Monday, March 31, 2014

Win a Two Little Fishies Phosban Reactor 150!

There are many ways you can add media to your aquarium. One of the best ways is by using a fluidized media reactor.

This week we are giving one lucky aquarium hobbyist the versatile Two Little Fishies Phosban Reactor 150 (a $34.99 value!), our top media reactor in 2011 and 2013!

If you want to lower phosphate and reduce nuisance algae in your aquarium, ENTER NOW

Registration ENDS at 11:59 PM PST on 4/7/14.

Details: Open to U.S. residents 18 years or older. Void where prohibited or restricted by law. Winner will be contacted via email.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Reef It Simple, Part 1: Your First Reef Tank

Coming from a background in freshwater aquariums, I remember staring blankly at people when they would talk about saltwater reef systems. Salinity, alkalinity and phosphates, oh my! It seemed like the world of saltwater was prohibitively complex, so I put off building a reef system for years.

But there's really no reason to be intimidated by reef tanks. At their heart, they don't have to be any more complex than a standard freshwater setup. You just need water, filtration, light and livestock.

With that in mind, we'll be kicking off a small series that I like to call "Reef It Simple", focusing on how easy reef aquariums can be, while helping you to make informed decisions as you progress in the hobby.

For this first week, we're going to focus on aquarium chemistry. Before we get started, you should familiarize yourself with the ideal parameters for a reef tank. We'll talk more about how to keep your system inside of those parameters later in this blog post.

  • Specific Gravity: 1.023 - 1.025
  • Temperature: 72 - 78°F
  • pH: 8.1 - 8.4
  • Alkalinity: 8 - 12 dKH
  • Ammonia (NH3): None
  • Nitrite (NO2): None
  • Nitrate (NO3): < 1.0 ppm
  • Phosphate (PO4): < 0.2 ppm
  • Calcium: 400 - 500 ppm
  • Magnesium: 1350 - 1500 ppm
  • Iodine: 0.06- 0.10 ppm
  • Strontium: 8 - 14 ppm

Getting Wet

First thing's first, you're going to need some water. You could choose to buy pre-mixed saltwater from a local fish shop, but for anything larger than a pico tank this is going to get old and expensive very quickly.

The single best piece of advice that I can give any new hobbyist is to invest a little bit of money into an RO/DI system. RO stands for reverse osmosis and DI stands for deionization. Without getting overly technical, RO/DI water is tap water that has everything else taken out of it. Some systems will include a TDS meter for finding out the Total Disolved Solids that remain in water after it has been filtered, but you can also buy a standalone meter to measure this yourself.

It's often said that an RO/DI system is the most boring money that you will spend for your saltwater's setup. But that boredom will certainly save you loads of trouble in the future. Almost without fail, using tap water will end up leading to problems such as algae or even livestock death. While the addition of chlorine and other chemicals makes tap water safe for us to drink, it's not so hot for fish and coral.

Feeling Salty

There are seemingly endless arguments about which brand of salt is best for coral reef aquariums. What I can tell you, both from personal experience and from years of reading these opinions, is that every major brand of reef salt can produce great results.
It's worth noting that reef salt is slightly different from standard marine salt in that it contains major, minor and trace elements that corals need to thrive. Some hobbyists prefer to use standard salt mix and then dose the elements themselves, but we're focusing on simplicity. 

My personal favorite is Coral Pro Salt from Red Sea. But generally speaking what you're looking for in a reef salt is one that checks off a few boxes:
  • Expected parameters are listed on the package.
  • Does not require complex mixing procedures.
  • Harvested or created in a sustainable manner.
I have used a number of salts over the years, all with good degrees of success. But I've found that my corals are happiest and thrive better when I'm using Red Sea Coral Pro salt. Your experiences may (and likely will) vary.

Filtration Foundation

This is the area where saltwater and freshwater really differentiate themselves. Filtration in the freshwater environment relies largely on something like a hang-on-back, canister or sump filter. In the marine environment, almost all of the filtration happens in the cured rock and sand. We'll talk more about how the water moves around the tank in the weeks to come.

For a primer on filtration, make sure to read up on the nitrogen cycle. The Cliff's Notes version is this - waste from fish and food cause ammonia. That ammonia is toxic to fish and corals. You need an established colony of good bacteria to turn that ammonia into nitrates, which are less harmful to the livestock. These bacteria will establish themselves in the rock and sand that you use in your system.

In my setups, I have preferred to buy dry rock and then add an ammonia source in order to cycle the aquarium. I do this because it allows me to better control what gets into my system. However, if you want to have the chance at pleasant surprises (and don't necessarily mind the potentially unpleasant ones) you can opt to purchase a high-quality live rock. Cycling with dry rock is much, much slower but with either live or dry rock you can speed up the process by using a bacterial water treatment. In either case, having 1 to 2 pounds of live rock per gallon of tank volume should provide great filtration results.

In smaller tanks, it's common to use a hang-on-back filter to give you a contained area for chemical and mechanical filtration. In larger setups you will often see a sump (a smaller tank, with divided areas) used for added filtration. Generally speaking, if you're below 40 gallons, you shouldn't have to worry about using a protein skimmer. Your water changes will take care of that mechanical side of things. However, adding a skimmer can help to ensure better water quality regardless of tank size. As the weeks go on, we'll delve in deep with external filtration, but for now we're just focused on the chemistry inside of the tank.

