40 Gallon Rift Lake Tank

Whole Tank Whole Tank
Click for larger images.

Last Updated: Mar 9, 2003.

This is my page about my 40 gallon rift lake tank. The tank was started on Nov 4, 2002. The tank is an acrylic tank. Originally I was planning on glass, but the only store with 40 gallon glass tanks in stock had damaged tanks (chipped, air bubble in glass, etc). The stand is store-bought, but the canopy was designed and built by me. More details on the plans are given below. Unless in the Updates section, most images are from when the tank was newly set up.

Tank Equipment

Tank Vitals

Tank Inhabitants

  • AquaClear 200 powerfilter with dual sponges
  • EboJager 125W heater
  • Nutrafin CO2 system (added in Dec 2002)
  • 2x36W lights, 5300K
  • 1x13W light, 10,000K/Dark Blue combo
  • pH 8.0 w/ CO2
  • 17 dGH
  • 20 dKH
  • 80F (~27C)
  • 8 Cyprichromis leptosoma "Chaitika" (F1, 4 male, 4 female)
  • 5+ Neolamprologus similis "Karilani Island" (F0, 2 male, 3 female, 4-5 fry)
  • Dozens of Malaysian trumpet snails and pond snails

Left Side
Left Side
This tank was designed to house Tanganyikans, particularly shelldwellers on the left and rock dwellers on the right. The shellbed on the left consists of 15 pounds of sugar-fine aragonite sand and nearly 2 dozen shells of various sizes. The rock pile is 35 pounds of lace rock on top of 20 pounds of crushed coral sand. There is also eggcrate underneath the rock pile to save the acrylic from many scratches and to distribute the weight.

Since my tap water has a bit of nitrates in it, I also wanted plants in the tank. There are currently 4 large java ferns attached to various parts of the rock pile, multiple Cryptocoryne wendtii "red" around the rock pile and 3 Aponogeton bulbs along the back. I put Flourish tabs in the crushed coral at the appropriate intervals for the crypts and Aponogeton bulbs. I also dose the tank with Flourish, Flourish Potassium and Flourish Iron. Light is supplied by one 2x36watt compact flourescent kit and one 13watt compact flourescent kit purchased from AH Supply. The lights are on a timer for a 11 hour lighting cycle. CO2 is supplied by a Nutrafin CO2 system (added in Dec 2002). This is not quite enough CO2 for a tank of this size, but I don't want to lower the pH too dramatically. This seems to be adequate CO2 for the plants as they have spouted like weeds. Compare the original setup pictures to the Updates section below to see this.

Right Side
Right Side

Cyprichromis school
Dominant Similis

I am currently (as of Jan 19, 2003) still planning to add 4-6 juvenial Julidochromis transcriptus "Gombi" to the rock pile, but I have to wait a bit until the similis settle their turf wars. Right now, the dominant pair have control of the shellbed and are only letting the unpaired female enter their "territory" (aka the shellbed). The other pair of similis have taken to the rock pile as their home because of this. I don't really want to add the transcriptus while the second pair is hiding out in the rocks. The Cyprichromis are also taking turns running through the rock pile. A few sleep down there at night. It's a popular place I suppose. The Cyprichromis school is a bit unsettled right now because I ended up with equal numbers of males and females. The dominant male is being a bit spastic with all the other males in the tank, so I might end up selling/trading two of the subdominant males to keep the peace.

Subdominant Similis


Jan 13, 2003:
Click here for a whole tank picture. The picture is rather poor quality (underexposed and the lab did too much tweaking with the colors so it didn't scan well) so I didn't bother to make a thumbnail of it. I'll try to get better quality pictures shortly. If you look closely you can see some of the Cyprichromis over the shell bed. You can also see that the crypts and aponogeton plants have put on a bit of height in the last couple of months. The crypts are experiencing a bit of a problem however as this closeup of a crypt leaf shows. The leaves disintegrate from this lesion outwards.

Jan. 22, 2003:
I borrowed my roommate's digital camera and got a few pictures of the tank inhabitants. Here's a picture of three of my Cyprichromis. There's a male in the center and the other two I believe are females (at least they haven't changed into male coloration yet). Here's a picture of two of the Cyprichromis males. This is a picture of one of the N. similis, I believe the male of the dominant pair.
And here's a couple more pictures of the plants having problems. The java ferns are experiencing odd leaf shapes on the newer leaves, as the two red circled parts of the picture show. The aponogeton bulbs also have some holes and brown spots on the leaves which you can somewhat see in this picture.

