Richard Ross: The Right Kind Of Lazy | MACNA 2017

Phosphate. Nitrate. Detritus. In an effort to create perfect boxes of coral, reef keepers worry an awful lot about these kinds of things – but do we really need to? According to prevailing wisdom, my 15 year old home tank should be a cess pool, but it isn’t, it is a thriving SPS dominated mixed reef.

Local copy here

From Reefs Magazine

by Rich Ross and Chris Jury

The Editors Note: In Skeptical Reefkeeping IX, Rich Ross is joined by our old friend Chris Jury as they try to come to terms with the “impossible” yet confirmed PO4 readings in Rich’s gorgeous reef. The analysis is thorough, thought- provoking, grounded in science and suggestive of a far more complex picture regarding PO4 and its role in our aquariums.

There are many standard parameters in the reefkeeping world that aquarists strive to match in their home reefs – water quality, light spectrum and intensity, and water flow, just to name a few. Rarely do we stop to think where these standard parameters come from, and even more rarely do we consider calling into question the utility of these parameters. This can lead to aquarists ‘chasing numbers’; tweaking water parameters to hit a standard goal. Often times, people think that hitting a magic number will inherently result in a better, healthier tank. In the past few years, dealing with phosphate in saltwater aquariums has become one of the most talked about ‘must control at all costs’ parameter, and in this installment of Skeptical Reefkeeping, we will look at some evidence which calls into question the reliability of testing, the generally accepted target phosphate concentration, and general control of phosphate in reef aquariums.

Rich’s 150 gallon display, on a 300 gallon system, is running a phosphate level of 1.24 ppm, a level at 24.8 times higher than the often recommended .05 ppm. Photo by Richard Ross.

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August1 16, 2013

August1 16, 2013

For more  pictures, starting from 2002, click here

From Reef Hobbyist Magazine

Link to build thread on
Link to original build thread that was accidentally deleted on





by Chris Maupin

I have known Rich Ross for a long time, let me start by clearing the air with that disclaimer.  You also may read this post and feel like it is a bunch of ass-kissing.  If that was your conclusion, then apply for a MacArthur Grant, because that’s exactly what it is. Rich is a philosopher who should have been a scientist.

I say that not to belittle his life choices, but to compliment him on the fact that he is independently one of the best and most creative skeptical and scientific minds I have met.  He will openly tell you that he killed something or did something wrong, and, more importantly, tell you why it happened, and therefore how you can avoid having the same problem.  How scientific, right?  Not to mention, uh, productive and helpful.  This mindset and attitude has taken him from philosophy major to peer reviewed, published scientist, WITHOUT re-attending undergraduate with a science major, or attending graduate school.  How many can claim that?

Despite this introduction, the focus of this post is actually Rich’s home tank.  Every year I make a trek to the Bay Area for the largest annual scientific conference in the world, and every year the hospitality of Rich and his family is a highlight of my trip, allowing me to see the progression of an amazing example of home reefkeeping.  Rich managed to go from a respectable stay at home dad to rogue professional aquarist, responsible for hundreds of thousands of gallons worth of living coral habitat on display in the largest closed system living reef aquarium in the world.  Somehow, he still has not lost the passion for his tank at home.  Unfortunately for the eyeballs of reefkeeping community, he is WAY too humble about it.  So I’m calling him out.

The tank Rich set up and maintains is what folks these days would call a “fruit stand”.  In fact, it goes beyond that. It pretty much could be the reefkeeping definition of a stand of fruit.  I’ve come to understand there is a negative connotation in the community to the use of such a term, but I am at a complete loss to understand why.  Perhaps it’s a lack of patience in allowing such systems to mature?

Rich’s tank is coral after coral, anemone, clam, etc. set in a highly custom, faux built-in system.  The display is a tightly focused 150 gallons, with an additional 250 gallons to provide stability and dilution.  The set up is designed to be redundant without being overly technical.  The lights, heaters, water motion and returns from the sump are distributed across different electrical circuits.  The Vortech has a battery back up, a modified Maxi-Jet is on a UPS and there are multiple battery-operated Penn Plax air pumps.  There is a calcium reactor driven by a peristaltic pump and a fail-safe automated top off through a kalkwasser reactor.  Lighting consists of 4 x 250watt metal halides bulbs (2 x 14k and 2 x 20 k, with all of them being on at the same time for about 3 hours a day), blue LED supplementation with all lights controlled by different timers.  Rich is adamant about this.  A true skeptic at heart, he avoids a single point of failure, such as a controller.

