How to ‘plumb’ in your aquarium

If you have an [tag-tec]aquarium[/tag-tec] where it is all self contained ie. all the equipment is installed in the main display aquarium then you wont have to worry about any plumbing – with the exception of course of external protein skimmers, canister filters, denitrators etc.

If, however you have decided or are in the process of deciding whether to have an external sump, refugium etc then you are going to need to get the water down and back up again – this is where [tag-tec]aquarium plumbing[/tag-tec] comes in.

For this exercise I shall assume that the aquarium is drilled and water is being provided to the sump via a surface skim overflow. Other overflows are available (standpipes etc) however when it comes to the physical plumbing they are about the same.

The first thing you need to consider is that the items you will be using must to ‘reef safe’. By this I mean that it will not leech contaminants into the water over time. The best way to ensure this is to check that the pipework, fittings etc you provide are of food grade quality. To be extra sure purchase your plumbing items from a fish store – this way you will know that they are ok.

With the tank being drilled you will need to use a tank connector. This basically fits in the hole and a screw thread utilised to tighten the connector against the glass to prevent any water leakage. To be safe what I always do is put some [tag-tec]aquarium sealant[/tag-tec] onto the thread as well so that when it cures you have a nice tight seal.

Now is the time to prepare the pipework. I always remember the old saying of measure twice and cut once. Measure and cut all of the pipework and then dry fit everything together to ensure that everything is of the correct length. When you are happy with your layout take it all to bits and prepare each end of the pipes by de burring the ends (taking all the loose bits off) and giving them a good clean. Once this done you can start putting it all back together again one piece at a time and solvent weld all the pieces together. You will have a short amount of time to ensure that the pipes are in the correct position before the cement hardens. Once hard you will not be able to move or split it.

That’s it – now for some tips…..

  1. Use as few 90 degree elbows as possible – it is much better to use two 45 degree elbows that one 90 degree elbow. The water will flow much easier around 45 degree bends and you will not get as much friction.
  2. Overflows can sometimes ‘gurgle’ – this can be counteracted by drilling a hole in the top of the tank connector and inserting some air tube (or equivalent) down into the pipe. This will allow any air in the pipe to escape and reduce the gurgling sound.
  3. Gurgling can be reduced by installing the pipe work so that it is not vertical.
  4. Always draw out the pipe work on paper before starting to install it.
  5. Install pipe work which will take the water flow which will be travelling down it. The same goes for the holes which are drilled – if you are unsure install the biggest pipework you can get.
  6. If you install pipework which is not capable of taking the water volume then a syphon effect will occur and there is a high possibility of your aquarium flooding and you sump emptying as the return pump will be returning more water than the overflow can handle.
  7. Leave the cement to dry, preferably overnight before allowing water to go down it.
  8. Install tee points so that the water flow can be controlled or even turned off if required.
  9. Do not allow any dead spots where unmoving water can accumulate – this can be exceptionally detrimental to an aquarium.
  10. Test for leaks.
  11. Take your time.
  12. When returning water back to the main display aquarium remember the head height that the pump will deliver water to. The head height is the distance that the pump will push water to before not being able to pump any more. Just because the pump say 3500lph it does not mean that it will be pumping this when it has to pump up a head of 1m.
  13. Always use the correct diameter of pipe which is suited for your return pump.

Also remember that the holes which are drilled in the aquarium will denote the water level in the aquarium. Quite often the holes are drilled lower down in the aquarium wall, therefore the water level can be quite low. This can be sorted by various methods which I will cover in another post. I will also go through some of the other methods of overflows.

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8 Comments
  1. Good post. There are many things which people can do on their own instead of spending on plumbers. Your post is a great help for those who want to do the things themselves.

  2. Thanks. I agree there are quite a lot of constructional jobs that can be achieved by an aquarist with basic DIY skills. However, it’s important to know one’s limits!

  3. when the last fish died about 8 months ago i decided to stop the whole fishtank thing and placed my empty fishtank in the garage hoping one day i’ll set it up again. last week that day arrived.

  4. Good that your back with the hobby.

  5. Hi there

    I have jsut set up a betta 1500 with 25mm pipework running a Eheim Compact 5000 Pump, which is currently tunred down. The problem i am having is balancing the water in the weir, it either goes too high so the water goes to the glass or it goes too low, i just cant seem to find the sweet point. Would it be best if i installed the overflow pipe to the maximum water level of the tank so the water does not go up to the glass at the top and the excess goes down the overflow pipe? please could anyone help?? its my first sump tank. Many Thanks

  6. Hello Andrew.
    Fiddling with seawater flow can sometimes be a quite drawn out trial. Often selected power heads and pumps can be left to themselves with attention being given just to directional flow where required. In this case the answer would appear to be to adjust the pump, but this is causing difficulty (this Eheim can be adjusted between 2500 and 5000 litres an hour). There is nothing wrong with adjusting the overflow pipe to the level required to control the seawater level, remember though that the seawater will rise a little above the pipe before it overflows. The only real downside is that the seawater that flows down the overflow pipe will not pass through any filtration that you could have in the weir area, though this seawater will eventually be filtered by re-circulation. Also be sure that the diameter of the overflow pipe is sufficient to permit the full flow of seawater needed as the overflow pipe is a security feature as well. Also be sure that the capacity of the sump is sufficient for an occasion when the pump could stop for some reason – the additional seawater in the aquarium will flow down to the sump until the flow stops when the level falls to the rim of the overflow pipe.

  7. Thanks John, I have it up and running now but with the pump turned down as too much water flows throught the overflow pipe. One proplem that i have now got is the dreaded hair algie casued by my maxspect razor lights being put on a factory setting present which had trhem burning for 8 hours on 100%, not good, so hopefuly my sea hare should clear it all up in no time as well as the rest of the clean up crew.

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