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Innovative Marine Aquariums
  • Christopher Marks

    Congratulations to Sandeep for being selected for our July Reef Profile! His 5.5 gallon pico reef has grown into a beautifully maintained zen garden. Below he has written a profile of his aquarium's progress over the past two and a half years, and shares his experiences in the hobby. Check it out and share your comments and questions in Sandeep's featured reef profile thread.


    Tank Specs

    Display: Boyu 5.5g glass Mini Aquarium, 16" x 10" x 8.75" with custom cut glass top
    Lighting: 18" Current USA Nova Extreme Fixture with 2x18 watt T5 HO 10K/460nm
    Filtration: Tetra Whisper PF10 Power Filter with sponge, 0.5cm to 1cm thick fine sand bed
    Equipment: Finnex 25W Titanium Heater


    Established October, 2007 in a 5.5g AGA, moved to 5.5g Boyu December, 2008.

    Maintenance Routine

    • Parameters: Temperature 25C, Hardness 8 dKH, Calcium 400ppm, Salinity 35ppt (1.0264sg)
    • Daily lighting cycle 2:00pm to 12:00am
    • Weekly 2L (0.5g) water change of Tropic Marin sea salt with some added Kent Marine Turbo Calcium
    • Daily manual top off of RO water to counter evaporation
    • One weekly feeding of DT's Premium Reef Blend Phytoplankton
    • Two weekly feedings with Cyclop-eeze frozen bar, frozen mysis shrimp cubes, Ocean Nutrition Formula Two flake food. Rotating two of the above three per feeding per week. Hand target feeding using tweezers for Blasto, Ricordia, Micro-Elegance and Porcelain Anemone Crab
    • Twice weekly cleaning of algae from tank walls using scraper and small sponge. Weekly cleaning of Power filter intake nozzle and sponge.
    • Salinity measurements using Milwaukee Digital Refractometer, Calcium and Alkalinity testing using Aquarium Pharmaceuticals test kits once every two weeks.


    • Tank propagated micro Elegance Coral frags
    • Ricordea
    • Blasto (B. wellsi)
    • Purple Tip Hammer Coral
    • Neon Tip Hammer Coral
    • Pulsing Xenia
    • Zoanthids
    • Blue Mushrooms
    • Frogspawn
    • Yellow Polyps


    • Fire Shrimp
    • Porcelain Anemone Crab
    • 2 Hermit Crabs
    • Wild feather dusters


    • Yellowtail blue damsel

    Aquarium Design & Inhabitants

    Having kept bonsai trees for years, I have developed a sense of perspective, scale and display related skills that I've been able to carry over to my reef island pico tank. I've never been a fan of the typical rock wall approach to tank layout where you stuff the tank with tons of live rock with hardly any open space that looks like an undersea avalanche just took place. Instead I prefer the Zen philosophy of 'less is more', stressing the need for open space in the tank to create a more tranquil visual experience. Having open space also helps give the small tank a better sense of pleasing perspective and scale, making the tank look a lot bigger than it really is. These were some of the design thoughts behind my decision to go with one primary 'coral island' surrounded with open space on all sides.

    The majority of the corals reside on this coral island, and over the years the various types have established their territories. The purple-tip hammer grows from an overhang where it can grow and not sting anyone around it. As it grows, it will be fragged to maintain it's overall size. The neon-tip hammer coral in the back right is not only beautiful but fast growing and aggressive. In the corner he's been able to grow happily while not being able to attack anyone. He is quite fast growing and has already been fragged once. The neon-tip also serves as the home of the Porcelain Anemone Crab.


    The bright fiji zoas on top of the coral island started out as a small frag and have over the years spread out nicely across the top front ridge of the island. The pulsing xenia are fast growers and need constant cutting. I've been able to encourage their growth on a nice ridge along the back top of the island and a few select spots where they do not interfere with the view of the zoas. The blue mushrooms have worked out quite well, starting out from one mushroom initially and are now a family of 12. Their growth zones have been perfect, occupying the more shady parts of the coral island where nothing else would have grown anyway. Near the zoas and mushrooms there is a thriving small colony of yellow polyps. Initially they did not do so well in the tank and were reduced to only a few survivors, but over the years they have made a nice comeback.


