Personal Experience Advice to Those New to Reefkeeping From Our Elders

Here is advice from our experienced reef aquarium experts on what to expect when you start a saltwater aquarium.
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    This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives.

    In many cultures, those who are more experienced or older are revered. China even has an International Day of Elder Persons. In the western world, employees who have been with a company for a long time often have varied tangible benefits. Why? Because the older and more experience know more stuff. They’re valuable to have around.

    So, I asked some of reef2reef’s experienced reefkeepers what advice they would give to those starting out with saltwater aquariums. Using their forum nicknames, here’s what they had to say. In some cases, comments have been edited for clarity, grammar, readability, and length.

    Thingsibuild:

    “The more you learn, the more you don’t know. Don’t cheap out. It’s going to take a lot longer then you thought. When everything seems perfect, it’s really not.”

    Florida Sunshine:

    “Reef tanks are like race cars. The faster you go, the harder you crash.”

    iTzJu:

    “Slow and steady wins the race.”

    dantimdad:

    (Quoting Socrates) “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

    OLDREEFER44:
    “After raising 4 daughters, I have learned that patience and consistency are much needed survival necessities. However, I have learned with reefing they are even more of a necessity. Very few good things happen fast, but a lot of bad ones do.”

    NS Mike D:

    “I think one of the most important things I learned recently in my three years is that a new tank biology versus a mature established tank are much different and thus what works on a mature tank may backfire on a new tank, which is especially true when dealing with the inevitable arrival of algae or adding of new corals.

    Secondly, how light really has two distinct aspects. The wavelengths that are part of the biological functions of corals and then the blend of wavelengths that we see. A tank full of brown corals may very well be as colorful as some of the beautiful corals that are shown off in the pics here, They just look that way under white light.

    API No3 and Po4 saltwater test kits are not sufficiently sensitive for reef tank purposes.

    Lastly, while a specific tank type (softies, lps, sps ) may be the easiest to maintain, the reality is that progression tanks of mixed reefs (softies > lps >sps) is what most of us end up doing anyway, and mixed reef tanks can be some of the most difficult to maintain and take a long time to establish.”

    A back-up generator is a must.”

    CaminDFW:

    “Test phosphates at least once a month.

    Don't buy equipment on an impulse - especially new "stuff". Let others be the testers before you go out and spend a lot of money on something that really isn't worth it.

    Fish jump - even ones that you think would never jump. Yes, rimless tanks are beautiful, but fish losses due to jumping are just heartbreaking.

    Name your fish - it seems dumb but, if you have a personal bond and a name to go along with the bond - you will care for them "just that much more".

    Always have water on hand - both salt and fresh - you never know when you will need to deal with something at 2 am on a Sunday morning.

    When first adding corals - don't buy the expensive, got to have it, trendy designer zoa, sps, acan etc.. buy something basic, and if it thrives for 3 months, then you can progress to something else.

    Avoid GSP unless you want a GSP dominated tank. (GSP is Green Star Polyps: they are a soft coral that can be invasive.)

    Know your supplier--do not blindly trust anyone, not even your LFS--they may not know that the rock they just got in is loaded down with red bubble algae, AEFW, red bugs etc.

    Bayer is a cheap coral dip--use it religiously on everything.

    A Wi-Fi camera on the tank is an inexpensive insurance policy / piece of mind.

    Local clubs are a wealth of information.

    Think in years not in days. Yeah, that tang is small and cute now, but think about what size it will be in a year.

    Go diving / snorkeling on a true reef as it can serve as an inspiration for your tank - we all strive to have these showcases of coral and marine life but, only (maybe) .5% of the reefs in the world look like what we are striving for in our tanks.

    When you are going on vacation take time to explain the tank to the person who will be watching it - I mean every aspect of the tank down to the breaker it is on - if it can go wrong, it is going to go wrong while you are away. Have a person you can have your reef-sitter call in case of emergency (either service company or reefer friend - this is where participating in local clubs come in handy).

    Back to the vacation thing - don't change anything in the tank the week before you leave - you may be good but Murphy is better.

    There is such a thing as too much light.

    Your eyes are good at telling something is wrong but it never hurts to test.

    A simple dosing pump is one of the best investments you can make for a reef tank. Stability is so very important in this hobby.

    What works for one reefer may not work for you.