Water motion is a fundamental pillar in Rich’s philosophy of the fruit stand.  There are two Vortech MP40’s, a 10 port Loc-Line manifold driven by a Sequence 5800, again, on its own timer, a modified Maxi-Jet, a Hagen 801 which pumps water out of an overflow back into a tank, also on its own timer (are you sensing a theme yet?).  There is a Poseidon Titanium pump that drives two eductors, both of which reside in the back bottom corners to keep any detritus from settling, and finally, an Ampmaster 3k serves as the sump return.

It’s a mature tank as well, despite a major crash only two years ago (, which gets to the crux of my awe for it.  Nothing looks muddled with.  Corals have been allowed to grow into each other, undergo warfare, and grow over each other.  There is depth.  Instead of everything being at the forefront where it is easily accessible to the viewer, every available square inch is utilized.  You have to crane your neck, peer around corners and squint.  You can stare at the tank for hours and still not see everything.  The closest thing I can liken it to is diving on a real reef.  Photos do it hardly any justice because of its depth and complexity.  You could see it today and never know that it had undergone multiple, accidental disasters.

To conclude, when it comes to reef aquariums, ultimately, I haven’t experienced anything close to the “holy expletive” factor of working on reefs of every variety in the Solomon Islands or Vanuatu, especially not with the recently hyped low-ecology systems, but to each their own.  That being said, I also haven’t seen anything near the “holy expletive” factor of Rich’s matured “fruit stand”.  Why?  Well because it’s the closest thing I’ve seen to the real deal.  Period.  And I say this as a reef scientist who REALLY likes looking at real reefs, and not as a modern art aesthetist.  I encourage more reef aquarists to exercise the patience it takes to get there.  Do it.  And f you make a terrible mistake, learn from it, tell people about it, and do it again.


























8/16, 2013

August1 16, 2013

August1 16, 2013












3/3/2014 – for the blue lovers and the blue haters

FTS combo sm


4/2/14 – ATS screen added











FTS Aug 2014-2183



































As some of you may remember from my previous article ‘The anatomy of a disaster”  I have a penchant for not keeping up on float switch maintenance and ending up with kalk overdoses. Regardless of the failsafes I put in place, I continue to OD on kalk, and guess what, I did it again recently, and I humbly present to you the newest of precautions I have put in place to possibly save my lazy butt from yet another disaster.

The last disaster was really, really bad.

The most current kalk issue was not nearly as bad as the previous one. Last time I lost 95% of my SPS corals, where this time I only lost 2 – though some of them are going to take a month of so to recover completely.

When I caught it, the pH in the tank was 9.7, bad but not immediately kill everything bad. My sump is essentially a 180 gallon tank so when the primary float switch failed about 15 gallons of yummy kalk water was pumped into the tank until the secondary float switch, located about 3 inches above the primary clicked into action.

This time, instead of dumping gallons of vinegar in the system to lower the pH, I tee’d off of the CO2 feed to my calcium reactor and bubbled CO2 directly into the display tank. CO2 is better for a couple of reasons, the most important being the lack of bacterial bloom that results from gallons of vinegar being dumped into a saltwater system. Since the system wasn’t totally crashed, this was very important to me. Another good thing about the CO2 addition is that its effect of lowering pH is very fast and its hard to overdose – just take line out of the tank. Getting the pH down to 8.2 took less than 10 minutes, and the change was startling. Fish that were clearly stressing and hiding came right out and ate. A Linkia starfish that looked to be dead, perked right up. LPS corals started opening up within 30 minutes. I like the CO2 much better than vinegar. Of course, it should be obvious that CO2 can be dangerous for both your tank and you, so be careful and I wouldn’t even think of doing it without a calibrated electronic pH meter.

