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El Fab's Simple Guide to Pico Tanks


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#1
el fabuloso

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El Fab's Simple Guide to Pico Tanks

More and more people are venturing into the realm of pico reefs and I've noticed that a lot of the same questions are frequently tossed around, so I decided to create this thread to offer some basic insights to help get everyone started. Whether you're a beginner looking for a fun challenge or an advanced reef hobbyist setting up your second, third or fifth tank, this thread is not intended to be a definitive guide but rather as a simple, easy to follow resource to help ensure success using tried-and-true methods employed by successful pico reef owners on this site.



Outline

Part 1: Introduction


Posted Image

Sandeep's 2.5g AGA pico with built in sump/refugium.

What is a pico reef? Different people have varying definitions on what classifies a pico. The most common consensus is that a pico tank is anything less than 5 gallons. A majority of tanks—and the ones that have yielded the most success—typically fall within the range of 2.5 to 4 gallons. Whatever the size, the most important part to remember is that when done right and maintained properly, a pico tank can become a thriving, living miniature ecosystem capable of supporting a diverse range of marine life for an extended length of time.

Pico tanks are not suitable for everyone. In fact a majority of reef hobbyists discourage newcomers from starting a pico for a very good reason: their small size provides very little room for error. But that's not to say that a beginner can't start with a pico. As long as you're diligent and willing to learn, anyone can setup and maintain a pico tank successfully. Below are some key deciding factors to consider whether or not a pico is an ideal setup for you.

DO NOT keep a pico if…
  • you expect to keep a number of fish in your tank
  • you're constantly away for extended periods of time
  • you have no patience

DO
keep a pico if…
  • you're aware of the space limitations
  • you have the time to devote for upkeep and maintenance
  • you're prepared to learn and have plenty of patience
Posted Image
Bonsai's 3g office Picotope with custom glass lid.

People keep pico tanks for a number of reasons. Their small footprint means that they can be set up anywhere, especially in places where space is limited such as small bedrooms, kitchens, apartments, offices and dorm rooms. The most common assumption people make is that a small tank means less cost. While the initial setup cost for a pico is less than that of a larger tank, the cost of maintaining and stocking a pico in the long run is just the same. Ultimately the main reason people keep a pico is the awe factor in being able to keep a thriving piece of the reef in a tiny little box.

TIP:
Check out the various pico threads on this forum to get a feel of all the different setups or check out The Official Club Pico Thread.


Part 2: Choosing Your Tank and Getting the Right Equipment

Edited by el fabuloso, 02 April 2009 - 03:44 PM.


#2
Lalani

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Sticky please! :)

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#3
jeremai

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What's with everyone and their stickies lately?

:rolleyes:





Now finish the article! ;)

pretty sure jer was referring to the length

 
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#4
brandon429

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Very well written! I will watch to see how the masses deal with topping off and dosing (or not) as these are the next most common requests for pico reef design and there's so many great ideas out there, I'll keep my eyes peeled on this thread.
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#5
Lalani

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What's with everyone and their stickies lately?
:rolleyes:
Now finish the article! ;)

:happydance:

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Oh and everybody is a dick here except Lani. She is an evil genius which is different.

DON'T TALK ABOUT LALANI LIKE THAT!  :angry:


#6
clownfish1124

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wanted to be on the first page :P this is gonna get stickied, i know it...
btw, very professional fab!

#7
freddy4130

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El Fab for pico President.

#8
el fabuloso

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Thanks for the positive reception so far! There's a lot of information to gather and present and it will take me some time to compile them all together and make it easy to digest. It will also be a challenge to try to be unbiased as possible.

#9
clownfish1124

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should have started this later silly ... no sticky for you!
i keed i keed

#10
ddr_phish

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I hope you add a sexy shrimp section to this! :D

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#11
travisurfer

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What's with everyone and their stickies lately?

