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How to Set Up a Marine Reef Aquarium

by recycler on June 12, 2012

Make a reef aquarium your summer project this year.

Though it can be intimidating, a saltwater marine reef aquarium can be a gorgeous and rewarding hobby, much more so than that of aquascaping a freshwater tank. And although it seems difficult (and is without the correct preparations), you can easily handle the task by learning everything there is to know about how to set up a marine reef aquarium.

First – The basics

Before you dive into buying and setting up your marine reef aquarium, you want to first do plenty of research on corals, invertebrates, fish, and crustaceans that you will be keeping. Once you have a good idea of the types of marine life you will be caring for, you can move onto setting up your reef.

The first thing you want to do is choose the perfect spot for the marine reef aquarium. We recommend you select a spot that will give you and your visitors ample room for comfortable viewing of the aquarium, but also not near any windows, vents, or anything that might cause temperature flux.

After you’ve picked the perfect spot—not too cold, not too hot—you can start thinking about what type of aquarium. Bigger aquarium, opposite of what you might think, are easier to keep and are recommended for beginners. The higher water volumes make water chemistry much more manageable. If you are an expert or up to the challenge, the nano-mini reef aquarium can be a pleasant addition to any room while not tanking up much space.

Your basic aquarium choice is between glass or acrylic—each having its own benefits and disadvantages. A shorter, squatter aquarium is best because it is easier for you to reach the bottom.

We also highly recommend you have an aquarium with an internal overflow system installed (“reef ready”). Or, to save money, you can install it yourself. Keep in mind that although acrylic scratches easier than glass, it is also easier to drill for the installation. A sump (a smaller tank containing all the necessary equipment and stored out of sight under the main aquarium) is also recommended.

Second – Accessories

For lighting your reef aquarium, we suggest going with the popular metal halide lights, which are commonly thought of as the best for keeping coral. Ideally, you’ll want 250- to 400-watt bulbs, depending on depth, and as for color spectrum (expressed in Kelvin…the bigger the number, the bluer the bulb’s light) you will want to just go with what you think looks good. The color affects the look, but nothing more. Though 10,000 to 20,000 Kelvin are most common, the choice is primarily up to you. It is suggested to place one bulb for every 2-3 feet of aquarium length.

We recommend you invest in a protein skimmer (foam fractionator) and that you do not skimp. This device will regulate the water, keeping it clean, and is a pretty big deal. When you are looking to buy, keep in mind that they are typically under-rated by manufacturer, so get one that can handle a much larger volume tank than you have. Aspirating skimmers are the best, venturi skimmers are not that great, and you do not want to use canister filters.

You want a powerful pump to produce a strong flow from aquarium to sump and back again, which is ideal for live coral. In addition to the strong pump, you can think about getting powerhead pumps to increase flow.

To keep your aquarium’s water temperature consistent, you will want to install heaters (or coolers if overheating water, caused by lights or climate, might be a problem) in the sump or in the back compartment of the aquarium.

Third – Testing the System

Before adding any fish or coral, you want to test the entire system. Using tap water you can fill the tank and then run the pumps, testing for leaks in the aquarium or piping. Make note of water levels of both the aquarium and sump and get a good understanding of all the workings before you ad life to the aquarium.

Now that you know there aren’t any leaks and that everything works correctly, it’s time to fill the water with seawater. We recommend you either use a trusted sea salt and a Reverse Osmosis/De-Ionization (RO/DI) purifying filter, or filling the tank with RO/DI water and then adding salt. Once the seawater has been “created”, fire up the pumps and let them run for a bit again. You are now ready to fill with the bottom of your aquarium with sand (IMPORTANT: wait if you are using live sandbed). Turn off your skimmer to prevent kicking up too much sand and layer the bottom of your aquarium to about 4 to 5 inches. A “bare bottom” aquarium is easier to clean, but not quite as pretty to look at.

Before or after the sand, you can also place and arrange the Live Rock, filling roughly 20% of the aquarium volume. You can design the live rock in any order you want—this will be the basis of coral growth.

Fourth – Letting the Aquarium Cycle

You are not done prepping the tank until the water tests negative for nitrite and ammonia, which should take anywhere from 1 to 6 weeks. Introducing life into the reef aquarium before this can be very dangerous. Fortunately, the live rock you placed will expedite the process. And don’t get discouraged by algae blooms, as they are quite common during the first 6 months of a new reef tank setup. You just want to be on top of cleaning the algae and to also do weekly 10% water changes from the sump. Once the water is more stable, you won’t need to do water changes quite as often.

Now consistency is the name of the game. You want to keep the water at a steady salinity level once the correct level is reached. We recommend 1.025-1.026 for corals, and lower for invertebrates. If you are only keeping fish, 1.021-1.026 should be fine.

Fifth – Add Life and Enjoy

You can now add snails, small hermit crabs and finally reef fishes. These animals will help clean the detritus naturally floating and settling in the aquarium and also help with balancing the ecosystem.

It’s a common debate within the aquarium community whether or not it is a good idea to introduce corals and anemones before the tank is several months old. Just to be safe, we recommend that you do wait (better safe than sorry), though there are some signs to pay attention to denoting when the aquarium is mature enough for your corals. Whenever you see patches of purple growing on your aquarium or live rock then you know circumstances are ready. This purple stuff is called coralline algae and requires similar conditions to grow as coral. You will also see other signifiers, like worms feather dusters, crustaceans, and other life forms. Do one more test for ammonia and nitrite and if it comes up negative, you can start cultivating your coral reef.

Congrats and enjoy!

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