Jump to content


Starting a marine tank

  • Please log in to reply
75 replies to this topic

#1 Tangnut


    Blue Ring Octopus

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 3,911 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Riding the back of a sea turtle

Posted Oct 14 2008 11:43 PM


Thought i might put up a general "How to" Guide to starting a marine tank.

I must be very clear now, this is a general introduction, this is not a step by step definitive guide for all reefkeeping, however it will point the beginner in the right direction rather than a run of expensive miscalculations. I am sure as you become more experienced there are bits of advice that you will learn to bend and ignore.

Ok so the thought of a marine tank has guided you to this forum, perhaps you already have a tank, perhaps you are coming back to marines after a while, maybe you have started but are stuck. Hopefully this little (YEA RIGHT!) post will point you in the right direction. (after reading this, not only pat yourself on the back, Go get some books and research!

Firstly check out the members diary sections and look at a good 20 of them, note they are grouped into rough sizes. This will give you an idea about what we all can achieve and will give you an idea about what you want. This is because certain fish eg regal tangs ( Dory from N3mo) will grow to 30cm and will quickly out grow any tank under 5 foot long. Buy some books ask some questions, find out about your "Must Have" items and make sure you will plan for their requirements.
Link for the diaries section: Members Diary's and profiles

Great now you have seen what people can do i will get the downer out of the way. Your budget. Before you start buying things, get an idea of how much your tank is going to cost. Both to setup and then to run. Create a spreadsheet on excel or whatever you like, add the items then see your total. Apart from the space you have this will dictate the size of your tank. You will be surprised as to how LITTLE the tank costs compared to the total setup. Believe me i have chuckled may times in stores listening to people be told, oh yea the tanks the most expensive part, after that its just water. Possibly for goldfish..... Not for marine.

You can also create a list of item and their wattage, this total will allow you to create an approximate running cost. Along with RO purchased / made, plus food and supplements. Once you look closer you will find the more expensive pumps will cost less to run, and the Koralia style powerheads use a lot less energy than a pump, plus look nicer in the tank.

By checking running costs of items this may cause you to rethink your tank. Personally I run one main pump into the tank and the sump drain powers everything else, IE Skimmer, phos reactor, carbon reactor. Thats 3x pumps i dont run 24/7 due to some plumbing.

Ok lets start with your tank, what type and size your eye? Pico under 10L? Nano up to 130L? Huge 12fter. What shape do you like, Rectangular shape? Corner tank? Or are you going for a custom build? There are hundreds of options each unique to budget and tank location. So what tank?

Firstly, where is your tank going? In the corner (well a corner tank!) In a wall (eek custom build there!) Short of that, measure your spaces and pop into a shop (remember the classic line, It looked smaller in the shop!). Ok so you have your space now what?
-Some tanks such as the Nano's e.g. Orca 550 or Redsea Max are all in one systems with the correct lighting, pimps, stand, skimmers (more on these items later) so you are ready to go. Read more about pumps, Live rock then go to the Cycle section at the bottom (do not pass go do not collect £200)
-Some tanks will come with stands and sumps (again more later).
-Some are just generic off the shelf tanks.

Ok now you have the tank in mind or purchased, now you need to think equipment, and in no particular order.

If you are planning a fish only tank, then lighting will not be an issue, Normal T8 (The fat tubes) lighting will be ok to display your fish without costing the earth to run.
If corals are on the list then you have to decide what types you are planning on keeping:

T8 lights - For Soft corals only, shallow aprox 30cm depth for beginner low light dependant corals and you will need lots of bulbs.
T5 lights - For most soft corals clams and some LPS(Large polyp Stony) higher up in your tank.
LED lights - Although look bright are only suggested for soft corals in, but best supplemented with some T5 tubes.
MH lights - For SPS (Small polyp Stony)and LPS. Expensive to run but you can keep by far the best corals.

The stronger the lighting the more types of coral you can keep. So consult your books, post some questions if you are unsure what you are looking for. Add the type of lighting to your list and keep reading.

