AcroOptics’ Reef Light for a Spectacular Custom Build Featured in ReefBuilders Video Blog

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Jake Adams and the folks over at ReefBuilders recently published a video about a spectacular custom installation in California. AcroOptics built the lighting system for this uncompromising project, and we are thrilled with the results. It’s great to see this reef mature, and intriguing to see how the client has utilized the capabilities of the light system. In many reefs, corals with varying light requirements are moved vertically in the water column to receive the light intensity desired. In this reef, thanks to AcroOptics’ sectional control, these zones are horizontal, creating beautiful and natural-looking transitions between reef habitats.

Inspired by the amazing livestock and the development of the reef, we thought it would be fun to take a stroll down memory lane to explain how our portion of the build came together. (Full disclosure, we are about to get our engineering geek on.)


Sam Slobusky, founder of Wet Work out of  New Orleans, oversaw the larger project. He reached out to us to see if we would be interested in handling the high-end, complex lighting requirements (and to get a sense of whether we could pull it off, I’m sure). After an initial meet-and-greet over some local Colorado brew, Sam outlined the full project. Bottomline, Wet Work’s vision was a “dream reef” and AcroOptics was definitely interested!

Early sketch courtesy of Sam Slobusky/Wet Work

Everything from the architectural aesthetics to the ease of maintenance was clearly well thought out. I could spend pages covering all of the cool aspects of the installation, but we are light guys, so let’s jump to the goodies.

The design called for a 70” seamless fixture with a clean “edgeless” look. A one-piece canopy would cover a low-profile luminaire. Two single suspension cables would connect to single-point anchors. No visible electrical wires or peripherals were allowed. The electronics had to be silent and heat transfer kept to a minimum. The system had to pack sufficient punch to allow the most demanding Acropora and other SPS to thrive, while simultaneously lighting areas of the reef structure at an intensity suitable for Echinophyllia, Mycedium and Pectinia. Finally, the entire front, back, and canopy were to be a vibrant cerulean blue, with gunmetal side panels. Yep, that’s 70” of bright-ass blue.

The functional and design specifications posed several challenges. Given the size of the fixture, single anchor points required the center of mass of the fixture to stay low, to prevent front to back camber. Variable output over the area of the reef called for independently controllable arrays of LED panels. As reefs evolve over time, all of the arrays would be built to provide output to meet the requirements of the neediest coral in the reef. Subsequently, the fixture would need to handle up to 2,000 watts of electricity. Even running highly efficient LEDs and drivers, this meant active cooling for both the fixture and the supply. Active and silent is always fun.


Internal structural support for AcroOptics custom reef light

Internal framework


To nail the mechanical and aesthetic requirements, we recruited the help of Joe Steinman, a former design engineer from Tesla. Joe produced an intriguing design. Using a modified version of our original heat sink, Joe designed machined aluminum brackets to mount inside the extrusion. After sliding the brackets into the extrusion, an arced top bolted to the brackets, connecting all of the components together and providing the curve for the canopy.

Folded retaining edges slide in to conceal the seam.

To canopy was formed with tabs along the edge that slide into a circular slot in the upper lip of the extrusion, avoiding any visible seams on the vertical faces of the fixture.



The stamped end plates mounted under the canopy and behind the front and back edges



Two end plates were stamped and punched to allow airflow into the fixture. The right plate would face the wall, so the peripherals and power cord exited there. The end plates would connect directly to the extrusion, tucking neatly under the canopy edge.






3D rendering of custom LED reef light by AcroOptics, LLC

3-D rendering of the final fixture shape.


This early rendering shows the wall-facing side plate shown in the image above. The wifi antennae, power, and USB ports were placed here to remain invisible to the viewer; the power cable connects directly to a wall port. Machined holes in the extrusion allowed the electronics to be wired up between the three pieces. Air egress vents were placed along the back edge of the arced top. The arc adds a great visual symmetry, but is more than just good-looking. By placing the air vents below the apex of the curve, they cannot be seen from the viewing side of the reef. We had created the shape the client desired.







