• My "Reef Friendly" Quarantine System

    I haven’t been involved in this hobby very long compared to other folks but learned very quickly how much of a pain it can be to eradicate, or try to eradicate pests such as Aiptasia, Majanos, Bubble Algae, zoa eating asterinas, and Marine Ich. When I started, I did what I’m sure all of us have done at one time or another: just drop things in the tank and hope for the best. I recently upgraded from a 70g to a 260g tank and decided never again! Unfortunately, everything I found online regarding QT setups mainly dealt with fish only setups, bare bones systems, or that were more of a temporary solution. I’ve had to treat fish in smaller systems I had setup twice for Marine Ich and went through the hyposalinity treatments using a bare bottom tank, HOB filter, and a couple of pieces of PVC pipe for the fish to hide in. Maintaining water quality was a nightmare and a constant battle. The fish seemed unhappy and stressed the entire time . . . and 6 – 8 weeks was not a short time period. Moreover, these QT systems would not be able to support light-loving corals that require pristine and stable water parameters. So I decided this time around I was going to setup a quarantine system that could QT everything from snails and CUC members to a new tang to a hard to keep acro. Here's what I ended with and how it went:


    First and foremost I wanted to setup a QT system that would allow for prophylactic treatment, observation, and remedial treatments if needed of everything. The QT system would have to able to handle everything from CUC inverts to fish to all types of corals. That would mean stable parameters and good lighting. Nothing, not even a piece of Macro, will go into my main tank without first going through the QT (aside from the massive acquisition spree that occurred at MACNA).

    Second, I wanted a QT that could sustain fish comfortably for a period of time if I needed to get them to eat frozen or other types of food. Basically, it would be a place for them to rest up and fatten up before going into my main tank. It would also need to comfortably sustain fish for up to eight weeks for full hypo salinity treatment if needed.

    Third, because I was going to QT my corals anyway and give them a full 6 weeks for any potential Marine Ich parasites to die off, I might as well acclimate them to my lighting of choice over my main tank so that I would not need to constantly adjust my lighting with new additions. It would also give me a chance to see where a coral might do well in my tank.

    Finally, I wanted another system in my house and this was the only way I could talk the wife into letting me have another tank around “temporarily.” The long-term endgame here is once I add the fish and corals I want to my main system I will keep the QT around and turn it into a dedicated species tank for something like a couple of cuttlefish. If she reads this, I am a dead man.


    The following is a list of equipment I used for this particular build. I had a lot of leftover equipment from my 70g that I was able to reuse like my old skimmer, HOB fuge, and a few other items. I imagine most of us have a fish closet with a bunch of stuff that can help in reducing the overall cost of setting up a dedicated full time QT system. If you are thinking about setting one of these up, you may surprise yourself with how much equipment you have, what you can trade toward useful QT equipment, or what you can find on the used market as people upgrade to the latest and greatest. I have also included the cost of each item and whether it was new or used:

    Basic Equipment:
    Tank: 40 Breeder $45.00 (new PetCo $1/gallon sale, rounded up)
    Stand: DIY $0.00 (traded some frags for a friend to build)
    Sump: 20 g tall $20.00 (used or PetCo $1/gallon sale)
    Sand: Leftover sand $10.00 (free or leftover sand from builds)
    Rock: 40 lbs cooked & cured $60.00 (average $1.50 lb plus time to prep)
    Skimmer: AquaC Remora Pro $100.00 (used included Mag 3 pump)
    Fuge: CPR Aquafuge 2 Large $100.00 (included fuge light)
    ATO: JBJ + Aqualifter $60.00 (used)
    Overflow: HOB overflow kit $30.00 (used, included flex tubing)
    Heater: Finnex Digital 100w $10.00 (used)
    Flow: Koralia 1050 $15.00 (used)
    Return Pump: Mag Drive 7 $50.00 (used)
    Misc: Timers, power strips, etc. $25.00
    Testing Gear: Refractometer, kits, etc. $0.00 (already in use from other tanks)
    Total: $525.00

    So for about the price of one really nice piece of gear I was able to cover the equipment needed to setup a full blown mini-reef to protect my investment in my livestock in my main tank. Considering how much I’ve invested in fish, corals, other livestock, and equipment to care for them, the amount it takes to setup something more than a bare bottom minimal QT isn’t so bad. That and most folks like me probably already have a bunch of stuff that would otherwise lie around gathering dust. In my particular case, I already had most everything on the list above and probably spent about $150.00 max out-of-pocket. If you went sumpless you could cut another $100 or so off the cost and just add other equipment later.

