Coralmania by Eric Borneman

An "Insider's" Guide to Reef Aquaria

This month, I once again stray from the strict topic of corals. Some projects I had started recently, along with several posts during an extremely busy month on The Coral Forum, gave me the idea for this column. Many years ago, I wrote a pseudo-article for the old AOL Forum called "The Reef According to Eric." It was a very popular little piece, and I detailed what I felt were, at the time, aspects of a successful reef aquarium. I updated it many times over the years, but eventually it seemed unnecessary to continue offering it because the information had become so widely known.

The present article will be based on the "how-to" concept, but with a different tack. I offer here some of my personal tips and tricks and suggestions for reef aquarists in 2004. What I write is certainly not to be taken as gospel, but rather as personal experience that I hope will be valuable.

A Big Deal: The Acclimation of Corals (and Other Things)

Frequently, I am asked about corals that change in appearance or look poorly after being purchased and introduced into a home aquarium. In particular, a coral that looked healthy in the store is introduced into an aquarium, often with what appear to be better conditions that those in which it had previously resided, only to look in a remarkably less healthy condition soon thereafter.

One of the questions I often ask in response to such questions is, "Did you test the bag water or the store water?" The answer is usually, "No." Testing the bagged water is a lesson I learned quite a while ago after enduring far too many inexplicable losses of otherwise apparently healthy livestock. Most aquarists are familiar with drip-type acclimations. The "old-timers rule," based on acclimating freshwater fish, is to make sure the temperature and pH are slowly matched between the bag and the tank, usually through the introduction of small amounts of tank water to the shipping bag. This practice seems fairly common with aquarists whose shipments arrive at the door in a box, and somewhat less common with livestock brought directly home from a local store.

Unfortunately, temperature and pH are not always the whole story, and this is especially true of marine invertebrates. To use corals as an example, I think most people have experienced the relatively long period of time it takes for the average coral to "open up" or acclimate. For some, it may be a period of minutes while for others it may ultimately take months. This "period of adjustment" is a normal biological response of an organism to a new environment and the changes that take place may be truly staggering in terms of number and complexity. Most of the changes are unseen, but are occurring nonetheless.

Acute changes may be obvious. For example, if an animal is plunged from saltwater into freshwater, the changes are usually fast and visually obvious in those animals that manifest behavioral responses. To use a coral example again, the rapid withdrawal of polyps is usually the first response to adverse stimuli. Most aquarists would probably agree that moving a coral from water that is 76oF, with 30ppm of nitrate, a specific gravity of 1.021, 40 watts of fluorescent light, and virtually no water flow to a tank at 82oF, a specific gravity of 1.025, unmeasurable nitrates, 400 watts of metal halide lamps, and strong water flow would be a stressful event that would (and often does) lead to mortality of the organism, despite the fact that the latter conditions may be more natural and better for the long-term health of the organism. However, behavioral responses under such conditions may include self-shading by polyp contraction, sloughing of mucus tunics, catatonia, and death.

What may (or may not) be surprising is that many facilities that sell or trade in livestock have water quality that is less than ideal. The animal or plant purchased at any given time may or may not have spent some considerable acclimatory period in another tank prior to it being purchased by the aquarist. Upon arrival at that same facility, the organism may have looked very similar to the state the aquarist finds it in upon introduction to their tank. Just because something looks healthy, does not in any way suggest that it is healthy. A fish that eats at the store may be eating because it is starving. A coral that is highly expanded at the store may be expanded because it is starving or receiving suboptimal light.

The point here, if it is not already obvious, is that it only makes sense to know what the water quality is from the tank or habitat from whence the organism came. When I collect corals from the wild, I make it a practice to either make subjective notes or directly measure water parameters in order to most accurately reproduce those conditions in an aquarium. When I get a shipment from anywhere, or when I purchase livestock from stores, I ask the facility what their water parameters are, or I directly measure water samples from the packing container or bag.

