Should I rebuild without live rock?

Flaring Afro

Puffer Geek
I've had a 29G FOWLR tank with about 70 pounds of rock at college for year now and have always had algae issues. The fish in it are a 2" sixline wrasse, 2.5" clown, and a 3" green spotted puffer. Because of the puffer, I cannot have a cleanup crew (he even went after a turbo snail bigger than him, which I returned) but I wouldn't even have a saltwater tank right now if he couldn't be in freshwater and he's my favorite fish so getting rid of him isn't an option.

In the fall, I had a large green hair problem that was likely due to me starting with tap water. I redid the tank while the fish were at home in another 29 (which has never had many algae issues, but is kind of dim). I used distilled water for the rebuild because I have no place to keep a DI/RO unit at college and the lfs here isn't exactly what I think of as ethical. I still use distilled for top offs and water changes. For the rocks, I just scrubbed them and that with the lights being off for a month killed off all visible gha.

This semester, byropsis appeared in the tank. It covered all the rocks within a couple days, before I had time to do something about it since I a program due. After research showed that it can live even with minimal nutrients and is very hard to get rid of otherwise, I raised my magnesium levels to kill it off. This worked, but I wasn't able to remove enough of it to keep the nutrients that the gha loves down and that came back.

So now, this summer I will be here and the fish with my gf at her place so I have about 4 months to restart and cycle a tank. I am planning on scrubbing and baking all of the rock I have as well as replacing all of the water and sand. Then I will possibly use aquarium safe paint on the parts of the rock I can see to give it a corallineish look that will hopefully last the year or so this tank will be up (then I'll upgrade to a larger tank that my puffer will likely need by then). I'm also considering using dyed concrete for new rock instead which should last longer and look better.

I also plan on putting a sump/refugium underneath to breed dove snails (or maybe another type) since my puffer needs snails to keep his teeth worn down.

If I leave shrimps and such in the tank over the summer, will enough bacteria start to grow in the saltwater to filter the tank well? If I got a cheato or two, would that just be enough or would snails eat it all? Thanks.