Develop a Successful Reefkeeping Strategy

In this monthly column I hope to guide you, from start to finish, on how to create and maintain a successful reef tank. In this first article I want to describe my personal philosophy for reefkeeping success.

Develop a Successful Reefkeeping Strategy

Plan for Today and Tomorrow
If there is one thing you can do to better your chances for a successful reef tank, it is to develop a solid reefkeeping strategy before you step foot in to your local fish store or place that first online order for equipment

It is all too easy to start a reef tank without taking in to consideration the needs of the animals that you want to keep, and the requirements to keep them healthy for many years to come.

How many new reefkeepers walk in to their local fish store or watch a television program and at that moment they decide that they want to keep a reef tank? That happens to many more people than you think, including myself.

A little history about a new reefkeeper: Me. I happened to walk in to one of the local fish shops, near my house, to buy some food for my freshwater fish that I was keeping at the time. As I walked down the isle in the store I noticed an area in the back of the store that had these very brightly colored fish and strange looking plants. I quickly asked the store owner, "what is that fish and what are those plant looking things in those tanks?" and he said "saltwater fish and corals". From that very moment in time I was suddenly hooked on the hobby and that very day came home with a brand new tank, heater, a bag of salt. Then my fun began. Without any idea of what to do and armed with the advice of my LFS owner I had a saltwater tank. I had no plan except to have fish and corals in my tanks as soon as possible. Needless to say I was not the most successful reef tank owner and considered leaving the hobby many times in my first year because of the continuous failures that I encountered.

Since then, I have learned that I have to develop a detailed strategy before setting up a reef tank if I want to be successful. Even though things do not always go the way that we plan them, if we have a good strategy from the beginning it will help keep our mistakes and failures to a minimum.

Let's Get Started on Our Reefkeeping Strategy

Choose the Types of Animals That You Want to Keep
One of the most important things to consider when setting up a reef tank is the type of animals that you want to keep. This area, in particular, will have the biggest impact on your success or failure as a reefkeeper. You must start by choosing the animals that you would like to keep, and then research all of their needs and requirements before you purchase any equipment.

Researching the needs of the animals up front will save you time, money and great frustration. More importantly, it will not cause the needless death of these spectacular creatures because of poor planning or incompatible equipment or animals.

If you like Tangs or other large fish you must be willing to give them the space that they need to stay healthy in captivity. A 20-gallon tank with a Tang is not an option and even if you see others doing it, it does not mean that it is the right thing to do or healthy for the animal. If you want to keep SPS (Small Polyp Stony) corals but do not want to invest in high-powered lighting you should consider different types of corals. There are many other do's and do not's which we will discuss in the coming months.

A few questions to ask yourself:

Do the fish that you want keep require certain sized tanks?
Do the fish require specific diets that you are willing to provide for them?
Do the corals have special lighting requirements and can you afford the equipment, increased electric costs and can you deal with the heat that they produce?
Do you have the time to dedicate to your animals for required feeding and maintenance to keep them healthy?
If you are away from your tank, for periods of time, do you have someone who can care for your animals in your absence?
Can you afford the animals themselves?

While those sound like simple questions they are very important to the health of your animals and if you ask them up front you will save yourself a great deal of frustration.

Having patience is a very important aspect in the reef keeping hobby, which we all must follow, if we want to be successful. Like fine wine and vintage cars, your reef tank will not be built in a day. It will not be built in a week, a month, or a year, because it is a constantly evolving system. Many reef keepers feel that a reef tank is not considered mature for many years after the initial setup so do not expect that your tank will be finished in a day. There are so many complex processes at work from the initial cycle to the point to where the tank becomes a stable, miniature ecosystem that there is no way possible for it to happen quickly.

In the short time that I have been keeping reef tanks, I have found that my single biggest mistake was trying to create a world class reef tank in a very short time. I have lost many incredible fish and corals due to my own shortsightedness and impatience, and I do not want any of you to go through that same frustration. While there are some things that will shorten the length of time that it takes to setup your tank, you cannot shorten the one critical thing, time. It takes time for the tank to become stable and mature.

