Monday, April 20, 2009

Self Sustaining!

I recently returned from a 3 week trip overseas, during which time there was absolutely zero maintenance done on this tank. No feeding, no cleaning, no nothing. This was really by design. I was curious to see how the tank would fare during my absence, as these trips could be relatively frequent. This non-existant care would not have been possible if there were any fish in the tank, due to their need to be fed. But with only snails, zoanthid corals, and a single crab, the tank is good to go, as it creates its own food in the form of algae. Before future trips, I will have to show one of the kids how to do a proper feeding.

As expected, these few critters were not able to keep up with the algae growth. I would not go so far as to say it was a mess, but it did look less than attractive. The rocks were relatively clean, and the sand was not that bad. But there was a greenish brown film over all of the glass. Looking through this film made the entire tank look filthy. I tried to get in there with a strong (water resistant) paper towel, but no luck. The film was just too tough for it to handle. Typically this type of film would be removed with a razor blade, but since much of this tank glass is curved, that would be a difficult task.

I recently read about the use of a relatively new cleaning product, the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, being used on acrylic tanks. Razors can also not be used on acrylic tanks, as they are easily scratched. The magic eraser is, for lack of a better term, a microfiber spounge. The reviews of this product by acrylic tank owners was overwhelmingly positive, so I decided to give it a try on my curved front glass tank. I first did a little independent research just to check on the composition of this sponge, just to make sure that it would release no harmful chemicals in the tank. I decided that the “original” version of this product is the one I must use, as subsequent “extra strength” types which include some type of cleaning agent have also been introduced into the product line, as well as lemon scented, etc. I first rinsed the sponge out in fresh water, just to flush out any residual molding release agents that may have been present, and then just wiped the tank glass gently. I must say this thing did seem pretty magical compared to my earlier attempt. In 10 minutes I once again had spotless glass.

So now that I can see that all inhabitants have survived my temporary abandonment, I can safely assume that the tank is stable and it is safe to do a 2 gallon water change and add some new life.

Monday, March 16, 2009

So yes, the tank does seem to be completely cycled, but continuing with the take it slow mentality I only bought a clean up crew. This consists of 4 snails (two different types, I forget the breeds), and a emerald crab (Logan named him Sheldon). The purpose of these guys is to eat the algae and other gunk left as a result of nutrient buildup in the water. I’m not a big fan of snails, they seem kind of boring to me, but the kids like them and they do a pretty good job of keeping the tank clean. I really do like the emerald crab though, at least I liked the one I had in my last tank. That was one feisty little crustacean. I remember it actually stealing pieces of sheet algae from my hand as I was trying to feed a yellow tang that I had at the time. This one, however is quite shy. I rarely see him, and I swear he can see me coming. Every time that he is actually visible and I approach the tank to take a look he immediately darts into a crevice in the rocks. I hope that as I add new inhabitants he will get a little more “sociable”.

A side benefit of not adding a bunch of new livestock to the tank is that it has allowed us the opportunity to discover all the other life that apparently came in with the rocks instead of only noticing the pretty fishes. That little button has now opened up to probably 4 times it’s original size. Granted, fully opened is still only about a ½ inch in diameter, but still. Also my tank is crawling with bristle worms. I still can’t decide if that is a bad thing or not. Some people think they are a hazard, but I’m not convinced. These are quite small, about an inch in length, smaller in width than a pencil lead, with little spurs (bristles) running the length of their bodies. I find them quite ugly and may try to remove them for that reason alone, but for now they are just another interesting set of creatures to watch. This picture shows two nasty little bristleworms poking their heads out of some holes in the rocks as well as my newly alive little button. This thing doubles itself up into all types of odd shapes, and as I type this, looks like a little green beach ball.

