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Did you come to this post wanting to learn about proper reef tanks setup? If so, you are in for a treat today. I’m going to use my 25 years in saltwater tank keeping experience to guide you through everything you need to get yourself started on the right foot. I’ve been involved in saltwater tanks since I was 11 and throughout my experience I have setup various saltwater fish only and reef tanks.
The biggest issue when it comes to reef tanks is there are so many opinions on what is best. I founded this site with the goal of simplifying the hobby so the beginner than thrive. That is my mission to this day because I still see that reef tanks are intimating for many. Let’s first start off with an overview then go into the details
Reef Tanks Setup – The 7 Essentials
I get it, information is everywhere and not all sources of information are good to use either because some innocently tries to give you an answer not really having the knowledge because they want to help or the source of the information is biased with sponsors (looking at you YouTube). I’m completely sponsor free here and while I run a e-commerce shop, I am happy to refer folks to other sites and vendors to get the right equipment for them.
With saltwater reef tanks, while there isn’t one definitive answer, there are concepts for success. Following these concepts will put you in the best position to succeed. These 7 essentials are:
- Figuring out what you want (planning)
- Getting the right equipment
- Obtaining quality saltwater
- Understanding light needs
- Knowing the flow you need
- Adding livestock
1. Figuring Out What You Want (Reef Aquarium Planning)
This part here can cause the biggest buyers anxiety or just get folks spread thin instead of focusing. To have success with a reef tank, you need to be focused on what you want to build. Saltwater fish and corals have various requirements and not coming up with a plan can cause all sorts of problems in the long run. The factors you want to consider are:
- How big is your space?
- What is your budget?
- How much time do you want to put into your tank?
Yes, just these three. I am not even focusing on what fish you think are pretty or what corals you think look cool. The reason why is because you aren’t grounded to the limitations you have. I don’t want you to overstretch. A saltwater aquarium contains aquatic living beings after all. It’s heartbreaking to lose them, and it does happen often in this hobby for various reasons – with planning or impatience usually being the main culprits.
How Big Is Your Space?
This should be the first consideration you should think about setting up your reef aquarium. Where are you going to place your reef tank? If you only have space on a desktop or have an apartment, your choices will be limited. If you have a large space, but your significant other isn’t keen on you taking up a 1/4 of the living room with a massive tank, you are going to want to size down.
Tanks when it comes to interior design are accents to our home and a place of quiet and serenity for you and guests. You don’t want it be massive to the point where it is creating visual noise in your desired area. It needs to fit and highlight your home.
In saying this, the largest saltwater aquarium for most people will be a 4 foot long tank. This typically has the best options for builds and livestock and the dimensions make it easier to build a high end setup. A 6 foot long reef tank can do similar in a larger space, but is going to be more expensive, which brings me to the next factor.
What Is Your Budget?
Budget is a major limiting factor when it comes to reef aquarium building. It’s a fact that reef tanks are expensive. And it’s not just the equipment, but the fish and corals as well that add up to the space. Think about what you can afford for your initial setup. The general rule of thumb that has worked for me on client builds is $40 per gallon on a quality saltwater aquarium setup.
So if I take that rule then a 40 gallon reef tank should roughly cost $1600 to get it up and running with a quality setup. Can I go lower than that? Of course I can, but bear in mind we will have livestock to purchase and ongoing maintenance costs. One best practice I like to do with clients is when I get the number they are willing to work with, I try to size down.
For example, if someone tells me they have a $5000 budget for a 120 gallon reef aquarium, I will try to talk them down to a 75 gallon tank using the same budget. This gives you more wiggle room to purchasing the fish and corals you want and also go up in quality on the equipment you can purchase. This also finally gives you a budget on the most missed part of most hobbyist’s setups – aquarium power outage readiness.
How Much Time Do You Want To Put Into You Saltwater Aquarium?
This is the final limiting factor you will need to consider. Reef tanks require maintenance, and the more advance the setup, the more time you are going to be spending maintenance. While larger tanks are more stable and easier to be successful (hence the “bigger is always better” saying in our hobby), they also require more time to maintain.
A good example of this is comparing the 125 gallon mixed reef tank I had versus my 40 gallon breeder. The 125 gallon reef tank required 20 gallon water changes and needed a 10 gallon auto top off container. I needed a large brute trash can to make water changes and have to had an RODI System on deck to make 0 TDS water. It got to be a chore so I make a DIY water changing station.
