Aquarium Setup and Cycling
We do things differently than most shops and they will give you many reasons why what we do won’t work. But all things we do are tried and tested. As a retired chemist, I can offer insight into many questions you won’t get answered elsewhere and I will do my best to research things I don’t have an answer for. If you have questions, please let me know and I will expand my web pages for you and others.
Level your Tank
Use a small amount of water in your empty tank to be sure it is close to level.
Setting up a Plenum
Here is an animation of how plenums are constructed. Before it begins, it may need time to load. Read below for more.
We use eggcrate roughly 2-3″ smaller on each side of your tank bottom. Example: A 48″ x 13″ tank [55 gallon] would use roughly a 42″ x 7″ plenum. Large plenums can be made in 2 parts. We use the shaft of a long screwdriver with the eggcrate standing up. Then we swing downward breaking out 6 or 8 pieces of eggcrate each swing. For support cut 3” to 4″ pieces of 1/2″ PVC pipe as supports. You can either zip tie or glue them with PVC cement to the eggcrate 6″ to 8″ apart. No particular pattern. You center your plenum in your tank pipe down. Cover with fiberglass window screen allowing the screen to go from front to back and end to end of the tank. Overlapping is fine – don’t waste screen. Don’t have the screen go up the walls of the tank or it will be visible.
Use #1 aragonite 2″ deep above the plenum – 3″ overall from the outside. I used the density of #1 aragonite [0.04913 pounds per cubic inch] to get 70-71 pounds for a 55 gallon…
Setting up your gravel bed
Before you dump a lot of gravel into your tank, think about what you ultimately want to do. Fish produce waste, other creatures need to clean it. A primary waste product is nitrates which can accumulate high enough to “burn” the fins off fish. There are two basic ways to remove nitrates, bacteria and changing water. Bacteria are much more efficient and work 24 hours a day and grow naturally. Free is good.
To have these bacteria present, we recommend using a PLENUM (plen-um) detailed above. This is simply a water space under the gravel. We use pieces of PVC tubing lying sideways to support egg crate (the white, plastic, 1/2 by 1/2 square hole, fluorescent light diffuser) which we then cover with fiberglass window screen. Cover this with aragonite (a-rag-go-nite) and Mother Nature will do the rest. Tanks under 40 gallons don’t need plenums because water changes control nitrates. .
As nitrates form, bacteria will grow in the lower part of the gravel and turn nitrates into nitrogen gas which bubbles away. This lower section develops anoxic bacteria or low oxygen level bacteria (not anaerobic – zero oxygen) that use the oxygen from the nitrate molecule instead of oxygen from the water.
There are many rumors about plenums which I would like to clear up.
They will poison your tank if exposed.
Been there several times when powerheads have tipped and blown the gravel away. Nothing showed signs of distress-corals, fish, or inverts.
They stop working after awhile.
We have plenums running 12+ years and going strong. The secret seems to be to disturb your gravel. If you have sand stars, they scurry around the top layer mixing your aragonite and allowing sediment to eventually collect in your particle filter (which should be cleaned several times a week if not daily.) There are lots of sand creatures, use them.
Plenums need to be drained.
Rumor has it that nitrates and/or other bad things build up under the plenum. I haven’t tested what’s under a plenum but since a power head blowing away the gravel didn’t affect anything, logic tells me that it’s not harmful.
You need a second layer of screen in a plenum.
We originally did that but we found it to be unnecessary.
Fish or other creatures will disturb the plenum if they burrow.
Happens all the time with no negative effects but lots of positive ones. I do recommend filling in holes if they expose the screen but this only helps to keep your gravel clean.
Heard a reason, send it to me please.
There are several types and grades of gravel you can use in your aquarium. The original gravel was dolomite which is a cousin of aragonite. Dolomite is very white, very hard, and does not easily lend itself to pH control. Crushed coral is another and is still used. Truly crushed coral has sharp edges that can scratch a fishes skin – especially wrasses that bury themselves at night. There are washed coral sands from beaches and ocean bottoms that are rounded in shape. Both are off white and therefor less reflective. Aragonite is now the choice of most aquarists. It is light in color, soft in texture, provides great pH control and adds calcium and strontium as it dissolves. See Substrates
Gravels are graded by size. Number 0 is very fine and a little dusty and will plug a plenum. “Play sand” aragonite is Number 00 – so dusty it is necessary to filter your water through bed sheets. Number 1 is the best, coarse (1.2-2 mm) enough to be dusty for less than 2-4 hours but fine enough to keep sediment and detritus from getting caught. Rinsing isn’t necessary. Number 1 and Number 3 coral sand are good to use if you like the looks. Anything more coarse is not recommended because it traps detritus.
