Tim's 800 Gallon Phoenix Reef

garbled

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The disaster that is my in-wall aquarium


I have a large aquarium. When I say large, I mean, mistakes were made large. 800 Gallons, saltwater, reef, acrylic. It took me a very long time to get this thing running, and it was looking fairly decent.

It wasn't perfect, but it started to look good, and I was relatively happy with it's progress.

There were however, some demons lurking in there...



One such monster was the plumbing, and the sumps. I went with a DIY attitude, and was trying to save money, because as it turns out, setting up an 800g aquarium is way more expensive than 6x a 120g aquarium...

The tubs would overflow occasionally, in spite of having 2 2" pipes connecting them. The pump, a big dolphin 3000, started rusting and leaking. Yay.


And then we have the lights. Actually, I'm pretty proud of the lights, right up to the heatsink. A big vertical computer heatsink can absolutely hold down the temperature of a 100w COB/SMD LED run at 140 watts of power. No problem. Right until the fan dies. Then poof, instantly.

That's fixable though. What happened next, was not.

A little tiny solenoid, with a murloc push fitting, shattered. This push fitting, was what held back the mains water to my RO/DI unit. Solenoids get hot. I forgot that repeated heating and cooling of plastic causes it to get brittle...



This bad design resulted in a massive, and I mean massive flood of my house. The resulting damage destroyed tons of equipment, drywall, electrical stuff, etc. Many things did not survive this, including my will to keep working on the whole aquarium at all.



So it sat idle. For a long time. I kept the machinery running, but kind of ignored it. Later this bit me, as alot of the random things I plumbed in to keep the rocks and sand alive, were done with extension cords and bits of stupid. Then one day, a few weeks ago, a big zap sound was heard in the room. Luckily I was home, and found a bit of water dripping on an extension code, and a pump cord that was obviously burnt to a crisp.

Well that took out the last of my support equipment. Now I had a real problem on my hands. A giant aquarium, all pumps down, nothing works, fiasco everywhere, and it's a fire hazard to boot...
 
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garbled

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What went wrong?

So what went wrong with the big aquarium? Well a number of things.

First, my attempts to save money with DIY ended up costing me a fortune. DIY things are great sometimes, and sometimes there is no other option. But if you rely on certain things to keep working, like computer fans, and they don't, then you have a failure.

Second, the size of the aquarium caused me to make some foolish decisions with the routing of electricity. Extension cords, placing the Apex EB8's inside the frame of the stand, etc. If water drips on the interface between plug and extension cord, you get a fire. If that interface is anywhere under or alongside the tank, water will drip on it. Never ever do this. The EB8 looked like it was in a good spot. But funny thing about saltwater, it climbs cords. This meant, that little bits of salt and water went up the cord, into the aquabus, and rusted it all out. Even better, I was dumb enough to put the apex brain unit down there too. Guess what else is a brick?

So it was time to tear it all out. All of it. Every last bit, everything has to go.




I tore out all the plumbing. All the tubs, all the bins, tore out all the electrical, all the apex bits, everything.

Now I have a nice bare room, plenty of space to start over. I guess you could say the near electrical fire was the spark that caused me to get moving on this again..

So this is the starting point. It all gets better from here, hopefully...












 
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garbled

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A fresh start

So here we go. Starting over.

First thing, if I can buy it, I'm not building it. Two reasons for that.
  1. I know half the reason it's sat there, is that I don't want to go through the massive effort of building two huge sumps by hand from plywood, and I know I'll never get around to actually doing it.
  2. For some of these things, if I cut a corner here and there, it has long term consequences. I need to just suck it up and spend the $$$.
So I bought some new equipment. First, a pair of Trigger Systems Ruby sumps. One 36, and one 36 Elite. Why two different ones? Simple, one is left drained, one is right drained. Perfect.



Next, a Reef Octopus 200INT Elite skimmer. Something to note on this. The dimensions on the Ruby 36 indicate that you could fit this in there. That is a bold faced lie. It will not fit. It does however fit in the Elite, so, phew.

Next on the list, new return pumps. These will sit inside the sump, so when they inevitably leak. They won't leak on the floor and ruin the whole planet. I went with a pair of Neptune COR20's, because I love controllable, and I love Neptune.

Finally, a Neptune ATK, and level sensor. I will not make the same mistake twice with the auto topoff and the RO/DI. Don't ever do what I did.



So this is the start..
 
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garbled

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Day 1, build progress

OK, everything is out, time to start putting things back in.

