Plug-and-Play Marine Aquarium Systems
Web Bonus: CORAL May/June 2015
By Dr. Dieter Brockmann
Plug-and-Play: This term from the computer world can be applied in a figurative sense to saltwater aquariums, because numerous manufacturers now offer complete systems that are ready to go—provided you adhere to the basic biological and biophysical rules of reefkeeping.
Complete system or custom-designed saltwater aquarium? Anyone who wants to set up a reef tank has to answer this question. In principle, the options target two different groups of aquarists: beginners and experienced aquarists. The more experienced hobbyist tends to plan and build the aquarium system himself; the beginner is more likely to purchase a complete system to avoid problems with non-matching technical components. What should you look for in a complete system and what are its limitations?
What are complete systems?
In this article I use the term complete system for an aquarium supplied with what I call complete technique basic equipment such as lights, a circulating pump, heating, and a skimmer as well as a stand and a filter sump. This equipment usually meets the requirements of a classic reef aquarium containing invertebrates and a few fishes. If necessary, such systems can and should be adapted to the specific needs of its residents. However, additional items such as UV sterilizers are not standard for all systems.
Standard is another term that I use here. It refers to off the shelf aquariums—complete systems offered by manufacturers in standard sizes and designs at reasonable prices. Some complete systems available from specialized suppliers do not quite fit this definition. A custom aquarium can be made in a variety of shapes, sizes, and designs. Such custom-made systems can be very expensive, so I will discuss them only briefly.
What should I look for in a complete system?
Many manufacturers now offer a whole range of complete systems, which are often comparable in terms of basic components (lighting, flow, skimming, etc.). In addition there are unique features, such as the integrated UV-C sterilizers in Sera’s Biotop product line or the integrated water refilling systems in Red Seas MAX-S line.
Larger differences are found in the aquarium dimensions (tank volume), although most manufacturers offer tanks in standard dimensions 75-125 gallons (300-500 L) and nano tanks. If the system has a stand, the design and color of that component varies. Before you decide on a complete system, you should answer four basic questions:
Question 1: What kind of aquarium would I like to operate?
Do you want a fish-only aquarium, a mixed-population tank holding coral fishes and soft and hard corals, a reef aquarium to care for soft or stony corals, or something completely different? The animals and their environmental requirements will determine the equipment and system you need. If you want to maintain a fish-only aquarium there should be room for a UV-C sterilizer and possibly a trickle filter to ensure the rapid degradation of nitrite to nitrate.
If your focus is on small polyp stony corals, the system should have excellent lighting, sufficient flow, and a high-quality protein skimmer to meet the needs of these sensitive cnidarians. A trickle filter should be avoided to prevent a problematic rise in nitrate concentrations. If you are often away from your fish room, the system should be equipped with an automatic refill feature or the ability to have one added.
Question 2: Is the enclosed technique up to date?
From an economic standpoint it makes a lot of sense to opt for an energy-efficient system. In addition to flow pumps and powerheads, look at the energy consumption of the lighting unit. Many manufacturers already incorporate energy-saving LED lamps.
Although these are usually more expensive to buy, you don’t need to regularly replace bulbs as you do with metal halide (HQI) and fluorescent lamps, and compared to HQI lamps the electricity savings can be quite significant, at least over several years.
Question 3: Will a complete system fit my space?
You can definitely find something that fits the space you have allocated: complete systems are now available in all sizes, from nano tanks of a few liters to standard sizes of 50-125 gallons (189-473 L). You can even get aquariums that hold over 250 gallons (946 L). In addition, some manufacturers custom-build complete systems, so virtually any wish can be fulfilled. Do keep in mind that the standard sizes are priced quite cheaply, and custom sizes can be very costly.
Question 4: Does the stand match the room furnishings?
I think this is an important consideration, because the aquarium should be integrated aesthetically into the room and even act as the centerpiece. Many manufacturers offer neutral cabinet colors, such as white, black, or anthracite. Some suppliers have special colors too. Custom system manufacturers are very flexible in this regard. For a price, any decor and color is possible.
Available complete systems
Where to start? Literally hundreds of choices are available to the prospective buyer of a self-contained, off-the-shelf marine aquarium system. The best starting point for any research is your local aquarium retail shops. Visit them all, find a knowledgeable staff person, ask questions and take notes. Go online a search in the web’s version of big box stores. See what’s available, add to your notes. Look in your back issues of CORAL for manufacturers of reef systems. If you find something that appeals, check back with your LFS. Even if they do not stock a brand you want, most can special order a system and have it delivered within days.
Buying locally has several advantages: if something in the box is defective, it is easier to replace from the LFS. (No packaging up parts and getting to UPS or the Post Office). If you encounter problems, the local retailer is always there to assist. (Assuming you have a good independent store within driving distance.)
Retrofitting/upgrading of complete systems
When deciding on a complete system you should consider potential retrofit options. Maximum flexibility should be your top priority, because aquarium interests tend to change over time and you might want to convert the aquarium to another purpose. Powerhead or propeller pumps are the easiest to retrofit, and their installation is independent of the complete system because they can be installed directly in the aquarium, as long as sufficient outlets are within reach.
All complete systems have options for the operation of chemical (absorption and adsorption) filters to remove activated carbon and phosphate. Be sure you like the design of this essential piece of equipment and consider how accessible it is for ongoing maintenance and media changes. (See below.)
