By Bob Goemans
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Bob Goemans corresponds with Tommy (Arkansas)

Tommy (Arkansas) writes...

Hi Bob,

I live in Arkansas, but work in the Southeast Florida/Georgia for 3 weeks out of each month. I mention this because as you will see, my Grandmother cares for my aquarium while away. I began keeping marine fish about three years ago when the "Finding Nemo" movie came out. My Grandmother always had freshwater fish for as long as I can remember, so when I saw the movie, I thought I would get her a marine tank. Little did I know how much I would have to learn in order to take care of it! In a way it's the best lot of money I have ever spent. She feeds them and keeps an eye on the pH meter and everything else, and "somewhat" cleans the tank. When I come home, I clean it spotless and do about a 25% water change with water I get from my local fish store (LFS). I have kept the makeup water in a 14 gallon container with the pump hooked to a level controller. In this old tank, a 46 gallon Bowfront, I had one float in the tank and the other in the makeup water container to protect the pump. After the 2nd flood my grandma wasn't very happy, - actually either time! And there was almost a 3rd flood, but I was present and saw a snail camped out on the float. I moved both floats in the tank and said the heck with that method of controlling the water level.

I also had a nitrate problem in this old tank. I don't think the skimmer was working right, and I kept reading about a deep sand bed, and made mine about 3 inches, but my mistake may have been its grain size was too large. I should also mention I tried a denitrator, however, it kept stopping up and back flowing Hydrogen sulfide into the tank. It stunk bad. But that's all in the past, as that tank started leaking and now have moved on to a new and improved one, which was about 5 months ago.

My new tank is a 72 gallon Bowfront with a sump in the stand. I didn't like its filter sock because it would stop up and the water would just overflow out of it in about 3 days. So I started looking for a new sump about 3 months ago. I was working in Ft. Lauderdale and there is a Big Al's store there that just opened and I found the perfect sump while I was there. It's an All Glass Aquarium Megaflow sump. I installed it last month, and I took out the bio-balls and put some carbon and phosphate filter pads in it and a filter floss pillow in their place, and it's working like a charm. I have at least 6 inches of filter media now and the water is crystal clear.

I also read your books last month and got a magnesium and phosphate test kit last month, but only got around to doing a phosphate and iodine test. I was expecting to have a high phosphate reading, but I didn't. The reason I was expecting the phosphate to be out of kilter is that ever since installing the new tank I haven't been running a skimmer. Reason being I was experimenting. In fact, my old tank was always barren of any algae other than Coralline Algae. When I first set it up I was told about the bad hair algae and the good algae - "Coralline." I purchased some coralline starter pegs from Indo Pacific Sea Farms and quickly had good Coralline growth. My Yellow Tang took care of everything else. About this time I put in the SpectraPure LiterMeter and started dosing ESV Bionic. The coralline algae grew everywhere - "careful what you ask for" as I mean everywhere. I also got about four rocks of Maidens Hair, which is "beautiful stuff," because I read that Tangs won't eat it. Within about 1 month of putting it in, it all disappeared for some reason, but I left the rocks in thinking that it would start growing back sometime.

Tommy - Arkansas

Bob replies...

Hi Tommy,

Thanks for the follow-up email, and a look at the 'bigger picture.' There's much to this hobby that doesn't meet the eye when its first attracted to a beautiful reef aquarium, or viewing a movie such as Finding Nemo. And even though this movie was quite entertaining and colorful, in some ways it did a disservice to the wellbeing of many forms of marine life. But that's another story, and this is not the place to voice my thoughts on that subject.

I've read your letter several times and besides answering your questions, would like to comment on some of its other aspects in the hope it helps provide a better environment in your aquarium and benefits your future endeavors.

As for floats, been there, done that, and had similar problems. Two of my favorite products for resolving the evaporation make-up situation has been the SpectraPure (LiterMeter) and those from ReefDosingPumps.

