Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Reef Tank?

Setting up a reef tank can seem like an intimidating project but it doesn’t have to be. With some time and the right tools you can set up a beautiful reef tank as long as you follow these simple steps.

Equipment needed

The obvious starting point for setting up a reef tank is the tank itself. Reef tanks need a decent amount of space. Especially for a beginner, the smallest tank size should be 40-gallon. This will allow plenty of space for the inhabitants of the tank and for tank maintenance. Larger tanks are also more forgiving as far as water quality goes.

In addition to the tank you will need a high-quality filter, an aquarium heater designed for a tank that size, and a protein skimmer. This will help maintain the appropriate water quality and temperature. Many of the tank’s inhabitants are photosynthetic so a strong tank light is also very important.

Getting set up

Setting up a reef tank is very similar to setting up a normal saltwater tank. The main difference is in the timing of the setup. As with any tank set up your first step is to clean the tank and make sure that it is clean of dust and debris. Once the tank is clean fill the bottom of the tank with sand and then fill the tank to full with saltwater. Thoroughly wash your live rocks before arranging them in the bottom of the tank however you see fit. The last step for now is to install the filter, heater, and lights. Keep the lights off for now. This will discourage algae growth in the tank.

Now you wait. Once a week do a 50% water change. Once three or four weeks have passed, test the water. The tank should have no ammonia and nitrite which indicates that the tank has successfully cycled and the tank is ready for the next step. The first inhabitants will be snails and crabs. Introduce them to the tank and then begin to cycle the light in 12 hour increments (12 hours on and 12 hours off). Wait two weeks before performing a 25% water change. Going forward, perform 25% water changes at least once a month.

Introducing coral and fish

After the two week wait, begin to introduce heartier coral to the tank. You can consult a coral online shop for recommendations and to purchase the right types for your tank. It is important that coral is introduced slowly and each group that is introduced is given time to acclimate before more coral is introduced, about two weeks. Once all of the desired coral has been added to the tank and been given time to acclimate the fish and other inhabitants can be introduced to the tank. Introduce the fish in the same way that you would introduce them to any other tank.


Setting up a reef tank is a time consuming project but the outcome is worth the effort. Reef tanks are uniquely beautiful and no two are alike. The process is not as complicated as it may seem and not much more involved than setting up a normal saltwater tank. Upkeep is straightforward. Skimming the protein and water changes will go most of the way towards keeping the tank healthy. Consult a coral online shop for the equipment you need to get started.

Rachel David

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