, you might need two trips to Home Depot, or have to order bits and pieces from 6 different online retailers! The second drawback, in my opinion, is appearance. Unless you’re very skilled, the only substance you’ll be building devices like lights and stands out of is wood. Wood, even though it can be sanded and painted still looks like wood. Prefab devices come with the benefit of high-tech processes like injection molding, metal stamping and extrusion and computer controlled machining. Devices such as filters and water handling devices can be built from acrylic sheet and pvc both of which have a very stark industrial look, which might not fit into every décor.

All that said, there are three main areas where doing it yourself is fairly easy and extremely cost effective:

LIGHTING – Lighting is one the most expensive investments to make in a sophisticated tank. Fish only tanks, fresh or salt simply are boxes of water containing fish, and do not require any light, except for the owner to see their fish. However, salt water reef aquaria and freshwater planted aquaria are biotope simulations, and require lighting similar to what is found in nature. That means light and lots of it! How much exactly depends on the contents, and is the subject of other discussion, but generally 3 to 6 watts a gallon is an accepted moderate to high range. Technology presents us with a dizzying array of choices on how we provide light. Lighting technology ranging from old, mature and somewhat obsolete standard or “normal output” fluorescent tubes through the increasingly popular HQI metal halide and cutting edge t5ho fluorescent systems are available to choose from. Typically fluorescent lights are the easiest to work with, given their flexibility and relatively low operating temperatures. A simple twin-bulb 192 watt power-compact fixture will cost between $180 and $300 depending on outside appearance and features. To build that same basic light fixture out of wood would cost you about $100. That is a definite savings, allowing more of the budget to be put toward something that cannot easily be built.

FILTRATION – Filtration is projected by “the industry” as something that is complex are requires high technology. The reality is, even the most advanced filters are simply devices that pass water over media or through a process like protein skimming. While under gravel filters and hang-on-back power filters used to be commonly accepted as the ultimate in filtration, the ideal filtration comes from involving nature in the process as much as possible. Devices such as canister filters cannot be easily replicated with do it yourself means, as they rely on water tight seals which are still easily disassembled. However, using a “sump” system on your tank allows you to explore a large range of inexpensive filtration, which is much more effective than commercially bought products. A simple small plastic trash bin, filled with lava rocks and topped off with filter floss will provide the same enormous surface area that a $200 wet/dry does, but at a small fraction of the cost, with the most expensive item being $4 for a bag of lava rocks, enough to make several filters. For the sump itself, using a $15 50 gallon rubber made storage tub will serve the same purpose as a $45 30 gallon aquarium or an even more expensive custom acrylic sump.

FURNITURE – A stand to support your tank and equipment is the most critical investment, but it need not be one of the most expensive. $200+ for a “wood” stand from a pet store will usually get you laminated particle board skeleton wrapped with a wood veneer. The stand might have a cabinet or two built in. Although the stand surely is built to hold the tank, it is certain that the manufacturer took no extra steps to strengthen the stand, as those would add cost. Wrought iron or steel stands are also available retail, and are extremely strong, but limit you on appearance because they offer no room to hide any equipment. Building your own stand or cabinet is very easy and inexpensive. Stud grade wood 2x4s makes an excellent skeleton, capable of supporting tremendous amounts of weight. Smaller tanks (under 30 gallons) permit the use of furniture grade 1×4 or 1×2 boards as the skeleton, making the stand very light and attractive. A stand built from wood can be built to any size you desire, and can encompass unique ideas you may have for your aquarium system. Aside from the time taken to assemble the stand, the costs are minimal.

WHAT NOT TO BUILD – Some things are best left to machines and skilled craftsman. Building large aquaria from glass or plastic can result in tremendous savings, but you need a large amount of skill, and access to somewhat difficult materials and uncommon tools. Handling a 75 lb pane of glass without a counter-balanced vacuum clamp arm is difficult. Sure, we have all read articles on someone building a 300 gallon tank from plywood and glass, and talking about how easy it was. If it were really that easy, more people would be doing it, and the price on glass tanks would have not be so high.

Doing it yourself can result in substantial savings, as well as a great education in how something works. Working on projects involving electrical wiring is something that you should do a lot of research on, and have confidence in your skills before attempting. Working on water handling projects, you want to test, test and test again before putting a device into operation; otherwise you may have a nasty mess to take care of! Brainstorm with other hobbyists whenever possible. They may be able to see other angles on a project that you’ve overlooked.

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