Featured Aquarium – The Penn State Aquarium

by | Oct 15, 2002 | 0 comments

The graduating seniors of the class of ‘99 voted to place two aquariums in the atrium of the remodeled HUB-Robeson student union as their class gift. This project garnered almost 30% more in contributions than any previous class gift. The aquariums were installed in October/November, 1999. One of aquariums is a Coral Reef aquarium, and the other was initially an African Cichlid aquarium – soon to be replaced by a Rain Forest Amphibians exhibit. The aquariums, aside from their decorative value, also function as living laboratories for teaching environmental science, biology, geology and chemistry to Penn State students as well as State College Area High School and elementary school students. Our mission is to educate and increase the awareness and understanding of coral reefs, bring the beauty of coral reefs to central Pennsylvania, and hopefully excite future generations of students to do research on coral reefs and to better understand the ecology of this special ecosystem. Approximately 10,000 Penn State students walk by the aquarium every day!! It is an official stop for the campus tour groups. We give about 4 tours a month to elementary and middle school classes, and host around 20 – 30 different college classes / labs here at the Aquarium per semester. The college classes range from Geo Sciences, Biology, and Oceanography, to Chemistry, Ichthyology, and Marine Ecology. Three to five students per year have done research on coral structure, proteomics and culture or water chemistry.

Currently, the Aquariums are managed by a committee headed by Dr. Robert Minard and Dr. Sanjay Joshi. The daily feedings, upkeep and routine maintenance are done by a dozen or so volunteers from the Penn State Marine Science Society, Chemistry Club and Biology Club.


The Aquarium

The aquarium is 96” long, 42” front to back and 30” tall, manufactured by Tom Majocha of Pittsburgh. The tank is visible from 3 sides, and these 3 sides are made of 1” thick laminated starfire glass. The back is also 1” thick and coated on the outside with dark blue Opaci Coat 300 Water based Silicone.


Penn State Aquarium – Front View





Aquarium back, showing the three closed circulation loops.



















Lights – 4 Diamond Lumen Arc III Reflectors with Ushio 10000K lamps










Calcium Reactor






Student volunteer Nick Hartman ready to scrape the front glass




The sump designed with the help of James Wiseman is a combination sump and refugium. The basic dimensions of the sump are 50” L X 30” B X 25” H with a 34”LX19”BX19”H refugium built into it. The water flow goes around the refugium, making two 90 degree bends which allows for the small bubbles to diffuse out of the water. Water is pumped into the refugium from the sump by a separate pump and it overflows into the sump. A UV sterilizer also draws water from the sump and returns it back into the sump. The refugium has a deep sand bed, along with some poor growth of macro algae. The refugium is lit by two 55W Compact Fluorescent lamps (one Actinic and one Daylight), on a reverse daylight schedule. A titanium heat exchanger plugged into the building’s chilled water system is also fed from and returned to the sump.



The lighting is provided by four 400W metal halide lamps. We have been using the 10000K Ushio lamps since the beginning. No supplemental actinic is used. The lamps are mounted in Diamond Lighting’s Lumen Arc III reflectors and also use the Diamond Light ballasts which are mounted remotely. The lights are mounted in an aluminum frame, which can easily be raised and lowered, through the use of pulleys and a winch, to allow for easy maintenance access. The Diamond Lumen Arc reflectors are very efficient in directing the light downward into the tank as can be seen in the picture. Each light is on for 12 hrs/day on a staggered schedule, with lights coming on at one hr. intervals, thus providing a gradual step up and step down of the lights.



The main circulation is provided by an Iwaki 100RT, which returns the water at the 2 ends of the tank. Additional circulation is provided by 3 Iwaki 70RT in a closed loop arrangement drawing water from 3 holes drilled in the back of the tank, and returning the flow over the top of the tank (see figure 2). Two of these closed loop pumps are connected to 1” Sea Swirls to provide randomization of the flow. Ball valves and unions are used to enable easy removal of the pumps for maintenance.



