So you think you’re ready for a reef tank? Well, a wise choice in my opinion, although a very unwise choice if you do not plan it out correctly. I am going to try to give you the basics of planning a new reef tank. These suggestions may seem like common sense to the experienced reefer although to someone new to the hobby it’s a nightmare to get started sometimes. In this hobby first off you will find there are about two thousand ways to do any single thing. When you ask ten people about the same thing you will most likely get ten slightly different answers. This makes starting the reef hobby very confusing. Just remember, if you find a method that works for you keep doing it, just because someone else has success doing something one way doesn’t mean you will have the same great success. This is largely due to the fact that every marine tank is different in its own way. Lighting, water parameters, corals, inverts, fish, and equipment are all things that will vary from tank to tank. Just remember this when asking for help.
Now on to the planning stage of your reef tank. Just remember, NOTHING good comes from being hasty. Also if you are on a budget definitely take your time and do it right the first time. If you decide you want Power Compact lights and spend about $400.00 on two nice 4′ fixtures and then decide it’s not enough light for what you want to keep in the tank, you are now in the spending frenzy. This will drive your reef tank cost up largely. First off, look around on-line at other peoples reef tanks. Decide on a very basic set of fish, corals, inverts, etc that you would want in your tank. After you know what you want in your tank and you have their requirements on paper in front of you then you can decide on what tank size, how much live rock, and what other equipment you may need to take care of the animals you selected. If you are new to the reef hobby and don’t have someone experienced in the hobby helping you every step of the way then I suggest buying at least a 55 gallon tank to start. It is enough room to have a nice amount of animals, yet small enough that it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg to get started.
Okay so now you have figured out a basic layout of what types of fish, corals, and inverts you want. I know these will change a bit after you start setting up your tank but it’s still a good idea to have a general idea what direction your heading. Things to consider for your initial setup and things you will need in a basic reef tank are listed below:
Sand – I suggest agronite because it will help to calcify and buffer the pH of your water. It does cost more initially but is well worth it in the end result of your tanks stability. Whatever sand you choose make sure it is reef sand! DO NOT use play sand or some other cheap sand found at most home improvement stores. This can spell disaster for your newly setup reef tank. You should put about a 4″ sand bed in the bottom of your tank. This sounds like a lot but it will aid in nitrate reduction and give you plenty of space for critters to grow and live in your sand bed. Remember the sand bed is the life of your tank!
Live Rock – I suggest to start with 1lb per gallon of live rock. To help cut the costs down a bit you may want to buy uncured live rock and cure it in your tank before adding any other animals. This takes 4 to 6 weeks to fully cure but will save you quite a bit of money to invest else where.
Lighting – Again, there are a lot of opinions out there on this one. I personally use VHO. I have tried Power Compact and wasn’t happy with them although you may have totally different results. I have never used Metal Halide or HO although I understand their appeal because of the intense light they put out. Please do your reading on all of these before making your mind up. This will probably be the single most expensive piece of equipment you will buy for your tank.
Power heads/Pumps – You need a lot of water movement in a reef tank. I suggest at minimum 10 time turn over per hour. This means in a 55 gallon tank you want at least 550 gallons per hour turn over. More is better! Also you want turbulent current, you don’t want a power head blasting right at a coral. That isn’t natural, they want changing water movement. A good way to do this is to put 2 power heads on each side of the tank pointing towards each other. Again, if you can get 1000 gallons per hour turn over in a 55 gallon tank do it! Just be sure to set up the water current to be turbulent.
Protein Skimmer – You will need a protein skimmer to remove access waste from your tank. Some people will disagree and that is fine. This is something I would definitely have on my tank because I see the slime it pulls out. Do your reading on this one as well before making up your mind.
Sump – A sump is always a great choice to have on your reef tanks. It is a nice place to hide your heater, thermometer, protein skimmer, pump and more. It makes the general look of the tank much better with this equipment out of the tank away from sight. If you do want to use a sump try to find a sump ready aquarium. They are a bit more expensive, but they work better than setting up an overflow box on the aquarium. If you do already have an aquarium and it isn’t drilled for use with a sump you can add an overflow box to your tank.
Hydrometer/Refractometer – You will need a way to test your reef tanks water for salentity. A cheap tool is a Hydrometer, although not highly accurate they will do to get you started. I highly suggest on the other hand a Refractometer which are extremely accurate and an invaluable tool to own in my opinion.
Test Kits – You will need to be able to check for these things: Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, pH, Alcalintity, and calcium. These are the most important things to have on hand right off the start. There are other things but these are the most important to have right at the beginning of setting up your tank.
RO/DI Water – I highly suggest the use of RO/DI water from start to finish of your reef tank. This water will keep harmful dissolved contaminates from your tap from entering your tank. This is highly important to a successful reef tank in my opinion. Again, some people will disagree and use tap water but I’m a firm believer in pure RO/DI. You can get RO/DI from pet stores usually around $.50 a gallon or you can buy your own RO/DI unit for around $150.00-$250.00 for a *really* nice one.
Chemicals – You will need Buffer and Calcium which are the most important things to add to your tank from the beginning. Other important things to add to your tank after you start adding corals and inverts are possibly iodine and stronium. Some people have never added some of these to their tanks and they look great and some people have to add them to keep their animals alive. Don’t know why, again every reef tank setup is different in it’s own way.
That about does it for the things you need to set up a basic reef tank. Just remember the sand bed and live rock is your reef tanks filter. You really don’t need to use canister filters, hang on the back filters, etc. They can be used but are not truly needed. A lot of water current is the key as well as good water parameters. Also if you want to get a lot of help getting set up and running before and after setting up your reef tank try to join a local reef club. Many areas have them with experienced people willing to help you get started. This is another invaluable tool for you as a new reef hobbiest. Good luck and welcome to our wonderful hobby!
P.S. Please remember our reefs are dying from pollution, over fishing, environmental changes, and other things. Try to be responsible when buying animals. *Always* research what these animals need before you buy them. Help be a solution to the problem not a part of the problem.