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Cultivated Reef
  • Jon-Paul

    Christopher Marks

    Congratulations to community member Jon-Paul and his 3 gallon pico reef for being selected for our September 2020 Reef Profile! This incredible little pico reef is growing into a true masterpiece, despite an unexpected pandemic shutdown disruption. In this article Jon-Paul shares his experiences in the hobby and this aquarium's journey over the past year and a half. Please 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 beautiful pico reef tank.

    Jon-Paul's 3 Gallon Pico Reef


    Tank Specs

    Display: JBJ Picotope 3 Gallon Rimless Curved Glass Aquarium (11.8" x 8.9" x 8.1")

    Rock: Pukani Dry Live Rock (Bleached, and stripped of Phosphates prior to adding)

    Sand: None
    Lighting: AI Prime 16HD LED Lighting (with custom 3D Reefing Diffuser)
    Heater: Cobalt Aquatics Flat Neo-Therm 25w
    Circulation: Hydor Centrifugal Pump 160GPH (Using magnet clip from Hydor Pico Evo-Mag 180GPH)
    Skimmer: None
    Filtration: Picotope 40GPH Filter (stock with Picotope)
    Filter Media: inTank Double Sided Filter Floss
    Top Off: Smart ATO Micro Topoff
    Dosing: None
    Controller: None

    Established November 13, 2018
    658 Days old, as of September 1st 2020





    Maintenance Routine

    Maintenance routines have changed over time, but now I feel comfortable doing 100% water changes. In the past I would do about a 75% change, but I feel my system is quite established. I preform a 100% water change about every 2 weeks just to replenish nutrients that the corals are soaking up.


    When the algae in the aquarium becomes too much I will also make a fresh batch of saltwater in a five gallon bucket and pick the entire rock structure out of the tank (it's one piece glued together) and scrape the tank with a razor blade so I have a nice clean looking tank.


    Considering my bio-load is so small (crab and snail) algae is not something that normally bothers my tank. I tend to be quite sparse on my feedings for my corals. I usually feed every week, or every other week. In a tank as small as mine I am not concerned with rapid growth, but more so hoping everyone doesn't get too big and crowd others' space.


    I don't test too often anymore either. Obviously make sure my water salinity is on point (I aim for 1.024 on my refractometer) and trust my salt to do the rest. I use Red Sea Coral Pro Salt as it has elevated levels of dKH and Calcium and sustains my tank for a while. If I notice corals are closed are not as extended this usually also prompts testing/water change.


    When I do feed the corals I begin by turning off my filter and adding 1 drop of Polyp Lab's Polyp Booster. I leave the circulation on in the aquarium to spread it around the tank and get the corals' feeders out. I mix up frozen mysis shrimp, Polyp Lab's Reef-Roids, and Fauna Marin LPS Pellets with some tank water and turn the pump off and spot feeds my LPS. The remaining soup I blast my softies with. I usually leave the pumps off for 25 minutes and then turn everything back on. The next day I will change the filter floss.


    I did buy a dosing pump, but quickly realized that the tank is way too small and it is unnecessary. But, I have a $400 dosing pump sitting around for when I need it down the road.

    Soft Corals

    • Blue Mushrooms
    • Red Mushroom
    • Blue Florida Ricordea
    • Orange Florida Ricordea
    • Rainbow Clove Polyps
    • Various Zoanthids (4)
    • Sunny D Palythoa
    • Frozen Apple Palythoa
    • Utter Chaos Palythoa
    • Brown Palythoa
    • Pink Sakura Palythoa

    LPS Corals

    • Branching Green Frogspawn
    • Duncan Coral
    • Blastomussa Merletti
    • Acan Lords (3)
    • Tangerine Leptoseris
    • Hammer Coral

    SPS Coral

    • Sunset Montipora


    • Scarlet Hermit Crab (Hermes)
    • Trochus Snail (Gary [Mark II])


    I began keeping aquariums when I was about 10 years old. My friend had a freshwater aquarium and I thought that was cool and my parents got me one. From there things snowballed and at one point I had a 37, 29, 10, 2.5, 2, and a 1 gallon aquarium all going at the same time. The 37 gallon was a saltwater aquarium, and so was the 2.5. Of course, as a young kid with something as delicate as a saltwater aquarium, I ultimately killed everything and shut down all my tanks by the time I was maybe 17.


    Day One


    Fast forward to May of 2018 and I'm almost 30, living on my own and with a sudden itch to dive back into aquariums. I always liked the idea of a pico reef because of the relative ease to transport it around and lower overall cost long-term. I have been browsing the Nano-Reef forums over 17 years, and one particular tank stood out to me during that time, and it was of course, El Fab's famous Picotope. The majority of my design philosophy came from their tank and I figured that if I could just replicate what they did I would have some relative success in the hobby.


    The tank had a modified AquaClear 70 fuge/chaeto reactor for increased volume, and to suck up excess nitrates and phosphates. I later removed the fuge because I have almost no bioload and the chaeto was sucking up all the nutrients that my corals needed. I do believe if I got a small fish I would bring the chaeto reactor back if I noticed a problem with Nitrates or Phosphates. For now I am just running the stock JBJ Picotope filter instead. I also think that although I used an AC50 impeller, instead of the stock AC70 impeller, I still had too much flow for the aquarium. Would be great if I was trying to keep SPS, but not so good with LPS/Softies. I think I killed a lot of corals just by having too much flow.


