Beginner Topic The Benefits of Taking Careful Notes

Taking notes on what you do is a big plus when you are caring for a saltwater aquarium. Here's how the professionals do it.
  1. 10,000L, 5-year-old, display tank at the Maritime Museum & Aquarium. A build thread for this tank is linked in my profile & at the bottom of this article.
    Picture 1 - 10000L display tank.JPG
    Photo is courtesy of @Sallstrom, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    Running a reef tank might be a walk in the park for some, but for others it’s a real challenge. I’m somewhere in the middle of that scale, but I always want to improve my husbandry skills. Working at a small public aquarium, maintaining, starting up and rebuilding reef tanks among other things, I have had the chance to try out many methods and products.

    The first year at my current job we, unfortunately, didn’t keep that good records on what we did. We did keep records on the animals and some measurements, but not much else. If we did write anything up it was on paper. Saltwater and paper aren’t the best combination, so often I didn’t take notes when trying something new or making a change in a tank. I tried to keep it in my head. Now I realize, we lost a lot of good data and observations during those years.

    Nine years ago, my colleague installed an old computer in our kitchen (which also serves as a lab). At that time we started one Excel document for each aquarium system at our Aquarium. Since the computer stood just where we sat and did the water tests, it was easy to write the numbers down while sitting there doing the tests. It was also nice to be able listen to music while doing the water tests!

    Our 1500L room divider reef at The Maritime Museum & Aquarium. We started our Excel file for this tank in January of 2010. The tank was started in 2006.
    r2rnotessallstrom.JPG
    Photo is courtesy of @Sallstrom, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.
    I started at the top of my Excel documents just writing the date and then the measurements or the observation or any other thing I thought mattered. The next note I took I wrote underneath, so it would be a chronological order. Nothing too complicated at all.

    After a while, we found more things than the water parameters that would be good to mark in the notes, like the dates when we changed water, T5 or MH bulbs, CO2 for the calcium reactor, dosing amounts and many more things.

    One advantage with these documents is that you don’t need to rely solely on your memory. My memory isn't stellar, and these notes are essential in my work nowadays. Especially when it comes to troubleshooting. If the corals one day don’t look happy, you could go back and see what has been done the last couple of weeks. If you see cyanobacteria starting to grow on the sand, you can go back and check if the parameters have changed or if any changes have been done with light schedules or if any other things have changed. This way we’ve figured out a lot of stuff that we couldn’t have without the notes.

    Notes from the 10,000L reef tank.
    Picture 3 - Notes from the 10000L tank.png
    Photo is courtesy of @Sallstrom, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    An example was when we had an evening event at the Aquarium, and we changed the light schedule for just that evening. A couple of days later, cyanobacteria started growing on the sand in one of the reef tanks. At that time I tried to vacuum the sand and adjust the nutrients a bit, but the red mat of cyanobacteria just came back the next day. A week or two later I was looking through the notes and discovered the note about the evening event and the temporary change in light time. Somehow we hadn’t changed back to the regular schedule, so the tank was getting three extra hours of light per day since that event. After discovering this, I changed back to the regular schedule. Two weeks later the cyanobacteria was gone.

    I also like to keep all notes in the same Excel file. I just add more sheets in the Excel file. Here are some of my sheets: ”Everything”, ”CO2 and CRx media refill”, ”lights”, ”stocklist”, ”water changes”, ”dosings” and ”recipe and formulas”. I like to keep all the records on the sheet "Everything", just to be able to scroll through it all chronologically. Then I add the details in the sheet for fish or bulbs for example.

    You can see below another method of note taking. My coworker started this for our Bamboo shark reef as a test last year. All the information is on the first sheet.

    Notes from our bamboo shark reef. All information on one sheet.
    Picture 4 - Notes from our Bamboo shark reef.png
    Photo is courtesy of @Sallstrom, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    One good thing to write about now and then in the document is when the tank looks healthy and all the animals seems to be happy. "Today all the corals looked really happy” could be a great note, if that’s the case. The numbers from the readings don’t say that much by themselves, so a visual description is good to have too. Then you are able to go back and see all the settings you have during that period when everything worked well.

    You could also add pictures to the document too, to see the progression.

    A distinct benefit for me at my work is that I don’t have to write a whole 20-page manual for each tank every time I go on vacation. I do write down a couple of instructions, but most of the information my colleagues can find themselves in the notes. I guess this strategy could be used for home tanks too, when having a fellow aquarist looking out for your tank during your vacation.

    At the Aquarium we are several staff members doing the aquarium maintenance work. This means we all write in these documents. After discovering that we all read the water tests a bit differently, we’ve started to specify who did the test. So, now we know who did what and measured what and when and how. I think this could be useful for a home tanks as well, if there is more than one person taking care of them.

    Yes, we even write the time when doing tests. Some parameters might swing throughout the day, and the time the test was made can be relevant.

    Notes from NY_Caveman for his home tank.
    Picture 5 - Notes from NY_Caveman.png
    Photo is courtesy of and used with permission from @NY_Caveman, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    That was a short summary on why taking notes is great. I hope you enjoy the article and find it useful!

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    Author Profile: @Sallstrom

    David is a professional marine biologist at Sjöfartsmuseet Akvariet, or The Maritime Museum & Aquarium, in Gothenburg Sweden. He has a super interesting build thread covering his work at the museum, where he is the resident coral nerd. He has been keeping saltwater aquariums either at home or at work since 2001.

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