My name is Graham and I have been in the reefing hobby for over 10 years. Growing up I was always fascinated with animals and plants. I’d collect and observe insects in jars, and would watch caterpillars transform into butterflies. As a young boy, my father and I would catch a tadpole every year and keep it until it transformed into a frog and then release it. My first freshwater aquarium was a 10 gallon tank. During trips to the fish store I would always marvel at the stunning saltwater fish which were cost prohibitive at the time. My parents always thought I would grow up to become a marine biologist. I ended up going to Lehigh University for a BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering, and as soon as I graduated and had an income I dove into reef building. A technical background certainly helps with the equipment side and chemistry of this hobby. Today I have three separate systems totaling about 1500 gallons of water. Maintaining these systems is expensive and extremely time consuming. Fortunately, I have a very supportive wife, which enables me to spend as much time on it as I do.
My current display tank is a Marineland 300DD which is set up in my basement. The tank measures 72” x 36” x 27”. Plumbed into it are two 36” x 36” x 10” frag tanks. Since the 300DD is strictly SPS dominated, I keep a mix of SPS, LPS, mushrooms, zoanthids and palythoas in the frag tanks. I use these tanks to grow frags that I sell locally and online. Selling frags has enabled me to invest in equipment and high end frags that I would have never been able to afford otherwise.
Water movement in the 300DD is provided by four Ecotech MP40s and two Jebao RW15s. Three Jebao RW8s provide flow in each of the frag tanks. The return pump is a Fluval SP6 which feeds all three tanks as well as a reactor for GAC/GFO.
When I first set up the 300DD I started with just three radium metal halides in large lumenbright stealth pendants. I use a 400W bulb in the center and 250W bulbs on the sides. The bulbs are all driven by lumatek select-a-watt ballasts. For supplementation I added a panel at the front of the tank with two 80W ATI Blue Plus T5s and a 60” reefbrite XHO blue. I recently added a second panel at the rear of the tank as some of the corals on the top, rear shelves were not receiving sufficient light for ideal coloration. I run the halides for 5 hours; T5s for 10 hours; and the reefbrites for 12 hours. I’m very happy with this light setup, however it uses a lot of electricity and produces a lot of heat and humidity. To combat all the heat and humidity in the basement I have fans and ducting that pull in cool air from the outside through a filter, and pushes hot, humid air to the outside. I also installed a mini-split heat pump which keeps the basement cool in the summer. There’s a direct vent propane furnace for the colder days in winter which I use to avoid running up the electric bill with the in-tank electric heaters. I do not have any chillers; I use fans and evaporative cooling. I run a 250W radium in a lumenmax elite and a 24” reefbrite XHO blue over the frag tanks.
Filtration is relatively simple. There’s a 40 gallon sump with a Super Reef Octopus XP5000 cone skimmer. I use filter socks to help manage nutrients since nitrate and phosphate run high on this system. I utilize an ATS that has two 12” x 18” sheets. I have a GAC/GFO reactor that I only use for GAC to help with water clarity. I find the water develops a yellow tint over time if I do not use GAC occasionally. I no longer use GFO because I find it to be very harsh on sensitive SPS. I am currently changing 5% of water weekly; however, I am setting up a new water change station and I plan to increase this to 20% every other week. The reason for this is that my nutrients (phosphate specifically) seem to keep climbing higher. My plan is to utilize water changes to manage phosphate instead of GFO. Water changes offer a lot of benefits such as keeping other elements in check.
I dose two part to meet the calcium and alkalinity demands. I add magnesium, iodine, and strontium to the two part solutions. I have a Geo 624 calcium reactor set up on this system but the CO2 is not turned on yet. I always planned to run this system on a calcium reactor, but started it on two part. I have been hesitant to switch it over, but I now have an alkalinity monitor on this system which should enable the transfer without risking too much instability in the alkalinity level. I’m very interested to see if the corals react positively to the change to a calcium reactor. I think my colors are excellent, but I’m interested to see if better growth rates are achieved with a reactor. Fundamentally calcium reactors have always made a lot of sense to me, as they supply the chemical needs for corals to build skeletons from actual coral skeletons. But I’ve always used two part as I start tanks on two part and never make the switch to a calcium reactor because things are going well and I don’t want to risk it.
Many of the fish in this tank came out of my previous 90 gallon display tank and have been with me for over 10 years. The powder blue tang, blue tang, yellow tang, and clownfish all fall into this category. The Regal Angel is over 15 years in captivity as a previous hobbyist had him for years before I took him on. The blue tang and regal angel have a good bit of HLLE scarring from years ago, but they are very fat and happy. I suppose my favorite fish is the powder blue tang, since he has been with me many years, always looks flawless, and is the boss of the tank. Next would be the flame wrasses. They’ve grown from small juveniles in this tank and they are just an awesome species of fairy wrasse. Overall fairy wrasses are my favorite type of fish, although I have had very mixed success with the large males. Shipping stress and swim bladder issues seem to plague them. After having experienced the flame wrasses growing from juveniles to adults males I now plan to purchase only juveniles in the future. The juveniles are less expensive, seem much hardier, and it’s incredibly enjoyable to watch them grow into adult males. I also really enjoy dragonets. They are beautiful and have amazing anatomy. They are also very hardy and disease resistant as long as they have sufficient food.