    And finally - realize this hobby is art, science, prayer, witchcraft and dumb luck all rolled into what I call... Reefing"

    andrewkw:

    • "Quarantine - I learned this rather quickly but I did wipe out my first fish 12 years ago.
    • Pick a direction—I still struggle with this--mixed reefs may be the most appealing but going with a direction will ease your path to success.
    • Get what you need first, what you want second i.e. good live rock, QT tanks, extra heaters, etc. before you shell out all your money for the best lighting, powerhead etc. and realize you need 50 small things too.
    • Consider your homes electrical, water quality, where you spend the most time FIRST. Giant tanks in the basement where spills are not an issue can be great, but if you spend all your time upstairs, then a smaller tank you see for hours every day is probably better. Especially if you are new and you want to spend much time observing.
    • Back-up generator, back-up heaters, back up everything. The more extras you have the better prepared you will be.
    • Delay expectations as long as you can. Accept that the journey is long with many bumps.”
    Js.Aqua.Project

    “I wish that I knew more about how to get quality advice. I remember walking in to an LFS and asking "I just got a tank, I would like to keep coral, what do I do?" and was sold a slew of products that I "needed". A few months later, after little to no success, I go into a different LFS and talk about my troubles and was handed a book, told to check out this strange place called Reef2Reef, and to stop using all the products I had been sold unless my tank needed them as shown through testing. So knowing I had those resources available to me rather than blindly trusting someone I had just met selling me products.

    Do research and ask questions (and then research the answers you get) before you make decisions affecting the health of your wet pets.

    Dip all coral and QT fish (if you can't QT at least use something like Hydroplex).

    Be patient.

    Have a back-up plan for emergencies.”

    Sde1500:

    “You know yourself, don't kid yourself. If you are the type to be a bit lazy, got some clothes laying around you'll get to picking up eventually, vacuuming can wait until tomorrow, why do the dishes every day etc., your tank will be no different. That doesn't mean don't get a tank. That means set up your tank the way that suits you right from the start. I didn't. I'm a touch lazy. And crazy busy with stuff. And so, over time, my weekly water changes became bi-weekly, then bi-monthly, then "lol water change". For almost two years my tank was ok at best, had too much algae, and not enough coral growth. Finally smartened up when I was about to have a kid and realized it was only going to get worse. Automated my water changes, and it was a life saver. Tank has never looked better. Roughly one gallon every day is changed.”

    Greybeard:

    “There is no substitute for an attentive aquarist. The absolute best thing you can do for your aquarium is to PAY ATTENTION to it. That doesn't mean you should be constantly playing with things, chasing numbers, etc... just that the critters in your aquarium react very quickly to changes in their environment. Watch them... they'll clue you in to possible problems far earlier than any testing will.

    Automation can be a wonderful thing... but it CANNOT take the place of a good aquarium keeper.”

    Gregg @ ADP

    “25 years of working on hundreds (at least) of different reef tanks...

    The most important thing I’ve learned is to step back and not try to micro-manage. Find the rhythm of the system, find balance, and then just step back.

    Less is more.”

    Oscaror:

    “Rock wall aquascape = bad time”

    Salps:

    "When tests show bad numbers: First I double, triple check my test before I even think about correcting it. Then I really try to do these steps:

    1. Understand why it's off.
    2. What is the correct fix.
    3. How is that fix going to affect the tank.
    4. Most importantly, how slowly do I need to apply that fix to not cause more problems.

    Step 3 & 4 have taken me the longest to learn.”

    Sailingeric

    “Get the biggest tank you can afford or have space for. Once up and running, it’s easier to keep stable, and you don't have the regret of "I should have gotten a bigger tank." I am very happy with my 75 gallon tank. Not a monster size or expensive to run but still has room for most fish and pumps, lights, etc. are not going to break the bank. Plus they are a common size and you can often find them cheap used.”

    I’d like to thank all those who responded to my question in the forum and gave me fodder for this article. New reef aquarists around the world will benefit from your wisdom and experience.

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    We encourage all our readers to join the reef2reef forum. It’s easy to register, free, and reefkeeping is much easier and more fun in a community of fellow aquarists. We pride ourselves on a warm and family-friendly forum where everyone is welcome. If you join the forum, you can meet and talk to every one of the individuals I quoted in this article. You will also find lots of contests and giveaways with our sponsors.

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    Author Profile: Cynthia White

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    Cynthia received her BA in English from NYU in 1492. She has been a freelance writer and editor for over 20 years. She has written for newspapers and magazines, both in print and online, as well as written ebooks, press releases, and sales and marketing copy. She was formerly a Marketing Manager for a small oil company. Her portfolio can be found here. Now she is a writer and editor on staff at R2R, where her forum nickname is Seawitch. Her build thread can be found here.

    For 15 years, she kept a dozen freshwater tanks, bred cichlids--Cyphotilapia frontosa--and sold them to pet stores in Calgary. Finally, after years of study, she has come to saltwater side. She lives in British Columbia, Canada, with her husband and three special-needs dogs.

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