Mar. 9, 2003:
My dominant similis pair had fry a few weeks ago. At highest count, there have been 5 fry seen at once, although I see only 4 at once now. At first, the fry stayed in the mother's shell. After a few days, one of the fry migrated to the father's shell. Then the parents brought over a few empty shells and placed them next to their shells, I assume for the fry. The fry have actually ignored those shells, but some of the fry have moved into a couple of shells that were vacant and adjacent to the parents' shells. Right now I know 4 of the shells are inhabitted by fry and I think the unseen 5th fry is still around and sharing a shell with another fry since I occasionally see two dart out of the same shell at once. Interestingly, one of the fry seems to be darker and more aggressive than the rest. I'm not sure if it will continue to be darker as it grows older or not. I tried to take some pictures of the fry, but they are still small. Here's two of the best results. I've circled the fry in red to distinguish it from the sand and snails. This is a picture of a fry hovering over the mother's shell. This is a picture of the mother and one of the fry, again over the mother's shell. In the foreground, you can see the unpaired similis hovering over her shell.

The Canopy

I was motivated to design my own canopy for several reasons. First, I could make a more functional canopy for less than a store-bought canopy. Secondly, I wanted the lights to be in an internal light box. Third, I wanted easy access for cleaning and feeding without blinding myself with the lights or having to move the lights around. So I sat down and sketched some rough designs for a canopy (small or large image of sketches). For the most part, I followed the plans when building the canopy, with only some minor changes. One such change was to use glass instead of plexiglass. I was able to get glass cut to size at wholesale prices through my roommate so it worked out to be cheaper than plexiglass. Another was to forgo the mesh on the back since it is much easier to cover the openings on an acrylic to prevent jumping fish which was the purpose of the mesh in the original plan.

I used pine for the canopy and stained everything except the light box to match the stand. One important thing to note if you want to stain pine, use a pre-stain conditioner. I tested one piece of wood (the inside of the front lid) without the conditioner and it resulted in a very splotchy stain job. Using the conditioner resulted in a much nicer stain. I did not clean up well after the wood glue at certain points, so the stain did not take around the screws (hence the lovely light spots). I am attempting to find some sort of coverup for these little blemishes.

Canopy The first main feature I wanted was a double jointed lid. This provides me easy access to the tank and the lights. When the lid is fully closed, there is only a small gap between the two parts. The hinges on the lids are 12" brass piano hinges. This may be overkill, but I like stability. One change I made from the plans is somewhat apparent in the left image. Instead of putting the back piece inside the side pieces (as the plan shows), I put the back piece behind the side pieces. It turned out to be good I made this choice because the side piece againgst the wall is slightly warped and it would not have been easy to fit the back piece inside the side pieces. Canopy
Canopy Other changes I made from the original plans was to lengthen the inner "stand off" blocks that I used to support the canopy on top of the tank and to support the glass for the light box. I have the tank stand off blocks running most of the length of the sides and about 3/4 of the length of the front. The glass stand off blocks run the entire perimeter of the light box. This provides more support for the glass. Canopy

Step by step construction

I did the construction outside on my patio. My only obstacle was a huge rain storm that came in while I was in the middle of sealing the canopy. Definately do the staining and sealing outside or right by the open door of a garage. Adequate ventilation is a must.



Note: Use wood glue as desired. The only place it is absolutely essential is the standoffs.
  1. Make the measurements for the screw holes for the main body of the canopy:
  2. Drill pilot holes through each of the above pieces.
  3. Line up the drilled pieces with their connecting piece and mark where the drill holes need to be.
    NOTE: For the back panel and inner brace, I actually positioned them about 1/8" above the side panels to allow some air to circulate under the light box lid.
  4. Drill pilot holes on the connecting pieces.
  5. Screw the canopy standoffs onto the side and front panels with 1 1/2" screws.
  6. Screw the side panels to the front panel with 1 1/4" screws.
  7. Screw the inside brace into place between the side panels with 1 1/4" screws.
  8. Screw the back panel onto the side panels with 1 1/4" screws.
  9. Test fit the canopy to the tank. The standoffs may need to be repositioned so that the canopy sits evenly on the tank.
  10. Measure the screw holes for the glass standoff pieces:
  11. Drill the pilot holes for the pieces and their connecting pieces as described in steps 2 and 3.
  12. Put a thin line of wood glue along the bottom edges of the back panel and inner brace.
  13. Screw the standoffs in place using remaining wood screws (I ended up without enough of either length of wood screws to finish this standoff, so I alternated 1 1/2" screws with 1 1/4" screws).
  14. Clean up any glue that has spilled out quickly as it will affect the stain job (the yellow dots in the above photos are from glue that was not adequately removed).
  15. Drill the ventilation holes for the light box.
  16. Drill the hole(s) for the light power cord(s).
    NOTE: Now I did the staining and sealing. It had to be done in two stages, first with the top, then with the bottom, allowing time for drying between the two.
  17. Thouroughly sand the constructed canopy and unattached lids in preparation for staining.
  18. Apply pre-stain conditioner to all visible surfaces except the inside of the light box which will remain unstained.
  19. Stain the canopy as directed on the stain. Two coats may be necessary.
    HINT: It really only needs two coats on the outside which is what is always seen. I did only one coat for all interior pieces.
  20. When the stain has dried (look at the stain label for recommended drying times), flip the canopy and lids over and stain the other side, except for the light box lid (which is unstained on the inside).
  21. Apply the sealant. Two coats were recommended for my brand of sealant, so I did two coats. Follow the directions on the sealant. It is especially important to make sure the inside is sealed fully since this is in closer contact with the water.
  22. When the sealant is fully dried, flip the canopy and lids over and seal the other side.
  23. Wait for everything to dry completely.
  24. Measure and drill pilot holes for the lid hinges. I did this alone and really wished I had a helper to hold the lid while I marked the pilot holes as it was unwieldy to hold the lid in place with one hand while marking the holes with the other hand.
  25. Screw the lids on.
  26. Measure and drill pilot holes for the lighting equipment.
  27. Put a thin bead of silicon sealant all along the glass standoffs for the light box and put the glass into place. I put the boxes the hinges came in between the lids and the canopy to allow circulation while protecting the glass from anything hitting it.
  28. Let the silicon cure overnight.
  29. Install the lighting equipment (see below).
One additional finishing touch I did after I took all the pictures was to purchase some clear silicon "feet" to put on the lids to hold them up slightly from the canopy. This makes it easier to grasp when opening the lids and also allows a little more circulation for the light box.

