Steve Schafer's (sschafer) Reef Aquarium

Click here for larger image

Introduction and Background:

I was utterly dumbstruck when I was asked to have my tank featured as Tank of the Month. I have always looked up to the reefkeepers who have been given such an honor, and it seems as though I learn something new from each of those featured tanks.

My father taught high school Chemistry, Photography (never would have guessed that from looking at my pictures), and Biology so I was raised with a great respect for the natural sciences. I remember looking through all the Biology textbooks in awe when I was little. I've had aquariums pretty much as long as I can remember. I started out with a small freshwater community tank when I was four or five. I then moved into African Cichlids, and progressed to Discus from there. I set up my first saltwater tank in my early teens; I remember it quite well. It was a 29-gallon tank with an undergravel filter in which I kept a small Lunare Wrasse, Picasso Trigger and Snowflake Moray.

In my Junior year of high school I took a Marine Biology course which finished with a trip to San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. Snorkeling there was utterly amazing. I had never seen anything so incredible. Upon my return I set up my first "reef" tank. It was a 55-gallon tank with a hang-on-the-back overflow that drained into a wet/dry filter . At that time, I knew of only one reef shop, and it was a 30-minute drive away. I had to tear down this tank when I went away to college. Then a few years passed during which I did not maintain an aquarium at all. I actually raised numerous geckos from around the world, as well as chameleons from Africa and Madagascar, but that's an entirely different story. Upon returning to my hometown I set up a 29-gallon reef. This quickly became a 54-gallon reef and then, after I purchased a house, evolved into the 120-gallon tank I now maintain. Those of us in the Rochester area are very fortunate to have three excellent reef shops nearby, and three others within an hour's drive.

The "big tub of water," as my wife likes to refer to it, is in our foyer. Since I am 6' 2" tall and the foyer has no seating area, I decided to make the stand quite a bit taller than the average stand typically seen for sale. I do need a step ladder to get anywhere near the bottom of the tank, but I don't have to lean over to view what I have spent so much time and money on. If I had to do it all over again, and I will, I would certainly keep the tank at this height. The aquarium's overflows drain about 13' into the basement. I was lucky enough to have an existing 10' x 10' room in the basement that is perfect for all my aquarium gear.

Aquarium Profile:

120-gallon All Glass reef-ready aquarium
Dimensions: 48" x 24" x 24"
Stand height: 42"
50-gallon sump
100-gallon refugium


9:30 am: Actinics on
11:00 am: Metal halides on
9:00 pm: Metal halides off
9:30 pm: Refugium lights on
10:00 pm: Actinics off
9:00 am: Refugium lights off

I used a set of four 55-watt power compacts over my two previous reef tanks. After seeing a number of very successful local reef tanks, I was pretty much set on adding metal halides to the mix. I managed to keep a number of SPS under the power compacts, but I really wanted to expand my SPS selection. Currently, I am running two 250-watt Hamilton 14K metal halide bulbs on old style IceCap ballasts. Accompanying these are two 110-watt URI Actinic VHO bulbs running on an IceCap 660. I feel this gives the tank quite an appealing look. The canopy is cooled with a single IceCap variable speed fan. Before switching to the Hamilton 14K bulbs I used Aqualine Buske 10K's. Some of the corals looked much nicer under the AB's while others look better under the Hamiltons. I'm considering upgrading the metal halides to 400-watt double-ended HQI bulbs on the new style IceCap ballasts. I'm going to wait, however, until I read a little more feedback and see them running in person. The refugium is lit by four 110-watt URI VHO bulbs (two actinic and two daylight).

Filtration and Circulation:

I have quite a high bioload in the tank so live rock and skimming are key to maintaining happy and healthy occupants. The main tank has approximately 150 lbs. of Fiji live rock. Initially, I included a 2" to 3" deep sandbed consisting entirely of Southdown play sand. What a mistake that was! I have been trying to get rid of all that sand for quite some time now. While it may have served a purpose for the first year or so, all it has done lately is cause lots of headaches. I've found that the Southdown sand kills the edges on many of my Echinophyllia and significantly retards their growth. The next tank will have a bare bottom with a faux sandbed (using Starboard on the bottom). Until then I'll continue to try to remove the Southdown and replace it with a thin layer of crushed coral.

