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Aquatics: Running an aquarium. Cheap!

Updated on September 17, 2010


Surfing the web, you’re on a mission. You’re on a mission for a baby net thingy—whatever it’s called. You know, that net thingy that holds baby fish? Yeah, that. You’re looking for THAT. You finally find a link and click it. Your jaw drops. They want how much for that cheap piece of plastic? Why for that price you could make ten of them!

So what’s stopping you?

This hub idea comes from the last aquarium club meeting I attended. The basic set up was a round house of great do-it-yourself ideas for aquariums. Let’s face it, aquariums can be expensive. A can of food there, a net breeder here, a feeding ring… it can all add up with the petstore mark-ups. So I’ve gathered some easy do-it-yourself, or DIY, materials and projects to save you some money and inspire a little bit of creativity.

Filter Materials

Cheap Materials for your Filter

Tired of literally throwing money away every month with those flimsy little filter pads you purchase? Here are some cheaper options that are safe for your tank.

  • Bulk carbon- you can buy loose carbon for a 1/10th of the cost of those little filters. Most petstores carry loose carbon in boxes or plastic containers in their filter aisle. The bonus is you can use as much carbon as YOU need, instead of getting a pre-prescribed filter.
  • Pantyhose- you need something to put that carbon in. Cheap pantyhose is great. Cut off the top, pour the carbon in, and tie off the top into a knot.
  • Polyfil or polyester quilt stuffing- you can buy massive bags of this at Joann’s or Hobby Lobby. Think of it as cheap filter floss to catch debris and junk in your hang-over-the-back. It’s so cheap you can change it weekly and keep your tank that much cleaner.
  • Lava rocks- forget those expensive bio-balls, bio-wheels, bio-whatevers. Lava rock is a cheap, porous substitute that doesn’t break down and doesn’t alter your tank composition. You can find lava rock in garden centers. You can also use lava rock in your tank for decoration.
  • Sponges- no, not the ones in the grocery store, those are treated with chemicals, but ones made for ponds. You can get a huge sheet and chop it down to size. Sponges are both biological and mechanical filtration and can be rinsed and reused until they fall apart.

Cheap Breeding Tools

Are you going to pay $5 for that tiny little piece of plastic? Breeding fish can be a lot of fun and it’s a lot easier with the right tools.

  •  Breeder Net Part 1- in a pinch you can use a regular aquarium net and bend the handle over the side of the tank to steady it. The netting keeps the babies safe until they are big enough to go with the adults and when you’re done just unbend the handle and continue using the net.
  • Breeder Net Part 2- take a gladware container (squares are best) and cut a window in each side leaving the corners and bottom of the gladware intact (razors work best but scissors would work as well). Once you do this, place the pantyhose over the gladware and secure it at the top (rubberbands work well, so do little clamps).
  • Egg Saver- make a PVC skeleton slightly smaller than your tank size making sure it fits snuggly against the walls of the tank using elbows and straight pieces. Cover the frame with mesh big enough for eggs to fall through but not big enough for the parents to follow (bad mommy, no caviar for you!). Secure the mesh with zip ties. This “shield” works well for breeding egg scatters like danios and barbs and keeps the eggs from the hungry mouths of the parents. Use with a barebottom breeding tank.
  • Egg Save Part 2-  if you’re not handy enough to make the above, use marbles. Cheap, clear marbles from Hobby Lobby provide places for the eggs to fall where the parents can’t get to. This saves your eggs. It’s not as nice as the “shield” because you have to find the eggs in the marbles or remove the parents afterwards.
  • Spawning mop- again, from Hobby Lobby or Joann’s, you can get yarn for fish like dwarf rainbows that lay adhesive eggs. Just double over the yarn string and cut the end. Tie the top with a zip tie or a rubberband. Favored yarn colors are black, dark green, and dark brown because it’s easy to spot and remove the eggs.
  • Slate for angelfish/discus- angelfish and discus prefer to lay their eggs on flat surfaces, which unfortunately includes heaters and filters. A cheap slate tile from Home Depot can be placed in the tank to encourage safer spawning habits.

CO2 recipe

  • 1 teaspoon of yeast
  • 2 or 3 cups of sugar;
  • ½ teaspoon of Baking Soda;
  • 1.5 liters of water (preferably filtered and free of chlorine).

Planted Tanks

  • CO2 tanks- take a 2 liter soda bottle with cap and drill a hole in the cap. Thread some silicone tubing through the cap into the bottle and string the rest up into the tank. Make sure you seal around the tubing with some sealant (silicone) to prevent the CO2 from leaking. Put the recipe in the blue box in ...And watch the bubbles go into your tank. It’s even better if you slap a cheap airstone on the end to diffuse the bubbles into your tank.
  • Moss wall- take two pieces of needle point mess that you buy at Joann’s (green, brown, or black) and sandwich a good chunk of moss between the two pieces of mesh. Ziptie the mesh shut and place in your tank. The most should anchor to and grow through the mesh providing a pretty green background to your tank. This also works for ricca.
  • Extra filtration- you can take any land plant that does well with its roots in water and place it in your hang-over-the-back filter. Spider plants and peace lilies do very well grown like this and help keep your tank clean.

Other Useful Tricks and Tips

  • Aquarium python- a python is a siphon powered by water pressure to fill and drain your tank, eliminating the need for buckets. The only part you actually need of the fancy python is the adapter and the part that hooks to the faucet. For the tubing you can use a regular garden hose. You can find the pump part on eBay or Amazon for a few dollars or on Python’s website for $7. You may not even need the adapter if your faucet threads are large enough or you are hooking it to an outside faucet.
  • Fish trap- all you need is a 2 liter soda bottle (or a smaller bottle for small tanks/fish), some scissors, and some bait for your intended victim. Cut the top of the 2 liter off right above the label. Invert the top (without the cap) so that the top is facing the bottom creating a funnel into the middle of the bottle. Bait the bottle with some shrimp pellets, sink it, and wait for about 20 minutes. This tricks works really well with cichlids, cories, livebearers, and gobies. Sadly, it was not very successful with loaches.
  • Snail removal- place a cup in the bottom of the tank at lights out. Bait the cup with a washed leaf of lettuce. Before turning on the lights pull out the cup, the lettuce, and a ton of pest snails. It sure beats picking them off one-by-one. (If you plan to throw the snails away, please FREEZE them first. This ensures they will not infect local waterways by accident!)

More DIY

There are many more creative ways to save money on your tank that I simply don't have room to list. I covered the basic ones but you can do anything as simple as creating a filter to building an entire tank set up, if you're handy enough.

Please see the youtube videos for more ideas and detailed step-by-step instructions!


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    • smilemegrj profile image


      6 years ago from North Dallas

      TERRIFIC! I commented on your other Hub about uncommon beginner fish. I made my own moving bed filter for less than $2 with found things around the house. The only thing that has cost me money so far is the air pump and hose ($.49/foot at my local pet store!)


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