Feature Aquarium: The Aquarium of Nathan Paden

by | Jan 15, 2003 | 0 comments

Little did I know when I picked up a used 120 gallon tank as a planned upgrade to give the fish in my 60 gallon cube tank a little more room that I was about to go off the deep end of the reef hobby. Although I was shopping for a Fish Only tank, the tank had around 100lbs of Live Rock and a Icecap 430 ballast with VHO’s. I figured I would go ahead and try my hand with the new setup and see what happened. Less than 2 years later I was planning my current 415 gallon tank from the ground up. The new tank has now been up and running for just over a year and is just starting to come into its own.

After extensive planning and research, I ended up with a glass tank from Inter-American Pet Supply out of Calgary, Alberta. The tank is ¾” standard glass with dual overflows and a 135 gallon custom sump also made by Inter- American. The dimensions of the tank are 122” X 28” X 28”. I’m very happy with the finished product and it was nice to be able to have a tank built to my exact specifications, that extra 2” over the 10’ mark really makes a difference! 😉 The cost was actually very reasonable and I was happy to get a large glass tank for about the price of an acrylic tank, but the 9 guys that helped me move it into my house and get it on the stand weren’t very happy about the fact that the finished tank tipped the scale at right around 1,300lbs! Maybe it would have been lighter if my wife and two of my nieces wouldn’t have been lying in the tank?


I’ve always been a fan of open looking tanks and tried to keep the tank as open as possible. I started with a distinct spur and groove look with about a 6” channel between the smaller rock outcropping on the left, and a larger but relatively low rock pile on the right side. This should give my corals a little more room to grow before reaching the top of the water column.


The aquascaping has changed some, but I’ve kept the low open rockwork with a larger pile to the right so there are still plenty of hiding spots for the fish. There is about 325lbs of rock, primarily transshipped rock from Fiji that I cured in the tank when setting it up.

I have a total of 950lbs of Southdown sand that I was able to get shipped in from Pennsylvania with 750lbs in the display tank and 200lbs in the refugium compartment of the sump. The sandbed ranges from as deep as 8-inches to as shallow as 2-inches with an average depth of 5-inches.

From the start I’ve planned for the tank to be primarily devoted to SPS corals with about 2/3rds of the tank set up for them and the left 1/3rd of the tank setup for soft corals and LPS with a clear break in the rockwork designed to keep the more aggressive mushroom and zooanthids from trying to overgrow the SPS. Even with a distinct separation of the rock structure I’ve had a few mushroom corals separate from the rocks they were attached to and float over to the SPS side of the tank and attach. So far there have only been a few do this but I’m currently debating removing all my mushroom anemones from the tank while I still can.

One other interesting aspect of my tank is probably the stand. The frame is 2” box steel that I purchased through Inter-American, however I finished it out with a ½” plywood veneer and then had a layer of stonework put over it. We live in a log home, and a standard tank could possibly look out of place, but with the stonework and a rather rustic DIY canopy out of the same materials that the ceiling is finished in, the tank seems to fit with the rest of the house nicely.


Water Circulation

I’m of the impression that you probably can never get too much water flow. To strong of water velocity is fairly easy to accomplish, but if you can keep your velocity down, the corals will love as much flow as you can throw at them. I’m currently running an Ampmaster 3000 on a closed recirculation loop and my return pump is a ¼ hp Sequence pump rated for 6,000 gph at 11’ head. Even with the 135 gallon sump and a baffle system, I’ve never been able to run the return pump full throttle without creating too many bubbles in the display tank. I currently have the return throttled back to around 4,000 gph.

Probably my biggest single regret about setting up the tank is not going with 2 closed loops from the start. If I could do it over again I would use a nice dependable pump that could return about 1,500 gph as my return pump and set up a second Ampmaster 3000 on another closed recirculation loop. The recirculation loop I do have returns water to the tank through 2 – 1-inch Sea Swirls and 2 – 1-inch static returns. The return lines from the sump currently go through 1 – 1-inch Sea Swirl and 2 – 1-inch static returns and an ugly 3 way 1 ½-inch cross hanging out into the tank. I’m in the process of replacing the 3 way cross with another 1-inch Sea Swirl. I’ve run a couple maxi-jets to reduce some dead spots in the middle for a while, but as of now there are no in tank powerheads.


