I’ve had aquariums for more than 35 years and got my first saltwater tank about 30 years ago. Since then there have been some huge technology and methodology swings that have dramatically affected the hobby. One thing hasn’t changed, however, and that is the perception that keeping a saltwater tank is hard and takes a ton of time. Whenever I start up a conversation with someone who doesn’t know the hobby, those two topics always come up. What’s more is that they couldn’t be further from the truth. I always respond that the only two things it takes to successfully keep saltwater tanks are knowledge and money. Skimp on either and you will then likely fall into the “hard” and “time” categories. As I write this, I know that people will debate the money part and those that debate it will likely be correct. Why? Because in many cases they have extensive knowledge and to a large extent knowledge can dramatically lower the amount of money you need to spend. Really what it comes down to is having the knowledge necessary (and some money, no getting away from that completely!). So now the question is, if you don’t have the knowledge, where do you get it? Below are the most common areas to get the knowledge you need: - Books - Magazines - Local Fish Stores (LFS) - Online (Blogs, Web Sites, etc.) - Fellow Hobbyists You Know Books: There are quite a number of books out there on keeping saltwater tanks. Many have very good information about the basics of the hobby. As such, they are great tools for a new aquarist. What they typically lack, however, is detailed information on specific brands of equipment/supplies and/or advanced details. Additionally, this hobby is changing rapidly and a book published just a few years ago will have some items that are out of date. Still, getting a good entry level book is a key component of starting out in the aquarium hobby. Magazines: I find magazines to be a good source of ongoing information, but not necessarily the best thing for a new aquarist. Magazines need ongoing readership and republishing entry level articles is not the way to keep it. Local Fish Stores: From a knowledge perspective the LFS can be both a boon and a bane to a new aquarist. It all depends on the store itself. Find a good one with knowledgeable people and you’ve got a gold mine. For every one of those, however, there are many that are not so good. New aquarists tend to take store-gained knowledge as gospel and this has led to many ex-aquarists. Remember that stores are in the business to make money (as they should be) and sometimes advice can be tempered by that fact. Other times they hire the 20-something just out of college who doesn’t know much more than the average hobbyist. Until you gain the knowledge and experience necessary to assess for yourself what makes a good store and what doesn’t, be careful. Friends in the Hobby: Like LFSs, if you’ve got a friend in the hobby who knows his/her stuff then it can be a gold mine. There is nothing better than having someone you know and trust to help guide you. However, like with a LFS, the quality of knowledge can vary. Additionally, in many cases a friend’s knowledge may be a formula that has worked for him/her, but may not work for everyone. It can be “one man’s view” and not tried and true techniques. Don’t use a friend as your only source of information. Online Blogs, Web Sites, Forums, etc.: The internet has done more to advance this hobby than any other single related technology. Its ability to spread knowledge has led to far more successful tanks than before its inception. There are a myriad of web sites, blogs, forums, etc. that are available for your perusal. However everything isn’t peas and carrots. With all this great stuff comes information overload. Sometimes the really important info can get lost in the trivially important. The advanced details can overshadow the basics. The good news is there is a ton of information to go through. The bad news is that there is a ton of information to go through. Powerman adds: "What can't be given away on line is that all those answers by experienced enthusiasts have years of experience and knowledge behind them. Mixed into that are personal preferences and special circumstances. It is incredibly hard to give a list of items to a newbie with a set schedule, turn key operation and have standard good results come from it." What does all this have to do with this article? Over the past few months I’ve been answering a lot of beginner questions online and they all seem to have a common theme. That theme is that in many cases the new aquarist was focusing a lot of attention on certain details of a new set up that I always considered secondary and were not doing some things I always thought were key. So rather than write a post about what I thought was important and add just one more “one man’s view” to the plethora of posts, blogs and web sites out there, I decided to poll this great community we’re a part of and collate its members collective view of the key elements to