There are two schools of thought regarding acclimation; to remove an organism as quickly as possible from the poor water conditions and into a tank with presumably good water conditions, treating the shipping event as a temporary acute stress; or to proceed in diligent, careful and slow acclimations in order to pamper an organism through a shipping or transient holding location, treating the event as a chronic stress or an acute stress to which another rapid change is intolerable. The choice of which method to utilize unfortunately depends on the circumstances and the tolerance of the organism. In general, I feel that if something has been in a store for more than a few days and the water quality is significantly different from the aquarists' tank, it has undergone some degree of acclimation and can tolerate, and should likely undergo, a longer more careful acclimation. If the store's water is very similar to that in the destination tank and the organism has been in holding or transit for less than a day, a more rapid transfer to the tank might be preferable.

Things to Own

Over the years, I have bought, sold, tried, accumulated, and disposed of a great deal of supplies and equipment. Periodically, I find my closet and garage overflowing with broken, unused, used, and useless parts and devices. Unfortunately, most of the broken and useless things are aquarium equipment. I have found a disconcertingly short lifespan for most things produced by the aquarium trade. I have also found that most of the really useful things I have for aquariums, and which generally seem to last longer, are not strictly designed for the aquarist. Most people probably have some experience with this; it seems a trip to virtually any store from the supermarket to eBay presents a smorgasbord of potentially useful items for an aquarium! The following is a list of some items that I feel are useful or even indispensable in keeping reef aquaria.

Stereo or Dissecting Microscope

Honestly, most of the action and interest happening in reef tanks is too small to see - or at least see clearly. I really can't begin to express the worlds of wonder that will open to aquarists with the use of a microscope. To use a compound light microscope requires some degree of experience, and also one generally needs some specialized knowledge to appreciate higher magnification of most things. However, a dissecting microscope is easy to use, practical, and can be appreciated by even those without specific interests.

In particular, most aquarists are curious to know the answer to the general question, "What is it?" Identification of most things in the tank, from corals to algae to worms and crabs, generally requires the use of magnification. At the very least, magnification can allow for the description of those things required for others to answer the question, "What is it?" It can also help the aquarist to determine, in some cases, reasons for mortality or other problems in the tank.

PAR or Lux Meter

The typical reef aquarist spends hundreds to thousands of dollars on lighting for their aquarium. Countless hours of Internet forum, website, and catalog perusal are spent determining lighting needs. Much of the interest and concern is of relatively low consequence, and this is especially the case when one really has no idea of light levels in one's own aquarium. I am amazed how people will spend upwards of $120.00 on a bulb, and hundreds of dollars on nonessential equipment, but will not purchase or have even considered the purchase of simple devices to measure light.

To be sure, lighting is a critical component of most reef aquarium systems. It is equally critical to know how much light is in the tank. There are now relatively inexpensive devices available to directly measure photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), and there are certainly very inexpensive devices for measuring irradiance (lux). For half the price of a 20000K HID bulb, a simple lux meter can be purchased and used to determine light values in tanks, of various bulbs, and how their output changes over time. There are, of course, many differences in cost and quality of these light-measuring devices, but even a $50.00 lux meter provides some real measurement of light levels in aquariums. This, to me, is an essential purchase for anyone concerned with reef lighting.

A lux meter is an inexpensive device to measure light levels.


Having and using a refractometer is a no-brainer. For years, aquarists have been offered and then lamented the miserably inaccurate products available at low cost to measure what is arguably the most basic and important parameter in reef aquaria - salinity. While many organisms can manage relatively short periods of salinity change, prolonged exposure to sub-optimal salinity is literally a killer. I cannot count the number of problems that have befallen others and myself through inadvertent, unrecognized, accidental, or lackadaisical carelessness in salinity measurements.