You should include 1kg of live rock in your tank per every 9L of water volume. So if you have a 900L tank you should have 100kg of live rock in there.

This is the MINIMUM amount of live rock and you can see that in some tanks, countless times i have heard, i have the recommended amount and it looks lost. This is the recommended minimum.

Live rock is porous rock which has been in the sea long enough to have bacteria in it. This will conduct the nitrogen cycle in your tank. The cycle we ate interested in converts waste ammonia from the fish to nitrite then nitrate. Denitrifying bacteria will then convert nitrate to nitrogen gas which escapes into the atmosphere. But if not established enough then water changes can reduce nitrates. Without this minimum level of rock you will be fighting a very pointless loosing battle!
Live rock does not mean rock with living bits on it but you will get a certain amount of hitch-hikers along with it.

Algae, Cheato and calpura algae can be grown in regifums / sumps (tanks under your tank) to use up nitrates and phosphates which help control the toxic chemicals you are trying to remove.

DSB bacteria/ Live sand. DSB - Deep Sand Bed's in sumps can be used to remove nitrates as the deep sand and water permeation creates a lovely environment for denitrifying bacteria which help reduce nitrates.

Miracle mud. This is more of a flash in the pan product, supposed to help grow cheato and provide a good area for denitrifying bacteria to grow. Can be used but a DSB (above) is much cheaper. 1 5kg pot of MM £30, to fill a large fuge, poss 10 or 15 pots, 1 bag of sand £5. The MM fuge has to be periodically renewed with more mud, the DSB gets more efficient with age. Dont make your hobby more expensive than required. If you have money to burn, give some to me!

Mechanical: Mechanical filtration includes various pumps and filters i will review the basic ones.

UV filtration. Widely regarded as pointless in the Reef tank. It is an indiscriminate (big word, most likely incorrectly spelt) killer and kills more good bacteria than bad ones. Bacteria/fungal outbreaks such as whitespot can be a problem but are fully cureable without UV. Best not to waste the money to be honest. Those with larger tanks will tend to run Ozone rather than UV

External filters/Sponge filters/Biobals. There are 2 trains of thought, the mechanical and the biological: I am a strong supporter of the biological! I feel a reef based on natural reefs will be much healthier than one that tries to remove unwanted chemicals mechanically.

Sponges and bioballs are not the worst thing to happen to your tank. But I believe they are. They act by trapping the "crud" that floats around the tank. This traps bacteria which will form the word go being to produce nitrates and phosphates. Now with regular cleaning of the biobals and replacement of filter media will prevent this from happening. However this needs to be done weekly to avoid this, Believe me I have done it! It cost an arm and a leg in filter floss and salt.

I advise you remove all sponges from any filter you have (the only sponge i would have is the bubble filter on a protein skimmer). If you have an external filter then you can use it. You can add activated carbon, a phosphate remover, and use it to increase the amount of Live rock in your system as a Live rock filter by adding live rock into the canister.

Since removing all sponges etc my tank stabilised within 2 weeks, My weekly filter change wasn't fast enough for a very under stocked tank.

Protein skimmers. A very useful piece of kit, buy one for the size of tank you have. This will remove the insoluble proteins from the water, thus removing those pesky nitrates and phosphates. Over recent years skimmers have been developed to become extremely efficient, silent running bits of equipment. Tanks can be run without them, however for the beginner / non experimental they are the first / most essential part of mechanical filtration.

Skimmer bedding in & problems.

Skimmer bedding in relates to the head of proteins building up in the neck of the skimmer. Skimmate may not be produced for a number of days after turning it on, this time depends on the amount of protein you have in your tank.
No bubbles being produced. Check you have the airline attached to the pump and it is open.
I have lots of bubbles in my tank! Firstly is your bubble trap fitted? Secondly adjust the bubble control and return control, you should have a happy medium where you produce skimmate without flooding your tank with bubbles.

