Tips and Tricks (No Secrets)

One of the most frequently asked questions I get are what are the secrets of the people who are really good at doing this. I would love to tell...
  1. Tips and Tricks (No Secrets)

    One of the most frequently asked questions I get are what are the secrets of the people who are really good at doing this. I would love to tell you that there are a bunch of secrets and I am writing a book that you have to buy to get them, but that is not the case. There really are no secrets nor should there be. When I did the articles on the Master’s tanks I tried to show that there were none, by revealing exactly what they were doing. Despite that I have still been asked about what are their and other secrets. So instead of saying I am going to tell you the secrets I know about, I am going to let you know some of the tips and tricks that I and others use to help us be successful over the long-term, as that is the goal or should be the goal of all of us in the hobby.

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    To get a colorful colonies like this takes time and patience, no tricks.

    The first tip is to plan as much as you can about your tank as best you can before you set it up in the space where you are going to place it. Make to scale drawings, map things out on the floor, build a mock tank out of cardboard or use a box the same size, do everything you can to see as best you can how your tank is going to fit in your house. Before I set up a tank anywhere now I build a cardboard replica of the tank and put it where the tank will be. Before I did this I always under or over allocated the space where it would sit so that unfortunately when the actual tank was put in place it would be too big for the space by an inch or two or it would not allow for people to move in front or around it or there was inadequate space for the equipment. So when doing this paper replica also try to make replicas of things like the sump, skimmers, lights, reactors and pumps that you are going to use to make sure that there is adequate space for them. Even more to the point make sure that there is also space to work on move and maintain all of this equipment. And also make sure that there are an adequate number of electrical outlets for all of the equipment you will use and that the outlets can handle all of the amperage this equipment requires. Few things are worse than having your tank in place and realizing that there is no way you can use the equipment you want on it as there just aren’t enough plugs or that the circuit breaker blows every time everything is on. So plan ahead and bring in an electrician if you need to. Most of us think we can do just about everything on our tanks, and we can, but I don’t mess with electricity as it is dangerous and a mistake can lead to burning down the house. In terms of dangerous also have the outlets you will use be ground fault interrupters to reduce the likelihood of you getting electrocuted. Saltwater is a good carrier of electric current so make sure you are safe by using these when you have your outlets wired. They have saved me on many occasions.

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    Having a good skimmer is almost essential, just as important is being able to clean and maintain it easily, unlike what I did here.

    A caveat to planning well is make it as easy as possible to do everything you need to in the tank as possible. I say that, as knowing my own shortcomings, I know that the easier something is to do, the more likely I am to do it. This is especially true when planning the maintenance of a tank. A reef tank is not a television set where you can just turn it on and watch it. It requires a fair amount of work to keep it thriving and this work is usually in the form of maintenance, which none of us enjoy doing. So when placing powerheads or pumps or even heaters, make sure that you can get to them easily to clean them and maintain them. In my own tanks for a long time I hid the pumps and powerheads to such a degree that it was almost impossible to remove them for cleaning without having to break down a large section of the tank. I no longer do that as I have found that even doing something as simple as cleaning the screens on the Vortech powerheads once a week not only keeps the flow high in the tank, but it also makes having to do a major cleaning of these units a less frequent task. In many of the most successful tanks I have seen the pumps and powerheads are at best hidden behind a single rock so that they can be gotten to easily and so that flow is not impeded in any way. I should also note that one of the other tips I learned from the successful tanks I have seen is that they all have significantly more flow than seems reasonable. The lowest flow I saw on a successful tank was approximately 20 times the main tank’s volume with the highest, and the one with the fastest growth being over 60 times the tank’s volume. I should also note that when new corals were placed in these tanks they weren’t placed in this strong flow right from the start, but instead were placed on the fringe of this flow and allowed to grow into it. I would be remiss if I did not mention David Saxby’s tank in regards to flow, as in his tank the flow is almost 40,000 gallons per hour.

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    Having a mess of wires makes it almost impossible to find the one you need when you need to unplug something.


