Congratulations to community member natalia_la_loca and her 1.75 gallon pico reef bowl for being selected for our March 2021 Reef Profile! Originally featured in 2017, we follow up with this vibrant reef bowl four years later to demonstrate the long term viability of these low maintenance pico reefs. This fascinating reef bowl has now reached its 5th anniversary, an impressive milestone for any reef tank, especially one this unique. In this article natalia_la_loca shares her experiences in the hobby and this aquarium's journey over the past five years. Please share your comments and questions in the comment section down below, and be sure to follow her aquarium journal for additional photos, history, and information about this amazing reef tank.
Natalia's 5 Year Old Pico Reef Bowl
Display: 1.75-gallon (7.5" high by 9" diameter) hand-blown glass sphere from Amazon.com
Rock: Dry Marco Rock
Substrate: Aragonite flakes (minimal amount)
Lighting: ABI 12W Tuna Blue par38 LED in a black architect table lamp from Amazon.com
Light Cycle: 11am-7pm with time switch; intermittent sunlight from east & south windows and LED light from shrimp bowl
Heater: Betta Stik 7.5 watts
Circulation: TOM Stellar Air Pump rated for 10-20 gallons; bare airline (no airstone)
Skimmer: What’s a skimmer?
Filter Media: None
Dosing: Occasional Fluconazole for hair algae
Top Off: Manual, only when I go more than a week without a water change
Evaporation Control: Repurposed glass terrarium lid; vinyl tubing added around rim to control salt creep
Controller: Finnex HC-810M digital temperature controller; analog time switch for light
Established March 3, 2016
My maintenance routine is a weekly feeding, followed by a water change a few days later. I only open the lid for feeding and water changes.
At feeding time, I mix up a combination of Reef Roids, GonioPower, Coral Frenzy, Rods Food Coral Blend, Phyto Feast, Fauna Marin Ultra Ricordea & Zoanthus + Ultra Min D, in roughly equal amounts. I turn off the airline and target feed this mix with a turkey baster. I leave the airline off to let the corals eat, then turn it on again after about half an hour.
I used to do water changes the same day as feeding, but gradually got lazy and waited a few days. Based on coral growth, this approach seems to be more effective. Lately I wait about three days between the feeding and the water change.
At water change time, I strongly agitate the rocks and substrate with a turkey baster to release detritus, then siphon out about 85% of the water. During the water change, I inspect the system to address issues as they arise:
There are small amounts of bubble algae, hair algae and coralline algae in the system. I treat all of these with a combination of manual removal and food-grade 35% hydrogen peroxide. For bubble algae or hair algae that isn’t easy to remove manually, I apply peroxide with either a paint brush or a soaked Q-tip held in a long forceps. For coralline algae on the glass, I soak a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser with peroxide, hold it in a forceps, and wipe the glass, taking care to avoid asterina stars. A couple of times, I’ve treated the system with fluconazole to eliminate hair algae when it gets to a point where it’s difficult to address with peroxide alone.
This is a luxurious problem but definitely one I have to stay on top of. The bubblegum montipora is beautiful but loves to creep up on other corals’ territory. I do a lot of manual removal and also smother it with superglue sometimes. Other corals like the pink goniopora, duncans, nephthea and frogspawn cause trouble by shading their neighbors, so I have to trim them periodically. The pink and gold zoas like to send babies floating away from the main colony, so I try to catch and remove these before they can take hold in the main rockscape.
Dipping doesn’t stop aiptasia from coming in on new frags. I smother aiptaisa anemones with superglue.
Clean Out Air Line
The end of the airline gradually gets clogged with salt creep, so I clean it out every few weeks to keep circulation strong.
Once all this is done, I fill the bowl with heated saltwater. I used to fill it half full again and remove that water to get rid of any traces of peroxide, but now I just fill it. The corals still bounce back within hours.
Captain America Palythoa
Pink & golds
Butt kissers (lol)
Some others I don’t know the names
Purple/Green Frogspawn Euphyllia sp
Bubblegum Montipora Digitata
1 Trochus Snail
1 Astrea Snail
1 Money Cowrie
This reefbowl was born of severe reef tank burnout, described in more detail in my first reef profile from April 2017. I wanted a system that was easy, cheap, and low-maintenance enough to allow me to travel, have other hobbies, and spend more time enjoying the tank than working on it. I was super attracted to the idea of a system that I wouldn’t have to mess with on a daily basis.
