Why Not Set Up Your Own Coral Propagation Unit

A lot of visitors to Aquarists Online may not yet be in a position to even consider what they would like to do in the future with relation to their aquarium. Aquarists Online is primarily aimed at beginners to this hobby (although we do get a lot of experienced aquarists visiting) however coral propagation and coral conservation is an area which I personally believe we all should be interested in.

There are lots of reasons as to why people consider starting a home marine aquarium. Mine was due to my fascination of marine life which stems back from my time as a child living around my father’s aquariums.

Anyway, coral propagation – there are lots of ways to become involved in this area when you feel ready to do so.

  • When purchasing corals you could either purchase propagated corals from retailers or from other people in the hobby.
  • Purchase aqua-cultured corals from your local retailer or online.
  • Consider purchasing tank raised fish when stocking your aquarium.
  • When the corals in your aquarium have grown and you feel comfortable doing so you can propagate your own corals and make them available for other aquarists.

All of these lessen to a small degree the impact on the natural coral reefs.

Purchasing propagated corals allows you to purchase more corals for your money. Although the size of the corals are smaller than if you purchased one from your local retailer as long as the correct parameters are maintained and the correct care and maintenance is performed then they will quickly grow. You will have more diversity in the aquarium and once they all get bigger you will be able propagate them yourself.

Of course you do not need to sell them (although some people do) – you could either give them away or exchange them for other propagated corals.

Propagated corals are also known to be hardier than wild corals.

Tank raised fish are another great option. There are many more species which can now be purchased. Again this lessens then impact on the natural reef and who knows in time you may have your own little fishies to care for!

The reason for writing this article is primarily based upon the last entry in the bulleted list.

Propagating your own corals

In this article I am not going to cover coral propagation techniques. In future articles I will be covering this for various types of corals. If there is demand for it then I may also go into more detail as to how to actually setup your own propagation unit.

There are many ways in which you can care for your propagated corals. A lot of people start off by doing this in their display aquarium. The propagated corals are either placed at the bottom of the aquarium or a shelf is made to elevate the corals nearer to the light source.

A nice, easy way to get started with coral propagation.

Other people choose to start an aquarium (or some other type of reef safe container) attached to the display aquarium. This can either be fed from an overflow from the display aquarium or from a pump/powerhead from the sump.

This type of setup has both its advantages and its disadvantages. The main advantage is that with the ‘frag tank’ being connected to the display aquarium you have just the one volume of water to care for. This disadvantage is that if anything happens to the water quality in the display aquarium then this will affect the propagation aquarium as well.

What most people normally do with this option is to purchase or make an aquarium which is shallow in depth. This allows for maximum penetration of light which does not have to be as powerful as it would be for an aquarium which is deep. What you are propagating will determine the water movement which is required.

Some people decide to place the aquarium directly on the aquarium bottom. Others, like me utilise shelves to elevate the corals in the aquarium dependant upon their lighting requirements, coral growth, age of propagation etc. I made my own out of egg-crate and whilst it is very simple in design it is very effective.

In my propagation aquarium I place soft corals etc on the bottom (I have no substrate at all). There are three shelves and I place newly propagated hard corals (SPS) on the bottom shelf. When the corals have attached onto the plug I then move them up onto the middle shelf. This then leaves me space to propagate more corals on to the bottom shelf. When the corals on the middle shelf have grown out enough I move them onto the top shelf for them to grow some more and colour up. When I am happy that they are ready I make them available for other aquarists.

I do not do that many corals – I only propagate them when the display aquarium requires ‘thinning out’ a bit.

Personally I find that this scenario works very well for, however there are numerous other setups which could be used.

The final method which is used is very similar to that of the propagation unit above however it is not attached to the display aquarium. It is self contained and has its own filtration. Corals, unlike fish produce very little bio load for the filtration to deal with therefore not as much filtration is required as in the display aquarium. Some live rock would suffice, a deep sand bed or even a canister filter.

