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Tuesday, May 12th, 2015
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An Uncommon Sump Design, by Yours Truly.

Sumps are awesome additions to salt water aquariums. But they tend to involve a lot of expense. I'll explain. Everything. Likely you'll regret you ever started reading, lol. Anyway.

This is a design for a sump I came up with to help make setting up a larger salt tank with a sump considerably less expensive than as is usual.

How it is usually done

Generally, the way sumps are done is they are set up below the main tank.

Normally, an overflow port is required in the main fish tank near the top. As water is pumped out of the sump below and into the main tank, the water pours out of the main tank overflow port, back through a tube, thereby back into the sump below.

In this way, physics takes care of the primary circulation issues, and, conveniently enough, it keeps the main fish tank's level 100% constant always at the level of the overflow port. It can't go any higher, because it just pours out of the overflow port faster. It can't go any lower, because there is always water being pumped in from the sump.

That constant water level is just a side-effect though; evaporation still takes place, but it's the water level in the sump that varies in response. It's not like you can ignore said evaporation and water level change, even though it's just visible in the sump, because evaporation means the salinity of the water is increasing (the salt doesn't evaporate) so really, not so much of a benefit after all. You'll be adding water to compensate no matter what.

Now, if the sump's water lift pump fails, the upper tank stops receiving water inflow, the overflow port stops overflowing, and things just quietly sit there. Physics, being our very best friend. The fish are at no risk.

Of course, the upper tank might start to siphon back down the water lift pump line into the sump, so the sump could overflow sumps are almost always much lower volume than the tanks they support, so what is a little bit of water volume in the context of the main tank is a lot of water volume in the context of the sump but people tend to use one-way check valves (which can fail, he whispered) to prevent that.

Or, they have to put an (ugly... yech) reduced volume chamber into the main tank so that the siphon volume is limited. Well, ouch. One of the main ideas of a sump is to keep the ugly industrial stuff out of the main tank and hide it off in the sump. So the addition of the volume-restriction for the inflow makes the physics work perfectly, but now... now the tank looks like a plumber's Lego set. Fail. So... not all that great after all.

Here is the next big problem with an under-sump. Even moderately large fish tanks, such as the 75 gallon I just picked up a few weeks ago from PetSmart, are almost always made with tempered glass, and without overflow ports. I have diamond hole-cutting saws, which are inexpensive and sort of amazing, but... you really can't use them on tempered glass to create ports in an otherwise solid pane as the success rate is very low, nearly zero in fact. You usually end up with shattered glass, no matter how careful you are. My new tank had a huge warning label stuck to it saying exactly this. I knew it already, but it was still sobering to see it right there from the tank manufacturer.

But buying a tank made with overflow ports? Ouch. They really smack you in the wallet for that. Most are custom built. Don't even ask. If you have to ask...

But if you don't have an overflow port and a reduced volume inflow chamber in the main tank, the physics of a sump-below are even more tricky and problematic. Very wet floors are, eventually, a certainty. There will be return pump failures, high-volume siphoning, sometimes both.

Plus you have to put ugly equipment right in the main tank to create a pseudo-overflow that depends upon a constant siphon (which will fail the very first time air bubbles get in it) or a pump which will eventually fail as well, and then the pump that is driving the lift from the sump into the main tank will make the whole tank overflow. Ugh. Too many problems. Too much risk of damage to the home. Two pumps instead of one, or an unreliable siphon. Neither works for me. And the price of a pre-ported tank was not acceptable either. Not going there.

But I still wanted a pretty tank containing nothing but fishy / reefy / crawly things and a great sump where all the filtering, skimming, toxin removal, aeration and so on were hidden from view. The benefits aside from aesthetics are myriad: Tank maintainance, environmental management, ease of service, no more getting bitten by my fish every time I serviced the tank (funny story... will tell elsewhere, later.) What to do? Think, fella, think. Ok. Ok.

Trying Something Different

How about putting a sump above? The physics won't help out with regard to keeping the main tank's level constant, but that's not critical could the rest be made to work? Perusing the web... couldn't find a thing. Sumps, apparently, are intended by Poseidon himself to reside below the main tank, and he insists have you use a ported tank, and that's pretty much the end of it. Mmmmph. Well. Look here, Thor's got a hammer, and your god... no wait, that's something else.

