Reef aquarium

Reef aquarium

Reef aquariums are a unique type of salt-water tank that usually include coral, live rock, invertebrates, and fish. Their beauty lies in the many colors and designs of these creatures.

Though they have considerably more aesthetic appeal than a regular aquarium; they also require more work and money to set-up and more diligence to maintain. But owners feel it is worth the extra work for the added beauty of their aquariums. Owners are often called “reefers”.

The more time you spend researching this type of tank the more success you’ll have in the end. Plus, you’ll save yourself a lot of money. Don’t be in a rush to fill your tank.

Equipment Requirements

Before you attempt to set-up your reef aquarium you need to become familiar with the equipment that will be necessary.

Tank –120 gallon tank 48’ 24’ 24’ is best to start with. In a large body of water the chemical balance is easier to maintain and there is more room for inhabitants. The cost will not be a lot more than a smaller tank. If you don’t have that much space than a 65 gallon tank that measures 48’x18x18 is another good choice. Never buy a tank that is tall and narrow as these do not create the right environment for a reef aquarium.

Stand – You need a solid, stable stand that will not jiggle if bumped into. Many people use the inside of the stand for storage.

Other requirements include:

  • Lighting
  • Water Filter
  • Method of water movement
  • Sump tank
  • Protein skimmer

There are constantly new types of equipment being developed. Be careful what you buy at first or you’ll end up with a lot of expensive, unnecessary equipment.

The three basic things you need for a successful tank are:

  • Good water quality
  • Good light
  • Good water movement

If you can maintain the above your aquarium will survive. It will take you some type to decide exactly what you need.

The best way to start is to copy a successful aquarium. You can make it your own over time. But starting out it’s good to copy a tank that’s already working well. Talk to shop owners, or members of a local fish club. If you can’t find anyone local check out YouTube videos or online forums, but seeing the actual tanks is beneficial so local is always best.

Setting Up Your Tank

It is important to remember that a reef aquarium must be set-up in a specific order and over a period of time. The longer you take with each step of the set-up the better chance you’ll have of success.
You’re creating a complete ecosystem and it’s important that you let it adjust and adapt before adding anything that could upset the balance.

The first thing you need to do is clean your tank. You want to remove any residue left from shipping or packaging. Do not use a chemical cleaner.

Set the tank on a stable stand. It should not be placed near heat or in direct sunlight. Water temperature should remain between 72 and 78 degrees though this can vary on the type of fish you choose. The tank will need to be close access to electrical outlets.

Add the water. Do not add saltwater from the ocean because it can carry contaminants or tap water because your tank will be at the mercy of any chemicals added to your city water. Use purified water. Do not use distilled water because copper is added. Watch the tank carefully as you’re adding water to be sure there are no leaks.

Add salt. You need approximately ½ cup per gallon of water. Use the directions on the salt you buy and then check levels with a refractometer to test your salinity. It is best to buy marine salt from a local fish store or online.

Some owners add sand next but others suggest adding live rock before the sand.


Picking out the inhabitants of your tank can be daunting. Some of the things you need to consider include:

  • The size of your tank
  • Your budget
  • How well the inhabitants will cohabitate

Live Rocks

It’s best to buy rocks at a local store or order from a place as close as possible. The longer the distance it’s shipped the more chance of problems.


Start with soft corals such as Star Polyps, Zoanthid, Leathers, Xenias, or Ricordea. They are easier to get started, grow faster, do well in low movement and lighting, and are more forgiving of water quality than hard corals. Their movement also adds to the uniqueness of the tank.


Some good invertebrates to start with include, coral shrimp, blue tuxedo urchin, hermit crabs, and snails. These help keep the tank clean. Do not overload the tank too quickly.


Some people prefer to use only live rocks and coral and not worry with fish. Though this still makes a beautiful aquarium, it does not hold quite the same interest as one filled with exotic, boldly colored fish.

It is best to let your aquarium settle before adding fish. You want to be sure everything is functioning as it should and chemical levels are all optimal. Reef fish can be costly and you don’t want to lose them by adding them before your tank is ready.

Here are a few good choices for your first fish:

  • Clownfish
  • Dottybacks
  • Cardinal fish
  • Firefish
  • Gammas
  • Tangs

It’s important to study reference books, talk to dealers, and other aquarium owners to get as much information as you can regarding the fish you purchase. You can find online forums to ask questions and often local fish clubs.

All the inhabitants of your aquarium need to peacefully live together. Watch for aggressive bosses. If you have an aggressive fish you either need to add another fish to take over as boss or send the aggressive fish back to the fish store.

You’ll also need to be aware of the diet of the specific fish you buy. Some will eat frozen food and others require fresh.

Fish not suitable for Reef Aquariums

Any fish you choose should be healthy. Only buy from reputable dealers. A fish carrying a parasite or disease can cause great damage to your aquarium.

Fish that eat coral are not good for reef aquariums for obvious reasons. Large puffers feed only on coral so they are not an acceptable choice. The raccoon butterfly fish also eats coral.

Lionfish grow too large for reef aquariums and are always eating.

Triggerfish are not best because they tend to be destructive and cause damage.


The following will need to be done on an ongoing basis:

Check the water level

Make sure corals have not fallen over and look healthy.

Be sure the lighting, filters, water movement mechanism are all working correctly.

Test the chemical balance of the water and adjust as needed.

Check the temperature of the water.

A dirty tank will not survive long. Be sure you have the time and willingness to change the tank water often.

Being a reefer is a fun hobby that results in a beautiful live habitat of gorgeous fish. But do your due diligence before getting started.