Tuan Pham's (tlp) Reef Aquarium
I am very proud
and flattered to have been asked to write about my efforts
for Tank of the Month on Reef Central. Relative to many reefkeepers
around the world, I have very little knowledge and experience,
so this opportunity to share my pride and joy with everyone
is absolutely fantastic.
I started keeping a marine reef tank about four years ago.
I was drawn to the hobby because it was challenging and rewarding,
something that would keep my continued interest for a long
time, and something that would both tax and relax. Little
did I know how involving this hobby really is, and how enjoyable!
Especially enjoyable is incorporating my love of photography
to take macro photos of a whole new world, of which I was
previously totally unaware. Here's my story.
Not being a purist, I've not attempted to adhere to any kind
of biotopic principle in stocking, and have opted instead
for variety in structure and colours when choosing corals.
In an attempt to elicit continued visual interest in the tank,
the corals were placed in a 3-D fashion so that as the viewer
looks around the corners he finds more to discover behind
the rocks. While aquascaping I kept the rock structures quite
low, as I wanted to let the coral formations show through,
so the rock structure is shaped more openly than the standard
"fruit store" structure.
Colour contrasts, the corals' eventual growth patterns, and
lighting/flow requirements were all taken into consideration
when placing the corals, although sometimes placement actually
comes down to which part of the tank I can reach without getting
drowned. Short arms and legs don't work too well in deep tanks!
I have approximately
24 Acropora colonies of various colours and growth
shapes. The majority have been either grown from fragments
or purchased as aquacultured fragments. Having purchased and
looked through Veron's hefty books, I've given up trying to
accurately identify the species of most of them.
Some have terrific growth rates. This Montipora sp.
(below) was given to me when the tank was first built. Two
years later it has grown so large that it has broken off its
base several times and I've been able to donate quite a few
accidental fragments to the reefing community. In some places
the corals have grown closely together and created a mesh
A section of the tank is dedicated
to a few LPS corals; one or two more are scattered about here
and there in areas of low flow and less intense lighting,
although the water conditions are still not quite the ideal
turbid environment similar to their original, natural habitat.
Some of these corals were grown from fragments, such as the
Euphyllia; the rest were purchased as wild colonies.
One day when I found a gorgeous Rose
Bubble Tip anemone at the LFS, I was frustrated because it
was already reserved. Months later, I heard it had split,
and I had to have the clone. Twice we traveled a long way
to buy it from a fellow reefkeeper: the first time it refused
to be removed from a quite large piece of rock, but the second
time we got lucky and I obtained it. I was lucky again as
it had an unfortunate mishap and found its way into the grill
of my closed loop system, where it was shredded, but I managed
to nurse its remains back to full health.
Since then it has split many times; some clones have been
traded, and some are still with me as they are too stubborn
to leave their rocky footing. Along with another green bubble
tip anemone nearby, the four remaining BTA's are the comfortable
homes for a group of five A. ocellaris clownfish.
I also have another strikingly handsome anemone, a Cerianthid
(above right), with bright orange tentacles and a fluorescent
green center. This anemone can grow quite large and has a
potent sting, although I have had no problems with it.
My Wet Friends:
I like fish; a lot of fish! I just
love the absolutely fantastic vibrant colours, shapes and
patterns on reef fishes that make me think Mother Nature was
in a drug-induced hallucination during their creation. I suspect
that many hardcore SPS reefkeepers are probably shaking their
heads saying, "tut, tut," and will shudder at my
stocking list, as this isn't exactly the purely "lab-like"
low bioload environment for the corals.
Influenced greatly by a speaker at a seminar I attended,
I've attempted to keep fish in pairs or groups whenever possible,
with partial success. Often it has been difficult to find
pairs, but when it works it is very rewarding; the courting
display and spawning of these pairs are fantastic to watch
from the comfort of my own house (even though I end up feeling
like some sort of perverted peeping Tom!).
My favourite pair of all time is "Mr. & Mrs. Mandarin."
I endured many early heartaches to find a mate for my first
fish, but now they're the sweetest pair of fish I could find.
They seem so much "in love." They literally sleep
together every night, cuddled up in the same "hole"
within a fin's length of one another.
