Something in the world of floating have you stumped?
For anyone considering a DIY float tank, give this episode a listen first. This isn’t a discussion on the merits of doing things one way versus another or expressing an opinion on one side and playing devil’s advocate for the other. Graham and Ashkahn know painfully well from personal experience the pitfalls of falling into the hubris trap of thinking you can build your own float tanks. They built two large open tanks in Float On and even years later they still cause headaches.
What’s more, they’ve spoken with dozens of people who’ve also gone through this themselves and heard their horror stories after they didn’t listen to the advice of not doing it.
The perception that it can be a cost cutting measure or a more reliable way to get an operating float tank in your center by going DIY is generally pretty flawed. There’s so much to it that you just can’t consider before the fact.
Listen to Just the Audio
Transcription of this episode… (in case you prefer reading)
Graham: Today’s question is, “What should I know about building my own float tanks?”
Ashkahn: Don’t do it.
Graham: Yeah, that! Number one, leave it to the professionals.
Ashkahn: We’re usually pretty open with our thoughts and opinions on the show, and this is one of the ones that I usually take a firmer stance on in terms of things people should do.
Graham: It’s turning out lots of our shows starts with us kind of being like, “Well there’s lot of different opinions. And we don’t really know, this is just kind of the Float On way to do things.”
Ashkahn: I just don’t think you should build your own float tank.
Graham: Don’t do it.
Ashkahn: There’s so many reasons. Here’s just some of the reasons-
Graham: A, you shouldn’t do it. Number one. It’s a terrible idea is number two.
Ashkahn: So, okay. First of all, it’s hard.
Graham: First of all, we did it. So we’re speaking from experience.
Ashkahn: We did it and we realize we shouldn’t have done it.
Graham: We made a big mistake, and we’ve heard, we tell this to … any apprentice who comes into our apprenticeship program, which we teach every month, comes in who wants to build their own float tank. And they first get Ashkahn on Sunday, and they mention it and Ashkahn’s like, “Do not do it!”
And then they get Jake, and then Jake tells em, “Don’t build your own float tank!” And they get to me, and I’m like, “Well, you probably already heard this before, but you’re insane if you build your own float tank! Don’t do it!”
And then some of them, despite hearing this, still go off and build their own float tanks. And we get to hear back from them about how many problems they have in the future, and what a miserable process it was, and they’re like, “You’re right! You’re right!”
So this comes from, although we’re not manufacturers, a fair amount of experience of people trying to build one off tanks.
Ashkahn: Yeah, and so here’s a lot of the reasons why this is difficult. One is because it’s difficult.
It’s hard. It’s really hard to build a float tank. They’re complicated, there’s a lot of actual thoughtful design that goes into float tanks, and the filtration systems require a lot of know how: to make sure you’re buying the right components, that they’re plumbed together correctly, they have the right electrical requirements, they’re actually doing what they think they should be doing.
The whole sanitation side of this is not easy, or very easy to like learn yourself over a few weeks. There’s a lot of nuance and technical know how that goes into making sure you’re purchasing the right equipment. You have to deal with electrical issues, electrical safety. You’re putting electricity next to water. That’s something that you have to consider. And you have to realize that you’re manufacturing a product.
How many manufacturing processes have you heard of that got it perfect in their prototype? In their very first attempt at making something, they just nailed it and there was nothing wrong with it? That’s not how manufacturing works, right? You have to build things and you realize what doesn’t work, and what parts failing, and what’s broken. And then you make another version, you realize what’s broken there. And you go through that process until you get a nice kind of stable product.
Graham: So much so there’s whole processes and departments named after that process: R&D. Research and development, right?
Ashkahn: We built float tanks into our center, and from the moment that we were like, “Great these are done, we can start opening these up to customers,” to the point that they were actually like stably running, actually continuously for weeks on end, not breaking down on us, was pretty much a year.
Graham: We’re still doing it!
Ashkahn: We’re still doing it, but like way less! But there was like a year where-
Graham: The first year was miserable.
