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Thinking about starting some sort of marine tank? Hold up!
A basic article on starting marines…
Some call it the dark side of fish keeping. Others will tell you, “Once you go salty, there’s no turning back.” Typically, this is true. If you thought your freshwater tanks were addicting, think again. The vivid colors of the saltwater fish, inverts and corals are like no cichlid or tetra. They are truly unique and exquisite, and keeping some of these animals requires great care. Something about the fascination of the sea lures many aquarists in to experience a whole different side to the hobby of fishkeeping…
Before starting a marine tank, there are several things to consider. One, are you sure you can make this commitment? The maintenance on saltwater tanks can be much more tedious than that of many common community tanks in the freshwater world. In addition, do you have the money to pay for this? Saltwater tanks are considerably more pricey than freshwater ones, initially and in the long run in most scenarios. This is not a cheap hobby. Do you have enough patience and the eager will to learn? A wise aquarist once said, “In a reef tank, only bad things happen quickly.” A majority of new tanks don’t last much longer than a couple months because of the lack of patience. If you have answered yes to these questions, you are quite possibly ready to dive into a whole new adventure.
With marine tanks, bigger is better. Why? Wouldn’t it be easier to start with something small, and then go with something bigger? NO!!! These are the most common mistakes by new marine aquarists. It is not a good idea to start small. In bigger tanks, it’s easier to maintain a stable system. Your water quality will be much easier to keep in tip top shape and there is a lot more room for error. In marine tanks, errors tend to be costly. Yes, initially a bigger tank will cost more, but in the long run it will be worth it! When you purchase your tank, you will probably think it to be pretty big and satisfying, but within a couple of months you’re going to hit yourself for not going one size up. And so, this is where we hit the common aquarist disease, MTS. Multiple tank syndrome. It’s basically unavoidable, and there’s no official cure. You may be able to prolong it, but you can never get rid of it.
Another common misconception, made by newbies, is that saltwater fish are so much more delicate than freshwater fish. This isn’t entirely true, it’s more that they aren’t as adaptable to shady conditions. The water chemistry is harder to maintain in marine tanks than it is in freshwater tanks. There are more parameters to look at, and more considerations to be made. The reason that the fish are pricier isn’t because they’re that much harder to keep (in most cases) but that they may be found in great depths in which divers must put themselves in great danger in order to collect them. The majority of marine fish in the aquarium trade are collected right from the ocean, whereas freshwater fish are almost always commercially raised. It is important to buy tank raised marine fish when possible. This helps keep the hobby alive while reducing the amount of creatures we must take from the wild. In addition, tank raised fish are more adaptable to aquarium life, therefore having a better success rate.
Now you may ask, what is considered a big tank? Personally, I think anything over 50 gallons is a good number to go with. It is important to consider that when choosing a fish tank, you typically don’t want to pay attention to gallonage, but rather surface area. More surface area means more room for the exchange of gases, which means a healthier and happier tank. It is also important to consider what kind of set up you are planning, which will be explained in further depth later. For example, if you are planning on a FOWLR or reef tank, you do not want a narrow tank, but rather something that will be wider and allow for good rockwork. Consider the space you have, and go with the biggest tank you can fit AND afford. That’s your best bet. When choosing a marine tank, it is not always a good idea to buy used tanks. You run many risks here, and the chances that you will be able to find a drilled one, or one without tempered glass that is in good condition are pretty slim. Go with a new tank if you can, that way you are assured that there aren’t any cracks or peeling silicone. Try to get a reef ready tank, that is one with a built in overflow.
The most successful reefers, coral propagators, and keepers of marine animals are the ones who get involved with the hobby. Hit the library, read all the books you can. Order some of your own books too, they can be very helpful and nice to have on hand. Make friends with the post it note and mark down things that interest you, or that you would like to learn more about while you’re reading. Browse around to find a reliable local fish store (LFS), and talk with some of the experienced people there. The internet is a great resource tool, but old fashioned books work better sometimes. Always check the copyright date to make sure the information you are absorbing is accurate and updated. The best book 5 years ago may be a terrible read now; new advances and current knowledge are always nice to know about. Join or find out information about a local aquarium club. This is a great way to get connected with people who share your interests, who have learned from their mistakes, and tend to be very experienced. Don’t be intimidated; reef clubs are typically very welcoming and try to make each member feel at home. Reef clubs are also a great way to get equipment; there are often raffles and people who have spare equipment just laying around. You can participate in frag swaps and learn a great deal from being involved in a reef club. Often, you will receive “connections” and this may be just the place to find that new frag you wanted…
When keeping marine aquaria, you basically have three tank options. FO, FOWLR, or reef. Each is unique and can provide it’s owner with superfluous joy if set up correctly.