But I think I have figured it out. Refer to the design in the image above as I walk through this. Those of you who haven't wandered away already muttering "what the heck?" Or worse.

First, unwanted siphoning:

The water is pumped up to the sump from the main tank below, thence into chamber number one. If power fails or the pump otherwise stops, and the intake, due to the weight of the height of the water column in it, begins to siphon from the sump back into the main tank, it can only pull water from chamber number one, which has a very limited volume and the feed is just under the surface. The limited volume is because the first barrier disallows pulling water backwards from succeeding chambers into chamber number one. The feed being near the surface means that if it does start siphoning, it'll suck air before it even drains a fraction of the already limited-volume of chamber number one, below the feed outlet. So, no significant siphoning can happen. That's the biggest deal. Safety, period.

Next, particulate filtration is needed. I use some pretty standard (and inexpensive, and easily managed) filter packages for my other salt tank, and to keep things both simple and inexpensive, I wanted to use them here as well. So that's why the filter retainer is where it is. There's enough space in this chamber and all the other similarly sized chambers for my hand to get in there as well for cleaning, but no more than that. If the filters are unclogged (as is normal), the water will flow through them into chamber three. If not, it will overflow into chamber three below the level of chamber one, and so cannot contribute to siphoning. I made the filter slots with a five-layer "sandwich" of glass and plexiglass that allow simply sliding the filters in from above. Easy-peasy. Well, mostly.

Next, the sump's overflow port needed, for strength, to be basically in the middle of one of the end glass panes. Attack even a non-tempered glass pane with a one-inch-plus diamond hole cutting saw anywhere near the pane's edge, and you will likely be very, very sorry. And in need of a new pane of glass. Also perhaps stitches. So in the middle of an end it had to be.

But as the idea stood thus far, that would mean that the main tank area could only be half full. Poor utilization of available volume, I thinks to myself, jauntily cocking my engineer hat (or is it a pirate hat... salt water and all... No, wait, it's just cat toys in my hair again. Silly cats.) So another barrier leading to a relatively small volume chamber (chamber four) that can only get as full as the overflow port, but creates a large equipment chamber (chamber three) that can utilize most of the available remaining volume.

Now the water flow is:

Out of the main tank via a pump, then up above, and down into, the sump hidden above.

The output of the pump goes into chamber one, which prevents the siphoning. Also, the exit of the inflow pipe when operating is always under water, this is guaranteed by the overflow barrier being higher than the outflow opening is, so no raging splashing from the inflow. Ever. Nice. 😊

Thence into chamber two, which sits before the particulate filtration assembly. From there through the particulate filters, or worst case if they are too loaded with particulates, over them.

Now on into the largest chamber, three, in which will be located the heater, skimmer, aeration, CO2 system, Ph and salinity sensors, toxin and nitrate sponges, and some various small biologicals to help keep the water healthier. That is the stuff I don't want cluttering up the view in the main tank. If I need to add water or salt or plankton or meds or whatever, I do it right into chamber three. Wide open, easy top access, no fish bites.

From there, over a slightly (1/2 inch) lower level overflow to guarantee flow direction continues to be correct, into chamber four, where it naturally flows back down into the main tank at about the 1/2 sump tank height level.

And in the main tank? An intake tube leading to the pump, and the sump's outflow tube. Both tubes are highly inconspicuous. And a light. A very pretty and efficient LED light. That's it, other than fish, water, and sand.

So with Deb's help spraying water continuously from the hose onto the saw and glass, I cut the hole in the 30 gallon tank, which went... swimmingly... (cough.) Ok, ok, I'll stop with the bad puns. What? No, those aren't crossed fingers. I have a cramp, that's all. Sod off, then.

Right now, I'm presently in the process of having my glass guys use silicone to assemble and mount the cut glass and plexiglass pieces that form the various barriers and filter holders. It's going fine, though the curing times are longish, so not done yet and I've not actually seen the result. I will dutifully shoot a picture of the assembled unit when it is done, and again when it is hopefully in operation, actually working.

Will it work? I'm thinking it will. We'll see! Tune in next week, when "Sump Thing Is Very Wet Around Here" returns for its new season, starring one very troublesome and quick fish. I'll explain more about that nasty little twerp then.

#aquarium #sump

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