Reef tanks are fascinating! The closer you look the more amazing marine life you’ll see.
Reef aquariums never stay the same. The corals are constantly growing and forming new colonies. Purple and pink coralline algae spread over the reef rock. Colorful fish explore the reefscape, pecking at tiny live foods like pods and worms. The action never stops.
If you’ve caught “reef fever” and want to set up your own reef aquarium, you’ll find lots of aquariums and reef gear to choose from. But where to start? It can be overwhelming. It’s easy to get caught up in the dizzying array of aquariums offered for sale. Not to worry. I’ll make it simple and lay out what you need to know to start your own reef tank at home.
A word of caution. Starting a reef aquarium can’t be rushed. You can’t cut corners and expect to have delicate SPS corals survive. It will take patience to get the new tank biologically stable. You’ll have to learn when it’s best to take a hands-off approach and let nature take over. You could spend thousands of dollars on the “biggest and best” equipment and not have success.
The fun of reef-keeping is the gradual development of the marine life and steady increase in your personal skill.
Nano vs larger tanks
Your first reef can be as small as a tiny pico aquarium or larger than 300 gallons! The aquarium size you choose depends mainly on your available space and budget.
With a larger reef aquarium, you’ll be able to keep more fish, corals and other invertebrates. But it will also take up more space and have a higher initial cost.
Smaller nano reefs cost less and don’t require a lot of maintenance. But you’ll still be able to keep a variety of colorful fish and corals too.
Three types of reef aquariums
There are three basic categories under the reef aquarium banner. Check out the descriptions to see which is right for you.
1. FOWLR aquarium
Fish only with live rock (FOWLR) combines the beauty of marine fish with the structure of reef rock. The rock structure adds interesting places for the fish to explore and gives the aquarium a three-dimensional aquascape.
The reef rock adds a lot of surface area for microbes to colonize. This benefits the aquarium by providing nitrification (removal of ammonia and nitrite) along with natural nitrate removal.
FOWLR aquariums are not meant to keep SPS or LPS corals. You don’t need bright lighting or extra water movement with FOWLRs.
2. Soft coral reef aquarium
The next step toward a traditional reef tank is the soft coral aquarium. Some marine aquarists choose to set up a tank focused on easy to care for soft corals like polyp rock and mushroom corals.
These inverts are easy to keep, reproduce quickly and aren’t as sensitive many stony corals. You still get the beauty of marine fish, reef rock and colorful corals but with less cost and upkeep requirements.
3. Traditional reef aquarium
The traditional reef aquarium is meant to keep a variety of stony corals. Aquarists monitor and add a supplements like calcium, magnesium and iodine to stimulate coral growth.
Reef-building corals are sensitive to the light intensity and quality along with water quality. If you’re up for the challenge, a traditional reef aquarium will reward you with a “piece of the reef” right in your own living room.
Build your own or All-in-One?
When shopping for an aquarium you’ll have to decide between a plug and play system or take a more hands-on approach. The All-in-One aquariums come with lighting, water pump and sometimes a protein skimmer. Just fill it with water.
If you’re up for the challenge, go with a basic tank and add the rest of the gear yourself. This gives you the flexibility to build the system around the type aquarium you plan to keep.
Are all saltwater fish compatible with a reef tank?
No. Not all fish are considered “reef-safe.” Some fish will peck at corals, grow too large or become aggressive toward shrimp, snails and other fish.
Before selecting a fish, check online to see if it is safe for reef aquariums.
Reef tank equipment checklist
Proper reef filtration
The filtration system is an important component of the aquarium. Some aquariums come with an internal filter system complete with a pump, protein skimmer and media. If not, your aquarium may require an external sump that sits below the aquarium inside a filer sump.
The water flows by gravity into the sump or internal filter box. A water pump placed in the filter box or external sump sends the filtered water back up and into the aquarium. This water flow helps circulate purified, oxygenated water throughout the aquarium.
A filter sump makes it easy to hook up a return pump, automatic top-off and protein skimmer. Most sumps have chambers for various types of filter media to keep the water clean.
The return pump is the heart of the reef’s filtration system. It is critical to use a high-quality pump. The pump will run 24-7, night and day, keeping your reef alive. Return pumps provide constant water movement throughout the aquarium, which is essential for the health of corals and other marine life.
