Reef Tank Stands – A Design Guide

Aquarium Stands come in all shapes and sizes, but in the reef hobby there is a lot of customization that goes on. You often find yourself buying more equipment for your tank, and as you add more things to your tank setup you might find yourself running out of room to put it all.

Why you might want to Build a Reef Aquarium Stand

A little about store bought stands

Wood aquarium stands originating from pet stores or big box retailers are quite common. Most are produced as cheap as possible, and typically constructed of particle board.

With a typical saltwater display tank and sump, many of these stands fall short. Particle board and MDF cannot withstand high humidity or water splashes that happen in the cabinet. When this type of wood gets wet for a prolonged period, swelling occurs. This cannot be repaired, and can potentially compromise the structure of the stand.

Getting Started

This article covers some of the things to consider to build a custom stand for your saltwater aquarium. If you think it through, you get a stand that is useful for years, looks great, and makes things easier for you.

When it comes to maintenance, “Know Thyself”

It is human nature that determines that if something is difficult to do, we are less likely to do it, even when we know we should. When it comes to tank maintenance it is no different.

One reason people end up leaving the hobby is “I don’t have the time for my tank”. This often translates into “doing maintenance is too much of a pain in the butt”. In a lot of ways, you can reduce the pain of the necessary work involved by thinking things through in the planning stage.

First, let’s look at the requirements as far as what kind of equipment we need to put inside the stand. You might not have all of this, but you might want to at some point.

Common Equipment for a Reef tank Stand

  • Sump tank
  • ATO reservoir
  • Drain & return plumbing
  • Electronic devices
  • Extra room for storage

We are trying to do a lot with a small area. Then we throw in the fact that saltwater doesn’t play well with metal or electricity. It becomes clear that some planning goes into building a good stand.

Basic Requirements for a custom stand

  • Provide structural support
  • Providing a place for electronic equipment
  • Allow you to do maintenance easily
  • Ventilate the sump to keep heat and humidity in check

Nice to haves

  • Store commonly used items for feeding or maintenance
  • Keep noise from pumps contained
  • House an ATO reservoir
  • Lots of access room above the sump
  • Accent your home’s design

Getting structural support with a frame

Averaged out, roughly 10 lbs per gallon of water and tank weight needs to rest on the stand, so it needs to be able to support it. This is why most aquarium stands use an internal frame to support the tank made from either wood or metal.

Aside from just the vertical force of gravity, the stand must also have lateral rigidity or Shear strength. It is critical to eliminate side-to-side movement in any direction with a heavy load such as an aquarium.

Shear strength can be achieved by adding braces, or by attaching plywood to the sides and backing of the cabinet.

Creating a Solid base

Rather than using 4 legs like a table, most stands will use horizontal pieces along the floor to distribute the weight to the floor. This bottom “plinth” is also a good part to start on with construction. One thing you may want to design is to have the sump to be slightly elevated off the ground by about 4-6″. A simple way to do this is to use 2 X 4 or 2 X 6 lumber for your bottom frame plinth, covered with plywood. A raised sump allows you to siphon with a hose and bucket placed on the ground. Handy for removing detritus or for water changes.

Elevating your sump means you’ll lose some vertical space, vs. resting it on the floor, but not being able to siphon the sump is a pain. A raised floor in the sump also creates a bit of a buffer zone between the sump and your home’s flooring, which may be carpet or hardwood.

Stand Height

When you add a sump and a tall skimmer inside a cabinet, some vertical room is needed. Most stands I have built are 40″ tall or more. This allows a nice viewing height when standing, but is a personal preference. Having the tank this high means you’ll most likely have to use a stool or platform in order to reach into all corners inside it. If you don’t want to have to do this, the height of the tank and stand can only go up to your armpits while you are standing. The necessity in this hobby for reaching your arms inside the tank is one reason why most tanks are 24in tall or lower.

Vertical room inside the Stand

Going with a higher overall stand height creates head room inside it. There will be times when you must crouch down and lean into the cabinet to access equipment, and it’s nice to have extra room to move around.

Adding doors and outer panels ie: “Skinning” the stand

Once the structural frame is complete, you can think about how you want it to look. Most people want the tank to match the other furniture in their home, and will use the right type of wood and paint or stain it.

It can be helpful to think about making the stand modular. A main inner frame provides support, and an outer skin of panels and doors makes it look good.

Removable outer panels have a couple of benefits. If you move or sell the tank later, the look of the stand can be changed without rebuilding the whole thing.

