Vivarium (Construction)

At the beginning of the year I decided to build (from scratch) my own vivarium. The idea was inspired largely by a number of online sources, including dendroworld, dendroboards, various vivarium sites, orchid forums, practical fishkeeping, and countless other images around the web. Although I have some experience in maintaining vivaria; a colossal amount of research went (and continues) into a variety of flora, fauna, materials, styles, and approaches to create an environment not only aesthetically pleasing but relatively simple and inexpensive to maintain.

Construction was first initiated by buying an old 2ft aquarium for £5. After thorough cleaning, the tank was rotated upright 90 degrees so that the base then forms the back of a vertical enclosure. This gave me a good view of what I could potentially do with it, maximising both height and depth. It was around this point I decided to create a paludarium.

A paludarium is an enclosure consisting of both terrestrial and aquatic elements, but more specifically, one replicating a marsh or marshland. Strictly speaking, this was not going to be the case for my creation, which is why I have decided simply to refer to it as a vivarium, literally translating as a ‘place of life’. Technically, my theory was to include various simulations of nature which, in turn, could individually qualify for different forms of enclosure classification, e.g. vivarium, aquarium, paludarium, orchidarium, and possibly even riparium. Terminology aside, my plan was to fill the bottom third of the tank with water, leaving semi terrestrial and arboreal space above, serving host to a number of plants and possibly animals.

More research, planning, and careful measurements later, it was clear that parts of the tank itself would have to be modified to accomodate my concept. Imagining the aquarium still stood vertically, the pane of glass at the top had to be removed. For ease and safety, this was carried out with the tank in its original position, and I proceeded with a scalpel blade to slice through the silicone holding the glass panes together. This had to be done very carefully, as too much pressure can fracture the glass, rendering the whole conversion useless.  Luckily, (after having to re-buy a second £5 aquarium), this wasn’t the case, and I tidied up the edges to get rid of any leftover silicone.

I then turned to a glass company who cut out a selection of specifically sized pieces for me. These were modestly priced, and made to measure the exact same thickness as the existing panes on the tank itself. These components created the lower-front section, left and right sliding doors, 3 thin semi-structural pieces, and a lid. The image below displays where some of these pieces were then positioned, using an aquarium-safe silicone to secure them. (Note: The cat was not secured in this way.)

1- Front glass section 2- Semi-structural glass length

Also pictured at the top of the tank are two lengths of black PVC runners bought via eBay, these were siliconed into place in line with the rim of the glass. Their purpose will become clearer in the next image, suffice to say, they do play an important role in customisation of the enclosures lid. After a further pair were secured to enable the use of sliding glass doors (+ handles), I added various widths of black PVC cornering bought from B&Q to dress up the edges.

 1- Front glass section 2- Semi-structural glass length 3- Sliding glass door
4- Sliding glass lid A- Sliding acrylic ventilation & wire outlet lid

Designs were prepared for a sliding acrylic lid that would allow for adequate ventilation, grooves for potential wiring, and (as seen in the second illustration) a circular entry point for an external mist system. Composed of two sheets of selectively cut acrylic, the lid is built up in two levels; the lower (and larger) portion slides along those previously mentioned PVC runners, while the upper half runs in between them, holding a fine mesh in place by means of shallow computer screws.

4- Sliding glass lid A- Sliding acrylic ventilation & wire outlet lid B– Sliding acrylic buffer lid

The latter design is closer to the final outcome, although the circular entry point (on the left) was never drilled due to a change in plan. The layout for ventilation, however, remains very much the same (as seen in image 2).

Lid(s) completed and a further addition of more PVC cornering, I then made sure that the inside of the tank was watertight by resealing the joins with silicone. Doing this now was vital, as the next stage literally involved covering the interior with cork bark and sumatran driftwood.  If you proceeded with this, and then found out you had an inaccessible leak, you would have to cut out everything just to get to it and start again. I made sure this was not going to happen.

As mentioned, the interior was fitted with chunks of cork bark (- collected from pet shops), and Sumatran driftwood, which is a relatively new import for aquascaping (- I bought branches of this through eBay). Cork bark is easy to manage, as you can get quite a lot of it fairly cheaply, it’s lightweight, and very easy to cut. I did this mostly with a scalpel blade, chopping it into specific bits and siliconing them into place wherever I wanted. The Sumatran driftwood, on the other hand, is an incredibly hard wood, which is great for resistance in humid conditions, but rediculous to cut so you can actually get them in there! It’s also comparatively expensive, so I made the most of what pieces I had.

I positioned the cork bark primarily to create a background with pockets in for planting – circular pieces are ideal for this. The Sumatran driftwood is angled to poke outwards, almost like a permeable midground, accentuating depth in the process; these areas are better suited as mounts for orchids. I had planned on using part of the background as a drip-wall, so it made even more sense to create different surfaces on levels that would allow for a variety of ecological niches. As well as a drip wall, I also developed the idea for a simple internal rain system, this would prove much more efficient than the external misting envision for a number of reasons, but primarily the ease of having a self-contained water supply.

