Carl Menard's (cman) Reef Aquarium

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I will start by saying how honored I am to have been chosen by Reefkeeping Magazine as a Tank of the Month recipient. I've always been amazed by the tanks that are selected each month and was thrilled to hear that my tank had been chosen for the month of March.

Aquarium Profile:
 90 gallon AGA glass tank
 75 gallon sump/refugium in basement
 Modern Series AGA stand
 Modern Series AGA canopy, modified for halides

I guess my introduction to the aquarium hobby has to be blamed on my wife's purchase of a 2.5-gallon freshwater tank about eight years ago. Shortly after adding the obligatory pair of goldfish, I had lost all interest - that is, until we purchased a 72-gallon bow front tank three years later. The 72-gallon tank has been a freshwater system from the start and has a mix of African cichlids. From the beginning, I was always on a quest for more colorful fish and I guess that's why I eventually looked into a saltwater tank.

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In December, 2000, I began researching what would be needed to set up a saltwater tank. Like many people entering this hobby, I didn't even have a clue as to what keeping a reef tank was all about. My initial plan was simply to get a larger tank than what we already had. I settled on a 90-gallon, and placed some dead coral decorations and a few colorful fish in it. At this point, that's all I really had in mind. Live rock, deep sand beds and corals were the furthest thing from my mind, mostly because I didn't have any understanding of what they were all about. All I knew was that I wanted a brightly lit tank with brightly colored fish.

Initially, I bought a 90-gallon All Glass Aquarium (AGA) tank, cherry stand, dual strip light and a 20-gallon sump. This seemed like a good place to start. While spending time in the local fish store, I was beginning to wonder what those weird (and interesting) looking tanks opposite the fish section were all about. Little did I know they were reef tanks, and my attraction to them would lead me down this path. Within a matter of weeks after setting up the tank, I decided that I would replace the dead coral with live rock, starting first with 30 lbs., and shortly thereafter adding another 70 pounds. Even at this point, my intention was not to do anything with corals, just fish. After all, what could I do with only 80 watts of fluorescent lighting over a 24" deep tank?

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I began thinking that if I added a bit more light, maybe I could introduce some of those low light corals that I was sure would do well in my tank. So, I added a 65-watt power compact fluorescent light and my first coral, a clove polyp. It's now almost three years later and I'm writing this article.

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The tank is a 90-gallon AGA reef-ready tank with the Modern Series cherry stand and hood. The overflow is modified with a Durso standpipe to quiet things down a bit. Circulation is provided by a Mag 24 return pump and four Maxijet powerheads controlled by a Red Sea Wavemaster Pro. A Dremel tool was used to modify and enlarge the top slots of the built-in overflow in order to run the Mag 24 without restricting the output too much. Luckily, I have never had to battle with any type of nuisance algae, and I believe the significant amount of water flow within the tank has been a contributing factor to this good fortune.

Water Parameters:
· Calcium: ~410ppm
· Alkalinity: 10 dKH
· Specific Gravity: ~1.024
· Temperature: 78 - 82°F
· pH: ~8.2


The lighting consists of 440 watts of VHO fluorescents and a dual 250-watt metal halide setup. The VHO bulbs are a mix of Super Actinic and Aquasun URI bulbs and the metal halide lamps are Ushio 10K. They are powered by a PFO dual ballast with mogul bases… pretty standard stuff.

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Lighting was my biggest challenge, and in hindsight I would never have bought the canopy that comes with the Modern Series. It's fine if all you have is a dual strip light, but because of its construction it becomes impossible to mount anything longer than a 36" bulb to the underside of the cover on the canopy.

10am: VHOs on
12pm: Halides on
 9pm: Halides off
10pm: VHOs off

I hit this problem six months after initially setting up the tank when I decided to upgrade from normal output to VHO bulbs. Because it has a "flap" type cover that sits inside the frame of the canopy, the clearance is only 45". I installed four 36" bulbs and staggered their placement to get a good enough light spread to cover the entire tank. Roughly six months after squeezing the VHO bulbs into the hood, I decided to upgrade to metal halides so I could try my hand at some different corals and also with the hopes of keeping a clam or two. The only way to mount the metal halide lights was to abandon the flap that sits on the canopy and build a new hood to house the lights and reflectors. I attached this hood to the original canopy, minus the flap, using door hinges from the local hardware store. By mounting the new hood onto the original canopy I was able to keep the metal halide bulbs about 9" off the water surface. Since I was building the hood from scratch, and seeing that I had had already made an investment in the VHO ballast, I decided to add these to the hood so I could use 48" bulbs. Two 4" fans made by Radio Shack provide cooling in the canopy, and they are connected to a variable speed switch that comes on with the metal halides. It's a bit tight in there, but the inhabitants seem to appreciate all the extra light.