The other important factor in your reef system is the sand bed. While there are arguments for days about bare bottom versus shallow versus deep sand beds, my personal experience has been that running one pound of sand per gallon of tank volume works very well.

And Then...?

You have a tank, you have some saltwater, live rock and live now what? Assuming that your system is well-cycled (you remembered to buy a test kit, right?) it's time to cover the basics of tank maintenance in regard to chemistry.
Look back at that list of parameters at the beginning. If it seems overwhelming, take a deep breath and my assurance that it's not all that hard. Let's break them down:
  • Specific gravity: This is a measure of the amount of salt that's disolved in the water. You'll measure this via a refractometer or a hydrometer. Refractometers are more precise, but they're also more expensive.
  • Temperature: This is an easy one. Buy a really good heater and get a thermometer too.
  • pH: A little trickier. Mixed saltwater should remain fairly stable in this range. You will see differences under lights and in the day versus the night because of temperature differences. You can use additives to keep this where you want it, but most corals and fish are better at an imperfect but constant pH rather than with us chasing a perfect number.
  • Alkalinity: The more stable your pH, the more stable your alkalinity will be. For the most part, you won't see too much fluctuation here as long as your pH is stable. But if you go above or below the range, you can use additives to bring it back into line.
  • Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate: Here's the big one. If you have ammonia, fish and coral are not going to be happy. But once your aquarium's cycle is complete, you shouldn't have ammonia that is not broken down into nitrate. If you do have ammonia, you're either feeding too much or you have too many fish in your tank. You can use additives like Seahchem Prime to neutralize the ammonia, but only do so while finding out the source and correcting it. 
  • Calcium, Magnesium, Iodine, Strontium: These are all primarily related to corals, though some invertebrates and other livestock have elemental requirements too. Corals need certain levels of these elements in order to thrive. If you're using a reef salt mix, chances are that you're going to be fine. As you do weekly water changes, you'll also replace the elements that have been used. As you get more corals, you might find that the elements deplete too quickly. In that case you can dose the elements in combination or singularly as needed. 

"But that's still so much to know!"
You're right. It is a lot to know. But the beauty of a well-balanced (and lightly-stocked) reef system is that many of these factors will handle themselves quite well. Weekly 10 percent water changes will keep most of them in check. Making certain that you do water testing prior to a water change will help guide you as to whether you will need to do a larger change (normally to help control nitrates) or perhaps if you need to add elements back to the water (again, only common in more heavily-stocked coral aquariums).

Wrapping Up

The biggest thing to remember is this—nothing good ever comes fast in reef aquariums. Take your time, cycle your rock and sand very well and then be diligent with weekly water changes. The less time that you spend with your hands in the tank, the healthier and happier everything will be.

In the weeks to come we'll cover ways to make things even easier such as dosing pumps, auto-topoff systems and reef automation. But for now, take the plunge and start setting up your first reef. Just take your time, do your research and you'll be well rewarded by having a beautiful, healthy reef to enjoy for years to come.

5 Creative Ways to Use LED Light Strips

LED aquarium lights have made a huge impact in our hobby because they save you money in a number of ways. Heat transfer into your aquarium, bulb costs and electricity consumption are considerably reduced or eliminated altogether when you make the switch to LED.

Another benefit of LED lights is they are extremely versatile and can be used a number of different ways in and around your aquarium.

We put together a list of our top 5 favorite ways to use LED strips that will save you money and make your tank look great.

I swapped out the T5 lights in a Coralife fixture with LED strips. Learn More

1. Retro-fit Your AIO Aquarium or Fluorescent Light Fixture

Compact fluorescent and T5 fluorescent lighting have been used to illuminate reef aquariums for years. The original Nano Cube, BioCube and Red Sea Max tanks were each outfitted with power compact or T5 fluorescent bulbs.

Many hobbyists still use fluorescent fixtures to light their tanks and with great success. With the introduction of LED light strips, we now have an easy and energy-efficient way to retro-fit our AIO aquariums and fluorescent light fixtures to achieve the optimal look and growth.

Retro-fitting an AIO aquarium or fluorescent light fixture can usually be accomplished with minimal effort. Most LED strips available for aquariums include mounting hardware, are moisture resistant and run on safe, low voltage DC electricity.

In most cases, you only need to take out a few screws to remove your existing fluorescent end-caps and electrical components. Sometimes you can even attach the LED strips directly to the existing reflectors without removing anything but the fluorescent bulbs. With the slim profile of LED strips, you can fit multiple LED strips to achieve ample output and spectrum for a light-demanding reef aquarium.

The Ecoxotic Panorama Pro 2.0 LED Module and Current USA TrueLumen Pro LED Striplight are two of the best options for this type of installation. Coupled with an affordable LED light controller, you can even accomplish dawn/dusk effects, dimming, timing and cool weather modes.

2. Light Your Refugium

LED light is available in a variety of colors, including full spectrum white, which is perfect for growing macro-algae in a refugium.

An LED strip with a tank mount option is ideal for this application. The AquaticLife Freshwater Expandable LED Fixture and the Current USA TrueLumen Pro Single Dimmable LED Striplight Kit are great, inexpensive options to light a refugium.

