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Aquarium Maintenance

Aquarium Maintenance
By: Scott Zachow

A beautiful reef aquarium featured in the March Edition of RHO. With a some structured routine maintenance, any aquarium can display the same beauty. Picture by Eric and Sheila Ropke.

Next to only cost, aquarium maintenance is a major reason more people don’t maintain their own marine aquarium. Think about it, while you converse with people that are interested in a marine aquarium but do not have one, the first thing they say is “don’t they cost a lot and take a lot of work to maintain?” The answer is undoubtedly “yes, they can cost a lot and do take some work, but they are not impossible”. The cost aspect is given, equipment is expensive, livestock is expensive, and necessities for continuous care are expensive. The maintenance aspect on the other hand, despite common belief, isn’t that difficult, although does require persistence and therefore a level of dedication. The single most important part of maintaining a marine aquarium is to perform certain types of maintenance at specific intervals to spread it out over days, weeks and even months. By spending a few minutes a day and an hour or so per week, the aquarist can prevent the necessity for spending an entire weekend every month maintaining your aquarium. Not only is it easier to maintain performing more frequent maintenance, it helps provide a more suitable environment for your livestock. Here we will detail maintenance that should be performed at different times with the goal of ultimately reducing the amount of time spent when less frequent maintenance is performed.

Daily Maintenance
There are many small things that should be done daily. These daily activities range from basic maintenance to system checks and will mostly help avoid a major catastrophe. The most important of these daily activities is to feed your livestock, not only daily but consider 2-3 times per day in smaller amounts. Feeding your livestock a mixed diet (several different nutritious foods) 2-3 times per day is much better than 1 larger meal every day or longer. Feeding your livestock 2-3 times per day shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes and for the healthier results, it well worth it.

The next daily activity is to visually check your livestock. Outside of performing water tests with reliable kits and equipment, visual inspection of your tank is the best way to determine if everything is ok. Fish should be actively swimming and eating and corals (if any) should show good color and polyp extension/expansion is applicable. Anything that is out of the ordinary should elicit immediate response to investigate further. Usually, noting unordinary behaviors from livestock immediately will allow the aquarist to find the underlying cause of the problem and correcting it before permanent damage is caused.

The stunning reef aquarium maintained by Steve Weast as featured in the November 2004 edition of RHO. A detailed maintenance routine is performed to keep this aquarium performing and looking top notch. Picture by Steve Weast.

Most marine aquariums today have equipment that allows for easy checks of water parameters, most notably a thermometer. The temperature of the tank should be checked daily or more often as it can quickly become outside of normal ranges in the event of a heater failure. A temperature problem would typically be noted by the appearance of the livestock but the deficiency may be nominal and not cause immediate negative responses as where longer-term effects may be detrimental. For example livestock may appear fine at a temperature of 86F if only exposed for a short period of time (if the normal temperature is 80-82) however this long term increase may be problematic. Other water parameters that can be easily checked daily should be. pH, redox, salinity, calcium and more can be tested with electronic equipment on a continual basis. If you utilize this type of testing equipment you should take a quick check of them 1 or more times per day.

Another task in the daily routine is equipment operation checks. Powerheads and other pumps are easy to verify, in fact it’s easier to know when they’re not running by the noise level of the tank. The operation of the protein skimmer should be checked as well. Skimmers have a couple of very important operators, the water flow and airflow. Check to ensure the pump and air source is functioning and also verify that the skimmer collection cup has ample room for skimmate and empty as necessary. For those that “wet skim”, that is prefer a very wet skimmate, the skimmer collection cup should be emptied daily.

Adding fresh top off water to replace evaporation should be done daily. As water evaporates from the aquarium, the salinity increases and therefore top off water must be added to correct it daily. If any supplements are added to the tank, they are typically done daily to provide more consistent levels. It is important to note that a lot of the supplements on the market are not necessary. If you use them, you should test for them and not exceed Natural Sea Water levels.

The total time needed to perform these daily maintenance activities shouldn’t be more than 20 minutes and that is if you perform these activities and checks more than once per day. The problems and heartache that they can prevent makes them very worthwhile.

Weekly Maintenance
Water changes are a very important part of marine aquarium husbandry. As aquarium water becomes aged and the overall nutrient level increases, the health of your livestock can decrease. Water changes are effective at reducing nutrients; I’m sure you’ve heard the say ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’ but they also reduce the yellowing compounds in the water and add important trace elements that help replenish the overall system. The livestock quickly uses up trace elements and the yellowing compounds in aged water can reduce the light intensity that penetrates the water column. Weekly water changes of 5-15% are very effective at maintaining clear, nutrient poor water. Performing smaller, more frequent water changes is more effective, and less shocking for the entire system.

