You have been bitten by the reefing bug and decided you are going all-in, diving headfirst into the hobby. But the best piece of advice we can give you is, take your time and really think about what you want to accomplish and how you are going to get there. Reefing is one of the most rewarding hobbies, but it can also be frustrating.
There are a few things to keep in mind to help you make better, more informed choices early on that will help determine how successful you are in the long run. One of the first decisions to make is about the aquarium itself. It sounds pretty straightforward, right? Just get the aquarium, fill it with water, throw on a light, a filter and “BAM!” you have a reef tank. Nope. Sadly, it’s not like that at all.
For the aquarium, size truly does matter. The size of the aquarium determines what you can keep, what other things you need to purchase, how much it costs to run and maintain it, and so much more. At the end of the day, the choice will be yours, but we’re here to help and make the process of selecting your aquarium a bit easier.
Think about your goals: today, tomorrow and maybe even years down the road
Thinking about your goals in the hobby might sound daunting so early on, but this can help determine what direction you go. Take a look around the internet — social media, websites, forums, etc. — and see which kinds of tanks you are gravitating towards. Do you like small and simple? Bigger, the better? Lots of fish? A wide variety of reef fauna?
For example, if you’re looking to have a vibrant reef tank with a wide variety of marine life — invertebrates, fish, corals, etc., you’ll want more space. If you’re into larger fish or grazers like tangs, you’ll need to be thinking about well north of 100 gallons. If you want a simple setup that is easy to maintain, then something right in the 50-75 gallon range might be best.
Really give this some thought at the beginning and realize your feelings might change six months into the hobby. We all tend to start off with the intention of a few fish and two or three coral species, but this changes after we become more experienced and knowledgeable. Asking a few questions early on might help you out if you think might want to keep a particular type of fish or corals down the road.
The hobby is a fun journey, and you’re not going to know all the answers on day one. However, you can start thinking ahead and ask the right questions before you buy that tank.
Know your budget
You can pick a simple aquarium for $20 or spend $2,000 or more depending on the size, materials, quality, etc. There are always going to be unexpected costs involved in the hobby, put together your list of must-haves — the aquarium, lighting, filtration, water movement, etc. — and have the number in mind before you select an aquarium.
Keep in mind that larger aquariums require larger (and more expensive) equipment.
By starting out with a budget in mind, you can plan ahead and set yourself up for success from the start. You just don’t want to unintentionally add more costs to your overall project just because you got a sweet deal on a 150-gallon aquarium.
Think about where you’ll place it
Great! You have that perfect nook in your living room, or a small space in your bedroom scoped out for an aquarium, but just how much space is it? Do you have an electrical outlet nearby? Is it right in front of a window? These are all the questions you might want to ask ahead of time.
Why? You might have all the intentions of moving out of your cramped one-bedroom apartment and why not go just a bit bigger, right? Remember, in this hobby, Murphy’s Law is king. You’ll get that big aquarium, but not move for a few more years, making it a bit cramped.
You also need to think about the right amount of space to get in and do maintenance. You’ll want to ensure you can quickly get behind the aquarium and access all your equipment. You will also want to keep in mind, having a tank my a window sounds fantastic, but the added light can lead to algae blooms — just something to consider.
Speaking about maintenance, you need to remember this is a saltwater aquarium, and when things get wet and dry, the salt stays behind. Think about the walls and flooring. Prepare for the splashing, salt spray and mishaps (like knocking over a bucket during a water change) or what might happen if there is a leak.
I don’t want to dampen your spirits, but if you prepare for the worst, you’ll be in much better shape. On the basic side, this might mean moving some furniture to provide some extra space. But you also might want to put it on more water-friendly flooring or painting a wall in a more forgiving paint (moving from a flat to a semigloss, for example).
Bigger is better (for the most part)
The size of your aquarium matters for a variety of reasons. As I mentioned earlier, there are some dramatic swings in costs from a smaller to a larger tank. Plus, there are limits for marine life you need to keep in mind as fish, coral and other critters need the right amount of space to grow and thrive.
With that said, get the biggest aquarium you can. Why? One of the benefits of a larger aquarium is they can be more forgiving and easier to maintain water stability. I can’t remember who said it first, but one of the mantras I have stuck in my head is “dilution is the solution to the pollution.”
Although we have the best intentions, we’re going to have excess nutrients in our tanks from all the fish waste and excess food that doesn’t get eaten. Nature has a way of clearing this all up through the nitrogen cycle, but each step of the way as it converts to ammonia to nitrites to nitrates creates some toxicity in the aquarium. The extra water volume will provide a bit of a buffer, so go as big as you can whenever possible.
Nano aquariums or nano tanks, those that are about 30 gallons or less, sound great — they’re small, cute, and a lot of times come in a complete package, so they should be a lot easier to keep, right? Not exactly. Smaller tanks are harder to keep in balance. If something goes wrong, they tend to go wrong pretty quickly, challenging even veteran hobbyists. e
That said, you also need to take a look at the size from the cost perspective. Typically, larger aquariums will cost more. When comparing two separate aquariums, you might find there is only a small difference in price in sizes for the “box” but if you add up the additional costs for more lights, larger pumps and protein skimmers, you’ll start to see the costs can add up quickly.
Just keep the size in mind and ask a lot of questions from people you know — whether in a local hobby club or on a forum board — you’ll get a lot of advice and input (most of the time it’s pretty helpful).
Glass or Acrylic?
There are basically two main material options when it comes to aquariums — glass or acrylic, and there are pros and cons for both. But since this is going to be the cornerstone of your entire experience in the hobby, it is good to know a bit more about the two.