On the right side, the spacing on the vertical supports was a little too close, so one of them had to be moved. This is relatively easy.
  1. Cut a new board of the exact length, hammer it into place right next to the other one.
  2. Bi-metal blade on a reciprocating saw cuts out the old one.
One thing I've learned over the years, is that saltwater is constructed of pure evil. It will spray a little, drip a little, creep all over the place, find some tiny hole and be annoying, etc etc. It is not possible to have a perfect floor around it. Even if all my plumbing was perfect, I'm going to fumble a bit of algae, or slip a fitting around and dump some on the floor. I just need to assume this upfront and plan for it.

In this vein, the insides of the stand need to be protected. Every time a drop of water hit the wood of the stand (no, do not tell me it should have been metal, that time has passed), I had a mini heart-attack. So first I cut some cheap carpet, and lined the floor of the stand. This is to give a little insulation between the concrete and the bits, and even out any rough spots before I place an acrylic sump on it.

Next, I bought some pond liner. The idea here is not to survive a flood. The idea is that if a gallon drops into the area, it stays there. No more seeping under the bottom, creeping up the drywall and making me cry. I cut a big section of the liner out, and made a small tray with it in each section, with walls about 3" tall. Mostly the idea here is just catch the drips and sprays, keep it contained.

OK, time to start loading in the sumps!

Argh. We already have a new lesson. When you have a stand like this, don't measure the first section, and assume the other three are the same size. Turns out the right section, was 35 3/4" wide, not 36 1/8" like the left, which I carefully measured. So the Ruby 36 instead has to be turned sideways in the sump area. That's ok, I'm rolling with problems today. I turned it 90', cut a chunk of the side wall off the stand so I can get to it from the side, and oh look, now I have a nice area to place that ATO reservoir now. Win? eh..


Not pictured, but I also managed to jam the Ruby Elite into the other side. That one was a bit hairy. It's one thing to measure that a 36" wide object will fit into a 36" wide spot, through a 15" opening. Sure, it fits, but one forgets it has to rotate in there somehow once you load it in perpendicular. 2 hours later, somehow.. I managed.

Day 1 over. Exhausted, going to bed.
 

SPR1968

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That’s a great write up Tim and thanks for sharing all the details and pictures with us

Sounds like a great build thread

And welcome to R2R as well!
 
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garbled

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Thanks for the encouragement. It's been an eyesore in my home for awhile now, and it's bothered me alot. Honestly, I just kept thinking, "I'll go buy some plywood, and glass, and this and that and make giant sumps to fix it." But I never did. Just kept putting it off because it was too much work. And the funny thing is, my logic is "well, sumps are expensive, I can DIY that, make it perfect, and save a few hundred $$$, it will just take me X years and I'll never actually do it." This kind of savings is not a thing.

My intention for this thread is not really to show off the tank. It's more to document that mistakes are made, and I can do things differently to avoid said mistakes in the next iteration. (one assumes I will make additional mistakes, but lets hope they are less awful) Every single thing I'm doing on this rebuild has a "how will this fail?" thought process that goes into it first. For example, the Apex was great at managing the RO/DI ATO, but what the Apex couldn't manage was "what if the connector snaps in half, at 3am, on the high pressure side?" The *really* scary part of that story, is I was leaving for a 11 day road trip that morning. So if it had broken 8 hours later, my house would be in a lake bottom. Apex's are great, amazing. Put a leak detector sensor on there, have it tell you that you have a leak. But lets say I was 800 miles away and it told me "you have issues". What would I have done exactly?