Water from the tank is filtered through a 100 micron Pure Flo filter pad as it enters the 50-gallon sump. I run approximately 8 oz. of Seachem MatrixCarbon in the system, replacing it once a week. Skimming is done by a EuroReef CS8-3, which I've found to be an exceptional skimmer.

Tank1_big.jpg Tank10_big.jpg Tank13_big.jpg
Tank2_big.jpg Tank3_big.jpg Tank4_big.jpg

A Mag-Drive 7 feeds water to the refugium, which started out as a 100-gallon algae scrubbing system. It was originally filled with live rock and Chaetomorpha algae, but I found that the algae trapped tons of detritus. In an effort to try to keep the tank a little cleaner, I've decided that the algae have outlasted their welcome. The refugium now contains about 130 lbs. of live rock and whatever corals from the main tank will grow under VHO lighting.

A single Iwaki MD70RLT has provided water circulation since I originally set the tank up two-and-a-half years ago. This pump has approximately 13 feet of head pressure on it, so I estimate its return at approximately 1000 GPH. Water is retuned to the tank via the two AGA overflow returns. I did use a ½" Sea Swirl for approximately one year, but unfortunately its drive mechanism broke. I've recently added a Tunze Wavebox 6212. While it doesn't fit into this tank very well, its performance is quite impressive, and I actually I like it so much that my next tank will be designed around integrating one in an inconspicuous location. I seem to get much better polyp extension with the Wavebox, and my Mustard tang and a couple of wrasses love to surf the 5000 GPH surge.

Water Parameters:
Calcium: ~ 430 ppm
Alkalinity: 8 - 10 dKH
Specific Gravity: ~ 1.025
pH: 8.2 -8.4
Temperature: 78 - 80ºF

Additives and Supplements:

The only additives I use are Calcium and Alkalinity. These are controlled by a Geo 6" x 12" calcium reactor filled with CaribSea media. A PinPoint monitor tracks the effluent pH. Evaporated water is replaced with RO/DI water from a four-stage purification system. I currently do this manually, but at some point I am really going to need to automate this process. I know it is quite easy to do; I just need to find the time.

Husbandry and Maintenance:

The tank requires relatively little maintenance, though my wife may tell you otherwise. I scrape algae from the glass every couple of days. The EuroReef skimmers have massive collection cups, so I empty the skimmate about once a week. Every week or two I do a 10% to 20% (total system volume) water change using RO/DI water and either Reef Crystals or Oceanic salt. I have quite a number of messy eaters in the tank, so these water changes are essential. Every now and then I have Bryopsis outbreaks. I've never been able to get rid of it entirely, and I don't really think I ever will. Unfortunately, a couple years ago I purchased a small coral colony that had a small amount of Bryopsis growing on the rock it was attached to. Foolishly, I placed this colony, including the Bryopsis, into my tank. A couple of weeks later the Bryopsis had spread to other rocks in the tank. A word of warning . . . never, EVER let Bryopsis into your tank! If a colony you purchase has any on the base rock, break it off before it goes into the tank.

Click here for larger image
Click here for larger image


Since I have numerous fish, I feed the tank fairly heavily. I feed once during the daylight hours. This feeding consists of a random assortment of Mysis, brine shrimp, krill, nori, and scallops. So far, I have been unable to switch the Rhinopias over to frozen foods, so I feed it live fish once or twice a week. He also has fed himself a number of times, decreasing the number of tank occupants. An hour or so after the lights go out I target feed the Acanthastrea with Mysis, brine shrimp, and Cyclop-eeze™. Every now and then I soak the foods in Selcon™ for 15 minutes before feeding.

Tank20_big.jpg Tank35_big.jpg
Tank36_big.jpg Tank37_big.jpg


I have always considered fish an integral part of a reef aquarium. In fact, I consider them equal in importance to the corals. I tried to design my rockwork to provide plenty of swimming room and hiding spaces for small, medium, and large fish. I am always willing to take a few risks with a fish that I really like.

