Tank Parameters Of Some Masters

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Tank Parameters Of Some Masters

To this day one of the most frequently asked questions I get, and actually that many “old time hobbyists” get is “How do I get rid of the algae in my tank. My first question then is “what are the parameters of your tank’s water? Invariably the answer is my tank’s parameters are “perfect”. I would love to say that this is not the case, but actually a lot of the time their parameters really are close to “perfect”. So this got me to thinking: “What really are perfect water conditions? And more importantly if we replicate perfect water conditions can we eliminate algae and other problems from ever occurring in our tanks and will our corals be healthy, colorful and fast-growing. Since I do not consider the parameters of my tank to be anything near perfect I decided to enlist the help of several hobbyists I know who I would consider “masters”. Some of these masters you may have heard of them, others probably not. But they are all friends or people I know or admire who have had successful tanks for at least a few years and I have gotten to observe many of these tanks over time, so I consider these masters to be knowledgeable and their tanks to be successful in many ways. None of the tanks have been maintained for less than 3 years and some have been up for a decade or longer. I did not choose an exhaustive list of individuals for this article, but rather a group of 8 that I thought used different methods on their tanks, were experienced and who would provide an adequate sample for us to try and emulate and who had long-term stable successful tanks.

The first “master” in this group is indeed a master as he has been doing this as long as I have and we have been friends throughout this long learning process. Julian Sprung of Two Little Fishes is actually the first master I thought of when I started putting this idea together and it was after I saw his wonderful home tank last Fall when I spoke in South Florida that I was convinced his tank would be perfect. Not only is the tank impressive in that all of the corals in it are huge colonies that have been growing and thriving in the tank for a long time. But I also wanted Julian’s input as he more than most of us follows the European design, in that unlike most of us, me especially, he keeps only a few species and has let them grow out to their full potential. As a result, his tank not only looks mature, but it also looks incredibly stable. And he does not just have easy to grow corals in this tank, but he includes a few like a huge Hawkin’s echinata colony that is impressive not only for its color but also for it’s size as well as numerous gorgonians and a sea fan all of which rely on regular feeding and special care.


The tank of one of the original master's Julian Sprung


The intense coloration and rapid growth of the Hawkin's acro shown here shows what having good stable tank chemistry can do

As a result, I was interested in what his parameters would look like and how far they would be away from NSW. His alk is 8.0, calcium 410, Mg 1257, NO3 10-15, PO4 .015, Sr 7.74 and temp 76-82 depending on the season. These measurements came from a Triton test that he was gracious enough to share with me. He doses 3-part into his tank seemingly continuously owing to the rapid growth and hence rapid uptake by his corals. He has a fairly high fish load and was happy to report that for the last few years the tank has been for the most part stable and growing. In fact, it grows so fast that he seemingly has to do weekly or bi-monthly pruning of many of his corals to keep them from overgrowing one another. One thing I should point out in that in his old school approach he still uses metal halide lamps to illuminate his tank. Not having seen a halide lit tank for at least a year I forgot how crisp the corals looked under this light and how sharp the shadows were.

The next master whose parameters I wanted were those from the tank of Casper at World Wide Corals. I have seen this tank and this unique fish for the last 5 years and thought that it was an appropriate tank to include the parameters from. Vic, Ryan, Lou, and Chris keep this tank in tip top condition as it is the first tank you see when you walk into their shop so they do their utmost to keep it in prime condition. It also houses a wide variety of corals including sps, lps, soft corals, and zooanthids. It is also the tank I think of when I compare how it looks under white LEDs with when it is under blue LEDs. The color difference is amazing as is the health of the corals overall, which all seem to thrive in this tank. The parameters are Alk 8.5-8.6, Ca 450-480, Mg 1440, NO3 10-15, PO4 .03-,08, Sr 8 and temp 77.

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The front tank WWC under white lights showing healthy coral growth and great colors


The same WWC tank under only blue lights and glowing

Another shop with some of the most colorful corals out there are those of Julian Hechavarria and Cruz Arias of Elegant Corals in Chicago. I wanted to include their parameters in this article as like me they are often tinkering with their tanks in order to try and maximize their potential. They are one of the main proponents of adding nano bubbles to their tanks so I wanted to see if any of their paramaters stood out as being different as a result of their using this technology. I did not think it would affect any of them, but it was nice to be able to check. Their tank’s parameters are Alk 8.0, Ca 420, Mg 1320, NO3 5, PO4 .05, Sr 10 and temp 77. So for the most part nothing looks really off the rails here and as they have told me this tank has been stable most of its existence.


