RSS Old Tank Syndrome Revisited

MASA Admin

8 May 2007
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Continuing with my theme from last week, I thought it might be a good time to revisit what has come to be known as “Old tank Syndrome” – or as Joe Yaiullo dubbed it “lazy old hobbyist syndrome”. Actually there is some truth in both, at least from my own perspective.

As I pointed out last week a reef tank and the animals within it are not static, but rather due to the tank’s inhabitants growing, and some times growing fast, the dynamics of a tank are constantly changing. As a result what worked on a tank during its heyday, usually in the 2-5 year range needs to be adjusted as the tank matures. By the same token, at least for me, when I know that something has been working I tend to take it for granted that it will always work.

the dynamics of a tank are constantly changing

It is kind of the inverse of Einstein’s description of insanity. That is, by doing something that worked and having a postive outcome it may be insane to change it and think you will get the same outcome. As a result of this mindset, I am often reluctant to change what I am doing when I know it is working.

Unfortuantely as I said, the dynamics and life within a tank change over time and as a result we also need to change what we are doing over time, if we do not then what I have experienced first-hand, the old tank syndrome results, but yeah at times I am a lazy old hobbyist too.

The same tank 4 years later starting to show signs of old tank syndrome, the tank was still healthy just not as “vibrant”

So before I get into what I now do to prevent this from happening I should define what I consider this syndrome to be. For lack of better terms this syndrome occurs when a tank starts to lose its “aura” or the “wow factor when people see it”.

I say when people see it, as often times since we view our tanks every day, it is difficult for us to see when a diminution of the tank’s vibrancy is occurring and this syndrome is starting to manifest itself. Once it is starting to occur, things like increased algae growth start, some corals start to show reduced growth or don’t open like the used to, some show less vivid coloration or even death, algae may start to grow the microfauna is reduced and even the fish start to act kind of lifeless.

There may be a number of factors that contribute to this change, and this is where the “lazy hobbyist” aspect comes in to play. Over time when we are successful we may take for granted that our tanks will always be successful since they have been successful for a few years. As a result we may start taking some shortcuts in doing what we need to do, or we stop doing some things altogether and also at times life gets in the way and so if the tank doesn’t crash we think we no longer have to do something, rather than we have gotten away with something.

The author’s 580 gallon tank at 11 years of age before it was taken down and everything moved to the 1200

I would love to say I have learned from this, but at times I still take for granted that one of my tanks is doing so well that I do not have to stay on top of things. And since the development of old tank syndrome is subtle rather than drastic the syndrome begins. So what do I do to try and keep it from happening?

First, I now keep lists of when I do anything and everthing in my tanks. I use my smartphone to keep track of everything in every tank from the parameters to when fish or corals are added or die to when something is changed, even when a coral is moved or a frag is added. These indiviudal tank lists keep track of when any kind of media is changed or added, when maintence is done and when new equipment is used.

Now that I keep track of everything it is much easier to set up a regular schedule of when things need to be done as sadly I have come to realize that my concept of time passing is much slower than it actually is. So while I may think I just changed my RO membrane 2 months ago in reality it was 6 months, or my GFO or whatever, but only by keeping track of when I did it do I know that it needs to be done or at least checked again.

The Penn State tank at it’s peak at 6 years of age

Also by keeping track of things, it is possible to establish a baseline for when things need to be done. That is by seeing that the GFO has needed to be changed every 3 months and 2 weeks for a year and a half since that is the average frequency that the charting showed me it needed to be done, my phone is now programmed to send me notifications when things need to be done, changed or tested.

So every 3 months and 2 weeks I get a notification and then look to see if it is time to change the GFO for example. I also do the same for other maintenance tasks like cleaning the pumps and powerheads and testing the heaters.But keeping track of when things get done is just part of how I try to prevent my tank from looking old. There are also some maintenance tasks that are done now on a more regular basis that hopefully will prevent it from occurring. First and foremost as much detritus is removed from as many places as possible.

It is my feeling that detritus acts as a nutrient sink so I try to remove as much as possible as frequently as possible. The build up of nutrients, which is one of the hallmarks of old tank syndrome, can then hopefully be reduced. During the weekly water change a strong powerhead is moved around the tank to blow any detritus that has accumulated between the corals and in the rock out.

An above the tank shot showing there was little space left in the tank

It is allowed to settle and then it is siphoned out. Similarly once a month the detritus in the sump is siphoned off as is the detritus that accumulates in the overflow boxes. Simply doing this has dramatically reduced the need for GFO or other nutrient reducers. But old tank syndrome is mor ethan just nutrient accumulation.

Since over time water flow diminishes in a tank due to the growth of the corals and the aging of the pumps, every 3 months the powerheads, gyre and return pumps are totally cleaned and they are moved around a small amount to try and keep the flow in the tank as high as possible. Also every two years I increase either the number of powerheads or their size to try to keep the flow within the tank high.

I also regularly test for dead spots and try to adjust the flow to keep these from occurring. A similar thing needs to occur with lighting as well. Over time as corals grow they may either over grow themselves or the neighboring corals. This is why some large corals will show bleaching at their bases, due to the growth at the top, the base simply is not getting enough light.

So to try and remedy this more lights, particularly of the spot light variety, can be can be added so that a coral that has grown that big doesn’t bleach at the bottom, or the top of the colony can be thinned. Either way it is necessary to do something to prevent a big colony from bleaching at the bottom and taking away from the beauty of the tank.

One of the other things I try to do to reduce old tank syndrome from occurring is I continuously try to make things as easy to do as possible knowing that the easier things are to do the more likely I am to do it. This has included adding unions to any pipes so that it is easier to remove them to clean them.

A tank at over 9 years of age showing the bleaching at the bottom of the corals because they had grown so well

Labelling all the wires so I can unplug what I need in order to maintain it without fiddling through 5 unkown wires before finding the right one. This may sound stupid, but cutting down on time wasted makes my tanks easier to maintain and hopefully keeps me from being a lazy aquarist.

cutting down on time wasted makes my tanks easier to maintain

And lastly as I noted last week the other thing that gets done regularly is the cutting back and regular removal of corals that start to take over a section of the tank or that start to act as detritus traps.

This is one of the least fun aspects of keeping my tanks, but definitely necessary if I hope to keep them from suffering from old tank syndrome. The difficulty at least for me of this is that when I create space by doing this I immediately want to fill the new space with something else rather than letting the corals that are present fill the space themselves, which is the right thing to do.

I would love to say that what I am doing totally prevents this syndrome from occurring, but it does reduce its likelihood. Keeping it from happening is not just a function of not getting lazy, but also of doing the little non-fun things that keep the tank at its peak long-term. People sometimes ask is there a simple way to always keep a tank at its peak and not have start to look less than optimum.

The answer is sure, when it hits its peak at 3-4 years move everything to a bigger tank, that way it will always be growing at at its peak. You may laugh, but I have done that 4 times and it does work. Unfortunately it is a lot more work than just not getting lazy and doing the right things.

A full size tank shot of the author’s 1200 gallon tank at 7 years of age

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