The best words I have to describe a coral reef is a “lush wasteland.” By this I mean many extremely different types of life inhabit a coral reef, yet it is incredibly nutrient poor. Reefs rely on powerful sunlight as an energy source and lifeforms concentrate in a very complex web. All the nutrients in a coral reef are tied up in the living biomass of the inhabitants. Since a reef aquarium is an enclosed system it has only the capability to mimic the biofilter of a reef, and is by definition a micro-habitat. We are unable to mimic the flow of millions of gallons of water flushing and refilling a coral reef. We can only create “reef soup”. However, this should not allow you to become discouraged. Through knowledge of what you are trying to mimic we can do an amazing job of allowing a captive reef to thrive and flourish. I hope my tiny guide helps anyone get interested in this fantastic hobby and allows you to be at ease with a little knowledge about how to prepare. With that let’s get our hands wet. I have written this set-up guide with the understanding the reader understands the nitrogen cycle (cycling) and other such beginning concepts.
I am in the process of setting up my 8th tank and I will simply copy here exactly how I am going to do it. This is by NO means the “end all, be all” way to set up a reef tank. This is merely how I set mine up and has worked for me successfully and efficiently (not quickly). As with any advice use what works for you and discard the rest. Everyone is looking for a set up which appeals to them aesthetically and foremost financially. Here are the steps I use to set up a reef tank:
1. Decide on the exact type of tank you wish. SPS (Acropora Millepora, Seriatopora), LPS (Favia, Blastomussa, Euphylliya) Soft corals (Sacryphyton, Nepthea, Alcyonium) Macroalgae/slow moving seahorse tank, etc. The more you can decide EXACTLY what you want to do, the more you will read, study, learn, and most importantly be able to recreate for your inhabitants, which will go a long way in the success of your tank. Take your time and use the internet to your advantage. Read, read, and then after you have bled from eyes from reading read a bit more. Don’t forget, the more you research the types of tanks you may want, the more you have learned about how to keep every type of coral, invert, fish etc properly, and that knowledge is NEVER wasted.
2. Great, now you have decided what you want. Maybe you want a fore-reef, lagoon, fringing reef, spur and grove, whatever you like. Learn about all the corals, fish, inverts, and water needs of your tank. DON’T RUSH. If you want to do a fore-reef slope then you need to learn about the amount of water movement needed, lighting, and most of all species which inhabit this area. Insure the aquarium you have is appropriate dimensions as well. A 30 gallon hex tank is NOT going to house the Powder Blue Tang you really want, and it wont create a nice spur and grove reef….it will however make a great seahorse/macroalgae tank.
3. Now that you know what you are going to keep, the first and most important step in a reef environment is lighting. Whether you decide on Metal Halide, VHO, Power compacts, or a mixture learn what your corals will need. This is most easily broken into Watts per gallon. You can get away with 3-4 for soft corals 5-8 for LPS and SPS corals. Decide on a Kelvin temperature of the bulb as well. I favor 10k Metal Halides with supplemental actinics. I have used 20K MH before and I loved their deep blue light. 6500K should be the lowest you should go on the Kelvin chart. If you see 5500K it is a bit yellow and I don’t care for it. To get an idea of what Kelvin temperature is a candle flame is about 1800-2000K. The higher you go the more blue you see. 6500k or 10K is the standard and anything above that is ok. When deciding how high off the surface to place a hanging metal halide it is more important to consider the distance from the bottom of the tank to the light, than from the surface of the tank to the light. The only consideration for distance between surface to bulb is because metal halides run hot and raise the temperature of the tank. The MH should be at least 12″ off the surface unless you have a chiller or it will heat up your water. Tanks deeper than 30″ should be using 250W minimum especially if you are going to keep some LPS sand dwellers on the bottom (Trachyphyllia, Fungia, Heliofungia). Once again, decide on the type of tank and custom the lighting to it. There is nothing wrong with knowing you can’t afford 5-8 watts per gallon. Soft corals can survive on less and are incredibly gorgeous. Don’t get caught up in the SPS acropora craze. Stay within budget.
4. The next most important step is water parameters. Most synthetic sea salts will provde a pristine environment for your corals. I will not go into detail on the levels of each element in parts per million. Read and learn it for yourself so it will become second nature to you. The most important test kits to have immediately in hand are – Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, Phosphate, DKH, and Calcium. Nearly all reef problems can be traced back to either too much or too little of those. Once you get more advanced pick up Strontium, Iodine, Magnesium, and Iron kits…however you are a bit away from that now.