I think many people are probably aware of the poor accuracy, especially over time, of plastic swing arm-type hydrometers. Many floating glass hydrometers are either cheap and inaccurate, or are expensive and accurate but calibrated at temperatures far from those where reef tanks are kept (requiring inconvenient and possibly inaccurate scaling techniques to arrive at true salinity). Furthermore, glass hydrometers are not convenient to use in tanks where they are not easily stabilized and read because of water currents, rocks, and tank walls. Conductivity probes are expensive, require calibration, and give readings that vary from accurate to inaccurate depending on any number of factors (see Holmes-Farley 2000, 2002). Furthermore, conductivity does not measure salinity in parts per thousand, or as a reading of specific gravity, which are scales commonly used by aquarists.

However, there is now a ready availability from aquarium sources of devices called refractometers that are generally quite accurate, easily calibrated, extremely quick and easy to use, and inexpensive, to boot. I say this loosely, since I regularly use a refractometer that is not inexpensive at $280.00, but I also have one that reads identically to it and costs $69.00. Most of the refractometers available in the aquarium trade today are also temperature compensated so that no special calibration is needed for temperatures of reef aquaria. They are a lifetime investment, require little care or maintenance, and are so easy to use that accurate salinity measurements can be taken daily in a matter of a few seconds. I cannot fathom any reason why any aquarist should not have one of these devices in their aquarium repertoire.

pH Pen

Another no-brainer is the purchase of a pH pen. During the course of only a few years with regular testing using colorimetric reagent tests, one could have paid for the purchase of an inexpensive "pocket" pH tester. As with salinity, pH readings using various reagent-based tests are variably accurate. Even though the standard reagent pH test is one of the easier tests to perform, I think I speak for most hobbyists when I say that getting out little bottles and tubes is not something I want to do more often than I have to. Although pH readings are highly variable and important, I think its safe to assume most people would take this reading more often if it took seconds rather than minutes.

There is a wide range in cost and quality of devices made to measure pH. However, inexpensive pen-type pH probes are readily available, many for under $50.00. This is about the cost of five reagent pH tests, and the pH pen, used properly, will last for years or decades. Their calibration is quick and easy, and taking pH readings of tank water takes approximately 5-10 seconds. I store a pH pen upright with its cap filled with pH 7.0 buffer beside the tank. I remove the cap, swish the pen in the water and take an accurate reading within seconds, rinse the pen under tap water, put it back in its cap, and I'm finished.

I had always been too lazy to sit at a table for an hour testing various water parameters with reagent kits in the aquarium hobby. I hate little bottles with randomly sized drops, tiny little packets of powders that rarely all come out of the package, tiny plastic tubes that you can't see through in a few months, glass tubes with openings so narrow you miss the opening with the products you try to add to them, little stoppers that leak, color charts that do not match the results of the test, and reagents that go old within the time frame of my using them up. I am pleased that some lines of tests today are more accurate than when I began testing tank water with reagent powders and drops, but they are certainly no less inconvenient. Consequently, I rarely tested water, and sometimes I should have. This is more the case with the important parameters, of which pH is one. Any inexpensive device that saves me money in the relatively short term, provides accurate results, lasts a long time without replacement, and makes my aquarium maintenance life easier is a good thing. I suspect it would be the same for most other aquarists, too.

250, 500, 1000ml Graduated Beakers

Yes, measuring cups, bowls, glasses, and plastic cups work just fine to make additions to tanks. However, believe me when I say that using Pyrex beakers in these three increments, coupled with a Sharpie pen to mark on them, will be very appreciated when measuring, pouring, and adding any number of dry or liquid substances to aquariums. In addition to thanking yourself a thousand times for the many aquarium uses found for them, the limitless other household uses will never cease to amaze.

Magnifying Lens

If the stereo microscope mentioned above is not an option at the present time, the use of a good quality magnifying glass, loupe, or lens will suffice. I cannot think of any reason why one should not have one of these for looking in the tank, examining things after taking them out of the tank, or for helping in identifications. The only downside to magnifying lenses is that one can look just a little "geeky" when observing the tank, face pressed against the glass, and friends and family may truly begin to wonder about you. If anyone wants to go a little more overboard, consider the purchase of a ring-light magnifying lamp that can be purchased from office supply stores. These can be clamped on the edge of a tank or stand and simply swiveled to examine all creatures great and small under lighted 10X magnification or more with a big viewing area.


