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Old 10-01-2009, 03:27 PM   #1
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Getting into the aquarium maintenance business

I had to split this into 5 posts because of the 8 picture limit. Here's part 1

Ok, so here's the story. Bear with me here, this is a long thread opener, but I am hoping to get some sound advice, or confirmation of what I feel should be done

I have never kept a SW tank myself, but I've read several books on the subject. I have an Electrical Engineering degree and I've always been very detail oriented. I've learned a ton from just reading up on threads on this website over the past year, and recently purchased this tank
http://www.aquariumadvice.com/forums...ml#post1036547
from a guy locally who didn't have a place to put it. In conversations with him, he told me that he has a 120g reef in his office that is doing OK, but it doesn't have that 'pop' he really wants. This is a well-established tank, it has been in place for over a year (18 months I believe), some of the fish were transferred into it

The amazing thing is that he has had 2 local people who work at reputable non-box LFSs service his tank. The first one 'kept moving stuff around, re-arranging the tank, and I guess caused some damage to his office setting it up or something. The second (current) company/guy comes in twice a month, and the owner wasn't sure how much or how often he was doing PWCs, but he thought it was monthly. He mentioned to me that he really wanted to get some nice looking corals growing, that he had some at one time, but they're pretty much shrunk down to nothing, and it didn't seem like the other company cared a whole lot about it. All this, and they're charging him $200/month to basically do water changes, clean and test, if that. So here's a set of pictures of his current situation

Full tank shot, Acrylic 120g, several hundred pounds of LR and about 1cm of sand, so SSB


As for the light fixture, that's a temporary one, the ballast on his CF set went bad, so he's running a 4' T5 (ho?) 10000K and Actinic in a Coralife strip, which is melting the guard as you can see in these pics


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Old 10-01-2009, 03:29 PM   #2
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Part 2

So here's the fish currently inhabiting the tank:

Green Chromis (2 small, 2 med/small) & Pacific Rock Beauty Angelfish


Juvenile Unicorn Tang

Green Mandarinfish (cool)

2 Ocellaris Clownfish (Gotta have Nemo)

Blue Tang (gotta have a Dori too...)

Goby of some kind (please help ID - he's about 9 inches long, eel like)

Flame Fin Tang (I'm pretty sure)
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Old 10-01-2009, 03:30 PM   #3
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Part 3

Other inhabitants include a CUC including at least one crab and some snails, and some struggling corals:
Green Leg Reef Hermit Crab

Corals, most of which are REALLY small or dead, except the mushrooms



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Old 10-01-2009, 03:34 PM   #4
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Part 4

Now, on to the next part, the filter system. This looks to me like it's been grossly neglected, but then again, who the heck and I, I've never kept a SW reef tank (YET) but look at these pics and tell me what you think.

Sump




Clean side, return pump, temperature probe (batteries dead on probe!!). What is with the scum in there?




Protein skimmer - should it REALLY look this nasty?





Some filter foam floating around on top in the mid-section of the sump




What is this growing around the bottom of the wet/dry trickle filter?




Sump supply & return lines


And the return jets in the tank
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Old 10-01-2009, 03:38 PM   #5
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...

I have never kept a SW tank myself, but I've read several books on the subject. ...


I know you're not done posting yet, but with an opening line like this, I don't think I'd recommend getting into a SW aquarium business. It's kind of like opening an auto repair shop after reading several Chilton's manuals, but never touching an engine...
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Old 10-01-2009, 03:38 PM   #6
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Part 5

And the drain


The only other things I found were some Phytoplankton


And some food



Ok, so now to the ANALYSIS part of this thread. Right now, this tank seems to be fine as a FOWLR, but it's a far cry from a thriving, much less surviving reef tank. And considering that the place that is servicing them maintains this reef tank and overflow frag tank in their store...

...is quite confusing. I took one look at this tank and within 1 minute I knew what was basically missing in this system.

1)Not enough light - need to add MH

2)Not enough circulation. At a minimum, it needs a couple of powerheads, if not a CLS. (see? Iím not a complete newbie!)

3)A Calcium reactor

This was an initial visit, so I didnít test the water, but Iím guessing that since it is an established system, the Ammonia and Nitrite should be 0 and there may be some Nitrates, and it may be depleted of some minor and trace minerals, which may explain the corals dying (he added some and they Ďkeep dyingí). There also may be something out of whack with a couple other parameters, because he said that within the last week, he lost 3 Green Chromis (he had 6, now has 3) and mentioned that he lost a few other fish before, one was a sand-sifter Goby, and he was told (by the current service guy) that he was surprised it was still alive, that there wasnít enough food for him in the tank and heís probably starving. He died 8 months after that.