Some have an integrated UV-C sterilizer or the option to add one; this facilitates the acclimatization and care of sensitive fishes like surgeonfishes of the genus Acanthurus and angelfishes like the Royal Angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus).
If you want to maintain SPS corals, a calcium reactor or a dosing system for Balling reagents is essential. Such dosing systems must be easily and readily accessible in the cabinet. It is also a good idea to be able to dose kalkwasser, possibly in conjunction with a system for replenishing evaporated water. This facilitates the maintenance of a reef tank immensely, especially when you often have to be away for a few days and cannot manually replace the evaporated water.
Denitrification filters that promote the reduction of nitrate are enjoying increasing popularity. The reason is that people are stocking fishes more densely and choosing stony corals with rich color pigments. Intensely pigmented stony corals require extremely nutrient-poor water, so connection options and space for Zeovit or BioPellet reactors should be provided.
The practicality of cabinet stands
Ultimately, all technical components in the cabinet, if the system comes with a stand, must be easily accessible, maintainable, and replaceable. There must be enough space in the cabinet and the technical components in the filter system should be arranged in a way that makes sense.
For example, it’s a problem if the sump completely fills the cabinet and there is not enough space between its top edge and the cabinet ceiling. The skimmer should be cleaned at least once a week and filter materials must be replaced regularly. If this is a major ordeal every time you do it, you will quickly lose interest and allow increasingly longer periods of time to go by between maintenance tasks, with negative effects on the aquarium system.
If the water filtration for your tank is located in a compartment behind the rear wall, the same rule applies: all components must be easily accessible so that the filter can be easily cleaned and any detritus that accumulates in the filter chamber can be removed at regular intervals. The aquarium should be accessible on at least one side to carry out these tasks.
The practicality of a complete aquarium depends not only on the system itself, but also on the aquarists body size, age, and experience. It is advisable to check out the desired system in detail at the dealership. You should also try to remove or install individual components yourself to see how well you cope with the system and the existing space.
Limitations of complete systems
What limitations are associated with a complete system? In this context, the tank size is probably the biggest consideration. If the dimensions of a standard aquarium work for you, there is no reason not to choose one. However, many aquarists want to make optimum use of a specific space. For them, the right aquarium might be very unusual in size or shape and may differ significantly from standard configurations.
If this describes your situation, you have two options: plan and design a custom system yourself and equip it with the necessary technical components, or contact a dealer, seek his or her advice, and have the dealer set up the entire system at your home. Of course, financial considerations play a role here and it is advisable to calculate the cost of both options before you make a decision.
To purchase a custom-designed system through a retailer is —but not always— more expensive than planning it yourself, but you get the benefit of decades of staff experience and can be sure that the parts of the system all match. In light of the huge range of products on the market, consulting an experienced dealer with good market knowledge is important.
In addition, discussions with members of a marine aquarium club can be very helpful, because many experiences that might benefit you in the planning phase are brought together in one place. Mistaken purchases unnecessarily increase the cost of the setting up a new system, lead to poorly running tanks and perhaps even costing the life of an animal, and this should be avoided whenever humanly possible. Quite a few aquarists have ultimately lost their excitement for the hobby because of such failures or the losses of animals in whole-tank wipeouts.
Complete systems are no magic potion
Unfortunately, the term plug-and-play might lead some, especially beginners, to believe that all they need to do is fill the tank with seawater and add the animals in order to ultimately obtain a thriving underwater landscape that is problem free.
That would be nice; however, it is unrealistic. Whether you opt for a complete system or put one together from components, the biological and biochemical processes that occur in the tank are the same. The cycling period in a complete system is no shorter than it is in a custom-designed aquarium, and similar problems can arise. This depends on many factors that cannot be controlled by the manufacturers of complete systems. For example, the quality of the live rock used to decorate the tank, or quality of the animals you purchase, can vary a great deal.
Complete systems are not foolproof. Filamentous and slime algae problems can appear in complete systems, just as they can in custom tanks. It is therefore important to get detailed information about the cycling of a reef tank, the various phases, and the general care requirements before purchasing an aquarium. Even when purchasing a complete system, you cannot buy this knowledge; it can only be acquired through good literature, expert advice, and experience.
General care and maintenance are the same for complete and custom systems. Lighting such as T5 fluorescent and metal halide burners must be replaced at regular intervals, and jobs such as cleaning the filter or skimmer must be performed regularly. In summary, while complete systems facilitate the entry into the hobby and the purchase of an aquarium system, they do not facilitate the general care of corals and fishes.
The mention of commercially available products in this article does not constitute a recommendation. Similar products may also be available from other manufacturers. Your local fish store will be happy to inform you about the products that they recommend and support.
Brockmann, D. 2013. MeeresaquaristikProbleme vermeiden, erkennen, lsen. Natur und Tier-Verlag, Mnster, Germany.
— Das Meerwasseraquarium, von der Planung bis zur erfolgreichen Pflege. 7. Auflage. Natur und Tier-Verlag, Mnster, Germany.
Moe, M. The Marine Aquarium Handbook, Revised & Expanded Edition. 2009. Microcosm/TFH, Shelburne, Vermont and Neptune City, New Jersey.