This was compounded by the fact that the sumps were awful. So I got used to a little stupid on the floor every now and again. It's concrete, who cares? Never, ever, ever get used to that. Fix it.
  1. Don't use an Apex to control an infinite source of water. If you have an infinite source, it will absolutely, eventually dump into your home. It's not the Apex's fault here. The Apex didn't shatter the fitting, but the Apex couldn't do anything once it broke. If the Apex can't solve it, the Apex shouldn't operate it.
  2. If you get used to spills and water mishaps, you will eventually miss a big one.
  3. On something of this size, hell, anything really, never place electrical powerstrips or mains interfaces underneath and inside the perimeter of the tank. Lets say you are feeding, and you splash a tiny bit of water on the edge. That water slowly creeps down the side, into the side of the stand, and then inevitably finds it's way to the cord or plug. Sure, you have a drip loop, but what if the water comes down the side of the stand and just goes right into the strip? Go look at your powerstrip, is there salt on it?
  4. Ideally, electrical connections should be made where the surface that holds the connection, does not physically contact the aquarium itself. For example, a small tank on a stand. The wall behind the stand isn't touching the tank, nor the stand. So this means salt and water can never drip down it. This is where the drip loop saves you. Not inside the stand. Mind you, if you splash on the wall you still lose, but we have to have an outlet somewhere..
  5. Sumps splash. That means salt sprays everywhere. USB cables on Apex's are steel. Steel rusts. Rust bridges connections inside the Apex or the EB8's. Those connections aren't waterproof, don't treat them like they are. Humidity + salt == rust.
  6. Salt creep down the side of the tank is unattractive. This might not matter to you much if it's on the back and you can't see it. However, the hidden danger of salt creep is that it is like a little river for saltwater. Every drop that adds to the creep, adds it at the bottom, and more water slowly follows the path all the way down, until, like some sort of bizzare gravity, it locates an expensive thing and feeds water into it.
  7. Computer fans suck. Well, maybe not, but they hate humidity and they hate salt.
  8. A humid room, with a lot of saltwater in it, produces this bizarre salty dust that gets on everything. It's kinda brown and gunky and like a form of dust that forms clumps. This horrid substance likes to attach itself to things like fan blades, or heatsink fins. With fan blades, it eventually ruins the fan, usually because the weight builds up until the fan begins to wobble on the motor and grinds a bearing to dust. With heatsink fins though, the problem is worse. If you have a computer heatsink, they are amazingly well designed to transfer heat, but they are not designed with the idea that dust is sticky goop. On your computer you aim a dust thing at it and the dust goes away, and the flow is unclogged. In a reef room, that dust just clogs up and you cannot get it out easily. This means you should never use a heatsink that has thin blades. The goop gets down into those blades and clogs them in ways you cannot fix easily. All heatsinks should be large finned so you can the the goop off.
  9. DIY LED's are amazing. I will be resurrecting mine absolutely. However, if an LED relies on a fan to keep the heatsink cold, you need to assume right up front that it will fail and the LED will turn that lovely black color they like to do. All heatsinks should be passive. I have another tank with some DIY 20W SMD's on it, all on passive heatsinks. They work wonderfully. No active cooling for LED's. Always passive.

@JumboShrimp - Oh, the pun was intended. :) Even the name of the thread, I live in Phoenix, and this tank will rise from the ashes of a small electrical fire. :)

@Scott Jeffries - The plan has always been for SPS. I will stick to that plan.

Thank you to everyone for the words of encouragement. I can make this work again, it's just going to take effort and $$$. Back to the plumbing mines for now. I do have to say, the nice thing about keeping reef aquariums for 20+ years, is you build up this amazing supply of PVC fittings, and can just pull the 3 20g totes out and find what you need immediately.
 
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ca1ore

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Rubbermaid stock tanks are OK as a sump, but regular plastic tubs are danger-will-Robinson. They distort as they fill and will overflow, guaranteed. GL with the rebuild. Great size for a tank.
 
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Day 2, PVC glue is created from joy.

Time to plumb up the sumps and returns. The tank has massive 1.5" drains. In the old plastic tote arrangement, these were run full on. I have to say, the sound the durso pipes made was kind of thrilling.. Kind of like a wind storm blowing through the trees and whistling slightly.

I couldn't find any sumps premade that had drain inputs that large, and honestly, I don't care so much. When I originally designed this, it was prior to the existence of impeller style powerheads. That meant I was relying upon the return pumps for alot of my water movement. However, not too long before the day of doom, I had purchased two Tunze 6255's. Wow did those move water. The long and short of this is, I don't care so much about the speed of the drains and the returns. It just needs to pass some water down there so the filters get a crack at it once in awhile. Both of the Ruby sumps have dual 1" inlets. So I went online and found some nice Y adapters, and went to work.



On one of them, I branched off a third output. I'm not sure how well this will work in practice, but the Ruby Elite has a third input for the refugium. I'm guessing that the raw downforce of 2" piping will force some water that way.

I also got the Neptune COR20 piped up to the existing returns on the left side (Elite), so that is just about ready for a test fire. As I write this, the glue is drying on the right side, so firing up the sumps will wait until morning.







