Guide to my first marine aquarium – PART ONE

Natural Method
Febbraio 5, 2021
Guide to my first marine aquarium – PART TWO-
Febbraio 7, 2021
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Guide to my first marine aquarium - PART ONE -

This article is dedicated to all those who are approaching the wonderful world of marine aquarium for the first time and have neither time and not desire to read a couple of good books on the biology of tropical seas (although it would be good if they did). However, I believe that it is also a good read for all those who, advised by clumsy friends or inexperienced shopkeepers, find themselves managing badly made tanks, which will never work properly.
The tank we have chosen, a cube of 45 centimeters for side with a capacity of 90 liters, has an indicative value and represents a sort of "compromise" between the larger aquariums, easier to manage but also much more expensive, and the smaller ones, that unlike what you think are more difficult, because any mistake in a little water pays off immediately. Having said that, let's get started.

The filter? Forget it.

The first thing to know is that a modern marine aquarium that hosts mainly corals does not need a filter, neither internal not external. So forget about wool, razor clams and all the other materials that are used in fresh water. The reason is simple: the aforementioned materials in minireef are not good because, getting dirty, they lead to an accumulation and subsequent release in the water of nitrates and other waste substances incompatible with the life of the corals we want to breed. Of course, if one wants to breed fish and nothing else, nitrates doesn't matter too much and razor clams are fine, but we're talking about another aquarium.
But if there is no filter, internal or external, who purifies our aquarium? Answer: live rocks. Or rather, the myriad of bacteria that, instead of staying in a filter, swarm inside the so-called live rocks, nothing more than rock fragments of tropical reefs, which are imported and regularly sold in shops or aquarium sites. These rocks, rich in small animals and various concretions, thus arrive in our aquariums, where as we have said they perform their beneficial purifying action instead of the traditional filter.

Two words about the sand.

And the sand? Is sand also a filter as many think? Answer: yes and no. In the so-called DSB aquariums, that is Deep Sand Bottom, which means more or less "high sand bottom", it is customary to lay a layer of sand of about 10-12 centimeters on the bottom of the tank, which, like rocks, is filled with a myriad of beneficial microorganisms. In that case, sand is useful and essential. However, it must be said that, especially for a novice, the DSB system is a bit demanding and requires a certain type of skills. So here we will deal with another type of aquarium, the so-called “Berliner”, which instead of being DSB is BB: Bare Bottom, which means “bare bottom”, without sand. At this point you might ask yourself: but is there no middle ground? Isn't it possible, that is, to put a layer of sand anyway, let's say three or four centimeters, at least for aesthetic purposes? Answer: no, it is not possible. If the top layer of the DSB is beneficial, the little sand is just a receptacle for dirt that ruins the aquarium system. So for our Berliner cube, no sand. If you don't like the "bare" bottom, know that many corals will lend themselves to elegant cover of the uncovered areas.

The water? "Home made".

Go on. We come to the water. What water for our marine cube? Forget the one that comes out of the tap, as it is, it's good for us but not for the aquarium. Therefore it must be modified, purified. Many shops sell this ready-made "pure" water, either sweet, to be mixed with the appropriate salt, or already salty. But buying water from the shops, going there with our canister, is a big mistake. Why? Because, despite being in good faith, the shopkeepers have large purification plants that are often not properly controlled, so the water that comes out is not optimal. Believe me: often the problems of a wrong aquarium are often due to this starting water.
So? Then you have to do it yourself. We have to produce the water for our aquarium ourselves, by purchasing a small reverse osmosis system: in practice, a device that attaches to the tap and, through a system of membranes and filtering materials, makes pure water flow. Attention: the reverse osmosis system for aquariological use can be bought in stores or online, for our cube a small one is enough, it costs less than 100 euro. But it is essential. Add to your shopping a small tds stick meter, which measures the amount of dissolved salts and therefore the purity of the water produced. The measurement should give 0 tds. That, and only that, is the water we will use for our aquarium.

Light and movement.

