Many additional photos of my reef tank are available here at multiply.

Maintaining a Reef Tank

  • A simple system to build and maintain
  • An affordable system

Lots of people get overwhelmed with the idea of running a reef tank, but it doesn’t have to be that hard if you decide ahead of time on planning a simple system. Below are some tips for keeping a reef system simple and affordable.


The first thing is finding and choosing the right equipment. For a simple system, you should plan on a medium sized tank (45-90Gallons) so that you can keep it without having to build external filters and crazy expensive lighting. I’d stick to 4 foot long tanks since the lighting is a lot easier to find and there are more options available. A tank with a few extra inches of depth is a great find as it makes aquascaping easier than really narrow tanks. You also can’t reach into a tank that is more 24″ high to reach everything.


So, next you will need filters. In a reef system, you have two main filters that are required, live rock and a good protein skimmer. Live rock will be the main biological filter or nitrification base in the aquarium. It will also enhance the look of the aquarium and provide shelter for the inhabitants and places to put your corals. The protein skimmer essentially uses air bubbles inside the skimmer’s body to strip the water of undesirable waste by-products by using the surface tension of water to lift particles out a vertical column.

Live Rock
You can buy live rock by the pound at aquarium stores or from other hobbiests. There are also ways to save money on live rock by utilizing base rock and seed it with live rock or you can even build your own base rock and seed that with some live rock. The quality of live rock you can buy at the stores varies greatly! You want to be getting quality rock if your paying $6-10 per pound. The best rock will be covered in purple coraline algae and have visile live on it, like small worms, sponges, tubes, etc. Try to pick the shapes and sizes that you want for your reef but make sure your rock is porous, the more holes and cavities in it, the better for filtration.

To build your own live rock, have a look at these reference sites:
1. Reef Propogation, by Tom Miller (I use this method and recipe with great results)

Protein Skimmers
Now, this is a tough topic since there are so many skimmer out there for the hobby and they are all very similar, but the results you get from them are very very different. It is definitely worth researching the right skimmer online for review before making this purchase because otherwise you may find yourself with problems with it or your reef, or you might have to simple replace it with a better one. Getting the right skimmer right from the start is very important to start your system off right and to enjoy it. Expect to spend between $200 and $400 (Canadian) on your skimmer depending on your tank size and planned inhabitants.

The ones I can recommend for a tank between 45-90 Gallons would be the following:

  • AquaC Remora and Remora-Pro
  • Aqua Medic Turbo Floater 1000
  • ASM skimmers
  • Euro Reef Skimmers

Whatever you do, don’t cheap out on this or by one without reviewing it just because its at your local fish store, find a good one and either have your local fish store order it in, or buy it online, it will save you a lot of money and headache if you do.

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OK, now this category varies the most with what is available and it completely depends on what you plan to keep in your reef. However, in general you will need to purchase quality saltwater lights for your reef either from your local aquarium store or online.

You can have a simple low light system (around 3W/gallon) with PC (power compact) lights or with T5. It is best to have a mixture of daylight bulbs (10,000 K) and actinic blue lighting for good coral color and growth. A low light system like this will be somewhat limiting in what you can keep and you will have to be very choosy about the corals you buy. It will likely cost between $200 and $400.

A medium light system can be purchased in T5, PC and VHO (very high output) fixtures and can easily provide a system of 4-6W / Gallon lighting. This will allow you to keep a very large variety of corals and other animals. This would likely cost between $350-$600 depending on your tank size.

To grow the most light demanding corals, you will need to have a high light system by utilizing VHO or metal halide (with a combination with PC or T5) to get high wattage output around 6-10W / Gallon. This will open up the reef for the most demanding stony corals and clams.

All in all, it is best to decide what you want to keep, do some research on the lighting you would like and compare your lfs (local fish store) to online shops and find a decent price. Remember to include the cost of your bulbs as you will need to replace them every 8-12 months.

Power Heads

Next it is also very important to have good water flow in your tank as this promotes the distribution of food to hungry corals and it helps to keep water circling through the live rock to aid in the filtering process. It will also assist in circulating all the water through the rock and protein skimmer so you don’t get dead areas that can grow nuisance algae or other problems.

It is recommended to have at least 10x per hour flow rate so if you have a 60 Gallon tank, you should aim to have 600 gph. Multiple submersible power heads can be used in the tank to achieve this and distribute flow in the system. There are many brands to purchase and lots of variety but a few standard power heads (I recommend maxi-jet 1200, as they are VERY quiet, small and powerful) will do fine. You can spend much more on wave makers, cycling power heads and other advanced flow systems but I personally don’t think you really need them. You will always end up with some high flow areas and low flow areas in a reef, which I think is a good things as it lets you move your corals to an area they prefer instead of having the same water flow in the whole tank.

Sand or No Sand?

Now on to the DSP (deep sand bed) debate, some want it, some don’t. There are pros and cons of each but it should really come done to what critters you keep to decide as you are trying to reproduce the best possible environment for them, not for you!

If you want to have sand lovers, then keep sand. You can have anywhere from a inch or so to 4-5 inches. There are plenty of sites that depate the DSP and all the theory behind it but the basic premise is that a DSP will provide if undisturbed, anaerobic nitrifying bacteria to help process waste in the tank. Without a DSP however, the tank is much easier to keep clean and to blast detritus out of low flow areas to help clean it.

Setup / Cycling

I’m not even going to talk about his (at this time) as there are litterally hundreds of websites that offer great advice for this process. My only advice is to do it without any live fish and to be patient. The slower things happen in a reef, the better!

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This will depend on how clean you want to keep your tank and what you put in the tank that requires maintenance. You can expect some level of maintenance though and it will depend on how much equipment you buy but the bare minimum will be to:

  • Topping off water ever day or two due to evaporation
  • BiWeekly water changes of about 15%
  • At least weekly emptying your skimmer collection cup
  • At least weekly cleaning your glass (use a magnet cleaner)
  • At least monthly water parameter checks (ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, calcium, alkalinity, phosphates, magnesium)
  • And of course daily feeding of your fish and corals

You should expect to spend at least 2 hours a week doing this. Of course, you better count on the 2-4 hours per week that you will be staring at your masterpiece as well!

Water Topoff

Any water you add to your system has to be very high quality! You will likely need to purchase RO/DI water or get an RO/DI filter to use. This water can be used for water top off and to mix with salt for water changes. You should always pre-mix your salt in a separate container at the same temperature as your tank and with circulation to ensure it dissolves and at the right salinity level.

Water parameters

After your tank has been long established and running stable, there is less of a need to be constantly watching your water parameters. I no longer test for ammonia, nitrite or nitrate unless I have some issue (its been over 4 months since I’ve tested this now). The ones you do need to attend to are your calcium, alkalinity and magnesium as they are all working together in balance so need to be moderated together. The calcium and alkalinity are the only two you really need to add as long as you do enough water changes and the others are to monitor their levels but you typically don’t need them as additives.

Many other additives are available such as strontium, iodine, melli..something, etc, etc. I only use a little iodine once in a while to help out my brain corals and mushrooms that consume and rely on this element more than others. As for the others, I only balance calcium at 420 ppm and alkalinity at about 9 dkH. Everything else is taken care of with appropriate water changes. There are also many ways to dose these additives from the simplest such as mixing it in with your top off water to adding automated drip and reactors for cycling it into the system. It all depends on your willingness to do it yourself and your pocketbook. it can get VERY expensive to automate all that.

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