The amazingly organized aquarium stand of OnlyTono.
You can even use one of the PAR 38 bulbs and suspend an inexpensive dome reflector that is available at most hardware or home improvement stores.

You can replace supplemental VHO or T5 lights with energy-efficient LED light strips.

3. Supplement Your Lighting

If you already have a reef aquarium up and running and are using fluorescent bulbs for color supplementation, you can save money on your electric bill and bulb purchases by swapping out your fluorescent actinics for LED lights.

Ecoxotic Stunner and Panorama LED Light Strips are great for this application thanks to the wide variety of colors that allow you to create the perfect look for your reef.

A combination of T5 fluorescent and LED strips has been a popular topic for the future of LED lights. By using this combination you can accomplish the brilliant coloration and fluorescence found with T5 lights and get the stunning shimmer and money savings associated with LED light.

The LSM, with the addition of LEDs, allows your
Apex AquaController to create a realistic moon cycle simulation.

4. Try Lunar Lighting

Using LED lights for lunar light is not really a modern advancement in the hobby. LED moonlights have been available since I started in the hobby 10 years ago. LED moonlight options are plentiful and are easy to install on pretty much any aquarium.

Lunar lights allow you to view your aquarium during the evening and you're bound to observe some cool happenings that don't take place during daylight hours.

Advanced aquarists have reported that simulating the 29.53 day lunar cycle encourages spawning cycles for many tank inhabitants. Both Digital Aquatics and Neptune Systems offer moonlight options for their respective aquarium controllers that will allow you to accomplish this feat.

Dan from our team tests protein skimmers in his LED-illuminated sump area.

5. Light Your Stand or Accent Your Sump

The interior of most aquarium stands are cramped and poorly lit which can create some unnecessary stress while maintaining your tank. Adding a low voltage, slim LED light in your stand can make it much easier to work under your tank.

You'll find that dialing in your protein skimmer and media eactors, rescuing lost fish and general maintenance is much easier once you can see everything you're doing.

Do any of you fish heads and equipment gurus like to show off your awesome plumbing job that took way too much time and effort to accomplish?

LED accents are an excellent way to impress your reefkeeping buds and add some extra personality to your tank. The color-changing Ecoxotic RGB modules in particular are a very cool way to add some flare to your system.

RELATED READING: Reefing On a Budget: Adding LEDs to Your T5 Fixture

Friday, March 21, 2014

Which Clean-up Crew Critters Should You Have in your Reef Tank?

Building a successful reef tank requires a lot of research and hard work. But, as we aquarium hobbyists know quite well, the journey is extraordinarily fulfilling.

However, it is important to know from the outset that the work is never done. Performing routine tank maintenance is crucial if you want your aquarium inhabitants to not only survive, but thrive. 

Even though you may have a small arsenal of aquarium maintenance tools and all the filtration equipment you could possibly fit in and around your system, there are still going to be areas inside your tank that you cannot reach or get clean enough.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of cool little critters you can employ to help keep your tank clean for you. These animals are most commonly referred to as the aquarium clean-up crew.

Clean-up crews commonly consist of snails, crabs, shrimp, urchins, sea stars, sea cucumbers, conches or pretty much any animal that will consume detritus and algae. For many hobbyists, clean-up crews are among the first animals added to a tank after it completes the aquarium nitrogen cycle.

The Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle
Some people think an aquarium clean-up crew’s job is solely to eat up algae. True, it’s one of their most advantageous traits, but it’s also far from all a CUC does for your tank.

Your aquarium clean-up crew works all day every day to keep your aquarium clean. Leftover food, for example, is a problem aquarium owners both fresh and saltwater face. Leaving uneaten food in your tank to rot and decay contaminates your water and throws off your parameters which can be dangerous to livestock. Most of the aforementioned animals will scarf up surplus food in your aquarium before it begins to deteriorate.

Detritus is non-living organic matter (like fish waste) that exists in every saltwater aquarium and is nearly impossible to remove without the assistance of clean-up crew workers. Sea cucumbers, shrimp and conches are a few well-known inverts that will consume detritus in a reef tank.

Your sand bed is a magnet to detritus build-up and can be difficult to keep clean. The good news is there are a variety of invertebrates like nassarius snails, sand sifting sea stars and tiger conches that will dig, crawl and slither about your substrate consuming detritus. They also stir up the sand bed helping to keep waste and debris suspended making it easier for your filtration system to remove.

Sand Sifting Starfish
Algae grows in just about every reef aquarium, often in unreachable areas between your tank walls and rockwork. There are a variety of cool tools to help remove it, although it’s tough to keep up even if you tidy your tank on a regular basis. Mixing saltwater and topping off your tank with reverse osmosis water will help, as well as keeping your aquarium water parameters stable and at ideal levels. Having an in-tank clean-up crew who continuously focuses on algae removal is another safeguard you can add to prevent algae from becoming a major nuisance. In my experience, crabs, snails, starfish, urchins and sea cucumbers are the most effective.

A question often posted to message boards and posed to our staff asks, “What are the best clean-up crew critters for a reef tank?” Different animals perform different duties and, while there is some overlap, our general answer is a combination of species works best to tackle some of the chores mentioned earlier in this article. A diverse clean-up crew will divide and conquer the gunk, funk and junk in your tank.