Removable panels can also give you better access to the sump. If you can take them off, you won’t have to reach through small cabinet doors to do things like clean the sump or do other maintenance.

Aquarium Stand Materials

Wood Aquarium Stands

2 X 4″ lumber is by far the most common material for custom aquarium stands. It is cheap, and easy to cut and drill together. Things like power bars can be mounted to the wood without too much trouble.

A stand made of lumber needs to be able to support the weight, but it’s easy to go overboard. Using excess lumber means less room available for equipment, and doesn’t make the stand any better. A lot of stands you see are overbuilt and bulky.

This article is mostly about the planning stage of building a stand.

Metal Aquarium Stands

Steel aquarium stands are made by welding tubing together to create a frame. Typically more expensive to construct than wood, but very strong. The tubing used is much smaller than lumber in size, so that frees up a lot of usable space in the stand.

Anything made from steel should be painted for rust protection. Some people will go as far as getting the steel powder coated, or using a bed-lining material made for pickup trucks.

There are also some stand frames being built with extruded aluminum tubes. These are becoming more popular and made by companies such as 80/20 Inc.. While expensive, aluminum does not rust which makes it a great material in this application.

Distribute the Tanks Weight resting on the stand

A piece of rigid foam is a good addition to your stand build, and goes between the tank and stand. You should also use a piece of 3/4″ plywood under the foam. This is for the tank’s sake to spread out the force of the tank over a wider area.

A new frameless tank will almost always come with the foam already installed. The foam is often pink in color and fairly dense. It is commonly used for insulation of exterior buildings.

While it’s mandatory for frameless tanks, it is also a good idea for conventional tanks with plastic frames too.

Tank Placement in your home

Water itself weights 8.35 lbs per gallon. Add that to an already heavy glass tank full of rocks, and you may be dealing with several hundred pounds. This means that you need a suitable place for the tank and that your home or apartment’s floor can hold up the weight. That is a little out of scope of this article, but of most of the time you only have to worry about this with a tank over 100 gallons.

Proactive design for leak detection

There will always be times when you spill a little water around the sump. This can happen while doing things like pouring in water or removing equipment. These spills are always better to keep contained in the cabinet before they reach the floor.

By creating a sort of “dish” where the sump sits, any leaks can be detected before they touch the floor. This is a big deal. Installing a $10 leak detector will alert you if there is a leak in the cabinet. If your stand does not have this feature, then water will simply leak to the ground if something were to happen.

Protecting Electronic Components

The salty, moist air from a sump cabinet will oxidize and rust metal and electronics. In a contained area, this can happen in a hurry.

You want to protect the equipment from humidity and water, and be able to access them without too much trouble. Placing a divider between your electronic equipment and the sump is the best way to do this.

A divider will create a compartment for mounting power bars, timers and controllers. It will also provide an area for excess wire and things you may want to keep dry.

Having your controller or power strips in an easy to reach area makes it less of a chore to unplug things then plug them back in. You will have to do this every time you remove something from the system for cleaning or maintenance.

There are a few ways to cordon-off the electronics in your cabinet.

  1. A shelf or drawer above or below the sump. This can work well, but takes up vertical room you may need for skimmers etc. There is also a slight caveat – if the area is located above the sump, dropping something into the water becomes more of a risk.
  2. A side cubby can work quite well. Many people have a door to this area for quick access to switches or outlets. This is also a good method because you won’t have to reach into the cabinet too far.

Heat from power bars and ballasts

Electronics such as ballasts will produce their own heat. Depending on your setup, this can be an issue or not. You might want to add a small computer fan to ventilate the electronics area.

Easy Access to Pumps and Equipment for Maintenance

You’ll need to disconnect equipment such as pumps for routine maintenance from time to time. Power bars and controllers will need some clearance to allow you to reach back and unplug them. Power centers like this American DJ model are quite popular:

Ventilation of the Sump Cabinet

Running a sump often means having an aquarium in a closed area where humidity builds up.

A well ventilated area will help to keep excess heat and humidity down to acceptable levels. Poor ventilation will lead to condensation forming inside the stand. This environment can warp your wood or destroy your components. Any visible condensation inside the sump cabinet walls indicates poor ventilation. Adding holes in the back wall can help, or a small computer fan to circulate the air.

It is a good idea to get a small thermometer / humidity gauge for inside the cabinet. If heat is an issue, knowing the temperature in the cabinet can help you make adjustments with fans or chillers you may be running.

