At 5 feet 4 inches, with white hair and gold-rimmed glasses, 61-year-old Carwile is the picture of a polite, soft-spoken Southern gentleman. He works as a quality control specialist for a concrete-mixing company in Rustburg, a few miles from Lynchburg. When he speaks, his accent rolls in warm Southern cadences. But he doesn’t speak often; a reticent, humble man, he rarely opens up.
Unless the topic is guppies.
He walks down the stairs of his basement, apologizing for the normal basement-stairs jetsam. “Normally I’m the only one that comes down here,” he explains. He threads through the darkness around old floor lamps and haphazard piles of boxes to a door on the other side of the room. When he opens the door, he is bathed in fluorescent brightness, accompanied by a tropical heat and a sharp, briny smell.
This is Carwile’s guppy room.
Dozens of five-, 10- and 20-gallon tanks line the walls; he estimates that the room can hold up to six dozen five-gallon fish tanks. He should know — he designed the entire thing after the first guppy room he built in another corner of his basement sustained heavy water damage. “I measured it and built it to get as many tanks in here as I could,” Carwile says.
A calm bubbling sound pervades the room.
Carwile had five tanks of guppies as a kid, and he wanted to breed the fish for competition even then. “That idea was latent for a long time,” Carwile remembers. Years later, when he was working long hours in construction, he would stop by local pet shops and think about his childhood ambition. Eventually, he bought a tank of fish, which promptly died. A replacement tank quickly followed suit. It took him three or four tries before he discovered the culprit: soft water.
“Most areas of the country,” Carwile explains, “the water’s perfectly fine for guppies. All you have to do is get the temperature the way they want it, and you’re done.” Even other parts of Rustburg have water that would be hospitable to guppies. But his house is on a narrow band of land that was once under the sea. The soft, acidic water has a low buffering capacity that makes it unsuitable for guppies.
The solution? What his guppy hobby friends laughingly call “Bill’s water treatment plant.”
Carwile leaves the aquarium room and moves through the dank basement to another door around the corner. Behind it is a room nearly identical in size to the guppy room. It houses a water purification system: two blue canisters resting atop a large tank, feeding water lines into the next room. He built the entire system, including a platform and stairs above the tanks and an ingenious draining apparatus.
“All of this is trial and error,” Carwile says as he heads back to the fish room. “Trial and error to get the water to where the guppies like it.” He has thought about moving, but treating the water is cheaper.