Following the Masters Part Two

When I decided to write the first article looking at the tank parameters for people who I consider masters in the hobby I did so thinking that...
  1. Following the Masters Part Two

    When I decided to write the first article looking at the tank parameters for people who I consider masters in the hobby I did so thinking that their tanks would be pretty similar and that their success was at least partially due to their following some common recipe. I chose them somewhat randomly with the only criteria being that their tanks were successful and had been so over time, that they were willing to share what they were doing and that I thought most hobbyists would admire their tanks. When I chose them, I thought that their tank’s parameters would be close to natural seawater, especially since none of them really have any algae issues. At least none that I have ever seen. So I was quite shocked to see how different each of these systems were and how for the most part each of them kept the nutrient levels in their tanks higher than what had been recommended for years. Needless to say, this article stirred up a lot of debate and discussion.

    Since many of you asked for a follow-up article, specifically asking about their lighting, additives, testing and water change schedule, etc., I went to work soon after the first article and got the specifics about all of these things from everyone. I also would be remiss if I did not apologize for a comment I made in the first article about some of the masters not wanting to reveal everything, specifically in regards to additives or their secret sauce. They all were willing, but a couple asked that I not say specifically what they used as they did not want it to seem like an endorsement of a product. So please understand that when I talk about what additives or other products some of these masters are using it is not meant as endorsement by them, but rather it is what has come to work for these individuals. Hopefully that cleared things up as I am very appreciative of these gentlemen’s time as it took some time and effort to pull all of these things together.

    As I put together the data for this article and talked again with these masters, and yes I know there are a lot of other masters out there, I have to not only thank them for their time, but also for again teaching me so much and confirming how little I know. I say that as every time I put together an article like this and talk to people who I consider friends and good at doing this about what they are doing versus what I am doing, I always learn something new, which is why I like to do this kinds of articles. So for their teaching me and sharing their knowledge and experience I am grateful. Just as was the case with the parameters of their tanks, these masters also are varied in how they light their tanks as well as what they add, how often and how much they change the water and most interestingly what or if they would change if anything. One thing I should note, that may not be immediately evident is that each of these individuals try to keep their tanks as stable as possible. They are not constantly tinkering or manipulating things or adding new equipment, fish or corals to the tanks. When they do add or change something it is usually only after careful planning and preparation so as not to upset the status quo of their successful tanks. After talking with them I am convinced that this stability is one of the reasons why their tanks are so successful. So while some of them may not perform some of the tasks we think necessary as often as is recommended, it was clear to me after talking with them and observing them interact with their tanks and its inhabitants, that they all know very well what is going on in their tanks and generally see a problem long before the test kits or other symptoms reveal it. They all acknowledged that they could tell when something was amiss, often just when the lights came on in the morning.

    From the last article many questions arose about what types of lighting everyone was using on their tanks. As with just about everything these gentlemen are doing it varied greatly from tank to tank. Some are old school, while others are using what is now state of the art, but they all are happy with what they are using as none of them mentioned lighting when I asked what they would change. In terms of old school, Julian Sprung is using the most old school lighting as he is just using 2 400-watt 14K metal halides on his tank and running them for 12 hours per day. Yeah that’s it. And from the pictures you can hopefully see how healthy and colorful his corals are. Others using metal halides include Brad Syphus who is running 3 250-watt halides on his tank, and he has also added 4 36” ATI t-5 tubes in blue and purple as well as 2 ReefBrite XHO strips over his tank. Similarly Jason Fox is running 4 250 watt 20K metal halides over his 700-gallon tank, but they are only on for 3 hours per day. He supplements these with Actinic t-5 tubes for 10 hours per day and ReefBrite strips for 12 hours per day. Cruz Arias and Julian Hechavarria of Elegant corals also use 2 250-watt 14k metal halides on their tank, like Julian Sprung, which they run for 8 hours, but they augment these with 10 hours of 2 54-watt blue T-5s.

    Julian Sprung's tank showing the impressive coral growth and short stand that keeps equipment like a skimmer from being housed underneath it.

