Article and photography by Jonathan Hale
When I set up my first reef tank sixteen years ago gas was 95 cents a gallon, heating oil was 50 cents a gallon, and electricity in New York City was a mere 12 cents per kilowatt. New York had been recycling for just three years and talk of greenhouse warming was popular only among scientists and politicians attempting to refute the scientist’s claims. Things have certainly changed since 1992.
Whatever your stance on global warming, there is no getting away from the fact that high energy costs have begun effecting the way people live. Whether by choice, or by necessity, the majority of American families are now looking for ways to save and conserve energy. Last month in New York our energy provider Con Edison raised the electric rates by 22%. With similar circumstances throughout the country, reef hobbyists have good reason to re-evaluate our approach to the hobby.
Since I began reading the reef forums it’s been apparent the majority of reef hobbyists are environmentally conscience individuals who care about the planet and the world’s reefs. The current Green movement puts the environmentally minded reef hobbyist in a difficult position. How does one justify maintaining a reef tank while cutting back energy consumption in all other aspects of our lives? In this series, I intend to explore the choices we have as hobbyists, both from an equipment standpoint, and the methodologies we use in setting up our tanks. The way we live our lives is a personal choice, and the goal of this series is not to make broad sweeping statements about how one should set up and maintain a reef tank. My intent is to present different ways of thinking about our hobby and highlight new technologies that will help make a reef tank more energy efficient in the future. To be more specific, I’ll be comparing a system that was dedicated to growing SPS corals to one that has been modified to support a more modest soft coral environment. I will also be tracking a harder to define quotient, the enjoyment I experience from both systems. I want to use myself, a professed SPS snob as an example of what happens when you take an addicted hard coral reefer and give them some soft corals to grow. In terms of a challenge, I used to liken growing soft coral to having a planted freshwater tank–to be honest I would have rather switched to a planted tank– I find them beautiful and relaxing when compared to an SPS reef. But, I’m still a hardcore reefer so I’ll stay with the reef concept for now.
Like many of you, I’ve always been attracted to and impressed by a well set up reef aquarium showcasing Acroporas and their hard coral cousins. I was bitten by the Acropora bug shortly before setting up my current 120 gallon tank. Four years ago I set out to make the best home for Acro’s I could. I began with a cutting board bottom, 175 watt dual SE metal halides in spider reflectors, PC lights for actinics, an old Reef Devil skimmer, a closed loop running off a Quiet One 6000, and a 40X Blueline return pump. I thought it was a really decent system– little did I know how much improvement it could use. Since then, I went through many equipment changes and upgrades trying to achieve the perfect balance of light and skimmate production. My current configuration includes three Ice Cap 250 watt DE pendants, a Sequence Snapper return pump running through a 1/2 HP Red Sea chiller, a Deltec AP702 skimmer, three vortech pumps for flow, various Deltec reactors running carbon and granular ferric oxide, and an Aquamedic doser dispensing B-Ionic. There is also an extensive auto-top off system connected to a 6 stage RO/DI filter and a full Aquatronica controller package watching over everything. In short, it’s Acropora nirvana. Or so I thought.
All that great equipment could not prevent the melt down my tank experienced this past spring. While traveling and working I made a critical user error that the Acropora coral could not recover from. In the end, I pulled the remaining SPS and LPS coral from my system and gave them to friends in hopes of saving them. I’m happy to say the coral I gave away is thriving–unfortunately, the majority of Acros in the tank were lost. This brings me to the current status of the tank which is filled with rocks and some very fat fish. There are a few soft corals left, but not much to look at.
While I was contemplating taking the tank down, I went to visit Sanjay Joshi at Penn State along with my fellow editor Randy Donowitz. While there, we got a tour of Sanjay’s personal reef tanks as well as a few reef tanks set up at Penn State. They were all extremely impressive, however, it was one of the smaller tanks that got my attention. Sanjay has a very simple tank set up in his home office, it’s filled with soft corals, some of which he has been keeping for many years. Of course, with Sanjay, it could not really be that simple, the star of the tank is a new Clarion angel who looks quite happy swimming in a tank full of purple Xenia. When I opened the cabinet to inspect the equipment, I was pretty surprised by what I saw–a whole lot of nothing. There was a small sump with one little reactor. After having just seen the large water treatment system running the reef tank in it’s own private fish room, this lack of equipment was quite a contrast. The sparsely outfitted tank looked healthy, the fish looked vibrant, and Sanjay said he had to prune the coral constantly. I went back to that tank a few times, and it made an impression on me. I decided when I got back home to New York I would formulate a plan to take my tank back to the simple roots of the reef I had set up in ’92.
My goals were twofold– to simplify the equipment running on my 120, and to make the tank run as efficiently as possible. I plan on filling the tank with coral species that will be able to thrive in a higher nutrient environment, and ones that will require less light than metal halide lighting provides. Basically, I’m going to be recreating the first reef tank I had, just with a lot more knowledge and some fancier pumps for flow. I’ll be doing a couple of things that most people in the reef forums would laugh at–myself included. In this installment, I’ll lay out the new retro system, and will track it’s progress over time.