:rolleyes:





Now finish the article! ;)

lulz, my mantis shrimp thread got the shaft though ;)


looks like a good start fab. i would definitely talk about more of the demands of picos, variations, and some of the more interesting inverts that would be highlighted by such a small tank. let me know if there is any way that i can help you out.

#12
cdelicath

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Very cool Fab could not have come at a better time for me.

#13
Purple_urchin

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I just started keeping a saltwater tank. I have the picotope. The lfs mistakenly gave me a white spot anemone shrimp instead of the ghost shrimp that I asked for. My question is are there any anemone small enough to put in this tank?

#14
ddr_phish

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I just started keeping a saltwater tank. I have the picotope. The lfs mistakenly gave me a white spot anemone shrimp instead of the ghost shrimp that I asked for. My question is are there any anemone small enough to put in this tank?


No, but I'm sure the shrimp will be fine without an anemone. It should host pretty much any coral.

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#15
el fabuloso

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Part 2: Choosing Your Tank and Getting the Right Equipment

Posted Image
Tinyreef's 1.25g sunlight pico is an exceptional custom setup that relies entirely on natural light.

People have been known to use all sorts of containers for picos—betta tanks, goldfish bowls, pickle jars, ant farms—we've seen them all, though most of these are setup strictly for experimental purposes and are not particularly long lived. As mentioned before, the pico tanks that have yielded the most success typically fall within the range of 2.5 to 4 gallons so we'll explore some of the most commonly used tanks in that range.

Posted Image

JBJ Picotope
The 3-gallon JBJ Picotope is perhaps one of the most popular pico setups around and rightly so. It's a sturdy little tank with clean lines and highly resistant to scratches since it's entirely made of glass. The biggest deal breaker with the Picotope is the stock 9W lamp that leaves people wanting more. While the Picotope can support some hardy corals out of the box, chances are that most people will want to upgrade their light to support a majority of the corals they want to keep.

Posted Image

Deco Kit Aquarium
For a while the 3-gallon Deco Kit (and the smaller 2 gallon Deco) was the most popular alternative to the JBJ Picotope. Its 18W stock lamp can support a wide variety of corals right out of the box and comes with a powerful stock filter. On the downside the bulb in the stock fixture is irreplaceable which means that people have to buy a whole new fixture every time the bulb needs to be replace. But the biggest downfall for the Deco Kit is that it's made of acrylic and therefore scratches easily making it rather difficult to clean.

Posted Image
Wheels' 4g Finnex pico.

Finnex 4 Gallon
Though not nearly as popular, the Finnex 4-gallon tank makes for a spectacular pico. Like the JBJ Picotope it's made of glass and comes with a 13W lamp. This tank however is deeper than most tanks due to it's awkward dimensions making the stock lighting somewhat inefficient though a simple lighting upgrade can make this tank ready for anything.

Posted Image
Sandeep's 5.5g pico with built-in fuge.

2.5 Gallon All Glass Aquarium (AGA)
A simple 2.5-gallon AGA is the cheapest option for a pico tank. Although not as pretty as some of the kits out there, its low cost and practicality leaves plenty of room for customization in terms of lighting and filter options. Another popular option is to use a 5.5-gallon AGA and partitioning it into two compartments with the display on one side and a modified fuge on the other. Even though the display portion is less than 3 gallons, the overall water volume is more than 5 gallons which helps keep the tank stable. This is a viable option for people who are particularly good with DIY projects.

Deciding upon which setup to go with is a matter of personal taste, given the positive points and caveats that were presented along with the type of budget you have in mind. Aside from the AGA tank, the aforementioned kits come reef ready and are pretty much good to go with some additional equipment although most people end up upgrading their light fixture. We'll explore different lighting options in the next section.


While a whole slew of tools and equipment exist out there, the goal of this guide is to keep things simple. Below is a short list of basic tools and equipment required to run a pico:
  • Heater and thermometer
  • Refractometer
  • Reliable test kit
  • Automatic timer
  • Maintenance supplies and tools
Heater and Thermometer
A good heater and thermometer are required to maintain a stable range of 78º–80º F. Stability is key in a pico and the more you can maintain a stable temperature, the better off your tank will be in the long run. More importantly, avoiding too much of a swing throughout the day is far more important than focusing too much on a specific temperature.

