The Salt Mix: Change & the Reef Aquarium Hobby

Author: James Fatherree, MSc

It’s hard for me to believe, but I’ve now written over 200 articles for TFH magazine. After getting my start in 1997 with a handful of articles for another publication, which is no longer in print, I started writing for TFH in 1999. Then, after a year or so, I was offered a regular column and haven’t missed a month since.

I thought I’d write about how things in the hobby have changed since I got into marine aquariums in 1992. It didn’t take long for me to switch my 55-gallon (208-liter) fish-only tank with an undergravel filter to a reef setup. The tank also had a box filter hanging on the back, so I went out and spent a few hundred dollars on a hang-on overflow box and a full-scale wet-dry/trickle filter. Then, after adding some T-12 VHO fluorescent lights and a hang-on skimmer, along with a lot of live rock, I started keeping corals and anemones along with some fish and other invertebrates.

DIY Project

At the time, not only were there no T-5 HO fluorescent lights or LEDs, but as best as I can remember, there wasn’t even a vendor selling T-12 VHO canopies/lighting fixtures. You could get a nice metal halide canopy, most of which had VHOs included in them, but a VHO-only setup was do-it-yourself project. So I did just that—as I made a wood top for the 55-gallon (208-liter) tank; bought a ballast, the end caps, and bulbs; and put the whole thing together.

Removing the Undergravel Filter

Part of this switchover was also the removal of the undergravel filter and all the substrate along with it. Most everyone used relatively large “crushed coral” gravel in fish-only aquariums then, which had to be sucked clean with a siphon tube frequently. That would be impossible with a lot of live rock in an aquarium, so the undergravel had to go. Of course, without the undergravel, it was easy for coarse gravel to become absolutely choked with gunk, so it had to go, too.

Instead of using an undergravel filter with gravel, the preferred way to do things was called the Berlin method. This basically meant that we all had bare-bottom tanks—no sand or gravel at all, as the idea was that good water movement would keep detritus in suspension long enough for it to be collected by a mechanical filter.


Skimmers were quite different then, too. There were a handful of appropriately sized venturi skimmers available, but I never came across one that worked really well. Instead, most folks were still using very simple skimmers, with wood or ceramic airstones in them.

Trial and Error

I was living in Mobile, Alabama, at the time, and there was only one store in town that had saltwater livestock. The selection of corals was quite small relative to today’s diversity of offerings. Nonetheless, I was hooked for sure and have been ever since.

Keep in mind that there was very little literature about reef aquariums at that time, and nobody had the Internet yet. So there was a lot of guesswork and trial and error when it came to caring for corals and other invertebrates. There was no fragging/aquaculture of corals either, and everything that was for sale was coming from the wild.

Changes in Filtration

Until the early 1990s, using a wet-dry filter on a reef aquarium was standard procedure for home aquarists, as it hadn’t gotten out that live rock supported more than enough bacteria to take care of ammonia and nitrite in the water. That changed very quickly though, and I eventually got brave enough to remove mine. I confess that at first, I was still rather worried about doing so.

Of course, everything worked fine without the wet-dry filter, and it wasn’t long before I had to get a bigger tank. I’d moved to Tampa, Florida, for graduate school by that time, and there were more shops with more stuff. I’d also been reading a lot, as in devouring every single book that had anything to say about reef aquariums as well as anything I could find in magazines. I was feeling confident (and financially irresponsible) and moved up from the 55-gallon (208-liter) to a 125-gallon (473-liter) tank.

Drilled and Nondrilled Tanks

I can’t remember if drilled tanks with overflow boxes were nonexistent or just much more expensive back then, but I do know I ended up with a nondrilled tank and no sump. I made another canopy for a set of 6-foot (1.8-meter) T-12 VHO lights, which were very popular, found a decent hang-on venturi skimmer, and kept using a hang-on box filter for mechanical filtration and holding some carbon, too. Everything else stayed the same, with the exception of scale. It seems like I must have had 500 pounds of live rock in the form of a big wall running from end to end, and I eventually filled the tank with corals, sponges, and a huge carpet anemone, of all things.

Then, in 1995, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and started teaching part-time at a community college there. I also got a job at one of the two marine aquarium shops in town to help pay the bills and ended up being the manager after about a week. While working there and getting anything I wanted at cost, I bought yet another tank. This one was a drilled 140-gallon (530-liter) custom-build with a nice canopy and stand. I went from four VHO bulbs to two VHO and three metal halide bulbs and added a big sump with an in-sump venturi skimmer that was the first really good one I’d ever had.

About the only other difference was the addition of two cooling fans in the canopy to help deal with the heat from the metal halides, and another fan blowing over the sump for some additional cooling via evaporation. I loved the lights, but I certainly never liked all the heat they generated or those annoying fans.

Five Tanks

A year later, I quit working at the shop and started my own aquarium installation and maintenance business. Then I went aquarium crazy. I’d turned the 125-gallon (473-liter) into a fish-only aquarium and ended up with an additional 75-gallon (284-liter) fish aquarium, a 55-gallon (208-liter) fish aquarium, and a 30-gallon (113-liter) reef aquarium, too. There were a total of five tanks running in the house.

During that time, I made another big change with respect to running my reef aquariums and those of my customers. In the mid-1990s, a lot of hobbyists started switching from the Berlin method to the Jaubert method, with the goal of reducing the nitrate in systems. With no substrate in an aquarium, nitrate would rise relatively quickly, and large water changes were the standard means of getting it back down. So folks were looking for a way to get nitrate down without doing all the water changes.

