REEF OF THE MONTH - March 2021: Florida_Reef_Keeper Brandon McHenry's Amazing AIO SPS Reef!

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R2R Username: @Brandon McHenry
Build Thread:
Brandon's IM Nuvo 40 SPS Reef

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Hi everyone! I am honored to have my tank featured on Reef2Reef’s “Reef of the Month” series! This means a lot to me and I am excited to share the details of my system with you all.

First, I want to tell you a little bit about myself. I am 27 years old, was born and raised in Florida and I have always been around the ocean. Between boating, fishing, kayaking and snorkeling, I have always had a love for the ocean and all of its inhabitants. This quickly led to my passion for reef keeping which began around 10 years ago now. To date, I have had 7 personal reef tanks from 14 gallons to 150 gallons. I am a certified "stick-head" and have been, pretty much since my first reef tank. I also have a masters degree in Marine Biology from FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, FL. I have worked as a microbiologist, geneticist and science communicator, and now work as an aquaculture technician and nutritionist with a special interest in Florida Pompano. During my time at FAU Harbor Branch, I have also had the pleasure of designing, building and maintaining several marine aquaria at our visitors center including a Caribbean reef tank, seagrass lagoon, sponge and gorgonian reef, ORA aquaculture display (because their facility is located on our campus) and a recirculating aquaculture display with Red Drum. If you are interested in seeing any pictures from my tanks follow me on Instagram @florida_reef_keeper!

My current system is an SPS dominant mixed reef that is approximately 35 gallons. The tank is an all-in-one, which I will admit upfront, has had its challenges (that ultimately provided many valuable lessons). My approach to reefkeeping is fairly simple. I don’t like to over complicate the system with too many pieces of equipment or additives. I feel that the fewer points of failure we introduce into a system, the better.

I aim to run my reef in the most natural way possible. I strive to replicate the ocean where I can. This means running near natural seawater (NSW) levels, providing strong lighting and flow to the corals, and feeding heavily while preventing the accumulation of unwanted nutrients, like nitrate and phosphate, by utilizing natural filtration methods like macroalgae.

In addition, stability and patience are two things that have helped make my reef as successful as it is. In this hobby good things come slowly while bad things can happen overnight. In my experience, the best way to ensure success is to take things slowly and allow the reef to mature on its own, without trying to force things one way or the other. This ties in well with stability. The more stable your reef tank is, the quicker it will reach maturity and take off. Stability in my mind means more than just parameters though. You want to keep everything in your reef stable and that includes your light settings, flow settings, frag placement, etc. The less you make changes to your reef tank, the quicker it will find its rhythm and reward your efforts. With all that being said, let's get to some specifics!

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System Profile
  • Display tank: Innovative Marine Nuvo 40 All-In-One (24” w x 15” d x 17” t)
  • Glass or Acrylic: Glass
  • Stand: Stand (custom built by my dad) – Ebony stained plywood (25” w x 23” d x 34” t); Canopy – Ebony stained plywood (25” w x 23” d x 14” t)
  • Sump: No true sump, just the back compartments of the AIO
  • Grow-out tank: No grow-out tank yet. But a small one is in the works so I have a place to put frags when I need to cut them!
  • Protein skimmer: Tunze Comline DOC 9004 DC
  • Carbon/phosphate filtration: BRS ROX 0.8 GAC run passively 24/7 in a media bag (changed once per month); no GFO
  • Return pump: Innovative Marine Mightyjet Midsize AIO DC Return Pump
  • Water circulation: 2 Ecotech MP40QD set to Reef Crest Mode anti-sync at approximately 40-50%
  • Lighting (display): ATI Sunpower 6x24w T5 fixture (running 2 ATI Blue Plus, 3 ATI Coral Plus and 1 Giesemann Tropic 6500k) plus 1 18” ReefBrite Lumi Light Pro Actinic Strip
  • Lighting (refugium): Innovative Marine Chaetomax 18w Refugium Light
  • Calcium/alkalinity/magnesium dosing equipment: Old-School 3 channel Kamoer Dosing Pump (going on 6 years old)
  • Auto top-off: Tunze Osmolator Nano 3152
  • Heating/cooling: No heating (I live in Florida); One DC computer fan that runs during the photoperiod
  • System control: I’m stealing this line from Jake Adams at Reef Builders – “Me! I’m the controller!”
  • Any other details: I run 2 BRS CO2 scrubbers connected to my skimmer.

