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Starting up a reef tank - By Great Lakes

Many people wish to start a marine aquarium. Cost seems to be the prohibitive factor. Understandable when you consider the higher costs to begin with. Then you factor in poor planning, bad information, and mistakes. Gets expensive fast.

Instead of generalities with this article, I am going to be specific. I am not going to give any magic advice on how to save money. It can't be done. You can further your budget with some good DIY work, but you can't cut corners. There are bare essentials that must be included for the average Reefer. Yes, I said Reefer. We are going to build a nice little reef tank, step by step. If you are impatient, or faint at the thought of spending money, you can quit reading now. But let me tell you, the satisfaction is worth the money and patience.

What size tank. Our Dream tank will be a 30gal, 36" long 16" high, and 12" deep. Long and shallow is better than narrow and tall. This fact is in consideration of lighting. Lighting is the key factor in marine tanks. Ideally, three foot bulbs should fit over your tank. Likewise, a tank that is not overly tall will have better light penetration. You will also need a stand, and a canopy. Here is where DIY skills, and a little cunning will save you some money. A stand is a necessity. When you have your system looking good, you aren't gonna want to move it unless you absolutely have to. Besides, after a few years, you will easily have thousands of dollars worth of livestock in it. You don't want to proudly display this on an old TV stand, do you? Besides, you will need the stand to hide your sump and all the other equipment that goes with keeping marines.

So, the order I would do it in. Plan where the tank will go. Reef tanks require power like you have never seen. Our tank will have 300 watts of light, two powerheads, a return pump, heater and skimmer. This is minimum.

Now we are going to research. We are going to dream of all the different types of life we will keep while we are researching. And while we are researching, we are going to buy our stuff piece by piece. Here is where the patience comes in. This step will encompass a year or more to the financially frugal.

The tank is the obvious first choice. Followed next by the stand. On the stand, here is an opportunity to go custom. And I would build my stand at least 30" tall. Then I would build my canopy and lighting. Big DIY savings here. Total cost so far is not too much different than a typical freshwater system. Once at this point, you can even use your system for tropicals until you have gathered the rest of your equipment Now I would get the biggest heavy duty plastic tub that I could get in my stand for a sump. Next I would get an overflow box for the back. This siphons water off the main tank, and sends it to the sump. Now you need pumps. Two nice moderate, (100-200gph), powerheads will work. We will place these in opposing corners. Now we need a larger pump for the main return from the sump. Lets say around 750gph give or take a little. Now that you have all your tanks and pumps, hard plumb them. It is fairly cheap to do, and well worth the effort. You are still running tropicals, Now you can place a DIY filter in your sump, and lose whatever you were running previously for the tropicals. Here is also where I would spring for the submersible heater for your sump, and get it out of the tank.

OK. A little summary here. You are now running a high tech tropical tank. This has helped keep you from being impatient. You really don't have much more money into it at this point than you would if it was a tropical fish tank.

Now gather together this stuff, and put it in a closet till you have it all. First, buy a good quality plastic trash can. You will use this to mix saltwater and can store your further purchases in it, and later, your extra equipment.

Now we are getting to the most debated piece of hardware in a reef system. The skimmer. You can have a well planned DIY skimmer for under a hundred dollars, or spend easily, 400 bucks on a new high tech model. Recently gurus have gone to great lengths to prove that you can't overskim a tank. So get or build the largest one practical. That way, when you upgrade your tank,(trust me), you will be ok in this department.

You will want enough substrate to cover the bottom of the tank to about a four inch depth. I would purchase crushed arogonite for this. A 25lb bag should be close.

Next, I would get enough instant ocean sea salt to make at least 50 gallons of seawater. Test kits. Get a master test kit, along with a good hygrometer.

The purpose of this article is to answer mostly financial, and equipment questions, Therefore, I will leave out the chemistry part of it for another day. That doesn't cost you anything but a little sanity.

Now that you have gathered everything you ned for a fish only system, it is time to switch over. Firstly you must Clean out your tank really well.

Fill your trash can with acceptable water. put a powerhead in it to circulate the water. Start adding salt. This is where you will be amazed. I was at the amount of salt there is in seawater. It will take a while for all the salt to dissolve. You may have to stir the can occasionally. A note here. Mix it on the light side. It is easier to add more salt later, than to try to thin it out.

Whike this is happening, add your substrate to your cleaned tank, this should be 4" deep. Now you can start adding your mixed water to the tank. Get it full, get all the pumps working properly, and turn your heater/s on. Once your tank is up to 78 degrees, and is crystal clear, check your salinity, adjust as necessary. Once your salinity and ph are good, you can add fish.

Here is where it is best to deal with a lfs that will let you return your fish after cycling. Among the best/hardiest fish to cycle with are Damsels. The are also inexpensive. I would get two for a tank this size.

Cycling is much the same as for tropical fish. The harmful waste to harmless waste conversion is the same.

I haven't run the skimmer yet because I want the beneficial bacteria to get a good foothold. Once all the tests show good, I can take my Damsels back, and get the fish I adore. Now is the time to start your skimmer.

You are now the proud owner of a Fish Only,(FO), system!

Now, you can add more lighting to your hood, and get some live rock. A pound here and a pound there. Just the good looking quality stuff because this tank is going to last a while and you want to make it look beautiful, you may regret trying to save later.

You are now the proud owner of a Fish Only with Live Rock,(FOWL), tank.

Now you are starting to accumulate a lot of live rock. You may need another lighting upgrade, depending on how far you went the last two times. Once you get over a pound per gallon of live rock, you can remove all filter media. The live rock will harbor all the beneficial bacteria you need, and the skimmer will remove the excess organic compounds. Also, if your live rock has not successfully seeded your deep sand bed,(DSB), you will want to get a bag of live sand. This will introduce "critters" into your system. You are shooting for an ecological balance. You will need crabs, snails, sea cucombers, brittle stars, etc. Normally called a clean-up crew. You can get good package deals on these

You now are the proud owner of a Reef tank!

You can now start spending you childs college tuition on corals and many other cool things. But now chemistry really rears its ugly head. There are many parameters to keep up on when you get a full blown reef system with all the corals. But it is worth it.

This is a real basic set-up. Meant to be easily understood. Your research that I strongly advise you do will bring forth as many questions as answers. But there are many good places around - reef tank forum - ready with good advice. And reefers seem to be the most dedicated bunch there is.

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