Syringes are invaluable to reef aquarists, if not only for their usefulness in attempts to kill Aiptasia anemones. Unfortunately, most syringes readily available to the public come without needles (a most useless equivalent of a small turkey baster), or with needles that have a square cut end that are not really made for injection (such as those from home improvement stores). But, syringes are not illegal, they are not by prescription only in most places (despite what many pharmacists may tell you), and you can get them. Insulin syringes are great. I prefer 1-3 cc syringes with luer-lock ends where one can simply replace the needles. Luer-locks also prevent viscous solutions or clogged needles from being blasted off the end of the syringe and falling to the bottom of the tank when forcefully ejecting a liquid. For assorted gluing jobs, I use one-time-use syringes with a larger bore needle to fill with superglue after the cap has become cemented onto the tube following several cap re-openings, when one cannot get the remaining glue out of the tube without tearing the plastic cap and twisting the metal tube to some unrecognizable and useless lump of metal with half the product still inside. A simple prick of the tube and a pull of the plunger and I am back in business.

Yes, you might feel like a junkie asking for them in the prescription area of a drugstore. I have bought countless boxes and bags of insulin syringes, and felt like Sid Vicious every time I asked for them. I tended to buy a box at a time to avoid going through this anymore than I had to. However, there are online and other sources for syringes (lab supply, veterinarians, etc.) that do not involve such situations as being asked to present diabetes cards, asking what use you have for them (and explaining to a pharmacist what an Aiptasia is, exactly, and how they are so evil they must all be exterminated with hydrochloric acid), or wearing short sleeves in the middle of winter to assure everyone that you are not hiding track marks. Remember that the larger the number of the needle gauge, the smaller the needle is. For example, a 12-gauge needle is like putting a firehose on a syringe. Fit one with a 29-gauge needle, however, and the Aiptasia will not even notice until its mesenteries are boiling!

Digital Camera

Without question, these are among the most important inventions since the computer. These devices make it possible to easily document tank events, share photos, acquire online help, sell items, and even illustrate online aquarium magazine articles! Best of all, it is now possible for even rank amateurs to take really good aquarium photos without the ridiculous amounts of special techniques that were once required with the use of film cameras to get an only somewhat blurry photo of one's pride and joy aquarium. I still have quite a few film cameras - nice ones, too. They mostly collect dust now. I like the idea of film photography, and enjoyed doing it. But, for most purposes, I say "purist shmurist." I'll take those 192 high-resolution clear images on a 128MB card that costs the same as a few roles of unprocessed Velvia any day of the week. Digital images are easily formatted, saved, shared, shrunk, published, emailed, printed, cropped, and Photoshopped. I have the use of an extremely nice slide scanner at my lab, and have a darn nice scanner in my home. It takes about 5-10 minutes to scan a single high resolution slide that still lacks the vibrancy of a digital photo and in no way provides what the original slide showed. Today, I really have no use for slides whatsoever. They sit in boxes next to my film cameras. If anyone wants to take pictures of their aquarium, in my mind there is no substitute.

Back-Up Power Supply

See below.

Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda and Mrs. Wage's Pickling Lime

My calcium and alkalinity (calcium and carbonate) products of choice. About a dollar a pound for both, and I get them at the same grocery store where I will buy my dinner. What more needs to be said?

Things to Measure

Aquarists tend to busy themselves testing their water. This is a good skill to have, and although a careful eye can often surpass the readings of water tests, some parameters require regular monitoring. The standard series of tests that most people perform on reef tanks seems to include the following: ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, calcium and alkalinity. There are many other tests, and "testy" persons may include iodine, magnesium, boron, strontium, phosphate, and other inorganic and organic compounds in their "chemistry duties." My feeling is that while they all may be worthwhile, some are more valuable than others. In particular, ammonia and nitrite, unless the tank is new or has been disturbed, should always be unmeasurable by most test kits. I only use these tests under unusual circumstances. Nitrate can be a bit more problematic in tanks, especially new ones, but is becoming less of an issue as better aquarium methods become almost commonplace. Still, judging by many posts in The Coral Forum, it seems most aquarists are regularly measuring these substances, and failing to measure others.