The main thing to remember is that you have newly cut corals in this propagation unit and/or corals which you are trying to grow out. Grow out is a term which is used for when the corals have been cut and temporarily attached to a coral plug. The grow out is a term used for when the coral attaches itself down onto the plug and then starts to grow upwards and outwards dependant upon the coral.

For them to grow out you need to ensure that the propagation unit is full of water which is of optimum water quality. Corals which have been cut can get infected and this could be lethal to the coral. Although minimal bio load is being put onto the filtration you will need to ensure that all parameters are excellent.

This is the trouble with a separate coral propagation unit. If you have both a separate propagation unit and a display aquarium then you are effectively caring for both. You will need to do water changes in both systems, apply additives to both systems and ensure that the correct care and maintenance is applied to both systems.

Not hard to accomplish but you are doubling your efforts.

There are quite a few people who do not have a display aquarium and choose to have one or many coral propagation units. In this instance they could be setup as one big coral farm or as individual units.

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There are many other places where this can be done. A lot of local fish shops will now take in propagated corals in exchange for store credit, a purchase or some will even buy them from you.

Personally I find it very pleasing to see how many aquarists are actually propagating corals now.

I can understand why a lot of people prefer to purchase mother colonies as they have an immediate impact when placed into the aquarium. As previously said though you do get more corals for your money if you purchase propagated corals. They do not have the immediate impact of a mother colony but you get the joy of watching them grow and colour up. Over time you will have many large colonies which you can either admire or propagate yourself and trade for more corals.

The more people that propagate corals – the less corals that will be removed from the natural reef.

Now that has got to make it worthwhile. In my opinion it does anyway.

Remember The Lighting

What is the most important part of a marine system? Lighting? Well no, it isn’t, seawater quality is the number one with both fish only and reef aquariums.

High seawater quality means there shouldn’t be any indication of ammonia or nitrite. Nitrate should be as low as possible (the guideline for a reef system is less than 10 ppm (parts per million) and for a fish only less than 30 ppm. Phosphate should preferably be undetectable. pH should be stable in the region 8.1 to 8.4. SG (specific gravity) for a fish only should be stable within the range 1.022 to 1.025, and in a reef system 1.024 to 1.025 (there are variations with SG which more advanced aquarists use for specific purposes). With a reef system there are more seawater parameters that could be monitored but those given are the basic ones.

So what has seawater quality got to do with lighting, this text is about lighting according to the title.

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There are occasions when an aquarist is completely at a loss to explain why the corals are not as they were, with reduced growth and less expansion. Tests have been carried out on the seawater and it is top notch. What could be the problem? Perhaps a disease that is hard to spot? In fact it could be the lighting. Great care is taken when setting up a reef system to ensure the lighting is suitable and the corals, hard or soft, will confirm this.

With a fish only aquarium the lighting is not of such great importance. Its function is to permit the fish to see and the aquarist to see the fish. In addition, if the lighting, which is usually fluorescent tubes, is chosen with care the fish colours can be enhanced. Some colours react really well to ‘marine white’ tubes, and likewise to blue (actinic) ones. There isn’t any reason why more than two tubes cannot be used, but at least two should be in use, say one ‘marine white’ and one blue (actinic). Doing this not only assists with fish colouration, it permits the aquarist to create a ‘dawn/dusk’ sequence. Using electric timers, the blue tube comes on first, then half an hour later the white. At the end of the day the white goes off followed by the blue. This avoids washing the aquarium with sudden light and plunging it into instant darkness, both bad practices.

The reef aquarium is a different story. With these systems lighting is a close second to seawater quality. Most of the corals commonly kept have zooxanthellae in their flesh. Zooxanthellae are single celled algae and the coral gets its colour from them. In addition the corals obtain food as ‘rent’ from the algae; authorities have quoted the level of food supply as 80% or more. Algae, as other plants, require light in order to photosynthesize. The light needs to have sufficient power to penetrate the seawater to the depth of the corals and reach the algae. Power is measured in watts (W). If power is insufficient then the algae will get too little, this is why different power requirements are quoted for aquariums with different depths. In addition, the spectrum needs to be suitable. Light is measured in Kelvin, otherwise known as the colour temperature. Though there is more than one colour suitable for photosynthesis with some corals, blue is the one commonly used by aquarists. Blue penetrates deeply into the seas and oceans. Generally all light types use the Kelvin scale. If metal halide lighting is in use, the bulb(s) commonly used are 10000K and 14000K. The higher the number, the more cold or blue the light appears. Many aquarists use blue (actinic) fluorescent tubes alongside their metal halides. Many commercially produced metal halide arrays incorporate these tubes.