For most people getting into the hobby, glass is the way to go for a few reasons. First off, the cost of a glass aquarium is typically less, and because it’s a harder material, it won’t scratch so easily.
It doesn’t take much to scratch an acrylic tank, and many of us have found out the hard way when starting out. That said, if you’re at a larger aquarium something in the 150-plus gallon range — acrylic might be a better bet.
First of all, let’s take a look at the benefits of glass aquariums. The glass panes are generally thinner and more durable than acrylic. As we mentioned, it doesn’t scratch as easily as acrylic, but you can scratch glass, so you have to be careful either way).
The costs for glass aquariums can vary significantly. A simple glass aquarium can be pretty affordable with some of the big box pet stores having sales for $1 a gallon (typically, the biggest ones you’ll see are 55-gallon aquariums on these types of sales). These are your standard rectangular aquariums with a wood grain or black frame around the top and bottom to reinforce the glass.
But on the flip side, you can spend thousands more for glass aquariums depending on the shape, size and features like if its made from Starfire or low-iron glass or if it has a unique shape or plumbing options.
Starfire glass is a brand name of glass with low iron content to provide an ultra-clear glass. If you look at a piece of regular glass from the side, you’ll notice it has a greenish-blue tint. In thinner aquariums, this isn’t a big deal, but the thicker the glass, the more noticeable it is.
Many people use the term Starfire to describe any low-iron glass, and you may not see it listed on product descriptions. You will see words like low-iron or ultra-clear, and this just means the glass is significantly more transparent than standard glass.
If you see two aquariums side-by-side, you’ll definitely notice the difference. Some vendors offer aquariums with low-iron glass on the main viewing panel to cut down on costs, so this is another option to get a better tank within your budget.
Acrylic aquariums are made from a durable and transparent material with brand names like Plexiglass or Lucite. Acrylic has several advantages. First, it is significantly lighter and stronger than glass. Acrylic is also easier to machine, allowing for endless possibilities in making custom designed aquariums. Acrylic aquariums typically have bracing, sometimes called Euro bracing, around the rim.
However, the biggest downside is the scratching. If you scratch the outside, you can buff it out. But if the ding is on the inside, you have to drain the tank to buff it out.
Sump and water flow
A great way to add extra water volume to your aquarium is to incorporate a sump. The sump is another container of water that is plumbed into the main aquarium. The sump is also a great place to hide your equipment like heaters, protein skimmers, pumps, etc. Another consideration is the massive amounts of water flow needed in a reef aquarium.
Many aquariums are designed with sumps and water flow in mind and include things like overflows, water returns and pre-drilled holes to allow water to be moved around as needed. Let’s take a quick look at these features.
An overflow is a feature that allows water from the surface to cascade into another area of the tank. From there, it is either filtered or passed through to a sump. There are several options for overflows offering you more flexibility. Some are inside of the aquarium itself, others are external or hidden out of sight.
Water returns are nozzles that connect to water pumps that provide critical water flow and circulation. You can typically move these around and use different nozzles to create a variety of flow patterns.
Pre-drilled holes allow you to easily connect pipes or tubes without having to do it yourself. Drilling a hole in an acrylic aquarium is not that difficult, but glass is tough. You need a special hole saw, and you can easily crack the glass if you let it get too hot, or apply too much pressure.
A few things about surface area and deeper water
Besides the overall size, you need to be aware of the overall water surface. A key part of keeping healthy fish is the oxygen exchange. Fish and other organisms that need oxygen get it from the water, but over time the oxygen is depleted.
But thanks to physics, oxygen can be introduced into the water through the contact between air and water. So more surface area is better but also keep in mind reef tanks have several ways to keep the oxygen levels up thanks to turbulent water flow, overflows and protein skimmers. You should aim to get the most surface area as possible.
Deeper tanks can also be troublesome for some types of coral. Most corals need light, and some need way more than others. Water absorbs specific light spectrums at different rates, so the light will be more potent at the surface and will gradually reduce its potency the deeper you go.
Aquarium lights come in various sizes and strengths. You want a light that will cover the entire tank as well as providing the right amount of light for all your corals. A really long tank will require more lights or longer lights to cover the entire surface, and a deeper tank may need a stronger light to provide enough light at lower depths.
Again, it really depends on the types of corals you are looking to keep.
Turnkey or build it yourself?
Aquarium packages have come a long way since the starter kits of the past, where the filtration and lights were just not designed for the demands of a reef aquarium. All-in-one nano cubes started the trend, and over the last 10 years, companies like Red Sea and others have developed larger reef-ready systems, like the Red Sea Reefer, that take a lot of the headache and hassles out of getting up and running.
Today’s reef-ready systems include everything you need to get started with adequate lighting, water flow and filtration included in one price. You can even get a stand designed just for the aquarium.
Several companies are providing these for nearly every budget level. Companies like Red Sea that carry a wide range of products will typically include their own lights, pumps and gear.
You can also get semi-turnkey tanks that will include the tank, stand, and other general items but allow you to add your own lights, pumps and filtration. The best bet is to shop around for the right package.
The final option is to buy everything separately. This is definitely more work but allows you to get exactly what you need. Plus, you can even save some money if you shop around and catch the right sales.
Getting an aquarium sounds like an easy thing to do, but as you can see, there is a lot of choices and decisions you need to make. However, there is an abundance of information out there that will (hopefully) make your choices a bit easier. Some people just rush in and figure it out as they go, others take their time, it really depends on your comfort level.
When I first started in the reef aquarium hobby after several years removed from freshwater and basic saltwater aquariums, I researched and took my time before getting my aquarium set up, but made the mistake of just buying a basic 75-gallon aquarium and then building around it. A bit more research and few extra dollars would have set me up for more success in the long run.