Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I Like Booger-Sized Corals—And So Should You

Over the past several years, local fish stores (LFS) have been getting a bad rap for selling tiny booger-sized coral frags.

Personally, I LOVE these diminutive-sized jewels.

Some hobbyists believe that all LFS are price-gougers who make a ton of money and rinse out their filter socks with bottles of Fiji Water. The truth is that while there are always some rotten apples, most store owners started out as hobbyists and are just trying to make an honest living.

Fanatical reef hobbyists and the laws of supply and demand have driven up the prices of certain corals, sometimes to astronomical levels.

However, this same explanation is the very reason why that colorful 100-poly colony of eagle-eye zoanthid or that brown colony of Acropora sits in the bargain bin for months at a sticker price of $20. The profits from a clownfish breeder selling "frostbites" for hundreds of dollars is also the reason why he is able to sell the regular captive-bred clowns for the same price as a wild-caught clown.

You would be amazed at how gorgeous and colorful an aquarium can be using these cheap "ugly ducklings." Plus, the more people that buy high-end corals, the cheaper the bargain-bin colonies become.

For those of us guilty of driving up prices, booger-sized corals can be great for us, too.

Rather than spend $300-$400 for a colony of Utter Chaos palythoa, pink boobies chalice or Red-Dragon Acropora, you can get a small frag of the same corals for a very affordable price. Plus, if the unfortunate were to occur, losing a small frag is a lot less devastating than losing an entire colony.

I love buying and trading for booger-size frags and watching them grow and blossom into gorgeous colonies. It is great to be able to own some of the more exotic corals, even if they are minuscule in size. It is also fun to purchase browned-out SPS corals and try to color them up, although I must admit I fail more often than I succeed.

The truth is you have the power to vote with your money. If you don't like outrageously priced corals, simply walk past the "ultra" display and head to the "bargain" bin to find your diamond in the rough or that gigantic "common" coral for a steal of a price.

For those of us with champagne tastes and beer budgets... wanna trade boogers?

8 Things You Should NEVER Do When Starting a New Reef Aquarium

They say we learn from experience—good or bad—and that experience is a great teacher.

The only problem with that for the new reef keeper is your bad experience may result in dead fish, dead corals and a lot of heartache. Aquarium keeping is one hobby where you should learn from the experience of others before you dive in on your own.

We put together a list of eight things you should never do when starting a new reef tank. Avoiding these common pratfalls when starting and maintaining your first aquarium will go a long way toward ensuring the health and longevity of your reef and all its interesting inhabitants.

If you are able to avoid these eight mistakes, this hobby will have you hooked in no time!

1) Do not buy your aquarium and livestock at the same time

No matter what size aquarium you are thinking about purchasing, actually setting it up and getting it running properly will take many hours, even days, of work to get going.

You may be able to assemble your tank in short order depending on the complexity of the build, but there is little chance your aquarium water will have enough time to build up the necessary bacteria and establish a stable environment for the animals you plan to keep.

Livestock will need to be taken out of store water and put into a mature, cycled tank (as mentioned in # 4) within 24 hours. If your aquarium water isn't cycled and ready for livestock, the animals are either going to die in the bag you brought them home in or inside the unsuitable conditions of your tank.

The first few days of a running a new aquarium are active and messy. At this stage, you are probably organizing your rocks to create the perfect aquascape which disrupts the sand bed and clouds up your water. I recommend purchasing your aquarium, equipment, rock, sand and water first before you even look at livestock.

2) Do not use tap water—use only RO/DI filtered water

Reef aquariums need exceptional water quality to maintain a successful ecosystem. Poor quality freshwater can quickly create an unsightly mess in a reef tank.

Some people mix a water dechlorinator product with tap water for their water changes and top-offs. This process successfully detoxifies the chlorine in the water making it safe but leaves behind all of the other impurities and minerals that may remain. Tap water can contain many other compounds such as chloramines, phosphates, nitrates, fluoride and various metals. Adding these nutrients to your tank will grow and feed nuisance algae everywhere and may even lead to the death of your coral and fish.

RO/DI stands for reverse osmosis/de-ionization and is a filtration process that pulls out all sediments and compounds from tap water and leaves you with pure H2O. RO/DI filtered water is the only water that should be used during water changes, top-offs and especially when starting your new reef aquarium to ensure these unwanted elements are not introduced into your aquarium.

