The Best Guide for Starting a Reef Tank
There is never a bad time to jump into the world of reef aquariums. You might have never owned an aquarium or just starting the move from freshwater to saltwater tanks now is the perfect time to dive headfirst into the saltwater.
The best decision you can make is to branch out to the underwater world filled with colors and all sorts of different creatures. You want to become an official reefer and the benefits of maintaining and running your own personal slice of the ocean are not limited.
So you made the decision to enjoy the visual and emotional benefits of reef aquariums but alas where do you start? Taking the first step is always the hardest. What do you purchase? How do you keep saltwater fish alive? How do you feed a coral? What water parameters do I need to worry about? What are algae and what type of aquarium lighting do I need?
Learn from the Professionals – Reef Builders® Guide
Reef Builders is the source for the Aquatics industry and future hobbyists like you. We’ve been keeping reef aquariums for well over 30 years, keeping them is one thing however, diving in the wild is another altogether. We’re not armchair experts like so many other spammy content sites – we actually all dive in the ocean and our careers are centered around saltwater. Check out our about us page to see our team and how we got started. In fact, Reef Builders has been featured on CNN, MSNBC and listed in numerous places in scientific papers and the open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia.
Because of our experience and passion we created the guide for beginner aquarists. We understand how intimidating taking the first steps are but also know from our experience it can be easy as we have helped millions around the world with their tanks. How to select the ideal tank, detailed advice for water parameters and how to improve coral health. We will go through all of it step by step.
Reef Builders welcome’s you to the wonderful world of reef tanks.
How to Start and Run a Reef Tank – Your Ultimate Guide Index:
Work in Progress – Last Updated: Today.
When I first saw a saltwater aquarium I do not remember my age, but I will never forget the sight of that tank. If you are like me you want that in your home, business or wherever you are so that you may enjoy it at all times. It is interesting is it not? To sit and stare and look at a saltwater aquarium for hours, the fish, invertebrates and other creatures in their own little world. It just captures your attention, is relaxing, and needless to say, is an enjoyable way to reduce stress. This guide endeavors to assist you in reaching your goal of enjoying a piece of the saltwater world.
Part 1: Budget As with any new hobby, you would be wise to set a budget. Owning a saltwater aquarium is just such a hobby where a budget is an absolute must. A budget will let you know what you can and cannot afford. As with most who want to get into this hobby, we love to see those fancy 15 year reef projects and want the same result tomorrow. So you really have to ask yourself, can you afford all of the bells and whistles and losses which might certainly occur when starting out, or am I looking to just start with a barebones system to get up and going. Once you have set a budget, you can begin to move into the planning stages. Please for the sake of all aquatic life, don’t jump feet first into this without planning ahead. A good rule in setting a budget is to figure at least $25 per gallon. Yes that is correct. I am sure you are now feeling a little shock as the math is done and you are thinking, it just fish as a lot of wives will say. But it is much more than that honey, it will reduce stress. It will help reduce stress, but getting started might create stress. Oh and if you are a do-it-yourself kind of person then you are already saving yourself money. If you are not the do-it-yourself kind of person, anything can be bought, and do not worry, neither am I.
Part 2: Equipment When I had just turned sixteen, I, like the rest of the world wanted a car. Without a car, you can’t go anywhere in Texas. So I had to have the right equipment to do things. The same can be said about Saltwater Aquariums. Without the right equipment you have nothing. Here is a quick list of the things you need to have a basic saltwater aquarium.
The aquarium is the single most important piece of equipment you will buy. Granted I may say that again on something else, but for the time being, it is very important. There are two types of aquariums, glass and acrylic. Acrylic tanks are stronger, lighter, and won’t be affected as much by your room temperature versus glass tanks. The drawback to acrylic tanks is that they scratch easily. This can be a very big drawback. I personally hate acrylic because of this fact. Glass tanks do not scratch as easily, but they are heavier and can crack and leak. Both have pros and cons. This is nothing more than personal preference. Picking one type of tank over the other will not make your tank look better, but it might make it last longer. Get the biggest one that you can afford as well as fit in the location that you want.
Why should you get the biggest one that you can afford? The bigger the total system volume, the more stable your aquarium is, which means less water changes, and less time spent by you in maintaining your new found hobby. I had a 55 gallon starting up and when I got my new 75 gallon it was much easier to maintain because the tank parameters were less affected by minor changes, thus making it more stable. A quick note about stands: be sure that your stand will be able to support your aquarium weight plus water. More importantly, make sure your floor will support the weight. This is especially important if this is a second floor or higher room and is not designed for the types of weight we are discussing here. Water is very heavy. At about 9 pounds per US gallon, this can add up very quickly! Consider a 75 gallon glass tank. Basic weight will be around 140 lbs and when you add water this becomes almost 900 lbs! Don’tt forget that when adding any of the following two aspects (substrates and or live rock), will also in turn add additional weight as well.
