Coralmania by Eric Borneman

The Old Becomes New, Yet Again: Sandbeds and Vodka

"One hundred thousand lemmings can't be wrong." - Graffito, The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations, 2nd ed.

It seems as though the reefkeeping hobby is filled with "new" ideas that are periodical and cyclical in nature. Roger Vitko provided an interesting article on the history of the reef aquarium hobby that set an interesting background to this article. Mostly, I am prompted to write this month based mainly on the recent banter on Internet groups on the premise and promise of adding quantities of grain alcohol to tanks. Before discussing this topic, however, I will briefly cover several other similar historical and current trends and thoughts by which reef aquarists seem to constantly "re-invent" themselves. It is, I admit, somewhat disturbing, although not because I am inherently against the revised and improved application of ideas and techniques. Instead, it is because the same principles are applied to the same application, making such efforts less of an improvement and more of a repeat performance that was a "two thumbs down" viewing the first time around.

In order for ideas such as those presented in this article to become effective and proven, they must stand up to several principles. First, they must "stand the test of time." Something that seems effective over a short period of time but often seems to show another (often contrary) effect over longer periods. Second, the ideas or practices should be based upon sound methods or upon concepts with some "raison d'etre." Third, other potential trials by others should be carefully analyzed with skepticism rather than with a "bandwagon effect." In other words, being cautiously optimistic produces less observational bias than being gleefully expectative (otherwise known as easily disappointed, rash, or even stupid).

Fourth, and finally, a review of my articles on myths and anecdote, and Ron Shimek's article on the scientific method, would be of great benefit to those so inclined to make the old, or the new, new again and avoid the pitfalls and steps backward that seem predisposed when accompanied by statements such as "my tank has never looked better," and "my corals polyp extension is bigger, their color is better, and they have doubled in size in the last month." Richard Harker gave excellent commentary at the IMAC 2003 conference about the ridiculous nature of the first comment, and I have explained many times in past writings and posts how neither polyp extension nor coloration are necessarily valid indicators of coral health. And, in my estimation the only way a coral is going to double in size in the time period many aquarists suggest happens is if a single polyp colony divides or if a tiny fragment grows a tiny amount.

I am in a vociferous mood this month, having already spent a large amount of time this month writing other things that involved large amounts of background citations. This article, therefore, is a "recent historical follow-up" of sorts to Vitko's article. In turn, I tackle current issues beings discussed by aquarists around "Webtown USA," with views from within the temporal confines of the rapid advancements that have occurred since I have been around. While not having the length of experience of some in this hobby, I think fifteen years is enough to say I have moved beyond the stage of novice, even if I still maintain the excitement, enthusiasm, and learning (often by trial and error) that characterizes this passionate endeavor of keeping simple invertebrates in glass boxes of saltwater.

Lesson Learned: The Early Years.
My first real working reef tank was a 55-gallon aquarium, having abandoned the garage-sale 30-gallon tall tank that was rather functionless as a reef display. I visited a local fish store in 1992 and fell in love with Chaetodermis pencilligerus, the tassled filefish. The storeowners assured me it would be "fine" in my reef tank. While I was fortunate that this fish did not eat other tank inhabitants, eventually it grew to a length equivalent to the width of the 55 gallon tank, and spent months in a stationary position facing one way or the other down the length of the tank. I was able to find this beautiful fish a home in a public aquarium, but this is not a good option since most public aquariums will not act as a foster home for poorly chosen or unwanted aquarium pets. I was lucky, and my beautiful filefish was even luckier.
Lesson learned: Fish store personnel and hobbyists, even if having good intentions, are not always a source of good or accurate information. That lesson gave me the motivation to research all aspects of every animal I purchased from that point onward, from anecdotal aquarium observations and experiences to scientific sources acquired through university library readings. To me, these animals are precious enough that they deserve no less.

The "New" Berlin Method

"The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it." - Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980).