You can purchase your own RO/DI water filtration system to produce pure water at home. Local fish and pet supply stores that carry saltwater aquarium supplies often sell RO/DI water by the gallon as well.

3) Do not work with dirty hands or equipment

As humans, we naturally carry bacteria and other grimy substances on our skin. Our hands are one of the main ways we transport this bacteria and dirt. Being that our hands are constantly in contact with the water in our aquariums you need to be cautious when working on your tank.  

Marine aquariums are very sensitive to any changes in water conditions and environmental parameters. Having dirt, bacteria or chemicals on your hands when you put them in your tank may alter the environmental conditions and put unwanted chemicals in your tank.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after working on your aquarium. Be sure to rinse and dry your hands to ensure no soap or tap water can contaminate your tank. Some extra cautious hobbyists will even wear long sleeved gloves to protect the aquarium and themselves. Gloves will protect you from being scalped by your large Surgeonfish, bit by an angry Clownfish and even prevent accidental poisoning from one of your corals.

The same goes for aquarium equipment. Be sure to clean with vinegar or one of the specially formulated equipment cleaners available. Then rinse thoroughly with RO/DI water before placing equipment into your tank. Whether you are purchasing used equipment or simply maintaining your powerhead, be sure your equipment is clean so it will run properly.

Be careful when cleaning the outside of your aquarium glass as well. Do not use harsh chemicals (like Windex) where over-spray can easily contaminate your aquarium water.

4) Do not add livestock until your aquarium is cycled

The aquarium nitrogen cycle is a chain reaction process in which water goes through several biological changes to finally be able to sustain life. This process takes time as bacteria needs to grow and establish stable populations in your aquarium. The bacteria also needs a source of energy. This is why many hobbyists add some fish food to a new aquarium or even one or two small hardy fish, like Damsels or Chromis.

When starting a new tank, it will take anywhere from 2-4 weeks, sometimes longer, for the tank to fully establish a stable nitrogen cycle. As you add fish and animals over time, the bacteria will continue to grow in order to keep up with the additional waste in your aquarium and therefore is an on-going process.    

If you add livestock before the cycle is established, ammonia and nitrate can quickly kill your new aquatic friends.

You can add some beneficial bacteria in a bottle to help speed up the cycle time if you are impatient and tired of staring into an empty tank. Just remember the key rule for cycling an aquarium: patience. Even if you use this type of product, you still need to test your tank parameters regularly to determine when the cycle is complete.

Basically once you see a spike in nitrate levels, you cycle is established.

5) Do not stock your tank without proper lighting, filtration and water circulation

Some of the biggest differences between fish only aquariums and reef aquariums are lighting, water flow, and proper water chemistry.

It is essential to set up a good filtration system before running any aquarium, but especially true for reef aquaria. Corals, invertebrates and sensitive reef fish can be very vulnerable to poor water quality. Be sure there is enough room for all of the filter accessories you have or may purchase down the road to ensure you can keep optimum water quality for your reef.

Adequate water circulation is necessary to oxygenate the water, bring food to corals, remove waste from the aquarium and provide a natural environment for the animals in your tank. You can use powerheads, pumps and wavemakers to create ample water flow throughout the tank.

Corals in reef aquariums are similar to plants: they require ample amounts of full spectrum light to photosynthesize which in turn creates energy that the coral uses to grow and/or build a skeleton. You need to choose an aquarium light fixture that provides sufficient output to support photosynthesis within your corals.

As you begin to learn more about corals, you will understand that every coral is different and has preferences for water quality, lighting and water flow. Take the time to research the corals you are interested in keeping before you build your aquarium. Do you want to keep SPS, LPS or soft corals? Most of us want it all, so the placement of the corals in your aquarium is going to play a major role in their success or failure.

6) Do not purchase livestock without researching it first

The number of freshwater species available to aquarium hobbyists pales in comparison to the scores of marine animals found on the market. Having options is a good problem to have. Yet, all these choices increase the likelihood you will fall victim to temptation and bring home an animal that is unsuitable for your aquarium.

Make it a rule that you will never buy an animal for your aquarium without researching it first. Performing a background check on the livestock you are interested in keeping generally eliminates most problems before they start. There are so many dazzling (and in many cases useful) saltwater aquarium animals to consider that you may end up with a big wish list.