    A top down shot of of Julian's tank showing a reflection of one of the two metal halide lamps at the bottom

    So while these four still use metal halide lights with good effect the other four masters have switched over completely to using LEDs. Of these Jeff Leung of AquaWorld may be considered to still be old school as he is using ReefTech Poseidan LEDs, which were build in 2011 and are no longer manufactured. He runs these lights for a total of 12 hours per day, but they are only run at maximum output for 4 hours per day. Everyone else has more recently switched or upgraded their LEDs starting with Stuart Bertram who now runs 20 AI LED lights above his tank. He runs this many so as to try and reduce shadows and overshadowing by corals which can lead to the demise of corals not receiving enough light. In addition to running a lot of lights, he also runs them on an interesting schedule, in that they are run on what looks like a zig-zag schedule similar to that run by David Saxby. The schedule has a zig-zag pattern in that once the lights ramp up their peak they only stay there for approximately and hour which is then followed by a quick drop to mainly blue light, where they also stay for an hour. They then ramp up to full intensity again and this pattern repeats itself for a full 8 hours and then it gradually ramps down. While this pattern is unique, after looking at the corals in Stuart’s tank as well as David’s I am convinced that there may be something to this pattern in that both tanks have impressive growth as well as impressive coloration of virtually all the corals. Equalling Stuart’s tank in terms of coloration and growth is the tank of Dr. Sanjay Joshi. For over the past 3 years he has been running Radion LEDs exclusively with good success. This past Fall he switched over to the fourth generation of these lights and is having what I perceive as even better success in that a couple of corals that only grew slowly under the second generation lights have shown more robust growth under these new lights. Sanjay’s schedule is different than most LED users in that he is not a big fan of having a “blue tank”. As a result, for approximately 8 hours per day his lights run at full intensity, that is every color is run at 100%. And just as interestingly even during the ramping up and ramping down phases of his lighting schedule his lights look white and not blue. Despite his not “blueing” out his corals he still gets coloration that would make any sps keeper jealous. While Sanjay has impressive colors and growth in his corals using his high intensity lighting regimen the tank at World Wide Coral, which also uses the fourth generation Radion lights uses a completely different lighting schedule. The lights on this tank run with a decidedly blue spectrum and while the lights are on for 13 hours per day, they only run at full intensity for 5 hours of that time. This lighting protocol was devised to maximize coloration while not producing tremendous growth. This is one of the main show tanks at World Wide and if was necessary to prune it frequently due to rapid growth then it would detract from how impressively colored the corals in this tank look and the great first impression it makes.

    A top down shot of two of the corals in Jason's tank that are starting to grow together

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    A small portion of Jason Fox's 700-gallon tank showing many of the brilliantly colored coral colonies

    Just as the lighting in these tanks varies, so too does the amount of PAR that each of these tanks is receiving. Unfortunately not all of these masters have measured their PAR or are even concerned with the number, as only half of them had the values. Since all of them are successful I can’t really argue with that reasoning, but I was able to obtain it for a few of these tanks. The highest PAR levels that were measured not surprisingly came from Sanjay’s tank where the PAR at the surface in some places measured as high as 1400 and even half way below the surface was over 600. In comparison the PAR in Jeff’s tank was only 425 and halfway down was only 290. But surprisingly the lowest PAR was in the WWC tank where are the surface it was only approximately 300 PAR and halfway down in the tank 145. After looking at these tanks and talking with their owners it is apparent that in terms of lighting they are not slaves to what the numbers are, but rather they all observe their corals and over time have come to learn where to place their corals in order to maximize their health and coloration under the lighting they are using. Since all of these gentlemen have been doing this for a while it was clear that much of this knowledge of optimal coral placement was the result of trial and error. While this may not be the best way to learn, it is still one that many of us still employ.