With reef lighting it is also advantageous to have a ‘dawn/dusk’ sequence. Whether the main white lights are fluorescent or metal halide, having blue tubes allows the sequence to be arranged.

So corals, or rather the zooxanthellae in their flesh, need lights that have a suitable colour and in addition the lights need to have enough power to penetrate the seawater.

Provided the aquarist has chosen the correct lighting system in the first place and other requirements are as they should be, the reef display should be lovely. This continues for longer than a year or more when eventually the aquarist notes that the corals aren’t as they were, as said earlier. There appears to be a slow reduction in extension. Perhaps there is a slight and maybe continuing change in colour. Again as said, the aquarist gets out his/her array of test kits but nothing appears wrong, the seawater is still of high quality. How about the lights?

With a fish only system there doesn’t need to be too much concern about the lights. As said they are normally fluorescent tubes and need changing when there is clear discolouration or blackening at the end of the tubes. It is not long after this point has been reached that the tubes are likely to start flickering or fail.

With a reef system the lighting needs more careful monitoring. To the aquarist’s eye there seems to have been no change to the light, as the tubes and/or bulbs switch on normally and they seem just as bright. This is not so however. As time passes the tubes and/or bulbs start to reduce in power which means that, given time, less light will reach the zooxanthellae. In addition, over time the spectrum shifts slowly and the painstakingly chosen lights emit a changed colour, again something the corals will not appreciate.

The best way that a reef aquarist can proceed is to keep a notebook; it only needs to be a small one. In it can go all sorts of memory joggers – including when the lights were first turned on. The manufacturers usually suggest in their documentation how long the lights should maintain their original specifications. There is considerable discussion within the hobby about light reduction/change periods, some suggesting that lights should be changed every three months. I have no facts or scientific reports to argue with, but I feel that period is definitely safe but rather short. Changing the lights no later than one year seems to be a reasonable general guideline. My reef is lit by a fluorescent array, and I change every nine months and have not had any problems.

The aquarist carries out many maintenance activities, a number of which are quite rightly concerned with seawater. There are the test kits that need to come out of the cupboard regularly, the routine seawater changes that partially replace lost trace elements and dilute the sometimes troublesome nitrate. Then there’s cleaning that very useful device the protein skimmer and ensuring that seawater flow is optimal. Plus the rest.

The lights are just there. They may get an occasional wipe with a damp rag but that’s usually all. They’re very dependable and all that is needed is a bulb/tube change after a specific time lapse. This will keep the corals happy if other parameters are good.

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Will LED Lighting Ever Replace Metal Halide?

Whatever type of marine system is kept lighting is important. With a fish only aquarium the fish need a day cycle and of course need to see where they are going. It’s also good that the aquarist can see the fish! With reef systems the lighting is also important for the same reasons as far as the fish are concerned and more important for the corals.

Before looking at LED’s (light emitting diodes) it’s necessary to see what the LED’s need to be able to do to compete with metal halides.

Metal halide lighting systems are used exclusively for reef aquariums (if used on a fish only system then electricity is being wasted). Sometimes the aquarist is able to use fluorescent T5 tubes, but this depends on the depth of the aquarium – can the light penetrate deep enough?

In this case it is assumed that metal halide bulb(s) are needed.

Metal halide is basically a bulb that uses a filament, the bulb being inside a reflector. The bulbs are rated in watts and there is a range available, the most usual ones being from 150W up to 400W. The wattage is chosen according to the depth of the aquarium. The more watts, the more expensive it will be to run because of electricity usage.