Yellow (2), Emperor (2), Sailfin (1), Lipstick
(1), Kole (1)
flavescens, Acanthurus chrysurus, Zebrasoma desjardinii,
Dwarf Flame Angel
imperator, Centropyge loriculus
Pair of Hawkfishes
3 Okinawae Gobies
(one spawning pair)
5 Common clownfish
(one spawning pair)
4 Orchid Dottybacks
(started with a group of 10 but they whittle their
own numbers down)
Pair of large
Bird Wrasses (frequent spawners)
(1 male left, lost 3 females due to jumping)
(about two dozen)
Shrimp Goby partnered
with Tiger pistol shrimp
randalli & Alpheus bellulus
Neon Goby (great
little cleaner fish, much better than the cleaner
of Psychedelic Mandarinfish
Along with several hundred various
snails, four short spined Tuxedo urchins keep the algae at
bay; one very large black sea cucumber and a few tigertail
cucumbers keep the sand bed clean. A few red leg hermits here
and there help remove uneaten food from the rocks.
I also keep several pistol shrimps, most of which I hardly
ever see, but their presence is confirmed by clicking noises
during the night. They help agitate the deep sand bed a little
as they burrow deep and wide throughout the tank.
Foremost in my mind at the time of
designing the system was the maintenance side of reefkeeping.
I know that if something is hard to do, I will not have the
patience to do it, so if the tank was going to be a long-term
success, it would have to be low maintenance. In my opinion,
many projects fail because a lack of consideration is given
to long-term maintenance, and after the initial honeymoon
period when the adrenaline of a new tank has ebbed a bit,
people simply give up. So I aimed for a system that I imagined
myself working with four or five years down the line when
life circumstances might make it very hard to spend time on
My idea was to try to build an ecosystem
that could survive for weeks without attention. Central to
this goal is a large (8' x 2') refugium that feeds the tank
a constant supply of live food. A vast area of deep sand bed,
live rocks and macroalgae, combined with a lack of predation,
make the strongly lit refugium the lifeline of the tank. And,
of course, it had to be above the main tank so that all the
lovely pods and planktonic food wouldn't be destroyed by the
Using the garage as my fish room,
I wanted to create as much depth as possible, yet keep the
tank shallow enough that, even with my short arms and legs,
I could reach in. The desired depth of the tank added to its
volume and necessitated using thicker glass, so I selected
Starphire for the front display panel for its increased clarity.
The tank's viewing area is cut into the wall of the room
to hide 6" of space on each side of the tank so that
the plumbing can run down the corners and out of sight. The
tank's bottom 6" is also hidden, as I didn't want to
look directly at the deep sand bed all the time. The sand
bed also hides a few pipes leading to nozzles in the rock
structures that keep the live rocks well-flushed by the closed-loop
I also added the fragment grow-out tank to the wish list,
as I had experimented with a few propagation ventures and
sold /exchanged about $900 worth of corals during my first
tank's era. This grow-out tank is 5' x 2' and only 18"
high, to allow the use of T5 fluorescent tubes for lighting.
Old Maxijet powerheads and the odd Eheim pump here and there
provide plenty of flow in this tank. Additionally, some of
the rich(er) water from the refugium flows into this tank
to feed the corals.
Sump and Water Changes:
Again with maintenance in mind, I
thought about how to do a water change on such a large scale
as this tank would require, as my previous method using buckets
was clearly inadequate. The simple low-tech answer was to
use two sumps: a large 5' x 3' sump under the display tank
is the core vessel, and a second 8' x 2' tank, which is taller,
is used only for water changes.
The overflow from the display tank is divided; some falls
into the water change vessel and some loops up into the air
so the pipe is higher than the first outlet (see diagram below),
eventually falling back down into the main sump. During normal
use, the majority of the tank's overflow falls into the water
change sump as the path of least resistance. The water change
vessel has an overflow at its opposite end that returns the
water back to the main sump.
To carry out a water change, I stop the water overflowing
into the water change sump using a gate valve, so that all
of the display tank's overflow goes directly into the main
sump. The dirty water is pumped out of the water change sump,
a quick run of the wet/dry vacuum clears the bottom of detritus
and other rubbish, and then RO/DI water fills it (a mechanical
float valve shuts off the RO at the desired level). I add
about a bucket and a half of salt and mix it well with a large
submersible pump, then leave it for 24-48 hours to aerate
and rise to the main display's temperature. A quick test confirms
the salinity, and then the isolating gate valve is turned
on again which adds the tank's overflow into this vessel and
gradually mixes in the new water. About 18% of the system's
total volume can be changed this way.
