Incrementalism in the Hobby

There is an old Southern axiom of how to cook a bullfrog. You can’t just pop it into boiling water because as soon as it hits the hot water it will sense that the water is too hot so it will hop out. Instead you put it in cool refreshing water and then gradually increase the heat. By doing it that way before it realizes that the water is getting hot it is too late and it is cooked. As far as I know cooking bullfrogs is not a major aspect of reefkeeping, but that example is a good way of understanding what incrementalism is, as it is a big part of the hobby. While to me most of the big jumps in the hobby have already occurred, see my recent article on ReefBuilders, most of us are still constantly trying to improve our tanks and our techniques by small increments in an attempt to reach a goal that I really do not fully understand. On the one hand it is good that most people realize that nothing good ever happens fast in a reef tank, good things only happen slowly. I have never gone to bed having placed a frag in my tank and woken to see a big colony had grown overnight. But I have awoken to find a frag as the only thing left of a colony that was previously healthy. It takes a lot of things to grow a frag into a colony with the biggest of these being time.

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Since time is one aspect of this hobby over which we have no control, we try to manipulate the other aspects of the hobby that we do have some control over to make our tanks better or more successful. Over the years I have seen many things come and go as the “next big thing in the hobby” from algal turf scrubbers and plenums, to trickle filters or deep sand beds and even filters that were touted as never needing to be changed, as well as virtually every type of lighting imaginable. Almost every one of these had someone who championed their use and touted how it either made their tank better, corals healthier or more colorful or their life easier. As a result of these and more there are literally an unlimited number of ways one can do a tank and be successful, in that if there was one “perfect” way we would all be doing it and there would be no discussions or fights in regards to how things should be done.

So since in my opinion we are currently at a level of success in the hobby that is unparalleled, in that we now can not only just keep most corals and fish alive, but we have now gotten to a level where we are now capable of breeding them and raising their offspring. As a result, when we make changes in our systems for the most part all we are now doing is incrementally trying to improve things. This is probably a good thing as long as we understand that doing them is not going to result in a monumental change in our tank or its inhabitants. Conversely, I have seen people make monumental changes in their tanks when something bad, but relatively small happens. What I am referring to is the phenomenon where a tank is doing quite well with all of the fish and corals thriving for an extended period of time. Then all of a sudden a coral or two bleaches or dies for seemingly no apparent reason. We then panic, test everything, do massive water changes, change the supplements or lighting schedule, etc. And we do this at a time when all all of the other corals and fish were doing fine, but we make all of these changes without fully understanding why this happened or what the consequences of making all of these large changes at once will be. I have done this when I have lost corals and I have seen others do it too. The last time I started doing it a friend of mine while witnessing this told me to sit back, assess things thoroughly, try to figure out what happened as best I could and then make up a plan of attack and go slowly, lest I reverse all of the benefits my tank had gotten by making small incremental improvements over time. This was some of the best advice I had received in a long time.

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This tank was up and thriving for a couple of years and then the only change made to it was to add an automatic plankton reactor

Even if things are going well in our tanks, why do many of us still feel inclined to make changes as often as we do? First, and I include myself in this group, we feel our tanks are not where we want them to be, so we keep making changes thinking that these small changes will result in big improvements in our tanks. While this is a big reason for many of us, there are also several other reasons why we feel the need to constantly make changes. One of these is that changing something may save us time. This is a big one, in that if you have a lot of tanks or even just one with how life is today, time and especially free time is at a premium, so if you can find something that you can do to your tank that will save you time, even if it’s only a few minutes a week you may make the change. In my own case I currently have six tanks and I spend approximately 6-10 hours a week doing “stuff on them, whether it is feeding, testing the water, cleaning the glass, doing a water change or cleaning or maintaining equipment. So if I can find something that saves me an hour or two per week then I will try it. Realistically if I could spend less time doing this maintenance I would probably just spend more time enjoying just looking at my tanks, but making a small change to do this would be worth it to me.

