Saltwater Tank Setup Guide


Ol' Salty
How to set up a Saltwater Aquarium
Author: Tyler Wilkinson

Note: This is a guide of resources, information and experience that I have collected and coupled with my own experience with keeping a saltwater tank. This is not a professional guide, or a mandatory list of things you must do. I wrote this to help answer questions that you may have before setting up a reef tank. The task in itself can be daunting. You have to be an electrician, plumber, chemist, biologist, and engineer, among many other things to keep your system alive. You are the creator of the system but not of the organisms, and you must mimic their natural environment if you expect them to thrive. After all, we would not survive many things outside of our natural environment. I hope you can take this guide and apply it to your own saltwater aquarium; and if you haven’t set one up yet, I hope that this will be a good wealth of information for you.

Disclaimer: ALL NON CITED WORK HAS BEEN WRITTEN BY ME. I am not a professional. I successfully own and maintain over 150 gallons of saltwater aquariums. Sources have been cited appropriately, and I do not guarantee the validity of all the information here. This guide is copyrighted by Tyler Wilkinson, 2012. I do not claim responsibility for any death, disaster, or meltdown of any system. This is NOT an instruction manual. Take it for what it’s worth.

I. A brief history of keeping an aquarium.

Who kept the first aquarium? Without a doubt, they must have had an incredibly hard time considering that before many of the sciences used in aquarium keeping were discovered, people had kept fish in many ways. Here are just some interesting facts on fish keeping long ago.

“For more than 4,000 years, men and women have kept fish, first in ponds and later in tanks. The earliest known fish keepers were the Sumerians, who as long ago as 2500 B.C. kept fish in ponds and used them as food.

Many other ancient cultures, awed by the beauty, speed and agility of animals such as fish and birds, considered them to be sacred. For instance, the ancient Egyptians bred certain species of fish specifically for their beauty and decorative characteristics. Pictures of fish are found in frescoes in Egyptian tombs, showing them as a sacred object. Roman merchants were known to keep freshwater fish to sell as food in public aquariums.

The first known formal study of fish was conducted by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). Studying their structure and other characteristics, he carefully recorded accurate information on 115 species of fish then living in the Aegean Sea. Today, scientists have classified more than 20,000 species of fish around the world.”

However, during this time, many of the fish would die and many of the fish keepers would experience very strange events indeed. Imagine now, trying to keep an aquarium knowing nothing about water!

Interest in fish came of age in the U.S. at the same time. In 1856, the government established what is today the Division of Fishes of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. The very first entry in the government's catalog was a "sucker" (
Catostomus hudsonius), recorded on December 15, 1856. Perhaps this is why P.T. Barnum is famous for allegedly saying "There's a sucker born every minute," as it was Barnum who opened America's first public aquarium that very year. (The History of the Aquarium)”

Today, fish are America's second most popular pet, trailing only cats but outnumbering dogs.

I am going to try and put as much information about certain topics here as I can. I have taken quite a bit of time collecting these resources. I will be detailed so if you are debating what you are doing, you can make in informed decision. I’ll start with the basics and we will work our way up into more complex areas of the hobby. Let’s get started!

II. Why do you want to keep an aquarium?

You may have just looked up, “neat hobbies” or “cool pets” online looking for a new thing to do. You may have walked by the fish in the pet store or have a friend who has a beautiful tank. Bottom line: You know you want one. In this section, I am going to go over the main types of aquariums that people set up. I’ll go from what I believe to be the most common and easy to the most difficult of tanks. In the section following, I’ll go over all the equipment you will need for each system.

III. Types of Tanks

a) FOWLR/FO Tanks
FOWLR stands for, “Fish – Only – With – Live – Rock”. FO stands for, “Fish – Only”. You may already be asking, “There are too many types of tanks! What is this live rock business?” Let me make it really simple. Live rock is just rocks that have developed micro systems on the surface. This can include bacteria, coralline algae, and billions of microscopic critters. A FOWLR tank is an aquarium which has this living rock, and fish. Let me make a note here, that live rock is not what you may be picturing as, “coral”. Live rock is rock. Coral is coral. Live rock is a huge proponent of filtration. Having a lot of live rock in your tank will help very much in filtering your water. FOWLR tanks are one of the easiest, if not the sole easiest aquarium to keep. Don’t worry about setup now, I will get to that later. I am just trying to outline the different kinds of tanks, so you can make an informed decision on where you want to start. Saltwater tanks are ALL ABOUT PLANNING. The more you plan, the smoother things will go, and the more money you will save. You are housing living creatures, take the time to ensure you know what you are doing. It’s only fair to them.

b) Species – Only tanks
A species only tank is essentially a FOWLR tank with one particular species of fish. A good example of a species only tank is a seahorse tank. Seahorses are slow and docile and thrive in a species only tank.

c) Reef Tank
This is probably the tank you saw online. Beautiful colors, fish and these strange things called corals that you may not totally understand. This tank is challenging to keep but with patience and time and a lot of research it is both rewarding and amazing. A reef tank consists of live rock, corals, and fish. It can also include invertebrates and should include a good, “Clean up crew” but I will get to that later as well. For the purposes of this section, this is the, “pretty colors” tank.

d) NPS Tank
If you haven’t ever set up a saltwater tank before, I suggest picking tank a, b, or c. This section and the ones to follow are harder to keep, and if you haven’t set up a tank before is probably a bad idea to start out with. An NPS tank is a non-photosynthetic tank. This means that all the species that live in this tank do not use photosynthesis to live. For example, plants outside use sunlight to make food. These corals don’t need that. They thrive solely on the water column, and don’t require any light to live.

