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If you have access to fresh, clear, non-polluted ocean water, you can use it.  One benefit of ocean water is that it is full of beneficial bacteria, plankton and micro algae that are perfect food for all the tank inhabitants. Don’t use water from the shoreline because of the presence of pollutants and don’t use water from too far inland because it is never fully replaced with fresh water.  It is best to travel 5-10 miles offshore to gather an ample supply of clean ocean water.  If you have a local inlet that is directly fed from the Gulf Stream you can collect at high tide.

You should be sure to run collected ocean water through a micron sock or plankton netting to remove larger particles and potential pests from the water. Be sure to transport and store ocean water in food safe containers to avoid leaching any chemicals into the water. Once you get the water home you can further treat the water to kill any spores, larvae and other life by treating it with chlorine. You should reach a reading of 10ppm and sustain it for a few hours.  The allow the water to site under aeration overnight and then treat with dechlorinator before use.  Make sure to test again and the readings are at zero. It is advisable to wait an additional 24 hours and add a bag of carbon before using.

The water you use in your reef aquarium must be of the highest quality possible.  Tap water is laden with impurities, that may include phosphates, nitrates, chlorine, and various heavy metals, that can cause problems when added to your tank.  The use of a Reverse Osmosis/De-ionizing (RO/DI) system to filter your water is highly recommended.  An RO/DI system has many stages in which it reduces the amount of impurities within tap water.  When used together, the RO and DI system creates a base-water that is perfect for the reef aquarium. Once you have pure, clear water to start with, you can add your choice of salt to the water to create an ocean-like environment.

There are typically four stages in a RO/DI filter: sediment filter, carbon block, reverse osmosis membrane, and deionization resin. If there are less than four stages, something was left out (typically, the DI stage). If there are more, something was duplicated. An RO filter has two outputs: purified water and wastewater. A well-designed unit will have about 4X as much wastewater as purified water.

  • The sediment filter, typically a foam block, removes particles from the water. Its purpose is to prevent clogging of the carbon block and RO membrane. Good sediment filters will remove particles down to one micron or smaller.
  • The carbon, typically a block of powdered activated carbon, filters out smaller particles (ideally down to 1/2 micron or smaller), adsorbs some dissolved compounds, and deactivates chlorine. The latter is the most important part: free chlorine in the water will destroy the RO membrane.
  • The RO membrane is a semi-permeable thin film. Water under pressure is forced through it. Molecules larger/heavier than water (which is very small/light) penetrate the membrane less easily and tend to be left behind.
  • The DI resin exchanges the remaining ions, removing them from the solution.

RO/DI capacities are measured in gallons per day (GPD), and typically fall within the 25-100 GPD range. The main difference between these units is the size of the RO membrane. Other differences are (a) the flow restrictor that determines how much waste water is produced, (b) the water gets less contact time in the carbon and DI stages in high-GPD units than low-GPD units, and (c) units larger than 35 GPD typically have welded-together membranes.

A TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) meter measures the conductivity of the water, which is an indication of water purity. Without one, it's difficult to tell how well the RO/DI unit is working. Read your tap water first. Readings in the 50-500 PPM range are typical. The RO output should be less than 10% of the tap water. The DI reading should be 0 or 1. For example, if your tap water reads 200, your RO output should be less than 20 and your DI output should be 0 or 1. Always let the unit run for a few minutes before measuring TDS on the output.

Changing filters:

  • Sediment and carbon stages: If you have city water (with chlorine) you should replace the sediment and carbon stages regularly. The rule of thumb is every six months. This is less critical if you have well water. If you have a pressure gauge, you can tell when the sediment and carbon filters are clogged: the pressure will start to drop.
  • RO membrane: There are two ways the RO membrane can fail. It can develop holes, allowing impurities through, or it can get clogged up. If your input pressure is OK but you're not getting the expected output, the membrane is probably clogged. If your TDS meter shows RO output above 10% of your tap water, it's developing holes.
  • DI resin: The TDS reading on your DI output should read 0 or 1. You know the DI resin is exhausted when the reading starts to climb. Some DI resins change color as they are exhausted. Note that the color will probably change well before the DI resin really needs to be replaced.

When choosing which type of salt mix to use in your reef aquarium, it is very important to understand the difference between “sea salt” and what has been labeled “reef salt”.  Sea salt mixtures have been formulated to be used in fish-only systems and lack much of the needed elements for reef systems.  Reef salt is a more expensive and complex salt mixture; elements have been added that make it suitable for reef aquariums. Included in this mix are trace elements like Strontium, Iodine, and Magnesium which are not included in regular sea salt. There are also calcium and PH buffers that are very useful in assuring that the PH will not fluctuate drastically with a large water change.

If you are going to set up a reef aquarium, it is very important to use a high quality reef salt that has been developed for use on reef aquariums. If you decide to use regular sea salt in your reef aquarium, you will have to dose it with all the essential elements that the mix lacks as well as add a PH buffer to stabilize your tanks PH. In the long run, it is much easier to use a high quality reef salt that has all the components your tank needs rather than add components to a cheaper sea salt every time you do a water change.

The numbers you can reasonably expect from these salts mixed at 35 ppt or 1.0264:

 

Calcium

    Alkalinity

Magnesium

Aquatic Gardens

        430

8

1240

Brightwell Neomarine

370

11

1140

CoraLife

560

9

1380

Crystal Sea Marinemix

340

9

1050

Crystal Sea Marinemix Bio-Assay

340

9

1050

D-D H2Ocean

450

10

1380

Instant Ocean

400

11

1350

Kent

540

11

1200

Marine Environment

480

7.5

1450

Oceanic

580

8.5

1650

OceanPure

510

10

1320

Red Sea

400

8

1300

Red Sea Coral Pro

490

7

1300

Reef Crystals

490

13

1440

Reefer's Best

420

11

1200

SeaChem Marine Salt

500

10

1400

SeaChem Reef Salt

540

10

1450

Tropic Marin

375

10

1230

Tropic Marin Pro Reef

450

8.5

1380

Tunze Reef Salt

420

9.5

1350

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