The first type of tank, FO, stands for fish only. This is the easiest type of marine tank. It has, like its name implies, no corals and usually no inverts. The typical FO tank has some sort of marine substrate, and synthetic or dead corals for décor. Filtration is usually accomplished by a canister filter or a good quality HOB (hang on back) filter, or a combination of the two. Like all marine tanks, circulation should be provided. Lighting depends solely on your own preference. Simple fluorescents will do; you need enough light only to satisfy your goals and achieve the look you desire.
The second type of tank, FOWLR, stands for fish only with live rock. This is the second easiest type of marine tank to care for. The difference between a FO tank and a FOWLR tank is that in the latter, you do not need a filter to provide your biological filtration. This is what the live rock does. FOWLR tanks are often the kind of set up we need for keeping larger aggressive fish, such as triggers or groupers, that tend to be anything but reef safe.
Live rock, ironic as the name sounds, is a living biological filter. It provides a home to dozens of microscopic organisms, to plants, to corals, to all sorts of critters. Some of the most amazing hitchhikers can be found in fresh shipments of live rock, the possibilities are endless. Live rock typically demands more intensive light when compared to a FO set up.
For effective biological filtration in a marine tank by LR, you want to go with at least a 1lb/1gal of the most porous rock available. The less porous the rock is, the more you will need for effective filtration. It’s as simple as that. Common high quality LR in the aquarium trade today is that from Fiji, Tonga, Marshall Island, etc. In addition to constantly filtering your tank your LR will provide a space for live foods, such as copepods and mysid shrimp to cultivate. Some fish, such as the treasured mandarin fish, will not survive without this natural food. LR is basically the foundation of your tank--- It’s a bed for corals and anemones, it’s a place for your fish to scavenge and your inverts to hide, it’s a place for healthy algaes to grow, it’s a thing no marine tank should be without! It adds to the natural appearance of the tank, and makes everyone feel at home. Put in a pound per gallon to start, and then add more to fill out the tank as needed. Make sure that new rock going into established displays is cured first. In new tanks, LR is a great way to cycle.
The third and most difficult type of marine tank is the reef tank. These are often the tanks that make our jaws drop and eyes widen. They consist of complex rockwork, fish, and countless other critters. Reef tanks are home to our softies, our LPS and SPS corals, the occasional anemone, clams, tube worms, feather dusters, the list goes on and on! Depending on what you plan to keep, water quality, lighting and circulation suddenly become the most critical aspects.
Light intensity must be extremely high for many of the SPS corals, such as those from the Acropora family. Several types of Tridacnid clams love the light as well. Typically, lower light corals still require a minimum of at least 3wpg. Moderate light corals should have around 4wpg, and intense light corals should have over 5wpg. Lighting in the coral reef tank can be achieved in many different ways. Some names or options you might here are fluorescents/compact fluorescents, SO (standard output), HO (high output), VHO (very high output) and MH (me
Corals more than anything else will require some sort of current in the tank. The elimination of “dead” spots in marine tanks is achieved by the use of different types of powerheads, manifolds and/or wavemakers and surge devices. Yet again, the types of corals you are planning to keep and the amount of money you are willing to spend will decide how you circulate your tank. It’s wise to look into manifolds and units like Oceans Motions and Tunze for ideas.
