RSS The Reefkeeper’s Skill Set

MASA Admin

8 May 2007
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Like Liam Neeson in the Taken movies, over time reefkeepers develop a unique set of skills. Even though today most of the equipment we want is readily available, unlike in the early days of the hobby when most of us built our own, still there are very few “truly” plug-and-play reef aquarium systems available. As a result, anyone who is in the hobby for a while learns a lot of vocational skills that they may not be expecting to need when they first set up a tank. 

This unscheduled training is especially true if you stay in the hobby long enough and become successful.  What this typically means is that as you get successful you move to bigger and bigger tanks and as you move up in size fewer and fewer ready made things are available.  Consequently this leads to either one learning the skills they need or paying someone who does.  I will readily admit that rarely have I known, what I did not know, until it was too late. No pun intended, but usually at that point it became a sink or swim situation. Much of what many of us have learned and the skills we have developed have been through trial and error.  As the hobby has evolved and become ever more expensive, this methodology is probably not the most cost effective way to hone one’s skills. So understanding what skills one may need may be useful, so I hope to discuss these skills are below.

As everyone in the hobby knows who has been in it for any length to time, at least a rudimentary understanding of plumbing is absolutely essential for any long-term success. As stated above most systems are not plug and play so understanding how to keep water moving around and through the various filters, pumps, reactions chambers etc., in an efficient manner is absolutely crucial.  Adding in the threat that a power outage could cause to a poorly plumbed tank, and it is readily apparent that knowing how to maximize flow while minimizing floods and leaks is one of the fundamental things to know in the hobby.  When you add in that virtually every device used to move water requires different sized hoses and fittings, not to mention that some European equipment uses metric fittings, is it any wonder how excited many hobbyists get when walking through the plumbing department at a big box store?

I myself have made friends and can now shop and walk through the aisles of the local wholesale plumbing supplier.  To me it is like Christmas, as only here can I find the obscure fittings I require to connect devices and pipes that were never meant to be connected to each other.  When I retire I hope to work part time in a plumbing department as I think it would be fun to have hobbyists try to stump me on getting things to connect as I have done their employees over the past 30 years. So, for anyone who has been in the hobby for any length of time, understanding plumbing is one skill we all acquire.

Like plumbing another crucial skill we all develop is being an electrician.  I had no idea how the amperage my equipment needed, nor the watts they consumed, would affect my fuse box blowing and my electric bill until I became serious in the hobby.  Only when you run multiple pumps and high wattage metal halide lights do you understand that a 15 amp circuit breaker isn’t designed for 21 peak amps.  And further, that plugging some of that equipment into the plug in the wall next to the original plug you are using does not change that.  At that point you also realize that you should have sent one of your kids to electrician school, as the electrician you brought in to change your circuit breakers charges more per hour than your doctor or lawyer. 

By the same token, initially you don’t realize how expensive the electricity is to run your tank(s) until you are at a neighborhood function and you start talking about your electric bills and you realize that your is $200 per month more than any of your neighbors.  But the main reason you need to understand electricity is that it can be dangerous.  Saltwater conducts electricity far better than freshwater and for this reason you need to understand that if there is free current running through your system either from a broken heater or corroded wire on a powerhead that the results can be fatal.  For this reason alone you need to be an electrician and make sure you have GFCIs on all of your plugs and that if current is present in your tank there is something alerting you to this before you stick your hand in the tank. This is why I have a deep respect for those who understand wiring and electrical circuitry far better than I do.

    Unlike the first two skills that everyone more or less must have, the remaining skills are more a matter of degree.  That is some people really develop these skills, while others have or need them to a lesser extent.  The first of these skills are carpentry and engineering.  As a result of more and more large tanks being in the hobby many hobbyists have to be engineers to make sure that the placement of their tanks does not result in undo pressure on their floors.  Especially if they are placing their tanks above the ground floor or in older houses.  As a result, they need to ascertain if where they are placing their tank is structurally sound.  Fortunately there are now engineering programs online where you can plug in the weight numbers for your tank and see if the space is sound.  As a result you become an engineer. 

Since most of our tanks are on wooden stands you also need to do the engineering to make sure that a stand, especially if it is custom made, will hold the weight of your tank over time.  Your carpentry skills come in to play if you decide to build your own stand or help someone build it for you.  You also need these skills to repair problems that may occur to the wooden stand or hood or if you need to “customize” them in order for them to hold your equipment or lights.  I have now helped build the stands for several of my tanks and have customized most of the hoods I have bought so I have been lucky in being able to develop my carpentry skills as doing has dramatically helped reduce the cost of what it would have cost to of had stands and hoods built for me.

     In a similar vein, as we place bigger tanks in our homes we develop the skill of interior design.  You can place a ten-gallon tank just about anywhere, but when you are placing a 150 or 300-gallon tank in your home you really do need to develop a sense of design for where you are placing the tank and what you are putting around it.  I know that most of us tend to focus on what’s in the tank and sort of neglect the tank, stand and hood and how they look in a room.  But having learned this the hard way, non-hobbyists look at the entire package and especially what the overall impact of the tank is in the room.  Since as I discussed previously this is predominantly a male oriented hobby, I ask the women in my life to help design the room with my tanks.  They have proven to be very helpful and if only for a brief period of time it gets them involved in the hobby I enjoy.

     When these same women viewed the tanks once they were set up several have made the comment that is looks like a floral design.  While I would not go that far, when you think or it when we place the live rock and corals in our tank the closest thing to it probably is floral design.  This is actually kind of funny in that the early name for corals was “flower animals”. Designing the interior of a tank to maximize the coloration, size and most importantly requirements of its inhabitants really does require a special sense.  No longer is the fruit stand look the way to go, especially now that larger and wider tanks are so widely available. It is often said that give two individuals the same equipment and same corals and their two tanks will look nothing like one another’s. Due to the internet there are now thousands of tanks we can view to get ideas.  Interestingly most of us all agree when we see a truly dazzling display versus one that may be as successful or healthy, but is just not as captivating.  That is why developing that “floral designer” skill is so valuable.

      Another skill that is valuable to have is that of contortionist. This skill is useful in so many circumstances.  Many of us have equipment that is just hard to get to.  As a result we have to contort our bodies in order to tighten screws, remove clamps or do other things in order to remove it to clean it or just to put it into place.  Also as we all know, whenever a coral frag falls it always miraculously falls to the most unreachable spot in our tanks.  As a result I have tried to stay as limber and flexible as I can as I know that this is a prerequisite for rescuing many of my corals. So it is probably a good thing that I am in the hobby as I know many of my friends are no longer nearly as flexible as I am as they have no need for this skill, while I do not see a time when my coral frags will not be falling to the far reaches of my tank.

      The last skill that many of us now possess is that of gambler.  Many of us do not adequately quarantine or fish or corals so every time we add something new we are gambling.  Similarly we also gamble that what we do add is going to survive being placed in a new environment with new tank mates, different water quality and foreign food and survive.  We also gamble that the coral we see on the internet will actually possess the colors we see in the photograph.  Fortunately many of the vendors are honest in their depiction of colors and the care given to most fish and corals today from the collectors through the wholesalers to the shops has dramatically improved.  As a result the degree of gambling has been dramatically reduced especially over the past ten years.

        The skill set of a long term reefkeeper is indeed a unique one.  But having acquired some of these skills while I have been in the hobby has allowed to be able to fix and repair a lot of things in my home. It has also allowed to appreciate what the professionals in these fields need to learn during their apprenticeships in order to become masters.  I’m sure there are some additional skills that we have that I have neglected, but I’m certain someone will bring these to my attention. 

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