    The most exotic inhabitants in the tank by far are my micro-Elegance frags. I've been able to successfully frag my Elegance coral in my larger tank a number of times and am currently on my fourth generation of frags. When cutting my Elegance into frags, I noticed a few tiny tentacles attached to a piece of skeleton that had fallen off. Initially I was going to throw it in the garbage, but decided to stick it in my pico-tank to see what would happen. Amazingly over time the tentacles grew to form a complete circular disk and eventually develop a mouth. The tiny micro-Elegance with it's complete circular disk and mouth was about the size of a dime, now it's grown to a healthy two inch diameter. A few months ago I added three other extremely tiny tentacle elegance frags. It will be interesting to see if they also grow to form a complete disk and mouth like their larger brother has.


    At the left rear of the island I have a frogspawn coral. The good thing is that he has been very slow growing. Probably the slowest growing coral I have is my Blasto. A lovely bright red, he sits on the sand bed in front of the coral island. He's really taken a lot of care, as I usually have to hand feed each mouth with mysis shrimp. He is a voracious and fast eater though, just very slow growing. The other sand inhabitant is a lovely orange ricordea. He initially started out as one head and has multiplied nicely. He is also hand fed regularly.

    In terms of critters, I've found the yellowtail damsel to be the ideal pico fish. He does not bother any of the corals or invertebrates, spending most of his time swimming in the open water above the coral island. He adds a perfect bit of intense color in motion to the tank. I had initially picked the smallest damsel I could find, in over 2 years in the tank, he has not grown that much at all. It's always interesting to watch him disappear into the nooks and crannies of the coral island at night time to sleep, as damsels never stay in open water at night.


    Fire Shrimp are one of the most spectacular looking shrimp, the only problem is that they are very shy. It's not really worth keeping them in a large tank, as you will hardly ever see them, but in a pico, he's always easy to see and in the evenings when I get home he comes to the front of the tank to greet me and see if there is any food. Shrimps in general are very fast moving thief's when it's feeding time and if left alone will take food out of the mouth of many corals in the tank. That's why I always target feed my fire shrimp first before feeding the rest of the tank. Give him a few mysis shrimp or food flakes with my tweezers and he will happily focus on those and leave the rest of the coral alone.


    I love Porcelain crabs, as they are harmless filter feeders. I've had the blue porcelain crabs in the past but they are extremely shy and usually hide most of the time and not readily take food from my tweezers. My Porcelain Anemone Crab is quite another story. He pretty much spends most of his time attached to the neon-tip hammer coral in full view. He's also very intelligent and has learned to take food from my tweezers at feeding time and does not scurry away in fright. A model citizen and fun to watch.


    Cleanup crew consists of two small hermit crabs. I've had small snails in the past, but crabs and snails don't really mix well. Also in such a small volume of water the risks of water contamination from a dead snail are just not worth it, so I've stuck with just crabs for cleanup.


    Initially I set up the coral island in a 5.5g AGA tank. I was pretty much the pioneer on this forum in terms of coming up with a design for side compartments made of plexiglass to house chaeto, pump and heater out of view and a open main compartment without clutter in AGA tanks. I detailed my design on Nano-Reef.com back in October 2007 when I set up this tank with plan diagrams, lots of photos and instructions; it's wonderful to see how well that initial design has caught on and been creatively improved on by others.

    I really had no intention from moving the reef island from it's 5.5g AGA, but in December 2008 I stumbled upon a lovely 5.5g glass tank at my LFS that I could not resist buying. Made by the Boyu company the tank had beautiful rounded corners on it's front edges and traditional siliconed straight corner joints at the back. I really liked the rounded corners look on the front of the tank, free of those ugly silicon joined edges in AGA rectangular tanks. The only problem was that having a side compartmental design for the fuge/pump area would destroy the look of the tank from the front. So I decided to go with initially putting the pump and cheato into a plastic fish breeder at the back left of the tank with the coral island now being able to occupy the entire width of the tank because there was no compartmentalized section on the side anymore. Sure I gave up that uncluttered look of my old tank with wires, heaters, etc now visible, but the shape and look of the tank was worth it.


