Aquarium Plumbing Basics - Reef Aquarium

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  • 8/18/2019 Aquarium Plumbing Basics - Reef Aquarium






    When you set out to plumb an aquarium set-up

    with a sump, the more planning / thought you put

    into the original set-up, the better it will be in the

    long run. This is not a very hard thing to do at all,

    if you focus on the basics and understand them. I

    tend to think of it in flowing different steps: A)

    Planning of your flow rates, B) planning the

    material types and sizes, and C) installation / set-

    up of the plumbing system. All of what you are

    about to read below is based on my experiences

    with various data from some North American

    manufactures of plumbing products (IPEX,

    Canplas, and Boshart) which is also detailed in the

     American Society for Testing and Materials

    (ASTM) standards.

    I will explain what I mean by each step then I will

    show you examples from one of my reef tanks

    Note: you have to keep in mind, there may be

    variation in the plumbing products available to you

    based on the national building codes of the

    country that you live in along with local

    regulations. The below applies to almost all of 

    Canada and the United States. The products

    available to you may vary.

     A) Planning Flow Rates

    With every system, you need to know how much

    flow you will need. Typically this is calculated in

    gallons per hour (GPH). For example, most people

    feel a flow through their sumps of 10 times the

    display tank volume is suitable. If you have a 120 gallon display tank, then that would mean you will

    need 1200 gph of flow. But that is only a general

    guideline. Your exact flow rate could be higher or

    lower depending on the equipment in the sump or

    what you are planning to use the sump for. Once

    you have determined the flow rate you will need,


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    you will need to apply this target flow rate

    differently to both your drain line and your return

    line. The 10X flow rate is typically a good base to

    start working from and can apply to almost all

    typical salt water setups. Some people prefer

    high flow through their sumps. Fresh water setups

    typically use a little lower flow rates, around 4 to 6

    times the display tank volume is more common.

    Drain lines are the lines bring water down from

    the display tank into the sump. There are many

    different approaches to achieving this, but mainly

    fall into one of two categories: Siphon based

    systems, or a Gravity system (which involves

    drilling a hole in your tank). With either set-up,

    one of the bigger factors to consider is the flow

    rates under extremely little to no pressure. Both

    types of drains are very similar in GPH (no real

    significant differences) and these types of drains

    are discussed in my example here the end of the

    article. Whatever choice you make, you have to

    make sure the drain line can also handle the flow

    you want to put through the sump.

    Return lines are the pressurized lines that run

    from the return pump back into the display tank.

    There are three factors that are very important to consider here: flow rates, pressure, and the types

    and numbers of fittings used.

    B) Planning Material Types and Sizes

    With all aquarium setups (both salt water and

    fresh water), you have to make sure the pipe and

    fittings you use to plumb your system are both

    meant for potable water (can safely handle

    drinking water) and is resistant to corrosion and

    scaling. You can ensure those requirements are

    met by using one of the below material types

     ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene).

    Typically only used for drainage in homes as it

    cannot withstand much pressure or heat. This is

    typically black in color. ABS is the cheapest pipe

    and fittings that can be used. It is only suitable for

    drain lines and should not be used for pressurized


    PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride). Most commonly used

    as it can handle a range of pressure and some

    heat. It can be used in residential and commercial

    drinking water supply (cold water supply only). It

    usually is the most economical choice for almost

    all aquarium setups as well as being the most

    commonly used for pressurized and drain

    lines.You can get it in both in flexible and rigid

    pipe (flexible PVC has lower pressure ratings).

    This is typically white in color. CPVC (Chlorinated Polyvinyl Chloride). Most

    commonly used in commercial and/or industrial

    applications. Can handle both hot and cold

    drinking water supply. This is typically a shade of 

    grey in color. Although this can be used in an

    aquarium set-up, it is one of the more expensive


    PEX (Cross-Linked Polyethylene). Slowly

    becoming the most used product in the

    construction of new homes for both the hot and

    cold drinking water supplies. Is made both in

    flexible and rigid pipe while maintaining the same

    pressure rating. PEX is typically a white, almost

    transparent color. Although this can be used for

    both pressurized and drain lines, it also is a very

    expensive option as you need special tools when

    connecting PEX fittings.

    PVC and CPVC are also available in different

    grades / thicknesses to allow for higher pressure

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    and higher heat limits on both the pipe and

    fittings. This is done through using the Schedule

    System. The wall thickness of the pipe and fittings

    is designated with a “schedule” number. The

    range from sch (schedule) 40 all the way up to

    sch 160. Typically you will find sch 40 (regular)

    and schedule 80 (extra heavy) available in most

    hardware stores. Schedule 120 and 160 is not

    commonly used or available in retail stores.

    For PVC pipe and fittings, The general rule of  thumb is that any pressurized application that

    would require your set-up to have below 2 inch

    pipe can / should be completed in schedule 40.

     Anything higher (ie.. 2 and 2 ½ inch applications)

    would require schedule 80. That may vary based

    on exact conditions. You would not have to worry

    about up-grading to sch 80 pipe unless your

    system would require around 5,500 gph of flow

    (or higher flow) through a single plumbing line.

    For ease of identification, most manufactures

    make regular PVC (sch 40) white in color while

    they make sch 80 in grey. Not all manufactures

    will do this. It’s always best to read the markings

    and labeling on the fittings or pipe just to make


    The below charts summarized flow rates by: no

    pressure, average pressure applications, and the

    maximum pressure that the pipe and fittings can

    handle in standard PVC (standard = sch 40). Once

    I start to talk about an example of plumbing a

    sump, I will be referring back to these charts

    (GPH = Gallons Per Hour )

     And just to clear up some of the terminology used,

    ID = Inside Diameter while OD = Outside


    Loss of flow

    Once thing to keep in mind, when planning your plumbing set-up the pump should be the last thing

    you choose. The reason for this is that you need

    to know how much loss of flow you will have from

    your plumbing design. Each time you add a 90

    degree elbow, or a swing check valve, you will

    lose some flow because of these additions to your

    plumbing line. The below list are more of a rule of 

    thumb with calculating flow loss of your

    pressurized return line only. They may not be

    100% accurate, as many other factors can effect

    these calculations. They will be close enough for

    you to get an accurate estimate of the flow

    reduction. The below factors will become very

    important when planning your set-up.

    • A loss of 75 to 125 GPH for each foot of height

    (from the pump to the display tank return)

    • A loss of 50 to 75 GPH for each 90 degree elbow

    • A loss of 30 to 50 GPH for each 45 degree elbow

    • A loss of 50 to 75 GPH for each swing check 

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