At this point, it was time to get blue. Color anodizing is always a challenge. The process involves etching the surface of the aluminum with acid, then running an electronic current through the metal while it sits in a bath of liquid which contains the anodizing material. (There is a reason most consumer electronics are black.)  Most shops will only create a custom color in either small

Matching canopy with extrusion

tanks (perhaps 30”) or giant ones up to 40’. The liquid needs to fill the entire bath, and it isn’t cheap. The pieces of metal are suspended in the bath by hooks, which also act as the conductors for the current. With a 14” x 71” canopy and 71” sections of heat sink, we needed a good-sized bath. To further complicate the issue, the heat sink used for the housing could not be the same aluminum used for the canopy and end plates. Matching colors across different alloys required a shop with some serious chops. Several places simply turned us away. One of the more adventurous vendors took a shot, to no avail. Fortunately, a colleague referred us to Erie Protective Coatings, located in PA. A gentleman named Raj patiently listened to me run through what we needed. “Tricky, no doubt”, he said. “I can’t make any guarantees, but we will do our best.” To say it was a long week waiting for the metal to arrive would be an understatement. When it arrived, the delivery guy hadn’t even finished bringing the boxes up when I was tearing into them. I liked what I saw, but the ultimate judge had yet to weigh in. Sam showed up a few days later. “Looks great!” he said. Massive sigh of relief, and kudos to the Erie Protective Coatings crew.

Dry-fitting electronics in custom



On the electronics side, we used three control modules, each running 6 LED panels. These connected to the power outlet on the side of the fixture that would face the wall, along with the wifi antennae. The driver boards connected to the LED panels via machined pass-throughs along the length of the heat sink. During low power portions of the photo-period, passive thermal dissipation keeps the diodes cool. During high-output periods, internal temp sensors activate a series of 80mm SilenX fans. We went with the SilenX due to their audible output –  they run below 14dBa, the threshold of the human ear. We hand-fabricated wiring harnesses to tie all of the components together. 18 individual LED panels populated the bottom of the fixture, with TIR arrays over each panel. It looked like we were in business.

We built a hand-press lined with felt to pre-arc the canopy, allowing us to slide the tabs into the receiving slots without marring the finish.


As the metalwork and electronics came together, I realized what a great vision the client had. The fixture looked crisp, clean, and stunning. We wired it up and began testing. When all of the systems had checked out, we were ready for the final assembly.


Once the assembly was complete, I contacted the client about delivery. I suggested the usual suspects – DHL, FedEx, etc. The client wasn’t wild about any; the risk of damaging the fixture in transit was simply too high. Having seen what can happen to fixtures during shipping, I knew he was right. Given the amount of TLC poured into the system, we were as attached to this beauty as the client.




Waterproofed box to transport the fixture, fondly nicknamed “the coffin”.

That meant crossing three mountain ranges and the Mohave dessert, with a really expensive piece of electronics that was too large to fit inside the car. With several inches of protective padding and a need for a rigid container, a roof-top cargo carrier wasn’t an option. We decided to build our own waterproof box, quickly dubbed “the coffin”, for the roof.

Joe was wrapping up when I arrived Friday to get ready to leave. By the time we were done testing, packing, and getting the fixture on the top of the car, it was getting close to 10 pm. I was meeting the client for the install in Los Angeles the following afternoon. Smoky and the Bandit time. Fortunately, the weather held, never a certainty in the mountains, and I rolled into LA (fairly close) to on time.



With assistance from Sam and one of his crew, the installation itself went smoothly. There were some last-second adjustments to cabling and alignment, but all told it was perhaps a three hour affair. With the light mounted, the whole set up revealed how clean the lines would be. (I only had my phone camera handy, so forgive the coloring.)

Full set up

Ceramic reef structure mounted flush with the glass.



Once the fixture had been hung, I had a chance to get a close look at the rock work. I am a huge fan of this reef structure. It is beautiful on its own. The shapes are great, and it does not look prefabricated; it was only apparent due to the color in its raw state. Never needing to replace coral that has taken a tumble due to rambunctious tank denizens is really sweet.