e) Nano Reefs
Typically a tank less than 29 gallons but greater than single digits is called a nano reef. A nano reef is no different than part c, “reef tank” except in it’s size. Nano reefs are small. I will get to water chemistry later, but a nano reef is significantly harder to maintain than a regular reef tank. Small fluctuations in water parameters are amplified, and there is little to no room for error. This is not a tank for beginners.

f) Pico Reef
A pico reef is one of the hardest types of system to maintain. A pico reef is REALLY small, typically 5 gallons or less even. Pico reef have absolutely NO margin for error, and even a tiny mistake can and probably will crash your whole system. This is not a tank for beginners.

g) Show tank
This isn’t as common but I have seen quite a few online and I feel I should address it quickly. A show tank is sort of like a species only tank; it houses one fish in pristine condition for showing, or breeding. Many saltwater hobbyists who are interested in this type of thing keep fish such as the, “Blue Spotted Jawfish” in a show tank.

The next few tanks are not needed unless you have already set up a saltwater aquarium, or have picked out what you are going to set up. If you are still lost, reread the previous a-g before continuing.

h) Frag tank
I put this at the bottom of the list because it really doesn’t belong in the list at all. A fragment is a piece of a coral that you have removed (I will get to fragging later) so it can grow into a new specimen. A frag tank is a tank that you will let these fragments grow in. Typically having no sand bed and a lot of water movement and filtration, frag tanks are only needed by reefers who have a display tank that is overgrown.

i) QT Tank
A quarantine tank is a tank that you use to house new specimens. If your fish are not getting along they can also be quarantined. If you are serious about keeping your display tank at top notch, I highly recommend a QT tank. I will discuss these later.

Hopefully now you have a good understanding of the type of tank you would like to set up. Now that you have your vision, you can begin to actually plan the system. I’m going to be very detailed and precise on this. Hold on to your ovaltine.

VI. Before buying

Saltwater weighs in the neighborhood of 8.5 pounds pr one gallon. This means that a 100 gallon display tank would hold 850 pounds of saltwater. Before you go buy that dream tank, you need to have a place to put it. Between the tank itself, the water, the sand, the rock, and all the gadgets you’re going to put on there, it weighs a lot. After you setup a tank, especially a bigger one, you are NOT going to be able to move it without taking the entire thing apart. It’s a huge pain, so make sure you put it where you know it’s going to stay for a long time. At this point, you should have picked which kind of setup you want. You should have your vision from the beginning of this guide and you should have a plan of what you want to do. You know now, which setup you want and where you want to put it, even though you don’t know exactly what to buy yet. Here are just a few final things to take into account.

After you have found a safe, sturdy place to put the tank, make sure that if possible, the space gets very little to no direct sunlight. Sunlight makes bad algae grow. It isn’t a huge deal but it can be a pain.

You are going to need a lot of power for this. Make sure you use safely grounded outlets. Never overload a circuit, pushing too many amps through a circuit will cause it to heat, and it IS a fire hazard. Never plug several power strips into each other. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS use a drip loop. ALWAYS. I’m serious. Is it really worth frying your entire system because you were careless and let a drop of water into the electrical work? Be smart about this.

Low traffic areas are usually better. You want people to be able to see the fruits of your tank’s labor but don’t put the tank in the middle of the entrance to your house. Put it safely against a load bearing wall, away from where kids or bigger pets can mess with it.

You’re ready now, to make another list! You should have a list now of which option you want, and maybe even a little sketch of the area. This is list one. Now, I’m going to talk about list two, which is your shopping list, and a few more options to think of. We are now at level two diving deeper and deeper into the complexity of the hobby. Drink more ovaltine.

V. Your list, more options, and the next level

This is going to be an extremely long section. I am going to declassify some of the main types of tanks that I spoke about earlier. You will have options now, and from these options you will formulate a list. Get more pen and paper and start reading.

You now have a TYPE of tank you want. The reason I didn’t specify more earlier is because every type of setup has different equipment you need for a healthy reef. Think about it, we are mimicking natural environments here. Everything needs to be right for your corals to achieve optimal growth, happiness and health.

a) Tank Size
Whatever tank you choose to do, you have to pick a size. With size, comes price. However, the larger the tank, the more water volume you have, the easier it is to keep fish and corals healthy. You need to think about what size tank you want to set up. Here are some common tank sizes available commonly in the industry.

6 Gallons

10 Gallons
20 Gallons
29 Gallons
46 Gallons
55 Gallons
75 Gallons
125 Gallons
150 Gallons
225 Gallons

Of course, there are tanks of all sizes; those are just the most common. You can’t keep a tang in a 6 gallon. You can’t even keep one in a 29 gallon. Do you know what kinds of fish you want to keep? Do you want a huge anemone or big fields covered in Zoanthids? This is one of those times where you must do research on your own. I can’t help you pick what you want to stock your tank with. There are many websites that offer lots of information on fish. I can’t possibly put every fish and every kind of coral in this guide, but I can offer some common choices for aquarium keeping. Here are some fish that are commonly found at your local fish store:

Damsel, Clownfish, Tang, Wrasse, Goby, Blenny, Dragonet, Firefish, Butterflyfish, Trigger, Lionfish, Puffer, Seahorse.

