Chapter 7: Plumbing

     Going over all that equipment last chapter must have been a little overwhelming. I’m sorry. I decided to throw you a softball this week as we get into plumbing. You mean that we’re going to stick our heads in toilets? Sure… You do that. But if you haven’t already figured out, just like anything that moves water in your home, aquariums often require plumbing too and I’ll be the first to tell you that it can be quite a mess if you don’t know what you’re doing!

     If you have dealt with plumbing before, great! You can probably skip over a couple of paragraphs. But if you’re like a lot of folks that meet the reef enthusiast profile, you’ve probably never heard of a check valve, ball valve, or a union fitting. So the first thing you newbies will need to understand is that there’s really four main categories you’re worried about it when it comes to plumbing; pipes, fittings, unions, and valves. Before we go over them, though, I’m going to give you a really simple analogy in understanding the art of laying some pipe.

     Plumbing is a lot like your skeletal structure. Regular PVC pipe is like the bones that run in between your joints. Fittings are a lot like those joints, piecing bones to other parts of the body. Unions and Valves can’t really be compared to the skeletal structure, but are types of fittings that serve special purposes like providing temporary connections between pipe or reducing the flow of your water source. I guess you could almost compare unions and valves to your brain telling what parts to move where. Easy enough, right? So let’s talk about each one in regards to plumbing your aquarium.

·         Pipes – Pipes are just pipes, come in sizes based on their outside diameter, and cannot properly connect to each other without a fitting, union, or a valve. They provide the leg work of your water transport. Schedule 40 is the type of PVC you’ll most likely use for your aquarium plumbing and is extremely easy to cut with PVC cutters or a regular ole’ hand saw.

·         Fittings – Fittings are specialized connectors that are sized to fit the outside diameter of the pipe you’re using. Remember that fittings won’t properly connect to other fittings without a small piece of pipe to join them. That’d be like connecting your knee to your hip without a bone in between. Fittings also help direct the pipe in the direction you need it. Fittings come in 90 degree elbows, 45 degree bends, Tees, etc. There’s tons of fittings so I won’t go on and on about it.

·         Unions – Unions are a saving grace when performing maintenance on your reef. Unions connect two pieces of pipe and allow you the convenience to unscrew and separate those pipes. There’s also pieces known as couplings that I consider permanent unions which can help you connect to a smaller or larger pipe. Often times, threaded couplings are used to screw into bulkheads as well, but we’ll get into that a little later on.

·         Valves – My favorite! You’ve got ball valves that can adjust the flow rate of your water, check valves that allow flow in only one direction to prevent flooding from back-siphoning, and there’s even regular old valves that will just stop your flow when need be. There’s plenty of valves out there, but these are probably the only ones you’ll encounter and quickly become best friends with!

     Now let’s talk about bulkheads, which are more specifically used in aquarium plumbing. Bulkheads, in short, are the waterproof unions inserted in the pre-drilled holes of your aquarium to connect the pipe that pulls water from your overflow to the pipe that leads to your filtration. Bulkheads simply screw on to either side of your overflow holes with the help of O-rings to create that water-tight seal. Be sure not to lose these O-rings! Also, be sure not to over-tighten your bulkhead or you WILL crack the tank!

     Now that you understand the differences in pipe, fittings, unions, and valves, you’ll need to understand that many of these connectors come in two types, slip and threaded. It’s simple, slip fittings will slip onto pipe, whereas threaded fittings will thread into other fittings, unions, valves, etc. Just a heads up, you’re not going to find SCH 40 PVC pipe at your home improvement store with threaded ends. That’s why we generally use threaded couplings that will be slip-fit on the pipe end and threaded on the fitting, union, or valve end.

     So now that you’ve got all that down pat, you just stick it all together and run water through it, right? Sure! Do you want a massive flood in your house? If not, then let’s talk about how we permanently piece it all together with a water-tight seal!

   I’ve got five words… PVC Blue Lava Hot Cement. This is my PVC glue of choice by popular recommendation and you won’t regret spending a little extra on it. Aside from its beautiful, clean, blue lines, it’s got loads of strength! Don’t be frugal with it either… Lather that stuff like you ain’t lathered nothin’ in 20 years! And if you’re dealing with threaded connections, I’d recommend applying a nice layer of plumbers tape around the threads.

Here's a great example of the plumbing possibilities in a Reef Aquarium!

     Plumbing configurations are going to vary widely depending on your individual needs. It’s important to remember that you’ll often need plumbing for your overflow and return system. And if you’re really high speed, you could even plumb an auto top-off and water change system in the mix.

     That about wraps it up for plumbing. Redundancy and fail-safes are your best friend when it comes to plumbing. No matter what anybody says, there's no one right way to do anything in the aquarium hobby. Do what works for you, do your research, and learn by trial and error. As always, if you've got questions, comments, or just want to give us a shout out, please feel free to do so in the comments below!