Tank flow:
Basic tanks should have 20x turnover rate, corner tanks should have at least 30x turnover. This should not come from one massive powerhead, rather 3 or 4 smaller ones. A normal 200L tank should have eg:

200Lx20 turnover= 4000L/Hr turnover.

So i would have 2x 1500L/hr powerheads pointed towards each other / the rock, and a 1000L/Hr pointed elsewhere. Try to eliminate dead spots in your tank when the pumps are running.

Evidently marines is a very diverse area to wave a general stick over, there are exceptions to every rule such seahorses. Poor little fellas would be pressed against the glass at 20X flow. So make sure you check everything before setting up your tank!

Test kits:
Salifert and nutrafin are this forums considered best kits.
Buy, pH Ammonia Nitrate nitrite Phosphate magnesium and Calcium (alkalinity test)
Test on a daily / Weekly basis depending on how long your tank has been going. You will know what you need to test for once you have been going for a while.

Evidently salt is required as you have a saltwater tank. There are a number of brands but i suggest buying a huge bucket for about £50 as this is much better value for money than the smaller buckets / sacks.
Brands are pretty much irrelevant to the beginner, make sure you buy the phosphate free stuff. However the more expensive ones have ready mixed chemicals in. You get what you pay for. Yes top end brands you are part paying for the name on the bucket, but the product inside is also better.

For the more advanced aquarist who is interested in micro nutrients, included calcium content, then the higher end brands are well worth paying for as addidtional supplements will be used less.

FYI, the salinity / specific gravity of your aquarium should be about 1.025 /35

A refractometer measures the specific gravity of the water (as above) in your tank. Do not buy one of those swing arm hydrometers, they are drastically inaccurate and a waste of the £10 you paid for it. Buy a Refractometer, plus they look cool!

RO Unit:
Reverse osmosis unit. This is the bit of kit that will produce the water you need to fill your tank and for water changes. If your LFS is round the corner then fine you may be able to pop there to get water, mine is 45 mins drive away so going that far in the car for some water is a bit much. Check out our sponsor Osmotics for advice on the right unit for you.

Heating, cooling & regulating temp:


If you have an uncovered tank with T5 bulbs you will more than likely need a heater, general rule of thumb 1W heating per 1L of water so a 200L tank a 200W heater, magic.
This works up to 400L. Tanks over 400L, the pumps involved running them tend to kick of enough heat that you dont need quite the same ratio. Eg 1000L tank 2x300=600W heaters.

If you are planning on having MH bulbs, you will more than likely need a cooling fan as a 400W bulb will heat the tank too much! especially in the summer when the air temp is hotter than your tank. The cheaper option is to install fans, the more expensive option is to buy a tank chiller. These are basically the same as an aircon unit and actively cool the tanks water. Fans cost anything from £5 simple clip on ones to £40/50 integrated cooling fans. Chillers start about£400 and go up.

Temperature regulation:
Larger tank owners (although for all tank owners it is a good idea.) have independent temperature regulators. One such is the ATC800. These gadgets take control of your heaters and chillers to save them working against each other and creating a more stable tank environment.

Glass cleaners:
"Magfloat" glass cleaners or any other such, type will remove the algea and "Crud" that builds up on the glass of your tank. Use them to remove it. Velcro on the inside, smooth cloth on the outside. Sounds obvious? After reefing for as long as i have, you will have seen people put them in the wrong way round.

An addition ot the floats, an "Algea Blade" can be siliconed to the cleaner, this is usually a hard plastic, or metal insert for the "tough" bots of algea that cant be removed by the normal scraping method.

If you have a sump and it is pre plumbed to your tank great, most of your equipment can be based around it including your skimmer. They are a great way of increasing total volume of your tank adding to stability of the system. If you are adding one in see the FAQ section for adding in a sump as that takes a thread of its own (yep really!)


