Many aquarists view themselves as stewards of the marine life in their aquariums. Not only is it fun building a reef, but we also feel a responsibility to properly care for the fish, corals, and other invertebrates that live in our home. Proper care means having a plan to maintain the aquarium’s health. The best way to do that is with a reef aquarium maintenance schedule. You’ve heard the old saying, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” It’s no different with our aquariums. I’ve outlined a basic maintenance schedule that takes you through a new marine tank start-up, all the way to managing a mature reef aquarium.
Table of Contents: Reef Aquarium Maintenance
Maybe you want to jump ahead to the part of reef aquarium maintenance you’re struggling with (or the part you find the most interesting). You CAN do that, but the best recommendation if you want to keep a healthy tank is to read through the entire article. Then you can always bookmark it and return to the links you need a refresher on. Either way, I’ve broken down a simple reef aquarium maintenance schedule into the most basic pieces.
Some people love testing aquarium water. Others? They hate it. Either way, you gotta do it. To make sure I don’t forget this crucial piece of responsibility, I like to consider the testing part of my reef aquarium maintenance schedule. That way, I don’t give myself permission to slack on it. Keeping an eye on water quality prevents many problems before they cause significant trouble. And in the reef tank? Water issues can get out of hand within a few days.
Before you start groaning, take a deep breath. You’re not trying to pack daily testing into your schedule (not unless you’re struggling with problems). Most of the time? You only need to conduct weekly testing for your water parameters. And some of the lesser problematic components can go out to monthly tests. Not so difficult to build into a reef aquarium maintenance schedule when you think of it THAT way, right? So let’s take a look at the individual pieces one by one.
Some water parameters have immediate effects on the fish and invertebrates within your aquarium. As such, you need to keep an eye out for potential shifts a little more closely. Building weekly testing for these components into your reef aquarium maintenance schedule will ensure you stay on top of the water conditions and get your tank off on the right foot (fin?). Once you have a stabilized system, you can always back off a bit.
When you think of the parameters most likely to impact the health of the life in your tank, it makes sense to stay on top of these values. Even if you’re starting out with hardy species, you don’t want to stress their immune systems with crazy values of these water conditions:
- pH and alkalinity
- Ammonia and nitrite
pH and Alkalinity
If you think about it, pH and alkalinity go hand in hand. Your reef tank’s pH is stabilized by the carbonate buffers dissolved in the saltwater. Alkalinity is the measure of those carbonates.
Saltwater mixes are formulated with adequate buffering to get your pH to that magic range of 8.2-8.4. However, natural processes in the tank produce acids that neutralize and use up the buffers. As corals and other encrusting marine life build their calcium carbonate skeletons, carbonates leave the water, Then the alkalinity declines. And, as alkalinity levels drop, you see the pH start to go down, too. Suddenly, the water grows intolerable – and not from anything more than natural processes you WANT to occur!
And if you’re not keeping an eye on these measurements as part of your reef aquarium maintenance schedule, you can miss the shift. Luckily, there’s an easy way to counterbalance a drop in pH and alkalinity – but it involves monitoring another key component every week.
When you build a reef aquarium, you want corals to thrive and grow. Growing means they need to remove calcium and carbonate (alkalinity) from the water to create their coral skeletons. Encrusting coralline algae will also use calcium and carbonate. Because calcium is tied to alkalinity, both will drop over time. And it’s normal and natural. But without a plan to counter the dip (and replenish it), you can end up with serious consequences for your corals – and your fish!
Calcium is measured with a calcium test kit, and it needs to get included with your reef aquarium maintenance schedule. When you’re getting a new saltwater aquarium started, I suggest testing pH, alkalinity, and calcium once a week for the first month or so. Write down the levels so you can see trends over time. You WILL see the alkalinity fluctuate up and down while the calcium remains relatively stable. This is normal. You’re looking for a trend where the alkalinity consistently declines. That’s your cue to intervene with the natural cycle.
Replenish the alkalinity (and the calcium) with a balanced calcium and alkalinity additive. Some aquarists buy a two-part product, some use lime water, and the hardcore reefers buy a calcium reactor. In all cases, the balanced replenishment will stabilize the pH, alkalinity, and calcium levels.
After a couple of months of this reef aquarium maintenance schedule, you can reduce your testing to once a month. This gives you time to know the rate of change in your tank and determine how often tests and replenishments should be made.
Ammonia and Nitrite
When starting a new tank, it is ESSENTIAL (and educational) to track the rise and fall of ammonia and nitrite while you’re establishing the biological filter. This classic cycling period takes about 30 days. Monitoring during this phase often frustrates new aquarists. The levels can remain unchanged for days. Then, suddenly, ammonia and nitrite fall to zero. But without the incorporation of these tests into your reef aquarium maintenance schedule, you won’t know when you hit that crucial level. And until you have a cycled tank, any fish or invertebrates you decide to add probably won’t survive. It’s irritating but necessary.
Once the biological filter becomes fully active, testing for ammonia and nitrite can drop to once a month. You shouldn’t expect these levels to rise again – unless something goes wrong in the tank. If a fish or invertebrate dies or goes missing, begin testing to ensure water quality hasn’t shifted.
