A Coral Reef in the Cascades - 80 Gallon Mixed Tank Build

Oct 14, 2019
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Hey Reef2Reef!

I'm in the process of establishing an 80 gallon reef in my home office, and looking forward to sharing, discussing and learning a thing or two with the community here. There have been many inspiring and thought-provoking build threads on the forums that have helped shape my own plans, and I'm excited to contribute my own!


This is my third reef build. I'll spare you the lengthy origin story, but I started about 20 years ago in college with a 29 gallon fowlr that piece-by-piece progressed into a respectable softie display. Adding that first mushroom coral was such a cool moment, I'm sure many of you can relate :cool:. From there, a lighting upgrade (65w power compact fluorescent retro fit!) marked the start of a long and rewarding journey into reefkeeping.

My last build was a (planned) 500 gallon display with a sump and frag/prop system in the basement about 7 years ago. I started with the fish room, okay fish-corner-of-my-basement:


Sadly, I ended up taking an opportunity professionally that moved my family across the country before the display went up and our lifestyle since then has precluded another tank until now. My wife and I just purchased a home in central Oregon where we plan on staying until the kids finish high school with gives me plenty of time to establish a mature reef system.


My ultimate goal with this system is a full mixed reef that provides a stable habitat for a nice range of soft corals and SPS. That that end, I'll be taking it slow and first creating a solid foundation of micro flora and fauna, inverts, sponges and detrivores. My theory being that starting by building a trophic pyramid from the bottom up will promote diversity and, therefore, stability as the tank matures. I've seen too many people throw "hardy" sticks into a freshly cycled tank with dry rock and watch them dwindle. As a guiding principle, I want this system to be as natural as practical, replicating a natural reef environment in every way possible. Having various organisms thriving in every niche of the ecosystem will be a cornerstone of this approach. This means it will likely be letting the system mature for 9-12 months before I consider adding SPS or any more delicate organisms.

A few guiding principles I'll be following:
  • Aim to replicate or simulate a natural reef. (8-4-8-4 lighting cycles are intriguing for promoting growth, but I'll be keeping it granola.)
  • Promote and maintain biodiversity. Ideally, everything living in my reef can reproduce and maintain its population naturally. Realistically, I'll likely need to supplement some of the basics like a cleanup crew. I'm aiming for lower populations of more diverse cleaners vs. high populations of only one or two types. Pods will be a workhorse of the CUC.
  • No proprietary supplements or additives and no black boxes. If I don't know what's in it, can't test for it or don't understand the scientific basis for what it does it's not going in my reef.
  • Mechanical filtration only sporadically. I'll be aiming for a healthy population of plankton and micro/meso organisms in the water column.
  • Only keep animals that can be sustainably aquacultured or maricultured. I'm not asserting that wild collection doesn't have a place in a sustainable industry, but I'd like to avoid supporting it directly for now. Frankly, I like being able to demonstrate that a natural reef habitat can be perpetuated in captivity with zero impact on wild reefs. Our hobby is continually facing restrictions and regulations that, in my opinion, don't always come from sound science. As conscientious reefers, we owe it to the hobby and industry at large to visibly and vocally promote sustainability. Okay, that's it for the soapbox!

It'll be fun to see how this theory holds up the first time things don't go according to plan! :)

Lastly, as the system matures, I'm going to experiment with plankton culture and dosing. This has always been an interest for me, and I think it's potentially a big missing piece of many closed reef environments. There have been some very interesting and encouraging results here on the forums from @sixty_reefer, among others, and I'm going to take a stab at it.

Okay, that's it for the theory. Here comes the build!
Oct 14, 2019
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I had a very specific location for the tank in mind from the start, a corner of my home office where I'll be spending quite a bit of time:


That gave me a ~30" x 40" footprint to work inside of, but I wanted to strike the right balance of space to work in/around/under the tank. I don't want to have any visible peripheral equipment or clutter around the tank since I generally like to keep my space pretty tidy, but more importantly, because it would distract from the tank itself. I'm going for a clean, minimalist presentation. My favorite displays are the ones that look like a piece of the ocean that's just magically captive. No equipment, wires etc...

I also spent a fair amount of time deciding how to maximize water volume. My goal was 100 gallons of total volume since that seems like a pretty good target for overall stability. I'll be automating to the extent possible to promote stability as well, but the challenge would be significant (particularly with temperature control since this room can have 10-15 degree swings day to night).

With that in mind, I finally decided on an 80 gallon display from SC Aquariums. It's 32" x 24" x 24" which has a few big advantages for me:
  • Lots of depth for aquascaping, 12-16 inches just won't do.
  • Plenty of height for coral growth. 24" seems like the perfect balance between tall but not so tall that light penetration is an issue.
  • The 24" x 32" footprint is compact enough that lighting won't be prohibitively expensive. I can start with a single light during maturation and softie phases, then add another to supplement when I add SPS.
Steve from SCA was great to work with and answered a handful of questions for me as I worked through my options. A few weeks later:


No issues at all with shipping or delivery. I ordered just the tank itself as I plan on building a custom stand and sourcing all the other equipment myself, but it was packed well and arrived in perfect condition. The only surprise was how *!&$^ heavy this thing is! SCA uses 12mm glass for this size tank, which almost seems like overkill, but I love the peace of mind when I'm looking at 80 gallons of water suspended next to my desk. As you'll see, over-building becomes a theme here.

