Congratulations to community member burtbollinger and his 43 gallon nano reef for being selected for our April 2020 Reef Profile! With a focus on simplicity, this LPS dominant reef aquarium has matured into a beautiful display bursting with colors. In this article burtbollinger shares his experiences in the hobby and this aquarium's journey over the past three years. Share your comments and questions in the comments section below, and be sure to follow his aquarium journal for additional photos, history, and information about this lovely nano reef tank.
Burt Bollinger's Red Sea Reefer 170
Display: Red Sea Reefer 170 – 43 gallons total, including sump.
Cover: Artfully Acrylic ClearView Acrylic Lid for Red Sea Reefer 170 (highly recommended)
Rock: 25 lbs of Walt Smith Reef Rock 2.1.
Sand: Tropic Eden Tonga Reef Flakes for sand…about 1” deep.
Lighting: NanoBox Duo light on a 15” gooseneck, currently set at 75 blue, 15 white.
Heater: Eheim JAGER TruTemp Heater.
Circulation: 2x Original Vortech MP-10s set to their lowest setting. Sicce Syncra 2.0 sump return pump.
Skimmer: Bubble Magus Curve 5.
Controller: Reefkeeper Lite for heater protection/temperature control only (recycled from old tank)
Dosing: Tunze Osmolator 3155 (recycled from old tank)
Top-Off: Tunze ATO
Established December 2016
First off, I want to say thank you to Christopher Marks and the great website he has put together. I’ve been lurking and posting here since 2004, and it’s always been my goal to be featured in this space. I made the switch from freshwater to saltwater around 1999, and my first tank was a 55 gallon stuffed with coral skeletons… that I would occasionally bleach!
Moving forward, after doing a lot of research on Nano-Reef, I started a JBJ 24, which did OK and was a great learning experience, followed up by a Finnex 30 gallon, which did well, all things considered. Eventually, I had a major die-off of LPS due to putting an infected wall hammer in my tank, which led to a cascade of health problems for other LPS corals. Not understanding or testing Alkalinity also could have played a role. The other issue was the incessant growth of nuisance green palys, which took over large sections of corals. One day, after risking paly poisoning trying to kill them back, I decided to throw in the towel. I shut the tank down and took several years off.
Sometimes in this hobby, I think it’s ok to take a break. A rule I read once is “once you’re too lazy to want to clean the glass, that’s a sign you should shut the tank down.” So I did.
Lessons learned from that experience:
- Never put invasive species in a tank.
- Address known problems immediately.
- Know when to stop adding corals. The last coral I added was the one that ended up dooming the tank.
- Avoid wall hammers.
- Do not buy plain green corals, aim for COLOR. I’d prefer a tank that looks like a spilled bag of Skittles to a green dominated bore.
- Test alkalinity often using a Hanna checker
- Buy a salt mix that mixes to what you want to keep your tank at.
A New Beginning
Fast forward to late 2016, inspired by a video of Reefbuilder’s Jake Adams relative’s simple nano tank, and the idea of having a super clean, plug-and-play nano with a sump in the form of a Red Sea Reefer 170, I decided to re-enter the hobby.
I can also recall reading a random quote that made we want to get back into the hobby. The gist was that “our reef tanks are the most naturally beautiful item anyone could add to their home... that they are living jewels, and nothing else that you can buy can come close to the beauty they provide.”
Restarting a new system, I was fortunately able to re-use a lot of equipment I had stored from the last tank. A good lesson in buying good quality equipment, you’re not tempted to toss it in event of a shut-down.
The goal of this tank was to be super clean, go SLOW, and have a plan going in. Honestly, I really wanted to do something that could potentially be considered a Nano-Reef Featured tank someday. To do this, I placed the tank as a focal point in my home’s living room. This would force me to stay on top of the tank to a very high degree. You really can’t let a tank go south when you are forced to stare at it every day!