You can certainly go for broke and add EVERYTHING to your reef aquarium maintenance schedule. But there are a couple of water parameters that should remain fairly stable – and less troublesome – for your aquarium. You don’t want to cross them off the list, though. Instead, you want to pop them on the calendar a little less frequently. Say, every other week – or even monthly. That isn’t to say they can’t pose an issue for your fish and invertebrates (they CAN), but you’ll drive yourself crazy waiting for your test to waver. Save the insanity and keep these on the back burner:
Nitrate is the end product of biological filtration. Ammonia converts to nitrite, then nitrate. As the biological filter gets started, you’ll see nitrate gradually climb. This makes sense since a rise in nitrate shows things are working.
Once your reef aquarium maintenance schedule testing shows the tank’s cycled through, a water change is recommended to reduce the nitrate level. Nearly all reef keepers agree that keeping nitrate as low as possible is desirable. Many reef tanks remove nitrate naturally as they mature through biological denitrification. The bacteria living within the tank take the nitrate and process it down to nitrogen. The nitrogen bubbles then pop at the surface of the tank.
If you’ve got a nano reef, small water changes once a week are easy and help keep nitrate levels low. (You got it – this counts as part of your reef aquarium maintenance schedule. We’ll tackle water changes a bit more in a minute) Once your aquarium has been set up for a few months, you back off to testing nitrate once a month. As with ammonia and nitrites, though, if you notice absences, run a quick check.
Phosphorus is an essential element in reef tanks and a complete nuisance. All living things require phosphorous to survive. It’s a waste product of metabolism, released into the aquarium from plants and animals. Excess phosphate within a marine aquarium will stimulate algae growth. Phosphate isn’t toxic, but it can interfere with coral growth by inhibiting the formation of the calcium skeleton. Calcium and phosphorous DON’T share well. So if you have high levels of phosphorous, your calcium will drop as a result.
We measure phosphorous with a phosphate test kit, and you want to break it out once a month. Make water changes or use phosphate-removing media to keep it under control.
I’ll be honest: I LIKE cleaning my aquarium filter. I like getting rid of dirty cartridges, clogged sponges, and slimy old chemical media. But I don’t like the mess I sometimes make in the sink or on the floor. This is precisely the reason so many people put off filter changes. Eventually, our canisters clog, our sumps become sludge pits, protein skimmers overflow with gunk, and our water quality suffers.
Here is the simple reef aquarium maintenance schedule remedy: If you have one, clean the filter an average of once a month! Check and clean your skimmer, too. (It’s probably easiest if you clean the skimmer each time you empty the skimmate cup. But if you don’t, do a thorough cleaning once a month). Put the reminder on your calendar. Set it as a recurring event on your computer or phone. Just do it. You’ll love how your fish and invertebrates perk up when the filter is clean, and the skimmer works properly.
Now, you CAN overdo the cleaning streak. Filters are where your beneficial bacteria reside (the ones eliminating the nitrates for you?). If you go overboard with your reef aquarium maintenance schedule, you’ll scrub those bacteria out of existence. Then you’ll have to cycle your tank all over again. That isn’t what you want. As such, take a look at the TYPE of filter you’re using. That will walk you through how often to break out your scrubbing brush:
- Canister Filters: As one of the most massive (and hefty) filter options out there, canisters can also handle the most “neglect.” (Now that isn’t permission) You only need to clean them every 3-4 months.
- HOB Filters: The filter media on HOBs usually only last around a month. Since you’re already going in there to change things out, schedule a cleaning at the same time.
- Sponge Filters: Sponges use mechanical and biological media. You need to keep everything running smoothly, so you’ll need to go in a little more frequently – every two weeks.
Water changes – hauling around (potentially) buckets of water from one spot in your house to another. It’s a chore people dislike, particularly if they have a monstrous aquarium to deal with. (Nano tanks don’t present quite the challenge) But if you don’t have this task on your reef aquarium maintenance schedule, you’re missing a key component.
Changing water dilutes the natural organic compounds that build up in the aquarium. Unlike natural reefs, we don’t have tides to flush everything. By removing a portion of the tank and replacing it with clean water, you dilute excess nutrients such as phosphate and nitrate. Without that “flush,” you can end up with a build-up of those trace nutrients, which can stimulate algae growth.
Water changes also replenish trace elements used up by algae, corals, and other invertebrates. Many aquarists like to make a water change every two weeks. Some argue for frequent small water changes while others go for larger amounts – around 20% of the tank’s full volume. The choice is yours.
Out with the old, in with the new (clean) seawater!
If you’re like me, you have some issues staying motivated and on schedule. A great way to develop your reef aquarium maintenance schedule is to use Google Calendar. I use it, and it’s made an incredible difference in my efficiency and productivity.
But if you need some extra help and motivation? These YouTube videos should do the trick:
My aquariums always look better when I keep up with simple reef aquarium maintenance scheduling. I find I’m more in tune with what’s happening in my reefs, too. I notice corals budding, or I can pluck out tufts of algae before they take over.
Sticking to a maintenance schedule actually reduces work. You won’t experience those. “Wow! My tank looks terrible!” emergency clean-up sessions.
So get busy and start enjoying your reef tank more!