All marine aquarists are aware of live rock. It’s the stuff that perhaps the majority use for bio- filtration and it’s also excellent as décor, be it a reef or a fish only system.
Good mature live rock has the usual bacteria present, those that convert the toxins ammonia and nitrite to the much safer nitrate. Unlike a canister filter where the nitrogen cycle stops after the production of nitrate, live rock within reason will deal with nitrate. This is because the bacteria that dwell deep inside the rock would also prefer to use oxygen directly, but because it is in very short supply they remove oxygen from nitrate which breaks it down.
When I set up my current soft coral reef system I used two canister filters for the bio-filtration. (The photo shows the reef in part. You can tell I took the photo!) The bio- media was Eheim sintered glass. It worked very well. Being aware that nitrate could become excessive I built a denitrator based on suphur and this ran from when nitrate was noted as being present even though the reading was very low. Better to defeat a potential problem than wait to tackle a real one. Once the denitrator was matured the nitrate disappeared and I never had any readings at all. This was over the first 5½ years of the aquarium’s life. It has to be said that the fish load is very low; there are two small fish (a blue damsel and a flame angel) in 43 gallons net of seawater.
The reef is built of what is named ‘grotto rock’. This doesn’t come from any grotto so why the name I don’t know, however it’s ideal for marine use as it is totally inert and full of crevices and holes. Just as important, it’s very porous. The rock comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes and it was great fun creating the reef.
The reef developed over the years and I noted the lack of nitrates. I thought I’d do a little experiment at one point to prove the effectiveness of the denitrator; this experiment consisted of turning if off. Difficult!
I monitored the nitrate level and found that all readings were zero (I suppose I ought to state that nitrate was undetectable with the test kit). I left the denitrator off for a week, two weeks, which turned into months. Still nitrate didn’t appear. The canister filters continued to run so nitrate would be produced.
I like looking at the reef from various points in addition to the front and sides. This often involves lying on the floor and peering into the aquarium. This sometimes occurs at night when most of the little beasties are about. The rocks I thought looked more like live rock than the real stuff, with all the worm growths, algae etc. I then wondered if it was in fact live. This thought was supported by the lack of nitrate, the canisters were producing it and perhaps bacteria were removing it? I realized that I did routine seawater changes and this would tend to reduce nitrate levels as well.
The rocks were now live, why not? It was an excellent home for bacteria after all. However, at the end of the day a rock looks like a rock, there’s no way a bacteria presence can be checked. It is a known fact that bacteria exist on surfaces within the aquarium in addition to any intended bio-filtration area, but would there be sufficient to support the aquarium completely? Surely the canister filters would be taking the majority of the bio-load?
I have two canister filters running as said, so it was easy to check. At the next scheduled clean of one of the canisters I removed the bio-media and ran the canister empty (seawater is returned to the surface for oxygenation and to agitate the surface). A careful watch was kept and there weren’t any unwanted effects.
So far so good, but the next stage was a little more cautious. Even though the bio-media from the first canister had gone, maybe the second canister was handling everything, so with the second canister, when the time was chosen to remove some bio-filtration media I only removed half of that present. Hopefully that left would prevent any major disaster from occurring. The amount left was one quarter of the total original amount. This was left for a month with everything being carefully watched. No problems.
Now came the crunch – remove the final bio-media. This was done and both canisters now ran empty. Feeding and maintenance continued as though nothing had changed. Nothing untoward happened.
The system continues to run normally and it is now approaching its 7th year. The inert rock is now live.
To be honest I wasn’t really surprised, though it was very sound to use caution. One way of producing live rock is to mix inert rock in with live; the higher the live proportion the quicker the inert variety converts (it still takes quite some time). There wasn’t any live rock in the system at all at the start; it was all inert, so how did it convert?
The first possibility is that ‘overspill’ from the canisters occurred though perhaps this is unlikely, I don’t know. The second is that bacteria developed on and in the rocks naturally and these expanded in number.
To my mind the most likely explanation is that the bacteria were introduced, though some could have appeared naturally as suggested above. Most of the corals that were introduced are attached to rocks and of course they were attached to these when collected – these rocks are live. So the inert rocks were colonized by the bacteria from the live coral rocks.
When the bio-media was slowly removed from the canisters the bacteria on and in the rocks would have expanded to deal with the increased load and, hey presto, the system is now based on live rock.
The denitrator sulphur media has been cleaned and is not in use. I haven’t actually removed the unit as it isn’t in the way. The good thing is there isn’t any more need for it to be maintained though the maintenance wasn’t a problem. The worst part was the flow, denitrators have a very slow flow and this was occasionally problematical and a bit of a headache. No more of that though.