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A Long Way To Go

by Marina Parha

I am not a technical person. My concept of DIY is to make a phone call to somebody who can do it for me. I got ten thumbs when it comes to the simplest possible craft and I habitually use my trusted manicure file to screw lose screws back in place.

Science and Maths at school were my personal nightmare. My teachers were painfully aware of it: I spared no effort to make their lives as difficult as they made mine during classes. Add to this that I have zero natural curiosity about how things work. I just want them to work. My paradise is to press a button and presto! All done. Get the picture?

Armed with all these qualities, my monumental impatience and a cheerful smile I entered the world of fish keeping with flying colours. My first tank was branded stuff, carefully chosen to match the furniture (I am very particular about colour co-ordination). The fish blended in nicely, too. While putting together my goldfish community I took extra steps to ensure I had the right combination of black moors, fan tail orandas, yellow goldfish and white pandas. At the time my biggest problem was that blue goldfish were simply unobtainable. A touch of blue in the tank was a must.

All went swimmingly well for a couple of weeks, during which I kept adding the required touches (i.e. fish) here and there. The tank was looking pretty and colourful, the fish were active and eating greedily. Some of them were starting to play by attempting quick dashes and showers through the air bubbles and back again.  And then thunder struck.  On a Saturday evening I noticed that one of my black moors had grown some white stuff on its eye (where did that come from?) and was swimming lopsided. The others were attacking it while it was hopelessly trying to swim away from them, clearly unable to defend itself. I didn’t know what was happening but I could tell it was serious. The shops were closed and I had no hope of getting help or advice from anywhere. I was at a total loss. I put the poor fish in a separate bowl of water and watched it with eyes full of tears as it slowly passed away.

With a sunken heart I returned to my tank only to find that I was on a fast track to nether world and rock bottom was still a long way to go. My prize shubunkin, Baby, a gorgeous little fish with the most elegant black trimmings on its fins, was darting around in agony, unable to breath. The other fish looked in a state too. Reality hit me. My tank was to be the grave of them all and the only thing I could do was to sit there and watch them die. I have never felt so helpless in my life. What went wrong?

I may not be technical but I am a carer by nature. I have always had pets. I love animals. I am fascinated by “discovering” their character, their uniqueness, the way they behave under different circumstances. The loss of my fish that weekend left a gap in my life which, on Monday morning, turned into an opening. Ammonia, nitrates, hardness, pH and you name it slipped through it and invaded my world.

Six months later, I was sitting on the couch delving into a book on fish nutrition. The survivors of the catastrophe were nonchalantly swimming in a new, much bigger tank. I was surprised to find that I was actually quite interested in the barrage of amino acids, carbohydrates and polyunsaturates coming my way. Was I just now reaching the expected point on the learning curve of a 16 year old? Watching Dyson, my yellow male goldfish, playfully chasing his partner gave me the answer. The school waffle could not attract me because it was simply irrelevant to me and my life. My newly founded interest in science stemmed from the fact that this was applied and applicable knowledge on a subject of a particular interest to me. Aquarism and all the technical stuff it entailed was not about the fish. It was not about me either. It was about the rapport between me and the fish.

I swallowed my pride, sent mental apologies to my science teachers and retracted everything I have ever said against Chemistry and Biology. Ok, so they weren’t an entire waste of time. I still had an uneasy feeling about all of this though. So much so that I could even see a twinkle in the eyes of the fish. I wasn’t wrong, these little fellows had more surprises in stock for me. What next?

For a while things were just fine. I had learned lesson number one in aquarism: people can’t answer the questions you don’t ask. This served me well. What served me even better was lesson number two: if you ask the wrong person you will get the wrong answer. Getting more knowledgeable meant trying to identify the right questions to ask. Thus I started experimenting with food, tank environments, additives and plants. My fish were growing, spawning, new species joined or replaced the existing ones, walls were covered by tanks and bookshelves by books. I was on full steam.

