This article provides information on how to get your saltwater aquarium or reef tank setup. There are many different ways that you could set up a marine reef aquarium. This is but one way and it works for us.
Some of the equipment listed below is optional, such as the sump and refugium. These are optional pieces of equipment but very nice enhancements to a tank.
- Light Timer
- Salt Mix
- Live Rock
- Protein Skimmer
- Power Filter (optional)
- Algae Scraper
- Sump and/or Refugium (optional pieces of aquarium equipment)
- Quarantine Tank
- Power heads (multiple)
- Food (depends on what you plan on keeping in your reef aquarium)
- Test Kits (chlorine, pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, phosphate, calcium, alkalinity, iodine)
- Reverse Osmosis filter for making up water or even better an RO/DI (deionization) filter.
- Hydrometer or refractometer
- 2 Five Gallon Buckets (clean and for fish tank only use)
- Fish, Corals and other Invertebrates
- Macro Algae such as chaetomorpha or gracilaria, for use in the refugium
This is the most important part of keeping not just a reef tank, but any type of fish or animal. Without proper research how can someone determine if they can adequately care for their fish? We as aquarists have a direct impact on the life or death of our fish and invertebrates. Please don’t take this responsibility lightly. These are after all, living beings.
If you’re one that doesn’t like to read or someone that hates doing research, then you may want to rethink the whole reef tank thing. I didn’t like doing research very much in high school and college, but now I can appreciate it more, since the amount of research done beforehand has a direct effect on my wallet. Meaning that I don’t spend money on items that I’ve found out that I can’t adequately care for, or equipment I don’t really need.
For example, I’ve tried to cut corners and save money in the past by buying a cheap inexpensive protein skimmer. After messing with the air flow adjustments for several weeks I realized that this skimmer was a waste of money. It wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do, so I got the next skimmer up in price. This turned out to only be marginally better than the first skimmer. So, I was on my third skimmer now. This one turned out to be really good which I only discovered by doing
The morale of this story is that I could have saved a couple hundred bucks by researching thoroughly before laying down my hard earned cash for those crappy skimmers. The information is out there. Did you look for it? Here at Fish Lore, we have a few aquarium equipment reviews here and on the forum.
I don’t mean the kind of research where you have to document/paraphrase/cite sources and such. When I talk about research I’m talking about reading and making a concentrated effort on locating care information for your inverts and marine fish and aquarium equipment.
Also, realize that the set up and running of a reef tank can get expensive. For a general idea on the start up costs, check out the Freshwater vs. Saltwater Aquarium page for more information. That article also now has a cost estimate for a reef tank setup.
DECIDE ON WHAT TO KEEP
This should be one of the first things you undertake when planning a new tank. The tank setup, size, shape, dimensions (depth) will all be influenced by the animals that you will be keeping. For example, if you want to keep corals, you may need to get a shallow tank so that you can get maximum light intensity to the corals you’re interested in keeping. If you’re wanting to keep tangs, you would obviously want a much bigger and longer tank.
Deciding on what to keep will have an effect on the lighting setup that you will need to get. Reef tank lighting can be quite confusing. We’ll get into lighting soon. You may, while doing your research, discover that there is no way you could care for the animals that interest you. In fact this may happen several times before you end up with a final selection of species for your aquarium.
One piece of advice that we’d like to pass along is that you may have the best results if you try to focus on a particular biotope or niche on the reef. Mixing animals from different parts of the reef can have unknown consequences at the time of setup. Also, you may also have better long term success if you avoid mixing soft corals with hard corals. It’s not that it can’t be done, it can be more difficult though to mix coral types.
CREATE A LOG
A log book (file, notebook, paper, etc) can be extremely helpful when running a reef tank. It can be as simple as a notebook with your notes on the tank parameters. Whenever you test your tank water, write down the date and any test readings. Microsoft Excel or any spreadsheet application makes this task really easy. Create columns across the top of the spreadsheet for the test parameters (i.e. Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, Calcium, pH, etc.) and then have the date in the first column. Here is an example of a reef tank log.
The cool part about using spreadsheets is the ability to make a chart of your test numbers. For instance, once you have several month’s worth of data on calcium test results, you can create a line graph on this data which will give you a good idea of how fast calcium is being depleted from your system.
Another interesting idea if you have a digital camera is to take a few snap shots of your tank at least once a week. It can be pretty cool to look back at the photos on the development of your reef tank and it can help paint a better picture of how fast your corals are growing.
