Are reef tanks set up possible for beginners to accomplish? Of course, it is! In the past, people thought of saltwater aquariums as something mysterious and too ambitious for beginning aquarists.

The truth of the matter is that anyone can start setting up a reef tank at home.

Don’t worry if you feel you are uncertain about your capabilities. In this article, we will talk you through every step you need to undertake to set up a reef tank.

Reef Aquarium Set Up Difficulty: How To Start a Reef Tank

It is wise to evaluate yourself before you begin your next fishkeeping endeavor. Doing something beyond your capacity is a recipe for disaster. The last thing you want to do is stress out, instead of enjoying the hobby.

– Beginner

The most practical place to start is a fish-only aquarium (FO) or a fish-only tank with live rocks (FOWLR.) Bit by bit, you can make upgrades as you build up more experience. In the end, you can realize your dream of having a reef tank complete with fish, corals, and invertebrates!

– Intermediate

If you think you have already leveled up as a hobbyist, you may want to consider starting a reef tank complete with beginner-to-moderate marine fish and corals. At this point, you may also want to test your skills by adding mushroom corals, leather coals, and even zoanthids.

– Expert

With broadened knowledge and experience, experts can start caring for the most demanding large polyp stony (LPS) and small polyp stony (SPS) corals. These coral species may wow their spectators with their lovely branching and swirling shapes, but they have strict water, lighting, and food requirements. Starting a coral tank requires advanced knowledge and proper planning to ensure success.

DIY Glass Aquarium vs. All-In-One Aquarium Kits

The easiest way to get started is to buy an all-in-one aquarium from a respectable brand. Also known as mini or nano reef kits, these products are designed to be small and attractive, which makes them perfect for first-timers.

While this type of aquarium is designed to be pleasant-looking and easy, it does come with a few drawbacks. The biggest disadvantage is that it does not allow for a great deal of customization. You can’t personalize it by adding sumps and other equipment. An all-in-one aquarium is not suitable in the long term.

If you enjoy creating things on your own, you might want to consider building a DIY glass aquarium. This route requires intensive planning and manual labor, but those who are mechanically inclined will feel satisfaction from taking things into their own hands.

You have two options when building your marine aquarium: acrylic vs. glass. Acrylic is more lightweight and versatile than glass. Modern all-in-one aquariums also use acrylic. The only downside to acrylic is that it scratches more easily than glass, but you can always buff out the scratches.

Pro Tip: To save money, you might want to consider purchasing a used and scratched acrylic tank. You can repair it easily and bring it back to the original state.

Steps to Building Your First Marine Aquarium

Now that you have chosen the difficulty of your tank, let us dive into the how-to section.

– Choose the Right Tank Size

The tank size is the first and most important decision to make. It is determined by your livestock choices, the available space you have, and most importantly, your budget.

The truth of the matter is, saltwater aquariums can be expensive but on the bright side, there is always an affordable way of starting a reef tank. Tanks are available in the market both brand new and second-hand.

For beginners, we recommend between 30 to 50 gallons with a sump. You will always want to choose a small tank and not get too ambitious during your first steps. A small tank costs less money in terms of livestock, equipment, and running costs like electricity. What’s more, it is easy to fix problems with water quality on a small tank and perform a 50 percent water change whenever needed.

The downside, however, is that it can be rather difficult to keep the water parameters stable. Also, you will be limited in the quantity and type of fish you can keep.

– Find the Ideal Location

You will want to choose the best location for your aquarium before you do any work; otherwise, you will encounter big problems down the road. Here are a few criteria that make an ideal spot for a marine tank:

  • The floor should support the weight of your aquarium.

One thing is for sure, your new reef aquarium setup is going to be heavy! A 50-gallon aquarium will weigh approximately 450 pounds. Also, it is worth pointing out that you should immediately mop any water spills.

  • Keep the tank away from air conditioners, windows, doors, and heat vents.

Rapid temperature changes in the water are extremely stressful for fishes in general, and even more so for saltwater inhabitants. Therefore, you should keep your aquarium away from areas where the sun blazes or in places where cold drafts pass.

  • Accessibility and ventilation are important.

Be sure to leave enough distance between the back of the tank and the wall to allow easy access during maintenance. Likewise, check for electrical outlets, as you will need at least four plug-ins.

Equally important, you will want to place your aquarium in a well-ventilated area since water will evaporate out of your aquarium. Humidity can build up fast in a small, less ventilated room, thereby causing it to smell. A humid room also causes metal components to rust rather quickly.

– Build Your Sump Filter

The filtration system is the heart of an aquarium and for your marine tank, we recommend you build a sump filter. Don’t let the thought of plumbing discourage you. Think of it as a LEGO for grown-ups!