Now for the lessons learned portion of our show:
  1. If you ever buy PVC unions for your tank, buy twice as many as you need. Why do you buy unions? It's because maybe in the future you want to disconnect that thing, and replace it with something else. However, 5-10 years later, what are the chances that the company that made your union is still in business? Now you have a union stuck on something, that you cannot re-use, and you end up having to saw the whole joint off anyhow.
  2. A Japanese saw, is quite possibly the best tool there is for sawing off random PVC bits. Seriously, made things so much easier than a hacksaw or whatever else.
  3. PVC pipe nipples (threaded on both ends, the SCH80 stuff) are great to saw in half and convert slip unions into male thread ends.
  4. Never ever use the type of ball valve shown above. The kind you get from hardware stores. The saltwater gets into the ball, and makes it impossible to turn. I have a few of these with shattered handles. The SCH80 gate valves are great though. Love those.
Finally, I had left my pair of Tunze's in a bucket of vinegar overnight, and went to work cleaning them off. All the ick came right off, and everything is happy. Thank goodness these survived all the electrical stupid. My two TLF reactors are now sitting in vinegar, so I should be able to get them plumbed back in the morning as well.

I ended the day with an experiment. I got two rolls of braided vinyl tubing. That stuff is miserable to work with. It comes in these tightly wound coils, and just wants to stay that way no matter what. I really didn't want to spend 2 hours fighting it to get it into the tank, so I clamped one end down in my vise, and clamped the other end to a tablesaw across the room. I'll leave these overnight with the hope that in the morning, they are less awful.



Tomorrow the plan is to test out the drains and the sumps a bit. Maybe leave them running, not sure. Remains to be seen how well they work. Might start plumbing up the ATO, at least mechanically, Probably won't actually use it yet, still waiting for the replacement Apex to arrive to do all the electrical work.

I've been at it since 4am. Exhausted, I go to bed.
 
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garbled

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I feel like it's easy to go DIY, to save money, and pay for it in the end. Don't get me wrong here, I am a major DIY person. I will absolutely be using my DIY LED lights once I fix them up. But I think part of DIY is that to some degree you are experimenting. You don't know how to make a thing the first time you do it, and you can read instructions, but the point of DIY is that you want that thing, but painted red, or bigger or somehow not exactly the way it comes.

This means you end up tweaking it, and then you later find out, "oh, when I paint this red, it reflects light different here, so now I need to do this". This means two things:
  1. It didn't work right, and something is not functioning properly.
  2. You have to take it down, buy parts, and do it again.
I will never stop the DIY. I have an inherent "I must build this myself because I own the tools and skills" attitude about everything. However if I look realistically at my DIY stuff throughout my personal history, it has rarely saved me any money. It usually breaks even, and when it works, which it often does, it is a little better than what I would have gotten. When it doesn't work though, or I do it with the intention of saving money, I am often sad.

So I will keep doing the DIY, but I think my new philosophy on the tank is this. I will not say "oh, ok, that thing is $400, and I can do it for $200, so yay!" Instead I will say, "That thing is $400, can I stay under $500 and get the feature/quality better than the thing?" also, "Can I do this in a timeframe that doesn't make the entire project a project unto itself?"
 
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Day 3, The Taming of the Rat's Nest

OK, now we get to the very slightly more exiting bit. Cable management! No, well, yes, but I won't actually lead with that.

I did most of the heavy lifting for the sump plumbing yesterday. All it had to do was dry overnight. My goal today was to fire up some pumps, just to get water moving through a sump, try to tune out the issues I could. With that in mind, I remembered that for some unknown reason, I disconnected one of the 3/4" return tubes inside the overflow. Why on earth did I do this? I think my plan was to stop back siphon by taking them off, but it turned out I couldn't even get the second one to budge, so I just abandoned it.


This, was super problematic today. I stopped the flow from the durso by flipping it upside down when I shut the sumps down. So now I was trying to work around that, and get this awful tube back on the fitting. Vinyl tubing after 10+ years, not so pliable. It's like trying to jam SCH40 onto a barb fitting, and with the durso in there upside down, taking up most of the weir, it was impossible to even get a grip on the thing. I stared at it awhile, and then got desperate. I couldn't replace it, because the connection on the other end is at the bottom of a 36" weir, that is about 12"x8", so I can't even touch the bottom. (I honestly do not remember the arcane trick I did to get it on in the first place) So I grabbed an extra-long set of needle-nose pliers. I put the end inside the hose, and opened them repeatedly, in different directions, to kind of work the tube with the hopes it would soften up without just splitting in half. Luckily it did open up very slightly, just enough that I could spend the next 30 minutes jiggling it onto the barb fitting. I am so glad I only ever took one of these off...