Time went by and I started having indications that trouble was ahead. My fish were tank busters. The ever increasing demands for levels of oxygen in the tanks emphasized the need for better filtration and oxygenation, which got temporarily addressed with the addition of external filters and air pumps. This in turn highlighted the intolerance of some species to higher levels of water movement, not to mention my intolerance to cluttered rooms and trailing wires. Fish were moved around or donated accompanied by books about them, communities were re-arranged and the house was looking like a tip. It was no fun anymore.

Thinking about it now there was another dimension to all of this. Up to that point my tanks and practices were focussed on making sure the fish were alive and healthy mainly for my own pleasure. I enjoyed the interaction of different species in mixed community tanks and the casual spawns. But as the fish and I were growing together I wanted more: I wanted natural, I wanted optimal conditions for them. And I wanted to initiate and control these conditions. That’s when Physics and Maths entered my life.

A branded tank is a system limited by the specs of the manufacturer. Manufacturers don’t have specific species in mind when they design and build tanks; they focus on target markets. As a result branded tanks are good generalist equipment but can’t always cope with the demands arising from keeping specific species or communities. A system, on the other hand, is a complex infrastructure supporting a tank to host a particular species of fish, designed to the specs of the aquarist. It is a bit over the top for general use but it specifically addresses the needs of particular communities, if designed properly. I had tanks, I needed systems.

When designing a system two factors come into play: the fish to be hosted and the aquarist himself. The character and requirements of the fish are as important as the personal style of an aquarist, his expectations, his limits and the way in which he interacts with his fish. From this general principle a multitude of other things follow. I won’t pretend I know them all. I am learning as I go on.

What I would like to do here is to explain what I took into account when designing my two new systems, a 750 litres hypancistrus zebra tank and a 1000 litres baryancistrus tank. This will be accompanied by pictures from the various stages of setting the tanks up. In the process you will also see some of the things I didn’t pay particular attention to as well as the effects of these oversights.

My starting point was the type of fish the tanks would host. My fish are bottom dwellers, so I needed “floor surface”. For plecostomus tanks the total water volume is important only in terms of keeping a steady environment (when it comes to temperature, pH and so on) and maintaining a good water quality. For my zebra tank I decided to go for 150x60x68cm. With respect to “floor space” this should allow me to split the tank up into two or possibly three “territories” for breeding colonies, each with caves towards the left hand side, wood on the right hand side and an open space in the middle. Plecos need the open space to feed in. If this is not provided the food will go near the caves or the hiding areas of the females, which is likely to provoke fights. The back of the tank would be furnished with horizontal pieces of slate forming cracks and crevices for the fish to hide, play and spend most of their day in. To calculate the optimum floor size, the adult size of the fish as well as the corresponding sizes of caves, slate and wood were taken into account. I decided to build each colony around two males, the Alpha and a subdominant, to enhance the chances of successful spawning. This meant that space for four to six caves in total had to be provided. As it is quite likely that fights between the males may erupt and a subdominant male of one colony may try to become the Alpha male of another colony I have also arranged for an additional tank to be free to host any “superfluous” or subdominant males. Females are not a problem (have you noticed they usually aren’t?) This tank was designed to host a maximum total of 24 fish – 6 males and 18 females. Colony ratio: 1 male to 3 females. The adult size of the fish is 10-12 cm.

The second tank is meant to be a baryancistrus tank. Well, this one is more of an experiment. There is limited information on breeding baryancistrus and I would like to give it a try. Breeding is important in that it is reputed these fish will only breed if they live in optimal conditions. The tank aims at allowing me to host separately various L-numbers currently classified as Baryancistrus. The fish will live in the faster water flow rates they prefer. As different species belonging to this subfamily have a number of common characteristics I am hoping I will be able to experiment using different habitat arrangements which may induce them to spawn. The spawning conditions will be the ideal living conditions for the species.

