Establishing an Aquarium without a Trickle Filter

Setting up an aquarium without a trickle filter has as many methods as there are aquarists who have tried it. Still, at least two distinct subdivisions exist: starting with seeded live rock and starting with foul, stinking, rotten rock. As most aquarists obtain their rock in the latter condition, we will consider that method first.

When live rock is first received it should be rinsed in saltwater in order to remove such goodies as newspaper ink (from the paper used to wrap it and keep it moist), algae leachates, sand, muck and ammonia that have been released by the rock inhabitants during transport. Old aquarium water in a bucket is fine for this rinse. Excessive sponge and algae growth should be removed also, if this has not already been done for you by the supplier. CAUTION HERE! The average hobbyist is poorly able to distinguish between

sponge, coral, and meatloaf. A rare, desirable specimen could be lost to aimless cleaning. Experience prepares the hobbyist to judge what's good and what's not. We do not advise scrubbing the rock with a brush. Though the practice is not ultimately harmful, it is needless work and potentially removes many desirable creatures. The large mats of algae should be removed since the rock will be stacked in such a way that it will be crushed or shaded anyway. The algae will grow back when the rock is illuminated, and it can be controlled with herbivores, as we shall describe later in this section and in chapter 9. Please see chapter 7 for information about rock layout designs and techniques for stacking and building a permanent structure.

The live rock may be seeded in an aquarium separate from the main tank, or in plastic garbage cans outfitted with strong circulating powerheads and aeration, maintained between 21 and 29 °C (70 and 80 °F), or it may simply be put right in the display tank and seeded there. Most aquarists only have facilities for the latter option, but seeding the rock in a separate vessel allows the decay and sloughing of detritus to occur outside the aquarium, and the rock is therefore much cleaner when it is finally arranged in the display tank. Housing the rock separately first also allows the opportunity to remove unwanted hitchhikers such as mantis shrimps, crabs, worms and carnivorous snails (see chapter 10 for more details on these creatures). It is a good idea to "quarantine" the rocks this way, without any kind of therapeutic treatment of course, to avoid introducing unwanted pests (Paletta, 1993).

Unless you see a mantis shrimp and can remove the rock it has retreated into, it is unlikely that you will eliminate all of these extremely nasty rock dwellers. During the quarantine and seeding of the rocks, there is a nifty solution that your local retailer may be willing to help you with, to eradicate all mantis shrimp. A hungry octopus is added to the live rock holding tank, and the result is lots of shrimp and crab shells accumulating on the bottom of the tank (R. Bull, pers. comm.). When there are no more shrimp to be found, the octopus will pace at the front of the tank, begging for food. It is then a simple matter to trap it by placing a frozen shrimp (thawed) in a plastic container that you can easily retrieve. The octopus will gladly take the bait, so you have to be there to catch him. The octopus is then removed and reairned to the retailer. This technique is meant for new set-ups only, before the fish are introduced, because octopus can feed on fish.

When the rock is seeded in the main display tank, the use of activated carbon, as described earlier, will help clear the water of yellowing organic compounds released by the fresh rock. One should monitor the level of ammonia and nitrite over the first few weeks. Typically, the aquarium set-up with fresh rock will cycle within ten days to two weeks. However, this is highly variable and sometimes a tank will show very little ammonia at all, or very high amounts for a longer period. As a general rule, animals can be introduced after about two weeks as long as there are no white filmy areas on the rock and there is no measurable ammonia or nitrite. However, it must be understood that the most successful exhibits are created as much with patience as with skill. Therefore waiting longer before adding specimens is highly recommended. It should also be apparent that a completed nitrogen cycle is not an indication that all of the rock is completely seeded, only that the bacteria colonies have developed sufficiently to handle the ammonia released into the water by the fouling rocks. Again, the longer one waits before adding any specimens, the better. Some hobbyists may wait as long as six months before adding any fish (A. Nilsen, pers. comm.), though it is not essential to be so extremely patient. As a general rule, it is safe to add fish after one month of seeding the tank. Delaying the introduction of fish allows the populations of various creatures and algae to increase and strengthen such that they will provide a constantly available food source once the fish are added.

We wish to emphasize that although many organisms on and in the rock are killed during shipping and handling, the individual losses are minor, and the vast majority of micro and macro-organisms do survive, grow and reproduce. With live rock it is possible to have ecosystem level complexity of food webs, especially in really large aquariums. Please refer to the topic of microcosm aquariums and algae filtration in this chapter for further details.

Some other specifications are in order. It is good practice to leave the lights off during the seeding process, since it is during this period that algae nutrients will be at their highest level, and high intensity lighting can stimulate excessive algae growth. In addition, the growth of nitrifying bacteria is inhibited by light. Stacking of the rock in a loose arrangement, with plenty of gaps and open spaces, will facilitate the circulation of oxygen rich water throughout the reef structure and aid seeding; do not create a tight brick wall! If one has to purchase live rock in small amounts due to budget constraints, and the aquarium contains fish and valued

invertebrates, then it is essential that the rocks be well-seeded in a separate container or aquarium before they are placed in the display aquarium. Finally, operate your protein skimmer from day one, but caution: it will be pulling out excessive amounts of material during the seeding process. Make sure you empty the collection cup regularly and clean the skimmer tube frequently to maintain peak efficiency.

As soon as ammonia and nitrite reach acceptable levels (less than 1 ppm), you can add herbivores to the tank. In our opinion the snail Astraea (Lithopoma) tectum is ideal, and we recommend approximately 1 snail per 4 L (1 gal). Introduced as soon as possible, these snails effectively limit the development of microalgae. Turbo sp. snails are also very effective algae grazers. They grow larger, so fewer of them are needed, but their size and habit of "bowling" over invertebrates can be a problem in smaller aquariums.

Sand can be placed in the aquarium right from the beginning, but it is better to wait a month or so first before adding the sand or other bottom media. After the rocks have seeded, the initial heavy release of detritus should be siphoned away. At this point one may add sand to the aquarium, either "live sand" or coral sand. Silica sand may also be used, but coral sand is more natural in appearance and plays a role in the precipitation of phosphate and in the buffering of the pH, especially when deep layers are used. See natural systems, this chapter, and chapters 7, 8 and 9 for details about the management of this important element of the reef aquarium.

Starting an aquarium without a trickle filter but with skimmers and well-seeded live rock is the easiest technique. It is possible to create a balanced aquarium in a day with this method, and if the fish are quarantined in advance and properly selected, the margin of safety is quite good. While it is possible to create a balanced environment rather quickly, it is always best to be patient and proceed slowly. In the goal of achieving a wonderfully beautiful and educational natural ecosystem, it would be a shame to risk killing organisms needlessly because of a lack of patience.

As a final note, we wish to make it clear that properly planned "natural system" or "Berlin" aquaria are NOT more fragile or difficult to balance and maintain than their trickle filtered counterparts. In fact they offer better long term success with stony corals, in our experience.

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The COMPLETE guide to Aquariums

The COMPLETE guide to Aquariums

The word aquarium originates from the ancient Latin language, aqua meaning water and the suffix rium meaning place or building. Aquariums are beautiful and look good anywhere! Home aquariums are becoming more and more popular, it is a hobby that many people are flocking too and fish shops are on the rise. Fish are generally easy to keep although do they need quite a bit of attention. Puppies and kittens were the typical pet but now fish are becoming more and more frequent in house holds. In recent years fish shops have noticed a great increase in the rise of people wanting to purchase aquariums and fish, the boom has been great for local shops as the fish industry hasnt been such a great industry before now.

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