The room your pico tank is in will determine the type of heater you'll need. If the tank is in a climate controlled room then a small preset heater will suffice. You might even be able to do without one if the ambient temperature stays within the acceptable range. On the other hand, in a room where temperature fluctuates throughout the day, a good heater with a thermostat is an absolute necessity. The smallest Hydor Theo and Visi-Therm Stealth available are good reliable heaters and are the perfect size for most picos.

Posted Image
A heater is only as good as a thermometer. Once again a variety of thermometers exist from cheap simple floating types to high-tech digital ones. Since real estate is limited in a pico it's a good idea to keep the thermometer out of the tank. Fortunately there's a whole range of affordable and reliable digital thermometers you can choose from that will give you quick readings and are small enough to keep out of sight.

Posted Image

Refractometer
A refractometer is the single most indispensable tool for any pico. As mentioned before (and many times later), stability is key and that applies to salinity as well. The ideal specific gravity range in a reef tank is 1.023–1.025. The less swing there is throughout the day, the better. Hydrometers are a cheaper alternative to refractometers but are far less accurate. Their cumbersome size is also somewhat difficult to work with in a pico resulting in headaches, heartaches and unnecessary frustrations whereas a refractometer can give you quick, painless and highly accurate readings. Given its higher price tag, a refractometer may not be in your initial budget and understandably so, but it's definitely something you should invest in down the line.
Posted Image
Test Kit
There are a wide variety of test kits out there to choose from. Some are extremely accurate, others not so much. Some are reasonably priced while some are insanely expensive. It's best to find a good balance of both price and reliability. Salifert and Elos test kits are notorious for their dead-on accuracy but are a bit pricey. On the other hand Red Sea test kits are known to be unreliable and are not worth the money. API test kits are both reliable and affordable and are therefore a happy medium for most people.
Posted Image
To start with you will need to test for pH, alkalinity, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. The API Saltwater Master Test Kit conveniently includes testers for all those things. Once your tank has fully cycled you will find yourself less concerned with ammonia and nitrite and will need to start testing for calcium and phosphate as you begin stocking your tank. You can buy those testers individually or the Reef Master Test Kit which bundles the two mentioned plus testers for nitrate and alkalinity.

Posted Image

Automatic Timer
An automatic timer is a convenient and invaluable device for maintaining a stable photoperiod in your tank. A range of selection goes from simple inexpensive types to high-tech digital controllers. Deciding which type to get depends on your lighting system. A simple plug-in timer works fine if you plan to stick with the stock lighting that comes with a kit. If you plan to upgrade your lighting or need lighting customization, the Coralife Power Center is beneficial in allowing you to control different light settings throughout the day as well as certain devices that you only want to run part of the day such as heaters and powerheads. Lighting automation is a convenient feature that will allow you to step away from your tank with one less thing to worry about.

Tools
Some of the most useful tools you can use to maintain a pico are common tools you'll find in and around the kitchen or in hardware stores.

Posted Image

2 ½ quart Mixing Container: these can be found in the paint section in any hardware store. They're usually graduated in liters, ounces and quarts and are great for water changes, dipping corals, acclimating livestock and for general everyday use.

Posted Image

5-Gallon Mixing Bucket: another paint mixing container that comes in handy for mixing saltwater and other heavy-duty use. Make sure to get one with a lid in order to use for storage.

Posted Image

Turkey Baster: a multi-purpose tool that can be use for cleaning by blasting algae and detritus from rocks and sand, overall water maintenance as well as a great tool for feeding.

Posted Image

Aquatic Forceps: a useful tool for feeding, poking, prodding, grabbing, stirring and moving things in and out of the tank.

Posted Image

Airline Tubing: for siphoning water out of the tank during maintenance and for acclimating livestock.

