It has been over 5 years since I last kept a reef aquarium, and as the title implies this will be the 3rd stab at it. I want to mention, though, that the first two were not abandoned out of failure or frustration. My first saltwater tank was a 30 gallon freshwater conversion that I had in an apartment. When we decided to move, I set up a 65-gallon reef ready tank as its replacement so that I could move the existing livestock from one tank to the other. Since the majority of the livestock didn’t survive the move, I consider them two different builds. The 65-gallon was up for about a year when our house mates suddenly, and without warning, moved out, and we were forced to move again. At that point since we had no idea what our future living situation was going to be, rather than attempt another risky move of the tank, I sold it all off and made sure the livestock went to good homes. I knew I would set up another tank again, I just didn’t know when or where. I also knew that I would never set up another tank as long as I was renting.
About 6 months after parting out the 65, my wife and I bought a house. It is a very modest, if not small, house; and so I never really felt like I had the space to what I really wanted. Which is a true in-wall reef tank of 200+ gallons with a dedicated “fish room” behind it. After living our house for over 7 years now I decided that I couldn’t wait any longer, and rather than hold off until we own our dream home I wanted to get back into the hobby. Our living situation is very stable and we had an unused room in the house dedicated to our home office, so we decided to go for it. The birth of my daughter has also motivated me, as it is a hobby that I cannot wait to share with her.
During the 2+ years I ran the first two setups, I learned a lot. Most of what I learned was due to mistakes that could have been avoided due to a lack of patience. Now, I am a little bit older, a little bit wiser, and much more patient than I once was so I approached this build much differently than before. One of my main goals for this new build was that I was not going to cut any corners or go cheap on any aspect of the tank. That is not to say I was going into it with a plan of just blindly buying the most expensive item in each category, but more to say that I did months of research4 prior to the build and made very careful decisions about everything. Contrasting the first two builds where most of the aspects of the tank were not thoroughly researched and was very much a by the seat of my pants endeavor, this build has taken months of planning and research and a good bit more money.
The first, and most important, aspect of the build is: the tank. After making many phone calls and getting many quotes, I decided that a custom tank was the route I wanted to take. The room is quite small so I couldn’t fit anything too large in it, but the dimensions I wanted are ever so slightly non-standard. I also wanted to maximize my in-tank real estate by leveraging an external overflow box and I did not want to drill a tank myself. Initially, I really wanted a Reef Savvy tank but the lead time on their builds is almost 1-year, so I went with my second choice: Miracles in Glass. The home office is only about an 8’x12′ room, but it has a walk in closet that happens to be close to an access panel for plumbing, so it’s kind of perfect. When deciding on the tank dimensions I wanted to factor in the room size, as well as having areas to put electronics, auto top-off/dosing reservoirs, etc. I settled on a size very close to a traditional 65-gallon: 36″W x 20″D x 24″H, which works out to about 70-gallons, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to try to squeeze something over 100 gallons into the room but I am glad I didn’t. Some would argue that it was foolish to pay the extra money for something so close to an off-the-shelf size as a custom build, but I would argue otherwise. The tank is 3 sides starphire (low-iron) glass at 1/2″ thickness. It is done in all black silicone with a euro-braced top which is drilled for the two returns which come out in the front. The back is black internally tinted glass, tempered after drilling. I had a difficult time deciding between the modern and stylish looking rimless tanks and a traditional canopy top and since we have a very curious cat, we settled on the canopy. The stand is a 36″ high (6″ higher than standard aquarium stands) solid maple hard wood with custom cutouts in the back and a full wood top. The canopy matches and both were built by Miracles. The overflow is a ghost overflow style external box by Synergy Reef and is plumbed in a Bean Animal style 3-drain setup and runs 100% dead silent.
The build quality, price and customer service Miracles provided during the whole process were amazing. I cannot recommend them with any more confidence to anyone looking for an outstanding quality custom tank. Derek was a pleasure to work with.
Sump, Filtration and Circulation
I had a really hard time figuring out what I wanted to do for a sump. I wen’t back and fourth between wanting to do a custom DIY sump, if I wanted a refugium or not, how much space I needed for the skimmer, the list goes on. After much internal debate I decided I definitely wanted a refugium and that I wanted a sump as large as I could fit inside the stand. I also knew that I did not want a standard in-line refugium but rather one I could somewhat control the flow inside of, either via a tee off of the return or other means. I did not want to do DIY for a variety of reasons but I was having a really hard time finding a mass produced sump that was set up exactly how I wanted it. The closest things I found were Trigger Systems elite series sumps, but they are laid out in a strange way with the refugium in the back. After struggling for weeks to find the perfect sump and almost getting a custom one built by Synergy Reef I happened across a brand new sump that fit the bill perfectly. It was released literally the week I found it and it is the E-Shopps refugium sump R-200 (Gen. 3). This sump is not without its flaws but so far I am extremely happy with it. It has dual 1″ overflow inputs with a dedicated 7″ filter sock area. Baffles for emergency overflow and an area for my 3rd drain. It has a dedicated low-flow input to the front-and-center refugium which bypasses the filter sock and drains directly into the return area bypassing the skimmer. The skimmer section is huge and the return area is in the rear. I have a few complains about it, though. It comes with a float valve for auto-top-off that is very difficult to remove. Some people may welcome that float valve but I think most serious hobbyists would rather use something different. The baffles leading into the return area are not effective bubble traps so I have had to make some minor modifications to eliminate bubbles making it into the display. Also the return area is a bit undersized and my pump barely fits in it. I also run the sump way above the recommended water depth because I wanted more water above the return pump and more water volume inside the sump. Aside from that, though, it is an extremely nice sump with very good build quality and the minor issues I have with it were very easy to resolve.