So what did I do to avoid this avoidable problem in the future. First, I further slowed the amount of water pumping into the system via the Auto Top Off. I also put the ATO on a timer with an on/off cycle of 30 minutes.   The system can still move enough water to keep up with top off, but it takes time to fill it up, and that less time means more time before the problem becomes critical.

The second thing I did was reconfigure the sump equipment so it was all easier to get to and maintain. Easier and neater means faster and better regular maintenance. Now, the switches are right up front, in a dark space and soaking them in vinegar takes a matter of minutes. Easy peasy. I also modified the way the float switches were laid out. Now, instead of 3 inches between primary and secondary float switches, resulting in a 15 gallon addition, there is about .5 inches, resulting in a 3ish gallon addition before the secondary kicks in. Its such an obvious modification that I marvel at my lack of making it immediately upon receiving the float switches.

A modification so obvious that I should have done it long ago (The second set of floatswitches is for the auto fill for water changes)

The third and most important think I did was set up a 4 month recurring calendar event on my computer to remind me to do the regular cleaning.

Will this work? Will I avoid disaster in the future? Only time will tell…

It’s every reefkeepers worst nightmare: opening the front door to the house and smelling the pungent smell of the shore that the Yucatecans call ‘lodo’. While pleasant near the ocean, that smell in your house means something has probably gone wrong with your reef. As you rush through the house to the tank you hope you won’t find the milky mess of death that your nose is telling you you will find. Sometimes you are lucky, and the smell is a container of frozen shrimp or macro algae that you left on top of the tank to fester easy-bake-oven-style under your metal halide lamps. Sometimes it is worse – much worse. Last December, I came home to that smell, and it wasn’t light baked shrimp or algae; it was the much worse.

BEF (Before Epic Fail)

First a little backgroundI have a 150 gallon show tank in my living room, mixed reef, but primarily SPS. I love it, and it contains several personally collected pieces. It was a featured aquarium in Advanced Aquarist in 2004. In late 2005 I took it down for a month while we had some work done on the house giving me the opportunity to make it into a in-wall tank with a mini fish room (really just storage) behind it.

The 200 gallons of sumps/coral farms are under the house in a 40 inch crawl space, that, while annoying to move around in, keeps the noise, mess and humidity out of the house. Also, because the crawlspace is cool in the summer, my need for a chiller is very much lessened. The crawl space also gives me room to store all my reef ‘junk’ and allows me to keep 150 gallons of mixed saltwater on hand at all times, which always seemed like a good idea to me.

The rigged out uber-redundant crawl space

In 2006 I got nailed by monti eating nudies, which meant pulling all the giant monties and either dipping them or throwing them away. In 2007 I got the brunt of the AEFW plague when dealing with the wee beasts meant pulling all your corals and dipping them or throwing them away (now its easy to live with them). All this rigmarole meant that I was constantly wishing the tank was 6 months more along so that it could make another appearance as a featured aquarium in Advanced Aquarist. Last November, I started talking about how the tank was finally maturing, how I was removing smaller colonies to get rid of that fruit stand look that tanks go through when stocked with frags and mini colonies. A video Jake Adams took of my tank was posted on youtube. I started fragging to shape the colonies and to stop them from growing together. Then, December came and along with it, the Epic Fail.

A little more background

I love basic automation and redundancy. I don’t run a controller because I don’t like the idea of a single point of failure. There are 4 circuits going to my reef system with lights and pumps and heaters distributed over the different circuits. There are Penn Plax air pumps that come on in a power outage for oxygen and circulation. There is one Vortech with a battery backup. There is a modded maxi jet on a UPS. DI water collects in a 10 gallon reservoir to limit the amount available for possible overdosing, and then is pumped into the Kalk reactor by a pump triggered by a float switch (not valve), and the float switch has a second float switch just above it in case the first float switch fails. The effluent from the Kalk reactor gravity feeds into the sump. The skimmer’s external collection bucket has a float switch on it that controls the skimmer so if the skimmer goes nuts it can only pump out 5 gallons from the tank before shutting off. I also have a pump in that external collection bucket so I don’t have to lug around nasty water – I flip a switch and away it goes.

