Part 1

So we left off in the last section (HERE) by asking these questions. So where should you start? The very first issues you need to consider are:

1. How much of your time are you willing to commit to keeping a marine aquarium?

2. How much money are you willing to spend, both up front to set the system up and over a year in upkeep?

3. Just what do you want from this hobby, and is it a realistic goal? Just a tank to look at? Just fish? Just fish and corals? To grow and sell corals? To get involved in building or selling equipment? To expand your base of contacts and get involved in helping your local club?

4. How much do you know about the different kinds of marine aquarium environments, and which one do you want to try?

So let’s try and tackle the first two questions, time and money.

For inspiration: a 220-gallon system.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives courtesy of @xraymatt ©2019, All Rights Reserved.


How much time do you plan to spend working on your aquarium? And a closely related question is why is there so much used equipment out there for sale so cheap? Too many people start out in this hobby like me, not having any idea how much this hobby is going to cost or even more importantly how much time they are going to spend keeping up with feeding, cleaning, maintenance and problems. They move into the hobby too quickly and want beautiful fully established aquariums in far too short a time frame. They get discouraged, quit the hobby and sell off their ‘stuff’. I can just about guarantee even a small system will require more of your time than you probably expect.

I was lucky. I knew when I started that I was ready to commit to spending almost whatever it took in order to have a nice marine aquarium. I do a lot of snorkeling in the Florida Keys and find the underwater habitat so alien that it’s like visiting another planet. For me, having a marine aquarium at home is a small reminder of just how cool the underwater environment is, and I really wanted to have it as something I could look at every day. Even when I got discouraged by occasional failures or confused by conflicting information or bogged down in science I didn’t understand, I kept plugging along and continued to learn from the experiences.

Many people who start this process can’t or don’t want to do the learning or spend the time doing the work that’s required. You need to feed the fish (5 to 15 minutes or more), you need to clean the glass tank (10 to 20 minutes), you need to test the water quality (20 to 45 minutes), you need to do water changes (10 to 45 minutes), and that’s just the very basics. What if a wavemaker in the tank fails? What if a fish gets sick or develops parasites? What if something dies in the tank? What if something important, that your system can’t live without, like the main return pump dies? If you have a backup, good for you and it may only be a 20 minute fix. But what if you don’t? Can you get by with overnight delivery for an internet purchase? Or will you be driving off to the LFS (this is when they can be worth their weight in saltwater) to buy a replacement? Now we could be talking about a 2- or 3-hour job, and maybe even a lot longer. It all matters.

It takes 1-3 months just to get a good system started and past the nitrogen cycle phase of a new tank. It can be another 1-3 months to get past a commonly overlooked phase called ‘the ugly phase’ when algae and bacteria blooms can make you go crazy. The glass gets covered with diatoms, the rocks can get covered with hairy algae (which is why you don’t want corals yet), the sand can get covered with cyanobacteria and even the water itself can turn foggy with other bacterial blooms. Then it can take as long as 6 months to a year or more for a system to get mature enough to grow and prosper. It can take 2 or 3 years for a tank to grow to look full and be completely mature. If you see a great looking tank, ask how long it took to get there. You can throw money at it and make it happen in a year if you know what you are doing. Or it can take 2-5 years if you buy small corals (that can still be expensive) and grow them into big, healthy colonies. Remember that point, it can take 2 to 5 years!

For inspiration: a colorful reef tank.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives courtesy of @xraymatt ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

So, how much time do you need to commit to keep an aquarium? I hate to say it, but there are two answers, one is ‘it depends’ and the other is ‘longer than you think’! It depends on how big a system you want to keep, how neat, clean and tidy you want to keep it and what kind of animals you want to keep in it.

Small tanks take less time to set up and maintain in general. Bigger systems are easier to keep functioning smoothly because the more water you have the less likely something small, like a fish dying, will affect it. In a small tank, that same small fish dying will have a much bigger effect, because there is less water to dilute the bad things the dead fish is doing to the water. But the bigger system requires bigger water changes, bigger areas to clean, more fish, corals and inverts to tend to and generally, a lot more work.