    Reef Specific Equipment:
    Lighting: AI Vega $580.00 (includes controller)
    Light Mount: AI EXT $90.00
    Dosing: Bubble Magus Setup $350.00 (includes bracket, tube holders, etc.)
    Chiller: Current USA 1/10 hp $175.00 (used)

    These three pieces of gear obviously cost quite a bit more than everything else combined so I listed them out separately. That and you certainly wouldn't need to go this far for a FO QT. There are lots of lighting choices out there too so you may not need something as expensive. For instance, if you are running Metal Halide or T5 fixtures, it would be easy enough to find some used fixtures for a lot less to duplicate what you are running on your primary tank(s). In fact, I started out this QT build with a leftover Aquatic Life 36” PC fixture I could not even sell even after dropping the price to $125.00! You may or may not need to dose 2-part if water changes keep up your main levels or you run a reef that does not have high supplement consumption. If adding a little buffer every week works for you on your main tank, you could skip the dosing altogether. Likewise, a cooling fan may be all you need to keep your tank cool or if you live in an area where the temperatures do not get too warm.

    I didn't want to skimp on the QT system considering how much I have invested in my main reef tank in terms of both equipment and livestock. By using some of the same equipment as what I have on my main tank, my QT also acts as a source of back-up components. For instance, I've got a JBJ ATO and aqualifter to handle top off and another Bubble Magus triple doser setup for dosing and the AI Vega for lighting which are the same pieces of gear I have on my main system. If I find a deal on a used Apex I'll probably get that too, just to have spare components and more control over the QT system. The doser will be necessary to maintain stable Alk, Ca, and Mg levels when I QT new corals (I probably have enough corals as it is, but y'all know how that goes when you see that piece you really want or someone offers you a great deal at a frag swap or . . .). Because I plan on QTing corals anyway, I picked-up a spare AI Vega to pop over the QT so that I can support corals and also acclimate corals to my LEDs while they sit in QT. I went with the AI Vega as that is what I have on my main tank and the EXT mount allows you to easily adjust the height of the light with just a couple of screws.


    I made the decision to go with an observation QT for a few reasons. First, I want to QT anything that goes in from this point forward whether it is new macro algae, a new fish, new SPS, or other inverts. Second, I wanted an easier way to do hyposalinity treatments if a fish developed Marine Ich. Third, my personal view is that a more natural environment with lots of rock for fish to hide is probably less stressful on them and makes it easier to get them used to prepared foods. Fourth, I did not want to go with copper treatments that would require constant monitoring of copper levels and that would also not be useful for inverts and corals. Finally, I wanted a relatively modular system that could easily accommodate whatever it is I’m trying to do so that, for instance, I can take the skimmer offline if I need to. Time will tell if this is a good approach or not.

    Quarantining Corals and Inverts:

    The first goal is easy enough to accomplish with the equipment listed above. It is, for all intents and purposes, a fully operational mini-reef that is being used as a QT system. Corals and inverts will have stable parameters with the full biofilter, skimmer, autodosing, and the light needed for them to grow if they are photosynthetic.

    Corals and other inverts will stay in the tank for observation for 6 weeks so that any dormant Marine Ich in whatever form can die off. It will also allow me to find and eliminate pests like aiptasia, majanos, bubble algae, AEFW, etc. without the risk of infecting the main tank. Treatments will be a lot easier and less costly in a 40B than in my 260 gallon main tank!

    Quarantining Fish:

    Quarantining fish is, in my view, extremely important to prevent outbreaks of diseases, allow them a calm place to recover, and give them a chance to learn to eat prepared or frozen foods. The fish in my QT system will be observation for diseases such as Marine Ich and get a Prazipro treatment. The rock, sand, full biological filtration, and stable parameters will give them a stable and calm environment to recover from where ever they came from and give them a chance to get used to frozen foods, Nori, or whatever they may eat. I probably still wouldn’t try to quarantine a mandarin that relies on pods and would just have a take a chance if I add one of those but pretty much everything else can go into the QT system. I don’t plan on adding a large adult tang or other type of fish that would be too large for this system. While I certainly wouldn’t keep a tang long-term in a setup like this, a couple of months should be okay for the smaller or juvenile sized ones I like to get. There is plenty of live rock for fish to hide and feel safe.