Further, the ability to incorporate the glass as part of the structure creates a much bigger canvas to work on. Many reefs look like a rock wall standing in the middle of the aquarium. This one has a much more natural appearance. The porosity of the ceramic provided a huge amount of surface area for the anaerobic bacteriological processes that denitrify the water. It also contains countless nooks and crannies that were soon to full of living creatures.





All in all, this was a fun one. Great reef, fantastic hardware, great livestock, and a good team. Kudos to all involved, too numerous to name here. From Wet Work through the crew at Unique Corals and all of the teams in between, everybody really produced a gem. Sam keeps videos of the builds his team does, so check out their website. (This build is reef #301.) He has a tour of this installation as well as more details about the incredible design and equipment that went under the tank. That said, the best way to enjoy this reef is just looking at it.

AcroOptics custom reef LED luminaire built for WetWork project #301

Incredible fully-custom reef installation created by WetWork (photo courtesy of Jake Adams)



Teens4Oceans: Helping Young Boulderites Protect Our Aquatic Environments

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Photo Courtesy of VIUDeepBay via Flickr - License

Photo Courtesy of VIUDeepBay via Flickr – License

Trevor Mendelow founded Teens4Oceans in 2007 at the Kent Denver School, in an attempt to engage high school students in marine biology conservation efforts. The program later evolved into an advocacy program for teens, and by teens, to recognize the importance of protecting our planet’s oceanic habitats. Continue reading

Man Made Structures: Can They Really Reverse Reef Damage?

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By US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Global warming puts a tremendous amount of stress on coral reefs. Increased water temperatures and ocean acidification lead to a process called coral bleaching, which ultimately leads to coral death.

Luckily, new technologies now allow scientists to keep a close eye on reef ecosystems. The increased visibility of declining reef health has helped drive both the scientific community and the government toward reef restoration solutions.

Ironically, these new solutions are emerging from what environmentalists originally deemed destructive behavior.

Both the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) agree that man-made structures are a viable solution for restoring reef ecosystems. In fact, a study found that oil drilling rigs in California have a greater abundance of marine life than surrounding ecosystems. Researchers attribute the larger population to the fact that rigs provide a large amount of surface area throughout the water column.

In this article, we’ll look at how the Rigs-to-Reefs Program and modular artificial reefs work to replace and restore struggling reef habitats.

Modular Artificial Reefs

Modular artificial reefs have been evolving for well over twenty years. They’re not repurposed material; they are specifically designed to function as substitute reefs. Testing in the 1980s suggested that these artificial reefs have the potential to revitalize reef ecosystems. Continue reading

The Great Barrier Reef’s Hidden Neighbor and Its Role in the Global Ecosystem

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Great Barrier Reef

By Verisimilus, via Wikimedia Commons

In our last blog post, we discussed deep-water coral reefs, their importance to the ecosystem, and the dangers they face. Today, we’re going to build on that and explore a recently discovered reef that lurks in the depths of Northern Australian waters.

What’s The Big Deal?

The reef, which is unnamed, is hidden in the deep water behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It was discovered by a joint effort of James Cook University, University of Sydney, and Queensland University of Technology utilizing aircraft and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) lasers to create a 3-D map of the seafloor. A new reef normally wouldn’t turn many heads, but this one is comprised of over 6000 square kilometers of deep-water corals that were hiding in plain sight.

Unexplained doughnut-shaped mounds measuring 200 to 300 meters across and 10 meters deep make up a large part of the reef, and they have scientists excited about the potential for further discovery and biodiversity. These creatures have been identified as bioherms, or ancient organic reefs made of marine invertebrates such as coral, echinoderms, gastropods, and mollusks. Continue reading

An Introduction to Deep Water Coral

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Deep Water CoralDeep water coral and their impact on our global bionetwork have only recently been studied, so naturally, we don’t quite know as much about them as we do their shallow water-dwelling brethren. They come from a world of darkness located thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface and can only be explored by the most sophisticated scientific equipment. As the secrets of these desolate invertebrates are uncovered, we continue to gain a better understanding of the important role they play in their surrounding ecosystems. More specifically, conservationists have begun to focus their efforts on analyzing the impact that humans have on the deep-water coral that form the backbone of our ocean’s infrastructure. Before we discuss conservation efforts, however, let’s review the basics of deep water coral.

