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Build! 4o Gallon Reef Tank

The siren call of the sea, the peaceful reef environment.  It was bound to happen to me eventually.  The call to build a saltwater reef aquarium.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my big planted tank.  But, I thought maybe it was time for a new challenge, and I just happened to have the perfect empty spot in my living room for a new aquarium.

As my new reef setup sits waiting for the addition of corals and wildlife, I thought this would be a good opportunity to document what I’ve done so far to get it up and running.

Ideally, this will be a brief overview of each part of the build and I’ll write some more indepth how-to and review articles in the future covering more of the details of individual parts of the build.

I’ll include a parts and component list at the end with links.  Let’s start at the beginning.

Tank and Stand

The first part of any aquarium build will be.. the actual aquarium.  For this build I snatched a 40 gallon breeder tank during a Petco $1/gallon sale for… $40

I went with the Breeder tank because of its design.  Breeders sacrifice height for more floor space.  A 40B aquarium is 36 inches wide by 18 inches long and only 17 inches deep (tall.)  I always regretted the 60 gallon aquarium because it’s basically a 55 gallon but a little taller and very narrow.

Having more floor space is almost more preferable to having more height.  It provides more area for the fish to really use and gives you far more aquascaping options.


After an overnight leak test (hey, you don’t want to find that out AFTER you set everything up). I sprayed the back glass a nice deep blue.

I opted against drilling the tank for bulkheads.  I’m pretty sure the Aqueon aquariums only have tempered glass on the bottom.  I didn’t want to find out the hard way, plus I didn’t trust my drilling skills.  Even though an external overflow is more expensive, one broken tank would have negated any cost savings.

For lighting, I splurged and grabbed the 36-48″ Current USA Orbit Marine LED fixture.  It’s the single most expensive thing in this build, but worth it!

Next up was the stand.  If you do any searching for a stand that can hold a 40 gallon b fish tank, you’ll probably see that there’s a 36″x18″ metal garage shelving unit out there that fits the 40b tank so well it’s like it was custom made.

That’s the option I used and then clad it later (more on that in a bit). I found the shelf on Amazon for a little less than what my local big box hardware places were charging.

I opted to build the shelf as a 3-foot tall shelf rather than using the whole 6 foot tall assembly.  You can do either, but remember, you have to slide the tank in from above to fit it into the shelf.  The tank sits on top of the metal rails on the shelf.

40b aquarium garage shelf

Sump and Refugium

While not technically necessary for a successful saltwater aquarium, I decided I would go with the full package.  As an added bonus I had a leftover 29 gallon aquarium taking up space in my storage shed.

As a side note, if you’re buying a new tank for your sump/refugium, do not use a 29 gallon tank, it’s too tall.  Use a 20 gallon, or even get another 40 gallon.

I then had my local Lowe’s store cut up a few pieces of glass to size (it was well under 20 bucks for all the glass I needed). I used three pieces on the left for a bubble trap (two pieces mounted high, the middle piece low).  The fourth piece went on the left to create a compartment for the return pump and the second side of the refugium in the middle.


It turned out pretty ugly to be honest, but most people don’t stare at their sump for hours on end.

I also threw in a spare hidden LED from my big tank for the antec lights and bought an inexpensive LED light which I mounted across the refugium section to help the algae grow.

The small light is on a timer to give the refugium 12 hours of daylight overnight in an off cycle from the display tank.


Now I have the two tanks, it’s just a matter of connecting them.

As I mentioned earlier, I opted to not drill my tank for bulkheads.  This means I have to use an external overflow.  I heard great things about the CPR CS50 overflow.  It’s a little more expensive than others, but it’s built well and it’s not a component you want to fail.

Speaking of which, the CPR is often mentioned as optionally needing an aqualifter pump.  That is so not optional.  You need either an aqualifter or a strong powerhead with a venturi.  The reason is that in the event of a power outage, you will lose the siphon in the overflow.  The auqalifter removes the air from the siphon chamber starting the siphon automatically.