7746jewel_tang_2_small.jpg Tank30_big.jpg Tank31_big.jpg
Tank32_big.jpg Tank33_big.jpg Tank40_big.jpg
Tank41_big.jpg Tank46_big.jpg Tank8_big.jpg

Seemingly everyone asks me if the Blue Ring angel eats much coral. The only corals I have seen it pick at are brown star polyps (good riddance) and a neon candy coral. I banished the candy coral to the refugium last year and have since reintroduced it to the tank. The angel doesn't pay it any mind now. The Bellus angel, which is supposedly 100% reef safe, likes to pick at my Acanthastrea lordhowensis colony. I now have that colony in a location where the Bellus angel can't get at it. I would hate to have to get rid of her, though I know a number of locals who are ready to snatch her up if the chance arises.

My favorite fish in the bunch is my Mustard tang. It is astoundingly ugly and amazingly beautiful at the same time. This fish is found in surge zones and loves to get right into the fast currents in the tank. At least a few times a day I'll find her sitting right in front of the returns thrashing against the current. The Wavebox's 5000 GPH output seems to be most enjoyable as well. I added the Desjardinii tang when it was rather small. The Mustard tang gave it a rather good lashing so I moved the Mustard tang to the refugium for a couple of weeks. Within a couple of days she was completely covered with Ich. After about a week I figured if Ich was in the refugium it was everywhere in the tank so I moved her back to the main tank. Within two days there were no outward signs of Ich at all, and she never got it again. I think this illustrates just how important high flow rates are to these fish.

Wrasses pretty much dominate my tank. I can't get enough of them. At one point I had five different Cirrhilabrus wrasses coexisting without any issues. I dropped their numbers down a bit to add a couple of predators. I found an amazing Australian Harlequin tuskfish at a local shop and, lucky for me, I had just enough credits from fragments that I sold them to take it home without spending a dime. I don't know what experiences others have had with Harlequins in a reef, but mine have been absolutely great. I still have shrimp, hermits, snails, and small fish. The only invertebrate I have seen the tuskfish actually consume is a Harlequin serpent star (hmmmm... ironic, huh?). If I stopped feeding as heavily as I do now I would wager there would be some shrimp and snails MIA. This fish is quite graceful for its girth. It weaves through the rocks and corals effortlessly. My tangs do much more damage to the corals by braking off branches every now and then.

My other pride and joy is my Weedy scorpionfish. I've read a number of articles on them that stated their lifespan is thought to be rather short. I was lucky enough to acquire mine at only a couple of inches long so I'm hoping it has many years left. Unfortunately, it still eats only live food. I am able to get it to take frozen only if it doesn't have enough time to figure out first exactly what it's eating. I've had a number of gobies go missing since this fish was placed into the tank. Interestingly enough, these disappearances always seem to coincide with a bulge in the scorpionfish's belly. I've watched this fish stalk a damsel for two hours straight. It never did catch it, but boy was it determined. It amazes me that the slow moving Possum wrasse has been able to evade him this long.

These fish were all purchased with the forethought that the tank eventually will be upgraded. The angel and tusk are getting big enough now that I'm getting my plans together. The new tank will be based on a patch reef structure to allow maximum swimming room while providing distinct outcroppings of rockwork for corals to thrive.

Desjardinii tang
(Zebrasoma desjardinii)
Jewel/Mustard tang
(Acanthurus guttatus)
Bellus angel
(Genicanthus bellus; female)
Blue Ring angel
(Pomacanthus annularis)
Swalesi basslet
(Liopropoma swalesi)
Black Cap basslet
(Gramma melacara)
Royal gramma
(Gramma loreto)
Whitebanded Possum wrasse
(Wetmorella albofasciata)
Leopard wrasse
(Macropharyngodon meleagris)
Flame fairy wrasse
(Cirrhilabrus jordani)
Lineatus fairy wrasse
(Cirrhilabrus lineatus)
Harlequin tuskfish
(Choerodon fasciatus)
Weedy scorpionfish
(Rhinopias frondosa)