The tank is 200x60x68. It is planned to host (temporarily) about 26 fish of various sizes. As some of these fish grow to a sizeable 30 cm length, they will have to be re-housed later on in one of the tanks I am planning to build in the not so distant future. The Baryancistrus tank will have no slate initially as the fish don’t seem to need it. Bigger caves and layered bogwood will be the only furniture in the tank. The caves will be arranged at random; I don’t expect the males to compete as they belong to different sub-species.

The size of each system in terms of the water volume it would hold, determined the glass we would use. For the 750 litres system we used 10mm; for the 1000 litres we used 12mm. The edges of both tanks are bevelled.

I wanted both systems to be a combination of display and breeding tanks. This meant the tanks had to be easily accessible and functional as well as meeting certain aesthetic criteria. In my experience the combination is not ideal, particularly when it comes to bottom dwelling fish. Deep long tanks make catching a wounded fish to isolate it almost impossible. Siphoning the substrate becomes a copious task.

Still the combination is not totally impractical either. Much depends on the tank furniture and the way this is arranged. There was one important aspect when it came to accessibility – and that was the height of the tank. Experience has showed me that 68cm was a bit too much. But I needed the water volume and the new system had to blend in with my existing one, which would be sitting next to it. Some time ago I have toyed with the idea of building a longer and shallower construction with a river-like flow. I ruled this option out as both species of fish live in considerable depths in their natural habitat. In addition, a shallower construction would present some difficulties if I ever needed to simulate a dry – wet season. So I decided that under the circumstances 68cm was the height to go for.

To maximise use of space I have asked for the tank cabinets not to have the usual overhang at all. The whole system was to be a stunning wall – to – wall 3,50m length construction. This was to partly address another issue I have had with my tanks: the build up of nitrates. A bigger water volume would allow for lower ppm of nitrates in the water. For the same reason I have asked for the cabinets to house full length sumps. Normally one would expect the cabinet to be sectioned to allow for a storage facility. As I already have such facility in my other tank which sits next to the space the new ones would go, I thought I could do without. While we were fine on the sump front, I was told, regrettably, that the overhang was a structural must.

In preparation for the arrival, with the help of some friends, I started re-arranging the furniture. We could use all the help we could get – so his His Royal Highness volunteered to lend us a paw too:

Having meticulously removed all the dust from the drawer runners to ensure the cabinet was as light as possible when we moved it, it was time to take a rest. Too much work is dangerous for One’s well being:

.

The tanks were to be delivered on Saturday morning. The smaller would be carried in through the front door. The bigger had to come in through the window. Ian arrived to take the glass off just before the tanks got here:

The first tank was unloaded. Dave, Eddie and Thomas (from left to right) were laughing at me taking pictures. Well, ok, it was a first!

There was a lorry full of goodies yet to be unloaded:

Next thing to come out was the smaller of the two cabinets:

Spot the error! The back is hollow. Where on earth are we going to fix the UV sterilizer? The back of the cabinet made me feel uneasy. I realised that in placing this order and finalising the details I concentrated more on the technical side of things and I didn’t confirm small details, such as the backs in question. In the previous system I had specified a three quarters back which would protect the sump from dust and exposure to room conditions and would also allow for cables, air tubes and fixing space for the peripherals. This time I assumed the same details would be adhered to. Major mistake! If it wasn’t specified in the order there was no guarantee it would be one way or another. I started making a list of things to fix already.

The cabinet came through the window and Eddie started sticking the polystyrene tops on it with silicone glue.

The lip at the front of the cabinet is designed to cover the polystyrene tiles and two cm of the bottom of the tank, to give a nice smooth finish.

The second cabinet came in and the guys tried to push both in position. Surprise surprise …they didn’t fit. They were 7 cm over! Now what?

Eddie quickly ascertained this was due to my fine measuring skills combined with a bit of liberty the manufacturer took in making the cabinets. While Ian was lecturing me on cautiousness (always allow an inch for possible errors – things don’t just come as you want them except if built on site) Eddie was grumbling about not re-confirming my measurements. Second note of the day: measuring properly IS important. It may bore you to tears but you have to do it right.