Don't make the mistake of spontaneously buying an animal that looks cool in the store and/or relying solely on the shopkeeper's advice on what is suitable for your tank. If you do, you may end up with a fish that needs a minimum tank size of 500 gallons when you only have a nano. Another common blunder is bringing home an animal that eats your other fish, corals or inverts. Avoid these missteps by showing restraint and doing your homework. This helps ensure you have the proper equipment and that your tank's mix of wet pets are reef safe and compatible.

Another factor to consider is that not all fish share the same dietary requirements. Some will not eat flake or pellet food and may need a special diet. Some fish eat more frequently than others in nature, so there is a chance you may overfeed or starve your fish if you have not done your homework. Some corals grow peacefully next to each other and others will fight and sting one another. As mentioned in #5, each coral has different lighting and flow requirements. With a little research, you will be able to determine where to place each coral in your tank so that they all thrive.

Do not go in blindly. Do your research. You don't stumble into a happy tank—you plan for it!

7) Do not add too many animals to your aquarium at the same time

Once your tank is cycled and ready for livestock, you may feel the urge to add as many fish and corals as your tank can contain or your wallet can afford. But don't—adding too many fish or corals at once to a young tank will surely result in a catastrophe because of the increased waste levels in your tank.

As mentioned in #4, it takes time for bacteria to grow and properly process the waste in your aquarium. The slow addition of animals at the tune of 1-2 every other week will increase the chances of survival tenfold. This allows plenty of time for the bacteria to grow and drastically reduce the chances of ammonia or nitrite poisoning.

8) Do not overstock and/or overfeed 

Placing too many fish in your aquarium is a huge mistake, especially for reef aquariums.

All animals in your tank will produce waste and if you add too many, you will end up with consistently high levels of nitrates. While nitrate may not be extremely toxic to your fish like ammonia and nitrite, it can certainly increase the chances of disease and infection. Not to mention elevated nitrate levels will irritate or even kill your corals and drastically increase nuisance algae growth.

The same result can be achieved via irresponsible feeding habits. Feeding too much or too often will result in elevated waste levels which can lead to all kinds of complications for your fish and corals.

It is difficult for us to give you the exact number of fish your tank can hold because this all depends on your tank size, filtration, water changes and the type of fish you plan on keeping. You must test your waste levels (ammonia, nitrite and nitrate) regularly in order to ensure you are on the right track.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tools Every Reef Tank Owner Should Keep in their Toolbox

So you think you have your reef tank all figured out?

Just when you have installed the ATO, got your dosing regimen down and your corals are starting to grow in nicely—your return pump freezes up and now your tank is down until you can get it back up and running. 

Maybe you went on vacation for the weekend and your buddy Bobby doesn't seem to grasp the concept of one cube of frozen food per day! You get home to green walls, sucked up corals and a load of frustration you simply did not need.

In these unexpected instances, it is much better to be prepared. Hope for the best but plan for the worst, right?

We put together a list of important tools every reef hobbyist should have on hand at all times. These items will not only help make reef keeping more enjoyable, but also keep you prepared for that unexpected reef tank emergency.


Refractometers are pretty much a staple tool for any marine aquarium hobbyist. They quickly and accurately provide you with salinity readings. Refractometers are helpful for mixing your own saltwater at home and spot checking your aquarium to ensure your ATO is functioning properly.

Coral Propogation Supplies

Fragging is not reserved for mature reef tanks that need a pruning. Many times I have been cleaning my glass and accidentally broke off a piece of SPS. How about those pesky polyps that seem to grow like weeds and kill everything they touch? By having some fragging tools within reach, it makes it easy to quickly mount these extra corals to share with friends or trade with your local fish store.


Seems simple, but most of us fail to keep towels close to our fish tank. I don't know how many times I have removed my powerhead for maintenance and dripped water halfway across my living room to the kitchen sink. Towels also come in handy to quickly wipe down the outside of your tank after some routine maintenance to keep the dreaded salt creep at bay.

Tongs and/or Tweezers

Some nice tongs or tweezers are very useful for reef aquariums. They provide a safe and easy way to move around frags inside the aquarium without harming yourself or the corals. They are also great when feeding large chunks of frozen food and seaweed. I have found them very handy when fragging and pruning back overgrown corals as well.

Distilled White Vinegar

Seems a bit strange, but distilled white vinegar works miracles when cleaning your pumps, heaters or filters. Vinegar is very acidic and after just a few hours of soaking your equipment, the calcareous build-up can easily be scrubbed away with a firm bristle brush. This makes it easy to keep your pumps in working order and avoid an emergency pump failure. Just be sure to thoroughly rinse with RO/DI water before placing the equipment back into your aquarium.