The pump’s flow rate will be specified in gallons per hour (GPH). Although opinions vary, you’ll want a water pump rated for at least four times the size of your tank. If you have a 20-gallon aquarium, the pump should be rated for at least 80 gallons per hour.
Some aquarists like to use pumps rated at eight to ten times the tank volume in order to get a lot of water movement in the aquarium. It is not always necessary to use a super-high flow rate pump. A FOWLER tank doesn’t need a super-high flow rate.
Internal flow pumps
As your reef grows, you’ll notice that some areas of the tank may not be getting enough water movement. SPS and LPS corals require water to flow past their colonies to remain healthy.
Specialty water pumps, designed to provide targeted water flow for reef aquariums, allow you to put water flow right where it is needed. A nano-reef aquarium may require one small powerhead. Larger reef tanks will really benefit from one or more circulation pumps like the Maxspect Gyre pump.
Water circulation pumps don’t filter the water. They are designed to keep the aquarium water moving across the rock and corals, just like the water movement on a natural reef. Water circulation brings oxygenated water and food to the corals and flushes away waste products.
Protein skimmers are an important component of your reef’s filtration system, especially with a soft coral and traditional reef set-ups with stony corals.
Natural dissolved organic matter tends to build up in reef aquariums. This causes the water to develop a yellow tint, degrading light quality and intensity reaching the corals. A build-up of organics is also associated with a variety of reef problems such as poor health, nutrient build-up and algae growth.
Protein skimmers work by generating millions of tiny air bubbles inside the skimmer. The bubbles capture the organics and concentrate them as foam that is collected by the skimmer. A protein skimmer dramatically improves water quality and promotes coral health.
Your aquarium may come with a built-in skimmer but most-likely you will have to add one to your filtration system. Internal protein skimmers are made for smaller reef aquariums. They attach to the glass with suction cups. Large heavily stocked reef aquariums require a powerful in-sump or external protein skimmer. These heavy-duty protein skimmers usually come with a separate water pump for easy set-up and operation.
Reef aquarium lighting
Many marine invertebrates, especially corals, contain live algae inside their tissue. This beneficial “symbiotic” relationship benefits the algae and the coral by sharing and recycling nutrients. In order for corals to stay healthy and colorful they need the proper quantity and spectrum of light.
Reef lighting systems provide the correct lighting to keep corals alive. Some small reef aquariums come with a LED light fixture. Larger, deeper reef aquariums will require a larger light system. Today’s LED reef lighting systems are the most advanced and efficient light systems available. LED fixtures use less energy, produce the least amount of heat, last longer and can even be programmed to simulate natural light cycles.
Heating and cooling
Keeping the aquarium water temperature stable is key to maintaining a healthy reef aquarium. Air conditioning and cold room temperatures can cool the aquarium water.
An aquarium heater will automatically turn on and warm the aquarium water as necessary. A general rule when selecting aquarium heater is 3-5 watts of power per gallon of water. A 30-gallon aquarium would require a heater rated at 100-150 watts. The key is to maintain a steady water temperature with minimal fluctuations in temperature. Most successful reef aquarists keep their water temperature at 78-82°F.
In warm climates and in cases where the aquarium water gets over-heated from lighting and water pumps, a chiller is recommended. An aquarium chiller works by extracting excess heat from the aquarium water. It’s also a good idea to have an aquarium thermometer to double check the setting on a heater or chiller.
Top 7 Rated Reef Tanks
1. Red Sea REEFER
Red Sea has been manufacturing marine salt, test kits and aquariums for over 25 years.
The REEFER series of reef systems is designed for experienced aquarists. The REEFER system is intended to provide a solid foundation for building-out your own custom set-up using lighting, skimmer and filtration of your choice.
The aquariums are constructed of ultra-clear glass in a rimless style. The REEFER aquariums come with a matching cabinet. Inside the cabinet is refugium-ready sump with an integrated automatic top-off system. The overflow is built around Red Sea’s unique silent down-flow system.
The REEFER series is designed to provide a base aquarium system that can be customized by the aquarist. You’ll be able to build your tank from a virtually unlimited choice of LED lights, filtration media, circulation pumps, and controllers of your choice.