Another goal for the tank was for it to be something I could do at night after my kids went to bed. Once they do, the tank does get a fair amount of attention, for the first year or so especially, I was obsessed, and would spend an hour a night with it. That initial level of attention has fallen quite a bit as the tank is almost on auto-pilot now.
The setup, as it now exists has been running since mid December 2016. That would make the tank about 3 years old, plus a few months.
As far as the equipment goes, I did an obsessive amount of research prior, and I am mostly happy with everything I have on the tank. In a perfect world, I’d love a new pair of MP-10s and the new Radion XR30 G5, but there’s no way I’d just switch up lights on the tank right now. Not looking to do the equivalent of a heart transplant on a tank that is frankly humming along quite nicely. It’s also almost impossible to beat the clean look of a white Nanobox Duo on a Reefer with a white stand in a room with white walls.
Circulation is a pair of original Vortech MP-10s set to their lowest setting, both are easily 10 years old and still run perfectly. I also use an old Vortech battery backup, though I did crack it open to swap out the battery with a new one about 2 years ago. The main system return pump is a Sicce Syncra 2.0.
I also kind of wish I had a nice high-end skimmer… one that’s a bit quieter. The Bubble-Magus Curve 5 is a bit noisy.
In the sump, I wanted to keep things clean and simple. I really think doing things like growing chaeto is a mess and an annoyance in a tank like this, I also did not want to light the sump. Again, my main goal is simplicity and cleanliness. I run a simple Red Sea mesh filter sock that I swap out about once a week. I very rarely run BRS GFO in a filter sock, as I have really strayed away from using it unless I have to. I’ve learned to treat GFO with fear and respect. I do have a Avast Spyglass reactor, but it’s been pulled from the tank and is not in use. I think reactors in nanos might be overkill.
I do have a half a plate of Marinepure in the sump baffle, which is long overdue to be replaced. I cannot say how effective it actually is. I also use a small bag of Purigen that I replace every 5-6 months. I also cannot say that it is effective or not. I do keep ROX carbon from BRS on standby, but I rarely use it, and when I do, it’s in a simple filter sock.
Finally, I ditched the stock Red Sea ATO, and run a 5 gallon bucket on the side of the stand, connected to a very old Tunze ATO.
I believe that tanks go thru phases. The first year of this tank did have its share of small challenges. The first issue was the Walt Smith rock flaking its purple paint. At this time, I thought this was a huge deal, but looking back, it really wasn’t.
Diatom blooms then lasted for about first 13 months or so, brown algae, sometimes hairlike. I may have been too into stirring my sandbed at the time. I’ve very much chilled out on that, and maybe stir the sandbed where it is exposed one a month or two. Cyanobacteria showed up once, but was zapped by Chemiclean. Bryopsis showed up early on, and was promptly eradicated with Fluconazole. Since then, I have had zero algae issues. Sometimes, if I double dose aminos for too many days in a row, I will see more film on the glass, which is a sign I use to skip a day or two.
I think for the first year or so, it pays to be obsessive. Do your regular water changes. Learn the rhythm of your tank. No guessing, do the work. Charting alkalinity was a daily thing. At some point you will naturally learn what you need to do and what the tank likes.
Today, the tank is mature and I turkey-baste rocks and corals about every two weeks and do a water change about once every 3 weeks. If I push it further than that, I feel like I am risking phosphate issues. For the first year of the tank, I did religious 8 gallon changes per week with Fritz Pro salt mix. I still change out 8 gallons at a time, but just less frequently.
I do not vacuum the substrate, I gently stir it rarely, as needed. I would prefer to remove and replace portions of sand, should a random patch of cyano appear due to overfeeding, etc.
