A day in the fish house

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What goes on inside a fish house? Does it cost much? Is it labour intensive? Gabor Horvath answers the common questions he’s asked about running his set-up.

Is it expensive to run a large fish-house?

It’s not too costly. My own building incorporates 15cm Thermalite block, plus 5cm polystyrene in the walls, which helps retain the heat from the lights and the airpump. From about May to September I rarely use additional heating. 

In the colder months a 1kW blow heater with a thermostat maintains the temperature at 24-25°C. This also allows me to heat individual breeding tanks up to a spawning zone of 26-32°C, depending on fish species, when required. It runs for less than 15 minutes each hour even in the coldest winter.

My energy efficient LED lights operate from a central thermostat timer, keeping them on for ten hours a day, and switching them off if the fish-house goes over 28°C. There are also three wi-fi controlled lights operating on their own, producing sunset and sunrise effects before and after the main lights come on. They remain on even at higher temperatures, so there is no complete darkness in the fish-house. 

Most of my filtration is air-driven and cheap to run. My monthly electricity bill is around £35 a month in summer, and £50 a month in winter. I also use around £5-£10 of water monthly.

The fish house in all its glory. 

Does it take long to feed everything?

Not really, no. I usually feed juveniles and adult fish being conditioned for breeding twice a day, while the others get only one meal. The morning feed takes around 15 minutes, the afternoon one about 30 minutes. I use four or five different foods, and I sieve newly hatched Artemia, and reset the hatchery. 

I use feeding time to check if everything is in order and make notes of the things that need to be sorted out. If it’s an urgent issue I deal with it immediately, otherwise I leave it for the ‘service’ day. I set aside one afternoon (around six hours) each week for water changes and other maintenance.

How often do you check the water parameters?

It’s true to say that after spending some time (say a few decades) as a fishkeeper, you become able to tell by the feeding and other behaviour when intervention is needed. I don’t routinely check the water parameters in every tank, preferring random spot checks. Fish-keeping isn’t like rocket science, where a minute deviation means instant failure.

Fish are quite adaptive. As long as your water is within the right range they will normally be fine. For most of them it really doesn’t matter whether the pH is 6.8 or 6.5, but if you try to quickly reduce the pH by adding chemicals, the sudden change could cause serious harm. 

The same applies to other water parameters and the use of any medication — way too many novice fish or shrimp keepers mess up their tanks because they’re overly concerned or impatient. 

Using active soil in my soft-water shrimp set-ups helps me to keep a lowish pH without adding anything extra. If I see that my shrimps are happy, I’m happy.

All filters are air-powered.

What filtration do you use?

I use DIY upcycled ex-PET bottle filters and double sponge filters connected to DIY jet-lift pipes in most of my tanks. The advantage of the double foam is that I can clean them alternately, so there is always a mature, seeded filter in the aquarium. Tanks with larger bioloads also have external filters or internal power filters running. 

The filters get the air via a central air-system, powered by a Secoh JDK-60 airpump, which gives me over 7200 lph air for only 48W electricity. The system has plenty  of spare air-taps around the room, so adding an extra filter or airstone takes seconds. The airvalves need regular cleaning, but a special ‘pipe tamper’ makes the job easy.

Most tanks have floating Duckweed, fast growing mosses and well-rooted Devil’s ivy (Pothos) in them. These help to keep the nitrates under control, and by removing the excess growth I also reduce the nitrates in the system.

Waterchange flow is controllable.

How often do you change water? 

I change around 25% every fortnight in the fish tanks, and 30% monthly in the shrimp set-ups — fry tanks get more frequent changes. The dirty water is siphoned out into buckets, then down the sink, which drains into a water-butt system outside of the fish-house. Old aquarium water is used for watering our garden plants and feeding my ‘green wall’ outside the fish house. Any excess water in the butts flows off to the main drain system. 

There’s an emergency drain in the fish-house floor, in case of floods — I once forgot to close a refill tap on time, which flooded the fish house. Since then I installed a safety device: an old fishing float in a plastic pipe. When the red part of the float pops out the reservoir is full and I can shut off the water. The drain is also useful for emptying tanks quickly. 

Do you use RO water? 

My tap-water is very soft (0-2KH, 3-5GH) with negligible nitrate, so I don’t need RO water. I use a central storage tank to treat tapwater with JBL Biotopol C, a conditioner specially developed for shrimps, but fine for my fish too. The water in the reservoir is kept in constant movement by a circulation pump and two large airstones, ensuring ample oxygen and freshness. 