keeping a successful tank. Getting the List The first thing I did was to ask people what they thought were important elements. The items below each have a brief description of what the item is and are in the order that they came in. DO NOT think this is the order of importance (that comes later). Protein Skimmer A protein skimmer is a type of filtration for saltwater aquariums. Ever see that nice poofy white foam that blows up on the beach on a windy day? Well it’s really not all nice white and poofy, it just looks that way. It breaks down into brown gunk and this is nature’s way of getting that brown gunk out of the biggest aquarium in the world. A protein skimmer artificially creates the same action in the home aquarium. What’s happening here is that proteins (for our purposes we’ll call it decayed food and fish poop, but there’s a lot more) are attracted to the air-water interface of bubbles. When those bubbles go to the surface and dry out, the proteins remain behind as a nice poofy white foam. Then, as mentioned above, the foam breaks down into a brown gunk. Protein skimmers create a ton of small bubbles and have a collection mechanism to get the white foam. When it breaks down into the gunk it typically drains through a pipe into something like an old gallon milk jug that smells awful. You can empty it by dumping down the sink – do it when the wife isn’t home or you WILL get in trouble. Images of protein skimmers: The last is a wall of foam on an Australian beach - now THAT'S SKIMMING! 1-2 Pounds of Live Rock Per Gallon Live rock is a generic term for porous, calcium-based rock used in saltwater aquariums. Technically live rock is “live” with bacteria that help with the denitrification cycle in the tank and are thus part of the overall filtration system. It is also a key element of the decoration of the tank and provides inhabitants hiding spots and fun little tunnels to swim through. Not all live rock is created equal. You can get super-porous rock that is great filtration or super dense rock that isn’t (the former tends to be more expensive and looks better). You can get rock that used to be “live” and is now dry. Put it in your aquarium and it will become live again over time. It’s a lot cheaper than true “live rock,” but you have to be patient and let it grow its bacteria colonies before adding livestock – and when you do you need to add slowly. The typical formula is 1-2 pounds of rock per gallon of water in your tank. If you have dense rock you’ll need to be near the 2 pounds. Porous rock can be closer to one pound per gallon. Images of live rock: The first looks to be fairly dense, the second more porous (and more attractive). RO/DI Water RO/DI stands for Reverse Osmosis/De-ionized. This water is essentially pure H2O. The processes involved in Reverse Osmosis and De-ionizing takes all impurities, dissolved solids, metals, phosphates, etc. out of the water. In many areas of the country using treated tap water instead of RO/DI allows phosphates to get into your tank. While not a problem for most inhabitants, phosphates can lead to excessive algae growth, which makes your tank look crappy. Additionally, while most municipalities take steps to remove metals from water, some homes put them back in (by accident). My parents live in a 275 year old house outside of Washington, D.C. that has well water. While the water out of the ground was about as pure as you could get, it went through old copper pipes in the house and the copper level was enough to kill fish! You can get RO/DI water (and saltwater made with RO/DI) at most local fish stores (bring your own containers) or you can buy an RO/DI unit, typically for less than $200 and starting at around $130. An RO/DI unit hooks up to your home water supply and has two outputs. One is waste water and goes down the drain, the other is the good RO/DI water that you typically direct to a storage container. Aquarium RO/DI units typically create between 45 and 100 gallons of water per day. The key here is to get a zero reading on a TDS meter (Total Dissolved Solids). You can get a meter for about $20 in a myriad of places on the web. Seano Hermano commented on RO/DI water: “Tap water can leach so many chemicals which we do not know of. Some tap water contains copper, which is fatal to invertebrates, such as shrimp. Well water usually contains high levels of TDS. Bad water quality will cause algae outbreaks. I think this is one of the things that detracts newbies from the hobby -- using RODI water will prevent this from happening.” Image of an RO/DI unit: Sand Bed Sand beds represent another filtration mechanism. When stocked with sand sifting critters they can take care of any extra food, poop, etc. that fall to the tank floor. They also perform important denitrification and as a part of that they can remove nitrates from the tank, something live rock CAN do, but at lower rates. Typically smaller grains of sand are better, though smaller grains are also more prone to getting moved by flow in the tank. The image below