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Nano marine/reef aquariums for beginners

BY : Moolis Moolman

From : Pet Stop SA & Pet Stop Junction

Yes, I know in a perfect world a beginner should not start with a nano. BUT experience show that 95% of beginners do start with a nano and then move on to a larger aquarium at a later stage. Most of them argue that a nano is not so expensive and they want to see if they can be successful and YES they are willing to put in the extra work associated with a nano reef aquarium.

Well I want every one starting in this magnificent hobby to be successful!! So the beginners that want to or need to start with a nano aquarium this is for you guys. All the advice given here is given to keep your costs to a minimum but DO NOT TAKE SHORT CUTS as this will blow your budget with all the losses and problems you will experience.

Lets start with WHAT IS A NANO Aquarium? My definition for the purposes of this article is, all aquariums that have less than 240 liter gross volume. My reason for this deviation from the normal 100 liter aquariums is experience over the past 11 years in retail. I found that reefers that keep reef aquariums smaller than 240 liter battle a lot more than those that keep reef aquariums that are larger.

The most important factor of any aquariums success is starting correct and doing the maintenance regularly and correct.

Maintenance is the key to your success so I will start with that and remind you again as I go along. You need to do much bigger and more regular water changes than the recommended 10% per week for larger aquariums. We found that 50% water change every week work well and a biweekly 30 to 40% water change work excellent. So my recommendation is a biweekly 40% water change. Furthermore we found the use of MATURED WATER purchased from a reputable marine aquarium outlet, to deliver astonishing results. What is matured water? This is water that comes out of a pristine aquarium where large water changes are done on a regular basis, with limited or no fish stock in it (we use our coral aquarium for this as no new fish are added, up to 40% water changes are done every week and the filtration is boosted with calcium and other reactors). If this is not possible using water that you mix and keep in a separate holder with a circulation pump for at least 24 hours – 48 hours are better.

ALWAYS REMEMBER – before you add the new water, get the temperature correct and always use the same source of water. By neglecting either of these you stand a chance of losing your priced aquarium inhabitants!

That was only regarding the water now we need to look at the way you remove the old water. DO NOT just syphon out the old water and replace it with matured water. You need to syphon any detritus that accumulated on the bottom, between rocks, in the filter and anyware ells, out. By not doing this or not doing it thoroughly you would negatively affect the live inhabitants in your aquarium. The best way to manage this is by using a thin layer of FINE aragonite at the bottom, refrain from using course gravel as this is only a detritus trap. Then by using a gravel syphon you clean the gravel. After cleaning the gravel you use a thin pipe and syphon out any detritus hiding in all the crevices. Lastly you need to clean the filter by rinsing all the pre-filters and sponges out in the tank water you already syphoned out of the aquarium. This is very important as you do not want to kill any healthy bacteria living on the media but you need to remove as much detritus as possible. Lastly we get to your biological media. As stated before, not all filter-medias are created equal and we normally recommend you remove all biological media and replace it with small pieces of live-rock.

Now that you understand the maintenance involved in a successful nano aquarium you have the knowledge to evaluate all the options available with this in mind, but the actual hardware also play a major role as other factors like heat, lighting and volume all play a an equally important role in your success. Do not forget that the new nano aquarium needs to be an aesthetically beautiful addition to your living space.

First you need to decide on an aquarium. You get a variety of options and I only have space for a general discussion here. But factors you need to look into are lighting, overheating, filtration and skimming.

Curved front closed top units – In lots of marine shops and some tropical fish shops you find the imported curved front closed top aquariums. Most of these are manufactured specifically for tropical fish and then tend to either have incorrect lighting, incorrect filtration or over heating problems.

When you look at one of these closed top options you need to take your total needs into consideration. Do you want to keep only low light corals or do want to keep corals with high light needs as well. As most of them do not have sufficient lighting for the corals that have more intense lighting needs. Then there are those with better lighting but insufficient ventilation and heat extraction leading to overheating problems. Their filters tend to consist of a pre-filter, sinter-glass, bio rings or bio-balls, all media that are not recommended for marine aquarium use. If there are media like EHFISUBSTRAT or something similar in the filter you can keep it in the filter, otherwise rather replace it with good quality small pieces of live-rock. Lastly we get to the skimmer that come with these units. If the unit come with a skimmer it is 99% of the time of such poor quality that you might even remove the skimmer all together and not experience any difference. (see skimmer comments bellow.

Loads of reef nano keepers end up spending lots of time and money adapting their curved front closed top units. My question is “Do you want to do a lot of DIY work or do you want your reef nano aquarium to be a joy from the start?” By answering this question you will know if a curved front clased top nano aquarium is for you or not.

Then there are the exceptions to these comments like the 130D RED SEA reef aquarium. This aquarium was developed specifically for the nano reef keeper in mind and most customers tend to be successful with these aquariums from the start, so a great beginners reef aquarium.

So there you have the Bad & Ugly of curved front closed top aquariums, but there must be a GOOD as well, Yes, there is. You can keep one of these good looking units very successfully as long as you keep these comments in mind and regularly do the maintenance as stipulated above. I have seen some of these nano reef aquariums that would rival any reef system you have seen on the internet or in books and magazines. But they all have the same reason for their success, namely good maintenance and also loads of DIY changes.

If over time you add up all the labour, DIY and other expenses you might end up with the same costs as a larger custom made aquarium.

Then we get the cubes – these come in complete units that are either imported or locally manufactured. The great thing about these is that they are manufactured specifically for marine aquariums and you can change options without too much effort or cost as you go along.

Lets start at the top, the lighting is normally metal-halide, T5 or good quality LED’s specifically manufactured for marine aquarium use. With these lighting units you should be able to successfully keep corals that need good lighting, healthy and vibrant.

Then we get to the filter, this is 99% of the time at the bottom and is called a sump filter. Sump filters are very versatile and also add to the gross volume of your nano aquarium. Furthermore with the sump filter you can actually install a skimmer that can do the work in your aquarium.

As you can deduct out of my comments, I recommend cubes if you want to go the nano aquarium rout and especially if you want a nano reef.

There are some other options available from time to time but due to the low amounts that are sold they are not worth mentioning here.

Now that you decided on the nano reef aquarium that will suit your needs, there is one more consideration you need to give attention to and that is flow. You need a good flow everywhere in your aquarium. This flow is important for 2 reasons. The first is to keep detritus and other debris in suspension to get it out of the display area and into the filter. The second reason is that you need to keep water movement over all the corrals as a corral with insufficient flow will not thrive. Corals need the water movement to remove their waist away from them and carry food and other chemicals to them that are essential for their health, growth and constant wellbeing.

Normal return pumps that return water from the filter to the display area is normally insufficient and you will need additional “flow pumps”. These flow pumps do not have a single strong outlet but rather a big dispersed outlet. Thus Flow pumps are designed specifically to move the water column around the aquarium.

So get the correct unit for your needs and do your maintenance regularly and correct and you will have that elusive successful small display aquarium. Then when you are ready to start with your bigger aquarium, remember size does count and a bigger aquarium will take up less of your precious time when compared with a successful nano aquarium.


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