Marc Levenson

Wednesday, 07 January 2015 03:27

Wiring Outlets - without endangering yourself

Waterproof boxes aren't truly water-proof, but that's better than exposed outlets.

Having electrical outlets over open water is risky, and if you can do anything to reduce that risk, I think it's worth it. Water can make contact a variety of ways: A pump squirting upward, a big splash when you drop something or when livestock decides to jump, or even during something mundane like a waterchange and the hose accidentally floods our outlets as you move it from point A to point B. On top of that, salty air occurs around the clock due to evaporation, and when the climate calls for it, condensation can occur on and in those outlets. Has any of this struck a chord with you? Think about how your electrical is currenlty set up, and if you know something needs doing, don't delay. Saltwater and electricity often equals fire, and that means loss of life and property.

At Home Depot, I purchased waterproof electrical boxes with matching conduit pipe. Waterproof coverplates were an extra expense, but I felt it was a prudent choice. Once this is installed properly, water is very unlikely to get into those boxes. Each box will have a GFCI-protected outlet, so if it gets splashed it will trip to the off position. Each box is wired separately so that the other dry boxes will continue to function when one trips. This project for waterproof boxes easily ran $200 in parts alone, but safety is priceless.

I needed 18' of wiring to reach from the left end of the tank, wrap around the walls of the room to where the power station switches are located. I also wanted to keep things tidy. After talking with the electrician at Home Depot, we decided the best choice was to use individual strands of wire rather than romex. Amazingly, I was able to run 15 wires through a 1/2" pvc pipe.

Each electrical box has a GFCI outlet, and has its own wiring so that I can turn off the power at the American DJ Power Station. If the switch is on the outlet has power and a little LED light shines as a visual indicator. If that switch gets splashed or the equipment causes a short, the GFCI button should trip and cut power immediately to that outlet but nothing else. All other equipment will run as it should.

The first thing I did was lay out the new boxes in the configuration I had in mind. Then I had to stretch out the wiring to be able to work with it.

Each box has its own color coded hot lead. Below you can see how the wiring was weighted to keep it relatively straight. Each box gets one green, one white, and one of the five colored leads (which is the hot wire).

The common wire is white and the ground is green as it should be.


I wanted to see how the boxes would work with the outlets inside. The internal plastic plate can be trimmed to accomodate almost any type of outlet or switch available. This one stated it could be set up 40 different ways. I like the look.

So, onto the wiring. I taped the 15 wires together to make it easier to feed it through the PVC and boxes. This was easier than trying to pull a few at a time. None of the PVC was glued yet.

Once that was done, I pulled out three wires from each box. That was a little tricky figuring out which ones were already taken as I worked my way from box to box.

Also, at the end of the chain of boxes, I needed the wires to turn a corner so I used this little device. It gives you access to feed the wires easily, and then a coverplate is screwed over it to keep it water-tight.

All that was left was to wire in each outlet, and screw the top section of the box to the base. Easy, right? It takes some time.

I wanted a couple of plugs handy for water changes, etc. They needed to be GFCI protected, with a simple switch to turn it on and off right at the spot. I really don't like unplugging pumps when my hands are dripping wet, so a switch is quick and safe.

This is how it was wired. The red wire is the hot, the green ground and the white neutral or common. The green and white were screwed into the GFCI outlet, and the red was run to the switch and then from the switch to the GFCI outlet. I also ran the ground to the switch itself, for my own personal peace of mind. When the switch is on, the hot lead provides power to the outlets.

It is very important that outlets are wired correctly to avoid tripping a breaker or crossing power lines. Here are a few pictures how a GFCI outlet should be wired. These may not be exactly the same as what you can buy locally, but the premise should be the same. The reason you see two sets of each wire is because one set goes to the outlet, and the other set continues to the next outlet in series. That way if the GCFI trips, the outlet(s) after it will also be powerless. Remember - silver screw for thewhite wire, brass screw for the black wire, and green screw goes to the ground wire.

If you only want the first outlet to trip and the next ones to stay powered, continue wiring in this method. If not, please scroll down to learn how to protect all subsequent outlets. In the next three pictures, you'll see two white & two black wires going to the appropriate screws, as well as the ground wires.

To daisy-chain outlets after a GFCI outlet (making them all turn off when the GFCI trips): Be sure to read the labeling and included instructions.

If you plan to run additional boxes after the GFCI outlet, the wires that lead to the next box must be affixed to the LOAD side of the outlet. 

I hope that was clear.

Back to the waterproof boxes. With the cover open, and closed.

The rest of the boxes were simpler, with the appropriate wire going to each screw on the outlet. And once I was done, it looked like this.

Installed over the sump. All conduit was glued to the boxes with Oatley's CPVC glue, and the conduit was run all the way to the DJ Power Stations where the wires plugged in to matching on/off switches.

You can see the gray conduit coming up the wall and the colored wiring going up to the American DJs.

How to wire regular outlets

The same priciple applies to regular outlets. These are specifically designed for Copper (Cu) wiring. If your home happens to have aluminum (Al) wiring, you'll need to find the more expensive made-for-aluminum outlets that use special screws to prevent arcing and overheating. My previous older home had aluminum wiring, and instead of $.58 outlets I had to buy $3.24 ones. These would be marked CO-ALR on the back. So here's a regular outlet wired. Click image for larger version.

White and green screwed in (top picture). Black screwed in (bottom picture).

Please note I tightened the screws on each wire, instead of the press-in system readily available. I've been told those work but aren't as secure and in my opinion not as safe. Plus due to the fact I'm using shallow boxes, there wouldn't have been any room to press the wires into the holes on the back of each outlet and still fit in the boxes.

With all this information, you are no longer powerless to do a similar project for your reef tank. Happy wiring!

(Standard disclaimer here that I'm not responsible for you making your hair stand on end or for any resulting fireworks. Be safe, test your work and watch what you're doing, or find someone else willing to be your scapegoat.)

Courtesy Marc Levenson and, used by permission.

Wednesday, 07 January 2015 03:14

Various Chemicals Solutions

Caring for our aquariums, we often run into any number of problems that may be resolved with time and water changes, but at times it may require a chemical solution instead. This webpage is designed to show you some of the products that I have used in the past 8 years, and what types of results I obtained, if any at all. Remember, what you choose to dose in your tank may produce negative results and thus it may be best to remain patient and not dose a particular product.

There usually are no quick solutions: Nothing good ever happens fast in a reef tank.

Some products are used regularly - maintaining good water parameters; or as an absorber to improve water quality.


ESV's B-Ionic - This product maintains Alkalinity, Calcium and pH levels when dosed daily. It is recommended to dose it early in the morning when pH is at its lowest, and it should be dosed slowly in an area of high flow.

When I dosed my 29g and my 55g, I would pour the correct dose of  Part 1 very slowly over 15 seconds. Once done, repeat with Part 2 the exact same way. If it is dumped in at once, the concentrated solution is super saturated in one spot temporarily and may even precipate out of the water - which would make the dose ineffective or even defunct. I used B-Ionic for 2 years with excellent results, and it will definitely promote coralline algae growth.

To the left, you can see quart bottles of each part. This is the best way to dose the tank, using the small dosing cups that come with them. So buy a set from your LFS or online. However, purchasing it by the gallon or even the five gallon bucket saves you the most money. I would either buy it by the bucket for myself, or share the buckets' volume with a couple of people in our club to spread out the cost of product and shipping. Refilling the quart bottles once a month worked great.


Boyd Enterprises' ChemiClean - This product is designed to remove Cyano Bacteria. Cyano is often referred to as red algae, but since it is actually bacteria in nature, it has to be resolved a little differently. If you prefer to avoid using a product in your tank, increase the flow in the area where cyano grows, do water changes, skim well, and double check the age of your bulbs. Over a period of a few weeks, it will die off. Using a turkey baster, you can blow it off the rock and corals, and with flexible tubing it can be siphoned out of your tank. I have waited it out for weeks before, and it did go away.

I have used ChemiClean many times, and never lost any livestock at all. The product is great. Mix it well up in a cup of RO water, using the correct dosage for your tank, and pour it in an area of high flow. Turn off the protein skimmer for 48 hours. Within 24 hours, all cyano should be dead and gone. Its main ingredient is erythromycin (I think), and this kills off the bacteria as promised. It is recommended to change 20% of the water after the treatment has concluded. With the skimmer being off, it might be wise to hook up an airpump and put an airstone in the display area of the tank to maintain good oxygenation. Running carbon after treating would be wise.

