By Bob Goemans
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Bob Goemans corresponds with Yassmin Rifai (Cairo, Egypt)

Yassmin Rifai (Cairo, Egypt) writes...

Hi Bob

I am in the process of setting up a new reef aquarium. I live overseas so please bear with me, as my resources are very little. For 5 years I have had a freshwater 75 gallon tank. Then I went snorkeling at the Red Sea and guess what, I got hooked. I decided on making a reef tank with live sand, live rocks and soft corals and maybe a few fish for my son. I have been all over the net Googling away to get all the info possible about reef tanks. All fish stores here have good info on freshwater fish and saltwater fish but nothing about reefs. So here is what I did after doing all the reading on the net.

Bought a 20 gallon tank w/stand (for quarantine and hospital) with its own hood and one 40 watt fluorescent light, colored the sides, bottom and back black, and kept the old freshwater internal filter from my 75 gallon tank, which had 3 compartments of sponge. Left the top sponge in and bought some macaroni-like filter media and put it in the middle compartment and in the bottom compartment put some kind of rock filter media all imported by Sera Company. Also bought a heater, thermometer, another small internal filter with carbon compartment (that is the only carbon filter available here) and a powerhead and some PVC pipes, and it will be ready to go as soon as the skimmer gets in.

As for the 75 gallon tank, I cleaned it well and added a 300 watt heater, 4 powerheads, and a large internal filter just like the one I bought for my 20 gallon tank that has a carbon compartment in it. I also bought two 40 watt fluorescent actinic and two 40 watt regular marine fluorescent lights. I ordered two T5 80 watt fluorescent lights (one actinic and one regular) and an internal skimmer for the tank. So I am waiting for those to arrive along with the skimmer for the smaller tank. I am planning a 3"- 4" sand bed and am in the process of collecting 2" from the Red Sea (dead sand) and when the skimmer comes in I will be diving for the LR and LS.

Please note that I have no way of getting aragonite rocks or sand or any GARF products. I have all test kits and supplements, also imported from Sera. I can only buy what is available here.

Now let me give you this step by step and please correct me if I am wrong:

The dead sand is in the tank now. As soon as the remaining equipment comes in I will fill tank with RO/DI water after mixing the salt in it. I will turn on all the equipment and wait till everything measures right (temp, alkalinity, specific gravity, etc.) then I wait another 24 hrs. to make sure and then go dive for the LR and LS.

I transport LS wet but not underwater and LR wrapped in wet newspaper from the seawater. I live an 8 hour drive from the Red Sea. As for the LS, I am scared of the worms in it! I read so much bad stuff about worms. I will also get snails to turn over the LS. Then I will dump it in slowly in the tank on top of dead sand. Then I will pre-clean the LR and aquascape it in the tank to begin the curing process.

Question: Do I put PVC pipe supports to lift it off the sand or is it ok to just put it directly on the sand?

As soon as all is cured then I am ready to go dive for corals and inverts. I know about propagation of corals but there is no superglue in this country that sticks underwater so I'll have to find another way to attach the corals. Anyway, last but not least is the fish, and will also get back to you for that.

Please be patient with me as I am new in this but I am a fast learner.

Thanks for your help

Yassmin Rifai

Cairo, Egypt

Bob replies...

Dear Yassmin,

Thanks for your letter, and getting 'hooked' after diving in the Red Sea is understandable! And you're to be complimented for the amount of research accomplished, as some people simply 'dive' head first into the hobby after seeing beautiful reef aquariums and are often disappointed somewhere down the line when their 'slice of the ocean' becomes too difficult to care for. Furthermore, planning on using a quarantine tank is another 'plus' in your plans, as many today do not go this road and use the 'dump and prey' method when adding new fish.

So let me say I'm very happy to help, especially those like you that want to go though a carefully designed path so that they windup with a properly conditioned system that is capable of providing a quality home to their soon to have animals.

