Archive for September, 2012

Another tank update

A couple things to mention since the last post.

This month’s tank budget was spent entirely on replacement light bulbs. They have arrived and are now in. Finally we are getting proper light wavelengths and spectrum. And, aside from that … it is nice to have the whole tank lit during both the light and dark (actinic) phases. A few old and/or burnt out bulbs makes for a less than ideal viewing experience, to be sure. So that is done now.

We continue to experience algae issues. At some point, maybe I’ll get pics of the various types and post them, but suffice to say it isn’t going away. The weird part is that we have, effectively, nothing in the tank “feeding” it. There are only a couple fish, which should be adding almost negligible amount of waste matter to the overall ecosystem. We have only a few pounds of live rock at this point, and it probably is not doing much at all to contribute either. Nitrate/Nitrite/Ammonia levels have been effectively zero since very early on.

At the moment, I think it is a lack of biological filtration producing this problem. That can really only be remedied by having a proper live rock environment plus active refugium with macro algae to consume those resources. I think we need a bit more overall water flow, but it isn’t bad as it is now. The addition of the overflow box and wet/dry box underneath is definitely helping as well. I cleaned out the two canister filters today. They ultimately aren’t intended for a reef system, but they should help keep some of the major particulate matter from circulating.

I’ve been doing a fair amount of research on sump/refugium/skimmer systems. A few notes on that. There are dozens of vendors for each individual piece of that. They come in a variety of flavors, but the basics are as follows.

The sump tank serves a few purposes.

  • It allows you to maintain the level of water in the main tank since that level is now dictated by the overflow system. Any water level changes will now be in the sump tank, and are much easier to manage.
  • You can “hide” all the major elements that would otherwise have to occupy space in your display tank down in the sump instead, allowing you to keep the display tank relatively free of clutter. This includes things like heaters, water supplement systems (ph balancing, carbon reactors, etc).
  • You can a good part of the biological and mechanical filtration to the sump tank/refugium, again, keeping the display tank occupied with the kinds of critters you really want to see, instead of having a big ol’ glob of macro algae floating around in there. And it gives you a place to put your protein skimmer (more on that in a minute).

The refugium is mentioned above, but I’ll summarize anyway. Generally, a full reef ecosystem requires solid biological filtration, in the form of macro algae, live rock and live sand. Some of those elements would generally be unsightly in the display tank, so having a refugium out of the way is definitely aesthetically better.

And finally the protein skimmer. This is a weird contraption, but definitely essential. So it has a pump, that spins the water up inside a cylindrical chamber, and injects air into that as well. When it is functioning properly, that column of water and air creates a frothy layer of bubbles at the top of the cylinder. Fantastically, those air bubbles tend to hang onto some of the waste products in the water and that froth layer pushes up into a collection chamber and must be emptied periodically. The resultant goo is REALLY smelly and if you’ve ever seen or dealt with them before, you’ll know just how nasty that stuff is. It also stands to reason that anything smelly that nasty really has no business being in your tank. I’m going to plug one of our local businesses here briefly to show you a picture of one of these things. Give that a clicky. I’ll get more into Lifereef in just a minute. This is a much bigger model than most tanks need, and I pointed to that one just to make the parts really clear. That whole column is a spinning mass of water. It looks cloudy because of all the air bubbles. At the very top is the aforementioned collection cup, which as you can see looks very brown. And yeah, it looks and smells like sewage. Yuck.

Anyway, so I have a skimmer. It is a Coralife model, I believe intended for a 125 gal. tank. unfortunately, the collection cup dropped onto the porch and broke into a few pieces, and is not reparable. Fortunately, the replacement part is only about $40. I believe this will be the next thing purchased on next month’s budget. Even though it isn’t what we will use in the long term, since we really need one that is bigger and can handle a larger tank, it will also improve our current filtration situation.

In the last post I mentioned that I was also going to be working on getting the tank properly covered. There is some progress on that front. I made it over to Jeff’s house (he has a table saw) with my acrylic sheets, and measurements to cut them to the proper size. Thanks Jeff! That was cut to four pieces, two for each side of the tank. I have a plastic “hinge” that you then put between the two pieces and slide them in, and then you effectively get a lid that can swing up on one side while the rest remains covering the tank. The cover is there to prevent stuff from dropping into the tank from above, and also to help limit the amount of evaporation that will invariably occur. The downside of using acrylic is that it has a tendency to “bow” in the middle if the pieces are too big. It also won’t support the same kind of weight on it that using glass would, for sure. But that generally isn’t a huge issue as you aren’t normally putting stuff on top of the tank anyway. It is *definitely* easier to work with if you have to make cutouts for things like return spouts or power cords for water movers, etc. I may have been a little bit too tight on the tolerances in my measurements, and may need to make another cut to make everything fit perfectly, but it is looking good so far.