5. Using blank sheet after blank sheet, draw your aquascape. When you are actually ready to do the aquscaping you will be dealing with live rock and don’t want to make a mess stacking and restacking. Purchase the supplies you need for the aquascape such as PVC, Glue Sticks, Cable ties, etc. I mean the DRY supplies…no live rock yet….just be patient. I always attach all my live rock to PVC pipe. This keeps it in a suspended state a bit and allows water flow. I am not a big fan of the “pile o’ rubble” look. This is a fun time to go to the LFS and see what types of live rock they have and see if they will haggle a bit on a bulk purchase price. If it is 5.99 per lbs. there is nothing wrong with asking questions like “If I buy 50 pounds do you drop the per pound price?” They should, or I guarantee you, someone else will. (At the time of this writing I am about 1 month away from setting up my tank. I will post my stacking method with pictures and try to demonstrate how to form a nice aquascape. If I start setting up the tank now before I am done unpacking all the dishes, furniture, etc from my recent move…my wife will probably kill me in my sleep. You guys have seen “The Burning Bed” right?)
6. Now you have the tank ready to go and the supplies for the aquascape. Think about powerhead placement now. If you are using a sump, you want the current directed towards the prefilter. Don’t have every powerhead aiming at the opposite side of the tank from the prefilter. Don’t forget a little surface agitation as well to facilitate gas exchange. This is also a good time to revisit the aquascape. Ask yourself: Do my rocks hide my powerheads? Does my placement of powerheads eliminate “dead spots”? Do the corals and/or anemones have/need a powerhead blowing over them (if they thrive under those conditions)? Again patience is the key here. Having a beautiful aquascape will get you nowhere if all someone can see when they look in is powerheads and wiring in the tank. Don’t just think about the rock formation, plan out where every coral will go and leave room for growth.
7. Time to think about filtration now. About 4 tanks ago I completely stopped using any type of chemical or mechanical filtration. I will explain why:
Mechanical filtration most easily defined is the removal of whatever particles happen to drift by the inflow of the filter. They are then trapped by the mechnical membrane and every single gallon of water pulled out from then on is dragged over them as well. These particles are held in suspension on the mechanical membrane until you change the membrane and the cycle repeats itself. In a reef tank, any detritus from fish falls to the bottom and is scavenged by copepods, hermits, shrimp, sand sifting gobies, etc. It is broken down efficiently. In a canister filter…it sits there as all your water is dragged over it. Uneaten food is trapped as well and sits there while gallon after gallon passes over it, whereas had it fallen to the bottom it would have been consumed in one way or another. Imho mechanical filtration has no place on a reef tank. However, in all honesty I do have a HOT magnum filter I keep under my tank (unhooked). I keep the Magnum HOT filter for 1 reason only….that will be discussed later on.
Chemical filtration is in the form of carbon or even worse activated carbon. I despise it like I despise the Cuban desert “flan”. There is no difference between good flan and bad flan, and to me all carbon sucks. Activated carbon is “activated” by having phosphoric acid sprayed over it. Phosphoric acid = Phosphate leeching. This process etches and grooves the carbon giving it more surface area. Carbon not only absorbs but after it is done absorbing it releases as well, it doesn’t just stop absorbing. When handling most carbon your hands turn black…what is that? It is ash and ash can lower PH. (While I realize MANY reef aquariums use carbon and are beautiful and effective, to me it is worthless.) Please understand again this is only my opinion. If you love your carbon and even have a pillow you sleep on full of activated carbon just cause you love to think it is filtering your dreamy time air, thats great. Again, keep what helps you, discard anything I say which does not.
The only filtration I use on my tank is a protein skimmer. Nothing else. I generally go for something in the neighborhood of turning the tank over 5-7x per hour. Example my 58 gallon tank I will use a skimmer which can process at least 250 gallons per hour. If anyone thinks a protein skimmer is unnatural just head to the beach. You know those white clumps of filthy foam you see on the shoreline? Thats the skimmate from the oceans own version of a protein skimmer….waves crashing and creating bubbles. They accumulate on the surface and are blown ashore by the wind. Protein skimmers create micro bubbles which collide with each other in the contact chamber. The friction creates a charge and since all DOCs (dissolved organic compounds) are polar in nature they are attracted and stick to the bubbles. They then collect at the top of the skimmer and are removed. Easy peasy lemon squeasy.