Posted Image

Magnet Glass Cleaner: Mag-Floats are easy to find and affordable. Nimble Nanos are even better and make cleaning algae off the glass almost effortless. They're handmade and are not always readily available but are well worth the wait.

TIP: Choose a tank that will work best for you and what you have in mind. Whichever direction you decide to go with, these basic tools and equipment will help get you on the right track. While most of the kits mentioned come reef ready and are simple to setup, a custom AGA tank will require some work. Be sure to browse around the forum for tips and ideas.



Part 3: Lighting, Filtration and Flow

Edited by el fabuloso, 03 January 2009 - 01:01 AM.


#16
Bonsai

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This is a fantastic thread, thanks for putting this guide together, Fab'

I wanted to share a tip with everyone that I learned while caring for my Pico ...

Do Not Leave Your Lights On 24/7. This will melt your corals and bleach them to oblivion.

Enjoy! :D

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#17
clifford513

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Awesome write-up fab! Can't wait to read the rest of it :)

I'm already big time. ~Nuhtty


Posted Image

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I get my balls broken for the same reasons...such is life in the world of fish dorks

Sure, it's only a 1/2 inch tho, you may want somethin' bigger.


#18
5galnanoreef

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fab, i would suggest, out of simplicity's sake, combine all the "parts" into the first post, this way people like myself dont have to read how ever long this thread will be to find all the parts. but very good idea, and Thank You for it.

#19
el fabuloso

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looks like a good start fab. i would definitely talk about more of the demands of picos, variations, and some of the more interesting inverts that would be highlighted by such a small tank. let me know if there is any way that i can help you out.

Duly noted. This thread will definitely take shape and grow with people's demands and interests in mind. In the meantime some peer review will be greatly appreciated. ;)

Very cool Fab could not have come at a better time for me.

Great! Tag along and keep the feedback coming. The more questions and issues we can address, the better this thread will be in the long run.

This is a fantastic thread, thanks for putting this guide together, Fab'

I wanted to share a tip with everyone that I learned while caring for my Pico ...

Do Not Leave Your Lights On 24/7. This will melt your corals and bleach them to oblivion.

Good tip! I'll be sure to include that when I get to that section. :happy:

fab, i would suggest, out of simplicity's sake, combine all the "parts" into the first post, this way people like myself dont have to read how ever long this thread will be to find all the parts. but very good idea, and Thank You for it.

Good suggestion. I've wracked my brain over how to best dispense all this information and the problem is that there's just way too many variables to condense into one post. The most straight-forward method would be to tell everyone to get a Picotope, a Current Dual Satellite, an AC70 mod and call it a day. But I'm trying to be objective by presenting people with varying levels of experience different options, the pros and cons between different methods and the simplest approach for a successful tank—whatever that may be. I do see your problem and what I'll probably do is combine all the parts into a nice little outline on my first post. Thanks for the input!

#20
travisurfer

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Ok, everything I've gone over thus far looks great. :D With the bettacube slowly gaining popularity, it may be worth mentioning as well.

#21
angelacbishop

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Wow, this is looking really great and I think it will be helpful to a lot of people. Hate to be a pain but I think the Azoo pico tank kit is worth including in the options. You don't see them very often but they're very nice quality and I feel that if more people knew about them they would become more popular. The 13W light is nice a happy medium between the TOM Deco kit and the JBJ Picotope too. http://www.fish.com/...p?T1=701039 BAY
http://www.fish.com/...p?T1=701039 CHO

#22
Jenna

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Excellent write up Fab! I think it will be very useful. I've opted to go for the 10g first but the picotope will come next. This will help me SO much.

#23
Formatsreef

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Wow thanks Fab. I am currently planning on a pico and this is helping me a lot.

#24
clownfish1124

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finally! this writeup better not be done yet.

#25
cuboy

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the mod should delete all the post not by el fab, lock the thread for a few days so he can work his tutorial. then open it to the public.