Doses and Setosas
by Justin Hester
How many times have you read some post or article somewhere about some amazing looking tank, only to come away buying some random additive or changing your coral husbandry strategies with a knee jerk? How about a shout out to any of those “late night” reefers that have had a few too many and decided they need to make some drastic change to their dosing schedule. Have you ever come home from your local fish store with a “new additive” that you are convinced will enhance your coral coloration, fix some problem you think you are having, or turn your system into a tank of the month overnight? As I look back over my years of reef keeping, I know I have jumped on a bandwagon or two over the years, only to add it to a tank anxiously watching and waiting for miracle growth or coloration to occur right before my eyes. You can probably guess that its never quite panned out that way and you would be correct.
In the 16 years we have been in the hobby, the only reef tank additives that have led successful tanks have been those that mimic what nature puts in ocean water. Specifically they include, alkalinity, calcium, magnesium, trace elements, and potassium. Most other items on the market should only be used when you have thoroughly examined your ecosystem both on a macro and micro scale and truly found places where you have a deficiency. Let’s try to break down a process that you can use for dosing success in your reef aquarium.
Test, Test, Test, and Test again
I really can’t overstate the importance of monitoring your reef conditions. You can do this with simple test kits and a handwritten chart if you are more the minimalist or you can jack up your automation a few notches and use an online software like AquaticLog or others that are on the market. We have started to use AquaticLog here in the past few months to document everything from water changes to dosing and can even sync up with your favorite reef controller. The point is, and I can’t emphasize this enough, that you want to make sure your water parameters are both STEADY and WITHIN BOUNDS.
By steady, I mean as close to not changing as possible for things like your temperature, alkalinity, salinity, and calcium. In the ocean, these parameters with the exception of a small daily pH and temperature variation are held steady by the shear volume of the ocean with its tides and currents that bring fresh water over coral reefs each day.
By within bounds, we mean having your water parameters at or very close to natural sea water (NSW) give or take a few “enhancements” for things we have learned our corals react well to. We have documented these parameters in the ocean by bringing our reef test kits to places like the Dominican Republic, Dry Tortugas, FL, and Riviera Maya.
Here are the water parameters we try to attain in a steady fashion
Temperature: within about a degree variance from day to night somewhere from 76-82
Salinity: 35ppt (1.026* specific gravity)
Alkalinity: 140-150ppm ( 7.6-8.4dkh)
Nitrate: .2 or less
Phosphate: .05 or less
Dosing for success
In order to keep your parameters steady and within bounds, most tanks will need more than just weekly water changes. In a perfect world, we could all mix up new salt water at 40-50% of our tank volume each week to simulate what the tides do for a reef in nature, but that would probably put most of us in the poor house. For some with smaller tanks and I have seen a few of these, doing these higher % water changes can translate into some INSANE coral growth and coloration so I don’t want to discourage you from trying it. For many of us though, this strategy would mean mixing up 200-300 gallons a week which would be a bit expensive. As a side note, this does make me want to explore what it would take to regenerate our weekly waste water like nature does!
For most of us, dosing back the elements and nutrients that our corals are using is done using dosing pumps like Neptune’s DOS or using a calcium reactor. The principle is the same for both, but the process is very different for each. For dosing pumps, you are basically metering in an amount of a pre-mixed solution and testing to make sure your rate of dosing is adequate. With a calcium reactor, you are basically using an acidic chamber of tank water to dissolve dead coral skeletons (aragonite) back into the things the corals used to make these skeletons in the first place. Namely alkalinity, calcium, magnesium, strontium, and many trace elements.
As our systems have grown over the years from a 75 gallon setup to about 1000 gallons today, we have transitioned from dosing to a geo calcium reactor. The reactor allows us to have a hands-off automated approach to dosing all of the things we mention above as being important. With our Apex controller, we are even able to use our calcium reactor to keep our pH steady during the day and night.
Can you look at your corals and see if they are healthy?
At the end of the day, the power of observation can’t be discounted. After all, most of us got into this hobby to begin with so we could stare at a beauty of nature in our living rooms right? The more you stare at your tank, the more you will learn about what it should and shouldn’t look like. You will see days where your corals are happier than others and be able to make notes about that in your AquaticLog. Over years, these simple observations will accumulate and you will be able to share what you have learned with your friend and their tanks. Polyp extension, coloration, and even the underside of corals can tell you a lot about what is going on in a tank. You will be able to walk into any LFS and know quickly if they know what they are doing or not before you buy something.
In my own case, my love for the ocean may have come from growing up on Long Island a stone’s throw from the water, but my appreciation for the ocean as a living breathing entity only came when I began keeping one of its ecosystems in my living room in the Midwest.