Like a glove:

Oct 14, 2019
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Framing the Stand

I decided to build my own stand for a few reasons. To my earlier point, I want the whole system to be 100% self-contained with minimal exposed equipment or wires and it's important that I maximize the water volume in the system. These goals are somewhat at odds considering that 32" x 24" is a pretty slim footprint to fit a hundred gallons of water. I also want to maintain separation between the "wet" section of the stand and the electronics for the obvious safety reasons as well as ease of use and maintenance. Here's what I came up with:


I wanted maximum usable internal space so I went with a classic Rocket Engineer stand. All 2x4 construction with 2x6s around the top

The smaller compartment on the right is a "dry" side which houses the electronics. Initially this will just be the control boxes for various pieces of equipment. Eventually it will be a full reef controller.

Quick aside, the Apex has certainly cemented itself as the can't-go-wrong reef controller but I'm very curious if EcoTech's move with wirelessly enabled hardward and the Mobius app will mark a shift from the age of dedicated reef controllers to an "internet of things" approach to equipment automation. I digress...

I decided to join the studs with pocket screws, eliminating the need for a few pieces of wood and saving me some precious cubic inches of interior volume. If you're interested in making a diy stand (or anything out of wood for that matter) I'd strongly encourage anyone to pick up a Kreg jig:


With minimal blood or tears I ended up with this:


I also found a mitre saw to be invaluable when making cuts like these where 1/16ths of an inch really matter. I'm pretty good with a circular saw, and with enough jigging it can absolutely be used in this application, but a mitre saw really gave me confidence that I was going to end up with a perfectly square and level stand.

Floor Support

While this was happening, I took a crawl under the house to inspect what exactly would be bearing the weight of the tank. I'm estimating the full weight to come in around 1400 lbs (the display glass and water alone is 800+ lbs). It's alongside an exterior wall so this is arguably a little paranoid, but I'm not willing to compromise peace of mind. This is especially true because a) it's a rimless tank and even a small amount of deflection in the stand or floor could spell big trouble, b) it's in my office and a leak/crack/issue would be fairly catastrophic (not that a tank failure wouldn't a catastrophe anywhere else), and c) I want to be able to travel and live my life knowing the reef is structurally 100% bomb-proof.

Unfortunately, I discovered that the joists under the floor are parallel to the wall meaning that the weight of the tank would be largely riding on just two vs. three or four had they been perpendicular. After reading up on this and pouring over a few related threads here and on other forums I decided to supplement with some extra studs and a jack post in the crawl space:


I had only 21" of clearance down there, so this was not a fun job. The wood you can see at the top is 2 sistered pieces of 2x4 placed directly under the future location of the tank. Beneath the moisture barrier I excavated a few square feet of dirt and laid gravel, then I jacked the post up snug. It was cramped and dirty work so please forgive the lack of in-progress pics! ;Yuck Again, did I need to do this? Maybe not, but the floor currently feels solid as a slab even with the tank fully loaded (spoilers!). 100% worth the effort for me.

Facing and Finishing the Stand

With that done, I come to my first major mistake of the build! Between the 2x6s that frame the top I attached 3 2x4 cross-members to support the bottom of the tank. There are some pics of this below. Thinking this was, again, overkill I opted to use a piece of 3/8" ply across the top:


After putting the tank on top and doing a 1/2 test fill it was immediately obvious that the plywood was not perfectly uniform. I was within about 1/16th of an inch, but I didn't rip cut the lumber and there was enough variation that the plywood had a very gentle curve. I didn't take pics, but I could easily slide a sheet of paper under parts of the tank between the glass and underlying foam. Unfortunately, I had glued and nailed the ply down, so it was a huge pain to rip it off and go with plan b:


3/4" melamine board. This gave me a perfectly flat surface, and at 3/4" it would distribute the weight across the stand without any deflection:




Further, leaving it floating on top of the cross-members allowed me to shim it from below with playing cards as the tank was filled ensuring the weight was uniformly supported. As I started to face and trim the stand you can see that the melamine board, while floating, is held in position by the 3/4" facing:



I was pretty happy with how this turned out when comparing this last pic to my initial sketchup. From here, I just had to make the doors and trim and get it stained and painted.


Carpentry, and finish carpentry in particular, is not what I would call a strength of mine but I can get it done in a pinch with enough wood putty! The trim work was minimal, as I really didn't want anything visually to pull focus away from the tank itself.





Almost there! You can see there's no trim on the top just yet, but about 1/4" of melamine that extends out from under the footprint of the tank (the gray neoprene foam). This is because I decided to build the top trim as a separate, removable, piece that can be taken on and off for inspection, maintenance, etc... I figure there's going to be enough salt water dripping on the lip regardless of how careful I am that I'll thank myself later. We'll see.


My wife and 12 year old son helped me get the tank from the garage back into my office and on top of the stand. There was at least one moment there where I thought we were going to lose it. Boy do I need some reefing buddies in central OR :).


It was pretty easily to visually inspect the weight distribution by looking for uniform compression of the neoprene foam since it had this pattern. Re-purposing my wife's yoga mat for the win!


Snug all around! I didn't take pictures, but I shimmed with a few playing cards under the tank from below between the melamine and the frame of the stand. Fortunately, it didn't take much and nothing shifted or settled when the tank was filled.


