The following is a contribution from Mark van der Wal, a personal friend of ours in this hobby for over ten years. Congratulations to Mark on having a perfect little baby girl this week, Elise Catherine van der Wal, a future reefette for sure. In anticipation of the birth of his daughter, Mark has been planning on carefully neglecting his reef while he learns to be a reefing father.
In a perfect world, we’d have all the time and energy we wanted for all our hobbies. But everyone who reads this blog knows this isn’t true. Job and family commitments can easily take a toll on the state of our aquaria, even when we have the best intentions. And other times, our interests will vary on the time of year (see Jake’s post about Summer Reefing Doldrums). Nobody wants to see a reef aquarium suffer due to neglect. But in my opinion, there is neglect and then there is “Careful Neglect”. I’m not advocating intentional neglect here. “Careful Neglect” is to create a reef system that can handle the times when life gets in the way.
Right now, I have a job that has me often working long hours and weekends. Some weeks, I barely have time to notice the tank. With a baby on the way, I started to realize my free time was going to diminish even further. The key is automating the parameters that are most important, and reducing the time consuming problems. Right now, I have a tank that I’m very happy with. I have fat fish and a plenty of coral growth to keep me happy. My water changes are usually every 3-4 months, and I test my water maybe once a season. I change the light bulbs yearly. I don’t have a Tank of the Month, but I have thriving fish and corals. If you feel like your tank is taking up too much time, you should itemize what your tank maintenance involves, and look at how to automate them. Here’s how I neglect my tank:
1. Automate your RO/DI replenishment – Having an Auto-Top Off system is obvious. But refilling the RO/DI reservoir was always time consuming for me. So I automated it. There are some risks to connecting the RO/DI unit to your household water supply, particularly in a busy household where things aren’t checked daily. But using dual float switches and solenoids helps create redundancy. And putting all of it on a household timer helps as well. If both float switches are to fail, the timer permits the whole system to run only 2 hours a day. And the reduced operating frequency means less TDS creep. As for topping off the reef aquarium itself, I use a dosing pump with a daily set dosage… One less float switch to worry about.
2. Keep a low bioload – This one is a no-brainer as well. If you don’t have time to do weekly water changes, then don’t overstock your tank! Less fish means less pollution. And less pollution means less work battling algae or phosphate/nitrate issues. Which leads me to point 3 and 4.
3. Keep only fish that are trained to eat pellets, and use an auto feeder. If you’re busy, don’t keep high maintenance fish that require live or frozen food. I love seahorses, but they just don’t fit my lifestyle. In my household, frozen food is merely a weekly treat. The rest of the time, the fish thrive just fine on a quality pellet. This includes a Regal and Potter’s Angelfish. I can’t say enough good things about New Life Spectrum pellets. I know many folks will disagree with what I’m about to say, but I honestly think most fish do just fine on pellet food alone.
4. Plan your coral choices and placement around less pruning. This means giving them more space or keeping a lower variety. Sweeper tentacles and chemical warfare are a PITA. And no-free time, means you’re not making it to all the local reef club meetings to offload your pruned frags. Keep it simple and uncluttered.
5. Automate your calcium and alkalinity management… Again a no-brainer! Whether it’s a calcium reactor or dosing pumps. Once you get that reactor or dosing pumps adjusted to your tank demands, you don’t have to test every week. It’s important to pick good hardware too. A calcium reactor that always clogs the effluent line is hardly a time saver. But, a reverse-flow reactor running large diameter media can be ignored for months. I personally think Geo makes the most bomb-proof reactor available.
6. Automated carbon dosing with heavy skimming – Right now, I use vodka with a timed dosing pump. But I will give the biopellets a try soon. Combining some type of carbon dosing with a low bioload, means my glass stays algae free for a week. Carbon dosing with heavy skimming also eliminates the need to use GFO. But remember that dosing carbon is a delicate thing. Overdosing can have extremely detrimental effects!
7. A little ozone goes a long way – Infrequent water changes can discolor the water, allow terpenoids to build up, and affect light penetration. Granular Activated Carbon would fix this, but then I would have to deal with replacing it every few weeks.. No thanks! Instead, I have a small ozone unit Tee’d into my protein skimmer airline. I only run it a few hours a week on a timer. A few hours is just enough to remove the discoloration, but not enough to impact the bacteria in my carbon dosing strategy. The low frequency of ozone means I’m also not worried about bromine or other ozone by-products.
With the above systems in place, I only spend a few minutes each week cleaning the skimmer cup and cleaning the glass when needed. I’ll also double check that everything is operating as it should. But that’s about it. And yet my fish and coral still spawn for me. And I still lie to my neighbors, by telling them that it is indeed a lot of work to keep a reef aquarium.