I found on the net showing a reef tank with sand bed. Sump A sump is a second tank that sits under the display tank or in a remote location. Water gets to the sump through an overflow/drain and is pumped back up to the tank via return pump. As the tank fills, the water goes over the overflow, down to the sump to get pumped back up, and so on, and so on. One purpose of the sump is to put equipment like heaters and protein skimmers in so they do not burden the esthetics of the display tank. A tank turnover of 6-10 times/hour is recommended to maintain a successful sump. That means a 100 gallon tank should have a pump capable of 600-1000 gallons per hour pumping water to the display tank. EXTRA TIDBIT: The image below shows a basic sump set up. Water is pumped to the tank (1) which then fills the tank so it flows over the overflow (2) then down the drain back into the sump (3) where it starts all over again. Flow Rate in the Tank Creating flow rate in a tank is an important item for many reasons. One is that some organisms (like many corals) require flow over them to get fed. Your live rock (part of your filtration) requires flow to push water through its pores where its denitrifying bacteria can do their job. Flow keeps things like uneaten food in the water column longer where it can be picked up by other filtration like a protein skimmer. Some fish like flow as it mimics the environments they come from in the wild. EXTRA TIDBIT: Powerman adds: "Flow is not only about feeding, it is THE only mechanisim for corals to breath. Flow in a tank is respiration. It provides nutrients and oxygen while removing waste and CO2." Research and Ask Questions While you are starting out (and for a long time after) don’t ever assume anything. Do your research and ask people questions. Thanks to forums like this it is a lot easier to do than it was 10-15 years ago. The fact that you’re reading this means you’ve started down this route already. Just be sure to keep it up. It is far easier on you to write a “How do I…” type post than it is to write a “My Tank Crashed!” post. Have Patience – No Impulse Buys The title of this one says it all. Don’t do anything quickly in an aquarium/system. That fish in the store may look awesome and you want to buy it now, but have you researched it? Do you know how it will interact in your tank? You can always ask to hold it so you can go home, do some research and come back. This also applies to how quickly you stock your tank. Take it slow! From alpha 03: "Time and patience- time heals many things. Far too often instant results are desired. If you expect this then you're in the wrong hobby. Try to learn patience, learn from your hobby and then pass it on to others." Auto Top-Off Unit Typically this type of device utilizes a float switch or other mechanism to determine when the water level in the sump drops (due to evaporation) at which point it supplies power to a pump which adds fresh water to your system. While it is possible to manually top off water, having an automatic system has a number of advantages. First, manual top off can be an annoying chore. Second, manual top off means the system has salinity swings as water is added and this means less system stability. Remember, stability is good. Third, if your sump level moves a lot, it is far more difficult to keep your protein skimmer dialed in, meaning it is less efficient in removing proteins. Water Changes The common wisdom in the hobby is that every 2-4 weeks you should perform a partial (15-25%) change of the water volume in the tank. As one person put it while putting this post together, “Water changes are a form of filtration.” I hadn’t thought of them that way before, but that notion is 100% correct. Water changes take out concentrations of compounds building up in the tank and bring in compounds that get used up in the tank. EXTRA TIDBIT: Alpha 03 adds: Water stability- first and foremost, note: the key here is STABILITY, water changes help with this, but smaller tanks can be destroyed by a 50% water change- have care with water changes- no matter the tank size, more often then not, water changes simply create an avenue for even more problems- rememer, the ocean rarely changes- stability- it's a system of filtration and temperature, maintain your tank correctly. Kalkwasser/Additive Drip Kalkwasser is water that has been saturated with a calcium powder (Calcium Oxide – or Lime). When Calcium Oxide is mixed with water it becomes Calcium Hydroxide. Dripping Kalk into a tank is a way of keeping the calcium high, which is important for stony corals, clams and other invertebrates. Some Kalk products like Kalk +2 also incorporate other elements like Magnesium. Additionally, there are other additives that can be dosed into a tank. There are two-part additives that keep Calcium/Alkalinity high and specific additives for Magnesium and other important elements. All of these things can be slowly added to a system via a variety of methods. Since I could write a book about all the different ways