Another objective here is to find out if an SPS junkie like me will be happy with a reef tank containing coral I used to scoff at. This requires a different mindset on my part. One of the reasons I was so attracted to growing SPS was the challenge it presented–that and the constant feeling of having to keep up with what everyone else was doing on the reef boards around the world. It seemed like all my reef friends’ goals were the same– to have the best hardcore SPS tank ever. We have had endless discussions and arguments about skimmers, additives, bulb choices, flow rates and patterns, and so on, all in the attempt to grow coral faster and more colorfully. There’s nothing wrong with this, competition is healthy and it definitely leads to new discoveries and husbandry techniques. However, the flip-side is the skimmers got larger, the lights more powerful, and the tanks bigger and bigger. And this of course equates to more and more energy consumption. I’m going to leave the big SPS dominated tanks alone for now. Don’t get me wrong, I still love them, I just want to focus on my own quest for a more energy efficient reef. Perhaps it will allow people just getting into the hobby to discover another way of setting up tanks that has not been promoted for some time. What’s the saying, sometimes less is more?
Let’s look at the main consumers of energy on my tank; there is the lighting; metal halide, the skimmer; a Deltec running two Ehiem 1260’s, and the chiller; the biggest consumer. Of these three the most critical to the tanks overall health is the chiller. My apartment gets hot in the summer, without air conditioning it can hit 100 degrees inside with no problem. I run the air-conditioning when it’s hot outside and keep the tank at 82 degrees. This keeps the chiller from coming on too often. The tank stabilizes at 82 naturally, and only towards the end of the day is the chiller needed. To help lesson the heat in the tank I plan on cutting back on the metal halides and employing mostly VHO fluorescent tubes. This leads to my plan which spirals down into a shedding of much of the current equipment. If I can remove the chiller, I can also remove the large return pump needed to feed the 20’ of spaflex running to and from it. Then if I can remove the return pump, I can also take the sump off line. And, if I can take the sump off line, then I can remove the skimmer. I know many of you are shaking your head and sending flamethrower smileys my way.
How do you cool 120 gallons of water sitting in a glass box in a warm room? I’ll be employing fans and evaporative cooling. My new chilling plan will use two fans to drop the temp of the tank. They will be in the hood pointed at the water connected via the Aquatronica controller set to come on when the tank reaches 81 degree’s. I will have the pre-existing circulating hood fans set to turn on at 78 degrees. With less heat from the bulbs, and less heat from four fewer pumps I’m hoping the tank will run cooler and the fans will be able to handle the difference. I will only be implementing this plan in the upcoming fall season. I will not risk the fish’s health by removing the chiller till the outside temperatures have dropped into the 70’s. At that point, the chiller is no longer needed and I will not have to worry about cooling the tank in the coming months.
So what’s going to filter the water in lieu of a skimmer? It’s pretty simple–a reactor full of granular activated carbon will remove the waste from the water. I plan on changing the carbon every two weeks, opposite the water change schedule. The reactor will conveniently sit in the tanks overflow box. I can remove the two large Durso drains and fit the reactor and small powerhead to feed it within the overflow. This will also house the heater when needed. The bulk of nutrient removal will happen with good old fashioned water changes. I’ve been pretty good with them in the past, changing 50 gallons at a time every two weeks or so. I will attempt to maintain the 50 gallons every two weeks policy. Given that the sump volume will be gone, 50 gallons will be an even greater percentage of water changed. I will also be planting a species of macro algae given to me by one of my local club members. He collected the algae locally and swears by it for it’s ability to remove nutrients. And what about the PO4 you ask —something I have stressed over and purchased a $200 Hanna meter to test for? Well. since I won’t be keeping SPS, I’m happily not going to stress over the PO4 levels. I’ll continue to test for them out of curiosity, and to be able to compare my test results from the past.
I feel pretty confident that my skimmer-less tank design will work well. I have a few reef hobbyists to point to to support my confidence. First there is Sanjay’s near equipment-less soft coral tank, a decade with no problems is not bad. Then there is the main display tank at Pratt Institute under the care of Randy Donowitz. It has been running with no skimmer for more than a year, utilizing maco algae for nutrient export. It is a 240 gallon aquarium filled to the euro-bracing with SPS that carries a respectable bio-load of fish. I’m amazed how clear the water is every time I see it, and from what I’ve observed, Randy has trouble keeping up with corals growing into each other. Lastly, there is the west coast coral farmer Steve Tyree who has been advocating his cryptic zonal filtering approach for some time. His tanks are filtered with an abundance of live sponges, filter feeding tube worms, tunicates, and other low light loving creatures. I like his idea of using filter feeders to keep the water clean. If that can work for a man whose coral has a five year waiting list then he must be doing something right. If sponges can filter water to an SPS corals liking then they can surely work for soft coral with fish as tank partners.
At the moment I have no actinic supplementation on the tank, it’s straight up metal halide lighting. I hate to say it, but I’m so used to the shimmer effect metal halides give off I’m reluctant to remove them from the system altogether. My compromise will be to keep two of them on for viewing purposes, and there will be days they are not turned on at all. To replace the metal halide’s I’ll start with four T-5 lamps, 2 daylight lamps for growth and two actinic lamps for color balance.
The remainder of the equipment will stay the same. Providing water movement are three low wattage vortech pumps on the new digital controllers. The Vortechs provide some amazing flow and add zero heat to the tank. In case of a power outage one pump is on a battery back up. If the power goes off there will still be oxygen exchange and flow circulating in the tank for at least a day. I’m sure the soft coral will appreciate the chaotic flow the Vortechs provide just as much as the hard coral did. The RO/DI auto top off system will remain, as will the Aquatronica controller. I will gather the wattage on these two systems, but I believe they are both rather negligible. This is the energy plan thus far. I will add up the savings in watts and see where it stands from the “reduce your carbon footprint” point of view.
I look forward to discussing energy efficient reefing with you on my home forum Manhattan Reefs.