An overview of the awesome tank of Julian and Cruz of Elegant Corals


A topside picture showing the great colors of their corals

While it is only in the last two years that I have admired the tank and corals of Julian and Cruz, I have appreciated the tank of Stuart Bertram in England for quite some time. I say that as I know not only does he maintain his tank in a perfect manner, but he has also helped maintain and plan some of the other best tanks in England as well. As a result, his knowledge of what it takes to keep a successful tank over time is second to none. I also must admit that I like his tank as he is like me and really packs his tank with fish and corals, so there is something to look at in virtually every nook and cranny in his tank. His fish and corals have also been in his tank for a considerable amount of time so it is filled with mostly medium to large colonies and as a result it is quite stable as well. For these reasons, and that his tank to put it simply is stunning to look at, I thought the parameters of his tank would also be interesting to include. His Alk is 8.1, Ca 400, Mg ? he never measures it, NO3 15-20, PO4 .046, Sr ? and temp 78.

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The well-designed and spectacular tank of Stuart Bertram

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Even when looking from above the images of the Acropora within a head of Montipora makes one feel like they are looking upon an actual reef

Due to the internet I have been able to see and stay in touch with other hobbyists like Stuart all over the world and thus learn about his tank and watch it over time. In contrast to this, I have watched the tank of Jeff Leung of AquaWorld in Pittsburgh grow from little more than a tangle of live rock filled with tiny frags to one of the more impressive shop display tanks I have seen. And if this were not enough, it is also the first tank that I actually saw sps corals grow in successfully over time using only LED lights. Since I got to watch this tank grow out over three years I thought this tank would be another good addition to the parameters to include. Getting these parameters proved interesting as a couple of them are significantly different than those of any other tank in the group. These are Alk 7, Ca 455, Mg 1440, NO3 54, PO4 .04, Sr 7.3, and temp 74-75.


The elegant tank of Jeff Leung showing you do not need to have a lot of technology to have a successful tank


A top down shot showing that while the tank may not look full from the side from above it is clear that most of the space under the LED lights is occupied

Seeing a tank grow in person is one thing, but suddenly seeing a tank for the first time online and having it take your breath away is a testament to how impressive the tank of Brad Syphus was the first time I saw it online. For better or worse, for Brad, I immediately thought of Brad as a kindred spirit as not only did he have his tank packed with huge beautiful coral colonies, but he also had a collection of wrasses that would make all us fellow wrasse fans drool. I also admired the fact that like many of us he temped fate by keeping fish like a Gold Flake Angel in his tank, and that because of its beauty he was willing to take the risk of having it eat some corals. Granted because of how massive his colonies are and how fast they are growing there is little chance it could do much damage, but you have to admire his courage for trying. Alk 7.8-8, Ca 400, Mg 1300, NO3 20, PO4 .10-.20, Sr ? .

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The impressive tank of Brad Syphus with it's light and color filling the room


The nice full colonies in Brad's tank are impressive not only for their colors but also for how healthy they look from top to bottom

While you may not know the last two masters well that I’ve included, you undoubtedly know the next aquarist whose tank’s parameters I have had a lot of folks ask me about. They ask me as like some of the other people I’ve asked, Jason Fox grows some of the most colorful corals in the hobby. As a result, I’m sure he gets asked quite a bit what is his secret and why are his corals so colorful. After having visited his house a number of times and watching his 700-gallon tank fill up seemingly over night with some of the brightest colored corals I’ve seen, I thought his tank was a perfect candidate to provide parameters we could all use to compare with the parameters in our tanks. I know I did as soon as I found out what they were. So without any further delay here they are: Alk 8-9, C 400, Mg 1400, NO3 5-10, PO4 .08-.10, Sr 9 and temp 77. From my point of view these do not look like anything out of the ordinary so there must be more. Some more will be revealed below after the parameters of the last tank.


A section of the the 700-gallon tank of Jason Fox


A small section of Jason's reef showing the impressive coloration he gets in his corals

The last tank whose parameters I am including are those of my good friend Sanjay Joshi. Like Julian I have known Sanjay for over 25 years and we have seen each other’s tanks rise and fall and have been trading frags with one another seemingly forever. The interesting thing is that in many instances the frags we trade each other look significantly different in each other’s tanks. Sanjay’s 500+ gallon tank has now been up for over 10 years and it has thrived and crashed several times over those years and I have watched it and photographed it over most of that time. To be honest it has mostly thrived and while others think they have rapid growth I am confident that no one grows most corals faster than Sanjay and he has been doing so for most of the past 25 years. And I must admit that I have killed off many of his frags over the years due to my constant tinkering and experimenting in my tanks so I am grateful he can grow them so fast. I know many of you are familiar with the low nutrient method for growing corals. Sanjay runs the opposite of this as his system is anything but low on nutrients and in energy. His parameters are Alk 9-11, Ca 400, Mg 1350-1440, No3 20-40, PO4 .12-.22, Sr 9 and temp 77-81.


