Failing reefer, need help...


New member
Pardon the huge long post, but I'm trying to give you all the info I can think of.

Well, I've read and read and read, done my best to follow the "best practices" I see bringing other success, and I'm still failing. So, I'll start this thread with my hat in my hand and really looking for some skilled help.

I've only been in the now for 7 months. Started with a used biocube 29, which is still running in my living room and doing pretty well as a mixed reef. I'm also running a 10g in the spare bedroom as a QT, but it's really just a small third DT as it has rocks and sand and it's current fish have been in there for a couple months.

The tank that's giving me fits is the custom 56g that first got wet just over 5 months ago.

Build thread with plenty of pictures:

Here's a breakdown of the hardware:

56g custom from Oceans By Design (34"l x 20w x 19t)
Herbie drain, single return
20 tall sump, 3 chambers; drain/skimmer - fuge/heaters - return/ato
Reef Octopus RODC 3500 Return pump, running about 50%
Eshopps S120 Skimmer
Two Jebao RW-4's running random wave patterns on a JBWave controller
Three AI Prime lights, 7.5" above the water line, running 8-8 with a 2 hour peak at around 50% and 12k. The rest of the time is a ramp and cooler color temps.
1-3" of sand, Mini Reef Flakes from Tropic Marine
50# or so Marco Rocks, cured one month before tank setup.
Jebao DP-4 Dosing pump running BRS two part, currently adding 12ml/day calcium and 30ml/day Alkalinity.
Tunze ATO, running KALK in ATO reservoir at 2 tsp/gallon. Use about 5 gallons per week.
Just added: BRS Mini reactor with carbon and gfo

Water comes from a five stage RODI in my shop, 2-4 TDS into DI stage, always 0 TDS out. I have been using RSCP salt mixed to 1.026, measured with a refractometer and checked with Salifert calibration fluid.

Fish, all appear to be healthy and happy:

Starry Blenny
McCoskers Flasher Wrasse
Purple Firefish
ORA Yellow Assessor

4 Astrea
6 Nassarius
5 small blue leg hermits
Pom Pom Crab
2 Sexy Shrimp

Successful corals:

Rock Flower Nem's
Montipora Setosa

Failed corals (some over a couple months)

Various acropora or millepora
Jedi Mind Trick Monti
Green Slimer
Birds Nest

Mode of failure:

Most of these corals looked good for a few weeks after introduction, some as long as two months. Then, they would start a slow decline until death. First, color would start to fade towards brown, then polyps would start to recede. Finally, there would be zero polyp extension, and the coral would start developing dead spots, sometimes starting at the base, the middle, or rarely, the tips (no consistency here).

This tank cycled fairly quickly, I used a bottled bacteria during the month long cure before setting up the tank and ghost fed during that time as well.

After setup, never really saw any ammonia or nitrite spikes, but did have low level nitrates for a while (never above 5 or so). Phosphates have never tested more than 0.1. Over time, nitrates reduced to zero on their own. This lead me to feed heavy and basically shut off my skimmer (half time) for a month, nitrates were still zero.

Haven't had any major algae blooms. At about 4 months, had 3-4 weeks of light brown diatom dusting on the sand. Now I seem to have some light green cyano on portions of the sand. Early on I had a big bacteria bloom that slimed up the sump and stunk up the house, it passed after week or so.


I feed mostly frozen, probably about 1 total cube per day. It's a mix of mysis, brine, emerald feast, etc. I do feed pellets a couple times per week, and have used phyto, oyster feast, etc.


Worst I've seen is Monti Eating Nudibranch, came in as eggs on a digitata that ended up dying. The coral was dipped with coralrx before entering the tank. I've removed almost all the monti from the tank, and am keeping my eyes out for any stragglers. The Nudi's were white with a texture like the flesh of a hydnophora.

There are a couple bubble algae growing off the sides of frag plugs, I manually remove them when I have a reason to put hands in the tank. I've got one spot of aiptasia, will feed them some kalk paste very soon.

I initially thought a toxin had made it's way in somehow, so over a couple months, I used up a large pad of PolyFilter. I would cut a strip and it fit perfectly in one of the baffles in my sump, so all my water was passing through it. Replaced that strip every few weeks. It never turned any color but tan/brown.

I must admit it's getting frustrating. My goal for this tank is an SPS showcase. I had hoped to start collecting some higher end pieces but I'm afraid I can't until I figure out how to keep more common SPS happy and healthy. Any comments, criticisms or advice would be more than welcome. I'll do my best to honestly answer any questions.