I recently purchased a Reeftec PE-2 model propeller driven pump that I have placed on the right side of the tank. I was very impressed with the water flow that this unit puts out! The 48 watt pump flows a tremendous amount of water! (Did I already say that?) I can see a change in the water flow on the other side of my 10-foot long tank when it is on. I don’t think the pump has been officially rated, however I would say that it moves at least 3,000 GPH. The water flow is cone shaped, so as the flow gets farther away from the propeller the velocity slows down although the flow remains very good. Closer to the propeller the velocity is pretty strong though, and I wouldn’t recommend putting anything but extremely high flow loving SPS corals within 18-inches of the unit.

I really think water flow is an under valued aspect of reef keeping. I feel that a big part of my success so far is due to using high flow rates with rather low velocities compared to many setups. Although a 1-inch Sea Swirl is designed to handle up to 1,150 gph I personally try to limit output for 1-inch plumbing to 750 GPH. The ideal setup is not when you can see a jet stream of water shooting across the tank, but a gentle dispersed flow that flows in and around the coral heads at between 2 and 4 feet per second depending on the type of corals you are keeping. Even at the reef crest you rarely see velocities exceeding 5 feet per second in the wild; however we think nothing of running 500 gph through a ½” outlet which is a velocity at the nozzle of over 13 feet per second. That’s enough to tear tissue off a coral if it is too close to the output.


I am currently using 4 X 400W Iwasakis with Spiderlight reflectors. I have 4 X 110W actinic VHO’s running on an Icecap 660 ballast and 2 X 160W VHOs (1 actinic, 1 50/50) running on an Icecap 430. I just recently purchased a used dual 250W PFO ballast and PFO reflectors and I am debating adding a couple of 250W blue bulbs to see if it might affect coral coloration. I like the color of the tank with the Iwasaki’s and VHO’s, and the coral coloration seems to be very nice, however it seems that you can never get enough color out of the corals!

I have been amazed at the growth rates on my SPS and even the soft corals under this lighting. The lighting is spread evenly across the tank and the soft corals get as much light as the SPS and really seem to like it.







I’m running Bill Esposito’s eLightmaster program to control all of my lighting and it also runs a moonlight simulation as well. The program automatically sets the sunrise and set, as well as the moonrise and set and the phase of the moon based on whatever location you want to mimic. It is an excellent program and very cheap. Bill has also added a wavemaking module to the program that I haven’t tried yet.


The primary filtration method is a custom made beckett skimmer made by MyReef Creations. The skimmer is only 24” tall but uses dual beckett injectors and has an 8” diameter riser tube and collection cup. I’m using an Ampmaster 3000 to run the skimmer, and it seems to do a very good job and saves a bit on electricity use. I didn’t use any activated carbon for the first 6 or 7 months from the time the tank was set up, but noticed a decrease in the clarity of the water and have started to run some for a couple weeks each month. I fill up 2 baskets from an old Emperor 400 hang on filter and place them in the sump where they get good water movement.

I have 2 refugiums to assist in filtration through the manual removal of macro and micro algae. One is part of the 135 gallon sump and holds approximately 50 gallons. It is currently lit with a 175W MV light that I got from Home Depot for around $30. I had been running 3 – 65W Lights of America power compacts on it, but wasn’t having very good luck keeping them running. I am using one of the LOA 65W power compacts on my 15 gallon refugium that has been running for nearly 2 years but for some reason the newer ones that I bought weren’t holding up nearly as well.

I have several species of macro algae in my refugiums. I run a reverse photoperiod on my refugiums and so far have had pretty good luck with keeping my Caulerpa from going asexual with regular pruning. I have various species of micro algae growing in the refugiums as well that I prune regularly. I have some turf type algae growing in the upper part of my overflows and where the water flows from my refugium to the regular sump compartment that grows quickly and is very easy to harvest. Biological filtration is handled by the sand bed and live rock. I don’t use mechanical filtration of any kind.


I use a MyReef Creations Calcium reactor with a DIY 2nd chamber as well as a DIY kalkwasser stirrer as a part of my top off setup. I added the kalkwasser stirrer after my SPS corals started to show explosive growth and I was having trouble keeping calcium above 400 ppm and Alk over 10 dkh even running the reactor with an effluent of 500 ml per minute at a ph of 6.8 after the 2nd chamber. When using both the calcium reactor and the kalkwasser stirrer I’ve been able to maintain calcium over 425 and alkalinity over 12 dKH. In the first 10 months my tank was setup I dissolved 40lbs of Caribsea Geo Marine in my calcium reactor, and went through 2 – 20lb co2 tanks! No other additives have been added to the tank since it has been setup.