So what is the purpose of a sump for an aquarium?

  • A sump filter provides an excellent location for your protein skimmer, heater, and other equipment.
  • It makes an ideal place for collocating calcium or nitrate reactors, as well as bio-media for biological filtration. With a sump filter, you can also perform additional chemical and mechanical filtrations.
  • Combined with a slow drip water top-off setup or an auto-doser, it provides a suitable place for dosing supplements and other additives that reef aquariums need.
  • A sump filter provides additional beneficial tank water volume and aeration to your system.

Sump filters can come in single-chamber designs or more complex multi-chambered setups. You can always build your own from scratch using glass or acrylic aquariums. Pre-manufactured sumps are also available on the market if you don’t like to do it yourself.

Pro Tip: Add a few kilos of live rock to the sump chamber so you can get some of the benefits of the good stuff.

– Test for Leaks

A new aquarium should not leak but it is better to be safe than sorry. Tanks are made of fragile pieces of glass held together with silicone and thin plastic. As such, you can’t brush off the possibility that transportation has caused some parts to wear out. There is also a small chance of a flaw in the sealant during construction.

If your saltwater aquarium leaks, then it is better to find out about it in your garage, rather than in your living space. Once you are sure the tank will not leak, you can move it into your living space.

– Add Your Rockwork

Dry rock and live rock are two of the most common types of rocks mentioned in the marine aquarium hobby and are essential for starting a reef aquarium.

Dry rock can be bought by the pound in local fish stores. But just like a dry chunk of earth, it is not colonized with helpful bacteria or interesting invertebrates. That is why dry rock is much more affordable than live rocks.

Live rock, on the other hand, comes with beneficial bacteria and invertebrates living on and inside of it. But because live rock costs several times more than dry rock, many aquarists use it sparingly.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be Michelangelo to make a decent aquascape. The fundamentals of a reef aquascape are that you should have caves and hiding places for your fish to escape to avoid unnecessary stress.

Moreover, make sure your rockwork is firmly balanced. It should be a cinch to remove a rock when you’re not happy with it in the future. Have the option to play around with the spacings and make sure you’re absolutely happy with it before you get it wet.

– Add in Your Substrate

The substrate is a choice of personal preference and aesthetics. Your reef aquarium is going to be your masterpiece, so feel free to choose white sand, exotic-colored sand, crushed corals, or shells. You can also opt for a bare-bottom tank if you want.

But if you wish to use dry sand, then you will need to prepare it first with two steps.

  • First, you will want to run the sand through a magnet. You will be surprised at how much metal it contains. The metal will likely rust in saltwater which can release toxins that will poison your fish.
  • Then you will need to rinse the sand thoroughly using tap water. Put the sand in a bucket and run through it until the water runs clear.

It is best to add the sand after your rockwork so the rocks are nice and stable on the bottom of the tank. Also, it is noteworthy to point out that coarse sand or crushed coral substrates can be a little dirtier than fine sands because food and waste particles can fit into the nooks and crannies.

– Add in Your Saltwater

To set up a saltwater reef tank, you can mix your own saltwater at home or buy gallons of saltwater from your local fish store. It is not necessary to use distilled water as you would for a freshwater tank. However, buying water is not always feasible if you have to walk a flight of stairs or make trips in an elevator.

If you have decided to mix your own saltwater at home, you will want to buy a RODI filter to deionize water, as tap water contains impurities that can cause a myriad of problems. So, it is important to remove as many of these impurities as possible.

The lower the number of the TDS (Total Dissolved Solids), the better. Ideally, you want zero TDS water but certainly no higher than 10 TDS. The water may look cloudy at first, but it will clear soon enough.

– Gather All the Equipment You Need

In addition to the filter and the tank itself, you are also going to need the following equipment when setting up a reef tank for the first time.

  • Lighting

Proper lighting is essential to the success of a marine aquarium, especially those with gorgeous corals. Corals are photosynthetic animals, thus they need light to survive and flourish.

However, corals can also bleach and die in a matter of days when there is too much lighting. Not to mention, this also allows algae to get a foothold in your tank.

That said, it is wise to purchase a controllable LED light so that you can start at 30 to 40 percent intensity for six to eight hours a day. You may increase the intensity once you have cycled your tank for at least six weeks.

  • Powerhead

Next up is the powerhead. If the filter is the heart, flowing water is the lifeblood of your aquarium. Water movement facilitates the life-sustaining oxygen exchange and delivers food to corals that can neither move nor remove biological waste and carbon dioxide.

