Starting A Reef Tank – How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium


Starting A Reef Tank – How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium

Starting A Reef Tank - How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium
Starting A Reef Tank – How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium
How to start a saltwater coral reef aquarium from start to finish. It’s not as hard as you think it is. A reef aquarium requires appropriately intense lighting, excellent water movement, heating and cooling, and a very stable water chemistry. Own a piece of the ocean, right in your living room.



Stage 1 – Plan, Plan, Plan

The first mistake most beginners in this hobby make, including myself, is rushing. Patience is a virtue, and most of us don’t have it, plain and simple. You need to figure out exactly what type of reef tank you are aiming for. Will you keep SPS, LPS, or Soft corals? The more precise you can be in this stage, the better off in the long-run you will be. Read about each type of coral, invert, and fish as much as possible, then when you think you know what you want in your aquarium, we can move on. Another thing you will want to consider is water type. Tap water contains metals and other contaminants that are harmful to your new reef. A ro/di filtration system should be used to make pure water for your new aquarium.




Light up my life

A huge mistake for most people beginning this hobby is low lighting. I can not stress the importance of lights in a reef tank, your corals, and what type you keep, depend on it. Too little light, your corals will not grow or may die. Too much light, they will bleach or turn white. Now that I have stressed the importance, let’s see what types of lights we have and the corals they will work with.

The main types of lights necessary for a healthy reef tank are metal halides, t5, power compact, and leds. The standard for these are, and this is just a baseline, watts per gallon. For keeping soft corals, 3-4 watts per gallon will be fine. For SPS and LPS 5-8 is the range you will want to be in. If you want a “bluer” look, you need to go higher on the Kelvin temperature. 6500k will appear a bit yellow. I feel that is more of a personal preferance as for color or look of the tank. Another consideration when choosing your lighting is distance from the bottom of your aquarium to the lights. If you have a deep tank, you may need a bit more lights to reach the bottom.

Starting A Reef Tank - How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium
Starting A Reef Tank – How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium



Now it starts to get fun. Aquascaping is designing your layout with live rock. Think of the aquarium as your canvas. How do you want it to look? Do you want it to start higher in one end and slope down? The possibilities are endless, so get creative and see what you come up with. Once you have your final layout, go to your local fish store, or order online, your live rock. Then we can move on to the next step.


Filtration and Water Movement

Filtration and water movement in the aquarium are a very important step. If you are going to be using a hang-on overflow, you will need to move the water towards the overflow to remove waste. If you don’t plan this step out a bit, you may just circulate waste and other material around your reef and that is a big “no-no”. However you decide to move your water, be it powerheads or wavemakers, you should try and place them so they circulate your water very efficiently with NO dead spots. Once you get an idea of how you will accomplish this, make sure in the end, the water is moving towards the overflow. If this is the route you choose you should be using a sump below the main tank. A sump is simply another aquarium or the like, under the main aquarium that acts as a place for you to place filter media, heaters, protein skimmers, etc. The goal here is not to have equipment in the main or display tank. It’s not too attractive to see wiring, filters, heaters, and whatnot hanging on your beautiful reef. Now if you decide to go with another type of filter, that is your choice, this is just the preferred method and my method.

Starting A Reef Tank - How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium
Starting A Reef Tank – How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium


Fill ‘er up!!

Okie Dokie. Now we should be ready to add some water and get this show moving. I’m sure you can’t wait to put something into that tank already. But remember, have a little patience.
By now you should have your tank setup where you want it, and ro/di water made and mixed with salt. Check the salinity with a hydrometer, should be about 1.024-1.026. Fill the tank about 75% of the way up with your freshly mixed saltwater, remember we have the equipment and live rock to put in here also. Place your powerheads in the way that you planned before, they will need a bit of adjusting to get optimum flow with no dead spots. Now put your lights, heater, and other equipment in and turn it all on for a few days. This will dissolve any extra salt and start your photosynthetic cycle. After day 2 or 3, you should now see what temperatures you have in there. This will give you an idea if you need more heat, or possibly a chiller. Remember the optimum temperature range for a reef tank is between 76-82. Anything above 84, you most likely need a chiller.


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It’s time to cycle that tank

By now you should have your water in the tank, powerheads running, lights, sump or filter, etc. Don’t put any sand or your substrate of choice in just yet. Put your live rock in the tank. Don’t set it up in its permanent position yet, just stack it around the tank a bit. Stack it however you can to fit it all in there. Every day you should grab a powerhead and blow of your live rocks a bit, this will allow your filters to pick up the particles that come off the LR. This phase should go on for about 2-3 weeks. We are waiting for Nitrites and Ammonia to drop to 0. Once they have, you can add your substrate. For sugar sized 1-2 inches is fine. If your using larger sized sand, 3-4 inches will be where you want it at. Understand that once you add your substrate, the tank will cloud, this in normal. This is also invaluable for a very important reason. With the cloud in your tank, you should be able to see if your powerheads have missed some areas of your tank, these dead spots will be where everything would collect. You can now adjust your powerheads to make sure there are no dead spots in the tank. After the storm settles, you can finalize your aquascape. Now we wait.

Starting A Reef Tank - How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium
Starting A Reef Tank – How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium


Wait just a minute!

Let your tank run like this for a week or two. You are basically seeding your tank and giving time for hitchhikers to show there faces. By now the bacteria for your filtration are thriving. If you had the patience, great. You can now start adding corals now, NOT FISH!! At this stage, everyone is tapping there foot asking “when can I add my first fish darn it”, well not just yet. Add some corals and give them a bit of time, see how they do. Also leave room between each coral you place in the tank for growth, they will compete for space. Remember, they need some time to adjust to your lighting, so place them where you like, and watch for bleaching. Once you are happy with the coral placement, and they are flourishing, let the tank go for another month.

Starting A Reef Tank - How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium
Starting A Reef Tank – How To Setup A Saltwater Aquarium


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Fishy in the sea

Now you are ready for your first fish!! YAY!! I know this is been a long road, and if you waited, you will be very excited by now. Your tank is thriving, and stable. All your hard work is paying off. You just need to remember a few pointers here.
1. Only add 1 fish per week. Your filtration system needs time to adjust to the new bio-load.
2. Don’t overstock. As a general rule, 1 inch of fish per 5 gallons.

This is by no means an end all be all guide, just the way I do it.

I add fish like this, not that you need to follow this, just a baseline. The first week, clean up crew. Cleaners will help keep your sand, glass, and other areas clean. For cleaners, I add a few shrimp, hermit crabs, snails, and maybe a sailfin blenny. The second week, a tang. The third week, wrasses. The fourth week, school fish. And the fifth week, well, go nuts, it’s your tank!?!?!


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