A DIY ODYSSEY

Eyeballs with tails…!

A do it yourself (DIY) tilapia operation, that phrase called to me like the mythological Sirens called to Odysseus.  Unlike Odysseus however, when I heard the Sirens’ call, I was free to steer my fish operation onto the rocks.

My first misstep was impatience.  During March in Northwest Virginia, the water temperature in an unheated, enclosed tank hovers around 12 degrees Celsius/53.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  Having just sold my last Rainbow Trout as a Lenten meal, I thought I could hasten the transition to Tilapia by raising the fish in the basement.  I read that Tilapia are hardy, how difficult could it be to provide an environment better than their native habitat?  After raising trout, raising Tilapia would be a snap.  It soon became obvious though that I was mistaken; transforming a residential basement into a DIY Tilapia production facility required more than filling a livestock tank with water, adding a bio-filter, and tossing in food as needed.

First, there were the fish (or perhaps the lack of them).  I located Blue Tilapia for sale online but did not realize that the vendor was taking orders for the pre-natal offspring of her breeding fish.  Several weeks passed between the day I paid for the fish and the day they arrived.  I was beginning to suspect a fraud when a notice came via email that the fish were available.  UPS notified me to expect a package weighing five pounds.  I thought it incredulous that fifty Tilapia could travel in a container weighing five pounds.  The shipping costs suggested something much larger, military vehicle sized perhaps. When the container arrived, I opened it to discover that the fish looked like the sea-monkeys advertised in comic books decades ago.  They were tiny!  Once in the 75-gallon livestock tank, I could barely see them!

My smallest pump is rated at ¼ horsepower so the micro-fish now required a DIY filter that would move water but not fasten them to the intake screen like pins in a bulletin board.  I settled on a fabric wrapped, plastic coffee container inserted into a perforated (and weighted) two-gallon bucket.  My DIY filter’s outflow resembled that of a fire hose but the fish seller advised not stressing the fish with a strong water flow.  That required yet another DIY device.  Wanting to preclude buying another gadget, I used to use a five-gallon bucket fed from above as a catch basin for the filter’s outflow.  When the bucket filled, the water flowed over gently into the livestock container (now only partially filled).  I was pleased until I realized that the contraption also functioned as a chiller making it impossible to sustain the warm temperatures required for Tilapia.  I was forced to buy an aquarium heater.

The twelve-inch glass, aquarium heater cost much more than I wanted to spend but it was not a major setback; however, this project was supposed to be low-cost using materials on-hand at the house now.  As I recalled, the last time that I used an aquarium heater, I was ten years old and war-protesting hippies were clashing with police in Washington DC.  Since then, heater technology had changed.  Today’s aquarium heaters are sleek and entirely submersible.  A submersible is good because the Tilapia’s livestock tank is made of a composite material that prevents the heater’s suction-cup fastening clip from adhering to the tank’s side.  My issue with this particular submersible heater though was the inability to see whether it was functioning immediately.  Unlike the aquarium heaters of forty years ago, today’s heaters do not have a large heating coil that glows orange; rather, they have a small glow light.  Unfortunately, my heater’s power chord twisted in a manner that kept the orange light faced down on the tank’s bottom.  Curious about the heater’s on/off status but wary about placing my hand in water along with an electricity-powered item, I retrieved the heater by pulling up on its power cord.

I did not read the heater’s operating instructions before throwing them away so I had to interpret my observation.  Does a non-illuminated glow light mean that the heater is not working, or that it had reached the designated thermostat setting?  Conversely, does an illuminated glow light mean that the heater is working to reach the designated temperature or simply that the unit is receiving power from the wall outlet?  It only took me a few seconds to note however that an aquarium heater with an illuminated glow light warmed like a nuclear power rod when removed from the water.  That observation created two competing thoughts.  First was a concern, if I return the device to the water, its glass enclosure might shatter and the then exposed heating element would zap my fish before the circuit breaker trips.  The second was fear, if the heater remains in contact with my flesh any longer, doctors will have to remove it surgically.  Fish? Flesh?  The heater went back into the water.  Fortunately, the manufacturer’s engineers had anticipated my situation and the intact heating unit slid back to the tank’s bottom, orange glow light concealed.  There it would remain.

My DIY project resembled an episode set from Lost in Space; one large livestock tank set on the floor, a smaller one set above and perpendicular supported by 2×4 boards.  A one and one-half inch hose channeled water from a bucket/coffee can intake screen to a small outlet diffuser also made of a plastic coffee container.  The water hose competed for space with two air hoses and a 110-volt power cord.  The small livestock tank held several hundred plastic bio-elements.  Someone peeking under the small livestock tank could see that the bottom tank held a DIY water-settler, a fake air stone pinned down by a two and one half pound weight, 30-gallons of water, and maybe, maybe, 49 micro-Tilapia bullied by a single big one that measured one half inch long, tops.

I did not mention previously that when I bought the aquarium heater, I also bought a two-hose air pump and a small, air-bubble curtain stone.  Once home from the store, I realized that the curtain stone was not really a stone but rather a hollow piece of brittle plastic fabricated to look like a stone.  Because suctions cups do not stick to the livestock tank’s composite material, I was not able to make the fake air stone stay put using the fasteners provided.  It floated uselessly.  Therefore, not wanting to spend any more money, I took a two and one-half pound weight from my sons’ weight set and placed that on top of the air curtain stone.  The weight disrupted the air-curtain bubble flow but I figured that the Tilapia did not mind.  A human observer would likely overlook the air curtain contraption anyway.  The project’s other DIY workarounds created a visual overload rendering the weighted air curtain nearly invisible.

There was no doubt, this was a DIY project but it worked.  Well, it worked as long as I left it alone.  I could resist tinkering for about 24 hours and then I created some new need that I wanted to fix without spending money.  I realized that my DIY efforts had passed the point of effective when my daughter came to me and asked, Daddy, is the basement floor supposed to be covered with water?

Tune in to a computer near you next month for the 2nd segment of this space odyssey..!

Post Author: Rich Feiller

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