OK, I set up a Plenum, what’s next?
Water is next. There are three basic ways to get water for your aquarium. Straight from the tap, a reverse osmosis or RO unit, or a de-ionization or DI filter. see RO/DI page
Tap water is the worst for saltwater aquariums. The major impurity that causes problems immediately is silica. This is the source of brown diatom algae which will die off leaving a fine, green algae which will also die off. Other algaes may form also, such as hair algae, with continued use of tap water. Water from RO/DI units in grocery stores is only slightly better than tap water.
RO water has 6-8% silica left unless a piggy back a DI cartridge is added. They are water pressure and water temperature dependent. Output is rated in gallons per day with a tremendous waste of water.
DI units that we build are a 2 to 3 stage unit: 20 micron sediment cartridge first, coconut carbon next followed by a mixed bed anion/cation resin. This removers 99.9+% impurities, works best with low pressure and temperature. Rated in 30+ gallons / hour and the only waste is a gallon from rinsing new cartridges. REAL Distilled water is 100 percent pure but expensive.
Using a chlorine remover is unnecessary anymore. Synthetic salt mixes contain chlorine removers – sodium thiophosphate. Avoid any other water conditioners too.
OK, I have pure water, what’s next?
Salt of course. Salt mixes contain all the necessary elements, including calcium, strontium, magnesium, iodine, etc. plus extra buffers for pH and builders for alkalinity. The basic proportion is 1/2 cup per gallon. Salinity of the South Pacific is 1.022, the Red Sea is 1.026. If you have a fish only tank – and I mean fish only – salinity can run from 1.015 – 1.017 but not recommended. This minimizes parasites who love salty water. Otherwise, anywhere from 1.020 to 1.026 is OK. Shoot for 1.023-1.024 in reef tanks with live corals.
Do not panic if your numbers do not meet the recommended parameters. Ocean creatures tolerate amazing changes and conditions. I have seen corals living in pH=7 and alkalinity=0. I have seen nitrates at levels that burn the flesh off from fish. I have had salt levels in tanks so low they didn’t register on a hydrometer.
By the way, we will gladly calibrate your hydrometer in our shop. Remember that over time, only water evaporates, not the salt. On a day to day basis, just add fresh water to replace what evaporates. When you change water, siphon out saltwater and replace it with salt water.
Season new hydrometers. Let them soak in your tank or sump for 2 weeks or more. This eliminates tiny air bubbles from sticking to the float and giving a false “high” reading. Tap them sharply if you suspect any bubbles.see Hydrometers and Refractometers
Ocean temperatures fluctuate day to day and season to season. So to say that your aquarium needs to be at a certain temperature is difficult. Anywhere in the 70’s to low 80’s is fine. Let your tank rise and fall daily. A 5 or 6 degree change happens in my tank most every day. This is better than maintaining a constant temperature and then having it shoot up 8 or 10 degrees because of a hot day or because the fans failed. No heaters are usually needed.
If you expect a hot day, open all the doors and shut off the lights for the day. Let water evaporate – it can cool a tank very well. Reef tanks can last days without lights but only hours at high temps. Pumps and powerheads are a major source of heat.
Cycling your Tank
There are several ways to cycle your aquarium. Traditionally, poor little damsel fish were used as a source of ammonia. After they suffered through conditions that would kill most other fish, you then need to remove them unless you want a truly aggressive tank. Inch for inch they are meaner than sharks.
Cycling using raw, uncured live rock is effective but can be real smelly. I recommend putting your new rock in a tub or trash can covered with saltwater for several days to a month with a powerhead at the bottom of the tub pointing straight up. Keep the water surface moving to provide oxygen. No lights are necessary and room temperature is fine – no heater. This allows the worst of the die off to occur. Sponges, dead starfish trapped inside the rock and other dead things can destroy your water quality.