The light in our cubes is essential for life: think, the vast majority of corals would not live without adequate light, for the simple fact that in their tissues there are microalgae that need to perform photosynthesis. Which light to choose? I would stand on a LED ceiling light for aquariums of adequate power, for a cube of 45 cm on each side there are many, for the intensity it will also depend on the animals we will breed. Let's say that out of ninety gross liters I use about one hundred watts of LEDs, but it is a vague indication, even less power may be enough.
As for movement, it is necessary that the water of the sea is always well moved, especially on the surface, for the well-being of corals. For this purpose, so-called movement pumps are used, many of which are specially designed to make this movement as varied as possible, also creating a kind of wave motion. Let's say that on 90 gross liters two pumps will be fine, I use two jebao with variable flow between 500 and 4500 liters per hour and I keep them almost to the maximum but then it depends on the furnishings. Let's say that it is important that the surface is moved, almost agitated, and that there is a certain current inside at every point of the aquarium. I also use a smaller pump, 900 liters per hour, positioned low behind the cross, but it is not mandatory.

Skimmer, osmoregulator, heater.

Finally, there are three other accessories that must not be missing in our cube: the skimmer, the osmoregulator and the heater / thermostat. The first is a sort of filter which, through skimming, extracts protein substances and other pollutants from the water, facilitating the "work" of the rocks. The second is a system that automatically refills the water that evaporates: this is essential, because, since only fresh water evaporates, without topping up the salt concentration in the aquarium would increase more and more and the system would collapse. As for the heater / thermostat, since the environment we are going to recreate is tropical, it is obvious that the temperature should always be kept between about 23 and 25 degrees.

With sump or without sump?

But where do I put all this equipment? Here too, some distinctions need to be made. Most aquariums, especially those larger than ours, have a sump: it is a tank with compartments positioned in the cabinet under the aquarium, where foam, heater, osmoregulator and other accessories are housed. The aquarium water flows into the sump through an overflow, is treated and finally returned to the tank through the so-called return pump. The advantage is considerable: the overall volume of water increases and you have the option of leaving the main tank free, without any accessories. However, not everyone has the possibility and space to have a cabinet with sump: for example, at this moment I do not have it and for this reason the skimmer, the heater and the sensor for refilling are positioned in the tank in my cube at the corner. It therefore depends a little on the space, the important thing is to know that a small aquarium, within 100 liters, works equally well with sump or not.

What is needed and how to proceed.

Here are the "ingredients" you need to put on a marine aquarium (for example size 45 by 45, 90 liters):
- Tub
- Heater / thermostat
- Thermometer
- 2 movement pumps
- Rising pump (if there is a sump)
- Osmoregulator with filling tank
- Internal or sump skimmer
- Led ceiling light
- Refractometer
- Sea salt
- A couple of plastic buckets
- Live rocks of good quality, 12 - 15 kg
- Test for Ca, Mg and KH
- Test for Nitrates and Phosphates