Your thoughts on a somewhat deep sandbed that used course sand and possibly resulted in an unacceptable nitrate level are probably correct. If the sand grain is too large, e.g., over 6 mm, the dissolved oxygen content stays quite high throughout the depth of the bed and only nitrate results. In other words, there's not an appreciable amount of anaerobic area to further reduce, or sufficiently impact the nitrate generated above. A more correct approach is a shallow bed, e.g., about 2 inches, using a finer sand grain (2 - 5 mm). The nitrate is then produced in the upper half inch of depth, and below that, reduced to nitrogen gas/ammonium. And keep in mind, in this area there will be 'two' forms of denitrification, each being accomplished by a separate class of bacteria. I won't go into scientific terms, but one only exists where a small amount of oxygen remains, and it reduces the nitrate to nitrogen gas. Great, and that's the process that benefits the aquarium environment the most, as it rids the aquarium of an algae nutrient. But below that area, where less oxygen or none exists (which makes up the majority of the "deep" bed), another class of bacteria exists and 'only' reduces nitrate to ammonium. And that parameter is the most beneficial to algae! So the choices are clear in my mind - stay with a shallow bed of no more than a couple of inches and use a size sand grain (2 - 5 mm) that behooves this form of denitrification/microbial process/balance.

You mention a visit to Big Al's Aquarium Supercenter near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Just happens the manger of this first Big Al store in the US is a close personal friend, and also a co-author of my latest book titled 'Marine Fish Health Handbook.' In fact, Martin Moe Jr. has written its Foreword, besides reviewing its content! As for this new store, which is over 18,000 square feet containing over 40,000 gallons of water, I'll bet you were highly impressed, not only with its size and content, but also its friendly, knowledgeable, and informative employees. And from what I hear, as I have yet to visit the store, its Tuesday night feeding of sharks in its 5,000 gallon shark tank draws an immense crowd of viewers.

You also mention 6 inches of filter media and that you now have crystal clear water. Keep in mind the reef keepers' goal is not 'crystal clear water,' but that of 'quality water' that is high in oxygen, low in unwanted compounds and chemically correct. If the reef keeper's water was always filtered to the crystal clear stage, various valuable water borne micro-life would soon diminish, thereby reducing the supply of them to many animals in the aquarium that utilize them as a foodstuff. Clarity and quality are two different goals! And as for filter socks, they are a great way to eliminate tiny air bubbles that some skimmers give off, or polish the water from time to time (if necessary). But in my opinion, they are not something the entire system water should continuously flow through. And more than one should be kept on hand, and replaced as needed while the old one is cleaned in a solution containing a little bit of household bleach.

Tommy (Arkansas) writes...

Hi Bob,

In the first month of this new tank I didn't have a skimmer that would fit the sump, so didn't use a skimmer while waiting on the Euro-Reef I put on order. Well, when I got back home 3 weeks later the Maidens Hair had went through a growth spurt. So I thought it was something like in the old tank where the skimmer did not work too well and did not pull out the nutrients, and this is something this algae needs. So I haven't been running a skimmer for a good 5 months.

And the Maidens Hair grass grew well, but the Tang eats it and keeps most of the rocks trimmed down except on a rock on the top right in front of the return outlet. He won't eat the grass on that rock. I have read somewhere that if the grass is healthy the tang won't eat it, but if not, the plant doesn't produce the deterrent compounds enough to prevent perdition.

So until recently, it has done well, but last month the grass seemed to have stalled growing and I was getting a lot of bad algae growth, both slime and hair. So I installed the Megaflow sump last month and installed the Euro-Reef to see what would happen. I had initially planned on running the skimmer only at night to help with the pH swing, but it was taking so much gunk out from Day 1 that I left it running full time. Even without the skimmer I never got a trace of ammonia, nitrites or nitrates.

New Equipment plans:

Last week I contacted you about your opinion on Calcium reactors. Since then I discovered the Schuran Jetstream1. If that is not the best reactor out there I will eat the $800 I paid for it. It's smaller than the Knop or the Korrallin and rated for twice the aquarium size and it looks beautiful. It's rated way higher than my tank even remotely requires, but the CO2 regulator I got for it says it can be adjusted down to 4 bubbles per minute so I should be able to make it work. If not, I will hang it on the wall as a Sculpture. I just hope my grandma doesn't see the invoice.

Before I visited your website last week I was planning on getting a SpectraPure 5 stage SP2000 RO/DI unit to start mixing my own salt and am thinking of going with either Instant Ocean or Reef Crystals. Any opinion on this brand? Anyway, since reading your review of the Ultimate DI, I gave them a call and I hope my grandma doesn't open it up and see its invoice!

I also ordered an Aqua Controller 3. I definitely hope she doesn't find the invoice for this item! And it will control the CO2 into the reactor. Schuran says that no CO2 reaches the tank, but I don't know. So I plan on hooking it up just in case.

