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4

It can be challenging to find reasonably priced aquarium stands. If you want to stack more than one aquarium on a rack, there are even fewer options. This is why most people with a fish room full of many tanks end up building their own DIY aquarium rack. There are a lot of different designs out there. The simplest one I've seen is just stacking cinder blocks on the floor and laying 2x6 boards across them. Personally I like building a cheap rack out of wood.

My First DIY Aquarium Rack

About a year ago I built a DIY wooden rack that holds two 10 gallon tanks. I used 2x4s for the entire structure, and cut some plywood to make shelves for the tanks and the bottom storage area. That whole project cost me about $40. Compare that to the cost of a stand from any store. A stand for a single 10 or 20 gallon aquarium typically runs upwards of $100. This was my first build and although it looked pretty nice (in my opinion) there were a couple things I wanted to change.

My first DIY 10 gallon rack with guppy tank and shrimp tank
My first DIY 10 gallon rack with guppy tank and shrimp tank

 

The first issue is that in trying to keep the rack from being too tall I squeezed the middle shelf down. As a result I only left about 4 inches of clearance above the bottom tank, not quite enough to get in and do maintenance easily. I also wanted to design it to accommodate more tanks. Having a rack that only holds two 10 gallons isn't the best use of space.

Now that I'm building out my fish room I had an opportunity to replace my original rack with a modified design. This new rack was designed to hold four 10 gallon tanks, and use only a little bit more floor space than my first design. However while I was building I decided I would rather have a 20 gallon on the top shelf than two 10's. But I still have twice the water volume in roughly the same floor area as my first rack.

Building the New DIY Aquarium Rack

In order to support twice the weight of my first stand I used a sturdier design by incorporating upright 2x4s between the load-bearing shelves. You can modify this design to suit any size tank you want; I've seen the same design used for a rack of 40 breeders (which I will probably do at some point). The most important thing is building to the dimensions of the aquarium size you want to support. I recommend having the aquarium in your possession before starting so you can test fit while you build.

The design uses the following cuts of 2x4 studs, all of which can be varying lengths depending on your application:

  • 4 upright supports that determine the overall height of the stand
  • 6 long shelf pieces that the aquariums will rest on (the front and back)
  • 6 short shelf pieces (the sides)
  • 8 vertical support pieces that support the weight of the shelves
  • Optional: 2-6 additional short shelf pieces as cross supports
  • Optional: Plywood sheet for shelving
2x4 Cuts
2x4 Cuts

The lengths of all these pieces will vary depending on your design, but I cut my uprights to 47", the long shelf pieces to 27.5", the shorter shelf pieces to 18", the upper supports to 21.5", and the lower supports to 15". A miter saw is ideal for making the cuts, but I used a circular saw when building my first rack because that's all I had. I use 2.5" #8 wood screws for fastening. A box of these screws is about $10 at a home improvement store and that includes a drill bit. 

I painted all of the wood white before I started assembling the rack. I highly recommend doing it this way if you intend to paint your DIY aquarium rack. For this build I used an old can of white paint that was sitting in my garage for about 5 years, so my cost for painting was $0.

DIY Aquarium Rack - Painted 2x4's
Painted 2x4's

After painting I assembled the three rectangular "shelves". I pre-drilled all my screw holes with a 1/8" bit. It's important to use a flat surface to build on and a level and a square to check your alignment. Once I had those three shelf frames built I slid them onto the long uprights.

DIY Aquarium Rack - Assembling the Stand
Assembling the stand

Before screwing anything into place I checked that each shelf was level. I added the support pieces between the shelves, building up from the floor so that each one sat tightly on the piece below it. It helps to drive in one screw to hold each piece in place, then go back and add another screw at each connection point.

DIY Aquarium Rack - Shelf frame assembled
Shelf frame assembled

You can cut sheets of plywood to create flat shelves (I prefer to do this), but this isn't necessary for standard rimmed glass tanks. The glass bottom of a tank with a plastic rim never contacts the surface the tank is sitting on. In fact, you really only need to support the 4 corners of the frame. If you have an acrylic tank with a flat bottom, then the entire bottom of the aquarium must be supported.

I bought a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood for $20 and cut it to size to make shelves and enclose the bottom section. I sanded and painted the plywood just like I did with all the 2x4 pieces.

My last step was to put some doors on the bottom section of the rack. I used some cheap hinges and knobs to hang the doors, which were cut from the same plywood as the shelves. I'm not a carpenter, so its not furniture quality work, but the entire build cost me under $70.

completed DIY aquarium rack
completed DIY aquarium rack
setting up tanks on new rack
setting up tanks on new rack

Once all the tanks are set up and running I'll post an update on this rack. You can see my latest fish room updates here.

2

Having adequate filtration is a key component to keeping your water clean, both aesthetically and for the health of your fish. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a lot more performance out of your existing filters. Using some of these DIY aquarium filter hacks, I’ve been able to keep very high stocking levels in my planted tanks, which allows me to grow out more fish. I've had 50+ guppies growing out happily in a well-filtered 20 gallon aquarium. Using cheap materials you can double or triple the filtering capacity of any filter (although I’ll focus primarily on hang on back (HOB) filters here).

Check out my review of the best HOB filters on the market

First, a very quick summary of the 3 types of filtration.