Another similar product I use is RedCyano Rx


Carbon - running carbon actively will yield good results in water clarity, and absorb some things from the water. If you've treated your tank with another product to solve a problem, running fresh carbon should remove that product now. Or if your soft corals are slumping over, carbon may remove some of the chemicals corals exude in 'chemical warfare.' They should perk right back in within a few days.

I only run carbon 3 days per month, and believe running it longer is ineffective. Carbon can only absorb so much and after that it may simply become a nitrate bed instead. If it is tossed in a small mesh bag in the sump (passive filtration), it will not work as well as it would in a canister filter or some other system that forces water through it (active filtration). The Phosban reactor is a nice choice to run carbon. I recommend you read this article to get more insight about using carbon.

And remember: Charcoal is for grilling, carbon is for filtering. ;)


Algone - This one is new to me, but it promises to clear up a cloudy tank. I'm using it to lower nitrates in my reef tank. Each box contains 6 little pillows that you can float in your sump in an area of good flow.

Each pouch is designed to handle up to 200g of water. The jury is out on this one currently (September 2005).


Kent Nitrate Sponge - A one pound container of these granules will treat a 50g aquarium, and it really works. I put half a pound in one canister filter, and half a pound in another one, and let it run for 48 hours. It brought nitrates way down. Once the time has elapsed, remove it from your system to avoid it releasing back into the water.

Do I recommend this as a chemical solution? If your test numbers are sky high - yes. However, you must remove what is creating them in the first place. Please read this article, and resolve those issues first. Once that is done, big water changes will usually solve the problem better than using a chemical solution.


Kent Phosphate Sponge - Similar to Kent's Nitrate Sponge, this granular product will remove phosphate. When my tank tested 2.0, I used this product in a canister filter. 48 hours later, PO4 tested at .2ppm - quite a substatial drop, right? Remove this product promptly to avoid it from releasing the PO4 back into the tank.

This product is aluminum-based, and leathers will respond poorly to it. Mine shrunk down for about 3 weeks before it recovered. I won't use it again. (Aluminum-based)


CaribSea's Phosbuster Pro - Liquid Gold! Yeah, I sound like a salesman. :) I used a lot of products trying to bring the PO4 levels down in my 280g reef, and nothing was working well enough. This product is a flocculant, and what it does is convert phosphate into a fine dust particle that can be trapped with filtration or exported with a good protein skimmer. I dosed my tank several times with it, and readings have dropped from 3.0 to .1ppm  When treating, I chose to use it at night when the fish were asleep (rather than when they are most active) just in case it was an irritant to their gills.

Phosbuster Pro can lower alkalinity in the water, so be sure to measure that level before dosing. CaribSea recommends raising alkalinity 10 minutes before dosing, which I did. My tank runs around 11 dKH, and my livestock did fine. 

If you have a Yellow Tang, you might be wise to remove that fish from the tank before dosing. CaribSea was aware of a number of yellow tangs dying after the tank was treated during the first year of this produt coming to market, so they diluted the product further.  I wouldn't hesitate to use this, or Phosphate Rx.


Two Little Fishies' Phosban - About two years ago, everyone was excited to order a "phosban reactor" for about $35 online. I mean, everyone was ordering, and people were on waiting lists. It was crazy. I didn't even know what the big deal was. The phosban reactor is a clear acrylic container that you can hang on your tank or sump, which you'd fill up with Phosban - a fine powdery substance that absorbs phosphate from the water. The reason it was so popular was because it would force water through the media and didn't cost a fortune. A very small powerhead is all that is needed, moving no more than 90gph through it. It really does work well, and the Phosban Reactor has become a great tool for hobbyists needing to run other products as well, such as Carbon.

Each reactor is rated for 150g, and the container of Phosban treats about the same. Buying Phosban in buckets is cheaper than the smaller individual containers. I use two Phosban Reactors on my 280g reef, and they are doing the job now that the levels are lowered to something they can handle. FYI, the newest reactor is much easier to open and close, as the entire top twists off in a quarter turn, and has elbows where the tubing connects. This is a major improvement from the older model that had 10 or more screws holding the lid down, and nipples pointing straight up to receive the necessary tubing (which you can see in the linked picture above).

Once the reactor has been filled and sealed, it would be wise to run 3g of RO water through it in the sink, to wash out the "fines" (red dust) so that it doesn't release these in your tank or sump. I also stuff a little polyester padding in the top of my reactor to keep the larger fines from escaping.

This is a good product that doesn't really have negatives. It has to be replaced when it clumps up, which may be as much as 60 days later. (Iron-based)Supplemental article.


ROWAphos - Similar to Phosban, this product should be used in a fluidize reactor. ROWAphos arrives in a sealed container and is rather moist. It looks like a jar of rust which, in essence, it is. I've used it in the past and am currently using it. A large container is $65 online and treats about 450g, which is rather expensive compared to the amount of Phosban you get in a bucket.

You need to rinse out ROWAphos. It is recommended to slow down the flow to the point that what is coming out of the fluidized reactor produces a 0 phosphate reading. What I do is set up the reactor in my sump, let it run very slowly in a bucket next to the sump until the effluent comes out clear. After about 3 gallons have collected, it is ready to drain into the sump itself. (Iron-based)


Tunze Silphos - I used this product for several weeks, and it worked okay. Perhaps if I'd continued to use it in larger quantities, I may have had better results. You must rinse it very well, and even after you do that, once you hook it up (this is the method Tunze recommends), it will release a red cloud in your tank.

You can use it un-rinsed if you have to bring PO4 down quickly, but expect your tank to look like the surface of  Mars in a sand storm. Yes, I did that once and it was a tad scary. However, the next day all looked perfectly fine.

One container will fill up the filter basket two times, and I used two containers worth trying to bring PO4 levels down in my tank.

Silphos will also reduce silicates in the water as well. (Iron-based)


Salifert's Flatworm eXit - This product will kill flatworms. I've used it when necessary, and suffered no losses. Please be sure to read this page several times, and if you follow my guidelines you should have success as well. The product will not hurt your livestock, but dying flatworms release toxin that will. READ my guidelines, PLEASE.

I've used this product a few times, always with great results. It would be wise to always have this on hand for any new arrivals. Just add two or three drops to the bag holding the new frag or coral, and let it do its thing as the coral is floating during acclimation. If any flatworms were present, they'll be dead. Rinse the coral in a container of tank water, shaking off any hidden flatworms, and place in your tank without fear. Being proactive in this regard will keep your system flatworm free.


CaribSea's Purple Up - This product contains the necessary elements to increase coralline algae growth in your tank. I've used it a few times and it works. It will not create it from nothing - but it will encourage growth if there is any coralline in your tank.

I've used it a few times now, and in addition to healthy water with proper seawater levels, coralline is now growing on the back wall of my tank rapidly.


Joe's Juice is a product made specifically to kill aiptasia or anemonia majanosin your reef tank. The product is easy to use. I've been told in Europe, hobbyists are getting great results with this product.

Shake it up well, then fill the syringe. I turn off the pumps in my tank during application, and then slowly depress the plunger to drop a small pile on the mouth area of the aiptasia. Try not to frighten the glass anemone by touching it, so that it will simply close up over the food and injest it.

For best results, be vigilant and feed them daily until you can't find any at all. If you only do this once a week or once a month, the problem will never be resolved.

New tips (see picture) may be purchased separately to get to those that aren't easily accessible.



Pickling Lime is another product used to kill aiptasia. Actually, I think we've pretty much tried anything we can get our hands on in that battle. ;)

Pickling Lime can be used for kalkwasser, which many opt to use to top off their tanks to replace what has evaporated. Usually 1 to 2 teaspoons per gallon is about right. I add a rounded teaspoon of powder for each gallon of RO/DI water, and mix it well. After it has settled for one hour, I'll start to drip it into my sump, in an area of good flow so it can mix in and be pumped back up to the tank. Be sure not to disturb or add any of the sediment at the base of the top off container.