Current Inhabitants

I probably already have too many fish in the tank and I still have a few more that I want to add. So far the fish have gotten along very well and I haven’t noticed any real problems as a result of the heavy bio load. Although I have a large tank, I really like to see a wide variety of fish of all sizes.

Current inhabitants include 10 Green Chromis, a male and female Lyretail Anthias, mating pair of Banggai Cardinals (and anywhere from 10 to 30 babies in grow out at any given time), Blue Eyed Cardinal, Yellow Striped Cardinal, 3 Ocellaris Clownfish, 2 Nigripes Clownfish, 2 Royal Grammas, 2 Rainfordi Gobies, 2 Tiger Gobies, Neon Goby, Black Sailfin Blenny, Lawnmower Blenny, Tri-Color Fairy Wrasse, Six Line Wrasse, Yellow Tang, Red Sea Sailfin Tang, Kole Tang, Copperband Butterfly, Flame Hawk, Male and Female Spot Breast Angelfish (G. Melonopolis), Scribbled Rabbitfish (S. Doliatus), and a Spotted Mandarin. Yes, that is over 40 fish not counting the baby cardinals, however there are not very many large fish and some are extremely small (the tiger gobies are around 1” long and less than ½ the diameter of a pencil).


As far as corals go, I have several Acropora and Montipora species, Pocillopora, Seriatopora, Hydnophora, Porites, and various LPS corals. I also have several soft corals and gorgonians including a large Fiji yellow leather, several zooanthids, xenia, anthelia, etc.

I recently added a purple long tentacled anemone, and a H. Crispa anenome. The purple LTA is doing excellently; however the H. Crispa didn’t make it. I got these 2 species of anemones as they are known for staying put once established. The H. Crispa was bleached when I got it and it didn’t recover.

I really like clams. I’ve had T. maxima, crocea, derasa, squamosa, and now even a hiphoppus clam. At one point I was up to 13 beautiful clams but within a week of adding a new wild collected clam, it died and in the next couple weeks all of my existing clams, except for a 7-inch derasa died. The derasa definitely was affected by whatever killed the other clams, but I pulled out of it and I still have it today. I recently was given a huge 11-inch derasa by a fellow reefkeeper who had downsized his tank and I couldn’t pass up a few of the beautiful maximas that Harbor Aquatics had for sale at MACNA XIV held in Dallas recently.


I have several different starfish including a blue and 2 Linkia multiflora. I have a few emerald crabs and around a dozen hermit crabs with the bulk of my clean up crew made up of various snails including astrea, turbo, cerith, nerite, and nassarius as well as some reproducing stomatella snails. I have a couple hundred snails in total. I also have an Abalone that I’ve had for a couple years now.

I’ve had my share of struggles with hair algae as the tank has been getting up and running, and the herbivores have had no shortage of food choices, but I think that the tank is finally turning the corner now that has been up and running for its first full year.

Feeding and Maintenance

I feed a variety of frozen foods and am beginning to alternate with flake foods from Brine Shrimp Direct every other day. I would say that I feed moderately – about 16 oz of frozen foods a month. It is getting fairly expensive to buy frozen fish foods at the LFS with the current fish load that I have so I’m probably going to experiment with my own foods based on several recipes found on the Internet. So far I’ve had enough algae in the tank that I haven’t been supplementing any Nori sheets for the tangs. I target feed the anemone chunks of cocktail shrimp and silversides a few times a week and target feed my Tubastrea daily with whatever I’m feeding the fish. At one point I was up to feeding 5 ml of Tahitian Blend frozen cryopaste on a daily basis, but I stopped feeding it several months ago and haven’t noticed a significant difference. I’ve been debating on setting up a home culture station for phytoplankton, but haven’t decided for sure yet.

Water Changes

I haven’t been very faithful on water changes but did do a 100 gallon change a couple months ago. This exposed several SPS corals but no harm was done. They were exposed for a total of about 30 minutes and I splashed them with water a few times during the time they were exposed. I try to do a 50 gallon water change every 4 to 6 weeks. I try to test calcium and alkalinity monthly, but I can usually get a pretty good feel for it by coral growth as well as coralline algae growth. After some inaccurate reading with my original Red Sea test kits, I’ve switched to a Sailfert kit for calcium and a LaMotte kit for alkalinity. I run a PH monitor on my reactor effluent 24/7 to make sure the reactor is running correctly, and periodically I will place the probe in tank to make sure the Ph is within normal parameters.

I clean the skimmer and add kalkwasser to my DIY stirrer setup every other week, and do other maintenance pretty much on an as needed basis. Pruning algae from the tank and refugium is performed sporadically as well. I use a Great White algae magnet from Algae Free, Inc., that can even go around the corners on my tank with ¾-inch glass. It is so powerful that my wife can barely move it.