The 40 gallon breeder on the other hand only needed a 5 gallon bucket to change water. I could have purchased water from the fish store at that size or could have used a more budget friendly RODI system.
The 40 gallon reef aquarium was an all in one so I only need to care about the return pump and wavemakers for maintenance. The 125 gallon had an oversized protein skimmer, a sump, and larger fish that needed to be feed regularly. The corals were more advanced in the 125, requiring a dosing pump and more considered on the fish I selected.
The 40 gallon was just a softie tank and got to the point where it didn’t really need water changes – a reef tank owner’s dream.
2. Getting The Right Equipment (Setting Up A Saltwater Aquarium)
Equipment is critical for your reef tank. With modern reefs, it has gotten to the point where equipment runs off controllers and can do all sorts of automated tasks. With this in mind, it also makes it easy for you to either buy yourself poor or just want to get every new toy manufacturers come up with every year. Here are the basics of what you need to get started. Fortunately, I have buyers guide for each one which I will link to:
- An Aquarium – Rimless or All-In-One is what most reefers prefer these days. Waterbox Aquariums and Red Sea are the big names in premium ready to run reef tanks.
- Aquarium Stand – Either buy a high quality one or consider DIY or hiring someone to make one
- Return Pump – Whether you go all-in-one or with a sump everyone will need one
- Wavemakers – Corals need flow. Wavemakers are the best source for getting consistent flow to make your corals thrive
- Lighting – These days Reef LEDS are the rage. Consider a hybrid lighting system if SPS is your thing
- Heater – An Aquarium Heater and a proper heater controller setup is essential. Always go with a heater controller. Heaters fail too often!
- Reef Salt – If you want corals, you need the right salt. There is a specialized salt for every build
- Rocks – Either live rock or dry rock. Personally I recommend a combination of live and dry rock to avoid Dinoflagellates
- RODI System – For larger reef tanks. Consider a budget system for smaller ones
Notice I did not include a sump? Since an all-in-one tank doesn’t need an Aquarium Sump it’s off the list. I also left off a Protein Skimmer as smaller tanks do not need one. Protein skimmers are a consideration for larger saltwater aquariums.
3. Obtaining Quality Saltwater For Your Reef Tank
Reef tanks need 0 TDS water. Without 0 TDS water, you will run into algae problems – typically hair and cyanobacteria due to the high levels of nutrients you are introducing into your system. There are two ways to obtain this water.
The first way is to purchase distilled water at a store or RODI water from your local fish store. Some local fish stores will sell you saltwater already mixed. All options work. The main issue you run into is if you have a tank emergency and it’s late at night or weekend, you are out of options.
That’s why I recommend that every reef tank owner purchase a quality RODI system for their aquarium. It is a one-time investment that will be with you on your entire reef aquarium keeping journey. Even if you decide to get out of the hobby later, you can always convert your system to a drinking water solution just running the RO piece of the system.
4. Understanding Light Needs In Reef Aquariums
Lighting is a major factor with a reef tank. It is also a consistent source of confusion and frustration with every new reef keeper. The main issue I see with out hobby is overbuying LEDs for corals that don’t really need it. I’ll attempt to break it down very simply for you. There are three factors when it comes to lighting that you must know:
Light intensity with corals is measured in either Lumens or PAR. Most of us use PAR. There are three types of corals in our trade and they will have different PAR requirements they are the following:
So when you just think about, the highest end corals will generally thrive in environments of 350 PAR. Let’s talk about this for a moment. Many manufacturers just light to boast about their high PAR figures. Really, if you can get consistent PAR, it doesn’t matter how high the PAR stated from the manufacture is. It’s just a number they like to brag about to think it is the best because it’s easier to talk about PAR versus the next factor.
Spectrum is the holy grail when it comes to coral. I don’t care how high that PAR number is from the manufactuer. If they get a high PAR number because they use a bunch of white LEDS (a common way of upping PAR), you will not get good results with that light.
Blues, violets, and UVs speak when it comes to coral grow, and the top manufactures like EcoTech understand this. Other manufactures like Kessil focus on Spectrum primarily over light intensity for this very reason. Spectrum is everything when it comes to coral growth. PAR is easy to manipulate. The only important manufacturer I’ve seen that gets this is Ocean Revive in the budget range, which is why many Coral Growers use them when trying to save money.