    A top down shot of the front tank at World Wide showing how brightly colored corals can grow when grown under predominantly blue light

    The front tank when lit with white lights during the 5 hour period when white lights predominate

    As with lighting, there also was not a consensus in terms in terms of which salt to use. World Wide, Jason Fox and Sanjay all used Instant Ocean and had for quite some time. Jeff is using the other Instant Ocean product Reef Crystals. They said they mainly used it due to its consistency batch to batch and the success they had had with it over time. Julian was using his salt as was Stuart with his H2O Ocean Plus salt. Cruz and Julian use Tropic Marin Bio Activ, but have only switched to it in the last 6 months and were quite pleased with the results. But I forgot to ask Brad which salt he used. So while they all use different brands of salt, they all do agree on doing water changes, but by different amounts and frequencies. Jeff does the most frequent changes by doing a 15-gallon water change daily on his tank. This is significantly more than is changed by Cruz and Julian who change 15 gallons every 2 weeks. Brad changes 27 gallons weekly as that is the size of his reservoir for new saltwater. Jason obviously has a much bigger reservoir as he changes over 200 gallons in his 700-gallon tank every two weeks. Stuart does a 20% water change every 2-3 weeks, while the tank at WorldWide has a 10% change every week. Julian and Sanjay also do 10% water changes, but Sanjay does one approximately twice per month while Julian only performs this task once a month. When discussing the rate and volume of water changes and how they came to the numbers they did almost everyone said that over time they found that these water changes produced the best results in their tank and that only if they saw problems did they increase the size/frequency of doing changes. They also all said that if they had a major issue they had no problem changing 50% of their tank’s water or more until things improved.

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    The full tank showing big healthy colonies that Brad has grown from frags or small colonies

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    A top down shot of one of the brilliantly colored corals in Brad's tank

    Other than doing water changes the only other area where there was consistency between tanks was in terms of the pH each tank was maintained at. As we know, for the most part pH varies during the course of the day and night. This was also the case in everyone’s tank with some slight variation in what the pH range was. Cruz and both Julians and Jeff all had their pH levels vary between 7.8 and 8.2 during the course of a normal day and night. Brad and WorldWide had slightly less variation as their tanks only moved from between 7.9 and 8.1 daily. Jason did not regularly measure the pH in his tank and Stuart ran his pH slightly lower at 7.7-8.0. Sanjay had the lowest range for pH at 7.5-7.8. Considering how densely packed with corals both of these last tanks are and how much calcium and carbonate their corals are consuming I am guessing that this slightly lower pH is probably the result of the calcium reactors they both use having to put a lot of low pH water back into their tanks in order to keep up with this demand. There could be other reasons, but this seems the most likely and from the looks of their tanks this “lower” pH did not look to be negatively affecting the corals.

    The tank of Stuart Bertram showing the massive bank of LEDs above his tank

    The corals are growing so robustly in Stuart's tank that they are literally growing out of the water

    This lighting coupled with Stuart's meticulous care grows massive corals like these

    As with lighting and just about everything else in these tanks, the additives and coral foods or supplements that are used in each is also varied and unique. These “secret sauces” are not really secret but are what works for them and as has been the case with most things there was not much overlap in any of these. Julian Sprung uses C-Balance A & B which are dosed every 10 minutes to keep the alkalinity in his tank as stable as possible and to maximize coral growth. He also doses Acropower daily and Sea Elements weekly and uses Phosban to control phosphate. Seeing the growth of his corals and how stable his tank is is a testament to how well this system works. Conversely, Sanjay runs a Dastaco calcium reactor and only doses magnesium on a consistent basis and does not use other additives except iron for his Pax Bellum chaeto reactor. He does feed Reefroids and occasional frozen coral foods, but nothing with any consistency. Similarly, Stuart runs a large new Deltec calcium reactor using Rowalith as the media, but the only thing he adds is iodine, 5 mls weekly. He does this as he has found when he stops doing so his corals start showing signs of bleaching at their bases. After talking with him, and having had this problem, I have gone back to dosing iodine regularly as well as I used to do, in the hopes of stopping this problem which has cropped up in my tanks from time to time. Jason also does not do much in the way of additives besides making sure his massive calcium reactor is always close to full and adding magnesium to keep the levels above 1400. Brad and WorldWide also do not add much to their tanks as Brad only adds Acropower and Worldwide only adds coral food three times per week. Cruz and Julian do much more in the way of additives in addition to using SeaChem 2-part to maintain the alkalinity and calcium in their tank. They add Brightwell Replenish, Koral Color, Reef Snow and Restore Amine at rates slightly lower than those recommended on the bottles. Curiously while having the lowest nutrient levels in any tank, Jeff regularly adds ReefRoids, Reef Blizzard and Coral Frenzy as well as SeaChem Fuel. Also even with the daily water change he doses ESV 3-part to maintain alkalinity, calcium and magnesium levels in his tank. Looking at how things are added it is pretty clear that there is no consensus and no magic bullet that makes a tank great, but over time these masters have found what works best for them.

