How to reduce the costs of running a tropical tank

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We’re all reeling at the current price hikes to our costs of living. While our hobby will also be affected, there are some things we can do to ease the pain and reduce running costs a little.

Pictured above is a Geophagus Balzani - Credit: Shutterstock

The art of economising in fishkeeping could quite conceivably, given the globalised financial woes of the 2020s, soon become a new intellectual fringe of the hobby. There’s no part of aquarium ownership that isn’t somehow impacted by a wider, international fuel price hike, from the costs of fish food, to transporting tetras from South America, or the water we fill our tanks with and the electricity that powers the pumps to move it.

Some costs are unavoidable. The manufacturing and import of aquarium hardware involves transactions way beyond the hobbyist’s control — if equipment prices rise, as they are likely to, then there is nothing we can do but take that on the chin. Other costs are within our personal spheres of influence, and may be as simple as not venting off our money as hot air. So, what can we do to soften the blow of price rises?

Lighting

If you’re still running fluorescent tubes in 2022, you’re asking to lose money. With high wattages and vast amounts of energy released as heat (always a good sign of how inefficient something is), fluorescents carry the additional insult of losing intensity as they age. If I suggested you look at expensive LED canopies to replace your old tubes, I’d be missing the point. If you’re running an older set-up with the lamps integrated into the hood, such an approach is going to be inherently more expensive. Besides, short of changing the hood, you’re stuck with what you have.

In this instance, I suggest that you investigate the wealth of retrofit LED tubes that can slot into old T8 and T5 fittings, such as those from AquaEl or Aquarium Systems. As long as you know which size fluorescent you’re running, a retailer will be able to advise you on its LED equivalent. The savings in energy consumption will be noticeable from the off. A 45in T5 tube will usually be in the 54W ballpark. An LED equivalent from the likes of AquaEl’s

Leddy range is just 18W, one third of the consumption. As a bonus, you’ll get obviously punchier light, won’t need a reflector, and will gain a pleasant (if mild) shimmering effect.

Another thing to note with light is that many of us blast our fish with far more illumination than necessary. If you take one lesson from the top home breeders, it’s that some of the fi nest fish around are being kept and bred in ambient lighting (at best) for most of the time. Aquarium lights benefit us rather than our livestock, so if you’re flicking them on at 8am before you go to work, enjoying the tank for two hours in the evening, and then flicking them off at 10.30pm, you’re wasting heaps of energy for no good reason — unless you’re growing aquarium plants, of course. Time to consider synthetic plants, maybe?

Filter economy

On the whole, energy efficiency of canister filters hasn’t evolved much over the decades. Looking at an old Rena canister from the early 80s, I see it has the same wattage as many contemporary models do today. Pulling out your trusty, decades-old Eheim internal canister and swapping it with a new model isn’t necessarily going to deliver some ground breaking, Tesla-style improvement.

If your filter has broken altogether, or if you’re planning on getting several more tanks to add to your quiver, then there are benefits to be had from looking at an alternative to centrifugal-powered pumps — air power. Fish house owners, public aquariums, breeding facilities, even many modern retailers; all understand the value of air power as a driver of filtration. The concept is as basic as it is old. You purchase a pond air blower, connect up either a network of airlines or rigid pipework with valves tapped off of it, and you use the airflow it produces to power uplifts for numerous box filters, sponge filters, and airstones.

There are many blowers to choose from, but something like the Blagdon Pond Oxygenator 3600 costs around £100, and is able to power 20 individual airstones. You’ll ideally have no less than two air feeds for a 60cm tank, so that’s maybe ten 60cm tanks. Now imagine what it’ll cost to buy an internal canister for ten tanks, and also factor in the running costs for them.

Assuming each canister is around 5W each, that’s a 50W uptake, while the Blagdon 3600 is only 32W. Of course, you need to add the cost of individual box or sponge filters (they start around £6 each), airline (pennies per metre) and valves (small change, for the most part) but even then, it’s still more economical. Note also that more and more aquarists are looking at the benefits of buying large blocks of sponge, either from aquatic store pond sections or just from searching the likes of eBay, and then cutting them to fi t their canister filters. There’s money to be saved right there.

Heating

This is the big one, but I need to tread carefully with it. There’s an argument to be made that many ‘traditional’ community fish have been kept too warm for too long. Neon Tetras, for example, seem to be almost universally kept at 25°C or more, whereas in the wilderness they’re often found closer to 22-23°C. Anecdotal reports suggest that some livebearers like Platies fare better closer to 20°C, while heaps of species like White Cloud Mountain Minnows probably shouldn’t even be kept in tropical conditions at all.

I’m not saying that you should race over and turn your thermostats down — there are many problems associated with doing so. But if you’re planning future tanks, you’d do well to plan them around species that like subtropical conditions and set the heater down to accommodate them. Alternatively, the obvious route would be a temperate tank with no heating at all. Classics like Florida Flagfish, Zebra Danio, Hillstream Loach, Buenos Aires Tetra, and Rosy Barbs are all great fish, and if they’re not unusual enough for you then maybe think Rhinogobius instead. If you fancy heating a tank for part of the year, check out the wonderful seasonal world of snakeheads or Gymnogeophagus, where a warm and cold period is required for them to thrive.

For the rest of us that want to keep our collections as they are, it’s time to address how we can slow the rate of heat loss from our tanks. After all, aquaria are just like big, expensive (and pretty inefficient) radiators when you think about it. Except, unlike a radiator, we want the heat to stay inside the fish tank. The first thing you can do is insulate the back and sides, and to do that you can use basic, everyday polystyrene sheets. They don’t need to be especially thick to have an effect, and you can pick up a pack of 25 at A4 size for around £15 or so at art supplies shops. The important thing is that they fit snugly.

I even know of an aquarist who used to polystyrene not just the back and sides of his tank, but also had a sheet of it attached by Velcro to the front. When he wanted to see the fish, he pulled it off. But when he wasn’t watching them, he was saving cash on heating bills. An awful lot of your heat will be lost through evaporation — when living in a poorly insulated house and running an open-topped tank, my heater used to be on more than it was off. Tight fitting glass sliding covers will go a long way to trapping in a layer of warm and humid air, but if that’s too expensive, perhaps consider a cheap acrylic screen cut to size. Ensure a little hole for gas exchange and ventilation, but the aim is to trap in as much heat as you can.

Sticking with the radiator analogy, if you own a tropical tank and keep it in the coldest part of the house (especially if it’s in the garage) then you’re instantly fighting a losing battle. Consider relocating the tank to the warmest room.

Bulks and basics

Feeding fish shouldn’t be an exorbitant aspect of your hobby, but many aquarists accidentally make it so. I’m going to say something really contentious here, but a lot of everyday, general use foods are brilliant at catering for a vast number of species on a daily basis.

We’ve become so bamboozled by choice that many of us feel obliged to have a different pot of food for every tank, for every day of the week. We have catfish granules, and floating Betta sticks, and slow sinking worm shaped chips, and alluring wafers, and a thousand other options, and the awkward truth is that in many cases, a single all-round, high-quality flake, crisp or pellet food would fit the bill just as well.

You know your fish better than I do, and you know what they like. You know which fish will require occasional greenfoods, or meaty foods — the specialist feeders. But you also know the ones that will accept almost anything, and if you’re honest with yourself, that’ll be most of them. Start looking at bulk purchases as an option. You needn’t go insane with 5kg buckets, but you should aim to buy enough food to last you a few months, and you’ll be able to do that with one decent sized tub of flakes, and it’ll be a whole lot cheaper than buying four or five different little tubs every fortnight.