Some common corals:

Polyps, Zoanthids, Brains, Chalice, Colt Coral, Plate Coral, Mushrooms, Leathers, Ricordea.

Maybe those options can give you a bit of baseline to see what’s out there.

After you have done your research and you KNOW how big you want your tank, you must decide what STYLE you want. This is different than size. Fish tanks are 3D. This means they have length, width, and depth. You can have a 10 gallon tank a mile high if it’s a hair thin. Some species of fish prefer different shapes. Seahorses are vertical creatures who like to swim up and down. Tangs need a lot of swimming room, a 5.5-6 foot tank is preferred for those guys. Typical terms for this are, “long”, “high” or, “tall”.

You have chosen now the shape of the tank. Do you know what you want it to be made out of? You may be thinking, “I want glass DUH!” but did you know tanks can be made out of many things? For example, you can have low iron or high iron glass. Tempered glass, or acrylic are another option. You can use the beautiful but expensive starrphire glass on one side and regular on another side. This also contributes to weight. Usually local fish stores will not carry custom starrphire glass tanks but you can order them.

Another option to consider is a, “rimless” tank. Rimless means that the tank is a box made of class, with no rims on the seams. This is a beautiful setup and especially when your lighting is hung from the ceiling can make for a very modern looking setup.

Write down your ideas, and move on to the next part.

b) Filtration

This is confusing for a lot of people, and with good reason. Fish consume food, and produce waste. But where does this waste go? You don’t want it sitting in your tank rotting away! You need to get that stuff out of the tank, to keep your water as pure as possible.

a) I am going to introduce a fundamental for keeping a saltwater tank now. This is the cycle of ammonia. Ammonia is produced when fish poop. The detritus leaves the fish, and raises your ammonia levels. Ammonia breaks down into what are called, “Nitrites”. Nitrites are deadly to fish and corals. It gets worse; nitrites break down into nitrates, which can kill stuff too! So how do we get this junk out of the tank? You can’t see ammonia! Well this is something known as, “cycling” a tank. This cycle of breaking down waste and releasing these nasty chemicals happens in every single new tank. You may have heard the term, “new tank syndrome”. This is exactly the cycle we are talking about. Over time, your tank will build up bacteria that break down this nasty stuff. It takes about 4 weeks for your tank go from breaking down the initial food, to completing the cycle full circle. I will use this as an opportunity to interject something important. NEVER CYCLE A TANK WITH A LIVING ORGANISM. NEVER. If you cycle a tank with a fish, you are essentially putting that poor thing into a vat of poison. Most likely, it will die, but not quickly. It will rot away in burning poison water. There are ways to cycle a tank without using a fish. You can drop a table shrimp into the tank and let it break down a bit. You can dump some food in there and have that break down. You don’t need a ton of it.
b) Live rock is a filter! Your live rock filters stuff out of the water too! This is why it is important to have a lot of live rock in your tank. Not only is it beautiful, but it gives your corals something to hold on to, while filtering stuff out of the water. Nifty! (Note: Live rock can be expensive. I recommend buying a small amount of live rock from either your local fish store or online, and using, “Dry” rock as the rest of your rock. Dry rock is just that, dry rock and it will become live over time as the bacteria colonies move on it. It is cheaper and better in my opinion.

While this is helpful, it just doesn’t cut it as far as filtration. I now am going to talk about two very important pieces of equipment for your tank. Sump filtration, and protein skimmers.

a) A protein skimmer is either set in the sump ( I will explain sumps in a minute ) or hung on the back of the tank. There are even external sumps, though I don’t recommend them. A protein skimmer is basically a tube with a pump attached to it. There is in intake for water and an output for water. There is also an airline tube that allows air inside the skimmer. The protein skimmer pulls water inside the main chamber. Here, it is smashed against air that forms bubbles. These bubbles rise to the top and pop into a cup. How this works, is that water contains what are known as organics. Organics are compounds that are water soluble, and therefore you cannot see them in the water. These are bad, and they make your water dirty even though you cannot see them. These skimmers get these organics out of the water, and then release the cleaner water back into the tank. Popular brands of skimmers include Deltec, Eshopps, and Reef Octopus. There are many kinds of skimmers as well, but that is research you can do on your own. A protein skimmer is not an optional piece of equipment in tanks greater than 15 gallons. For tanks smaller than that, rigorous water changes can be substituted. Skimmers can be quite expensive, but you get what you pay for, and a skimmer is not something you want to overlook. I also recommend buying a skimmer that is rated higher than your TOTAL tank volume. This means that if you have a 125 gallon tank, I would buy a skimmer rated at 175 gallons or so. The bigger the skimmer, the more waste you pull out. And trust me, what it pulls out of the water is brown, slimy, and nasty.
b) Sump filtration
A sump is a vessel, usually another fish tank, which you set in the stand below your main display tank. You may be thinking, “why the heck would I put another tank below my main tank?” This sump tank is the best way to filter your water. It also has a lot of practical uses. Sumps are generally made in a DIY (Do it yourself!) method. Here are some important factors in making an aquarium sump.

One function of a sump is a bubble diffuser. Bubbles are the enemy (except in the protein skimmer). Microbubbles, which as their name implies are VERY small bubbles, can actually burn the gills of fish and harm corals. The basic sump design includes a drain chamber, a refugium (which I will cover), a set of weirs or bubble diffusers, and a return area.