Added an inch of water to help with levelling. As you can tell from the shims it didn't take much! The 3/4" facing stops about 1/4" above the floor so those shims are just barely under the actual stand.


Oct 14, 2019
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Santa came a little early for me this year. I had been planning my lighting, water movement and other critical hardware purchases for a while and took advantage of a few Black Friday "deals".



LED lighting appeals to me for several reasons and Radions have a reputation that's hard to beat. I decided to go with Ecotech for lighting and powerheads since I'm convinced they're making a smart play on the control-ability front with wireless communication and the Mobuis app. Then again, Mobius is still in beta after a year(?) so we'll see how this comment ages :)

I opted for two XR15w Pros, despite the coverage of the XR30w being adequate for my 32" x 24" tank. This was for two reasons. One, It allows me to get up and running initially for half the cost and I don't anticipate the tank having such high light demand for a year or so. Two, it allows me a little added flexibility with positioning and configuring two lights down the road to get exactly the coverage I want. I also went for the diffuser after @Bulk Reef Supply gave it such a positive review.

After setting it up, I was pleased to find that the rumors I heard of the RMS mount being cheap and flimsy were largely untrue. The whole thing is metal, feels solid and gives me complete confidence my lights won't come crashing down into my tank. Down the road I'll decide whether to go with another RMS mount for the second light or a hanging or rail system. Looking forward to crossing that bridge when I get there.


I'm starting with an MP40wQD, which I will also supplement after my tank has matured sufficiently to add SPS. I plan on adding either another 40 or perhaps a 10. That's another decision I'll make down the road. For now, I'm thrilled with the performance of a single MP40. Here's what the NTP mode looks like at 100% in my tank.

That type of flow from a single powerhead is probably old news for many of you, but I was pretty giddy over it! My last system was running Maxijet mods on a switching outlet :cool:.

As far as the noise level, it's definitely the loudest part of the tank, but unless I have it running at around 70% or higher it's barely audible from my desk about 6 or 7 feet away. I did notice that the noise has lessened somewhat after a few weeks of run time, but whether it's due to an actual "break in" of the hardware itself or just moving into alignment on its own I can't be sure. Unfortunately, the power supply that I received with the unit made a very loud squeal/whine. It immediately made me think of bad capacitors since I've seen this issue in laptop power bricks. Interestingly, the volume of the sound was inverse to the strenth at which I ran the powerhead. I contacted EcoTech and they sent me a replacement right away no questions asked so it seems like this may be a known issue.


I went with a Reef Octopus Varios 8 for the heart of my system. It's well reviewed, gives me plenty of headroom to add multiple reactors via a manifold and, most importantly since this is in my office where I'm in meetings and on video calls all day - it's dead quiet. Silent. Granted, I'm running it at 20% but here's to energy savings and a long life since this thing was NOT cheap.

Another reason I like running an oversized return that's dialed back is that it allows me to "storm" the tank by opening up my drain and cranking my circulation up. I'm a big believer in doing this semi-regularly as part of a maintenance routine: slap a filter sock on the drain line, get the water moving, get in there with a turkey baster to blast the rocks and stir the sand. (Sandbed maintenance is a topic for another time, and there are many strong and differing opinions on this one but I've never been in the habit of letting my sand bed be a) deep enough, or b) undisturbed enough to become eutrophic.) This routine of storming the tank is also a great opportunity to clean off various weirs and strainers and prevents my drain valve from ever becoming encrusted enough to limit flow unexpectedly.

I did also purchase a MagDrive 7 to use as a mixing pump for saltwater in a 32 gallon brute can. That will be its primary function but it's there as a backup in the event my Varios has any issues or needs maintenance. I'm doing the same with an additional Eheim Jager 150W heater that's serving light duty getting replacement water up to temp for water changes and gives me redundancy in the event I need to replace a heater unexpectedly. Which brings me to temp control...

Temperature Control

What this means, fortunately for me, is heat. Where I live in Oregon can have frost 10 months of the year, and the summers are dry and rarely hotter than low to mid 90s. I won't ever need to worry about running a chiller, but if I need to I can ventilate the stand and push air across the surface of the display to prevent temps from exceeding ~83 degrees. Frankly, I don't see this as a problem.

I'm running 2x Eheim Jager 150 heaters on an InkBird ITC-308. 300W of heating power is more than sufficient and our house is fairly new and well insulated. I wanted some headroom on the heater wattage since my office is on the front of the house, farthest from the thermostat and generally the coldest room in the house (correction: WAS the coldest in the house ;Joyful).

Splitting the wattage into multiple undersized heating units is a practice I've adopted ever since coming home to my first reef having been turned into soup by a heater that stuck in the "on" position. At a glance I could tell my corals weren't happy, checked the temp...95 degrees! Luckily my roommates at the time had no qualms eating frozen veggies that had been dunked as a reef saving measure.

As far as the controller goes, I'm happy with it overall. I love the peace of mind knowing that I've got redundancy and it was fairly inexpensive for having all the right features - submersible temp probe, audible alarms etc... There is one thing that bothers me, which is that the controller is precise to .4 degrees when running in Celsius, but only accurate to 1 degree farenheit so I've been forced to grow accustomed to reading far more intuitive and rational SI units. Oh well, it's probably about time... Still, this makes no sense to me!