The last question I have for you is that I can have the controller turn the LiterMeter on when the pH goes down to say 8.15. My question is what can I put in the container to buffer the pH that won't cause adverse effects? I have never dosed Kalkwasser, but from what I have read it will bring up the pH. I just worry about the Calcium precipitating out of solution. What about the SeaChem 8.3 Buffer I use? If I remember correctly it says it has no adverse effects and can be used regularly. Maybe I could find a liquid buffer? The calcium reactor should replace all other trace elements as well as magnesium so when I get everything working right the pH should stay stable.

Well I am terribly sorry this is so long, but really appreciate your comments.

Thank you for your time,

Tommy - Arkansas

Bob replies...

Hi Tommy,

As for Maiden Hair (Chlorodesmis) or what is sometimes called 'Turtle Weed,' there's much truth to it not being on the menu of many herbivorous fish because of its unacceptable taste. But it's a nice looking alga, and one that can serve as a hiding place for micro-crustaceans. And exactly why its grows in cycles, I'm not sure except to say that it requires very bright light and excellent water movement (the force of the flow is probably what keeps the tang away), and of course, the nutrients it needs to flourish. It's very possible, depending upon environmental conditions, that this alga will wax and wane. And as for some animal eating it, could well be that if another more preferable foodstuff is not available, then this is better than nothing. And even though its uptake of nutrients is somewhat a good way to reduce those in the bulk water, the alga itself would have to be harvested/removed from the aquarium to help maintain better water conditions. Not allowed to feed a fish, which then returns much of these nutrients in its waste products.

And when it comes to denitrator equipment, they are becoming much improved; yet, caution is advised if you're going to use one. They require diligent upkeep, both during and after startup. And in my opinion, are not tools for anyone new or even fairly new to the hobby, or those that can't oversee its operation 24/7. There are other safer ways to reduce high levels of nitrate, which we can discuss in the future if need be.

Operating any aquarium without a skimmer is highly questionable in my thinking. In fact, I don't recommend it unless it would be counterproductive to the goal of the system. And if the goal is to have an aquarium full of Chlorodesmis and other algae, then the skimmer is not needed. In fact, slime and unwanted hair alga is a result of excess nutrients, even though you say nutrients appear to be nonexistent. I guess we should discuss what brand test kits you use and how you test, but let's do that another time.

Where most aquariums are concerned, the reduction of unwanted nutrients and increased oxygenation are top goals. And both can be accomplished by running a quality skimmer on a 24/7 basis. That probably became evident by the amount of gunk your new skimmer pulled out daily! A lesson learned. And keep it running!

The Schuran Jetstream1 is a brand/model I have no experience with, nor feedback from anyone using it. Hopefully it serves you well, and would appreciate your feedback in the future. As for the SpectraPure Ultimate DI, it's a great product and my top choice when it comes to processing my tap water. As for a brand of salt mix, I've used almost every one out there! Both Instant Ocean and Reef Crystals are among the best. The only difference between them is that Reef Crystals calcium content is slightly higher than that of Instant Ocean, something that may not be too important when using a calcium reactor.

You seem to think a pH of 8.15 is too low. My preferred range for pH is 8.0 - 8.2, and would not recommend using any products designed to force it higher. Keep in mind that normal everyday natural seawater pH is about 8.0 - 8.2! And yes, the SeaChem product is very good, but use it only if really needed. Nonetheless, if any brand buffer is used incorrectly, a sequence of events occur that affect calcium and alkalinity, which then affect pH. It usually turns into a battle where calcium is ok one day, but pH is a little low. Then buffer is added and pH is higher, but calcium is lower. Baffling for some, and the war goes on that way until people realize the higher pH is not really needed and they have precipitated a large amount of calcium and wasted time and money in doing so.

In your next letter, mention your brand test kits and results, as that would be helpful to see the water quality bigger picture. (I'd not bother with iodine tests, as the kits in the trade are not yet too accurate - but we can discuss that more if need be.) And as for the reactor keeping the magnesium at a correct level, don't be too sure of that! The correct magnesium level is tied to the specific gravity (SG) of the system. You must know it to judge whether or not the magnesium (Mg) level is correct. And magnesium content will fluctuate depending upon the type of media being used in the calcium reactor. So it's wise to check both SG and Mg to be sure it's in the correct range.

Hope this all helps and say 'Hi' to grandma for me.



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