6. Placement in the house – This is important and needs to be considered. Here are some things which you will want to keep the tank away from: Natural sunlight coming in and hitting the tank, an A/C duct blowing on the tank or directly above the tank (dust), near a doorway (door slams and drafts), traffic flow through the room (you don’t need your fish ducking for cover cause you put the tank right off your kids bedroom and they can’t resist tapping the glass everytime they walk by), away from TVs (loud sounds), and last and most important near an electrical socket (as my 6 yr old says “Duh daddy.”). Also to be considered is where it is pleasing to the eye. My fish tank is always across the room from my lazyboy recliner. I can sit there and watch the tank for hours in comfort with my hand shoved down the front of my pants ala Al Bundy.
To review – You have come up with your type of tank, the aquascape, the livestock, the powerhead placement, the filtration and exactly where you want it. Time to stock it!!! WRONG!!!
7. Fill the tank to 75-80% capacity and get your salt mixed using RO water and put your powerheads in the tank, Throw on the lights, and turn on the skimmer. Have all the powerheads facing the bottom of the tank and let it run for a few days with ALL the lights on for the photosynthetic cycle you want. This will dissolve any excess salt mix AND MOST IMPORTANTLY accomplish you finalizing your baseline temperature in your tank with everything running at full bore. If the tank temperature is shooting up over 82 degrees it is either time to invest in a chiller or time for a fish only tank. Inverts and corals do not like temperature spikes so take a bunch of temperature readings, I mean every other hour or so. Try to do this step on a Friday night so you have Saturday and Sunday to take temperature readings. The reason you only fill it to 75-80% is because all that live rock you are almost ready for will make the water level rise, and you don’t need to be wasting pure clear water to do you? Once you have your temperature baseline turn off those lights, and leave the tank in the dark and barren for the night until the next step…..
NOW you get the excitement of cycling the tank!!
8. Remember that pretty little canister filter (Magnum in my case)? Time to fire that baby up now. DO NOT put in your substrate yet. Place the live rock in the tank as loosely as possible on the bare bottom. Only stack it as little as needed to fit it all. For the 1st week I do not run any lights at all, not even actinics. Every hour or so when I am home I grab a powerhead and blow off the rocks in the tank as much as I can to allow the HOT magnum to pick up as many particles as possible. During the first week I begin my daily dosing of Kalkwasser right before I goto bed. While the amount will differ for every tank I know my 58 gallon, when I run it open top, usually evaporates almost a gallon a day. So every night before bed I top it off with Kalkwasser which keeps those coralline algae humming until they can get that much needed light. Lucky for me I have a aunt who is a Gynecologist and she keeps me in supply with IV drippers. I will take a picture of my drip system…my wife thinks it is hilarious that I use an IV drip for my generic version of a dosing pump. However, it works like a charm. One more thing, go to the LFS and grab the cheapest in tank corner filter you can find and drop it in the tank. Most of them require and air pump and an airstone. Let it seed with bacteria. I will explain why very…very soon.
9. Once nitrites and ammonia have dropped to 0.0 time to add the substrate. This has given usually 2 weeks for all the tiny little crustaceans and coepods which inhabit live rock to come back a bit. Add your substrate and finalize your aquascape. If you are using the sugar sized reef sand (oolitic) 1-2 inches is good. For larger sizes 3-4 inches is also good. (REMEMBER if you are going to keep sand sifting fish such as gobies…make sure the grains are small enough to pass through their mouths) Now since you waited to add the substrate till the cycling ended you don’t have to worry about brown diatom algae fouling your pretty white oolitic reef sand while the tank cycles. The diatom has most likely come and gone. One more very important step here. Most substrates cloud the aquarium a bit even after rinsing. This is invaluable for 1 very good reason. Put you powerheads in now in their “final” position and turn them on. With the clouds in the aquarium you can get an excellent sense of the water flow in the tank. This is invaluable especially if you are not using a wavemaker. You can see the flow of the water and see if there are dead spots. These usually look like a little vortex of dust. Tweak the powerheads to eliminate dead spots. And let that mechanical filter trap every suspended item you can. After the water clears then unhook it, clean it, and put it away.