Protein Skimming

I'm not going to add much on this topic. Generally, protein skimming is falling out of fashion lately with turf scrubbers being the rage. (By the way, Walter Adey was singing the praises of ATS back in 1991 if not earlier. Such an awesome book. Does anyone out there have a surge device installed in a home reef? I've contemplated the feasibility of dump buckets in the attic far more than I'd ever admit to my wife.) For me the bottom line is this: a protein skimmer offers an effective means of nutrient export, but also increases the air/water interface of my system by hundreds if not thousands of square feet (citation needed).

I went with a Reef Octopus Essence 130 since consensus is that it's about as quiet as they come for a skimmer that can still push some foam. As a bonus, it appears to be, hands down, the most effective skimmer that fits in a 6"x9" footprint. Space is limited in this built so that was a big win for me.

I've always been intrigued with the idea of skimming wet and building a device to automatically replace the effluent with equal amounts of fresh salt water as an alternative form of continual water changes. Has anyone experimented or had experience with this? Crazy idea?


For top off I decided to go with a Tunze Osmolator 3155 because...well...this is the "no one's been fired for hiring IBM" version of a reef tank purchase. Yes, there are about a thousand ways to replace evaporation and half of those seem way cheaper than a $200, but I think Tunze really nailed this product. It's exactly the right combination of sensors, float switches and integrated circuits to convince me that I'd spend way more DIY'ing something.

Up next, back to the build with plumbing!
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Great Job! In your next segment, will you call out where you sourced the plumbing parts and why?
There isn't honestly much to tell about sourcing parts. I picked up almost everything at my local Ace Hardware. All white schedule 40 fittings and pipe. I'm all about form over function in that regard. I generally like white since I'm not particularly trying to hide any dirt or grime.

I feel the same way about my sump as I do about PC parts. Lots of people are happy to pay a premium to get all their components in cool matching colors. If my ram sticks don't match my video card I won't be any less happy. They both exist to drive a display. :rolleyes:

When it comes to plumbing there are a few parts I'll always happily spend a little more on: bulkheads and valves. Bulkheads are generally fine as long as the rubber gaskets are fresh and in good shape, but it's such a hassle to deal with a leaky bulkhead I'd gladly spend a little extra for insurance against issues. For valves, I will only ever use Spears gate valves as my main drain valve and Savko ball valves for anything else that tank water runs through. I've had too many cheap ball valves completely seize and cause serious headaches. The 1" Spears gate valve I used can be found on both Bulk Reef Supply and Amazon for ~$35.
Oct 14, 2019
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My sump requirements called for the drain to dump water directly into a skimmer and equipment section followed by a refugium and, lastly, the return. Because I'm going to actively promote micro fauna in this tank, I did not want organisms that escape the refugium to pass through any filtration before being pushed up to the display. As a secondary goal, I wanted independent control of the flow rate through the equipment and refugium sections.

Unfortunately, sourcing a sump was the second pretty big mistake of this build for me. I had intended on custom fabricating my own to accomplish the above and completely maximize my use of the area inside the stand. Sourcing the right acrylic became a problem, however. There's only one supplier in a few hours radius of me and I brought home a sheet (4' x 8') of 3/8" cell cast:


This supplier didn't carry any of the premium brands of acrylic I had asked for by name (Acrylite, Plexiglas G, etc...) but assured me that the stock he carried would be suitable for a pressure vessel application. Well, in my excitement to proceed with the build I was too quick to accept suspect advice. After doing some diligence here on Reef2Reef and elsewhere, I found multiple accounts of Marga Cipta acrylic not being at all suitable for aquariums (it won't take a weld, and if it does it won't hold against pressure) and I had a very expensive sheet of unusable plastic taking up space in my garage :mad:. I was also at budget, so this was going to be a setback.

Well, after speaking with the plastics guy he was willing to take it back minus a restocking fee. Frankly, I'm lucky he did since I paid cash. I ended up finding an 18" cube sump from Trigger systems that had the compartment arrangement I needed and fit nicely inside my stand. I couldn't find a 20" cube for less than ~$150 more so I pulled the trigger on the Trigger.


Overall, I'm happy with it. Solid construction with very clean seams which is great since I would have been laying in bed at night worrying about blown seams had I tried to forge ahead with the Marga Cipta. Believe me, I considered it!

Test fit in the stand with my skimmer and return pump:


As you'll see a little later, the 18"x18" footprint ended up being a blessing. I had 8.5" inches of free space to the right for peripherals (ATO & dosing reservoirs, plankton culture setup etc...) and a 5.5 gallon Aqueon tank has a width of....8.25"! I'm using one for my ATO water now with plenty of headroom on top.

The first plumbing step was to install all three bulkheads in the bottom of the overflow section. I didn't grab any pics of the process. Unfortunately, there were a few small lines of excess silicone that had been left to cure on the glass right over two of the drilled holes. This took some elbow grease to remove with a razorblade before I could prep the glass with rubbing alcohol for a perfect seal with the rubber gaskets. As annoying as it was, it's always a confidence booster when you see just how strong the silicone/glass bond is :).

