Setting up a reef tank

by Owen James

A healthy reef tank grows out of good decisions (Image by: JSC )

A healthy reef tank grows out of good decisions (Image by: JSC )

Consciously or not, setting up a reef tank means making many different decisions to create the sort of aquarium you desire.

Things to think about when setting up a reef tank include:

  • Environment Such as temperature, salinity and other water parameters, currents in the aquarium and the tank furnishings
  • Equipment What artificial aids will you use to create such an environment in your aquarium?
  • Animals and plants The inhabitants of a reef tank are not simply exhibits – they are a dynamic part of an ecosystem
  • Aesthetics Many aquarium fish will happily live and breed in bare glass tanks with white PVC pipes for shelter, but would you want that in your living room?
  • Budget and space Only AquaDaily readers who work for zoos and public aquariums can ignore the pragmatic limits on their ambitions. (I dare say that much-wanted blue whale exhibit will also go on hold, even for zookeepers!)
  • Personal quirks Most of us have fish or other creatures we’ll instinctively add to a new aquarium. Beyond that, some fishkeepers have a fetish for rare fish, or a desire to avoid artificial filtration. These sorts of quirks will further influence your choices.

Each of us will have our unique perspective on certain criteria, such as aesthetics. Some aquarists prefer very natural (or even random) looking environments in their tanks, for instance, while in contrast there’s a growing trend in stony coral reef tanks for a more stripped-back, ‘bonsai’ approach.

Other criteria, such as the needs of your animals, are not a matter of personal choice but of animal biology.

While most fish, invertebrates and plants have a range of conditions they’ll tolerate, staying within those limits should be considered non-negotiable for the health of the creatures in your care.

Decide what you want before setting up a reef tank

Any approach that suits your tastes and budget is absolutely fine, provided it keeps your animals content and healthy; you don’t have to follow the latest fashion.

Too often though, new aquarists don’t think about these issues at all before setting up a tank.

At best, decisions are instead made on-the-fly as the tank evolves. At worst, the aquarist never gets to grips with what aquarium he or she has created, which can lead to a deteriorating tank conditions and the death of the tank’s inhabitants.

The freshwater community fish many of us enter the hobby keeping will tolerate a fair amount of indecision as the new fishkeeper finds his feet.

Marine fish and invertebrates are far less forgiving. Thought put into a new reef tank ahead of its inception will repay you tenfold in problems that never materialize. (You’ll still see enough problems to keep you busy, don’t worry… ;) )

My next reef tank

I’ve been thinking about these issues, since I’m hoping to set up a new reef tank soon, after 18 months without touching a drop of salt water.

The good news for new tank junkies is I intend to document my new tank’s progress here on AquaDaily!

When I last moved home, I had to sell all the inhabitants of my aquariums.

Family illness and career uncertainty (neither of which has entirely gone away) has further delayed the new tank. I rent an apartment, rather than own my own home, which brings yet more uncertainty to proceedings; moving house with a big tank at one month’s notice would not be pleasant.

But I’m finding life without a reef aquarium is hardly worth living, so some sort of new tank is required. (Okay, I exaggerate, but not by much!)

I therefore need to decide what kind of tank I want to create, and what resources I can devote to it.

Little or large reef tank?

I kept some small tanks when I moved that I could press into service, or I could buy a new bigger aquarium, fill it with rock and sand, and regret doing so at my leisure when it comes time to move.

Even typing these words makes me think it would be folly to build the new 300-gallon reef I dream of, only to have to strip it down in 18 months.

I think it’s more sensible to set up one or possibly two smaller aquariums.

Natural biotype tank

What I’d really like to do with my next ‘proper’ tank is create a more representative slice of a coral reef.

Many tanks full of living rock aren’t very natural, even when they avoid the old-fashioned rock wall look. You’d never see the hotpotch of different corals packed into one section of vertical reef like we typically include in our tanks. The inhabitants we choose is almost always driven by our tastes and aesthetic considerations ahead of their natural origins.

On the other hand, recreating some slices of the reef, such as the highly turbulent reef wall, undeniably limits your choice, especially with small aquariums – not so much a reef wall as a reef rockery. If you’ve several tanks, it’s less restricting to create tanks themed by biotype.

While I’m sure I’ll bend and break definitions like any other marine hobbyist, I want to at least aim for something you could imagine seeing in the ocean, so I’d like to decide on a biotype for my new aquarium.

Animal and plant compatibility

One huge advantage of having multiple aquariums, as opposed to a large, multi-zoned tank, is the opportunity to keep creatures that would be incompatible in a single tank.

For instance, nothing could be more natural to a back reef biotype than tangs and macroalgae or lionfish and damselfish, but you can’t keep such pairings in a small body of water, since the former will eat the latter!

Environmental constraints also play a role in limiting your stock choice, although knowing your animals can offset this to some extent.

For example, I’ve found mushroom corals and certain large-polyped stony corals do much better in less bright, more nutrient-rich systems.

In even a smaller aquarium you can get around the light issue – and similar preferences for water flow – by understanding exactly how light and currents are distributed in your tank, and placing your animals accordingly.

In this case, mushroom corals can be positioned towards the fringes of the tank, where they are also less likely to bother and sting SPS corals.

The preference for nutrient-rich water is an example of a parameter where it’s impossible to please all tank inhabitants, however.

Small-polyped reef building corals like Acropora are prettier (if not necessarily healthier) in water that’s very low in nutrients. Mushroom corals will survive and even grow in nutrient poor systems (especially if target fed) but I wouldn’t try keeping delicate LPS such as Goniapora in such tanks, let alone filter-feeding invertebrates such as fanworms.

For SPS I’d prefer a heavily-skimmed aquarium, while I’d rather keep filter-feeders and LPS in an algae-filtered natural tank.

Decision time approaches

I’ve three ideas for environments I’d like to explore. Each is a fairly obvious reef biotype, but on the small scale of tanks I’m talking about it won’t be possible to create more than one biotype per aquarium.

I’ll cover each biotype in posts over the next two weeks and add shortcuts below as I do so. Please do subscribe to follow my new reef tank!

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