Kalkwasser has a pH of 12, which is why it is recommended to drip it into your tank rather than pouring it in at once. Such high pH will burn some corals and possibly hurt the gills of fish, so be wise and use precautions. When setting up your system, it would be smart to limit any potential disaster by only mixing it in small amounts. A couple of gallons won't hurt your tank where a full 35g trashcan might, if it all added at once due to human error or mechanical failure. For years, I've avoided using it because I've read about tank after tank being decimated due to a huge accidental overdose. So be careful, and control the worst case senario. If you do that, you'll have nothing to worry about. Ball's Pickling Lime or Mrs Wages are both safe.

For my tank, I have 6g mixed up at a time, and if it all dumped into the 280g reef, pH would only rise to 8.45 - not a problem. Kalkwasser helps maintain pH, alkalinity and calcium levels cheaply. Supplemental article.

  3% Peroxide. The same stuff we use to clean a wound can be used to treat a reef with a Dinoflagellate outbreak. The general rule is 1 ml per 10-gallons of actual water volume, treated daily for eight days in a row. Livestock is unaffected but the dinoflagellates will lessen daily. Do not disable any filtration - leave everything running as usual. If this is a massive outbreak, as always I'd recommend siphoning out all you can first to reduce its density in the system. Clean and remove anything coated (locline fittings, cleaning magnets, frag racks) with the outbreak away from the tank, then reinstall.

I hope this information helps provide some answers to some common issues, but remember results may vary. Do your homework first!

Courtesy Marc Levenson and, used by permission.

Wednesday, 07 January 2015 03:10

Getting Nitrates Under Control


The good news is... They Can Be Beaten Down Into Submission. whee

Nitrates are a part of nature in the ocean, and correspondingly in our tanks. As waste breaks down in your aquarium, it cycles from ammonia to nitrite to nitrates. The first two are highly toxic to marine life, and we make it a point to make sure our tanks test zero for these. However, nitrates aren’t as bad, and sometimes are even a little beneficial.

Wednesday, 07 January 2015 03:06

Dosing Vodka: Why?

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Vokda dosing

For the past few years, I've been aware that some people were dosing their tanks with Vodka. Yes, the stuff that people drink from the liquor store. When I was at MACNA one year, the famous David Saxby was in attendance. He was in the beautiful Deltec booth, telling me that my nitrate and phosphate issues would be resolved if I were to use lots of RowaPHOS in a big Deltec reactor, and my tank would do even better if I dosed vodka. David's gorgeous tank can be found on the web, packed full of fish that every reef keeper dreams to emulate. So... vodka, huh? I filed it away, because I just didn't know enough about it.

During the summer of 2008, an article finally came out explaining how to dose a tank with vodka. Please read it very carefully: Notes from the Trenches - Vodka Dosing... Distilled!

So now that I had the recipe in my hands, I decided it was time to give it a try. I made sure that I had 80 Proof vodka (40% alcohol), and I took careful notes to make sure I dosed correctly each day. My journey started on July 14th, 2008.

For the first three days, I dosed a mere 1 ml. On Day 4 to Day 7, I dosed 2 ml. Then for the next week, I dosed 2.5 ml daily. Each subsequent week, .5 ml was added. Just to be clear, here's the breakdown for how much was dosed DAILY:

Week 1 - 1ml - 2ml
Week 2 - 2.5 ml
Week 3 - 3 ml
Week 4 - 3.5 ml
Week 5 - 4 ml
Week 6 - 4.5 ml
Week 7 - 5 ml
Week 8 - 5.5 ml
Week 9 - 6 ml
Week 10 - 6.5ml
Week 11 - 7 ml
Week 12 - 7.5 ml

This continued for a long period of time. To determine how much vodka is sufficient to break down nitrate and phosphate, tests need to be done weekly. I was watching for the numbers to begin dropping, but I was in for a very long wait. My reef tank has a DSB (Deep Sand Bed), a refugium filled with sand and macro algae, and it was a mature, established system. I stopped using GFO in my tank during the vodka dosings, but I did run GAC (granulated activated carbon) in a Phosban reactor - which is changed out bi-weekly.

FYI: At the scheduled rate of adding .5 ml per week, it took 27 weeks to reach 15 ml. Almost 7 months!

The months went by as I gradually ramped up the dosage until it reached 15 ml of vodka per day. For my system, that is when the magic happened. Nitrates dropped to 0, as I'd hoped they would. Phosphate hasn't been a problem in my tank in a long time, although it was present. I do believe that the vodka helped keep the phosphate from rising quickly, but it did go up ever-so-slightly between testings. When it got around .25 ppm, I dosed the tank with Blue Life's Phosphate Control to bring it back down to 0 ppm overnight. I really do like that product.

Click the images above to see the larger version available on the Reef Parameters page of my site.

As of the writing of this article (May 10, 2009), I've been dosing my tank for almost exactly 10 months. During those 10 months, I used over 3 liters of vodka in my tank. The brand isn't important; the last bottle I purchased was 1.75 liters, and cost about $10. During those 10 months, I did four 55-gallon water changes, used Phosphate Control four or five times, and nitrates are measuring 0.

During the past two months, I've reduced the vodka dosage from 15ml to 12.5ml, and then again to 10ml per day to see if that is the 'maintenance' dose, as directed in the original article.

By July 2010, I'd dosed my tank daily for three years to keep nitrate levels down, and it worked.  I stopped dosing when I had to break down the 280g because it was leaking.  As of February 6th, 2011, I chose to use biopellets instead to control nitrate and phosphate for the 400g setup.

What's the bottom line? Dosing vodka is easy if you can keep up with it, daily. The cost for 10 months was under $40, and I didn't have to deal with refilling a Phosban Reactor with GFO and all that that entails. I purposely didn't do very many water changes because I wanted to know if vodka could do the job as advertised. Had I done monthly water changes, nitrates would have been diluted away, at least in part. It wasn't a quick process, but it did bring them down from 35 ppm to 0 ppm, and they are staying consistently at that low point ever since.

An additional perk to vodka dosing is the ability to feed more heavily without fear that water quality will suffer. It can be a challenging dance indeed to not overdose with food nor with vodka. Water clarity is obvious to the eye.

I still believe this is a method best suited for seasoned hobbyists and not for those new to the hobby, because they lack the ability to quickly recognize corals reacting badly. If the hobbyist is in tune with his or her tank, they tend to notice even the most minute changes, and take the necessary steps to avert disaster.

What's an article without pictures? Here are some before and after pictures.

May 2008 (Taken with a Fuji S5100)

April 2009 (Taken with a Nikon D70s)

May 2009

To make dosing easier for me to accomplish, I made my own drip system with some parts on hand. I didn't want to have to drip it in slowly by hand, and definitely didn't want to pour it in all at once. I had a 15 ml plastic syringe, and affixed the drip system from a Kent Dosing kit to it. After heating up some acrylic, I secured the Vodka Drip Doser to the frame above my sump.

15ml syringe doser

Vodka & dosing cup

1) Measure amount with syringe

2) Fill drip doser

3) Replacing the cap (avoid contamination)

Drip doser full of vodka

Drip counter (verify drip rate)

Pinch valve to adjust drip rate

Vodka drips into area of flow

Resulting skimmate

When I'm out of town, it is easy for my son to pour in the daily dose.

Vodka isn't the only solution to nitrate and phosphate issues, but for my tank, it really works. I will continue to dose the tank daily, as it takes less than 15 seconds, and I'm more than happy to do so.

Additional link:  After almost two years of dosing daily, I decided to make a more automated system using an Aqualifter and a digital timer so I didn't have to wonder if my tank was actually being dosed correctly when I wasn't home.  Here's the link, posted on 5/21/2010:

Courtesy Marc Levenson and, used by permission.

Wednesday, 07 January 2015 03:02

Why should you use RO/DI water?

When getting into the hobby of marine tanks, the basic consideration is water. Without it, nothing in your tank would live for long. Compared to freshwater tanks, marine tanks need excellent water quality to maintain success. So what water is available to the average person?

