Field Trip to Rico's Reef Tank
How’s it going everyone, I visited Rico’s Aquariums to take a look at how his new tank is doing. The new tank moved in late August of last year and that was a bit of an adventure in its own right.
I haven’t been back to his place since then so it will be interesting to see how it has come along in the past few months. Let’s take a look!
This tank has only been up for a couple of months now and you can see it is already well underway. There is a lot to cover so let’s go over each part in turn.
There was a time when just about everyone’s tank had a wall of rock in the back. These days, there is a lot more interest in unique rock structures that incorporate arches and overhangs that provide more visual interest to the rock work. This particular aquascape has some interesting design elements. The first design element are these thin arches and protrusions that cantilever out from the main rock column. What I like about this type of rock work is that it allows for a lot more water flow through the aquascape. Often times when the reef structure is too densely constructed flow can be stifled and you can wind up with dead spots or inaccessible areas that collect detritus which can lead to nutrient problems down the road. A more “airy” rock structure like this allows for more water flow as well as access to the substrate if you choose to siphon it.
The openness of the rock work also allows for fish to swim through it and find hiding spots for themselves if they are feeling stressed. Also, for the corals, it provides a structure that gets more flow around the colony which has some major benefits such as access to food and faster elimination of waste. Over time however, large colonies will seal up many of these pathways as the corals grow, but let’s be serious, that is a great problem to have.
One other element to this rock work you may have noticed is that it is not too high. This is to allow for future growth of corals upward. Sometimes hobbyists underestimate the growth potential of some corals and have them almost growing out of the water. It is very tempting to build up rock work all the way to the water’s surface day 1, but a lower profile rock structure will pay dividends down the road in about 12 months when the colonies really start to take off.
Now that I’ve gone over all these great benefits, there is a reason why a lot of hobbyists don’t go this route. It is hard to do. For those out there that have attempted to do fancy aquascape, you know how difficult it is to do arches and have pieces of rock precariously extending out from the rock work. In order to get these shapes, Rico had to drill some of the pieces and install solid acrylic rods through to provide strength as well as a small fortune in epoxy putty to get everything to adhere properly.
Moving on to the fish there is an eclectic mix of them and there is already a LOT of them with more planned in the future. Let’s talk about the fish in this tank based on their job class so to speak.
First you have herbivores like tangs and fox faces. I can’t live without these in my systems. I can tell pretty quickly when one of mine goes missing by the way the algae grows. At that point I really miss their contribution to the reef community. There is no perfect herbivore unfortunately… tangs can get large and belligerent, fox faces have a venomous spine to look out for and can get nibbley on corals they find interesting. Despite these drawbacks, the job herbivorous fish perform in the tank outweighs the headaches they cause.
Second, there are wrasses. In this tank I see a few types such as melanarus, cleaner, and fairy wrasses. Wrasses do a great job of controlling a wide range of pests and diseases on both corals and fish - in the case of the cleaner wrasse.
I am not sure the fairy wrasse does as much pest control as a melanarus, Coris, or leopard wrasse, but any amount of pressure they put is a net positive. There are tons of different species of fairy wrasses so if you are into some dazzling specimens, you can get lost going down that rabbit hole.
Lastly I should point out that the cleaner wrasse is not the best choice for hobbyists with smaller tanks or tanks with thin fish populations. They perform a great service if one of your other fish is battling ice or similar parasitic issue, but they need a lot of fish to clean otherwise they run into nutrition problems. Consider a cleaner shrimp in the tank as an alternative because they pretty do a similar job but do not have the same food issue because they eat just about every kind of food offered.
There are decorative fish like anthias and cardinals. Although it is hard to point out any specific task they perform, just having them in the reef may have a benefit for the corals and microfauna and let’s not forget that this is an aesthetic hobby that we all presumably got into to enjoy so having a few fish that are there purely for decoration is providing value. Not every stocking choice has to be utilitarian right?
As for the corals, this is a mixed reef but it looks like it is going to be heavily skewed towards SPS with an emphasis on Acropora. Acropora dominate all the prominent real estate on the rock work sharing the space with the occasional Montipora here and there.
Now that we talked about the tank inhabitants, let’s go over the equipment that makes this all possible.
The stand is a super beefy aluminum t-slot build from Framing Tech. The largest sections are 4x4 and the rest looks like it is 2x4. The adjustable feet are a nice touch as it allows for furniture sliders to be put on them one at a time and then removed one at a time. Obviously this only comes in handy when setting up the tank, but boy is it helpful for micro adjusting the orientation of the tank to stick the overflow box through the wall. Although the feet look small, they are individually rated for 1,200 lbs. of pressure.
Speaking of the orientation a moment, this is what is called a peninsula tank where it is three sides viewable, but two of the three sides are the long sides. It makes for a nice room-divider look and can be appreciated from the two long sides.
It is a very cool setup but there are a few challenges this style poses that we can cover. The first challenge is a lack of a real background. Sure one of the short sides is technically a background, but by having both of the long sides viewable, you can see right through it to whatever is going on on the other side of the tank which can be visually distracting. Sometimes having a regular background is nice in that it isolates the viewer’s attention to the tank itself.
The second challenge is a technical challenge in that it makes creating flow more difficult. In most aquariums it is trivial to just put a powerhead on the side of the aquarium along with a couple of returns from the sump. In a peninsula tank, if you do that, it can look really unsightly. Nothing ruins a three side viewable tank quite like big pumps and power cords right in the viewing pane. Rico came up with a pretty good design to hide the pumps.
