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Reef Basics

School of Damsel fish

First Steps...

Why Do We Acclimate Livestock?

Corals, fish and invertebrates need to be slowly acclimated to their new environment to lessen the stresses of shipping, changes in water parameters, temperature, and lighting. Shipping can be a stressful process and careful acclimation with a little TLC for the first few days will ensure long-term success. The two methods of acclimating livestock are the floating bag method or the drip method and you can choose to acclimate in your sump or tank. For precautionary biosecurity reasons, be careful not to let any of the bag water get into your sump/tank. ALL LIVESTOCK SHOULD BE PUT INTO A QUARANTINE TANK BEFORE ADDING TO YOUR DISPLAY TANK! PLEASE NOTE that invertebrates are especially sensitive to changes and need slow acclimation (30-60 minute minimum) and require full strength saltwater with a specific gravity of 1.025-1.027.

Quarantine!

It is critical to quarantine all livestock you add to your display tank. Regardless of the source, any animals you add to your tank can carry in pests that will adversely affect your tank's other inhabitants and potentially destroy your reef.

Check out our Pests page to learn more about potential pests and how to control them. To prevent these pest from ever entering your tank you must quarantine any new livestock in a separate tank for a minimum of two weeks before adding to your main display tank. These are naturally occurring pests and can easily be inadvertently  added to your tank. In the wild many fish and other animals are predators of these pests, but in the home aquarium many of these pest predators are not present and the pests quickly get out of control and irritate or destroy your prized corals and fish.
 
A seperate quarantine aquarium is required. Any tank is fine to use, even a simple 10-20 gallon tank will work for your quarantine tank. It is best to keep this tank ready at all times so that it is prepared and ready for any new stock you acquire. The tank should be as bare as possible to easily allow for cleaning and complete disinfection. It should be outfitted with a small hang-on skimmer, a heater with thermostat or better with a temp controller and heater, and a small powerhead to allow for some circulation, plus a small amount of live rock for biological filtration, and some pieces of cut PVC pipe to allow fish to have some hiding places. The tank can easily be cleaned after fish feeding by using a hose to siphon off any left over food. Small daily or weekly water changes will assist with maintaining proper water quality. If you are quarantining corals, then a hanging pendant fixture with fluorescent lights or LED lights will work well for the few weeks the corals are being quarantined.
 
When you acquire new stock you should very carefully examine the animal, and if it is a coral examine not only the coral but also the base where pests and their eggs can easily hide. Remove any visible pests or eggs and if desired, use a coral dip before placing in your quarantine tank. Remember that not all corals respond well to every dip, so use caution and always follow the manufacturer's directions when using one. Add any new corals and fish to your quarantine tank and observe and treat them as needed for at least 2-3 weeks. Fish can be treated and also get used to your feeding regime before they have to compete with other fish for food. The quarantined fish or corals should then be added to your main display tank after normal acclimation techniques.
Float Acclimation Method

Fish

Use Float Method

When your order arrives inspect the box for any rough handling during shipping.  If the box looks damaged take a photo of it to document condition upon arrival. Open the box carefully and take out your livestock one bag at a time. When acclimating fish it is best to open the box and acclimate any fish in a DIMLY LIT AREA, bright lighting can blind fish coming out of a dark box. First, float the unopened bag in your tank or sump for 15-20 minutes to equalize water temperature.

Remove the outer bags, carefully cut the top and remove outer bags, and undo the rubber band or clip. Either carefully roll down the sides of the innermost bag to create a floating ring or use a clip to hold the bag opening above the water's surface.

Gently float the bag in your tank or sump - check that it does not sink. Have some pre-mixed saltwater on hand to refill your tank at the end of this step. Add small amounts of tank water every few minutes to the bag until about 75% of the bag is tank water. Some water may have to be removed from the bag in order to complete this task. A turkey baster or small measuring cup is useful for this process.

Carefully remove your fish from the bag using a net and release it into your tank being careful not to get any of the bag water into the tank. Remove the float bag and dispose of the water.

