By Richard Ross


very year when the weather starts to heat up, the online forums fill with posts about how to cool a tank and where to buy fans, chillers or portable AC units. Sadly, once a reef hits 90+ degrees, it’s too late to be looking for a cooling solution. Not only are the animals already suffering or dying, but trying to find a solution during a heat wave can be next to impossible.
I generally try to keep the temperature of my reef in a sweet spot between 76 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Some people run their reefs as cold as 74 degrees, and some as hot as 82, but almost everyone agrees that one of the keys to having a healthy tank is keeping the temperature relatively stable. One way to ensure this is to find the temperature your tank naturally rises to with all your equipment running, and set your heater to that temperature. If you are lucky, this temperature will be in the range that you find acceptable, but if it isn’t, you’ll have to look at some options to cool down the tank year round. No matter where you live, you are probably going to need some tank cooling strategy due to seasonal weather changes. Keeping your reef from over heating can be difficult given daily temperature swings and seasonal changes. Sudden hot snaps can strike out of the blue, raising your tank’s temperature without warning. Prolonged high temperatures can turn your tank into a cloudy soup. Even the life support you use to keep your reef thriving; return pumps, power heads, and lights, produce heat that can raise your water temperature. This article will try to help you head off excess heat problems by looking at the effects of heat on your reef animals, sources of heat in a reef aquarium, and what you can do to beat the heat in your system. At higher water temperatures, corals can bleach, while at the cellular level, proteins can denature, essentially cooking the coral. However, it is not necessarily the temperature change that stresses or kills your animals. Often, it’s the lower amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. Hot water carries less oxygen than


cold water so when the tank overheats, your fish and corals have trouble getting enough oxygen. The problem can be exacerbated by low flow in the aquarium, as good flow is required for coral respiration. Less oxygen in the water and less access to that oxygen due to low flow is a bad recipe for reef health. Like everything in this hobby, preplanning is key. When it isn’t hot outside, you have plenty of time to research potential solutions. That’s the time to find the right piece of equipment, often on sale out of season, like fans, chillers or window/portable AC units. You get to choose the solution you want instead of being forced to buy what is available (and perhaps having to spend more money buying the right solution later). Also make sure it’s installed to the best advantage instead of rushing into a temporary fix because your animals are suffering. Having strong aeration and flow in an overheated tank can mitigate the dangers to your reef, so initial system design, including a quality protein skimmer to aid in aeration and removal of dissolved organics, can play an important role. Since gas exchange occurs mostly when the surface of the water is broken, the more you can “churn” the surface of the water, the more dissolved oxygen you can get into your reef. A power head or return line pointed at the surface of the water, instead of the bottom of the tank, can help add a lot of oxygen to the water. Water flowing into an overflow and down a standpipe to the sump is great for gas exchange, but the way the water enters the sump can also increase dissolved oxygen levels. While we all like quiet
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(Continued from page 18, beat the heat ...)

sumps, an overflow that splashes, or flows along the sidewall of the sump above the water line allows for great “churning”, gas exchange and evaporative cooling. Adding water motion is an excellent to way raise dissolved oxygen levels during a heat wave. Keep an extra pump, powerhead, or air pump, some airline and an airstone on hand, and set them up when it gets hot outside. Turn off your lights on days it’s going to be hot. Your corals and fish will be fine without the tank lights for 2 days or more. If it’s going to be hot for a while, you can change your photoperiod to late at night or early in the morning when ambient temperatures are cooler. You can even set an electronic temperature controller to turn off your lights if the water temperature gets too hot. Evaporation will help cool your tank, sometimes by a significant amount. You can boost evaporative cooling by adding fans to blow across the surface of your tank water, either on the sump or the main tank. The fan can also be automated with an electronic temperature controller, turning it into a year round solution rather than just a seasonal solution. When it’s hot, your reef can evaporate a surprisingly large amount of water in a very short time, and your salinity can rise to dangerous levels in a matter of days or less. Therefore, a plan for dealing with increased evaporation is a must. Keep a few buckets (or more) of fresh top off water, either reverse osmosis/deionized water or treated tap water on hand. At the very least, know which LFS in your area has RODI water for sale, and hope you don’t need it when the store is closed or sold out! You can manually add the top off water as needed, or you can use any number of methods to automate your top off with float switches or dosing pumps connected to reservoirs of RODI water. I recommend investing in some sort of auto top off because it can be very difficult to manually keep up with evaporation rates. With an auto top off, you don’t have to check on the tank all the time so you can go out and enjoy the hot weather.

Some advocate the use of several 2 liter bottles of water kept in the freezer and rotated into the sump as needed. In my experience, this is not only labor intensive (you have to actually be near the tank all day to know when to change out bottles), but it doesn’t work very well except on small systems. Cooling the air of the room the reef is in with air conditioning can also control runaway temperatures. This solution has the added benefit of keeping the reef keeper cool as well as the reef. Many people use window AC units that the user needs to install (screw into place) to work safely and properly. There are also portable (rolling) AC units that exhaust through a window through an easily installed exhaust port included with the unit. Both units work well, but the portable unit has the added benefit of being able to be moved into your overheated bedroom at night. Though they can be expensive, electric aquarium chillers are a great way to directly control overheating. A chiller is like a tank heater in reverse; when the tank gets too hot, it turns on. A drop-in chiller has a cooling coil you drop into your sump, while a flow through chiller needs water pumped through it to function. The more powerful the chiller, the more it can “pull down” the tank’s temperature and the faster it will cool the water. For sizing and flow requirements, please see individual manufacturer’s recommendations. If you are running a chiller, make sure that the chiller and your system’s heater are set so they don’t waste electricity fighting each other. It makes little sense to let the heater heat the water the chiller is cooling and let the chiller cool the water the heater is heating. Another way to deal with this potential issue is to get a dual stage controller, which will control both devices and not allow them to work against each other. Because a chiller can eat up a lot of electricity, some people have a multi-stage temperature controller running a fan on the sump that is set to turn on a few degrees lower than the chiller. This way, the fan and evaporative cooling does the lion’s share of the work, while the chiller is there for the really hot days.


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The author’s tank thrives with consistent temperature control. IMAGE BY RICHARD ROSS


If your tank gets too hot, and you start to lose animals, you are going to want to do water changes before your water quality degrades and you lose more animals. Make sure you have enough salt mix and RODI water on hand to be able to do a 50% water change if needed. I actually have a 150 gallon reservoir that I keep filled with saltwater that is ready to go, so if there is a problem, I can act immediately. (Editor’s note – “clean” (newly mixed) salt water is lower in dissolved organics and therefore can carry a higher dissolved oxygen level) The summer heat is on its way, so whichever solutions you choose, now is the time to get them in place! Take a look at your system, maximize flow and aeration, and do what’s required to help your tank beat the heat.

Special thanks

to Jake Adams and Jim Adelberg for their influence in writing this article.

RHM sponsored Reef-A-Palooza takes place Oct. 11-12 in California. Log onto www.reefhobbyistmagazine.com for more info!


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