Step by Step Guide to Setting up a Reef Tank

Step One


The first thing you will want to do is to get a notebook. Write down everything you have in mind. Ask yourself:


A. What size tank?Nice Reef Tank


B. How much filtration will I need? (the entire volume of water should be turned over at least twice per hour)


C. How much substrate will I need? (a good amount is a 1.5 to 3 inch depth)


D. How much live rock will I need? (plan on spending at-least $5.00 per gallon capacity minimum depending on density of rock purchased. Chances are you will want much more. Don't skimp here or you'll be sorry later!)


E. What type of lighting will I need? (depending on what organisms you are interested in keeping, you should only consider High Output T5, Metal Halide (MH), Power Compact Fluorescents (PC's), or Very High Output Fluorescents (VHO) if you are serious about keeping a nice reef aquarium. Some individuals might recommend standard 40 watt fluorescent bulbs but this is a bad idea in most cases unless used on a shallow tank or one in which a very minimal selection of non-intense light requiring organisms will be kept.


F. What size skimmer will I need and what type? (while we don't use skimmers on our personal tanks, we do set them up on newly established aquariums for at least 6 months or so. This is more of a safety precaution than anything else and will allow for a much larger error rate than without one as well as cutting back the waiting time considerably)


G. Ask yourself: Do I really want to spend this much money? Remember, this is just the basics. If you don't want to spend the cash, then it's time to move on to a fish-only setup or to a nice freshwater aquarium. If you still are set on setting up a reef but can't really afford it, then slow down and take your time gathering the proper equipment. Don't skimp on equipment. Look around on the internet for aquarists selling used equipment that is still in good shape. Look in the classifieds in the local newspaper. You will be amazed at what you will find. We purchased a 300 gallon aquarium for $100 dollars which we found in the newspaper!


Step Two


The Tank: Basically there are three types of aquariums available. Acrylic, Glass, and Wooden with a Front Glass Panel (the last best avoided for reef aquaria).

While acrylic is light and strong as well as easily drilled, it scratches very easily (especially when scraping algae or diatoms) and often turns yellow with time. For this reason, we recommend a glass aquarium. (though the decision is still yours) If you do go the glass route, try to find one that is made out of non-tempered glass. This will allow it to be easily drilled if you decide to do so later down the road.


The size of the aquarium is the next question to be answered. Basically, the bigger the better. The larger the aquarium, the more forgiving it will be when you make a mistake or don't catch a problem right away. A good starter aquarium should be at least 45 gallons.


The Stand: This part is probably one of the least important aspects of keeping an aquarium. Basically, it should be sturdy enough to support twice the weight of the aquarium when full with water. If you are interested in building a stand, take a look at our plans. You might also want to ensure that the stand provides enough room underneath for other equipment.


Pumps and Powerheads: While turning over the entire volume of water at least twice per hour is important, one must remember that current should be evenly distributed throughout the aquarium. A good pump with at least 3 water returns pushing medium current should suffice. If not, you might want to consider the purchase of a couple of powerheads.


Heater: In larger aquariums, a heater is hardly needed if one can keep the room temperature consistent. If you are set on using a heater or are keeping a smaller aquarium, you might want to purchase two or three small heaters vice one large one. This will help protect from heater failure which most likely will happen sooner or later.


Skimmer: Quality is important here. Use a well known reputable skimmer brand and make sure it is too big for your system. That is right - I said too big. If your system is 55 gallons, you should try to get a skimmer rated for up to 100 gallons or so.


Lighting: The most intense lighting would probably be in the form of Metal Halide lamps. We recommend MH with supplemental VHO or PC's for additional actinic blue lighting. Look around, do some research to decide what lights are best for you. By now you should have a basic idea of what type of organisms you will be keeping.


Misc. equipment: Other equipment you will need are:

  • A Hydrometer
  • Kalkwasser Dripper
  • Various test-kits (ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, Ph, calcium, phosphate)
  • A magnetic Glass Cleaner (optional though useful)
  • Reef aquarium epoxy (for mounting corals as well as rock-work)


Step Three


Setting up the tank: Now that all the basics are in place, you can setup the aquarium. Ensure that it is in an ideal place, away from heavy drafts or intense sunlight which might overheat your aquarium. Ensure that all electrical outlets are located in close proximity for ease in setup. When finished, you should have all equipment in place though not turned on. We recommend a standard computer-type power box for controlling all equipment instead of a direct outlet or power-strip. Ensure that all water return is set in a good position to provide good water circulation. Ideal would be at least one return from each side as well as one return near the center of the aquarium which delivers water directly into top of water column. This will help avoid surface slime from developing. Follow manufacturer's instructions for setting up all other equipment. Feel free to contact us with any questions.