 

Drip Acclimation Method

inverts

Use Drip Method

Place a container next to your tank or sump where you plan on acclimating your livestock. Carefully open the bag that your livestock is in and pour the water in the bag into the container, remove the livestock from the bag and place it in the container with the water from the bag. Take a piece of small tubing like ¼" inch Reverse Osmosis or air line tubing and tie a couple of loose knots in the line. Place one end in the tank or sump and with the other end begin a siphon with the hose and allow the drips of tank water to fall into the container with the acclimating animals. The flow rate can be crudely adjusted to a few drops a second by loosening or tightening the knots in the hose. To make this more accurate you can purchase plastic adjustable valves to regulate the flow rate. Caution, ensure that the line remains in the tank and drips into the container and only use this method if you will be present throughout the acclimation process to prevent floods or spills.

This method is especially recommended for inverts because they are more sensitive to changes in water chemistry and salinity. Place invertebrates in the container and SLOWLY drip acclimate at a rate of about 5-10 drops tank water/second for about an hour. Echinoderms which include Sea Stars, Sea Urchins, and Sea Cucumbers are very sensitive to minor salinity changes and must be slowly drip acclimated for 60-90 minutes to ensure long term survival, but for most invertebrates 30-45 minute acclimation time is sufficient. An airline from an air pump may be added to the acclimation container to provide circulation and help assure the container water is well oxygenated. This is especially true with fish that have a higher oxygen demand. An ammonia neutralizer such as Amquel or Prime is suggested. You must ensure that the container water remains the same temperature as the tank water during the acclimation process.

Inspecting Coral

Corals

Use Float Method

When your order arrives inspect the box for any rough handling during shipping.  If the box looks damaged take a photo of it to document condition upon arrival. Open the box carefully and take out your livestock one bag at a time.

Remove the outer bags, carefully cut the top and remove outer bags, and undo the rubber band or clip. Either carefully roll down the sides of the innermost bag to create a floating ring or use a clip to hold the bag opening above the waters surface.

Gently float the bag in your tank or sump - check that it does not sink. Have some pre-mixed saltwater on hand to refill your tank at the end of this step. Add small amounts of tank water every few minutes to the bag until about 75% of the bag is tank water. Some water may have to be removed from the bag in order to complete this task. A turkey baster or small measuring cup is useful for this process.

Carefully remove your livestock from the bag and place the newly acclimated corals at mid-tank or lower. Remove the float bag and dispose of the water - do not let bag water into tank or sump. If appropriate for a particular coral slowly bring the coral higher in the tank to acclimate them to more intense lighting over a period of about 2 weeks.

Skimmer Foam

filtration

Overview

There are many methods that can be used to achieve the goal of a beautiful reef aquarium. One aspect of aquarium care that is often intensely debated among reef keepers, and can be confusing to new hobbyists, is filtration. There are several commonly used filtration methods for reef aquariums and I will discuss some and present the benefits and drawbacks of each. Each method can be quite detailed and complex so I’ll cover them basically on our Reef Equipment page to give you an overview. 

Most filtration methods are based on biological processes. Waste and left-over food in your tank are utilized by bacteria that breakdown the material into various components. Bacteria are present in vast numbers when we add live rock and live sand to the tank and this serves as the basis for the system’s filtration.

BACTERIA
THE CORE OF MOST
FILTRATION METHODS

Bacteria will breakdown the waste and attack leftover food and can eventually convert the toxic wastes into less toxic byproducts. Initially ammonia is produced and bacteria will convert this toxic waste material into nitrite, also quite toxic to most marine animals. Bacteria will convert this toxic nitrite into less toxic nitrate. The bacteria that have converted the ammonia into nitrate do so in an environment with oxygen, they are aerobic bacteria. In an environment without oxygen anaerobic bacteria will breakdown the nitrate into nitrogen gas that can safely be emitted from the system.

Nitrogen Cycle

nitrogen cycle

The basic process of waste processing is called the nitrogen cycle and is what occurs in our aquariums. Other biological processes are ongoing too and create a complex web of constant changes in your tank’ s environment that all impact water quality and filtration. The goal of any filtration method is to create a cleaner environment for your tank’s inhabitants, use of bacteria is usually at the core of this.

