Personal Experience Best Practices: Preparation and Big Picture Planning


This article covers the planning and preparation that I refer to as "The Big Picture Approach". Volume one of this three-part series specifically covers big picture planning and the tools that everyone should know before tackling a new aquarium and mitigating problems early on that will save money and stress down the road. I'll discuss the do’s and don’ts of the hobby, give personal insight on the equipment I've used, and review best practices in hopes of leading people down the path of least resistance.



Selecting the Appropriate Tank Size:

The best approach when you're choosing the appropriate tank size is to begin with identifying which fish and livestock are your must haves and work backwards from there. It's discouraging to begin the build out process and quickly realize you need to change courses or consider upgrading the equipment you just purchased. Furthermore, consider the quality of life for your inhabitants and do NOT overstock. Overstocking happens a great deal in our hobby and causes many problems within itself. Your aquarium should be filled with ample swimming room and plenty of hiding places for them to feel comfortable. For example, my 165-gallon aquarium houses one tang and four angelfish, all of which range from 2”- 5” in size. These fish will grow to approx. 10” at full adulthood and within 5-6 years I'll be upgrading to a minimum size of 200 gallons to keep them happy.



Selecting the Necessary Equipment:

Let’s get started with what I consider to be the heart of the operation, the return pump. This is one piece of equipment you do NOT want to cut corners on, just consider without it you don't have a functioning aquarium. Redundancy is a word I like to use often and you'll see it many times throughout my series as it's a key point in achieving long term success. I recommend acquiring a back-up return pump in addition to your primary in case anything should fail. I run a Royal Exclusive Red Dragon 230 watt as my primary and the COR-20 as my backup.

*NOTE: The Royal Exclusive pumps are German made and known in the industry for being extremely reliable.Only downside you may find is the hefty price tag but this pump is a machine, simple to use and extremely quiet.

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Protein skimmers are highly utilized in the hobby and have many benefits to our aquariums life. It helps maintain low nitrate levels by removing organic waste before it has a chance to break down and release nitrogen compounds. The use of a protein skimmer is essential in reef aquariums where low nitrate level is favorable for coral health. It also helps with maintaining higher/consistent PH levels especially when it’s being utilized inside the sump.

*NOTE: I again opted out for the Royal Exclusive Red Dragon pump on the Bubble King Super Cone 180. The pump is silent and the skimmer is easy to program, setup, and the performance is unreal. Once this skimmer is fully dialed in, it will truly out perform anything else you've used in the past.

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Select a chiller and/or heater that is best suited for your geographical location. I live in Southern California where it gets fairly hot. I opted out for the TECO – 2000 all in one chiller/heater unit. That did NOT stop me however from obtaining a second titanium heater that lives in my sump just for redundancy purposes. My aquarium temperature is consistently between 78-79 F in the summer and declines to 76-77 F in the winter. In addition to temperature, water flow is a huge component to keeping a successful reef aquarium. Begin by select a powerhead that provides the desired flow patterns for the types of corals and fish you plan on purchasing. I have 2 Neptune DC WAV pumps with diverse flow patterns that meet the desired needs of SPS coral. I can easily program the WAV power-heads through the Neptune Apex app or manage on my computer. Placement of the power-heads on the aquarium glass is also important and a minimum of two power-heads is advised on aquariums above 40 gallons in size. Place them on each side of the tank approximately 1/3 - 1/2 down from the top of the aquarium. It is advised to create strong surface agitation by adjusting the profile of one powerhead towards the top of the aquarium and the other aimed towards the coral and rock-work. This promotes the appropriate gas exchange to avoid dead spots as this creates waste build up and fields algae growth in your aquarium.

*NOTE: I cant stress the importance of stable water temperature and unfortunately many people fall victim to power-outages and have lost many of their fish and corals in the process. Take the time to find yourself a decent sized backup battery or generator in the scenario that your power should fail.

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Let's talk lighting next. There are several fantastic LED options on the market and it really comes down to your budget and preference. I personal love the super sleek design and the proven performance and reliability of the Radion XR30 G4 Pros. These units are extremely powerful powerful that you’ll never actaully use them at full capacity. In regards to this product, I've had tremendous success with coral growth and maintaining consistent par levels of 350 (top) and 180 (bottom) with a 12” depth from the fixture to the water level.

*NOTE: Radion also provides the SPS AB + lighting program that is a proven success amongst the lighting options available. The only negative feedback I have on the Radion's is the shimmering almost disco ball affect they emit in the higher settings (LED's in general) and the grand cost of the unit.


Let’s discuss water quality and purification standards. If your game plan is to house corals than you will need a solid RODI system. You can always source pre-mixed saltwater for your LFS or purchase distilled water from your market but I personally don’t advise it. Plus the added benefits of purchasing your own unit out ways the cons as it becomes more cost effective and convenient down the line. I'm extremely impressed with the 5 stage SpectraPure RODI unit producing 180 gallon per 24-hour period. My TDS reads 175-190 out of the tap and all the impurities are easy eliminated by the RODI, reading 0 TDS.

*NOTE: Take the time to test your TDS levels prior to obtaining your RODI. I’ve had friends report outrageously high readings that required a higher capacity unit.

