Ep.7 - Fish Room: How to prep the area for a large reef tank. A tour of the aquarium space | BRS360
Fish rooms are one of the coolest things a reef tank owner can incorporate into a tank build because ultimately it will increase your chances of success. The main reason is because a separate or remote area to house your filtration equipment and store supplies will make maintenance tasks way easier, which means your far less likely to neglect them.
You also get the benefit of noise reduction, the option of a larger more robust sump and filtration equipment as well as a hazard free zone to maintain the tank and equipment. Finishing the fish room complete with a sink and floor drain really goes a long way in terms of maintenance. As Ryan puts it, “If it is 20x easier to do, I am 20x more likely to actually do it.”
A proper fish room takes planning and you will run into challenges when retrofitting something like this into your home. In the case of the BRS360, the tank location was carefully selected with a utility room directly behind the tank. The space is small but already has electrical, hot/cold water and a drain which are three very crucial elements to a successful and functioning fish room.
Learn from your mistakes - a motto for success
All of us know it, more of us should follow it. With large projects, it is easy to start driving with blinders on a one way track to the quickest finish line. Taking into account past lessons is sometimes easier said than done. With the BRS360, Ryan’s entire approach is to learn from the experience we have gained throughout the years of BRStv and apply the collective knowledge of the reefkeeping community.
The 52 Weeks of Reefing-BRS160 tank was an awesome experience for Ryan and the team and continues to be a successful reef tank to this day. After 3 years of maintaining the tank, there are some valuable lessons Ryan can apply to building his fish room.
Ensure easy access to plumbing and the overflow box
The BRS160 was designed with the display tank on one side of the wall and the sump directly behind the tank on the backside of that wall. We cut and finished a large rectangular cut-out for the plumbing and wires to pass through before placing the display tank, this posed a few problems for us.
The overflow and plumbing is very difficult to access because of the tight gap between the wall and overflow box. Any time we need to remove it, fix a leak or adjust the plumbing inside the box it is nearly impossible and requires complete disassembly mostly because getting tools in that tight space is hard.
In hindsight, we should have plumbed this aquarium through the bottom of the tank rather than using an external overflow off the back. We also should have waited for the display tank, stand and hood to be in place before cutting into the wall, this way it could be perfectly cut to size without worrying about seeing it from the front which brings up another excellent point.
Finish only what matters using the right material
When putting the final touches on your fish room, planning is key and you should spend some time thinking about what really needs to be finished and what does not. We aesthetically “finished” the #BRS160 window with drywall and paint so it looks nice on camera but we lost ½” of space around the entire window vs. just going with unfinished studs or studs covered in something waterproof like FRP material.
Drywall and paint do not hold up against salt spray so just be sure to consider the areas that are vulnerable to this sort of damage. In our case, that finished drywall and paint around the perimeter of the window deteriorated from salt spray coming out of the external overflow box.
The FRP here would have been a way better choice to line the window studs and of course, a better fitting cover for the overflow. The salt spray on the display side also damaged the front of the wall and therefore creating a protective backsplash would have been ideal.
To make it look nice, we also finished or sheet-rocked the plywood sump stand. It was sharp looking at the start but in time it has been chipped and dented. Protecting the corners and edges and covering the studs using reinforced FRP material or some sheets of ABS plastic would have been a better choice.
Fish rooms by nature will be humid, like a bathroom or shower in your home. Mold and moisture resistant drywall is the way to go and it is often green in color and readily available at home improvement stores. It is wise to use that or some other moisture proof material whenever possible during your build.
Plan for easy access to electrical
We planned and built the BRS160 with plenty of outlets and two 20 amp circuits to handle the load but the sockets themselves were placed too far away from the equipment and made managing some of the electrical challenging.
We also didn't install the electrical boards all that logically. It looked clean on day one with everything zip tied in place but in the end it created a huge pain point for cleaning, replacing or otherwise removing equipment. Rather than zip ties, consider velcro or some other wire management and adhesive methods that are easier to remove. Clean electrical is synonymous with safe so it is definitely a crucial aspect of your tank’s health.
You will need to manage the humidity
Back in his early days, Ryan had built a basement frag operation which ultimately created upwards of 80% humidity in the basement. This is bad news on a variety of fronts but mostly the damage that will result from constant moisture condensing on everything in the room.
Eventually the basement was vented out but Ryan didn't account for make up air to replace what was blowing out which caused pressure and temperature issues throughout the household. The final solution was putting lids on the tanks which was less than ideal because it dramatically reduced the light penetration but adding more light is easier than dealing with the humidity.
Dehumidifiers are the most efficient solution for this evaporation and moisture in the air but they do come with a price tag and must be properly installed.
Choose the right flooring - it is worth the hassle!
Carpet, like what we have around the BRS160, is a terrible idea because it makes it difficult to clean up spills and will allow water to seep through onto the framework below where it can damage or rot the wood. Bare cement is better but will eventually deteriorate with heavy exposure to saltwater.