Using a device called an, “Overflow” your tank will drain water into the sump. An overflow is a box that hangs on the back of the tank and has a plastic pipe that connects the water in the main tank, to a box outside the main tank. This creates a siphon, which continuously drains water from the main tank. There are other options for an overflow, which include drilling a tank and installing bulkhead fittings and using PVC pipe. Either way you choose, you need to get that water down in the sump.

Note: You CANNOT drill tempered glass, it will shatter.

After the water is drained down, usually people set up a refugium. This is an area for small critters to live, apart from the main tank where they may be eaten. Reefers usually will put a deep sand bed here, to help with nitrates or mineral mud. You can use live rock rubble as well, for added filtration.

Generally, people also keep macroalgae in their fuge. There are two main types.

Chaeto – Avalible in the hobby quite easily. This algae is usually regulated to a handful pr person pr purchase. Chaeto is a great macroalgae and has many nutrient properties.

Calurpa – This algae is regulated by the government in some areas, and can be illegal to keep. Check with local laws before purchasing, but calurpa is a fantastic macroalgae for a fuge.

After passing through the fuge, you can set up your skimmer. Some people choose to put their skimmer in the drain portion of the sump to minimize bubbles back in the display tank. This is fine but there are ways to do it so the skimmer comes last. I prefer to have everything pass through the fuge before being skimmed. After the skimmer area, you want to put up some baffles to help level the water and reduce more bubbles. You can get these cut at your local glass cutting shop. Use regular silicon to adhere them into the tank. There are many guides for doing this online, and it is quite simple. Be sure you use silicon specified for aquariums, some contain anti molding agents which are toxic.

Finally, the sump passes into a return pump. This pump pushes water back up to the display tank, completing the circle. Sumps have other uses too, such as they are an awesome place to put extra stuff. Heaters, reactors, etc are all ugly and you want to focus on the display tank itself. A sump adds water volume which helps to keep the tank more stable. You can also clip a walmart fan onto your sump to help cool the water, and you can use a regular compact fluorescent bulb in a little lamp as your lighting. This will help the macroalgae grow and the fan keeps everything nice and cool.

c) Canister filters
A canister filter is an option for filtration that pulls water from the display tank, filters it for you, and pumps it back up. You may be thinking, “that sounds way easier than that whole sump business!” but you’re wrong. Yes, it is easier and cheaper to just buy a canister filter but they have a lot of flaws. Sumps won’t wear out. Canister filters will. Canister filters can’t hide your extra gear and they won’t let you use macroalgae. They also tend to be a nitrate FACTORY if not cleaned very often. It’s much easier and better to use a sump, but if you really feel the need, then you at minimum will have to clean your canister filter once every 2-3 weeks. There are also filters that hang on the back of the tank, but I do not recommend them for larger tanks. Nano reefs are OK to use them with; I use an aquaclear for my 6 gallon reef. You will have to clean it frequently, and change media often. I use the sponge that comes with it, and chemipure which is a carbon that does not release phosphates into the water.

Other Equipment:

There are a lot of other things you will be needing. Next I will discuss lighting.

Lighting is probably the single most confusing part of the saltwater reef tank. Just to show you how confusing it is, here are some of the main types of lighting.




There are 5 main factors to think about when you are buying light. Light is essential for coral growth and the kind you choose will impact what you can and cannot thrive in your reef tank.

The five most important criteria in determining the light you need are:

• Lumens per watt
• Lumen focus (as well as restrike)
• PAR (this is important to understand)
• PUR/Useful Light Energy (Probably the most important factor; this is related to PAR, however many lamps can have reasonable PAR output but fail in comparison when PUR is considered).
• Watts (or watts per gallon, however this term is over used/simplistic)

Aquarium Lighting; Reef, Planted Light Information. PAR, Bulb, Watt, Kelvin, Nanometers, MH, LED.

Visible light occurs between 400 and 780 nm. Nanometers are the measure of wavelength of light, with visible light being someplace in the middle. As light hits the surface of our tanks, light is filtered out. Red goes first and blue goes last. Our corals need a wide range of this light in order to live.

“Most photosynthetic invertebrates should be kept with lamps of a daylight Kelvin temperature from 6400-14,000 K (higher Kelvin with deeper specimen placement, not necessarily tank depth). 20,000K daylight lamps can also be used for deeper tanks, however I have found it better to use a 14,000K Daylight or less supplemented with more blue (400nm- 550nm).
Photosynthetic invertebrates (many corals, anemones, clams, nudibranch, etc.) also need more blue (400-550nm) than "higher" plants especially as tanks increase in depth, with 465-485 recently being shown the optimum blue. Not only is blue/actinic lighting beneficial to photosynthetic invertebrates, it is also aesthetically pleasing to the eye when used to supplement "daylight" lighting. (Strohmeyer)”

So the wavelength of this light will impact coral growth. There is another unit that is important that that is Kelvin. I could go on and on about how what Kelvin is, but essentially it’s a temperature. However when we use Kelvin in talking about saltwater aquariums we are referring to color temperature. I will explain this more later.

