*Note that the article below is simply my opinion and experiences over 25+ years of successfully reefing. I am not a scientist and some of my methods and what I say may rub against popular opinion and science. 

                                                                      Mastering the Basics: Reefing 101

It has come to my attention that my recent article, and many of which I have written in the past, are targeted more towards the advanced reefer look to polish up their husbandry and eek out that last 5%, that little bit that separates good from great. These advanced topics are well and good, but I would be remiss if I did not help explain the basics, and provide for all a solid foundation upon which the advanced practices can be utilized to their utmost potential. In truth, advanced methods of reefing done on a shaky foundation may be a recipe not for success, but for disaster. This very statement is likely why so many do in fact fail when attempting things such as carbon dosing, and in general the hobby itself. I believe that too many are looking for a magic pill or quick fix, without first focusing on the basics and following a simple daily schedule of maintenance. I will dig into some of the basics as we go, and include my input on why these keys to success are important. Yes, there are many ways to maintain a reef but there is a better and more stable way to do it. Many of the modern reefers coming into the hobby are sidestepping some of the time-honored basics, especially when it comes to live rock and water changes.

What I detail in the paragraphs to follow may not be for everyone. But, if you are truly committed to success I will be happy to lend an ear and offer advice and assistance. While we have seen many improvements to the hobby, both through biological and technological, the basics remain the same and are foundational for success. Yes, there are those who skirt the basics and are successful, but by and large they are outliners and should not be viewed as the norm. Reefers, as with humans, come in all manner of capabilities, intelligence, and well; motivation. By securing at a minimum, the basics, you will already be ahead of the game and 80% of the way onto the road to success.

The Foundation

Much of what we do today can be traced back to one man, considered by many to be the founding father of our hobby, Lee Chin Eng. More than 60 years ago he attempted what many thought to be unattainable, successfully keeping corals in an enclosed aquarium. And not just keep them, but have them grow and thrive. The natural method, as it is referred to, using live rock, an air stone for water flow and natural sunlight he was able to maintain successful reef aquariums, helping to pave the way for countless reefers who have taken his methods and continued pushing the hobby forward. Lee’s Natural method helped pave the way for the Berlin Method, the foundation and base of todays reefing aquariums. The biggest difference between both methods being that a protein skimmer in used in the Berlin style of reefing.

In nature, everything is in balance. All prey has a predator, and in this way, there is a system of checks and balances. While our systems do not harbor the diversity of nature, we must strive to emulate it as much as possible. Know that for every action there will be a reaction. If you remove a form of algae or pest something weaker or stronger will take its place. This is why I am such a strong advocate of carbon and bacteria dosing. Allowing bacteria to be the main consumer of nitrates and phosphates frees my system from unwanted algae and cyanobacteria. Carbon dosing is and will for all time be a cornerstone in my system.

If you’re interested in learning more about Carbon dosing please check out my other article concerning it: ​Bacterial Driven System: A Recipe for Success.​​​

                          Carbon Dosing Success in Rimless Reef I

In the articles that will follow, we will focus on the key components of a great reef aquarium setup.

The primary focus and areas of consideration for reefers to obtain success with SPS is by specifically concentrating on the following:

  • Live Rock: Alive and directly from the ocean if possible. (NOT DEAD BASE ROCK)
  • Water Flow: Heavy, varied flow. You will generally need more flow than you think.
  • Nutrition Import/Nutrient Export: Skimmer, refugium, carbon dosing, water changes and other methods of filtration.
  • Lighting: Varied fixtures and methods: MH/T5/LED and/or combinations of each.
  • Parameters: Specifically, PH and Alkalinity.
  • Schedules: Dosing, Feeding, Maintenance

Principles: Create a plan and stick to it. 

If there is one piece of advice that I can pass on its to get organized. Create a plan and stick to it. This hobby demands a process orientated approach. You just can’t wing it and expect to have great results. You need to put in the work, day in and day out, even if its only minutes per day. A routine is invaluable and besides maintaining the stability of the system it will allow for you to spot issues, forcing you to observe the aquarium and its inhabitants. I have my own key focuses and practices that may or may not jive with the collective wisdom or standards, but it has worked very well for me over the years. It may be counterintuitive to some, but I rarely if ever test my nutrients. I can’t recall the last time that I tested Nitrate and Phosphate. When I started up in the hobby I obsessed over the numbers, to the point where it became detrimental to my aquariums and my mental health. I was constantly tinkering and adjusting, chasing the numbers. It was an unequivocal disaster. I made too many changes and never allowed nature to take its course. Now, I don’t want to discount testing of nutrients all together, but there is a time and place for them. If I am to test it is in the beginning phases of an aquarium or if I have an issue that has me stumped. Some will say that “hey, you could have prevented X by testing for Y”. Yes, there is some truth to that but as previously stated I believe that we do more harm than good by chasing the numbers. Let nature take its course and take the time to observe your aquarium and inhabitants. In time, through trial and error, you will develop a better sense of your system and what constitutes a healthy or unhealthy system. Observe and emulate what others have done to gain success. You do not have to follow 100% of another’s procedures or parameters. Take bits and pieces from each person and methodology and make it your own.