An additional benefit is that this sump can hold the entire
tank's livestock if disaster strikes, or it can be used as
a livestock isolation/quarantine tank with very little effort.
All I have to do is turn the valve off, move the lighting
rig from the fragment grow out tank to this one and I'm in
Adding all of the tanks and sumps together yields a total
water volume of over 11,000 gallons (US), thus providing a
very stable system.
A pair of 1/6HP Sequence pumps, one
on each side, provide circulation within the main tank, with
outlets hidden among the rocks and in each of the tank's corners.
These closed-loop pumps operate constantly at maximum power
and are powerful enough to generate vortices in the water
column when the tank was devoid of livestock. Many ball valves
were used to fine-tune the flow to each of the outlets.
As time passed and the corals grew more densely, three pairs
of Tunze 6100 stream pumps were added, powered by a Tunze
7094 wave controller, bringing the total circulation up to
a more respectable level of 50x the tank's volume. I didn't
want to add all the pumps right at the beginning as I find
that in strong flow the SPS colonies grow in tight formation,
so if they're subjected to very strong flow at the start it
gets harder and harder to increase the flow later, as they
Live Rock Filtration:
Like many, I strongly believe that
good in-tank circulation is absolutely vital to a healthy
reef and, even more importantly, an open living rock structure
can produce better filtration than using a lot more rocks
that are poorly arranged. In total, about 130kg of live rock
was used in the tank. I was lucky enough to be able to hand
pick the pieces, and I chose large but irregular pieces that
would allow me to build a two-level structure. This design
requires fewer rocks, yet still allows for an "open"
structure, both to facilitate flow and to give the fishes
plenty of room to swim. Instead of building the rocks up into
a wall at the rear of the tank as per the traditional look,
I opted to keep the whole structure fairly low and tried to
choose fast-growing branching corals to grow at the rear.
I cured the live rock myself using the live phytoplankton
method with a lot of live sand. Apparently, the live rocks
were flown in, picked up at the airport and then delivered
to me immediately, so they had been in transit for only 48
hours in insulated boxes. Their freshness, combined with my
effort to cure them in the tank with lighting, meant that
most of the life on the rocks was preserved with very little
die-off in the initial stage. I even have some colonies of
corals that were hitchhiking freebies, including a rather
nice purple Acropora colony.
A pair of Deltec 902 needlewheel skimmers
are the main workhorses of the system, running constantly.
Their manufacturer's specifications claim they are capable
of skimming a heavily stocked 1800 L (400 gallon) system,
or a normally stocked 2500 L (550 gallon) system, so they
are slightly underpowered for my system, and admittedly are
not running at maximum efficiency due to low throughput. In
hindsight, I would have opted for a different setup using
a much larger skimmer with a higher flow rate, but for now
I rely on the refugium to take up the slack in nutrient export.
Lighting & Zones:
Instead of the traditional method
of bathing the entire tank in strong lighting, I opted to
create zones for corals, reducing the total number of lights
required and also saving some electrical expense in the process.
I wanted to keep a variety of hard corals including light
loving Acroporas and also LPS species which prefer
less light, so prior to set up I designed the layout of the
corals and the tank's construction in terms of placing the
bracing straps and positioning the metal halides.
80 watt T5 Actinic x 2
54 watt T5 white x 4
400 watt MH x 4
Calcium and Carbonate Supplements:
I use a large "Schuran Jetstream
2" calcium reactor (below left). I fill this with various
media, sometimes using purer sources such as AB hydro carbonate,
sometimes just coral skeletal media such as coral gravel.
A peristaltic pump pushes the effluent through the reactor,
and a pH probe and module connected to the IKS computer trim
the CO2 injection to achieve the pH
required, making life a lot easier.
An old salt bucket (right) is my "Bucket Kalk reactor"
to feed the tank with limewater on a constant drip using another
peristaltic pump. This feeds into a high flow area of the
sump. Actually, I ordered a 6' tall acrylic reactor (the Beast)
to be made at the same time the tank was built, but it is
still AWOL. But that's another long story
Computer Monitoring and Control:
I use the IKS unit with four pH modules
(one to control the calcium reactor's CO2
solenoid, one to monitor the tank, and the remaining two to
control two solenoids that feed CO2
into a pair of phytoplankton reactors). One temperature module
runs and monitors the system.