PAR is another EXTREMELY important factor in lighting. “PAR is the abbreviation for Photosynthetically Active Radiation which is the spectral range of solar light from 400 to 700 nanometers that is needed by plants & symbiotic zooanthellic algae (Zooxanthellae are single-celled plants that live in the tissues of animals such as corals, clams, anemones, & nudibranchs) for photosynthesis. (Strohmeyer)””

You also need to take into consideration, Lumens, Wattage, PUR, and many others. This is all research that you can do on your own. I have cited a fantastic source of a VERY detailed and accurate description of lighting. Here is a great list of things you should consider as well:

Important Parameters to consider when choosing a light for your aquarium (not a complete list):
• Watts per gallon,
• Lumens per watt,
• Lumen focus
• PAR (often easiest determined by Kelvin output), although it is important to note that the symbiotic zooxanthellae found in many corals and clams require more of the "blue spike", so high PAR for higher plants is not exactly the same for corals although it is safe to say a PAR reading of 50 mmol will work for most light sensitive corals.
• PUR/Useful Light Energy (not wasted in yellow/green light spectrum that green plants and zooanthellic algae reflect)
• Output in relation to bulb length (this is where LEDs and to a lesser extent T2s and T5s excel).
• Lux, I generally only consider this parameter in deeper Reef and occasionally deeper planted freshwater aquarium to determine if I am getting the proper light where it needs to be.
• Specimen Placement/ Tank Depth; although not a parameter per say, it still affects lighting decisions and even the few "watts per gallon" generalizations I provide in this article.
For instance any SPS/LPS coral placement deeper than 18-20 inches should rule out most T5 lights and deeper than 24-30 inches rules out many LED lights (24 to 30 inches at least requires the most powerful LEDs such as the AquaBeam 100 Ultra or Orphek); In these deeper depths the Metal Halide is still king.

You want to meet the 5 criteria of a good fixture and find one in your price range. A lot of lighting is equally good, but more or less expensive and different in a lot of ways.


Ideal reef temperatures should be between 74-78F.

A heater is probably the most likely piece of equipment that can break in your tank, so always keep a backup handy. Heaters range from less than $20.00 to over $200.00. Mostly, the difference is in construction materials, and if the heater is digital. Digital heaters are used by many people because they generally have a little screen to see the temperature to the tenth’s decimal place. They have heaters with controllers as well, that are very accurate (JBJ comes to mind). They make submersible heaters as well, which I recommend. I run two heaters at all times, in addition to a backup heater I have in my sump that it set to turn on if the tank temperature drops. Again, make sure you always have a backup handy.


A chiller is a device that cools water. Wait a minute… cools? We just spent money heating it up! Well the truth is, with the amount of equipment you are going to be running, you are going to produce some heat. If your tank gets too hot and turns into a sauna, you have problems. A chiller runs water through chilling lines and cools it with a radiator. Two quick things about chillers:

1. Chillers are not usually a necessary piece of gear
Chillers can be substituted by keeping room temperature constant, and by running fans that blow air over the water and lighting. Lifting up your lighting can also cool the tank by a degree or two. You can run PC fans through a power supply all over the place in the stand, or use a clip on fan from walmart.
2. Chillers need to be placed outside
Chillers produce hot air. Why would you want that hot air going anywhere near your tank after you just cooled it? Chillers truly should be located outdoors, where they can dispose of heat easily.

A reactor is a device that pushes water through, “something” and back into the tank thus reacting the water with whatever kind of reactor you use. Here are some of the kinds of reactors that are out there.

a) Calcium Reactor
Useful especially in bigger reef tanks, the calcium reactor reacts your water with CO2 and calcium to maintain constant calcium levels in the tank. Calcium is an important and essential part of your testing and you should maintain levels around 480ppm. The downside, is that these reactors can be extremely expensive, most costing between $700-$900.
b) Biopellet Reactor
Biopellets are a semi-new thing in the reef hobby. Biopellets are basically small plastic balls that the water is passed through. The idea is that these pellets will induce nitrate eating bacteria, and will help keep the water clean. Biopellets will dissolve over time, and you will have to replace them.
c) Carbon / GFO
Carbon is an awesome way to keep your water looking great. I run ROX carbon in my tank, and it keeps the water clean and absorbs more of that bad stuff we were talking about earlier. GFO stands for Granular Ferric Oxide, and that absorbs phosphates from the water. I highly recommend a Carbon / GFO reactor, it has made a huge drop in phosphates and nitrates in my tank.
d) Kalkwasser
Kalkwasser is a german word meaning lime water. Kalkwasser is a powder that is stirred constantly in what is known as a Kalk Reactor. Kalkwasser helps maintain proper ALK and pH levels in the aquarium.
e) Phosban / Zio
These are optional reactors that rid your tank of more phosphates and help keep magnesium levels steady. I dose my tank (I will talk about that next) so I do not use these reactors.

---Dosing pumps---
An alternative to buying lots of reactors is to set up a dosing station. This basically is a way for you to slowly add stuff to your tank, without buying an expensive reactor. You need three things:

1 – A vessel to hold whatever you are dosing. This can be for Alk, Mag, or Calcium. Even coral foods can be dosed.

2 – A pump to move them. You can use either an aqualifter, or better yet a proper paristolic dosing pump for this. This moves the liquid from your vessel to your sump where it can mix with tank water.

3 – A way to control this.
This is a good time for me to introduce tank controllers. A tank controller is a little computer that turns things on and off, and measures stuff using probes. You know those timers you plug in the wall to turn things on and off using a 24 hour clock? This is one of those on steroids. A tank controller can do many things including, turn on lights, turn off lights, maintain proper pH, manage reactors and dosing pumps, run your chiller, feed your fish and corals, and warn you if things aren’t how they should be. The two most popular tank controllers are made by:

Digital Aquatics – Reef Keeper

Neptune – Apex

The downside to these controllers, is that they are quite expensive, and not absolutely needed. However, I highly recommend them if you have the money laying around. They are so useful and really ease a lot of worry.