I do not want to discourage anyone from starting in the reef keeping hobby, but I will be honest and say that this is not a low budget hobby. Depending on the size of the tank and the animals that you want to keep this hobby may be very expensive, as both I and my wife can tell you. It is very easy to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on the equipment and animals depending upon what type of reef tank you desire.

There are many ways to save money by building equipment yourself, but if you are not capable of doing so, most of your equipment will come from mail order suppliers or your local fish store. Many of the animals that we desire can also be very expensive. While you may save money by purchasing your livestock from reputable mail order sources, you have the added expense of shipping, which may easily cost as much or more than the livestock itself.

The most common mistake that I see in this hobby is the constant purchase of inadequate equipment with the intention of replacing or upgrading it in the future. I constantly see questions on Reef Central from new hobbyists asking " is skimmer X is okay for my tank for now?" "For now," normally means that the new hobbyist is purchasing equipment as they go along, or in a crisis, and has not created the game plan that I described above. I can speak from experience in this area because I also started out in this hobby by purchasing low cost or inadequate equipment and soon found that it did not fit my needs. Suddenly, I had a crawl space full of junk equipment and I spent sometimes double or triple what I would have if I had just sat down and planned things out.

Unfortunately, in this hobby, the costs of many products do equate to the performance and quality of the equipment. One the other side of the coin, there are some advanced hobbyists that produce reef related equipment, which rivals or surpasses the performance of many name brand products at a substantial savings.

While you may keep a smaller aquarium, which will reduce the overall cost, you must be willing to realize the limitations of the system on animals that you can keep. You must also pay very close attention to details, such as water parameters, because of the reduced volume.

One of the costs that few new reefkeepers think about is the time involved with maintaining a reef tank. I have spent countless hours doing water changes, installing equipment, mounting corals, and many other time related tasks involved in keeping a healthy reef tank. For the first three years that I was in the hobby, I did not go away on vacation because I did not have anyone to look after my tanks while I was away. Even now that I have a very competent tank sitter, I will only go away for only one day at a time. There are ways to automate your tank to help relive some of the issues of being away from your tank, but those have a cost related to them. The key here is to try to define the system that you desire up front so that you can buy the proper equipment once and save yourself a great deal of money and frustration in the long run.

A few more questions to ask yourself:

Can you afford the proper tank and equipment that you have chosen?
Can you afford the animals that you have chosen?
Can you afford the increased electric costs associated with larger tanks?
Can you afford that time that it takes to maintain your tank?

Again, these are simple questions but they are also important. Even though some of the questions are not related to monetary costs you need to be sure that you can afford the hobby.

Do Your Homework!
Another key to a successful tank is doing your research up front. With the Internet, we now have a huge amount of information at our fingertips. There are hundreds of reef tanks that we can look at and learn about which will help us choose the type of tanks and animals that we want to keep. There is also a great number of high quality books that are just loaded with information about livestock and equipment. One of the most valuable resources that I found was the various message boards. Some of these, such as the one here at Reef Central, even have forums dedicated to the new reefkeeper. Here you can ask all of your reefkeeping questions. Do not be afraid to ask questions, and you can even choose a mentor to help you with your reef tank. When I first started in the hobby I was following the advice of my LFS owner and did not realize that I could have avoided most, if not all, of my original mistakes if I would have just done my homework.

After doing your initial research, you may now go about choosing the animals that you want to keep. You can decide if you are able meet the requirements that they have, based on the particular animals, and cost in both money and time. Also, you have a few places to start your research to accomplish your goals of a successful reef tank.

Be sure to come back next month when we will create a detailed checklist on the various equipment needed to start our tank.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

Reefkeeping Magazine™ Reef Central, LLC-Copyright © 2008

Develop a Successful Reefkeeping Strategy by Doug Wojtczak -