Thankfully, Eddie is not one to be phased easily. He quickly decided we were to saw the overhangs off from both sides of the cabinets. I didn’t dare to offer to help, not that I was so inclined anyway. The guys started pointing, calculating and muttering while I pretended to look at my fish. Shortly afterwards it was announced that half the house had to be wrecked: the floor trimmings and the skirting boards were to come off from both walls. Ian also pointed at the obvious: I hadn’t allowed for the overhang of the windowsill either. The art of measuring was laughing at my face!

So far though I had confirmed one thing: that the alleged need to have an overhang at the top was not quite as valid a point as I was originally made to believe. On this occasion we had two cabinets without an overhang in the middle and with two partially removed overhangs at each side. It was clear this wouldn’t destabilise the tanks. Good to know.

Sending the tanks back was not an option. I only had myself to blame for ruining the house. I decided not to let it get in the way of my excitement but let me tell you this: the price for correcting the damage we made on the property will be the best part of  £600. Pretty expensive tuition fee for this particular lesson.

One of the things we considered while designing the system was the way the two tanks would look side to side. It was clear there would be a gap at the joint, which for aesthetic reasons I was keen to avoid. The issue wasn’t resolved during discussions and I was getting used to the idea of having to put up with it. At the end of the day, if I didn’t like it, we would have to think of something else for the next phase of the project. Here, however, I was in for a nice surprise: Eddie had asked the manufacturer to fix one door and leave an overhang so it would lock over the other cabinet. Good thinking!

As Ian was taking off the parts of the house that stood in the way of the tanks moving to position Eddie was gluing the polystyrene tiles on the tops of the cabinets to ensure a totally smooth surface for the tanks.

 

And the cabinets were pushed to place. The finished product looked impressive but Eddie had a pensive look on his face. Something was not quite right. The floor had a slight slant; as a result the cabinets were not interlocking properly.  The tilt was imperceptible to the untrained eye. Yet operating tanks of this size on a partially uneven surface was a risk none of us wanted to take. Eddie made a note to bring some packing in next time, prior to fitting the pipes.

It was time for the tanks to come in. The guys went out and I opened one of the doors to check the space for the sump. Another shock was in stock: the space was too narrow.  The manufacturer had allowed for 15 cm of unusable floor space as opposed to the 5 1/2 cm allowed in my other cabinet. I couldn’t see the reason for it and I was not happy about it. Neither did I like the design of the internal supports. They were too wide thus limiting access to the sump. There was no need for this; if my 1200 litres could sit on narrower supports both lighter tanks could well do so too. Eddie promised to follow this up.

For those of you who may think these points are trivial I will point out that this variation from my preferred arrangement, if accepted, would cost me just over 100 litres of total water capacity in addition to making the system impractical. To fit in a considerably smaller space the sump would have to be smaller in size. This, in turn, had consequences.

In my view a satisfactory ratio between the clean water volume capacity of a sump and the water volume of a tank is no less than 1:5. A smaller capacity sump makes water changes cumbersome both for the aquarist and for the fish. I perform a 30%-40% water change twice a week. It makes a huge difference time wise if I have to fill a sump twice and pump the water up to having to fill it 5 or 6 times. Fish get minimum disturbance in the former case as the water temperature and other parameters in the tank don’t fluctuate as much. Conditioning and treatment of the water is more accurate and less problematic for me and the fish alike.

I consider easy access to a spacious sump to be imperative for another reason too. I occasionally use the sump for isolating big fish or to offer an extended acclimatisation period to new fish. To avoid excessive stress (particularly to adult males who are more likely to attract aggression) I allow some fish to stay in the sump for a week prior to putting them in the main tank. This ensures the fish are perfectly used to the water conditions prior to having to deal with their new tank mates.