Brand New in 2016
I’ve made few changes to the original setup from 5 years ago, because it continues to work really well. All equipment is still functioning. I have backup heaters and pumps on hand, but haven’t needed to use them. The sealing system I created to avoid salt creep and allow input of equipment cords and airline (a glass terrarium lid resting on a length of clear PVC tubing sliced lengthwise) works well, although the inside of the PVC tubing gets a thick accumulation of gross-looking mulm that I have to clean out periodically. I’m also not wild about how the tubing looks.
Three years ago I set up a second reefbowl where I attached corals to sculptures I’d made. I populated it mostly with coral overgrowth from my original reefbowl. In its first year, the sculpture bowl showed signs of failure to thrive, with multiple coral colonies in poor shape and a brown film algae accumulating. I added an extra trochus snail which took care of the algae, and then the corals bounced back. I suspect the excess algae may have been having some kind of toxic effect on the corals. The new bowl continues to thrive, and several of the sculptures have been fully colonized by coral.
There have been very few disasters. Early on, I had a hair algae epidemic that I treated with a gigantic and destructive systemic dose of peroxide. A few corals died, but most recovered. I’ve gotten the reefbowl through a few power outages with a battery-powered pump, towels, and heating pads. Occasionally, a trochus snail will spawn, turning the water cloudy. The corals love this (it’s food), but I’ve heard of snail spawning events crashing vase reef systems, so I do a big water change after a few hours. If I leave the windows open on a hot day, the reef bowls heat up to about 81-82 degrees and trip the temperature alarm, but the corals seem to be unaffected; windows closed, problem solved.
Sculpture Bowl, Shrimp Bowl, Original Reef Bowl
Other than that, problems have mostly been small or incremental. Around the third/fourth year, I gradually lost the acroporas (possibly because I raised the light higher to make the zoanthids happier), and their skeletons were completely colonized by zoanthids. Zoa colonies grow and shrink over time, as has been my experience with all systems (although in general, zoas do incredibly well in the reefbowl). Sometimes a small colony will reach a point of no return and melt away. In the last few years I’ve been less diligent about replacing lost colonies with other corals, and existing colonies have gotten bigger. Generally speaking, the bigger the colony, the more resilient it is long term.
I’m sure some of the losses have been due to inconsistent maintenance. Sometimes when I’m really busy, I’ll go up to two weeks without a water change. The orange rainbow goniopora almost died because I allowed it to be completely shaded by the pink goniopora. I’ve moved it to an open spot in my sculpture bowl and it’s recovering nicely.
For now, just maintaining. I’m rarely inclined to add new frags. Over time, some colonies have faded away, but existing colonies have expanded to take their place. At some point I may sell off one or both reefbowls because I’d like to take longer trips. Or if I keep going, I might consider switching to a different container type, if I see one that’s more practical and attractive than the current design. In particular, I’d love to find a tank with a sealing system that keeps out salt creep and doesn’t accumulate mulm like my PVC tubing does. It would be super cool if a company would design a purpose-built pico with a sealed lid that works along the same lines as this one. I’d buy one if it was well designed and looked great!
I doubt I’ll ever set up a traditional aquarium again. Too much work!
Words of Wisdom
A lot of this carries over from my previous reef profile...
- Keep it simple. More complexity = more failure points. In my case this meant getting rid of evaporation (by using a close-fitting lid), dosing/skimming/filtration (by doing large water changes), or submersible pumps (by using an airline).
- Low maintenance isn’t the same as no maintenance (I need to remind myself of this).
- Dip, inspect, intervene (ditto).
- Not everything is going to thrive in your system long term; learn which organisms do best and focus your system on them.
- Reefing should be fun, most of the time. Lately I don’t focus a lot on my reefbowls, but because they’re so easy to maintain, they’re not a nuisance.
Advice For Beginners
Start a vase/bowl/jar reef! There are loads of fun options as long as you meet the basic requirements of coral and are sensitive to emergent issues.
- Lighting Tech: Cheap $25 PAR38s work great, make corals look beautiful, and last a long time.
- Skimmers, filter media, dosing: Nah!
- Sand Beds: Some pico aquarists find success with a deep sand bed, but I haven’t found it necessary.
- Foods: Not sure how important it is to have a huge variety, but something in my food mix is working.
- Coral Fads: Can get out of hand, but sometimes it’s worthwhile to pay a little extra for really colorful corals, space is limited.
- Cleanup Crews: As simple and long-lasting as possible. If a CUC animal dies after a few months, I assume the system probably isn’t right for it. I tried a pompom crab and a hermit crab in my bowl, but neither lasted more than a few months so I haven’t tried any other crabs. Trochus snails last for years. In the past year I’ve added an astrea and a money cowrie, and both seem to be doing well.