How NOT to start a nano reef

Medical_Reef

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Hello all!

Welcome to the start of my reef keeping journal! As much as I have learned from awesome builds and write-ups on R2R, I feel that I learned the most when I saw examples of what went wrong. Unfortunately, I didn't learn enough to avoid my own setbacks and I thought I would share that journey here. Thanks for stopping by.

I am a student. A perpetual student. Upon starting my second terminal degree, my wife provided me a contract that designated "I will pursue no further formal education upon completion of this degree and will promptly seek out employment upon graduation" or something like that. So here I am, halfway through medical school after earning a PhD, about 6 months into what is feeling like a failed launch into the saltwater hobby. But with all of the rest of my life, I am used to persevering and delayed-gratification, so on we go!

Current tank shot:

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Current equipment:
WaterBox 15 AIO
AI Prime HD
Starboard bare bottom
Included return pump
Sicce powerhead
Cobalt NeoTherm 100W heater
Double nano ATO from autotopoff.com
Auto feeder and feeding ring
Filtration: Included filter sock, sponges, carbon, marine pure spheres, refugium in the back with chaeto, but mostly growing slime algae.

Current stock list:
2x Ocellaris Clownfish
Blood Red Fire Shrimp
7x Trochus snails
3x Astrea snails
Hermit crab
Red Tuxedo Urchin

Corals:
Pulsing Xenia
Kenya Tree
GSP
Hairy Mushrooms
Superman Mushrooms
3x No name shrooms
Pink Zipper zoas
Rasta zoas
Radioactive Dragoneyes zoas
Mint Candy Cane
Duncan
Red Monti
Green Pocillopora (?)
Rose Bubble Tip Anemone

Current goals:
Keep everything alive
Help the rocks to mature properly
Avoid algae
 
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Medical_Reef

Medical_Reef

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First a disclaimer: being halfway through medical school, I am currently studying for the first round of board exams and probably don't have the time for a build thread, let alone an actual saltwater tank, so this may be a slow burn for a while. However, I am feeling the need to write out this process and get it out there, so I am sure I will get to it eventually.

A little background: Even though I studied BioPhysics (crap), Optical Coherence Tomography (PhD), and Medicine (MD) what I REALLY wanted to be as a kid was a marine biologist. I have always been fascinated by the ocean and the multitude of life that abounds there. Some of my earliest memories (mostly because I don't remember a whole lot, I tend to live in the moment) are of sketching killer whales. I have always been an avid swimmer, I love to go diving, and my dad and I have talked about starting a salt-water fish tank for as long as I can remember. He finally did about a year ago, and while also a little of a rough launch, has a pretty successful tank up and running, though he is currently fallow due to Ich and is trying to kick it for good. I of course became instantly jealous and starting scheming of a way to get my own tank, however, I had two big hurdles to overcome: finances and the boss (my wife).

As a student, living on student loans because you are not allowed to work while in medical school, I have no spare money. But probably more importantly, my wife is not and has never been on board with the idea of owning pets. At the surface, her concerns are mainly the mess, smell, and maintenance that she does not want to deal with, but at a deeper level I believe she gets very attached and hates to lose pets. Honestly its a very touching sentiment, and one that I can appreciate myself. But the winning arguments for starting a fish tank boiled down to me wanting to raise some pets with my two sons and assuring her that the tank won't smell, while also looking gorgeous.

While both challenges were difficult to overcome, once I convinced my wife that clownfish were the obvious best-choice for pets, my father ordered up a Nuvo fusion 20 gallon kit from BRS (under the guise of an early birthday present) and I was good to go! Finally, I was to be a (hobbyist) marine biologist.
 
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Medical_Reef

Medical_Reef

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Before launching into a detailed breakdown of the journey so far, I will give a brief synopsis. Dates are estimates for now.
*It is longer than intended, feel free to skip over!*

Tank received - late September 2018, kit included the Nuvo Fusion 20 AIO, reef safer rock, live sand, Dr. Tim's, hydrometer, and a few other goodies. Basically everything you needed except a light. I later acquired a Gen2 Radion XR30 with pucks that didn't work, cleaned it up and upgraded to the Gen3 Pro and built a custom TV wall mount bracket using a guide found here on R2R.

