Inspired by a small scene in the 80s movie 'Real Genius.' I turned a 5 gallon water cooler into a fish tank that still delivers clean drinkable water. Very simple to make, the amount of work, time, and cost all depends on the type of cooler you choose to start with and how fancy you want it to be in the end. I built it a while back and forgot to take 'before and during' pictures, so I laid out the steps in a simple and easy to understand format.
- Old stand up water cooler (I prefer the older metal models)
- Extra water bottles (if required)
- Garden spigot w/ hardware
- Water proof sealant/glue (not hazardous to fish)
- New chemical sprayer, 2 gal. (never used)
- Under gravel fish filter
- Air pump w/ hoses and one way valve
- Fish supplies (i.e. gravel, decorations, fish)
- Paint (optional)
- Foam board (optional)
- Flat waterproof light (optional)
- Standard tool set
- Hack saw or other cutting tool
- Drill with bits (if required)
Step 1: Choosing the Right Water Cooler
The type of water cooler you start with will determine the easiness of the project. I suggest using an older metal model. Here are some factors I looked for when picking one out.
- Metal body; Allows for easier work than the plastic ones and are more stable
- Used, no reason to ruin a perfect working new dispenser.
- Only one spigot since there wont be hot and cold water.
- The back of the stand is open once the refrigerant is removed.
- No flaws such as cracks or rust holes. Dirt and grime can be cleaned.
- Free or at least very cheap.
- Newer units have small refrigerators built in, which depending on the model, could get in the way or make a nice storage compartment.
Step 2: Gut the Old Water Cooler
Remove everything from the water cooler so that its just the basic frame.
- This includes the refrigerant parts, which will not be reused allowing it to be scrapped.
- Different models might require the use of different tools.
- Remove all the hardware that links the bottle to the spigot.The current spigot will most likely not work on the new system so remove it as well.
- If you can not see vertically from the top of the cooler to the bottom, then you will need to drill a hole through the middle so that you can route the air pump hose.
- L brackets can be added to the inside if you require more stability after gutting.
- After you are down to the shell, clean, sand and add a fresh coat of paint if you choose to do so.
Step 3: Preparing the Bottle.
Pick out a good 5 gal. bottle that has little to no scratches on it. It is important to find one with a screw-on cap.
Cutting the top (as it sits on the base)
- The idea is to have the bottle look as if it hasn't been altered in any way; so extra care should be used to make a clean and precise cut. You want people to wonder how you feed the fish since the opening is not recognizable.
- On most bottles, the top side of the bottle is thicker for placing on the ground. There should be a line an inch or so up where the bottle usually thins out. This change in thickness helps create the illusion that it's an intact bottle. Using a hack saw or other cutting device, cut completely around the bottle on the line. This might be tricky because of the slant between the thicknesses.
- Be careful not to scratch the bottle while cutting. Once the top has been removed you should notice how the rest of the bottle is more flimsy, this will not effect the integrity of the system.
- Use sandpaper to smooth out the cuts.
Installing the Bottle cap.
- Unscrew the cap, measure the diameter of the air tube that goes with the air pump. Drill a hole through the center of the cap and thread the hose through. Place at least 1 ft of slack on the inside and 3 ft on the outside just to be safe. When you have the hose where you want it, apply a good amount of waterproof glue around the hose on both sides of the cap. Let completely dry.
- Place glue on the sides (threads) of the cap and bottle then screw on the cap. Check the glue directions but I recommend waiting at least a day for it to fully cure. For extra leak protection, you can fill the neck of the bottle with water-proof spray foam. My tank has held-up for 2 years without the foam as I was concerned it would affect the fish.
- Once cured, set the bottle on the stand, routing the tube though the open hole, fill with water and check for leaks.
- If leaks are present: mark leak area with a sharpie, drain and dry tank completely, re-apply glue/sealant to where it leaks, then repeat the prior step.
- When you are certain there are no leaks, remove the water and set the bottle aside for now.
- Careful not to pinch the air hose when the bottle is not on the stand. Milk crates make a good place to store the bottle.
- I was lucky that my lid sat perfectly on the bottle after the cut allowing it not to slide down or fall off. If you are have issues, use a hot glue gun to place small dots on the inside rim of the lid to keep it from moving. Use as little glue as needed to keep up the illusion.
- I also bought a small flat battery powered light that I bolted to the underside of the lid. When the lid is on; it gives it a nice glow. If you go this route, make sure the battery door is well sealed from the water or the batteries will easily corrode and affect the fish.
Step 4: Making It Drinkable
Water coolers are normally gravity fed, but because of the fish, it must be converted to pressure fed.
Selecting the water supply
- If you have the capability you can hook it up directly to your house plumbing for a constant supply of fresh water.
- I decided to go low tech and found that a NEW chemical spray bottle works the best. This requires replacing the water and periodically priming it but it also allows it to be filled with other drinks such as Hawaiian punch. With all the empty space inside the stand, finding a bottle that fits should not be difficult.
- To be safe, write "Drinking Water Only" on the side of the bottle.
- Separate the spray nozzle from the hose.
- Screw the new spigot onto the stand where the old one was. The reason I used a garden spigot is because it has a universally accepted fitting .
- Once secured, connect the Chemical bottle hose to the end of the spigot. This might take some creative work with adapters. Make sure you use a hose clamp to get a tight seal.
Testing out the system:
- Check that the spigot is closed, fill the bottle with water, prime the bottle with air.
- Make sure there are no leaks coming out of the connections. If leaks are present, try using plumbers tape and tightening your hose clamps.
- Open up the spigot to relieve the pressure and receive your fresh water.
Step 5: Extra Features
Depending on the amount of space left inside the stand, extra features may be added.
- I lined mine with foam board to prevent the cold drinkable water from affecting the fish tank water temp.
- With extra foam, I made a back door and then a shelf to hold the air pump and fish supplies. The foam also quiets the noise combing from the air pump.
- A small screw in the side of the foam gave me a perfect place to hang my fish net.
- Be creative with the extra space.
- Later on, I added a paper cup dispenser on the side
Step 6: Setting Up Your Fish Tank
Set up the bottle as any other small fish tank.
- Place the bottle on the stand, threading the air hose through the hole and connect it to the air pump.(I recommend adding a one way valve between the pump and bottle cap)
- Place the gravel filter in the bottle, place the carbon filter directly under the bottles handle for best circulation.
- Connect the air hose to the filter.
- Fill the bottom in with gravel.
- Add your decorations. I suggest adding something that creates bubbles to simulate the chugging sound. Make sure your air pump can handle the additional work.
- Fill with water and treat with chemicals.
- Turn on the air pump and light
- Add fish (Best to start with 2-3 then add more after a few weeks)
- Place lid on top.
- Enjoy and entertain your friends
Care and cleaning
- Because of the Handle, cleaning can be easier than with normal tanks. The amount of time between cleanings depend on the amount of fish and food given. Mine last about 2 months with 5 fish.
- My favorite method of cleaning starts with moving the fish to a separate container. Disconnect the air pump and take outside; then using a hose, spay the inside to remove all the "dirt" from the gravel. Do a quick wipe down, replace the filter cartridge, then place the tank back on the stand, re-align the decorations, fill with water and reconnect the pump. Don't forget to condition the water and allow time for the water to become room temp before returning the fish.
- The drinking bottle tubes should be cleaned if left sitting for long periods of time.
- Thoroughly flush out the drinking system after uses with flavored drinks such as Hawaiian punch.