to do this, I’ll end this discussion here. Strong Lighting (for Reef Tanks Only) If you want to keep corals, you need good lighting. Most corals require lighting to survive and strong lighting to thrive. I will go one step further and say that even in a fish-only tank, lighting plays an important part of the esthetics. I always hate seeing an under-lit tank. Hydrometer/Refractometer Hydrometers and Refractometers are different devices used to measure salinity in a tank. Hydrometers use a float arm in a small container that raises higher with increased salinity. They are low cost, but also not as accurate. You can get differing readings if bubbles are present on the arm (giving a falsely high reading) and the actual calibration varies unit to unit. Refractometers are more expensive, but also highly accurate. They use the fact that different salinity waters refract light differently. You calibrate the device with pure fresh water and then get highly accurate readings. The first two images below show examples of hydrometers. The third image is of a refractometer and the fourth is what you see when looking through a refractometer. Quarantine Tank A quarantine tank is a completely separate system, filter and all, that you put new fish and potentially corals in after you buy them before you add them to the main tank. The idea behind this is that if you buy an animal that has a parasite or disease, it will manifest in the quarantine tank and not infect the main tank. The key here is that you need maintain the quarantine tank at a level at or near the display tank. High Quality Test Kits and Periodic Testing Test kits are present to measure such things as ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, alkalinity, calcium, PH, magnesium and other compounds. All are very important items to measure to see if your system is properly balanced. Some things like ammonia and nitrites typically only are only present during the initial cycle of the aquarium and have a profoundly negative impact on an aquarium when present. As such, I tend to measure for them during the cycle, but then only every 6 months or so if I see things start to look stressed. Others vary greatly as organisms use them (e.g. calcium, magnesium) so need to be monitored much more often (at least weekly). A key element to keeping a successful tank is stability and how do you know you’ve got a stable tank if you don’t measure? Refugium A refugium is typically a separate tank or cordoned off area of your display tank or sump that you pump system water through. A refugium performs a couple of key functions. The primary function is to provide a protected area where small organisms like amphipods and copepods can live and thrive without big old mean fish to eat them. Invariably some of these organisms make their way to the main tank where they become fish/coral food – very healthy fish/coral food. The second is an area where plants/algae can grow. As they grow you can pull the stuff out from time to time, effectively removing nutrients from the system. In this function it acts as a filter. Powerman adds: "A Refugium is a refuge for pods (amphipods and copepods) to grow free of predation, I would provide a place for it to happen regardless of anything else. It just happens that a refugium has become a popular place to grow macro algae and to incorporate a DSB (Deep Sand Bed) as well for nutrient export. Probably 90% of all refugiums have macro in them and most I would say have a DSB." The first image below shows a hang-on-back refugium and the second a remote refugium that is a separate tank. Quality Heater The word “quality” is a key here. Also missing is a cooling mechanism. This category should more aptly be named “Temperature Control.” I’m going to give away a spoiler here and say that this does not rate that high from the contributors. This caused a lot of debate. Some people couldn’t believe that this was not one of the top ranked items. However, there were also people like me who have spent the last 20 years in Florida and the need to heat a tank is simply not present. If you keep your house/apartment/condo thermostat relatively constant and are willing to keep it at a level that maintains your tank’s temperature at a desirable temp then you won’t need any temperature control. When I had an apartment in Florida I kept it at 74 degrees and the tank did great (at about 78 degrees). When I moved into a house, keeping it at 74 meant I had a $650/month power bill! I bought a chiller. When I put a sump remotely in an unheated garage (and uncooled) I bought heaters for those few weeks during the winter when the temperature outside flirted with freezing at night. Now let’s talk about the word “quality.” This forum alone is littered with horror stories of people who, through no fault of their own, bought heaters that had problems. Some wouldn’t turn off appropriately and would cook the tank, others would explode and electrocute the tank. Do your research! Clean Up Crew (CUC) A clean up crew is a mix of