4 Tips for the Right-Brained Marine Aquarist

Right-brained aquarists folks approach aquariums differently than a left-brained personAs regular Saltwater Smarts visitors may be aware, I was an English major in college and currently make my living working with words as a writer/editor. Admittedly, I’ve never really been able to wrap my head around more complicated mathematics and technical sciences. Now don’t get me wrong; I am capable of doing some pretty quick calculations in my head when the situation calls for it. For instance I can divide 12 slices of pizza among four people without so much as breaking a sweat (nine slices for me and three for the others to fight over, of course). But in general, I guess you could say I’m a fairly “right-brained” sort of person.

What this means with respect to my involvement in the marine aquarium hobby—which, let’s face it, is a relatively high-tech pastime—is that I’ve had to find certain ways to compensate for my lack of technical prowess in order to achieve long-term success. What follows are some helpful tips I’ve picked up along the way. If you also happen to be “left-hemispherically challenged,” you might want to adopt these as well.

1. First master tasks, then focus on theory

In order to operate and maintain an automobile, you don’t necessarily need to understand the precise workings of the internal combustion engine, how brakes work, what the drivetrain is, or the ins and outs of all the other systems. However, you do need to learn the basics of how to drive the vehicle and you have to stay on top of oil changes, fluid-level top-offs, and other aspects of routine maintenance to ensure the vehicle keeps humming along as it should.

While it’s an imperfect analogy, many aspects of marine aquarium keeping can be approached in a similar manner if you don’t quite grasp the theoretical underpinnings of the task right at the outset. For instance, you can recognize that a protein skimmer is essential to maintaining a healthy aquarium system, follow the simple steps of setting one up, and discipline yourself to empty the collection cup and clean the unit on a regular basis without having ever heard the terms “hydrophobic” and “hydrophilic.”

Once you’ve mastered the various essential tasks, you can then focus on the theory behind the tasks so you start to develop a better sense of the “why” that lies beneath the “what and how.”

2. Connect with a mentor

If you can connect with a friendly expert who is able to explain technical concepts in easy-to-understand terms, you’ve won half the battle. You might find such an individual at your LFS, in your local aquarium club, or even in an online forum. I’ve found that most knowledgeable hobbyists are more than happy to share their expertise as long as they’re approached in a respectful manner.

One note: If your mentor turns out to be a trusted LFS dealer, please be sure to return the favor by supporting his or her business with your dollars!

3. Keep your system simple

My aquarium systems have never included a lot of gadgets or featured a labyrinth of interconnected plumbing and cords. To my mind, the simpler the system, the simpler the setup and maintenance and the fewer the potential equipment failures. Remember, you can have a perfectly successful reef aquarium in which the only gadgetry includes a heater, protein skimmer, lighting system, and submersible pumps for water movement.

4. Make your peace with elbow grease

Of course, there is a certain tradeoff to keeping things so simple. That is, the less you depend on gadgets and automation, the more hands-on work you have to do in order to keep your system healthy and attractive. The only automation I have on my system is a timer for the lights. Everything else comes down to elbow grease—and it’s served me pretty well so far!


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. I cannot leave without at least UPS and controller.
    Phosphor reactor, dosing and top-off are also very useful and don’t really add complexity to the system

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Ah, good points, Sergey! Caribbean Chris, whose system is more complex than mine (though he still considers it simple), gets a kick out of my angst over technology. I tell him I’m coming around slowly–very slowly!

      • "Caribbean Chris" Aldrich says

        Yep, I enjoy giving “Old Timey Jeff” some guff about his no-tech tendencies. But hey – you can’t argue with what works and that’s what is great about this hobby, there are different ways to get to your end goal.

  2. Paul Baldassano says

    I think mine is the simplest. Reverse UG filter, skimmer and ATO. (All home made of course) No dosers or controllers except for a $5.00 times to turn the lights on.
    I do have a couple of more things on there from time to time as experiments but they are not really needed. I taught the older hermit crabs to do some of the more mundane maintenance tasks themselves.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Interesting! Perhaps you could affix tiny algae scrapers to the hermits’ legs, thus eliminating that chore.

  3. How do you guys prevent from overheating without controller?
    How do you prevent from power outage without an external battery?

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      I don’t usually have too much of an issue with overheating in my tank. During the hot months, I run my central air conditioning so the room temperature is somewhere in the mid 70s F. That allows me to keep the tank temp right around 78 degrees year round even with metal halides.

      As far as power outages are concerned, I’m definitely taking more of a chance there since storms do knock out power from time to time. Fortunately, our local utility crews are usually pretty quick at getting the power restored in such cases, so we seldom lose power for more than a few hours. With that said, it’s certainly a good idea to have some sort of alternate power supply in place, especially if you live in an area subject to prolonged power outages (e.g., hurricane-prone areas).

    • "Caribbean Chris" Aldrich says

      I utilize a controller and created logic to keep my two heaters in check and water temperature stable. With this method my aquarium fluctuates a maximum of 2 degrees throughout an entire year, which can be quite the feat in NW Ohio where we get all four seasons (typically anything from -20F to 100F in a given year). I also have to attribute part of that stability to my Carib system being in the basement, as well.

      In terms of power outages, I have a gas-powered generator. Usually if an outage persists for more than 30 minutes, I’ll fire it up and bring the system back online. Last year I had to deal with a 21 hour outage and the generator played an integral part of all going well.

  4. Paul Baldassano says

    My tank used to overheat when I used MH lighting. Now I use LED only and the heating problem vanished. When I had the heat problem I used to freeze a couple of gallon jugs and put one in the tank in the morning and one at night. For power outages I have a generator, but before that I have used my SCUBA tanks to supply air stones. I bought a regulator for the tank that drops the pressure down from 3,000lbs to about 4 lbs for air stones. My power has been out for as long as 4 days at a time with no ill effects except not with the generator, my neighbors all want to put their food in my freezer.

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