Look around some of the larger online fish and aquarium stores to find some of the better deals on most pieces of equipment. Remember that you have to add shipping to that price tag you see online. Even adding in the shipping though, buying online can shave a few dollars off the price, but the bad part is that you have to wait for several days while it’s being shipped to you. You can even buy an aquarium online, but it will most likely be less expensive to buy the fish tank locally.
After deciding on the animals you’re interested in keeping, it should be a rather simple matter to determine the absolute minimum amount of equipment needed. In this case, we’re talking about setting up a reef tank and the list of equipment provided above is all recommended for just starting out. An optional piece of equipment is the Aquarium Chiller. If you’re running metal halides or similar, you may very well need one of these chillers to help keep your tank temperatures stable.
SET UP THE TANK AND EQUIPMENT
First, pick out a spot in the house for your marine reef aquarium. Next, put the tank on the stand and fill the tank with freshwater to determine if there are any leaks. It’s much easier to return the tank now for a new one before you have everything in it. Also get out a level to make sure the tank is level. You should also be able to “eye ball” it by looking at the water surface. A small piece of foam placed between the tank and the stand can help reduce minor levelling problems, but for major problems you’ll need to adjust the tank stand.
A fish tank weighs between 8 and 12 pounds per gallon, depending on what’s in the tank. It’s usually easier to use the average of the two, and use 10 pounds per gallon as a very rough guideline. This means that a 100 gallon tank could very well weigh over 1,000 pounds when setup. This also means that you should think twice before placing your reef tank on an upstairs floor. If you’re unsure about how much weight the floor can hold, at the very least call a professional to come in and assess the situation.
If your tank passed the leak test and the level test, fill it with dechlorinated tap water or even better, Reverse Osmosis water. Tap water can contain dissoved solids that could contribute to algae problems down the road, but for now tap water should be fine. Once the tank is filled about two-thirds full, add in the pre-measured amount of salt mix. Use the directions on the back of the box or check the manufacturers website if you’re unsure of how to mix their salt mix.
We use an old algae scraper to stir the water until the salt mix is dissolved. Fill the tank a little more with dechlorinated freshwater or RO water, (not all the way to the top!) and then put in some powerheads to keep the water moving. After several hours, check the specific gravity with your hydrometer. It should be in the 1.023 – 1.025 range. Slightly lower or higher should be ok too. A good range to shoot for is 1.021 to 1.026. If the specific gravity is too high, you can lower it by removing some of the tank water and replacing it with freshwater only. If the SG is too low you can add more salt mix. Don’t worry if you’re having trouble mixing the saltwater. After several water changes you should become quite the pro at mixing saltwater.
ADD LIVE ROCK
Add the live rock to your aquarium next. Place the live rock in an interesting arrangement directly on the glass bottom of the tank. Placing it on the glass bottom instead of on top of the sand prevents burrowing inverts from toppling the rock structure. It helps to draw some aquascape designs on paper before placing the rock in your tank. Some things to keep in mind: Don’t place the live rock too close to the sides of the tank. Doing so will make it harder to clean the tank glass when algae starts growing. Use plastic cable ties and aquarium safe sealant (glue) to make interesting rock scapes. You can also drill holes in the rock, but be careful and use a dust mask. After drilling small holes you can use plastic ties to fasten different rock shapes together to form interesting shapes. The possibilities are endless and you’re only limited by your budget and imagination. Using these tools you can make some really interesting caves, bridges, and overhangs that will enhance the beauty of the system.
If you’re starting with “cured” rock direct from your local fish store, you can proceed to the next step. If you’re starting with “Uncured” live rock you will need to cure it for the next several days or even weeks. How long depends on the shape the rock is in when you put it in the tank. You will have to use your aquarium test kits to tell you when the rock is done curing. There should be no signs of ammonia or nitrite in the tank.
TYPES OF AQUARIUM SAND
There are many different types of sand available to hobbyists. Some are better than others when it comes to reef tanks. Grain size can be important, and we like to use sand with a grain size anywhere from 1mm – 2mm in a shallow sand bed. Grains that are too small can trap gases and grains that are too large can trap detritus and lead to organic build-up. You can still have these problems with the grain sizes in the 1mm to 2mm range, but we think it functions well and also looks quite nice.
You may also come across something touted as “live sand”. It is often way more expensive than “dry sand”. While we don’t want to dispute the claims made by the manufacturers that the living beneficial bacteria are included in the live sand packaging, we have a hard time believing it. How can these bacteria possibly stay alive for (sometimes) months at a time in an enclosed package often exposed to extreme temperatures during shipping? The only live sand I’d use is sand taken directly out of an established tank. Sometimes hobbyists swap a cupful of sand at aquarium club meetings in the hopes of diversifying their sand beds. This can be a nice and inexpensive way to jump start a “dry sand” bed.
