How to set up a reef aquarium


The prospect of starting an aquarium can be invigorating and exciting, but there are steps and processes to setting one up. Nothing good happens in the saltwater hobby unless you wait. 

Reef Builders recommend six basic steps: planning, equipment and set up, saltwater and water testing, light, flow and filtration, adding fish and corals, and aquarium maintenance.


The first step is planning. It doesn’t involve going out and buying anything, but in some ways it is the most critical step. You must decide what kinds of fish you really want and what size tank you need. 

An aquarium for fish and corals is known as a reef or “community tank.” By contrast, a tank without corals is called a “fish only” tank.

Many hobbyists plan their tank around their one “must have” fish, which is usually relatively large and delicate. 

Equipment and Setup

The typical rule for beginners is that bigger is better, meaning you should usually buy the largest tank you can afford. This makes it easier to add more fish, justify purchases, and ensures an easier experience with water quality. 

It is usually recommended that beginners start out with a tank between 30 and 100 gallons. You should also make sure you know the dimensions of the tank. There are setups ranging from “nano” (less than 40 gallons) that will fit on your desk or dresser, all the way up to a massive 180 gallon tank, usually measuring 6 feet long, 2 feet tall and 2 feet wide. 

It is important not to place the aquarium near windows, loud noises, or televisions. 

You can purchase an all-in-one kit, or you can purchase each part separately and put your aquarium together. Most beginners choose the all-in-one option, but it is totally up to you. 

Saltwater and Water Testing

Once you’ve set up the aquarium in your desired spot, you’ll need to add saltwater. It is a common misconception that saltwater is just tap water mixed with kitchen salt. Do not try that. You will kill anything you ever put in that tank if you do.

You must do proper cycling and testing. In general your tank should have the following parameters:

Alkalinity: 8-12 dKH

Calcium: 350-450 ppm

Magnesium: 1250-1350 ppm

Phosphate: <0.2 ppm

Temperature: 75-80 degrees F, but 77 seems to work very well.

Salinity: Between 1.020-1.025

Many people buy saltwater from a local fish shop. This is usually a good way to start, but there are ways to mix your own. You need to also buy sand and live rock in order to design a good aquascape (the way the rocks are arranged). Remember, you are going to have to live with whatever rockscape you put up, so spend some time on it!

Once your parameters are at this level and your tank has run for a few weeks, you are ready for fish!

Good luck and remember: Nothing good ever happens in this hobby without patience. You need to take your time, or you will end up wasting close to a thousand dollars on an empty glass box of water. 


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