Second, how fastidious are you going to be about what your tank looks like? If you want it looking ‘showroom’ clean all the time, be prepared to spend time cleaning the glass every day or two. The more you are willing to let nature do its thing, the less cleaning you do on a daily basis. But then when you do clean, it is a bigger job. Four days accumulation of scum on the glass will clean off pretty quickly, and it won’t take the same amount of time as doing the cleaning every day. If it took you 10 minutes to wipe everything down every day, then doing it every 4th day will take 15-20 minutes and by day 4 the tank is going to look a bit… ignored.

The third time issue is what are you keeping in the tank? Some fish, corals and inverts are very low maintenance and some are really high maintenance, and there is everything in between, as well. Special foods for some fish, spot feedings for some animals, and some will only eat at night, some will only eat live food, and so on, and so on. It all takes time, and if you jump into the deep end of the hobby with a big tank and fish with special needs and delicate corals, you’re in for a very time-consuming experience. You’ll work hard at it, and still things will die. It’s inevitable: things die. It’s a captive reef, and it can be survival of the fittest even if you are quite careful.

Even if you picked a smaller tank with easy fish and hearty corals, it’s likely something is going to die sooner or later. But in the first example more dies, and it probably costs more as well. It can be very discouraging--enough so that many people quit, even this early in the process. So, here are two critically important lessons I’ve learned.

1. Nothing good happens in a marine aquarium quickly, so take your time and have patience.

2. If you are on a budget consider buying used equipment and keeping the system smaller.

The final thing that absolutely eats up time one way or another is equipment failures. If you have a spare wavemaker when one in the tank fails (and it happens at a time when you don’t have pressing issues) it’s not too hard to deal with.

For inspiration: a mature reef tank. Notice the giant Tridacna clam in the foreground.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives courtesy of @Jack Ravensbergen ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

The flip side of that is when something critical to the running of the entire system fails, like the return pump from the sump, and it’s in an awkward place in the sump with plumbing and wiring in the way making it hard to change. Oh, and you don’t have a spare. So, you call in sick to work and go hit the three LFS in your area and guess what, they don’t have any pumps suitable for your needs either.

Now you have to go online and order one and probably pay extra for overnight shipping. Meanwhile you’ve got to take a crappy little pump you happen to have, hook up some clear vinyl hose you had to go to the hardware store to buy and fix it up to be a return system for 24 to 48 hours. Then when the new pump arrives you get to decide on whether you’ll take another day off work, or wait and do it when you get home…already tired and frustrated. All of a sudden you start to wonder just what the heck was I thinking when I decided to start an aquarium? This is just an entirely huge pain in my neck!

And it could be worse. You don’t think so? Ha! I had a 180g tank that was 6 feet long and almost snug against the wall. A 2” section of silicone popped out of the seam between the back glass and the bottom glass exactly 3 feet in from either end of the tank. No way to get to it from outside and there were lots of rocks, corals and sand in the way from the inside. So it leaked 30gph for over 4 hours. Oh, BTW, this started at 5am on a weekday. I spent 12+ hours a day for the next 3 days draining the tank, filling small tanks and garbage cans with rocks, corals, water, fish and inverts. I filled the entire floor of an empty spare bedroom! By the time I tore that system down, got in a new 120g tank and got it set up, I spent well over 100 hours and $3000. Yes, aquariums require time and money from just about every reefer who has owned one!

We're going to stop here for Part 1 of Decisions, Decisions, Decisions. Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

If you have questions, feel free to ask me here on the website or send me a private message.

(You can read the next articles in this series here: Part 2 & Part 3)


Note From the Editor:

This article and several future ones by the same author were originally part of several presentations made to a local aquarium club. The article is reprinted with permission from the author.


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Author Profile: @Ron Reefman

@Ron Reefman has been keeping saltwater aquariums for almost 20 years. Some time ago, there was a profile of him. He lives in Florida and is happy to share his ocean and aquarium adventures with us all.