CLEAN THE SAND
Use one of your five gallon buckets to clean the sand. Fill the bucket up about half-way. Then fill with tap water. The bath tub is a good place to do this to prevent water from getting everywhere. Slowly swirl the sand around in the bucket. This should release the dry powdery dirt upwards and then you can drain the dirty water from the bucket. Repeat this process several times and then take the clean sand to the tank. Slowly add the sand to your aquarium. Don’t worry about the cloudy water that results. This will soon dissipate.
The recommendation nowadays is to either go with a shallow sand bed or a deep sand bed, but not one in between. Well, what exactly is a shallow sand bed? What is a deep sand bed for that matter?
A shallow sand bed is anything under 2 inches. Most of the sand should stay aerated and there most likely will be little to no anoxic conditions present.
A deep sand bed is anything over 4 inches deep. You start to get anoxic (low oxygen) conditions and anearobic conditions that will aid in denitrification at around 4-5 inches.
Anything between 2-4 inches deep could (theoretically) lead to algae blooms on top of the sand bed since you’re getting some anoxic condition in the lower layers along with detritus that builds up in the upper layers. So, it’s kind of like the worst of both worlds.
Personally, I like to use a shallow sand bed. I think it simply looks better than a deep sand bed. I also use ample amounts of live rock in our tanks and hopefully it is performing adequate denitrification making the deep sand bed unnecessary.
After adding the cleaned, dry sand to the tank, add any “live” sand to the tank. Mix it in with the dry sand. Hopefully you’ll have enough to inoculate the sand bed with many new types of living organisms and bacteria.
Once all the sand is placed in the tank, let everything settle for a couple of days or longer.
REEF TANK WATER MOVEMENT
Think of the reef’s natural environment for a minute. There are pounding waves and very high water flows at times. There is not a constant unidirectional flow of water, as is the case with power heads. We can reproduce these conditions on a much smaller scale by using either a wavemaker (which can be quite expensive and hard on power heads) or by using multiple powerheads placed strategically around the tank to generate these turbulent water flows that corals do well in. Try to direct the flow from one powerhead into another’s flow. Bank them off the tank glass, put them in a crossing pattern, anything to create turbulence in the water. Don’t direct the output of a powerhead directly on a coral. It could damage the coral’s tissue after awhile.
One thing to keep in mind with powerheads though is that submersed power heads can add heat to the reef tank’s water temperature. If you add too many that are underpowered, you could have a serious temperature problem on your hands. It would be better to have a fewer amount of larger powerheads than many small ones.
High water flows are important for several reasons. They help keep detritus and uneaten foods suspended for filter feeders, mechanical filters, protein skimmers etc. so they can remove them from the water before they start to break down and effect the water quality. Water flow is also important because it can wash away any slime coatings that corals sometimes form to protect themselves from predators or other corals and the water flows carry food particles to the corals in the currents generated.
SETUP THE REEF TANK LIGHTING SYSTEM
Deciding on the proper aquarium lighting for a reef tank can be quite confusing to those just starting out and it is one of the most important components to a successful reef tank. Most of the corals we as reef keepers are interested in keeping, utilize zooxanthellae that in turn use photosynthesis to supply food to the coral. Certain corals are also filter feeders, but they may get most of what they need from the photosynthesis of the zooxanthellae in their tissues.
I’m going to try and summarize some items that I think are most helpful when selecting a light system for your reef tank. Please keep in mind that these are generalizations – please research every animal you want to keep beforehand to see if you can meet it’s care requirements with any particular lighting setup:
• Research the corals/inverts before purchase to see if you can meet its lighting needs
• Light intensitiy drops off significantly the deeper it goes in water, therefore it may be less expensive to light a shallow tank than it is to light a deeper tank. You could also form the correct conclusion (obvious right?) that placing your corals lower in the tank will mean that they will receive less light intensity than those higher up in the tank.
• For soft corals – think Power Compacts for standard depth tanks (24 inches deep) or shallower
• For Large Polyped Stony Corals – think HO or VHO flourescents. You might be able to use power compacts, but you may need to place the corals in the upper regions of the tank if you do go with PC lighting.
• For Small Polyped Stony Corals – think T5-HO Fluorescents or Metal Halides. A note about T5’s: you still may need to place your corals higher in the tank. Metal Halides perhaps are the safest bet, but they can add a significant amount of heat to the aquarium and they can be quite expensive. T5 High Output (HO) lights are gaining favour because they are less expensive, produce less heat than metal halides and the bulbs are reported to last several years before they need to be replaced.
