Congratulations to community member Butchy21 and his 26 gallon nano reef for being selected for our February Reef Profile. Below is the aquarium profile Butchy21 has written for us sharing his experiences in the hobby and this aquarium's progress over the past three and a half years! See what he's been up to and share your comments and questions in the comments section below. Be sure to follow his aquarium journal for additional photos, history, and information about this beautiful reef tank.
Lighting: Current USA Marine Orbit 24-36” Dual daylight & dual actinic spectrum 96 LED, 85% actinic channel, 90% white channel for 7hrs
Stand: Aqueon pine stand
Heater: Cobalt Neo-Therm 100W
Circulation: Jebao RW-4 wavemaker, Hydor Koralia 425, Hydor Koralia 240
Skimmer: Reef Octopus BH-1000 hang on back skimmer fed by Aquatrance AQ-100S pump
Filtration: Aquaclear 50 Power Filter
Filter Media: Chemi-Pure Elite
GFO Reactor: Bulk Reef Supply GFO and carbon reactor, fed by Cobalt MJ1200 pump
Dosing: Manually dose SeaChem 2-part Reef Fusion weekly
Salt Mix: Instant Ocean Reef Crystals
Rock: Random assortment of a variety of types acquired over the years, plus a few pieces from a LFS to kickstart growth during initial setup
Substrate: 20 pounds Nature’s ocean Bio-active aragonite live sand
Established July 2014: the fish were added starting in September 2014, and the first coral frag (Frogspawn) was added December 2014.
Water Changes and Cleaning: During the early stages of the tank when it was fish only I had minimal upkeep, performing water changes at around 25-30% total volume (8 gallons), every 2-3 weeks, with very little additional testing of parameters. As the number and size of corals has increased, I try to maintain the schedule of doing 25-30% biweekly. Manual top-off with purified water, probably 2 gallons a week is needed. Glass is cleaned once or twice weekly. During the majority of water changes I use a toothbrush to scrub the rocks of any algae, stir up the sand bed, and blow detritus off from the rocks. Once a month if needed, I take out the powerheads and filter to scrub them. Every few months I soak the powerheads in vinegar to get any calcium buildup off.
Dosing and Testing: SeaChem Reef fusion 2-part additive is routinely used to keep alkalinity and calcium levels high. Over time I have realized that my Elegance coral always tells me when the alkalinity is running low (under 7), so unless this happens, I only test alkalinity after each water change. Salinity is checked maybe once a month. Calcium levels are checked every other month or so, but I generally dose about once a month. Every 4 months or so I run the whole gamut of additional testing (unless I see any problems starting) – Nitrate, Nitrite, Phosphate, pH, Magnesium and Ammonia.
Feeding: Fish are fed once per day, alternating frozen foods (mysis, brine, Marine Cuisine) with dry foods (New Life Spectrum Marine Formula, Omega One Marine Flakes). I used marine snow for the corals for a while but have not used it in at least a year or two.
- Two Orange Percula Clownfish
- Six Line Wrasse
- Yellow Watchman Goby
- Various Zoanthids – Orange and Pink
- Various Mushroom Corals – Hairy, True Blue, Red and Brown
Hollywood Stunner Chalice
Chalice Under Actinic
Acan Under Actinic
Elegance Under Actinic
- Purple Branching Hammer (Euphyllia paraancora)
- Purple Wall Hammer (Euphyllia ancora)
- Green-tip Frogspawn (Euphyllia divisa)
- Hollywood Stunner Chalice (Echinopora lamellosa)
- Brain Coral (Platygyra spp.)
- Australian Duncan Coral (Duncanopsammia axifuga)
- Trumpet Corals – Toxic Green, Blue (Caulastrea spp.)
- Acan (Acanthastrea echinata)
- Micromussa (Micromusa spp.)
- Blastomussa – Red, Purple (Blastomussa wellsi)
- Elegance Coral (Cataphyllia jardinei)
- Green Encrusting Pavona (Pavona decussate)
- 3 Dwarve Blue Leg Hermit Crabs (Clibanarius tricolor)
- 2 Nassarius Snails (Nassarius spp.)