An ATO unit is short for, “automatic top off” and it is used to keep the water in your tank stable at all times. Your tank has a specific salinity, which is the amount of salt dissolved in the water. It is important that this level stay the same always, around 1.022-1.023 is fine. An ATO uses float switches to turn a pump on and off in a reservoir which always keeps your salinity stable. JBJ makes a very popular ATO system. Did you know you can also use float switches with your tank controller?

---RO/DI units and Water purification---

Bottom line, you want your tank water to be clean. You have seen this through what I have already talked about, with reactors, filtration and sumps. But have you thought of what your tap water may already have in it? This is called your TDS or, “total dissolved solids”. This is a measure of basically what is in the water, and the higher the TDS, the less pure the water. Your water can also have harmful chlorine if you use city water, or phosphates and nitrates if you use well water. This is bad, you would be feeding your tank with this nasty algae food if you use tap!

RO/DI stands for, “Reverse Osmosis/De-ionization”. This is a process that creates nearly 100% pure water. You want a TDS reading to be zero before your put water in your tank. How this works:

You attach a hose to your sink or garden hose. Turning on the water source pushes water through a series of sediment and carbon blocks. It then passes through De-Ionization Resin and finally exits a tube into a purified water vessel. The RODI unit will dispose of bad water containing very high TDS automatically. You will need a few things besides the RO unit though. You need a location, to store the unit itself. You need a place to store the purified water. You also need a drainage place for the bad water to go (you don’t have to waste it!). You need a station to mix saltwater, that consists of a mixing vessel with a powerhead and a heater. I will explain powerheads more in the next section but they basically agitate the water so salt can be dissolved.

You CAN get water from other places such as your LFS but it is a huge pain to drag water all over the place, especially for a big system. Believe me when I say, your water will evaporate FAST. Bulk Reef Supply makes one of the best RODI units on the market, for as little as $120.

We need oxygen to breathe. So does your tank. Powerheads are submersible pumps that push water around. Facing them towards the surface of the water allows much better gas exchange, as this is the PRIMARY site for gas exchange in your tank. Without this water movement, your entire system would be dead in less than a day. There are a few kinds of powerheads including:

Standard 1 speed, that just push the water constantly.

Variable speed, which pulse and create reef like environments.

Wave makers, Ocean’s motion units and more, all mimic reef tides and crests. These can be expensive but they are very cool and cause your corals to pulse.

It does not matter which kind you get, you just need them. For bigger tanks you will need more powerheads and larger ones at that. I have three on my 30 gallon reef. The bigger the powerhead, the more water they can move pr hour. Having a sump also creates more flow because of the return line. This helps kick up detritus and stuff off your sand bed and allows it to be filtered. Your corals will love you for water movement.

---Test Kits---
You need test kits to test different parameters in your water. API and Red Sea make decent kits and this will allow you to test everything I have already talked about. Some reef controllers will have probes for things like pH and ORP.

So you have gotten everything now and you’re standing there staring at a pile of goodies. I am going to paste in here my thread on how to move a saltwater tank. This gives you a lot of information on how to set up and move an aquarium. Here is that guide:

How to move a saltwater tank effectively and safely.

I've seen this topic around a lot especially lately, so I thought I would share some of my experience with moving my tanks a couple of times. If you have ever thought about it, you probably spent hours and hours setting up your tank to get it just the way you wanted. Moving a tank can be one of the biggest frustrations (right next to catching a damsel of course!). This is just my experience, and some things to consider next time you have to move a system!

Items Needed:
These are some things I use when I have to move one of my tanks. Some of it isn't completely necessary but I've found it all to be really helpful.

Buckets / 5 gallon pails / Bags


A moving vehicle (if moving) and some straps and pillows

Heat packs / Coolers (If moving 2 hours or more)

Friends (and as a courtesy, beer and snacks is preferred )


The first things you're going to want to do is choose where the new tank is going, and if you are; moving your tank to a new location, or moving your contents to an already set up system. I'm going to be discussing moving a whole system because it's a lot more frustrating and confusing. After you have found a location, be sure to take the time to make sure there is a big, clear path between your setup system and the location of the new system. Note that for a bigger system, you're going to need some help. I'd recommend;

>29 gallons : Can be moved alone

>55 gallons: 2 or 3 people
>100 gallons: 4 or 5 people
>200 gallons: 8 or more people

If you're moving
less than a 55 gallon, you can skip the next section (in blue).

So you're moving a big tank. After you've found your location, you need to prepare to move your delicate livestock. The first thing you can remove is your corals. Since you're moving a big tank, the corals may be out of the tank for a couple of hours, so you need to drain some of the water from the tank into some buckets. If you have spare heaters, it can be a good idea to throw one in the bucket along with a powerhead if you have a spare. Spread all the towels on the floor and begin removing all your corals into the buckets. IF you have sponges, use bags and don't remove any of them from the tank because air exposure isn't good for them.

Okay now, on to the process of moving!

First, remove all the equipment that you can easily remove from the tank. Drain all reactor lines, and remove all pumps. This step will take you longer than you think so do it first so you minimize the amount of time your livestock is out of water. Unplug your heater first because it should cool down to prevent damaging it by removing when it's hot. Take off your lighting and remove your powerheads last. Keep it organized. I use a label maker to label where everything is going. It might seem extreme, but I run a lot of gear on my tank, and some of you may have even more. Kalkwasser stirrers, GFO/Carbon reactors, phosban, bio pellets, etc. Remove your skimmer, and take the cup off first so you don't spill any organics back into the tank. If you have a sump, use your return pump to pump the water into buckets, it's the easiest way to get it out.

