By Bob Goemans
Site Supported in Part by:

Bob Goemans corresponds with Julia Belian (Omaha, NE)

Julia Belian (Omaha, NE) writes...

Dear Bob:

I am close to tears as I write this. There isn't much that can be done to help me right this minute, but perhaps you can settle some questions for me as we go forward. If we go forward.

We have a 75 gallon reef that we've been running since August 04. It's been doing really well. We bought the entire setup, lock stock and barrel, from a neighbor. We'd been studying up for a year beforehand, so we were ready to buy, and his desire to sell his setup was just fortuitous -- in other words, it wasn't a lark or an impulse buy, we really knew as much as one usually can before actually starting reef-keeping.

The tank came with about 50 pounds of live rock, a mix of crushed coral and aragonite substrate about 2" deep. Two powerheads have provided circulation for the Oceanic tank, which had an overflow box in the back left corner that allowed overflow into a 20 gallon sump below. The sump is divided with tank overflow passing first through a wet/dry trickle on the left side and then into an open compartment on the right with a Berlin classic skimmer set into it. With the water pumping into the skimmer and then simply falling back into that same compartment of the sump. Plexiglas dividers function to force water through chemical filtration between the wet/dry side and the skimmer side. Another powerhead ran the skimmer, which had an air pump attached to the venturi intake to increase bubble-making. Another large powerhead returned the water to the tank. Tank is lit by four 110 W VHO fluorescent lamps -- two actinic blue, one actinic white, and one super actinic.

Livestock we received in the deal included a purple tang, two blue chromis, and a yellow-tail damsel; five BTAs, one colt coral, and a mix of mushrooms, yellow zoes, green polyps, and button polyps.

The other very interesting things we received were all the original documents for the equipment and extensive notes from the first owner (not the guy we bought it from). Plus, five years of Marine Fish Monthly magazine (1995-2000 inclusive), which I've been reading almost every spare minute! (I've loved your columns there, btw; you and I agree about Marc Weiss products. I saw more life blossom with the LSB that I got with all this other stuff than I imagined was hidden there, and the Black Powder made everything very happy).

After letting it settle and cycle for a month and getting very good water readings, we added two maroon clowns (one big, one little) and another blue chromis to make a school. We replaced one of the older powerheads with two new ones. We did that just as a precaution because they seemed a bit sluggish. Then in November I took the entire tank down in order to add a plenum, sift and sort the substrate, and rearrange the rock. Everything had settled after that very well. We were starting to have a red cyano problem, to be expected at this stage in a "new" setup like ours, so we purchased the following: three turbo snails and about 15 Astraea snails; then, a month after that, 40 blue-legged hermit crabs; then, last week, about 15 larger red-legged hermits. They were getting the cyano under control and having fun.

Other than the cyano, progress in the tank was wonderful! We had two tiny new anemones appear; the mushrooms had grown from quarter size to as much as 2" across, the yellow zoes had colonized a whole new rock and were battling hordes and hordes of button polyps for control of even more real estate; the green polyps spread as well, some feather dusters appeared from some branch rock, and then even new kinds of mushrooms began to appear from the rock. Life was looking good!

Tuesday, when I walked in from work, the smell of electrical problem was so strong, I was at first afraid there was an electrical fire in our 1928 home. But after I took a few more steps, there was no doubt it was the tank. All the inverts were collapsed or closed, and the fish looked panicked. I checked the sump and saw that the new Poly-Filter was turning blue, and the smell from the sump was overwhelming. I called my local fish shop (LFS), and they confirmed my fear that it was copper causing the Poly-Filter to turn blue. But from where? Our best guess was one of the pumps had malfunctioned. Although all of them were still moving water, there didn't seem to be any other possible source (no one else has access to the tank), and the shop guy said that a pump could "fry" and leach copper and yet still be moving water.

I immediately pulled all the pumps, put in a new pump for a return, added all the activated charcoal I had in the house to the sump, and changed 20 gallons of water. I decided skimming and in-tank circulation could just wait since I couldn't afford to buy that many new powerheads that day (and it was the middle of an ice storm). The fish started looking better, but I was pretty sure I knew what was coming. Sure enough, by yesterday morning all the inverts seemed to be dead (except, intriguingly, some of the hermits). It looks like a neutron bomb went off inside the tank.