Step by step

1) Position the tank and accessories. Fill the tub with osmosis water up to about three quarters. Add good salt in the right proportion, about 36 grams per liter. In our 90-liter cube, approximately 3,240 grams of salt must be added.
2) Activate the movement pumps and add more water up to about 3 cm from the edge of the tank. Attach the thermostat / heater set at 24 degrees.
3) Leave the water and salt in motion for a few hours, until the solution becomes clear. At this point, with the refractometer, measure the density: it must be about 35 per thousand. If it is higher or lower, adjust by adding salt or fresh water.
4) After a couple of days it's time to insert the rocks. Try to create an airy, light rock with many crevices. After finding the right and stable arrangement, turn on the skimmer, the movement pumps pointing a little towards the surface, and the ceiling light, immediately, with 10 hours of daily light: maturation will start from this moment. Now all you need is patience.
5) As the days go by, you will notice that the system begins to live. From the rocks, especially when the light is off, a myriad of organisms will emerge: small crustaceans, worms, snails, small spirographs, sponges and so on. This is a very good sign. Furthermore, after about fifteen days, the first algae will appear: first the brown ones, then the green ones. They are not beautiful to look at but they are part of the maturation: let them grow, they will gradually go away on their own, usually within a month or two.
6)About a month after starting (but there are those who do it before) it is time to do the first tests of the values. Without wishing to go into chemistry, I will say here that the essential values to keep an eye on are those of the so-called triad, namely: calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg) and carbonate hardness (KH). They are measured with the respective tests that are on the market and that you absolutely must get. The correct values of the triad, approximately, are the following: Ca 400-440, Mg 1260-1400, KH 7-8. Don't worry too much if the values get a little out of order on the first test, there will be a way to correct them. The important thing is that there are no huge imbalances with respect to the references I have given you.
7) Two other important tests to do about a month after start-up are those of pollutants, namely nitrates (NO3) and phosphates (PO4). The ideal value of nitrates in a marine is about 1-2 mg / liter, while that of phosphates is 0.01-0.03 mg / liter. It may be that in this phase you will find higher values, but you will see that they will tend to lower.
8)Once the tests have been carried out and we have ascertained that the values are normal and the algae in regression, we still wait three or four weeks and then we can insert the very first animals. For example two or three snails, also useful for grazing algae, perhaps a shrimp, a hermit crab. They are also excellent "guinea pigs" to see that everything is okay. From this moment you can also begin to make a first water change, of about 25 percent. Then you will go on to make a weekly change of 10 percent, some even do it every 15 days, it is subjective.
9) Let another fifteen days pass, do another round of tests .... If everything is ok, a couple of months after starting your cube is ready for the first corals (there are those who greatly reduce the times, but trust me, patience never pays as in aquarists).

Maintaining the aquarium.

It would be wonderful if our marine aquarium, once mature, would go on by itself, but alas this is pure utopia. This does not mean that you have to waste hours: with a few tricks a day and half an hour every weekend you should get by.

Control of water and values.

Let's start with water control. As we have already said, our corals live wonderfully if certain values are kept under control, namely mainly the triad (Ca, Mg and KH) and pollutants (NO3 and PO4). To ensure that the triad remains stable (since the corals continually consume the elements) three systems are mainly used: the reintegration of the elements by hand, with the appropriate liquids A + B (for smaller aquariums), the balling method with dosometric pumps (for which I refer to the excellent article on this site) and the calcium reactor.
Which system to use depends on many factors. For our debut aquarium I would say to use the first one, that is the addition of A + B: it is a bit of a nuisance because the additions must be done by hand, but for the beginner it is an acceptable and more controllable solution. Otherwise I'd go straight for balling. But be careful, the additions should not be done randomly. You must first take the tests, which I recommend to do every week from maturity onwards. Test for calcium, magnesium and KH which, as I have already said, must be less than the following values: calcium 400-440, magnesium 1250-1400, KH 7-8. These values, depending on the concentration of corals, will tend to decrease, and it is for this reason that gradually it will be necessary to integrate them with balanced solutions, which do not favor one element or another but keep the relationship between the three elements balanced. It will be up to you, doing the tests, to adjust and determine the amount of supplements to add and how often.

The partial water change.

One of the fundamental operations carried out every week, or at most every fortnight, is the change of about 10 percent of the water. We only need a couple of very clean plastic buckets, preferably new and which we will use only for our aquarium, the refractometer, a food scale, a small movement pump, a small heater and salt. Fill the bucket with osmotic water, pour the right amount of salt (about 36 g per liter), insert the heater and the pump, turn them on and wait a few hours for the water to be ready. Then measure the salinity with the refractometer, bring it to 35 per thousand if necessary with small corrections. Finally, remove the right amount from the aquarium with a hose and, very slowly, add the new water.

Day to day.

A quick daily check doesn't hurt. See that everything works, clean the glass with the special magnets if necessary, take a look at the animals, check the temperature, remove any organic remains from the bottom. And above all, enjoy the beauty of a small microcosm that is “blossoming” and evolving.

For now we stop here. In tue next article we will talk about the first animals to be included and their care and nutrition. See you soon.

Author: Metello Venè

Fig. 1 Starting the marine aquarium, first filling.


Fig. 2 Introduction of live rocks and construction of the "rock".


Fig. 3 Maturation phase of the aquarium, algal phase.


Fig. 4 First coral insertions.


Fig. 5 Mature aquarium

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