Things I Did Right
(for a change!)

I outgrew my first reef tank, a 30-gallon acrylic aquarium with a built-in trickle filter, in eight months. The 90-gallon glass tank that followed was running for two years before it, too, was outgrown. This article is about the upgrade to my new 220-gallon glass tank. With each of my first two tanks I learned invaluable lessons that became more firmly engrained in a direct relationship to the amount of time it took to clean up the mess. (I wish I had a dime for every quart of water I've mopped off the floor.) Now, sitting in front of my gorgeous new tank, I'm finally able to say "I think I did it right this time." This is not to say that everything is perfect; it simply means I think I've done more things right than wrong. The tank has been up and running for nine weeks now, and I'm very happy with both the setup of the system and the improvements in the overall environment for my animals.

From a maintenance standpoint, the design of the stand and canopy was critical. My husband, while never claiming to be a carpenter, nonetheless designed and built both the stand and canopy using my 90-gallon stand and a set of Do-It-Yourself plans from Reef Central as guides. He was determined to correct some of the shortcomings of my previous stand and he did a wonderful job, if I do say so myself. One of these improvements was the interior finishing. The sides and bottom of the new stand are lined with Formica (the material that is laminated to particle board to make kitchen countertops) and all the inside seams are caulked to make it waterproof. The interior of the canopy was primed and painted white. As is often the case, my previous stand was lined with unfinished particleboard that would swell at the mere mention of the word "water". (I believe a little time spent waterproofing the inside of any stand and canopy prior to installation is well worth the effort.) The design of the canopy is simply ingenious. It was built with a removable front panel secured by wooden dowels.

With the front panel removed, the canopy slides backwards, or forwards, up to ten inches, allowing complete access to the front or rear walls of the tank. I can now do almost any type of maintenance, including removing or placing large rocks, without having to work through the doors in the front of the canopy or needing assistance to remove the canopy.

The second important maintenance improvement was the placement of the tank twelve inches from the wall. Some of you may be thinking, "So what? Everyone knows that." Go ahead, snicker if you must, but my 90-gallon tank was set so close to the wall that I could not get behind it. (Well, you don't want to be able to see all the ugly equipment BEHIND the tank, now do you?) This poor planning was never so apparent as when the main circulation pump failed and had to be replaced. Removing it required contortions that no one, save a yoga master, should ever attempt.

I solved my aesthetics issue of the large gap behind the tank with a well-placed corner shelf that nicely hides the equipment in back. (Also ingeniously built, the shelf is attached to the wall on the left side and swings open like a door to allow easy access to the back of the tank.)

Prior to its purchase, I put some serious thought into the dimensions of my new tank. I chose a tank that is 72" long by 30" wide by 24" deep for several reasons. The large footprint allows maximum space for creative aquascaping and an extensive sand bed area. All of the rockwork is far enough away from the glass to allow me to use a magnet cleaner on all the viewable surfaces without catching the retrieval string on any delicate coral branches. With the 24" depth I can reach the floor of the tank with my hand by standing on a stepstool. Yes, I know there are numerous long-handled tools available for deeper tanks, but I still find it easier to do tasks, such as moving a coral, by hand.

The design of the tank's circulation and plumbing scheme was also carefully considered. The tank was predrilled for two drains in the built-in overflow box, as well as three holes across the back wall of the tank for the circulation pump return lines. I use two pumps whose output is split into two lines each. Three of the four return lines are attached directly to the tank through bulkheads fitted with flexible ball-socket tubing that allow me to direct the water flow to cover the whole tank. The fourth line is connected to a SeaSwirl oscillator mounted to the edge of the tank. This means I am not using any power heads inside the tank. I see this as a major coup, since not only does this eliminate the chance of animals being injured or killed by being sucked into a power head, but it also eliminates the extreme irritation of suction cups that don't… suck. (Or perhaps they do and that's the point!). In my previous tank, I had quite the sand storm when the power head came loose and aimed directly at the bottom. It could have been worse, though; I was lucky the power head didn't aim straight up and pump untold gallons of water all over my floor!

The two drains in the overflow box are fitted with PVC standpipes drilled with holes and capped with U-shaped fittings. The fittings were made from two 90-degree PVC elbows glued together fitted with a short piece of PVC pipe at the end. The standpipes keep the overflow box full of water, so there is no sound of water crashing into the box. The U-fittings put the intake just below the waterline, so there is no sound from the water being sucked into the standpipes. In fact, my new tank is much quieter than my 90-gallon tank that always had that slightly irritating bathtub-draining sound. Other plumbing improvements include using ball valves in front of each pump and check valves on the return lines into the tank. The ball valves allow easy removal of the main circulation pumps for maintenance or repair, and the check valves prevent the sump from overflowing in the event of a power outage. I opted for two 1200 gallon per hour return pumps rather than one larger pump to allow for a pump failure without compromising the whole system.

Electrical improvements were not overlooked in designing the new system. First, my husband installed a shop-grade five-foot power strip on the inside back wall of the stand. This keeps all electrical plugs off the floor and away from any water spills. Additionally, the spacing of the power strip is ideal for the X-10 appliance modules I use with my Neptune Aquacontroller. The controller itself was put on an uninterruptible power supply. Clean, consistent power to my controller means less chance of failure.

A water spill on the ballasts with my first tank taught me the futility of placing them on the floor. Mounting the ballasts to the sidewall of my previous 90-gallon stand protected them from wetting, but resulted in an 'octopus' of wiring and timers that was impossible to keep neat and took up too much valuable space inside the stand. All lighting ballasts are now securely mounted on top of the canopy. While my husband and I still have to build some sort of fence to hide the ballasts from the view of anyone taller than five foot three, I think this is a small price to pay.

I've also learned a thing or two from my previous endeavors about setting up the environment inside the tank. I believe my best discovery to date is the Orange County silicate sand (size 60) I bought from a local sand and gravel supplier.1 It comes in hundred pound bags and is used, for one thing, in ashtrays in hotel lobbies. The advantages to this sand are: it is inexpensive ($6.50 per hundred pounds); it does not need to be washed and does not cloud the tank; and, best of all, the sand bed critters seem to thrive in it. (I had used the same sand in my 90-gallon tank for over a year with great results. No clumping, good denitrification and healthy critter counts.) I poured five hundred pounds of sand in my tank, which made a six-inch sand bed, added my pre-mixed saltwater, and in less than an hour the water had cleared sufficiently to allow me to work with the live rock.

Concerning live rock, I've conquered my fear of the drill and masonry bit and found that it is really quite easy to drill holes in Fiji rock. Cable ties, pieces of solid plastic coat hangers (used as dowels) and underwater epoxy, work wonders to secure reef structures. I was able to build much more interesting structures with caves and arches using far less rock, secure in the knowledge that it will withstand the bulldozing of turbo snails or abalone.

Last, but certainly not least, I have learned to give all the animals plenty of growing space. It is truly amazing how, in less than a year, a coral fragment the size of a nickel became a colony the size of a softball.

I have vowed to resist the urge to buy too many new animals to fill up all the empty spaces in my new tank. I know my current animals will continue to grow and will expand into the extra space in their own good time.

Basically, I have to say I couldn't be happier with my new tank. I know that I owe its success to the experiences, hard lessons and spilt water from my first two tanks. Whatever doesn't drown you makes you better, right?

If you have any questions about this article, please visit the Notes from the Trenches forum on Reef Central.

1 The manufacturer is Oglebay Norton Industrial Sand, Inc. (800) 345-0171.


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Things I Did Right (for a change!) by Sandra Shoup -