I think this was the one area that made the biggest impact on the overall health of my system. I tend to feed heavily and with the high bio-load of my tank, I could not see myself experimenting with a skimmerless system. The first skimmer I bought was a Berlin Turbo in-sump model. I didn't realize how important this piece of equipment would be when I ordered my tank, and since I had limited space in the stand, I went with the Berlin. This was a mistake, as countless hours were spent modifying and tweaking this skimmer, and yet I just couldn't get it to produce any significant amount of skimmate. After installing a new sump/refugium in the basement, the water volume in my system had basically doubled, which all but made the Berlin useless. A lot of time was spent researching the pros and cons of all the various high-end skimmers on the market, and I ended up buying a EuroReef CS3-8. One of the deciding factors was that I needed a skimmer that I could submerge in the sump, and the EuroReef fit the bill. It has become absolutely, positively the best addition I've made to the filtration system. After using a Berlin for the first fifteen months, I basically went from not skimming at all to using the EuroReef. I couldn't believe how much gunk this skimmer produced! In its first week of operation, I probably collected more skimmate than I had during the previous fifteen months. The simplicity of its design makes it almost foolproof. Place it in the sump, plug it in, adjust the riser pipe and watch it skim!

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The sump and refugium was probably the biggest physical change I've done since intially setting up the tank. The original configuration included a 20-gallon long aquarium used as a sump and located in the stand under the tank. A Mag 7 return pump and Berlin skimmer were installed in the sump, along with some baffles to cut down on the bubbles produced by the overflow.

Fours months after setting up the tank I decided to install a bigger sump and add a refugium at the same time. Obviously, there was no way to do this in a 4' stand, so I had to come up with another solution. Luckily, there was some free space directly below the tank in the basement, so I decided to clear some room and take over a small section of the basement. The sump/refugium includes three main components: a 75-gallon glass tank, a 30-gallon Rubbermaid container, and a 13-gallon Nurce top-off tank.

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I bought the 75-gallon tank used for $50 and siliconed Plexiglas panels to the inside, creating a refugium area and a small compartment for the Mag 24 return pump. The refugium is in the leftmost part of the sump and takes up about 75% of the available space. The rightmost part of the sump houses the main return pump. To the right of the main sump is the Rubbermaid container that contains the EuroReef skimmer and three 200-watt Visi-Therm heaters. I have that part of the system raised above the top of the sump so I could install a few bulkheads and let gravity do its job spilling the water into the section of the sump where the return pump is located. The water flows down from the overflow in the tank above and then hits a 'Y' adapter, which directs it to two different areas. The first area is the refugium where the flow of water is controlled with a ball valve. I estimate that about 25% of the water flows in this direction - just enough to not create too much flow through the refugium. It then travels across the refugium through some baffles and into the return pump area. The other end of the 'Y' dumps into the Rubbermaid tub and is skimmed by the EuroReef, eventually spilling into the same baffles in the return area of the sump.

This is where spending a lot of time on Reef Central paid off the most. When I decided to move the sump into the basement, I used a lot of ideas gleaned from the forums to save money. The Rubbermaid container was $15, used 75-gallon tank - $50, Lights of America light fixture from Home Depot - $60 and Southdown sand - $35. Add about $50 worth of flexible tubing and ball valves and the whole system cost a little over $200.

What benefits did I see? Well, I basically doubled the volume of water in my system. This, I think, provides a more stable system overall. I also gain the benefit of having half of the water volume in the basement where the temperature remains a constant 60-65 degrees. With metal halide and VHO lights generating a lot of heat in the tank above, the cooler temperature in the basement helps keep the tank temperature within acceptable ranges. Also, while plumbing the return and overflow lines into the basement, I ran them through a few feet of the air conditioning ductwork for the house. During the summer, when the air conditioning is on, about two degrees of cooling is achieved by doing this, and I've been able to avoid needing a chiller.