So it seems that whoever is servicing his tank is either not listening to him, or is just in it for the money and doesnít really care if the customer is happy with the tank or not. And these are the good fish stores in town!! So I see a business opportunity here, because if I can turn this guyís tank around and make it Ďpopí, then I can use him as a great reference and get in the door at some other places, and in a few years I could have a sustainable income stream.

Iím guessing that Iíll run into a few issues by added more lighting, mainly being heat added to the system. The tank is set in a recessed section of his waiting room, and there are cabinet doors that lift upwards on a double-hinge for top access, and about 8-9 inches clearance above the top with a couple of shelves above that, so any lighting is going to have to be horizontal and close to the tank. This may necessitate a chiller, and thatís what I told him also. Also I would expect more algae growth and a bigger CUC could be called for, or more frequent cleaning.

As far as increasing circulation, this presents a problem, because short of draining the tank, I canít drill it to add a CLS. Iím very creative, so Iím sure I could figure some way of making it work with an pump above the tank (except the pump would have to pull instead of push, so Iím not sure that would be feasible), or I would just have to do with powerheads, and deal with the added heat in combination with the light heat with a chiller. Something definitely needs to be done though, because thereís minimal circulation in the tank, enough for FOWLR not for reef.

The Calcium reactor is easy enough, not really anything to be concerned with there, expect the added maintenance.

As far as the sump goes, is it just poorly maintained, or do marine sumps really get that nasty looking? Is that something that could be contributing to system instability, fish and coral deaths? What is that stringy stuff growing in the sump? What is the gunk on the return water pump side?

Also I am working on researching the fish themselves, the book I have has a great CD that summarizes a lot of information and compatibility issues. But if anyone sees anything of concern, I would like to know.


Please comment about anything you see!
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Old 10-01-2009, 05:08 PM   #7
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I would suggest learning and actually keeping a reef for a while before serving others as well. However i do feel the person who you plan to help is paying too much. Although I wouldnt be doing this a week after buying a saltwater tank, if you feel its right, go for it?
Im pretty sure the unknown fish is an engineering goby. No way in heck he will need a calcium reactor unless he gets many many stony corals. Vinegar soak the skimmer, as much as possible. A chiller probably wont be needed. A reefkeeper would be alot easier and cheaper.
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Old 10-01-2009, 05:58 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by Kurt_Nelson View Post
I know you're not done posting yet, but with an opening line like this, I don't think I'd recommend getting into a SW aquarium business. It's kind of like opening an auto repair shop after reading several Chilton's manuals, but never touching an engine...
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I can definitely appreciate your advice, and it is a good analogy. I guess I could elaborate a bit on my background as far as aquariums, I have successfully kept many different species of freshwater fish over the years, but I would say that since I set up my current tank on 1/1/9 I have learned more than the previous 20 years combined - mainly because I didn't keep fish for about the last 6 years, and the information on aquatics exploded during that time frame.

So I would argue that, using your analogy, I know a lot about cars, but but have never worked on a big rig or a combine, etc.

Also, this potential customer seemed very open to the idea of letting me use his tank as a learning experience - assuming that I don't mess it up totally. I'm planning on going into it with the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' mentality, so I'm assessing his tank situation to see if there's anything of great concern, then I'll start slowly adjusting and watch and adjust accordingly.
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Old 10-01-2009, 07:40 PM   #9
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Helping a person out, who might happen to pay you, and "getting into the aquarium maintenance business" are totally different things in my mind. From what you describe, as long as you're up front with the guy it does sound like a good opportunity for both of you - as long as everyone has the same expectations.

I've never kept freshwater, so I can't directly compare the two. But from my experience and observations, the folks that get into the most trouble with SW are the ones who have kept FW and think that there is a transfer of knowledge between the two hobbies and try to apply their freshwater maintenance habits on saltwater. Not saying this is your situation, but just because someone has kept freshwater, well... it doesn't really mean you have a leg up on saltwater. That probably sounds a little elitist, or snobbish, but it's not meant to - I'm just saying don't think knowledge of freshwater helps you in saltwater.

As far as actual advice... I pretty much agree with AMDPhenom. No Ca reactor required. And I'd also say MH isn't necessarily required - it all depends on the corals they want to keep.

Quote:
At a minimum, it needs a couple of powerheads, if not a CLS. (see? Iím not a complete newbie!)