critters that help keep your tank clean. It consists of such things as brittle stars, snails, hermit crabs and a bunch of sand sifters (when used with a sand bed). There are numerous web sites from which you can order CUC members. EXTRA TIDBIT: Thermometer I hope this doesn’t take too much explanation… a thermometer can take a number of forms including a stick-on strip (not very accurate), a suction cup attached regular old mercury model (can get detached easily and float around and if they break it’s bad news) and digital models that are highly accurate (but expensive). Good Acclimation Procedures Acclimation is the process you use to introduce new livestock into your tank. Every system has water with different parameters in it. If you simply pull fish out of one tank and unceremoniously dump them into another, chances are you will cause undue stress and potentially kill the fish. There are a number of different methods and I won’t advocate one over the other, but rather describe the processes. The first I’ll describe is the “drip method.” The equipment you need for this method is a small plastic container and a plastic air hose with an adjustable clamp on the end. Via this method you put the new addition into your acclimation container with the water you brought it home in. Then start a siphon from the main tank using the plastic air hose/clamp. Once the siphon starts, tighten down the clamp until it is dripping a few drops per second. Over time it fills the container, slowly introducing the new addition to the tank water. The negatives with this method are that since the process takes a fair amount of time, ammonia can build up, the temperature can change and the PH can drop. The second method I’ll talk about is the “Measuring Cup” method. Via this method you roll over the top of the bag the fish came in to create a sort of float. Pour out some of the water then secure the bag to the top of the aquarium. Using some sort of measuring device (measuring cup, turkey baster, etc.) place about a ¼ cup of aquarium water into the bag multiple times until it fills. The negatives with this method are that there is less water with the fish to begin the process and if the bag breaks loose it can expose the occupant to a quick change in parameters. Battery Operated Air Pump for Emergencies This should more aptly be titled “Emergency Water Circulation.” Water circulation introduces oxygen to the system and pushes water through the filtration components of the sand bed and live rock. If your power goes out for even just 24 hours it can have dire consequences if you don’t have a way to circulate your water. The cheapest method is to constantly stand over your tank with a wooden spoon stirring the water continuously like you’re cooking a lovely clam parmesan sauce. The reality is that’s not realistic. One of the more realistic options includes a battery operated air pump. This works well for smaller tanks, but multiple units would be required for larger set ups. Not ideal, but at $10-$20 a piece, it is an inexpensive route to go. For $300-$400 you can buy a small, quiet, light weight generator. A generator can keep essential pumps running and possibly even some lights. I’ve got a good sized one that I bought 5 years ago that’s never come out of the box, but I’m very happy I’ve got it. From banthonyb71: "These definelty [should make] the list, because most newbies (including myself when I started) do not know or have not been taught what to do if there was every a power failure. After all as a newbie, you usually only ask questions as you incounter the problem, and thats the extent of your kowledge until the next problem occurs. Activated Carbon Flowing system water through activated carbon carries a number of benefits. Carbon is an insanely porous material, meaning that it has a huge surface area relative to its weight. It’s tough to believe, but a single ounce of activated carbon can have the equivalent of three football fields in surface area! Surface area means there is more space for a substance that’s passing by to get stuck. When that surface area is made of a material that tends to bond to a wide variety of compounds (like carbon does), you get a very effective filtration tool. Carbon will remove such things as heavy metals, dissolved organics, many medications and chlorine/chloramines. It won’t remove ammonia, nitrite or nitrate and won’t affect phosphate. Typical methods of putting carbon into a system include a carbon bag that you drop in the sump (not super efficient) or a carbon reactor (a container filled with carbon that you pump water through – more efficient). Carbon reactor image: Validate that the Aquarium Doesn’t Overflow During a Power Outage This is a pretty self explanatory topic. When your aquarium is running, unplug the pump and see what happens. If anything overflows then you need to make some changes. Grounding Probe Most aquarium systems have some sort of submerged electrical component. As you have probably learned at some point in your life (either