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Monday, August 26, 2013

BREEDING RACK SYSTEMS; Automation for Water Change & The Use of Single Point Filtration

BREEDING RACK SYSTEMS; Automation for Water Change 
& The Use of Single Point Filtration

© Alan S. Bias

Permission granted for nonprofit reproduction or duplication of photos and text with proper credit for learning purposes only.

August 26, 2013


As a Guppy breeder over the last 30 years I have been fortunate to have had 6 fishrooms.  Five in locations within my residences and one in the backroom of a large retail aquarium / fish store.   Each incarnation was within the confines of a dedicated room solely for the purpose of breeding and raising guppies.   While it is common in Europe for breeders to heat and cover individual tanks in both dedicated fish rooms and standalone breeding racks, this is often not the standard practice in North America.

Ca. 1984 manual breeding racks
Historically, In the US and Canada, an entire room is heated in winter to maintain a median rack temperature of 70-80*.  Though in practice the usually varies from 70-72* on lower rack and 78-80* on upper tiers.  For much of the year this requires a constantly running de-humidifier preset to a desired level.  Unlike de-humidifiers found several decades ago, modern counterparts generate massive amounts of heat during the process of removing excess moisture from the air.  During spring, winter and fall this is not a bad thing, as it helps maintain fishroom temperature at a range long viewed as compatible with breeding guppies. 
In Montana I found the use of modern de-humidifiers not so much of an issue in comparison to usage in the lowlands of Virginia or even the highlands of West Virginia.  Out West it was not uncommon for humidity levels to range from 25–50% during the year.  Summer averages dropping as low as 8-10% and in winter 50-60%.  Here in the East winter levels rarely drop below 50-60* and in summer can range in the 80-90% range.  So any excessive heat generation during the process of de-humidification can compound an already uncomfortable environment.   My favorite practice in both situations tends to be a combination of running fans, leaving the doors slightly ajar to vent excess humidity and seasonal use of de-humidifiers.
Herein, is the dilemma.  For many, in this modern age both the expense and feasibility of large dedicated fishrooms is quickly becoming a thing of the past.  Even when financial resources are available, limitations of physical location and water quality may in itself prohibit creation and maintenance of a dedicated fishroom.  Yet, based on worldwide communications, general interest in breeding guppies is as strong as or stronger than bygone levels.  Is there a practical alternative?  I think, yes…
 Automated Breeding Rack Systems
 with single point filtration (courtesy of Derrick Tan)
For over a decade I have been following the self-contained “Asian Style Breeding Racks” with not only intense interest, but curiosity.  Are they a viable option for the average Guppy Breeder?  In most instances they are designed for both automated water exchange and fitted with recirculating sump filters (Single Point Filtration).  In this part of the world where success and value of both livestock and livestock breeding programs are often gauged on the attitude of “Bigger Is Better”, they have met with limited interest.  Commonly faulted for both small compartment sizes and recirculated water.  A prevailing belief that large tank sizes are needed to raise large guppies and recycled water is a precursor to large scale disease outbreak.   Many guppy breeders believing that water should not be exchanged between tanks as a means of disease prevention, accepting a need to isolate tanks as mini eco-systems.   

Having both an intense interest in the study of population genetics and raising guppies in natural systems tells me this should not be the case.  Mother Nature seeks moderate stocking ratios in populations via allowable food resources, predation, natural lifespan and disease.  She also allows for a means to recycle water in a natural setting between pools via evaporation and replacement through percolation or rainfall in the guppies’ natural range.   Aquatic environments often require minimal movement to purify over rock and silt, a natural filter bed.  While populations between pools may suffer from genetic isolation, via natural barriers such as waterfalls and remnant pools, they rarely suffer from total environmental isolation.     Commonly accepted practice states that most diseases result secondarily to poor water conditions.  Why should it not be possible within a well-balanced breeding program to duplicate a natural system if components are kept in balance? 
Research of others and my personal experience finds fault in poor water conditions, breeding practices, compounded by stocking levels, lack of quarantine and acclimation.  It is rare for entire populations of guppies raised outdoors in ponds at moderate stocking ratios to become sick.  Even rarer for wild guppies in riverine systems to suffer from large scale virulent disease outbreaks, that go beyond isolated bacterial infections of individual specimens in pools.  Ever wonder why early diseases, such as “Ick”, a common curse found in early guppy stocks were easy to treat after identification?  Yet seldom seen today?  They came with the wild stocks.  Diseases from initial wild populations tended to focus on the weakened individuals and not populations as a whole.  When a particular disease is removed from the equation, it is often replaced by something worse under poor selection or husbandry practices.   A scenario that is far too common in the evolution of modern urban mankind.
Over the last century non-traditional  selection criteria, forced feeding for accelerated growth, overcrowding for production have fostered diseases which now attack our captive guppy populations as a whole.  A nearly identical parallel has been found in all modern commercial livestock breeding across species.   Selection based on confinement and accelerated growth has resulted in breeds with shortened lifespans and chemical reliance.   Additionally, guppy breeding often lacks a consistency in quarantine protocols & procedure found in large mammal livestock breeding.  It is not uncommon for imported animals to be quarantined for several years, if not several generations before being released into a general population.   All in toll, we have allowed for introduction, expansion, and likely evolution of both bacterial and viral diseases within captive guppy stocks at a population level.  It would not be surprising to find within guppy populations the existence of a third class of infectious agent, additional to viruses and bacteria, such as prion’s found in large animal ruminants and humans.