I don't have a copper test kit, nor have I found one at any store in town, but I don't even need to test to know that it must have been astronomically high. I mean, when my partner came home, she said it smelled like someone had been murdered in the living room (because of the copper smelling like blood to her health-care nose). It was so strong that after working with the tank for several hours I was nauseated. I can't even imagine how high it must have been.

I've since read more about copper poisoning, and now I am truly despondent. I'd like to ask a few questions before I do anything else, because I think this disaster may just take us out of the hobby for a while until we rebuild finances for it. But I want to be sure.

1. Is it true that a tank that has had copper in it is forevermore no good for anything at all? Can this tank ever again have ANYTHING in it? Or is it salvage? If it can have anything at all ever again, what?

2. The fish aren't dead yet -- should I find them a new home right away? We don't have another tank right now to move them to, and can't afford an entire new setup right away, either.

3. Is the rock and sand now trash? Is it true it will always leach copper back in? Do we need to start all over with new substrate and new rock? What about the PVC used for the plenum? What about the fiberglass screening used in the plenum?

4. The copper was so bad that my store guy's advice to "sniff test" the pumps to find the culprit is not helping, because they ALL reek of copper. I chose the newest powerhead, ran it in vinegar for three hours, then in freshwater for another 8 hours, and it no longer smelled of copper, so I used it to re-start circulation, but all the other pumps still stink even after the vinegar bath and at least a few hours of freshwater. Should I assume they are all now useless? Or is there some way to test them? Run them in a bucket of saltwater and test for copper? Any ideas?

5. Is the sump tank now also ruined? What about its components -- the Plexiglas, the egg crate, the PVC piping, the rock used for the trickle filter (which does not appear to be live anyway, looks like base rock)? What about the skimmer?

6. How about the hoses between the tank and the sump?

7. What about other fittings? The acrylic used to build the overflow, the plastic fittings on powerheads and the return hose, the heater?

8. Is there any possibility this was caused by something other than a pump? We put a new VHO bulb in last week, and we don't use a cover between the water and the bulbs (anemones needed more light) -- I can't fathom that this would have caused it, but I want to cover every possibility.

9. Are there any questions I should have asked that I haven't thought of?

From what I've read, it sounds as if I should give away the fish and throw away everything but the stand and hood and light fixtures. But that means we are finished with reef-keeping for the foreseeable future; we spent a lot getting this one and getting it running well, and we just can't afford to re-buy every single thing right now.

At a minimum, I need to realistically ascertain what, if anything, we can keep for future use, and whether we should give the fish to new homes. I do not want to kill anything else!! If there is realistic danger of future leaching from any of these materials, I will throw them out rather than torture more creatures.

As I said, I am simply crazed by this. I loved these animals. I never knew you could love invertebrates, but I did. This was my joy and recreation and turning into my passion. I was even fantasizing about getting into coral farming some day. I guess this will test my love, but .... wow.

Sorry this is so long, but I figured you'd need all the data to offer any meaningful advice.

Thanks so much.

Julia Belian - Omaha, NE

Bob replies...

Hi Julia,

My passion for this hobby is no different than yours and when I see letters such as yours they are immediately moved to the top of my list and get answers ASAP.

When it comes to the situation in your aquarium, I've seen similar happening discussed over the Internet and in fact three similar happenings occurred here in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. From what I read on the Internet and the cases here, all tank failures were caused by the failure of old model powerheads. In each case that I know of, the pump either slowed down or shutdown completely due to clogs, which caused it to overheat. This in turn cause their protective coverings to swell and cracked, allowing seawater into the internal coil area. Whatever oily substances, besides copper leached out into the aquarium, I'm not sure. But the result was a death sentence for the invertebrate and some fish in these systems. Part of my on-going advice was to carefully inspect their remaining powerheads and be sure they were running cool and normally. I did the same with my own powerheads, as I was using many different brands and sizes at that time in my own tanks.