    Eventually I got rid of the plastic fish breeder, because it was not visually appealing, as one member noted, it looked like a 'science experiment' type tank. As my coral island sits in the middle of the tank with open space on all sides, I just stuck my chaeto algae at the back behind the island. That way it's not visible, while still receiving light and being able to grow. In early January 2009 the coral island received an extension on it's right side when I added a few rocks to house the Elegance micro-frag.

    Thoughts On Equipment

    Lighting is one of the most important parts of a successful reef tank. Initially when I set up my tank I had a 12" Current USA PC single tube fixture. This was really not enough light and there was no growth in the tank so I eventually moved to a 12" Current USA PC dual tube fixture. While improving on the light output I was really not thrilled by the large size of the fixture, the heat output or the short useful lifespan of PC bulbs. That's why when Current USA came out with their 18" dual tube T5 – HO fixture, with the smallest T5 –HO tubes in the industry I was all over it. Although 5.5g tanks are only 16" wide and the fixture is 18", I really don't find the small amount of overhang that it has to really be a big deal. I like the fact that at 18" the full tank gets even illumination with no dead zones, the fixture has a low profile and narrow width and using 18W tubes, it's low energy and low heat. Growth in the tank using the stock actinic and 10K tubes has been great and I am currently on my 2nd set of tubes in the second year of using this fixture.


    All is not rosy though with this fixture though. Finding replacement tubes has been a royal pain as right now Current USA are the only manufacturers of the tiny 16-3/8" length T5 –HO tubes used in this fixture. Stores are selling these fixtures with the tubes sold out for months, which makes no sense. UV Lighting has been promising for months and delaying each month the release of their own T5-HO tubes that would work in this fixture. So overall it's been an extreme exercise in frustration before I was eventually able to find a vendor and purchase the last two tubes they had in stock.

    For a time I considered jumping on the LED bandwagon, but am glad I did not make the commitment. Current do-it-yourself fixtures and those produced in China are using off the shelf LED's. There is no long term studies out yet showing the effect on corals and really fly-by-wire methods of determining the right mix of led's in terms of spectrum or color mix. I'll wait a year or two for the dust to settle before making the commitment to LED's for my reef island tank. Right now it's too much of a wild west atmosphere and small unknown firms in China that may not be around in a few months to support their fixtures. I'll wait till the big North American boys, who have history and warranties that can be honoured at the LFS come out with their lines of high quality LED fixtures, and with falling LED technology prices, waiting will be an added bonus. Hopefully the LED dimming patent issue will also be resolved as it makes no sense to have LED's that can be dimmed, not having a dimmer.


    Being a firm believer in less technology, circulation for the tank is provided by one very small HOB Tetra power filter running nothing but a simple sponge. The tiny Tetra provides good surface circulation and a mild but even circulation across the entire depth of the tank. I'm not sure what the benefits of having a giant AquaClear HOB filters almost as big as the tank or extra power heads, all turning pico tanks into tornado alley. All of my corals including the LPS seem to be doing just fine with the low flow that the tank currently has. I may add a second Tetra HOB filter just so the flow is more evenly distributed, but it's not a high priority.


    The tiny Finnex titanium heater has been wonderful with no issues over the years. I really like the fact that the thermostat control is on the plug end outside the tank, so it's easy to adjust. Given the small size of the heater, it makes it easy to hide in the tank if you want, but the cord on my Finnex is not long enough. Hopefully that has been addressed in the current generation titanium heaters from Finnex.

    Evaporation is a constant battle with small tanks and we need to do everything we can to maintain stability in our little tanks. That's why I'm a firm proponent of having your tank covered rather than being open top. Sure the open top looks nicer, but when you are dealing with such a small volume of saltwater, it's important to minimize changes in salinity caused by evaporation. The glass top also provides a good safety barrier in preventing things around the house and dust getting into your tank.


