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12 Gallon Nano Reef Cleaning

Last Updated: 8/13/10

On Saturday, 7/31/10, I did a 100% cleaning of my 12 gallon nano reef. Here is that story.

I've been concerned about the amount of animals dying in the 12 gallon tank and the massive amounts of impossible-to-pull, stiff, green hair algae and easy-to-pull soft, pink hair algae. Both margarita snails died a ways back and two of the three Astraea snails died. A third of the SPS Pavona coral has bleached (turned white and died), half of the pineapple brain coral has bleached, the Duncan LPS coral which has always done well never full opens anymore, and the weed-like green star polyps not only stopped spreading but only open on occasion. These are all bad signs. I tested water quality at various times and found no issues. When I cleaned the tank recently, there was a lot of physical matter (mostly algae but also "dirt") in the water. With the small weekly water changes I was doing, it simply wasn't enough to keep up with the debris when the tank really lacks a mechanical filter. The sponges don't polish the water like filter floss and so on. So, I decided to do a total cleaning. I had never done that on a saltwater tank. Unlike a freshwater tank, I cannot rinse anything living in tap water (I have well water so chlorine is not an issue). Since the substrate is full of living worms, amphipods, isopods, good bacteria, etc., I wasn't sure what to do. My first order of business was to make two nights worth of RO water instead of one. So, I made 3.5 gallons of RO water Thursday night over three hours and repeated as usual for Friday for a total of 7 gallons of water.

Saturday morning, I put the salt and additives in the two buckets of make-up water. I stirred the first for an hour and the second for an hour after the first was done. I happened to see the cerith snail wandering on the substrate so I put some water from the tank in a small glass fish bowl and put the snail in there so that would be one less animal to find later.

Somewhere during the morning, I rinsed a half gallon or so of fresh aragonite substrate in freshwater (well water). A tiny bit (a few milliliters) of freshwater in the tank wouldn't hurt since my well water is pretty good. I only make RO water in order to remove the phosphate really and anything I haven't tested that might be bad. I also rinsed out some "new" snail shells of various sorts. I was going to remove all the ones in there then which were so covered in algae, you couldn't tell what they were.

Once I was up to the saltwater tanks in my chore list, I did the weekly water tests.

As mentioned in my reef blog, the water test results for the day were:
12 Gallon Tank: 79.1 degrees F, 1.0245 SG, pH 7.80
6 Gallon Tank: 77.6 degrees F, 1.025 SG, pH 7.89
Make up water Batch #1: 75.4 degrees F, 1.025 SG, pH 8.19
Make up water Batch #2: 76.2 degrees F, 1.025 SG, pH 8.19

Then, I cleaned the 6 gallon per usual. I cut a tiny piece (too small to transplant) of the star polyps away from the zooanthids. I used coral scissors to cut some the hair algae. I found another Aiptasia on a snail shell so I removed that one and soaked it in freshwater.

I removed half a gallon of new saltwater and set it aside to be used to rinse the substrate.

Then, I began the actual work on the 12 gallon tank.

First, I bail failed another glass fish bowl with a few inches of saltwater. I caught a few of the hermit crabs and put them in there. Then, I drained half the tank off in to two 4 gallon plastic cat litter buckets. I use those buckets for a hundred things! That would be the clear, saved water to return to the tank later. Earlier, I had marked the tank with a pen as to how far down I should drain it.

Now that the saved water was out, I could make a mess in the main tank. I netted out Nemo and put him in the fish bowl. I caught the remainder of the crabs and snails which in total included Zeby (zebra hermit crab), Scarlet (scarlet reef hermit crab), a dwarf blue leg hermit crab, a dwarf yellow tip hermit crab, the cerinth snail, the one remaining Astraea snail, and one of the two nassarius snails. The other nassarius snail I never caught but he would magically pop up from the cleaned substrate when I was done. So, 4 crabs and 4 snails were alive. I removed the small live rock with the two kinds of zooanthids on it. All other surviving corals were attached to the three large live rocks. Zeby and the nassarius snail went in one of the buckets of saved tank water where the live rock would go. I didn't want Zeby to pester the much smaller crabs or snails, and the nassarius snail likes to climb out of the water so he hung up the side of the bucket the entire time.