Stand built and tank filled - I think within 24 hours of receiving the tank I had it up and running. I built a basic 2x4 box with an internal shelf and laid a thin plywood sheet on the top. The fusion has a thin foam sheet attached to the bottom, so I didn't add anymore. I also decided to add our first fish in, a Domino Damsel. Guess who didn't read appropriately and saw the $3.99 price tag at the LFS? This guy (cue Maui pointing thumbs at chest). Here I was thinking I had scored another little damsel, as surely all damsels stay small, and he'd be a great starter fish to get the tank cycled and get our feet wet. Whoops. Don't worry, he found a good home.

*But here was our first problem. My youngest (~2yo) loves tools, and in the brief moments I took from placing the tank on the stand to walk the plastic wrap to the trash, he managed to grab the hammer and take a swing at the tank. That sucked. Luckily he hit the edge of the tank and it didn't crack into the seal, though this tank would eventually end up unusable from a different crack. I don't think it is related, but I won't ever know for sure. Because of the hammer incident we named the domino Thor.

Domino re-homed and Clownfish in - First week of October. Domino found a nice big reef tank to go to and we got our first set of clowns. Shortly after I turned the lights on, added some corals in the next week or two, and things were going pretty good. Retrospectively I will admit to starting things too quickly, but I didn't have a good system of tracking the dates I made changes to the tank, so it always felt like more time had passed then actually had.

GHA, Dinos, tank crash and burn - Late November and through December. I started fighting some algae problems. I temporarily had a lawnmower blenny who did a good job, but he was so big that the clowns would never leave their corner, so Jaba now lives in Mexico in a nice big tank. As the algae died down I got Dinos, and while I was doing okay keeping them at bay, a power outage at the house triggered my wifi controlled power strip while we were away for Christmas break and all of my pumps were left off for the space of two weeks. Needless to say, I came home to a Dino-infested tank with the majority of the corals and one clown DOA. Unfortunately, the other clowned passed that evening and I began the rebuild. New clowns went in before the family got home from Christmas so as to not scar the boys. I tried to just clean the tank for a couple weeks and keep things happy, but the Dinos never went away so I ultimately decided to tear it down, bleach the rocks, and go bare bottom with a long cycle. BRS/WWC hybrid method in part motivated that. Our few corals flew to Utah and currently reside in my parent's tank (turns out you can carry live coral onto the plane with you, how neat!).

Tank up and running only to leak into my living room - Late January. Short story ends up being that I cracked the bottom glass. I think it probably happened while the tank was on my back porch sitting with either bleach or acid water. It was not a perfectly-level surface and I ultimately went full FUBAR there. But, though the crack was almost 4 inches long, it took almost a week for the water to make it outside of the tank stand and soak into the rug and under the entertainment center. So my one week of a perfectly clean tank shattered real fast. And my wife still hasn't forgiven me for potentially ruining her rug, though I think I may actually be okay there.

New waterbox 15 - Second week of February. At this point, I had decided to spend not a dime more getting back into this hobby, so I sold the Radion XR30 Pro Gen3 I had refurbished and upgraded for $350 and used that money to buy the waterbox 15 plus that came with the AI Prime HD. I also sold the icecap 1k gyre to fund a new tank stand, though that was less ideal than planned: I bought a dresser on the cheaper side with the plan to reinforce it as a tank stand and it was more difficult to do so than I had envisioned.

Tank up and tank down - current situation. I got the stand reinforced and the waterbox up and running without a light, only to find that I failed to adequately reinforce the top of the stand and it was beginning to bow in the front. Having already cracked one AIO tank, I tore everything out last evening and the clowns went back into the 10 gallon on the counter. I completed the stand rebuild this morning and will be moving everything back into the tank this evening.