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Change was necessary in the tank as the corals were outgrowing the tank, but the only change made was to house them in a bigger tank

Similarly, we also make these changes if we think making them will save us money. And let’s face it, this for the most part this is not a cheap hobby to be involved in. In fact, it can be downright expensive if you want go nuts in it. So when there is money to be saved by making a change most of us will do it. Case in point is why some of us switched to LED lighting from metal halides. We did this knowing that the upfront cost of the LEDs was going to be high, especially if we already had the halides and all of the the ancillary equipment that went with them. But at least for me, when I looked at switching to them, I also took into account the cost of cooling my tanks, either via chiller or air conditioning my house, as well as the cost of having to regularly change the bulbs and at worst it was a break even proposition. But to be honest that is pretty much how every change I have made on my tanks has worked out when the goal was to save money. It is like that in that for me, and I believe many of us, we have a kind of budget in our heads as to what we can or plan on spending on our tanks over a given time frame. Then if we make a change and it saves us X, we then simply shift our budget over and spend that X on something else hobby related like a new fish or that frag or coral we had our eye on. I am still waiting to see that X that I saved go into my bank account and I also doubt that many other hobbyists have a special account full of Xs that they saved in the hobby.

While we think we may save something by making these small changes in what we do, I think for the most part we make these incremental changes more to do something. The first of these reasons we make these changes is to try and get our corals to grow faster. Since many of us start our tanks from frags, having an empty looking tank that is just full of frags can be distressing. So in order to get it to fill in faster we make changes that we think will increase the growth in our corals. We feed our corals, or add nutrients or increase the lighting or flow or whatever after reading or seeing how someone got increased growth by doing something. And while making some of these changes may increase the growth, to be honest I have not seen anything increase the growth of my corals exponentially except directly feeding my lps corals or having the light and nutrient levels balanced to produce maximum growth and minimal algae. Yes, I have seen some things I’ve done improve or increase the growth of some of my corals, but for the most part when my tanks have been thriving and I have provided optimal stable conditions nothing I have done has increased the growth of my corals by more than 10 or 20% except as noted above. And one thing that we all seem to take for granted is that some corals simply grow significantly faster than other corals. So the corals I have seen the biggest increase in growth in, were also the corals that grew the fastest before changes were made. I could never get a Purple monster to grow as fast as a Green Bali Slimer regardless of any change I made. We need to realize that some corals simply grow significantly faster than other corals and there is little we can do to change that.

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This tank was thriving and then the change from metal halides to LEDs occurred and this only resulted in a small change within the tank

Along with faster growth, the other reason we often make small changes in what we do is to improve the colors of our corals. While this is well known in sps corals, I have also seen some lps corals like acans and other mussid types of corals change colors when things such as lighting or nutrient levels were changed as well. For many of us there is seemingly a constant need to tinker with everything from potassium levels to alkalinity to nitrate and phosphate in an attempt to get the colors of our corals to be as spectacular as possible. However, after sharing frags with many other hobbyists over the years I have finally come to the realization that even when we think the conditions in our tanks are fairly comparable to those of one another’s tanks, corals can have significantly different colors and often look like completely different corals once they have grown into colonies. As a result, I have quit making changes in my tanks in order to get a coral to look like what that coral looked like in someone else’s tank. Instead I am now content to enjoy what a coral looks like in my tank even if it does not match the crazy colors I have seen online or in a friend’s tank. For this reason, I no longer make changes in what I am doing to try and “match” the coloration the coral shows in another tank. It should also be noted that making small changes in a corals position in a tank can have significant effects. Some of the brightest colored corals may not show their optimal coloration when they are moved from a spot where they looked their best and this diminution in color can occur when the coral has been moved by as little as a couple of inches. Many corals will also slow their growth rate if they are constantly moved around. For me, when I move a coral I assume it will take at least two months for it to start having optimal growth once it has been moved. For these reasons, once a coral has found a “sweet spot” in my tanks I consider small changes to be harmful rather than beneficial in most instances.