Next up was some prep work for the return. The overflow in the SCA tank came with pre-drilled holes on the side for 1/2" Loc-Line. I decided to bump this up to 3/4", not because I strictly needed to. I'm only circulating about 5x display volume, ~400 gph, through the sump. But I wanted a larger interior diameter to give me a slower baseline for water velocity out of the nozzle. It's easy to reduce it if I want faster targeted flow to hit a dead spot etc... Ultimately, I'd like to experiment with eductors to increase turbulence when I'm ready for SPS. I dremelled the hole out into a "U" on both sides of the overflow:



I made sure to leave enough wiggle room that the vertical run from the bulkhead wouldn't have any torque applied to it which could cause leaks.

With this done and the overflow ready to plumb, it was time to start with the drains. I only have three holes in the bottom of the tank, and wanted to avoid any external plumbing for aesthetic reasons so I decided to go with a Herbie style drain. If you aren't familiar with this configuration I'd recommend reading this article. In theory, I would agree that a Bean Animal offers an extra margin of safety, but, for me, double redundancy just isn't worth using all three drilled holes for drainage. I do think I'll look into getting a cover for my overflow, however, to mitigate the chance of snails taking a ride which is the biggest risk of blockage. The main line is farthest left, extends about 5" from the bottom of the tank and has a strainer on top. The emergency is in the center and open/uncovered with a chamfer around the inside edge to reduce any noise from water trickling over.

The drains are glued below the tank, but inside the overflow the 1" standpipes are slip fit into the bulkhead opening with a few wraps of teflon tape to provide a snug fit. They can be glued if you're bold, but any leakage will just flow down the inside of the drain pipe. As long as the sump has the capacity to handle the full overflow section draining into it this approach is totally acceptable. A slip fit with teflon tape is generally water tight in a low pressure scenario anyways.


Next, I measured and cut the PVC, making sure to start from the bulkhead, making my way up and out. This, again, ensured that there would be zero pressure or torque applied to the bulkhead itself. Once the pieces were test fit, glued and test fit again I painted the visible portion with Krylon Fusion black.


I'm pleased with how this turned out. I wanted to minimize the visual appearance of plumbing to the extent possible.


With the plumbing done above the stand it was time to plumb the sump!


I used a piece of 1" diameter shim to ensure a snug fit between the PVC pipe and the pipe clamp. These pipe clamps' only purpose is to prevent torque on the bulkhead for the same reasons as stated before.


Above you can see the playing cards I used to shim the melamine board under the tank as I filled it. Unions are critical in this location, since anything can go wrong lower down and it's dead simple to unscrew the union, remove the plumbing and fish out a snail, fix a leak, replace it altogether, etc...


From here it's a lot of "dry fit, measure, measure again, maybe dry fit again, cut, dry fit" ad nauseam, always working away from the bulkhead (starting at the top and working down). Had I started measuring and cutting from the sump toward the unions there's a greater chance that I'm off by 1/32" when I get there, putting torque on the bulkhead and causing a leak. Granted, this only really mattered for main drain line since the emergency drain is free-hanging and my return pump is connected by flexible hose to minimize vibration.


The drain lines should end just below the surface of the water for two reasons: 1) to minimize any back pressure caused by forcing the draining water deep into the sump - this will make it harder to tune the siphon, and 2) to eliminate any noise or splashing. Some folks advocate for keeping the emergency drain above the water level in the sump to create noise as an indicator/alarm if the main drain stops performing. I disagree with this approach since it's totally normal and acceptable to have a slow trickle down the e-drain, and the open air standpipe sucking down anything more than a trickle is plenty loud enough to alert me of an issue.

In the unlikely scenario that both drain lines become blocked when no one's around to take notice and intervene, my circulation pump has a float switch in the return compartment that will automatically shut it down when the water level drops too low. Due to the relative volume of my return chamber in the sump vs. the extra capacity in the top of the display, this return will cut off before water overflows the display. At this point, circulation has stopped and life support is offline, but unless the drain blockage is 100% in both lines (an impossibly unlikely scenario) the return will kick on intermittently as the sump trickle fills, potentially shaking loose the obstruction and pushing some warm water to the display.

Last point about plumbing. I intend to use a manifold to provide water to additional reactors and equipment in the future. For now, as you can see in the above picture, I've got a single reducing 1" > 3/4" "T" on my return line with a FPT opening. It's plugged with a 3/4" MPT stopper and a generous amount of teflon tape until I need to tap into it.


Home stretch! Time for a test fill. With the tank almost ready to get wet, I hooked up my RODI unit in the laundry room.


This BRS 5-stage unit had been in storage for a few years. Imagine my surprise when I cleaned it, replaced the filters, flipped it on and there wasn't a single leak! From here it was time to take a few deep breaths and test fill the tank.


It holds water! I did a test fill with tap water as an initial leak check and then drained it and re-filled with RODI water.
In the above pic I'm already in the process of getting it warm and salty enough to add some life to the refugium section of the sump. I'll be cycling with uncured, used dry rock and adding macroalgae to the sump as soon as possible to help capture and export what I expect to be a fair amount of nutrients coming off the rocks for the first few weeks.

Next up - bringing the refugium online, rocks, sand and aquascaping.
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Go Live!

Seeding the Bio Filter and Refugium

My local fish store is about 40 minutes away, and I'm not out that way very often. As the tank was filling with RODI after a successful leak test I had an occasion to swing by and pick up some grunge from the bottom of their frag system and a few species of macro algae.