All in all, I feel my system is pretty sound and able to handle almost anything that isn’t a major disaster or power failure (and yes I have a generator and a power inverter). We get minor power outages sometimes (as I write this, there was one last week) and thus far everything works just fine. Usually the only way I know there was an outage is by the blinking clocks – the tank just chugs along.

It has been important that my system takes care of itself for the most part because my wife’s major hobby is exotic vacations, which means we can be away from the tank for 3 weeks or more at a time. I used to fret about being away for so long, even though I had done pretty much everything I could to automate daily tasks, and had a posse of reefing friends checking in to make sure all was well. I still fretted until my wife gave me the best piece of reekeeping advice ever – ‘assume that you are going to come home to coral soup’. So, every time I leave the tank I make sure my corals are backed up in other people’s tanks, I say good bye to everything, and I go enjoy my vacation and don’t think about the tank. I believe that this advice had the effect of prepping me for coming home to coral soup at any time, and when I finally did, I was able to function and try to control the damage.

Every reefers nightmare

The horror, the horror

I got home Saturday evening, and smelled the smell of the sea. I rushed to my reef but couldn’t see very far into the tank. Some of the fish I could see were being blown around but not moving on their own. Going through my head were lists of dead animals…the double headed Scoli I got at Midwest Frag Fest…the S. wilsoni I got at MACNA…the Picasso Clowns…the Radiant wrasse…colonies that were finally ‘big’. For a minute I stood there frozen in grief. I put all that aside when I saw my pH monitor – 10.5. I knew regardless of what had caused the crash, if I was going to save anything I needed to get that pH down immediately.

I took 150 gallons of water out of the system, put 150 gallons of new water right in, and started filling the container with RO so I could mix more saltwater. That 150 gallon container I keep filled with mixed saltwater had been helpful before, but at that moment it was critical. Sadly, the pH barely moved. I remembered that vinegar would bring down pH. I had a little vinegar in the house, and it brought the pH down, but not enough, so I rushed out to the store to by more. I believe all in all I added a full gallon of vinegar to the system before the pH dropped to 8.6, and some of the fish looked less dying than they had before. I then added new carbon, a nu clear canister filter with a pleated micron cartridge and diatomaceous earth (DE) and ozone. I finally went to bed fully expecting everything to be dead in the morning, and decided to take no rash action, removing nothing from the tank for at least few days to give everything the best possible chance of recovery.

1 day AEF (after Epic Fail)

I woke up, and still couldn’t tell what was going on in the tank because it was still cloudy, but a little less stinky. All that vinegar was probably causing a massive bacterial bloom. Once another 150 gallons of water was ready I did another water change, changed the carbon, rinsed the pleated cartridge and put in fresh DE, posted my tale of woe on a couple forums, and tried to ignore the tank for the rest of the day.

2 days AEF

The next day the tank had cleared enough that I got a decent look at what was going on inside. The ‘true undata’ seemed to look ok, but all the other SPS were white – it was like looking at a show tank from 1982. Some of the fish that I would have sworn were dead were actually alive. Most of the LPS were still sucked tight to their skeletons, so I had no idea what was going to survive.

3 days AEF

The water cleared enough after another 150 gallon water change to take some photos that didn’t look like a tank of milk. More of the fish seemed to be gone and I was braced for a gradual die off of everything else.

4 days AEF

The water clarity was almost back to normal, and it looked like most of the fish made it. One clown, 3 chromis, a hybrid PBT and a mandarin had died, but the Picassos, the radiant wrasse, the flame wrasse, the swales basslet, the remaining pair of mandarins, a home-made banggai cardinal, the cleaner shrimp and the harlequin shrimp pair all were alive and seemed fine. I even fed them and they all ate. I had no idea what to think about the corals.

7 days AEF

As it turned out, every acro was dead as were most montis, poccis, the duncans and I was prepped to lose all the chalices as well. Hanging on were the undata, the double headed scoly, the dendro, some acans, and cespitularia (it had actually grown in the days AEF). I grabbed a 5 gallon bucket and filled it with acro skeletons, but left everything that didn’t have algae growing on it in the tank. My wife pointed out that the tank didn’t really look that bad as tanks go, and that it indeed could have been worse.