The length of aquarium that a single bulb can light with usual width aquariums is 3ft (circa 91.5cm). This is a guideline not a rule. For a 6ft aquarium two bulbs would therefore be required, doubling the running cost.

The bulbs also need to meet another demand of the corals in addition to intensity and that is spectrum. A lot of the commonly kept corals contain zooxanthellae within the flesh. Zooxanthellae are single celled algae that are essential to the well being of the coral. In order to function (photosynthesize) they need light of the correct wavelength and fortunately metal halide bulbs can achieve this light output. In fact, there is a choice of outputs within limits.

Metal halide bulbs need to be changed regularly according to the manufacturer’s recommendations or the intensity could diminish and/or the spectrum shift.

To make the reef more natural (a goal which is being achieved more and more), many if not most aquarists incorporate one or two additional fluorescent tubes which are usually in the blue spectrum. This assists the delivery of the correct light to the corals and additionally, with the use of electric timers, gives a ‘dawn and dusk’ effect. That is, the blue fluorescent tubes switch on around half an hour before the metal halide, and switch off around half an hour after the metal halide. This avoids sudden bright light or sudden darkness, both of which are undesirable.

ledlightingAre there any downsides to metal halides? Yes, there are two. The first one is running cost because the bulbs are electricity hungry. Consider a bank of two 400W bulbs ‘that’s not far away from a kilowatt per hour. If the lights are on between 8 and 11 hours a day’..well, you get the idea.

The second downside concerns the aquarium livestock. Stability in any marine system is very important and should be maintained as far as possible. Metal halide bulbs run very hot, and radiate directly into the aquarium as obviously they must. This heats the seawater and it is possible for the seawater temperature to rise unacceptably. If this is the case then the aquarist needs to purchase a chiller (seawater cooler) which is not particularly cheap to purchase or cheap to run. It may be possible for the aquarist to run surface air fans for cooling and many aquarists do this. In this case ideally the seawater temperature and/or time need to be linked into the fan system or, if the seawater cools down because the metal halide has turned off, it may be overcooled and the heaters will switch on for longer periods using more electricity.

So then, what about LED’s? These type lights are used widely nowadays for decorative and commercial purposes as well as more recently being of use to marine aquarists. Aquarists could already be making use of low-powered LED lighting in the form of blue lights that switch on after all the other lights have switched off. They simulate moonlight and give a really good effect, beams of flickering weak light in the seawater. These are not a competitor to metal halides of course.

Fairly recently more powerful LED’s have appeared. They are similar to metal halides in two ways – they come in a canopy and use electricity.

The makers of some canopies have claimed that the light output (the combined output of all the LED’s in the canopy) is equal to X watts of a metal halide, this being 150W, 250W or whatever – the more LED’s the more power. I am not a lighting expert but have noted some argument over this claim. However, contributors to the argument seem to agree that the output is close and is increasing as technology advances. The important point is that there are reef systems that are thriving under LED lighting.

There is another LED system available that is not a standard canopy. These resemble to an extent a fluorescent tube in shape, and can be purchased in different lengths and, again to an extent, different spectrum outputs. So, as with fluorescent tubes, different units can be combined over the aquarium.

LED’s do not need to be changed as regularly as metal halides, in fact they could last 20000 hours. That’s a long period of aquarium lighting, just divide it by the amount of time the aquarium lights are on each day. So there isn’t a requirement to spend money on new bulbs once a year or so.

The heat from LED’s in canopies is not directed into the aquarium as the canopies usually contain a fan to channel the heat away. In warm areas this will add to the work that air conditioning needs to do. Most aquarists will not need to purchase a chiller or employ fans to cool the seawater, which should remain more stable in temperature. The LED’s that are a little reminiscent of fluorescent tubes do not have fans – to be honest I am not sure of the heat output effect but would assume that it will not be great as each ‘tube’ often has less than ten LED’s present.

