In person and on online forums, many of us get asked for advice about setting up and maintaining reef aquariums. What is really involved? What are the secrets for success? How do you answer these complicated and open-ended questions? In multiple ways of course, but I thought it might be useful to take you through my approach to handling inquiries from aspiring hobbyists.
First, I ask you all to consider your own humble entrance to this passion we know as reef keeping. I, for one, was wide-eyed, giddily enthusiastic and largely clueless regarding the practicalities, realities and demands of the successful reef-keeper. It took a long time and much trial and error before I was finally able to sort through and make sense of the flood of complicated and seemingly contradictory information coming my way. I had my share of difficulties and unnecessarily jeopardized the lives of far too many beautiful creatures. I learned a lot along the way, but it took quite a while to be in a position to meaningfully engage much of the higher -level information now so readily available. In short, beginners need really practical and reliable information. The cutting edge and the controversies can come later, in fact, must come later. I’m truly appalled when I see rank beginners being advised on such things as carbon dosing, amino-acid supplementation and the like. Most of these people don’t even know how to properly do a water change.
In brief, successful aquarists don’t become successful over night. By keeping the discussion practically oriented, and relatively non-technical, beginners can start to achieve success with a minimum of heartache and more quickly advance to the more complex issues of reef keeping.
Whenever I am asked for advice about starting a reef aquarium, I always respond by asking, “Are you sure you want to do this”? An annoying response perhaps, but one which cuts to the heart of a lot of issues that surround the ultimate success or failure of many aquarists. Setting up and properly caring for a reef system is time consuming and costly. While we all strive for efficient, low maintenance, self-sustaining marine systems, novices should understand that a casual relationship to their reef is not realistic. The commitment to the animals in our care is long-term and needs to be taken seriously. It has been my experience that novices who carefully consider these realities and then decide they want to proceed are far more likely to succeed than those who don’t.
How much of a time commitment does one have to make? This is a hard question to answer definitively, but I tell them with confidence that they will end up investing far more time than they initially think they will. Moreover, they may not even realize it until something changes and they no longer have that time to give. I have always felt the need to reserve at least 15-20 minutes a day to deal with the minimum requirements for my system, dealing with things like calcium supplementation, top-off water, feeding etc. I also budget an additional 2-3 hours a week for more substantial tasks like cleaning the glass, maintaining the skimmer, and observing the system and its inhabitants for changes that may indicate the onset of problems. Additionally, I always clear the better part of an afternoon once a month to deal with larger maintenance issues like cleaning pumps, changing light bulbs, water changes, testing water quality, pruning and general fiddling with things. I haven’t even mentioned the endless hours of pleasurable amusement watching, talking about, and shopping for this wonderful undertaking! I ask if they have this much time to give? If they do, will they for the foreseeable future? It is helpful to think about this before they decide to get started. If they are planning to make some significant lifestyle changes in the near future, maybe now is not the time to start dabbling with reef tanks.
Once they are convinced they are willing to make the time sacrifices necessary to succeed they need to think about how much money they are willing to spend. Without a realistic budget, they can’t plan much further. Beautiful reef systems can be achieved in a variety of sizes, with a variety of approaches, and for greatly varying price tags. None of them come cheaply. There are lots of hidden costs, and I suggest they pad their budget accordingly.
Once they have a budget in mind, they really need to start doing a lot of reading, and asking a lot of questions. They need to evaluate the physical space the system will occupy. How much weight can the floor hold? Is there an accessible water supply? How about electrical outlets? Things like proximity to windows have real impacts on captive systems. Noise is another consideration. Really, there is a lot to think about.
Most important of all, they need to think about what kinds of organisms they want to keep. Ultimately, this will determine the type and size of the system they put together, the kinds of equipment they need to acquire, and how much this is going to cost in time and money.
My recommendation is always that they take a step back and read actively. Develop questions they want answered and familiarize themselves with the language and concepts of the hobby. There is no better way to succeed in this pursuit, than to arm yourself with accurate and useful information. There are wonderful books, magazines and web resources that can provide a tremendous start in the right direction. But, they are doing themselves a disservice if they rely on a few hasty questions and responses on a forum and they rush ahead too quickly. I guess what I think they need to understand most is that patience and thoughtful planning are the most important factors in achieving a stable and long-lived captive reef.