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Top 5 Reasons Reef Aquariums Fail

blog posted by: Dr. Mac September 19, 2011

The goal of reef keepers is to create a stunning aquarium that mimics a real reef or their perception of a real reef environment. Everyone wants that gorgeous show tank in their living room or office that they are proud to show off. Along the way to creating this ideal aquarium some problems inevitably occur that derail the path to that ultimate goal. Over the last 40 plus years I have heard the tales and woes of thousands of hobbyists and there tends to be some common mistakes made that are easily prevented or corrected that could have put most of them on the right road to success, but instead for one reason or another many of these folks chose to go down a dead end and wind up getting out of the hobby.

Take note of the top 5 reasons for reef aquarium failure and learn from their mistakes
Dr. Mao's Blog
While there are many possible mistakes that can be made and problems that can arise in creating your ultimate reef aquarium, over the years I have heard these top 5 reasons for failure:

1. Lack of Preplanning
2. Impatience
3. Buying poor quality equipment
4. Using tap water
5. Going too techno
1. Just like any any hobby, to have a successful reef aquarium you must do some research, reading, and thoughtful planning before you ever enter a local fish store to buy your tank. As part of that planning it is fine to go around to fish stores and check them out, look at their tanks and decide if you want to take their advice. Listen to what they have to say, but understand that they are in business to sell you something so take it with a grain of salt, pun intended. After you have done some google searches, checked out places like Reef Central and other online forums, and talked with a few folks with tanks, then do your rounds of the local stores and pick one that appears to be doing it right. Their display tanks should be something you would want to emulate in your reef, they should be dedicated to captive propagation as much as possible, and be more than willing to help explain everything you need to know without even making a sale. This will be your hub of information, equipment, and livestock so take your time and decide wisely. Without this preplanning, the thoughtful research that goes along with any successful endeavor, you will wind up with an algae ridden mess and be out of the hobby fast while wasting lots of money and sacrificing some precious aquatic critter's lives. There are many ways to have a beautiful reef at home or your office so be careful of the folks that try to tell you their way is the only way to success, it's simply not true! You need to have a plan about the size and type of tank you want, the type of animals you want to keep, and then a slow sane plan for equipping and stocking your tank. Without these plans you will likely act impulsively and then waste money, time, and animals.
2. How many times in your life have you said to yourself, if only I knew then what I know now? We all get impatient at times, we all want that perfect reef and we want it yesterday! Unfortunately that type of thinking and acting with a reef aquarium will get you in trouble and will be costly. As I mentioned above, do your research first, then formulate a plan, and then stick to it! This will prevent that impulsive buy of that one fish that winds up being the terror of your tank or buying that cute damselfish that eventually grows in to the ugly bully that prevents you from adding the fish you really want. Slow down, do more reading, ask more questions first and then go back to your plans. A reef aquarium is like so many other things in life, it takes time to mature and if you rush it you will be disappointed. Have a plan and stick to it, get the good advice from a reliable fish store and friends. Maybe beside just joining some online forums also think about joining a local reef keepers club, there are many good ones around and there are many folks in a club that have been where you are now and can help you in so many ways. Check out their tanks and again, just like everything in this hobby, realize that their opinions and experiences are just that, their own. Take all of it in, ask questions and listen and the formulate your plans. Remember, nobody likes a know it all attitude, so just because you read something online don't take it as gospel and regurgitate it to someone that has been in the hobby for years and has a great tank, they will tune you out quickly. The slow and steady approach works in many ways, have patience and you will be rewarded with a reef that others will envy.
 3. Everyone has a budget they must adhere to when developing their reef, but skimping on equipment if foolish. You don't have to have the very latest and greatest model of a skimmer or the fanciest lighting, but you do yourself no favors buy buying the cheapest either. I don't know how many times folks have come into my store and gotten bad advice elsewhere and bought some cheap skimmer or junky lighting and had to hear me tell them they wasted their money or they come in 6 months later with a tale of how algae is rampant and most of their fish have died. This is an expensive hobby and you must understand that at the beginning, if this means it takes a while for you to save up and do it right then so be it, you will be better off in the long run, but buying the cheapest equipment and expecting the best results are two things generally not compatible in reef keeping. Yes, you can get away without a skimmer or grow great corals with plain fluorescent lights, but these things come with experimentation and experience and are not the right way for a beginner to start. For corals to thrive and grow and to have a beautiful reef you need some basic things, lots of light and water flow, the correct temperature and water chemistry, and clean water-both fresh and saltwater. None of these can easily be accomplished with poor quality cheap equipment, that $100 skimmer will likely need to be replaced with a good one within a few months and so your cost cutting measures will be for naught. Again, do your research, have a plan and stick to it, and get good equipment even if you have to save up and wait and you will be well on your way to that dream reef.
4. It is amazing to me the number of folks that use tap water for their reefs and have serious problems doing so. Sure, in some areas of the country you might be able to get away with using unfiltered tap water for you reef, but generally you must use ultra purified water or you will have problems. Using tap water will inevitably lead to algae blooms in your tank because most tap water has phosphates and nitrates and well water may be even worse. Also, at least in our local area, folks that use tap water for their tanks have extremely high alkalinity to the point of killing fish and of course every coral they attempt to add. Use distilled water, or invest in a good RO/DI unit with a booster pump and a TDS monitor, or buy water from a local store that has proven pure water, DO NOT use tap water for your reef.
 5. OK, earlier I said you need to have good equipment, right? Well, some folks get too carried away and need all the bells and whistles. The principle of keep it simply applies to reef aquariums. Get good advice, do your homework, have some friends and a good LFS you can rely upon, develop a plan and stick to it, use ultra purified freshwater and a good quality salt mix, and don't get too carried away with the techno craze and you will have a wonderful reef. Some folks just like the equipment and live for the day they can upgrade to the very latest skimmer or buy that really expensive controller that usually dies out in the middle of the night on a Friday when you can't get any help for a few days. You don't need the top of the line crazy expensive equipment just like you shouldn't get the cheapest either. The more technical your system the more the chance for failure. So, please do yourself a favor and keep it simple. Again, do your research and find out what works for others before you plunk down your hard earned cash. Well, there you have it, the main reasons for failure when setting up a reef tank, in my experience. In an upcoming blog entry I will outline some specific equipment and procedures to guarantee your success in this fascinating hobby.
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