System Design / Implementation:

Breeding Rack fully automated for water change
 and single point filtration
As stated my personal interest in considering the use of a Breeding Rack System  is based on finding an alternative to a large scale dedicated fishroom.  The two primary reasons being stability and ability; stability in maintaining a breeding program & ability to continue a breeding program.  I have been breeding and raising guppies in some form or fashion nearly nonstop since 8 years of age.  With gaps only occurring when it was not practical to setup and maintain a fishroom.  Not for lack of space, but a lack of suitable space to utilize as a fishroom; an existing basement room, garage, extra storage room, spare bathroom.  The limited footprint of a breeding rack seems to offer a lot of possibilities in any setting.

It took quite a bit of consideration to formulate just what my needs would be, and nearly as much effort to stick with them during design and construction.   In short I sought: 
·         Portability of tanks and racks
·         Utilization of compatible components
·         Minimum of 50 compartments
·         Ability to heat tanks without heating a room
·         Minimal lighting
·         Excellent water quality
·         Automated water change
·         A Maximum tank / rack height of 80”
·         Compartments size between 5 and 8 gallons
·         Drilled at the back of each compartment
·         Thick gauge glass for longevity and transport
·         Frames on top and bottom for transport

Most of the Breeding Rack Systems I found online or those sent by fellow breeders utilize 4-5 rows of individual tanks without frames built to specification for available commercially produced racks.  I chose to do the opposite and build racks to fit my tanks.   Thus, the first step would be design considerations for the tanks themselves.   From past experience I already realized, that while not cheaper to construct, large compartmentalized tanks with tops would not only be easier to heat, but also better retain heat vs. multiple small stand-alone tanks in several sizes.  While glass is not a good insulator, thicker is better.
Below water view automated compartmentalized tank
After calculating dimensions, volume and weight I settled on the following.  A  48” * 18” * 12” (L*W*H) tank of 44 Gallons (174.6 liters) in two variations.  These dimensions would allow for use of a standard set of frames on the top and bottom of each tank without need for cutting.  Frames are a must in my mind for safe transport of large glass tanks.

Above water view automated compartmentalized tank
View of 6 * 18 *13" compartment
The first variant would be divided into 6 compartments of 7.48 gallons (28.32 liters) and a second into eight compartments of 5.61 gallons  (21.24 liters) each.  This would keep the total weight (water & tank) of each tank at or near the 500lb. (226.8 kg) limit I had imposed.  Right away it was obvious I would be building two identical rack systems to meet my 50 tank requirement if I wished to keep combined rack weight  under 1500lb. (680 kg).  Each rack could be composed of 2 six compartment and 1 eight compartment tank.   I had tossed around building a 60 * 18 * 13 version, but the extra weight just did not justify the addition of a couple compartments.  From a practical standpoint a 48” * 18” * 12” tank can be lifted and moved by an average size individual, while a 60” * 18” * 12” cannot.  As I will later explain 48” would also maximize my choice of lighting.