Phosphate is often a problem, and has fairly serious consequences to reef tanks in any but nearly unmeasurable levels. I will not go into any depth on the subject since it has been well covered elsewhere (Holmes-Farley 2002). Although many people measure it, I would estimate that the majority of aquarists do not. In my experience, poor coral growth, undesirable algae, and a tank that lacks vitality is often found to have elevated phosphate levels. I would suggest that this, or any standard water quality tests, be used regularly, especially by those who are relatively newcomers to reef tank husbandry.


If I could name a single water quality parameter that is observationally the best indicator of a healthy tank, it would be alkalinity. Tanks with high alkalinity are generally ones that are doing well. Again, the subject of alkalinity has been treated elsewhere (Holmes-Farley 2002), and its co-function with calcium in producing the products of calcification is well known. What is worth mentioning here is that calcium, despite rapid depletion, is rarely limiting to calcification in seawater because of its very high availability. Alkalinity, however, is also rapidly depleted in tanks, and can be limiting to calcification. I rarely test calcium because I know from experience and my regular maintenance that I am adding a lot of calcium and I know it is at levels that make it readily available. I do, however, test alkalinity regularly on many of my tanks.

Ironically, and perhaps because of its rate of depletion in the small water volumes of aquaria, natural seawater levels of alkalinity are, in my experience, suboptimal. I prefer to keep my aquaria at levels much higher than seawater, and have seen no downside to doing so. On the contrary, if my tanks fall to seawater levels (about 2.9 meq/l), the tanks tend to look very poorly indeed. I strive for alkalinity levels somewhere between 4 and 5 meq/l, and the results of such elevated levels seem to indicate that reef aquaria thrive with the additional availability of carbonates. Furthermore, it helps to buffer against swings in pH values.


In an upcoming article, I will be covering the subject of oxygen dynamics in aquaria. Without question, oxygen levels are critical to survival of our captive marine species. Anyone who has experienced even a relatively brief power outage understands how quickly animals begin to die in stagnant tank water. Oxygen levels also drop precipitously at night, and this is especially true with tanks that are either densely stocked or have with poor gas exchange (for various reasons). Yet, rare is the discussion of ways to measure oxygen, and few aquarists I know have ever measured oxygen in their tanks.

I use an expensive oxygen field probe, and it would be impractical for most aquarists to own such a device. However, oxygen probes are available to the hobby at somewhat reasonable prices. They are not inexpensive, but given how important oxygen is to the life in our tanks, it seems a reasonable cost. Much more practical, if not slightly less accurate, are colorimetric tests that are available from many aquarium test kit manufacturers. I would suggest that oxygen is something that should be tested for in aquaria far more often than it is.

The Tool Shed

When one first begins keeping an aquarium, the fish store is the source of almost all the dry goods and equipment purchased. Over time, however, I can almost guarantee that Home Depot or Lowe's purchases will exceed those spent at fish stores, except perhaps on livestock. This section is truly the insider's guide. Trust me when I say that these things will be used, will come in handy, or will almost without exception be required at some point during the lifetime of a reef aquarium.


  • PVC pipe and various fittings, including elbows, couplings, male adaptors, barbed fittings, and female adaptors. At least five of each type, both slip and threaded, in all the common pipe sizes of 1/2", 3/4", 1" 1.25", 1.5" and 2" should be kept on hand at all times. Also, one full length of each of the pipe sizes should be on hand.

  • a PVC cutter and a hacksaw for the larger sized pipe

  • an eight foot length of flexible vinyl tubing in every size from airline to 1" inside diameter (and stainless steel or plastic hose clamps to fit the tubing).