    Hyposalinity Treatments:

    The rest of the goals are pretty much tailored to observing and taking care of sick fish. There are a number of challenges I've found to going through a proper hyposalinity treatment regimen. First, is maintaining the proper salinity. If it goes too low, the fish won’t be able to handle it. If it goes too high, the treatment needs to essentially start over again in terms of the time you have to wait . . . which can be a while. Second, is keeping up with the nitrogen cycle to keep ammonia down. Third, are the issues with pH swings due to the low alkalinity levels you would get with a typical hyposaline solution.

    Keeping the correct salinity is much easier with larger water volume and an ATO. I think a 40B with a sump provides a good balance between stable water volume, especially with an ATO but is still small enough where large volume water changes can still be accomplished easily. I also have a Hanna digital refractometer which allows me to easily calibrate the refractometer before every use. The Hanna also has temperature compensation built-in and can read in ppt, PSU, or S.G. and takes human error out of reading and interpreting readings. I’ve had regular refractometers that always seemed to need periodic calibration with the proper 35ppt solution (RO/DI will give you skewed readings at regular tank salinity levels). Checking and maintaining salinity is the cornerstone of hyposalinity so I wanted to make sure I had something that would work well and would be easy to use. Just as a cross-reference, I did check this piece of gear against a freshly calibrated refractometer and a new Apex conductivity probe that was also properly calibrated. The Hanna was spot on. I highly recommend this piece of gear as it has made checking salinity incredibly quick, easy, and accurate. Milwaukee also makes a similar item (I hear it uses the same internals) but I have not had hands-on experience with the Milwaukee.

    The ATO system I am using on both the QT and my main tank is a JBJ ATO with a Tom’s Aqualifter pump that has certain known issue requiring a reset. Here’s what I’ve done to overcome this. First, you can adjust the timeout on the JBJ if that is an issue by removing the back cover and turning the timeout dial all the way counterclockwise. Detailed instructions can be found here: http://www.jbjlighting.com/pdfs/ATO_ht_adjust_float.pdf Next, I needed to find a way to do an automatic reset should it require a reset due to the lower power draw of the aqualifter. Some folks have added a lightbulb to the outlet for the pump to increase current draw. If you have a controller, you could do what I do on my main system, which is program an Apex or controller to power it off for a minute every hour. Or, in the case of my QT, a cheapie $5 timer from Walmart turns the ATO off twice a day resetting it.

    Keeping up with waste build-up in a bare bones QT was an absolute nightmare when I tried it. I swore never again if I had to do it. One of the advantages of hyposalinity is that you do not kill off all your nitrifying bacteria and biofilter. I still use an Ammonia Alert from Seachem to keep a constant eye on ammonia levels but with a biofilter in place form the live rock and live sand, the nitrogen cycle should take care of ammonia from waste.

    Finally, mixing up a hyposaline solution will result in low alkalinity and less buffering against pH swings. An autodoser running just an alkalinity supplement should help buffer and maintain alkalinity levels leading to stable pH.


    In terms of modularity, everything has its own pump so that it can be removed easily. The skimmer and pump can literally be popped out of the sump if I need to do a treatment that requires no skimming. Mechanical and chemical filtration can be added or removed easily by taking out or putting in sponges, filter floss, or filter socks. The fuge is HOB and can be removed for cleaning or maintenance without affecting the rest of the system. The entire overflow system and sump, along with everything in it, can also be easily removed for cleaning, maintenance, or whatever other tasks are needed as nothing is hard plumbed.

    Getting livestock in and out is also easy because none of the rockwork is glued, cemented, or otherwise permanently attached to any other piece. There is one larger piece of rock but everything can still easily fit into 5 gallon buckets.


    I am very glad I put this system together because it was pretty much put into use after I got it together. I added a few new coral frags and found Aiptasia on one frag and bubble algae on another. Those are at least two battles I won’t have to fight in my main tank.