REEFER series aquariums range from 34 gallons up to 200 gallons. Consider this aquarium if you’re an advanced aquarist comfortable with choosing your own lighting and filtration systems. The REEFER series is popular for building a reef aquarium containing live rock, SPS and LPS corals.
- Sleek rimless glass.
- Strong, marine-grade plywood cabinet with adjustable feet.
- All plumbing is pre-installed.
- Sump includes skimmer chamber.
- Silent, regulated down-flow system with emergency overflow.
- Automatic top-up system with reservoir.
2. Waterbox Aquariums
Waterbox Aquariums combine the beauty of ultra-clear low-iron glass with hand-crafted workmanship to create beautiful reef-ready aquariums.
The aquariums are constructed of with beveled glass for smooth, clear edges and rimless top.
The aquarium stands use high-quality materials and a UV-cured water-resistant finish.
The Peninsula series of reef-ready aquariums is designed to be viewed from both sides. The overflow system is mounted on the end of the tank, for a clean look.
Reef Waterbox aquariums are made in the traditional front-view design. The overflow is mounted on the back of the aquarium.
The overflows are made of smooth glass instead of plastic. This makes it easy to keep clean and free of algae.
Both styles of aquarium come pre-drilled with a filter sump, overflow system and plumbing. You customize the tank your own lighting system, return pump, protein skimmer and filter media.
The aquarium stands use a contemporary design and finish that fits into any decor.
Aquarium sizes range from 70 to 220 gallons.
- Ultra-clear glass.
- Whisper quiet overflow design.
- All plumbing is pre-installed.
- Includes a filter sump with auto top off reservoir.
- Allows you to customize the filter and lighting system.
All-in-one nano aquariums are especially popular with reef aquarists.
The Red Sea Max Nano aquarium is designed especially for keeping live corals and small marine fish.
It is a ready to run 20-gallon aquarium system complete with a filtration system, protein skimmer and LED lighting.
The aquarium is constructed of ultra-clear, beveled-edge glass for strength and enjoyable viewing. Water enters the internal filter system through a surface-skimming overflow.
A micron filter bag removes particulates while activated carbon filtration adsorbs water-discoloring organic compounds. The Max Nano internal protein skimmer strips out surface-active organics and improves water quality. A bubble trap sponge keeps microbubbles out of the aquarium.
The system even comes with an automatic top-off system! Water is pumped back to the aquarium with a European ECO water pump rated at 240 gallons per hour.
The Max Nano comes with a premium AI Prime HD LED fixture powerful enough to keep stony corals and other reef invertebrates. You can control the AI fixture wirelessly through the control app.
- Plug-and-play all-in-one aquarium system.
- Beautiful 8-mm beveled glass.
- Comes with a powerful integrated protein skimmer.
- Circulation pump filters the tank up to 12 times an hour.
- Multidirectional eye-ball nozzle flushes tank with water movement.
- 4-gallon auto top-off systems sustains the tank for 3 days.
- Includes premium 55-watt AI Prime HD LED fixture.
- Capable of supporting SPS corals.
- Wi-Fi lighting control app works with all devices.
- Does not come with an aquarium stand.
- May require a submersible heater in cool rooms.
4. Innovative Marine Nuvo Fusion
Located in California, Innovative Marine has a growing reputation as a manufacturer of high-quality aquariums.
The Fusion is an AIO (all-in-one) style aquarium. The aquarium is manufactured with 8-mm low-iron glass for a jewel-like appearance.
The flat polished, diamond-ground glass edges give the aquarium a smooth, finished look.
Inside the tank you’ll find an internal filtration system constructed of black acrylic. The built-in overflow skims the water surface. The filter uses micron filter sock to remove particulate debris and keep the water clear. The return nozzle is flexible, making it easy to direct water flow back to the tank. A 211 gph submersible water pump is included.
The sump’s built-in chambers make it convenient to add a submersible heater and a protein skimmer. The LED fixture provides the right spectrum for all types of corals. This is a true plug and play system. The Peninsula aquarium is available in 14, 20 and 25-gallon sizes.
- High-clarity glass.
- Integrated filter system with room for a skimmer and heater.
- Has enough room for rock, inverts and fish.
- DC return pump.
California-based Coralife has been making and improving the Biocube design for many years.
They pioneered the nano reef tank concept and made it easy with their all-in-one filter design.