I guess I'M a complete newbie... what's a "CLS"?
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Old 10-02-2009, 05:10 AM   #10
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I agree with Kurt and AMD. I have both FW and SW and they are definitely 2 worlds apart.
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Old 10-02-2009, 05:49 AM   #11
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until you have one for your self and gain lots of experience i would drop the business portion of your idea. i dont even know how smart it is trying to fix someones tank when you never had one your self.
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Old 10-02-2009, 01:37 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by Kurt_Nelson View Post
Helping a person out, who might happen to pay you, and "getting into the aquarium maintenance business" are totally different things in my mind. From what you describe, as long as you're up front with the guy it does sound like a good opportunity for both of you - as long as everyone has the same expectations.

I guess I'M a complete newbie... what's a "CLS"?
I guess that's really what I'd be doing, helping him out.

It sounds so far like all the advice I'm getting is "don't do it" and while I appreciate that advice and it makes sense to not get into a that business without having maintained my own system, lets please drop that part of this thread. I get it. I will most likely be setting up that 92 as a reef and I'll learn everything from the bottom up.

But I want to focus on this guy's tank. What I really wanted to get out of this thread was some answers about what could be done to really make his tank look exceptionally good, which is currently what 2 other supposedly good people haven't done for him.

So here's my plan. I'm going to tell him to stay with the company that currently maintains the tank, but I'm going to tell him to get a written record of everything they do, from water changes to testing to additives parts cleaned to concerns (he told me that when the guy was there last time, he mentioned that he saw a few "worms" but it was neither a good nor a bad thing) - basically everything he does related to the tank. I'm not going to change anything, except maybe clean up the dried up salt on top of his sump with a vacuum because that's the first thing he mentioned (funny how some people care about how a sump hidden in a cabinet looks, isn't it?)

Then I am going to make my own set of observations and test the water frequently to determine if there is any kind of problem. I am gong to get a very reliable test kit - the book I am currently reading recommends Salifert test kits for Nitrate/Nitrite because their test will not get thrown off my amine interference - which I don't understand, but the result of it apparently can give false readings on Nitrite and Nitrate, so maybe just for those 2 because their kits are expensive.

Once I get a handle on what their maintenance schedule is, and combine that with my own observations, then I think I would be able to come up with a plan to 1) maintain the tank myself, and 2) determine what step need to be taken to get the system where the customer wants it.

Does this sound like a more reasonable goal to y'all? I wasn't ever intending on just jumping in and doing everything all at once - I guess it came off that way.

So far, here's the advice y'all have given me:
MH not necessary depending on the coral I choose (kinda like plants in FW!)
Calcium reactor not necessary, probably for the same reason (kinda like CO2 in FW!)
Soak the skimmer in vinegar as much as possible to clean it up.

As for the skimmer, I'm assuming the less I do the better, and it probably isn't really going to make anything better or worse by cleaning it, it's just aesthetically unpleasing the way it is. It still works. But is there some parallel to a dirty sump and a dirty canister filter in a FW system, that is, can a dirty sump form a breeding ground for Nitrates or other organisms that are detrimental to the system?

And what is that stringy white stuff growing all over in the sump?

CLS is a Closed Loop System, it's a separate set of intake and jets connected to a pump that doesn't go through the sump or any kind of filtration, simply for increasing the flow rate in the tank, as some corals will do better with higher, more random flow, as is found in the ocean, because it bring nutrients to them and removes waste or debris that settles.
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Old 10-02-2009, 02:26 PM   #13
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I guess that's really what I'd be doing, helping him out.

It sounds so far like all the advice I'm getting is "don't do it" and while I appreciate that advice and it makes sense to not get into a that business without having maintained my own system, lets please drop that part of this thread. I get it. I will most likely be setting up that 92 as a reef and I'll learn everything from the bottom up.
Good choice. If you don't have any background with freshwater and saltwater aquariums then you have no credibility in terms of business.

Quote:
So here's my plan. I'm going to tell him to stay with the company that currently maintains the tank, but I'm going to tell him to get a written record of everything they do, from water changes to testing to additives parts cleaned to concerns (he told me that when the guy was there last time, he mentioned that he saw a few "worms" but it was neither a good nor a bad thing) - basically everything he does related to the tank. I'm not going to change anything, except maybe clean up the dried up salt on top of his sump with a vacuum because that's the first thing he mentioned (funny how some people care about how a sump hidden in a cabinet looks, isn't it?)
If you are not doing this for money then he needs to direct the company to perform these tasks, not you. That is what he is paying them for. If he would rather you take over then he needs to inform the current company that their services are no longer needed; otherwise, when the company finds out (they will eventually find out) they will not be happy and may impose penalty fees. Hopefully that person was smart enough to not sign any official contracts.