The following animals are the most popular clean-up crew critters you’ll find in a mixed reef tank:

Nassarius Snail


Snails are the most likely addition to an aquarium clean-up crew. Something many of us don’t discover until we’re in the hobby is that saltwater snails move much faster than one would imagine. Snails are natural scavengers that will eat algae and leftover food inside your aquarium. Snails also have the unique ability to clean algae off live corals without damaging them, arguably one of the best functions they can serve in a reef tank.

There are a variety of snails available in our industry, with each performing a different task within the circle of life inside your tank. Turbo Snails, Margarita Snails and Trochus Snails scavenge rock and glass for algae. Nassarius Snails eat detritus and leftover food yet spend most of their time buried in your sand bed. When food enters the water and they emerge to eat, they sift and oxygenate the sand bed which is actually quite beneficial.

Then you have the “do-alls” of the reef clean-up crew like Cerith Snails that eat algae, detritus, leftover food and fish waste.

Emerald Crab


Another staple to aquarium clean-up crew are crabs. Crabs serve a vital purpose in the ocean’s food chain, although not everyone agrees they belong in a reef tank. Hermit crabs are the most common crab found in clean-up crews because they are affordable, entertaining and have an insatiable appetite for detritus, leftover food and even some types of algae.

Scarlet Hermit Crabs, also known as Red-Legged Hermits, are among the more peaceful species of hermit crabs. They are excellent scavengers and stay small so they can fit almost anywhere and are less of a threat to its tankmates. The Blue-Legged Hermit Crab is another popular reef safe hermit crab. They are productive cleaners but are known to be hostile.

Emerald Crabs are a great addition to any reef tank with bubble algae problems, although they mainly feed on leftover fish food and meaty foods. They have a bit of an attitude though and will prey upon small peaceful reef fish, so be careful when adding them to small tanks where the crab can easily catch fish.

Peppermint Shimp


Shrimp are another sought-after addition to the clean-up crew. They are fun to watch and get into nooks and crevices to eat detritus and leftover food that other inverts can’t reach. Cleaner shrimp like the Skunk Cleaner can play an important role in your tank by cleaning parasites off fish and other living animals. Banded Coral Shrimp are another popular choice.

Aiptasia are a pest anemone prevalent in the saltwater aquarium hobby. They are regarded as a nuisance and often difficult to get rid of. Peppermint Shrimp are an inexpensive alternative to chemical solutions and will often consume these pesky glass anemones for you. In a well-fed aquarium, they may end up ignoring your Aiptasia and feeding upon leftover fish food instead, which is still helpful.

Asterina are small white starfish that reproduce quickly in saltwater aquariums. The handsome Harlequin Shrimp will eat any starfish it can in your tank, which can be super beneficial if you an abundance of Asterina stars.


Now that you know some of the primary clean-up crew critters, you may be wondering how many of each you need in your tank. You may read recommendations online which stipulate “one snail per gallon” or “one crab per four gallons,” although I find these rules too broad. To avoid overstocking your tank, I prefer a mix-and-match approach to address the specific biodiversity of your aquarium’s ecosystem.

For best results and to avoid overstocking, I suggest a conservative yet diverse base colony with a few of each of the key players and then growing your clean-up crew from there. If your tank develops an algae bloom, adding appropriate organisms to address the specific problem (as well as identifying the source) would be the way to go. If things get better in the coming weeks but you still see room for improvement, you might consider adding more of the same species or another animal known to feed upon whatever is ailing your tank.

Clean-up crew critters add a lot of life and movement to an aquarium. Watching crabs scurry about your aquascape and Nassarius Snails race each other up and down your aquarium walls brings a smile to any reefer’s face. Most clean-up crew members are easy to catch and remove. So, if the issue you were experiencing is no longer a problem, you can always round up the excess animals to place into another aquarium or share with one of your reefkeeping buds.

What animals do you have in your clean-up crew? Let us know in the comments below!

Coral Frenzy Reef Pellets: The ULTIMATE coral food now in pellet form

Coral Frenzy has been one of the most popular coral foods for some time now. It is a great alternative to live or frozen foods since it is easier to feed, is an excellent value and has a much longer shelf life.
Newly available from Coral Frenzy are Reef Pellets that are available in 0.5mm and 1mm sizes. These pellets are great for target feeding your LPS corals, zoas/palys, anemones and even your fish. The recipe consists of some excellent seafood ingredients including squid, herring, shrimp enriched with vitamins and fish oil to boost the nutritional value. 
Dendrophyllia ready to have a delicious meal
To feed, simply mix the food with some aquarium water then pour the food into an area of high water flow for broadcast feeding. You can also target feed with a feeding tool like the Kent Marine Nautilus or Julian Sprung’s Thing.

The larger pellets are great for anemones and larger-mouths LPS corals such as fungia, wellsophyllia, lobyphyllia and acanthophyllia corals. The smaller pellets are great for small-mouthed LPS corals such as echinophyllia, mycedium, acanthastrea and favia corals. The smaller pellets are also great for palythoas and zoanthids.
1mm pellets are great for large-mouthed LPS corals... such as this fungia
In the past, the focus of keeping corals healthy and growing has been on water quality and lighting. It is only in the past few years that we have begun to understand the importance of feeding.

More and more foods made specifically for corals have become available and Coral Frenzy has been at the forefront of this movement. With three different products now available—the original powder food, 1mm pellets and 0.5mm pellets—you can now ensure that all of your corals are well-fed and happy!