Oh yeah, one other thing to mention. So… with overflow systems, there is one really important thing to worry about. What happens if you lose power? With a poorly designed system, you are going to get a whole mess of water that still is flowing down into your sump tank that ISN’T subsequently being pumped back up! Sounds disastrous, eh? Well, it can be if you aren’t paying attention to how that all is supposed to work. On the “input” side of the overflow system, it fortunately is based on the water level in the display tank “overflowing” to provide the pressure/suction to move water down into the sump tank. If things are setup properly, if there is no more water being pumped back up into the display tank, that should level off in short order and won’t contribute more water after a short time. In our case, I can expect about a 1/2″ of water that will still overflow after the pump stops. Given a surface area of 8’x2′, that means roughly 5-6 gallons of water. Not a big deal. However… you also need to consider the output side. The problem on the return side is that you may (and probably do) have the spout for the return water submerged by a little bit. If you consider that for a moment, you’ll realize that if that is a “closed” system (so to speak), and if there is no more active pressure pushing water out (since the pumped turned off when the power went out), and given that that pipe goes down below the level of the display tank, gravity is actually going to then start sucking water out of the display tank, down the return pipe, and back into the sump as well. THAT level of water is unfortunately not dictated by the carefully controlled overflow system, only by you, and might be one or even several inches down below the level of the water in the display tank. It will continue to suck water out until the water level goes below that spigot, and sucks air back into the tube, breaking the suction. 1″ = 10 gallons. In my quick testing, a power outage would cause a SERIOUS overflow of the sump tank. It just isn’t designed for that much water. So that leads to my other discovery… you MUST have a small hole drilled ABOVE the level of the water (but facing down into the tank) on that return line. That provides an immediate suction break, since air can be sucked in as soon as there is no more back pressure from the pump. Essential! Amazing how physics just works and stuff. Dig it.

A good friend from one of my old jobs also recently got in touch (Hi Steve!) and is also getting into the reef thing with his son. He is going to come over soon to take a look at what I’ve got going on here, and we’ll hopefully be able to exchange some of our collective wisdom. I’m certainly no expert, and any advice is helpful. Apropos, we had a brief discussion on the phone the other day about Aiptasia. As it turns out, the live rock we thought was dead isn’t quite dead. We have a few of these damn pests poking up. A good reference page for what this stuff and how to deal with it can be found at this great Reefkeeping article. I was going to try and get a picture, but the conditions for taking pictures isn’t great at the moment. That site linked above has some good ones anyway. It probably does mean we’re going to need to get some Berghia (also mentioned on that site) soon to deal with them. That, in my somewhat limited experience, is the only really effective way to be rid of Aiptasia.

Finally, I did want to again mention Lifereef. In my investigations about getting sump/refugiums custom built, I found them. This guy (Jeff Turcheck) runs a company that has been doing this for 28 years or so, and his products are really something. Rave reviews on all the boards I’ve been reading about stuff, and his current backlog for building stuff is 5 months. He also sells complete systems, so you aren’t doing the “pieces parts” thing over and over and having to struggle with plumbing and how to get everything attached right. He provides *everything* to get you up and running. I’ve had numerous email exchanges with him already and one phone call, and I’m convinced that having him build something for us is the right long term solution. Downside? Expense. Instead of being able to buy a skimmer one month, then save two months and get a refugium, etc … I’ll basically have to save up about 6 months of aquarium budget to pay for the whole shot at once. His prices, once you remove shipping (since I can just drive down there and pick it up), is just slightly more expensive than what I would pay for going piece by piece. But I think that tiny extra expense is more than made up for by his quality of workmanship, 10 year warranty, and ability to provide a full solution with no hassle. That and being able to support a local business and I consider this a solid win. Now I just have to convince the budget committee (wife) and I’ll put my name on his list. We’ll see how that goes.

Good enough for now. Hopefully there will be more new info soon.


Fishtank update

So a bit of progress has been made in terms of the megatank.

I’ve done a bunch more reading on reef tanks, refugiums, DIY acrylic work, overflow boxes, etc. I suppose I should preface this with the circumstances we’re in, and go from there.