Besides direct sunlight, metal halides are about the most intense light we can get right now over our tanks. Perhaps they will get LED aquarium lights working in the near future, or become more practical, which should hopefully make it cheaper to run our aquarium reef tank lighting systems without any added heat. At any rate, the lighting setup for you reef tank is going to be one of the largest cash outlays (can get very expensive) and lighting is one area you should spend some serious time on while researching the corals you would like to keep. Look into the purchase price, and ongoing maintenance costs such as how much it will cost to run those lights by looking at how many watts the light use and how much replacement bulbs are going to cost. These are serious considerations and may very well influence your decision to purchase a particular aquarium light setup.
Fortunately, there are many lighting setups to choose from out there and many reports from hobbyists on the success (or not) they are having when running these setups. Look on online forums and learn how to use the search engines to find reviews on these expensive aquarium lighting fixtures. For example, you could use “Metal Halide Aquarium Light Review” in the google search box to pull back reviews on metal halide lights.
You will also need to get a light timer that will allow you to program when the different bulbs come on. These timers sound like a waste of money, but they really are worth the peace of mind they provide. Not to mention that you can create some really cool effects by staggering the on/off times a bit. They also provide a stable time period over the tank, which can be very important for the health and growth of your coral.
A sump is a separate tank that is usually fed water by gravity using an overflow in the display tank. The water goes over the lip of the overflow, goes into the stand pipe in the overflow and then flows into the sump. A return pump in the sump returns water back to the display tank. Setting up a sump can be a little tricky. You have to make sure the the sump will be able to hold as much of the water that will drain from the main tank in the event of a power failure.
The aquarium sump can provide several nice benefits. It can hide/house ugly equipment. It increases the total amount (volume) of water in your system. It can make water changes easier, since the sump is usually lower to the ground. You can also add saltwater aquarium supplements into the sump instead of in the main display aquarium, which should give the supplements more time to dissolve without possible harming the tank inhabitants.
The refugium is another tank that is as a place of refuge for desirable organisms. It is placed inline with the rest of the system. Hobbyists will often setup a refugium with a deep sand bed, some macro algae (such as chaetomorpha) and live rock. The use of refugiums has taken off lately. Companies are now producing quality models that can hang on the back or side of the tank. There are also setups that combine the sump and refugium into the same box. Way cool stuff here.
Why is a refugium important? Well, the macro algae does a great job at extracting nitrates, phosphates, carbon dioxide and other nutrients from the water. You can then export these nutrients by “harvesting” the macro algae. This essentially involves pruning the growing macro algae. The macro algae can also harbor many desirable life forms like amphipods and copepods. These tiny organisms can be used to feed the display fish and corals once their populations reach significant numbers. Refugiums most likely will need their own light source and power compacts that clip on the refugium work nicely in these applications.
TO MECHANICAL FILTER OR NOT TO MECHANICAL FILTER
You don’t have to run a mechanical filter, such as a power filter or canister filter, on your reef tank. We only run a mechanical filter, in this case a hang on powerfilter, when we want to run activated carbon in between water changes or if we need to use phosphate removing pads when we start noticing any sort of algae build-up anywhere in the tank.
The main idea here is that the protein skimmer will remove most of the organics once they start breaking down so you really don’t need to run a canister filter or power filter. In fact, these very filters could or might contribute to nitrate problems if the filter media is not cleaned and/or replaced on a regular basis, like every two days or more frequently. Speaking of protein skimmers…
PROTEIN SKIMMER SETUP
If you purchased a protein skimmer, either a stand alone, hang on the tank type, or one that is for use in a sump, hook it all up now. Some recommend not running the protein skimmer during the break in stages, but we do. If you’re curing live rock and running a protein skimmer, watch the collection cup closely because it may need to be emptied frequently during the break in stages.
We should mention here that it is not absolutely necessary to run a protein skimmer on your reef tank. Some swear by skimmers and others think that they do more harm than good by skimming off the good with the bad. Frequent partial water changes can be used instead of a protein skimmer for lightly stocked tanks. Running a skimmer might be cheaper in the long run compared to making frequent partial water changes (salt mix isn’t cheap). However, I would only recommend not using a skimmer for those with more experience in keeping reef tanks.