Ashkahn: They’d be up and then the heaters would all break. And then they’d be down for three weeks until we managed to fix that, and then they’d be up again, and then two weeks later something else would break, and we’d have to fix that, and so-
Graham: We probably only had them operating during half of the year-
Graham: During our first year in operation, which is so much lost revenue during that time, and expensive fixes and upgrades that you’re doing at the same time. So I usually describe the process of trying to build one-off float tanks for your float center, and put them in there as if you’re going golfing, your strategy is to get a hole in one on every hole.
Ashkahn: Or like your first hole if you’ve never been golfing before.
Graham: Yeah, you’re just like, “No problem! Yeah, yeah, I got it down. I’m just gonna get a hole in one, end up with a score of 18, and we’ll call it good. That’s the strategy!”
And that is as naïve as it sounds to us when you’re saying you’re just gonna build a float tank in one shot. And we were those naïve people, we were on the golf course being, “Hole in one every time! Got it. That’s the goal!”
Ashkahn: I feel like a lot of the reason that people are inspired or motivated to build their own tanks is because they think it’ll save them a lot of money. That they look at a float tank and they’re like, “Man these things are expensive, and I can kind of see what parts they’re using-,”
Graham: Boy are they wrong.
Ashkahn: “I know a fiber fiberglasser who’s my buddy who can make the shelves for me,” and it really just doesn’t. It’s super hard to make a float tank yourself and actually come out the other end with a tank that will save you money.
Graham: And the impetus too is because float tanks aren’t cheap. They’re expensive units.
Ashkahn: And with the repairs and stuff that broke that you’ll have to replace, and maybe you did, and that tank might not last more than a couple of years before you realized you probably shouldn’t have used plywood for your walls, and you’re gonna have to replace that tank, or upgrade those pieces as the road goes on. So there’s lots of reasons, that there’s unexpected cost in there that you might not be accounting for.
And I think the other thing to consider, too, is liability. You’re now, if anything goes wrong with these float tanks, even dramatically wrong, to the point of an electrical issue, or a sanitation thing, or something like that. That’s it! The buck stops with you. You don’t have a manufacturer to ask questions to, to rely on, to fall back on. There’s none of that. You built your own float tanks, they’re in your center, they’re in a commercial float center where you’re having people come and float.
That’s a lot of risk and liability to kind of add on to your plate. I don’t know, if you had a manufacture process, you probably still have some liability, I imagine. But way less than … or in some scenarios I think a justification for being like, “Look, I bought this product from a manufacturer.”
Graham: Yeah, you want someone who it’s their fault, at least a little bit, if something goes wrong, who’s not you, right? I mean this is the reason that even if you’re a skilled contractor we still recommend having other contractors install some of the more sensitive parts of your float center. Because you’re the one who’s on the hook if there’s a small electrical fire, or something like that. That’s a challenging thing to have to take onto your own shoulders, you know.
Ashkahn: And manufacturers, you know, if something breaks, you get to call them, and they mail you a replacement part, and you get to be like, “Great, done.”
If something breaks on your float tank, like you gotta go figure out what-
Graham: If your staff calls you and you’re like, “Okay, I guess I have to figure out a replacement now,” and that’s the process that you’re in now.
Ashkahn: The other thing I think a lot of people don’t think about at first, when they’re building their own float tank, is the control system, right?
Graham: Oh, yeah! Absolutely!
Ashkahn: So you’re like, “Oh, I’ll build my own float tank. I can get the tub. I can get the pump and all that sort of stuff,” but you also have to have some sort of brain and some sort of software, or like buttons, or something that’s controlling it.
It means you need some sort of electrical engineer, low voltage electrical engineer, that’s not usually a skillset most people just carry around with them, is building like an actual controller system for their float tank. So that I think catches people a little off guard, is they’re getting close to finishing and they’re like, “Wait, how do I turn this pump on? Like, oh yeah.”
So that’s also not easy.
Graham: And similarly even something as simple … I think a lot of the reason that people think that they will save money building their own float tanks, or that going down this custom route is even acceptable, is because they’re looking at float tanks and kind of saying, “This is a tub that holds water with two holes in it, and a pump system attached to it. So if I can buy the pump system from someone, or get these components, I’m basically talking about building a tub.”