Transfer the partially cured to you new tank and wait patiently. Leave fluorescent lights on 14 hours to allow the brown diatom algae cycle to come and go. Monitor pH and alkalinity and raise them if needed. Leave the skimmer and UV on and don’t use any carbon for the first 4 weeks. You can wipe the glass to remove the algae if you wish. Don’t add any hermits, snails, or other animals until after your first water change and be sure your water tests good. We will test your water free.
Our favorite way includes: adding free live sand from our reef tanks to seed the bacteria population, adding free Ammonium Chloride to feed the bacteria, and adding live rock from our holding tanks which is in different stages of curing. Then follow the procedure as written above using partially cured to rock.
Don’t be misled buying “fully cured” live rock unless you are there to give it the sniff test. Any rock, once removed from water will have some creatures die off. Buying mail order cured rock is only a little better than raw rock and much more natural sealife is lost. The “fully encrusted” gimmick is misleading too. Most coralline algaes die quickly when out of water and when you introduce them to your tank, the rock turns white. But don’t panic, good water, light, and circulation along with a little extra calcium and strontium will bring it back.
Coralline algaes come in many shades of red, orange and pink and occasionally green. They cannot spontaneously appear in an aquarium and must be introduced. Different colors come from different places in the world and there are high light and low light varieties. The element strontium is responsible for the red color.
ADJUSTING THE WATER LEVEL IN YOUR SUMP
For those of you who are setting up a sump style filter system for the first time, follow these steps
1: First fill your tank and sump with enough water to turn on your filter pump and circulate water.
2: IF YOU HAVE A FLOW CONTROL VALVE in the out flow or return line from the pump, you may have to adjust the return water to the tank to stop a “sucking sound”. The noise is caused by water entering the tank faster than the overflow can handle it. Set your overflow elbow (if you have one) to slightly above horizontal. In small steps adjust your valve to decrease your return water – allow 2 minutes after each adjustment – until the noise stops.
IF YOU HAVE A VENTURI SKIMMER with our “T” design in the return line from the pump.
Set each ball valve at 1/2 way and have the air to the skimmer off. If the sucking noise is present, in small steps adjust only the ball valve that returns water to the tank – to decrease your return water. Allow 2 minutes after each adjustment – until the noise stops.
IN EITHER CASE – you may be able to increase the return water to allow maximum use of your pump.
3: Turn off your pump and wait 5 or 6 minutes for water to return to the sump.
4: Fill your sump with water until it is 1 inch below its overflow point.
5: Turn your pump back on and wait 3 or 4 minutes. The water level in the sump will drop as the tank level increases. This volumn of water is called standing water. Put a mark on your sump at the resulting water level. As long as the water in the sump is at or below that line and should your pump shut off for any reason, your sump shouldn’t overflow. Test it by turning off your pump.
Lighting your Tank
Check out Basic Lighting for types of lights. Photo periods should run no more than 12 hours for LED and fluorescent lights and 4 TO 6 hours for metal halides. You can adjust lighting cycles to your life style, for example noon to midnight.
WHY NO BIOBALLS
Once upon a time, live rock sold around $15/lb and filtration with plastic substitutes was the way to go. Now with live rock prices at a reasonable level and the fact that it brings with it, copepods, shrimp, stars, crabs, urchins, various seaweeds and sponges, bioballs are now history. Also consider the fact that bioballs will break down organic waste prior to allowing the protein skimmer to clean the water. The result is higher nitrates. If you have any amount of live rock, you can remove your bioballs several layers at a time until they’re gone.
Don’t forget to clean the particle filter ,daily if necessary, and to adjust the air on your protein skimmer.
AN OLD SYSTEM REBUILT IN OUR CUSTOM FASHION
THIS IS A 72 X 18 X 20 OR 125 GALLON TRUVU TANK
LEFT SIDE OF STAND
CENTER OF STAND
RIGHT SIDE OF STAND
2 X 250W MH,
2 X 40W UV BLACK LIGHTS
AND 3 X 72″ VHO 165W ACTINICS.