We had quite a bit of existing gear from the old tank (92gal. bowfront with builtin overflow). Refugium, protein skimmer, return pump, some tubing, a whole mess of lace rock, some water movers, and two canister filters. We also had a smaller tank that was designed to be used as a refugium for this tank. The problem was that, with the stand we made for this thing, you really need to have put that tank underneath the big tank (essentially, inside the stand) BEFORE you closed everything in. As it stands now, we would need to remove too many structural supports. I was willing to remove one, since it is actually really well built, but not two. With the one removed, I was literally like 1 freaking inch shy of being able to squeeze that tank in. No dice. That brings us back to the old refugium we were previously using for the bowfront. It fits under just fine. However, it is really too small for this tank. Yes, it’ll do for now, but in the long term, we will need to get a bigger one, or perhaps more to the point, another smaller one that I can create a junction between or something.

Ok, so that led to the idea of making my own. How hard can acrylic be to work with? Turns out, it isn’t too bad. There are some great resources out there to assist with the process. Most notably, this thread over at Reef Central. When I realized this was no minor undertaking, I also tried to see if there was anyone out there making custom sump tanks/refugiums. That led to this guy, who appears to do some really quality work. Somewhere down the road, a new sump tank, or at least something to supplement the existing one, will be in order. For the moment, we have what we have.

In the process of testing the sump, pump and skimmer, I also broke the skimmer we have. Ah well. What we have would have been undersized anyway. Another thing that has to be put off a bit due to cost. I refuse to get a crappy one this time. We’ve dealt with crappy ones too many times. The pump we have will push 1200 gph. With a 5′ (approx) head, that is probably more like 900 and one 90 degree elbow reduces by another 50-100gph. All said, that is too little flow. But again, it’ll do for now.

And that brings us to the overflow box. The bowfront had the overflow built in, so that required no additional hardware. This one is not pre-drilled, and doing that yourself is always a gamble. So we opted to just go for one of the HOS (hang on side) variety. I ended up buying an Eshopps PF-1200 Overflow Box. I think for the tank size, it is just about right. It does have two downspouts, of which I am only using at the moment. I will get into the plumbing required here shortly. The key with this type of overflow is maintaining the suction (in my head, all I can hear is Craig Ferguson harping on “the proper amount of suction”). Getting that to work correctly is pretty easy, actually. It really only took a short amount of time to get a decent balance going with the water level in the tank and overflow and the water level in the sump tank. Well, and this was take 2 on that effort. This first pointed out a few leaks that had to be resolved. $40 and some plumbing solvent/cement later, and all was well. No leaks that I can see.

Ok, some pics… taking a short break from this post to get my gallery uploader all working and automated again.

Off to the right is a picture of the overflow box hanging off the back of the aquarium:



You can see a few things here. First, I am not using the second downspout yet. Until I get a sump/refugium setup that can accept two inputs, there isn’t any point. Second, you can see how stupid the types of connectors you get with these things. Or, perhaps, my stupidity in plumbing. To get a flexible hose to the refugium of the right size, I’m using “sump pump hose” from home depot. The connectors on the overflow box are also not any standard that I can identify, so makeshift plumbing hack it is. Closer inspection of the “U” tubes that provide the suction will show that there are very nearly no air bubbles at all at the top, which is perfect. Nice even flow the whole time with no danger of it just stopping function. The picture links back to my gallery where the full size image can be found. Ok, lemme see if I can get multiple image to play nice in the layout here…



Ok, good enough. So there you see the tube I used to connect the overflow box to the refugium. Why so long, you say? Remember the aforementioned “sump pump hose”. Well, it comes in a 24 foot length, and the only place where you can put clamps on it is at 10′ intervals. So there’s obviously a bit extra there. I don’t consider this a long term solution, but it’ll work for now. It doesn’t leak, clamps on well, and thats about it. Definitely the “budget” option, here.

And so it is up and running. I haven’t tried measuring the outflow rate, but it is definitely cycling, and the water level is right at the top of the glass (when viewed from the front of the tank. The part of the overflow box that hangs inside the tank is black, and the background paper on the tank is black, so it is barely visible unless you’re really looking for it. There is already a difference in the surface particulate matter that was accumulating, so it is doing its job well. We’ll see how much water evaporation we get.

There is a LOT more work to be done here before the system can be considered to be fully operational and capable of supporting the kind of life we want it to. Next steps, as budget permits:

  • Replace broken bulbs (just a couple actinics, I think)
  • Get glass or plexi tank cover sized and slotted correctly
  • Settle on tank layout plan, including water flow
  • Supplement water flow with movers as needed
  • Decide what to do with the extra canister filters (if anything)
  • Replace skimmer

There will definitely be more of these posts as we make more progress. The only real limiting factor in continuing these efforts is just money. So as budget frees up, we’ll knock out some of those above items.

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