  • Tap Water - anything can be in your tap water, and most are undesirable for your tank.
  • Well Water - similar to above, with the risk of metals and high alkalinity
  • Distilled Water - available in many food stores, supposedly pure.
  • Reverse Osmosis &/or De-Ionized water - available as above, as well as at your LFS

One of the things about water is you simply don't know what is in it until you test it yourself. Fluoride, Chlorine, Chloramines, Nitrates, Phosphates, and even metals.... none of which can be added to your marine tank safely. Many of these compounds will create nuisance algae and may even lead to premature death of various livestock. Buying water from stores that promise it is filtered may be safe, but you don't really know when they changed their filters, do you? The water at the LFS may be safe to use, if they are keeping up with the schedule of changing their filters. Look in the LFS display tanks. Are they algae free, or is there an outbreak in many tanks? If you see a lot of algae, their water might not be the best choice to use.

If you opt to use tap water because it saves you money, you\'ll need to add some type of de chlorinator to protect your livestock from chlorine. Seachem's Prime is excellent, and I used it for years. But how much does that cost over time? And how much is your time worth, when you have to spend hours and hours battling green hair algae or worse?

Getting an RO/DI unit of your own is the best decision you will ever make. The up front cost of a unit can vary depending on where you buy it. There are many styles with a variety of options, and they can range from about $100 to $300 or more. Many choose to buy units from vendors on Ebay, and others shop the various online stores. When shopping, here are a few things to consider:

Gallons Per Day - How quickly do you want to make water? A 100gpd unit will produce a little over 4 gallons an hour under ideal conditions. When you need water in a hurry, you don't want to be waiting for a 25 or 50gpd unit to produce water!

Filter Sizes - The common filter size is 10", and if you buy a unit with that standard size, you'll be able to shop around for refill cartridges from many vendors. If the filter sizes are unique, you will have to continue to buy them from the original vendor and pray he stays in business or at least provide you with another resource if he doesn't continue selling them.

Clear Canisters - If you get a unit with solid white 'sumps', you can't tell what is going on. Clear acrylic sumps allow you to see if water is in each section, and you can visually inspect the unit to see when something needs changing.

The benefit of having a unit in your home is that you can make pure water as you need it. Installation takes about 10 minutes. You won't have to carry heavy containers of water (5 or more gallons weighs a lot!) out of the store, load it into your vehicle, then unload it at your house and carry it to your tank. Another benefit is you know exactly when your filters were changed last. You can even test your unit to make sure your water is safe. A TDS meter will measure the water quality -- zero is the goal. A cheap Chlorine test will tell you if your carbon filters need replacing. The DI cartridge changes colors from black to brown indicating when it has been consumed. Finally, if the output is remarkably slower than when you first installed it, it is time to replace filters or possibly the membrane.

An additional benefit with some units is the ability to make your own drinking water, by collecting water from the RO section (before the DI can process it). Clean drinking water is a must in most homes, and a RO/DI unit can provide that 24 hours a day.

Maintenance is easy. Change the filters (sediment and carbon) every 6 months and the DI once a year. The RO membrane should be good for 3 to 5 years. There is very little that can go wrong with a unit, but if you do run into a problem, the vendor or local club members can quickly help you get that resolved.

If you add up the cost of the water you are purchasing (or the chemicals you buy to de-chlorinate your tap water), you can see that in very little time an RO/DI unit will pay for itself. And your marine tank will look the better for it!

Courtesy Marc Levenson and, used by permission.

Wednesday, 07 January 2015 02:57

Maintaining Good Water Quality

I have read countless threads on discussion forums asking for assistance with water quality issues. Considering how many forums are available to hobbyists everywhere, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that hundreds of queries are posted on a daily basis just in the United States. With the availability of search engines, the information is readily available having been answered time and time again. Why is it so hard to master this particular area of our hobby? Are our personal circumstances so uniquely different from everyone else’s? Perhaps it is simply easier to ask the question and wait for a direct answer, but there is a chance that the answer won’t be accurate due to the responder’s inexperience or due to a lack of initial detail. Finally, how do you gauge if the answer or answers are correct? Since you asked the question, you don’t have the information to judge those answers, which means you have to decide if you can believe the respondents. I’ve also heard people say that they prefer not to get information from the internet, but I disagree. We have a huge knowledge base a few keystrokes away, and turning to it has become a way of life.

By researching a question via Google, it allows you to read an abundant amount of recommendations gathered up over time. Obtaining a better overview of possible solutions helps you judge the knowledge pool, instead of a very narrow sampling proffered in a single discussion. We’ve all asked questions no matter how long we’ve been in the hobby. Personal experience has taught each of us some lessons that were learned the hard way, at the expense to both our beloved livestock and our bank accounts. Most hobbyists try to inform others of mistakes made in an effort to help prevent similar happenings to their fellow reef keepers. We can be a protective bunch, usually erring on the side of caution. Yes, message boards are good in that way, opening the way for intelligent discussion, but let’s not forget to check the archives and compare notes.

Is there a simple solution to maintaining good water quality? Not exactly, but here are some steps that will help:

  • Source water
  • Decent Test kits
  • Frequency of testing
  • Dosing accordingly
  • Optional methodology
  • Longterm results

One point to consider before going any further: How is your livestock doing? How does everything look? Is the system clean, or overrun with algae? Are the corals healthy and thriving? Are the fish exhibiting any issues? If everything looks good, don’t make radical changes because of something you read or heard. 

Source water
This can never be emphasized enough. The water you use in your aquarium needs to be the best you can provide as it is basis of the entire ecosystem. The absolute best choice is to purchase your own RO/DI (reverse osmosis de-ionizer) system. Having pure water at the ready is useful both daily and in an emergency. Additional reading: Why should you use RO/DI water?

Tap water contains all kinds of stuff designed to make it safe for human consumption, but based on some Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) measurements provided to me from people across this nation, there are areas where that isn’t true at all. If your TDS measures over 500, it isn’t considered safe for human consumption, yet people in Arizona are measuring 1200 - 1500 in some places. One suburb 45 minutes from me measures 800 while where I live it is less than 180. What about filtered ocean water? Some hobbyists have this readily available, but water quality can vary depending on who’s in charge of maintaining filtration. Suffice it to say, the more you can control how the water is filtered, the better. Owning your own RO/DI system that you maintain is ideal. Change those filters regularly and test the water to make sure it is producing perfect levels. If you let this decline due to lack of attentiveness, it will only come back to haunt you with frustrating issues in your aquarium.

Get one today from

For a reef tank, we mix RO/DI water with the salt mix of choice. There are many to choose from and people debate and defend various brands often. I’ve used Kent, Oceanic, Instant Ocean, Red Sea, and Sybon. For my new tank, I’ve decided to use Sybon salt exclusively, based upon how well it mixes and the measurable results I’ve gotten from batch after batch. 

Salinity - The best tool to measure salinity is a refractometer that has been properly calibrated. These cost $40 and up, and the 35ppt calibration solution is less than $10. A few drops on the glass slide allows you to view the salinity precisely. The target range for a reef tank is 1.026 sg or 35ppt. Buy a refractometer and use it often.

Test kits
I’m not brand loyal to any one line, and recommend getting the best kit for each of the elements we test for. If you happen to colorblind, you will want to seek out digital measuring devices like the new ones offered by Hanna.

pH: Your best option is a pH meter or an aquarium controller that uses a pH probe. Digital measurements will always supersede what a test kit or dip strip will tell you. Digital readouts update as you watch, and having a probe that you can move from tank to tank allows you the freedom to make sure all your systems are within the target range. The ideal range would be 8.1 to 8.3 each day. If your tank’s pH reads below 7.6 or over 8.5, something needs to be corrected. pH readings will be at their lowest early in the morning and at their highest near the end of the lighting period. I glance at the pH level of my tank often, but it is not a critical number I worry about. It is what it is because of the other elements in the water that have been ionically balanced.

The Aquacontroller 3 displays the current measurements at all times.

Alkalinity: I’ve used Salifert, Elos, Tropic Marin, and API to measure for this. This kit is usually affordable, easy to perform and easy read. The target range is 8 to 11 dKH, or 2.86 to 3.89 meq/l. Test this one frequently, weekly at the minimum. Alkalinity is taken up by the corals and fish in your tank, and needs to be replenished daily. The most used kit in my arsenal, to be sure.

Calcium: Salifert’s kit is my preferred test kit for this element. Calcium levels should be checked weekly, and this too is taken up by both livestock and even coralline algae so it needs to be dosed daily. The target range is 390 to 425 ppm. Higher levels of calcium can be hard on some livestock, and to bring this number down simply don’t dose further for a few days and continue measuring with a kit to determine when dosing should resume.