What Are Deep Water Coral?

These coral are much like their shallow water counterparts; they exist in a variety of colors and provide a home for many of the ocean’s other creatures. They share the propensity to grow into reefs that can stretch for miles. In fact, scientists have documented some coral that stand several meters tall.  Their diversity rivals that of tropical coral. Many different species exist with textures ranging from spongey to stone-like, but that’s where the similarities end. Continue reading

We’re Looking to the Sky for Coral Health – And It’s Working

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Photo (Great Barrier Reef from Space) Courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr - License

Photo (Great Barrier Reef from Space) Courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr – License

Scientists have begun using satellite technology to monitor the impact of unchecked climate change on coral reefs in an attempt to stave off damage that may prove to be irreversible.

According to the National Ocean Service, more than half of the United States Caribbean coral reefs were lost in 2005 due to thermal stress; more thermal stress than the past 20 years combined. In 2010, cold water temperatures, possibly due to changes in the jet stream and melting ice caps, bleached coral in the Florida Keys. The extreme susceptibility of these habitats to damage, to the extent that the Australian government prohibits even touching the Great Barrier Reef, makes it all the more important to be aware of reef health. An abundance of marine species rely on the reefs and could be lost forever if  conservation warnings are not heeded. It’s for this reason that we’re taking to the skies to better monitor the state of our reefs.

Bleaching 101

Coral reefs undergo a phenomenon called bleaching when exposed to extreme stress, usually from higher than normal water temperatures, but also from cold water temperatures and water acidification. Bleaching is exactly what it sounds like: an absence of all pigmentation in the coral, leaving them bone white. During bleaching, the symbiotic organisms that give coral its color, zooxanthellae, are expelled by the coral’s polyps, leaving it without a food source and unable to sustain life or undergo calcification. Continue reading

Fluorescent Pigments: What Purpose Do They Serve?

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fluorescent pigments

Rainbow Stylo; Grower: Jeff Harris of AquaMart

In our last blog post, we talked briefly about what makes coral fluorescent and what purpose that fluorescence serves. With this post, we’d like to take a closer look at the benefits fluorescent pigments offer to marine coral. The mystery behind the glow has been debated in the scientific marine community for years, but the fact that so many species from widely varying habitats have evolved this capability indicates that it serves a valuable purpose. Recently, advances in measuring the functionality and mechanisms of this behavior have started to bear fruit, with evidence mounting that fluorescence serves more than one purpose. The two driving forces uncovered thus far for fluorescing pigments are protection from the sun’s rays and light generation for photosynthesis.

Protection Against Harmful Light

In order to deal with the high intensity sunlight in their native equatorial waters, corals have developed a photo inhibition, or protection from light, that while sounding intuitive, is actually quite complex. The widely accepted consensus is that bright, high-energy environments pushed coral to evolve fluorescing pigments to deal with harmful UV radiation from the sun. This protection extends not only to the coral itself, but also to zooxanthellae, a marine plankton that lives in a symbiotic relationship with the coral, providing it with glucose, glycerol and amino acids used to produce proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. The coral in turn provides the zooxanthellae a safe environment, free from predators. Continue reading

Coral Pigments and the Light Wavelengths That Stimulate Them

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Coral - TrachCoral pigments and their properties are a common topic of debate within the scientific community, with the bulk of our understanding having been gained in the past decade. Recent science has only started to unveil what function these fluorescent pigments serve, and there is debate over how they originate. Unlike terrestrial plants and most other marine life, coral can contain pigments that give off a fluorescent glow. Despite these anomalies, the rest of coral’s pigmentations function much like any other object our eyes perceive with color.

Before delving into fluorescent pigments and the wavelengths that affect them, it is first crucial to have a basic understanding of the color spectrum coral interacts with and what effect it has on the human eye. The human eye is only capable of perceiving wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum between 400-700 nm, and this is also the light we see interacting with coral under natural conditions. The 400 nm end of the spectrum corresponds to the color blue and has a short wavelength, while the 700 nm side corresponds to the color red and has a longer wavelength. All objects absorb some part of the spectrum and reflect the rest, with the reflection being what our eyes translate into color.