10. Let the tank run with just the live rock for about a month. I know that is hubris! It is a complete affront to yours and my good healthy American lifestyle of instant gratification. Damn it we want our burgers in a minute, our photos in an hour, and our reef up and running as soon as cycling ends! My God, how can I be such a cruel taskmaster?! Simple, and please please pay attention. You are “seeding” your tank and one very important thing as well. You are giving time for any hitch hikers on the live rock to show themselves. Aiptasia, Anemonia, parasitic bristle worms, and the dreaded mantis shrimp to name a few. To test for a mantis shrimp just put some raw squid in a mantis trap and drop it in on the sand. Leave it in there overnight. If it is trapped in the morning you are golden, if it isn’t I promise you don’t have one because after 2 weeks with no food you could feed him the squid by hand he would be so desperate. I usually replace the squid every other day or so before it really begins to foul, this keeps the denitrifying bacteria working while there is no bioload. The “seeding” is allowing all the tiny critters to proliferate and create a minor food source for your fish. If you are going to use a refugium now is the time to hook it up and drop a piece of live rock in it, use the piece that seems to have some tufts of hair algae or Halymeda on it. You MUST dose Kalkwasser during this time to give the coralline algae a good chance at getting started covering your base rock. Check calcium and DKH during this time and keep it at good levels, they will need it.
11. Did you do it? Did you have the patience to wait at minimum a few weeks, at best a month staring at your beautiful blank canvas? First, give yourself a pat on the back and give your tank its first dose of Iodine and then go ahead and reward yourself with your corals and inverts, NOT FISH! Whether they are store bought or online they should be attached to a small stone. I use the coral dip made by Warner Marine Research before placing any corals in my main tank. It has worked wonderfully for me with new specimens. Place all these in the bottom 1/3 of the tank and NOT directly underneath the halides for a week, even if they are light demanding SPS corals. They need time to adjust to your tanks light intensity and Kelvin temperature after being in a dealer tank, if they were bought online they have been in pitch black for a few days. After the week is up, move them to where you like them, the spot you have learned they need to be, and where you can see they are thriving. Watch them closely, if they are mushrooms are they straining towards the light? If so move them up. Are they laying extremely flat? Then move them down or near an overhang. If they are SPS are their polyps extending and the UV pigments coming back? If so, they are happy. Once you have them all arranged then go ahead and secure them in place. Let the tank go as is for 2 weeks to a month in this state…once you are confident in your corals/inverts health move to the next phase.
——REMEMBER to leave room for growth. I always buy my corals, polyps, clams, etc as small as possible. It is a great feeling of satisfaction to watch a tiny 2″ square of Xenia cover an entire rock, or a beautiful bed of Zoanthus on a rock and you know they started as 3-4 single polyps.—–
So the tank is running great, the corals are thriving….but there isn’t any movement. Time for the 1st fish. I bet right about now you are thinking I forgot about that dumpy little dime store corner filter eyesore in the tank huh? That $10 purchase is about to save your buttocks.
Run back to the LFS and get the cheapest crappy little 10g tank you can. Perform your first 20% water change on the main tank and deposit the old water in the 10g. Take that corner filter and drop it in the 10g with the old water…..you have now set up a quarantine tank with nearly identical water parameters of your main tank. Only overlook this step at your own peril. There is nothing worse than trying to give a fish a dip in Ich medicine and chasing it around the main tank with a net. Leave the fish in the tank for at least a week. Make sure it is feeding and shows no signs of Ich. Medicate if you must…and always feed a flake with some garlic on it. After a couple weeks, take him out and drop him in the main tank. Now it is ready for your next inhabitant. Repeat this step EACH time you add a fish and replace quarantine tank water with main tank water. Once you are done adding fish clean the little corner filter and put it away. When you want a new fish restart the process all over again…this discourages “impulse buying”. Since I do this in coordination with water changes I only add a max of 1-2 fish a month.
You have now successfully set up your reef tank. It has taken a minimum of 2 months and usually 3 months before I put my first fish in. From there it takes about 4 months for me to be done adding fish.
One last bit, here is the order I add my fish:
1st always the algae blenny, 5 turbo snails, and 10 blue legged hermits. ( Cater amounts of each to your tank size)
2nd the sand sifting Goby.
3rd any reef safe wrasses go in now. (Six Line, 4 line etc)
4th if you are having any type of schooling fish (Anthias, Cardinals)
5th Pseudochromis Fridmani (pound for pound the most beautiful fish imho and always a staple to me)
6th 1 dwarf angel genus Centropyge (Eibli or Lamarck angel usually)
You can now begin the arduous cycle of monitoring water parameters, feeding, testing, etc. However, you also get to begin staring into the glass with childlike wonder and what you have created. You can marvel at the growth of your corals and feel pride about it, you can share the fun of the hobby with others at the LFS or online, and most of all you have gained a knowledge and respect for these delicately balanced ecosystems which if we lost would mean the end of life on earth.
I hope this helps people out. Please add any comments, criticism, etc. Thanks in advance for reading.
The only thing left to do now is just wipe your nose prints off the glass.