    A shot of the front of Sanjay's tank showing not only the healthy full colonies but also the LED lighting

    A top down shot of Sanjay's tank

    Another top down shot of Sanjay's tank. When corals grow this robustly they start shading the corals beneath them

    As mentioned above, one of the hallmarks of each of these tanks is their stability over time. All of these owners do regular water testing. The tests most run include alkalinity, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, nitrate, salinity and some even do potassium. Of these, the one done most frequently is alkalinity with everyone testing at least weekly and some testing daily. And the one that they felt had the least impact was nitrate. As noted in the first article most of these tanks had nitrate levels above what is often stressed as optimal levels, but in these tanks this has not been an issue.

    Some amazingly colored corals under t-5s and halides at Elegant Corals

    A top down shot of the Samoan grafted stag at Julian and Cruz's Elegant Corals

    Needless to say all of these tanks by whatever standard is used are successful and have been so for a significant period of time. Even so, some of these individuals said there are some things they would have done differently or would improve if they could. Sanjay would not have put in closed loops for water movement and he would have used coarser substrate so there would be even greater water movement in his tank. Remember the movement in this tank is already over 60 times the tank’s volume per hour. He also would have done a better job with managing all the wires that surround this tank. Julian would only have made the stand higher so he could get a skimmer underneath the tank. But he also reasoned that if he did so he would lose out on being able to reach into the tank without a ladder as he can do now. And like many of us he would like it to be bigger, but then he also reasoned he would then need a bigger house. Elegant Corals and Brad also wish they had gone bigger and Brad said he would like to be better able to monitor and manage the calcium and alkalinity levels in his tank as due to the rapid growth that is now occurring it requires constant effort to maintain. WorldWide would like their tank to be bare bottom so it could have better flow. Jason and Stuart both liked their tanks as they are, and said they now only make changes as they see necessary. And Jeff’s only change will occur when his lights finally burn out and he switches over to the new Radions.

    A photo from the front of Jeff Leung's tank when the blue lights predominate

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    A top down shot of Jeff's tank showing the health and great coloration in his corals

    When I put this follow-up article together I tried to answer the many questions that you asked after the first article came out. Hopefully I have done so? I realize that there probably are still many questions you may have about these tanks so knowing these individuals I’m sure that when you see them at any of the shows or online if there is an unanswered question they would be happy to answer it. Or get it to me I will try to get an answer for you. From these articles you can hopefully see that each of these tanks is unique with the main thing they share being that the corals, fish and other invertebrates in them are healthy, growing and colorful. What each of their owners share is that they are passionate about this hobby and this passion undoubtedly has led to their success. All of them will tell you that these tanks did not get like this overnight or even in a year, they all took time to reach these levels. Patience, dedication, attention to detail and some would say a little luck, all helped these owners get these tanks to this level. I am lucky in that I consider all of the owners of these tanks my friends and I appreciate their taking the time to provide this information so I could write these articles and share this information. Hopefully I will follow up on these tanks again in the future and also possibly talk with some other masters and share their information in a similar fashion.

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    About Author

    Mike Paletta
    Michael Paletta’s actual career is working in genomics in breast and colon cancer for Genomic Health. He has been an avid reef keeper since 1984. He has kept personal reef aquaria ranging in size from 20 gallons to 1200 gallons and has helped set and build other reef aquaria up to 4,000 gallons in size. He currently maintains several reef aquaria including a 300 gallon sps dominated tank and a 75 lps tank. He has also consulted for The National Aquarium in Baltimore as well the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.

    Michael has published over 100 articles on various aspects of reef keeping in SeaScope, Aquarium Fish Magazine, FAMA, Practical Fishkeeping, and Coral Magazine. He has also published two books: The New Marine Aquarium and Ultimate Reefs. Michael has been invited to speak at various venues around the world and across the country and has given over 200 such talks.