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Winterfell Reef - A 100 Gallon Journey


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Chapter 1. Planning.


Previous Experience

Ever since I was little I’ve enjoyed aquariums, fish and underwater plants. My first aquarium was a 3 litre glass jar and was a home to 4 female and 1 male guppies. I was fascinated with this small water world and its inhabitants. The jar stood on a windowsill, did not have a heater, I was 7 years old and did not know about proper care, significance of water changes and nitrogen lifecycle. Surprisingly, the aquarium lasted for a few month, until one day I decided to perform a 100% water change with fresh tap water… The fish died and I did not have an explanation. That was 25 years ago and I did not have real access to aquarium keeping books.


For the past 15 years I’ve always had at least one aquarium in my household. I did mostly freshwater, was especially taken by African cichlids (tropheus are so much fun, frontosa is simply majestic). Did a number of planted tanks, that hobby had really progressed in the past 10 years, my last aquarium featured a CO2 system and intense lighting. I even tried a fish-only 10 gallon nano-reef in 2005.


All of this was preparation for the ultimate challenge in aquarium keeping - a saltwater reef system.


I started with a 10 gallon coral reef in 2011, made all newbie mistakes and have quickly realized that I needed better lighting, more water volume, greater fish variety, water stability and much much more.


By the end of 2011 I decided to order a 28 gallon JBJ Advanced Nano Cube system.




This system lasted for 7 months but I’ve discovered a few limitations:


the daylight lights system was quite powerful, but coral colours would not “pop”, a coral that would exhibit rich green and red colours at the store would quickly appear rather drab and monochrome. dusk/dawn lighting was great.

curved glass on the front panel quickly became distracting, made taking pictures much harder and was not easy to clean

I’ve stocked the tank with 5 fish and wanted many more, needless to say that even 5 was too many

putting a dosing pump on such a small system seemed excessive, but I quickly got tired of manual dosing

So while I still have this system and it is thriving, I decided to design and build a new system that will address all of the above mentioned deficiencies.


Future Build Specifications


I did not want to go with an extremely large system, so 150+ gallon aquarium was not an option. An aquarium that is too small was not worth the effort either. The sweet spot would be somewhere between 70 and 100 gallons.


Choosing aquarium length was a no brainer: I want to use Ecotech Radion lights, they cover an area of 24” by 24”, so 48” viewing side seemed like a perfect fit. Not too long and yet I have tons of options for lighting, this is a standard size.


Aquarium depth (front-to-back) was much trickier, a lot of aquariums that I like got as far as 30” deep, every hobbyist I asked recommended that I go with as much room front-to-back as possible. In the end I chose 24”, which should give me more than ample room for some nice aquascaping and great viewing perspective.


For height I am going 20” high, this should make aquarium maintenance fairly straightforward - I will be able to reach the sand without any difficulty.


I’ve made a number of cutouts and experimented with different sizing and locations. At the end I’ve picked the location that worked best and now my future aquarium measures at 48” x 24” x 20”.








I will be going with a rimless look and low-iron glass (starfire) on front and sides. Bottom will be tempered glass with 3 holes, 2 drains 1-1/2” and 1 return of 1”.


Overflow will be internal, 3 sided rectangular black acrylic centered on the back panel.


The cabinet stand will measure 48-1/4” x 22 1/4” x 36” high, custom built, espresso colour, extra door on the left end and a removable post in front. I plan to add an additional door on the right in case I ever decide to move the tank.


The sand depth will be between 1” and 2”, the bottom part of the tank will be hidden behind the stand bevel.


The sump will be 36” x 17” x 16”.




I decided to document this process from the start, hoping that I will have a point of reference that I can always come back to in order to revisit this journey. I hope that this journal will help others to learn from my experience and mistakes and that I will be able to contribute to the wonderful hobby of marine reef keeping.


2011 and 2012 were the years when I was introduced to the works of George R. R. Martin, namely “The Game of Thrones”, part of the fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire”. This elaborate saga featured a castle called Winterfell. The name had caught my attention and I decided to give my new build the same name. I hope to use a similar colour scheme of cold blues and the rocks remind me of castle walls.


Chapter 2. The Arrival

The day that I have been waiting for so long has home: the tank was shipped and successfully delivered.


It took just over a month from the time I've put in the order and the delivery guy showed up at my doorsteps. Since then I've changed my mind at least 3 times about aquarium's location, that had also affected the overflow placement.


The tank has found its new home:




I must say that I was a bit surprised when I saw the black silicone - for some reason I had those light blue edges in mind that I've seen on some of the tanks. As I was told this is the way 95% of the starfire rimless tanks are being made - clear silicone turns white a few years down the road. I think that I've got used to it already.


You may also notice a plastic band that goes around the tank at the bottom - I was given a wrong base and styrofoam, both are 3/4'' and make the tank stand much higher. I expect to receive a thinner replacement next week.