  • Ulva sp.
  • Feather Caulerpa, mexicana(?)
  • Grape Caulerpa, racemosa(?)
  • Chaetomorpha sp.
The grow light is a $20 led unit I grabbed from Amazon that pulls about 30 watts if I remember correctly. I'm sure it'll need to be replaced at some point, but I've always used cheap hardware store lights on my refugiums and it's a tough habit to break. (And before anyone admonishes me for rigging the above pictured death trap, it's on GFCI ;Dead.) I replaced the outlet closest the tank with a GFCI unit, and I'll put a grounding probe in the tank once I start adding real livestock. On the subject, I also purchased a power interruption alarm since I don't want the GFCI to trip silently in the night and go unnoticed. It's got a 120dB alarm, so I'm sure that'll make for a fun early morning awakening at some point sooner than I'd like!

Based on prior experience, I'm expecting the Chaeto to out compete the other species of macro in my refugium but so far all four are showing rapid growth with no clear winner. We'll see how things pan out when nutrients and trace elements aren't so abundant but so far I'm pleased that everything is growing well. Unfortunately, I caught one small Aiptasia on the Ulva but removed it immediately. Otherwise, the only hitchhikers appear to be a hundred or so pin-sized pods that I haven't bothered to examine closely and a few larger amphipods.

The rock in that pic is a piece of dry rock that I added to start seeding it with bacteria from the cup of walnut-sized live rocks from the LFS.

Once the tank was brought up to 80 degrees and 1.022 SG, I moved everything over to the sump. You can also see the 5.5 gallon Aqueon ATO reservoir I mentioned in my last post. If anyone asks I'm going to say I planned for it to fit that perfectly:


This marked the official "go live" date on 1/6/20!


This is probably my favorite part of setting up a new tank. I had a few requirements in mind for the aquascape in this tank:
  • Employ the rule of thirds (and/or golden ratio depending on what looks good) for both main viewing angles, front and right side. The side of the tank of visible from all the way down the hall and I want it to look appealing.
  • Use the 24" depth to give the display a nice sense of depth and volume. Aquascapes always look flatter than expected through the water and I wanted to mitigate this.
  • I'll be going with a shallow sand bed both for aesthetic reasons and to maximize infauna.
  • Open aquascape with plenty of negative/swimming space. This was the hardest part for me. You have to remind yourself that the focal points your aiming for are NOT going to be the rocks themselves, but what's growing between them and the top of the tank.
On another trip to my LFS a few months prior I picked up almost exactly 50 lbs of dry rock. It's a mix of what looks like Pukani and Reef Saver rocks, most of which were "used" i.e. had been in a large system that was broken down and brought into the store. At $1 per pound this stuff was a steal in my opinion given some pretty nice shapes and sizes. I was able to get all the rock I needed for 1/4 of what I anticipated spending. Of course, the trade off was that this rock had lots of decaying organic matter on it and would require a fairly extended curing period. It was pretty rank. Here's how I dealt with it:
  1. Vigorously scrubbed each piece of rock, both with a dish-sized brush on the full exterior, but also with a toothbrush in every crevice it could fit inside of.
  2. Scoured all the nooks and crannies with tweezers and a set of clay sculpting tools. The brush, in particular, was indispensable.
  3. Blasted them with the hose. I could have filled a cereal bowl with the dead bristle worms, brittle stars and asterinas that came off ;Vomit.
  4. I repeated steps 2 and 3 a few times until I stopped finding anything I could dislodge. All the scouring and blasting left me feeling pretty confident I had removed the bulk of organic matter. It was actually a fairly satisfying process overall. I should have been a dentist!
  5. All the rock went into a 32 gallon Brute can with about two quarts of bleach and RODI water. I've seen a few recipes that called for far more bleach, but that's all I had and it felt like plenty. I let this soak overnight with occasional agitation. My wife also experience occasional agitation by the bleach fumes in the garage where her treadmill is. Whoops.
  6. Pulled the rock out of the bleach solution, rinsed it vigorously in RODI water and left it out to dry for a few days until the bleach smell was mostly gone.
  7. Refilled the Brute can with RODI water and soaked the rocks again for a week at room temperature. No salt, no heat and just the occasional jostling. After a week there was a pretty massive bacteria bloom, the water clouded up and smelled like a poorly kept fish store.
  8. I drained it, rinsed the rocks and repeated the process again with fresh RODI water, this time letting it soak for 2 weeks.
  9. Finally, I rinsed the rocks a final time and let them dry.
Granted, the above could have been accomplished with a little patience by following a more textbook curing procedure with salt water, heat, flow and bacteria. I wanted to get a few birds stoned by using the remaining organics to cycle the tank in lieu of raw shrimp or ammonia additives. If I did too good of a job cleaning the rocks I could always supplement.

With all that work out of the way it was time to start having fun.


I masked out the footprint of my tank on the garage floor, stood a 24" piece of plywood up behind it to gauge the correct height and started stacking rocks. After messing around for a few days I arrived at something I was generally pleased with:


These are just the pieces I intended to reinforce by drilling, sinking acrylic rods and puttying. As you'll see, that process revealed some constraints with how I could place the rods and putty and the final result was somewhat modified, but the same basic shape language. I'll be adding some additional filler pieces to make the scape look more natural as well.