  • Marine Goop

  • aquarium silicone

  • epoxy putty - at least two sticks

  • super glue gel - at least five tubes

  • thickened acrylic cement

  • PVC cement


  • wire strippers

  • wire nuts - a box of each of several sizes

  • electrical tape - numerous rolls

  • cable ties (lots of these, in different sizes)

  • coax staples for tacking up cords

  • power strips and extension cords (at least five of each)

  • ground fault interrupting outlets if not already in place


  • stainless steel wire cutters. Do not even bother to spend the money on steel ones. They will rust after one or two uses to the point where they cannot be opened, and you cannot put oil on them to free them up because the oil gets in the tank.

  • small wood chisels

  • Dremel-type tool with various cutting blades

  • hole saw kit with various size hole saws

  • acrylic cutter for scoring plastic or an acrylic blade for a table saw, Dremel tool, or jigsaw

  • single-edge razor blades (a 100 count box is the best idea)

  • some form of power screwdriver


  • several sheets of eggcrate

  • fishing line

  • a 2' x 4' sheet of at least 1/4" Plexiglas or acrylic

  • an assortment of nylon and stainless steel nuts, washers, and machine screws

  • plastic scrubbers for dishes

  • various sizes of Tupperware-type containers

  • several Rubbermaid-type bins, at least 20 gallons in size

  • pint, quart and gallon containers or bottles

  • Ziploc-type freezer bags in quart and gallon size

  • rubber bands

  • Sharpie permanent markers

Little Things

The following is a list of little truisms I have found to apply quite often in reef aquarium husbandry. I think they will prove useful many times over lengthy periods of time.

When in doubt, do a water change - or two. Then, watch and wait.

Have a functioning and functional quarantine tank for all newly acquired livestock, and for established livestock with problems that need attention.

Algae and cyanobacteria happen, even under ideal conditions. If nutrients are low, and grazers are adequate, algae still happens sometimes. They can also go away as fast as they came, and sometimes waiting is better than intervening.

When confronting things that are not recognized, it's probably best to figure out what they are before deciding that they are bad and destroying them.

Aiptasia anemones are really horrible pests. They are the poster children for why quarantine is so important. I have, since beginning my first reef tank, been plagued with them and they have killed, or caused me to kill in my efforts to get rid of them, hundreds of corals and other organisms. I have spent hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars fighting them. I have succeeded three times in eliminating them from my tank by various means. Each time, I have inadvertently reintroduced them. If you have them, good luck. If you see one, kill it thoroughly or (and I am not joking) get rid of whatever it is on. Just throw it out - the rock, the coral, or whatever. If you do not have them, I would strongly suggest quarantining EVERYTHING to avoid getting them. I reintroduced them on pieces of algae once! The pedal lacerates can be very small and not even visible, but will be noticeable within a month. I cannot stress enough how much everyone wants to avoid having these anemones in their tank.

Keep your hands out of the tank as much as possible, and resist the temptation to move things or add things any more than is absolutely necessary. It's best for reef aquaria to be left alone as much as possible.

Spend as much time watching and growing and reproducing things, and spend as little time buying things, as possible.

Don't place too much faith in what the majority of the aquarium hobby has to say! Just listen, smile a lot, and make sure what you have heard or read is the truth (see Shimek 2003 and Borneman 2003).

Nothing speaks quite like experience, although experience gained through advanced learning and planning is a good thing.

For persons about to purchase their first tank, get one at least twice as big as the one you are considering. Only when you are really proficient will the idea of a small tank be a reasonable and practical endeavor.

I'm not a big fan of aquarium equipment, in general. However, there are two things that should not be compromised, and they are both expensive items and important items. Believe me when I say that every ounce of pain that comes from emptying a wallet on good pumps and good lighting will be the reason for a sigh of relief many times over.

Aquarium Products

I rarely endorse products. In fact, I have made it a practice to avoid any sort of product endorsements, and my nearly constant deriding of such things for the past decade has probably resulted in my being permanently blackballed from the good graces of many companies who would otherwise be sending me free products and reimbursement for my marketing prostitution. Nonetheless, I don't care and I never have. I really couldn't even begin to say how many different devices and products I have bought or tried over the years. So here, for perhaps the first time ever, I am going out on a proverbial limb and giving a thumbs-up to the following products that I have used for enough time and for many times and I think deserve credit where credit is due. I offer my apologies to those not mentioned, but it is not possible to try, use, or know every product available.

