How to Start a Saltwater Reef Aquarium

So you want to start a reef tank? Well you are in luck! Youtube exists, and there ar eabout 50 million videos on how to get started. This article isn’t so much a step-by-step how to, but rather some practical tips to think about before you get started. I’ve been in this hobby a really really long time, and these are the top things I wish I knew as a beginner.

The first tip has to start with tank selection. Seemingly nothing could be simpler than picking out a glass box, but there really is a lot to consider. Obviously there are considerations such as “will it fit in the space I’ve selected?” You don’t need to watch a video on that type of stuff. Those things are pretty obvious. I want to talk to you about some of the technical details of tank selection and how selecting a particular tank affects everything else. So I will start at the end and work my way back. The best tank for a beginner is a 48” 120-gallon tank. How did I come up with that? In short, it is the best combination of volume to surface area. Larger volumes of water actually make the hobby easier because chemical fluctuations in large tanks happen more slowly compared to smaller tanks. The surface area part might need a practical example. First consider that one of the most popular tank sizes is a 48” 55-gallon tank. When you walk into a local pet store it’s probably the first tank you see for sale. They are very very very popular. Ubiquitous. They measure something like 48x13x21. It’s not a very good size because of that narrowness in that width. It limits what one can do with rock work, but worse of all, a tank like this 55 will cost almost as much as that 120-gallon I recommended. How does that work, because the sticker on that 120 is definitely going to be higher than the 55. A lot higher even. What people just starting out in the hobby don’t realize is the cost of an aquarium, the glass box itself is. . . basically free in the grand scheme of things.

Reef keeping can be done on a budget, but chances are, someone that’s new to it won’t be able to easily figure what corners can be cut. If you don’t believe me, for you experienced reefers out there, how much of your original equipment do you still have? Did you spend your money efficiently the first few years? I for one could fill warehouses full of aquarium-related junk I bought over the years that I know now I didn’t need. So going back to my main point, the cost of an aquarium is basically free given the cost of everything else. The cost difference between that 55-gallon tank and 120-gallon tank is not something you will ever remember. Besides livestock, the two most expensive pieces of equipment in the hobby will be your lights and filtration. There is a good chance that the lighting and filtration you would use on a 55 would be more than adequate for that 120. So for that tiny bit extra cash spent on a tank early on, you end up getting nearly twice the water volume which comes with more chemical stability, more aquascaping options, and more space for fish and corals that would otherwise crowd a 55. Now I understand not everyone has room for a 120. For space restricted would-be hobbyists, consider tanks in 2’ x 2’ sections. The reason that a 120 is so efficient is most modular lighting these days lights a 2’ square. So, in the previous example, two light fixtures required to light a 55-gallon tank which is 4’ long would easily light a 120-gallon that is also 4’ long. If you can’t fit a 4’ tank, consider getting a 60-gallon cube that measures 24” on each side. Again, you are maximizing the space that your lighting and filtration can handle while giving you a decent amount of volume to work with.

I’ve glossed over the filtration equipment to a large extent so far, but I’ll touch on it a bit later. What you need to remember for right now is that equipment scales well to larger tanks. For example, medium sized protein skimmers of any decent quality can handle most tanks from 55 to 250 gallons. Reactors scale even better. A typical calcium reactor can handle at least 250 gallons. If you decide to use dosing pumps to dispense additives, those scale to just about any size aquarium you can dream of. Right now there is a lot of technology floating around that wasn’t here 10 years ago. Things like bio pellet reactors, granular ferric oxide, zeovit, heck, even LED is a relatively new technology. Someone who was in the hobby 15 years ago that is just now getting back into it now would have a lot of catching up to do. Because there is so much stuff out there, it is hard for people to figure out what is really needed. The best way I can simplify this for people just starting out is to keep things very simple.

There are really only three things you have to provide for a successful aquarium. Those three things are good light, good water movement, and good water quality. There are plenty of debates to be had on how to achieve all three of those ideals, but as long as you have those three working, you will be successful with most things. Here is a practical tip for getting started. Find a tank you like and copy it. Better yet, find ten tanks that inspire your creative juices and see what they all have in common and set that as your baseline. Your journey through this hobby will be something that is uniquely your own as you figure out over time with what works for you, but to get started, copy someone’s setup that you like. Let’s assume that you’ve listened to me up to this point and you want to do some shopping. Hold off! Hold off as long as you possibly can and absorb information. I’m going to make up some numbers here, but for every day that you spend researching this hobby, you will save $1000. It is that important. Rushing into things is a guaranteed way for stuff to go horribly wrong fast. But Than. . . there is so much conflicting information out there! Where do I go for good information? That’s true. You are going to hear a lot of conflicting viewpoints. What makes it even more confusing is that both people might actually be right because there are a lot of ways to be successful in this hobby. Ummm. . . not helping is it? The internet is still a sea of noise? Here is a tip that can help you source better information.

There are plenty of eloquent contributors to online communities that will claim some sort of expertise. Want to know if they are actually legit? Look at their tank. It’s as simple as that. If their tank is garbage, it does not matter what credentials they have as far as I am concerned. A glorious tank speaks for itself and the person that designed and executed it will have a wealth of information on all the challenges it took to get it to that point. This stuff is not taught in schools. It’s not theoretical. It has to be experienced. One way to conceptualize it is this: a great reef tank is an iceberg. It is the thing that sticks up out of the water that you will actually see. What you don’t see is the 90% still under the water. That 90% is the hard learned lessons like tank crashes, regrettable equipment purchases, incompatible livestock choices, janky plumbing projects, horrible electrical, the list goes on. That’s why I suggest learning as much as you can from build threads of tanks you really like and take from them as many ideas as possible. Ok. . . you’ve done all your homework and finally it’s time to shop. The first thing I want you to do is go look outside. Is it snowing out? For those in warm areas without snow, is it basketball season? If so, it’s not the best time to buy. People don’t realize this, but this hobby is seasonal. Very seasonal. Once summer hits, this whole industry almost grinds to a halt. People spend less time in the house when the weather gets nice, and it’s common for there to be a little neglect of the home aquarium. Often times, people bounce out of the hobby altogether. If you are looking to save a bit of money on startup costs and don’t mind buying equipment second hand, the summer time is the time to do it. If you haven’t already, consider joining a local aquarium club. There is a proliferation of online communities especially with Facebook Groups, but there are still some benefits to joining a local club. Chief among those are the ability to see people’s aquariums in person if that club does a tank tour of local members, and purchasing equipment from fellow club members without having to deal with shipping.

I’ve saved the best tip for last. You probably wanted a real tip so I’ll give you a quick one about water chemistry. Chemistry can be a really overwhelming topic and it is important that you learn as much as you can about it, but to get started consider two things: Number one. . . water changes fix just about every problem imaginable. Got high nitrates because you fed too much? Water change. Corals looking stressed? Water change. Calcium, Alkalinity,and Magnesium all out of whack? Water change. Hair algae? Water change. Basically when in doubt, do a water change. Water changes are like exercise and flossing. People think they do them a lot more than they actually do, so when people ask me about a problem they are having and tell me they do water changes every week, it’s a little improbable. Why don’t you go ahead and do another one right now and see if you still have issues. Number two. . . don’t dose any chemical you aren’t actively testing for. I get this question all the time. Should I be dosing blank chemical? I don’t know? Did you test your water and was it low? Blindly adding chemicals to a tank is unwise. If you are not testing for it, don’t add it. Just do a water change. water change. Ok, I hope these tips were helpful to you guys. Until next time, happy reefing.