DIY Culture Station

The first understanding here should be that I am not an expert nor do I proclaim to be an expert. The intent of this article is only to share information about techniques and practices that have worked for me. I am a firm believer in trying to keep the bottom of the food chain fed. This, in turn, provides a food source up the chain and eventually feeds the corals. I am also of the opinion that any time live food can be substituted for prepared or frozen food, our reef tanks benefit.

The first question to answer is, "What is a culture station?" A culture station is a set-up allowing for the production of microalgae (phytoplankton), rotifers and/or brine shrimp (zooplankton). The station provides containment, nutrients, light, and aeration for the inhabitants.

The design I use allows for 10 positions, wherein a single position equates to a single bottle. A PVC frame is constructed on which both the bottles and the lighting are mounted. The framework is not necessary and many folks have been successful without any type of framework. I prefer using the framework, if for no other reason than preventing spillage.

I divided the ten culture station positions into three different types of cultures. This division results in six for microalgae, two for rotifers, and two for brine shrimp. The positions can be used in any combination meeting your particular needs. You may also use the entire station for a single type of culture. The length of the fluorescent bulbs determines the number of positions. The culture vessels determine the height of the PVC structure.


The first step in any project is acquiring all the necessary supplies.

Parts needed to build a culture station:

1 - 10ft section 1" PVC pipe
2 - 24" fluorescent light
4 - 1" PVC 'T'
4 - 1" PVC end cap
12 - 1" PVC 90° angle
5 - 1" PVC 4-way
10 -2-liter bottle w/cap
10 -14" length ¼" rigid airline
10 -Adjustable air valves
1ea - 30' roll ¼" airline tubing
1 or 2 air pumps

Tools needed:

Drill and ¼" drill bit
Saw for cutting PVC pipe
PVC glue

1. Cut the PVC pipe into the following lengths:

PVC Lengths:

1 - 29"
4 - 6"
2 - 11"
14 - 3"
1 - 2.5"
1 - 4.5"

2. Assemble the PVC pipe sections and fittings as per the drawing (red numbers indicate PVC length in inches). Ten of the 90º will need ¼" holes drilled and centered through the top. These holes will be used for the airlines. Gluing the PVC components is optional; I prefer to glue them together.

3. Mount the air valves on the station. Placement of air valves is up to the builder. I chose the top of the culture station for convenience. An alternative is to mount the air manifold on the vertical risers, as seen on the right side. The pumps can be placed anywhere convenient for operation. The airlines need to have enough slack for the rigid lines to be removed from the bottles.

4. Install the lights. A wide variety of lights may be used. I used regular fluorescent lights available at the local hardware store. Since spectrum was not an issue, I opted for the less expensive bulbs that were not designed for aquarium use. Mounting the lights on the culture station will depend on the type of lights used. Please refer to manufacturer's instructions for proper mounting. I installed the lights so both switches were on the right side. This allows the power cords to be routed easier.

5. Use of the culture station. The height of the 90º elbow should be sufficient to allow a 2-liter bottle to be slipped into the 90º when the bottle is tilted slightly. To help prevent contamination, I keep the caps on the bottles and drill a ¼" hole in the cap for the rigid airline to pass through. Clothespins can be used to keep the rigid airline just off the bottom of the bottle. Airflow should be sufficient to make the cultures slow boil, but may vary depending on the type of culture .


1. Buy a book. Two that I highly recommend are:

Clownfishes by Joyce D. Wilkerson

Plankton Culture Manual by Frank H. Hoff and Terry W. Snell
2. Don't overfeed your tank. Just because you have lots of micro-algae doesn't mean your tank can process all of it.

3. An equal level of water in all the bottles will make it easier to equally distribute the airflow

4. Even if you do not need the micro-algae, harvest it when it is ready to be harvested. The culture will reach a saturation point and degrade in quality.

5. Be patient in getting your cultures established. I started with a single 2-liter bottle. When it was ready for harvesting, I split it into two bottles, and then split those bottles. Most supply houses offer some instructions for building a continuous culture supply.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.


Aquaculture Supply - Provides a nice starter kit with most everything needed.
NorthEast Brine Shrimp -- A good source for live phytoplankton and zooplankton.
Brine Shrimp Direct - A good source for brine eggs and prepared foods.


Hoff, F.H., Snell, T.W., Plankton Culture Manual, Florida Aqua Farms Inc; ISBN: 0966296001; 5th Rev edition (July 1999)

Wilkerson, J.D., Clownfishes, Microcosm Limited; ISBN: 1890087041; (June 1998)

Useful Links:

Rearing a Plankton Menagerie by Shawn Carlson

1The type of cultures grown will depend mostly on the user's needs. Joyce Wilkerson's book on clownfish and Hoff & Snell's book on plankton cultures are valuable resources.

ReefKeeping Magazine™ Reef Central, LLC. Copyright © 2002

DIY Culture Station -