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Starting Your First Reef Tank

Posted on Friday, November 6th, 2009 at 1:27 pm by


Venturing into this intense, yet gratifying hobby can leave one feeling overwhelmed by their lack of knowledge and with a bit of a salty taste in their mouth. This is an introductory guide aimed at breaking down the initial steps needed to start your first reef. Beyond reading this limited introduction, you are going to need to research specific brands and suppliers to find the right equipment for your needs at the right price. I encourage you to post any questions about specific products or techniques on this site. With a hobby-specific site such as this you will have plenty of support and opinions to utilize.

You have most likely already selected your aquarium, if not, no worries because you will need to build your components around that specific tank. So remember, size does matter! In this case, bigger isn’t always better! Look into your own personal goals and preferences to find out what you really need out of your 1st tank.

Your water is the single most important factor of the tank. Without quality water you will begin this process with a ton of headaches. Listen wisely to the following statement: SET UP YOUR TANK USING RO/DI WATER. How you get this water is up to you. There are several options including buying your own RO/DI Filtration Unit, Purchasing it at your LFS (Local Fish Store), or buying it online. RO/DI water is pure enough to eliminate many of the chemical/element related issues a new tank is ridden with. I promise it is worth the investment. Once you have selected the RO/DI source that is right for you, a testing is in order. An electronic TDS (total dissolved solid) meter will let you check the quality of the RO/DI. If you do not have this piece of equipment don’t panic, a trusted Saltwater Specialty Store will not sell you bad water. Also keep extra water on hand to top off the tank. The water that is evaporated is salt free and you should replace it with salt free water.

You have already selected your water and unless you have selected a pre-mixed saltwater you are going to need to buy salt. Not all salt mixes are created equal. You need to select a salt that is from a “reputable” company. Look for a Nitrate and Phosphate free salt mix that is also correctly filled with the essential trace elements needed for reef sustainability. If using RO/DI water there will not be a need for an additional de-chlorinator. You will want to pre-mix your saltwater prior to adding it to your aquarium. You will also need a device to test the salinity. There are three types of testers in which you can use.

1) A temperature correcting refractometer (most accurate)

2) A float type hydrometer with temperature correction chart

3) A swing arm hydrometer (least expensive and accurate)

Depending on your reefs needs, you will want to choose a salinity that works for you (also find out what your fish provider keeps their tanks at). I recommend keeping your salinity between 1.023 and 1.025. This is merely my opinion and there will be times when different levels are need to accomplish different things. Do your homework and research your type of tank. Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR) tanks and Reef tanks have different salinity needs.

WOW we just broke off the tip of the water iceberg, but do to the wealth of knowledgeable friends on this site you can ask tons of questions and get great answers. The water is truly the most fundamental, yet exhausting part of this hobby. The rest will be a breeze.

You will want to test the water to ensure a safe place for your fish. There are hundreds of tests available, but to start off you only need a few. I always recommend using higher quality tests vs. the cheaper in-the-short-run alternatives. You will understand why after your first nitrate caused tank crash. You will initially want to test for the following:

1. Nitrates
2. Nitrites
3. Ammonia
4. Phosphates
5. Calcium
6. Alkalinity
7. PH

Once you are seasoned reefer you will be able to spot issues and test accordingly. I will say that regular water changes can really go a long way and prevent a ton of casualties. Test away! These tests are not all needed for FOWLR tanks, so purchase only what you will need and save some green. Do your homework and find out what other people with similar set ups are testing for and with.


You now know what tank and stand you are going with, so now is the time to select it’s location in the home. This is a very important decision and one that should not be taken with a grain of salt…get it? Anyway, if you are going with a large tank, consider the strength of the floor underneath it. There is nothing as exciting as structural damage to the home when that gorgeous reef of yours come crashing down. Be smart about that. Also make sure that the location is supplied with an adequate amount of electrical access. You will have several items that need to be plugged in at the same time. You should avoid placing the tank next to a window that gets a fair amount of direct sunlight, due to some unpredictable light-based conditions that may occur. Avoid placing your tank near a heat source, such as a heater vent to prevent any temperature instability. The choice is yours, but choose wisely. It is rather hard to moved a fully stocked tank across the room or up a flight of stairs.

Keeping your water pristine is the ultimate key to having a controlled tank. The level of cleanliness within the water has a huge direct effect on the longevity of the livestock. In addition to having several forms of natural filtration (i.e. Clean Up Crews, Chaeto, Dentrifiers), you will most likely want a Protein Skimmer. The protein skimmer removes the impurities and proteins (which create ammonia and such) and makes your life much easier. Not all tanks use a protein skimmer, but the more advanced reefers would recommend it to eliminate unneeded harmful waste. This category is far too broad to really dive into on here, so once again ask as many questions as you can. There are people who have been in the same shoes you are now in and that are just dying to share their experiences with you.

Your lights are a very important part of the saltwater ecosystem. The lights will be mimicking the sun and moon, providing you with the best hues for viewing your corals, and keeping all of your aquatic life healthy. There are so many options in lighting, so be certain to read up on the fixtures and their heat/light outputs (a chiller may be in order), the bulbs and their spectrum of color, and the different functions that each lighting company may offer. It is important to be an educated buyer when it comes to lighting. Lighting is on the more expensive side of this hobby and poor light quality will only cause issues down the road.

Once you have established the plan of action for setting up your aquarium you will want to select a substrate (sand, bare bottom, or crushed coral). Sand is ideal in aesthetic appearance, but might be problematic for your goals, bare bottom is great for many tanks, but lacks in visual appeal, crushed coral is inexpensive, but is known for harboring nitrates and other harmful toxins within its pockets. Choosing the correct substrate for your needs will be a tough decision. I advise you to check out lots of photo galleries of members tanks and see what they have done. This should give you an idea on what is the preferred matter in this. Your substrate will be filled with living organisms that help keep the ecosystem within in balance. It is a unique and undervalued factor in the reef.

Live Rock is a fundamental safety net for the saltwater aquarium. Within the porous cavities of the rock live many beneficial creatures that will scavenge the reef searching for food. These little scavengers will help remove detritus (non living organic matter or fish crap) keeping you tank safe. There will be more information of the importance of live rock and substrate in the CYCLING YOUR TANK section on this site. Your live rock also needs to meet your visual demands. It is so important to select a rock that is pleasing to your eye. Browse online or visit a few stores to see what they have to offer you. HELPFUL TIP: Dry rock costs less to ship than live rock and will eventually become live with very little work on your end.

Powerheads (create movement in the water)
Thermometer (accurately keep you within the safe ranges for your tank)
Safe Temperature Ranges FOWLER 75-78◦F REEFS 78-82◦F
Heater(s) (choose the correct size of heater for the total number of gallons of water)

There is so much more information that a NooB should have, but this guide should serve as a very basic introduction into your new endeavor. My strongest piece of advice is to ask as many questions as you can. Do not be intimidated by the web of reef lingo that is tossed around between the seasoned reefers. They will all gladly guide you through this process. I know that I was beyond clueless when I jumped into this hobby and I failed as an advocate for myself, so don’t follow in my footsteps, ASK QUESTIONS. Good luck and great reefing.

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