Keeping Cichlids is an addiction. It starts with just one tank, often with no thoughts of breeding these fascinating fish. However, nature takes over and the fish start courting and breeding. Then the fish keeper is faced with the problem of where to keep and grow the newly adopted babies. A second tank is purchased to cater for the needs of the growing family, and before you notice, you're hooked. It has happened to many millions of people worldwide and will continue to happen in the future: there is nothing to be ashamed of, nor the need to feel guilty. The love of nature's wonders is perfectly natural.
Once a fishkeeper has graduated from simply having a couple of tanks in the lounge room the thoughts of expansion begin. Why not use all or part of the garage or the garden shed to house the fish? This is the logical progression, but the decisions to be made at this point should not be rushed. The setting up of a fish room can be the most important thing in this hobby. It is often the design and layout of the room that ultimately leads to success or failure, and if you will stay in the hobby for a lifetime or burn out within a year.
How large or small the area you use for the room depends on a number of factors. Things like location, available space, type of fish to be kept and budget will all govern the size of the room. Needless to say, the room will never be big enough. The construction of the room itself varies depending on the skills of the owner and if the building is to be constructed from scratch or simply converted (e.g. an existing garage). The external shell is relatively unimportant - brick, tin, fibro, weatherboard and just about any other building material is suitable.
The internal linings and the insulation within the walls and ceiling are all of vital importance. This is the area where most attention should be focussed. The internal lining of the room should be fibro or water resistant plasterboard. Cornices or quad should be used to ensure there are no gaps. This should be painted in a light coloured mildew resistant paint. The insulation used depends on the type of construction and your budget, however, the more money you spend now will be reflected in lower heating costs later. The main factor is the insulation . It must have 100% coverage to be effective. Stud walls can be best insulated with fibreglass batts. Push the batts in between the studs and use string or cord, stapled to the studs to hold the batts up until the lining is in place. An alternative to batts is polystyrene foam. No matter what the material used, the entire cavity between the stud must be filled. So cut out small strips to fill gaps, if necessary. In the ceiling the insulation is easy: if the roof is pitched, simply lay the batts or foam between the rafters. An alternative product called cellulose fibre can be pumped into the roof and is very effective. If the roof is a flat or skillion roof that is not already lined, then the best method is polystyrene foam as it is easier to install above your head, as batts tend to sag.
Windows and skylights are good to provide natural light to your fishroom, but they can also be the point of greatest heat loss. All glass openings must be double glazed. Suitable windows can be purchased or easily made by the handyman. The basic principle must be known to take advantage of this technology. It works like this: the air trapped between the two sheets of glass acts as a barrier to the heat, much the same way as a diver's wet suit. The two sheets of glass must be close together (i.e. about 15 mm) and the air must be sealed in between the sheets. If the air is not sealed between the sheets or the gap is too large then it won't work and all the effort is wasted. Doors should fit well in the jam and have a draft excluder fitted underneath.
A door closer is also a good idea, to make certain that it is not left ajar.
Heating is the major running cost in keeping fish when away from tropical areas. So once you have worked out the best way to keep the heat in, the next step is to work out the best way to generate the heat. Firstly the most costly way to heat your tanks is individual aquarium heaters in all tanks, so this should be avoided. Heating the whole room is therefore the best. Gas is the most cost effective energy to heat the room, however, some heater designs are much better than others. Models with a "Power flue" are superior to all others. These units draw air from outside and then return the exhaust gas back outside. The next best are any other flued models. Other models without flues should be avoided. Your local gas supplier should be consulted to ensure your choice is safe for your application. Reverse cycle air conditioners are the next most cost effective . The best way to run them is for only 3 one hour sessions in a 24 hour period. This can be accomplished by using an electronic timer purchased from a hardware shop. The correct times and settings for the air conditioner will be achieved by monitoring the tank temperature in the room each night, and then again in the early morning before the lights come on, and finally in the middle of the day. This will avoid you being in the room when the heater is on, and avoid heat loss from you coming and going from the room.
So, now your building is complete and you are ready for the tanks. The amount of planning you do here will directly influence the amount of time you spend on maintenance and the amount of water you can have in the room. My personal preference is to have wide tanks to maximise the amount of water per unit area. I also believe in having overflows in the tanks and some degree in automation in the area of water changing. My fish rooms have long racks or stands that suit tanks of equal width and height. The lengths of tanks can vary depending on needs. For example the bottom and middle rows can be 18 inches high and the top row 24 inches high. Having your stands set up this way is the most efficient way to maximise total water capacity and all commercial fishrooms are done in this manner. Most people use either wood or steel to make their stands. Both materials must be painted to ensure long life.
Filtration is a subject that can be as diverse as the fish we keep. However, two basic methods are preferred. The simplest is individual air operated filters of your favourite design. These are cheap to run and often easy to make yourself. The other way is to have a common filter system, where many tanks run from the same large filters. These filters can run whole racks or rows or even the whole room. Some expert assistance will be required to design a system for your needs, so shop or ask around and get detailed quotes before starting. Some advice: keep separate systems for different water conditions (e.g. Americans, Africans, or Discus) and keep your fry growing tanks on a separate system to the breeders, if possible.
Lighting in the fish room is usually less important than in a display tank in the lounge room. I have always designed my rooms as a cost saving exercise. So I only use ceiling lights above the aisles between the tanks. I have a couple of regular aquarium lights, that can be moved to a specific tank if necessary.
At this point I will give you an example of one of my rooms. The building is approximately 30 feet long and 9 feet wide (about the same as a garage for two cars, one behind the other). There are about 60 tanks from 40 litres to 1,800 litres, and the total capacity is 13,000 litres. All tanks except the two largest tanks (1,800 and 800 litres) are on air operated filters, including four 5x2x2 tanks. The total average energy costs $4.50 / week in gas and $11.50 / week in power.
I consider this to be a very cost effective room for the large amount of water.
In conclusion, think carefully before you start, look at other people's fish rooms, ask other society members how their rooms are set up, and if they have any problems with their rooms and how they can be rectified.
Please try not to make the same mistake more than once. Remember, planning ahead will make your room neater, much more functional, and more enjoyable for you and your fish.
by Peter Gallagher
First published in the Cichlid Circular, August 1999. New South Wales Cichlid Society, Australia
Tags: Aquariums Animals Biology Science Education