However, I do make changes for what I consider to be one of the best reasons: to make things easier so that I am more likely to do then. Human nature being what it is, most of us will do something more frequently that is easier to do than something that is harder to do. Therefore, I am constantly on the look out for things that make doing the common tasks in and around my tanks easier. In this regard, things like water changes, water testing, cleaning pumps and powerheads are all set up so that they are relatively easy to do, and take up minimal time. As a result, I am more likely to do them and do them on a regular basis which helps improve the stability of my tanks. And since I have already made small changes to refine doing them, so unless something dramatic changes in the hobby it is unlikely that anything more than small changes will be necessary. For example, when my 300-gallon tank was first set up it took well over an hour to do a 50-gallon water change, not including the time it took to set up the water for the change itself. It entailed bringing in a glass tank from the garage, filling it with RO/DI water measuring out the salt to get the salinity correct, adding a heater and powerhead and waiting for everything to settle down before even doing the change and then breaking everything down and putting it away once it was done. Now there is a refurbished 50-gallon pickle barrel that is always up in a room adjacent to the tank, it is easily filled to the right level and to which a bag of salt is added and mixed to the same salinity every time. Also the the same powerhead that rests in the barrel to mix the salt is used to fill the tank once water and detritus are removed to a premeasured level. As a result, a water change can be done in as little as 15 minutes. Since as for most of us time is limited making changes that allowed the water change to be done quickly and easily has meant that it is now done regularly. This making changes to make things easier is now the fundamental reason why I make changes. All powerheads and heaters are now located so that they can easily be removed and cleaned. All return pumps are connected with unions and shut off valves so that when they need to be cleaned the water flowing through them is shut off, and the unions allow them to be removed, cleaned and replaced quickly and with little loss of water. Each tank also now has its own glass cleaning system, razor blades and glue next to it, so that I don’t have to kill time looking and therefore when these need to be used they get done more often. All of this took small changes for me to learn that making things easier is one of the best reasons to make changes.


The fifty gallon barrel that makes doing water changes easier and faster

While all of the above reasons for making changes are reasonable, but will generally only result in an incremental improvements in a tank there is another time when small changes are necessary and may be advantageous and that is when changes are made when a tank is failing to thrive. It may be algae problems, cyano, a troublesome fish or other pest, but when this type of situation occurs it may take several small changes to improve things and get the significant change that results in a successful thriving tank. It would be nice if all it took was to look at a tank’s parameters when there was a problem and say if you make this change this will happen, but it takes more than this. Most of the time it will take making many small changes to get the desired result and this is what sometimes makes getting successful and for a tank to thrive to be difficult. But here making small changes over time is often better than making a big change quickly as it lets you see what may have been causing the problem and you can see what making the change does. It also keeps from stressing the tank as no tank I know of does better when a dramatic shift occurs. All tanks do best when conditions are stable. So if you are having issues look at changing one thing at a time to determine what the cause of the problem is and then make the changes from there rather than changing everything all at once.

Contrary to this, one the other reasons I have found that we some times make changes is because we get bored with how things look. Stupidly I have moved corals around and changed entire tanks for no other reason than that I got bored with how they looked after being stable and growing for a long time. This hobby is challenging enough that making changes, which to be honest no one else would notice but myself, just due to the tank looking the same to me, is one of the worst reasons possible for making changes. Sadly, I know I am not alone in doing this, but that does not make it right. As a result of learning the hard way that making this kind of change is not good I have learned that sometimes it is best just to leave things alone and let nature take its course.

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When corals are thriving and as colorful as this why make changes?

As I said at the beginning most people in the hobby are now enjoying unparalleled success with just about every method they are using to keep their tank. We now understand water chemistry, water motion and lighting to such a degree that we now keep fish and corals alive and thriving with unprecedented success. From my own experience I now rarely make changes to my systems unless I want to experiment with a new piece of equipment or technology and I understand that at best it may make a small difference and hopefully an improvement in the tank I am using it on. It is my opinion that most of the changes that resulted in huge improvements in our success level have already occurred, which is a good thing. Having said that I am not trying to discourage anyone from making changes, as that is one of the fun aspects of this hobby that make it so rewarding. Instead I simply want to point out that most of the changes we make will only show in small improvements in our tanks, so keep that in mind when you decide to make a change.