A Beginner's Guide to Pico Reefs
While it's no secret that we all love our reef tanks, it's also no secret that a reef junkie is never satisfied. We're always looking for the next piece of equipment, the next challenge or another place in the house where we can stick a tank. It should come as no surprise then that we're seeing a rise in the popularity of diminutive pico reefs across the hobby.
If you've been thinking of setting up a pico, you're in the right place. We're going to talk about the choices at hand for equipment, stocking options and of course the different tanks that make great choices for a pico setup.
First, A Word of Caution
Pico tanks aren't for the faint of heart. As you likely know, the larger the volume of water in a reef environment, the more tolerant the system is of changes. With many successful pico aquariums falling in the 2 to 4 gallon range, it's obvious that an excess of water will never be something that you'll enjoy in this project.
While the startup cost for a pico tank can be lower than what you would spend on a nano or larger setup, that money savings is certainly not a rule. I have seen many pico tanks that total into the thousands of dollars because of lighting, custom overflow systems and chilling systems to combat the heat generated in such a small space.
All of that being said, look at a pico as a project that you do because you enjoy the challenge, not because you think it will be easier or might save you a few bucks.
Now Let's Talk Tanks
As a general rule, anything below five gallons falls into the range for a pico tank. You'll need to fulfill the same requirements with a pico tank that you do with one of any other size (with a couple of exceptions). That is to say that you'll want to make sure that you have lighting that is appropriate for your livestock, a significant amount of live rock and/or sand, and of course water circulation.
There are a lot of all-in-one systems that work great either by themselves, or as a starting point for further customization. Innovative Marine's 4-gallon Pico is one such option, providing you with lighting, filtration and even a media basket. The clean look of the all-in-ones is very popular in the pico hobby, and you'll often find this sort of design used and modified to great results.
Lighting Your Way
Auto top-off systems, such as the Tunze Nano Osmolator is a great option for keeping your water level where it needs to be. Tunze has done an awesome job of creating a tiny system that works really well with rimless tanks.
Unfortunately, the bigger problem than heating a pico is often keeping it cooled. Because of the close proximity of circulation pumps and the lack of size, pico tanks can tend to run somewhat warmer than we want them to. The IceProbe and MicroChiller systems, both from Coolworks, are great options for temperature regulation, and they're designed to work with smaller systems.
Of course the single largest investment (and likely the best one) you could make for your pico is a monitoring and controlling system. The ReefKeeper Lite system is my personal favorite for picos because of its ability to regulate temperature effectively without breaking the bank.
Now for the fun stuff! Pico tanks, because of their tiny size, aren't going to be the best option for most fish. You should always keep in mind that your ocellaris clown might be tiny today, but she's going to grow and need a few more gallons than a pico can provide. With that in mind, about the only fish that will be happy in a pico aquarium is something from the goby family.
Given that there are very limited options for fish in pico tanks, you'll find many of us pico enthusiasts opting toward coral-only setups. For my own system, a two-gallon all-in-one with PAR 38 lighting, I've found great success with waving hand corals, mushrooms and even a single-headed duncan coral. While it can be challenging to find areas of lower flow and appropriate lighting, many corals will thrive in pico systems, provided you pay careful attention to your parameters (especially salinity).
Whether you're just looking for a challenge, or maybe wanting a more interesting option for a frag and growout tank, pico reefs are a rewarding project that any reef junkie can appreciate. Like any reefing project, research and patience need to be your guides, but hopefully you now have a better understanding of where to start.