There isn’t a requirement for additional fluorescent tubes, so the aquarist misses that expense and the need to change the tubes once a year or less. This is because the LED’s incorporate both white and blue LED’s and, in the canopies at least, these usually can be timed on and off according to the aquarist’s wishes. In fact, in the more expensive canopies, the effect of a cloud rolling across the sky can be timed in.

Obtaining a metal halide system costs less than an equivalent LED canopy, and obtaining a fluorescent tube costs less than an LED ‘tube’. That is the problem at the moment with LED systems, the initial cost.

However, when the ongoing cost of a metal halide is considered against the same for LED’s, the LED’s show a considerable saving. In addition, the LED’s do not heat the seawater (at least not to the same extent) and permit the aquarist to maintain temperature stability more cheaply.

Importantly, LED’s are not so electricity hungry.

LED technology continues to move forward and it seems clear that if the current LED systems can be successful then ones in the future will be and better. It is now necessary more than in earlier days to be careful with electricity costs and it is doubtful if this is going to change significantly.

My own guess is that the future for LED’s is assured and the metal halide will begin to fade away before too long. The price of LED systems does need to come down though before LED’s become the usual lighting system considered by most reef aquarists.

 

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Much like the name suggests, LED Grow Lighting is a more recent type of indoor grow lighting that you could feed your plants in order to make them propagate indoors. What would you say if I said that in case you’re working with some other style of grow light, that at the very least, 65% of the electricity that you put into your growlights is squandered? Well, it’s true. At this point, LED Grow Lights for indoor gardeners are a bit more expensive to purchase than other indoor lighting options.

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Just remember the fact that LED Grow Lights are a lot more efficient, generating more lumens per unit of electricity than incandescent bulbs, in addition to giving off far less heat. Your initial expense of investing in your own LED Grow Lights are normally offset inside of a year or two. LED Grow Lights operate at up to and in some cases exceeding 90% efficiency. This is because a well-designed Grow Light should convert the electricity into light which the plant can in fact use. There are two big differences between LED Grow Lights and HID style lights for Hydroponic gardening, the heat output as well as the “viewed” light intensity. There is just about no heat output from an LED Grow Light, and the light intensity would depend on your unique vegetation demands and the unit you get.

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Aquarium LED Lighting –A Major Advance Or Is Metal Halide Still The Light Of Choice?

I’ve already written about LED’s (Light Emitting Diodes) of low output (see ‘LED Lighting On The Marine Reef Aquarium‘. Those low output LED’s create excellent moonlight effects. This time the subject is still LED’s but ones of high output.
The aquarist has had the choice of two major forms[ of lighting for the reef aquarium, first, fluorescent tubes, and second metal halides. Many very beautiful captive reefs have been lit using one or the other, or a combination of both. Fluorescent tubes have been used to great effect on soft coral reefs where light doesn’t need to be so powerful. Hard coral reef aquarists, however, have usaquaed metal halide bulbs because of the more intense illumination they provide. Many aquarists have supplemented this lighting with actinic fluorescent tubes for two reasons – to supply the blue light which satisfies the light needs of symbiotic algae, and to provide a light step-down system (dawn and dusk) by using timers, for the benefit of fish.
The light to be considered here in comparison to high output LED’s is metal halide. As said, metal halide is usually the light of choice for hard coral reef enthusiasts because of the high light output, and it is sometimes used on soft coral reefs. In addition to this, there are now available bulbs of 10000K, 14000K, and 20000K etc. (K = Kelvin = colour temperature.) The higher the Kelvin rating the more blue light and the cooler the colour appears.
So what’s this ‘major advance’? Metal halide is the light of choice, isn’t it?. For power output and Kelvin selectivity there isn’t a rival. That last sentence has been correct for a good while. However, there is now a rival and it looks good.