    I picked up my first new potential fish additions to my tank around mid-October of 2012. It included a juvenile Power Blue Tang that can’t be more than two or three inches, a juvenile Caribbean Blue Tang that is also not more than a couple of inches, and a juvenile Naso Tang. A couple of days later, I ended up adopting in a Blonde Naso tang from a friend that was being bullied by her other fish.

    The Caribbean Blue Tang was very thin, and my guess is that it was not eating. The Powder Blue came from a LFS and was also emaciated . . . to the point where you could clearly see the skeleton so it was more of a rescue as I wasn’t originally planning on mixing two Acantharus tangs in my main tank. Same goes for the Naso tangs as I originally just wanted one but ended up with the rescue as well. Long story short, a couple days after everyone is situated, I find an outbreak of Marine Ich on the Blonde Naso! So now, I have two Tangs that probably haven’t been eating plus an outbreak of Marine Ich . . . once again, at least I am dealing with this now and in QT rather than in my main display with the rest of my fish infected.

    Initiating Hyposalinity Treatment:

    I stayed up until about 3:30 am on October 18, 2012 dropping salinity levels down to get close to hyposalinity levels and reached 1.012. I did three water changes dropping it about .005 every two hours. I heard you can drop salinity even faster than that but I was more concerned with large pH swings from introducing so much RO/DI. That evening, I finished dropping salinity from 1.012 to 1.009 and then tweaked it down to 1.008 the next morning after I was sure things were stable. I continually tested the salinity twice a day for next couple of days to make sure my salinity was locked-in where it needed to be.

    Based on the new timeline due to Marine Ich, I figure one to two weeks for spots to disappear and then another 5 – 6 weeks before the fish can come out of hypo (which will take a week to raise salinity) and then another week for Prazipro and observation. As the saying goes, nothing good in this hobby happens quickly. Coincidentally, the time frame will allow me to add the fish right around Christmas.

    One other thing I am doing is keeping any equipment used with the QT tank separate and physically away from my main display tank. That means feeding strainers, test tubes, droppers, and anything else that gets wet. No point in going through all this only to transfer something to the main tank!

    As I write this on December 9, 2012, I am about to raise the salinity. It took about 2 weeks for all visible spots to disappear, which was around November 3, 2012. The recommended 4 weeks to wait at hypo levels would put the target date at December 1, 2012. I decided to wait an extra week just to be safe. So far, most everything has been going according to plan. The one bad thing that happened is I lost my original naso to a swim bladder infection about 4 weeks in. That was a big downer. Other than that one incidenet though, this has actually been immeasurably easier than using a bare bottom bare bones QT to try to hypo. The following are my observations and what I have learned to date.

    Fish Observations:

    The Blode Naso was initially covered in spots when the outbreak began and in almost two days of hypo treatment, all the spots were almost all gone. The Blonde Naso was also much happier and swimming around more and not hiding nearly as much. After the initial outbreak and reduction of spots, the Powder Blue would sometimes have a two to four spots over the course of the next week. They would disappear for a couple of days and then I might notice one or two more a couple days later. The Blonde Naso also got a couple here and there. The other two fish did not have visible spots but they could have been inside the gills or elsewhere. Everyone comes up to the Nori clip and out in the open around feeding time so it was a great chance to check on everyone daily. Speaking of feeding, I did not notice any depressed appetite while going through this treatment.

    In fact, I took the time to successfully train the Powder Blue to eat various foods. At first, the Powder Blue would take small pieces of Mysis and spit them out, would not eat Nori from a clip, and would not touch any dry foods . . . not a good situation with an emaciated fish to start with. I started with sandwiching Nori between rocks as I did notice this fish trying to graze on the live rock. It would first just eat small pieces that other fish tore off that ended up floating in the water. Pretty soon, it figured out it could go to the rock and just get the Nori from there like everyone else. About a week later, I moved the Nori to a clip and the Powder Blue got the hang of that. I don’t know if the Powder Blue picked this up from the other fish, but it also started going for pieces of PE Mysis that I fed. Now, the Powder Blue eats just like all the other fish in QT and is even nipping at pellets! Basically, if there is something small floating in the water, the Powder Blue will give it a try. After just a week or so, it was the first one out of the gate to go after the Nori.