Dosing & Feeding
I manually dose @ 7.5 ML each of Bionic 2-part solution every 2-3 days to keep the Alk @ 8.5 or so. I test Alkalinity about once a week just to see where I am at, and sorta run math in my head on when to dose. Again, I recommend testing Alkalinity frequently in the beginning and really getting a feel for your tank. I cannot recommend the Hanna Alkalinity Checker enough! Also, when in doubt, DON’T dose. I really like manual dosing vs. dosing pumps. I just don’t feel comfortable with a substance that can kill my corals if dosed too high being fed automatically.
For aminos, I dose Brightwell Aminos every other day, and I really do think it makes a difference in color. I probably overdose it, to be honest. I tend to do double the amount.
Finally, corals are also fed once a week with Benereef, occasionally Reef Roids, and LRS Reef Frenzy Nano a few times a week.
I test alkalinity about twice a week. Calcium every 3-4 months, Nitrates every 3-4 months…and that’s it. If I start to see something odd happening, I bite the bullet and do a mail-in Triton test. If something looks off and I can’t figure it out, I feel its unwise to hesitate and guess. This helped me with an issue I was having with LPS recession a while back. Turns out the phosphates had crept up, as I had gotten a bit too lazy.
The tank’s basic parameters:
- Salinity – 1.025-1.026
- Alk – 7.7 to 9…goal is 8.7
- CA – 490-500
- Mag – 1450-1500
- Nitrates – 7.5
- Phosphates - Unknown
Bangai Cardinal - Pterapogon kauderni
Firefish Goby - Nemateleotris magnifica
Carpenter's Flasher Wrasse - Paracheilinus carpenter
Sunkist Bounce Mushroom
Rasta and Bam Bam Zoanthids
Utter Chaos Palythoa
Pink Boobies Chalice
Space Invader Pectinia
Raptors Peace Favia
An assortment of Torch Coral
Green Branching Hammer
Gold Branching Hammer
Variety of $20-rack Acans
Pink Boobies Chalice
OG Mummy Eye Chalice
Space Invader Pectinia
Orange Crush Acan Echinata
Raptors Peace Favia
Green Polyp Duncan
Jason Fox Scarlet Fever Stylocoeniella
8-10 Astraea Snails
30 Dwarf Cerith
15 Florida Cerith
6-7 Nassarius Vibex
Troubles Along The Way
The biggest problem in reef keeping is getting cocky and putting off water changes too long, I tend to not want to push it more than a month. Also, I’ve seen issues where I’ve slacked off on feeding quality foods and water changes, and seen corals respond poorly as a result. Specifically, I noticed that numerous LPS began showing minor tissue recession. I believe this was due to the combo of neglecting to feed routinely as I had been, and elevated phosphates.
I also had an issue when I stopped feeding the fish LRS and was feeding only flake because it was easier in the moment to just toss some flakes in the tank. My advice to you is, don’t get too lazy and switch up what you feed.
Bristleworms are somewhat of an issue in this tank. There are hundreds and hundreds of small ones, and I half think they bother corals.
For about 2 years, vermitid snails were a MAJOR concern, but they seem to have mostly vanished on their own. I spent a lot of time fretting over them, and even resorted to hand-killing using dental tools.
Other problems involve accidents with light. I have a skylight directly above the tank, and not covering it caused the bleaching of a few corals over the years. During the summer, the sun is directly overhead, and is a coral bleacher. I have since partially blocked in that skylight.
Also, I think I ran my whites way too high for too long. Frustratingly, I’ve seen Acans turn mostly red, and I’ve had some Aussie Gold turn more purple than gold. I’ve since dropped my whites lower that what is recommended. I’ve also had a few Chalices go south, some for what really seemed to be no reason at all. I had a small Miami Hurricane that began bleaching in random spots. I ended up pulling it out very recently and giving it to a friend.
Finally, I’ve learned that with my lighting I don’t think that I can pull off big SPS long term. In earlier videos, you’ll notice I had a great purple stylo that did well for a long time, but due to shading from my LEDs, it started to go south. I recently reluctantly replaced that purple stylo with a new Aussie Gold Torch.