Making things easy for yourself.

For me, the top time saving things to have in your stand are:

  • Large ATO reservoir that doesn’t need filled more than every 2-3 weeks
  • Skimmer neck cleaner such as the Swabbie
  • Easy access to sump and electronics with a large access bay or large doors

Drilling Holes for Bulkheads in Glass Aquarium Tanks

Drilling a tank is something that may make you nervous. Even if you see it demonstrated, you might not think you can do it. It is easy and fairly quick.

Equipment

Drill bits for glass are called diamond hole saw bits. They don’t work quite the same way as a wood hole saw bit.

With wood, you pushing the drill and bit down hard is how the hole is made — you can go as fast as you want. Not so with glass.

With a glass hole drilling bit, diamond particles fused to the metal scratch their way through and wear through the pane gradually. It doesn’t matter what direction the bit rotates.

Using hard pressure to push down on the bit will result in the hole chipping out or worse, ruining the tank by cracking it.

If you haven’t drilled an actual tank, you may want to get some scrap glass at roughly the same thickness as what your tank is in order to practice. Rule #1 is take your time and let the bit do the work.

Aside from practicing the technique of drilling, care needs to be put into the bit you are using. Many cheap diamond bits will get significantly duller after only a few holes.

So make sure your bit is relatively sharp and new. You might want to get one specifically to practice with, then use a new bit to drill the hole on your tank. A dull bit takes longer to make the hole which may tempt you to push harder. Pushing harder increases the chance of chip out or cracking the tank.

Hole placement

Holes need to be a sufficient distance from the edge of a pane of glass in order to retain the structural integrity of the tank. The diameter of the hole is the measurement that determines this. From the edge of the glass to the edge of the hole, there should be at least the diameter of the hole in distance. From the center of the hole, it works out to 1.5X diameter. Holes in proximity should be 2X diameter apart on center.

Plumbing parts are supposed to be standardized, but you will find small differences. It’s best to get your plumbing parts and bulkheads prior to doing any drilling.

Glass Strength and Lateral Forces from Plumbing

Bulkheads and plumbing affect how the tank distributes force. A rigid bulkhead and length of pipe can act as a lever that will place forces on the glass. Once you install a bulkhead, make sure that you don’t let the tank rest with it’s weight on the bulkheads during storage or moving. – This is a universal rule for any drilled aquarium.

This is another reason why I like flex PVC so much, as it will give before putting excessive force on the glass. It won’t stress the tank if bumped by a child, dog or clumsy owner.

Glass Thickness

The number I tend to lean towards is 40 gallons for the minimum size of tank should be drilled. A 40 gal breeder (36″ X 18″ X 17″) has 1/4″ (6.35mm) glass which can withstand the forces of drilling and having plumbing hanging off it. Many stories of cracked tanks involve people drilling something under 40 gallons.

Tempered or Not Tempered

Tempered Glass is heat treated for strength and safety. If you attempt to drill it, it will shatter into many tiny pieces along with your perception of how intelligent you are.

On many standard tanks offered for sale that have rims on top, the bottom is tempered but the sides are not.

It’s fairly easy to find out if the tank is tempered with polarized sunglasses and a laptop with an LCD screen.

First, you want the screen mostly white – the easiest way is just to go to Google.com with the white background. Put the white screen device behind the pane in question and look at it while wearing the sunglasses.

Next, turn the device’s screen like a steering wheel – watch closely as it goes from white to black and then back to white.. If the screen is total black, the glass isn’t tempered. If you see streaks through the blackness, it’s tempered.

This page here goes over the process and has some helpful photos:
A good thread on Salt-City.org – How to tell if glass is tempered

Tempered glass can often have a couple of other telltale signs. For one, They will often be more rounded than your average piece of scrap non-tempered or plate glass. This is sometimes because a pane of glass will often have the edges rounded or polished before being tempered.

Also, you may be able to find a stamp in the corner that indicates that the pane has been tempered. These stamps can wear off, but may still have some ink on the glass. If you see these signs, the pane has a good chance of being tempered.

While non-tempered glass is easy to score and break, tempered glass is much stronger. They say up to 10 times as strong! This means it will not score as easily. Non-tempered glass has a distinctive sound it makes while being scored. If forced, (and it will take a lot of force) it will shatter LOUDLY. Not a good way to wake the house up!

Bit cooling

Cold running water over the cutting bit keeps it’s temperature down and carries dust away. The best thing you can do is use a hose on very low flow and direct it over the bit. Use freshwater. Take care not to get your power drill wet for obvious reasons.