Few thoughts and notes on the journey: I like the idea of an AIO system, as it reduces the failure points and potential for water spillage. I think this is especially important for people starting a tank on a budget or living in a rental situation where they need to be concerned about potential water damage. I am NOT sold on rimless tanks, as I think they may be less forgiving of movement and uneven surfaces. I have learned my lesson and this new stand is equipped with adjustable feet to ensure a perfectly level surface, but I realized while assembling the waterbox that if I could do it over again I would not choose a rimless AIO tank, such as IM or WB provide. Most reefers utilize a lid on their tanks, which I feel breaks up the clean appearance of a rimless tank, and this is especially true if a hood is utilized. If I were to start over again and had the time to design the tank, I would probably buy a 40B and build it into a custom AIO using baffles. This would provide the water-spill saving benefits of AIO tanks while being much cheaper and larger. This would also save money to buy a stand that fit the tank at the same time, which I would probably also suggest doing as the cabinet I have reinforced was more trouble than it was worth, especially since I opted to buy a stand to save time rather than building a new one.

So here we are, nano tank 2.0 with clownfish 2.0 and a new outlook on reefing. Lets hope this assembly tonight goes smoother than the rest of the journey.
 
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BeejReef

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I appreciate it!

The tank is back up and running as of last night. On we go!
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Looks like a PhD in marine biology could be in order after your m.d. :)

Way to stick with it through some rough patches. It will be beautiful... someday, just like you told her it would be.
 
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Medical_Reef

Medical_Reef

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Looks like a PhD in marine biology could be in order after your m.d. :)

Way to stick with it through some rough patches. It will be beautiful... someday, just like you told her it would be.
I've been thinking that there should be a PhD track for those who have invested a certain number of years in the hobby. All you have to do is write up the dissertation and present your reef tank journey and there you go! PhD in Marine Biology :D

I appreciate the encouragement. I had a couple cool mushrooms and zoas before the crash, and I've decided my goal moving forward is to only put highly-colored corals in the tank. I am thinking a zoa, mushroom, RFA dominant theme with some other softies. This way it is low maintenance, hardy (which is essential since this tank is my only option for the next 5-7 years with a few moves planned), and brightly colored. But we will see where it goes!
 
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So lets begin the detailed recap.

Day 1: why was it that I decided I could start a marine fish tank?

As I mentioned previously, I wanted to have some sort of pet to raise with my boys who are 4 and 2 years old, but my lovely wife was against the very idea of bringing any other feral creatures into the house. The one exception for her would probably be a cat, as her whole family adores cats. However, I am deathly allergic to the furry demons and have affectionately named my mother-in-laws current feline pets "sniffles" and "wheezy" much to her chagrin. So I needed to find a suitable pet that did not smell and that my wife would not need to help care of. Thus the argument building began.

I presented her with a multitude of options that I found highly reasonable, such as bearded dragons, small boas, parakeets, or even sugar gliders knowing full well that none of these would fit her bill. In fact, I intentionally thought of exotic animals she would find more repulsive than the last and continued until the point I could innocently suggest a salt water fish tank, where our first fish would of course be a couple of clowns. Isn't that perfect? Though she could see through my plan the whole time, she reluctantly agreed to the fish tank idea. However, I did have one more major hurdle in front of me: water.

Having watched my parents get their tank up and running and having done my due diligence by watching 52 weeks of reefing, I knew I needed DI water. Lucky for me, a solution was already in the works, as I had been told by multiple faculty here at the school of medicine to never drink the water straight out of the tap. The water treatment plants in Northern Mexico (actually South Texas, but its all the same) were continuously in and out of compliance and the water was suspect.

So day 1 of my fish tank build really began when my father came to visit his grandsons and decided that for their health and safety, he would install an RO water system. Added bonus, all I would have to do was add a t and run it through a DI canister, and I would have my fish water. Success.

A note on this RO unit: it is slow. Ha. It came from Lowes I believe, has a 3 gallon holding chamber, and if I need to make 20 gallons of water I have to plan a couple days in advance to make it easy. So definitely don't use this model. It was bought for drinking water purposes, and then used for a fish tank, and its not ideal.

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A
 
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Medical_Reef

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Following along - I switched careers and went back to school to become a therapist after doing a PhD in literature, so I know about the whole forever school thing!
Thanks for joining! It can be daunting to switch careers and go back to school, especially if its been a while. I hope your switch was well worth the effort! I have a classmate that worked as an accountant for over 15 years before deciding medical school was the next step for him. He's an awesome guy, but definitely in the minority starting ~45 years old instead of 22.

