First Time Reefkeeper – The Aquarium
Off-the-shelf Dedicated Marine Aquaria.
Note: so called Nano Reefs will be dealt with in a separate chapter.
Today the reef aquarium is becoming more and more popular. It has never been easier to keep marine animals. This is possibly due to improvements in artificial salts and the use of protein skimmers, or perhaps it’s down to our increased understanding of the processes that take place in the aquarium, allied with the use of “live rock” as the main medium of filtration. At the same time as its become easier to maintain reef creatures, the aquarist has become bombarded with an increasingly bewildering selection of equipment dedicated to keeping these animals alive, from an ever-increasing number of manufacturers and suppliers. If your local shop isn’t at the leading edge of reef aquaria, complete with resident marine expert and tank manufacturer it might be worth investigating the range of dedicated marine tanks currently available.
If you are eager to set up your reef but don’t think your getting good set-up advice locally, or you just want to omit the hassle of sorting out which bit of equipment will go with which, then the easiest solution is to go the systemised marine aquarium route. There is now a range of aquaria to suit every price range, from £500 or less, up to £15 000 or more. These aquaria are often well thought out complete systems – tank, stand, protein skimmer, filtration, and lighting. By packaging all the components together it releases you from the chore of figuring out what bits of equipment are needed and what will work with what, freeing you to concentrate on what ancillaries are needed such as appropriate salt mix, hydrometer, and reference books. For the first time marine aquarist, it speeds up and simplifies the setting up process no end.
I’d caution against some of the seemingly cheaper Chinese manufactured systems as I have strong doubts about the quality (and safety) of the electrical items included. This particularly applies to lighting – I’d always recommend looking for UK or German manufactured lighting to ensure that you get something that is real value for money and that won’t need replacing in the short term owing to its poor performance and unreliability.
Best recommendation is to go to a retailer with a good reputation for building or putting together reef systems that do what they’re supposed to do. Forums like the Salty Box are a good place to find this kind of information.
Dedicated Marine Tank or Converted Freshwater Tank?
A very common dilemma can be whether to convert an existing tank or perhaps whether to buy an off-the-shelf freshwater aquarium and convert it into a reef tank on the grounds of price.
Generally speaking, unless you have a limited budget, this isn’t necessarily a wise idea. Unfortunately the temptation to go for a Juwel type aquarium, as being the cheap option is often too strong.
Planning and Pricing.
Before going down this route put together an itemised list of all the equipment that will you’ll require to upgrade a freshwater tank to a reef. Also think about your long-term aspirations, you may find that upgrading isn’t as cost effective as you first thought. If you have your heart set on some particular choice of animals at sometime in the future, you may find that you could save money by going for your aspirational set up now, rather than buying equipment that will need to be upgraded in the future.
What’s Wrong With Freshwater Tanks?
There are a number of fundamental problems when it comes to converting an off the shelf freshwater tank into a reef tank.
The proportions of freshwater tanks are all wrong for a reef; a reef aquarium should be deeper front to back for two reasons. Firstly saltwater has a lower oxygen carrying capacity than freshwater; consequently we need to increase the surface area of the tank to accommodate gas exchange. Secondly, as you look into the front glass of an aquarium the water has a foreshortening effect due to refraction; as a result a tank that is comparatively shallow from front to back will give the appearance of the rockwork being squashed up against the front giving the fish no room to swim.
Existing biological filtration included in freshwater tanks should be discarded, as it does not complete the nitrogen cycle, although capable of converting ammonia to nitrite and then nitrite to nitrate, that’s where the process stops. Nitrate is not particularly problematic in freshwater, whereas it represents an undesirable pollutant in a reef where it has the potential to fuel outbreaks of the various species of pest algae that tend to plague new reefkeepers.
Filtration for a reef is best facilitated by the use of live rock or live substrate such as a sandbed or miracle mud. Additionally, for many people a protein skimmer will also be required. This starts to bring us a couple of problems, a mud system or sandbed is best accommodated in a sump and, although there are hang on skimmers available, most protein skimmers are best positioned in or alongside a sump.
The objection to hang on skimmers? They’re obtrusive eyesores – that’s not me by the way, that’s the comment usually made by the prospective reefkeeper’s Significant Other (SO), a factor that I’ll be shortly be returning to.
OK, to add a sump to this system does two things, it increases the cost and it gives us a new problem of how to move water form the tank to the sump. This can be solved by either drilling the tank and installing an overflow weir or by adding a hang on overflow box. Both of these solutions have a downside, many aquarists view hang on overflows as a disaster waiting to happen (not necessarily so in a correctly designed and maintained system) and there’s also the eyesore factor. A drilled tank has the complication of the act of drilling. Who’s going to do it for you? What if the aquarium is damaged in the process?
Lighting can be the biggest problem to be negotiated. Freshwater setups come with one or two fluorescent lamps at best. A minimum of four fluorescent lamps of appropriate spectrum are going to be required, some aquarium manufacture offer extra light bars so this requirement can be met but now you find you can no longer easily gain access to the tank for maintenance and that the aquarium starts to over heat if covers are employed. Add cooling fans or remove the covers, now with the covers removed there’s light spillage into the room, cue significant other …
If you want to keep corals that have a greater demand for light than standard T8 lamps provide, then you’ll need to look at more powerful lighting. If you upgrade to T5 lamps there will be considerable expense, not to mention that with the greater output the problem of overheating will be magnified. The current alternative of metal halide lamps has its own drawbacks, there’s the expense, the fact that the lamps will need to be suspended above the tank, and there is the potential for glare. Two or possibly all three of these are likely to draw negative comments from the aforementioned SO.
The water flow originally provided in a freshwater system is going to be woefully inadequate for a reef. These systems come with either an external canister or a filter box that’s built in internally featuring a single powerhead. A 120 cm long aquarium would, at the least, need something like four internal pumps to provide adequate water movement, providing some form of surge would add extra expense in the form of wave controllers or other dedicated wave making apparatus.
The Dedicated Marine Tank.
I’ve dedicated the bulk of this article to looking at the disadvantages of converting an aquarium designed as a freshwater system into a reef tank. I’ll now mention the advantages of a dedicated marine system, but I must point out that there are still a few pitfalls even with these aquaria.
Starting with the downside of dedicated reef systems, those with suspended lighting can still become a sticking point with the now familiar SO and, again, glare from metal halide lamps can be a negative factor.
In my opinion the best reason for purchasing a dedicated marine system is that it will have been put together so it works, increasing the chances of you embarking on a successful reefkeeping career. There won’t be any of the endless fine tuning needed that will most probably be required by the converted system, not to mention the fact that, as a newcomer to the reef aquarium, you won’t be best qualified to cope with getting a poorly performing system to work.
Also, in the unlikely event that you decide to sell up, you may well get a better return on the sale of a properly designed dedicated marine system than you would from the sale of a disparate collection of equipment.
©2004 – 2009