One final think to know about the CPR CS50 overflow, it’s bulkhead is listed as a 3/4 inch outlet.  Which is true, but it’s a 3/4 inch PVC, if you’re using flex hose, you can find an adapter online.  Or you can do what I did and get creative at the plumbing department at the home depot.


I did take the opportunity to add a ball valve inline with the overflow.

To return water from the sump I went with a Rio pump of a similar GPH rating as the overflow. The Rio came with a ball valve already to control flow.  I mounted the pump using the included hanger.

By mounting the pump high up in the tank, that meant it wouldn’t end up draining the whole sump into the display tank and flooding the place should the overflow fail.  It’s important to allow enough extra room in both the sump and display tanks to compensate for failure of one of the components.

Rather than getting fancy with hard pipe, I opted to use 3/4″ inner diamater flexable hose.  It’s maybe not as optimal as using rigid PVC, but it’s a lot easier to work with.

It turns out that even though the Rio had a higher GPH rating than the CPR overflow, it could not return water fast enough, causing the CS50 to gurgle.  I carefully adjusted the valve coming off the overflow to slow the flow until the pump and overflow were going at the same rate.

Balancing the two took a little work.  If I closed off too much flow, the display tank would overfill until the pump started to run dry. Eventually I reached flow nirvana and the levels in both tanks stayed the same.

Assorted Other Stuff

The basic infrastructure covers the build, but I wanted to point out a few other things that are part of the build.

I used an existing 200 watt heater I had from a previous tank.  In addition, I coupled an air-powered protein skimmer with a Whisper pump I also already had.

For powerheads, I started out with inexpensive SunSun powerheads as I’m such a big fan of their filters.  But, I also used a plug in wave generator which alternates which pumps get power.  It turns out the SunSun wavemakers don’t work too well when you turn the power off and on.  I ended up buying a pair of much more expensive Hydor Koralia wavemakers which work beautifully.

As for the hardscape in the display tank, I went with 50 lbs of Florida dry rock from at less than $2 per pound it’s a great deal.  I seeded the sump with some live rubble I picked up on eBay.

Finally, I didn’t want my nice new reef aquarium to look like it was sitting around on some industrial shelving.  So I hit Home Depot for some beadboard paneling and trim and knocked together a series of panels that attach to the metal shelving via magnets.  I’m pleased with the results.

cladded tank

Parts List

Here’s a link to most of the stuff I bought for this project.  Some of these links may be affiliate links (If you buy something, I get a small percentage).

Tank and stand




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This Happened: My Double-Sided ‘Scape

I have been putting off making any updates to this site for a while now as I was planning on moving.  I knew that I was downsizing and I thought I might use my 60 gallon planted tank as a room divider in my new place.


Sure enough, that’s exactly what ended up happening.  It’s kind of weird seeing it so barren after it spending most of its life as an overgrown jungle tank.


Right now, things are a little sparse in there, but the plants will grow in and fill out giving it a little more full of an appearance.  I’m hoping I’ll get those microswords to carpet on the “front” side of the tank while the taller plants grow up into the middle and back of the tank.


I also owe you all a post on how to move an aquarium like this one.  I swear I’ll get it written soon.  Until then the “after” pictures will just have to do.

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Time can do amazing things

I’m going to change things up a bit for this post.  Rather than an aquarium build, tip or deal I’m going for a little retrospective piece.

I was browsing through some old photos and I came across this little gem:


See that little plant on the right sitting on the driftwood?  That’s one of those little java ferns you can buy in various pet shops that comes packaged in a plastic box with some sort of gel in it.

Not very impressive I know.  Well how about this shot I just took today:


And that is a wider shot of the same log I took today.  I did add some java moss to the log, which is the little bits you see mixed in with the plant. Otherwise, that all came from the sad little fern in the first picture.

I’ve also trimmed and culled that plant many times in the past year or so.  I’ve removed tons of daughter plants cut off leaves, you name it.  I can’t get the thing to stop growing now.

I kind of forgot the whole thing started from a little twig about a year and a half ago.