View of 8 * 18 *13" compartment
The bottoms and backsides of all my tanks are painted a very vivid blue.  Guppies always seem to be more at ease with the bottoms of tanks painted, exhibiting better expression of their colors.  Over the last 30 years I've found quality spray paint holds up far better than any type of brushed on paint. Regardless of varying conditions to include; hot or cold, humid or dry.  As long as tanks are well cleaned prior and de-greased, I find little difference in reliability between better name brands such as;  Krylon, Rust-Oleum, or Valspar.
To conserve heat and reduce humidity each tank has two 24” hinged glass tops.  This will allow for a minimal heat source in the form of two small submersible heaters in the center compartments of each tank 48” tank.  A heater in sump filtration will serve to supplement not only the sump but any recirculating water in transit through piping.  Open tanks in themselves are not the primary source of humidity in a heated self-contained fishroom.  The majority of excess humidity results from water displacement via bubbling filtration in conjunction with heat.
Wishing for a more professional look than my skills allowed, construction of the tanks & tops was outsourced to located in Dickson, TN.  Construction was completed in a timely manner to specifications with no issue.  My wife and I met the tractor trailer on a winter night alongside Interstate 81 in Lexington, VA.  All six tanks fit into the bed of my pickup truck with room for several more. 
Bulkheads and drainpipe fittings
After researching bulkhead costs and that of PVC pipe and fittings I decided that ¾” offered the most efficient choice of options in regards to water flow.   It also seemed more prudent to use “slip” on both inlet and outlet, instead of “threaded”.  Slip on inlet for obvious later modifications that may come about and slip on outlet so fixtures could be hard glued to avoid leaks.  Not so much from every day use, but caused during transportation.  Instead of rigid PVC for drain pipe I went with plastic fittings and vinyl tubing to allow from some “movement” during relocation.  Remember, my primary goal is portability.   This also allows for a quick disconnect at the end of each tank for ease of removal.

Riser Tube & Bulkhead assembly
Each compartment is serviced by a single ¾” bulkhead to keep both the cost of drilling and fittings to a minimum.  This is accomplished through a single “master valve”  to which all water flows that controls water direction to filtration or waste.  To allow for circulation &/or removal of water from both the surface and bottom of each tank I designed a Do It Yourself (DIY) riser tube.   It incorporates an intake strainer on the surface and a sleeve on the bottom.  With only a single bulkhead in each tank this serves to add redundancy in case a drain becomes plugged during operation.

Riser Tube assembly
Being very hands on I find that I have been just as likely to hang my water hose and manually run water to each tank,  as use the quick connects I installed to fill each row in volume.  Regardless of drainage design there will always be a continuing need to siphon from the bottom of your tanks.  Though with a well designed system, at a much reduced volume based on feeding schedule and age of fish.

Lighting I kept simple by selecting 48” Lithonia T-8 low profile fluorescent strips.  They are very small and lightweight as compared to traditional T-11.  Monetarily, both the fixture and bulbs are still much more economical than modern LED lighting.  In conjunction with 48” inch tanks this would allow for even distribution of light to all tanks.  A wide choice of bulb types is offered in 48” for those so inclined.

T-8 Low Profile fluorescent fixture
Retrofitted Wooden Breeding Rack
 automated only for water change
A pedigree breeding program is often a direct reflection of its environment in the eyes of those visiting your farm and seeking your genetics.  Normally my preference is wood stands with a good coat of stain and polyurethane.  Not only does this help protect and preserve the stand for many years, it allows for ease of cleaning.  An unfinished stand is about like putting on your best suit and not polishing your shoes.  It takes very little extra effort and cost to finish a stand.   Metal stands are very rigid, subject to rust without rubber coating, and leveling issues with flaws in floors.  However, just the opposite is true of a finished wooden stand as they are easily leveled and very forgiving when properly constructed.  

Breeding Rack fully automated for water change
 and single point filtration
While long-term I will build and utilize wooden racks, for something a little different in the short-term I decided to try out a couple of Edsal steel commercial shelving units.  Each being 60 inch wide * 66 inch high * 18 in deep .  The total cost for each shipped from Home Depo was less than 115.00 dollars.  A quick coating of rubberized spray paint in addition the black textured finish should help with rust from both humidity and electrolysis.  Currently, I have installed one rack as a test with three tanks, while the other three tanks are being used on one of my retrofitted existing wooden racks.

My permanent racks have all hardware and fittings securely nailed and screwed in place.  In my quest to create a portable breeding system I did just the opposite.  All is neatly held in place by trimmed nylon tie straps, ready to clip apart and pack.