FOWLR and reef tanks bring us to a new type of filtration, protein skimming. These special filters are designed for saltwater tanks only, and remove a majority of the “nasties” and organic pollutants we may see (or not see!) in our tanks. Ever take a trip to the beach and see foam wash crashing along the shoreline? A protein skimmer is the aquariums way of accomplishing this act. There are several things to keep in mind when choosing a skimmer. One of course, depends on how much you’re willing to spend. A good quality skimmer will often be a little pricey, but well worth the investment. When browsing skimmers, pick the right type of model, either HOT (hang on tank) or an in-sump design. Go with a design that allows for easy maintenance. Depending on your tank size and bio load, you will need to empty the skimmer cup usually once a week or so. An efficient model should be easy to clean, pleasing to the ear, and adaptable to your system. No two tanks are exactly the same, so a skimmer that works well on one tank may not be as effective in another. Keep in mind that it is always better to over-skim than to under-skim to some extent. It’s generally safe to always go at least one size up from the one that “fits” your tank. Protein skimmers are not a necessity in marine tanks, but they certainly have their benefits.
Types of water purification are often tried in marine tanks to further purify water and solve algae problems. This means RO, DI, and a combination of the two. Reverse osmosis units blast water through a semi permeable membrane in order to break the molecules down and eliminate contaminants. De ionization units often work in conjunction with RO units to even further purify the water. You can buy your own RO and DI units if you are willing to invest that money. Or, many local fish stores will sell you this purified water by the gallon. The only downside to this is lugging 5 gallon buckets back and forth. In most cases it works out to be cheaper in the long run to get your own unit if this is something that interests you.
As with any fish tank, temperature control is a big issue. In order to get it “just right” we need to use heaters and sometimes chillers. The general rule for choosing a heater is 5watts per gallon. With larger tanks, it’s often better and necessary to use multiple heaters. Make sure that the brand you choose is durable and reliable. Check out product reviews and manufacturer guarantees. Get fully submersible heaters with exact temperature dials so that there is no guesstimating involved. In addition, have an accurate thermometer so you can make sure your heaters are working well. Tanks that get too warm because of lighting and excessive heat produced by pumps and other equipment may need a chiller. Chillers vary in price mostly by size and brand. Tanks in rooms without air conditioning are often good candidates for chillers. A tank with a temperature too high (or vice versa) may suffer devastating effects, but it’s important to remember that the best temperature is a stable one.
Some people love the feeling of sand in between there toes, others cant stand it. It’s the same with fish tanks. Some corals, clams, anemones, etc. require a DSB (deep sand bed) in which to bury their ba
All new tanks must go through the nitrogen cycle. The nitrogen cycle is started off by the addition of ammonia, which is toxic to fish. To combat the high ammonia levels, a bacteria called nitrites will form. These too are toxic to fish, so our nitrates will soon form to combat them. Nitrates are toxic to fish too, but at much higher concentrations. The tank is considered cycled with the ammonia and nitrites are at zero, or undetectable, and the nitrates have risen to a controllable amount. This can take anywhere from several days, to several weeks, to upwards of over a month. Cycling time depends on the method you use, and the size of your tank. It used to be common to cycle marine tanks with hardy fish, typically several common varieties of damsels. This is often considered somewhat cruel though, so there are alternate ways. You can drop in a cocktail shrimp from your grocery store, as these are from the sea but already dead. There are a lot of beneficial bacterial additives proven to reduce cycling time. Such products would be things like New & Improved Cycle, or Bio-Spira. These are good things to use in FO tanks. In FOWLR and reef tanks, the best way to cycle seems to be with LR and/or a combination of LS. LR rarely can be purchased when it is 100% cured, so why not just cure it in your main display, while cycling at the same time? It kills two birds with one stone, and although the tank may not be gorgeous for the first couple of days, it will soon.
In order to monitor the levels of ammonia, nitrite and nitrate, pH, and more, you will need test kits. Many local fish stores provide testing of aquarium water for free, but it is always best to have your own. This way, you don’t need to run out in the event of an emergency, and you don’t have to worry about getting to the store at a specific time. For a first tank, it is advisable to get a master test kit. In a saltwater master test kit, you want to make sure you get ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, high range pH, and KH, or alkalinity. For reef tanks, you also might want to considering having a lab quality test kit (yes, there is a price to pay for accuracy!) for calcium, iodine, strontium and magnesium. It is very important to monitor these levels while cycling, or else you may risk losing many hitchhikers you find on your live rock.