Here's a photo of the tank when it was first getting started:


And here it is today!

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Water Circulation and Flow Summary and Objectives:

Like I mentioned above, I like to replicate nature as best I can in my reef tank. That means I try to create strong, chaotic flow without blasting any of the corals. Currently, my powerheads are set opposite each other, slightly staggered in height. This allows me to achieve alternating flow patterns (left and right) when the pumps are at opposing strengths. However, when they are running at similar intensities, I get chaotic turbulence in the center of the tank that can really go anywhere. It has taken lots of trial an error to get the flow right in this tank but I believe where I am at makes my corals happy. I aim to see the polyps of my SPS waving vigorously, with short intermittent breaks. For the last few months, all I’ve have to do is increase the flow intensity as the corals have grown.

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Water Parameters:
  • Temp: 78-80 F
  • pH: 8-8.3 (Despite my many attempts to keep it higher)
  • Specific gravity: 35-36 ppt
  • Ca: 420-440 ppm
  • Alk: 7.3-7.5 dkh
  • Mg: 1350-1400
  • K: 400 ppm
  • PO4: 0.03 ppm
  • NO3: 0.2 ppm
  • Ammonia and nitrites: 0 ppm
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What salt mix do you use?

I use Tropic Marin Pro Reef Salt because it mixes well, contains some trace elements, and matches the levels that I like to run my reef (near NSW).

Calcium/Alkalinity/Magnesium Summary and Objectives:

As stated above, I like to run my reef tank near natural seawater levels. I feel like corals grow perfectly well at these levels and it is truly what they are accustomed to in the ocean. I also believe that maintaining near NSW levels helps reduce stress in corals, especially SPS, and provides more wiggle-room for error.

What and how do you dose for the big 3 (alk/cal/mag)?

I am currently dosing BRS Calcium chloride and Soda ash along with the Tropic Marin Trace Element package (K+, A- and Part C). I also use saturated BRS kalkwasser in my ATO.

Are you dosing anything else for your reef health (carbon dosing, aminos, etc.)?

Fish Food!


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Lighting Summary and Objectives:

I have always been a T5 guy for SPS, especially Acropora. I personally feel that they provide the best spread and spectrum to grow healthy, colorful corals. That being said, I see great value in the hybrid approach to lighting because it allows me to use T5’s to provide the heavy lifting and then I can accent the corals and achieve the POP with the LEDs (as well as getting some nice dawn/dusk aesthetics). I am also a believer in high PAR for SPS once they’ve been acclimated to it. My tank ranges from 350 on the sandbed to around 600 at the surface of the water.

  • Display tank: 12 hours for the ReefBrite Strip (11 am – 11 pm) and 10 hours of all 6 bulbs for the ATI Sunpower (12 pm – 10 pm)
  • Refugium: 14 hours total run opposite the display photoperiod (10 pm - 12 pm)

Filtration and Water Quality Summary and Objectives:

My philosophy on feeding a tank revolves around heavy import and heavy export. I think that having a decent fish population that gets fed multiple times throughout the day is a critically overlooked part of having a successful reef tank. To compensate for the heavy feedings, I do my best to match my export methods (protein skimming, chaetomorpha, weekly water changes, sand vacuuming, etc) so that no buildup of nitrates or phosphates occur. I find it far more beneficial for a reef tank to be fed well, and nutrients be kept low, than having skinny fish or an accumulation of unwanted nutrients.

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What is your maintenance routine?