If you have been wanting your Bubble Gum Monster Chalice or your Rainbow Acan to grow faster and develop brighter colors, here is your new weapon!
Smaller 0.5mm pellets are great for corals like this chalice

A Beginner's Guide to Pico Reefs

While it's no secret that we all love our reef tanks, it's also no secret that a reef junkie is never satisfied. We're always looking for the next piece of equipment, the next challenge or another place in the house where we can stick a tank. It should come as no surprise then that we're seeing a rise in the popularity of diminutive pico reefs across the hobby.

If you've been thinking of setting up a pico, you're in the right place. We're going to talk about the choices at hand for equipment, stocking options and of course the different tanks that make great choices for a pico setup.

First, A Word of Caution

Pico tanks aren't for the faint of heart. As you likely know, the larger the volume of water in a reef environment, the more tolerant the system is of changes. With many successful pico aquariums falling in the 2 to 4 gallon range, it's obvious that an excess of water will never be something that you'll enjoy in this project.

While the startup cost for a pico tank can be lower than what you would spend on a nano or larger setup, that money savings is certainly not a rule. I have seen many pico tanks that total into the thousands of dollars because of lighting, custom overflow systems and chilling systems to combat the heat generated in such a small space.

All of that being said, look at a pico as a project that you do because you enjoy the challenge, not because you think it will be easier or might save you a few bucks.

Now Let's Talk Tanks

As a general rule, anything below five gallons falls into the range for a pico tank. You'll need to fulfill the same requirements with a pico tank that you do with one of any other size (with a couple of exceptions). That is to say that you'll want to make sure that you have lighting that is appropriate for your livestock, a significant amount of live rock and/or sand, and of course water circulation.

There are a lot of all-in-one systems that work great either by themselves, or as a starting point for further customization. Innovative Marine's 4-gallon Pico is one such option, providing you with lighting, filtration and even a media basket. The clean look of the all-in-ones is very popular in the pico hobby, and you'll often find this sort of design used and modified to great results. 
The three-gallon Picotobe from JBJ takes a slightly different approach, opting for a hang-on-back filer rather than an all-in-one system. The potential advantage here is that you can readily use a number of different hang-on-back filters if the included option no longer fits your needs. 
Of course you can always take the bare-tank approach and then choose your lighting and filtration options as a blank slate. The Mr. Aqua brand of tanks are a great option here not only because of their high quality construction, but also because of their unique shapes and overall beauty.

Lighting Your Way

One of my personal favorite parts of pico tanks is the wide variety of lighting options that you have. While there are dedicated lights (such as the Skkye series from Innovative Marine) you're certainly not limited to only a single system. Many pico fans have had great success with small T5 fixtures, and PAR 38 bulbs are also very popular. Of course, if you're wanting the wow factor, it's incredibly hard to beat the A150 from Kessil
Whatever choice you make, you'll need to take into consideration the heat that the light will produce. Again, because of the small volume of water that we work with in pico systems, evaporation can become a major issue.

Staying Stable

As we talked about before, one of the biggest challenges of these tiny tanks is keeping the levels stable. Heating, cooling and salinity are going to require a fair amount of attention, and systems to automate these controls are likely going to become your best friend.

Auto top-off systems, such as the Tunze Nano Osmolator is a great option for keeping your water level where it needs to be. Tunze has done an awesome job of creating a tiny system that works really well with rimless tanks. 
There are great options for heaters in pico tanks, many of which can be hidden behind the wall in an all-in-one. The Cobalt Aquatics Neo-Therm is my personal favorite, but Hydor, Hagen and Eheim all have great options as well.
Unfortunately, the bigger problem than heating a pico is often keeping it cooled. Because of the close proximity of circulation pumps and the lack of size, pico tanks can tend to run somewhat warmer than we want them to. The IceProbe and MicroChiller systems, both from Coolworks, are great options for temperature regulation, and they're designed to work with smaller systems.

Of course the single largest investment (and likely the best one) you could make for your pico is a monitoring and controlling system. The ReefKeeper Lite system is my personal favorite for picos because of its ability to regulate temperature effectively without breaking the bank.

Stock Options

Now for the fun stuff! Pico tanks, because of their tiny size, aren't going to be the best option for most fish. You should always keep in mind that your ocellaris clown might be tiny today, but she's going to grow and need a few more gallons than a pico can provide. With that in mind, about the only fish that will be happy in a pico aquarium is something from the goby family.

As Metrokat pointed out in her recent blog post about fish choices for nano tanks, gobies are a perching and hopping fish. As such they don't require a lot of swimming room, but you'll definitely want to give them some live rock "perches" to make them happy.

Given that there are very limited options for fish in pico tanks, you'll find many of us pico enthusiasts opting toward coral-only setups. For my own system, a two-gallon all-in-one with PAR 38 lighting, I've found great success with waving hand corals, mushrooms and even a single-headed duncan coral. While it can be challenging to find areas of lower flow and appropriate lighting, many corals will thrive in pico systems, provided you pay careful attention to your parameters (especially salinity).

Wrapping Up

Whether you're just looking for a challenge, or maybe wanting a more interesting option for a frag and growout tank, pico reefs are a rewarding project that any reef junkie can appreciate. Like any reefing project, research and patience need to be your guides, but hopefully you now have a better understanding of where to start.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Win the Book Of Coral Propagation!