by experience or example), electricity and water don’t mix. Now don’t worry too much about getting shocked, aquarium equipment that is meant to be submerged is insulated against electrical current making its way into the water. However, over time or due to a manufacturing defect you may get a small amount of current leaching out into the system. In most cases it is not enough to notice, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an effect on critters in the tank. Enter the grounding probe. A grounding probe is typically made out of a non-oxidizing material like Titanium. You place the probe in the system and run it to a standard electrical outlet. The two prongs that go into the electrical sockets are plastic and non-conducting so no electricity is introduced by the grounding probe. The ground prong on the outlet connects to the ground in your home’s electrical plug and thus directs any unwanted electrical current in the tank harmlessly into the ground. Appropriate Tank Side Cleaner (Mag Float, scraper, etc.) It should be no surprise that the sides of aquariums get nasty over time. Since the primary mechanism of viewing tank occupants are the sides of the aquarium it is generally good to keep them clean. There are a number of products out there that help do this. The big consideration has to do with acrylic tanks. Many products are not suitable for acrylic and may scratch the tank – this is bad. Do your research here. What’s Most Important Now that I’ve written a book on all the different things that people think are important, it’s time to figure out what is MOST important. All of the items listed above are definitely things you should consider. Some are critical, some are not. If you tried to do everything on the list you would dilute your attention and likely not pay enough attention to the most important items. So how do you know what’s most important? This is where the great folks at 3Reef come into play again. First they provided the list of items listed above. Afterward I asked people to rate their top ten items in order. I received 26 replies to the request! I took each reply and gave the top choice 10 points, the second 9 points and so on down to the last choice getting one point. Considering there are 25 items on the list, it meant people had to make tough decisions in putting the most important items on their lists. The results are shown in the chart below and are pretty interesting. Link to larger image What does it all mean? It is interesting to note that out of the top 15, the items 14 fall neatly into three basic buckets: Knowledge, Water Quality and Measurement. Knowledge: Somewhat surprising is that the two non-equipment, knowledge related items on the list were ranked #1 and #2. The good news is that it means the two most important items don’t cost anything! Or maybe just the price of a book or two. It can’t be emphasized enough the importance of doing your own research and being patient in the hobby. Water Quality The next four in the rankings and numbers 9, 11, 12, 13 and 14 all have to do with water quality and filtration. This is not surprising as water quality is paramount in keeping a successful tank. The most important in this bucket are having live rock, a protein skimmer, using RO/DI water for water changes and evaporation make up and finally doing water changes. Flow rate in the tank contributes to oxygenation and filtration, the sand bed is a filtration component, the sump contributes to filtration, temperature (heater/chiller) is part of water quality and finally the clean up crew is important in keeping the tank clean. From alpha 03: "Skimmer/Filtration- very important- your critters live and die by this, and this is what allows for correct water quality- see line one. Temperature's- hot or cold- it must be kept stable- this greatly effects water quality, and critter health. Keep it stabel - keep them healthy." Measurement How do you know you have good water quality without measuring? The #7 and #8 ranked items are a Hydrometer/Refractometer for measuring salinity and liquid test kits for measuring other compounds in the system. Seano Hermano commented during the ranking process on testing: "Testing your water parameters is very important. I've listed this at #1 for a good reason. How can one possibly keep a successful aquarium, if they don't know their water chemistry? We dose adatives, do water changes, and maintnece -- all based on our tanks "health". Just like our eyes, test kit's tell us how well we are taking care of our tank(s).” The odd man out, so to speak, in the top 15 is strong lighting, which is only required for reef aquariums. Summary The conclusions out of this exercise are that three primary categories are paramount in keeping a successful tank: - Knowledge - Water Quality - Measurement It is not to say that other items on the list are not important as well, but it is clear that if the new aquarist can focus on the above three areas then they will have a better chance at maintaining a successful tank.