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I think the one of the nicest benefits, though, of having the basement setup is the ability to work in an area where you can be a bit sloppy. The trashcan filled with pre-mixed saltwater for doing water changes was not a big hit with the wife when it was sitting in the middle of the family room. I can work on things and can leave them half done in the basement while the tank above still looks great. Water changes, which I do every four weeks or so, are simplified because I connect a line from my sump/refugium to the sewer line for the house. I typically change about 50 gallons at a time, and assuming that the water is already mixed, I can accomplish this in about 15 minutes. Over the years I have found that the best way to have a consistent water-changing regimen is to make it as simple as possible.

Water Top-Off and Supplements:

The final part of the basement setup is the water top-off system. The system evaporates about two gallons of water per day. I have a 13-gallon Nurce top-off unit that sits above and to the left of the sump and is filled once a week from an RO/DI unit, which is installed in an upstairs laundry area. At first, I relied on water changes to restore whatever elements had been depleted over time in my system. As the bio-load increased, I started using B-ionic on a daily basis to manage calcium and alkalinity. I couldn't keep up with the demands by using just B-ionic, so I began dripping kalkwasser. After about six months of mixing kalkwasser every day, a kalkwasser reactor was added to the Nurce top-off system and I now only have to add kalkwasser to the reactor every four or five weeks. Other than that, I run carbon continuously in a Magnum hang-on canister filter.

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As I said at the beginning of this article, my original intention was to set up a fish-only tank. Over the years that idea has morphed into what I have today. As far as corals go, the tank is generally a mixture of LPS, SPS and soft corals, but tends to lean more heavily toward the soft corals and LPS. The lack of a lot of SPS is probably why I have been able to avoid purchasing a calcium reactor. The fish are fed automatically every morning by an Eheim feeder, and every other day I feed a mixture of various frozen foods. Cyclop-Eeze© is fed three or four times a week and everything (corals, inverts and fish) seems to love this food. Here is a list of the inhabitants in my tank:

Hippo tang
Neon goby
Green Chromis
Pajama cardinal
Watchman goby
Citron goby
Six-Line wrasse
Royal Gramma
Coral Beauty dwarf angel
Pink Skunk clownfish
Percula clownfish (mated pair)

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Cleaner shrimp
Blood shrimp
Serpent star
Tuxedo urchin
Coco worm
Porcelain crab
Hawaiian feather duster
Orange Linckia starfish
Bubble-Tip anemone - hosted by the Pink Skunk clownfish
Long Tentacle anemone - hosted by the pair of Percula clownfish
8" Derasa clam
6" Crocea clam
Astrea snails
Tiger Trochus snails
Mexican Turbo snails

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Green Star polyps
Brown button polyps
Yellow Porites
Various leather corals
Short-tentacle plate coral
Red open brain coral
Green maze brain coral
Yellow scroll coral
Snake polyp
Red Lobophyllia
Green hairy mushrooms
Various zoanthids
Montipora spp.

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Well, I guess, like a lot of us here, I'm addicted to this hobby. I've spent a lot of time over the last three years getting the tank to look the way it does now. I'm in no way an expert, but know just enough to be able enjoy reef keeping and how to keep a healthy tank. One of the things that amazes me the most is how difficult it can be to explain exactly what I have sitting in my family room. No matter how you explain it, or how many pictures you show, people are just amazed when they finally see it. I guess that's part of the payback for all the hard work we put into our tanks.

In conclusion, I'd like to thank a few people for making this hobby enjoyable to me. Although it's all too often the local fish stores get unfairly criticized, I have found that they have been a very valuable resource. Without some of their guidance, I would have wasted a lot of money. I'd also like to thank my friends and relatives, who by showing genuine interest in my tank, have unknowingly encouraged me to continue to make my tank look as good as it can. And finally, I want to thank my wife and two children for putting up with me and this crazy hobby!

Now on to that 500-gallon tank that would look fantastic in the family room…

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Feel free to comment or ask questions about my tank in the Tank of the Month thread on Reef Central.

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Tank of the Month - March 2004 -