I’m able to keep the two dragonets that are in this tank fat and happy without supplemental feeding due to the size of the tank and the amount of live rock. There’s also a population of asterina starfish that have provided a constant food supply to my pair of harlequin shrimp without supplemental feedings. I find the Harlequins keep to a very small area, only venturing out when searching for food. Fortunately, the size of this tank allows them to stay on one side while the asterina population reproduces on the other side of the tank. This works out very well as there is always a supply of food for them and they keep the population in check without depleting it.
I feed a mix of Nori, frozen mysis cubes, and NLS pellet. This system gets Nori every day for the tangs. MWF I feed frozen mysis cubes as well. The other days of the week I feed NLS pellets in addition to the Nori.
The biggest challenge I faced on this tank was waiting for the live rock and the microfauna it hosts to mature. I started with 100% dry rock and it was a very slow process to get to the point where SPS were happy. If I did it over I would have used live rock or a mix of live rock and dry rock.
Below are some progression shots of the 300DD. You can see it started out very slowly, but in the last year it has really hit its stride and SPS are growing well.
I think the overall biggest and most common challenge for reefers is providing nutrients for corals while preventing algae that can easily out compete the slow growing corals. This is always a challenge with newer tanks until they mature.
Other challenges include those common to most reefers, bryopsis, cyanobacteria, red turf algae, vermetid snails. Ironically one of the reasons I used all dry rock was to prevent development of a vermetid snail population that was an issue in my previous 90 gallon display tank. Somehow the vermetids made it into the 300DD regardless. I am considering adding a small valentini puffer to the system to eat the vermetid snails.
There are also a lot of different SPS pests out there, many that we do not have much knowledge of. AEFW were the worst I have experienced. Fortunately, I dealt with them many years ago when my 90 gallon was just starting to fill in. Cutting bases and dipping corals was manageable on that size tank, and was an excellent learning experience in that it allowed me to learn enough about them to avoid having to deal with them ever again. My best advice regarding SPS and pests is to cut everything off that is covered in healthy tissue, dip, and remount. If you do this carefully you will most likely never suffer from AEFW.
I don’t have too many future plans for this system. I plan to increase the water change amount to get nutrients to stabilize and stop increasing. I plan to move it from two part to the calcium reactor in the next few months. Other than that, I feel like this tank still has another year or two until it is fully grown in with large SPS colonies. The tank is currently packed, so as SPS fill in I plan to remove the less colorful pieces and let the best pieces continue to grow into colonies. I have a new system I set up that is intended mostly for aquaculturing corals, and I plan to use growth from this system to feed that system with frags.
I would say some of the most important lessons I have learned over the years are to keep things simple and as natural as possible.
I tend to constantly try to improve the system; however, making changes when there aren’t any real issues usually just creates problems. Stable water chemistry, lots of blue light, strong random water flow, and detectable nutrients are really all that is needed to successfully keep SPS.
I have found that taking a more natural approach to fixing problems always seems to have a better result. For instance, when I was battling low nutrients feeding more and getting rid of filter socks had a much better result than dosing nitrates and phosphates via chemicals. Reducing nutrients with water changes and turf scrubbers seems much better for corals than running GFO.
- Salinity: 35ppt
- Temperature: 77-78F
- Alkalinity: 7.5-8.0 dkH
- Calcium: 420-430ppm
- Magnesium: 1250-1350ppm
- Nitrate: 50
- 1200 Reefbrite XHO Blues ON
- 1300 Blue Plus T5s ON
- 1600 Radium Metal Halides ON
- 2100 Radium Metal Halides OFF
- 2300 Blue Plus T5s OFF
- 0000 Reefbrite XHO Blues OFF
- Powder blue tang
- Blue tang
- Yellow tang
- Desjardini sailfin tang
- Regal angelfish
- Gold stripe maroon clownfish
- Eight blue green chromis
- M/F flame wrasse pair
- M/F velvet wrasse pair
- Labout’s wrasse
- Lubbock’s wrasse
- Red mandarin dragonet
- Spotted dragonet
- M/F harlequin shrimp pair
- RMF Acid Trip
- JF Homewrecker
- JF The Jolt Acro
- Tyree Pinkie the Bear
- Pink Panther Table
- RRA Lady in Pink
- Jose Rainbow
- RMF Candyland
- Vino Monti
- SC Orange Passion
- … and many more
- Scarlet/ mexican blue hermit crabs
- Astrea/banded trochus/mexican turbo snails