Now what?? you have your tank, the skimmer fitted to the tank, the lighting, you have the RO unit and a tank full of water, mixed with salt (checked with your refractometer). Heater fitted in ( if needed) The pumps are in and nice and quiet. Great now check to see of the floorboards are bowing. (No really, you allways hear stories)

Go out and buy your live rock and add it into the tank, Play with it, make caves, overhangs, drill bits and tie together using black cableties, create boxes using eggcrate. Buy the stuff called Milliput/ Aquascaping putty to secure your rock together. Make a nice interesting pile of rocks with varied levels with open swimming points, some parts at least 2/3 of the height of the tank. Whatever looks nice.

Now go look at the members diary sections again, WOW does their aquascaping looks Better or worse than yours? If its better, post a pic, we will let you know that (be quiely smug). If its worse, post a pic and ask, again we are here to advise.

A bit of chemistry now. you will need to know what the cycle is before you can test for it.

Nitrogen Cycle

Ammonia -> Nitrite -> Nitrate -> Nitrogen

Bacteria in your tank / rock / DSB will convert Fish waste ( ammonia ) into Nitrate. Different ones will turn nitrite into nitrate and yet further from nitrate to nitrogen.

You will need a healthy stock of all of these for a stable tank. It may take you 2 weeks or 8 weeks to run this cycle.

So, now starts the cycle, DO NOT TURN YOUR SKIMMER ON! Well longer than a few mins to check it works. The tank will produce ammonia, then nitrite then Nitrate, then the skimmer will get rid of it all. This way you will not produce as many denitrifying bacteria, and as such do more water changes.

Using quality test kits you will see Ammonia readings rise, as they begin to level off nitrite will begin to rise and ammonia tailing off, as nitrite peaks nitrate rises, and eventually all readings will go down to 0. You may get some hair or other algea, it it best to farm this off if possible.

DO NOT ADD LIVESTOCK until your cycle is complete. I MEAN COMPLETE It would be like throwing you into chlorine gas. Both deadly and very unpleasant! (yea i siad deadly first....) The nitrite and ammonia are toxic to pretty much everything your LFS will love to sell you. Use this time to plan further what you want in the tank and alter the aquascaping if you need.

Once your tank has cycled it is now time to add a CUC. Clean up Crew. This generally consists of a few types of snails and some hermit crabs, they will crawl around the tank eating all that algae which has grown. You can turn your skimmer on now.


And there you are after a week or so more you can being adding the livestock of your choice, just don't do it all at once please.

Livestock of your choice- If you have watched N3mo and want a clownfish an anemone, a bubble chest, a stingray filter, a yellow tang..... please go back to the top and start again. Hopefully you will be so bored N3mo will be out of your mind. Unfortunately this film has done more harm than good to reefing, yes you can have a nice tank but the fish are incompatible for the tank they are in. The worst example in my eyes is scar. That is a Moorish Idol and exclusively feeds on corals and plankton type organisms which arent in the predominantly plastic tank.

There are way to many to begin to advise however in one of your books there will be information about fish and there will be recommended info like tank size, feeding requirements. Adhere to these and post a " wish list" so we can advise you on your list. Most members will be more than happy to suggest alternatives so you can get your dream tank without any losses.


Thankyou for reading. If you have any questions head to the New ReefKeeper Section make a post and ask away. This post is not often checked for replies, we are not being rude, it is easier to read a new post than sifting through a few pages of posts after this one. There is also a hidden gem for those of you who make more than 30 posts. What is it? Make 30 posts and you will see. However if you havent already, pop in to the New to the site section and introduce yourself.
  • Sailorben, Graeme629407, MyangelAaron and 5 others like this

#2 Guest_D3hree_*

  • Guests

Posted Oct 15 2008 09:58 AM

wow Phil...do you have a P.A. or did you actually type all that!...nice one....great first read for anyone embarking on a salty journey.