Eliminating Problems Before They Start
This might be controversial, but if I have a coral that is not doing well, rather than nurse it back to health, I pretty much get rid of it right away. This has not happened often, but when it does, I give it back to the LFS usually, or sometimes my main coral supplier will take out of my hands.
After my bad experience with my old tank, I do not play around with damaged or dying corals at all. I’ll do an iodine dip or two, but if they don’t bounce back within a few days, they go, pronto! No matter what I paid, they are removed from the tank. The tank is not a nursery, and I have a nasty habit of focusing on the one sick coral, vs. the tank full of thriving corals.
While this is an extreme, I would advise that if you see a problem, at least take some sort of action. Don’t be a deer in the headlights. Start researching. Start testing. Consider dipping. But also make the decision at what point you will pull the coral if you don’t see improvement. Waiting and wishing things away and doing nothing has bitten me before.
A Few Regrets
I regret not ditching the classic clownfish pair sooner. For years, I believed that a nano tank demanded a classic clown pair. However, I’ve had a lot of clownfish issues with this tank. For example, I had to re-home a clownfish who was trying to live inside an Aussie Gold. Today, I am a lot happier with no clowns. As far as fish regrets, I also regret my royal gramma purchase. It turned mean and terrorized my tank for a long time!
Finally, I regret tossing money at corals like encrusting Montipora, Fungia Plate, and Cyphestrea. These did not work for me. I marvel at folks who can do encrusting montis. For whatever reason, I cannot keep them alive. Chalices are also something I love, but I have concerns about keeping them long-term… I’ve had a few die on me.
Initial Vision vs Reality
I started the tank with a vision of it being Montipora dominated, however as it turns out, I am just not good with Montipora. Nor do I believe my light selection is conducive to large SPS colonies. Shading becomes a factor.
Alas, visions can change due to necessity. As time went on, I ditched the SPS idea and reverted to LPS, which are my favorite corals. It’s a bit more “easy mode,” and I love branching hammers, torches, and chalices… but above all, I love Space Invader Pectinia! It’s my main focus, and from day one, I knew that Space Invader would be the main thing I would try to keep alive in this tank, and so far, so good. I recently picked up another frag of it, just in case something goes wrong with my bigger one.
I don’t have a huge tank budget, so the way I have approached this tank is to buy one very nice LPS every 60-90 days. Mostly, I request corals from a friend who lives a few miles away from me. He sells corals and regularly attends regional frag swaps. His company is called Underwater Gardeners. I simply tell him what I want, and when it eventually pops up in his world, I get a message.
For a long time, I was very anti-zoanthid, but as time has gone on, I added some that I really like and that I know are colorful and hardy, specifically Rastas and Bam Bams. Moving forward, most blank spots in this tank will be eventually filled in with rastas, as they really seem to thrive in this tank.
As far as corals go, my mindset is to make sure that I avoid green corals when possible. A big mistake I see people make is too quickly filling up a nano with green corals. I really think you’re better off going slower, and trying to buy as many oranges, pinks, reds, yellows, as possible, then finishing off with green corals. I also have the mentality to where if I buy an unexpected or unplanned coral at the LFS, it’s a defeat. Winning is walking away with nothing, and saving up what you want, vs. settling. Learn to enjoy NOT buying coral.
Advice For New Hobbyists
Test and know your alkalinity at all times. Never spike your alkalinity.
As I stated above… avoid too many green corals. Make your green corals count.
Know when to stop adding corals.
Avoid wall hammers.
Get yourself a Space Invader Pectinia.
A pair of good solid goals for your tank would be: 1. Everything lives. 2. No wasted money
Before starting a tank for the first time, spend 50 hours watching Bulk Reef Supply videos.
Ask before acting, not after. Don't shop around for advice you want to hear.
You are keeping a box of water... the water is your hobby, not the corals and fish.