Quote:
Then I am going to make my own set of observations and test the water frequently to determine if there is any kind of problem. I am gong to get a very reliable test kit - the book I am currently reading recommends Salifert test kits for Nitrate/Nitrite because their test will not get thrown off my amine interference - which I don't understand, but the result of it apparently can give false readings on Nitrite and Nitrate, so maybe just for those 2 because their kits are expensive.
Bi-weekly water testing is more than sufficient unless there is a major problem. If fish are not quarantined then they could be dieing for any number of reasons. Salifert is expensive and at YOUR cost. Purchase API and if you are going to be thorough to win a client over then test across the board: NH3, NO2, NO3, pH, Salinity, Temperature. If this person has coral then at least test for Ca and Alk.

Quote:
Once I get a handle on what their maintenance schedule is, and combine that with my own observations, then I think I would be able to come up with a plan to 1) maintain the tank myself, and 2) determine what step need to be taken to get the system where the customer wants it.
Sounds fine, just be aware that there is a major difference in maintaining a tank "under the table" and owning a business. There is a lot of paperwork and insurance concerns to think about if you truly want to begin a maintenance company.

Quote:
MH not necessary depending on the coral I choose (kinda like plants in FW!)
As others have said, it depends on what the expected outcome. You need to find out what the customer wants in a system and take it from there. What lights are on it now?
Quote:
Calcium reactor not necessary, probably for the same reason (kinda like CO2 in FW!)
I wouldn't bother comparing fw and sw, you'll confuse yourself more. Calcium reactors are for those who have a high calcium demand and need overall control over Ca, Alk, and pH.
Quote:
Soak the skimmer in vinegar as much as possible to clean it up.
Do not soak the skimmer in vinegar. Depending on the skimmer availability, remove it and scrub the insides with an acrylic sponge to wipe the gunk away. If there is major buildup you can soak a piece of cloth or sponge in diluted vinegar and wipe clean, but do not soak the entire skimmer in it.

Quote:
As for the skimmer, I'm assuming the less I do the better, and it probably isn't really going to make anything better or worse by cleaning it, it's just aesthetically unpleasing the way it is. It still works.
Wrong, the skimmer neck should be wiped clean every water change or according to the maintenance schedule. A dirty skimmer neck/body is an ill-functioning skimmer.
Quote:
But is there some parallel to a dirty sump and a dirty canister filter in a FW system, that is, can a dirty sump form a breeding ground for Nitrates or other organisms that are detrimental to the system?
I would try to keep a clean sump. There should not be a sludge buildup on the walls, but salt creep is understandable. The sump should be relatively clean...

Quote:
And what is that stringy white stuff growing all over in the sump?
Most likely tube worms (like feather dusters) that live within calcareous tubes they grow.

Quote:
CLS is a Closed Loop System, it's a separate set of intake and jets connected to a pump that doesn't go through the sump or any kind of filtration, simply for increasing the flow rate in the tank, as some corals will do better with higher, more random flow, as is found in the ocean, because it bring nutrients to them and removes waste or debris that settles.
If the tank is not drilled I would not bother and stick to powerheads or a powerhead/wavemaking device for simplicity's sake.
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Old 10-02-2009, 04:12 PM   #14
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...

CLS is a Closed Loop System, it's a separate set of intake and jets connected to a pump ...
Ahhh.... that's what you meant. Agree with Innovator - powerheads are going to be a lot simpler to deal with than designing a closed loop system.

Quote:
... as some corals will do better with higher, more random flow, as is found in the ocean, because it bring nutrients to them and removes waste or debris that settles.
That's not the only reason some corals want high flow. Flow rates also effect calcification rates, regardless of nutrient level.
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Old 10-02-2009, 04:40 PM   #15
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when the company finds out (they will eventually find out) they will not be happy and may impose penalty fees
Thanks for pointing out the 'penalty fees' aspect, I hadn't thought of that.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Innovator View Post
Purchase API...
Are the API testing kits subject to amine intereference? To quote the book I read it in w/r to nitrite testing it states

"Most nitrate test kits will show that there a re no nitrites in the tank, but this is often a result of the fact that the nitrite test kit in question is giving an inaccurate reading due to something called "amine intereference." It's not important what that is, but it is important to understand that when the process of denitrification is interrupted, your nitrite may reach high levels undetected by many nitrite test kits. As a result, we recommend a test kit that does not suffer from amine interference. Make sure whatever nitrite test kit you use, it can test of very low levels of nitrite"

Is that anything to really worry that much about though? Also I have been reading about Seachem Prime throwing off API tests, but if I'm using RO/DI water that won't matter, because I won't need Prime I assume.