Initially, my thought was to utilize Grey Schedule 40 PVC for aesthetic reasons.  While the cost for most individual components was similar to White Schedule 40 PVC, the cost of one or two of the most utilized parts would nearly double the total cost.  In the end I just went with White Schedule 40 PVC.  Not so much for cost, but ease of purchase.  Just about any piece you will need is found at a good local retailer.  Grey PVC on the other hand I would have to order living in a remote location.  I simply like to modify things on the fly far too often to wait for online ordered parts.  It can be painted if desired.  Rather than go into detail on more common parts, let’s just say I ordered from two primary online sources; Global Industrial and JEHMCO Aquatic Breeder Supplies.   Article photos should give you enough detail to go by.
Alita AL- 80 air pump (coustesy Dr. James Alderson)
On a Central Air System a good air pump should be one you never have to think about, much less service or repair.   For the past 25 years I’ve relied on my Rotron Blower to provide for 100 plus outlets.  It’s not quiet, but when kept in a crawl space or insulated box and properly muffled, is not noticeable over bubbling of tanks.  I will continue to use it until I relocate and then install two newly purchased Alita AL- 80 air pumps.  When you compare cost, output, noise levels and reliability, they are hard to beat.   

DIY Sump Filtration
On one rack I decided to test out fully automated water change and single point filtration.  As I would be adding the metal rack, it made sense to run test with it.  In addition to a single corner filter housed in each tank, a sump filtration system is housed on a standalone rack adjoining and connected to the primary rack with tanks.  A single high wattage Eheim heater is held in the sump.  While the sump is on the bottom row, it is raised 4-6 inches off the ground for heat retention in winter.   The middle row of the rack houses an additional unheated sump solely for water replenishment from evaporation.   This comes about via a bottom drilled ¾” bulkhead and riser tube in the upper sump and a float valve in the bottom.  In turn “the replenishment sump” will serve to house breeding Cori’s, Pleco’s or Shrimp. 

DIY Water replacement for Sump Filtration
with UV Sterilizer behind on left

While I am not sold on their effectiveness in guppy breeding,  I decided to incorporate and test UV sterilization on the system.  Feeling it a must for single point filtration where recirculation of water is needed.  After much online research purchased a 15 Watt Aqua Ultraviolet Classic UVC  in Black with  2-inch slip fittings.  Not that I felt it was any better than comparable models, but at least it is easier than most to incorporate into rack plumbing, bypass when the need arises, and service when bulbs require or fittings need replaced.
Standalone Rack for DIY single point
 filtration and de-humdifier
Redundancy for catastrophic failure has been factored into the entire system via a check valve above the bottom sump and it having the ability to absorb the entire volume of all water contained in both piping and reserve sump.  The top tier of the rack houses a de-humidifier that is plumbed into the waste water drain pipe.  All water movement (replacement, circulation, and waste) is controlled through a series of PVC valves.   It is driven by a single Quiet One 6000 water pump rated at 1506 GPH @ 0’ head.  This translated roughly to over 1000 GPH combined rack flow to all tanks @ 5’ head.

Quiet One 6000 water pump in DIY sump

New water is added via a “quick attach” and piped from heated aged water in a 65 gallon barrel.  It utilizes the same piping as does the sump filtration.  For water input to each tank I purchased ½” barb x ½” male NPT threaded fill valves to allow for more precise and adjustable control.  This, as I would be utilizing multiple tank sizes on 3-4 levels of tanks and a single water pump.  Open PVC elbows or irrigation style drip values would not allow for such control.  While the entire water system is glued together, I included multiple quick disconnects to allow for modification and transport.

Closeup of Water Fill Valves and Riser Tubes with Sleeves

JEMCHO pre-built manifold
One of the “luxuries” I allowed myself in this project was the use of prebuilt manifolds on each tank vs. drilling PVC and tapping valves myself.  With such short overall length in the rows the effort was not justified.  Simply run ¾ inch PVC to each row and tap in a manifold.  When needed they are easily daisy chained together with hose barb connectors into either vinyl tubing or PVC.  As the PVC & fittings secure tight enough, I never find need to glue my air system together.  This allows for ease in modification and transport.

Now back to the initial hypothesis in this article.  Is an Asian Style Breeding Rack System with or without re-circulating filtration a viable option for Guppy Breeders?  Yes, under certain well defined criteria starting with an understanding and acceptance of “slow time”.  Modern Guppy breeders are little different from any livestock breeder.  Yet they are also vastly different.  Until the last century livestock breeding was on slow time and practiced on a multi-generational level by family members who grew up on the farm and rarely worked off the farm.   A bull taking 5 years to mature and a heifer bred to calf at three years of age.  Today the same bull is expected to be in production by 2 years of age and heifers having first calves on the ground at two years.   Sound familiar?  It should, there is little difference in either commercial guppy or show guppy breeding programs.
The history of domestic guppy breeding is just over 100 years.  Evolving in cities and towns with breeders at best several generations removed from the farm.  Most breeders are not only little aware of slow time, but have had “fast time” imposed upon them most of their lives from the rigors of urban life,  the requirements of a show cycle, computerization, and even the ability of the guppy to produce several generations within a year.   For an automated recirculation system to work Guppy Breeders must adopt and adjust to a traditional slow time livestock breeding regimen of our fore-fathers.