New member
From Sk8r's sig line: "Salinity 1.024-6; alkalinity 8.3-9.3 on KH scale, not meq/l; calcium 420; magnesium 1300

I also try to get within those range.


Active member
It is, at least for me, inexpiable, but to begin to have any success with SPS tanks seem to be up at least a year. That was true for me when I started with my 90 and again when I moved up to 180. SPS needs a mature established tank and even though all the parameters are right on a new tank just does not seem to support good health for SPS


Staff member
RC Mod
What's your nitrate? We get forgetful of such things, but that's one thing that acroporas hate and lps just sorta dislike.
And what brand of salt are you using? I had a similar ghosty problem that nearly took out my corals. I think I got a couple of bad barrels of salt, and switched to Instant Ocean in massive ongoing water changes, 10 gallons a day for a couple of weeks. It's really helped---a candycane coral at death's door is now growing, and others are quite happy.


New member
Nitrate - Zero.

I am using Red Sea Coral Pro salt, but I'm using it in my other tanks as well. To be fair however, the only sps doing well in my biocube are montipora.


New member
Would agree with hkgar about SPS readiness being dependent at least to some degree on how long the tank has been set up.

Your parameters honestly look ok in my opinion, although there is some research to suggest that in the home aquarium, running alkalinity higher than normal ocean water is more successful. Like everything else in this hobby, there are exceptions to that rule, but a little boost in KH couldn't hurt.

Looking at the coral's response (browning, no PE, dead spots) I'd say that maybe they need a little more light. Try moving any new corals up a little higher in the tank to see if they respond differently. Bleaching usually means too much light, browning = too little.

Also, a few comments about coral selection: I've heard that encrusting monti's like the jedi mind trick are actually harder to keep than most acropora. Maybe try keeping the easier SPS corals first before "graduating" to the harder varieties? I see that you had a birdsnest and stylophora, which are generally thought of as easier SPS, but start with one of the plating montiporas like a red montipora capricornis or a branching monti digitata. Experiment with these more forgiving species, then go to maybe a birdsnest or stylo, then an easier acro (not sure which species to recommend).

Don't feel too bad, even really experienced aquarists have difficulty with SPS. In fact I was reading the thread with some of the tank of the month winners from years ago coming back to talk about their tanks today. It was interesting to note how many of them said that they had broken those stunning tanks down and that their new tanks were having all kinds of problems. So even the best of us have issues with reef tanks. Lord knows I can't grow acropora! I stick to monti caps and the like!


Staff member
RC Mod
I'm wondering about light. Montiporas are very forgiving. The other sps aren't. You might need more light.


New member
Well, more light is certainly available. A month ago, I noticed loss of color on the shaded sides of some Acro's and since they were browning and not bleaching, I added the third light and raised the intensities. It has been on a fairly slow acclimation ramp up however, because I know you must be careful with these spot LED's.

Most of my earlier SPS frags are gone, and I'm looking for some new "starter" sps frags. I plan to let KH drift up to the mid 8's and continue to increase lighting intensity.


New member
Interesting problem. A thorough description. Lots of prep work on your part. Impressive!!
I am 17 months into the hobby and I am still sticking to the 'beginners' type of creatures, thought the tank has been up for over a decade.
I agree with the comments above about your tank still being relatively new.
The key water parameters seem correct but IMHO the Biological System is still immature (young).
Slow down, slow down, slow down.
That said, I am sure you learned from the experience so don't consider this as a major loss. And I appreciate you sharing it with us.
Good luck.


New member
Well, more light is certainly available. A month ago, I noticed loss of color on the shaded sides of some Acro's and since they were browning and not bleaching, I added the third light and raised the intensities. It has been on a fairly slow acclimation ramp up however, because I know you must be careful with these spot LED's.

Most of my earlier SPS frags are gone, and I'm looking for some new "starter" sps frags. I plan to let KH drift up to the mid 8's and continue to increase lighting intensity.

That's smart to bring the lights up slowly. I think that might be the most apparent criticism of LEDs in general. It isn't that they cannot grow coral at all, it's just a little harder to dial in the right intensity because of the nature of LED produced light in general (single source as opposed to a bath of light like you would get from a T5, for example). Once you ramp up to the right intensity, I think you'll see some improvements. Like I said, you can also just move certain corals up higher (and more central) in the tank if you don't want to increase the tank's overall lighting intensity.