Two lengths of clear tubing were fitted behind the background, one for the drip wall, and the other for the rain system. Originally, each of these were going to connect to Fluval Mini filter pumps because of their reputably silent nature, but they just couldn’t handle the pressure needed to push water 2ft up. Instead, I reluctantly plugged one into a spare Interpet PF Mini – previously I had used this as an aquarium pump and found it far too noisy, now however, I couldn’t have been happier! The filter not only managed to deal with pushing up the water perfectly, but it seems the pressure actually made it quieter in the process.  I instantly went out and bought another for the rain maker.

Water was syphoned out after testing the pumps, and once dry again, I continued to complete the background. I applied cork bark to the background, including the submerged area at the bottom, a piece was also fitted to conceal the filters. Any gaps between the wood were filled with pieces of garden basket liner – a fibrous material with a wooly texture, these made the background look better completed and serve as ideal media for the roots of certain plants.

When I was happy with the background I began constructing the light canopy. Using scrap wood, I first built what was essentially a wooden frame that sits on the perimeter of the glass rim, other pieces were then structured to aid the housing of various components. I painted this black using a satin wood paint. Wider lengths of PVC cornering were then screwed onto the underside of the wooden frame, giving the canopy a secure fit around the vivarium.

The question of how to light the vivarium took a lot of research before I came to any clear answer. The two biggest problems were deciding what form of lighting I was going to use and whether it would produce enough light for the inhabitants. In the end I settled on compact fluorescents (CFL). Although they do produce some heat, it is minimal compared to that of incandescents, they’re cheaper to run, and come in a selection of colour ranges. What I hadn’t quite anticipated was that the larger the wattage, the bigger the bulb, so I was quite surprised when my 45w arrived in the post.

The reflector was cut from an aluminium sheet bought at B&Q, with a bit of effort this was made possible by steel ruler, scalpel blade, and goggles. The sheet was simply angled across various points to maximise light refraction and drilled to accomodate an Arcadia ceramic lamp holder each side, the result was then fitted within the canopy itself. Lamp holders were positioned specifically to make efficient use of the DIY reflector, allow for enough space between bulbs, and optimimise light coverage below.

Where the ventilation lid comes into contact with the back of the vivarium, I have incorporated a fan that sits above it behind the lighting canopy. I rewired a 12v computer fan to a multi-voltage AC/DC transformer, this acts as a potentiometer for different speed settings and allows me to plug it into a timer for automated air exchange. I also used some leftover PVC cornering turned upright as tracks, enabling the fan to be maneuvered where I need ventilation the most. The other two wires in the image below belong to the lamp holders, they alternate either side to best avoid overheating.

What has so far felt like a year-long project, turns out to be closer to around 6 months. Either way, I was glad to have finished construction of the vivarium and get started on the planting! After turning on the lights and testing the pumps, I began to fill up pockets with composted substrate and orchid bark – it was apparent from the drip wall where particular plants needed to go in order to cope with certain conditions. I tied orchids to branches using cotton thread cushioned by moss, aquatic plants climb the wetter areas, and the terrestrial climbers are establishing themselves towards the top.

At the moment the vivarium undergoes close analysis while I try and figure out how often the rain system and ventilation come on, but the lighting remains a constant. A 15w 2700k CFL comes on at 8:00, followed by the 45w 6400k CFL at 8:30, this transition is much less sudden (especially for potential inhabitants) than if they were to come on together. The same happens in the evening, but reversed.

I haven’t finished planting yet, but the essentials are in, and any future addition will see itself tailored to a particular poistion once i’m more familiar with the environmental niches.

The plant list is currently as follows:

ORCHIDS
-Bulbophyllum ambrosia
-Bulbophyllum lasiochilum
-Bulbophyllum auratum
-Bulbophyllum saurocephalum
-Bulbophyllum moniliforme
-Sophronitis cernua
-Trias nasuta

PLANTS
-Tradescantia sp. ‘Dark green’
-Ficus sp. ‘Panama’
-Begonia schulzei
-Pellionia repens
Tropical Pillow Moss
Sphagnum Moss

AQUATIC
-Lilaeopsis sp.
-Helxine soleirolii
-Glossostigma elatinoides
-Hemianthus callitrichoides
-Anubias barteri var. nana
-Anubias barteri var. nana ‘Petite’
-Anubias barteri var. caladiifolia
-Vesicularia montagnei ‘Christmas Moss’
-‘Java Moss’

Apart from a handful of Anubias, I have delayed aquascaping until all the tannins release from the background. From previous experience with wood in the aquarium, this should take just over a month (with water changes) to clear. I can’t wait until everything grows out, concealing the wiring and most of the background. This is going to take some time, however, but differences between monthly photographs should be apparent. I have already noticed prominent growth in some of the plants, so i’ll just have to be patient. When cycled, I plan on stocking the vivarium with cherry shrimp, I have wanted these for a while now, but refrained from getting any for my aquarium until that grows out too. My theory is as follows:

The pool at the bottom of the vivarium will be inhabited by Neocaridina heteropoda, which feed on algae and the detritus fallen from the planted canopy above. They are effective scavengers, requiring minimal maintenance but the need for clean aquarium contiditions. The little waste they do produce will be broken down not only by an internal canister filter, but the plants themselves, both below and above the waterline.

Obviously this theory is going to need some testing, but that’s all part of the fun.

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~ by Adam Bone on October 4, 2011.

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