- 6 Astrea turbo Snails (Astrea tecta)
- 4 Cerith Snails (Cerithium spp.)
This tank sure has a long history… As a poor graduate student I had some friends get interested in the hobby back around 2006. I decided to join them in this adventure and actually picked up the 26 gallon bowfront I have now from Craigslist, paying only $125 for the tank and the wood stand! It had been used for freshwater, so it came with very little usable equipment, but the glass and stand were in excellent condition. I had a fish only tank for several years but really never invested the time or resources to create a great environment. After moving from Rochester, NY to Boston into a studio apartment, let’s just say the tank did not make the move and it just collected dust in my parent’s basement for years. When my parents decided (against my will!) to sell my childhood home, they brought the rest of my stuff from storage and delivered it to me in Boston. Once again the tank sat for a few more years until finally my girlfriend, now wife, and I decided to get our first apartment together. After hearing me talk about how much I missed having a fish tank, she told me to stop talking and do it already! My overall goal for this tank was to make it the centerpiece of our living room. Now the adventure begins…
Early 2014: I have the tank, stand, a crappy filter and a crappy heater (we will get to that piece of crap later!) …and no clue as to how to create a beautiful reef tank. I read, read, and read some more. I start to formulate a plan which is basically to take things slowly with fish only, then start adding corals as I get the appropriate equipment and money since this is my first reef tank. My general idea is to focus on following the water parameters for about 6 months and then to start slowly adding some frags. The overall concept of the tank is to have a low cost of entry, minimal maintenance and the smallest footprint I can do without sacrificing on any essential components.
July 2014: The tank gets set up with 20 pounds of bio-active reef sand, I reuse my old live rock, and hit up a local fish store for a few more pieces to seed my tank. My wife’s parents are actually visiting soon after the tank is up and just laugh because there is a full aquarium in the living room now with just sand and rocks. This is the hardest part of a new tank… waiting. THIS IS IMPORTANT!
September 2014: I add two clown fish, Petey and Stella. I then use the next few months to choose the minimal equipment required for some decent corals. I decide to run a Marine Orbit 96 LED strip, Reef Octopus 1000 hang-on-back skimmer, AquaClear 50 power filter, and two small Koralia Hydor powerheads. To start I am planning to just have softies and LPS corals so the Marine Orbit LED will be sufficient, although being a bowfront tank, their design is much deeper (21”) than other rectangular tanks of similar volumes. This is a concern I had for any future endeavors into getting any SPS corals and supporting sufficient coral growth. With the skimmer I wanted to go big! It is rated for up to 100 gallons but having four fish in a smaller tank, I wanted to have sufficient capacity to keep the water quality really high. Most importantly, no plumbing was required.
December 2014: After following water parameters for a few months I start buying small frags of corals to see how they do in my setup. The first one is a frogspawn, followed by a large rock with two types of zoanthids, yellow polyps, and I am hooked!
March 2015: I added the watchman goby, named him Bruce since he always seem to look angry. Tank is starting to have a lot of brown algae on the substrate, I was thinking it was due to a lack of circulation so I add a third powerhead, the Jeabao RW-4 wavemaker.
April 2015: I added a tiny sixline wrasse, Petunia, who was so tiny she actually got stuck in the skimmer water input cup during the first week! I purchased the large piece of blue/green trumpet coral that I still have today, but at the time it only had about 8 heads, and the majority of the coral was dead. I spent about 4-5 hours redoing the rockscape, and this is pretty much how the rock stands today. I added the brown/orange mushrooms, a Kenya tree, and some green star polyps.
I found two local guys that sell corals out of their basement for great prices compared to local fish shops. Picked up two ricordeas, 3 types of zoas, blue xenia, blue acan, frogspawn, hammer and a bunch of corals that I still have today – the elegance (my favorite! I paid only $25 compared to the $75-100 pricetag at LFS), 2 head neon green trumpet, and a 3 head Duncan. It’s also time to test what my LED light can do, I got a few SPS frags on the cheap: green slimmer, red monti cap, and a birdsnest.