Magnesium: Salifert again is the kit I continue to use. I’ve tried others, but this one has always worked reliably. The target range is three times the calcium level for balanced ionic levels, but I simply suggest keeping it between 1380 and 1400 ppm because that is what seems too keep Montipora sp colored up. If magnesium levels are low, it will take a lot of product to raise it up but once the target level has been achieved, it tends to stay there for a good while. For my reef, I probably dose Mg four times a year. 

If salinity, alkalinity, calcium and magnesium are at their proper levels, pH will usually take care of itself. I don’t recommend dosing anything to make the pH a different number necessarily, but rather encourage you to verify that the alk-ca-mg levels are still on target. There are caveats to this, such as depressed pH due to excess CO2 in the home, but usually bringing in fresh air into your home will help correct this. Some have connected airline tubing from outdoors to their skimmer’s venturi intake lines to achieve this, which is useful in colder climates with homes that are sealed up tight.

Note: Whenever you dose anything to your system, remember that you don’t have to dose it all at once. For alkalinity or calcium dosing, it should trickle in slowly in an area of high flow. For magnesium, it would be better to dose a portion daily rather than the full dose to reach the desired level (recommendation: maximum 100ppm rise per day). If you are using buffer to raise pH, mix up the powder in 8 oz of water and gradually add some to the tank while watching the pH meter’s display. Add some then wait 15 minutes or longer before adding more, so the impact will be lessened on your livestock. Test the water after an hour or two to see how the dosage affected the corresponding levels. It’s best to only dose what you can test for, and dosing should never result in tank drama. Dramatic changes can leave fish gasping and corals sliming due to stress.

Nitrate: API’s test kit is simple to use, it’s affordable and easy to read. The lower the nitrate, the better. Less than 5ppm would be a good goal, and even lower would be great. Nitrate is in the water, and big water changes done frequently will bring these down. 

Phosphate: Salifert or Elos kits are both easy to use. The target range is .03 ppm and anything more than that needs to be controlled to avoid nuisance algae. 

Temperature: Aquarium controllers measure tank temperature, or you can buy a digital thermometer as well as a cheaper glass one. From time to time, compare multiple thermometers to make sure they are reading accurately and equally. Tank temperature is important to maintain, and the target range I suggest is 79F to 81F. This two degree range is where my previous reef flourished. The controller I use turns the heaters on if the tank drops below 78F at night and brings it back up to 79F. As the lights run all day, the tank temperature rises gradually, and during the night it cools off. 

ORP: Using an aquarium controller, the ORP (REDOX potential) measurement is constantly reported on the screen. The number itself isn’t overly important but what is is the consistency of that number. For example, if it normally is around 315 and then suddenly it crashes to 200 or less, something has changed and an investigation as to why needs to be performed immediately. People that run ozone watch this number closely to avoid overdosing the tank with too much, setting their controller to shut off ozone at a predetermined peak level. I don’t run ozone, so I would suggest that this number should read between 310 and 340 but again it isn’t a precise attainable number. Just one to keep an eye on to see if it varies all of a sudden, possibly due to dosing something that day. A lowered number indicates lower dissolved oxygen levels.

Sampling from a single week via Aquanotes App

Nitrite & Ammonia: These are usually only tested when a tank is initially set up, when uncured live rock is cycling, or when livestock starts dying in our tank. When death and decay occurs, measuring nitrite and ammonia is important because elevated levels are toxic to fish and corals alike. The target range is always zero.

Iodine: Iodine doesn't last long in our tanks, but it is included in the salt mix. I've used a few Iodine test kits, but the results were spotty. Shrimp and crabs need iodine to help them molt (shed their exoskeleton), so dosing it weekly would be good. Lugol's Solution is offered under many brand names, and 1 drop per 50g best. Don't overdose iodine in your tank; don't even hold the bottle over your display or sump while dosing because a small spill will do major harm. When I dosed a single drop to my 29g reef many years ago, it seemed like nothing. Adding one more drop, my fish were suddenly gasping and appeared to be very distressed. How could I retract that drop?! Please be careful with iodine.


Testing Frequency
The above measurements are what I test for and watch frequently. Try to make it a routine, such as “Test Kit Saturday” or something similar. Record those numbers in a spreadsheet or a smartphone Application to be able to review your water parameter history. When things go wrong, the usual excuses are that the person didn’t test diligently in some time, their test kit ran out and they didn’t buy a new one yet, or their test kit is way past expiration. Try to make a mental note (or a physical one!) when a kit is getting low to pick up a new one next time you are at a fish store or ordering online. 

Many kits have an expiration date. When I open a new kit for the first time, I write that date with a Sharpie on the box. Most kits are good for 12 months after you break the seal on bottles. If you are still using a kit that you purchased in 2007 just because it still has some test solution left, please trash it now and buy a replacement. Surely the total investment in your reef justifies the small cost of a fresh kit.

Another quality control step that you might consider is to test some water with both the old kit and the new one to see if the results are close to the same. Occasionally a brand new kit can be faulty, and false results could cause you to panic and overdose a product in a hurry to ‘fix’ what is allegedly wrong. If the number is really strange, ask a local hobbyist to test your water with their kit or head to the local fish store with a fresh water sample and have them double check those numbers with their kits. While you are at it, bring your test kit along and show them how you test to make sure you are doing it correctly. It never hurts to confirm your methods occasionally. If the store charges a fee to perform some tests, don’t balk at the idea. Just pay them for their time and get the answers you seek.

Dosing Accordingly
The aquarium is going to require regular replenishment of alkalinity and calcium, and occasionally magnesium. With frequent water changes, the new water may contain enough of these elements to take care of that demand, but the only way to know for sure is to test the water in the display tank. Also, test the newly mixed saltwater, especially each time a new bag or bucket of salt has been opened. Never assume the batch is fine, test and know for a fact that everything is normal.

As your reef matures, the demand will be ever greater for alkalinity and calcium. Ten years ago, everyone wanted a calcium reactor. These days, the preference has swung to two-part dosing. Is one better than the other? It comes down to preference. A calcium reactor has an initial setup cost of $500 or more, but after that the cost is minimal. CO2 refills and more reactor media are both very inexpensive. The benefit of a calcium reactor is the replenishment is done 24 hours a day. Two-part dosing costs less up front, but it is more labor intensive in that the person has to continue mixing up a batch of each part and replenishing those containers once depleted. With timers, dosing pumps and a controller, each solution can be dosed to the tank at regular intervals. With smaller tanks (55g and under), two-part dosing is probably the best choice, but for larger systems that require more product, I would prefer to use a reactor. I know a number of large tank (200g+) owners that dose two-part. Those huge exhibits in public aquariums use calcium reactors.

Which is more risky of the two? If the calcium reactor fails (too much CO2 injected; recirculation pump fails; feed pump fails), the media within is ruined and it has to be replaced. This would cost $10 to $25 to correct, and it is back in business. The tank would hardly skip a beat unless this wasn’t noticed for weeks on end, but with weekly water tests, it would be hard to miss. The media in the reactor would turn milky white. If the two part dosing system fails (runs out of solution; doesn’t shut off and adds too much), the reef would be affected negatively due to the huge swing in Alkalinity or Calcium levels. When you are out of town and someone has to watch your system, I think it would be easier to have them double check the output of the calcium reactor versus them knowing if the two-part dosing system was operating correctly.

Kalkwasser dosing is another method used to maintain alkalinity and calcium levels, but there is a risk of overdosing if too much is added at one time. I would say the majority of hobbyists do not use kalkwasser, as it has become less popular due in part to the many posted horror stories. In addition, pumps can seize up from the calcium deposits that adhere to their magnets, requiring more frequent cleanings after a vinegar bath soaking. The safest way to dose kalkwasser is to drip it into your tank for a specific duration during the night, completely separate from a top-off system. How much to drip is something each hobbyist would have to determine by measuring water parameters daily. Kalkwasser has a pH of 12, and too much will cause the pH of the tank to rise sharply. If an overdose occurs, white vinegar can be used to bring it back down. Please do your research and know how much vinegar you’d need to use to correct an accidental overdose BEFORE it happens. Type it up and stick it near your tank so you can find it quickly in an emergency. Like the Boy Scout’s motto: Be Prepared.