Water Parameters

I’ve never had detectable NO3 or PO4 in the tank since the initial cycle. The tank has a pH swing of 8.1 to 8.4 as tested by an Ultralife PH monitor. I try to maintain alkalinity in a 11 – 13 dKH range and calcium levels in a range from 400 to 450 ppm. I keep salinity around 35 to 36 ppt (specific gravity of 1.026 at 80 degrees) as tested with a refractometer. I try to keep the water temperature at a range of 78 – 81 in the winter and 80 – 83 during the summer. I’ve selected a reef from the Northern Hemisphere to mimic with my eLightmaster program so the seasonal temperature swings correspond with shortening and lengthening of the photoperiod as well.

I’m using a total of 14 fans to maintain temperature extremes (8 in the canopy and 6 inside the stand). I recently added a dual stage controller from www.diyreef.com that has helped on the daily temperature swings. The fans come on when the temperature reaches 81 and shut off when the temp drops back to 80. In addition I have the controller set so that if my temperature exceeds 86 degrees the controller will shut down about ½ of the lights. The controller will turn the lights back on once the temperature drops back to 84. (Although I tested this to make sure it worked, the temperature hasn’t exceeded 84 since the addition of the controller) The addition of the controller actually brought my peak temperature of the day down 1 degree from running the fans on a timer, and also reduced my daily temperature swings by a couple degrees as well. This should really pay off this fall and winter where some days can be 85+ degrees outside and other days can
get pretty chilly. On the colder days the fans might not even turn on at all. I evaporate about 10 gallons of water each day, which really isn’t much on a percentage basis. (That would be the equivalent of about 2 ½ gallons per day on a 120) Evaporation is replaced with RO/DI water that is passed through my kalkwasser stirrer top-off setup).

Captive Reproduction

I really am enjoying the way the hobby is moving more and more toward captive reproduction of the creatures in our tanks whenever possible. I’m been lucky to have a breeding pair of banggai cardinals since I moved them over to the new tank from my old 120. I’ve lost track of the number of batches that have been reared, but the current batch should get the total babies that have been raised and sold to over 100 in the last year. I’ve had a Pocillapora release planari in the tank and now have a dozen Pocillaporas scattered throughout the tank as a result. I’ve had a Tubastrea release planari as well; however it proved to be too much of an effort to find the single polyps scattered throughout the tank and feed them on a regular basis. I’ve had a few LPS corals bud out new polyps, and just recently I noticed that my Fiji yellow leather looks to be creating hundreds of little buds on the underside that look as if they might be ready to detach themselves before
too much longer.

In selecting several of the fish, I’ve tried to get pairs whenever possible thinking that I can watch any mating attempts and attempt to raise any larvae that are released or eggs that are laid. Raising the baby Banggai Cardinals has given me some practice so maybe I will prove up to the challenge if any of my other fish decide to breed.


Final Thoughts

If there weren’t going to be problems there wouldn’t be the tremendous amount of resources out there to help us deal with them. I’ve gone through most of the problems that would be associated with a new tank in the first year. Nuisance algae have been a pain, but I think I’m finally over the hump on that.

I’ve really been happy with the rapid growth of my SPS corals although I was hit with the Montipora eating nudibranch that wiped out a large purple- rimmed M.capricornis and many of my other Montiporas as well. I feel that adding a detritivore kit from Inland Aquatics really helped get the tank up and running and the tank is crawling with mysis and gammarus shrimp as well as stometella snails and tiny brittle stars and bristle worms. As far as maintenance on a large tank, I really don’t feel that it really is all that much work. Things like pruning the algae and water changes are a bit more work than on a smaller tank, but cleaning the skimmer and most regular maintenance chores really don’t take much longer.

I really appreciate the opportunity to share my tank with everyone. One of the highlights in reefkeeping for me has been to share my tank with people either in person or through sharing pictures and discussions on bulletin boards and the chat channels. If you are ever going to be in Lubbock, Texas and want stop by and see my tank in person just drop me an email and if I’m in town I’ll be glad to show you the setup. Hopefully as the tank matures it will become even more worth your visit.

[Note to our readers: the following five video files are in .WMV format and should display correctly for anyone with a fairly up-to-date version of Windows Media Player. Our readers on dial-up internet access are cautioned that it may take them some time to download and view these video files. –CJD]


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Additional information and pictures can be found at: http://www.padens.homestead.com