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Driving the Reef Aquarium like a Car

Driving the Reef Aquarium like a Car

Consider this, what does it take for you to keep the car on the road? You right foot is pressing on the accelerator, your hand is steady on the wheel, your eyes are taking in the sights around you while checking if there is any obstructions. This is how you can keep your reef aquarium too.

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Ok, maybe not this car.

The Accelerator

For a car to keep its cruising speed, one must step on the accelerator just enough. When the road goes uphill, step a little bit harder, when the road goes down hill, let go a little bit. Keeping the speed of car constant in real life often means we make constant, small adjustments. This is true as well when we are trying to maintain a miniature ecosystem in our reef aquarium.

An easy to understand example is use dosing to achieve stability of kH in a reef tank. Dosing supplements into the aquarium is like holding down the accelerator; and just like driving we need to do it consciously.

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T. Maxima in the reef
(CC BY-SA 3.0,

When you look at your aquarium, and see that many SPS has shown new growth tips. Should you wait until the scheduled water test to find out it’s impact on kH? When a fast growing clam suddenly closed up tight for a few days, should you reduce your dosing, or keep things the same? Just like a good driver gently accelerates before approaching a ramp, we reefers can adjust our maintenance to keep things stable.

Another important pedal for our aquarium is that of the nutrients. Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Organic compounds. Reef nutrition is a complex topic, but suffice to say that if we adjust our maintenance based on the reality of the aquarium, stability is not difficult to achieve.

The Accelerator (II)

All these are well and good, but where are the accelerators for my reef tank? Just like how you wouldn’t go for a road trip when you can’t find the accelerator and the brakes of your car, not knowing how to control the various parameter of the reef aquarium is a recipe for disaster.

Stereo skeletal formula of phosphate
Phosphate Ion, Friend AND Foe of reefers

How do I reduce kH? How do I increase phosphates? How do I reduce the organics? I believe as a conscientious reefer, we need to know where our accelerators are. When faced with an emergency, that would be the worst time to start reading the manuals.

Another interesting thing about accelerators is, once you pressed on it, it doesn’t immediately produce the result you want. Want to go faster? sure, step on the pedal, the car will accelerate and reach a faster speed. Need a emergency stop? you step on the brake, but the car doesn’t stop immediately, it decelerates, and stop. Therefore it’s important to understand how long it will take before your action leads to change. Dosing kH supplement make take 15 minutes to register on test kits, but commissioning an algae turf scrubber may take a week or two to see the impact. While waiting for the effect of kick in, do not overcompensate.

The Steering Wheel

Even when the car is driving on a straight road, once in a while, the driver needs to nudge the wheel to keep it on course. The same is needed for the aquarium.

Firstly, the elements in the aquarium must be in balance. Without going into too much details here, there are three important balance to consider.

  • The major-elements (sodium, chloride, potassium and sulfate)
  • The reef building ions (bi-carbonate, calcium and magnesium)
  • The nutrients for life building (Carbon, Nitrogen and Phosphorus)

If the ratio is not maintained within reasonable range for these elements, undesirable things can happen. Therefore, even as the reef tank cruises along, we need to occasionally apply a light touch to the steering wheel, and correct any imbalances.

Path Clipart Diverging Road - Divergent Arrow PNG Image | Transparent PNG  Free Download on SeekPNG
What is the direction for your reef tank?

Another decision on direction is how the tank would be run. As an aquarist, we can have an aquarium with barely detectable nutrients, or have an equally successful aquarium with elevated nitrates and phosphates. We can choose to have elevated reef building elements for faster growth, or we can have the alkalinity at natural sea water levels. Some aquarists strive for high input and high export when it come to nutrients, while others strives for efficiency. There is no one way to achieve success in reefing, and the steering wheel in your hand can point to your destination.

Eyes on the Road

When on the road, no doubt the driver needs to check the speedometer, but more importantly, the driver needs to keep his eye on the road. Only then can the driver be prepare for the dangers ahead, but also enjoy the view. As aquarist, observing the aquarium and the lives within not only is the process of enjoyment, it can also tell you volumes about the state of your aquarium.

Did the algae on the rock become more dense because the tangs were not grazing as much? Does that mean the tangs were behaving abnormally? does that mean that tangs may be sick or otherwise stressed?

What do the polyps say?

Did the polyp extension of the corals become more prominent? Does this tell us that more food is available in the aquarium, or that the inorganic nutrients are lower?

Did the color of the sand bed and glass change? Did the hair algae gets a dusting of brown algae on top of it? What does this tell us about the nature of nutrients in the aquarium.

Who is the tank boss, who is the coward, who is the joker and who bullies who?

Watch the aquarium more. That’s why we have one in the first place.

A Pleasant Ride…

Keeping an aquarium with understanding is not as straight forward as following a manual, but to me, it is definitely more rewarding. This article barely touched on some important reefing ideas, let’s discuss and improve, and enjoy this ride together.

Jia En

I'm a skeptical reefer. I believe progress in reefing comes from questioning, observing, and experimenting.
I enjoy discussion on everything reef related. I hope what I wrote can be a start to interesting discussion.