Thankfully, my journey wasn't quite as long. I knew leaving undergraduate school I wanted to do research, just wasn't sure where, and I suspected med school might be in the cards. So I did my doctorate training at a medical school to see what the spectrum of medical research looked like, and whether I needed the MD to live the life I wanted. Ultimately, I decided doctors have a much better life style than scientists, not to mention they make a lot more money, and the time was going to pass anyways. I may as well be in school instead of slaving away in a research lab.
 
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September 23rd - the tank arrived.

Once I had the water supply I needed, my wife emotionally on board with the purchase, and a financial backer, it was time to go. The IM Nuvo Fusion 20 starter package was ordered from BRS as an early Christmas present, which came with basically everything needed to start the reef tank besides the light. The package arrived on the 23rd and we were off to the races. The stand was assembled, the aquascape was designed, and the tank was set up within the next 24 hours, and included a last-minute race to the LFS to grab our first fish before they closed.

Everything went without a hitch right up until the point we unwrapped the fish tank. My youngest (~2yo) loves tools, and both the boys had been helping me screw, hammer, and saw at the 2x4s the whole time the stand was being built. Once we had the stand built and in place, we set to work unwrapping the tank, and in the brief moments I took from placing the tank on the stand to walk the plastic wrap to the trash, he managed to grab a hammer and take a swing at the tank. It was such a horrible sound, and even more so to hear it from just around the corner in a different room, that I feared the worst.

The damage appeared to be minimal, the hammer strike having by shear luck just hit the edge of the front of the tank, and the crack did not spread more than half the width of the connecting silicone. However, I had no idea how this would affect the integrity of the tank and my first reactions were that the tank was now unusable, before I had even had the chance to wipe the dust out of the bottom. My wife still talks about how this was the most upset she has seen me yet, and while not a positive moment for me, I was able to walk away, once all the tools were accounted for and placed out of reach, and fume in silence.

I considered doing a leak test somewhere besides the stand in my living room, but I feared not having the tank on a level surface as a filled it up and doing more damage that would make the tank unusable. So I placed my rinsed live-sand in, set up the rocks I had arranged on a cardboard box just so, and started to fill it up. Thankfully, the tank held up and my hobby was not dead in the water before it had even started. At this point it was 6:30pm, the boys were dying to get our first fish, and the LFS that is 20 minutes away closed at 7.

I hopped in the car with the two little guys and raced to the store with the plan to grab a little damsel as our first fish. I knew that they were feisty and probably wouldn't accept adding fish down the road, but I had found a decent saltwater group in facebook and knew that I could find the fish a good home in the future if I needed to. What I didn't realize as I was quickly looking through the tanks at the LFS, is that not all damsels stay small and cute like the yellowtail, and I wound up with a domino damsel that would soon outgrow my tank. The $3.99 price tag was hard to ignore when shopping for your first fish, and since at the time he was not much longer than an inch, I thought I had little to worry about. Plus, I loved the black body with the stark white spots and at the time I thought we could keep him long term if he behaved.

Late that evening, we added the domino to our tank after floating, fresh water dipping, and acclimating. My wife affectionally named the domino Thor to honor the tank surviving the hammer crash and I had nightmares that night that the tank came apart and flooded our living room. Thankfully, the Nuvo 20 held-up through this crack, and it was only a mistake a made months later that ultimately damaged the tank beyond use.


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Medical_Reef

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Good looking tank, lol I can understand the little ones. My kid sword plays next to the tank and it freaks me out alot!
Honestly though, they have a whole house to play in, you would think they could choose a different spot than right next to the fish tank?! o_O

For the most part though they are really good, and they love coming up to check on the fish periodically. They especially love feeding them and ultimately I started this fish tank for them, so I am all for it. I would just like to avoid another hammer incident with the new waterbox... fingers crossed!
 
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September 25th - I found a used skimmer!

