So, I decided to build a water feature. I don’t like to just parrot what other people say about what to do or not to do in our hobby without trying it myself. I have been advising people against water features in their early builds, and I think I still believe that, especially for beginner and/or small vivariums. This build was tough and its long-term success is still up in the air.
Back Story: I have wanted Ameerega for a long time now and I understand that they like a water feature to encourage breeding. So, I have a good reason to try to do a water feature right. Water features are not that hard to build. Good, long-lasting water features are super hard to build. Most of the tanks that I have seen people attempt a water feature in seem to break down over time. It’s hard to do a water feature that stands the test of time.
I tried to apply all the lessons I learned from other threads. The big problem seems to be keeping water where you want it to be and keeping it out of where you don’t want it to be. Both using the water from the whole drainage layer and walling off some of the drainage layer for the water feature don’t seem to work long term. The former will, many times, lead to the mixing of your substrate with your drainage layer, especially if you have a little body of water that goes all the way to the bottom glass of the viv. The latter often doesn’t work because it’s difficult to silicone the wall in place well enough because of the existing silicone bead in the bottom edges (silicone doesn’t stick well to silicone). In either scenario (using the whole bottom of the drainage layer or walling off part of it with a glass or other material wall), it is typical that water ends up in your substrate for long periods of time which is a recipe for a tear-down and redo.
WARNING: This an absolute tome. Pack some provisions for the journey and just stop reading if you nod off...
Step 1 – Making a Self-contained Box:
My attempt at a solution to the above problems was to try to make my water feature self-contained. This means that it should be able to run outside the tank for a long time, free-standing. This way, I am not relying on segmenting the tank or having a place in the tank where the water is moving freely through the layers (the ol’ front corner pond). This solution completely rules out having any fish or other critters in a body of water in the tank, so it’s not an attempt at a paludarium or anything similar. I wanted moving water with a little bit of deeper water where it goes down into my self-contained box.
I decided to make my own box for the drainage water that would be separate from the rest of the tank. I had an old beat-up 20 long on hand that I knew I wouldn’t miss so I started with this. Height was (and continues to be) and issue, so I needed to minimize the height of water feature drainage box. First, I needed to get the molding off, then disassemble the tank, then cut the glass down to the height I wanted. None of this stuff went smoothly.
I used one of those blades from HD/Lowe’s that you can snap off to make a new, sharp point. I extended the whole thing to get enough blade length to get up under the molding. This ended up working, but I didn’t get the top molding off without breaking it into pieces. The bottom molding was less cranky. I got it off in one piece. Next, I needed to get the pieces of glass apart. Turns out, professionally-made tanks are well-made and difficult to take apart... First, cut all of the bead you can from the inside surfaces of the tank. This leaves just the silicone between where the two pieces of glass are touching. I used a razor blade and box cutter to get things started to cut this remaining silicone apart. I really had to lean on the blades at the top and there were some really nasty crunching sounds as I pried the two pieces of glass apart. Once I got a blade in between, I just used the corner of the razor blade to slide down through the bead. I still had to lean on it, but it worked. I did this with all the vertical beads then levered the pieces of glass out away from the center of tank so I could get access to the bottom bead. Finally, I won.
After getting the pieces of glass separated, I started to measure things out to see how big I wanted my box. I think I made it a little tall, but we shall see. I then proceeded to “cut” the glass. I am sure there is a pumilo video out there somewhere that I should have watched, but this was a humbling experience for me. I think I had a dull glass cutter so make sure you get a new one before trying this. Anyway, what you do, is measure things out and score the glass with the cutter ONCE, hard. I cannot emphasize the ONCE enough. If you do it well, you can then use the little ball thing on the end of the cutter underneath the glass (right under the score mark) and just push on the outside edges of the glass to break the glass. If it goes smoothly, you get a nice, straight piece of glass. This happened to me approximately one time out of the maybe 10 cuts I made.
See the picture of my pile of glass-cutting shame as evidence. Anyway, I ended up having JUST enough glass to make a tall tanks’-worth of glass into a short tanks’-worth of glass. I silicone my little tank back together with my old-school-fish-store-employee super powers and filled it up with water for a while. Fortunately, it held. This is not always the case, even with my super powers. Step 1 was complete.