Overall, I'm happy with how it came out. The piece on the right is much more solid that it appears which gives an interesting cantilevered or broken archway look:



Overall, the aquascape starts high to the left (A), where I'll be placing SPS and other organisms that demand high flow and light (The Vortech placement is temporary). The bottom half of the left-most rock (B), and the rock on the right (C) will house various LFP and softies. If all goes to plan, I'd like to get a pair of clowns to host in some Euphyllia on (C) and get some Monti caps growing together from (A) and (C) to close the gap. I'll need to make sure the clown fish understand this plan so they cooperate ;Troll.

From the right side view, I also have the space divided into approximate thirds, with the right half of the arch (C) serving as the left-most focal point, offset by some rubble (D). Granted, this will evolve over time and I've got about 8 lbs of rock my my refugium currently which I'll use to round everything out as needed.

As far as the sand goes, it's a single 40lb bag of CaribSea special grade dry. I rinsed it thoroughly in 10 pound batches and threw it in. I couldn't make that interesting if I wanted to.


To kick-start the nitrogen cycle, I picked up a bottle of Seachem Seed that you can see in the first pic. I followed the dosing recommendation on the bottle, but between the bacteria on the macro and the live rock rubble I'm going to have to just trust that it's helping boost the diversity of my bio filter.

The rocks and sand went in on 1/7/20, and I first tested parameters on 1/9:
  • Temp: 80 (running this a little high to facilitate the cycle)
  • SG: 1.0225 (running this a little low to facilitate the cycle)
  • pH: 7.8
  • Ammonia: .02
  • Nitrite: .05
  • Nitrate: 2
  • Phosphate: 0.2 (Woof)
Were cycling! As far as my methodology for cycling the tank, I didn't start breaking the skimmer in until a week after going live to give the bacteria a head start. I'm keeping the tank unlit and covered to, hopefully, prevent any nuisance algae from getting a foothold in the display. I'll be keeping a close eye on ammonia and nitrate to be sure they don't exceed 5 mg/L from die off on the rocks, but that would frankly be nuts and I don't expect it. If it turns out the rocks were too clean I'll be ghost feeding, but with ammonia already at .03 after 2 days that shouldn't be a problem.

Finally, I get to sit back, relax and enjoy looking at the fruit of my labor:


Next post I'll walk through how I dealt with that rats nest of wires you see on the dry side of my stand.
Oct 14, 2019
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Sisters, OR
Wiring & Cable Management

When I planned out the stand I knew I wouldn't have enough volume inside to create a false wall for concealing a jumble of wires behind. Generally speaking, I also like to eliminate tangles, even unseen ones, for cleanliness and safety.

First things first, I replaced the wall outlet near the tank with a GFCI. I've seen a few debates on whether GFCI is appropriate for a reef tank, and I will concede that in some situations the risk of an accidental/false trip leaving the tank without power outweighs the benefit. For myself, it's a point of safety I'm not willing to compromise on. Furthermore, as soon as there's livestock in the tank I'll be adding a grounding probe which will trip the GFCI in the event of any stray current in the tank, eliminating a potential source of animal health issues.

For now, I purchased a power interruption alarm, as mentioned previously, which sits on the same circuit as the tank to alert me, the neighbors and the dead if the circuit loses power. Seriously, this thing is painfully loud:


With GFCI installed, I started in the stand by installing the power strip:


6 switchable outlets is good for my needs in the near to medium term, but I'd give it 50/50 that I'll end up needing another at some point. Here's what draws power from inside the stand:
  1. Refugium Light (30w)
  2. Circulation Pump (Max 98w, running closer to 20w)
  3. Heaters (300w)
  4. Skimmer (11w)
  5. ATO (20w for 10 seconds every few hours)
  6. Vortechs (Max 38w)
This puts me at a total maximum of 497w if everything's running at 100%, closer to 300 in reality. Plenty of headroom to add another Vortech and/or a few small peripherals down the road. The lights will be plugged directly into the other open outlet and not pass through the cabinet at all.

Given there was nowhere to hide the wires, I needed a way to install them cleanly. I found inspiration here on the forums (can't remember where I saw the idea first, but I'll gladly give credit where it's due), and grabbed some 2" x 1" network cable raceway from Amazon:


It's available in 2" x 2" also, which would be easier to work with if you have the space. A single 5' length was almost exactly enough. One word of caution with this stuff - it will crack easily if you aren't careful cutting it. Even with a 60 tooth count blade on my mitre saw I lost a few inches to a crack down the facing. I'd recommend you cut it with a hacksaw or similar.

Here's how things looked when I started:


You can see the vertical raceway installed. At this point I just needed to untangle everything and route it cleanly. About thirty minutes of cord jockeying yielded this:


As you can see, there's more than enough space for the wires in the 2" x 1" raceways for everything that has a controller.


Voila! I'm pretty happy with how this turned out. There's plenty of space left for a few more controller boxes as the reef grows as well. Here's a shot inside the "wet" part of the stand with everything hooked up:


You can see the cover I made for my 5.5 gallon ATO reservoir here. It's got legs in the back to help distribute a little weight and I'll be placing additional equipment on top. Obviously, Petco tanks aren't exactly load-bearing, but I'm confident resting upwards of 30-40 lbs on top. I'm contemplating stacking another 5.5 gallon on it to use as a culture vessel. Those plans are still formulating. There's 13.5" between the top of the sump and the top of the cabinet so I can always get creative with mounting reactors and culture vessels too.

