Category Archives: reef aquarium

Aquarium downsizing an automation

NewAquariumStand900I started this aquarium downsizing and automation project a couple months ago, and it’s going to take at least another four to five months to complete–maybe longer. Even if all the equipment is ready, there’s no hurrying the life behind the glass–you never want to rush the beginning of a new habitat.  You have to let it come to life first, let it settle down, find its balance–and that can take anywhere from a couple months to a year. This may actually be the most difficult part of this hobby–the waiting, the patience required to just let things calm down on their own. You provide the stability, the nutrients for coral growth and the spread of that beautiful red and purple coralline algae (Lithothamnion sp. and the like).  But you can’t rush the process and be successful. You can buy all the frags you want, but it’s going to be hell without a mature system.

Okay, back to what I’m working on: You might laugh at the idea of downsizing a 30g/113l tank, which is on the small side in this hobby. (I consider it a “Nano reef” aquarium, as would many of my fellow aquarists). I have had 40, 60, 160, 200 gallon reef systems in the past, but for the foreseeable future I’m going to stick to a nano-sized system, anywhere from 12 – 18 gallons of total water volume, and I’m starting with the foundation, building out a better, higher-tech moveable base for the aquarium, lighting, dosing system, electronics (battery backup), and the automation infrastructure (timers, temperature control, pH, ORP, monitoring). I have all of this running smoothly right now on the 30g, and transitioning it at some point will be a fairly big task.  But back to basics: this weekend I have completed most of what I wanted for the base, the tank stand, with the lighting structure. (I run four Kessil LEDs, an A160EW Tuna Blue (all-day blue, color: 20,000K), A160WE Tuna Sun (Daylight, color: 9,000k), A150W Tuna Blue (Mid-day intensity, color: 15,000K), and an H150 Red (2 hours per day at dusk and dawn, wavelength: 620 – 710nm). I know, a lot for light for a smallish aquarium, but they’re not all on at the same time, and they’re on for varying lengths of time.

My nano-reef aquarium build plans

chrishoward-reefAquarium1993-4My first really successful reef aquarium (started in 1989 and ran for ~8 years) was a 160g glass tank with Metal Halides, mixed reef inhabitants (soft and hard corals, mostly Gulf/Florida stock with some Pacific corals, fish, fairly large tridacna clam). This system evolved organically from smaller aquariums into a fairly complex system (for the time), with my original 15g tank acting as what today we would call a refugium (but back then it was a full lighted aquarium that ran off the sump in which I kept a couple kinds of algae, Bryopsis sp., etc). If I could characterize this system with one word it would be “experimentation”, or maybe even “unplanned”. Even so I was very chrishoward-reefAquarium1993-2diligent with the maintenance, and after a while, with moderate water changes, it pretty much ran itself. I built several protein skimmers–one was five-feet tall. I was constantly moving stuff around, building filters, playing around with the secondary lighting–actinics, grow bulbs, etc. My primaries were two Coralife metal halide pendant lamps.

Fast-forward to 2014 through today, and I have started building out a new reef aquarium, this time going with a “nano” or very small aquarium. And this time I’m planning carefully–I mean every step. I also have some pretty strict requirements.


1. Self-contained (no sump, AIO) system
2. As much automation as I can build or buy
3. Backup power (at least a couple hours for the pumps)
4. Easy to maintain (rollable cabinet, small form factor)
5. Fairly realtime view into the system’s chemistry from anywhere (e.g., web, phone).

AVCabinetHere’s my cabinet, a “Luxor Mobile Steel Adjustable Height AV Cart with Storage Cabinet” I bought at Amazon: I upgraded the bolts to something hefty and stainless steel. The whole cart is made of 20 gauge steel, and should easily be able to handle a 70+ pound load. I’ve also cut a nice piece of 3/4 inch birch plywood for the top, varnished, sealed, and drilled for power cables to run down into the cabinet below.


Micro-Reefs72gTemperate1I originally planned for the very small (and cool) 4.3g tank, but I have changed my mind and now I’m going with the Micro-Reefs 7.2 gallon AIO Acrylic Temperate (Rimless design) (I had toyed with the idea of going with a temperate tank, but I’m back to the tropics–still I love the micro-reefs tanks, and the 1/2 inch acrylic is sturdy as hell).

Maintenance: I want the ability to roll the aquarium onto a plastic sheet to do maintenance, water changes, etc. The UPS also gives me the ability to unplug from the wall and roll the whole thing into the kitchen–right up to the sink if I need to.

Water: I have an RO unit built into the house, but I’m a fan of real seawater, so I will probably go with that as the primary source (the Atlantic is only six or seven miles away). For supplemental changes I use Instant Ocean Reef Crystals

APC-BackupProAPC BR1000G Back-UPS Pro 1000 Uninterruptible Power Supply

I bought a Digital Aquatics ReefKeeper Lite Base system (with ReefKeeper Lite Head Unit, PC4 (4 outlets), and Temperature probe), but after researching things a bit, I think I’m going to make my own Arduino-based controller instead–just ordered an Open Reefs Senseable board below, but still doing research on DIY controller details.

Senseable.With_.Case_.Open__10Open Reefs – Senseable pH + EC + ORP + DO
Supports up to 6 Atlas Scientific sensors on the board. My goal is to build a controller for the lights, pumps, heater, and chemistry, with the ability to continuously post data to an online service. A future option would be able to remotely control (e.g., iPhone app) lighting times, temperature, and other pieces of the system.

Innovative-Marine-AUQA-Gadget-Ghost-Protein-Skimmer-DeskTop-99I just ordered a small skimmer:
Innovative Marine AUQA Gadget Ghost Protein Skimmer
I’ve never used anything from Innovative Marine before, so we’ll see how it goes.


kessil150wLighting: to start out I’m going with the Kessil A150W Sky Blue, with gooseneck mounting. Still looking for secondary lighting.

That’s it for now. I will post updates!

Category: aquarium, reef aquarium