The solution at the time was to use some eggcrate and screening material to construct a platform that sat an inch or two off the bottom of the aquarium, which would then be covered by a few inches of gravel or sand. The idea was that nitrate-laden water would seep down through the substrate into the void space underneath it, called a plenum, where oxygen levels were very low. In such an oxygen-deprived area, nitrate-consuming bacteria would thrive, and the nitrate problem would be taken care of. No more bare-bottom tanks after that. Well, sort of...

Getting Creative

I decided to get creative and put all of this into the large sump of the 140-gallon (530-liter) aquarium instead of into the tank itself. I put a thin layer of sand into the tank though, just for looks, really. Everything worked fine, although the gravel in the sump would get filthy and had to be siphoned clean every once in a while. This was no big deal, though.

Pulling the Eggcrate

Then, things changed again. Similar to the case with the wet-dry filters, people eventually figured out that the plenum space wasn’t required. Having a few inches of sand in the aquarium worked just as well without the eggcrate and screen underneath it, so pretty much everyone, including myself, pulled this stuff out and went with the Deep Sand Bed (DSB) method.

The DSB Method

The DSB method also had an additional benefit, as fine sand was used, which could/would be colonized by myriad invertebrates. Many of these helped to keep the sand stirred up a bit, and thus cleaner, and they also provided food for other tank inhabitants in the form of sperm, eggs, juveniles, and such.

Coral Feeding

In the late 1990s, the use of various types of “plankton-in-a-bottle” products to feed corals became increasingly popular, too. For years, I had been hand-feeding many of my corals brine shrimp and finely chopped seafood using a turkey baster, but now the idea was to pour plankton products into the tank and let the corals and such catch whatever they could. Of course, hand-feeding never really went away.

Japanese Influence

After five years of teaching and running my business in Jackson, I needed a change. I sold the business to an employee, sold/gave away all the aquariums except the 125-gallon (473-liter), and moved back to Tampa for a different teaching job. That one ended up not going the way I wanted either, so I made the biggest move you can make. I put pretty much everything into storage and moved to the other side of the planet for two years, taking a teaching position in southern Japan.

While I was there, I found that I really liked the Japanese way of setting up a reef aquarium with far less rock and fewer fish. For me, that was the end of building rock walls all the way across a tank, as I thought their typical way of aquascaping everything in a more open fashion was very aesthetically pleasing.

Those were the only two years that I didn’t have my own reef aquarium since I set up my first one, but I knew I’d be coming back to the United States at some point and would apply what I’d learned. I had an aquarium, albeit it was only a 40-gallon (160-liter) tank filled with some surprisingly cool stuff I collected locally.

Then, when the time came, I headed back to Tampa for the teaching job that I’ve had for nearly 10 years now. And, of course, I bought another tank. This time, it was a drilled 125-gallon (473-liter) with a 55-gallon (208-liter) sump, and I topped it with the same metal halide lighting fixture, which I had kept in storage, and added about three inches of fine sand along with everything else. I used much less rock than I ever had before and kept the fish load at less than half of what I’d had at times in the past.

More Changes

Fluorescent-Only Lighting

That was 2006, and I’ve made several other significant changes since then. First, I went back to fluorescent-only lighting. Around that time, T-5 HO fixtures were becoming quite popular, so I eventually got rid of the metal halide lights. The fluorescents ran a lot cooler, were quieter as the cooling fans were much smaller, and used much less electricity. They also did a fine job of keeping my corals healthy and growing, and I’m still using the same fixtures today.

No More Plankton

I never got back into using plankton products, either. I went for a while without using any, pretty much out of laziness, but was still hand-feeding some corals from time to time, which seemed to be working quite well. So I stuck with it and stopped pouring in food.

No More Skimmers

I also stopped using a skimmer. I somehow damaged the one I had while cleaning it and procrastinated, and procrastinated, and procrastinated on getting another one. By the time I was finally ready to get one, I realized that a few months had gone by and everything was still fine. I had no discernible water-quality issues, and all the livestock looked fantastic. So I got another one but never brought it into service. I just felt like having one in case any sort of problem came up.

It All Depends on Unique Circumstances

Keep in mind that this may not be possible in other situations but worked fine for me due to the low fish load (only seven small/medium fish in a total volume of about 150 gallons [567 liters] of water) and relatively small amount of fish food going into the aquarium, and no supplementation with coral foods. In a nutshell, less food going in means lower dissolved nutrients in the water and, in my case, no need for a skimmer.

Captive-Grown Corals

The last thing that I’ll mention is that I eventually moved to having all propagated/aquacultured corals. Again, it wasn’t that many years ago that essentially nobody in the hobby/business was fragging stony corals, and most folks didn’t even know that you could without killing them. That has obviously changed, however, and it’s quite easy to completely stock any reef aquarium with a great diversity of such corals.

I did so over time, as I added more and more frags and got rid of various things collected from the wild. Now, every coral (with the exception of a single red open brain coral) in my aquarium was raised in captivity. I’ve had the red open brain coral for a long, long time and just couldn’t part with it.

Next Stop: 300

That concludes this brief history of the changes I’ve seen since I started in the hobby. I’ve got no plans to quit the hobby or my writing job any time soon and hope that somewhere down the road, I’ll be hitting the 300-article mark for TFH magazine. Then, we’ll take another look back and see what’s changed since the present.