When I have more free time, I will put up more exact plans including all measurements. For those of you who might think constructing a canopy is diificult, it isn't. I purchased the wood from a store which cut it to size for me (at no additional charge), so I didn't need a saw. The only tools I needed was a drill, screwdriver and pocket knife for the basic construction. A plane would have been nice as I used the pocket knife to shave a little off the inside brace because it was a tad too long. I was able to construct the whole thing on my own, although having a partner to hold pieces in place would likely have made things go a little faster. Overall, the construction took about a week, but most of that time was spent in the staining and sealing phase, since I had to wait 8-10 hours between coats.

The estimated costs (USA dollars) for the canopy are: $15 for the wood, $5 for the glass, <$1 for the wood screws, $10 for the hinges, $5 for the pre-stain conditioner, $5 for the stain, $5 for the sealer, $3 for wood glue, $5 for silicon sealant, $2 for the silicon feet and $5 for brushes. This brings the total cost to a little over $60. This is much better than $120 for a store-bought canopy.

The Lights

As mentioned above, I used the 2x36watt and 13watt kits from AH Supply as this company was well recommended in plant newsgroups. This gives me a little more than 2 watts per gallon. The following pictures show the lights as they are installed the canopy. My only problem was that I do not own wire strippers, so I tried to make do with some small nail scissors.

36W ballast
36W Ballast

36W ballast closeup
Power side of 36W ballast

Reflectors and wiring

First I screwed the ballasts into place along the back panel. Then I screwed the reflectors into place along the lid. It was a little tricky to get the nylon spacers to stay in place while screwing on the 2x36W reflector, but not impossible. Next, I measured the wire lengths and cut them. I then had a fun and interesting time trying to strip the wires on the 36W endcaps, which was essentially double insulated. One cut finger and an hour later, I was really wishing I had wire strippers. The ballast wires and 13W kit wires were actually easy to strip with the scissors, but the rest were a bit tiresome. I actually had cut the a little long, but I did not discover this until after I had spent all the time stripping the 36W endcaps, and I did ever so not want to go through that process again, so I left them a little long.

From this point onwards, it was fairly simple. I first wired up the 36W kit following the directions. My only issue here was I had no clue what the directions meant by crimping the ground wire from the power cord to the provided eyelet. A little Google searching later and I discovered this meant to cut the wire so that it just barely goes through the "tunnel" of the eyelet and then pinch (aka "crimp") the "tunnel" until the wire cannot be tugged out. A crimping tool or jewelry tools are pretty much a must here. My standard pliers didn't crimp the eyelet enough to prevent the wire from being tugged out, although I do have weak upper body strength. I found some jewelry pliers in my roommate's toolbox which were able to crimp it however. Here's a closeup of the power end of the ballast. The green and yellow wire is the ground wire.

After I finished with the 36W kit and tested that it worked, I moved on to the 13W kit. This also was fairly simple. I just followed the directions without any issues. After all the kits were wired up, I used the provided cord clamps to route the cords and wires so that they wouldn't touch the 13W reflector when the lid was closed or come between either reflector and the glass.

13W ballast
13W Ballast

Wiring for both kits

I purchased two digital heavy duty timers to control the lights and set the light cycle to about 11 hours. The timers just barely fit in my power strip by putting one at each end of the strip with the filter and heater cords between. I use the 13W light as a dawn/dusk simulator. It comes on 15 minutes before the 36W lights and goes off 15 minutes after them. I have a combo 10,000K/dark blue bulb in the 13W socket and two 5300K bulbs in the 36W kit.

I also use an indoor/outdoor digital thermometer ($15 at the local Target) to monitor the temperature inside the light box. I simply placed the "outdoor" sensor inside the light box and fed its wire out the gap between the lid and canopy. With the current lighting and an ambient temperature of about 80F (~27C), the light box gets to about 101-104F (~38-39C). This doesn't seem to raise the tank temperature much, although I have noticed that the heater hasn't gone on much at all since the lights have been installed.