There are all kinds of recurring tasks that go along with reef keeping, and at all kinds of intervals. This is the part of the hobby that will make you or break you. If you don't like fiddling with the tank you might want to get somebody to keep your tanks for you.
Actually, there is another option that might suit you better. In the gift shop at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, TN, they sell a half-hour aquarium video tape of fish swimming around in a large tank. The only maintenance necessary with this aquarium is the need to clean the VCR heads once a year or so.
Let's just say, for the purpose of this discussion, that you have a wee bit more enthusiasm for the aquatic arts than that. I'll tell you what I do over the course of a year or so to keep my system in tip-top shape. Your routine will vary somewhat, but the core elements of my schedule will probably show up in yours.
Nose Against the Glass
Virtually, every time I pass my aquarium I do a quick nose count. Is everybody accounted for? Are they all in good shape? Are the corals and clams expanded? Is anybody about to stroke out? By doing this, I accomplish a couple of things. First, I can identify problems early on, giving me a head start on rectifying them. Secondly, I get very familiar with the behavioral characteristics of everyone in the tank. That helps me with the first item; early identification of issues.
Once daily I check the temperature, check the pumps, and feed the fish, generally about the same time every day. Why the same time? Well, that's because it is easier to remember to do as part of MY routine, but it might even help the animals with theirs. I feed lightly, no more than can be consumed in about 2-3 minutes. Also, I feed something different most every day. I have a huge Zip Lock bag in my freezer with 8-10 different types of store-bought and homemade foods, plus a couple of dry flakes foods, that I choose from every day. I do this because it seems to keep the fishes interest more, and it affords the animal a wider nutritional range than any single foodstuff. By the way, there is a good recipe for fish food in Bob Fenner's "Conscientious Marine Aquarist" that I use constantly.
On a related topic, let's talk about vacation. If you are like me you travel from time to time, and when you do, you need someone to care for your fish. We need to rethink that, and I will tell you why.
Several years ago, a good friend asked me to watch his somewhat overstocked, somewhat under-clean tank while he was out. I am an experienced fish keeper, and this was really no challenge. Each day after work, I would stop by his house, shut down the pumps, feed the recommended amount, feed the cat, check the mail and the paper, and then turn the pumps back on. Easy enough, except that this wasn't my routine or my equipment. One day during that period the process was derailed. Maybe it was the day I also needed to set out the trash cans, or the day the UPS package unexpectedly showed up. Who knows? The upshot was that the pumps were never turned back on. 24-hours later all of the fish that my friend owned were dead, and I killed them.
Maybe, with a lighter bio-load or a more anal cleaning routine, they would have lived, but they did not. Certainly though, if all they had to eat for a week was what they could forage from the tank, they would be fine, albeit hungry. Just feed them well for a couple of days before you leave. This disaster happened at the hands of an experienced aquarist. Imagine what would have happened if it was the Crazy Cat Lady from down the block. (I am sorry Rick. To this day that episode bothers me.)
If you are going to be gone longer than 7-9 days though, you might need someone to feed for you. In these cases, I never have my neighbor Tom (a dog person) turn off any pumps. Nor do I let him choose the food or the amount, and never, ever, ever, ever, do I put an automatic feeder on the tank. I have purchased a couple of the cheap weekly pill holders from Wal-Mart with the little day-by-day compartments. Before I leave, I fill the compartments with the right types and amounts of food, cheating to the light side, and put them in the freezer. Each day, all he has to do is empty one little compartment into the tank.
Okay, we are back from the vacation sidetrack, and have one more daily task. Actually, it is more of an as-needed task, but you need to check and see if it is needed daily. Due to the environmental conditions in your home, and the heat generating equipment in your tank, you lose a good bit of water to evaporation. And since it is only the water, and not the salt that is lost, you need to top the tank off with fresh water. Regularly topping off the tank will help maintain a constant specific gravity and not stress the animals with wild swings in salinity.
The next maintenance in my schedule is the twice-weekly glass cleaning. On Wednesday evening after work, and Sunday morning when I am doing other tank maintenance, I use a magnet cleaner to wipe down the inside of the tank glass. If I encounter any stubborn algae, the edge of a credit card works well to remove it. Usually I spill a little saltwater down the front of the tank. To clean this off, I just rub the face of the tank down well with the rag or towel that I am already using for spill control. When this dries it leaves a thin film on the glass. Then I use a clean, dry paper towel to polish the film off. It works well, and eliminates the need to use anything like Windex on the glass (a bad idea).
Once a week, usually Sunday morning, I roll up several chores into one maintenance activity. I do the glass cleaning ritual, but also use this time to do my water tests for pH, alkalinity, calcium, phosphate and nitrate, and record the results in a log (see Tullock, "Natural Reef Aquariums"). If I detect any abnormalities, I also use this time to start corrective action.
Once a month, actually for me it is about every 3 weeks, I add a 10% water change to the Sunday morning chores. On the preceding Saturday, I make up a batch of saltwater in a bucket, toss in an extra powerhead, an extra heater and aerate overnight. Then on Sunday morning I flawlessly execute the water-change ballet.
Once a quarter I add a couple of extra pirouettes to the water-change ballet. This is when I break down my skimmer and powerheads for inspection and cleaning. This helps keep them running like a Swiss watch, or at least a Swiss skimmer. This is also the time I use a powerhead to blow down all the rocks, coral, and sand bed in the tank so that I can siphon off some of the heavy particulate matter, as well as allowing the corals to feed a little more.
This cycle repeats itself ad infinitum, unwavering, with the exception of two last tasks; both quite minimal but important tasks. Every 6 months, or 1999-2000 hours of bulb use, I replace my fluorescent tubes, and every 12 months, or 4000 hours of bulb use, I replace my Metal Halide bulbs. This is done to avoid the color shifts in older bulbs that encourage unwanted algae growth.
Now, other than emergency maintenance, that about covers it. Some days its 10 minutes, some Sundays it can take 3 or 4 hours. This is on a 40-gallon tank. Imagine what it could be if you chose a 400-gallon. I am not trying to discourage big tanks, just know what you are getting into.
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