The right hand side of Sanjay's high energy reef showing both impressive growth and color


From this top down shot it is clear that while there is no algae in this tank despite it having "high nutrient" levels, every nook and cranny is filled with corals of every description

When you look at all of the numbers in each of these tanks, to be honest not much stands out, other than each of these individuals runs his tank his own way and each has found the sweet spot at which their tank operates optimally. When I averaged out all of the numbers the values were pretty close to those of NSW. Alk was 8.19, Ca 419. Mg 1361, NO3 18.77, PO4 .18, Sr 8.6 and temp 77. Almost all of these tanks get regular partial water changes ranging from 10% a week up to over 30%. There was little variation in what the ideal temperature was for each tank and the salinity only ranged from 1.024 in one tank to 1.026 in another, with the rest at 1.025, so even salinity varied little. Lighting was for the most part LED, with Julian being the main exception, but Sanjay runs his LEDs so that he gets PAR levels that are at least comparable to those one would get from metal halides in a lot of his tank. There really was not much variation overall in most of these tanks. Sure Jeff runs a low nutrient system while Sanjay has a high nutrient system, but both are successful and overall there was not as much variation as I thought there might be in these parameters.

There were however two variables where there was a significant amount of variation. The first of these was in terms of what additives, supplements or coral foods were added to the tanks. Due to some of these individuals not wanting everyone to know their “secret sauce” I am not able to reveal who added what specifically to their tank. However, I am allowed reveal overall some of the things that are being added. In one instance the only supplement being added was an iodine solution added on an every other day basis. For others it includes amino acids, Acropower, or Fuel. In addition, various foods for corals are added regularly such as Reefroids, goniopower, Reef Snow, and Rod’s Coral Food. Trace element additions ranged from random additions of what was on hand to daily additions by the drop of several of the Brightwell, Red Sea or Fauna Marin products. Variations in the use of these products was different with every tank and no more than two or three tanks used any of the same products. So this is where one of the main areas where there was a great deal of variability between tanks.

The other area where variability between tanks occurred was in terms of flow within the tanks. While all of the tanks had at least moderate flow in them, that is the tank volume turned over at least 10 times an hour, counting both flow through the sump and within the tank itself, there was considerable differences. The tanks with the lowest amount of flow “only” turned the water volume over 12-14 times per hour. However, most tanks ran higher flow rates with some moving 40, 50 and even 60 times the tanks volume per hour. Sanjay ran the highest flow within a tank by far with his flow rate of 60 times per hour. Considering that he also keeps the highest nutrient and alkalinity levels as very high light levels I wonder if this may be the recipe for getting the most rapid growth out of corals possible and helps explain the phenomenal growth he gets in his tank. After having seen his tanks at least yearly for the past 25 years I can attest that his corals grow faster than I have seen in any other tank I have come across. I can also confirm that over all of those years I have also never seen algae of any significance in any of his tanks. He does house a lot of tangs and herbivores so this no doubt accounts for some of the reason for this. But even in the nooks and crannies where these organisms can’t reach I still have never seen any algae other than on his front glass which he cleans every 3-4 days. Since seeing these results and how well all of these tanks do and how strong their flow is I increased the flow in my own tanks so that it is now at least 20 times the tank’s volume in each of my tanks. It will be interesting to see if just making this adjustment alone increases the growth in my tanks.

Hopefully after looking at these tanks and their parameters it is clear that none of these tanks are “perfect” if you compare their numbers versus those of natural seawater. Some are close but all are probably higher in nutrient levels and one or two other parameters, so that it would be difficult to call them perfect in this respect. So I provided pictures of their tanks as to me these show that these tanks are perfect as I think anyone viewing these tanks would be hard pressed to say that the corals weren’t healthy, colorful and growing. And this was the criteria I chose which is if you remember the beginning of this article as my definition of what perfect was. Hopefully this article also provided an idea of how far your tank can stray from a particular parameter and still not crash. And if you want to replicate what a particular master is doing, here are some pretty good blueprints. Lastly I also provided an average of what these measures are from all of these tanks. This too could be a goal for which to aim at to try and get your tank to be close to perfect too. However, since perfection is in the eye of the beholder even if you match the parameters of any of these masters that does not mean your tank will match theirs. I hate to say this but despite all of the advances made in the science of this hobby there is still a significant amount of art in being successful in this hobby as well, and so that is why I consider these masters to be master artists as well. I would love to have any of these pieces of art in my home and hopefully you will agree?
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.

Latest reviews

Excellent article that shows there are different ways to run a successful reef, with some key insights on water parameters, lighting and flow.
Pros: Great article outlining various successful setups!
Cons: N/A
Article outlines various setups and how versatile the hobby really is as long as stability is maintained.
Great article by the esteemed Michael Paletta. I've been reefkeeping -- on and off -- since I was a teen around the turn of the century. Many of the tanks profiled are run by names I've idolized since then. The comparison and analysis of tanks cultivated by such esteemed reefkeepers makes it clear that -- while there is no singular recipe for success -- there exists a common range where one can find success given certain known (and unknown) parameters.

I'd love to know more about whether these people follow certain "systems" (zeovit, balling, 2 part, etc) in order to better guide new hobbyists in their journies.
Love this! I've been looking for more and more info on systems that have successfully kept SPS for many years looking for consistencies and patterns. With the detail and insight of this post we can see some guidelines that are all but guaranteed for success. Thank you!
Really great information here, so interesting to see a solid level of consistency among those doing this hobby well.
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Mike Paletta
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