“Normal Pigments”

The interactions between a coral’s pigments and light waves are controlled by the depth at which the coral is living. Blue spectrum light penetrates salt water better than red spectrum light, leading to enhanced or dulled coloring, depending on which wavelengths the coral is absorbing. Continue reading

Professionals Love AcroOptics LED Reef Lighting Systems

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Keeping a thriving coral reef aquarium is challenging. Reef-keeping poses unique challenges and requires patience, discipline, and (periodically) hard work. Those of us who do it as a hobby all have our war stories – corals that succumbed to too much water movement, too little water movement, aggressive neighbors, random hitch-hikers, or just decide one day to give up the ghost. Keeping LARS (lazy-ass reefer’s syndrome) at bay when our aquariums are cruising along happily can be tough; keeping a calm head when things go south even more so. I don’t know of any serious reefer who hasn’t at least once considered walking away, perhaps following a healthy dose of catharsis involving a sledge-hammer.

And yet, we stop by the LFS, or get an email from our favorite frag grower, and we are instantly hooked back in. One picture of that awesome A. valida, a brief glimpse of the trophy tank in the lobby, and we are kids in a candy store. Reefs are beautiful, peaceful, and bring us great joy when they aren’t causing us to pull our hair out. So how do the pros do it? The same way good hobbyists do – with patience, discipline, and responsibility – and it sure doesn’t hurt if you have good gear.

Michael Park is an owner of Aqua Imports, the preferred LFS here in Boulder, Colorado. He is actively involved with ocean and reef protection, despite living in the land-locked mountain state through great organizations such as Teen4Oceans, who bring physical visibility of reef and other marine environments directly into the classroom. By creating such a tangible link between the students and their environment, Teens4Oceans is shaping a new generation of ocean and reef stewards. Park also works with View Into the Blue, who build and install underwater webcams to provide continuous live IP-based streaming video and data for use by researchers, resorts, governmental agencies, educators, non-profits, and the public. One look at this glorious tank and it is easy to tell he is no novice. This isn’t a color-saturated Photoshop job, either – Matt Arvidson took this with his cell phone.

Incredible coral reef under AcroOptics LED lights

Mike Park’s incredible SPS wonderland is a testament to what a reef aquarium can be.

With a store full of the latest technology, Park has his pick of the best available. In 2015, he pulled out three Ecotech Radions and replaced them with one AcroOptics 48″ Reef Slope fixture. The powerful uniform light field keeps his livestock thriving and happy. “We have definitely seen great changes“, says Park, discussing the tank since upgrading the lights, “Coral growth rates and coloration are far superior to the…fixtures previously on the tank. Shading is also greatly improved.

And Park is not alone. On the other side of the country, Harry Hooper, owner of Harry’s Frags, uses a 24″ Reef Flats fixture over one of his SPS propagation tanks. (If you haven’t seen Harry’s stuff, it is definitely worth a look at Harry’ Harry, a retired computer scientist, and his wife Ruth moved from hobbyists to retailers due to the shear success of his reefs.

Acropora Valida GARF Bonsai from, courtesy of Harry.

Beautiful colonies of Acropora valida “GARF Bonsai” from Harry’s Frags, courtesy of Harry.

When his SPS had grown to the point of overcrowding, he opted to sell them online.  Focusing primarily on SPS, the Hoopers are not “chop, stick and ship” operators. Harry allows his corals to mature on the plug, so his “frags” are really more like small colonies – beautiful, well-formed, and vividly colored. That patience, coupled with a desire to promote healthy aquaculture as a way to contribute to reef protection, has earned Harry’s Frags a rabidly loyal clientele. Despite his success, Hooper still strongly identifies as a hobbyist.

Hooper recognized the advantages LEDs offered over metal halides early, and showing the DIY spirit that is so prevalent in this hobby, set about building a custom LED rack for himself in 2012. By 2013, he had fine-tuned his system and expanded the foray from the original 50g tank  to include a 120g and two 180g aquariums, running his fixtures with Arduino boards. In July of 2015, he installed a CRAVE24 Reef Flats over one of his propagation tanks.

