Setting Up a Reef Tank

Congratulations you have or are thinking about taking the first step to creating your own reef in your home. I am sure you have heard how difficult it is, but it really doesn't have to be with a little bit of education and a lot of patience you can have a beautiful reef in no time.

Choosing a tank

The first step would be choosing a tank, this will be the main display tank and should house the majority of the sea life. When choosing a tank the things to consider would be the size and shape. In a saltwater tank the bigger the better, I always suggest getting the biggest tank you can afford as the volume of water you have determines the difficulty in keeping stable parameters.
You also want to be sure that the floor of the area where you want to place the tank is stable and able to support the weight of the tank.

Choosing Filtration

There are 3 types of filtration, Mechanical, Biological and Chemical.

Biological filtration involves the growth and containment of specific microorganisms working as a team to maintain a natural and balanced environment. These organisms consume unwanted contaminants, such as ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and dissolved organics as their food source, breaking them down into water, CO2 and nitrogen gas. Live Rock is most commonly used for Biological Filtration, the rock contains the necessary bacteria to perform the needed functions.

Mechanical Filtration mechanically or physically strains solids from water passing through it, which is vital for the efficiency of your biological media. Mechanical filtration removes unsightly particles including fish excrement, sludge, uneaten food, or dust. To prevent build-up, the filter media must be cleaned regularly. This is usually filter socks or filter floss, it could also be sponge filters.
Chemical Filtration removes dissolved particulates from the aquarium via activated carbons, resins, and other adsorbents. Chemical filtration media helps to maintain water quality as unwanted dissolved matter adheres to it. The two most popular forms of chemical media are activated carbon and resins. Protein foam skimming or oxidation with ozone are two other forms of chemical filtration.

For most beginners I suggest starting with a sump system and using a protein skimmer and filter socks. This gives you Live Rock for the Biological, Filter Socks for the Mechanical and Protein Skimming for Chemical Filtration. This is also a good base system that you can add other methods to at a later date.

Filling and Beginning the Cycle

Once you have your tank and filtration it is time to get wet! When you fill the tank I suggest adding your Live Rock first, then your sand and finally your water. The reason I suggest doing this is because you will have a sorts of organisms in your tank and some may burrow under the rock, if they are on top of the sand this could cause them to become unstable and topple over.

When filling the tank be sure to use a good quality water source, and pre mix the salt, you never want to mix the salt in the tank. The most common way to get good quality water is to make it yourself using an RO or RODI filter. These are simply filters that remove all of the impurities, including metals, chlorine, phosphates, etc. Your choice of salt is also important, for mixing the saltwater depending on how much you need you can use either a 5 gallon bucket, Brute trash can or other container. We most commonly use a Brute trash can that has a heater and powerhead (small circulation pump). You also want to let your water sit for at least 24 hours after mixing, this is not a necessity, but I have found through the years letting your saltwater rest is best.

Cycling the tank

Cycling is the most important part of setting up your new tank.

Fish waste and excretion release ammonia into the water column and ammonia kills fish. Bacteria within the Live Rock or other filter media will convert this ammonia to nitrite which is even more toxic! Fortunately another type of bacteria in the filter will consume the nitrites in the water column and convert them into nitrates. Nitrates are not toxic at lower levels. Nitrates are not healthy for your fish either (too higher levels will lead to loss of color/appetite and also algae blooms). This is why cycling the tank is so important, it is the production of the bacteria in the filter that will support your fish economy by neutralizing their waste and making the aquarium habitable.

Live Rock Cycling

If you starting a tank using Live Rock this can kick start your bacteria culture and reduce the waiting period for the cycle to end. This will not skip the cycling process, only shorten it. This is because the Live Rock already has a good population of the bacteria inside of it.

Hardy Fish Cycling

You will need to add a few fish to the aquarium to produce ammonia that the bacteria feed on, these should be hardier species (like Damsels) but also fish you would like to keep. You should add about 1.5 fish per 10 gallons of water, so for a 10g 2 fish is appropriate, 20g – 3 fish etc. You do not want to overstock the tank at this early stage as the bacteria are just beginning to propagate. It is very important to keep the tank understocked as the fish currently in the tank are undergoing some stress as they experience elevated ammonia levels. If doing a cycle with fish (fishless is always recommended) you may endure the death of a fish during the cycling period. This is not unusual but the risk can be reduced by maintaining the 10-15% water changes every couple of days to remove excess waste.

If you add too many fish it will lead to excess waste that the filter cannot consume yet, spiking ammonia levels and killing your fish!

Fishless Cycling

Fishless cycling has become the more politically correct way of cycling the aquarium. This is because cycling with fish can be seen as cruel as spiking ammonia levels can be damaging to fish health. Fish waste adds ammonia to the water which can kick starts the bacteria growth. This can be replicated by directly adding a raw uncooked shrimp to the aquarium. The rest of this guide should be followed in the same manner without fish.

Upkeeping Fish

The fish will probably be stressed as they carry the brunt of the cycling process, a good way to reverse this is to do small water changes every few days, about 10-15% should be changed, any more and you will be taking away the ammonia and nitrite that the bacteria are trying to feed on.

Once again make sure you have used an RO or RO/DI filter to make your Saltwater as adding any chlorine/chloramines will kill the bacteria and ruin the cycling. When you feed your fish do so very carefully and sparingly, any excess food left over will only add to the ammonia and nitrite that are already present.

Ending the Cycle

This process will take anywhere from 2 – 8 weeks, if you do not stock too many fish and follow this guide after the second or third week you should test your water (or find a pet store to test it for you) and check the levels of ammonia and nitrite. The nitrite should spike around the second week and then convert to nitrates, at this point (anywhere from 2-8 weeks) you are able to very slowly add more fish into the aquarium. Ensure your ammonia and nitrites are 0 at this point in time. Do this slowly as not to produce another mini-cycle.

If you are certain that your nitrite and ammonia are at 0, and then feel free to experiment with slightly more exotic fish. If your tank has been running for a couple of months and you feel in control. After the tank is up and there is still excess ammonia this may be due to inadequate filtration or overpopulation or even over-feeding.

During the cycle be sure not to add any chemicals that reduce or remove ammonia. These are counterproductive because the beneficial bacteria need this to feed!

Feel free to add plants during the cycling stage, these will often consume excess nitrates and lead to a healthier tank post cycling. They will not be affected by the rising ammonia during the cycle. Be sure to remove any decaying leaves or stems within the aquarium as these will further increase ammonia levels.