  • Clean the glass
  • Test alkalinity
  • Check temperature
  • Feed the fish
  • Inspect all corals and fish (aka enjoy the tank!)
  • Test calcium, alkalinity, magnesium, potassium, nitrate, phosphate and salinity
  • Scrape the back wall
  • Clean the skimmer
  • 5-gallon water change
  • Vacuum the sandbed
  • Remake kalkwaser as needed
  • Remake 3-part additives as needed
  • Clean powerheads as needed
  • Prune chaetomorpha as needed
  • Make new frozen mix as needed
  • Fill auto-feeder as needed
  • Replace CO2 media as needed
  • Replace GAC every 3-4 weeks
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Tank Inhabitants—Fish: (Please List)

Banggai Cardinalfish
2. Tailspot Blenny
3. Pysychadelic Mandarin
4. 2 Yellowline Gobies
5. Yellowfin Flasher Wrasse






Other Invertebrates:

Banded Trochus Snails
2. Variegated Sea Urchin
3. Atlantic Turbo Snails
4. Mexican Cerith Snails
5. Blue Legged Hermit Crabs
6. Red Legged Hermit Crabs
7. Peppermint Shrimp
8. Skunk Cleaner Shrimp


Tank Inhabitants— Corals:

I will say this up front, I don’t have many named corals but I will share what I do have.

1. Acropora austera
2. Acropora subtulata
3. Acropora secale
4. Acropora valida
5. Acropora spathulata
6. ORA Hawkins Echinata
7. WWC Twig and Berries Acropora
8. Bubblegum Digitata
9. ORA Pink Birdsnest
10. ORA Green Birdsnest
11. ORAnge Setosa
12. Mind Trick Montipora
13. Seasons Greetings Montipora
14. Orange Monti Cap
15. Montipora undata
16. Green Anacropora
17. Green Psammocora
18. Assorted encrusting montis
19. Assorted Zoanthids
20. Duncan coral
21. Australian Octo-Frogspawn
22. Blue and Orange Acan
23. Pink-ish Lobophyllia
24. Green Leptoseris coral

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Fish and Coral Feeding:

My fish are fed 5 times per day. I have an auto feeder that is set to feed 4 times during the day (2 rotations each time) that dispenses Hikari Marine S pellets and TDO Chroma Boost Small pellets to my fish. In the evening, I feed a mix of frozen food containing Hikari mysis, spirulina enriched brine shrimp, ocean plankton, coral gumbo, artic pods, spirulina powder, paracoccus powder and Polyp Lab Reef Roids. I like to cover multiple particle sizes for my fish as well as the other filter feeding animals in the tank. Aside from this frozen mix, which is broadcast at night, the corals get no dedicated target feeding. As I alluded to before, I think the best thing that we can feed our corals is strong, quality light and fish poop.

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How did/do you decide what to keep in your tank?

I knew when I was setting up this tank that it would be SPS dominant (my favorite types of corals) with an emphasis on Acropora. I regret not making a stock list ahead of time but excitement got the better of me. I did not buy many expensive or popular corals, I just bought what I liked, what I thought would have nice color or growth form, or things that I though had potential. Some corals also came from my old 150- gallon SPS tank that was limping along before I tore it down (including a nice purple acro that I’ve had for around 7 years and an Australian octo-frogspawn that I’ve also had for about the same amount of time). As I’m sure some of you have noticed, I really prefer a natural looking tank with big colonies that look good in full spectrum lighting, so this is the mentality that has primarily guided me through the stocking of my tank.

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Any stocking regrets?

YES! I really wish that I did not get any encrusting montis. They take up too much valuable real estate for acros and they will grow over pretty much anything. I also had some palys and zoas in the past that I really regretted getting and had to go in week after week with Aiptasia-X and kill them a few polyps at a time. Other than a few nasty fish over the last two years, that had to be removed, I’m pretty happy with how my tank is looking!

Any fish, invert, or coral you will NEVER keep?

This is again another question that depends. I don’t think there is anything that I outwardly would not want to keep at some point or another, it just depends on how many tanks I have lol. If I only have one SPS (primarily acro-dominated) tank, then you can bet there will be pretty much nothing but acros and a few digis as well as fish that are totally safe with them.

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What do you love most about the hobby?

Aside from the magic of being able to keep a piece of the ocean in my living room, I’d have to say the reefing community is one of the best things about this hobby. I have met very few reefers in person but what I’ve learned very well over this last year of digital life is that I can sit down and have a conversation with any hobbyist about reefing. It doesn’t matter if they are thousands of miles away, this hobby unites us and allows us to share our passion with one another. Its an amazing community and I’m honored to be a part of it!