A Sicce SDC pump with a 5m pipe attached to it helps with water changes. The pump can be controlled by an app, so I can adjust the water flow. I let the water flow into my palm, which spreads the flow, resulting in less disturbance. 

How long do you cycle your tanks for?

I usually don’t, except in a few cases. But — and this is a huge BUT — I always have spare sponge filters running in my tanks on standby. Whenever starting a new aquarium I place a mature sponge filter into  it and the well-established bacteria population will do its job straight away. In breeding tanks, the biofilm on the sponges is often the first food the fry takes. 

I will cycle a tank if it has a new built-in filter, or when I’m using active shrimp or plant soils. In the first instance I speed up the maturing process by using Aquarium Systems UNIDOSE Start-up products, together with seeding the new filter media by squeezing some muck to it from a mature filter. This allows me to populate the tank in under a week. 

In the case of active soils sometimes I have to wait a bit longer, because some of them release ammonia for a prolonged period. I only put shrimp into these tanks when the water test results are all satisfactory.

What about holidays?

I travel quite a lot and also usually go away for a four- or five-week annual holiday. During these times it’s my father-in-law’s task to look after the fish-house. 

As I don’t want him to do water changes (only if it is absolutely necessary) I carry out some larger ones in the two months before I leave, cleaning every filter during the process. It reduces the nitrates to almost zero. During my absence the fish are only fed in every two or three days, except for the juveniles, if there are any. 

I label every tank with the exact amount and type of food required (‘S’ for shrimp, ‘C’ for crushed food), and the precise quantity is added using marked spoons. I have a larger spoon for fish and a smaller one for shrimp feeding. 

Although they get slightly less food than usual, these pre-determined feeding doses mean that nothing gets overfed and the water quality remains good during my absence.
I have never seen any adverse effect — in many cases when I return to normal feeding on my return from my holiday, the fish and shrimp react to their sudden food influx with increased breeding activity.

Which food do you use?

I believe that no single perfect food exists for fish. You could scientifically determine what percentage of protein a fish needs or what amount of fibre is healthy, but these amounts could change depending on the species of a fish and even on the stages of its’ life cycle. 

I offer my livestock a varied diet, using a selection of quality foods from a range of manufacturers, including Fluval, Tetra, Sera, JBL, Hikari, Fish Science and Calanus. Beside flakes and pellets they also receive frozen bloodworms, Artemia, Daphnia, Cyclops and Tubifex. 

Shrimps also get extra from the likes of Dennerle Shrimp King, Hikari and JBL products. I also breed Micro worms and Grindal worms. 

I prepare some food myself, my speciality being the stinging nettle and dandelion medley (a frozen recipe made in advance and kept in frozen slabs until needed). 

There is a dedicated fridge-freezer in the fish-house for storing fish food, medication and other water treatments — this slows down the rate at which they spoil.

When buying food in bulk bags, I remove the amount needed for a month to an empty tub then reseal the bags to keep it fresh. Previously I had to throw out lots of food which became soggy or even mouldy in the warm and humid air of the fish-house. 

Feeding the fish from the small pots and keeping everything in the fridge ensures that the food in the bulk-package remains fresh much longer, as it gets opened only once
in a month and not every day.

What’s your most practical item in the fish-house?

You may be surprised to hear, but my saddle stool leads the list. The adjustable height of this seat allows me to service even the lower level aquariums in a comfortable sitting position without a need for excessive bending or crouching. 

It also gives me stability, which is invaluable for my fish photography, and I can easily glide around the room if I want to check out another tank.

The stool was, in fact, a Christmas present from my wife and beats any jumper, hands down! 

The most essential gear — Gabor on his stool.

Top fish house tips

1. Never buy fish food in bulk, unless you can store it in a fridge. Even if it seems much cheaper it is useless or even dangerous to feed spoilt food to your creatures. Only buy the amount you can use up within a couple of weeks.

2. When building a fish-house or fish-room always use plenty of insulation. It’ll save lots of money long-term.

3. Think about efficient ventilation. You can run an oversized fan for shorter times, but an undersized vent will never be able to remove excess humidity and you will have water dripping from everywhere.

4. Use a central air supply system. It’s very economical to run and extremely versatile.

5. Don’t tinker with the water parameters too much and too often. It takes time to see the effects of the changes you make in pH, hardness or even temperature.

6. Finally: leave enough time to enjoy your aquariums.