Okay, so you have all your equipment out now. It's time to remove your livestock. Begin removing your corals, and take care to keep all sponges in water by using bags instead of buckets, then floating them in the buckets to keep them warm. Remove everything you can, taking as little live rock with you as possible.

*Note: If you have a big tank, be sure you have heaters and the appropriate powerheads etc in the buckets.*

You can use your return pump to remove the water from the tank into the buckets. Just set it in and flex the tubing into the pails. Just take care that the pump isn't anywhere near where it can cause trouble (near corals etc), and DON'T remove more than half the water, and even less if you have bigger fish in the tank. This is just to remove enough so you don't splash any water and it's easier to work in the tank.

Now would be a good time to move what you have removed to the location of the new tank. Always put it farther away than you're planning to put the tank. Take your lights, reactors, and corals to the new location. This is especially if you are moving your take to a location that isn't in your house. This brings me to an important point:

IF you are traveling, see the chart below and take the appropriate precautions.

Less than 30 minutes drive: None needed

1-1.5 hours: You need to get a decent sized cooler for your livestock. You can even use lunch pails from walmart, they are a cheap and easy way to keep them warm.

2-2.5 hours: Bagging your corals and putting them in a cooler is absolutely necessary. You don't need anything besides a cooler but it's very important that you use one.

3.5+ hours: I haven't had any experience moving a tank this far, but once you get into several hours you are going to need to keep the corals warm. You may want to use heat packs. Always remember: Never put a heat pack directly on a bag. It can break it, and it can heat the bag way too much and kill your corals. Tape them to the top of the cooler or box.

Okay great, so your equipment is now either someone else in your home, or packed up and already moved to it's new location (if it's close enough to make two trips). Your corals are already packed up, leaving your live rock, substrate, and fish still in the tank. I recommend moving the sump when you move the other equipment, after you have drained the water and before you put the corals in the buckets. This keeps the water as warm as possible. The sump should be very easy to move since you already took all the equipment out of it. Just lift the sump and put it in with the other gear. You should leave the substrate (DSB or Mineral Mud) in the sump.

The next step is to remove as much live rock you can so you can get your fish out. It can be really hard to remove fish with the live rock there so just take extra care to remove the rock very slowly and carefully so you don't hurt the little guys. Remove piece by piece and place the LR in more buckets if you have it. You can also use heavy duty plastic bags. Put it in some boxes and pack it right up.

IF you're moving the tank to a new location in the home, you can take your sump and LR straight away and set it by the other equipment.

Tips for catching fish:

The best way I have found to catch fish is using egg crate and two nets. Cut a piece of egg crate and put it in the tank. Use it to corner the fish and then use the nets (one on each side) to scoop up your critter. Put them in bags if going far, and buckets if you're going close.

Now you can filter out the rest of the water, into spare buckets or down the drain. You want to save as much of the water as you can, until you get within an inch or two of the substrate bed.

So, you've moved your equipment, your sump, your corals, your fish and the live rock. All that's left is your stand and display tank. The display tank should ONLY have the substrate and maybe 1/4th inch of water in it. This is the part where you call your buddies (if you have a big tank). Pack up the tank and stand and put it in the moving vehicle.

Tips for moving heavy things:

Straps are an incredible way to utilize leverage on moving heavy objects. Deadlifting hundreds of points incorrectly is a fantastic way to screw up your back. Always lift with your LEGS and never your back. Never put heavy things near breakable things in the moving vehicle and I recommend putting the display tank and sump on a blanket with at least one pillow on each side. Your stuff WILL shift during travel, and the last thing you want is to have a cracked tank and a van full of corals. Take your time with this part, and really plan ahead. Only you know where you're going and how many trips it's going to take so plan accordingly.


Okay, you've packed everything up. You had a slice of pizza on the drive, or on your (brief!) break moving to a new location in the same house. Now you have to set everything back up. Like I said in the beginning, make sure you have a clear path. Take the stand out of the moving vehicle and place it in the location.

Tips for a good location, things to consider:

Weight. Unless you want your tank to fall through the floor, take the time to make absolutely sure you have all supports you need in place.

Light. You don't want direct sunlight if possible. It can give you algae blooms. I've never had a problem with this, but apparently a lot of people have.

Grounded outlets. You're going to need POWER. Even my 6 gallon Fluval Edge uses an entire power strip, and my main tank uses 4. Make sure you have enough power to power your system.

Placement. Aesthetics. Don't put the tank in the middle of the bathroom. Find a place where you can see it from a couple of locations if possible, or where you spend a lot of time.

I suggest plugging power strips in and mounting them inside the stand (or wherever you're going to place them) first. It can be a huge, giant, PITA to navigate to outlets with the tank in the way.

Bring in the corals and fish, and set them near the tank location. Set the tank on the stand and begin dumping just the water in.

Now you can float the fish and corals in the tank water.

You can take your time routing equipment now, just keep a heater running in the tank. If you own a canister filter (they are REALLY useful at times) you should run it now to remove sediments from the tank. You will be surprised at how fast it will clear out. I own a marineland canister filter, it was $100 and worth every penny. Start routing your powerheads, heaters, sump, plumbing, overflow, etc etc.

Tips for routing gear:

Just a quick tip, use zip ties and like I said earlier, a label maker. I use the PC4 from, made by American DJ. They have a big face to mount labels. This keeps you, and your tank organized.