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Impulse Build: 29 Gallon Creek Tank

Setting up an aquarium on an impulse is not a smart idea.  Generally speaking, anyway.  I had a bit of an odd situation where I realized I needed to rehome some new aquatic inhabitants quickly.  This is the story of my on-the cheap one day build of a 29 gallon tank.

The backstory: There’s a creek in my neighborhood full of interesting wildlife (and lots of trash.) The kids and I built a 2-liter bottle fish trap and caught some minnows and tossed them in a 10 gallon tank I use for random guppy fry.

It quickly became apparent that the creek chubs we caught were going to need much more space, and soon.  I had two things going for me: an oversized filter in the well-established 10 gallon tank and a manager’s special at my local Pet Supplies Plus for 29 gallon aquariums.

I only needed to buy a couple things to get everything going, a 2nd light housing for an existing LED spotlight I had and some kind of substrate for the new tank.  Heck, I even had a nice piece of driftwood and some feature rocks I was hanging on to for a rescape of the 60 gallon main tank.  This was perfect!


With the tank acquired, I decided to spray paint the back glass black instead of using a black trash bag after everything was setup.  It’s a pretty simple process and looks great, I could even use the cardboard around the tank to serve as my mask for the sides of the tank.

Spray painting completed, I lugged the tank upstairs to its new location.  And then it happened.


Ok, so much for the low cost build, at least they were on sale, right?  Repeat steps 1 and 2, but this time don’t walk the aquarium into a doorjamb.

I chose regular ol’ playground sand as the substrate because it’s cheap; 4 bucks at your local home improvement store. The problem with playground sand is it’s dirty.  To clean, I put the sand in a 5 gallon bucket and ran a hose to the bottom of the sand.

IMG_0047I let the water run while painting the new tank (and cursing about my misfortune.)  Every once in a while, move the hose around to keep the sand that’s settled moving.  The idea is that the dirt and lighter stuff will float off while the heavier sand stays in the bucket.  Keep repeating the process until the water runs mostly clear.

Wet sand is heavy, I ended up splitting the sand into two buckets.  This made the weight much more managable to move the buckets upstairs.

Once the new unbroken aquarium was moved upstairs, I put it in its final place.  I used a wicker desk, it’s very sturdy and I can trust it to hold a few hundred pounds.  Don’t do that. I’m the guy who broke an aquarium on a door after all.


Get, or make a more appropriate stand. You can pick up a cheapie iron stand for around $30.

Once in place, the fun stuff starts.  I decided I wanted to do a simple aquascape, so I went with the classic valley in between a couple of hills.  One hill was larger than other and I tried to roughly go with the rule of thirds when building out the hills.

The thing with sand is that it will settle and gravitate toward being flat.  I used the driftwood and rocks I had plus lava rocks from my old volcano aquarium build to serve as structure to hold the sand in place.

Bolstering sand is a bit of an art I haven’t perfected.  The basic idea is to use your rocks or other material in tiers to keep the sand from sliding all the way to the bottom of the tank.


I only did a minimal amount of plants to start with, mostly java moss and a java fern that was in the old 10 gallon tank.  The planted Aquaclear filter from the 10 gallong tank also went into the new tank with some of the Pothos leaves submerged and the rest draped about the top of the tank.

IMG_20150628_170140960With the sand in place the tank was filled.  Despite my earnest sand washing, the tank was a solid cloud for several hours.

While the dust settled, I hung the lighting.  The placement of the tank was against a slanted wall, which made it perfect for suspending lamps above the tank. I used small inexpensive shop lights from the home improvement store.

For the lights themselves, I co-opted some no-name LED spotlights I was using for making videos. They actually worked incredibly well for the setup and I already had them.  Even if I didn’t I think I paid around 5 dollars each from one of those direct-from-China websites.


Other assorted equimpent was moved over from the old tank, along with a spare powerhead to make some current.  The residents were transplanted and we were off to the races.

Of course I could only get everything done in an afternoon because I had an established filter rated for the new tank.  Starting fresh, you’ll need to respect the nitrogen cycle and make sure your tank is ready before adding fish.

It was an interesting experiment, and a fun project to do with the family.  Well it was fun until I destroyed the first tank.