Optional Methodology
An area every hobbyist struggles with is water pollution. Our reef is full of hungry reeflings and we enjoy their response to feedings. The more we feed, the more quickly water quality worsens. Two measurements we test for are Nitrate and Phosphate, because we know these fuel algae growth. To combat these, we have several options. Some are perfect for newbies, while others are better suited for seasoned aquarists that have learned the nuances of their tank and can see issues just by looking at a few specific corals. Algae Turf Scrubbers (ATS), Refugiums, Carbon dosing, Product dosing, Denitrifying reactors, NP reactors, GFO reactors are some of the weapons of choice, and of course those never ending water changes.

For newbies (those that are new to the hobby):
A refugium with macro algae will taken up some of the nitrate (NO3) and phosphate (PO4) from the water, reducing the likelihood of nuisance algae growing in the display tank. By growing out “weeds” in the refugium zone, hair algae is less likely to take over the reef display. Cull out 25% or more algae from the refugium monthly to encourage more growth. The refugium needs a light source for the plants to grow, resulting in the benefit of additional oxygen (O2) in the water thanks to photosynthesis. Run that light at night when the reef is a rest to help keep pH levels up during the late night hours. With a refugium, regular water changes and a bunch of snails in your display tank, PO4 and NO3 should be controllable and nuisance algae should be preventable.

Algae Turf Scrubbers are beginning to make a comeback. They were quite popular in Australia for a long time. A perforated plastic sheet is set up at an angle in a section of the sump and water cascades down the slope. A bright light shines upon that plastic, causing algae to grow. Each week, the algae is scraped off and disposed of, removing NO3 and PO4 that was taken up by the hair algae. An ATS can be a little messy because of salt creep splashing around the affected area, and it may be a little bit noisy depending on the setup. It has to be maintained and tended to for it be effective.

GFO (granular ferric oxide) reactors are popular with many hobbyists, who use them to lower PO4 levels in their tank. GFO is basically rust particles that the phosphates adhere to. Using a Two Little Fishies’ Phosban Reactor or similar apparatus, water is gently pushed through the GFO media. What comes out of the reactor should be phosphate-free water. Running a GFO reactor around the clock should be able to reduce and eliminate measurable PO4 entirely. If the PO4 level in the tank is .25ppm and the output of the reactor is .03ppm or less, it is working. If the two are the same, it isn’t working and the reactor needs to be adjusted to slow the output until it comes out with that zero reading we desire. Once a week, the reactor needs a ‘puff’ of water surged through the media to avoid it becoming clumped or brick-like. Systems running high levels of alkalinity usually encounter GFO clumping, so the 15 second surge can help prevent this. GFO is usually good for one to three months before needing to be replaced. Caution needs to be taken that the ‘fines’ (GFO dust) doesn’t find its way back into the display, as some corals get stung by these. GFO should be well rinsed prior to being installed on the system, and the output or effluent could be directed to flow over some filterfloss to trap any fines that made it out of the reactor.

Phosphate Control or Phosbuster Pro are liquid products that remove PO4 virtually overnight. The correct amount is dosed to the tank, causing the PO4 to turn to a solid. The tank will appear to be cloudy, and that will be exported via a protein skimmer or a 100 micron filter sock. I’ve used both products for several years and have never had any losses (fish, corals, invertebrates). I prefer to dose this flocculant late at night when the fish are at rest, and by morning the tank is crystal clear and PO4 measures zero.

Carbon can be used to improve water clarity and to reduce organics in the water, but it must be changed out frequently, as in weekly. 1/2 a cup of GAC (granulated activated carbon) per 50g of water in a Phosban reactor is a great way to keep the water looking sparkling clean with no green tinge. 

Kent’s Nitrate Sponge or Seachem’s Matrixx media are designed to soak up nitrate from the water. These can be used in a canister filter or a mesh bag. Nitrate Sponge needs to be used for 48 hours, then taken off the system where Matrixx can be used indefinitely. Depending on the level of NO3 in the system determines how much media is needed and how effective it can be. Kent’s Nitrate Sponge is aluminum-based which can affect leather corals adversely, and it can take weeks for them to recover.

Seasoned Aquarists (you know who you are):
Vodka, Sugar, and or Vinegar dosing has proven to work at reducing nitrate and phosphate. It’s a slow process as the tank has to adapt to the daily dose of any or all of these three products. Each week, the dose is slightly increased. I dosed Vodka in my 280g reef for 7 months before seeing any change in NO3 or PO4 levels, but at last it worked. It dropped the NO3 levels from 65ppm to 0 in about two weeks’ time once I finally hit that dosing threshold. Vodka (or VSV) dosing is for the most patient of hobbyists, but it allows them to feed more heavily and enjoy better water clarity. Corals perk up because they are getting more light than previously when the water was a tad murky, for lack of a better term. Decreased nitrate levels produce stunning corals. Essential reading: Dosing Vodka - Why? 

Zeovit / Prodibio / Biofuel and other bacterial dosing systems coupled with the dosing of Amino Acids can result in beautiful reefs, but it is for those that want to dose a drop of this and a touch of that on a daily basis like a mad scientist creating his own personal monster. It requires careful attention to dosing each additive, and many pin a dosing schedule to their cabinet door to make sure they stay on track and don’t omit anything that could make their efforts take a step backwards. It’s a tightrope that some can glide across easily, but their experience in the hobby helps them look for signs of trouble that a newbie wouldn’t spot so easily. 

Denitrifying reactors are designed with an anoxic zone that depletes NO3 levels in the water. Within the reactor, the water moves so slowly through it that the oxygen levels drop, and an adaptive type of bacteria consumes the nitrate. Usually sulfur based, although I did see a vodka-based reactor by Deltec two years ago, these reactors need to be fine tuned by the owner, and they must be plugged into a Uninterrupted Power Supply (a UPS for a computer) in case of a power outage. If the reactor is powerless for over 30 minutes, bad things happen quickly within so the UPS is a form of insurance. 

Biopellets are the newest craze for the reduction of NO3 and PO4. A media reactor is necessary, and it is filled up with a specified amount of NP (nitrate/phosphate) pellets that tumble gently. These polymer-based pellets become populated with bacteria, which slowly consumes the media over time. Hobbyists are still trying to determine how well they work, including myself. Biopellets should keep NO3 and PO4 at bay, while allowing more frequent feedings. So far, it’s working well for my 400g but my tank is young.

NextReef reactor filled with Vertex biopellets

Longterm Results
Armed with information above, you can choose to use what applies to your system and your level of experience. However, proper husbandry is equal no matter how long you’ve been in this hobby. If you become lazy or complacent, if you have test kits but don’t use them, if you have a refractometer but don’t calibrate it, if you have probes but don’t clean them, your tank will suffer. 

Be proactive rather than reactive. Get passionate. Double check results and don’t make assumptions. Yes, you can look at a Birdsnest colony in your tank to tell if the water’s nitrate level has risen, or the Xenia population to know that alkalinity has gone askew. You can look at the coralline growth to know you have adequate calcium, but is your skimmer working efficiently? Have you checked the impeller magnets to make sure they are in good condition, not cracked and exposing rusty innards? What about the magnets holding that encrusted frag rack in your tank? Are they in good shape, or do they need replacing? Is your sump vacuumed clean of detritus, as well as the overflows? Are the Tunzes, Vortechs or other flow pumps in need of a vinegar bath? Are the RO and saltwater mixing barrels clean, or have you put that off too long? Are you still testing your newly mixed saltwater to make sure it has the same standards now that you originally set? Are your test kits in dire need of replacing? 

Go nuts and clean up your system. It’s so much fun to work around a brand new tank because everything is clean and shiny. Clean up your current setup and get that new look back. It will be a lot of work if the tank has been neglected for some time, but thereafter you’ll be motivated once again, and you may notice some things that need your immediate attention -- before they can fail on you at an inconvenient time. Aquarium husbandry is a term to describe the person caring for the system. Are you being a good caregiver? If you are, your water quality should be in good shape.

And your reef will reward you with beauty day after day.

Courtesy Marc Levenson and, used by permission.