As Roger Vitko chronicled, the Berlin method began in the 1980s, and original descriptions utilized a thin sand bed as a substrate base material. Later in the 1980s and continuing into the early 1990s, the sand bed was eliminated as a "nutrient trap." When I entered the hobby with my air-driven counter-current $49.95 skimmer and 5500K metal halides, I too delicately stacked and packed Florida Keys live rock on a slippery glass bottom in what had to be a wall-like manner in order to cram enough live rock into the tank to provide what was thought to be adequate "natural filtration." Rockslides occurred regularly, and the tank (while successful for the time) always looked silly. It was a pile of rocks with fish swimming in and around this carbonate hodgepodge, and corals carefully perched or wedged on shelves created by the rock surfaces. Detritus was a constant problem; the bare bottom accumulated the material and made it visible and unattractive, so weekly siphoning of detritus was part of the maintenance routine. Of course, detritus was minimally removed by skimming because there was really no way to get good water flow in the tank because it was crammed full of rock, and so waste material just fell to the bottom like so many snowflakes on a windless winter night.

The early- to mid- 1990s saw the re-development of adding sand beds to reef aquaria, and these were now deeper, carbonate based, and biologically based. The trend was based largely on a series of articles by Shimek, and later by many others (myself included) that supported the use of what would later be colloquialized to a "dsb" or deep sand bed. This development was largely a trend in the United States, with most Europeans shunning the notion and having decided fifteen years earlier that sand beds were a "nutrient bomb waiting to blow." In the late 1990s, I commented that if they were a nutrient bomb, they seemed to be so on a timescale of at least seven years - the length of time I had a still-running Jaubert tank with a very deep sand bed. Other aquarists seemed to confirm the same, and soon it seemed that virtually all U.S. reefkeepers were utilizing deep sand beds. A few skeptics during this time recommended removing portions of the sand bed due to feared or postulated nutrient accumulations, though there was no evidence to support such a thing actually happened. In fact, one of the benefits of using sand beds was that detritus and waste was utilized by the sand bed fauna, flora, and microbial community, enhancing denitrification and allowing the use of less live rock with the corresponding increase in water flow throughout the tank. And this is exactly what sand beds do, in a nutshell.

It is perhaps ironic that the methods developed for successful reef mesocosms by Adey (1983) had already promoted and utilized deep sand beds, that the "Jaubert method" (Jaubert 1989) strictly depended on the use of heavy carbonate beds, that Julian Sprung wrote about his successful application of Jaubert-based tanks in the early 1990s, and that I established my first pure Jaubert system in 1994 to great success for many years, and continued to run (even today) tanks filtered naturally without the use of skimmers. In the early 1990s, people "pulled the plug" on their wet-dry filters. In the mid-1990s, some people began pulling the plug on their skimmers and adding deep sand beds. Now, it seems people are pulling the plug on their sand beds and going back to heavy skimming and bare bottoms - a fifteen year old method whose inadequacies were the cause of the bare bottom demise in the first place. In its place, we have a host of new (and expensive) mechanical filters, phosphate products to be used in special apparatus, exceedingly sophisticated protein skimmers, sulfur denitrators, and other products. Similar products used to adorn the pages of advertisements in a 1992 issue of FAMA by companies whose products I once poured over, wondering if it was something I needed or should have for my tank - until we all figured out that the apparatus either didn't work, made unsubstantiated claims, or found there were better and more natural ways to "do it." (As an aside, it's simply amazing to see how many companies are using the exact same advertisement they were 12 years ago!)

What's wrong with this picture? Why would aquarists suddenly begin removing sand beds given their useful function in many regards? I cannot answer in every case, but it seems as though a lot of it is the same herd mentality that caused the addition of sand beds in the first place (the difference, of course, being that the sand bed addition was a good idea!). Again, speculation and loud vocalization about sand beds becoming nutrient traps from a few became the calling sound for the Internet hobbyist who pretended to suddenly have insights into processes usually based on several factors: 1) their tank had never looked "worse;" 2) that hair algae was everywhere and corals were dying, and was certainly due to the sand bed (and not the fact that their tank was two months old, had abominable water quality, were overfed and overstocked, had no herbivores present except three Astraea snails and a hermit crab, and had a power filter with the sponge taken out for water flow); and 3) that the sum total of time spent in the hobby is usually on the order of a couple of months to a couple of years.

I have said before that I am not the world's most diligent reefkeeper. My maintenance routine is lax, my major tasks being watching corals grow and killing Aiptasia anemones. I would estimate I feed probably ten times more food that the average aquarist, and never do water changes on my main reef tank intentionally. I don't use magic mud, don't have a refugium crammed full of Caulerpa, and never have deaths from the leaching of nutrients or the explosion of hydrogen sulfide. I have been using deep sand beds for over ten years, and have never had one become a nutrient trap. While my current main tank is skimmed, I long for the days when I was home all the time and could again feel safe running the tank without a skimmer as I do on other systems, or when my tank "had never looked better" in the late 90s (although I have to say it looks pretty good tonight).