Step 2 – Making a Durable Channel:
Another place that things can go wrong is in the channeling of the water. I decided to use durable materials for my water feature. I thought maybe I could use some sort of pipe. I decided on 4” ABS – the stuff they use for sewers. This was appropriate for this build in many ways ;-) I could have saved myself some heartache if I had just been willing to use it in straight lengths, but noooooo, I had to have a curvy channel. I usually try to avoid anything straight since that is extremely rare to find in nature. I would have had to rip the piece of pipe length-wise, regardless, so I ended up buying a very-used table saw off CraigsList. She’s a beaut, but if you buy one, make sure it has rails and a fence. I ended up having to “fabricate” these with stuff lying around my garage.
Anyway, I finished the fence and ended up ripping (cutting length-wise) the 5-foot piece of pipe into two halves (see picture).
This worked great, so I proceeded to cut up one of the halves into uneven, random-angled pieces. This part was a little sketchy til I got the hang of it because I couldn’t use the fence anymore (weird angles) so it was all by hand. This meant that the pieces weren’t all cut straight which meant that I was risking binding the saw. This happened a couple of times, but I didn’t get hurt, thank God. In the end, I had a bunch of little pieces of pipe that I could arrange in curvy fashion. See picture.
When attempting to connect the pieces together, I ended up with an annoying geometry lesson. Turns out, when you try to connect two pieces of half-pipe together with different angles, the cross sections don’t match! I am sure many of you could see this coming… To combat this new difficulty, I used a propane torch to heat the pieces of ABS to bend them so they roughly matched each other. I knew that I would be cutting the edges of the channel so I didn’t worry about getting perfect matches. I worried more about getting the base of the channel flat than getting the higher parts to match. Couple of Protips for wielding a propane torch: 1) By far the worst part of the process is listening to your family whine about the smell. 2) Put the flame in front of the torch and open the valve slowly rather than lighting the flame first.
Once I had some matching pieces, it was time to join the pieces together. For this task, I decided on Gorilla Glue. NOTE: To the makers of Gorilla Glue, I apologize, because I have been bad-mouthing you for years. I read the directions this time (!!) and it turns out you are supposed to wet both surfaces! Works like a champ, then... Anyway, I glued things in twos (the angles complicated things some) then joined the twos together, etc. Ended up with a channel I was somewhat proud of.
Step 3 – Making a Platform:
Next, I started on the platform that I made from egg crate. This would eventually be siliconed to the glass trough above. I made the egg crate platform the usual way, but I needed a knock-out for the pump to be able to be accessed if anything bad happened. This also meant that I needed a lid to keep the substrate from getting down to the drainage layer. I made a little trap door/stopper that can be removed if I need to get down to the water to siphon it out or to service the pump.
Step 4 – Foaming the Waterfall and Stream Channel:
Now it was time to start going up for my waterfall/drip wall (more the latter). I built a right-angle of egg crate that I planned to use to support my black pond foam.
Next, the wheels came off the bus. I wasted a can of black pond foam figuring things out. Here is where I might be able to save you some brain damage (if you have even made it this far, you magnificently-patient reader). There were a few things I didn’t account for. First, expansion foam…wait for it…expands. This means that it isn’t easy to keep it at right angles like it will need to be when it goes into the tank it is going into. Second, the stuff really doesn’t like to be piled up in a heap. It is sort of runny and likes to collapse in on itself. The result of my first effort was not pretty.
The pictures just don’t capture how horribly wrong things went. Tilting it was an effort to make the foam go in the direction I wanted it to go. When it dried, it had leaned way out of true and was not nearly tall enough. It was a terrible failure and I had to start over a bit.
Here is what I learned before I proceeded. Black Great Stuff, even more than yellow (red can) really likes water to be sprayed on it. The can says something about water speeding curing, but it also makes the foam expand more. By spraying water on it a few times over the first couple of hours while it dries (including immediately after applying it), you can make it expand about as much as the yellow stuff does. This was a breakthrough for me. I am a slow learner… Also, I needed something much more rigid to enforce the square shape that the background needed to be.
So, I started again. This time, I decided that it was just too high to get the black foam to “stack.” Fortuitously, I had a big chunk of black foam that a friend had used to try to make a background for a 10 vert. As many of you have figured out, black foam doesn’t stick to glass all that well. It just popped out as a rectangle. For some reason, I now had it. Turns out, it worked perfectly for this application.
My friend had even put a few net pots into it to hold plants. Anyway, next step was to cut it so that it would fit into the corner of the tank.