He spoke about the AcroOptics fixture in December: “After the last several months…my coral has responded well in displaying color and growth. I am very satisfied with my fixture…no one who buys one will be disappointed!” Hooper really appreciated the evenness of the light field, “without the disco-ball effect” prevalent in other LED fixtures.

So that is how the professionals do it. AcroOptics fixtures are now available to hobbyists too, so that we can provide our corals the strong, uniform light fields that professionals love. You can take a look at them here.

Lights can’t make water changes, monitor calcium and carbonate hardness levels, or apologize to spouses/landlords for the occasional plumbing issues, but they can ensure our corals have the healthiest and most stable food source possible. In return, our corals will continue to bring us the joy that a healthy reef provides to those willing to make the effort.

Don’t forget to support pros, like Mike Park and Harry Hooper, who work hard to bring healthy, vibrant reefs to us, in an ecologically responsible way. Take a look at what Aqua Imports has to offer here. Visit Harry’s Frags here. You will be glad you did.

In-Situ chooses AcroOptics LED Reef Light System for 540g Install

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In-Situ Chairman Chris McKee takes his reef-keeping seriously; not a big surprise given the business he is in. The Fort Collins-based company makes water quality testing and monitoring equipment, including an innovative line of products targeting aquaculturalists.

Chris has installed a 540 gallon custom aquarium at the company’s Fort Collins facilities. To create a robust reef that requires minimal maintenance, McKee enlisted the help of AquaMart owner Jeff Harris. Harris’s impressive design provides spectacular views of the reef both from the shop floor and the main lobby. Measuring 8 ft. x 3 ft. x 3 ft., the stunning tank is being stocked with a wide variety of coral species.

540 gallon aquarium for a coral reef

AcroOptics’ Mike Hurowitz gets perma-grin when he sees the size of the aquarium.

Lighting a tank of this size to meet the requirements of the Acropora, Montipora, and other SPS corals that McKee plans on keeping is no small feat. To address this challenge, Harris and McKee chose a 6 pendant Reef Slope lighting system from Boulder-based AcroOptics.

The six CRAVE24 pendants, mounted 14” over the water surface, provide unparalleled light uniformity with enough punch to keep the SPS inhabitants of the reef happy and healthy. AcroOptics’ custom TIR lens arrays allow ample room for access to the aquarium while keeping the light in the tank. Opting for LEDs over metal halides, the duo have created a set up that ensures stability for the livestock, negligible heat transfer to the aquarium, and drastically reduced energy consumption.

Along with the AcroOptics system, the custom tank from Planet Aquarium includes a sump with the return driven by Aqua Medic’s Eco Runner 12000. The sump contains an ATB Deluxe Internal 12.5 skimmer, and Aquatop MR-30 media reactor. Water movement within the tank will be provided by a pair of EcoTech Marine’s MP 60 Quiet Drive powerheads.

Custom reef tank installation AcroOptics LED lgihting

Jeff Harris installs overflow and sump plumbing. The return is driven by an Eco Runner 12000.

AcroOptics’ control system is fully integrated within the fixture and accessible from Chris’s computer over his wifi network.

AcroOptics Reef Slope pendant set over 540 gallon reef

Jeff’s live rock masterpiece gets a brief moment of light before being allowed to cycle.

With the substrate, rock and water loaded into the aquarium, Harris has begun stocking. It’s a tough call at this point who is more excited about the process, Jeff or Chris.

Strawberry Shortcake Acro under AcroOptics LED reef light

Strawberry Shortcake (A. microclados) – this one should really color up well.

A. gemmifera

Large a. gemmifera thriving.

What is clear is that AquaMart and McKee have created something special. Keep an eye out for updates as the reef comes to fruition. The drive up from Boulder to observe the progress is worth the trip to AcroOptics’ Steve Tappert:

“This is a really exceptional installation, and I’m intrigued with how it develops – there aren’t many opportunities to work on a set up as nice as this one from the ground up. Plus”, he adds with a smile, “the Poudre is a stone’s throw away – no reason not to enjoy a little fresh water as well”, referring to the excellent trout water just upstream from Ft. Collins. “Win, win.”