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The UV sterilizer is hotly debated piece of equipment in our hobby and many reefers do NOT utilize them. I however highly recommend installing one heavy-duty UV sterilizer to keep algae growth at bae. There are additional benefits of the UV such as parasite control (not eradication) and producing crystal clear water. GO BIG -or- GO HOME when it comes to sizing up this unit for your aquarium. For example, I run a Pentair 80-watt high output sterilizer on my 165 gallon tank and it's rated for a 600-gallons. The ineffectiveness of UV sterilizers really boils down to poor installation and incorrect flow rates, not really the equipment itself.

*NOTE: The waters contact time with the UV light is critical for its effectiveness against protozoa activity. Install a gage or ball valve and substantially slow down the flow rate enough for adequate contact time with the bulb. For example, I run the flow rate of my UV sterilizer between 350-400gph as I prefer my UV sterilizer to be more effective against parasites, however the recommended flow rate is 2700gph - 3600gph to effectively kill bacteria and algae.

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Selecting the Appropriate Corals and Inverts:

I approach this topic the same way I do choosing the size of my aquarium… What are my must haves!? I love angelfish, triggers, lions, and tusk fish, but these aren’t great candidates for a full reef aquarium. For example, angels won’t bother your CUC but are prone to nip at corals while triggers and lion fish on the other hand will devour the CUC but won’t harm your corals. My point being do your research, ask questions, utilize the forum and learn from people’s mistakes. If you choose the route of a mixed reef tank, understand these animals lighting requirements, placement, and the flow patterns needed for each specimen. Don’t just randomly select a specific coral because you like the look of it after the fact. Another important component to coral health is understanding the daily consumption rate of Magnesium, Calcium, and Alkalinity. More life = higher consumption rate. Educate yourself on the water chemistry of your tank and avoid blindly adding supplements. This is a recipe for disaster. I’ve ran the 3-part AquaForest Balling Method for a solid year now and LOVE IT. It's simple to dose and has the added benefits of minor and major trace elements that many stand-alone supplements don’t offer. The Balling Method essentially doses each element (CA, MG, ALK, plus Trace Elements) in equal parts daily.

*NOTE: AquaForest has made it super simple for anyone to identify their daily consumption rate by ceasing all water changes and supplements additives for a several days. Test all three elements at the same time each day and compare your results afterwards. For example, my ALK for day one was 9.0dkh, day two it was 8.6dkh, and day three it was 8.2dkh which identifies the daily consumption rate of 0.4dkh. AquaForest provides an easy to use dosing calculator on their website. Quickly enter your current Alk, the target ALK, and the complete water volume of your aquarium. It then determines the equal part dosing amounts required to maintain stable parameters.

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To conclude this article we will cover managing potential disease outbreaks strategically. Remember when you add anything wet to your aquarium, it has the potential of escorting unwanted parasites and/or hitchhikers. Many people think that quarantine rules only applies to fish. NOT TRUE! That is why I suggest curing all the live rock for your aqua scape in advance utilizing a large bucket of saltwater, with a heater and powerhead for 30 days before adding it to the display. After the 6-8 week cycling process has completed, continue to test water parameters and if the results are consistent for 30 days you can slowly add corals and CUC. This timeframe may take weeks or even months depending on the bio-load recovery time and what types of corals have been selected. After all the final additions have concluded, the clock starts at 76 days’ fallow before introducing the first fish. I will dive into further detail on this along with the topic points below in Volume two of this series.

*NOTE: If you purchase LR from LFS I recommend using CORALRX to dip the Live Rock for 5 -7 minutes and remove any unwanted hitchhikers before adding it to your display tank. To clarify, coral dipping is effective against many hitchhikers such as certain types of snails, starfish, bristle and fire worms, pods, etc... but doesn't eliminate parasites such as ich, and hitchhikers like aiptasia, vermedit snails, ect...

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Happy Reefing !!


Upcoming Topic Points to Look Forward to in Volumes 2 & 3 of this series:

The Importance of Patience:

Filters Socks, Are they Important?

Carbon/GFO reactors, When To Use:

Selecting Appropriate Aquarium Placement:

Selecting Appropriate Salt Mix:

To Sand or Not to Sand, That Is The Question:

Selecting Appropriate Test Equipment:

Properly Selecting Type and Quantity of CUC For Your Reef:

Curing Live Rock First:

Adding Corals First and Waiting Out The Fallow Period

Selecting Appropriate Medications:

The Importance of Setting up QT:

Chasing Numbers vs. Achieving Stable Levels

Basic Setup of New Aquarium:

How to Properly Conduct Water Changes:

Dosing and Supplement Levels:

Fish Nutrition:
About author
@Pathot984 supporting the community with fish disease prevention and treatment information.

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Pros: Great topics and quick explanations! Awesome!
Cons: What's not to like?
I'm just starting back up in the hobby with my first non fish only reef tank. I got a nasty parasite in my last tank that I couldn't get rid of and killed my fish. I've been very worried about using live rock to cycle my new tank becuase of this. Knowing that there is Coral Rx to dip my live rock in is great new knowledge that I needed right now - also how to quaranteen it with a powerhead, heater, and bucket. Good advice.
Pros: Simply specific! Excellent article!
Cons: None
Simply specific, the perfect article.
Thank you and keep them coming!
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Great info and I appreciate the direct messaging on each topic. Keep it coming.
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Will do! Glad you enjoyed.
Pros: Great read! Helped me understand UV sterilizes better.
Just awesome. I learned so much about basic things I should know :)
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Pros: Good information and well written.
Good information. Can't wait to read more upcoming articles.
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