                                                                                    Yes, this was one of my first full blown Reef Systems. We all started somewhere. (2001)

It wasn’t until I started to focus on stability and let nature take its course that things improved. I kept my hands out of the aquarium and stuck to a plan. I created a dosing, feeding and maintenance routine and adhered to it without fail. Most importantly, each time something new was added to the routine: food, dosing, or otherwise, I would make a single change and observe. The observation of the system can take anywhere from 2-4 weeks but I would not change anything until the effect, good or bad, of the change had been determined. I do this so that I know how to rectify most issue in the system. Should I develop an issue I will go back in my logs to see what I had last changed. From there, it’s a process of elimination until I can get to the root cause. I apply the same principles with my diet, exercise and business. It is structured and regimented, but it keeps things in order and allows for me to solve issues what would otherwise have alluded my wildest of guesses. The forums are littered with requests for aid after someone has made a myriad of changes. With all these changes occurring at once how can you tell what caused the issue and determine the best course of action? It is common for reefers to post all of their parameters when requesting help but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Don’t guess; KNOW.

As with everything else, I have a system of operations and the addition of livestock is no different. I like to add all or as much of my livestock at the same time. This helps to ensure that I am limiting the number of instances of issues or diseases that can be introduced at any one point in time. This method may not be practical for all, but try and reduces the instances of livestock additions to as few as possible.

Now, don’t let my talk of testing give you the wrong idea. I do test/monitor, but only for particular things that I feel will have the most impact on the system. Specifically, I will monitor PH and temperature daily, and test ALK once per week. Keeping track of the ALK, especially in the beginning of reef setup, is of utmost importance. Corals may lay dormant on a new setup, waiting for the conditions to stabilize, before suddenly exploding in growth. My most recent setup did this exact thing. The corals browned and stopped growing for a period of 3-4 weeks after I had upgraded to a larger system. But, after everything stabilized, as if overnight, all SPS corals began developing growth tips. I quickly adjusted my dosing, ensuring that I could keep up with the demands of the corals. Between that first weeks testing I saw a drop from 10DKH to 5DKH. After adjusting the dosage, I am now hovering around 9DKH, which is where I generally like to sit. From my experience, corals grow in spurts so it is important to monitor the ALK. I do not regularly test for CA or MG. I will stabilize the big three, ALK, CA and MG over a weeks’ time, and simply test the ALK each week after that. So long as my ALK stays in line I can be assured that my CA/MG are doing well enough to be tested only every three months. Again, this requires consistency. You must be consistent with your dosing or else your numbers will be across the board and you will find yourself test parameters daily.

Concerning my own schedule, I currently adhere to the following:

  • Daily
  • 75ML Tropic Marin All for Reef
  • 2ML Tropic Marin NP-Bactobalance
  • 10ML Microbacter7
  • 100ML Randy Two part (ALK portion ONLY)
  • Kalkwasser for all ATO water. Tunze Osmolator connected to a Tunze Kalk reactor.
  • Two drops of Lugols solution.
  • Clean glass
  • Fish fed twice per day. 07:00 and 18:00.
  • AM: Two frozen cubes: Spirulina Brime Shrimp and Mysis Shrimp. Formula One Flakes. Spectrum pellets
  • PM: LRS Reef Frenzy 2”x3” sized piece
  • Weekly
  • 25% water change with Reef Crystals Salt. Sand siphoned, tumbled and filtered.
  • Blow off the rockwork with a turkey baster.
  • 50ML of DIY Coral Snow (Added after water change.)
  • Swap out filter socks
  • Top off ATO reservoir with fresh RO/DI
  • Fill Kalk reactor with Kalkwasser powder
  • Inspect pumps and light fixtures. Clean as needed.