Right? And even that is crazier than you’d give it credit for.
Ashkahn: Oh yeah, the fiberglass and stuff like that.
Graham: I know more than one float tank manufacturer who’s been engaged in a lawsuit with their fiberglassers. Like at least two.
Ashkahn: It’s not easy.
Graham: And several more who have gone through several fiberglassers just to find one who can actually make tanks that’ll be to their specifications and the right size and stuff like that.
Ashkahn: And usually the damage is not apparent at first. This happened to us! In our custom built float tanks!
Graham: Yeah, let’s talk about things that’s gone horribly wrong with our own tanks to try and dissuade people, because that’s what we thought. We’re like, “Okay, we’ll save some money, we’ll build our own units, they’ll be big open pools.”
Which ended up being a hard idea to build that yourself, too. It’s kind of like the luxury high end float tanks or something for self construction. There’s so much more sensitive with open tanks. So if you’re building your own float tanks also veer away from open ones. That was another mistake.
So when we went to get a fiberglasser … I mean, we don’t know what we’re doing. There’s lots of people who fiberglass, so we’re just kind of shopping around, you know, and trying to find someone who has a reasonable price that’ll actually let us save money, which is probably mistake number one.
Ashkahn: Yeah, and we did, we found a good deal, but that was about the benefit.
Graham: We found a good deal for the time, right. So we get our fiberglass back. It’s like half an inch too thick on the bottom, like really thick bottoms to the tubs. The fiberglassing is uneven. So if you were to just fill it with water there’s little pools that form at first, so the bottom isn’t totally even on there. And even the sides, where you kind of need to trim it into a specific space weren’t trimmed evenly, so there’s little kind of wobbles along the sides of it.
Not too much to notice too plainly, but again, when you’re paying someone a chunk of change for these, actually getting them precise is something that matters. So all those little mistakes add up, especially the extra thickness on the bottom, which makes it that much harder to actually heat the water with the heaters underneath the tank.
Ashkahn: And then like a few years into it the actual resin coat on the inside just started flaking off on us. First it started bubbling up, little pockets of bubbles, and then actually just cracking and falling off.
Graham: So frustrating! And like Ashkahn said, there’s … when we were looking into this, because once they came back too thick, and a little wobbly, we were kind of like, “Well what goes wrong if fiberglass isn’t designed well?”
And we started doing research, which is where we found out that it has a lot to do with cure times, even. So a lot of that bubbling, a lot of the things going wrong with the gel coat on top come as a result of stuff that we don’t get to see.
It’s kind of just how long did you let your float tank sit there before you turned it over to the customers? How temperature controlled and humidity controlled was the room that it was sitting in? And those problems don’t actually manifest until maybe three, sometimes even four, or five years later you might start to hit issues.
So when we got this tub that looked all nice, we were kind of like, “Okay, great!” And then all of a sudden years down the road, now we’re having to pay experts to come in and re-gel coat things, and redo the finishes, and it’s just continuing to cost us more money, even years later.
Ashkahn: Yeah, well all of our heaters broke. We had to deal with that. We’ve had to basically redo the entire filtration system, and almost the trickiest part is we did have to make our own control system. And we had someone who came in and made a little piece of software for us to run those float tanks. And like it works well, I like using it, and it’s built around what we want, but if anything goes wrong with that software, like I don’t even know if that guys lives in Oregon anymore!
Graham: I didn’t know if he’s still alive!
Ashkahn: Hey, like who knows! We’re kind of in big trouble if something goes seriously wrong, like if we update our computer and all of a sudden that software doesn’t run on our new computer software. This is just some dude who we worked with us to make this thing. It’s not a manufacturer I can call up. It’s not a company that I know will be there forever.
And it was even hard finding a company willing to do such a weird custom small project like that. It’s why we had to go with this guy who was just kind of a friend. And that puts us in a tough spot when something goes wrong. There’s not someone you can just kind of know that you can reach out to and they’ll fix the problem for you.