May 2015: Added two more acans, green hairy pavona, a few more colored zoas, a few types of palys, some larger button polyp species, a Hollywood Stunner chalice, micromussa, Utter Chaos single polyp, and a favia.
June 2015: The heater breaks! We wake up to a smell of an electrical fire as we run around the house smelling different rooms, not being able to figure out the issue. I smell the tank… It’s absolutely nauseating! I look closely and there is smoke coming out from the tank, so I pull the heater out and it’s already partially melted and I know that this thing just nuked my whole tank! The skimmer is filling up every 5 minutes, I just don’t know what to do?! I stay home from work and do a 4 gallon water change, another 4 gallon water change, followed by an 8 gallon water change… and the water still smells gross. COMPLETELY DEVASTATING. I throw in my backup heater that I used to warm up water for water changes and I kid you not, that one starts smoking too! Both of these heaters were originally purchased in Rochester when I first set up the tank nearly 10 years ago.
All of the SPS corals shed their algae and die within 24 hours. The six line wrasse goes MIA. I lose at least a dozen of the corals, probably about 50% in total. All of the acans, micromussa, most of the zoanthids – all dead. The cleaning crew – dead. Pierre, my coral banded shrimp – dead. The duncan, purple blasto, chalice and a bunch of the other corals do ultimately survive, but take 2-3 months to open back up and start to recover, slowly regaining their color. Amazingly my Elegance survived, much to my surprise since I’ve heard several people say how much trouble they have keeping theirs alive. I’m sort of happy that through this whole disaster I didn’t take any photos immediately after, as I can’t find a single one to share. I suppose that is probably for the best.
Recovery Stage: I can’t keep any of my clean up crew from dying so I’m afraid I have some long-term issues with the tank. LFS mentions to run some poly-filter since a common problem is that a broken heater can leach copper into the substrate and rocks. Apparently, once this happens you will never be able to get it out unless you completely break your tank down. If this were the case, I probably would have put the tank back in storage. I am freaking out at this point, but I bring a water sample in, they test it, and no copper readings. Basically, I have to sit back and let the tank recover.
January 2016: With all of the invertebrates and half of the corals dying, I slowly start to have serious issues with the tank. Green hair algae starts to get out of control. Every “simple maintenance water change” turns into deep cleaning. Toothbrush scrubbing and pulling out hunks of algae with tweezers is a regular chore. This is not what I originally envisioned as a “low maintenance” reef tank. After getting a lot of input from the forums and other friends, I know I really have to make an upgrade. I install a BRS GFO reactor to get a handle on the phosphate spikes I am having. I have to figure out a little plumbing situation and decide how best to keep the tank setup simple and hidden. Of course the first reactor I received is set up with all of the appropriate tubing, so I turn it on and it just leaks water all over the place. I end up trouble-shooting over the phone with Bulk Reef Supply and they determine I got a bad seal on one of the parts. A new one comes and everything is a go!
2017 and Beyond: After getting a handle on the algae issue it is finally time to sit back and watch the corals grow. The water parameters seem to have hit their sweet spot and the tank really slides into a major time of coral growth explosion. I haven’t added very many frags in the past year and a half, but once I decide on how to free up some space, it is time to get back into some SPS species.
- Not Adding a GFO Reactor Sooner. Having a decent sized bioload in my tank for its size, I wish I had started a GFO reactor from the moment I started purchasing corals. I naively went on about my business since I had a skimmer rated for 2-4x my tank size until I had a massive green hair algae problem. I was partially overwhelmed by the idea of having to figure out how to plumb it, how best to incorporate it into the stand, etc. The algae problem ended up snuffing out a lot of corals over time and there seemed to be no cure in sight. Who knows if my tank would have been hit so hard without the heater going nuclear and all of the dead biomass, but I think having the reactor set up would have no doubt helped speed up the recovery.