Over the past seven weeks I have been running a Zeovit reactor with one liter of zeolite stones, about half of the prescribed amount required. So far, I like it. I have noticed less frequent instances of film on the glass and a pesky green cyano that I have not been able to rid myself of for years is now gone. My corals also respond very well after shaking the rocks (Zeolites) and clouding the aquarium with the bacteria (mulm) that adhere to the Zeolites. I plan to continue running the stones at half dosage, changing them out every eight weeks.

                                                                       Tuamotu clam from one of my prior systems. An absolutely massive specimen of a clam.

Articles to Follow

There is quite a bit of ground to cover. As such, I will be splitting up the talking points into separate articles and forum threads. The articles will be linked back to this main thread, where we can discuss and update weekly with additional articles. It would be easier if I had a forum to dedicate to the threads but for now, we will go this route. The articles will also be available at ReefSite.com and look for Youtube videos explaining some of my methods soon.

My hope is to help others while at the same time sparking conversation. None of all has all the answers and through respectful dialogue can learn more than we would have on our own for none of us is better than ALL of us.

Live Rock

The most useful and important of all the components, in my humble opinion, is live rock. I am talking about rock that has been pulled from ocean, teeming with bacteria, invertebrates and life. There simply is no replacement for actual live rock. I would wager a tidy sum betting that many who struggle in this hobby would have been much better off had they employed the use of live rock. We are currently seeing endemic levels of dinoflagellates, cyano, and overall instability in enclosed reef aquariums. Dead rock is just that, dead. Yes, you can colonize it with bottled bacteria but unless there is other live rock in the system it will remain woefully inadequate when compared to the real deal. You can be successful with base+bottled bacteria, many examples are to be found here on the forum, but the rate of failure and ultimately attrition from the hobby is much higher with those who start up a barren system.

One does not need 100% of their aquarium to be stocked with live rock. I myself have setup a number of aquariums comprising of 30% live rock and 70% dead. In a matter of months, the dead rock was alive, populated by the many unique organisms and bacteria that only live rock can provide.

The method by which the live rock will be added to the system will depend on the method of transportation of the live rock to your aquarium and the age of the setup. Regardless of the method of transport, if you are starting up a new system then the live rock can be added on the first day of the system. This will ensure that you have a proper cycle. Provided that the rock was transported correctly you should not run into a problem. Live rock and inhabitants are moved into an aquarium the same day with little to no ill effects. I myself have also done this when migrating from one aquarium to another. More recently, I upgraded from a 50gl to 150gl aquarium. I stocked a good bit of the new aquarium with base rock and moved over the entire contents of the 50gl, corals and all, into the 150gl on the same day. I did take care to move over as much water as I could from the old system to new, and everything turned out great.

My recommendation, and what I have done in my own setups is place dead rock in the main display and the live rock in my sump, away from the lighting that could trigger photosynthetic creatures to thrive. Yes, they will get into the main display but not at the same level or density as they would have on the full live rock. In the past we called this curing or cooking the rock. Basically, the rock sat in a container with a heater and powerhead. The rock was kept in complete darkness and the water changed out every week. After 3-4 weeks the rock was removed and then placed into the aquarium. Using this method of live rock in the sump and dry rock in the display you can save quite a bit of money while at the same time preventing creatures such as Mantis shrimp from entering the main display. Using the 30% rule you can cure 100lbs of dead rock in mere months using only 30lbs of actual live rock.

This will lead to the question of cycling and why we even wait around for weeks or months to add corals. That is a topic for another time but suffice to say that if you are moving over seasoned live rock from one aquarium in your home to another, you should have no issues stocking the aquarium that same day. Provided of course that all precautions have been taken and that no die off occurred in the live rock during transit from one aquarium to the next in your home.

Live rock is the heart of any good system. Real live rock is teaming with life and many essential things such as Copepods, Amfipods, bacteria and many other lifeforms. And yes, you will get some of the bad but we need to remember that everything must remain in balance. As in nature, the good balances out the bad and when done right, an equilibrium is reached. The live rock provides an incredible amount of surface area for bacteria, many times greater than what can be achieved through artificial or mechanical means. Adding live rock to your system will also ensure that the correct organisms and bacteria are added to your system. Live rock can also introduce algae’s and other organisms that grazing fish, such as tangs, can benefit from. Other than perhaps the cost of good quality live rock, there really is no good reason not to use it.

