Personal Experience Reefers' Rules: An Old School Perspective

According to @ReefGeezer

I found this information on an old CD that I was getting ready to discard. Yep… I still have one computer with a CD- ROM! The file creation date was in May of 2004. I thought the information might be useful and decided to dust it off and share it. I did update the rules a little. I’ve learned a few things in the last 18 years!

REEFER’S RULE #1: Nothing good happens fast in a reef tank… Ever!
No need to change this one. I didn’t make it up. This is an old, and still ever so true, rule. Patience is an absolute requirement for establishing and maintaining a healthy reef tank. You will be waiting for something to happen from day one. You will also be tempted, and even prompted by others, to do things to make it happen faster. You must have confidence that what you are waiting for will happen, and have the patience to wait.

REEFER’S RULE #2: Change is bad… Even when it is good!
Making changes to an established system may set it back no matter how beneficial the change may be. Stability is the key to maintaining a sustainable and amazing reef. That stability extends to every part of the environment, measurable or not.

REEFER’S RULE #3: The KISS Rule applies… Sort of.
The requirements for keeping a reef tank are just not that simple, particularly if you want it to flourish in the long term. The goal is to keep the system as simple as possible without impacting its ability to meet its requirements. Simple means employing the right equipment to make performance of your maintenance and husbandry tasks simple and easy.

REEFER’S RULE #4: Systems must be planned for the long run.
Any system can work for a while. However, reef tanks take a long time to establish, corals grow slowly, and they aren’t truly impressive until they grow into larger colonies. “A while” is just not long enough. Well designed and operating systems are required to optimize the growth, color, and overall health of the reef and its inhabitants.

REEFER’S RULE #5: If you buy cheap, you will buy twice.
This is another old rule and it applies to many things, but is particularly applicable here. Even the simplest reef tanks require some equipment. I don’t know how many times I bought “inexpensive” equipment only to find it did not do the job or failed too quickly. That money was wasted. I had to pony up more cash to replace the substandard equipment. Remember, if you plan on keeping your reef long enough to see the fruits of your labor, the equipment will have to operate effectively for long periods of time without fail.

REEFER’S RULE #6: If maintenance is difficult, it will not get done often enough.

Place components that require frequent maintenance within easy reach and provide for isolation of the components requiring removal for maintenance. Planning your maintenance tasks should be a high priority when planning your system.

REEFER’S RULE #7: Chemical products advertised to solve problems simply don’t work.
I ADDED THIS ONE. I learned this one the hard way over the last 18 years. This is where I wasted a lot of money and caused myself lots of problems. I was pretty lucky though. I dodged the tank crashes that many of these products have caused. Unfortunately, these products either: 1) Do not work, 2) Solve one problem but affect a nutrient pathway that causes other problems; or 3) Simply cover up the symptoms until the actual problem gets bad enough to cause something worse to happen.

A Few More Important Things to Know
In addition to some minor changes in the rules above, I added a couple of things that my experiences since 2004 have taught me. I won’t call them rules. I prefer to think of them as an “Important Thing to Know” before planning your reef tank.

Establishing a nitrogen cycle in a reef tank is simple using old school methods.
Yep… Old school… Add an ammonia source like household ammonia, ammonium chloride, raw shrimp, or a hearty fish… maybe some bottled bacteria… and wait… and test… and wait. The ammonia rises, and then drops to zero, and voilà… cycled. The tank will support the reasonable stocking of fish and other organisms without an ammonia spike. Some will say to wait further until nitrite drops to zero. It is ok if you want to wait, and it maybe desirable if you plan on adding more sensitive specimens right away. However, nitrite really is not absolutely necessary as nitrite is not toxic at the higher pH of salt water. It is really just that simple. Many entities are making the process way more complicated these days in order to profit, help you rationalize violating Rule #1, and/or to gain recognition. It could also be because they just don’t understand. The old school cycling methods might not be the best way to create an environment where ammonia, and other nutrients, are properly managed. There is a holistic approach that
not only manages all the forms of nitrogen (ammonia, nitrite, nitrate), but also phosphate and dissolved organic compounds as well.

Old school cycling processes work, but have a down side.
The organisms we want to grow that reduces the ammonia we have added do so slowly. While these organisms are low, other organisms can take advantage of the elevated ammonia levels to get a foothold in out tank. These unwanted organisms do great when the competition is low and the nitrogen level is high. Unfortunately, the old school method creates an environment where these unwanted organisms can get a head start in the competition and sets up a battle that can last a very long time. There may be a better way. If we stock the tank in a strategic manner with nutrient producers and users and provide just enough input, we can stock the tank and establish nutrient pathways without ever raising the levels quickly enough or high enough for those unwanted organisms to get a foothold. To do this, you will need to understand the next “Important Thing to Know”.

You must understand how food and nutrients, in all of forms, are used in the reef tank.
It took me a very, very long time to come to this realization. I guess I’m a little slow sometimes. It is so much more complicated than just understanding of the basic nitrogen cycle or monitoring and controlling the inorganic nutrients. It is about how food input is used and processed in interrelated pathways and food webs. Developing an understanding of the diversity required to complete the pathways, the inputs required to maintain them, and how limiting a pathway affects the others will help you reach your reefing goals. It will also reduce the difficulty of decision making and save you a lot of money where nutrient control is concerned.

The header image is of the author's tank in 2020.
About author
I have been keeping marine tanks since the mid 70's. I had to take a break while serving Uncle Sam, but when I retired in the early 90's, I owned and operated a large LFS. It was the largest retailer of marine life in the mid-west for a while and I owned it at the time the reefing hobby was being born in the mid-west. We brought live rock from Indonesia and the Gulf of Mexico and cured it to make it suitable for aquarium use. We developed contacts that allowed us to transship fish and corals from the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and even the Caribbean. We employed hobbyists who had advanced knowledge, for the day, and taught customers how to set up reefs. I eventually sold the store and settled in to just keeping my own reef tank. Much changed over the years. I've learned a lot from the mistakes I have made. My current "soon to be" reef tank is the result of all those lessons and things I learned here at Reef2Reef.

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Pros: Well written, good basic rules to follow and understand.
Cons: None really... maybe add some sources for additional information and education?
I like the fact that this reviewer is taking good basic information and updating it with their years of experience and successful reef keeping.
Pros: Great for those who are new to the hobby
Cons: Doesn't really dig into the details. But that is for another article, not this.
Good write up. Thank you

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