The light has integrated 24-hour timer with three independent channels of light color control. The pre-programmed 30-minute sunrise/sunset and 60-minute moonrise/moonset modes provide gradual dimming for sensitive fish and corals. The filter section has a dual water intake and adjustable return. The aquarium does not come with a protein skimmer.
Biocube aquariums are popular for soft corals and smaller stony coral reef set-ups. The Biocube aquariums can also be used in FOWLR aquariums if you use nano fish that don’t need a lot of room.
Dimensions: 15 x 16.8 x 17.5 inches
- Improved LED lighting.
- Simple filter design accommodates a heater and filter media.
- Can use a nano skimmer if desired.
- Easy access by lifting the lid.
- Fan on the light is noisy.
- Rare issues with leaks.
6. Fluval Evo Aquarium All In One Kit, 13.5 Gallons
The Fluval Evo Aquarium is a complete ready-to-go reef aquarium system.
The Evo Aquarium includes a 13.5-gallon tank with an internal filtration system.
The three-stage filtration system makes use of a foam filter block to capture particulates, algae and other debris.
The activated carbon chamber provides chemical filtration. The activated carbon will adsorb dissolved organics that reduce water quality and give the water a yellow tint.
The biological filter chamber contains Biomax media. Biomax rings are porous with tremendous surface area for beneficial bacteria to colonize.
A 132 GPH submersible pump is tucked away behind the integrated in-tank filter system. Dual multi-directional water outlets make it easy to create currents in the aquarium.
The kit does not include a heater or protein skimmer, but these can be added later. There is a space in the filter for the FLUVAL Sea MINI protein skimmer. This skimmer will drop right into the filter.
A reef-capable LED canopy covers the aquarium and provides the proper light for corals. The LED produces 14,000 K lighting with day and night lighting pre-sets. The light fixture is made of aluminum, with a sleek-looking design.
Dimensions: 22 x 15 x 11.5 inches.
- Integrated filtration system.
- Comes with a reef-suitable LED light.
- Adequate size for nano reef-keeping.
- Good water circulation.
- Attractive design.
- Should include a protein skimmer.
- LED light has no timer or programming feature.
7. SCA Starfire Aquarium, 50 gal
SCA Aquariums is an aquarium manufacturer located in California.
Their SCA Starfire aquarium is a step up from the nano tank range.
Starfire glass is a special low-iron, low-lead glass formula that creates unparalleled clarity and brilliance.
The cube-shaped aquarium has a volume of 50 gallons constructed of ultra-clear Starfire glass. An overflow box is built into the tank. Water passes through an overflow and into a filter sump in the aquarium stand. An Atmen PH2500 return pump brings water back to the aquarium.
The kit includes a SCA-301 protein skimmer, bio media and necessary fittings and tubing. The aquarium stand is constructed of thick plywood and braced to support the heavy aquarium. The protein skimmer sits in the sump along with the return pump. You’ll have to choose the type of lighting based on what you want to keep in the aquarium.
This aquarium package requires you to assemble the fittings, overflow, tubing and return system. This aquarium is perfect for a marine aquarist who wants to design a custom set-up for anything from a FOWLR to a full SPS reef tank.
Here's an interesting page with several pictures, build tutorials and ideas for the Starfire and other SCA Systems.
- Excellent glass construction.
- Sturdy stand.
- Outstanding customer service.
- Roomy sump.
- Minimal assembly instructions.
The truth is, there is no one reef aquarium that will satisfy every aquarist.
Larger tanks look great but take up more room and require you to spend more time on maintenance. If you’re all in, go large and enjoy the adventure.
The nano reef tanks have developed into very reliable aquarium systems and are perfect if you don’t want to spend a lot of money stocking a large aquarium or you just don’t have the room for a big aquarium.
For a marine nano tank, I like the Red Sea Max Nano. It is plug and play and ready to fill with saltwater. I also like the option to select my own lighting and filter system, so the Red Sea REEFER or the SCA 50-gallon Starfire works for that type of build. But also take a look at the Innovative Marine NUVO Fusion. They come in a variety of sizes and include most of the gear you’ll need to get started.
What are your thoughts on the subject? Ask us your questions, and offer some insights as to how you fared when you first started out with reef tanks. Your knowledge can save some newbies from heartbreak!