A maintenance free aquarium – no work at all! Just view and enjoy the coral colours and the various reef fish. Many or perhaps all aquarists would tend to call that aquatic heaven – maybe.
Is it possible though? Is there a way that the aquarist can design a marine system where, once all is settled and mature, there is nothing else to do?
The first thing is to compare the aquarium to the wild reef. Yes, there are the same kind of inhabitants in the aquarium as on the wild reef, just fewer of them. Also, there are far fewer species of livestock on the captive reef. So, there’s the first point – the wild reef has far greater diversity of life. The different species have their own niche on the wild reef, each having a food source. There are some overlaps of course but generally it is all very well organised. Nature has everything under control. The first problem that the aquarist is likely to face is in making sure that all potential difficulties are dealt with, from dealing with different forms of nuisance algae to having enough food for fish if kept.
So what if fish are not kept, just a reef with corals. This immediately makes the question of water quality easier to deal with, as the wastes from the fish are gone. In addition, there isn’t any need to feed the fish. So, if the aquarium filtration is excellent, such as live rock and a deep sand bed, will that remove maintenance?
The corals need looking at now. The hard corals generally need considerable light, but that isn’t a particular problem, with the availability of halide bulbs and the fast up and coming LED Aquarium lights. They also require a sufficient level of calcium, magnesium etc which has to be provided. So in comes the calcium reactor, which can supply calcium along with magnesium, and probably other minerals in traces, if the correct media is used. That solves that. Wait a minute though, the calcium reactor needs servicing on occasion, and also the media needs renewal periodically.
What about soft corals? These can exist with less light, fluorescent tubes often being employed. They also need less calcium. It is argued, from anecdotal reports, that the addition of iodine is good for soft coral growth and health, but as this is not scientifically proven (as far as I know) it will be ignored. There isn’t any absolute need to feed certain soft corals, they grow without it. So the maintenance free aquarium idea is intact at the moment.
The marine system is set up with a live rock reef, the live rock being in sufficient quantity. The rock filtration is backed up by a DSB. The system is stocked with hardy soft corals. The lighting cycle is controlled by electric timers. There is a very efficient and properly set up protein skimmer in use.
The aquarist watches carefully until he/she sees what type of algae appears. Snails are introduced to the aquarium to control this. This is successful.
An automatic top-up system using reverse osmosis water is employed. Hey, we’re maintenance free!
No we’re not. Film algae appears on the viewing glasses and the snails attack it but have no ability to ‘keep it clean,’ efficient as they might be. The DSB needs feeding to maintain the population of minute life forms which keep it healthy. The reef rocks need to be ‘de-dusted’ occasionally. The lighting tubes need to be replaced periodically. Seawater quality, so important, needs to be tested routinely.
Seawater quality brings up another question, and this is aquarium water changes. The seawater change amount varies system to system, aquarists knowing, after a period, what the system requires. All aquarists change seawater though. There have been those who have experimented (or tried to save money) without, but problems of various sorts have arisen.
So they need to be done.
No, a marine aquarium system cannot be maintenance free. The move towards natural methods such as live rock, DSB’s, algae filtration etc has improved things immensely. Captive reefs run much closer to how Nature intended nowadays. Add to this the use of highly efficient protein skimmers, calcium reactors, electronically controlled seawater circulation, controlled temperature, accurate water level top-up systems, anti-nitrate reactors, anti- phosphate reactors, sophisticated lighting systems etc and the system is indeed looking after itself to a considerable extent. Correct livestock in the aquarium, not only corals but snails etc enhances self support. Experimentation by advanced aquarists goes on and in the future other innovative methods of control and aquarium maintenance may come into use.
A completely hands-off system will never materialise in my view. There is always something there that ‘needs doing,’ be it a water change, cleaning the glass free of algae, changing media etc. Thank goodness I say. One of the joys of this hobby is the knowledge that actions are helping maintain such interesting life.
Also, in the extremely unlikely event that a hands-off system did materialize, what aquarist could keep their hands off?