Aerobic bacteria that grow in the presence of oxygen are always present in our aquariums and these are certainly needed for waste processing. However, if only aerobic processes take place which convert ammonia to nitrite and then nitrite to nitrate in time the concentration of nitrate in the aquarium will increase to undesirable levels.  Reduction of nitrates is accomplished through water changes to dilute or via the utilization of anaerobic bacteria that utilize the nitrates and convert it to nitrogen gas.

Nitrates can be kept to a minimum by having a bare bottom tank with lots of flow and a large skimmer to remove waste before it has to be broken down via the nitrogen cycle. 

water changes

One of the oldest methods of purifying your tank’s water is simply exchanging it with new water. This process of literally removing water from your tank and exchanging it with new water is called a partial water change. A partial water change not only dilutes pollutants in the remaining tank water but it also replenishes depleted chemicals and other substances needed for your tank’s inhabitants. Theoretically you could keep a tank superbly clean by constantly changing some water. However, this can become costly and disturb the tank’s inhabitants if you were not careful to put back water at the exact same temperature, salinity, pH, and other parameters. Remember that we are trying to reproduce conditions in our reef aquarium as they are on the natural reef, which tend to be relatively constant. Continual water changes are not practical in the long run for most hobbyists as the sole method of purifying their tank’ s water. Small periodic partial water changes are beneficial, and should be performed approximately at the rate of 10% per week regardless of the filtration method employed. 

Keys to Filtration:

  • Do not overfeed or overstock. Regardless of how good your filtration, if you overfeed you will cause serious water quality problems.
  • Change water frequently. This will help replenish trace elements and help dilute waste buildups.
  • A good skimmer is key to proper filtration. A skimmer will pull out waste before bacterial breakdown.
  • Using a small amount of high-quality carbon on a regular basis is very important for water clarity and reduction of dissolved organics.
  • Understand the nitrogen cycle, it is central to understanding biological filtration.
  • Anywhere in the tank that has water actively flowing will have oxygen and aerobic bacterial growth with the end product being nitrates. Areas devoid of oxygen will have anaerobic bacterial growth and a potential reduction of nitrates.
  • Avoid overuse of dry foods and so-called invertebrate foods as these will mostly pollute your water without adding proper nutrition to the target species.
Measuring PH

Measuring ph

For measuring pH an electronic pH monitor is best, none of the test kits are reliable. These pH monitors must be calibrated with calibration fluids of known pH values and should be checked monthly. A properly calibrated pH monitor should be used continuously. It is a quick and easy guide to your tank's general health - a glance at the digital read-out will immediately tell you if the pH is in normal range.

RECOMMENDED WATER PARAMETERS

SPECIFIC GRAVITY
1.025-1.027
ALKALINITY
8 TO 9 DKH
CALCIUM - 450
MAGNESIUM -1300+
PHOSPHATE, NITRATE
ZERO
Testing Salinity

TESTING SALINITY

You must first be sure of the salt level in your reef tank. Many of the common plastic hydrometers are inaccurate. The best methods for measurement are a calibrated refractometer or electronic salinity monitor.
Once you have a reliable method to determine the specific gravity of your saltwater you should check it weekly to be sure you are adding the correct amount of freshwater to make up for evaporation.

The specific gravity of natural saltwater is about 1.025-1.027 and this is the optimal level for your reef aquarium. If you keep a lower specific gravity then all the other levels will be low as you will have less dissolved elements in your water. While a lower specific gravity (1.020-1.023) is acceptable for fish-only aquariums full-strength saltwater is needed for reef aquariums.

Testing Alkalinity

Alkalinity

Alkalinity is a measurement of the carbonate content of your saltwater. It is probably one of the most important factors relating to coral health. Alkalinity should be maintained at NSW level at about 8 dkH.

Alkalinity, calcium, and magnesium levels will reach a certain equilibrium and so it is important to also maintain NSW levels of calcium, about 450 ppm and magnesium at about 1300 or higher.

Alkalinity, calcium, and magnesium should always be tested at the same time. If one is too low, one of the others may be too high and so you must know the levels of all three.

When setting up a new tank and beginning a dosing regime, alkalinity, calcium, and magnesium levels should be checked daily. Once the levels are within normal ranges, then weekly testing is sufficient.

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