We also found on the first day something that looked like a little piece of fuzz, or possibly some gray mold on the topmost rock. My daughter soon discovered that the mold was moving around. We’ve never actually seen it in motion, but it is never in the same place for long. I noticed it riding on the shell of one of the snails this afternoon, I would take a picture to help me with identification, but the snail is not in a good picture location. We have decided for now it is a baby starfish. A moldy baby starfish. We also have a few “sea monsters”. No idea what these really are, but there are a few spots in the rock that will occasionally sprout 2 – 4 tiny green and black striped tentacles that remind me of the final scene in Beetlejuice. I would be really creeped out by this if not for the protective layer of glass between me and them. I wonder if I will ever find out what is at the end of those tentacles. The last little life forms that have begun to accumulate are various forms of what are known as copepods. They are like little white bugs all over the aquarium. If you click on the top picture in this post to open it full size, you will see several little white dots attached to the tank glass or floating in the water. These are some of the pods. Normally these are a food source to fish living in the tank, but since I have no fish, the population has exploded. The first fish I do add is likely to be very fat and happy for the first several days in the tank

Ok, So I did get impatient and buy one extra thing. A small colony of zoanthid corals. There are actually two types. One is orange with a pale blue dot in the center, and one is a neon green. The colony was only $10, so we will call it my test coral. Another reason for my patience is that I will be going on a trip for a few weeks, and will not be able to take care of the tank or feed any inhabitants. Right now the tank is pretty much self sufficient, and if the zoas are still alive when I get back I’ll know for sure that I have a stable system that is ready for some new creatures.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lessons Learned

Not sure I believe this entirely yet, but I think my tank is completely cycled. I fully expected this to take a month or more. I barely had a spike of any kind, but ammonia and nitrites both crept up slightly and then went to zero over the course of a few days. Now nitrates appear to be climbing. Further confirmation is the sudden appearance of some green algae growing on the rocks. Green algae feeds on Nitrates, so a completed first cycle is usually accompanied by an agae bloom.

I suppose the fast cycle is due to buying what is called "fully cured" live rock in the appropriate quantity. I used 15 lbs for a 12 gallon tank, which is in the recommended range. With this rock came all the required bacteria to transform the ammonia from the shrimp into nitrates.

I also have none of the Diatom algae problems that I had with my first tank. Diatom algae is usually caused by silicates in the water. So we'll call this the first payoff from incorporating lessons I learned the hard way with my first tank.

1) if using live rock as a primary means of filtration use 1 to 1.5 lbs of rock per gallon of water. in the first tank I used about 12 lbs in a 30 gallon tank and my water never seemed to remain stable. I'm not sure if I will have better luck this time, but early indications in how fast the rock handled the raw shrimp are encouraging.

2) Use water filtered by Reverse Osmosis (RO), not distilled, not Tap water. In order to save some money when setting up my first tank a few years back I used Tap water and some declorinator. My intent was to use RO for all top offs and future water changes. I thought that eventually it would all be RO or distilled, and everything would work out. I knew chlorine was toxic to fish (hence the dechlorinator) but I had no idea about the silicates in tap water. While not harmfull, Daitom algae is very ugly and brown and will cover your tank seemingly overnight. I hope to not have the same problem in this tank due to the use of RO water.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Is it pee yet?

I was testing the water in the tank to see if the cocktail shrimp was doing its job. The first test was for ammonia. Logan was looking on, and when I told him what I was testing for he asked what ammonia is. I told him I didn't know what is was, but I knew where it could be found... things like cleaning supplies... and fish pee, and even his own pee for that matter.

The test kit looks like a child's chemistry set an works by filling a small test tube to a predetermined level with tank water, then adding drops from various bottles. You then cap the tube, mix well, and wait for a color change that is visually compared to a color on one of the test cards. After a few minutes, Logan looked at the tube and asked "Is it pee yet?"

Monday, March 2, 2009

I bought what?