Lets first address the quarantine tank, and a 20-gallon will do fine. It should be thought of as a quarantine tank first, and possibly a hospital tank second, and therefore set up with no sandbed. Should the fish in quarantine become sick, the most common treatments would utilize a copper-based medication, which would precipitate out of solution quite heavily upon calcareous substrate, making it more labor intensive to maintain the correct treatment level. Therefore, a bare bottom tank is the way to go. If the fish to be quarantined require a sandbed to tunnel or burrow into, that media should be composed of inert gravel or silica sand, which can be found in many different grain sizes. Nevertheless, having sufficient artificial décor to lower the animals' stress, e.g. an assortment of different size diameter PVC pipes/fittings, non-calcareous rock, and artificial coral to hide in, is quite helpful, as is the painting of the outside panels, which you have already accomplished. Your internal and external filters appear to be adequate, and if possible one or the other should be started in a healthy marine tank, possibly at a local aquarium shop a week before you intend to set up your tanks. That way, the filter will have a head start on the biological processes.

And should there ever be a parasite (Marine Ich) problem in the quarantine tank, I would consider using a diatom (DE - diatomaceous earth) filter, as it is very effective at removing free-swimming parasites. However, because they are so good at filtering out tiny matter, they do require servicing quite often. Also some cleaner shrimp, as both the DE and shrimp could easily overcome a minor ich problem without resorting to medications. Adding some of the higher species of algae, e.g., Caulerpa or Chaetomorpha is helpful in maintaining low levels of nitrogen-based waste products and at the same time providing a more natural looking environment. And if added, some low level lighting would be required, however, if no alga is added, then 'no' lighting should be used over the quarantine tank. The quality of the water in the quarantine tank should be equal to that in the show aquarium, i.e., same pH, temperature and no ammonia and nitrite. I would recommend testing the salinity of the natural Red Sea water, as its usually higher than that found in other areas around the globe. As for a small skimmer, that's also a good addition.

As for your 75-gallon system, I would recommend staying with a shallow sandbed of no more than 2 inches (5 cm). Microbial-wise, this is a more nitrogen efficient bed than what is found in deeper beds. As for equipment, it appears what you now have/is on order will do nicely for low to medium light corals. If you were to add more light, I would be concerned about water temperature, however, Red Sea water temperatures are often higher than what most reef aquarists prefer, that is to say, about 78 - 80ºF (26ºC), as Red Sea temps can be in the middle 80's (29ºC). I would highly recommend considering purchasing a high quality protein skimmer for this aquarium. Otherwise, equipment should suffice.

I see no need for special aragonite products, or other products from the US, as the live sand and rocks available at your location should suffice nicely, and Sera products are of excellent quality.

As for your thoughts on startup, again, would limit bed depth to about 2 inches. Use all live sand if possible, if not, simply mix some of it with the sand already in the tank. As for worms in the collected rock, I really don't think that will be a problem in the future unless the tank is overfed, which could cause some of them to possibly become larger and a threat to some of your other animals. Will cross that bridge in the future if necessary. Actually, small ones, i.e., a few inches, are good scavengers! Your thoughts on the transportation of the sand and rock are correct (hopefully legal where your live). The collected rock should be cleaned of any growths that are not sustainable right at the collection site, then transported as mentioned.

Rock placement on the bed is a very good question, as most of the bed surface should be open for monthly vacuuming. In fact, the sandbed surface is basically no different than that of a filter pad, as when it's clogged, water will not flow through it. I would recommend building narrow rock 'Islands' in the aquarium directly on the sand and possibly connecting them with elongated pieces of rock on their top areas. This would leave the majority of the bed surface open for maintenance. If possible, than coral fragments can be placed on these interconnecting shelf-like pieces and be nearer the better light sources. Try to keep about 75% of the bed surface unencumbered.

Once the main aquarium is up and running, would wait at least a week before adding any livestock, and go slowly with those additions.

Hopefully, you find the above helpful and wish you the best. Keep me posted.



Yassmin Rifai (Cairo, Egypt) writes...