    1. Mechanical filtration is when a material catches debris as water passes through it.
    1. Biological filtration is the process of bacteria that have colonized the filter media converting toxic ammonia from fish waste into less toxic nitrites, and then into nitrates. Nitrifying bacteria can only live on surfaces in an aquarium, so the best biological media has a very high surface area. This is the key to supporting high bio-loads.
  1. Chemical filtration is the process of using a chemical to absorb or neutralize toxic ammonia, heavy metals, or medications in the aquarium. Activated charcoal is the most common example. I don’t use chemical filtration in any of my tanks unless I am trying to remove a medication or other contaminant, so that will not be a part of this discussion.

Hack # 1: Intake Sponges

intake sponges - DIY Aquarium Filter Hacks
intake sponges

Intake sponges can be purchased in large packs online, and are sometimes even carried in the mega-mart pet stores. These are the easiest way to get more filtering capacity out of any filter. I have an intake sponge on every single filter in my fish room. Buying in bulk each sponge cost me under $3. They slide over the end of the intake stem so that water must pass through the sponge before entering the filter. This provides several benefits.

First, the sponge acts as a mechanical barrier that traps larger debris before it enters the filter. Sponges can be easily cleaned by squeezing them out in a container of old water from the aquarium. This keeps fish waste, excess food, and plant debris from entering your filter and potentially clogging up the impeller or gathering in the bottom.

Second, the intake sponge provides biological filtration due to its high surface area and the constant flow of water moving through it. Most of the commonly sold HOB filters come with a single thin sponge to act as the biological stage. Adding an intake sponge can instantly double your biological filtering capacity!

Third, if you’re a shrimp keeper like me, or you breed and raise young fish, the intake sponge is an absolute necessity. Shrimp can graze on the biofilm and debris that gets caught by the sponge, and even very small fry won’t be sucked up into the filter to meet their demise. The photo below shows the intake on a breeder box used in my guppy rearing tank, which also houses a thriving colony of neocaridina shrimp.

Sponge on breeder box intake
Sponge on breeder box intake

Hack # 2: Water Polishing Filter Floss

For several years I routinely purchased OEM filter pad replacements, not realizing there was a cheaper, superior, more customizable solution available. 

What is this water polishing panacea? Polyester quilt batting - AKA filter floss. This stuff is available all over. Google it. You can buy a huge roll for roughly $20 that will last a long, long time. Cut into strips 6” wide by 24” long, a 72” x 90” roll will give you 45 filter floss refills at a cost of under 50 cents each.

I take quilt batting and cut it into strips about 6” wide and 2 feet long, then wrap it around the filter pad frame that came with my HOB filter. This stuff catches almost all of the tiny particles that the intake sponge didn’t capture. The result is crystal clear water. I change it out every 2 weeks, or when it’s brown and gunked up.

Quilt Batting (new)
Quilt Batting (new)
Quilt Batting - as installed (used)
Quilt Batting - as installed (used)

You can also take Poly-fil - which is the same material as polyester quilt batting, just loose fibers instead of a roll - and stuff it into a sump or canister filter. Just use it to replace whatever disposable filter pads you are currently buying, or to supplement your existing media. The important thing to keep in mind with either quilt batting or the loose poly material is that it has to be 100% polyester and not treated with any chemicals in order to safely be used in a filter.

Hack # 3: More Media

So by now you’re seeing that the more media (or surface area) you can get into your filter, the more beneficial bacteria it can support, and the more filtering capacity you’re going to have. A great practice is to cram an extra sponge, a bag of bio-rings, or bio balls into one of your cycled filters if you have unused space. I keep an extra sponge in one of my HOBs, so that I have a cycled sponge on hand if I want to set up another tank (which is inevitable). In the photo below, you can see I have an extra aquaclear sponge stuffed into the empty space on the right side of one of my HOB filters. This space would otherwise be left empty. Instead I’ve increased my filter’s biological capacity.

HOB Filter with quilt batting and extra sponge
HOB Filter with quilt batting and extra sponge

Walking through a pet store looking at the price tags on filter “refills” can be discouraging, but it’s important to note that biological media such as sponges and ceramic rings almost never need to be replaced. Many manufacturers have literature that tells you to discard your bio media after 2-3 months and replace it. This is purely a scheme to increase sales. Ceramic rings and sponges do not go bad, all you have to do is rinse them out in aquarium water to clean them. The only media that needs to be replaced regularly is filter floss and chemical media such as charcoal. In the filter I showed above, the only thing I replace is the polyester batting at a cost of roughly $1 a month. The sponges have been in use for over a year and will last several more.

Hack # 4: Breeder Box Filter

You can take an air driven breeder box and turn it into a customized HOB filter that also acts a quarantine / breeder box. By attaching a sponge to the intake of a breeder box, you’ve already created a sponge filter. You can take this even further by filling the breeder box all the way up with whatever media you want. The great thing about breeder boxes is they increase your total water volume and can hold plants, gravel, bio media, and fish. In my case I use the intake sponge and a bag of biomax rings plus some live plants in the box to add biological filtration while using it for breeding or quarantine.

If you have a large breeder box with vertical dividers, you can create a two or three stage HOB filter that is customized to your needs. You could even use one side as a quarantine and fill the other up with media.

Breeder Box with bio rings
Breeder Box with bio rings

Keep in mind that while all of these hacks will improve your filter’s ability to turn ammonia into nitrate, all those nitrates aren’t going anywhere unless you:

A) Perform regular water changes, or

B) Keep plenty of live plants to soak up those nitrates.


Links to purchase items referenced in this post on Amazon:

Intake Sponges: https://amzn.to/2LqdcLj
Aquaclear Sponges: https://amzn.to/2ur3Gkx
Aquaclear HOB Filters: https://amzn.to/2JphUqJ
Breeder Box: https://amzn.to/2NRMGfb