Set your overflow up, and refill the sump. If you are short water ( you should be!) plug in your ATO and plug the feed end into a saltwater source. This way, you slowly add water to the tank, so it dosen't get too cold. This will not affect salinity as you are replacing water you removed, not evaporated. If you have a Carbon/GFO reactor, plug it in to start clearing the water. Remove the live rock from the boxes and start your aquascaping. If the corals and fish bags get in the way, move them to the sump. Aquascape your tank, and dip your corals and fish in the new water. Even though you are using mostly the same water, it can't hurt to always do at least one bag dip.

After dipping the bags, let the corals loose first, then your fish. This way, the fish can go explore and probably hide for at least a bit, without you poking around arranging corals. Plus, arranging a lot of corals you could knock over live rock and hurt a fish. Leave your light off for now, but set it up.

Finally, hook up all other reactors, kalkwasser, chillers, back up heaters and any other gear you have left over. Hook up your ATO if you have one to a fresh RO/DI source. If you used a canister filter, let it run for a while it will help clear out the water.

Clean up, rinse all buckets and store for next time.

Congratulations! You have moved your tank!

I don't think that I have forgotten anything but there is a good chance I did. Remember this is more of a general tips than a formal guide, as I'm no professional tank mover. Best of luck, always remember to thank your friends and feed them lots. Moving a tank sucks, but it sucks worse for people that aren't interested in tanks at all. I hope this helped a little, feel free to suggest any edits you see fit.

That about wraps it up for the stuff you will need to buy. There are other things, such as stands that are completely up to you. Only you know where you are putting this tank, and the vision that you have for it. I hope this guide has helped you with the basics on setting up a saltwater tank. This is not a perfect guide, but it isn’t meant to be. Good luck!:Cheers:
Carbon is an awesome way to keep your water looking great. I run ROX carbon in my tank, and it keeps the water clean and absorbs more of that bad stuff we were talking about earlier. GFO stands for Granular Ferric Oxide, and that absorbs phosphates from the water. I highly recommend a Carbon / GFO reactor, it has made a huge drop in phosphates and nitrates in my tank.

I was considering getting a nextreef reactor to run carbon in, to make my water a little clearer, but most people don't run carbon all the time, so I'm not sure if it's worth it. And would that reactor be an overkill? It's more expensive than the lower end reactors, but it's cool, just is...
oh man. i liked reading this but its so intimidating lol ive always just had a tank with a regular dumb filter that comes with a hood..and only with my current setup have i had a skimmer. but then again i never kept coral til this setup either. i want a bigger thank but im so confused! lol it seems so hard :(
Bulk Reef Supply makes one of the best RODI units on the market, for as little as $120.

What's so great about them? I have one from filter direct and it works, it's just slow (I think they're all like that though), and leaks a little if everything's not tight.

I mean an RO/DI filter is an RO/DI filter isn't it?
I was considering getting a nextreef reactor to run carbon in, to make my water a little clearer, but most people don't run carbon all the time, so I'm not sure if it's worth it. And would that reactor be an overkill? It's more expensive than the lower end reactors, but it's cool, just is...

I have no experience with a nextreef but the BRS reactor is cheap, built from plastic that seems to withstand a shotgun blast and easy to use. All hoses and clamps fit with commonly used pumps and everything is replaceable. I run carbon all the time, but I also dose a LOT of stuff. Carbon will remove trace minerals from the water, so you need to replace them, not to mention your critters will use them up too. BRS is NOT a low end product. I believe the dual is around 50 bucks, and I don't see myself ever having to replace it.
oh man. i liked reading this but its so intimidating lol ive always just had a tank with a regular dumb filter that comes with a hood..and only with my current setup have i had a skimmer. but then again i never kept coral til this setup either. i want a bigger thank but im so confused! lol it seems so hard :(

It's not as hard as it seems. There is so much to it, but doing research will save you a world of trouble. If you have a skimmer you are already on the right path. If you have specific questions myself and a lot of people on here who are smarter than me can answer them for sure.
What's so great about them? I have one from filter direct and it works, it's just slow (I think they're all like that though), and leaks a little if everything's not tight.

I mean an RO/DI filter is an RO/DI filter isn't it?

I like BRS for a few reasons. Awesome customer service won them over for me. Every piece is replaceable, and the guys at BRS WILL help you if you have trouble. I like how they are built, and the materials they use are high quality. I also like being able to order whole kits of resin/filters, but I'm sure that other companies offer that as well. BRS has several reactors, that range pretty far in GPD. They also have the water saving models, and you can custom make a system to fit your particular needs. Also, BRS WILL NOT LEAK if you set it up correctly.
I have no experience with a nextreef but the BRS reactor is cheap, built from plastic that seems to withstand a shotgun blast and easy to use. All hoses and clamps fit with commonly used pumps and everything is replaceable. I run carbon all the time, but I also dose a LOT of stuff. Carbon will remove trace minerals from the water, so you need to replace them, not to mention your critters will use them up too. BRS is NOT a low end product. I believe the dual is around 50 bucks, and I don't see myself ever having to replace it.

Strange... I have on of the single reactors on my eel tank and it did a terrible job at tumbling GFO. All the flow was going through the front...
Either a cracked internal canister or a pump that is turned up way too high could cause that. Are all your hoses pushed in properly?
Generally good information, but it seemed kind of jumbled in places. Just my opinion.

Also, I disagree about the DSB in the fuge.