Hi Bob

Thanks so much for your advice. Here is an update and a few more questions (if I may). I bought the Sera WT 450 internal protein skimmer for the 75 gallon tank. Is this strong enough? (That's all they can get here). Should I first wash my dead sand with fresh water before filling the tank with filtered water (as I see it, the sand looks very clean to me)? Also should I mix the salt in the tank or should I mix it outside in a plastic container then pour it in the tank? How long should I wait after mixing the salt and getting the tank ready (temp, salinity, etc.) before putting LS and LR into the tank?

I will first get all settled then go dive for LS and LR I will do what you told me and add about 5 kilos of LS to my dead sand and hopefully seed it well. Should I sieve the LS before putting it in the tank? Should I mix it in with the dead sand inside the tank (i.e., underwater) or just sprinkle it on top of the dead sand?

As for the LR it will be difficult to clean at the site (sun is unbearable). I will just take it home and work on it there. I will put it in higher salinity water for about one minute and hopefully the creepy crawly things will get out. But where will I keep these worms etc., till the tank is cycled? Or do I just drop them in the tank with the rocks and sand?

Do you know that this setup is scaring the living daylight out of me because I hate killing plants even? I cry when one of my plants die. Imagine if anything in my tank dies too. I'm going to be sending you pictures as I go along. I would really love your feedback.

I am so happy you are helping me with this (if you only knew how MUCH)

Thanks again!!

Yassmin Rifai

Bob replies...

Dear Yassmin,

Thanks for the follow-up, and good questions.

As for your skimmer, I have no information, nor did my web searches turn up any information on that brand, so I'm at a loss to comment on its adequacy, except to say that any skimmer is better than no skimmer!

And there are several ways to go when it comes to getting the tank started. The empty tank could be used to mix a batch of seawater; if so, would fill it ¾ full and add the amount of salt needed to bring it up close to the natural 'salinity' (correct term when tested in the wild) where your animals will come from. At least one to two days of mixing/adjusting 'specific gravity (SG)' (correct term when tested in the aquarium) is required before anything else is added. Then, 'pre-washed' dead sand (with freshwater) or preferably live sand can be added. Bear in mind that 'live' sand will remain so for months, though go dormant, if kept slightly damp and within a reasonable temperature. So live sand could be brought back and stored for a long time before being placed in the aquarium if properly cared for!

If possible, use only live sand in the tank instead of dead sand. The sand, of course could be added first if so desired, live or dead sand, and then the pre-mixed seawater added. If that's the way it goes, place a towel on the bottom sand surface and slowly pour the premixed seawater upon the towel so as to prevent having a lot of cloudiness in the aquarium water when finished filling. If the sand is added to a filled aquarium, place the sand in a plastic bag, close it, then lower the bag into the aquarium and split-open the bag on the bottom and spread the sand as needed. Of course, remove the empty bag. Start all your pumps and filters except your protein skimmer, as that should not be used for the first two weeks, as that could slow the formation of the nitrifying bacteria. A day or two later, when temperature and SG are under control, add the live rock.

As for sieving the live sand, I would doubt very much if that would be required. I presume the collection area is pristine, and not overly filled with unwanted trash or worms/infauna. If both dead and live sand is used, gently stir/mix both together on the bottom.

When it comes to some creepy crawly things in the rock, most should be considered good infauna and be maintained as part of the aquarium environment. And placing the rock into a vat of higher SG water will not cause these creatures to exit the rock. There is one way, however, and I hesitate to mention it, as you're quite new to the hobby. But if the new rocks are placed in a vat of only 'club soda,' (nothing but water and CO2) the creepy crawlers will 'quickly' jump out as they cannot handle the CO2 level of that water and will try to immediately find an area where they can again breathe. Once they do that, probably in a few minutes, remove the rock and flush it clean in another vat of seawater, and then place it in your aquarium. Most of its bacteria will still be OK. Once the creepy crawlies are removed from the rock, gather them up and place them in a small container, if feasible, and take them back to the Red Sea and release them, as I know you're highly sensitive about destroying any kind of life.

Let me close by saying I consider all 'aquarists' brothers and sisters. And even though there are differing opinions and thoughts about various subjects, we have the same goals; to better understand the creatures we share this world with. And with now 61 years in this hobby, I find it one of the most educational and satisfying hobbies in the world!

It's a pleasure helping you.




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