Move over, Harry Potter. Step aside, Twilight.

Make some space on your bookshelf for the Book of Coral Propagation!

This handbook is for curious minds interested in discovering some of the exciting techniques for keeping and growing coral in reef aquariums.

This 400 page hardcover guide to reef gardening is fully illustrated with nearly 1000 images in a blaze of color!

Want to learn how to care, display and cultivate corals? ENTER NOW.

Registration ENDS at 11:59 PM PST on 3/26/14.

Details: Open to U.S. residents 18 years or older. Void where prohibited or restricted by law. Winner will be contacted via email.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The real deal about eels: feeding, care and compatibility

Serpents of the deep.

Aggressive carnivores that swim with an eerie snake-like motion and sit with jaws agape displaying gnarly rows of teeth that are ready to latch onto any unsuspecting prey that may swim by and entice this animal’s extremely well-developed sense of smell.

Eels are among the most fascinating marine animals for many of the reasons mentioned above. However, not all saltwater eels are suitable for home aquariums and the ones that are require specialized care.

In this article, we are going to explain how to care for eels suited for life in a marine reef aquarium as well as address some of the common myths that surround this particular family of aquarium pets.

For marine aquariums, two families of eels are represented in the hobby and regularly available for purchase. The largest is the Muraenidae family, or “Moray Eels,” which include pretty much all of the eels we have come to know: Snowflake, Green Moray and even Ribbon Eels all come from this family.

The second is very specific: “Garden Eels” come from the family Congridae and are even more demanding when kept in aquariums than their larger, more aggressive cousins. I personally have only seen two species of Garden Eels available for sale, the Spotted Garden Eel (Heteroconger hassi) and the Splendid Garden Eel (Gorgasia preclara).

Adult Snowflake Eel at Age of Aquariums in Long Beach, CA.

Moray Eels – Family Muraenidae

The biggest misconception with Moray Eels is that they are all extremely aggressive and will completely clean out your aquarium of other inhabitants as well as pose a risk to your fingers during feeding time.

While this is true for many of the Moray Eel species, there are a few exceptions. These “reef safe” eels primarily prey on crustaceans and have rounded, molar-like teeth that help when feeding upon hard-shelled crustaceans. You have much less risk of a serious injury if bitten and they tend to leave other fish, corals and invertebrates alone when kept fed and healthy.

Snowflake, Zebra and Chain Moray Eels are among the “pebble-toothed eels” and make for great aquarium inhabitants. The second group of Moray Eels commonly found in our hobby is “fang-toothed eels” which have precisely that: numerous sharp teeth designed to shred and tear prey apart. This group includes many of the more fascinating eel species, but they are also difficult to keep in most home aquariums.

I say this for a few reasons. First, they pose a risk to your health. If bitten by a fang-toothed eel, it is nearly impossible to remove the animal without harming and/or killing it. Even after death, their specialized jaws will stay latched on and must be manually pried off. Second, they grow quite large. They may become more aggressive or even die if they are not provided the proper living conditions for a large animal. Lastly, they will make quick work of any other fish in your aquarium and must therefore be kept in a species-only tank. That’s why, in my opinion, we should leave these animals in the sea or the capable hands of dedicated, expert aquarists willing to provide the type of environment these eels need to thrive in captive care.

Dragon Eels, Green Moray, Yellow-Head Moray, Jeweled Moray, Tessalata and Golden Moray are all considered fang-toothed eels.

Eels are well-known escape artists. Many hobbyists have stories of eels flapping on the floor or getting caught in a small opening of their aquarium lid. If you’re going to keep a saltwater eel, be sure your aquarium is secure and that your lid fits tightly so the eel cannot escape.

Moray Eels can become quite large. The largest can grow to over 12 feet long!

Fortunately, pebble-toothed eels popular in our hobby do not grow that large, although many can grow to 30 inches or more. Be sure your aquarium is large enough to accommodate a full grown adult eel. Many sources claim 40 gallons is the minimum tank size suitable for these types of eels. I disagree: I recommend no smaller than 75 gallons to accommodate an adult eel. This gives you enough space to create a natural habitat for the eel plus provides a little breathing room for other tankmates.

An eel’s natural hangout is inside a hole or crevice with only its head visible, gently swaying with mouth agape. You must therefore create a habitat inside your aquarium to accommodate this natural, rhythmic behavior. Secure aquarium rock together using epoxy to build an aquascape that features large caves and/or crevices. You can also place 2 to 3 inch diameter PVC pipes under your sand to make it easier for your eel to burrow. This will allow your eel to find a safe burrow in turn making the animal comfortable and more likely to thrive in your aquarium.

Juvenile Snowflake Eel at Age of Aquariums in Long Beach, CA.

Eels are carnivores are should receive a varied diet of large meaty chunks of food. Juvenile eels have to be weaned off of live foods in order to accept dead or prepared foods. This will allow you to provide the varied diet eels need. Prepared diets are much more readily available and healthier compared to the same species of live feeder fish or shrimp, day in and day out.

It is best to use a feeding stick or tongs to keep your fingers far away from the mouth of the eel. They have poor eyesight and it is difficult for these animals to distinguish a finger from a shrimp. This is why you hear about people getting bit by eels in their aquarium—it’s simply a case of mistaken identity!

