VIDEO: How to Restore a Neglected Reef Aquarium

Building a reef tank is hard work: it takes time, attention to detail, physical and financial resources to set up and maintain a successful aquarium.

From time to time, occasional lapses in tank maintenance are bound to happen. Sadly, these gaps of inattention can lead to some critical problems in your tank. If these problems are left unaddressed, an aquarium crash can occur a lot faster than you think and fish and/or corals may be lost!

No matter how many preventive measures you take or how many processes you automate, you are eventually going to need to get your hands dirty and clean things up.

Today we are going to share our game plan for restoring a neglected reef tank. If your aquarium maintenance schedule has been derailed by summer fun, keep watching for step-by-step instructions on how to get things back on track.

First things first: evaluate the damage. How do you do this? Well, test your water parameters, of course! Do not forget to leave anything out. You need to test the pH, temperature, nitrate, phosphate as well as the major elements that keep your corals growing: calcium, alkalinity and magnesium.

You also need to check inspect all of your equipment. This includes everything on the tank from heaters to fish feeders. Check your powerheads and pumps for proper operation, ensure your protein skimmer is working correctly along with your ATO and any other automation-type equipment that may have gone haywire.

Now that you have your test results and know which pieces of equipment needs attention, it is time to get working!

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Clean and maintenance all your filtration equipment. A simple water change will not fix a water flow problem or clean your filter socks. We find it best to get all the equipment back in working order, especially restoring your filtration system to normalcy, before adjusting water parameters.

Soaking and cleaning your pumps, refilling your dosing chambers and replacing or cleaning probes and sensors are all likely all to be on the list of equipment you need to get back in working order. You should also replace your filter media, clean mechanical filter sponges and socks, check your light bulbs and remove salt creep from just about everything on the tank.


Get your parameters back on track and perform a large water change. Reference the test results you took during your initial evaluation to see just how far out of line your parameters have become. Performing a large water change will be the biggest help in getting everything back to normal. Not only will this help dilute elevated waste levels, it will also help to restore proper water chemistry. Typically this “recovery” water change is 30%-40% of your tank’s total volume, which is far greater than the usual 5-10% changes you probably overlooked to begin with.

Be sure the clean saltwater matches the pH, temperature and salinity of your tank water to minimize stress on your aquarium inhabitants. You want to clean your glass and rocks free of algae prior to changing out the water and siphon out as much detritus as possible during the water change. Try to minimize the time corals and live rock are exposed to air. It helps to have all the tools you need close by before starting. This includes buckets, towels, algae scrapers, a siphon tube and your clean saltwater.

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One important thing to keep in mind: if your water parameters are really out of line, it is likely the animals still alive in the tank have become accustomed to these not-so-ideal living conditions. Therefore any changes to water chemistry should be done slowly. This is because immediate changes may cause severe stress and proliferate problems that already exist in the tank.

After your initial large water change, it is very likely you will need to perform several more 20%-30% water changes every 5-7 days until your parameters are within acceptable ranges.

At this point, you should be well on your way back to a thriving reef aquarium!

In the event you lost some animals, be patient before replacing them. Wait until your tank is stable before adding new fish, corals or invertebrate. Stay regular with your tank maintenance schedule going forward. After all of the effort it takes to keep a thriving reef tank, it is always a shame to see an aquarium suffer from neglect.

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Until next time… take care and happy reef keeping.

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*Special thanks to Eddie Zia for granting us permission to use his wonderful photos!