Of course, less space in the sump also means less filtration and minimum, if at all, flexibility for further media additions if required. This combined with less cabinet space, that is, less space for peripherals, negates the very idea of a system.

The tank is the fishes’ space. Once it is set up the less the aquarist interferes there the better. Most of the work that needs to be done during maintenance takes place inside the cabinet and in the sump. This is where the electrics are, this is where new water, conditioners, medication and any other chemicals are added when required. Accordingly, in addition to the total space available in the cabinet and the sump the access space is also of paramount importance. Each door (opening) should be about 40-50 cm wide. Just imagine having to change an impeller or check a faulty pump underwater on your knees through a 20 cm opening and you will see my point.

 

Well, my list of “issues” to address was growing by the minute. So was my list of things to confirm next time I was ordering a system.

Outside the guys had wheeled the first tank in position, ready to be unpacked and carried inside.

The top of each tank, depending on its size, is sectioned into three to five openings, covered by double sliding glass panes with runners on each side. This allows for the easy removal of the panes to be cleaned when required. I don’t favour open top tanks; insects and dust pollute the water. In my case, I also had to take Himself into account; the prospect of walking in the room to see the cat bubbling his way down to the bottom of the tank was rather unappealing. 

The guys unwrapped the tank and the back of the overflow tower came to sight. The size of the tower is calculated by taking into account the total water volume of the tank and the amount of water the aquarist wishes to be circulated per hour. This in turn, depends on a number of factors, all fish related: the water flow rates preferred by the fish which will live in the tank, the expected amount of organic waste the fish will produce, the type of food they will be fed and so on.  The size of the tower corresponds with the diameter of the pipes and the capacity of the pumps (more maths!).  The tower is filled with bio-rings prior to operating the tank. This works as a trickle filter, allowing maximum oxygenation of the water. It also acts as a pre-filter blocking big particles such as plant leaves. Finally, the bio-rings stop the water from splashing down the drain pipes to the sump.

Once unwrapped the tank is ready to come inside.

The guys were carrying it across the room when I managed to get a shot of the two drain holes at the bottom of the tower. More on that later though. The important thing for me here is the slots at the bottom of the tower. Pleco fry get sucked through there and end up in the sump; some are saved, others not. This is one of the reasons that big constructions such as this cannot be used for raising the fry.

Putting tanks of this size in place is rather difficult and can be dangerous. The lip at the front of the cabinet stands in the way; the tank needs to go over it and flush to it, which means somebody’s fingers may well get trapped.

The added problem in this case, of course, was that the system was wall-to-wall, allowing no room for manoeuvring. Sliding the tank on the polysterene was a non-starter. It was just too heavy for it and the exercise would involve major risks. Ian saved the day with the “suckers”, a device that sticks to glass like a handle to allow lifting it.

Sliding the second tank between the first one and the wall was done in no time with this tool.

 

We were getting close to the end product for day one. Eddie brought the hoods in and put them in place.

The finished product looked like this:

Good, isn’t? Despite the shortcomings identified in the way I was rather pleased with the looks of it. The guys left and I went to make a cup of coffee and enjoy the looks of my new tank. I sat on the sofa looking at it smiling; I couldn’t wait to see it up and running. Then I caught Champ, my golden severum, looking at the new tank across the old one. I looked back .. and forward .. and back again – deep breath ….

The new tanks were 8 cm shorter than the old one. My dislike of anything practical has taken the better of me once more. Measuring the cabinets, the hood, the space and engrossed with the technical specs for filtration and sterilisation I had confirmed the wrong height requirements. Why? A quick glance at my list of issues to address pointed at the obvious: I focussed on the details that I wanted to improve on and I took for granted the things that were working fine with my existing tank. On a quick calculation this resulted in a system holding 270 litres of water less than planned. Thinking about it, this is almost half the size of my zebra tank and 17% of the total planned capacity of the new system. I needed a drink and a clean sheet of paper! 

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