Start by feeding the eel with the live food it is used to, only attached to a feeding stick or tongs. This will get the eel used to eating from the tongs. Then slowly switch out the live food for prepared bits of meaty food.

Here is a list of foods that are excellent for eels. Don’t be afraid to visit the seafood counter in your local grocery store! You can store cut up bits of food in your freezer. Remember, variety is always best.
Eels do not have scales. They excrete thick mucus over the entire surface of their body for protection. While this is extremely effective against parasites and infection, it makes eels very sensitive to many aquarium medications. It is therefore best to avoid medications altogether with eels.

Although they are hardy aquarium animals, eels can fall victim to poor water quality. If you notice an infection on your eel, more often than not poor water quality is the culprit. A series of water changes and the use of chemical filter media to improve water quality can quickly reverse the effects of an infection.

Keeping more than one eel in an aquarium is possible, but there are some obstacles. You need to ensure your aquarium is large enough and contains multiple burrow locations. An adult eel will become territorial over its established burrow and surrounding area. It is wise to introduce multiple eels of the same size at the same time for best results. Consider your aquascape home sweet home for your eel. Adult eels can be clumsy and inadvertently rearrange rocks and corals. This isn’t much of a problem with smaller eels, but it is something to keep in mind if you are planning on adding one to a mixed reef aquarium.
Garden Eels at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA.

Garden Eels – Family Congridae

Garden Eels are among the most peculiar aquarium animals because of their unique behavior. These gentle carnivores live in groups and dig burrows in soft sand beds with their tales. One burrow per eel is the norm. They rest in the burrow with half or more of their body exposed, swaying in the current like a blade of sea grass keeping a watchful eye out for both predators and prey.

They are cowardly creatures that retract into their burrow when anything comes too close—with the exception of zooplankton and fish eggs, its favorite food choices in nature. A Garden Eel spends its days waiting for the next colony of zooplankton to pass. In the evening, it completely retracts into its burrow to get some beauty rest.

With a maximum size of 12 to 16 inches, these eels are the perfect size for home aquariums. They prefer to be in groups so the general rule is three or more in any one aquarium.

Garden Eels require a deep sand bed that can accommodate its natural burrowing habits. Eight inches is generally considered the minimum based on most of the information available from experienced Garden Eel keepers. Use fine-grade sand for the majority of the sand bed. Top the fine sand bed off with a ½ inch or more of coarse sand or crushed coral in order to keep the fine sand from blowing around your tank.

For space, you will need to provide plenty of open sand bed for the eels to burrow. Since these eels prefer to be in groups, you should provide at least one square foot of sand bed per eel. This will make for a minimum tank size of about 40 gallons. While it is possible to keep them in smaller aquariums, the frequency of feedings and the large amount of food put into the tank can quickly turn this into an unsuccessful venture for nano hobbyists.

A gentle current along the sand bed is required in order to help deliver food to your colony of eels. Garden Eels never really leave the burrow except when in search of some new real estate or when quarreling with others over the local beauty queen. By waiting patiently on the sandy bottom, these eels will prey upon zooplankton and small organisms that float by in the current. If food is out of reach from the burrow, the eel will simply let the food pass by uneaten.

Once established into an aquarium, Garden Eels have been reported to accept a wide variety of prepared aquarium diets. Newly introduced or young Garden Eels will accept live brine shrimp and can easily be weaned off of this live diet by slowly mixing in prepared aquarium diets over time. 

Zooplankton, Oyster eggs, Fish eggs, Copepods, Mysis Shrimp and Cyclops are all perfectly suitable foods for Garden Eels. The trick here is delivering the food in adequate amounts without fouling up your water quality.

Since they are total scaredy cats, spot feeding is impossible. You must deliver the bits of food via a gentle current to allow the eels the opportunity to naturally pick out the food from the mild current around their burrow. This process needs to be repeated a few times a day in order for the eels to obtain enough food. This process will inadvertently lead to excessive waste in the aquarium. Plenty of mechanical filtration and a strict maintenance schedule are required in order to keep proper water quality and provide sufficient food.

Most of the particular needs of these animals revolve around its specialized housing and feeding habits already discussed.

In terms of being reef safe, Garden Eels will not harm coral or invertebrates, but keep in mind their required habitat varies dramatically from a typical reef tank full of live rock. The easiest approach would be to keep them in a species-specific aquarium. If you’ve got the money and space for a tank large enough to house both a deep sand bed and a rocky reef for your corals, that would be OK, too.

Since Garden Eels are a timid animal, they can fall victim to larger carnivorous fish fairly easily. Big aquarium fish like tangs and angelfish may startle and cause them to retract into their burrows. This makes it difficult for the eels to obtain enough food in an aquarium with larger, more aggressive fish. These larger fish would be best kept in another tank and only smaller, peaceful fish with your Garden Eels.

View a full-size Species Compatibility Chart on our website.
If you have questions or experience keeping eels in your saltwater aquarium, please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

How Dirty are your Socks?