Substrate is the next step when planning your saltwater aquarium. There are several different types to choose from, all of which are great for beginners, however, some as with most things are better. Since you are just starting out, you will want a regular sand bed, which is about 1 inch deep. Figure at least one pound of substrate per gallon. If you have a 90 gallon tank, that is 90 pounds total of substrate. You can pick between crushed coral which is commonly sold at national pet chains or live sand which can be purchased from online vendors or perhaps a local store may carry or be able to order it for you. Crushed coral is less expensive than live sand, but collects more detritus, which means more tank maintenance for you. Live sand is the best substrate you can pick, and is expensive, but it offers the most efficient substrate for your aquarium. What is live sand? Live sand is sand that has been taken directly from the ocean floor. There is also something called southdown playground sand, which is a subject for future discussion.
Live rock is a huge investment for you aquarium but can be well worth it. Live rock is the single best way to improve your filtration of your aquarium which will make your water clearer your fish happier. It provides lots of area to attach corals including your invertebrates who will love the environment as well. Live rock acts as a natural biological filter. Figure at least 1 pound per gallon. You can max out at 2 pounds per gallon but that is again a personal preference. You can either get this from your local pet store or order from an online vendor. Some of the best rock I have found has been through online vendors.
Saltwater isn’t salt without the salt mix. If you thought that you would be just using table salt then you will be in for a big surprise. The natural ocean water contains more than just salt. It contains a host of other minerals that create proper water chemistry. Salt is measured in relative gravity and should be between 1.022 and 1.025. There are several brands that you can buy, however the key is that whichever one you decide to use, you need to stick with it. That is the most important aspect of this hobby: consistency.
Filtering or Filters
If you bought live rock and live sand, the only thing you will need is a mechanical filter or something that catches free floating debris. You can buy an overflow for your aquarium and have that drain into a sump sock system, or a hang on the back filter. I really recommend the overflow system into the sump. The most important thing is water flow which I will get to a little later on.
Okay, we have reached the part where you want to know which animals to place inside your saltwater aquarium. Do you want to keep corals or fish only? I suggest that you plan on keeping corals from the start. Eventually you will be learning more and more that will make keeping corals easy and something that is nice to add to your aquatic world. It is important to consider this when speaking of lights because different types of coral have different light requirements. Soft corals will do fine under fluorescent, power compact, and Very High Output (VHO) and LEDs. Hard corals need Metal Halides, T5, LEDs fixtures in order to survive. This is because a lot of hard corals can be compared to plants and thus they require TONS of light to survive. You might want to research LED lights as they might cost a lot more initially you will save a lot on electricity costs down the road.
A protein skimmer will increase the quality of your aquarium water and is a must have. I would not run a saltwater aquarium without one. When shopping for one, look for either a needle-wheel or a re-circulating design. Those are the best.
Saltwater Aquariums require a constant and stable temperature. This is achieved via a heater and/or chiller. If you live in a climate that is cold for most of the year a chiller may not be needed. I always recommend a heater since most aquariums are indoors and home air conditioning will affect the water temperature in your tank. There are a lot of horror stories about where a heater has gotten stuck and has literally cooked the livestock. Therefore it is extremely important to invest in a quality heater. If you did decide on Metal Halide Lighting, this will increase the temperature in your tank. If you are using such lighting, I would highly recommend a chiller or fans blowing across the aquarium to cool it down, otherwise your temperature will peek and your fish and corals will die. A good thermometer is also something that is very important to have. If you are able to afford one, a controller can be a great friend in maintaining the environment. The key to remember is that your water temp should be between 78-84F.
Good water flow contributes to the success of a saltwater aquarium. In a reef aquarium, water flow should be at least 20x that of the size of the aquarium. If you had a 50 gallon aquarium, total water flow or gallons-per-hour (GPH) should be 1000GPH. Water flow can be achieved by power heads which are like mini pumps inside your aquarium. They easily stick on glass with suction cups, are adjustable, and most are inexpensive.
Test Kits & Precision Grade Hydrometer
Water parameters tell you if you will have success in keeping a saltwater tank. Brands that I recommend are Seachem and Salifert. Those are the best you can buy. When you first start out, a 6 in 1 test kit is fine but you will eventually need to upgrade to a higher quality test kit that measures more precisely your levels. A hydrometer measures specific gravity of your aquarium. This is an absolute must have tool when keeping a successful salt water aquarium. One important thing to remember when purchasing a hydrometer is that precision grade hydrometers are much more accurate than refractometers. This can easily be seen in the prices alone. You can pick up a precision hydrometer for around $50 compared to a general hydrometer for around $9. This can make a very big difference in the success of your aquarium.