Wednesday, 07 January 2015 02:47

Photographing Tiny Subjects

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Photographing Tiny Subjects

You will recognize some or most of these images, but I was thinking how it would be nice to put these in one webpage, especially describing the techniques used to get the images.

In the past couple of weeks, I have had three opportunities to photography newly released baby Peppermint Shrimp in my tank. I didn't even know what they were at first, but it was fascinating to study them up close. However, shooting them with my digital camera was challenging.

I have a Fuji S602Z, which is a Prosumer digital camera with a built-in lens. Review on

All of my images are shot or video'd using what the camera comes with. Rarely do I use the built in flash.

These images were taken late at night when the lights were off. The first image is with the flash, to show you want I noticed one night. I don't remember my camera setting for this, but it might have been in Auto mode due to it being a simple shot, in Macro mode.

Now, these little guys jerked around in the water with all the pumps off. Getting them focused was extremely tough due to their speed, so I set my camera to ISO1600, the highest setting I had. Lighting was a single flashlight pointed straight down from above, which drew the shrimp like a moth to a flame.

To take these images, I pressed the camera against the glass of the tank, to keep it steady. I must have taken 100 or more pictures for 15 minutes, resulting in less than a dozen good images.

You'll notice how part of the image is over-exposed in the brightest location where the shrimp are amassed, but that is because my focus was on indiduals rather than the grouping. Plus the area where they gathered, they were cascading and twitching constantly to get away from each other while continually regrouping closest to the light. I don't even know why they are drawn toward light, since that almost assures them death by the mouth of a hungry fish. You'd think they'd hide to have the chance to grow.

I also shot two videos that night, to help the viewer grasp these little guys a little better. Again, lighting was by flashlight, and the camera was set on a tripod. My camera doesn't shoot macro video, but it does a decent job at times. I simply had to move the camera and tripod to the sweet spot, and play with the focus until the camera locked onto the subject.

Movies are edited with Windows XP Windows Movie Maker, which is found in Start/Programs/Accessories/Entertainment/

Video 1 & Video 2

At my next opportunity, I tried a better method to photograph them more clearly. Essentially these little guys are mostly see-through at this point, and very tiny. Trying to shoot them in super macro mode was impossible in a small dish of water, so I decided to drip them onto a black background in a small puddle.

Using my famous 5100K refugium lightbulb as a source of light from the side, I was able to take these pictures. The material was some black chloroplast (sign material) and an eye dropper was used to get a few shrimp out of the container on to my 'background'. The floodlight bulb was placed to the side of the material, and I held my camera freehand, pointed directly down on the puddle. One thing I did often was adjust my angle to the subject to capture the right amout of lighting.

These were the best out of 73 shots. Due to the speed these little guys zip around, I used IS0 400, no flash, Aperature Priority, f/2.8.

The Fuji S602Z allows the photographer to switch to Super Macro Mode, which means you can get within 1 centimeter of the object. A couple of times, I was pressing the metal frame surrounding the lens into the puddle trying to get close. This was wiped off, and the lens never got wet.

Remember, the three dots are the tail, and the larger end is the head section with a pair of huge eyes apparently. To get even larger images, using a magnification filter might work, or shooting through a magnifying glass. However, now you are juggling even more items, and that may be quite a challenge.

And here for a sense of scale, near a penny. Putting a familiar object in an image helps your viewer get a sense of scale.

The subjects in these images were only 15 minutes old when I took their pictures. ;)

And for fun, you can use a 'thought bubble' in an image, which is available in Photoshop 7. One helpful RC member just posted how to do that, and this is the result:

Courtesy Marc Levenson and, used by permission.
Wednesday, 07 January 2015 02:41

How to Photoshop your photos

This is a Photoshop 7.0 tutorial, but the steps are valid for newer versions as well.  Using Photoshop to clean up our digital (or scanned) images is completely warranted.  Don't let others convince you that "photoshopping" is cheating; we aren't trying to misrepresent our subject - we want to make it look as good as possible.  Or match it to what we see with our own eyes. The biggest compliment I ever received was when someone visited my home to see my reef, and said the corals looked like my pictures. That's the goal.  

These steps that I use aren't hard to learn, so take a few minutes to read over them, and bookmark it so you can refer to it later.  It takes about a minute or so to clean up each image, depending to what extent you are correcting.  Spot removal can take quite a bit of time, for example.


First, load an image in Photoshop. Click Open, and Browse to the file you want to edit.


I resize before editing. This is a simple resize, not using the crop tool to cut off any unwanted portions.

800 x 600 or 640 x 480 are good sizes in general.

In the above window, when entering Width, Height is automatically entered to keep the image true to shape.

The image is now not only resized smaller (pixels listed in bottom left corner), but also reduced to 50% of its size visually.

By opening to "full window" you don't see any other images you may have open in the background, and the image you are working on will be centered.

By clicking on the 'mountains,' the image size increases. Clicking on the other end of that scale will reduce the image size on your screen. This does not resize the image, only changes your viewing size.

Now it is ready for the next step. If you want to see all of your image, press the TAB key on your keyboard to hide the extra control panels. Press it again to bring it back. Sometimes you may need to increase the view of your picture to 200% or 400%, and pressing TAB will give you full view of your image or work area.

Auto Levels

Using Auto Levels will quickly fix the colors of your image. This is a very simplistic solution, that works in some cases but not in others.

If the image looks horrible, you can Fade the Auto Levels somewhat, bringing it back to something more realistic looking.

If I use Auto Levels, I may Fade the correction between 70% and 80%. This is determined on a case by case basis.

Manual Levels

Manual Levels adjustments will produce better control of the image being edited.

Clicking on Levels will bring up this window. Now you have a histogram of your image, first in RGB(above), then Red, Green and finally Blue.

Notice in the Blue histogram, there is a flattened spot. Move the slider over to the beginning of the rise in the histogram to remove some excess blue in your image. If you have the Preview box checked off (as above) you'll see the change immediately in the image. You can uncheck and recheck the box repeatedly to see the changes you are causing and note by comparison.

Here is where I would put that little slider.

Next, the Green histogram has been adjusted, again moving the left slider.

This time the slider on the right in the Red histogram had to be moved.

Click on OK. Don't worry, if you hate how it came out, you can go to Edit, then Undo (or Step Backward) to undo what you just did, and try anew.


To sharpen an image, I use UnSharp Mask. It sounds backwards, but works beautifully.

My settings are almost always 125%, 0.3, and 0. The higher the Radius, the lower the Amount (%) should be used. I almost never change the radius, only adjusting the percent of Amount as needed. After clicking OK, if you have to Unsharp Mask again, you can do so with decent results. Or click on Edit, Undo, and try again.


I always save my files as filename.jpg - the larger the filesize, the less people can download it per month due to bandwidth constraints. If you can keep your images between 80k and 150k, you should be okay. Some of the images on this page are only 40k, while a couple are 160k. Smaller images (pixel-wise) save to a smaller filesize.

By using Save For Web, you get the option of several sizes. Above, the top left would be 900k! Top right is 138k, at 52 quality. Bottom left is 80k at 26 quality, and finally bottom right is 46k at 13 quality. To be honest, anything under 52 quality starts looking pretty bad to me, for an online viewable image. I like 60 quality, which you can select by either typing it in the Quality box above, or by simply changing the Medium setting to High (left of Quality).

Name your file something you can easily identify, and Save. It is now ready to upload and share with the world.

Finally, click on the X (red arrow, top right, pointing to a shaded-out X) to close the original image. Click on NO to leave the original unchanged in case you ever need it again in the future. I never alter my originals, that way if I desire to print it out, the full file size and DPI levels are available for my use. If more images are loaded in Photoshop, I would now repeat this same process with each image until done.

And here is the final web-ready image. Ready to try this yourself?

Courtesy Marc Levenson and, used by permission.

Wednesday, 07 January 2015 02:34

How to Shop for a Digital Camera

Are you considering the purchase of a digital camera? Cellphones take pictures, tablets too, but a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) is almost inevitable with this hobby. We seem to require more than just saltwater experience: You need to know how to work with electrical components, plumbing, woodworking, and more. Photography is equally important for a number of reasons. Photography allows you to document coral growth sequences over time, share your tank with others online or out of the area, and provides a sense of pride in getting an especially good picture of your favorite fish or coral.