Though it didn't really end up playing in my favor. I lucked into a Tunze 9001 skimmer on facebook marketplace for a sweet price of $65. The only thing missing was the silencer chamber that attaches to the airline. There are plenty of forums out there on fitting a skimmer into a Nuvo 20, but it seems to be pretty well accepted at this point that the majority of nano skimmers don't work that well. The Tunze 9001 seemed to have pretty decent reviews, however it did take some modifying to make it work. The rear sump chamber on the Nuvo 20 isn't very deep and the largest chamber in width is the middle chamber, as pictured below.
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In order to get the skimmer into the rear middle chamber, a few things have to happen: 1) The single return pump and y-return lines need to be replaced with two return pumps and straight hoses, 2) the side mounting magnet on the Tunze 9001 had to be removed and glued onto the wide edge of the skimmer body. So pictured below is the skimmer with the magnet epoxied to the side of the skimmer body, allowing it to slide into the rear middle chamber between the two return holes.
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For the double return pumps, I ordered two MJ-600s which would slightly increase the GPH through the sump over the stock pump, and everything just barely fit into the rear chamber, along with my ATO float valves. Again, I didn't come up with this, but found it on a different thread. The MJ-600 were okay, though I exchanged one immediately after receiving as it ran extremely loudly. Even with brand new pumps, they would occasionally make quite a bit of noise as if the impeller was off-balance. Ultimately, I ran into some challenges with the skimmer and never was able to tune it to produce a good skim that wasn't mostly water. In fact, because I was unable to get the skimmer dialed in correctly, the salinity in my tank would slowly decrease over time as I pulled salt water out of the skimmer cup and the ATO would replace with RO/DI water. At one point I think got down to 30ppt in a matter of a day or two, which was a complication I hadn't considered.

So ultimately, I wasn't impressed with the 9001 and ended up reselling for the $65 I paid for it. I am not sure that I will add a skimmer to the WaterBox as I am unconvinced that nano skimmers are affective and a softie tank is a little more nutrient tolerable. Plus my wife is very adverse to fish tank sounds and I currently have to find a way to drastically reduce the sound of the water flowing into the sock before she bans the fish tank from our living room for good. Adding the sounds of a skimmer would not help my case. Pleasing water feature for some, obnoxious noise for others.
 
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Medical_Reef

Medical_Reef

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I would suggest the eshopps nano skimmer. The skimmer didn't produce noticeable micro bubbles after 48 hrs. Been running it on my nuvo 20 for almost a year with no problems. Enjoy the hobby.
That is definitely the next one I was going to try! I've read some good things, though now that I have downsized to the WaterBox I'd have to see where I could put it. I'm considering trying just a little refugium in the back middle chamber and keeping the water changes on a steady schedule. But we'll see what happens once the lights get turned on in a month.
 
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September 27th - Rehomed Thor the Domino damsel and adopted Fred and George Nemo

Once I realized that Thor would not stay small for very long and would not be happy in a little 20 gallon tank, I reached out to the facebook community and found him a new home. That was a little traumatic for my 4 year old, as he witnessed the handoff in the parking lot and wanted to know where his very first fish was going. It was rather heart breaking, but we were on our way to the LFS to find Nemo! It turns out that here in South Texas we have a pretty good hobbyist who breeds clownfish and distributes them to all the local fish stores, so were were able to grab a cute little pair of clowns that were bred locally to us. In the future as I set up my dream tank, I would love to find mostly captive bred animals, while though they are more expensive, its nice to not be taking from the reef and I suspect they may be less likely to bring parasites into your home tank.

Plot twist to the whole fish tank journey: though my wife said she was against the idea, she has actually named every fish or animal that has found its way into our home. Thor received his name after surviving the hammer incident and bright orange clowns were name Fred and George Weasley. The kids were rather confused that we were trying to rename Nemo, so we had to explain that Nemo was their Last name and clearly Fred and George were their first names. Though we haven't told George yet that he'll soon be Georgina, hopefully he doesn't take that too hard.

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Oh man this is a bit of a roller coaster ride, my butt clenched as i read the hammer bit...
Literally laughed out loud. It was definitely a butt-clenching moment. I've learned my lesson, my two year old loves tools so I just can't leave them out anywhere. I'm hoping the roller coaster is less exciting going forward, it hasn't even been 6 months yet!
 
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