- Cheaping Out On My RO/DI Unit. I purchased a portable 4-stage RODI unit from Pure Water Club and I do have to say it has treated me pretty well. $70 for a setup is a great jumping in price point, but you soon find out the small things that you wish you had. My local water source is really high in dissolved solids, which burns through resins/membranes faster than I would imagine, and I found out that the water treatment plant use chloramines. Does this affect my corals not having a 5-stage setup? I don’t know, but I am always curious. The next setup will have some luxuries like being able to see when the resin has to be changed, in-line TDS, etc. Did I get my money worth with the RODI system though? YES. For any tank with a small requirement, I would recommend that setup as a starter.
- Not Being Proactive When Issues Arise. If corals close up, excessive algae growth starts, inverts are dying – there are issues. I’ve been slow to get my butt in gear and go after finding the problem sooner and any delay just makes more work for yourself.
- Fragging and Selling Off Larger Pieces: I’ve reached the point where a lot of my corals have really hit their stride in growth and I am running out of real-estate. I don’t recall reading about this whole concept, but it seems as if there are a few corals that had anywhere from zero growth to really slow growth for 1-2 years, and have now just exploded. This goes for the Hollywood stunner chalice, one of the zoanthids and the encrusting pavona. The zoas were just 5 polyps for probably a year and have since turned into 50+ heads in 9 months?! The chalice and pavona have gone from less than a quarter sized $5 frag to 20-25 sq. inch giants! I just purchased a magnetized frag holder since I plan to cut up the chalice a bit and sell off the majority of it. It is starting to grow over some of the other corals and it will be an issue with appropriate lighting soon. As for the pavona, I’m not sure how to keep it from expanding? I would have placed this on an isolated rock if I would’ve known its massive growth potential.
- Isolation or Selling of Stinging Corals: The hammer coral suddenly wants to sting everything so I’ve recently placed a barrier rock beside it, but it may have to go if it doesn’t play nice.
- Purchase SPS Corals: With the large piece of chalice gone I want to get back into SPS corals. There is an amazing guy in the Boston area that sells corals out of his basement. He has literally thousands of frags and even a full tank of common SPS species at $5 a piece. I am looking forward to getting some interesting pieces once more.
- Learn More About Feeding My Corals: I used Marine Snow for a while and also used to hand-feed certain corals but ended up just letting them do their own thing after I had algae issues. I would imagine I could improve some coral color and boost growth.
- Set Up a Second Smaller Tank For Coral Frags: The wife actually told me I should do it! I have considered it for awhile, but I just cant see how this is an easy (and relatively cheap) thing to set up. I understand there will be no fish, so that is a huge advantage not having the waste buildup affecting water quality, so maintenance should be easier and water conditions should be more stable.
- Upgrade RO/DI Unit to a 5-Stage Setup: This will increase speed and hopefully improve water quality with the removal of chloramaines.
- Learn how to do quality reef photography
Questions To Readers
- Looking through all of my pictures of my tank over time, I noticed I used to have a substantially better coralline algae profile. Is this something that other people have experienced? My guess would be supplementing trace elements would help rectify this. Kent Purple Tech, RedSea Coraline Gro? Any suggestions would be very helpful!
- What would you suggest for a small frag tank that can grow out frags from the main tank? Lights, filtration, need for a skimmer, tank size?
- What would be the next light upgrade for a bowfront tank of my size and needs? Comment below!
Advice, Tips & Tricks, and a Little Forewarning
- Seek out information as much as possible. Talk to everyone, use online forums, go to a local fish store, browse various resources online or search through books. Be ok with asking questions, since no question is stupid. We all start by not knowing a thing in this hobby. If people are not helpful or seem to be snooty, don’t give that store your business or visit those websites. I have truly found that people in this hobby love learning about reef keeping and nearly all of them love to teach others in a hope to have others gain an equally great passion for it. My friends make fun of me. They say, uh oh, you got Ken talking about his fish tank. Isn’t that why we continue on? We love it. Whether it’s answering a few basic questions, or going into the fine details of what we do to make the reef happy and healthy, we want to be a source of information.