The above pic was taken 1/25/20. You can see the first wave of diatoms in the refugium is just past peak bloom. Three weeks of cycling and we're at 0 ammonia,1 nitrite and 20 nitrate. Nitrate being that high surprised me a little, but I think there were still lots of organics on the rocks that were fully processed by the Seachem Seed. We'll see how quickly the refugium processes it, and I'll do a large (~50% water change) before turning on the display lights.

At this point, all that remains is to install the Radion XR15 and I'm in no particular hurry since I won't be lighting the display until I begin stocking.


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Dec 30, 2016
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Thanks @samnaz! I just checked out your build thread. That controller cabinet is pretty sweet.
Thanks! That cabinet is actually made for displaying mini helmets. It’s 4” deep and I have since decided I want to do a hinged false wall setup that will require a deeper cabinet. Funny thing is I ended up going with an IKEA cabinet that costs a fraction of what I spent for the display case.
Oct 14, 2019
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Sisters, OR
My initial cycle has nearly completed and I installed the light last week, which was the last remaining piece. This means I've officially hit milestone one of the build; the tank is ready for fish and soft corals!


Without any ghost feeding, parameters are as follows as of 1/30/20:

Temp: 80 - swinging by half a degree every ~hour as the heaters kick on and off
SG: 1.0235 - still running a little low
Ammonia: 0
Nitrite: .02
Nitrate: 20 (I think 30 was test error, likely human - tested twice in as many days and the previous reading of 30 now seems wrong)
Phosphate: .02

Meanwhile, there's been some very impressive macro growth in the fuge. As a reminder, here's what I brought home from my LFS on 1/5:


And here's what it looks like 26 days later:


The Feather Caulerpa has easily increased its mass 10x. Chaeto went from a golf ball to a baseball. The Ulva started with the area of a tea saucer and is now a dinner plate. The Grape Caulerpa has shown the least impressive growth, but is about 4x its original size. I'm very happy that it all seems to be thriving, I expected one species to dominate more even this early on.

In anticipation of receiving some livestock I've purchased a few essentials - including an acclimation kit with Prime in the event I get a specimen that's way off my system's SG and needs to sit tight in the shipping water for a bit. Here's how it arrived:


Thanks Amazon...

About two weeks ago I contacted my LFS and asked them to let me know the next time they get juvenile ocellaris from ORA. Yesterday, I threw half a diced frozen shrimp into the tank to feed the ecosystem and do a little stress test on my bio filter. Well, As fate would have it, they contacted me today to tell me they've got a pair of clowns that they're going to hold for a few days for me. I'm going to test my parameters in the morning, do a big (~30%) water change and, if all is well, turn what has thus far been an exercise in CAD, carpentry, structural engineering, plumbing, electrical, environmental science, design, product management, and... patience... into a fish tank!
Oct 14, 2019
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Sisters, OR
This weekend I added a pair of juvenile ocellaris:


(That apparent white spot on the fish on the left is a hydroid on the glass). They're eating well, behaving normally for clown fish and settling in nicely. At just around 1" to start it will be nice to watch them grow, compete for dominance and mature.

I also picked up 6 blue-leg hermits and 4 cerith snails to eat any leftover food in the tank. My next livestock addition will likely be a Mix 'N Match Special package from IPSF for some some much needed biodiversity and a real cleanup crew. Since I started with dead rock and sand I want to give it a little time so a big addition of micro detrivores and herbivores don't starve. For the next few weeks I'll be target feeding the clowns with Omega One Mini Pellets twice daily and broadcast feeding a quarter cube of frozen mysis to the tank twice weekly. At the first sign of turf algae in the display it'll be time to get that shipment from Hawaii.

Meanwhile, everything is performing well equipment-wise. I'm confident that I won't be needing any upgrades until the additive ones I mentioned before - lighting and flow when it's time to add SPS.


I've also ordered a DIY mesh top kit from BRS today. As much as the open top look appeals to me, I've lost a few fish due to jumping and I'd like to avoid that completely this time around. We also have a new kitten, and I'm sure it's just a matter of time before it takes a dunk.

My only small gripe is that the radion fixture gives me a little more glare than I anticipated when I'm sitting at my desk. I'll probably slap some kind of a DIY shade on the front of it, thinking a small piece of trim that extends just far enough to block the light at eye-level without blocking any light to the tank. I'd love to know if anyone's done similar. Google didn't yield many results.
Oct 14, 2019
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Sisters, OR
After running the tank at 80 degrees during the cycle I reduced the temp to 78 now that I have animals in the display. I wasn't expecting the massive impact this would have on evaporation. At 80 degrees 5 gallons of DI water would last me 5 days. After 5 days at 78 my reservoir is still 2/3 full! I keep my house at 68 by the thermostat, but my office feels more like low 70s when I have the door closed.

For the first time today I harvested some macro from my refugium:


I pulled out about a 1/2 cup of Ulva and threw it in a ziploc in the freezer. Feeding this back to fish down the road will give me pretty deep satisfaction since these nutrients came right out of the rock as it cured in the tank.
Aquarium Specialty - dry goods & marine livestock

What is your most favorite type of reef tank?

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  • Zoa dominated

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  • Mixed Reef

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  • Fish focused

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