Tile or some other waterproof flooring with a floor drain installed is the way to go, you can easily get rid of spilled water down the drain and don’t need to worry about water damage to the framework or foundation of your home. Epoxy based floor paint is also an easy solution and works great to cover raw cement.
Share your fish room construction tips in the comments, we like to think we are building this BRS360 together with all of you and we realize the reefkeeping community is ultimately the best resource for learning. In fact, Ryan and Randy apply tips and knowledge gained from your comments all of the time!
What will the BRS360 fish room look like?
First things first, Ryan needs to install some new tile flooring around the tank. Spills are inevitable and instead of redoing the entire basement floor, he will install new tile flooring under the tank up to about 12” in every direction around the bottom of the stand.
He hasn’t decided on lighting or a hood style yet and is still in debate with the stand builder, Chris Benner at Sticks and Stones Aquarium Cabinetry.
If we go with a suspended hood or naked light fixtures over the BRS360, we need to protect the wall with some sort of backsplash to protect it from salt spray.
What do all of you do to protect the paint, walls and other surfaces around the tank? Share your thoughts in the comments.
For this reason, Ryan is leaning heavily in the direction of using a complete closed hood to which will seal off the top of the tank and prevent these issues.
You might have noticed the cold air return vent is behind the tank and this needs to get moved. It is possible to just vent the stand properly to accommodate these air return vents but they will also get in the way on the opposite side of the all when we start to run wires and plumbing.
You might say Ryan lucked out in that this room contains the main electrical panel and a drain stack with access to cold and hot water lines for the sink. Call it luck, but the house was specifically chosen because this ideal potential fish room existed.
The plan is to isolate three or four 15 AMP circuits for the tank. More than enough, yes, but it is safer to distribute the gear across multiplate breakers in the case of accidental trips.
A utility sink in your fish room is like a dream come true for everyone in your home because you can easily clean equipment such as pumps, skimmers and reactors without having to carry a slurry of rotten fish poop throughout your house. Having hot water access makes the cleaning process even easier and cold water access means the RO/DI system can easily be installed for top-off and mixing saltwater.
Even if you can’t get water taps for a sink, it is worth the effort of running 1/4 RO line through the walls or ceiling to get a source for your RO/DI water in the room. Convenience is everything when you are planning for a long term tank.
While on the topic of water, it just so happens the main drain stack for the house runs through the corner of this room so installing the floor drain should not be complicated. Finding the slope or low spot in floor is as easy as dropping a marble on the floor and wherever it ends up is the spot for your drain. If no clear slope exists, a contractor can install a skim coat on the floor to create a slope for water to flow naturally toward the drain.
After the drain, the cement floor inside the room will be covered in epoxy because saltwater eats away at raw cement. Standard garage floor epoxy with flake for traction is the plan but this is another area in which we could use your help.
What do you use to protect your fish room floor and prevent it from becoming dangerously slippery?
Looking again at the cold air return vents and the framing around them, Ryan will need to make some adjustments to make room for the plumbing and powerheads. The ducting definitely needs to be moved and it appears this is a load bearing wall which means a professional should be making any adjustments to the framing so as not to compromise the structural stability of the home.
Humidity will be handled with a tight fitting custom lid for the sump so evaporation will be limited. Ryan will also install an exhaust fan and make-up air vent just in case. Here is the cool part, we can automate the fan using a humidistat and the Neptune Systems Apex using the Breakout Box accessory with an alarm or alert that will notify Ryan if the humidity rises beyond acceptable levels. In a small room like this, an electronic dehumidifier would be very effective it we end up needing it.
The final consideration for this space is how to make everything fit including the water storage and mixing bins, a work surface, the sink and some extra shelving or storage space. It's a small room so not everything will fit and Ryan decided to relocate the water storage bins to another area of the basement because running the ¼ RO lines should be easy.
A cabinet will be suspended on the wall for storage above the sink and work surface. Ryan is currently shopping for the perfect large, stainless steel restaurant style sink. He wants something with two deep compartments, a large drain board and long flexible faucet hose for cleaning. Marine grade 316 grade steel is ideal or at least something with a rust proof coating. This large sink is awesome for cleaning and will provide a work surface that drains into itself.
For mixing saltwater, Ryan is using a large 160 gallon plastic drum from Norwesco. The 28” wide plastic tank is the biggest one that will fit through a standard door frame. The water changes will be done automatically using a Neptune Systems DOS so storing the saltwater remotely will be easy. Since space is an issue this saltwater bin will go into the utility room located adjacent to the fish room as mentioned earlier.
Ryan is still faced with a few decisions including how to finish off the room. Should we drywall it right away for a clean finish? Share your thoughts in the comments.
The plan is to likely leave the room unfinished with exposed walls through the first stages of the build so making changes is easy. Once everything is setup and permanent, some sort of wall covering will be applied.
Be sure to stick around for Talking BRS360 LIVE in which Greg Carroll, president of the SCMAS reef club that originally founded the Reefapalooza shows, joins Ryan and Randy to discuss building a dream tank of his own.