Graham: Yeah, I mean if that fails we’re going back to just having raw wire connections. Kind of old operated telephone style that our staff has to push together in order to run the pump, you know?
Ashkahn: Clamp ’em with your teeth, and close the circuit.
Graham: Other small thing … I mean again, I hope that we’ve dissuaded some of you by now from actually going through with this. But if we haven’t, other small things that can go wrong. There’s just so many nuanced details that you might not be aware of. Things like the relays in your control box when you’re making that will make a really loud clicking noise unless you specifically get relays that are meant to be silent, which are usually solid state relays, not mechanical relays that actually have some kind of switch that’s flipping, cuz that switch toggling will be the loud part.
And even with solid state relays, for any normal electronic application, yeah. They’re silent. But all of a sudden when you’re in a float tank room and you need actual absolute silence, not like a ten^x more quiet clicking noise. Even solid state relays, some of them won’t give you that totally silent experience that you’re looking for.
And so then all of a sudden you have to be buying 20 different kinds of relays in order to find out just what little relay you need to throw electronically into your control box. So, every little part of the system has to be vetted out for all of the stupid, annoying details that make our job as difficult as it is, which is hitting absolute silence, making sure that nothing has the tiniest bit of light coming out of it, all the things like that.
Ashkahn: Yeah, and making sure your system is clean and safe. That stuff is also very tricky and expensive when you get it wrong. Buying new kind of filtration equipment is a pretty penny.
Graham: Yep, and if you don’t have good filtration, even if just the direction of the flow rate in your pool, like it is in our kind of bigger float tanks, is not as good, you may find yourself having to hand skim hair out of the tank more frequently than you’d like. So little details like that end up becoming really hard to fix down the line, and costing extra time during every single transition, unless you do the research and development in order to make it happen.
Ashkahn: So you know like, that’s-
Graham: Humble opinion.
Ashkahn: Yeah, yeah. If you want to build your own float tanks, go for it. Who are we to stop you?
Graham: Don’t do it! There is an exception though, like under what case is it good for people to build their own float tanks, would you say?
Ashkahn: The only time I’ve really been swayed is someone who first of all seems to have a lot of the skills, like they come from an engineering background, or something like that. So they have a better sense of knowing what they’re getting into. And they live in a country very far away from any manufacturing company.
Like I’ve heard people be like, “Listen, the cost for me to import a float tank, and like the currency exchange versus the materials I can buy here, and stuff like that is so significant that I just can’t. I really can’t even afford to get a float tank down here.”
That’s the point where I was like, “Okay, maybe that’s at the point where you both know what you’re getting into, and at least have some of the skills, and you’re in a very prohibitive sort of place of buying an actual manufactured system.”
Graham: And it still might not save you money!
Ashkahn: Still, yeah! Still it’s like, “I don’t know man. You should probably just pay for it!”
Graham: Yeah! The one I was gonna say is if you are actually planning on going into manufacturing.
Ashkahn: Oh, yeah.
Graham: If your goal is not just to build one-off tanks for your center, but you’re using these tanks as-
Ashkahn: Which is another business, if you want to run a whole nother company manufacturing float tanks.
Graham: And then I still wouldn’t necessarily vote on putting these tanks you’re manufacturing into your center right off the bat. Because they might go down and you have to cancel on paying customers! It’s almost better to do all your R&D from the privacy of your own workshop, or your own home, or whatever it is, and wait until you get these things working as close to flawlessly as you can before you even put them in your center. And you become the first test client, and that might be a year, even a couple years of research and development, getting those things to that point.
But if that’s your plan, if what you’re planning on is actually going through this full R&D cycle, and your goal is not just to make one-offs, but to eventually sells these and continue that R&D cycle, then I would say eventually planning on using your own tanks in your center is … mildly acceptable. That was a joke … that’s the route you wanna go, so it’s fine.
Ashkahn: So, yeah. Hopefully we’ve changed your mind maybe a little bit, or at least there’s one question we finally answered extremely definitively.
Graham: Definitely, yeah! And if you want us to publicly berate you for your own question send it in to FloatTankSolutions.com/Podcast.
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