If you see a problem, address it. Don’t put it off for another day. A good example is if you see bubble algae, don’t be lazy. Get in there and take action.
Don’t hang on to a sick coral too long, unless you’re into that kind of thing.
Be very paranoid about scratching your glass.
Even at 10 months, your tank is in its infancy... treat it carefully and be prepared for ugly algae blooms.
Don’t buy things to make your spouse or kids happy... you’re the expert, not them.
Don’t put shrimp in a LPS dominant tank… certainly not a peppermint shrimp.
Royal Grammas can be much meaner than often advertised.
For your first tank, I'd say your goal should be a slow, simple learning set up... use it as your classroom. Aim for classy, clean and basic.
Don't let the onslaught of new information overwhelm or intimidate... you will have time to research every step in depth before you do it if you are moving at the proper slow and methodical speed. In the end, you'll find its not as hard as you think.
Find a local person who sells awesome corals in his or her basement. He or she is out there!
Buy the best you can afford. Wait if necessary. In an ideal world, I would have had installed a T5/LED hybrid, but at the time, funds were not available to do so. I am not an expert enough to discuss lighting any further than that.
I think once you get to this size tank, I would not want to ever go without one. I’m definitely in the skimmer camp, instead of the refugium camp.
Keep it simple and manual if you can. Feed good food and do so consistently. I like Benereef mixed to a thick green paste, and LRS Reef Frenzy Nano. The Benereef is target fed with the filters off. The tank suffers when I don’t feed. I’ve also had good luck with Aquavitro Fuel and lately Brightwell Coral Aminos. I’d estimate the color boost they provide this tank to be about 10-15% brighter and more colorful.
I’ve never paid much attention nor had the funds to play ball at the height of a fad. Also, If I’m going to pay big money, it’s not going to be for a fad purchase, it’s going to towards something that will always be cool and in high demand… like a big chunk of Space Invader Pectinia, a colorful torch, or a gold branching hammer. Those are high-impact purchases.
Clean up Crews
Don’t add too early… replace the dead and missing once a year or so. I’ve had good luck with ReefCleaners. Keep it simple, and try to avoid adding peppermint shrimps unless you have a very serious problem and don’t have a bunch of LPS.
A great way to add a bunch of interesting color is always being on the hunt for good looking Ricordea. Any time you can find a yellow, orange, red, or pink, it’s probably worth buying.
Over the past 20 years or so, the most money I’ve wasted has been on zoanthids. In my opinion, they are more difficult than their reputation suggests. They melt or stay closed for no reason, and are a source of unending frustration for me. The ones I seek out now are ones that I know my tank likes. Even then, sometimes they like to close up from time to time.
This tank is not quite where I want it. At this point, it’s a game of tastefully filling in the gaps. My plans are to keep my hands out of the tank, not make any stupid assumptions or mistakes, occasionally seed new rasta zoas in new nooks and crannies, and just let things keep growing out.
I am always willing to consider more colorful torches on the back wall, and perhaps a true yellow or orange branching hammer magnetically attached to the left side glass. If anyone has a true yellow or orange branching hammer, please shoot me a message!
I might explore an eventual switch to the Radion G5, At some point, my decade old MP-10s are also going to need to be replaced. Maybe EcoTech will have a package deal someday?
Finally, I may eventually want to find a quieter skimmer than the Curve 5.
Thanks to Christopher Marks. Without this community, I simply would not be in this hobby. A tremendous thanks to Printies at UnderwaterGardeners, located outside of Saint Louis, MO. Pretty much every coral in my tank came from him. Thanks to my local fish store, and it's owner, Ryan at Corals & More. Thanks to SLASH Club for their biannual frag swaps. Thanks to Bulk Reef Supply, Jake Adams at Reefbuilders, Dave Fason, World Wide Corals, and for anyone who has ever helped me, or who follows me on my tank thread. Finally, shout out to Clown79, who is one of the most helpful nano-reefers around.