A Golden Reef Tank - Colorado

350 Gallon Coral Reef Tank

This project is the product of years of planning. I was literally sketching up plans for this back in 2004. I have stacks of equipment specifications, dimensional drawings, 3D computer renderings, "back of the envelope" notes, and notebooks that I've accumulated over the years for this one goal. So, it's no mistake that with the workshop complete and the basement remodel underway, I sent off sketches and specifications to have a tank manufactured. The front end of the tank display was deliberately planned into the basement remodel.

Rendering ideas

Rendering ideas

I had very specific requirements that the tank manufacturer was required to work around. I wanted the manufacturer to produce the stand for warranty purposes. I also knew that we wanted a bar top area around the perimeter of the peninsula shaped tank. I requested that the manufacturer engineer the stand with the counter support integrated into the design. That would allow the structural support to hold granite tops with no concern of sagging. I also planned on standing on the counter to service the tank. A quick wooden mock-up of the outer dimensions of the aquarium determined that I can reach all points of the tank while standing on the counter.

The tank will disappear into the wall leaving the back end accessible from the filtration room area. The back end of the tank has two "dry boxes" on opposing sides for magnetically coupled circulation pumps. The "wet" side with the propeller will be located in the aquarium while the "dry" side will hold the diving mechanism for the pumps. The center box is the overflow section where water will overflow out of the aquarium and be directed back to the aquarium filtration.

This is another view of the rendering that displays the general layout of the room.

The tank was ordered and being manufactured while the contractors started the rough construction in the basement. Below is the rough opening the aquarium will fit through as seen from the back end where the filtration room will fit. 5 x 20 amp dedicated circuits were run to the filtration room and purposely located high on the wall to keep them above equipment level and away from water.

At this point, the rough construction was complete. I have completed all of the additional work to prep the room for equipment. I painted the room with multiple coats of high gloss white paint and installed Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic (FRP) on the two walls where a majority of the filtration equipment was installed. I also poured 2500 lbs of self-leveling concrete on the floor. The contractors had placed the floor drain in the highest point in the room with the floor sloping away as much as 1 1/2" over 10 ft. I needed to correct that as much as possible prior to moving on.

I shimmed the aquarium stand level with metal shims. Then, I built a shallow form around the stand and poured self-leveling concrete underneath the stand to ensure that every point under the stand was supported evenly straight down to the concrete slab.

After the new floor was cured in the filtration room, I sealed it with a concrete primer and installed rubberized flooring throughout that space.

Floor drain now functional

I built a base cabinet to hold dry goods and equipment that was installed near the sink in the room. I also started trimming in some of the window sills, baseboard, and doors in the room.

Paint grade cabinet made from scrap material around the shop

Formica window sill I built custom to fit the space

Raised platform so moisure can't get trapped under the cabinet

The base cabinet installed

Both windows fully trimmed

Drawers on the base cabinet

150g Mixing tanks for fresh and salt water

Racks staged for future equipment

Racks staged for future equipment

Roll out trays for dry goods under the aquarium

Rough backing installed on the stand

I installed the final woodwork over the plywood

To make the room as durable as possible, I wanted all of the shelving, counters, and window sills to be covered with Formica. That also gave me an opportunity to refresh my laminating skills. So, I built 16 shelves and covered the tops and sides with Formica. Most shelves are over 4' long and 29" wide. I also built and installed the long counter-top that is "L-shaped" sitting on top of the base cabinets and running the length of the wall where reactors and other aquarium filtration equipment was installed.

Shelves prepped for lamination

Formica sheets staged in the shop

Some completed shelves

Counter framework built

Counter framework painted

Counter installed on the framework

Future refugium

Future quarantine rack

MRC filtration equipment staged

Salvaged tank prepped for fish quarantine

MRC filtration equipment staged

Upper cabinets built and installed

The cabinetry mostly complete on the front end of the display

At this stage, I began building all of the various tanks, sumps, and other acrylic filtration components. With a shop full of woodworking tools, transitioning to acrylic manufacturing isn't a difficult task. It's just a messy task. I used some reclaimed acrylic tanks for some of the filtration sumps. Even so, those tanks were heavily altered or expanded on. I also welded on 1/4" white acrylic on the outside of all of the sumps. That added an additional layer of strength to the acrylic joints and thickness to the walls which also increases strength. I am really pleased with the final products. The white acrylic not only add strength but gives it a professional look.

Covered in acrylic snow

Primary filtration sump (72" L x 24" W x 36" H)

Elevated section for filtration socks

Removeable filter sock tray

The finished product after covering all sides with 1/4" white acrylic. The bottoms of all sumps were also reinforced with an additional layer of 1/2" acrylic. I left viewing windows into the sides of the sump sections for inspection.

I built a sump for the main display. I built a separate sump for the rack that will hold the frag tanks. I refurbished and altered a tank that will act as the refugium to grow macro-algeas for filtration purposes that will also be connected to the main display system. I built a separate filtration sump from scratch for the fish and coral quarantine systems on the opposite side of the room completely separate from the main display system.

I added a ladder tray to the ceiling of the room that will carry data lines, plumbing lines, water lines to and from the RO/DI water filtration system, and other equipment that will need to be run overhead. In the future, I plan on adding an PTZ IP camera system that will run on a rail attached to the ladder tray. The camera will be able to traverse the entire room and will be controlled from a web interface. So, the user will be able to roam the entire length of the room and inspect all of the equipment remotely.

With a majority of the acrylic manufacturing work out of the way, I was able to start the plumbing process. I went with SCH-80 plumbing for everything in the room because the bulkheads are more reliable and the various valves I used are higher quality. They hold up better over time as detritus from the aquarium system builds up. The true union valves also provide easier access over time to service equipment.