    April 2019


    Curing my dry live pukani rock prior to adding it to my aquarium was in hindsight one of my best decisions. Had I not done this, I feel I would have had bad algae problems, and luckily I have never experienced pest algae in this tank. I started with a 10:1 (tap water:bleach) bath of the rocks for 8 days, followed by a two day bath in 20x primed tap water, then let the rocks dry in the sun for a day. I then put the rocks in a saltwater bath with a heater and powerhead for 21 days, and the phosphate reading was 1.0 after that. Over the course of the next 3 months I would change the water and test phosphates, and eventually started dosing the curing bucket with Blue Ocean Lanthanum Chloride. This stripped the phosphates entirely until the week before I set up the tank I tested the phosphates and they were less than 0.1. I wish I had done the Lanthanum Chloride sooner to cure the rocks as it worked wonders for stripping the phosphates.


    May 2019


    After I finally got the tank wet I cycled I cycled with some Dr. Tim's bacteria in a bottle and Ammonium chloride. The tank cycled quickly and I added some pods, a hermit and two snails. I also added a small piece of LR from an established system that was covered in coraline algae hoping that it would help seed the tank. It came with a brown palythoa, some cloves and a starfish too. I also started the light cycle, and added chaeto algae to help with nutrient control.


    July 2019


    I slowly stocked the tank, but was noticing that some corals were dying very quickly in the tank. I bought a scolymia, and a torch that were some notable deaths in there and I couldn't figure out what the issue was. I had good nutrient levels, except my dKH which was dropping at a quick rate. I figured that this was due to my tank being so small and being decently stocked with corals. With the deaths came a sort of "depression" that I associated with the tank and my inability to identify what I was doing wrong. Regrettably, I began to neglect the tank a bit until I was due to move.

    The Bucket Intermission

    After some time living in my current building, my landlord decided to sell and I had to move in March of 2020. Although I was moving just a few blocks away, I live in Canada where we have really cold winters. I made a fresh batch of heated saltwater, picked up the rock structure and dropped it in a 5 gallon mixing bucket, put a lid over it, put it in the car and drove. In the time it took to drive to my new place and get the bucket inside, the temp had dropped to 72 degrees. Luckily nothing died, but they were all quite upset.


    Happy Bucket Reef


    The plan was to move all of my furniture into my new place and leave the tank operating in the bucket until after everything was set and I could get someone in to mount my TV. The tank had a powerhead, light and a heater so it was going to be okay for a few days. Little did I know that a global pandemic was about to completely uproot my plans, and I wouldn't be able to get someone to install my TV for several months.

    Insights Gained

    During the time I had the aquarium setup in the bucket, I noticed that my corals were expanding more. Due to the height of the bucket I had to place the light higher off the water, so I think this reduced the intensity. I also stopped running the filter with the chaeto macroalgae and noticed that my dKH had stabilized, so I learned that it was probably my chaeto eating into my dKH. Also, the reduced flow seemed to agitate my frogspawn less, and I now realize I had too much flow for the scoly and the torch. So out of the disaster that was Corona-virus, I was able to take some positives from it.




    During the quarantine the water changes were very easy to do. I would just fill one bucket of water with fresh saltwater, and simply pick the rock structure up and move it to the new bucket. So after I finally set the tank back up, I decided that once a month I would do this same technique. Now I drain the tank into a bucket, move the rock structure, and then clean the entire tank with vinegar and water and a razor blade before putting the rock structure back. I think that is one of the thing I enjoy the most about the pico is that it can easily be transported or cleaned. I'm also thankful that I glued my rock together in the beginning so I can easily pick everything out.

    Future Plans

    Looking forward to the future I would like to add either a small goby, either a yellow or neon, or possibly some sexy shrimp. I'm reluctant to add fish right now though, because I feel like the tank has finally got it's groove back and everyone is vibing, but I would like some personality in the tank. If I were to add a fish, I may set the AC70 fuge back up if I notice problems with Ammonia/Nitrates/Phosphates getting out of control due to the fish. I think I will continue to stock the aquarium with softies, zoanthids, and LPS. Waiting patiently for good prices and good pieces!



    Words of Wisdom

    If I could give any advice to new reefers it would be to take things slowly. It took me years to even commit to setting up a tank, and then it took me months to plan it out, and even more months to cure my rock and cycle my tank. When adding livestock in the beginning always add slowly and make notes and see how things are responding. It takes experience to understand what the difference between high/low light and high/low flow are.


    Keep a journal of your water changes and nutrient levels. This will allow you to refer back to them at a later time and see what has been working, and also let you know if you have been slacking a particular aspect of reef keeping. For me I find I slack the most with water changes.


    Also, do it right the first time. Don't buy something you don't want if you plan to change it later. Just wait, and save up to buy the thing you actually want, and it will save you money down the road. I regret not buying the AI Prime light in the beginning because I realized that the slow ramp up is much better for the corals than just immediately blasting them with the same fixed light.


    Also corals need more glue than you think they do. Hermits and other inverts can easily knock corals off if you don't glue them down properly. Just get some super glue from the dollar store and load them up with it.


    All of my pictures were taken on an iPhone 11 Pro with some brown tinted sunglasses to cancel out all of the blue light. Try it out!


    I just want to give a shout out to the Nano-Reef Community for always being a place I could turn to to learn from, and also to Christopher Marks for hosting such a great community. I want to give a shout out to my parents for actually trying to support my fish tank addiction as a teenager, and shouts out to all my friends who listen to me talk about my corals. Also, shout out to fragbox.ca in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for hooking me up with some great frags!



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    Congratulations! I have been following your thread, El Fab's tank sold a lot of picotope tanks. I still use mine for a QT tank. I enjoyed your write and the lessons learned in a bucket. LOL I wish you continued success. Looking forward to how it goes with a little goby or some sexies.

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    This is a fantastic tank, absolutely sums up perfectly what Nano Reefs are all about. Simplicity but absolute beauty.


    One of my favourite featured tanks, this is drop dead gorgeous. 

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