Water Source

Find a reputable manufacturer of aquarium salt. Some choices include:

  • Instant Ocean
  • Reef Crystals



Follow manufacturer's instructions though always prepare 24hrs in advance. Synthetic salts often raise significantly in salinity after freshly mixed. We recommend at Specific Gravity of 1.025 - 1.027. Many authors recommend levels much lower though we find this target to be of the most beneficial.


Fill tank 1/2 full with fresh seawater mix. Ensure that you have enough prepared to fill the remainder of the aquarium after addition of rock and sand. Do not attempt to turn on equipment until tank is completely full.


Live Rock/Sand

The purchase of live rock and sand is not an easy one nor a cheap one. You should expect to pay anywhere from $4.00 - $8.00 per pound of live rock or live sand depending on location and grade or rock. You will need plenty of live sand though only half of what you will need for the aquarium should be purchased as live sand. The other half should be a dry aragonite mixture supplied by your local fish store. This mixture will give the best overall long-term results.


Try to get as wide a variety of rock as possible (our favorite being Tonga rock due to its branchiness) This will present a wide variety of organisms later down the road. Stay away from "base" rock as it is basically standard rock or dead rock which has been places in seawater. While it may hold some live and beneficial bacteria, it hardly compares to the real thing. Once again, don't skimp here! If you can't afford it now, you can always add more next payday! Look for sizes that will easily shape with others in your aquarium's size.


When places the sand, just dump it on in (aragonite first). Don't worry about the water getting cloudy. It will have plenty of time to settle. Next, begin to construct the rock-work remembering to provide as many caves and crevices as possible but don't forget to provide lots of flat areas to place your specimens! You can use epoxy, stainless steel wire, or even plastic ties to form wonderful rock formations. Take your time and don't worry too much about taking too long. Just keep at it until you are satisfied.


Once everything is in place, you can top-off the aquarium with water and turn on all equipment. Don't be surprised if your skimmer doesn't put out too much right away or even if it puts out what may seem excessive. The aquarium will eventually stabilize.


Now for the hardest part......waiting. Your aquarium will take anywhere from 30 - 50 days to properly establish in which time, the lighting cycle should be on a 12 on 12 off schedule. Don't worry about adding any additives and definitely don't add any livestock. The live rock and sand will successfully cycle the aquarium.


As time goes by, your tank will experience an ammonia spike followed by a nitrite spike which will be followed by a nitrate spike. When the nitrate spike has reach acceptable levels (30 - 50 days) your aquarium will have "cycled". Don't mistake this for being established. Establishment will come much later down the road however, you can now add a very limited level or organisms which should only include 1 hermit crab and 1 snail per gallon as well as a maximum of one fish per 30 gallons. (you will be able to add additional hermits and snails down the road as tank becomes established) Don't attempt to add any other invertebrates as the aquarium is not yet stable enough to support them. Keep an eye on all parameters each week. Once a week you should check the following:


  • specific gravity (more often in smaller aquariums)
  • Ammonia
  • Nitrite
  • Nitrate
  • Phosphates


Each week thereafter, if all basic pars are in good condition, you can safely add one specimen (hardy ones only for first 6 - 8 months). If properly cared for, your aquarium should become "established" in 10 - 14 months.



Most aquarists make the mistake of over supplementing there aquariums. The amount of supplementation you will need will depend on livestock levels as well as water changing routine. We recommend adding B-ionic as directed as well as dripping kalkwasser daily. Frequent additions of iodine are also recommended though this may not be needed in aquariums with decent water changes.



Daily Maintenance:

Check Specific Gravity (in larger aquariums this may not need daily)

Check Temperature (recommended to be kept at 78 - 82 degrees) Keep stable!

Add kalkwasser (drip slowly throughout the day or night)

Check all equipment (a visual spot-check can catch a big problem)

Feed (feed all fish though this might not need done in lightly stocked tanks)

Check skimmer (dump the collection cup if needed)



Perform a small water change (can be done less frequent though weekly small changes can really help to keep things turning over) 5% a week is a good amount to replace.

Clean interior glass of algae growth

Clean any pre-filter material

Clean salt creep


Monthly: Remove and clean all heavily soiled equipment.


Note: remember, read, read, Read!!! Education is the key!