How long have you been doing this?

I have been reefing since 2012 (almost at the 10-year mark!)

Who was responsible for getting you into the hobby?

When I was a kid, my dad had a freshwater fish tank which had always piqued my interest. However, after my first snorkeling trip I knew reef tanks were for me. I started doing my research during high school and after I graduated, I started my first reef tank. The obsession only grew from there!

Who or what in the hobby most influences/inspires you?

I think the thing that inspires and excites me the most in this hobby is the simple fact that I can keep my own personal slice of the ocean right in my living room. I have always been fascinated by marine life, especially corals, and to be able to grow them in a glass box on dry land is what will keep my engaged in this hobby for years to come.

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If you could have any tank, what size would it be and why?

This really just depends on the stage I am in my life. I don’t have a particular number of gallons or specific dimensions in mind (this will depend entirely on the wall it will be going up against lol). What I really want out of a future tank is a footprint that will allow me to build a multi-dimensional and natural looking aquascape. I want a gradual rise from front to back and not a stacked rock wall. I want different islands and mini structures scattered throughout the tank. I also want the space to grow dinner plate sized colonies or bigger. It may sound funny, but I know exactly what I want but I can’t give you a single specific about it!

Favorite fish?

I'll be honest, I have a very hard time committing to a favorite anything; so ill have to give a few more generalized choices. I really like tangs, and if I had to pick a favorite tang Id say I have always wanted an Achilles Tang. I love the orange and white on the almost completely black body, its just so cool. So, one day I hope to have a tank large enough to accommodate one comfortably. Another one of my favorite groups of fish are the wrasses. I love the wide array of amazing colors they come in, the excitement when they show off and the sexual dimorphism shown by some of the species. These characteristics are shared with the anthias which is why Id say they are also in my favorite groups of fish. I love the fact that they can shoal and add that very “natural” feel to a reef tank.

Favorite coral?

Again, very tough for me. Obviously, my favorite genus is Acropora. I really like millepora and spathulata because of how fuzzy they are when they are happy. I also love the smooth skinned acros like the Hawkins Echinata, Ice Fire and Red Dragon. I feel like they add such a unique growth form to any reef tank and their colors are stunning. However, if someone offered to send me any coral right now, I think I’d say the old school Oregon Tort. I love OG acros and blue is one of my favorite colors. I feel like with my full spectrum lighting the Oregon Tort would look stunning in my tank and it just feels like one of those “Holy Grail” corals to me.

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Favorite invert?

This one is easier for me lol. I really like Skunk Cleaner shrimp. They are attractive, have great personalities, and provide a great service to my reef tank. I would never run a tank without one.

How do you get over setbacks?

Patience and perseverance. As I mentioned earlier, this is not an easy hobby and good things take a very long time. Whenever I have a setback, I sit down and I think about the reasons I had the setback. Did I do something wrong? Did I skip something I usually do? Did I add something new? Did I stop doing something? Did I have an equipment malfunction? I always try to understand the reasons why something happened before acting. This prevents me from making irrational decisions that may hurt my reef more than help it. If I can’t figure out why something happened, I come to Reef2Reef. More times than not, someone else here has had a similar issue and I find it very helpful to read their threads and see what happened, what they did, and how everything turned out. Once I have an answer to what happened, I make a plan to address it and take it slowly. The less stress you put on your tank by making quick changes, the faster it will recover from the setback.

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Have you faced any major challenges with this particular tank, and if so, how did you overcome?

My biggest challenge with this reef tank has absolutely been me. I tried far too many new things with this tank that I had never had experience with (dry rock, no sump, LEDs, new methodologies, etc.). These learning curves had their impacts on my tank and one by one I brought the tank back to a realm I was comfortable with. I moved back to T5s, I simplified my methods, I created my own mini refugium (something I will never run a reef without) and became more patient. Id say the one event that pushed me the hardest was a dinoflagellate outbreak, something I strongly believe was a result of low biodiversity from the dry rock. To combat this, I added a few pieces of aquacultured live rocks, thousands of copepods (various species), live phytoplankton and plenty of fish food. I really believe that this helped to increase the diversity of my tank and allowed other, more beneficial organisms to outcompete the dinoflagellates.