- When planning your equipment – Go Big! This will help immensely in the case that you upgrade in the future. With many pieces of equipment, it doesn’t hurt to have things that are a little overkill for your current set up. A slightly larger wavemaker can have it’s intensity turned down, or a skimmer rated for 100 gallons on a smaller tank can be adjusted for how much it is skimming. The difference in pricing for you to buy the next size up is usually minimal compared to it’s overall cost. Future proofing is your friend.
- You will flood your house or apartment. Wherever your tank is, be prepared haha. Specifically with my GFO reactor, even though you turn the valve to OFF, if the return tube is still in the tank it will create a vacuum and start pulling water out of the tank! Something I failed to recognize and probably the 4th or 5th time I’ve flooded the living room. Return tube falls out of tank during water change. Filter goes crazy. RO/DI tube flips out of the bucket. Word of warning, these things will happen.
- Have someone you trust check in on the tank when you are away. FYI, strange and weird things will happen when you are out of town, and remember that things can become very bad all so quickly. I was out of the country for 3 weeks and I gave my wife specific instructions of what to do when I was away. The media bag got stuck and the power filter flooded. Without someone checking, I think about half of the tank would have emptied out. I was away this past Christmas and a friend checking on the tank called and tried to recreate the noises that the tank was making. This had never happened so I was at a loss. I think it was the propeller to the filter was not engaging properly. Having someone be able to call you during any potential emergency is essential. I was actually thinking about buying a webcam that I could just turn on during vacations.
- Think about the major factors that can significantly impact the health of your tank and have backup plans. What could you do if you lose power, how can you handle a heat wave or any other major impacts to the homeostasis of your tank. I haven’t gone out and spent money on a generator or some of the more expensive options, but I’ve definitely thought about short-term solutions for certain scenarios. Simple battery-backup pump for the health of your fish and corals is important, or ice packs in the freezer over the summer on the ready, or ways that you can keep the heat up during a power outage.
- Don’t wait on replacing cheap or old equipment – Be Proactive. A $20 piece of crap heater that “worked just fine” in my eyes, ended up destroying fish, invertebrates and probably $300 of coral because I didn’t feel the need to upgrade to a better, brand new heater because it was working just fine. Get an idea of how often things should be replaced and act on them!
- Don’t believe everything you read or what you are told. Take the entire pool of anecdotes, references, etc. and learn to make an intelligent, informed opinion. The ability to feel comfortable doing this will come over time. That is one of the most fascinating things I’ve learned over the last 3.5 years in creating my tank. For example, people informed me that my Marine Orbit LEDs couldn’t support SPS growth. Before the heater incident, I had monitpora, birdsnest and a green slimmer growing like crazy. At first I was so worked up about the idea that I maybe cheaped out and didn’t go for the 2-3x as expensive Kessel that my friend bought. Should I get a PAR meter? Is the light intensity that poor? Turns out, my light could support SPS corals just fine. Many other examples support this concept. This goes for the amount of circulation needed, how often to do water changes, dosing, and so many other important factors. Find what works for you. Isn’t that half of the hobby?
- Every tank is truly unique. This fits in with the last point of advice. We get fixated on reading over 10 different sources and trying to decide how many snails we should have, how much substrate we should have, how much water to change and how often we should change it. Given the vast amount of information you have to incorporate while you get your tank running and keeping it healthy, it is strange to hear someone say that you will just have to wait and see how things shake out. I originally tested my water parameters every other month, the whole gamut, but you quickly learn that corals tell you when the water isn’t great. You see issues with different algae growth, excessive skimming, etc. all of these things give you clues that the tank needs some TLC. I assure you, running your tank gets so much easier when you learn YOUR tank.
- Hydrogen peroxide works! I read so many blogs and forum posting on the use of hydrogen peroxide to combat algae growth. I was very hesitant but I have had great success with this type of treatment. I would recommend if possible, not screwing together or using putty to glue all of your rockscape together. This allows for you to pull out specific rocks one by one in the event that treatment is required. Also note, it is not advisable to treat a lot of your tank at once since the algae starts to decay. During huge algae issues following the tank crashing I was able to systematically pull out rocks and treat with H2O2 to get a handle on the algae. If I recall correctly, I purchased hydrogen peroxide from CVS, mixed 1:1, sprayed onto the rocks in the sink to fully coat the rocks and let them sit for a few minutes. I dunked them in some extra tank water to rinse and placed them back in the tank. I have never seen any adverse reactions to any of my corals and within a few days the algae withers away.