But wait! Isn’t there something else we should be testing for…? How about the salinity, or SG (specific gravity) of the saltwater? This can be done in two ways, by using a hydrometer or a refractometer. Whichever you choose should be calibrated amongst one that you know is accurate. This means asking your LFS or a fellow aquarium owner or friend for help. False readings can be fatal, accuracy is key. I’d recommend hydrometers for community style FO tanks. They are relatively cheap and easy to find. Refractometers are definitely pricier, but well worth it for tanks containing rare coral frags and/or rarer specimens. Usually it’s safe to calibrate a hydrometer and then test it with the refractometer weekly for continued accuracy.
All in all, the basic water chemistry of a marine tank should be somewhere in this range:
Dissolved Oxygen- >6.90mg/L
Remember that there is more than one way to do things, and the ocean is a very diverse place. What works for one aquarist may not work for another. Remember that stability is crucial. Different animals may prefer different levels, these are just guidelines. In reef keeping there’s no black and white…instead there’s a vast gray area. Always keep this in mind.
Sumps, fuges, refugiums, what the heck are all those things?! You may or may not have heard these terms before, as they are one possible similarity between freshwater and saltwater tanks. Though much more common in marine tanks, they do exist in both. Remember we talked about RR tanks? Those tanks have a special overflow, which travels down into another holding container, called the sump. Sumps are very beneficial to reef systems. Not only do they dramatically increase water volume, helping to stabilize conditions, but they hide equipment, such as skimmers and heaters, provide a place for live foods (those pods and mysid!) to grow, provide a home to macro and microalgae, the choices for sump usage are endless. Inside the sump, you may have a connected refugium. This is typically the area where the plants and algae are kept for vegetable filtration. Often plants will help to suck up nitrates and do their natural part in filtering. Set ups like this will typically have a sand bed and a couple of pieces of live rock too. Depending on what you want to use your sump for depends on how you set it up. Typically the lighting doesn’t need to be anything above standard flouros. Most of the time the sump is underneath the main display, so nobody ever even sees it.
I think that covers most of the basics…now for the fun stuff. Stocking!!! For the last time, your entire set up is ba
Try to match each fish perfectly to your tank. An example of this would be the copperbanded butterfly. This butterfly is one of few that are reef safe and stay relatively small. The plus? They are known for eating the pest anemone Aiptasia! Obviously this fish could in reality be a perfect candidate for a tank with lots of baby glass anenomes. My advice with buying any animal for your marine tank, is to never impulse buy, and always know all the facts first. Not every LFS employee is as trustworthy as they sound. Before you buy, know what this fish will need to eat, know how big they will get, know any predators or prey. This way, everyone stays happy- both fish, tank, and aquarist. Try to pick one type of habitat and stick with it. The fish with the best survival rates are ones that are taken into tanks similar to their natural niche. The fish with the best compatibility are typically from the same region. Go with an idea and stick with it. You wouldn’t find seahorses and triggers living together in harmony in the ocean, so why attempt to do it in your house? Try to understand different bio types---research them, and then choose one that you like. Maybe you’ve found that one “gotta have” fish. ba
Corals are nearly a whole different story. Not only will you need to know their dietary needs, that expands to whether or not they are photosynthetic, which relates to the light intensity they need, and placement in the tank. In addition, some require higher flow rate than others. If you have poor circulation, it does not make much sense to choose corals that are used to frequent tidal changes. Note their stinging ability, and especially in the case of anemones, note any aggression. Yes, it may look pretty and happy in the display tank at the store, but chances it’ll look that way in your tank? That’s what your job as an aquarist is to find out. All corals are invertebrates, meaning they don’t have a backbone. They are all part of the group Cnidaria and are further broken down from there. There are stony corals and soft corals, and then ones with larger polyps and ones with smaller polyps. In the aquarium trade we label each coral as a softie, and LPS, or an SPS coral. Yet there are other things too, like zoanthids and gorgonias. Corals could be a whole different article, so I’m not going to get into them any further.