So back to the nitrogen cycle and its necessity in the aquarium. When you put a fish whose normal habitat is as large as the ocean into a space that fits on your countertop, steps must be taken to keep its tiny new home clean. As fish eat, both their waste and uneaten food decompose and give off nitrogen. This is toxic to pretty much every living thing that you would intentionally put in the tank. So before putting anything that you would rather not die in the tank, you must force the tank to complete this cycle. The way most people used to do this was putting a hearty, but potentially aggressive fish called a damsel in the tank first. Let it eat and create source of ammonia so that the first level of bacteria can eat and multiply.
The last time I tried this, I just ended up with a problem fish that was nearly impossible to remove from the tank. This time I decided to go another path. Shrimp. If anything in the tank dies it must be removed immediately or the result is… an ammonia spike. So why not just throw something that has already died into the tank? This is great idea that I can’t really take credit for, but should save me the money and aggravation of another starter fish. So it was off to the grocery store. I went to the seafood counter and requested a single uncooked cocktail shrimp, “that little one in the back.” I got a bit of a double take on that one but she weighed the little guy anyway, and at $6.99 per pound, my total was $0.07
At the register the checkout girl picked the plastic bag containing my little ammonia machine off the belt and scanned it, looked at the register, back at the bag, at me, then back at the bag, before indignantly stating, “you bought one piece of shrimp.”


“Why did you buy one piece of shrimp?"

“I’m really not that hungry."


“Do you have a bonus card?”

I did not. A shame really, it would have brought my total down to $0.06

So in the tank it went. Let the ammonia spike begin.

Our first discovery

I bought some rock to put in the tank. It has 2 purposes. the first is to just be something interesting to look at, the second is to act as the primary method of filtration for the tank. It's called Live Rock because of all the algae and bacteria that live in the cracks and pores of the rock. This rock can be home grown, but tyipcally is is harvested just of reefs at various worldwide locations. If you're interested in explaining how this works to the kids, look up "The Nitrogen Cycle" on line. The short story is critters poop and stuff dies, this creates ammonia. certain bacteria eat ammonia and create nitrites, other bacteria eat that and create nitrates. Plants eat the nitrates. Critters eat the plants and the cycle starts all over again. That's part of the draw to this hobby, trying to maintain the balance of this tiny ecosystem in a bottle.
Occasionally you will find more interesting critters hitch hiking on the rock as well. I once had a crab sneak home with me on one of these rocks. This one wasn't quite as interesting, but the kids were excited to make the discovery. On one of the rocks was a little maroon button. After the water began to clear from the addition of the rock and it all sat under the lights for the day, the button opened up. It looks to be some type of simple life form, plant or coral maybe. Post a comment if you recognize the thing.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Tank Arrives

I started looking in earnest about a month ago. I began by adding up all the start up costs for a Reef aquarium. Sadly, it ain’t cheap. The big decision was whether to build my own or go for the all in one system. I chose the all in one primarily for cost. While they are expensive for what they are, They are far cheaper than building my own system. The reason for this is that if I am taking the time to build it myself I know I would be choosing to “do it right”. MH lighting, sump, fuge, and not less than 50 gallons, probably a dedicated stand that I would probably build myself. To do this I would have 2 choices, piece meal used components from other frustrated hobbyists, or just buy new equipment. The first option would take months to pull together, the second would cost over $1k in start up costs, and that’s before the first coral or fish was dropped in the tank. Neither option appealed to me.
I went with the Aquapod 12 gallon. It fits nicely between my counter top and upper cabinets, although I can’t open the hood all the way when it’s tucked in there. I had to modify the hood slightly to be able to take it off for routine maintenance. I bought it from simply because it was the cheapest price I could find at $166 including shipping. It showed up well packed with no signs of shipping damage, but when I turned it on for a test run I noticed on of the LED moon lights was much dimmer than the other. Upon further inspection I found that the dimmer light was not mounted properly and was stuck inside the reflective hood. Time to break out the screwdriver. After taking the aluminum cowl off I found the problem was that the hot glue used to fix the LED in place had come loose from the aluminum. While I had the tools to fix it properly, I chose to go ghetto with the scotch tape instead. I wanted to get stet up, sue me. 5 minutes and I was on to the leak test, which we fortunately passed no problem.