    I know that nothing I have written so far seems complex, and it isn’t, and that is one of the other tips I learned: keep things simple. Despite how complex some of the nicest tanks look, their designs for the most part and the equipment they use is often quite simple. Water gets to the sump in as direct fashion as possible and back from the pump in the same way. No loop the loops or other crazy plumbing or fittings, the movement of water is as simple as it can be with unions and shut-offs the main fittings used. This keeps the flow from being reduced anywhere along the line and allows for cleaning out the lines, which is one thing many of us neglect to do on a regular basis. Few of the tanks use one controller to control everything, as having everything on one system invites disaster when it fails, and it will fail at some point. So most of these tanks use monitors to watch their crucial parameters and separate systems to control the other functions on their tanks like CO2 reactors, lighting and flow. I was amazed at how little technology many of these tanks had on their tanks. When I asked most said they had used monitors/controllers but at some point had them fail and then did not get around to replacing them and thought that keeping things simple was better in the long run.

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    Similarly not organizing ballasts for lights makes it difficult to find the right one when problems arise.

    Another way that these tanks differed from mine is how organized everything around them was. My tanks like most of things I am involved with are organized chaos. The tip that most of them shared with me is that by keeping things organized it was much easier to manage a problem when one arose. A simple organizational thing that they all did was to keep all the wires from their equipment organized in such a way that when they needed to remove or clean a piece of equipment they did not waste time trying to figure out which wire went to it. The wires were organized and often labeled so that if a powerhead needed removed or a pump shut off during a water change it took mere seconds to find the plug and shut it off. They also all seemed to do the same thing with just about everything around their tanks. The test kits were all organized and easy to get to. Nets, flashlights, basters and all of the little things that are needed from tie to time were all close by, but all organized neatly and in places that even when they were used they weren’t dripping on outlets or other equipment. At least to me it looked like they had everything they could possibly need near their tanks, but everything was in its place. My goal is to some day have all the stuff I have around my tanks be as organized as I have seen these other successful hobbyists do.

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    An organized mount like this makes it much easier to turn off equipment during maintenance.

    Also in terms of organization, many kept a log of some type to keep track of anything they did in their tanks. When they tested their tanks water, which they all did with some regularity, they kept a log of what the values were. While they all agreed that part of their success was due to the stability of their tanks, they also all admitted that from time to time things would go amiss. But because they kept logs they could usually spot a problem before it became a disaster. But they also kept track of more than just the test values of their tanks in their logs. They also kept track of when fish and corals were added and when they died or were removed, when new equipment was added and when it was cleaned as part of a regular maintenance schedule. And they also kept track of when they started doing something different like adding a new additive, or trying a new food or feeding schedule or additive. By noting such things in their log they felt they were better able to keep track of what changes what they changed had made. I know it may seem like a lot of extra work to keep a log, and when I asked them they said only at first, but once things are stable there really is not much work as they typically did not change anything too often.

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    Having a powerhead out in the open may not be that visually appealing, but it makes maintaining it and cleaning the cover easy. So it is more likely that it will be done more often.

    When I asked my friends for one tip or trick they would like to share besides what I listed above they all came up with at least a little something that I thought was worthwhile to follow. The first is something that has been told to me since I first began in freshwater, but which I must admit I sometimes do not follow. Feed your tank a wide variety of foods in small amounts often. In addition to the great coral collections that are housed in these tanks, most of them also have a variety of healthy colorful fish. Sadly, at times we tend to focus solely on the corals and forget about the fish. I learned how important the fish are a number of years ago when I set up a tank with only a couple of fish in it but containing a beautiful assortment of colorful corals. When I proudly showed it to several different people, both reefers and non-reefers they all had the same comment: it looks nice, but where are the fish. Because of this, I now consider a tank great only when it houses both. So now I keep a lot of fish in my tanks, and I feed them small amounts often.

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    Dipping and quarantining every thing that is added to a tank is one of the tips that everyone who is successful follows.

    Another tip I was given was to allow more space for everything than you think necessary. This was not just an admonition to give coral frags space to grow, but also to provide space around and under the tank so that it is easier to work in and on the tank as well as in the tank. When you don’t have room to work things get broken and when you don’t allow space in the tank, corals battle and when you work in the tank branches of the corals get broken off and colonies get bumped off. So give yourself space in all aspects of your tank. I must admit that I am bad at this as I try to fill every space and have built tanks that fill every inch of the space in a room possible. But seeing how difficult it is to do some things I realize how good this tip is. Also in looking at some tanks that aren’t packed to the surface I realize how interesting an empty space where fish can swim unencumbered can be. So this is a tip I will follow if I do another tank.