The new entrant is high power LED lighting. What is meant by high power? As I understand it, there are four LED arrays available at the moment. Two of these are rated at 120 watts LED auqarium light and 300 watts LED aquarium light, probably the most popular wattages for reef aquariums. So what? Well, there are some definite advantages to LED’s that metal halide cannot match.
To start, the LED array is contained in a rectangular box that hangs above the aquarium in the same way a metal halide would, though it could be hung considerably closer to the water surface if required. There are 25 LED’s in the array for every 12″ (the length of arrays vary from 14″ to 72″), 12 white and 13 blue (therefore the lighting colour is arranged in a similar way that fluorescent tubes would be).
The Kelvin rating of the LED’s is stated to be 20000. So it is just as suitable for corals. That is point one, LED’s equal metal halides in colour output.. So it is one all.
Metal halide bulbs need to be changed at two years (or less), to avoid light intensity reduction and spectrum shift. The LED lights can run for up to 50000 hours. Generally the ‘lights on’ period for a reef aquarium is 12 hours. This means the LED’s can run for 11 years! It is reported that there is a reduction of light intensity of 30% after that period. However, 70% light output after 11 years! If the metal halide bulb was changed every two years, five bulbs would need to be purchased – plus any supporting fluorescent tubes would need to be changed every year, so they would be changed 11 times. Two to one for LED’s.
A big problem with metal halides is the heat output. The radiated heat can and does warm up aquarium seawater. It can perhaps be reasonably argued that in cooler areas the heat from the metal halide bulb(s) cuts down on heater use. True – but what about summer, or reef aquariums in warm areas. The water heats up beyond the design temperature. If this temperature increase is regular enough and/or great enough then a chiller (cooler) is often employed. The LED unit, however, has been shown to direct heat away from the aquarium seawater. This is done by means of internal fans. The seawater is not heated up. I feel this lack of heat impact is important to the needed stability of the reef aquarium. So three to one for LED’s.
Metal halide bulbs emit UV radiation and need a UV shield to protect the corals (the corals may bleach with excessive UV). Hardly any UV radiation comes from LED’s. Four to one for LED’s.
The glitter lines produced by a metal halide bulb are very attractive and assist in making the captive reef appear more natural. LED’s also produce glitter lines. So that’s one each, five to two for LED’s.
The LED array has controls that will allow the light output to be adjusted for full sunlight, cloudy days, daylight, sunset or moonlight.. The LED bulbs can be dimmed from maximum output to zero output. Score, six to two.
Metal halides as said are able to light a beautiful reef. However, there is a cost. Electricity. Running one, two, three, or even more 150, 250, or 400 watt bulbs is expensive. The aquarist sees this when the postal service drops the bill! Included in this bill is the cost of running a chiller to control excessive heat rise in the seawater, applicable particularly in warm areas. In warm areas air conditioning may be in use, and the heat production of metal halide bulbs will not help the cost of running the conditioning. Any cost saving will be very welcome. The LED system may not be more efficient in energy usage than metal halides as far as light production is concerned. However, it has already been mentioned that heat is not transferred to the seawater, meaning a chiller unit will not be required (unless the areas normal temperature has a detrimental effect on the seawater anyway). The purchase cost saving on a chiller is worthwhile. The electrical running cost of a chiller is also saved. Assuming that the chiller would have been in use year on year, it is significant. If air conditioning is in use, then the conditioning has to deal with the heat put into the air by the fans on the LED system. The heat production of the LED system is stated to be ½ of metal halide, therefore the air conditioning will have less work. Score, seven to two.
The cost of a decent metal halide system is reasonable, not beyond the means of most aquarists. However, (yes, here it comes) the cost of an equivalent LED system is expensive. A ‘middle’ size LED system currently can cost circa $1800. Not cheap. However, the score might reasonably be considered as one all, as long term cost (potential electricity usage reduction, and bulb changing as opposed to no bulb changing) needs to be taken into account. So, eight to three.
To my knowledge, this is the biggest step forward in reef aquarium lighting systems for a long while, and a very exciting one. The aquarist with one of these LED units not only has a very adequate reef lighting system with a number of advantages over metal halide, but one that can be adjusted to simulate the light conditions that a wild reef encounters. In addition, in these times of environmental concern and ‘carbon footprints’, the aquarist would not only be successfully growing corals but might well be reducing the cost to the environment by using less electricity at the same time.

 

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