Set up a Miniature Reef Aquarium

Saltwater aquariums can be expensive but a small reef, known as a nano reef, is an economical way of observing ocean life. Read more. Note: This is a short guide only to get you started.


  1. Get your aquarium. To start, you will need to pick out the aquarium you would like to use.
    • Three good starter sizes are the standard {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}}, {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}}, or {{safesubst:#invoke:convert|convert}} aquariums. Next, you will need to decide on the lighting system you want to use.
    • You may choose from may different kinds of lights. The most commonly used are PCs(Power Compacts), Fluorescent tube bulbs (the best being T5s) and Metal Halides being the ultimate reef lighting system producing brilliant shimmering effects. You may purchase any of the commonly available lights which include Sunpod, Orbit and Outer Orbit, Nova Extreme, and others just to name a few. You may also notice that bulbs have different Kelvin (kelvins are a measure of color temperature) ratings such as 6500ks 10,000ks (or 10ks) 12,000ks and 20,000ks (or 20ks) plus actinic . All are appropriate for reef tanks but 10ks, 12ks, and 20ks with actinic are recommended. 6500ks are a warm red, 10,000ks are a crisp white and 20,000ks a cool blue. Actinics are a deep purple which cause certain corals and fish to fluoresce. Most people put on there actinics for 2 hours then put there other type on for 8 hours with actinics, followed by 2 more hours of actinics. This creates a dusk dawn effect, but is not necessary. For your average soft coral reef tank you need only 4 watts per gallon, and for a stony coral, tank 8 or more watts per gallon is needed.
    • For the heater, it is recommended using a 50w or 75w Ebo Jager brand heater, as users of these have consistently had success in such small aquariums. You may not need a heater as your light fixture produce a lot of heat unless your house is very cold. Lastly, you will need a small Powerhead for circulation with a turnover rate of 20 times (For a 10 gallon a powerhead rated at 200gph) and an adequate filter. You can use a power filter, a wet-dry filter, or canister filter. The best filter system would be an under tank sump, with a Protein Skimmer, (To remove dissolved organic material which can pollute your tank) a mechanical filter, (to remove solid particles IE filter floss or mesh pad) chemical filter (IE Carbon in a filter sock) and a calcium reactor for a stony coral reef.
    • It's important that you make sure to plug all equipment into a ground fault circuit before plugging them into the standard home outlet. Do this in conjunction with using a grounding rod inside your aquarium.
  2. For your main filtration, use an all-natural method. Good quality cured live rock and live sand is the key to starting a successful system. You will want to use at least one pound of cured live rock per gallon, and about one-half pounds of live sand per gallon.
  3. Place the tank in a good location. When you look for a location to place your nano reef, you will want to keep a few things in mind. The tank should be placed on a level and sturdy surface that can support approximately 70-250 pounds depending on the size of the tank. For the beginner, it's recommended to place the tank in a high traffic area, so that it will be under constant supervision, especially in the beginning while the tank is still stabilizing.
  4. Use the correct type of water to fill the tank. When the time comes to fill the tank with water, you will need good de-chlorinated water; it's recommended to use reverse osmosis water, you can find R.O. water from most local pet fish stores.
    • You will also need to have good quality synthetic reef salt and a specific gravity meter (hydrometers are more commonly used).
    • Floating hydrometers can be purchased for under $10 and will provide a basic reading of the specific gravity (salt concentration in ppm's parts per millionth). A more expensive Refractometer is recommended for highly accurate readings, if money allows that is.
  5. Proceed to fill the tank with water and add salt, following the manufacturers directions for adding the salt.
  6. Keep adding salt until the specific gravity is 1.023. Place the Powerhead in immediately so it will help mix the salt.
  7. Put in the heater. Now is also the time to place in your heater and get the water temperature to 78 degrees. Once your specific gravity has reached its proper level and the water has begun to stabilize, (this time will vary depending on your particular set up), you can add the live rock and live sand.
  8. Place the live rock in first, using an open pattern so the fish have room to swim through and hide in the rock. Be as creative as you want during this process and don't be afraid to go back and change it later. Once the rock is where you like it, you can pour the live sand around the rocks, keeping it at a fairly even thickness throughout the tank. Adding the live sand in will cloud the water, but don't worry it will eventually settle and the water will clear.
  9. You must then cycle the aquarium in order to avoid any livestock death. This is done by adding a source of ammonia, which could be fish food. If you do not do this, your first fish will add this ammonia, which will almost inevitably cause it's death. You must then check the ammonia level every 2 or 3 days until it drops to zero. You then repeat the process with nitrites and then nitrates. Once they are all zero you may add your first fish. Nitrates may be up to 20ppms. The best test kits available are Salifert although you may use a cheaper brand.
  10. When your aquarium has fully completed cycling and you're confident all water parameters look stable, you will be ready to add a fish and a coral. But don't rush this process; take your time to be rewarded in the saltwater hobby.
  11. Make sure to do your homework and research the species of fish and coral you're thinking of keeping; (try to offer them foods they would get naturally from the ocean). This way you'll know how to care for them, when you get the little guys to their new home.


  • For beginners, having patience is key for a successful nano reef
  • Continue asking lots of questions from experienced hobbyists.

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