#3 daveo


    MFUK Member

  • Members
  • 437 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:southend on sea, essex

Posted Oct 15 2008 11:11 AM

good one phil, me thinks this should be pinned to the top of the beginners forum if it hasnt already
very informative
DaveTank Jewel Trigon 190litre corner tank 20litre sump17litre refugium 30kg live rock 5kg rubble in the sumphttp://www.marinefish-uk.co.uk/forums/index.php?/topic/18971-daveos-tank/http://www.friendsofglass.com/

#4 ryanandlu


    MFUK Fan

  • Members
  • 725 posts
  • Location:Herefordshire

Posted Oct 15 2008 11:19 AM

That's a really helpful guide.

We were lucky when first starting out in that we had friends who have been keeping marines for some years now, and we have both been interested in marines for a while so already knew a few basic bits. Once we made the decision to start out, we then got all the advice (and tank and skimmer!! Thanks icon_smile.gif ) we needed to get going.

If it hadn't been for that, then I think even with reading a few books it still wouldn't have been as informative as having a step-by-step marine recipe like that one above.

Good work Phil!!
Cheers, RyanNew 4x2x2 reef

#5 j.h78


    Newbie Stage 1

  • Members
  • 31 posts
  • Location:sunderland

Posted Oct 21 2008 04:41 PM

i am about to purchase my first big tank for marine keeping , however it will not be drilled for a sump , can anyone post me the link about the best ways to set up a sump on a non drilled tank



#6 evilscoop


    MFUK Member

  • Members
  • 337 posts
  • Location:Harrogate, North Yorks

Posted Oct 21 2008 04:42 PM

overflow box is prolly the only option
Dont rush the cycle, enjoy it......you wont do it often....do it rightHow to cycleHave a question about seahorse's, answer maybe hereMy tank diary

#7 sidrob


    Newbie Stage 1

  • Members
  • 17 posts
  • Location:amble NORTHUMBERLAND

Posted Oct 25 2008 06:33 PM

a great guide for anybody starting out with marine

good work


#8 Alastair


    Purple Tang

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 5,332 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Not telling

Posted Oct 25 2008 07:19 PM

Here's something I've started to go alongside this..

#9 west


    Best of the West :)

  • Members
  • 1,302 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:just off the wash

Posted Oct 25 2008 07:28 PM

blimey a lot of interesting and helpful information and thought going on at the moment,
Well done phil and nice diagram alastair.

I think this thread needs cleaning by mods to put the text and diagrammatic together for future references.
http://www.youtube.com/reefwest - This is the link to my youtube channel.

#10 Alastair


    Purple Tang

  • Members
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 5,332 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Not telling

Posted Nov 16 2008 08:57 PM

This is the problem of trying to sum up the entire library of reefkeeping in one article..

Aimed at beginners on their first ever reef tank then I'm pretty certain that fry tanks, elasmobranchs and frogfishes are out of the equation (or should be).

The wording does need to be tightened and clarified, but this is an opening attempt at an article for use by newbies to the hobby. Maybe we need to establish a format that sets out the purpose and intended audience of each article, with suggestions on where those wanting to explore the subject in more detail (or aspects of it) might go read up.

I agree Andy that the first quote you give has inconsistency and error (the phosphate statement is incorrect, and the nitrates statement needs expansion).. but all credit to Phil for getting the ball rolling on this one.. so let's all chip in and give some constructive feedback for improving the article.

On the creation of nitrates by bioballs/sponges.. well.. it's hard to criticise them for this.. it's their entire purpose of being.. ammonia-nitrite-nitrate.. and their are some specialist versions of these media that can support anaerobic denitrafication (but I'm not aware of any plug-and-play set-up that comes with such media as standard). The issue then becomes how do you remove nitrates from the water.. if you rely on water changes then you're fighting a losing battle against the maths of dilution as a new reefer unless the bioload is very low. For a new reefer liverock must be the preferred choice and we must encourage this. Once people have the neccessary experience and knowledge to research alternative methods of reefkeeping then they can move on and research man-made media for themselves. And we can provide further articles on this in the future.

By the way.. looks like you might have just volunteered to write an article on keeping frogfish for us Andy icon_wink.gif

0 user(s) are reading this topic

0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users