A quarantine tank is great for keeping new corals or fish in before they go into your main display tank, but is not something that you really want to avoid NEEDING. This is necessary when you need to treat an illness of fish or other invertebrates without treating the whole tank. Some medicines will kill other inhabitants in your aquarium. In order not to add stress to the treated fish or invertebrate, make sure that the water parameters in the quarantine tank are kept as close to your primary tank as possible. A 10 gallon is a perfect size tank for this. Another simple and viable option is to use a simple hang on filter as well.
Odds and Ends
It is helpful if you make sure that you have a few 5 gallon buckets (to drain and mix new saltwater), a scraper (to clean the glass or acrylic), a fish net and a power strip to run your aquarium system.
Part 3: Setup of your new tank So you have purchased all of your equipment. This is not a throw it together process. Get used to the slow boring process of cycling your tank. It is painfully slow, but you will be glad you did it. You are going to learn a lot with this process and that is why it is so important.
It all comes together Choosing where your aquarium will sit is very important. This is going to be the tanks home for possibly years especially because it is very heavy and very difficult to move after it is in place. It is very important not to have it by a major door or air duct with either hot or cold air flowing near it. This one point will help regulate the temperature. Here comes the fun part. You actually get to put everything together now. Place your stand in the location you chose earlier. Lift your aquarium up on top of the stand (get help from someone if you think you need it). Once this is done, you can now fill your aquarium up with tap water to test for leaks. Yes you need to do this, and yes I know this is a pain. You just don’t want to start adding salt right away. Always check for leaks, it will save you a headache later.
You can add a background if you want. There are basically two ways in which to do this. Either buy a pre-printed background or paint a background on the back of your tank. If you buy a pre-printed background pick either a straight black or blue background. Do not pick other designs because it only detracts from your live rock, sand and livestock. If you decide to paint, remember you are painting the outside of the glass or acrylic, not the inside. Make sure you give ample time for your paint to dry.
Adding your equipment is especially easy if you picked a sump design. You can place all of your equipment in your sump. If you didn’t, set up your equipment according to the manufacturers instructions. Make sure you use a drip loop on all cords as this will save shocking your fish and perhaps a electrical fire.
Bring on the water
Your aquarium will only be as healthy as the water you put in it thus repeat this to yourself: Always use reverse osmosis/de-ionized (RO/DI) water. You can either go to the store and buy this water, or invest in a RO/DI filter and use that for your drinking water as well. This is the choice of most hobbyists since it is cheaper at like 5 cents per gallon. For the first time you can mix your salt that you purchased earlier in your 5 gallon buckets adding it to your tank. You want to shoot for a SG of about 1.024. if you bought any powerheads for your tank you can turn those on to help with mixing the water in your tank. Once the water is added and the SG is good, then you need to relax and sit back. We are going to let the tank sit for a bit.
Since we have the tank up and running, we can add fish right? No. We now have to go thru the Nitrogen Cycle. You should test your aquarium water every day until your ammonia reaches 0. At first it will read 0, but then will creep up. This may take a few weeks to get thru. You must wait until this process is complete before you add livestock. Now is the time to purchase live rock. Live rock as discussed earlier acts as a natural biological filter and speeds up the cycling time. You can place the rock in the tank and have your powerheads pointed towards the rock, this helps cure the rock and remove any dying organisms. You can remove any water with your gravel vacuum to siphon the debris, and then just make new water with your salt mix and add that back into your aquarium.
Arranging the rock in a manner that you like is called aquascaping. You want to do this after the live rock has been cured. When you add your substrate your water will be cloudy, this is normal, it will eventually get stable again. At this point you need to make sure you have a reliable test kit that has at least ammonia, ph, nitrate and nitrate along with PH. If you are thinking reef you need to buy calcium, carbonate hardness, magnesium, phosphate.
Specific Gravity: 1.024
Carbonate Hardness 7-11 dKH
If you achieve these parameters then you can begin adding livestock! Congratulations! You’ve come a long way. First, start with smaller livestock such as crabs and snails. If these do great for a few weeks then you can buy fish. Don’t forget to acclimate your new livestock (this is covered in another article)
As with everything you buy, odds are that it requires maintenance. This is true with saltwater aquariums too. You need to do water changes at least 20% of your tanks volume, which for example: if you had a 100 gallon tank, 20% would be 20 gallons. You remove this old water, and mix fresh new water from RO/DI source water. You can either do this weekly or monthly. Whatever schedule you decide to keep, stick to it! The secret to keeping a successful saltwater aquarium is stable tank parameters. If something gets out of whack, seek advice on the forums to correct it.