Spare Return Pump and Heater

Just in case the unexpected should arise, having a spare heater and return pump can really save you some headache. Especially if you have a mature reef tank, where the equipment being used may be 2-3 years old. A fully stocked reef tank can crash within just a few hours of losing water flow and/or stable temperatures.

Water Parameter Reference Chart and Log

If you're like me, maintaining stable water chemistry is one of the most intriguing and challenging parts of keeping a reef. By keeping a reference chart handy along with an ongoing log of your water tests, it makes maintaining your reef much easier. A modern aquarium controller can even provide you with graphical displays of your tank's parameters making it easy to spot trends and quickly identify hidden problems in your tank.

Turkey Baster or Bulb Syringe

Spot feeding with a bulb syringe is one of the best things you can do to give your corals an extra boost. While most of the energy corals use to grow comes from photosynthesis, it has been proven that supplemental feeding helps corals grow and maintain vibrant colors. A bulb syringe also makes it easier to feed those finicky-eating fish on the bottom of your tank, such as Mandarin Gobies or Hawk Fish. I use a bulb syringe just about every time I feed my aquarium and my fish have learned to eat directly from the syringe. This makes it easy to get food to all of the fish in the aquarium, reduces the amount of food getting lost inside your rocks or filter and makes feeding time that much more fun and interactive.

Rubber Gloves and Goggles

While I may be the biggest culprit of breaking this rule, it is always a good idea to use rubber gloves and goggles when working with corals. Corals can contain some serious toxins! The use of safety gear will drastically decrease the chances of these toxins entering your body when working with corals.

Test Kits

There is no excuse not to test your water regularly. Many new hobbyists I have mentored over the years have relied on local fish stores to test their water parameters. Having another eye to help monitor your parameters is useful, but should never be the sole source of testing your water conditions. Having a complete line up of water test kits at home will not only help you understand more about your aquarium water, but will also make it much easier to keep a happy, healthy reef.

Handheld TDS Meter

A TDS meter measures the total dissolved solids in freshwater. This comes in handy when maintaining your RO/DI system to ensure your water is clean and free of unwanted elements. All water entering your tank should measure 0 TDS. By having a TDS meter on hand, you can check the filters on your RO/DI system to ensure they are not exhausted. You can also monitor the water in your top-off container. Without regular rinsing, a top-off container can slowly build up measurable levels of unwanted elements known as "TDS Creep."

Long Handle Tank Scraper

Algae magnets are great! They make it easy to quickly remove build-up from inside your tank walls. From my experience, no matter how careful you plan your aquascape, there will always be some area of the tank that cannot be cleaned with an algae magnet and this is why it is nice to have a long handle algae scraper. Whether your aquascape, heater, filter, plumbing or powerhead are getting in the way, a long handle tank scraper will make it easier to clean these hard-to-reach areas of the tank walls. You will also be less likely to ignore these areas of the tank which tend to quickly turn into unsightly algae farms.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Truly Innovative MiniMax All-In-One Media Reactor

If you've shopped for a media reactor, you probably noticed they all seem to share the same basic design.

Innovative Marine recently broke the mold when they introduced the MiniMax, an all-in-one media reactor that is easy to set up, easy to clean and easy to swap swap media out of.

If you've owned a media reactor before and found them to be messy or difficult to maintain, let me assure you that Innovative Marine's one-of-a-kind design puts all your worries to rest.

Media reactors maximize the use of any loose pellet or granular media. Their purpose is simple: pump water through the media (BioPellets, GFO or Carbon) confined inside the reactor chamber. This process puts every drop of water pumped through the reactor into contact with your media, optimizing chemical and biological filtration, thereby improving the water quality inside your aquarium.

The patent-pending design of Innovative Marine's MiniMax gives hobbyists a truly innovative media reactor to consider.

The primary difference between the MiniMax and other reactors on the market is its use of dual chambers. There is an internal chamber that acts as a removable cartridge which slides up and out of the outer chamber with ease. The pump is attached below the outer chamber and pumps water upward through the internal chamber. Water drains through four holes in the top of the inner chamber down in-between chambers, then back into the aquarium through four holes in the bottom of the outer chamber.