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Originally Posted by Innovator View Post
What lights are on it now?
48" T5 10000K + Actinic - temporary, I'm not sure what was on the other fixture, but he said the ballast went out and they were trying to get a new one, he said it was CF

Quote:
Originally Posted by Innovator View Post
Do not soak the skimmer in vinegar. Depending on the skimmer availability, remove it and scrub the insides with an acrylic sponge to wipe the gunk away. If there is major buildup you can soak a piece of cloth or sponge in diluted vinegar and wipe clean, but do not soak the entire skimmer in it.

...the skimmer neck should be wiped clean every water change or according to the maintenance schedule. A dirty skimmer neck/body is an ill-functioning skimmer.
Thanks for clarifying, and confirming that the skimmer need to be cleaned

Quote:
Originally Posted by Innovator View Post
I would try to keep a clean sump. There should not be a sludge buildup on the walls, but salt creep is understandable. The sump should be relatively clean...
Again, thanks for confirming my suspicion that his system has been neglected. It looks like sludge has built up on the bottom of the sump, not the walls, but there really shouldn't be any of this IMO

Quote:
Originally Posted by Innovator View Post
Most likely tube worms (like feather dusters) that live within calcareous tubes they grow.
So is that a good or a bad thing? My guess is that it's no big deal. Are these the 'worms' that the customer told me he was informed about?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Innovator View Post
If the tank is not drilled I would not bother and stick to powerheads or a powerhead/wavemaking device for simplicity's sake.
Take another close look at the pics, it's in a recessed space, drilling is definitely out of the question.

Thanks!!!
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Old 10-03-2009, 11:49 AM   #16
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I agree with the advice given so far. I would suspect by the look of that skimmer and sump that your nitrate levels are going to be quite high on this tank. That would probably be the cause of the coral wasting away. As for fish dying that could be a dozen different problems. For right now inspect the fish very carefully and make sure there are no spots or discoloration or abnormalities of any kind. Keep a careful eye out for what looks like small white specks of sand on the fish. This is marine ich and is one of the most common mass fish killers.

When you say he has 48" 10k T5 lights you should also make note of how many bulbs are in the system. I would assume that it is one 10k and one actinic but there are multi-bulb systems as well.
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Old 10-03-2009, 12:14 PM   #17
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That is what I suspect as well. Gonna go test the water next week after I hear back from him.

Yes the temp light as you can see in the pic is 2 bulb, 1 10000K 1 actinic. The other fixture I'm assuming is a VHO 2 bulb but I'll have to see it first.
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Old 10-06-2009, 02:59 AM   #18
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The worms in the sump look like spaghetti/flat worms.....not sure if they're harmless or not...
Good job for doing this! I get what your trying to do....
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Old 10-09-2009, 07:34 PM   #19
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So I finally got in there to test the water, at least partially. I had to take off so I didn't get to do Calcuim or Silicates (or Iron but I'm not worried about that) or test the SG. But here's what I did test:

pH - about 7.8 - 8.0



Ammonia & Nitrites zero (but need to get Salifert Nitrite kit to make sure)



Phosphates over 2.0 (this is similar to my FW tank water conditions, different city, same general area)



And the whopper

Nitrates >160ppm. It was max on the scale after I got done with the 1 minute shake and didn't get any redder. Like Blood. Seriously, very very red.



This seems to me like the reason his corals and fish are dying. Don't most people try to keep their Nitrates below 10ppm in a reef setup? And aren't Phosphates coral growth inhibitors? I jut can't fathom how his service guy has let this slide so badly.

I got advice from another (better, IMO) LFS regarding the sump, he suggested that it be cleaned of all debris (which I figured) and that the protein skimmer be taken apart and thoroughly cleaned. So, same advice I've got here.

I had a long conversation with him, poked around in the sump of their big display tank, and if nothing else, I will probably steer this customer to him, because he really seemed to know what he was doing and had an interest in taking care of his customers. Maybe he'll even let me tag along and learn while doing.
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Old 10-09-2009, 09:51 PM   #20
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Phosphates are high and the Nitrates are ridiculous. PH also needs to come up a bit. One LFS by me had nitrates higher then that in the invert tanks, I let them know and they said I was full of it. I brought my test kit to the store and tested it there, spoke my peace and haven't been back. Definitely a large water change is in order w/RO/DI along with a good cleaning of the tank, substrate, sump and skimmer. You also need to check his ALK, SIL, MAG and Cal.
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