Have you noticed how many digital cameras are being advertised these days? The prices have been dropping even as the technology improves. Picking the right one can be overwhelming, especially if you are trying to get the most 'bang for your buck'. Try to stick with names you're familiar with, because these companies will still be around a year later to support their product. Compare prices between various stores, because quite often you'll find the same camera at a better price. Buying online can save money, but there is an element of risk that the vendor is shady (even selling gray-market products not under warranty). Buying a camera in a store permits you the option to try out the camera and get a feel for it, plus the store will offer help when you run into issues.

Features to look for in a digital camera

  • Battery type and method of charging - can you charge it while on vacation / out of the country?
  • Megapixel size - 3.0 and better at this point
  • Storage Media - Compact Flash, Smart Media, Memory Sticks, MicroDrives
  • Options - Macro range, Zoom, various settings for different situations
  • Video - some can shoot up to 30 seconds of video, which can be useful occasionally
  • Accessories - Can the lens be swapped; can the camera accept upgrades?
  • LCD - Is it going to be visible in direct sunlight?
  • Playback features - what options exist to review pictures before you can download them to your computer?
  • Warranty or extended warranties - how long are you covered, and do you wish to purchase more coverage?

So ascertain your specific needs. I was very interested in Macro shots, because close-ups of corals fascinate me. I wanted a camera that I could use anywhere anytime that would produce great shots without costing a fortune. I basically wanted a "professional camera" even though I'm not one. While researching invididual cameras at, I learned that I was looking for a "prosumer" model (professional consumer). I compared Nikon, Canon and Fuji side by side at a local store. Each camera had amazing features, but in the end I had to decide which had the most features I was happy with. What felt good in my hand, was easy to use and would be reliable.

My first choice was the Fuji S602Z for a number of reasons. I loved the shape and the feel. The camera body is black, like the lens. I figured that my fish run away from my older digital camera because it was silver with a black lens, which to them probably looked like a black eye in a silver body and feared it was dangerous. All black makes the camera more or less invisible to my livestock. I really liked that it uses 4 AA batteries, so no matter where I am in the world, I know I can buy this size battery and be able to keep taking pictures. Other cameras have a proprietary battery, which must be charged in camera. I bought 2 packs of rechargeable AA's so I'm always prepared. Another feature that is noteworthy is that if I'm in direct sunlight, I can switch the output from the LCD to the viewfinder, so I can still review pictures taken and see them clearly.

The media that stores the pictures is limited to the amount of megs in contains. Many cameras come with a 16 meg card, which holds about 40 pictures in lower resolution. I added a 512 meg CF card. The Fuji camera mentioned above holds both Smart Media and Compact Flash simultaneously, so I can take up to 1640 pictures at 1280 x 960 (pixel size). That frees me up to take as many shots as I like when attempting to get the perfect image. Taking my camera on vacation, I won't run out of space. If I did, I could buy another Compact Flash card and insert it in the camera and put the full card somewhere safe. My camera came with a cord that allows me to view the images on a TV screen, which has proven handy. Sony uses "memory stick" technology that only works in their cameras, and it is pricey. Compact Flash is the best option at this point, in my opinion. You can take many shots back to back, reviewing them immediately to make sure you got what you were aiming for. You can even delete them when reviewing what's been taken, making space for more shots instantly.

The Macro setting is different from camera to camera. The Fuji I use can get within 1 cm of the object. Nikons take excellent macro shots and the color is considered more vivid by experts. The Canon G-3 is quite popular, and takes impressive macros. Most of these cameras have excellent auto-focusing abilities, making even amateur photographers into real pros in no time. Over time, I upgraded from the Fuji to a Nikon DSLR, complete with multiple lenses. 

Are there any drawbacks? It does cost a lot up front, but no more developing fees, no more need for film, no more waiting to see if the pictures came out or not.... and alas, no prints to hand around at family events. However, you can take the media card to a photo shop and have them make prints that you've pre-selected. Another drawback: there is a slight lag time in taking pictures with a digital camera, requiring the user to anticipate action and click the shutter half a second before the event happens. That takes practice. Smile

So shop around, find what you like and do some research at That site has a specific layout providing you with a wealth of knowledge, so once you've gotten familiar with that, you can work your way through the reviews more quickly. Prior to purchasing your digital camera, come discuss what you've found on your club's message board or national forum to make sure it is a good choice. A future article will go into specific techniques of aquarium photography as well as how to edit pictures successfully on your computer before posting.

Cameras I've used, past and present:  HP213 pocket camera, Fuji S602zFuji S5100 ZoomNkon D70Nikon D90

Camera I'm currently shooting with: Nikon D90

  • Nikkor AF-S 18-200mm  f/3.5 lens - link
  • Nikkor AF 50mm  f/1.8 lens - link
  • Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/2.8 Macro lens - link
  • External flash Nikon SB-800 - link

Courtesy of Marc Levenson and, used by permission.

Tuesday, 06 January 2015 03:38


AquaMaxx reactors on display at RAP 2011

For nitrate and phoshpate control, I'm using a NextReef reactor.  Model SMR1 XL, this reactor holds 2 liters of Vertex NP biopellets.  Plumbed to the manifold, a ball valve is used to control the flow rate through the pellets.  I've been running biopellets since February 6, 2011, and it appears to be working well: water-testing

The Nextreef reactor is the blue acrylic one.

The valve is very easy to turn, compared to the kind purchased at Home Depot or Lowes.  This kind is sold at

The pellets tumble gently from top to bottom in the reactor.

The output of the reactor goes into this fitting that I fabricated with a Tee fitting and cap.

The piece fits over the intake to the Eheim pump, and the cap (drilled out in the forefront) accommodates the flexible 5/8" tubing.

This this simple mod, the skimmer absolutely skims the effluent of the reactor, which likely contains dying bacteria.  The other opening of the Tee fitting permits additional water to be drawn into the skimmer's pump.  The lack of restriction has worked out very well, and the skimmer hasn't been altered or affected adversely.

September 2011 to February 2012: I switched to Coralvue's BioSpheres to see how they run. 

March to October 2012: Ran Ecobak biopellets in an AquaMaxx reactor to see the results.

Important Considerations when using biopellets:

  • Skimming: The output of the solid media reactor needs to be pointed directly to the intake of a protein skimmer's intake pump. All effluent should be heavily skimmed, as this helps avoid issues like brown/reddish mulm on the substrate of the aquarium. If you enjoy a clean sandbed, heed these words.
  • Bacteria: Dose the aquarium with additional bacteria in a timely fashion. With Prodibio, I dose every 15 days. With Microbacter 7, dose at least weekly. Replenishing the aquarium with additional bacteria has resulted in better results when it comes to running biopellets, which may add diversity to avoid a monoculture, and replace what has died off and being skimmed/exported from the system.
  • Lighting: As the pellets break in (with bacteria), you'll usually notice a sudden increase of water clarity, and it may be necessary to reduce the lighting period to avoid bleaching livestock. If water was somewhat murky before, better clarity means more light penetration -- the corals can't adapt that quickly so adjust the daily light cycle to match the change in conditions, gradually ramping it back up to the normal schedule.
  • Alkalinity: Running biopellets like EcoBak usually works best in tanks that keep Alkalinity around 8 dKH. Higher levels of alkalinity may result in burnt-looking coral tips, so weekly water testing should be part of your husbandry routine.
  • GFO & GAC: You may decide that it isn't necessary to continue running granular ferric oxide. Running fresh granulated activated carbon helps keep water from becoming discolored, and isn't a problem in conjunction with biopellets.
  • Feedings - Because the extra bacteria in the closed system is so efficient, increasing the feeding routine is best to avoid starving corals. By adding more food, those corals will retain their coloration. Multiple smaller feeding sessions would be better than one giant dose per day.
  • Maintain proper flow always - The reactor is rated for a specific gallons-per-hour rating, but as the reactor's flow is obstructed one way or another, the liquid inside may become toxic to your reef. Keep an eye on it and if you see less movement or less effluent exiting, take it apart, clean out the obstruction and resume. [Blog]

I've used biopellets for over three years with excellent results. (I'm still using biopellets as of August 2014) Using the suggestions on this page should help you do the same.

Full product review of the Nextreef Reactor:
Full product review of the Aquamaxx Reactor:

Courtesy Marc Levenson and, used by permission.

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