24 days AEF

About two weeks later I did a water test and everything came out normal, so I bought a yellow tang to help with any sneaking algae problems. About a week after that I added some ‘canary’ acro frags and they did well. Some of the corals I thought were goners, but that I didn’t remove, came back – most notably the S. wilsoni. Some of the chalices were down to 1 mouth but hanging on.

7 months AEF

The reefing community was nothing but supportive and two months AEF I started adding corals en masse. I got two great boxes of mini colonies from, and tons of frags from local friends. Never was I happier that the attitude of my local reefing community is one of giving your corals away. After 7 months, the tank was a healthy fruit stand again, and about a year later I have to prune colonies back so they don’t fight and I am starting to think about removing corals just to make room.

So, what happened?

Even redundancy in design won't prevent human error

It was all my fault.

I did several stupid things at the same time. First and foremost, I worked on the tank when I was in a hurry (even though I know better). Instead of going to see Mitch Carl speak at Bay Area Reefers, I was going to a production of ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ with my wife and daughter. We were running late, and just before we left, I added fresh Kalk powder to the Kalk reactor, then I raised the float switch on the auto top off to bring the salinity down a little, and, because I was in a hurry, I left the pump that drains the skimmers external collection bucket on. Then, I left for 7 hours. So, 2 cups of brand spanking new Kalk powder were washed into the tank by the auto top off, and, as if that isn’t enough, any Kalk powder that would have been left was pumped into the tank because once the skimmer started going crazy there was nothing to stop it because the drain pump was on. Had I not been in a hurry, I would have thought those three stupid actions through and not done them. All of this was preventable, and a Sanjay Joshi truism is proven again – “the person running the system is the system’s single biggest point of failure”.

My family was particularly helpful on the discovery of this disaster. Essentially, they asked if they could help, were politely told no, and then got out of the way. I am so lucky to have Libby and Kalin both understand what ‘focus’ means, and to know the best thing to do when someone is focused is to leave them alone so they can get stuff done.

What changes have I made to the system?

Since the Epic Fail, I turn off the auto top off when I add Kalk to the reactor. After the powder is mixed, I turn it back on and make sure that the system doesn’t need too much top off at that time. I also have added a ‘turn past’ timer to the skimmers external collection chamber’s drain pump. When the container is full, I turn a knob that turns on the drain pump, but turns it off again in a few minutes. Of course, I know that neither of these changes are foolproof and in no way will protect my system from me doing dumb things in the future.

If proper and swift action is taken, recovery from disaster is possible

What did I learn?

Despite my overriding the precautions I put in place, my forethought served me well. I had most of what I needed to deal with the disaster on hand – mixed salt water, DI resin, salt mix, carbon, a big canister with a clean pleated cartridge and vinegar. Without those things, this disaster would have been much worse. I can’t imagine how I would have felt coming home to coral soup but not being able to do anything about it because the LFS were all closed.

I learned that fish and animals are way more resilient than we might think. I had corals I was sure were dead recover completely, but if I had tossed them, they would be gone.

Hopefully, I finally really leaned the three main rules to avoiding disaster:

1) If you are in a hurry, don’t do anything to your system.
2) If you are about to leave the house, don’t do anything to your system.
3) If you are distracted, don’t do anything to your system.

In conclusion

I hope this tale of utterly preventable disaster helps you avoid a future reef keeping disaster yourself. I thought a long time about writing this article before I actually put fingers to keys because the majority of articles on reef keeping are about success. Everyone loves pretty pictures of thriving corals and fish, but more importantly, people don’t like to dwell on failures. Failures make people feel bad. Failures make people look bad. People especially don’t like to advertise their failures. But, I think the failures are just as, if not more, instructive than the successes, and think we need more discussion of the dumb things we do so we end up doing less of them. If we own our failures, it seems everything is better for everyone.

I look forward to showing of pictures of my thriving tank in about six months when it is lush and full, unless of course, I pull another epic fail.