The connection between the two chambers houses the MiniMax's unique water flow adjustment feature. There are two slits where the inside and outside chamber slide into one another; simply turning the inside chamber will cause the two openings to cross paths and adjust the amount of water flowing through the reactor. Since different media need varying levels of water flow, this process makes it possible for the media reactor to work at the highest efficiency no matter which media is used.

With only three separate parts in the package, there really is no need to read instructions or piece anything together—you can go straight to installing it in your aquarium.

After a quick rinse in RO water to remove any dust or residue left from manufacturingtake off the top of the internal chamber and pull out both top sponge filters. Pour your desired media inside and place the sponges back into the top of the chamber and push the top back in. Finally, slide that internal chamber into the outside tube and attach the pump to the bottom. You can now place it in most all-in-one aquariums and sumps!

I personally use ROWAphos for my media so I wanted to run the reactor in a bucket of RO water to give the media a quick rinse before placing it into my tank. This also gave me the ability to adjust the reactor to my desired flow which was helpful because when I place the reactor in the back of my 38-gallon Innovative Marine Nuvo, I cannot see the media react to the different flow rates.

Maintenance has never been easier. There isn't unnecessary clutter, turning screws or tools. The internal chamber simply slides out of the outer chamber like a cartridge and automatically drains all the water left inside. Dump and replenish your desired media and slide the inner cartridge back into the outer chamber and you are ready to go.

Even if you wanted to rinse your media, taking the entire reactor out of the tank isn't a difficult process at all. The water drains out as you pull it out of the tank. Then you just place the whole reactor into a quarter full bucket of RO water and pull the internal chamber out to continue the maintenance process. This also gives you an opportunity to clean the entire product of build-up.

The Innovative Marine MiniMax Media Reactor has really changed the face of media reactors. With three different sizes available for tanks ranging from 10 to 250 gallons, there aren't many aquariums that couldn't use this product.

With the simplicity, durability, uniqueness and high functionality of this media reactor, I can't see myself using any other reactor in any of my future tanks.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Get the most out of your carbon and GFO with an AquaMaxx media reactor

As aquarium hobbyists, we are always looking for ways to make our tanks look cleaner and more colorful.

Most of us use activated carbon to polish aquarium water and remove organics and unwanted chemicals. Many of us also use GFO to control phosphate levels, minimize algae growth and maximize the color of our corals.

However, being a frugal reefer—and having splurged on too many corals recently—I have been putting my carbon and GFO in a media bag and leaving it in the sump hoping they do their job just sitting there. 

Unfortunately, water—like myself—takes the path of least resistance. That means most of the water goes unfiltered, flowing around the filter media bag rather than through it.

Month after month (yeah, I'm a procrastinator) I have thrown away hard clumps of carbon and GFO, knowing full well my aquarium is not reaping the maximum benefits of running these filter media.

I finally bit the bullet and purchased an AquaMaxx GFO and Carbon Filter Media Reactor. I wanted a reactor that is well-designed, well-made and durable. The standard sized AquaMaxx media reactor definitely fit the bill.

Constructed of high-quality cast acrylic and nicely machined parts, the AquaMaxx media reactor is about as good as a reactor can get. Thumbscrews and keyhole flanges on the lid allow for easy installation and maintenance. A porous diffuser plate ensures even water flow though the reactor.

A quick rinse with warm water is recommended to clean off any residue from production.

An earlier version of the reactor only came with ¾" fittings, which made selecting a pump for this low-water flow application difficult. However, this issue has since been fixed. The reactor now includes both ½" and ¾" fittings. An optional hang-on adapter is also available, but was not needed for my specific application.

Ideally, one reactor should be used for GFO and a separate reactor should be used for activated carbon. There are a couple of reasons why. First, GFO can last 2-3 months while carbon is only good for one. Second, activated carbon works more effectively with a higher flow rate, while GFO prefers lower flow.

An inline ball valve comes in handy to fine-tune flow rate.

Since I do not have space for two reactors, I decided to place both AquaMaxx Carbon One and AquaMaxx Phosphate Out inside the same reactor. I will just have to swap out the media each month. I know this is not optimal, but it is far better than sticking the media in a bag and hoping for the best.

After only a couple of weeks of running the AquaMaxx media reactor, I already see an increase in the clarity of my aquarium water. My phosphate level has also dropped lower than it was prior to the upgrade. My only regret is not buying the reactor sooner!