All of this would not have worked right, either, had I not found a different way to keep this mess square. I had an old shelf in my garage. I used this as a template to keep things square (at 90 degree angles) because I planned to (Spoiler!) put it into the corner of a 90-gallon tank I have. So, I needed a fake corner to build into. I put some bags over my shelf so it didn’t get great stuff all over it and went to town on the next second attempt.
I used a level to make sure that the egg crate platform was level. This was only important because I wanted to be able to control the slope of my creek (remember what we are building? I had almost forgotten with all of this writing…).
I then tied the piece of existing black foam (that I had since carved a channel into and carved all the shiny off – silicone doesn’t stick to shiny very well) into my fake corner with it “hovering” above the end of the creek.
Now it was time to fill that gap in with my next can of black foam. I did filled it in once before I knew the water trick. There were gaps and I did it once more after I knew the water trick and I finally had the gaps filled the way they needed to be. I also foamed all the way under the slope of my creek. Notice that I terminated in a dammed area at the bottom where the water just goes down though the screen and egg crate and down into the trough.
I also dropped a little “gasket” of black foam around my pump cover so that it would hold relatively firm against whatever I put over it (spoiler – it was sphagnum moss).
(Awful picture, even by my standards!)
Next, I was pretty happy with the results, so I thought, why not? Let’s make a little bit of a pool at the bottom so that if the frogs want to sit in inch-deep water, they can. So, I put a little bit of pond foam straight across the dammed area. I siliconed the bottom of this pool so that it would hold water a little bit then trickle over the new dam into the rest of the dammed area. The following picture shows this area at a later phase, after I had covered it all.
I had been testing things at various phases and everything worked ok (after fixing a leak or two) and I decided to worry about the decorating part. I had to carve everything down to the shapes I wanted and I used a sharp knife from one of those knife sets in the basement that we got for our wedding and haven’t used in 20 years. It worked great. Then, I worked on coating the waterfall channel/drip wall with the Hygrolon I got from Rizzman. The reason I went with Hygrolon rather than just letting the water flow freely over the waterfall is that it was so steep (to reduce footprint) that it would have splashed everywhere. I used two layers of Hygrolon and will let the water flow in between them, this results in a nice gentle flow down the waterfall. My plan for this area is to have moss grow in the channel. I think it will look cool, but might wick the water out of the channel. Have to wait and see how much mowing it will require.
Step 5 – Cosmetics:
For the rest of the foam, I carved it down, coated it all in silicone and pressed milled, loose tree fern fiber into it. I could just as easily have used coco coir or peat or something like that, but I like tree fern and the plants like to grow on it. I had some left over from other builds, fortunately, because it is getting tougher to find (and will eventually be unavailable). Finally, I coated the bottom of the channel with black silicone to add some more permanence to the water proof-ness. I know that silicone doesn’t stick well to plastic, but I figured a big sheet of it would probably stick ok. The surface area made up for the lack of adhesion (I am hoping).
Another poor picture, but here are a couple of videos that give you a better idea of what's going on:
The gaping chunk of exposed pond foam in the video is an attempt to heal up a leak. I don’t care about leaks that drop down into the trough, but the only leak I had, was the only place that jutted out over the edge of the trough :-)
I am not sure that this water feature will last any longer than anybody else’s. I did try to address all of the complaints and failures that I read about. I am fairly happy with how it came out. I think I will like it better when it is in its final home (another build post upcoming!). I think that I avoided some of the pit falls inherent in water features, but may have introduced others. I am afraid that the water won’t stay in the channel in the long run. I may have to make some changes to how I have it mounted in its new home. Where the water comes out of the tube seems to be really important. I have yet to test it thoroughly. Anyway, I now have a water feature that works outside a tank for a few hours, at least. That’s what I set out to do. Only time will tell if this is a better way to do a water feature. I built it to last as best I can.
You will notice that this build could have been a little simpler if I had just used the whole drainage layer for sump of the pump instead of building the trough. I thought about it but decided that it was better to use the trough. This was because I thought that it would be better to minimize the amount of water that passed through the substrate down into the drainage layer. This lets me control the water level a little easier and it minimizes the frog by-products that dissolve into the water that I am recirculating through the creek. I didn’t want the frogs to have to sit in any more nitrate-laden water than they had to, since they have access to the creek.
As a final reference, I think I probably have 40 hours in this water feature. Much of that was thinking about mistakes and regrouping, though. I imagine I could do it again in half or even 1/3 the time.
Ok, I am tired of writing. I am interested in your feedback. I hope you can at least learn from my mistakes :-)
All the best,
P.S. Look for the 90-gallon water feature build log soonish!