Plumbing a reef tank is something that might sound harder than it is. Even if you’ve never done much DIY work before, you can do this.
Here is what to know about how to measure, cut and glue your plumbing. Some basic info about what materials to select is in here as well.
Choice of Piping Material
The most common choice for plumbing is PVC – a time-tested material that is both cheap and easy to find at hardware stores in various sizes.
Info about how to choose pipe material is presented on Suitable Pipe Materials for Plumbing Reef Aquariums
Where to use Rigid vs. Flexible?
For overflow standpipes, rigid tubing should be used. Other than that, flexible tubing can be used throughout. Flex tubing will lessen any horizontal runs, which is beneficial for siphon based overflow methods like the Herbie Overflow.
The easiest way to cut all types of PVC and other tubing is with a ratcheting PVC cutter. This handheld tool is quick and results in nice, square cuts with no dust up to about 1-1/4″ pipe. For larger diameters, wood saws such as a miter saw must be used. A normal wood cutting blade does the job. Be aware of where the blade is oriented and where it will shoot the dust. Be sure to wear eye protection because of the plastic dust or shrapnel. A full-face shield is better.
Care should be taken when cutting pipe with any kind of power tool. Supporting the piece can be a challenge so get a helper to hold as well while you make your cut. Remove any burrs before you glue anything.
Going with “Measure twice, cut once” you should assemble your plumbing before doing any gluing. This will reduce do-overs and trips back to the store. It’s also helpful to mark the orientation of the fittings with a Sharpie so they line up at the proper angle when you glue them. While fittings are supposed to be universal, you will find small differences in pieces from different manufacturers.
Gluing should ideally be done in a well-ventilated area over a drop cloth of some kind. The term “Gluing” is used only to describe the process, as you are really using a solvent cement to chemically bond the two pieces of PVC together. The bond that is created is completely permanent, and pieces will have to be cut or sawn apart.
You may want to practice with a few test pieces to get a good connection without using too much Cement. If you use too much primer or cement, it can result in messy drips and runs all over the pipes that can look ugly. Here is a good video on how to make a connection:
There are areas of the USA that require the use of primer as part of building code for PVC connections. This should give some idea of it’s importance.
For the cement, there are clear types but the most common variety is dark gray in color. An advantage of the dark gray glue solvent is that it makes it easier to visually confirm you’ve applied it to the pieces completely before assembly.
What type of Bulkheads should I use?
These are a good choice for the Herbie System. Threaded fittings (like standpipes) can be installed in the tank to the flange side of the bulkhead, and the outside end glues to a piece of PVC for a secure, permanent connection.
These fittings are self explanatory but there are some things to be aware of. You should not use Teflon tape as it is intended for metal. Using it with PVC will usually result in an inferior seal. Threads can vary by manufacturer and also by Schedule (ex. 40 vs. 80). Threaded fitting like unions generally should be tightened to finger-tight, then 1 to 2 turns more. This can generally be done without any tools. You should not use any kind of glue or paste. The only suitable thing to use on the threads is non-hardening thread sealant. Most people don’t use anything.
With the proper bit, this is quite easy to do. Take your time, make sure the bit is lubricated with water, and let the bit do the work, not the pressure of the drill.
After several questions about drilling glass, I decided to expand this info on how to set up and make the holes. Drilling Aquarium Tanks with a Diamond Glass Hole Bit
This video shows the basic process but you really shouldn’t rush drilling for a few reasons.
Bulkheads come ready to install and don’t require any extra glue, etc. but some people add a lubricant to the rubber gasket. This generally isn’t needed. The only type suitable is a silicone based type – Never use any kind of petroleum based oil on the gasket.
How to Install: The gasket should be placed between the flange and the glass on the inside of the tank. You generally want to tighten the Nut to the point of contact, then go 3/4 of a turn past that point using a wrench if possible. Do not over-tighten, because the glass will crack. Once tight, it may be possible to spin the Bulkhead in the hole by forcing it, even though the seal is intact.
It is important to understand that when you drill holes in a piece of glass, the holes become a point where force concentrates.
The places where holes are drilled in a pane of glass, even with bulkheads installed, can become an Achilles’ Heel of the tank.
This just means that you should be careful with your tank, especially around the bulkheads.