Many demonstrations show drilling a hole in glass using a ring of putty or clay. The ring is fashioned around the hole to be drilled and then filled with water. This works, but doesn’t allow you to use a wood template to put the hole exactly where you want it. It also means you can only drill straight down which isn’t always possible.

If using a stream of water from a hose then the whole process becomes a little easier to view. this is because the water remains clear so you can see how far you have drilled through the pane.

Getting the hole started

First – make sure that your drill is correctly adjusted. If there is a clutch / torque setting – make sure it’s on the lowest setting. This is commonly adjusted with a collar ring just behind the drill chuck.

You may see some people angle the bit to about a 45° angle so that the entry angle focuses the bit force onto one spot. The cut starts to form a “C” shape and acts as a guide so the bit doesn’t skate around the surface of the glass before it can start.

I have found the angle-in technique a little difficult if you are looking to precisely put your hole where you want it. A thin piece of wood used as a guide works well. To make the guide, use an actual wood bit the same size as your diamond hole bit to make a hole in the wood piece. A thinner piece of wood is better because it will allow water to flow into the hole.

Now you can clamp the wood piece to your glass panel or get a helper to hold it while you drill. Once you get the hole started, you can remove the wood guide in order to get a better look at the bit and see how much longer it must travel you have before you make it all the way through the pane.

Drilling Technique for a Clean hole

For the best possible result, you should drill the hole from both sides. It may take slightly longer, but if your goal is to do it right and get a clean hole with no chip-out, then it is the best method.

First, start cutting through the pane, but stop cutting when about 75% of the way through. Then carefully line up and secure your wood hole template to the other side of the pane. Start drilling with light pressure until all the way through. It may take some time to line up the hole again on the other side.

If you are only able to drill from one side of the pane, technique and steadiness is more important to reduce chip out as the middle piece breaks free.

Towards the end of the cut you want to make sure that your pressure is soft, and let the bit carve the last way through. Excessive pressure at when you are almost all the way through can chip out the hole.

Changes in the angle of the bit can also result in chipping. You must put effort info holding your angle steady for the last few millimeters of the cut. If you feel yourself getting tired or shaky then take a break and come back to finishing the last few millimeters.

Very small chips on the edge of the finished hole are generally okay, but a significant chip can compromise the seal of a bulkhead.

Don’t let the Puck Drop

The circular puck of glass you remove can be something you want to account for, as it can potentially chip the tank where it falls. Take care to catch the puck with a towel or secure it with tape prior to drilling all the way through. Taping the opposite side of the pane prior to drilling may also result in less chipping and a cleaner hole if only making the hole from one side.

Drilling a tank that is full — A good idea?

This is a decision you’ll have to make yourself, but there are people who have done it successfully. If you know you can make holes cleanly without chipping then it may be worth the risk, just do to the fact that draining a reef tank is a major chore. It will still be more work than drilling a dry tank, but its doable if you want to put a hole in the side of the tank.

You would want to drain the tank by enough so that the drilling is not affected by the water pressure. It may be tricky to collect the bit cooling water in such a way that it wont leak into the tank. It is milky and full of glass dust your tank inhabitants probably don’t want.

If drilling a full tank, one challenge you may run into is how to orient the drill. To prevent getting glass fines in the tank, you will want to drill from the outside. If the tank is too close to the wall, you can’t get your drill in in the right spot to make the hole. You may want to find a “close quarters” drill. These allow a hole to be drilled in a tank with only about 6″ between it and the wall.

If you have no choice but to drill from the inside, you may be able to creatively catch the drilling water before it gets in the main tank water. Some ideas are a half-bowl or container pressed onto the glass, or a shop vac fitting duct taped under the hole to vacuum all the water. You’ll most likely need a helper for this. If you come up with a solution for this, please email me a picture.

Even if you have a lot of experience drilling clean holes, there is always the chance of cracking the tank. You may just want to prepare for this with several containers to hold your livestock and rock if the worst was to happen.

Creating Flow in the Reef Tank

The term “flow” is used a lot when talking about reef aquariums, but has a specific meaning on this site. When I say “flow” I am talking about random currents in the display, not the rate of turnover through the sump. Think of a cooking Pot – flow is like stirring up the pot with a spoon, and turnover rate is just adding water while it overflows over the sides.

Explaining what Flow actually is

When trying to figure out Flow in a reef tank, especially in an SPS tank, things can get a bit confusing. There is a lot of info out there describing flow patterns, laminar flow, gyres and so on.