Right now I have the sump running with the filter sock in place, I replace it with a clean sock on average once a week, more often if it appears very dirty. The return pump is an Eheim 1262 submersible which is connected to a manifold which feeds my GFO/GAC reactor, my recirculating protein skimmer, and has a 3rd valve plugged up for potential future use. Past the manifold the return runs into dual 3/4″ returns into the top front of the tank with loc-line wide nozzle returns aimed toward the overflow box. The protein skimmer is a “you built” Avast Marine CS1 “Peg leg” skimmer running in a recirculating configuration with a “Swabbie” neck cleaner configured to run for 5 minutes every 4 hours. The reactor itself is running GFO and Rox 0.8 Carbon at the moment. Inside the refugium and skimmer area of the sump I also installed a couple of Koralia Nano power heads to move the water around a little bit and help prevent localized detritus build up while not having to have too much flow through the sump via the return. For heaters I have two Eheim Jager TruTemp 150w Heaters set about 2 degrees off from one another. Temperature of the tank is a stable 80 degrees. The ATO is a Tunze Osmolator hooked up to a 10 gallon reservoir which is inside a cabinet to the left of the stand which also doubles as a place to sit, in the future this stand will also house dosing pumps and reservoirs. To the right of the tank is a matching cabinet which houses all of the electronics, timers and in the future – controllers.
For display tank water circulation I opted to use the new Maxspect Gyre XF-150. I was originally planning to run two EcoTech MP-40’s and it was a difficult choice to not go with the old tried and tested Vortechs but I decided to give the Gyre a shot as I wanted to have a very small in-tank footprint, less clutter in wiring and on the outside of the tank, and because it seems to have very favorable reviews for the most part around the community. Also, since I decided against the EcoTech Radion lighting (more on that below), I figured I would try a non EcoTech product here as well. As of today I am running it in pulse mode at 40% on a 0.8s interval. I originally wanted to run it in alternating gyre mode but unless I mount it vertically I was blowing around too much sand with it set up that way. This aspect of the tank is still in the proving stages and is constantly being adjusted.
There was no aspect of the tank I labored over more in my decision than the lighting. I knew I wanted to use LED primarily and after a lot of reading I ultimately settled on wanting a hybrid LED/T5 setup. This was mostly due to the people who swear by MH/T5 leaving doubts in my mind over the quality of LED by itself, but was also due to wanting the ability to have extremely high lighting if I needed it as well as having the T5 supplement to fill in some shadowed areas. There are a LOT of really nice lights out there but adding in the desire for T5 supplements pretty much removed AI, EcoTech, Kessil, etc. from the running. I was torn between a custom setup from an ATI fixture, a Pacific Sun hybrid unit, an ATI Hybrid unit and this little known newcomer to the market Nanobox. After talking to Dave Fason (the owner of Nanobox) for a while, I settled on Nanobox. This is mostly because I really enjoy supporting small, US based businesses, but also because he has a cult-like following and his lights are really a sight to behold. He makes each until 100% by hand, himself. The arrays are designed by him. They may not have 9-channels or some of the other bells and whistles of a Radion, but what they lack in features they make up for in raw output. The fixture I settled on was a custom 24″ wide Nanobox Hybrid with 4x 24w T5 bulbs on dedicated reflectors, 4x 13-LED Nanobox v.3 arrays, and a dedicated moonlight channel. Custom painted black with gunmetal accent colors. This is controlled by the Bluefish Mini WiFi lighting controller and while the UI needs some refinement it has all the features one would expect. I am currently using the lunar cycle simulation, cloud simulation for a location in Fiji but I am not using the storm simulation feature. I have 3-channels of control, the whites, the blues, and the moonlight. It would be nice to have greater control over the output spectrum but sometimes keeping it simple makes things a bit better.
I can’t say enough good things about this light, Dave and his company, the the overall build quality of the device and my experience working with him. I am absolutely stunned with the output. Currently I have it set up on a natural bell curve between 8am and 9pm with a peak output of 40% on the white channel and 60% on the blue channel. The T5 configuration is 2x ATI Coral Plus and 2x ATI Blue Plus bulbs which are on from noon until 7pm. I am still playing with how I have it set up based on how the few corals I have react to it, but right now I am very happy with the appearance of this configuration and the corals seem to be responding quite well.
