Setting Up A Reef Tank
So you went to a local fish store for some goldfish food and got to looking around. Maybe you noticed some colorful fish and coral and thought "saltwater is too much work" or "I would love something like this but it must be expensive". Well, it might be a bit more manageable than you think. Check out this step-by-step guide to setting up a reef tank!
Step 1: Do Your Research
Well, you are here so congrats on starting out right. Before you go out and buy what you think you will need, create a comprehensive list of what you know you will need. All-In-One (AIO) Aquariums are great for beginners or someone who wants to start small with a nano tank. Next what equipment will you run? Pumps, heaters, chillers, and filter media are things you will want to look into. From there you will want to decide what sand type you like (fine to coarse) and what type of rock you want to place those beautiful corals on. Live Rock vs. Dry Rock is a whole blog in and of itself (See Blogs).
Step 2: Cycling Your New Aquarium
It was like Christmas! All your goodies came and you set it up, and now it's looking like it needs some life right? Yes, but this doesn't mean go buy your fish and coral...yet! You will need to cycle your aquarium, further, you need to complete the Nitrogen Cycle. Essentially, you are growing the beneficial bacteria that transforms Ammonia to Nitrite and then Nitrite to Nitrate which is then precipitated out and/or used as nutrients for your corals. NOTE: High Nitrates will have negative effects on corals in most cases. Youtube is a great resource for research and in-depth explanations of what is covered here. It is common to "ghost feed" the aquarium to kick-start the cycle, meaning tossing in a few flakes of food in the aquarium to break down and give you a little ammonia for the beneficial bacteria to feed on. Additionally, maybe a couple of weeks into the cycle you can add a starter fish like green chromis, damsels, or any other hardy fish. This will also get the cycle started because fish poop adds small amounts of ammonia. You will most likely see some algae sprouting up on your rocks and sand bed, this would be a good time to add some Clean Up Crew (CUC) hermit crabs and snails are pretty hardy and most will be ok during the cycle so long as they have food (algae). There are also products like "Dr. Tims One and Only" that are designed to help the cycle process along. NOTE: Just because it says instant cycle does not mean you can just start adding livestock, use testing as your way to determine when your aquarium is cycled. You will want to buy test kits so you know when your cycle is complete and for ongoing testing. You will want Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, Alkalinity, PH, and Calcium to start. NOTE: Testing is one of those things where if it isn't convenient, you will put it off. Get easy test kits like Hanna Checkers (at least for Alkalinity, Nitrate, PH and Calcium) so it makes the process less cumbersome and easier than messing around with test kits that have multiple steps. You probably won't use Ammonia and Nitrite too often after you cycle so the API (cheaper) test kits will be ok.
Step 3: Adding Livestock
Wow, you have the patience of a Saint! Now it's time to reward yourself. But before you go all Willy Nilly and buy a bunch of fish and corals that have needs you are not accustomed to, you will want to research what fish and corals are good for beginners. Additionally, if you see a coral that you just have to put in the tank, research what its needs are in terms of light, flow and ideal water parameters. The same thing with fish, there's nothing like buying a harlequin filefish and having it eat your high-end acros... But we all learn in our own special ways.
Step 4: Maintenance
Keeping up with maintenance is crucial to the longevity of your livestock and making sure that your tank looks like a million bucks. Nobody likes looking at algae-covered glass or rocks so here is a small list of regular maintenance that should be done on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
1. Water Changes: In my experience, this is the best practice to keep your livestock happy and your tank looking fresh. I like to do about a 20% water change every week. This adds trace elements found in salt mixes that are typically taken up by corals during photosynthesis and feeding. Additionally, water changes are a means of Nutrient Export or the removal of nitrates and phosphates.
2. Filter Cleaning: Going back to Nutrient Export, this is how you remove detritus and uneaten food from the water column. There are many different types of filters, the most common are filter sponges and filter socks. Some filters will need to be thrown out and replaced while others (like filter socks) can be washed and reused.
3. Testing Parameters: Weekly testing is imperative in making sure your parameters stay within the desired ranges. Again... stability is key!! Quick increases, decreases, or swings can wreak havoc on your livestock. Daily dosing is a great way to keep everything stable and accurate.
Step 5: Dosing
In order to maintain the Ideal Water Parameters, you will most likely need to dose at least a few elements. Alkalinity and Calcium are almost always a must. In addition to those, Magnesium is a great parameter to keep an eye on and dose accordingly. The relationship between Alkalinity and Calcium relies on Magnesium levels being stable and at the ideal range. Other additives like Amino Acids and trace elements are not a must but sometimes can help with coral coloration and health.
Step 6: Enjoy Your Hard Work
You did it! Now you have a thriving reef, maybe learned a couple of things the hard way but hey... there's a learning curve. One of the most important (and fun) things to do with a reef tank is staring at it for while each day. This will give you insight into how your tank is doing and you might see little critters, algae starting, a coral that isn't doing so hot, and an overall perspective of what is going on in your reef. Not only are you enjoying your tank but you are taking note of what you could change or something that needs your attention.
Thanks for reading along and I hope this helps in your reefing endeavors. Shoot us an email if you have a topic that you would like to be covered here in the blog section.