But you don’t need to understand all those terms. Just think about what you are trying to do: emulate the natural environment of corals.

These corals live in shallow water in coastal areas. The waves create pulses, eddies, swells, and what not. Water mixes together in the chaos. Food and waste are always suspended in the water column, ready to be grabbed by coral polyps.

If you wanted to create something like that in your tank, you could grab a canoe paddle and start churning up the water. It would be about the same same level of water movement.

Of course you wouldn’t do that, but the setup you create in your tank will ideally have a similar result.

This is where powerheads and waveboxes come in.

Flow rates according to Powerhead manufacturers

Modern propeller-style pumps operate in many patterns and modes of synchronization. This creates random chaotic flow like the ocean.

These newer pumps move water in wide currents, so flow is broad and harder to measure by the home hobbyist. It can be difficult to make sense of those numbers when it comes to how much flow that translates to inside of the tank.

The manufacturers tend to state their model’s flow ratings in high numbers. As a home hobbyist, you simply can’t test how much water they move like with a conventional return pump. A high number of several hundred gallons an hour gives an idea of power in comparison to other models, but little else. The fact is that this metric is a somewhat unsuitable one for measuring flow.

Keeping Solids & Particles in Suspension

Strong water turbulence and random flow keeps solid particles suspended in the water column. This allows the overflow weir to skim more waste. Good flow also keeps any nutrient solid matter from settling in “dead spot” areas of the tank. If this happens it can begin to break down and negatively affect water chemistry.

Flow Factors in the tank

Rockwork

Your reef tank aquascaping affects flow a lot. A tank with minimal rockwork with a lot of open areas restricts current much less than a tank with piles of rock resting on the glass. It can be a good idea to avoid resting any rockwork on the glass at all because it creates dead spots that tend to trap detritus.

The more rockwork you have in the tank, the more powerheads you will need. You can get creative with having open bridge-type structures that aid with flow while hiding the pumps out of sight.

Sand beds

A sand bed also dictates how flow moves in a tank. Care should be taken to prevent sand from being blown over the rocks and coral in particular. Corals can get irritated or even die off after only a short time if buried. A powerhead that falls off it’s mount is usually the cause of this, it can also expose the glass in places and look bad.

Sugar-fine sand will blow around more than a larger crushed coral variety. You can sometimes add a bit of heavier grain sand on top of problem areas.

Bare Bottom Tanks

Although the look isn’t for everyone, many SPS reefers use bare-bottom systems. The main benefit is that there is no sand to blow around. There are less rough surfaces to impede high flow rates, and it is much easier to keep solids in suspension. This aids with feeding corals as well as exporting detritus to the sump.

Return Lines and Flow

Should the return pump outlets create flow in the tank?

Generally speaking, the return line is not a very efficient source of flow. Yet some people will opt to split their return outlets or use spray bars.

This is not needed, not to mention it just adds more unsightly equipment inside the tank.

Return pumps are designed to lift water up to your display tank against the force of gravity. Using an oversize return pump in an attempt to boost flow usually just results in a noisier tank than necessary. This is one reason why closed-loop systems are so much less common than they were a decade ago.

What about Eductors / Penductors?

These are nozzle attachments that installed to increase flow coming from an outlet. Both names are often used for the same device.

They work by shooting the water through a ring that extends in front of the main nozzle. Surrounding water is drawn through the ring and flow is increased.

These were initially invented to help mix large vats of chemicals in industrial applications. They are scientifically proven to mix water flowing out of a high pressure outlet. The only time this can truly be achieved is with a high-flow outlet that pushes around 3000 GPH or more.

Still, A 3/4″ model only costs around $25 and can be worth experimenting with on your own tank. Too bad they are kind of fugly.

Do you need to Split the return outlets?

Splitting the return into more than one outlet isn’t generally necessary unless you have a tank over 6′ in length.

A good strategy is to just use one return outlet, preferably returning water to the tank away from the overflow. Don’t worry too much about this as long as the nozzle is generally pointing away.

Multiple outlets won’t push water as fast and far as a single line.

Many people think that they need to have the return line split into multiple outlets.  If you do so, realize that by using reducing nozzles you are adding friction to the return, which lowers it’s throughput. If the goal is to maximize the amount of water pushed up from the pump, then you may want to keep the line as a single line.

Further Reading:

There is more info about available on return lines and turnover rate on these pages here: