In mid 2001, the nitrates in my main tank were running between 15-25 ppm. Since, at the time, the order of the day called for no nitrates ever, I decided to follow the current trend and invest in a refugium. The problem was I had very little space in my back room so I ended up with a laughably small (to me, anyway) 29g ‘tall’ tank that had to be plumbed into the system from clear across the room. I dutifully added a layer of live sand, a couple of ‘Flora and Fauna’ kits, then lit it all with a 96W Powercompact Smartlight and waited for the magic to happen. But it didn’t. The macroalgae began taking off on schedule and it was truly fascinating to watch the little pods, worms, shrimp and snails go about their daily business but as far as bringing down my nitrates?nothing. After several months, I began to consider taking it down, figuring perhaps it was too small to be effective. Then suddenly, at about the six-month mark, my readings dropped to nearly undetectable within a span of two weeks! I couldn’t believe it myself. It really WAS like magic.
Now, besides aesthetics, my only problem with it was that it wasn’t so-called ‘reef ready’. This meant that the outgoing water had to be fed to the overflow through an old fashioned ‘J’ tube which had to constantly be monitored against the formation of air bubbles which could readily break the siphon and overflow a great deal of the main tank’s water onto the floor. And you know how the wives’ just love that. Anyway, after a couple of near misses, I upgraded that tank to a 40g ‘breeder’ (just about the same footprint) and had it seriously plumbed into the main system. It still wasn’t pretty, but it worked and I had no more siphon break worries. About a year or so later, I noticed that many reef keepers had started moving away from maintaining the various macroalgaes in their refugium due to their propensity to go ‘sexual’ (spawn, basically) every now and then. As great as this might be for the algae, it is not so great for you as the gametes released by them will not only severely cloud your tank, but also deplete your oxygen levels, spike your CO2, and, in extreme cases, crash your entire system. If you’d like a little more information about it, try here:
So with several macroalgaes now on the bad-for-you list, what do I now use to help uptake excess nutrients? Chaetomorphia: An interesting rootless plant that looks like a ball of discarded green fishing line. Another real positive about it is that it makes a perfect home for your pod population also, kind of like a nursery. Several online vendors have Chaeto but once established, the stuff grows so quickly that a shout out to your local reef club, etc, should have you wallowing in it for practically no cost at all. Just give it light and, if you can, situate it in your fuge so that it tumbles gently in your water flow. Gently is the operative word here; don’t let it spin like a top as nothing’s worse than having to go into your refugium every morning to clean up little pools of pod vomit. But tumbling it too slowly (or not at all) comes with it’s share of problems too, namely cyanobacteria.
This stuff will grow in just about any water condition as it doesn’t take at lot of nutrients to feed it, but what it seems to love best is ‘dead pockets’ such as the kind that a ball of non tumbling cheato can easily create. That is pretty much what happened to me after awhile because no one was nice or perhaps informed enough at the time to tell me to keep my cheato moving. So, it should come as no surprise that soon, the cyano began to form in my main tank and, before I knew it, I had a real battle on my hands. Remember, just because your test kit says you have no nutrients, trust me, you have nutrients. If you REALLY didn’t have any nutrients, pretty much everything in your tank would die?with the possible exception of your cyano since it seems to require so darn little to survive. Your task, is to find that delicate balance; keep just enough ‘fuel’ in the tank to keep your corals happy but not enough to feed your cyano. And this, to bring it full circle, will hopefully be accomplished by your tumbling ball of chaeto.
Or you can do what I did and just tear the whole thing down.
Not the main tank, but the refugium. See, not knowing any better, I thought my cyano problems were caused by the sandbed, or more precisely, by nutrients that were building up in the sandbed. This, by the way, was one of the main reasons I never tried sandbeds in my display tank; I figured they were just another thing to maintain or else they would quickly become nutrient sinks.
So, in this case, I simply removed what I thought was the source of the problem and redid the refugium as a barebottom. Of course, this also removed much of the fauna but since I DID keep the cheato, which in turn kept the pods, (all still non tumbling, of course), I’m thinking I’m still good to go. Well, I wasn’t. In fact, if my test readings were correct, both my nitrates AND phosphates were actually beginning to increase a little. So was my cyano.
Now clearly frustrated and willing to share it with whoever would listen, I was turned onto a little device called a Korallin Biodenitrator. What was it? A sandbed, basically, except the ‘sand’ was make up of sulfur pellets and instead of it being maintained as a substrate, it all housed in a little canister through which tank water was pumped to feed the bacteria growing on the pellets. There was also a layer of aragonite to help restore pH levels before the water was dripped back into the sump. It took about six weeks to break mine in but once it did, I have to say that my nitrates did begin to head back down. As usual, I had also stepped up my water changes and other aspects of my husbandry too so whether this drop was solely due to the denitrator, I can’t say. What I CAN say is that after several months, my nutrient level had dropped to the point that I was even having trouble maintaining the cheato! So I ended up taking it out altogether.
Of course, this left me with a tank that no longer had a real purpose. I did need a quarantine tank for new fish from time to time but because this one was tied into my display system, I couldn’t exactly medicate or try hyposalinity so it seemed like I was stuck.
To the rescue came a friend who used to work at one of the LFS I frequented, but he recently moved to Florida. Remembering my penchant for the unusual, he called and asked me if I was interested in aquirring a Liopropoma carmabi (Candy Basslet). This is a case where the fish’s common name is all but useless because there are several species in that genus referred to as ‘Candy Basslets’. Once you see this one, however, you’ll remember it forever and I’d wanted one quite babdly ever since Greg Schiemers’ write up about it in Advanced Aquarium Magazine?which, of course, my friend happened to know. So, long story short, I bought the fish and made the tank its brand new home, decorating it with several caves and hiding spots that the research (Gregs article) mentioned it prefers. Regarding the possible transference of disease, I have to say that this was an instance that I didn’t really care too much. There was nothing short of taking the tank offline and making it a separate entity that I could do anyway and, quite frankly, I wasn’t up for the hassle. Obviously, this is one instance where I’d rather you didn’t follow my example, even though it worked this time. Had it not, I would’ve had no one to blame but myself for the result which in many ways, is almost as bad as the disaster itself. So please, if there’s any way possible, always QT your fish before adding them to an existing population. It’s much cheaper than replacing everything.
But, getting back to the tank, I’m happy to say it remained this way for a couple of years, at least. Clearly, the basslet appreciated this as it abandoned its normal shy and retiring behavior and actually became quite the show-off. Especially around feeding time. Occasionally, though, the tank would serve double duty as I would use it to store an SPS frag or two but I was not about to make it a permanent frag tank due to the inherent reduced flow and lighting compared to the display. So, yep, everything was going just fine and everyone concerned was quite contented. And then of course, the crash happened.
You’ll recall that I previously mentioned that the crash had little to no effect whatsoever on the fish so my little basslet seemed blissfully unaware of the chaos surrounding him. He was also unaware that during my darkest moments I was seriously contemplating selling him and the tank he called home to anyone who would make me a serious offer. After all, were it not for the fact that I had to feed him twice a day, I wouldn’t have to walk by the disaster that used to be my prized show tank and be reminded just how much the entire hobby sucked for me right now. Heck, it didn’t even have to be a serious offer! Just an offer; as long as I didn’t have to be there when you picked it up. But before this could happen, a little bit of fate stepped in. And now as I look back, I can say that without this tank, the odds are good I may have rebuilt the other one.
Again, you may recall that once I reached the point of actually discussing the crash and maybe even giving up the hobby with some reefkeeping friends, one in particular (Ali) mentioned that instead of entirely walking away, I might want to try maintaining some ‘LPS’ coral for a while. There had certainly been a trend building in that direction for a year or two now as more and more established SPS tanks seemed to ‘mysteriously’ go down and more and more SPS-specific pests would ‘mysteriously’ pop up. Also, with the recent influx of wildly colored Australian corals such as Acanthastraea, Scolymia, Wellsyphillia and even some entirely new (to me) species like Duncanosamma, and Dendrophyllia, this facet even began to boast the ‘eye-candy’ swagger that used to be the exclusive domain of SPS. Not to mention, most of them were a heck of a lot easier to keep.
Then, in the reefkeeping equivalent of spiking the ball, he proceeded to show me a couple colonies of Catalaphyllia jardinei (Elegance coral) that he’d been maintaining for nearly six months in one of his displays. Now, as some of you older-salts may remember, this coral was an absolute staple in our tanks way back in the wet/dry filter days. I had one that was easily 18” long and half again as wide before the Northridge earthquake caused its demise under an avalanche of live rock. Then, for some reason, they became impossible for most anyone to keep longer than a few weeks before they would slowly shrivel up and dissolve into globs of fairly expensive mucus. And for several years, no one really knew why. I was a proponent of the ‘maybe we keep our water too clean’ school of thought myself. But then it was discovered that disease was the culprit and for well over a decade they were relegated to the Do Not Buy list for all but the most daring (or stubborn) of us.
Recently however, these corals have also been imported from Australlia and they seem to be disease free! So, for the Elegance lovers, it seems the good times are back. And needless to say, I am an old time Elegance lover. So I grabbed one and tried it out in the 40g. Success. Then I found and tried another. Again, success. Then I tried some acans?and a Duncan, and? You get the idea. During the worst of times for the big tank, the success of the little one really helped carry me through.
So why then didn’t I just do all LPS in the 500g too? Well, remember that new lighting system I just put on it? Yes, the one that killed everything. Do you know how much that puppy cost? There was no way I was about to take that sucker down again and put up another less powerful set just to stay to play it safe and keep myself in the hobby. This way, I’ve got the best of both worlds; SPS out front and LPS in the back. I’m also happy to report that as of this writing, the Basslet is still with me, despite all the intrusions and changes made to its home. Needless to say, the offer for sale I made back then is hereby rescinded?for now.
Right now, I’d say the only problem with this tank is it’s chronic algae problem; mainly Hair algae and cyano. I am continually fiddling with the lights and the circulation, hoping to find that happy median that the animals love and the algae can’t stand. So far, not much luck. So I’m content (well, maybe not content; it’s just something to which I’ve resigned myself) to scrape and siphon out this stuff as often as possible. With the help of a recently added clean-up crew, I’m hoping that THIS battle is a relatively short one.