Decisive Indecisiveness: Intuitive reef keeping

You walk by your tank, it smells a little off, the skimmers empty and the sock is clean, you know what, it’s probably time to change the carbon and maybe do a small water change, it’s been a few weeks.

You look at your corals, things aren’t opening as much, say, your torch looks droopy, but everything else is looking fine. I know my alk consumption has been a little higher than usual lately, and I haven’t compensated for this yet this week. I’m going to preemptively dose some alk, right now.

These are examples of what I’d like to call intuitive reef keeping. Being able to predict the tank, ahead of catastrophe, by both reading signs given to you by sensitive corals and livestock, as well as your own awareness and understanding of the tank’s consumption of the various elements, based on test results, over time.

When digesting information on the internet, it’s hard at times not to get into a state of information overload. Maybe you just went to youtube and watched 52 videos in a row about how to setup a reef tank using equipment sold by a particular vendor. Perhaps, you posted on a forum about a simple problem you had with your tank, and you got a few different conflicting answers. Often times, you try something, and it doesn’t work as expected, then what do you do?

One of the first things the owner of one of my favorite fish stores told me was – you ask 10 different people in this hobby, you get 10 different answers. So how do you, as a hobbyist, decide, which answer to go with? And heck, who am I to tell you what to do, how am I any better than any of these other people on the internet? Trust me, I’m not perfect, either. I live in fear every day that my tank could crash and hit the fan. That fear keeps me diligent. Staying on top of things, keeping up with maintenance, reactor changes, bulb changes, topping up doser fluids, keeping your carbon dosing on point, you name it. Often times, the more complicated and advanced a tank gets, the more individual pieces of maintenance that must be done.

My own information overload story:
I always loved the idea of aquarium controllers, I first learned about them while researching heating controllers for my cichlid tank. I jumped into this head-first when I started saltwater, practically buying a controller as one of the first pieces of equipment on my tank. Salt, ph, orp, temperature, this seems great, or so I’d thought.

Before too long, I realize that salt reading doesn’t match my refractometer. And my refractomer doesn’t match my hydrometer. And because I couldn’t trust that, I bought another refractometer, from a major tank maker brand that i won’t directly name, this one supposed to be correct scale for seawater, and this one, doesn’t match my other one either, of course! I later decide to buy a lab-grade, japanese made refractometer, which I will list by name as it’s a good piece of equipment, the veegee stx-3, and further…I buy calibration fluid. And now I have 3 refractometers, a hydrometer, a salt probe, calibration fluid, and guess what? For some reason, they still don’t match. What’s going on?

Speaking of which, how about Cal/Alk/Mag? I needed to check those too, so I started buying test kits. Sometimes, I didn’t trust a result. I bought a lot more test kits. By the time I was done, I think I had at least cal/alk/mag/nitrate from 3 separate brands, at minimum. I have many test kits now. What should I trust?

If I get a result I don’t trust, my inclination is always to want to do another test. And if that test doesn’t match, then I want to find out why, because I want a decisive answer. Ultimately, this isn’t black magic, we should be able to get an answer. If I get a result that is far off from what I’d expect, then I definitely do not trust that result. Any time a result is telling you to make a major change, unless the tank is showing you that visually, don’t trust that test result and start dosing chemicals, not yet anyway. We need that final answer first. Or…do we?

And you can see the contrast, from my first two examples of intuitive reefkeeping, to the two examples information overload, with my refractometers and test kits. In one example – the tank is literally telling me what to do. In the other – I’m in a sort of mad panic trying to sort through test results. I want us all to be in the first state. However, you can’t really get to that place, without having first going through the mad dash of testing. It’s that, which gets you the insight into what your tank normally is, and what it normally isn’t. And then at times, sometimes even that isn’t what it seems. Don’t give up yet, we will find the answer.

So, then, what do you do, when you end up with some oddball algae problem, and you ask about it on the internet, and people are telling you to go throw chemicals in your tank, and all sorts of risky things you aren’t sure you trust? Well, let’s take a step back first, and ask the first question: do we trust the test results, is the tank following our known patterns? If it is, then what type of algae is it, is it something that can’t be eliminated by normal means, like bryopsis? If so, maybe fluconazole is actually necessary. However – without testing, and confirmation of your problem, would you want to throw yeast infection medicine into your tank for no good reason?

Then another person said throw in some peroxide, or chemiclean, which is similarly a powdered peroxide and antibiotic in one. Don’t most of those things kill your beneficial bacteria, though? Or similarly, maybe someone said this would be a good time to start carbon dosing, but your nitrates and phosphates aren’t high, so why would you want to do that, you could starve out your coral. Again – trust your intuition, do not assume any major changes are needed, in most cases, simply keeping up with maintenance, and compensating for growth is the only changes you really need. Only when that stops working and things are consistently not matching the trend – should you adapt your behavior and take corrective measures.

On that same note, if you are feeding more, and the fish and coral are asking for it, and you can’t keep up with nitrates and phosphates, then maybe carbon dosing is for you, but GFO and AO would probably be a better first choice, and you then watch the trend, just like before. Once that isn’t enough, again, step up to the next level. However, just because person XYZ on the internet is running their tank as level 99 with nopox or biopellets or vinegar/vodka, and you’re over here at level 20, don’t assume that you need to go jump to what they’re doing.

And there’s never a magic bullet fix for any problem – so if someone says carbon dosing is going to cure your algae problem, that right there should make you weary. It’s only a fix for a specific problem, and you’ll know when you have that problem because your tank would have been leaning towards it in your test results, over time. And that’s definitely a good reason to keep a notebook or use one of the various aquarium phone apps to store your test results, by the way!

So what happened with those salt readings and the test kits from my story before, anyway? Well, it wasn’t black magic afterall, and I did find the answers. Two of the refractometers, the sybon and veegee, were fine, but the calibration fluid was reading 2-3 points too high. The name-brand refractometer, felt cheaply made from the start, and to this date, I still do not trust it. I later bought a milwaukee digital refractometer, yes, yet another one, which finally led me to realize the other set of calibration fluid was off, and finally put this issue to rest, once and for all. Good grief.

Likewise, with the test kits, I ultimately found over time that some kits were better for certain readings, some kits do high range nitrate better than low range, and some can’t read cal once it’s much above 480-500. I’ve found that being extremely diligent and ensuring you run the test with exactly the amount of sample size, and reagent they call for, taking lab-style precautions to ensure you are getting exactly the right doses, then generally, my results will be within margins of error. And that is ultimately the truth – these tests all have margins for error, and most of the time – those margins are not going to make or break your tank. 440 vs 460 cal result shouldn’t matter all too much and honestly I wouldn’t even change anything based on that from one test to another, assuming I had a doser or kalk or something supplementing this automatically, my testing would simply be to confirm my amounts are mostly correct at that point, anyway.

And, now that I know all that. I test my tank a lot less. Not so much so that I neglect it, but I test it in response to actions, or visual indications, or heck, even smells. Keep track of those results and numbers over time – ultimately, once you know the patterns, you won’t need to test as much, and when you do test, you are confirming what you already know, as opposed to being surprised by the result. And that – is intuitive reefkeeping.

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