Corals & Invertebrates:

I have purchased numerous coral colonies from online vendors in the past, but the majority of the corals in my tank were grown from fragments. Those of us in the Upstate N.Y. area are privileged to have access to a thriving reef society. We may not have access to the importers like some other groups, but I must say I think we have quite a nice collection of different coral species here. Some of my favorite pieces came from trades with other local reefers. I prefer a rather sparse distribution of corals (probably because I like fish so much) and I have reached the point that I feel I don't really have room for many more. I have a fantastic Fungia that is about 8" in diameter. This coral has caused me a lot of headaches. When fully expanded it can reach up to 12" in diameter… and it goes walkabout! I have to barricade it in with rocks to prevent it from moving about the tank. I estimate that it has killed at least a couple hundred dollars' worth of SPS during its numerous journeys. About a year-and-a-half ago I was privileged to witness the spawning of my orange encrusting Montipora. I just caught the tail end of it, but it was nice to know that the environment I was providing was adequate to allow such an event to occur.

Tank19_big.jpg Tank16_big.jpg Tank15_big.jpg

As a rule I don't like corals that I cannot control. A couple of years ago I removed each piece of rock and scrubbed the heck out of it to remove any trace of Xenia, star polyps, yellow polyps, zoanthids and Discosoma. I hated finding small colonies growing in the rockwork after they had dropped from the mother colonies and floated around until they found a suitable location. These locations were invariably impossible for me to get at. I have reintroduced zoanthids to the tank, but only in locations where I can control their growth. The only mushrooms I add are Rhodactis and Ricordea. Some orange mushrooms did reappear, but I'll get them out of there at some point. I'm always on the lookout for new and interesting corals; I just need to figure out where the heck they are going to go.

Tank18_big.jpg Tank22_big.jpg
Tank23_big.jpg Tank25_big.jpg
Tank26_big.jpg Tank42_big.jpg
Tank43_big.jpg Tank45_big.jpg

Blue Linckia starfish
Red Serpent starfish
2 Harlequin Serpent starfish
2 Brittle starfish
2 Fire shrimp
(Lysmata debelius)
2 Cleaner shrimp
(Lysmata amboinensis)
2 Pistol shrimp
(hoping the Harlequin will eat them)

Acropora millepora
Acropora prostrata
Acropora digitifera
Acropora gemmifera
Acropora suharsonoi
Acropora elegans
Acropora simplex
Acropora tortuosa
Acropora yongei
Acropora valida
Acropora caroliniana
Acropora desalwii
Acropora jacqueleniae
Acropora efflorescence
Acropora tenuis
Numerous other Acropora sp.
Acanthastrea lordhowensis
Acanthastrea echinata
Acanthastrea subechinata
Blastomussa wellsi
Blastomussa merleti
Cycloseris sp.
Discosoma sp.
Echinophyllia sp.
Echinopora lamellose
Echinopora mammiformis
Euphyllia glabrescens
Euphyllia divisia
Fungia sp.
Leptoseris explanata
Micromussa sp.
Montipora peltiformis
Montipora digitata
Montipora capricornis
Montipora nodosa
Montipora sp.
Oxypora sp.
Pocillopora damicornis
Pocillopora verrucosa
Pocillopora eydouxi
Rhodactus inchoate
Ricordea florida
Ricordea yuma
Stylophora pistillata
Various zoanthids
*While these corals have not all been scientifically identified,
they are believed to be these species.


Many thanks go out to the wonderful group of people that run Reef Central. This is really an invaluable resource where a great deal can be learned. I would also like to thank all the reefers in the Upstate Reef Society. What a great bunch of people! I certainly would not be as far along as I am today without all of you. I also, of course, have to thank my wife and son for putting up with all my distractions.

Click here for larger image

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

Reefkeeping Magazine™ Reef Central, LLC-Copyright © 2008

Tank of the Month - April 2005 -