To monitor important aspects of the water, weekly water tests should be performed. If temperature and salinity aren’t monitored daily, these should be checked weekly. Additionally, Calcium, Alkalinity, pH, and Nitrate should be included. If the aquarium is new and in the cycling period, Ammonia and Nitrite should be included in these weekly tests to monitor the cycle for advancement and eventual completion. There are other test kits and equipment for water parameters such as Copper, Strontium, Iodide, Boron and many others that if purchased, should be used weekly.

Some pieces of equipment should be cleaned weekly, especially the Protein Skimmer. Waste build up in the chambers of a protein skimmer can significantly reduce performance. The skimmer and pump should be removed and thoroughly cleaned for optimum performance. If the skimmer doesn’t have a thick coating of waste built up inside it, this can be pushed out to a bi-weekly maintenance item but should not be overlooked for much longer. The protein skimmer is an important, and expensive part of the marine aquarium and therefore should always be operating at maximum performance. To be sure of this, perform weekly or bi-weekly maintenance on your skimmer.

A well performing beckett driven skimmer. The skimmate build-up on the walls of the riser tube is an indication that it is time to be cleaned. Photo Courtesy of Gene Schwartz.

Some general tank cleaning should also be performed. This includes cleaning the glass from film algae that develops on the viewing panes, siphoning waste that builds up on rock work or bare bottom tanks while doing your water change, and cleaning out any filter media that is used. Mechanical filters often incorporate the use of carbon pads or other media that must be cleaned to prevent the build up of nutrients, which can lead to serious nutrient problems.

Your weekly maintenance is a good time to adjust acclimating corals or rearrange things as needed. You may have just introduced a new stony coral that you placed on the bottom and now is a good time to start moving it slowly up the reef structure to its final spot. You can use your weekly maintenance time to prune macro algae from your refugium too. The weekly activities shouldn’t take much more than 1 hour of your time, depending on all that you do.

Monthly Maintenance
Monthly maintenance is your most time consuming and include the most intuitive activities. Before performing your water change, use a powerhead to blow off debris from your reef structure. When you blow it around, the livestock in your tank might enjoy the suspended particulate matter but the main reason is to try to remove it. Removing this detritus will go a long way in improving your water quality. If needed you can even use a toothbrush to more thoroughly clean off your structure. If there is any alga growing that you want to remove, attaching a toothbrush to your siphon hose makes the task a bit easier.

Thorough equipment cleaning is essential as well. Weekly, your skimmer should be cleaned for optimum performance; the monthly maintenance should include cleaning all other critical equipment. All pumps and powerheads should be removed and cleaned. Sometimes you may even soak them in vinegar water to help remove the calcium deposits. Powerheads and pumps should be dismantled and cleaned to help extend their life and to keep them operating at maximum flow rates. Make sure to remove impellers and inspect them as well for wear and breakage and replace them as necessary. At a minimum this should be done monthly but if during your daily or weekly routines you note decreased performance, do it them.

Other equipment cleaning is often overlooked. Light bulbs or lens covers should be cleaned monthly. Slat residue from splashing and creeping is a real intensity reducer when it comes to your lighting. Make sure to clean your bulbs and/or covers monthly to ensure optimum penetration. If the bulbs are due for replacement, this is the time to do this. Calcium Reactors should be checked at least monthly to ensure the bubble rate is consistent and that the CO2 tank has plenty of gas. If not, adjust and fill as needed.

Monthly maintenance will take the most time, 2-4 hours on average. Take this opportunity to clean up your sump, pumps, and other equipment thoroughly. This is the time to do all of the things you wanted to do for the last month so get them done now. Also, take this time to bond with your fish. 😉

Maintenance Logging
Logging your daily, weekly and monthly maintenance activities is more important and useful than you think. Whether you use a note book or one of the computer programs available, logging your test results, your maintenance activities and your livestock additions, growth and behavior can help you better understand your tanks specific husbandry needs and help you see at a glance what works and what doesn’t. Logging these activities will also help you determine the frequency needed for them. For instance if you clean your skimmer weekly and document is with detailed comments, you might learn that it is only needed bi-weekly. Same thing holds true for your pumps and other equipment, look for trends in your logs that help you dictate their specific maintenance needs. Logs are also a good place to store purchase information for equipment, cost and warranty and contact information.

Computer programs and’s Personal Online Aquarium Log system also allow you to enter livestock additions and keep track of growth rates with pictures. Not only is it good to share this information with other hobbyist interested in species that you have, it’s rewarding to look back at old pictures and see how far the livestock has come. This type of documentation is a great way for us as hobbyist to learn more about captive requirements and behaviors of the precious marine life we keep and may help us move a step closer to becoming a more self-sustaining hobby.

Whether you follow this guide for your maintenance needs or use your own husbandry techniques, do not overlook them. Performing these activities will help make the hobby more enjoyable for you and your livestock! If you invest the money into your system, make sure to invest the time to keep it happy. Performing some daily, weekly and monthly maintenance activities will make your aquarium keeping more pleasant for you and your animals.

Reef On!
Scott Zachow