By Bob Goemans
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Bob Goemans corresponds with Brian Gillespie (Winnipeg, MB, Canada)

Brian Gillespie (Winnipeg, MB, Canada) writes...

Hi Bob

I have been out of the hobby for about one year. I closed down my reef system prior to moving and still haven't had the time to set up a new system. The old system was plumbed from the bottom and used a wet dry and very few animals. It consisted of two 120 gallon tanks with a 80 gallon sump and never contained more than twenty small fish between the two tanks and about 20 corals. The fish were damsels, clowns, pygmy angels and small tangs. Corals were bubble, elegance, hammerhead, brain and leather corals, many mushrooms and two small clams. I gave the animals to friends in the hobby and the live rock to a pet store. The aquariums were built into the wall of the house and remained behind.

Despite a large quality brand skimmer and the use of a phosphate remover, filamentous algae was a problem. Yet, there was never any measurable nitrate and phosphates. Temperature was automatically regulated (heater and chiller), by an Octopus 2000 Controller, upgraded to the 3000 model one month prior to sale of home.

Enough background. I am again ready to set up two reef aquariums in my new house. They will be in an indoor poolroom. They will again share a common sump, chiller and protein skimmer. Suggestions on the skimmer as well as other equipment such as a calcium reactor and lighting would be greatly appreciated.

Makeup water will again be processed with an RO + DI unit. The tanks are each 30" high for a 24" water column, 6" for the 4" sand bed and 2" for the plenum. The surface overflow will run the whole back of each tank. One tank is 220 gallons and the other is 245 gallons. Sources for the appropriate amount of aragonite sand or preferably live sand would also be appreciated. There are very few pet stores in my area and the most that I can hope for is to stock the fish for my aquariums from one or two of the stores. The last store that sold corals and live rock closed about 1 year ago!

I intend to set up the mechanics of the aquariums first then add sand shortly after. I will probably wait several months before adding live rock and again several more months before adding fish, and several more months before introducing corals. I figure it will take about 1 year from the time the tanks are built to the time the aquariums are fully functional. Is this reasonable?

Brian Gillespie

Winnipeg, MB, Canada

Bob replies...

Hi Brian,

Thanks for your letter and most hobbyists think that if nitrates are low and phosphate appears fairly low, the green monster won't attack. Not always correct! The problem is that the forms of algae we hate the most, such as hair algae and slime algae are really cyanobacteria growths.

Slime algae begins as a 'biofilm,' which is nothing more than a very thin film or grouping of microorganisms. Usually, they are found where the water flow is somewhat slow, an adequate food supply exists, and where there is a preferred light spectrum. These films can form on any solid matter that remains in contact with water, even living tissue. Often, it evolves into a larger more prominent structure called a 'microbial mat' which is nothing more than a greatly enhanced version of the film. Aquarists generally see it as a red-like slime covering sandbed surfaces, aquarium side panels, and even living corals.

Often, hobbyists relate only to excesses of nitrate and phosphate as the cause of unwanted algae growths. Actually, it's the 'nitrogen' portion of nitrate "and/or" nitrite and ammonium that provides the 'bread and butter' portion of their diet. All are readily available in closed systems and more so in some other systems.

As for phosphate, it's the primary energy ingredient that initializes the growth of these unwanted forms of cyanobacteria. Depending upon the efficiency of the aquarium's biological filtration in relation to bioload and general maintenance, it can be available at substrate interfaces via precipitation or in the bulk water from foodstuffs or unprocessed tap water. Unfortunately for hobbyists, the advanced stages of these photosynthetic 'mats' mostly become a self-sustaining ecology. Therefore they need little outside input to grow and reproduce. They simply make their own nitrogen and phosphate needs in and below their base structures with the aquarist providing little else but a preferred spectrum. And, initial growth is usually in an area at or adjacent to a small amount of nutrients usually found on or in a rock crevice, or on the sandbed/bulk water interface.

And then there is Hair Algae, which looks more like a plant than bacteria because of its long, soft and hair-like strands. It's difficult to overcome because aquarists fail to understand its cycle and wait far too long to intercede. Not only does it become independent of bulk water nutrients once established, trapped detritus/debris can add further nutrients to the bulk water. It has two life cycles - small bubble-like growths and that of an easily recognizable plant-like structure. There are tiny spore packages that form on its hair-like strands. When these packages mature they burst open and release spores that settle and grow into small green bubbles. When these bubbles mature they release male or female cells that eventually unite and form a base unit for the growth of a new structure of hair algae. Some aquarists say 'hair algae' does not grow on surfaces covered with coralline, however, that is not true.

The keys to the kingdom, so to speak, are in maintaining 'extremely' low levels of phosphate, i.e., below 0.015 ppm; having a microbially efficient substrate; and, removing any of these growths when they first become visible. Yes, a good protein skimmer is helpful, so is the iron-based phosphate removing media. Most systems should not be without this type phosphate removing media!

And even though you say you had very little phosphate, I doubt that very much. As long as you feed, there will be a constant supply of phosphate in the bulk water. How much is dependent upon how well you control the situation. Anything over the above mentioned level is sufficient to get an alga spore growing. Unfortunately almost all aquarium test kits only read down to 0.05 ppm and even that's doubtful because aquarium reagents are not too accurate. There are two that I would recommend, and they those by Merck or Salifert.

When you begin your next system, begin it with one of these iron-impregnated phosphate removers, an efficient protein skimmer, and don't over crowd the tank with too much live rock. Leave enough substrate surface area for monthly vacuuming.

Lighting is dependent upon the goals of the system(s). If you stay within the range of what you had in the previous system, 250W 10K metal halides lamps should suffice. However, if the goal is more ambitious, i.e., lots of sps corals and clams, then 400W lamps are recommended.

(As for skimmers, calcium reactors and lighting brands, I did mention quite a few and as mentioned in the first letter in this article, readers of this column can contact me for that information or simply visit my website for product reviews and/or ads by some of those companies. As for sand, bagged live sand is now available and I also mentioned a couple of brands that might consider shipping to the reader's location.)

And last, I would recommend getting the live sand and immediately adding some pieces of live rock to begin. Then over the coming month or two, add some more rock being sure not to cover too much of the sand surface (Dr. Jaubert recommends not covering more than 25% of the sandbed surface) and some corals. Once some algae becomes visible, add some herbivores, both fish and invertebrates. Once the algae situation is well under control, begin adding the remaining animals.

Hope this helps and keep me posted.




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