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    Removing pests when they are just starting to cause problems, and even better before they cause problems, is a tip that most everyone should heed.

    The next two tips are kind of complementary to one another. Save money by limiting your impulse buying and be patient and save up so you can get the best equipment you can. Having been married to a strong impulse buyer who told me how much money she saved me buy buying something “on sale” and my replying that she would have saved me more by not buying it at all I understand how much money can be saved by limiting impulse buying. And I know how it is in this hobby where everything we come across seems like one of kind. But in reality there is almost always something more beautiful out there. So save your money and don’t buy on impulse. But by the same token save your money and get the best equipment you can. I realize that this may seem counterintuitive, but from my experience most good equipment works better and lasts longer than “cheap” equipment. I know some things may seem too expensive for what they are, but often they last significantly longer than the less expensive alternatives which break sooner and thus need to be replaced more frequently. And sometimes when this happens it is not just the cost of replacing them that makes them more expensive in the long run, but when they fail it leads to big problems in the tank.

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    Being willing to get rid of old obsolete equipment and move to newer better equipment adds to the cost of the hobby in the short run, but usually pays dividends over time.

    This dovetails perfectly into on of the other tips I was given: have a backup for every piece of major equipment you have as well as a back up plan for when things go wrong. I actually already follow this tip in that I have back up pumps, heaters, and powerheads for when any of these crucial pieces of equipment fail. Despite most manufacturers making their products built to last, eventually just about every piece of equipment on your tank will fail. If you do not plan for this and have a back up, then when it does what are you going to do? Some pieces of equipment are prohibitively expensive so you probably won’t have back ups for them and you can often get away with having them off line for a bit too. But for a heater, powerhead, and especially return pump, not having a back up is just tempting fate in my opinion. And eventually you will need a replacement so a back up is a wise investment.

    Following all of these tips will probably make you more successful with the hobby in the long run, but it will not help you enjoy the hobby as much as you should. To make that happen I hope you all will follow this tip and take the time to sit back and enjoy your tank, even if only for a few minutes every day. I know we all lead hectic lives with minimal time to relax, but if you really want to enjoy the hobby then I really do think that you need to do this. I now try to do this every day, and amazingly when I do take the time to do this I find that not only do I physically feel more relaxed, but I also notice the little things in the tank that are going on. In the past when I sat down and noticed these small things I would immediately jump up and fix them and not enjoy the tank. Now I keep a little note pad with me and after I have sat back and relaxed when I notice something wrong I just jot it down. Then after my time enjoying the tank is over, I get up and fix the things that I have written down. This not only gives me time to enjoy the tank, but it also makes it possible to fix these things quicker as I can do them one after another rather than in the past I would notice them, fix them, sit down and then do it again. Doing it this way is more relaxing and more time efficient.

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    Being patient to grow a colony of a rare coral, like this Leng Sy cap, from a frag is a trick we all would like to be able to master.

    The last tip I got is one that I really did not appreciate until I realized how spot on it was: don’t get complacent about your tank and the hobby as this will just make you lazy and lead to problems. This is so true, as I know from my own experience that when I have taken my tank for granted and gotten lazy, whether it was by not testing or doing maintenance or delaying a water change my complacency led to bad things happening. Now I’m not saying that you have to have your hands in the tank constantly, as this often leads to bad things too, but you can’t think that because your tank looked good last week and today that it will look great next week or month if you don’t perform the tasks that have gotten it to where you want it. Staying on top of the constant things your tank requires is critical to the long term success of any tank. I do not know of any tank that was neglected into being successful. A tank is in a constant state of flux so it needs regular attention to keep it at a high level.

    There are a lot of tips and tricks to keeping a reef tank healthy and beautiful. Many of them are common sense and are quite simple. Most require some effort but the results can be quite amazing. For those of us who love the hobby there really are not a lot of secrets nor should there be, but rather small tweaks that can be the difference between failure and long term success. When considering these tips all are for the long-term success of a tank, none of them are quick fixes. Which to me should be the goal of every hobbyist :long-term success.

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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.
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