Personally, I'm a fan of Bliss Softening Socks... but we're going to talk about filter socks in this article. :)
Many sump designs incorporate a sock for filtration while others use filter pads, floss and sometimes a media basket stacked with carbon and Purigen.
Filter socks vary in size, material and filtration capabilities. The standard sizes available are 4 and 7 inch diameters.
The length of the socks varies by manufacturer. I generally prefer the longest sock to fit my 17 inch tall sump. A bigger sock can hold more detritus and filters your system longer than shorter socks. This is great for when I am traveling but also when I am lazy. I typically go 3-4 days before a short sock needs to be changed, and about a week before the longer one is clogged up.

Socks are made in felt material and mesh. The felt comes in 100 or 200 microns. Micron is short for micrometre which is one-millionth of a meter (I just Googled that). ;) Basically the smaller the micron rating of a filter sock, the more crap it will filter from your tank. So by that measurement, a 300 micron sock (usually the mesh kind) won't catch much except boulders. A 100 micron filter sock catches much more detritus and particles and will need to be changed faster than a 200.

And, as you probably guessed, the second kind of material available for socks is nylon mesh. I prefer to use the nylon mesh to catch flatworms that I siphon out in case of a population explosion. Been there, done that.
Another variety of filter sock available is the drawstring kind. They come in both felt and mesh material and are ideal for sumps which do not have a filter sock holder or for those that would not fit the standard sizes available.

How Dirty are your Socks?
Each tank is different and what your filter sock pulls out might surprise you. I've seen amphipods, asternia starfish, bits of algae and baby limpets by the dozen. Some aquarists have found a fish or two that took the trip down the overflow into the sock. Cleaning the socks is easy and it is best to have more than one sock around so that you can alternate without shutting down your filtration for lengthy time periods.
Some hobbyists prefer to turn the sock inside out, rinse very well (beat the sock against the side of the sink I say) and throw it back in. This preserves the biological filtration capacity, however, this should not be a concern in established aquarium. Hydrogen Peroxide is also used as an oxidizer of organic matter and to clean the sock. I found that it turned the sock yellow.
If you intend to throw the sock in your washing machine, run it without soap on just the rinse cycle and pray that your significant other is okay with it.
The method I use is bleach. My intent is not to bleach the sock to a pure white (and that never happens) but to most effectively get it clean of organics. I start with a dirty sock or two. I rotate between 3 socks that are 200 microns each.

I fill a small bucket with hot water and pour in a generous amount of bleach and let it soak for a minimum of 3 hours or overnight. Then I rinse the sock very well, inside out, repeatedly till all the grit is released. After that I soak the sock again for 24 hours with water and Seachem Prime.
Prime is a liquid that converts ammonia to a non toxic form and also removes chlorine that would be in the tap water I use to clean the sock. I rinse again and let it dry but, at this point, it is ready to be used again without it being dry. Any ammonia that could remain is food for the macros in my refugium and for my clams in the display. The bio-filter is more than adequate to deal with my method in case of a misstep.
Dirty socks are an important indicator of the filtration in your tank. Detritus that is suspended and sucked into the overflow to the sump is visible in the filter sock. If your socks are too clean and don't need changing too often, hopefully that is because you are running an ultra-low nutrient system by choice, and not because the crap is staying in your display.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

EcoSystem Aquarium Balling Method: A VERY Economical and Effective Way to Maintain Ca/Alk/Mg

Calcium and Alkalinity are the two basic reef aquarium parameters that most hobbyists focus on.

Smart reef tank owners soon realize the importance of Magnesium. Its impact on calcium/alkalinity levels and coral calcification often prompts mindful reefers to begin maintaining their magnesium level as well.

As corals and purple coralline algae grow, Magnesium levels can be depleted quite rapidly.

The most popular way to maintain these levels currently is using a 2-part calcium/alkalinity supplement (such as ESV B-Ionic, AquaMaxx Synergy Plus, SeaChem Reef Fusion and Two Little Fishies C-Balance) with a separate Magnesium supplement.

For high-demand and large aquarium systems, purchasing these supplements separately can become costly.

The Balling Method has been the most popular reef supplementation technique in Europe for quite some time. EcoSystem Aquarium recently introduced a Balling Method Refill Pack here in the U.S. that is extremely economical and easy to use.

This dry formulation allows you to mix one gallon each of calcium, alkalinity and magnesium supplements. Compared to purchasing a liquid 2-part additive and a separate magnesium supplement, purchasing the EcoSystem Aquarium Balling Method Refill Pack can save you up to 50%.
Component B and C were very easy to mix and dissolved fully at room temperature. Component A was a bit more difficult. I placed the bottle inside a 5-gallon bucket of hot water to warm up the solution which helped dissolve the ingredients.

Once mixed, the trio of supplements can be added to your aquarium in the same manner as traditional supplements.

Make sure you have an accurate test kit on hand (such as the Red Sea Reef Foundation Pro Test Kit) so  you can adjust the dosage to match the demands of your aquarium. Personally, I try and keep my calcium level in the 400-420ppm range, alkalinity at 8-10dKH and magnesium at 1300-1400ppm.

In addition to targeting the actual calcium/alkalinity/magnesium level, stability is also very important. Large swings in these parameters can be stressful to corals, which may cause color loss and/or stunt growth.
All mixed and ready to go!
The EcoSystem Aquarium Balling Method is a straightforward and cost effective way to supplement your reef aquarium.

If you are looking for a more economical approach to maintaining your reef tank parameters or simply want to try what many hobbyists across the pond have been using with great success, the EcoSystem Aquarium Balling Method Refill Pack would be a great option!