So you got the right PAR and Spectrum, but still have issues? What could be the problem? That would be coverage. This is another major issue with lower quality lighting. They are build off narrow 60 or 90 degree lenses in order to pump up those PAR numbers, which leads to hotspots and board PAR ranges. The high quality manufacturers will use 120 degree lenses and double down on coverage so that PAR spreads more eventually the deeper you do into the tank.
Despite this, with a reef aquarium that is dominated with SPS corals, you will deal with shadowing with LEDs. This is because LEDs are designed to be a focused light source. To balance out coverage in these systems, a hybrid system is often use that combines T5s and LEDs. This combines the spread of T5 lights with the decrease electricity and maintenance costs of LEDs.
5. Knowing The Flow You Need
Corals have various flow needs depending on what type you keep. SPS corals generally need high flow while most soft corals like Zoas and Mushrooms will do flow in lower flow. I’ll break it down simply here:
- Soft Corals – 15-20 times gallons per hour
- LPS Corals and Mixed Reefs – 20-30 times
- SPS Dominated – 45 times and up
So to provide an example, if you have a 75 gallon mixed reef tank you should be aiming for 1500 gallons an hour in flow as a minimum. You would place corals that want more flow at the top of the aquarium and those that prefer lower flow at the bottom. Flow is primarily regulated by your wavemakers.
6. Adding Livestock In A Reef Aquarium
Once you figured out what you can work with and cycled your tank, it’s time to work on adding livestock. The great things about corals is you can add them as soon as your tank is cycled. Fish can as well, but there are other factors to consider.
Many folks, including myself prefer to quarantine fish. Saltwater diseases are rampant today and getting more mutated with vendors using low doses of cooper in their holding tanks and with the conditions of our oceans with wild caught fish. I actually have a detailed post on How To Quarantine Saltwater Fish. Definitely give that a look!
You can now purchase quarantined fish online. If you are looking for that, TSM Corals is my go to. They have the more comprehensive quarantine process I have seen in the industry. I use them exclusively for my high end clients. No one likes spending $200 on a fish only to have it die from marine velvet with no guarantee.
Also check out my article on reef safe fish for good picks.
7. Reef Tank Maintenance
Now that you got a reef tank going, you have to maintenance. It’s more than just water changes (which in all honestly you can get away with doing less of these or even none when your tank gets older!), you have to maintenance stability in your tank.
For LPS, SPS, and Mixed reefs, this involves keeping your reef parameters up – Calcium, Alkalinity, and Magnesium. You will need to get on a regular water testing schedule to monitor your levels. You will also want to test for nitrates and phosphates. You keep up your reef parameters with doing. Most of use a two part solution. For nitrates and phosphates, if they are high we can lower with water changes or using media like GFO.
There are also low nutrient tanks, a common issue a modern reef aquarium where you will actually need to dose phosphate and nitrates to keep your levels healthy in your aquarium.
Ideal Parameters Are:
- Alkalinity – 8 – 11 dKH
- Calcium: 350-450 ppm
- Magnesium: 1250-1350
- Phosphate: 0.001 to 0.25 (never go zero)
- Nitrate: 1 to 10 (for most corals — never go to zero)
- Salinity: 35 ppt or 1.026 specific gravity
Dosing can be done by using a dosing pump. There are even dosing systems now like the Neptune Triton that can automate dosing for you while testing your water at the same time! It’s all a matter of how much you want to invest in your tank. I always recommend people get on a regular test schedule with their reef aquarium first before going the automation route. You want to build up the discipline of checking your reef tank so you stay on top of things.
Reef Tank equipment will need to maintained as well. RODI and white vinegar are the cleaning tools of choice here. Just do a blended solution. a 1 to 10 solution will work for general cleaning and a 50/50 will work for tougher jobs. Just get a bucket, dip your equipment in there. After a few hours, get a brush and scrub off the the parts. If you are dealing with Coralline algae, consider dipping it into the solution overnight.
Got Any Questions About Your Reef Tank Setup? Ask For Help 😁
Got any buyer’s anxiety or not sure what to do? Ask a question in the comments and I will get back to you! I love talking to my readers and seeing them grow on their reef aquarium journey. No question is a silly one. Thanks for reading and see you next time.