- Buy cheap coral frags! You can fill your tank with a ton of beautiful coral on the cheap. It’s hard to wait for them to grow but it will happen. There is a sense of accomplishment as well when you get to see your little frags become a big centerpiece of your tank. The $10 SPS piece will look really good compared to the $50 exotic frag that you thought about buying.
- Corals generally look bad for a reason. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your water chemistry is off. Recently my chalice sloughed off about 15% of its surface and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. Turns out I had accidently hit my heater settings during routine cleaning and the temperature was set way too high! Investigate everything.
I love the simplicity of my Marine Orbit LED strip. It was a great cheap entry price and it has a lot of cool features that I’ve grown accustomed to enjoying. I have it set up to do a “sunrise” and “sunset” where the blue actinics slowly come on and the white light starts to fade in during the morning and the opposite at night. This creates a really cool feature where you can watch the corals start to open up or end their day getting the rays. A timer controls everything so you never have to touch it once it is set up. I have found however that the LEDs are not able to keep the colors that certain corals have when I purchased them. The blues and reds become less intense for example. Without running a water cooler or fans I have accepted this trade-off from the more expensive lighting options that generate a lot of heat. I am considering an upgrade to a more powerful LED such as the Kessel’s at some point. The shimmer they create is really fantastic.
I’ve been really happy with my Reef Octopus skimmer thus far so I could easily recommend it to anyone. I bought the HOB version where the pump is outside the tank to save precious real estate inside the tank. I’ve probably only had to break it down three times since I’ve owned it to give it a good cleaning but it’s never had any problems.
Clean Up Crews
For probably a year and a half I had a very hard time keeping snails healthy. There would be times a trip to the store would result in half of the snails dead by the next day. I would try throwing them right in, or acclimating them for one hour, two hours, and nothing seemed to work. At this point my only guess is long-term effects from the broken heater, but in the past 6 months this trend has basically stopped. I’ve noticed a remarkable difference in the time in which the glass gets dirty.
The bowfront type setup does make life harder for me at times. Working at the substrate level usually always requires you to get your whole arms wet and maneuverability can be a challenge. This is just the way it goes. What I do love about these tanks is the increased depth of field you can get with your rockscaping. Also, the footprint of the tank is really small and that is why it works so well for me as a living room setup.
Find a local source for cheap frags and test out what works for you. See what works in your tank by doing it on the cheap. Specifically, test how SPS corals do in your tank before splurging on the “pretty” colors or the more exotic pieces. Buy a one or two head frogspawn instead of a giant colony.
Every tank is unique and thus has impacts on coral health. Certain things you read may not always work out for your tank specifically. It is frustrating to no end but there may be corals that don’t do well, while others that should have similar lighting, water current or other conditions thrive! That is the way it goes unfortunately. Some examples: I love the look of pulsating xenia but they always die within weeks. I think my water isn’t dirty enough! I had a bunch of ricordea and they slowly withered away, yet every other mushroom species I’ve had grows like crazy.
I have to first thank my wife for letting me turn our living room into a battlezone all too often. She has really let me jump all in on running a tank and it’s allowed me to be successful at it. My buddy Mike has been a huge source of information who has been crucial in trouble-shooting, thinking of ideas, etc. Having a close friend come along for the ride with their own tank really creates a fun environment and provides someone reliable. Of course it does create a desire to compete, but you also feel invested in each others successes and failures. I would also like to thank Christopher Marks for choosing my nano reef as the tank of the month. This is an awesome honor that I never thought I would have received! Lastly, to Nano-Reef and all of the great hobbyists that I’ve interacted with. It’s great to be able to post something online and get a really helpful dialog going quickly. People have been amazing in giving advice, sharing similar experiences and such. The fact that reef enthusiasts love teaching others will let us all continue to learn.