The marine aquarium can be so beautiful if the aquarist does straightforward routine maintenance as required, and doing this maintenance includes attention to the all important seawater quality.
Seawater quality is maintained by routine changes of sufficient quantity, and at the same time tests are completed to ensure that the required standards are met. These tests include specific gravity (SG), pH, nitrate and for a reef could include calcium and similar. Some aquarists continue to test for ammonia and nitrite after the initial maturing process. Alkalinity is a test that is useful to marine systems too.
It would seem fair to think that Mother Nature would know best in these matters and the alkalinity level in the wild is 7 to 9 KH*. So perhaps we should keep out aquarium seawater at the same level.
We could maintain a natural level and hopefully all things being equal there wouldn’t be any problems. However, we are not talking of the vastness of the seas and oceans where seawater quantity is measured in cubic miles; we are talking about aquariums where even a large home system of 500 gallons is, by comparison, very tiny.
Most aquariums are fully stocked whatever system they are. The life in the aquarium puts pressure on the seawater in several ways and one of them is the acid/alkalinity balance. We know this measure as it uses the pH scale, and we want a pH of between 8.0 and 8.4 which is on the alkaline side. The life functions in the aquarium constantly try to reduce this pH towards the acid side, something we do not want.
Prevention of the reduction in pH is achieved by the ‘buffering’ capacity of the seawater, in other words its ability to resist changes caused by acidic substances. The ‘buffer’ is mainly the carbonate/bicarbonate content of the seawater. In certain circumstances the buffer could be seriously weakened or even exhaust and the pH would fall which is detrimental to the livestock.
Dry seawater salt as purchased by most aquarists for seawater make-up has a buffering capacity usually around natural levels. However, many aquarists boost the buffering capacity of their seawater by adding carbonate/bicarbonate powders. These powders are usually mixed in some seawater before being added to the aquarium, being careful not to hit corals etc. The powders are sold commercially and are very easy to use.
In an aquarium it is considered best to maintain alkalinity from 8 to 14 KH.* It is not recommended to raise the level above 14 KH.* The recommended level of 8 to 14 KH does not mean the level can vary within these limits, it should be reasonably stable at the chosen point, ‘reasonably’ meaning that some variation over say a week will not usually be harmful. My system runs at 10 KH and needs boosting to an extent weekly.
If the aquarist measures the alkalinity of a fully stocked system on a weekly basis and keeps a note, then the trend of the aquarium can be seen. The amount of buffer that needs to be added is easily prepared week to week. Testing can be reduced once this requirement has been discovered but should not be abandoned.
If pH is a problem and it is falling despite routine seawater changes and good husbandry in feeding etc, then perhaps the buffer capacity needs attention. Increasing the buffer by 1 KH week to week will not do harm. I have found a good alkalinity level is also beneficial to the growth of welcome encrusting algae which can beautify the aquarium.
By the way, if the desire is to measure alkalinity by mg/l, then multiply KH by 17.9.
(*Reference: Marine Atlas. Helmut Debelius & Hans A. Baensch)