Heating and Cooling:
With this much water and the fact
that the whole system is effectively "outside" (the
garage door is not sealed at all so it can be quite drafty
in the fish room), I could not afford to heat the tank using
the traditional electrical methods (I think it would have
taken something like 4.2 KW worth of heaters for my water
volume), so a central heating gas boiler is installed specifically
for the tank.
A titanium heat exchanger is used to isolate the tank's water
from the boiler's copper pipe works. To the boiler, the heat
exchanger just looks like a radiator. The temperature module
linked to the IKS computer switches a few relays that ask
the boiler for heat when required.
Similarly, to avoid having to use a huge and powerful chiller
with associated nuclear power station, I have a ground loop
installed in the garden to cool the tank. This loop is nothing
more than a long coil of micro-bore copper pipe buried a few
feet down (even better if deep enough to get wetted by the
water table) in the soil. It is connected to the boiler just
like another "radiator" and exchanges heat with
the tank via the titanium heat exchanger. A three-way valve,
again controlled by the IKS computer, disconnects the ground
part of the loop when the tank requires heat, and rejoins
it again for cooling. It is connected this way instead of
on an independent circuit as the pump inside the boiler circulates
the water flow inside this heating/cooling loop, and some
more control relays ensure that the boiler does not fire up
the burners when in cooling mode.
In practice, during the hottest and driest spells of summer
(we don't get many of these hot/dry days anyway), the ground
itself becomes too hot and dry to dissipate the heat, so the
cooling doesn't work for a couple of weeks a year. It works
just fine the rest of the year, however, holding the tank
at a fairly steady temperature. A few fans are employed during
the really hot spells, and to make absolutely sure, another
set of relays/contactors will turn off the main metal halide
units if the tank begins to overheat.
Feeding & Maintenance Routine
The whole system pretty much runs
without much intervention. As I don't even have an access
hatch from the viewing room, I don't actually put my hands
into the tank very often at all, which is a good thing. About
ten times during the day an automatic feeder dispenses a mixture
of dry flakes/pellets and Cyclop-eeze.
When I am home the fish are treated with a mixture of frozen
food, about a tray's worth in volume of krill, and Mysis
and plankton bought from the shop. I also make my own food
consisting of a mix of mussels, cockles, squids, shrimps,
etc. - whatever I can find at the supermarket.
During the tank's early months, I cultured live phytoplankton
and rotifers and fed the tank heavily to boost it's microfauna
population. For the last year or so I have not been able to
do this but the inhabitants seem just as healthy and thriving
all the same. I guess the system is maturing a bit more. Once
or twice a week I add a stack of dry seaweed sheets (Nori
from the Oriental supermarkets) to keep the herbivores in
Weekly or bi-weekly chores include emptying and cleaning
the skimmers. Semi-annually the stream pumps get a thorough
soaking in vinegar. The rest of the tasks, such as topping
off the calcium reactor and Kalk reactor, are done as required.
About every six months or so, depending on my work schedule,
I do a water change. Prior to this I give the tank and DSB
a bit of a storm, blasting the rock surfaces with a powerhead.
Detritus from these storms is either skimmed out or settles
at the bottom of the sump. A quick run over with a wet/dry
vacuum during the water change process easily removes these
Much of the maintenance is simplified with a key component
of the system, one I could not do without, a washbasin in
the fish room. No more sneaking into the kitchen dripping
skimmate everywhere... no more, "HUSBAND! What's that
Credits Where Credits are Due!
I can honestly say that without the
help and inspiration of other reefkeepers on forums like Reef
Central or UltimateReef, my aquarium would not exist. It is
absolutely fantastic to find such experienced and knowledgeable
people so willing to share and help others for little personal
Also, my aquarium would not exist without my wife's blessing,
help and support. She has been fantastic, having to grin and
bear it through my obsessions, my spending and my ramblings.
Her touch is evident throughout the entire setup, from the
aquascaping to some of the fish selections. I would not be
enjoying the tank without her.
Thank you for allowing me to share with everyone some of
the pleasure of my reef aquarium, and perhaps someone may
find some useful information to help him further his enjoyment
of this wonderful hobby.
Feel free to comment or
ask questions about my tank in the Tank of the Month thread
on Reef Central.