What's the best thing you ever bought for your tank?

The best thing that I ever bought for this tank was my ATI Sunpower fixture. I had never had one before and I have to say that the quality and performance is unparalleled for acros in my opinion. I started this tank with a Radion XR15 G4 Pro. It had beautiful shimmer and made the corals pop but just wasn’t doing it for me. Then I added a 2 bulb T5 retrofit to the Radion. It was better but I still wasn’t getting the results I was used to for SPS. Then I switched the 2-bulb retrofit for a 4-bulb retrofit, it still wasn’t there. Enter the Sunpower. This past year the growth and color development on my corals has been pretty astounding. I am incredibly happy with this fixture and it is much more familiar to what I am used to. In my opinion the only fixture I would ever upgrade to would be the ATI Powermodule. After seeing a T5 heavy hybrid approach to lighting with the Reef Brite accent strip, I’m very happy with the results and would say this has been the best my tank has ever looked.

What's the worst thing you ever bought for your tank?

I don’t think that there is one thing that I would say has been the worst purchase, mostly because it is no fault of the product. I don’t think there are truly many “bad” products out there, just bad applications or a poor match between reefer and product. I personally wish I had never started this tank with dry rock. The long maturation time, nuisance algae that I had never dealt with before, poor growth and coloration of SPS and lack of biodiversity are just things that I wish I could’ve avoided. Dry rock just isn’t for me, but I can confidently say that many reefers have had great success so I don’t discount them. My next tank will absolutely be 100% aquacultured live rock. I feel that the benefits that live rock provide are just too important to dismiss. The other approach to reefing that wasn’t for me was a method that involved lots of different additives that are meant to do all sorts of different things. Like I said earlier, I’m a simple reefer and I prefer a simple approach. After trying this method for several months, I really began to hate my daily routine and it was affecting my outlook on the tank. After stopping this method, I almost instantly fell in love with my tank again. I advise every reefer to think about what they want out of their reef tank and even more importantly, what they are willing to do to get there. Choose a reefing methodology and maintenance routine that matches your lifestyle, reefing goals and experience, you will enjoy your tank so much more; which is what reefing is all about!

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What are your future plans for improvement/upgrade of the tank?

Although I don’t have a timeline in mind yet, I do plan to upgrade my tank in the future. After losing my 150-gallon SPS tank to Hurricane Irma, I have missed having a large display where I can grow dinner plate sized colonies of Acropora and have large groups of colorful fish. After almost 10 years in the hobby, my next tank will be carefully thought out and will encompass all of the things that I’ve learned about successfully keeping SPS corals over the last decade. I know for sure that I will have a sump again, I will have the display deep enough (from front to back) to have a natural looking aquascape, I will have only peaceful fish, and I will have large colonies of as many OG classic acros that I can get my hands on!

Any special tips for success or advice you'd like to share with other reefers?

Things I've learned over the last 10 years of reefing:
  • Take time to learn the concepts behind how a reef tank works. The more you understand the biology of the system you are caring for, the more equipped you will be to make educated decisions about it.
  • Don’t trust everything you read just because its on the internet. Think critically when taking a suggestion and decide if its right for you and your particular system!
  • Try to find a mentor. This is something that I did not have when I started reefing and I feel like it would have made things much easier for me in the beginning. If you don’t know anyone else who reefs (like me), then find a build thread of a tank that looks like something you would like to have. Read it in depth, ask questions, DM the owner. Its better to follow the method of a handful of reefers that have the success you are looking for, then trying to blend together a dozen different techniques.
  • Don't discount T5s! They are a phenomenal light source and are super easy to use and almost guaranteed to lead to success.
  • Use live rock and live sand! I really regret not using live rock on this build and I definitely saw the effects of dry rock in long maturation time, nuisance algae and slow SPS growth for at least the first year and a half.
  • Heavy in, Heavy out! Feed your fish a ton and match your export. You can absolutely have a stunning SPS reef with little or undetectable N/P (unlike a lot of what you read nowadays). N/P are not food for corals but if you keep a well-stocked tank of fat fish you will be on the way to success! Corals love fish poop!
  • Use strong turbulent flow! Don't blast your corals directly, but water movement is critical to bringing food, oxygen and minerals to the corals while also removing metabolic wastes. The more flow you can give your coral without stressing them the better.
  • Come up with a maintenance routine that works with your schedule and stick to it! This is the easiest way to prevent problems and helps you stay more in tune with your reef tank.
  • pH matters! Again, this is something that gets discounted a lot but I can tell you that a pH around 8.3 will give you healthier, stronger and faster growing corals. Don't go chasing pH with additives (which actually just raise alkalinity) but make use of macroalgae, kalkwasser and CO2 scrubbers to help maintain an elevated pH.
  • Be patient! Nothing good comes quickly in this hobby so don't rush it! Keep your parameters stable and let time do its thing!
My biggest regrets about this tank:
  • Again, not using live rock.
  • Not giving myself more room on the sides and top of my aquascape. My corals are now growing out of the water and preventing me from reaching the sides of my tank.
  • Not planning my coral list in advance. I had just come off of losing my full blown SPS reef and I was too excited to start getting coral into this tank. It led me to making some mistakes and losing valuable real estate to certain corals that I could do without.
  • Not having a sump. Let’s just say I miss a sump LOL.
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Final Thoughts:

