Everything we learned about low maintenance reef tanks! ULM Tank Trials Ep-24
Our goal with this series was to show all of you how to build an ultra low maintenance aquarium and prove that with the right approach, keeping a successful reef tank does not have to consume all of your free time.
This is our final episode of the BRStv ULM Tank Trials and we are excited to finally share everything that we learned through the accomplishments and failures.
5 steps to ULM success!
Through this ULM experience we learned a lot here at BRS. Instead of addressing each and every little detail about what worked and what did not, we took all that we learned and organized it into 5 major things to consider when approaching a reef tank with low maintenance in mind. We feel that if you follow these “5 steps to ULM success” you will significantly increase your chances of building a low key, successful reef tank.
Tank Type - Certain tank types just take a lot less work than others
Soft Corals - The easiest by far is a soft coral and polyp tank. Some might call them “beginner” corals and generally have the common names of leathers, zoanthids, palys, mushrooms, and star polyps.
The reason these corals are easier to care for is because the rapid growth of biomass tends to uptake undesirable nutrients much faster, the coral coverage leaves less room for pest growth and maintaining chemistry is much easier. Soft corals do not consume major elements at an excessive rate to build a rigid skeletal structure like SPS and LPS because they don't have one. They also tend to be a bit more forgiving in terms of stable water chemistry and nutrient levels.
The soft coral ULM tank here at BRS is only getting a 20mL daily dose of Tropic Marins All-For-Reef. The one caveat is because the corals are now fully grown, they are going to require some pruning or regular fragging to stay looking nice or else they will simply become overgrown.
Large Polyp Stony Corals (LPS) - While the overall work required to maintain LPS corals isn't much different than soft corals, they are more appreciative of stability, particularly alkalinity. Therefore, the chemistry requirements are just a bit more pronounced meaning more frequent testing and dosing.
As a trade off, LPS corals don't grow as fast as soft corals do so the chances of rapidly becoming overgrown is just way lower or at least takes much longer.
On that note, when trying to decide on what type of corals to keep, give more weight to how much time you are willing to commit. If you are very limited for only the first couple of years, a soft coral tank is perfect. If you see yourself being limited for time long term, an LPS tank may be a better option considering the slower growth rates.
Small Polyp Stony Corals (SPS) - Through our ULM tank trials, we actually shut down the SPS tank and we consider that a failed attempt. We ultimately replaced it with the BRS/WWC Hybrid Red Sea XXL750 tank.
VIEW PLAYLIST: BRS/WWC Hybrid Method
It wasn't intended to be this way but after it was all said and done, the hybrid tank’s core approach of simple and stable methods has produced a dramatically easier SPS tank and much closer to a ULM than the original approach.
That said, there are certainly some things you can do to reduce the required maintenance for a successful SPS tank but for most people who want an ULTRA low maintenance reef tank, an SPS tank is not the way to go for a variety of reasons.
SPS corals thrive on stability. The simplest way to put it is a stable and well cared for SPS tank is synonymous with success but is not synonymous with ultra low maintenance(ULM). There is significantly more testing, adjusting and a more watchful eye required for long term success with SPS corals. This is particularly true in the first few years, with the right design and approach it often becomes easier over time.
Don't overthink chemistry solutions - Just do the water changes
The start of the ULM Tank Trials was really founded on the potential to avoid one of the biggest components of maintenance, water changes. We tested avoiding these water changes using some very overly complex chemistry solutions and in the end, nothing provided the benefits for less work than water changes.
The first few years of a new reef tank are critical and success rates are much higher when water changes are part of the routine. Reading between the lines here, if you want a successful ULM tank, use the proven methods with the highest possible success rates.
When it comes to ULM supplementing, we have had excellent results using the Tropic Marin All-for-reef which is, so far, is the only additive for reef tanks that addresses all major, minor and trace elements successfully.
Both the Soft Coral and LPS ULM tanks are being maintained with a single daily dose. Our Catalog Manager, Zack, maintains his SPS dominant tank using only Tropic Marine AFR as well with excellent results for over a year.
The WWC/BRS Hybrid Red Sea tank is getting the BRS Pharma Two Part treatment along with the Tropic Marine Original Balling Component Part C - Trace Elements dosed in equal parts. This accomplishes the same thing as using the complete 3 part Tropic Marin Balling Method supplements but way cheaper and fulfills the BRS/WWC Hybrid Tank’s simple and stable approach.
Outside of one to three part supplements, regular water changes are maintaining the overall chemistry and elements to an acceptable degree in all three of these ULM tanks.
The one big thing here is all three tanks are getting automatic water changes using a Neptune Systems Apex and DOS. Rather than spend all that effort testing and avoiding water changes on a new tank, we just made the investment to make water changes easier.
If there is one thing we can take away from this experience, more than anything else, it is an automatic water change system doesn't just drastically reduce the maintenance but the regularity of them increases the stability, success rates and quality of results. AWC is not required by any means but once you implement them, there is almost zero chance you will go back to manual water changes.
If automation is not an option, there are other ways to make water changes easier with a proper mixing station , pump driven hoses rather than buckets or siphons and similar approaches.
Don’t spend your time trying to find ways of avoiding water changes, instead spend that time making them easier.
Equipment is not always the answer - More equipment means more hassle
The more complex you make the system, the more maintenance and failure points you create. In addition, the mental load of keeping up with how it all works.
I can tell you while building the failed SPS ULM we put way too much gear on it and over thought it. We can absolutely attribute part of that as to why it didn't work out but most definitely why if it had succeeded, it still would have never truly been ultra low maintenance.
Bare bottoms are fun but also risque’
All jokes aside, our feelings are mixed about tanks without sand. Josh at World Wide Corals nailed it when he said “Bare bottom tanks are a lot harder through the first year but every year after that will be easier.”
Harder in the first year means it will take a lot longer to thoroughly cycle the tank, start growing coralline algae and be ready for corals. Pesky bacterial blooms and other similar challenges in year one are also more likely with a bare bottom tank. Very similar to the challenges you might go through with an isolated frag system.
Josh put it this way, “A sand bed is like a reef tank’s litter box that never gets changed, unless you maintain it with extreme effort, it becomes overflowing with waste that never gets removed.”
We can debate how exactly the level of waste in your sand bed affects the tank or even the various approaches to keeping it clean. Our take is maintain your sand bed with regularity or skip it altogether and be patient through those delicate first 12 months.
When we apply that with a ULM mindset, skip the hassle of having to clean your sand bed all the time and dealing with any related issues that arise from too much waste. Instead of sand, just implement proper water flow in the bottom half of your tank to keep it clean.
Simple is, is simple does
The fifth component to ULM sort of brings it all home and combines some of the previous considerations. Simple tank designs are just simple to take care of and often forces even more simple solutions.
All in one tanks with the sump incorporated into the back are the best options for building an ultra low maintenance reef tank. The most popular brands being Innovative Marine Nuvo and Red Sea E-Series tanks.
This advice comes from the experience we gained building and maintaining all types of different reef aquariums throughout the years here at BRStv. It is universally agreed by the BRS staff that AIO type aquariums require the least amount of effort to maintain. Fewer things can go wrong and the simple design pays off by not allowing you to over complicate things or add unnecessary equipment.
Looking back on everything we learned, it can really be summed up into one sentence. The best path to a true multi-year ultra-low maintenance aquarium is an LPS focused all-in-one tank with automatic water changes and a simple approach to chemistry using Tropic Marin’s All-For-Reef one part additive or the more affordable BRS Pharma 2 part solution.