The Pico Reef: A Journey Through a 2 Gallon Reef

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

One of the greatest things about reefing is that you can constantly learn new things, refine your skills, and tackle new challenges at your own pace. Speak with any hobbyist and you are likely to hear tales of tank upgrades and endless fiddling. As reefers, we are rarely content with our accomplishments and instead we are always looking to push the envelope.

So, I went from my BioCube to my entire 100+ gallon system (a 65 gallon “predator” reef, a 10 gallon frag tank and my trusty BioCube, all plumbed together). I went with the Triton system for its promise of lack of water changes and maintenance. After a few months, that system is—knock on wood—on autopilot.

Time for the next challenge.

I decided to spruce up my office—after all, I do spend most of my time at work—with a pico reef. Take a look around the internet and you’ll see some stunning pictures of reef jars. The idea is easy enough: maintain a mini-reef of hardy corals in a cookie jar that holds about 2 gallons. Sure, the bigger the system volume, the easier the tank is to maintain (more water = more stability), but the perpetual reefer wants a new challenge. Also, nearly everyone who has a reef tank heroically claims it is “super easy” and just requires “weekly 100% water changes.” Since I have my water changing station and always have 30 gallons of water ready to go, I figured weekly changes would be no big deal. I picked up a couple of 2 gallon water jugs from Walmart that I could easily fill up on my way out the door to work.

Before I purchased the setup, there were a number of concerns I had. First, I wanted to keep evaporation to a minimum because I do not have time during the work week to perform constant top-offs on a tiny tank. There are some weeks where I am not in my office for most days rendering an open jar impossible to take care of. Second, I wanted to regulate the temperature for the same reasons. How to solve these problems? In this hobby, it is always research, research, research. If you are thinking about doing it, chances are someone else already has tried it.

Turns out that regulating the temperature is super easy. You can get an Inkbird controller for under $40 and that will keep your temperature within whatever small range you choose. They even sell ones that can give you alerts if something is wrong. (I did not opt for that version, because I knew I would never run into the office on a Sunday to fix whatever issue was plaguing a 2 gallon jar with no expensive coral.)

The evaporation took a little more time to tackle, but I ended up discovering the ReefSmart light. It fits over the jar perfectly, blocks evaporation, and has controllable channels. And it looks damn cool! Also, Steve from ReefSmart is the absolute best! He answered all my questions within minutes and even provided advice on how to make the system work. (I get no affiliate marketing for this, I am just a big fan of the product and Steve’s customer service.)

So how is it coming out?

Here’s a picture of what it looked like on Day 1.

I’m almost a month into it now and things are a little rough. I was able to avoid the “ugly phase” of the nitrogen cycle by using some MicroBatter and seeded live rock from my sump. My cloves are doing great, GSP seems to be living but not growing. I had trouble with some small zoa frags, so I replaced them with a bigger frag that seems to be doing ok. But my Xenia seems to be dying! Did I find the only thing that can kill Xenia? Luckily, my mother colony of Xenia is constantly growing, so I have a near endless supply.

Basic parameters are fine (ph, Ammonia, nitrite and nitrate). I am thinking it could be not enough alkalinity, calcium or magnesium. I haven’t tested for that yet because I was simply doing weekly water changes. But, I was using Tropic Marin salt. I use that for my main reef that runs the Triton system precisely because it does not have elevated levels. I have a strange feeling if I use some reef crystals I have sitting around and “dirty up” the water, these softies may actually do better.

So that is next week’s project. I’ll be sure to report back on how that worked (or didn’t). Do you have tips or questions? Leave them in the comments below!

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