Acclimation…anyone who has kept fish before knows how important the acclimating process can be, especially to more sensitive fish and inverts. Acclimation time of saltwater critters should always take at least one hour, longer can never hurt. There are basically two methods of acclimation. The easier one is the floating bag method. The more difficult one is the drip system. Each aquarist usually ends up modifying their own way of acclimating. For best results, all new specimens should be quarantined for at least 24 hours following acclimation.
Other random things to think about. Generators- what are you going to do in the event of a power failure? Just remember, the key to success is very simple. Have patience, be committed, and be willing to spend money. Heck, I think my fish eat better than I do! A dedicated aquarist is one who is willing to be creative and always thinking. Do not be sucked into the “buy now, upgrade later” policy, it’s no good. Keep in mind that in a reef tank, nothing happens quickly. Dive into resources, take advantage of every book, magazine, documentary, etc. There’s no such thing as a stupid question. Understand that in this hobby, nobody is truly an expert. There are so many areas to learn about, nobody can possibly know everything. This hobby requires that you’re constantly on your toes, and constantly learning. Todays hot equipment can be tomorrows garbage! All in all, have fun with it. Enjoy your slice of the ocean! It’s a true privilege to have something this close to nature thrive in your own home. Appreciate it, care for it, love it.
Quick things to remember---(thanks to Anthony Calfo)
-Dilution is the solution to pollution, water changes are key!
-Form follows function!
I’d like to leave off with this quote by Anthony Calfo, which I call:
The Fishy Psalm
“I pray that your sacrifice into captivity, and that of all our aquarium dependents, is for a truly greater good. Through education, discipline, responsible husbandry and respect for life at large, perhaps we may return more than we’ve taken.”
Also…here is a terms and definitions list that we often run into in this hobby, courtesy of DarkRealm Overlord:
AC=Activated Carbon, or Alternating Current
ALK=Alkalinity, measure of buffering capacity of water
BOD=Biological oxygen demand
BTA=Bubble Tip Anemone
CBS=Coral Banded Shrimp
CC=Counter current(when referring to skimmers)
CC also = Crushed Coral
CCS = Chocolate Chip Star
CTA=Cellulose triacetate, type of RO membrane
DD=Downdraft, type of protein skimmer
DI=Deionisation, type of water purification
DIY=Do it yourself
dKH=Degrees of carbonate hardness, measure of alkalinity
DOC=Dissolved organic compound
DSB=Deep sand bed
FOWLR=Fish only with Live Rock
GAC=Granular Activated Carbon
GPH=Gallons per hour
GSP=Green Star Polyps
GPL=Green Polyp Leather
HO=High output fluorescent light
HOT=Hang On Tank
IR=Infrared, type of light with longer wavelength than visible light
KALK=Kalkwasser, German for calcium hydroxide solution or limewater
LFS=Local fish store
LHS=Local hardware store
LPH=Litres per hour
LPS=Large polyped Scleractinian (stoney) coral OR
LPS=Local Pet Shop
MEQ/L=Milli-equivalents per litre, measure of alkalinity
MG/L=Milligrams per litre
MJ = Maxijet powerhead
NNR=Natural nitrate reduction, reef setup technique
NO=Normal output fluorescent light
ORP=Oxidative redox potential
PBT=Powder Blue Tang
PC=Power compact, high intensity fluorescent light
pH=Measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions, equal to -log[H+], (7 acidic, =7 neutral,)7 basic
PH=Powerhead, water circulator
PPM=Parts per million, equivalent to mg/l (milligrams per litre)
PVC=Poly vinyl chloride, used for piping/plumbing
RO=Reverse osmosis, type of water purification
RO/DI=Reverse osmosis, followed by deionisation, type of water purification
RTN=Rapid tissue necrosis
SHO=Super high output fluorescent light, equivalent to power compact fluorescent
SPS=Small polyped Scleractinian (stoney) coral
STN=Slow tissue necrosis
TDS= Total Dissolved Solids
TFC=Thin film composite, type of RO membrane
UV=Ultra violet, type of light/ultra violet sterilizer
VHO=Very high output fluorescent light
Last edited by DarkRealm Overlord at 01-May-2005 16:49
-Formerly known as the Ferretfish
|Posted 26-Jan-2006 11:40
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