New member
Nitrate - Zero.

I am using Red Sea Coral Pro salt, but I'm using it in my other tanks as well. To be fair however, the only sps doing well in my biocube are montipora.

I will look as an orthodox here... but here is my way.
I had few setups (40&75g) with same symptoms. I was trying hard to keep my levels of Nitrate and Phosphate at 0 chasing numbers. I run big skimmer at some point I tried to use BP... results? Seek looking corals no growth and death at the end.
So for my new system I choose HIGH nutrient system approach and it works! I have healthy corals, good colors, good growth. I've seen tanks much better then mine with excellent colors and crazy growth running at "zeros" but it never worked for me so I gave up on this.
My Nitrate was at 5-20ppm and phosphate at 0.1 or so. I was running Skimmer but pump failed and corals love it! So I stopped running it too. Then I tried Aqua Vitro Fuel and corals love it! Later I switched to Reef Plus since it's cheaper (works fine). I can't tell you what my current levels are... last time I checked was in April. I do water changes one-two times per months and I use ONLY Reef Crystal mix. I've tried many others - didn't work for me.
My point here - each system is unique. You have to find your way through. Stop chasing numbers and look at your corals.
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New member
I actually spent the last month trying to get nitrates to come UP off zero. Feeding fairly heavy and skimming less. Still zero.


New member
Well if your levels are stables, the flow should be plenty from those rw-4s, and it seems all your params are in check, I would guess lighting. I haven't read much about those AI primes except when they first came out. Maybe try supplementing some T-5's or something.

Edit: Just did some looking at those lights. In and of themselves they seem pretty weak. Par peaks at 250 at a height of 12" which isn't very much. A lot of the other LED choices out there peak at 500 par or more in the middle up to height of 24in. With all else being the same, and knowing SPS need high light, that is the only variable I can see that is at issue. I'd wait for some more replies, but personally this is what I would try and work on. If you wanna keep the primes, I'd say get a 2 bulb t5 fixture to supplement, or just drop the ai primes. They hydra 26's, and 52's, both peak at 500 par or high depending on the height. Kessil 360we's would also be a good choice. Or you could go with photon 16's or 24's that are 500/450 par, or the euphotica series which is basically a photon clone with similar par #'s. On the cheap is the mars aqua that also post 500 par but no controllability on those.


New member
Well, there were a few common themes in the answers a few of you offered.

One was lighting, basically that I might need more. I certainly don't seem to see anything suffering from TOO much light, so I'll continue to slowly ramp them up for now.

Other than that, I have added a small Carbon/GFO reactor, upped the water change schedule a bit and added some new frags from a big sale at the LFS last weekend. Alk has drifted up to the high 8's over the last two weeks, I think I'll try maintaining it there for now. So far, so good, but we'll just see.

Reef Frog

New member
As you ramp up your lighting keep an eye on your chalices. They can easily be scorched and may eventually need to be moved down or under partial shade. But this varies from species to species. It's really frustrating to solve one problem but causes another.

Also, a phosphate levels at .1ppm, if accurate, is high for SPS and is inviting an algae bloom. I'd get that down to something like the .02-.04ppm range. You might want to consider backing down on the algae foods as I don't think you're keeping any herbivores.

I would also get rid of those frag plugs that harbor the bubble algae, or treat them with peroxide & a brush after you've removed the bubbles.

With SPS & across especially, a mature tank, stable parameters at the right levels and proper nutrients will get you where you want to be. Good luck!


New member
The problem you seem to be having is trying to get a good balance of water parameters that are acceptable to be able to keep a mixed coral reef. This is a very tough balance because SPS don't like very much Nitrate Or Phosphates, where LPS and softies/leathers do like more. So if I were you I would have nitrates of less than 5 and phosphates of less than .04 so your LPS and softies/leathers will be ok at that low of levels even though they prefer up to more than double that.

Also sounds like you are having problems with getting your lights adjusted properly and you will probably lose a few corals during this process. I would think that if you get some SPS happy high up in the tank you can "adjust" for LPS and softies/leathers by moving up or down in the water column to what they prefer.

Good luck and you are trying to something that is actually quite difficult and parameters have to be very stable when playing this balance. In most cases of a mixed coral reef that I've noticed that water is "too clean" for the LPS and softies/leathers.