    Something that you find in almost every tank these days is a digital thermometer. After doing some testing I was shocked to see the amount of variance in temperature that most digital thermometers actually report, even if it's an expensive digital. Testing against a laboratory grade mercury thermometer that I purchased, I was shocked at the amount variance, sometimes by quite a few degrees reported by various brands, or ever two digital thermometers from the same brand. That's why I use a good quality alcohol thermometer checked against by laboratory thermometer in my tank. You can find good quality glass thermometers at stores and websites that sell lab and scientific equipment. My lab grade mercury thermometer is too long at 12 inches for my pico, that's why I use the smaller alcohol thermometer in the pico tank. It's been checked against the large lab thermometer to insure that any minor variances are small enough to be unnoticeable.


    One piece of digital equipment that has been accurate and that has really made life easier has been my Digital Refractometer made by Milwaukee Instruments. Using a LED hitting a prism and measuring the angle of refraction on an internal sensor, it works on the same principles as optical refractometers but it far easier to use. Instead of fiddling around with the optical one and trying to read the measurement on a tiny hard to see scale in it's viewfinder, the digital Refractometer is much simpler and quicker to use and just as accurate. You basically calibrate it every time you use it with a few drops of your RO water, clean out the test well and add a few drops of your tank water and take a reading. It automatically compensates for the temperature and gives you a digital readout in ppt, ppm or specific gravity. The meter operates on one simple 9V battery which should easily last a few years. The Milwaukee meter looks to be the same design as the Hama meter, just significantly cheaper. Highly recommended.

    Philosophy & Closing Thoughts

    We live in a society of instant gratification and quick results. Looking at this tank or other featured tanks, you may think to yourself, 'wow I want a tank like that in three months'. The reality is that it takes years of hard work, dedication and patience to have these tiny tanks flourish. You are talking about maintaining a very complex ecosystem in an incredibly tiny volume of water. Most people think that the smaller the tank is, the easier it will be to take care of. Actually it's the other way around. Dealing with such a small volume of saltwater, the tolerances are very small or non-existent. If you are not on top of your tank daily and keeping up your maintenance schedule religiously than you are setting yourself up for failure and money wasted.


    From what I have learned in my bonsai training I would say have a goal and vision for your tank and than take small incremental steps needed to reach that goal. Patience, consistency and discipline are paramount. Don't get bogged down or enamored by technology, focus on having your little ecosystem being stable and flourishing over time, its not going to happen overnight. Introduce change with patience, planning and research. As Newtons law goes – 'for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction'. Well for any change you introduce to a tank – whether it's adding a new coral or critters, moving things around, changing equipment, chemicals, etc. You are causing an imbalance in your ecosystem. With every change, let your little ecosystem rebalance itself and reach a state of equilibrium before introducing any further changes or assessing if your change was worth it or not. You may have to wait a few weeks or even months, but that's what it takes to maintain a small ecosystem that is not stressed and a tank that you can be proud off.


    As the world gets more and more complex and we get embroiled in an artificial reality with everything from iPhones, to GPS, Youtube, Facebook, etc. don't ever loose your connection with nature. Don't ever loose that childlike fascination, curiosity or wonder at the natural world around you. That connection with nature is your connection with God and the universe at large. Reefing is tremendously spiritual and therapeutic in that regard. Spend a few minutes every day looking at your tank, clear your mind and be in awe of the natural world and it's living processes. That peace of mind that my little reef tank provides me is priceless and my lifeline to reality and sanity in an increasingly unreal world. Keep on reefing!


    Everything I learned about reefing, I learned online from sites like Nano-Reef.com. I had kept African Cichlids for about 20 years before I bumped into Nano-Reef.com a few years ago and decided to get into reefing with small tanks, I've never looked back. I am utterly and totally grateful to Christopher Marks and all of you that have contributed to making our little community at Nano-Reef.com such a pleasurable experience and such a valuable learning resource. Thank you everyone and thank you Christopher for featuring my tank.


    - Sandeep Singh Brar @Sandeep

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    Thank you for an amazingly inspiring tank. You believe in all the principles that I base my tank upon, and its so nice to see such a low tech, beautiful tank running and looking this good. Congratulations!

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