LET EVERYTHING RUN
Ok, so we’ve added the sand and live rock, setup the sump, refugium, the protein skimmer, and possibly the mecahnical filter. Now we need to let the system run for a few days to a week while monitoring the water quality. If after running the tank for several days and you don’t detect any ammonia or nitrites but you can detect small amounts of nitrates, you can slowly start stocking the tank. Sometimes live rock that is extremely porous can be excellent at denitrification and you may not get a nitrate reading with fully cured rock.
SLOWLY ADD FISH AND CORAL AFTER QUARANTINE PERIOD
The time soon comes to add the fish, corals and other invertebrates. Stocking your tank slowly and ALWAYS using a quarantine tank will pay off big time in the end. Saltwater fish and corals can be very expensive. Setting up and running a quarantine is not expensive, just another step in the aquarium acclimation process. Following a strict quarantine protocol will go along way to ensuring your success within this hobby.
Keep the fish and corals in QT for several weeks so you can monitor them for signs of infection, be looking especially for signs of saltwater fish disease such as Amyloodinum and Cryptocaryon (marine ich) and treat at the first signs of disease.
A quarantine tank also allows your fish to recover from shipping without harassment from other tankmates and it gives you a closer look at the fish (QT’s are usually much smaller than a display tank) all while getting it to eat the needed foods in order to build up the fish’s health.
Corals can also carry disease and sometimes hobbyists will use a dip procedure where they dip the coral in Lugol’s Solution (concentrated iodine) for 10 – 15 minutes before putting them in QT. This is thought to be a therapuetic treatment. Whether it works or not, I don’t really know.
DEVELOP A MAINTENANCE ROUTINE
After having the tank setup for several weeks you will start to see increased amounts of algae growth on the aquarium walls and maybe on the rock and sand. A magnetic algae scraper can easily rid the tank walls of unwanted diatom algae blooms. Gently using an aquarium vacuum over the top layer of sand will get rid of any algae trying to take hold on the sand.
Daily Reef Tank Maintenance Tasks:Tank Temperature
- Watch the Fish, Coral and Invertebrate behavior
- Feed the fish
- Scrape the tank glass of any diatom algae growth – it’s way easier to take it off daily, instead of letting it grow. you may want to let one of the sides grow algae, especially if you have herbivorous fish such as tangs.
- Empty and clean the protein skimmer collection cup. A dirty collection cup could negatively effect the performance of the skimmer.
- Top of any evaporated tank water with pure (Reverse Osmosis) freshwater or at least filtered tap water.
Weekly Reef Tank Maintenance Tasks:
• Check Nitrate, pH, Alkalinity and Calcium levels, possibly phosphate and silicate
• Once your corals start growing they will consume more calcium from the water. You need a way to replenish the calcium levels and keep the alkalinity levels up for growth to continue.
Dosing with Kalkwasser is an easy way to keep these levels where they need to be. You can slow dose kalkwasser when the lights are off to offset any pH rise. Research this subject thoroughly before using kalkwasser. A calcium reactor can be considered a better way to keep these levels up, but a calcium reactor can be very expensive. Great to have if you can afford one.
- Do a partial water change (10 percent)
- Wipe down power cords and any salt creep around or on the reef tank.
- Clean the intakes to power heads and/or skimmers.
TESTING YOUR WATER PARAMETERS
Testing your reef tank water parameters is crucial to not only the well being of your fish, but it is also important for the health and growth of your corals. Keeping the tank’s Specific Gravity, pH, Calcium and Alkalinity levels at optimum levels is very important if you want to see growth out of your corals.
Some recommended test kits to have on hand are Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, Phosphate, pH (automated pH meter is extremely handy), Iodine (if you plan on dosing iodine), Calcium, Alkalinity and of course a hydrometer.
Good water parameters to aim for:
- Specific Gravity 1.023 – 1.025
- Temperature 75 F to 80 F
- Calcium 400 – 450 ppm
- Alkalinity – 2.1 to 2.5 meq/L
- Magnesium – 1200 – 1400 ppm
- Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrates and Phospate – 0 ppm
- Iodine – 0.06 meq/L
Remember to test often and write down your results so you can chart your tank’s progress. You can come up with some really interesting conclusions about your tank by simply looking at the line graphs produced by the data from your logs.
ENJOY YOUR TANK AND CONTINUE TO LEARN
The aquarium setup stage of your reef tank is now over and many new stages are beginning. There is so much to learn about the corals, fish and invertebrates we keep and it can be quite fun learning about these animals while watching our reef tanks thrive. If you didn’t use the sump or refugium in your setup, maybe you can start learning more about these systems with the hopes that you could eventually incorporate them into your reef tank. They will add stability to your system.