And even though I have always been careful when it came to anything mechanical, some other aquarists experienced serious problems, which may have in all fairness been possibly caused by their own failure to keep the pumps operating properly. Nevertheless, any and all such equipment needs to be periodically inspected to assure they are continuing to function properly. Easier said than done I realize, but in many cases we have only ourselves to blame. In fact, in your case, a clog could have been caused by one of the snails or hermit crabs you added.

As for your questions;

Whether the tank is glass or acrylic, it is still useable. Simply flush it with freshwater and reuse. If glass, the silicone seams may contain some small amounts of copper, however, if so it's a marginal amount. If the tank is used for inverts, always keep a Poly-Filter somewhere in the system where its water will flow through it. A canister filter would be ideal!

Your biological filtration has no doubt been damaged and the remaining fish may be subjected to high levels of ammonia and nitrite until the nitrifying bacteria reestablish themselves. I would test for these parameters. If the local fish store would take them until you are ready to reestablish the system, that would be nice of them. If not, after making sure all dead and dying matter is removed, and no further inverts exist in the tank (they would be damaged by any remaining small amounts of copper), I would vacuum the substrate and accomplish one major water change and feed lightly the remaining fish until things begin to look normal in the tank. Make sure you continue to use a Poly-Filter in the system and change as needed.

If the system is to again house inverts, the use of the existing sand and rock is highly questionable. I would first go the road discussed above until the fish and aquarium environment again look healthy. All the time monitoring copper and keeping a Poly-Filter going in the system. Once things look good, I would try some inexpensive inverts, such as snails, and see if they continue to do well. If so, then move up to some other inverts and if doing well, continue on. The plenum grid material will not be a problem.

As for the existing pumps, if they are anything other than the newest model pumps available, I would consider them chancy at best. In fact, not worth a second try!

As stated earlier, the glass, Plexiglas, acrylic, plastic items need only a good flushing. The rock in the trickle filter is questionable, but if drained and flushed, "may" be useable.

Again, get a copper test kit and also ammonia and nitrite test kits. Get a handle on the present water parameters and take it a day at a time.

Hope this helps and keep me posted.


Julia Belian (Omaha, NE) writes...

Hi Bob,

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for such a fast reply. We have pulled the remaining fish out (one of the chromises died, just horrible, you can see the internal hemorrhaging through his flank!) and are taking them to the local fish store now. I am not certain whether he will "kennel" them or whether we have to let him take ownership, but either way, they'll have at least a chance of survival.

Your answers make sense (as I always think you do!) and while I'm not glad others have had this problem, I'm reassured to hear that at least it's not a totally freak occurrence.

Let me ask you this. On the LFS guy's advice, and with some reservations that may be irrelevant here, we dosed the tank with erythromycin to kill the cyano the day before this happened. It makes no sense to me that the two could be related, but the coincidental timing seems very odd also. We turned off the pump to the skimmer, but otherwise changed nothing while the erythromycin was in there -- for about 24 hours. Is there any way they could be related, any way the drug or the fillers of the tablet could have ... I don't know, set off some kind of electrical reaction? Or been the source of the clogging?

Or caused the thin membrane in the pump to fail? I just don't think coincidences for no reasons are all that common.

Thanks again. I'll let you know how it goes in the future.


Bob replies...

Hi Julia

Using Erythromycin may kill the cyanobacteria the first time around, however, further blooms will become more resistant to the drug. It is much wiser to get to the root of the problem than to put antibiotics into the aquarium and negatively affect system biological filtration. If the need arises to quell a serious cyanobacteria growth, there is one product, Boyd Chemi-Clean, which causes the cyanobacteria to dissipate within a day or two. I've tested the product, and found it very effective, besides being reef safe. Anyway, knowing that some cyanobacteria is normal in all aquariums, I would never want to kill it all, just halt major blooms. And the Boyd product is a far better choice than those containing Erythromycin. You may also want to simply try putting a tablespoon of "brown" sugar in your aquarium once a month. That will basically cause the same type of processes/self-reduction, but not as fast as the Boyd product.

And as for a coincidence, probably so, as I can't relate adding the anti-cyanobacteria product to the cause of the copper release. Probably just a bad pump or was clogged by a snail or hermit, as mentioned in my previous letter.




Electrical; Disaster Recovery

Other Advice Letters

Site Supported in Part by:
Dr Gs Marine Aquaculture