But as with other decisions in this reef aquarium hobby, the choice of which powerhead to get will depend upon a few factors, including function, style, and budget. Each model will have its own unique way to attach to the tank wall — some will hang over the side, others you can mount using suction cups, while others use powerful magnets.

If you don’t mind your electricity bills skyrocketing, you can shell out the dough for the big name brand of energy-guzzling pump that will make a big splash.

  • Heater

Be sure to install the heater properly according to the manufacturer’s directions to prevent overheating. The ideal location for the heater depends on the type of heater you use.

  • Place non-submersible, clip-on heaters (the ones that hang vertically in the tank) as close to the outflow of the filter as possible.
  • Place the submersible heaters as close as possible to the filter’s inflow.

Correct placements allow the heated water to be better dispersed throughout the tank and allow your pets for better acclimation. The heater is not the coolest-looking piece of equipment you can add to your tank, but if you have a sump you may place the heater in there.

– Cycle Your Tank

Aim for the following parameters:

  • Alkalinity (pH): 8-12 dKH
  • Calcium: 350-450 ppm
  • Magnesium: 1,250-1,350 ppm
  • Phosphate: <0.2ppm
  • Temperature:  75 – 80 °F
  • Salinity: 35 ppt or 1.0264 specific gravity

Wait for 24 to 48 hours before you add your fish to your tank, especially if you have some expensive live rock with awesome stuff growing on it (and you are worried about losing it). You may want to spend some time letting your water rest (and stabilize) before adding it to your aquarium.

What Is a Protein Skimmer and Why Do You Need It?

A protein skimmer, also known as foam fractioner, is an indispensable device in a marine aquarium. This device generates thousands of fine bubbles to efficiently remove undesirable waste by-products.

As the bubbles attract and condense waste, they turn into a lathery-looking foam that gets transported to the collection cup for convenient removal. As a result, nitrate levels remain constantly low, as organic waste is removed before it has the chance to break down and release nitrogen compounds.

In addition to these benefits, a protein skimmer also:

  • Reduces phosphates, thus preventing algae growth
  • Eliminates biological toxins released from algae, corals, or invertebrates
  • Promotes proper gas exchange and increases oxygen levels
  • Helps prevent acidic conditions caused by carbon dioxide buildup
  • Removes oily surface wastes and supports a large bioload

The foamy substance contained inside the collection cup will be removed from the water column so that it cannot release pollutants back into the aquarium.

5 Best Marine Fish for a Beginner’s Saltwater Aquarium

The most practical place to start is a fish-only aquarium (FO) or a fish-only tank with live rocks (FOWLR). Bit by bit, you can make upgrades as you build up more experience until you will finally realize your dream of having a reef tank complete with fish, corals, and invertebrates.

Consider the following factors, especially if you are getting your first batch of marine aquarium fish for the first time:

  • Hardiness: A hardy fish doesn’t require meticulous care and it can tolerate imperfect aquarium conditions. It is inevitable for beginners to make mistakes, so it pays to have fish that are quite forgiving.
  • Price: It is unfortunate to lose a fish, but it is even more tragic to lose an expensive fish.
  • Temperament: You will want peaceful species of fish that can get along with others. An aggressive fish dropped into an empty tank will define the entire aquarium as its territory.

With these key attributes in mind, we recommend you get the Pajama Cardinalfish, Neon Goby, Royal Gramma Basslet, Coral Beauty Angelfish, and Ocellaris Clownfish. These starter fish come in vibrant colors and more importantly, you can keep them together in the same aquarium.

You may also add snails, such as the Turbo and Cerith snails. Not only are these snails fun to watch, but they also help clean up brown algae from your tank.


If you have already amassed plenty of knowledge and experience with keeping fish, aquatic plants, and invertebrates, then you might want to opt for a tank design with moderate or more advanced difficulty.

  • Picking the location of your new saltwater aquarium is not a trivial decision.
  • While the type of filter is a personal choice, we highly recommend a sump filter because of the many benefits it can provide to your system.
  • A protein skimmer is crucial when starting a coral tank where a very low nitrate level is crucial for coral health.
  • Live rock is porous, thus providing much better filtration capacity and in theory, it should offer greater biodiversity in terms of invertebrates and bacteria.
  • Your rockwork should be at nice angles wherever possible. Leave a gap between the rock and the glass so you can get your algae scraper to clean.
  • Insufficient water flow is one of the gravest common saltwater aquaria mistakes an aquarist can make.

Whether or not you should build your marine tank or buy an all-in-one aquarium is a personal choice based on your lifestyle and resources. But as you can see, setting up a reef tank isn’t that difficult of an endeavor!

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