I certainly like the size of it and think that this in an optimal upgrade from my 28 gallon cube. I have also made sure to have a door on each side for easy access. One problem that I have encountered was to get the sump into the stand through the side door. The opening was 18 1/4'' and the sump, although measuring at 18'' was wider at the base by a good quarter inch. It was an extremely tight fit, I had to take the door off and also to chisel the opening a little.




One thing that I did not expect was how big the sump really is in relation to the cabinet space and how little room there is for all other equipment. I'm sure I will have fun figuring it out.




Next thing on my list is plumbing. I've figured most of it out but need to get a few pieces, for example, it is not that easy to get a 1.5'' gate valve in Canada.




The winter is coming...

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Beautiful start! What are you think of for equipment besides the Radions? Pro or standard?


I had my sights set on Pro. But am now also considering a T5 setup... Both have tons of pros (no pun intended) and cons.


For Radion's I'd have to wait until January and it is definitely a lot of money. T5s are true and trusted and I do like the look of a nice T5 tank. One worry about both would be stray light, it would be less noticeable with LEDs I bet.

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Nice tank. As for lights, I prefer T5/LED combo. Since it's rimless, a custom floating canopy would be sweet.


Are there air bubbles in the left/front silicone seam? Obviously can't tell from a picture but it looks like there may be.

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Nice tank. As for lights, I prefer T5/LED combo. Since it's rimless, a custom floating canopy would be sweet.


Are there air bubbles in the left/front silicone seam? Obviously can't tell from a picture but it looks like there may be.


Did you have a particular T5/LED model in mind? I will be hanging the fixture from the ceiling, but am worried about the stray light.


As for the bubbles - you've got good eyesight, there are a few on the left upper side, I was told that they might get smaller in about 60 days.

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Looking good. I'll be sure to come check out your progress. In the meantime, I'll have to promote my own tank, because I think you will like it, based upon your own design choices! Click the pic in a my sig.

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Looking good. I'll be sure to come check out your progress. In the meantime, I'll have to promote my own tank, because I think you will like it, based upon your own design choices! Click the pic in a my sig.

Come where?

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Chapter 3. Plumbing.


Plumbing the tank... Although I understood how my JBJ Nanocube simple plumbing worked and have read a number of reef aquarium books, I must admit that I just did not have the full picture of what I wanted to do in my head. All these terms: bulkheads, nozzles, overflows, herbie, durso, lockline... Let's just say that there's a steep learning curve.


All of this meant that when I was ordering my aquarium and when asked what type of overflow and holes I wanted I had to ask one of my friends about it and just relay the answer. No matter how much reading I did I just could not grasp the whole concept, just isolated parts. I knew that there will come a day when I will have to understand and build it and continued to hope for the best.


That day had come once the tank was delivered. There was no going back. I am much better at understanding things when I have something tangible, something I can see and feel. When I saw other people's build diaries and saw photos of 40+ plumbing parts laid out on the floor I could not figure out where each part would go.




So I started with a simple sketch, then adjusted it a bit and then some more. Then I showed it on reef forums and got tons of feedback. Slowly things started to make sense, I must've made over a dozen revisions to the diagram. But what really helped was printing the diagram and going to other aquarist's houses, seeing their plumbing and then updating my diagram with their help.


Finally the diagram was ready and I went to Lowe's to buy the parts. There I quickly figured out the difference between Schedule 40 and 80, ABS, PVC and CPVC plumbing types, elbows, tees, bushings and valves. I've also learned that some of the parts could not be bought there and that I needed specialty stores for 1.25'' threaded adapters and gate valves. And these stores are not close by and you better know what you want before you visit them. It took at least 4 trips to Lowe's to get the parts.




Another lesson learned was not to glue anything until all of the plumbing was assembled. I've learned the difference between different PVC cements, primers and cleaners. Once my plumbing was semi-done one of my fellow aquarists had visited me at my home and made some invaluable comments.


After that the plumbing was ready. My diagram now started to make sense.






The plumbing was put in place and glued.






I filled aquarium with tap water and let it run for 24 hours.




And here is the lockline




Once the water test was finished my aquarium was emptied. Next stop: aquascaping.


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Chapter 4. Aquascaping




Aquascaping is tricky. There are a lot of options to choose from and lots of nuances. Since this is not my first aquascape attempt, I’m already accounting for my previous mistakes: not leaving enough room between the rock and the glass, not envisioning space occupied by fully grown corals.


I also want to have a fair bit of negative space (at least 30% of the sandbed and walls) and have an illusion of depth. Another important thing is to consider different view points - the tank must look nice from different angles.


Originally I have envisioned a single rock wall massive in the middle of the tank (hence the Winterfell name), so when I was choosing rock at the store I did make a wall first. Well, first I did make a 48x24 egg crate with a cutout for the overflow and brought that to the store so I could use it as aquarium footprint.