Having done that, it was time to fire up the left side. I took the hacked up tube off, and threw the durso back on. It was now time to witness the power of this fully operational 2" Durso Standpipe. Well.. maybe.. Turns out since I shut the RO/DI down in the electrical fire a week or so ago, the tank level dropped a bit. In what was pretty much one tremendous gulp, it sucked the water level down to the finger cutouts, and was done. It was a spectacular gulp though.

So I went down to the sump side, lets see what we dumped in there. A few inches of water, enough to cover the pump, not much else. Nothing left to do put put it back where I found it. I plugged in the COR20, immediately turned the power down pretty much as low as it would go, and got the system into equilibrium. There is basically a trickle of water moving up and down now, definitely not enough to even look at the other sump funny.

OK, well, lets try the skimmer then. I'm sure this water needs some love. Plug it in, turn the pump down, hey, what's that noise? Well the pond liner underside of the aquarium came in handy instantly. I had the skimmer set to min, which shoved all the water up the pipe, and immediately overflowed the cup, and started gushing around. Bonus points for the pond liner catching all of it and keeping my floor dry! Fixed the settings on the skimmer, set it super low, just to let it do it's thing, and things look safe now.

So one problem with my DIY LED's, is that I tried to do a good job of managing the mess of cables, but it wasn't really that great. I relied on those little stick-on cable tie mounts, which held for probably all of 15 minutes. So I had some gnarly clumps of wire in what looked like a rat's nest in a hanging garden. I knew one of the things on my long term plan was to go passive cooling on the LED's, so I don't need those fan wires anymore. So very carefully, I measured and coiled the wires, removed the fan wires, and installed some 3D-printed screw-in ziptie holders on the wall.


That picture makes it look alot worse than it really is. Now it's all up high, secured tightly, and out of the way. From the back it looks a thousand times better.

In the great flood, one of the only things that survived was the LED setup, which I carefully bolted to a chunk of MDF on the wall next to the tank. I was very careful about setting this up, and I think it came out pretty clean. I decided this would be my map for the rest of the electrical. I got some 2'x2' plywood sheets, painted them (just to kinda look nice-ish, with whatever random samples I had lying about), and secured them to the wall. I then went around and started bolting up everything that was ready to be connected, routing some of the wires, etc. I had printed some nice mounts for my power bricks. I did not want them sitting on the floor, or some shelf where they would inevitably be in a pool of water. Bolted it all up, and huzzah!




Still much to add here, waiting for parts to come in the mail. Everything is plugged into the wall socket while I wait for the new Apex to arrive and solve all of my problems via magic.

Finally, after hours of scrubbing from my loving wife, the TLF reactors were all clean and ready to be installed. In last night's episode, we left you with the cliffhanger that we would try stretching out the vinyl tubing to see if we could make it workable overnight. Turns out, yes, we did. Unclamped it, and it was pretty much straight, almost no coil to it at all. This made it super simple to cut to length, and re-plumb the media reactors. A few minutes later and they were done.


Day 3 comes to a close, and I have some RO/DI dripping into a bucket to make saltwater. I'm not really exhausted tonight, so that's a win. I go to sleep, dreaming of a UPS van filled with more parts.
 

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FYI I have reused PVC Unions with no leaks many times in the past. The key is finding a metal cylinder that fits into the pvc pipe in the fitting with a bit of clearance. I have used sockets for everything up to 1-1/4" PVC. if you heat the socket up to a very warm (not cherry red) temp using a propane torch then set inside the fitting to warm the pipe and the glue. Remove the metal cylinder and then you can "peel" the PVC pipe away from the inside of the fitting wall with a flathead screwdriver and needle-nose pliers. A bit of cleanup with sandpaper and the fitting is reusable. A $30 Shear gate valve becomes reusable and not throw-away.
 
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garbled

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Threaded unions is definitely another fix to the problem. It's one of those things you figure out after doing it wrong 3-4 times though. Often my scenario is that I know this part is going to be a nightmare to deal with later, so I throw a union at it, so I can just swap the end off it. People tell you "use unions where you want replacability, like pumps", but if you don't plan for being able to remove/replace 1 half of the union, you just end up sawing anyhow. It never occurred to me at the time I bought them "what if they go out of business?"

@Javamahn I have never heard of that method of removing a PVC fitting. I may have to try it on some of the random bits that came off the old install..
 
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