In the refugium I also decided on an LED light to save heat and electricity. After a lot of research I settled on a pretty standard PAR-38 flood light with a special red/blue horticulture configuration. From what I understand the bulb I got is the same exact thing is the Reef Breeders “Fuge Light” which is $99, except I got mine on Amazon for $20. I am running it in a traditional reverse 12-hour photo period configuration.
Live Rock / Aquascape / Refugium
For my aquascape I knew I wanted something a little bit different than the basic Fiji live rock. I ultimately went with a Tukani branch rock that is basically large dead SPS colonies and has a really great look. I wasn’t going for a minimalist look so I did about 1.5lbs/gallon of rock and took my time making lots of nice caves and ledges for coral and fish. The tank is quite full with rock but not overloaded. I was originally planning on getting my rock from Tampa Bay Saltwater via “The Package” but I wound up just going to That Fish Place and got it locally when they had a 40% off sale. The quality of the “live” rock wasn’t really that great but I was okay with that as I did not want too many hitchhikers anyway. I was happy to strike a balance between fresh uncured live rock and dry rock as I knew I wanted lots of life but less risk of hitchhikers. I actually got about 20lbs of dry rock to use as a base for the live rock to save money and I was also glad I bought it locally because it allowed me to custom select each piece of rock. For the substrate I went with a traditional 2″-3″ aragonite sand bed. Bare bottom is a pretty tempting trend but I like my aquarium to be teeming with life and some of the sand-dwellers are my favorite things to watch. I didn’t want to be limited in what livestock I could get by having a bare bottom.
With the above said, I did go with a bare bottom refugium. My last refugium had a “deep sand bed” of about 6″ which allowed me to grow mangroves and such, but for this build I went with just a basic fuge with a couple pounds of rubble rock in it and basic macros. My refugium is mostly built around having a place for life to populate such as pods and less about nutrient export.
Livestock Plans and Future Upgrades
Since I only have a 70G display, I want to be very particular about what I put in the tank. I am going for a true “mixed-reef” but my personal favorite corals are Zoanthids and SPS types. My wife, on the other hand, loves “flowy” things like Euphyllia. I want to make sure that every coral I put in the tank is carefully selected. It does not have to be expensive or have a fancy name, but I don’t want to start just slapping any old frag someone gives me in there if I don’t really love the look of it. In my old tanks a lot of very generous people gave me frags to get started with that were ultimately not things I wound up wanting very much and I want to avoid the temptation of filling the tank up too quickly this time around.
Another goal of ours is to focus on one of our favorite aspects of the hobby: relationships. These are the common interactions we see such as pairs of clown fish, clown fish hosting anemones, pistol shrimp with gobies, mandarins with a self-sustained pod population, etc. I love watching the natural relationships and interactions and I want to facilitate as many of those as I can manage. With that said, I plan to have a relatively small number of fish in the tank and will be focusing a lot more on corals and inverts than I will be on fish.
In terms of future upgrades my plans include a Neptune Systems Apex controller being added as soon as I can justify the cost. Once the tank is to the point of requiring dosing, I plan to add automated dosing pumps as well. At some point I may explore changing my return pump from an AC to a DC pump but right now with the way things are running I am quite happy with the constant non-adjustable flow the AC pump provides, especially with how tough the skimmer is to get dialed in. I could see myself adding some other items in the future as well, including a skimmate locker, auto-feeder, or maybe even a bio-pellet reactor. Some things I know I do not want to incorporate at any point include UV sterilization, Calcium reactor, O-Zone reactors, etc. I am trying to keep the system as simple as possible, while also automating as much of it as I can keeping in mind the very limited space I have to work with. The space limiting factor also means I will not likely be able to fit a frag tank into the setup at any point which is tied into the main system. At best I could put a totally separate system in my basement for frags but that is fairly unlikely.
- Tank – Custom Miracles Aquarium 70-gallon Rectangle
- Stand/Canopy – Custom Miracles Hardwood Maple
- Overflow – Synergy Reef Overflow (Ghost Overflow)
- Sump – E-Shopps R-200 Gen. 3
- Return – Eheim Universal 1262
- Circulation – Maxspect Gyre XF-150 + 2x Koralia Nano in Sump
- Skimmer – Avast Marine CS1 w/Swabbie
- ATO – Tunze Osmolator
- Reactor – BRS 2 Stage Canister Reactor
- Lighting – Custom Nanobox Reef Hybrid
- Heater – 2x Eheim Jager TrueTemp 150w
- Salt: Red Sea Coral Pro
- Testing: Red Sea Pro Test Kits
- Food: LRS Reef Frenzy and New Life Spectrum Pellet
Also published on Medium.