However, once I got home and started laying out the rocks in the tank I quickly realized that something was amiss, it was definitely too bland. I could not achieve the illusion of depth and the tank being more on the deep side (front to back) I wanted to emphasize and utilize that.


I finally decided to have a trench (any castle will have its main gates) and have split the wall into two parts. Did a few iterations of the layout, looked at it from different parts of the room and decided on the aquascape that I like.




It looks pretty good from any side.








It is a good thing I’ve discussed it with a fellow member - he had made a good suggestion of not having the eggcrate cover the whole bottom. Since then I’ve cut out most of it and now only have eggcrate underneath the rocks.




Next step is to get some water in the tank and start cycling.

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Scape looks good. A few tweaks I might play with if I were you:



You might try moving the left two of the three rock groups left a couple of inches to give s a little more space between them and the third rock. then move the left most rock group forward about an inch to increase the perceived depth of the tank.

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Quick paint cut up of what I was saying.


Wow, you are a master with Paint. :)

I will fool around a little with the aquascape as per your recommendation. One thing I really want in this tank is lots of space in front though.

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I am a BIG fan of "minimalist" scapes like you're doing. Which is of course, not at all what my current setup looks like, lol.


I think this might give you the appearance of more space in the front. But like many thing it's hard to tell till you try it.


In any case, I really REALLY love the look of this tank so far, and if it was in my budget would do something similar.

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Chapter 5. Simply Add Water


Now that aquascaping is finished it is time to start brewing. The day when water is added to the tank is the day I officially count as its birthday.




One last look at the tank sans water... and let's begin.




It took about two days for my 90 gph RODI system to produce enough water to fill the tank.




Almost there.




And we are done.


While I was setting up the tank my skimmer has arrived. I've agonized over the choice of a skimmer. So many models to chose from and definitely quite a price range. While I did not want to overspend, one thing I have learned in this hobby is that if one goes for a cheaper item, there's a 50/50 chance that very soon I'd regret for not going with something better. Having heard tons of positive feedback on Bubble King skimmer I've decided to take the plunge.




The moment I've opened the box and saw the skimmer I knew I made the right decision. The quality, finish, weight of the unit is simply superb. Too bad this bad boy is going to be hidden inside the cabinet.

My biggest concern was whether this unit would fit. Originally I chose a 160 model, but later decided to go for 180. Even though I did make a cut out template to try as well as double and triple checked all the measurements, I was certain that the unit would fit, but was not sure whether I would be able to put it in the sump under the cabinet. Let's just say that my heart started beating faster when I was about to try getting the unit in.


And it did fit.




Now that's a load off. The whole system was now running smoothly... Or so I thought. As you will find out in my next post, nothing, especially projects like these go according to plan.

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Still looking great. I might have to live vicariously through this tank until I win the lotto, so much of what you're doing is along the lines of what I'd love to do.

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Chapter 6. A Little Detour

“The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry”. Or should I say “fish and men”, or “corals and men”? “invertebrate”?


In my previous post I mentioned that something unexpected had happened. And no, there was no leakage (thank God!).


Once the tank was filled with water, salt was added and the aquarium was waiting patiently for some inhabitants, I noticed that there was something bugging me every time I was admiring the tank from the side. It was not perfectly level. First I did not pay much attention to it, after all I thought I’d made everything was level up to 1/8” when the tank was setup, but after a day or so I’ve decided to re-check it.


Imagine my surprise when I noticed that while the tank was perfectly level from the front, it had a discrepancy of about 1/4” between front and back glass. I’ve re-measured and got the same results. It started to bug me, no matter how many times I told myself that it is not noticeable, I knew that it was there and certainly took away from the experience. This is also not very good for the glass structure longer term.


So having pondered on it for a day I decided to do the unthinkable - I would empty the tank. Just did not quite work out the logistics of it, where would the water go? I’ve emptied smaller tanks in the past and also large freshwater, but discarding 120+ gallons of perfectly fine saltwater seemed like an unnecessary waste. And my largest trash can was 20 gallons.


Eureka! There’s a kids’ pond I can use. I knew that there was never any soap in it and decided to take my chances.




So after about 40 minutes of siphoning water the tank was almost empty. I had to also empty the sump.


Next step was the shimming. I could not lift the tank and the stand, but it became light enough to be able to shim it. Now that took a long time.




It took even longer to get the water back in the tank. I did not use a pump, so it was all manual labour. A solid hour, splashing and some saltwater.




Now that looks much better. The tank is perfectly level.


Next I’ve installed a T5 light fixture - Sunlight Supply Tek (8 bulbs) and turned the lights on. Oh, what a beautiful sight.




The water was still a bit murky but it did get better a few hours later.




When I was sitting in front of the tank after spending a day on this task I knew that it was totally worth it.


Stay tuned for the next post where some fish will be introduced. And a video.

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