I then pulled up whatever clumps of larger shells, algae, etc. were in the area around the live rock. I threw out wads of green hair algae stuck to substrate. I put all the algae-laden shells and coral pieces including the one large coral piece from the front of the tank in a bucket of freshwater to try to kill everything off. I am not sure how to sterilize these things and use them again. I would normally soak in dilute bleach and then dechlorinator but haven't done this for my saltwater tanks and would worry about bleach later leaching out due to the porosity of some of the pieces. So, they're still sitting in the freshwater as I write this two days later until I figure out what to do.

Once everything was out except for the missing cerinth snail and the three large pieces of live rock, it was time to take them out. This was what I was scared to do but it was really no big deal. I took each piece out, one at a time and set it on the counter. I used coral scissors and paper towels to cut and rip off as much hard, green hair algae, soft, pink hair algae and bubble algae as I could. I then set the live rock in the saved saltwater that I took off the top of the tank. The only coral that really showed signs of stress was the Xenia which looked like a pile of spit when it was out of the water. Since it's attached to the live rock, I couldn't think of any way to prevent it from being out of the water for short amounts of time. It would recover so I guess it wasn't that bad.

All that was left was the substrate. I wiped down the sides of the tank harder than normally but left plenty of algae on the sides and back. I removed the filter materials and rinsed all of them out. I had to use freshwater to really clean them as I can only make so much saltwater. I replaced the top sponge in the filter with a new one which I'd never done before. I changed the Rowaphos and carbon. I didn't remove the pump to clean the impellor because it felt fine. I did wipe down the output and cleaned off the Koralia nano pump.

I stirred the substrate well in the remaining water which was now opaque with filth. I then scooped the substrate with my hand bit by bit in to the previously saved half gallon of fresh saltwater and stirred it around in there to clean it out. I set that down on the ground. I had to bail the remaining water with various-sized small containers and finally use paper towels to get up the last bit of saltwater and substrate. The tank was empty! I forgot to pull it out to dust behind it.

I put most of the old substrate back in. Then, I put in the two bottom live rocks. I put in the rest of the old substrate and then topped it off with the new aragonite on top to make up for what I had thrown away this day and days in the past two years. I poured back the saved saltwater from the buckets where the live rock with corals were waiting. I added the top live rock on the left side. I tried to position them the way that they used to be but they're not exactly as they were. I then put in the new saltwater and filled up the tank.

I had some water leftover (maybe a gallon) that I can use to give the 6 gallon tank a larger water change next week. That means I changed about 4 gallons (gallon to the 6 gallon, gallon for substrate rinse, gallon leftover out of 7 gallons made total). The tank is sold as "12 gallons" but I measured it closer to 8 gallons when I first got it and measured the water added to the tank with substrate alone. With the live rock and substrate included, the true volume in there is closer to 7 gallons. So, it was about a 50% water change.

I got the filters going again. I put all the animals back. I gave both saltwater tanks new thermometers because they were both encased in coralline algae. I took photos throughout the process.

The tank was cloudy that day but 100% clear by morning. So far, the cleaning has been a success! The Xenia is pulsing. The crabs and Nemo are happy. Oh wait, Nemo was actually mad at first! He dug himself a hole in the sand and carried little pieces of shell out from under the live rock and spit them out front! He also attacked a new clam shell I put in there and knocked it over. I am waiting to see how the corals do especially if the Duncan will open up now. The Astraea snail seems to be the only casualty but I think he was dying before the cleaning. He is now upside down slightly open; I've righted him but he keeps turning over. I need to get some more snails to see if that will help with the algae. I don't know how long Astraea snails live but I'm hoping they died for reasons out of my hands.

Photos from the cleaning on 7/31/10:

12 gallon reef before beginning
12 gallon reef before beginning - close-up of the SPS coral and its dead spot as well as the Xenia coral
Tank half empty - Nemo can be seen. All the removed water was saved and put back at the end.
Nemo in the glass fish bowl waiting along with the scarlet reef hermit crab (all you can see is the shell).
Exposed corals - the SPS, brain, and Xenia corals all out of the water in the half drained tank. Note how the Xenia turned to slug-like consistency.
Left top live rock out of the water - this rock has the closed up Duncan coral and green star polyps.
Right live rock out of the tank and in the holding bucket - the rock is on its side with the Xenia, SPS, and brain coral at the top. You are seeing the part of the rock that is normally hidden from view, facing the back wall.
Mostly empty tank - all that is left is the substrate and dirty water.
Totally empty tank
Tank set back up - cloudy
Tank set back up - starting to clear. Nemo and Zeby (hermit crab) can be seen.

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