After about 2.5 years with this tank, I can say that I am finally enjoying it to its fullest potential. These last 6 months in particular things have really taken off and started to thrive, which I attribute completely to the maturity of the tank. Despite the many challenges that came with this particular system, I am a better reefer because of them. I think, in general, we should always be willing to learn, and I feel like that is particularly true for this hobby. Reef keeping is not an easy feat and so we should all be proud of what we can achieve in our glass boxes. I want to thank Reef2Reef for the opportunity to share my system with you all on the “Reef of the Month” series and I appreciate all of you who stuck with me here! If you have any questions that weren’t addressed here please let me know or DM me, I enjoy talking to my fellow reefers and I’m always willing to help the best I can!

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Brandon McHenry

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Beyond impressive! Gives me hope my Red Sea AIO (with upgrades) can someday look half as good as this same style and size tank. Surprised alk that low but hey clearly works for this person. Just gorgeous.
Thank you very much! AIO reefs can be a blessing and a curse but once you understand them the results can be amazing! And I just think that SPS do better for me when I run NSW parameters :)

Brandon McHenry

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That's very nice. How do you keep algae out of your tank?
Thank you! My algae control consists of heavy export (to keep N/P low), routine maintenance (weekly water changes and sand vacuuming) and a robust cleanup crew. :)


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Simply, you have an amazing reef system. Im still trying and learning myself. I aspire to have a tank like yours in the future with SPS. I have 2 tanks, one that is quickly becoming a softy tank and an LPS that's filling in nicely, just chavent b
een able to keep them SPS ... yet

Brandon McHenry

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Simply, you have an amazing reef system. Im still trying and learning myself. I aspire to have a tank like yours in the future with SPS. I have 2 tanks, one that is quickly becoming a softy tank and an LPS that's filling in nicely, just chavent b
een able to keep them SPS ... yet
Thank you very much! So glad my tank could be an inspiration! And one day you will! :D

Brandon McHenry

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Can you please advise how your CO2 scrubbers are connected to your skimmer? Is that how you’re getting your pH up? I have a 300 gallon tank and cannot get above 7.8.
They are just connected with some clear tubing. That I’m conjunction with the kalkwasser has helped boost my pH to a more acceptable level. Definitely double check all your probes/meters and then do the CO2 test either by bubbling some tank water with fresh air outside or opening up your windows for a few hours and see what that does.

Have you ever torn down a tank over an issue you couldn't seem to beat?

  • Yes! I have. (Tell us about what issue you faced in the thread.)

    Votes: 95 25.3%
  • No. Thankfully, I haven't.

    Votes: 191 50.8%
  • Nope, but it almost happened. (Share your experience in the thread.)

    Votes: 27 7.2%
  • Not yet, but I'm almost there. (Tell us what you're dealing with.)

    Votes: 31 8.2%
  • If you reef long enough, this will eventually happen to you.

    Votes: 28 7.4%
  • Other

    Votes: 4 1.1%