Rebuilt Fishroom August 2013
So, are self-contained automated Breeding Rack Systems with or without re-circulating filtration a viable option for Guppy breeders?  Yes.  Are there benefits to be derived from such systems vs. large scale dedicated fishrooms for Guppy breeders?  Yes.  Are there limitations to for use of such systems for Guppy Breeders?  Yes.
The debate will likely be ongoing in regards to Breeding Rack Systems that are fully automated for water change and those that additionally incorporate single point filtration.  When limited to just water change the benefits are undeniable.  Allowing for; ease of multiple changes, variance in the percentage changed, and consistency in the chemistry / temperature of water changed.  However, the variables are just that, too variable to make a blanket assertion either for or against in use with single point filtration for modern guppy breeding.  Just as many breeders are successfully utilizing sump filtration systems as those who have abandoned them.  From my perspective I think it safe to state they can work under specific circumstances:
1.       Systems need to be smaller rather than larger as in modern laboratory settings.
2.       Several stand-alone racks are better than one larger of the same volume.
3.       Slower water turnover and sterilization in filtration is likely paramount to success.
4.       Large systems with multiple UV sterilizers, large sump filters and high volume water flow are a requiem for failure.
5.       Both compartment numbers and total Breeding Rack population levels should be carefully considered to maintain healthy balances. 
6.       Avoid introducing new members (via acquisition or returns from shows) without stringent quarantine protocols.

In final I should make it clear that I am still not convinced single point filtration is a viable long-term option for most guppy breeders who are showing or exchanging fish on a regular basis.  Breeding programs are often not kept in balance.  I make this statement based on two supportive criteria:  1. Published research in the field of Population Genetics.  2.  My personal approach of breeding domestic guppies towards goals in favor of healthy populations over individuals.  Overall the majority of modern guppies just do not have a built in predisposition for health on a community level.
To see the pitfalls of recirculated water on domestic guppies all one has to do is visit your local large commercial box pet store with a single point recirculating system.  It is geared towards high volume turnover of stock at the expense of quarantine.  The first species to break down are livebearers, and at the forefront are modern commercial domestic guppies.

Ginga Sulphureus Lower Sword
Despite best attempts of host club members at shows, importing disease back to your fish-room is inevitable and routine, when compounded by the stress our fish endure being on the road for a week to 10 days at a time.  It is simply a given that comes with the hobby.  Only strict quarantine measure, treatment and continued isolation of returning show fish will eliminate or at best alleviate the potential contamination of your stocks.  On this basis returning show fish are best not housed in a recirculating system.
To this end, I designed my Breeding Rack System with recirculating sump filtration as an add-on component.  If at some point I deem it no longer feasible, it is easily removed, parts recycled elsewhere, leaving only a Breeding Rack System with automated water change.

1.       JEHMCO Aquatic Breeder Supplies
2.       Global Industrial
3.       The Home Depot
4.       Glass Cages
5.       Underwater Warehouse

The July 2012 IFGA Bulletin featured and article entitled ‘A “Visit” to Mike Regent’s Fish Rooms’ written by returning guppy breeder Glenn Wachter.  It dealt with his early 1970’s visit to IFGA breeder Mike Regent.  The author stated, “I have been searching for a word that would describes Mike’s approach to breeding and raising guppies and the best I could come up with is “patient” but it was more than that. He had a way about him when talking about fish that was so even keeled. I think he had some pretty firm opinions about how to breed and raise guppies, but he also was always open to any idea that would produce better fish but he never seemed in a hurry and that I think, was part of the secret. The other parts, I think, were a sharp set of eyes, a streak of creativity, and a disciplined firmness about some “basics” in developing good guppies.  The Lustar filters never boomed water up through the surface of the water. Bubbles gently rose to the surface of the tanks and the water always seemed crystal clear.”

“Patient”, just another way to describe “Slow Time”


Click on blog photos to enlarge

Click on blog photos to enlarge