Reef Tank Basics

Reef tanks are complex ecosystems that mirror the vibrant and biodiverse marine environments found in the ocean. They usually house a variety of saltwater fish, live corals, and invertebrates such as shrimp and crabs. Your success in maintaining a reef tank depends on a harmonious balance of water chemistry, compatible species, and a well-planned filtration system.

Key Components:

  • Aquarium Size: Select a tank size between 20 and 100 gallons for starters, as it offers enough space for ecological stability.
  • Water Quality: Maintain a pH range of 8.1 to 8.4 and a temperature between 76-78ºF.
  • Filtration: Invest in high-quality filtration to manage waste and maintain clear, clean water.

The biological aspect of reef tanks includes beneficial bacteria that play a pivotal role in the nitrogen cycle, helping to convert fish waste, which is toxic, into less harmful substances. As you embark on setting up a reef tank, choose beginner-friendly fish, like Clownfish, and resilient corals, such as Soft Corals, to start your aquaria journey.

Remember that researching and understanding the specific needs of your reef tank inhabitants is crucial. Each species has unique requirements for lighting, flow, and nutrition; therefore, gaining knowledge in these areas will be an invaluable part of your ongoing reef keeping experience.

Essential Equipment

In setting up your reef tank, the right equipment is critical. This ensures that the environment is suited for marine life and that your maintenance efforts are effective.

Aquarium Tank and Stand

Your reef tank and stand are foundational elements. Tank size affects the stability of your water parameters and the type of marine life you can keep. Choose a stand that can support the weight and has space for equipment like sumps or quarantines.

Lighting Systems

Lighting is vital for the health of photosynthetic organisms such as corals. LED lighting offers energy efficiency and control over intensity and spectrum, which can simulate natural light cycles.

Filtration Methods

Effective filtration is non-negotiable. It maintains water quality and clarity by removing waste products. You’ll need a combination of mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration, such as live rock, protein skimmers, and filter socks.

Water Movement

Water movement in a reef tank replicates natural currents and is essential for distributing nutrients and removing waste. Powerheads and wavemakers are common tools that provide adequate water flow.

Heating and Cooling

Maintain stable temperatures with a reliable heater and ensure a consistent range suitable for your aquarium’s inhabitants. In some cases, a chiller may be necessary to counteract heat from lighting and pumps, especially in warmer climates.

Water Chemistry

Maintaining proper water chemistry is crucial for the health of your reef tank. It’s a delicate balancing act that involves monitoring and adjusting several key parameters to emulate the ocean’s natural environment.

Salinity and Specific Gravity

Salinity, the salt content of your water, should typically be between 1.023 and 1.025 in specific gravity. To measure this, you’ll need a reliable refractometer or hydrometer. Consistency in salinity is vital for the well-being of the tank inhabitants, as fluctuations can lead to stress and disease.

pH and Alkalinity

The ideal pH range for a reef tank is 7.8 to 8.4, while alkalinity should be maintained between 8 and 12 dKH (degrees of carbonate hardness). These two parameters work together to stabilize the water chemistry, with alkalinity acting as a buffer to prevent sharp swings in pH levels.

Nutrient Control

Controlling nutrients like ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates is essential, as high levels can be toxic to your tank’s inhabitants. Aim for ammonia and nitrite at undetectable levels, and nitrates should ideally be kept below 10 ppm. Regular water changes and efficient filtration can help manage nutrient levels.

Testing and Maintenance

Regular testing is critical to maintain the delicate balance of your reef tank’s water chemistry. Invest in quality test kits for accuracy, and document your results to track changes over time. Consistent testing allows you to make informed decisions about necessary adjustments to maintain a thriving reef ecosystem.

Setting Up Your Reef Tank

Setting up a reef tank is a methodical process that requires attention to detail in water quality, structure, and the living components you introduce. Proper cycling, strategic aquascaping, and careful selection of livestock are essential for a thriving reef ecosystem.

Cycling the Aquarium

Begin by cycling your tank to establish beneficial bacteria. This process involves setting up your tank’s filtration system and allowing it to operate for several weeks. You’ll introduce ammonia sources, like fish food or pure ammonia, to fuel the growth of bacteria that convert ammonia to nitrite and then to nitrate. It’s crucial to regularly test your water parameters during this time. The cycle is complete when ammonia and nitrite levels are zero, and nitrate levels are manageable.