Reading through the forums, the biggest hinderance to the use of live rock is the fear of pests. I find that this fear is wholly unfounded and without merit. The natural reefs have all kinds of organisms living amongst their structures and everything in balance. If you are worried about introducing algae to your system you are looking at the situation in an incorrect light. Algae is just as important as anything else in your system, and if you are having issues with it then you need to look at your husbandry as the issue and not lay blame squarely on the live rock. The algae spores will eventually make it into your system, transported in by fish or coral, they will be there. So, why not start off with real live rock which would help get you off on the right foot? If its mantis shrimp that you fear, do what I have done and place the live rock in the sump. In a matter of days, I was able to capture a mantis shrimp with a DIY inverted pop bottle trap. Eventually, the organisms in the live rock migrated to all of the dead base rock in my display. In no time at all the system was thriving and I was able to stock it with SPS in about a months’ time.

Starting up a system with barren rock can invite a variety of undesirable bacteria and algae to colonize the bare surfaces. At least with live rock, the rock is already colonized, helping to keep the undesirables at a minimum, with very little room to gain a foothold in the system. Know that just about every aquarium will go through an “ugly period”, comprising of diatoms, followed by green film algae, ultimately reaching to higher level algae growth. During this period care must be taken to cycle through this natural process and not be disheartened by it. Given time and obstruction, the algae will cycle and things will stabilize. This can take months and you must be careful not to deviate too far with your maintenance, feeding and dosing schedule. This is a critical period for the system and how you start is generally where you will end up.

I had previously mentioned that Live rock directly from the ocean is preferable to rock purchased from a local store or reefer. The reason for this preference is that the ocean rock is generally more diverse in bacterial and micro fauna populations and not a ticking time bomb. No, not an actual bomb that will explode but one that may slowly take down your reef aquarium. Over the years, I have come to find that live rock in a system has life span of 7-10 years before it is completely saturated and becomes a liability. Unlike the ocean with its pristine waters, our aquariums have much higher levels of organics and pollutants, not least of all they myriad of chemicals that we add. These chemicals can range from additives to increase certain colors in corals, fish disease treatment, and algae/cyanobacteria eradication. Overtime, these chemicals and nutrients can build up in the rocks, only to slowly leach out at a later period, bringing down an entire system. Many in the hobby will refer to this phenomenon as “Old Tank Syndrome”.

I am not discounting the use of live rock from an LFS, nothing could be further from the truth. LFS deserve our support and offer a wealth of knowledge and goods. I am simply stating that one needs to be observant of the shop where the goods are purchased and to ask questions. Ideally, the shop will be selling live rock at a steady clip, rotating the inventory at a steady pace. This will ensure that good, quality rock is being brought in and not allowed to lay fallow. Secondly, the rock should be separated from the main systems so that it will not absorb chemicals or other pollutants. It is quite common to find that many of the aquariums housing fish for sale in an LFS have higher than usual levels of copper, used to treat and ward off disease. As well as copper, other chemicals can be used to keep the fish looking their best. You do not want to end up in a situation where you have brought home copper laden rocks and now are killing off live stock and corals. Nothing is more frustrating than mysterious deaths and issues in your aquarium so take extra caution when observing the rockwork and where/how it is housed.

Speaking from personal experience, I have received thousands of requests for assistance over the years and quite a number of times, under questioning, we end up settling on the live rock as being a culprit for a myriad of issues in the system. This is precisely why I ask how the live rock was obtained. Best to avoid all of this trouble and purchase rock from a reputable LFS or directly from a vendor who grows and harvests it directly from the ocean.

It can be very advantageous to add Copepods to your system to help complement the live rock and increase the diversity and punching power of your cleanup crew. If desired, you could also grab some coralline algae shaving from a fellow reefer or LFS to help increase the coloration of your rockwork. Another method that works very well is seeding the system with a cup of sand from a trusted sources aquarium. This will only serve to aid your system by introducing more species and varieties of the beneficial creatures we prize.


Hopefully this brief primer on Live Rock will aid some of the newer reefers joining the hobby and perhaps helping a few old timers brush up on practices. This is an open topic and conversation and I hope to hear from you all concerning your methods and thoughts on this and the other components of a successful reef that we will be discussing in the weeks to come.

Look for another article in a weeks’ time. Once completed, all topics will be rolled up into one article, with adjustments made based on postings and conversations in each thread.

Remaining articles to follow: 

  • Water Flow: Heavy, varied flow. You will generally need more flow than you think.
  • Nutrition Import/Nutrient Export: Skimmer, refugium, carbon dosing, water changes and other methods of filtration.
  • Lighting: Varied fixtures and methods: MH/T5/LED and/or combinations of each.
  • Parameters: Specifically, PH and Alkalinity.
  • Schedules: Dosing, Feeding, Maintenance

-Sonny Harajly


                                                                                                             One of my prior setups: Rimless Reef II

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