Similarly, I refuse to mention those many products that deserve a "Golden Garbage Pail" award. Be warned: this is a short list.

Aquarium Systems MaxiJet Powerheads

These things "take a licking and keep on ticking." I have some of my first powerheads that still run, despite my splicing on new plugs where I melted them in wet power strips. Sometimes you have to smack them to get them to run, the impellers sometimes shear and need replacing, and the suction cups….well, they suck! They deteriorate fairly quickly in seawater (but, so do all the other brands, and usually faster). Some of my first Hagen powerheads still run, too, but their flow rate for unit size is awful (though adjustable flow control is nice). But, in my experience with (I think) multiple kinds of every power head made over the past decade or so, these are the best and always have been. A few little fixes (hint, hint) and they would be nearly perfect, for what they are.

Tunze Stream Pumps

I hesitate to mention these, since they are relatively new, and I have only used a few of them. I am deeply disturbed by their cost, and absolutely stunned at the cheapness of the materials and mounting devices. Still, to use the vernacular, "these pumps rock." The water flow is stunning, pump efficiency is beyond anything else available, and they have run constantly despite my intentional and unrelenting abuse. One stopped working briefly until I dissolved the heavy calcium deposits from around the magnet assembly. Several months ago, I even broke one of the cheap plastic pieces, and lost an o-ring from, well, somewhere, but I plugged it back it and it ran like a charm. These pumps represent one of the major triumphs of water flow issues since I began keeping reef tanks.

Cyclop-Eeze© and Golden Pearls

Never before have there existed such excellent plankton substitutes for small mouths. Subjectively, there is no single product I have used that appears to have provided such dramatic results.

Protein Skimmers from My Reef Creations™

The cost of good protein skimmers is an abomination. The idea of most aquarists spending upwards of $750 or more on a piece of plastic through which air and water move is unthinkable to me. I have found the quality and performance of skimmers from this company to equal or surpass those of the "name brands." While not cheap, they are a veritable bargain by comparison.

Livestock from Tropicorium, ORA, and Inland Aquatics

Livestock from these places doesn't die without a lot of assistance from an aquarist. I won't go into the many reasons why this is probably the case, but a lot stems from the care and expertise of the owners and staff. Order accuracy, availability, color, selection, price, and eccentricities aside, in my mind the aquarist could do no better in their choice of a livestock supplier based on standards of health, survivability, and ethics than those listed above.

Emergency Readiness

It is only a matter of time before an aquarist faces some sort of accidental disaster. Such events seem to happen more frequently when one is not at home, of course. I have personally had massive tank disasters happen more than I care to admit. Some of them were unavoidable, others were not. Each time, after ameliorating further losses and restabilizing the tank, I took various steps to ensure that another similar event did not occur. Unfortunately, all too often I used a "bandage and a prayer" rather than truly taking steps to prevent future problems, and predictably, I incurred further losses at various times afterwards.

I can't express how heartbreaking it is to lose animals nurtured for many years, and this is doubly so when the reason for their death lies squarely in one's own hands. The financial losses alone can be extraordinary, the time spent growing or breeding or caring for various species is lost forever, and the loss of life is tragic. I would add that in my own case, and with most events I hear about, power failures are the most common reason massive aquarium losses occur. It is nearly impossible to ever be prepared for every contingency, but given the most likely scenarios, I would suggest the following:

Keep the following extra items on hand, beyond what is immediately being used:

Extra salt

- at least enough to prepare the same amount of water as the volume of all tanks in the house.


- I try to keep a broad-spectrum antibiotic, medicated foods, Lugol's iodine solution, and "Liquid Bandage" on my aquarium shelves for those fortunately rare cases where their use is warranted.