Aquascaping is the design and layout of rocks and substrate in your reef tank. Place live rock in your tank to create a natural and functional habitat. Ensure stability within your structure to prevent future collapses. Consider the flow of water and light penetration to maximize the health of your corals. It’s also important to leave enough space for fish to swim and for future growth of the corals.

Adding Live Stock

Once the tank is cycled and aquascaped, you can begin adding livestock, starting with the hardiest fish and invertebrates, and then gradually introduce corals. Keep a keen eye on compatibility and the eventual adult size of your fish to avoid overcrowding. Quarantine new arrivals to prevent the spread of disease to your established community. Pay attention to the dietary needs of your inhabitants for a balanced and thriving ecosystem.

Maintaining a Reef Tank

Successful maintenance of a reef tank is critical for the health and beauty of your marine life. It involves routine cleaning, timely water changes, and ongoing monitoring of livestock health to ensure that your aquatic environment remains stable and vibrant.

Regular Cleaning

You should clean the tank glass daily to prevent algae buildup which can obscure visibility and affect the tank’s overall health. The substrate should be vacuumed periodically to remove detritus, and filters need regular cleaning to function effectively. Remember that overfeeding can increase waste and necessitate more frequent cleaning.

Water Changes

Conducting regular water changes is vital to remove nitrates and phosphates, replenish trace elements, and maintain the salinity and pH balance of your tank. Aim for weekly changes of about 10-20% of the tank volume. Make sure that the new water matches your tank’s temperature and salinity levels to avoid stressing your inhabitants.

Monitoring Livestock Health

Observe your fish and corals closely, checking for any signs of distress or disease. Behavior changes, discoloration, or spots on fish can indicate health issues. Corals should maintain their color and openness. Testing water parameters frequently allows you to detect and rectify issues before they become severe, keeping your reef tank inhabitants healthy.

Feeding Practices

Proper feeding is crucial to maintaining a thriving reef tank. The diet of your reef inhabitants should be varied and suited to their specific needs.

Feeding Corals

Corals have different feeding requirements ranging from photosynthesis driven by zooxanthellae to direct feeding on particulate matter. You can supplement their energy intake by providing:

  • Phytoplankton: This benefits soft corals, feather dusters, and clams.
  • Prepared coral foods: Mixes like Reef Roids can enhance coral growth and color.

To feed, target feed with a baster or pipet after soaking dry food elements in tank water.

Feeding Fish and Invertebrates

Fish and invertebrates should be fed a balanced diet appropriate to their species. Here’s what you should consider:

  • Frequency: Feed small amounts multiple times a day to mimic natural feeding patterns.
  • Food Types:
    • Flakes and pellets: Provide these as a staple diet.
    • Frozen foods: Offer these to add variety and essential nutrients.

Remember to soak freeze-dried foods in water before feeding. Garlic concentrate can be added to boost the immune system of fish.

Common Issues and Troubleshooting

Effective reef tank management involves addressing common issues promptly and accurately. Staying informed on how to troubleshoot these can lead to a healthier marine environment.

Algae Growth

Algae growth is natural but can become excessive due to imbalances in lighting, nutrients, or water quality. To combat this, first manually remove as much algae as you can. Consider these steps:

  • Perform 10-15% water changes every 3-5 days until nitrate and phosphate levels stabilize.
  • Maintain water changes every 1-2 weeks to keep levels low.
  • Ensure proper lighting duration and intensity for your specific tank setup.

Pest Control

Pests such as aiptasia or bristle worms can disrupt your tank’s balance. Implement pest management by:

  • Physically removing visible pests.
  • Introducing natural predators, like peppermint shrimp for aiptasia.
  • Being vigilant with quarantine practices to prevent introduction of new pests.

Disease Management

Disease in a reef tank affects fish and coral alike, often showing through abnormal behavior or appearance. To manage disease:

  • Quarantine new additions for observation before introducing them to the main tank.
  • Regularly inspect inhabitants and act quickly at the first signs of disease.
  • Maintain optimal water conditions and avoid overcrowding, as stress can lead to illness.