In addition to the approximately 250-300 lbs of live rock (Fiji live rock from Harbor Aquatics) and about 100 lbs of sand, a ETS 1200 Skimmer (donated by Champion Lighting) driven by a Iwaki 100RLT is used. Two HOT Magnum filters are used as activated carbon and phosphate removal filters.


Right view of the tank

Other Hardware

A custom built calcium reactor (build by Brian Fergusson) is used to help maintain the calcium and alkalinity levels. A neptune Aqua Controller with the windows software is used for monitoring pH, temperature, Redox and dissolved Oxygen levels. In addition with X-10 controls, the neptune Aquacontroller is used to control the lights and the pumps used for the chiller, and as a wave maker to cycle pumps on and off.



Most maintenance is performed by a team of volunteer students, but most have never kept an aquarium. Daily maintenance regimen is feeding the fish twice a day with a combination of flake food, pellet food, frozen food and Nori. In addition, the volunteers are required to fill out a checklist of all the vital parameters of the tank. This provides a frequent check on whether the tank is operating properly and also helps in teaching good animal husbandry practice. The student volunteers are provided basic training in tank maintenance. A 10% water change and skimmer cleaning is performed weekly. Any significant maintenance such as scraping the coralline is performed by a select few. Given that there is no front access to the tank all maintenance has to performed from the back room, and posses some interesting challenges. Given that tank is 42” from the front to back, this makes it very difficult to reach the front of the tank from the back. The space above the tank was designed to accommodate large planks to allow a person to lay on them while performing maintenance tasks on the front glass. These must be lifted into place and set on I-beams at the ends of the tank.



The tank, as you can see from the pictures, is now completely overgrown with corals, several of them started as frags from my personal tank. The large size of tank allows corals to get really large. Heavy pruning is often necessary to prevent corals from competing with each other for space and light. There is a heavy fish load in the tank with the fish population comprising,

1 Naso tang ( Naso Lituratus ), 1 Purple Tang( Zebrasoma xanthurum ) 1 yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavesenes), Kole Tang (Ctenochaetus strigosus), 2 Hepatus Tangs ( Paracanthurus hepatus), 1 Rabbit Fish (Siganus virgatus), 6 Bartlett’s Anthias (Pseundanthias bartlettorum), 2 Red Sea Squammipinis Anthias, 1 pair of true Perculas ( Amphiprion percula) , 3 Skunk Clowns ( Amphiprion akallopisos ), 3 Yellow tail Blue Damsels ( Chrysiptera parasema ), 4 Green Chromis ( Chromis Viridis ), Flame Hawk ( Neocirrhites armatus ), Flame Angel ( Centropyge loriculus ), 4 Gobies, Leopard Wrasse ( Macropharyngodon meleagris ), 1 Psuedochromis Fridmani, 1 Bicolor Psuedochromis ( Pseudochromis paccagnella ), 1 Bicolor Blenny ( Ecsenius bicolor ), Blue face Angel ( Pomacanthus xanthometopon ).

There are also 2 giant cucumbers (12-15” long), 1 Tridacna Gigas (15”), 1 Tridacna Derasa (10”) and 1 Tridacna Derasa (6”), several sea stars, blue legged hermits, and snails.

There are approximately 40 species of coral in the tank with about 80% of them SPS corals (see pics).


Right top view showing one of the green bali staghorn acropora










Right middle view of tank









Left middle of view of tank









Table Acroporas









View of tank middle









View from from one end of tank









View from the end including the reflection of the front










View looking down from the top.


  • Sanjay Joshi

    Sanjay Joshi in real life is a Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Penn State University. He has been a reef addict since 1992, and currently keeps several reef aquariums at home including a 500G SPS coral dominated reef. He also co-manages the 500G aquarium at Penn State. He has published several articles in magazines such as Marine Fish and Reef Annual, Aquarium Frontiers, Aquarium Fish, and Advanced Aquarist. In addition, he has been an invited speaker at several marine aquarium society meetings in the US and Europe. He received the MASNA award in 2006, for his contributions to the marine aquarium hobby.

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