I am using two identical return pumps for redundancy. Even if one fails, the other will keep enough water returning to the tank to sustain the system until a replacement can be installed. With identical pumps, I can keep a third on hand for immediate replacement.

I had originally asked the contractor to place the sink and washing machine hook-ups on the far wall away from all of the filtration equipment. That would have cost more to run the drain lines across the room. With the sink and floor drain placed where they are, I was forced to reconfigure the location of all major sections of the system.

The resulting configuration will still work well. However, it complicated the plumbing and meant that valuable floor space would be taken up with plumbing feed and return lines. To solve this issue, I built a framework that would span over the plumbing. On top of that, I cut and secured fiberglass flood grating. Now, I can walk over the plumbing lines to access all of the reactors that make up the filtration system of the main aquarium. The fiberglass grates are held in with aluminum extrusion but easily lift out in separate panels to allow access to the plumbing for maintenance.

I plumbed in two DC circulation pumps to the water mixing station. One each for the fresh water RO/DI tank and the saltwater mixing barrel. They are each 165 gal tanks. The plumbing included independent feed lines back to the display and quarantine systems for easy water changes with the turn of a few ball valves. I also included some points of attachment for 1/4" tubing. In the future, these might be plumbed into peristaltic pumps that are automated to control water changes.

I chose the particular Reef Octopus DC pumps because they can accept external inputs for control. I built the water resistant control boxes to mount the DC pump's controller to which left plenty of room internally for future automation. I already have 70" electronic tape measures engineered for measuring water depth. The resistance varies with the depth of the water in the tanks which will allow me to easily determine water volume and display that localy at the control boxes. This will also aid in feedback during water changes or adding a layer of safety to the system if any of the pumps are left on inadvertantly. One last hope is that aquarium controller manufacturers start opening up their systems to analog voltage inputs to graph water consumption over timer or any other third party designs we might have need for.

These are some pictures panning the room at this point in the build.

I built water proof enclosures for the aquarium controllers. At this point, I am using the Neptune Apex controllers. I have worked diligently to try to protect the sensitive electronics from water splashing. The front panels are modular so that I can install any buttons, switches, or interfaces needed down the road.

The next step was to design and built the aquarium hood. We wanted the hood to be low-profile if possible. We didn't want a massive piece of furnature above the tank distracting from the tank. That meant that I needed to engineer a solution to be able to access the tank on a routine basis as well as move the hood out of the way so that I can reach deep in the tank when required.

As with everything else on this build, I began with 3D renderings to establish dimensions and material lists. The inner framework is built from 8020 extruded aluminum. I settled on a design that would allow the 48" x 48" x 16" hood to slide off of the end of the tank leaving a center support rail as the only obstacle to reaching into the water. 60" heavy duty full extension ball bearing drawer glides were the basis for supporting the weight of the hood and lights. The sides ride on low friction pads that maintain stability as the hood is extended.

I fabricated acrylic panels to shield the bearing glides from moisture and left the area above them exposed to the air in the main living space which is inherently dry in Colorado. I designed the system to allow for a single lead screw to ride in between the center supporting beams. That was eventually attached to a stepper motor and DIY control system. By turning the lead screw, I could automate the hood opening and closing. The mechanics for that were also contained within the central support rail system to protect it from corrosion.

With the rendering complete, I began assembly.

For a period of time, I used a power drill to spin the lead screw to open and close the hood. Eventually, I had time to begin the automated control system. I wanted both local control through buttons on the enclosure on the back end of the aquarium. The larger requirement was to control the system through a remote control. I was able to source a key fob remote that operates on freq hop technology which lessened the possibility of accidental triggering of the hood's open/close functionality. I also wanted to add fail safes to the system so that it would never be able to over-extend or over-rectract. The system needed to accelerate the rotation of the lead screw up to a maximum velocity and decelerate similarly to avoid strain on any of the mechanical components and for asthetics. One last requirement was that it have an emergency stop function to instantly stop the movement of the hood.

I design the system so that the controller knows where the hood is located at all times and what state of travel it is in. So, the system will decelerate as the hood comes to the fully extended position and it will decelerate as it returns to the home position. I used Hall Effect sensors at both ends of the travel as another fail-safe. The microprocessor will stop movement of the hood when it receives control signals from those sensors depending on what state of travel it is currently in (extending or retracting. The user can stop the hood's movement either slowly with one button on the remote or instantly with another which naturally was assigned to the RED button on the remote. The third option is to press the open or close buttons and walk away. With no user intervention needed, the hood will open or close fully.

I first designed and built the controller in my shop.

The controller was installed near the retracted hood beams and cable track on the back side of the aquarium. Being close to the ceiling, it is out of the way. In addition to the button functionality on the face of the controller, external inputs/output screw terminals are available so that I can eventually install parallel control functions more easily on the main electronics enclosure across the room.

With the mechanical backbone working, I next built the wood facade. All three sides of the hood open up for quick access to the tank during feeding. I also completed the doors in the area for refreshments.

At this point, I am still getting the system up and running fully. Water has been running in the tank since September. I've gone through the normal cycles of algea. I have a few fish in the system and have introduced a few coral. I still need to complete the calcium rector.

I will also be reworking the exhaust system the contractors initially installed. The exhaust fan they installed is inadequate for a room of this size to begin with. Now, with 80-90% humidity in that space and over 700 gallons of saltwater flowing, I am seeing temperature issues. I will install a new 6" duct and fan that moves over 300 CFM. Hopefully, I can avoid installing a chiller or mini-split AC down the road. It's Colorado and summer isn't far away. I'll know soon enough.