Aquarium Lighting Schedules

When setting up your reef tank’s lighting schedule, consistency is key to mimic the natural environment of your corals and support their photosynthetic needs. Ideally, your corals require 8-12 hours of light per day, with an intensity that suits their specific species requirements. To replicate the natural sunrise and sunset, consider a programmable light fixture that gradually increases and decreases light intensity.

Daily Lighting Duration:

  • Minimum: 8 hours
  • Optimum: 9-12 hours
  • Maximum: 12 hours

A proper light schedule goes beyond just the duration; spectrum and intensity play crucial roles as well. Utilize controllable LED lights to adjust these settings, emulating the natural conditions of a reef. This enhances the growth and health of photosynthetic organisms in your tank.

Intensity & Spectrum Adjustments:

  • Morning: Gradually increase light intensity to simulate sunrise.
  • Midday: Peak at the highest intensity, providing essential light for coral photosynthesis.
  • Evening: Gradually reduce the intensity to simulate sunset.

Remember, your goal is to create a stable environment that promotes a thriving reef ecosystem. Overexposure to high-intensity lighting can lead to algae growth or coral bleaching, so it’s imperative to find the right balance. Keep in mind that different coral species may have unique lighting needs; always research the specific requirements of your tank inhabitants.

Reef-Safe Additives

When setting up your reef tank, you must carefully consider the additives you introduce to support the delicate balance needed for coral health and growth. Your primary focus should be on maintaining appropriate levels of major, minor, and trace elements, as corals rely on these for their metabolic processes.

Major Elements:

  • Calcium: Essential for coral skeleton building.
  • Magnesium: Helps maintain the balance of calcium and alkalinity.
  • Alkalinity (KH Buffer): Crucial for pH stability and coral growth.

Minor and trace elements also play vital roles, though they are needed in smaller quantities. These can include iodine for invertebrate health, strontium for aiding calcium incorporation into coral skeletons, and various other elements that mimic the natural ocean environment your corals hail from.

Recommended Additives:

  • Reef Mineral Salt: To replenish minerals and maintain ionic balance.
  • Nutritional Additives: Various forms are available to supplement coral diets and promote vibrancy.
  • Specialized Bacterial Supplements: Can improve water quality and nutrient cycle stability.

It’s imperative to dose these additives in measured amounts to avoid adverse effects on your tank’s ecosystem. Stick to trustworthy brands and ensure proper dissolution in RO/DI water when preparing liquid solutions. Be diligent with testing your water parameters to tailor the dosing regimen to your specific tank’s needs, helping to simulate the stable conditions of natural coral reefs.

Advanced Reef Keeping Topics

As you become more experienced in maintaining a reef tank, you will encounter advanced topics that can enhance the beauty and biodiversity of your setup. The following sections detail the progression from basic care to more sophisticated practices in reef keeping.

Propagation and Fragging

Understanding propagation and fragging is crucial if you’re looking to expand or trade coral. This process involves carefully cutting (fragging) coral, which encourages it to grow and multiply. Careful handling and a sanitized environment are essential to prevent stress and infection in corals.

  • Tools needed:
    • Sharp coral cutters or bone shears
    • Reef-safe glue or putty for attaching frags
    • Rubber gloves to protect both you and the corals
  • Steps:
    1. Select a healthy coral with an expendable branch.
    2. Make a clean cut, minimizing damage to the coral.
    3. Attach the frag to a rock or frag plug for stabilization.

Automated Systems

Embracing automated systems can greatly enhance the stability of your reef environment. These systems control lighting, feeding, water changes, and chemical dosing with precision. Utilizing automation reduces the chances of human error and ensures consistency in the reef’s conditions.

  • Key components:
    • Automatic dosers for consistent nutrient and mineral supplementation
    • Programmable lights to mimic natural daylight cycles
    • Auto top-off systems to maintain water levels

Specialized Equipment

Expanding your knowledge to include specialized equipment can further optimize the health of your reef tank. Devices such as calcium reactors, protein skimmers, and ozone generators play specific roles in maintaining water quality and providing essential elements for invertebrate growth.

  • Equipment highlights:
    • Calcium reactors: provide a steady supply of calcium and carbonate without frequent manual dosing.
    • Protein skimmers: remove organic compounds before they decompose and affect water quality.
    • Ozone generators: help with water clarity and pathogen reduction, but must be used carefully to avoid harming tank inhabitants.