First Time Reefkeeper – First Things First.
Planning your Reef.
In this, the first in a series of articles aimed at the first time reef keeper, I’m going to give you a few things to think about before you start setting up your first marine aquarium. In future articles I’ll be looking at tanks – what’s available off the shelf ready to go, choice of equipment if you decide to set up from scratch, how to best start off your new system, easy to keep animals – both fish and invertebrates, etc.
OK, so you’ve seen marine set ups both in shops and the pages of the various reefkeeping and aquarium magazine (both print and online), for some time you may have been thinking along the lines of “Hey, that looks good, I wish/wonder if I could do that. How expensive would it be? Is it really that difficult?”
If you were to ask me what the ten most important factors in successfully keeping a reef tank were my instinctive reply would be to say – ”Research, research, research, research, research, research, research, research, research, and research!” Now I know that sounds a bit facetious but I want to emphasise just how important it is to learn as much as you can about the creatures you intend to keep.
Keeping a marine tank of some description is far easier today than it has ever been before. We have a far better understanding of how to make a semi-closed marine environment work, and if you follow a few basic principals, exhibit a certain amount of common sense, and observe the animals you keep its really not that difficult.
Design your set up around the concept of a key species. The key species is the animal that it’s most important to you to have in your reef. Although we talk about reef aquaria you have to remember that the animals you see available in the shops can come from many differing zones of the reef (if they even exist on what we think of as the reef at all!) and that its not always appropriate to keep these animals together. If you choose a key species it will dictate how to aquascape your tank, what companion species will live together in harmony (fish, sessile invertebrates, mobile invertebrates, and plants), and the amount of lighting and water movement required.
What’s your budget? The initial set up of a reef can be quite expensive. The tank is actually one of the cheaper items on your shopping list. Size isn’t every thing! Too small and you can end up with an unstable environment, too large and it may cost you a fortune to build up an appropriately sized collection of corals. The two most expensive outlays will be for lighting and live rock. The cost of lighting will depend to some extent on the species of animals you wish to keep, but a recent trend in reef keeping is to recognise that its not the spectrum of the lighting that matters so much as the sheer quantity of lighting. The wattage of the lighting used will affect your running costs. By the way this doesn’t mean that you have to use the ultimate in lighting if you want a reef tank, people have been successfully keeping many species of corals for many years under comparatively low levels of lighting.
The important thing is to keep animals appropriate to the level of lighting that you have.
Live rock can be expensive, and it is a component of your system that you shouldn’t scrimp on. The good news here is that it doesn’t need to all go in at once so that if you’re on a budget you can, if you’re careful, spread the cost over a period of time.
If you’ve come to reef keeping from a freshwater aquatic background you’ll need to rethink the concept of filtration. Filtration as you know it is not appropriate for the reef tank. Forget about external and internal power filters, forget about undergravel filters, and fluidised sand beds; these can all be fine for fish only systems but not for the reef.
OK, I hear you ask, what do you use for filtration? The answer is – that aforementioned expensive live rock, supported by a protein skimmer or possibly an EcoSystem Aquarium mud system or deep sand bed (DSB).
Where do you go to get good advice? Well obviously the first thing is to look within the pages of the various magazines, both print and online. Obviously I’d recommend Reef Ramblings as a good starting point! Put together a library of up to date reef keeping books. See my article on reef keeping books elsewhere in Reef Ramblings for in depth recommendations. Use the ‘net but do be wary of who’s advice you follow, just ‘cos its written across your computer screen doesn’t make it right or accurate! For best results look for advice from writers who have been published in print. Some information you come across will be of a speculative nature from more advanced aquarists, don’t get sidetracked by stuff like this, keep it simple, and perhaps come back to it when you have more experience.
Find an aquatic shop that specialises in marines and that employs knowledgeable staff. Listen to the advice you’re given but weigh it against what you’ve read; there is no single correct way to run a reef tank, you can successfully maintain a tank in many different ways and the animals we keep have the ability to adapt to the conditions that we present them with.
(I should interject here that I’m a strong proponent of the “natural approach” to reef keeping and that the advice I’m offering in this series will reflect this.) Judge your marine shop by a combination of how much time the staff will spend talking to you (but not on a Saturday or Sunday!), if the staff sound as though they know what they’re talking about (unfortunately not all shop staff do), the condition of the animals in the display and sales tanks, and by how busy the shop is (are there lots of customers waiting to be seen to by the marine staff?).
The importance of finding a good shop is that it will most likely be your first port of call if you have a problem. Get a good relationship going with the staff and make their job easier by learning as much as you can about the species that you keep so that you can confidently describe any animal that appears to be in trouble when you go to the shop for advice.
Join a group of like-minded aquarists This will give you a chance to talk reefs to your hearts content, learn from other peoples mistakes, perhaps see other members reef tanks, and have the opportunity to listen to talks given by experienced marine keepers.
I’d recommend joining the Salty Box.com as its one forum where people genuinely want to help you and where you won’t be made to feel and idiot for asking questions.
When you get to the point of choosing what species to keep try to be conservative. Choose easy to keep animals that will not prey on each other, herbivores, planktivores, and photosynthetic soft corals make good introductory species. My philosophy is to start with the easier to keep animals, as this will give you a good chance of building up a successful reef. As you learn about these animals needs in respect of food, water chemistry, and general maintenance you will be learning the skills which will enable you to keep more demanding species as time goes on.
Lastly, going back to the subject of building up a library of useful and informative books, I’d like to suggest a few that I consider indispensable for the new reef keeper: -
I usually recommend this one as a starter book for the new reef keeper – Natural Reef Aquariums by John Tullock.
The best coral book currently available is still – Aquarium Corals by Eric Borneman.
Reef Fishes contains more of the small fishes suited to small aquaria, Marine Fishes features some or the larger species that might not be appropriate in a reef aquarium.
An excellent guide to the “non-coral” invertebrates – Reef Invertebrates by Calfo and Fenner.
I’d suggest getting hold of some of these books and start researching the animals you’d like to keep in your reef before proceeding any further.