Fortunately, there are now real answers to these speculations on sand beds, and I sincerely hope that they are read and understood and practiced as being more valuable than the opinions and observations of people who have had problems and would likely never admit or even know why the other causative factors were involved. I would call attention to the words written and spoken by Charles Delbeek at MACNA XIII regarding testing of sand beds and plenums at the Waikiki aquarium, and even more so, the experiments performed by Rob Toonen and presented at this year's IMAC and MACNA conferences, soon to be published, and whose other works (including the articles, Are Plenums Obsolete, parts 1 and 2) on the subject can be found through this website. Perhaps then, intelligent choices can be made and advances - rather than retreats - will occur in this area.

"There are scores of thousands of human insects who are ready at a moment's notice to reveal the will of God on every possible subject." - George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950).

Lesson Learned: The Middle Years
I had, by 1996, become a strong believer in deep sand beds. Having purchased live sand from the Marshall Islands at $6.99 per pound, and with the Tonga and Marshall Islands live rock in my tank having cost $12.99 per pound, my 120 gallon reef tank represented quite an investment in substrate alone. I was using three 175-watt 10,000K bulbs supplemented with actinics, a homemade skimmer that was six feet tall and utilizing a 1.5-inch Mazzei venturi injector. I was also using a surge tank for water flow based on the Carlson device that had just appeared in SeaScope (Carlson 1996). The house I was renting at the time had a constant crust of salt from the surge spray all around the tank and even the electrical outlets. I also had a pure Jaubert system as a 40-gallon breeder tank that had been in operation for two years at this point. Some aquarists had been suggesting that it might be a good idea to stir sand beds and release the accumulated detritus for removal by skimmers and to provide particulate foods for the corals. Already long considering the lack of particulates in the water column and ways to provide them, but not having given much thought to sedimentary microbiology or changes to water chemistry by stirring these sediments, it sounded like a good idea. So I stirred my sand beds a few times over a period of a week. Initially, I was impressed as the coral polyps opened and fed on the material that clouded the water column. A week later, most of my Acroporids began sloughing tissue, and I had my first really serious bout with what was then called "rapid tissue necrosis." It wiped out most of my corals, and it spawned my interest in what would eventually become one of the major subjects of the dissertation that I am now in the process of completing.
Lesson Learned: Sand beds are great, but are best left alone. They harbor huge populations of microbes, many of which are opportunistically, indirectly, or directly pathogenic to aquarium inhabitants (and humans). The changes in redox that occur in sand beds, along with disruption of anoxic pockets that may contain hydrogen sulfide, wreak havoc on all manner of water column parameters and can result in the death of virtually every fish and invertebrate in the tank. They are not nutrient bombs, but do need to be understood for proper function in an aquarium.

Could I See Some ID?

"No other human being, no woman, no poem or music, book or painting can replace alcohol in its power to give man the illusion of real creation." - Marguerite Duras (1881 - 1975) English novelist, humorist.

I venture back in time, to 1995, as I was discussing with Ed Puterbaugh, the co-author of our book, A Practical Guide to Corals, what several aquarists in his home state of Kentucky were doing at that time. They were adding vodka to their tanks and reported all sorts of magical benefits including the reduction of nitrates. I listened with a "cocked ear" and arched eyebrow as Puterbaugh enthusiastically asked for my opinion and offered his intent of beginning immediate dosing of his recently set-up aquarium. I pondered the idea, explained why I thought it wouldn't be a great idea, and had not heard of it more than a handful of times since then until the past year. I haven't heard from Puterbaugh, either - also a good thing. Now, apparently, some members of the European reef aquarium community are proposing adding vodka or ethanol to reef tanks in what is yet another "rage du jour" both here, abroad, and on Internet forums.

I will continue with this topic next month.

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


Adey WH. 1983. The microcosm: a new tool for reef research. Coral Reefs 1: 193-201

Jaubert J., 1989. An integrated nitrifying-denitrifying biological system capable of purifying seawater in a closed circuit aquarium. Bull. Inst. Océanogr. Monaco 5: 101-106

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The Old Becomes New, Yet Again: Sandbeds and Vodka by Eric Borneman -