- I would suggest keeping at least ten gallons of clean freshwater available at all times. The numbers of times I have quickly had to use at least this water volume for one reason or another are uncountable. Were I to have waited for an RO unit to produce this volume, or had to go to the store and purchase water, serious losses could have occurred.


- I would store at least enough plastic bins or tanks to house every organism in the tank, even if extremely crowded, for a few days.


- An extra submersible pump capable of turning over the water in the tank in the event of failure of the main pump is a very wise idea. I've found that having an identical, back-up main pump is also good planning. In addition, at least one powerhead should be dedicated for each of the bins or containers mentioned above. I would also keep one extra impeller for each pump or powerhead in the tank. In most cases, tank inhabitants can be kept alive for many days or even weeks in just circulating (and heated) seawater, with no lights or filtration.


- I would keep at least enough used bulbs, extra bulbs, or extra fixtures on hand to provide a reasonable amount of light in the event of bulb or ballast failure. Providing light is less critical in the short term, but I also realize that many times it takes longer than expected to get replacements for specialty aquarium fixtures, during which time the tank can become unnecessarily compromised.


- I am fortunate to live in an area where heating tank water is rarely something that needs to be done. However, I was reminded by our editor that many poor souls live where it physically hurts to go outside in the winter. I don't know why anyone chooses to live where eighteen layers of clothing must be worn, or where it takes personal and city-wide effort to remove snow and ice to walk or drive, but nonetheless it seems they do. In such cases, reef aquaria are under some threat from these elements, and a back-up heater is an excellent plan to avoid frozen fish and corals. In addition, heaters in the aquarium hobby tend to be rather flimsy, in particular the glass ones. I think the availability of the titanium heaters in the trade, in addition to inline heaters (expensive), are probably the wisest puchase in terms of reliability and safety to ones' tank and oneself.

Back-up Power

- There are many ways to provide back-up power, and the subject has been written about elsewhere (Trevor-Jones). This is, however, the most critical piece of emergency equipment. Among the many options are generators, solar cells, UPC devices, battery powered equipment, and car battery power inverters. Included with any of these devices are the required power strips and extension cords needed to get power to the tank. It is not important to power everything in the tank, but it is essential to have a source of back-up power able to run at least a main pump or enough powerheads to keep the tank water circulating well.

Support Group

- Finally, making sure that there are people available and within contact to help or tend to an aquarium in the event of a problem is literally a lifesaver. Aquarium clubs provide ample opportunities to make such connections.


As is usually the case, I finish an article only at a semi-random point or arbitrary determination when I think I have written enough. There is really no way to exhaustively cover all the little things that are the product of years of experience. I find myself concerned that through some omission here I will indirectly cause the death of someone's livestock. I do sincerely hope that the information here will be of use to those who have not thought of such things, or have not yet had the opportunity to do so. I also encourage others to visit my forum on ReefKeeping to add their input and opinions to this short "Insider's Guide" to Reef Aquaria.

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


Holmes-Farley, Randy. 2000. Using Conductivity to Measure Salinity. Aquarium Frontiers.

Holmes-Farley. Randy. 2002. Phosphorus: Algae's Best Friend. Advanced Aquarist.

Holmes-Farley, Randy. 2002. A Look at Alkalinity, What It Is and Why It's Important. Advanced Aquarist.

Holmes-Farley, Randy. 2002. Specific Gravity: Oh How Complicated! Advanced Aquarist.


Inland Aquatics Morgan Lidster, contact

Tropicorium Dick Perrin, contact.

Oceans, Reefs and Aquariums Kevin Gaines, contact

MaxiJet powerheads from Aquarium Systems

Tunze stream pumps from Tunze


Golden Pearls from Brine Shrimp Direct

My Reef Creations™ Andy Daiss, contact

Visit some of Reef Central's sponsors for obtaining some of the other devices and products mentioned in this article.

Reefkeeping Magazine™ Reef Central, LLC-Copyright © 2008

An "Insider's" Guide to Reef Aquaria by Eric Borneman -