First off, the return lines are very short runs from the sump in the back room. The original plan was to have them go all the way to the far end of the tank and blow back towards the overflow box, but this is a more simple and elegant design for the returns. Also because it is a shorter run of pipe, these returns generate more flow in the tank as there is less friction and less head pressure on the pump not having to pump water up to the ceiling and the entire length of the tank before the output.
Still, it would be nice to have something blow the water back because otherwise all the pumps would be only on the one side pushing out. Here you can see the returns and the two MP60’s are located against that back wall.
This second set of pumps solves this and because of the way they are mounted are minimally invasive visually. They are maxspect gyre pumps and they mount to the glass with a magnetic back plate like many other pumps. The thing here though is the magnet is mounted to the eurobrace rather than the side of the aquarium so nothing blocks the sight lines on the viewing pane. Also because the gyre’s design is basically a low profile tube it is barely noticeable right at the top of the water while producing a lot of flow back towards the other end of the aquarium.
At that end of the aquarium is the external overflow box that extends through a cutaway in the wall leading to a utility room. The box design itself is a bean animal overflow that is supposed to be very quiet. Most of the noise associated with an overflow box is the slurping sound of air going into the drain and this overflow eliminates that noise by having the main drain completely submerged using a gate valve for precision control. The other two drains you see are to maintain a certain height and a full backup in case the setting of the main gets thrown off either by long term growth inside the piping or a blockage of some sort like a snail.
These drain lines from the overflow box make their way down into a couple filter socks into very basic sump. This sump is interesting in that it is really two sumps that are tied together using bulkheads. This is the first time I’ve ever seen this, but in theory it should work as long as both sides have that rubber gasket to seal it. By installing the sump in two halves, it makes getting it into the back room that much easier. This sump is 8’ x 3’ x 16” tall so you can imagine how difficult it would be to maneuver something that size down a stairwell and into a tight corner. It is much easier in two halves.
The filtration on this system is very old school. Aside from the filter socks that we talked about, there is a pump that feeds a large protein skimmer. This is a reef octopus 8000 which for its size is a bargain. I use one at the tidal gardens greenhouse and it is probably my favorite one. In the future this one is going to get an automatic neck cleaning wiper blade, which should cut down a bit on the maintenance and also improve performance as it is cleaner longer.
The big calcium reactor next to it is the largest unit GEO makes. This is a 12” model which is rated for systems over a thousand gallons. Calcium reactors can be a bit intimidating for hobbyists that have never used one, but in practice they are actually super simple and I personally recommend anyone with a large tank to consider one. If you want to know more about how these devices function, I’ll put a link to my video talking in depth about them.
There are a couple of accessories on this particular calcium reactor that make it stand out. The first thing is the extra reactor chamber.
The pH of water inside a calcium reactor hovers between 6.6 to 6.8 in order to dissolve the calcium carbonate media which then gets dripped back slowly into the aquarium. In a basement setup like this where gas exchange is an issue the overall pH of the system can drift lower than the recommended 8.3. Obviously better air exchange would help, but every little bit helps, and in this case the second reactor chamber serves to soak up the last bits of CO2 in the effluent and raise the pH of the water returning to the tank. It is a minor benefit, but if you have a tank already struggling with low pH, even small benefits add up and take the edge off.
The other accessory that is uncommon is the use of a peristaltic pump to deliver water to the reactor. A typical calcium reactor uses a small powerhead like a maxi jet can controls the flow rate by a valve on the effluent line. Over time, that valve or that pump can get gummed up and the flow rate through the reactor changes so the hobbyist has to make sure to service those two items to make sure the reactor operates consistently. By using a peristaltic pump, this reactor gets delivered a consistent flow rate and there is no valve on the effluent end. It just remains wide open and the flow rate is dictated entirely by the speed of the peristaltic pump. I have personally never used a pump like this, but it is interesting. The criticisms are that eventually the hoses and heads have to be replaced and the initial cost of the unit is much higher than a small powerhead, but I can see the appeal for those looking to dial in a specific flow rate and have less risk of it deviating from that flow rate over time.
The last thing I will cover about the equipment in this tank is the lighting. Over the tank are Ecotech Radion Pro LED’s. There are six XR30 units with two light pucks a piece and two XR15 units with a single puck. I don’t have to tell you anything about these lights. They are very highly regarded in the industry and everyone I have spoken to really likes their performance. These fixtures right now are set to 45% power using a preset that mimics an ATI aqua blue special bulb which is a daylight colored T5 fluorescent. At 45% power the PAR levels are 250 at the surface and 100 at the bottom.
LED’s are a point light so you will get some visible glitter lines. Ecotech did a good job in blending the light so you don’t see the colors separating out into a disco-ball effect. Also, the optics of the LED’s in this fixture help to eliminate the spotlight effect created by harsh shadows.
What also helps eliminate the spotlight effect is that Rico installed the lighting very high off the water allowing the light to spread before hitting the surface. They are a good 24” off the water which also is good for keeping them clean. If you have water splashing 2 feet off the top of the tank, you have other problems entirely.
While I have seen these lights before, this is the first time filming a tank with them. I was really curious to see how well the picture comes out because in the past I was never happy with how LED looked on camera. These units look pretty good I must admit. There have been a lot of improvements over the years and I hope that trend continues into the future.
It will be cool to see what this tank looks like in the next 6 to 12 months as stuff fills in and colors up under these lights.
That pretty much does it for this visit to Rico’s Aquariums. Happy Reefing.