By Anndrea Hatcher
For years I’ve wanted to try my hand at a salt-water aquarium. But student loans, babies and a slanting 200-year-old floor prevented me from attempting this challenge until now. My new veterinary clinic has a level concrete slab floor, ideal for a heavy aquarium. I’m at work so much anyway that maintaining an aquarium isn’t a problem. It seemed like the perfect time to bring a bit of a seashore vacation into every day.
So, was starting up a marine aquarium as expensive, complicated and scary as I thought it would be?
I bought a second-hand, 90-gallon aquarium, a stand, and some equipment off of Craig’s List. Then I bought a second-hand marine aquarium book from Half Price Books. All I needed were some second-hand fish. A friend suggested I check out a local sushi place.
I read my aquarium book — parts of it twice — and visited a pet store to find out who knew what they were talking about and who didn’t. I learned that there are many differing opinions about this hobby.
I decided I liked the idea of a reef tank with its beautiful corals. Although corals look like plants, they are actually animals. Most corals get most of their food from a symbiotic relationship with algae that live inside of them. But I probably won’t have a lot of reef fish. My kids and I think it would be really neat to have a moray eel (which would tend to invite other reef fishes to lunch.) We’ve already chosen his name: Luv, because he’s a moray; pun intended.
Lighting was an expensive part of setting up the tank. I purchased LED white and blue lights. They show off the tank beautifully and, according to the manufacturer, will last for 13 years. (Why 13? Why not a dozen years?) I also purchased a protein skimmer that hangs on the back of the tank. Protein skimming works to clean a salt-water tank because of the increased surface tension of the salt water vs. fresh water. It’s just like the increased surface tension in a newbie salt-water hobbyist. The skimmer produces small bubbles that attract dissolved wastes. I also bought an external canister power filter. It is important to find one that is easy to take apart and clean. This filter removes particulate waste, has activated carbon to clean dissolved waste and a section that works as a biological filter as will. I purchased a thermometer and heater to keep the tank between 74 and 78 degrees. It is also important for the water to be kept moving in a salt-water tank. Power heads are little motors that suck water in one side and push it out the other. I’ve got one on each side of the tank.
After my veterinary assistant Pam and I spent most of a day putting the equipment together, (yes, this IS rocket science) it was time to fill the tank with 90 gallons of fresh water for a dry — er, wet — run. Veterinary assistant Jamie got the unlucky draw of working when it was time to do this. She and I carried 90 gallons of water a few gallons at a time from the back of the clinic to the front, climbed up a step stool and poured it in. Later, a couple people pointed out that running the kennel hose from the wet table faucet to the tank would have been a lot easier on our backs. Hmmm….
We plugged everything in, careful to let the electrical cords drop below the power strip to keep water from dripping down the cords into the outlets. I turned on all the equipment, closed my eyes and then opened them again with relief when water didn’t start spraying all over the clinic waiting room.
I let the equipment run for 24 hours. The next day, I asked veterinary technician Matt to siphon the fresh water out of the tank while I went back to the pet store. Salt-water tanks are kept clean by mechanical filtration like the protein skimmer and part of the canister power filter, but they are also maintained by biological filtration. Purchasing “live rock” is another large expense when starting a marine tank. Live rocks are pieces of coral that have been broken off in storms or pieces of rock from the ocean that are shipped damp so the microbes that have colonized them stay alive. I also purchased live sand that is stored in water for the same reason. These microbes help break down waste material in the tank.
I decided to buy salt water already mixed from the pet store rather than mixing my own. You might have noticed a Toyota Camry creeping down SR 135 filled to the gills with five-gallon bottles of salt water. Thank goodness Matt was working at the clinic that day. I’m five feet tall. I soon discovered that I can’t lift 17 five-gallon bottles of salt water over my head and dump them into an aquarium.
At this point, I have to let the salt water and live rock settle for a few weeks before adding anything else. I’ll keep you updated.
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