    Water Parameters and Maintenance Routine:

    I never had an ammonia problem during the treatment process that I know of. The SeaChem Ammonia Alert never changed color at all and I would check it twice a day. I've got the doser setup to just deliver Alkalinity supplement to help keep my Alkalinity up to maintain stable pH. I am using BRS 2-part Recipe 1 and dosed about 0.5ml of Alk per gallon to maintain an Alkalinity level of 8.5 dKH.

    In terms of mechanical and biological filtration maintenance, I have a sponge on the overflow tube that gets cleaned out twice a week. I also added a mesh filter sock with some filter floss that gets changed once a week. I was surprised to see my skimmer is generating skimmate despite the hyposalinity conditions. Obviously it is not enough to provide proper filtration by itself but anything helps. The Chaeto in my refugium did fine under the hypo conditions but what little caulerpa I had died. I quickly removed any dead macro and siphoned water out of the fuge and off the sand bed in the fuge to remove any extra detritus that had built up.

    I have also done regular large water changes to help keep the system clean. I started with two water changes a week, one ten gallon about mid-week and another 20 gallon at the end of the week. After a couple of weeks, things seemed to be going well without a huge buildup of algae on the glass or ammonia issues so I switched to just doing a 20 gallon change at the end of the week. I did, however, always keep a 20 gallon container of water at 1.009 S.G. ready as soon as I was done with my weekly water change in case things went south and I had to do an emergency water change. Fortunately, that never happened so I just ended up getting my weekly water change ready in advance. I would also siphon the sand bed to get rid of detritus and waste.

    Speaking of water changes, I've been keeping my Alkalinity at about 8.5 - 9.0 dKH as mentioned earlier to help prevent pH swings. Here are the numbers for a 10 gallon water change that can be scaled up or down as needed to hopefully save someone a bit of time and experimenting as to what is needed to buffer a hyposaline solution to 8 – 9 dKH:

    • 10g RO/DI at 79 degrees F
    • 1.75 cups Red Sea Coral Pro salt to make a mixture with a salinity of 1.009 S.G.
    • Alkalinity reads 4.2 at 1.009 S.G. as measured with Red Sea Pro test kit
    • BRS calculator calls for 31 ml of 2-part Recipe 1 to raise Alk to 8.5 dKH
    • Added 31 ml of Alk to water and Alk then tested at 8.5 dKH

    I will also say having an ATO is the only way I would try to do hypo from this point forward. Changing room temperature and humidity can really affect how much top-off is needed and it would be too easy to go over the 1.009 level without an ATO if you just tried to keep up with manual top off unless you had a very high volume.

    I hope documenting what I have done and this process will help some folks who are planning on setting up or currently running a QT system. While this is certainly not the only way to do this, it is a method that has worked for me and that I hope I can improve upon with input and experiences from others.

    Article submitted by MBSL55.

    Treatment Update:

    I am happy to note that there have been no signs of Marine Ich after getting the system back to normal salinity. It took a little over a week to raise the salinity in the system from a S.G. of 1.008 to 1.026. I used the Salty Zoo salinity calculator to ballpark my water changes (45 gallon system volume) and had to use a total of 114 gallons of new salt water at a S.G. of 1.026 to reach my target salinity. Here's a breakdown of approximately how much water was used for each change along with the salinity before and after:

    1.008 - 1.010 = 5g
    1.010 - 1.012 = 5.5g
    1.012 - 1.014 = 6.5g
    1.014 - 1.016 = 7.5g
    1.016 - 1.018 = 8.5g
    1.018 - 1.020 = 11g
    1.020 - 1.022 = 14g
    1.022 - 1.024 = 21g
    1.024 - 1.026 = 35g

    I administered Prazipro yesterday, which is the final step in my process, and did not notice a depressed appetite at all. I will be able to release my fish into my tank come next Tuesday, Christmas day!
    This article was originally published in blog: My “Reef Friendly” Quarantine System started by MBSL55
    Comments 3 Comments
    1. melev's Avatar
      melev -
      Excellent write-up, Mike. Thanks for putting this together, as I know it will help lots of people better understand not only how to do this, but why it works.
    1. MBSL55's Avatar
      MBSL55 -
      Thank you very much Marc. That is high praise from someone who has been in this hobby for a lot longer than me.
    1. BulkHead's Avatar
      BulkHead -
      Nice! Also, love the 1911 poster...