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Keeping Your Nano Reef Tank Healthy

     Now that you’ve invested your time, money & energy into your small slice of the ocean, it only makes sense to take care of your investment by performing regular maintenance.  Establishing regular maintenance habits early on will greatly increase your chances for success.  Although maintenance is often thought of as a chore, it needn’t be.  Remember, this is a hobby!  Hobbies are supposed to be fun, rewarding & challenging.  Just think of maintenance as part of the fun (yes, sounds corny, but true.)  In this article, I’ll provide a few easy to follow maintenance procedures (don’t worry, it’s all relatively painless.)  

     Performing regular water changes is probably the most important form of maintenance.  The first water change after the initial setup should done at about 6 – 8 weeks (or once your tank has cycled as discussed earlier.)  As your tank becomes more mature, a partial water change of 25% every 3 – 4 weeks should be performed regularly.  For many new reef keepers, the first instinct is to go all out & change 100% of the water.  Please do not succumb to this temptation!  Besides being a lot more work, disaster will likely soon follow.  Not only will this wipe out a very large chunk of beneficial bacteria, but the sudden change in ph, temperature & possibly salinity will likely cause shock to your livestock which results in severe stress & often death.  Following the steps listed below will keep this procedure quick & simple.  To keep things simple, we’ll assume you have a ten gallon tank.    

     Before you begin, you will need the following supplies:

1.      2 - 5 gallon buckets (or larger depending on the size of your tank)

2.      1 - siphon tube (or gravel vacuum)

3.      High quality sea salt such as “Instant Ocean” (make sure you have an abundant supply on hand in case something goes wrong),

4.      2 - salinity/specific gravity meter.  

5.      1 - PH test kit.

6.      1 -  thermometer

Got everything ready? Let’s begin.

1.     Fill 1 CLEAN bucket with about 4 gallons of tap water.  Don’t fill the bucket all the way to the top.  You will most likely need a little extra room to make adjustments in salinity.

2.     Following the instructions on your sea salt, add the appropriate amount of salt to your water & stir until salt has dissolved.  This should take no longer than a couple of minutes.

3.     Following the instructions on your salinity/specific gravity meter(s), test your water & adjust by adding more salt or water until the salinity reaches 1.022 – 1.024ppm.  Using 2 meters (preferably of different brands) to compare against one another will greatly minimize the risk of an inaccurate reading.  Spending an extra $10.00 on a second meter is a small price to pay when compared to the results of adding inaccurately mixed water to your tank.

4.     Turn off all equipment (heater, light, filters, ect.) & wait about 10 minutes.

5.     Make sure inverts such as sponges will not be exposed to air during the water, even a very short time out of the water will be deadly.

6.     Test both existing water in your tank & new water to be added for salinity, ph & temperature.  These parameters should match each other as close as possible, since this will help reduce undue stress to your livestock. 

7.     Using a siphon or gravel vacuum, remove about 25% of the water in your tank (2 gallons for a 10 gallon tank.)  Now, I know this may sound stupid, but be very careful that your sea creatures don’t end up getting vacuumed out of your tank.  Just ask my cleaner shrimp, who sometimes becomes a bit too curious for his own good (luckily, he recovered from the experience just fine.)

8.     Slowly add the new water into your tank until full.

9.     Wait another 10 minutes & turn your equipment back on.

10.                        Monitor your tank for at least 2 hours following the water change making sure your equipment is working properly.  You may see some of your corals excreting a milky colored slime.  Don’t be alarmed, this is normal & should begin to clear up in a few hours.

     Changing your filter media is the topic I’ll discuss.  This is probably the most simple maintenance procedure you’ll need to perform.  If you’re using a power filter, you should remove & rinse your filter pad in non-chlorinated water every four weeks.  If you rinse the filter pad more often than that, your probably doing more harm than good.  The filter media will contain a large population of beneficial bacteria which will increase over time.  Every rinsing will kill a large portion of this population.  For this same reason, you should not do a partial water change & media change at the same time.  Anytime the bacteria population is substantially reduced in a short amount of time, there will always be a risk of ammonia and/ or nitrite spike (refer to cycling section.)  After about three months, your media should be replaced with a new one with fresh activated carbon. 

     Lighting is another easy (but sometimes expensive) maintenance choir.  If you’re using compact florescent lighting, the bulbs usually do not simply “burn out” as does incandescent lighting.  These bulbs will slowly loose their intensity over time.  The loss of strength will happen slowly over time, which you probably will not even notice it happening.  There is some debate among reef keepers as to how often the bulb(s) should be replaced.  I replace mine every six – seven months and that seems to working ok.  When you do change the bulb(s), you will be in for a pleasant surprise.  Your tank will appear much brighter & vibrant.  You’ll notice a spectacular glow from certain corals you have probably never seen.  Along with the visual advantages of keeping your bulbs fresh, your coral & inverts will remain much healthier.

     The last maintenance chore we’ll discuss is testing your water.  As discussed earlier, water parameters can & often do change in a very short amount of time as compared to traditional size tanks.  While it’s always important to visually monitor your tank for problems, chemically testing is equally important.   If one or more of your parameters are out of line, you will have just bought yourself some precious time to launch a “pre-emptive strike” on the problem before the problem strikes your tank dead.  In other words, don’t wait for something to go wrong.  At the first sign of any visual irregularity, immediately perform the tests listed below.  Knowing exactly what is out of whack will make fixing the problem much easier.  It’s never a good time to “shoot from the hip” in this situation.  Use the chart below as guide for non-emergency regular testing:


Normal Range



8.2 – 8.5


Specific Gravity

1.022 – 1.025



0 - 0



0 - 0



77 – 82 (some livestock may have temperature requirements outside of this range)






     There is yet one more VERY important chore to tend to in keeping your tank vibrant & healthy.  Of all of the chores listed above, this is by far the easiest & most fun of all.  Take a few minutes each day to simply sit & admire the small underwater world you’ve created.  You may be asking yourself how this is related to keeping your tank healthy.  The answer is simple.  As you see your coral growing, find a strange looking creature living in your live rock that you’ve never seen before or any other of numerous phenomena that happens daily in your tank, it is much likely that the novelty of a new tank wears off.  Generally speaking, if you become bored with your tank, it’s very likely that you’ll begin to let maintenance slide, which leads to an unhealthy tank, which leads to an empty tank sitting in your garage collecting dust with a lot of time & money down the drain.  Also, keep in mind that corals can be rearranged throughout your tank (as long as their requirements will be met in their new location)

     In a nutshell, “you get out of it what you put into it.”  Although none of the maintenance procedures discussed above are difficult, it will take some time, money & self discipline to keep your tank healthy & vibrant.