Getting Your Reef Equipment

So, you are thinking about getting into a saltwater fishtank.  Well, your first step is picking out your equipment.  Even here there is much to consider.  What size tank will you get?  What kind of filtration?  Lights?  Cost?  So here are a few of my thoughts and tips when starting out with equipment.

How Big a System do you Want?

The first thing to think about is how large a reef tank do you want to run?  You will get a lot of varying advice on this one.

Generally, the larger the system the more stable your tank will be.  This is because there is more room for error when you have a large volume of water.  But the investment in time and money will also be larger.

Bigger tanks will cost more money.  Beyond simply getting the tank, keep in mind that you will need to fill it with saltwater, get larger filtration that is rated for your tank, run more lights, etc…  All of this will cost more money.  Of course, your tank can also hold more livestock, so you will be likely buying more fish.  You’ll probably enjoy that last part!

Secondly, a large fish tank will take a bit more maintenance.  There’s just more surface area to clean and more water to take care of.  Keep in mind that your water will evaporate and with a larger body of water, you will get more evaporation.  That just means filling up with more fresh water.  Depending on how much evaporation you have, you may have to get an ro/di filtration system for one of your faucets so you can produce your own fresh water at home for top off.

I’ve had a large tank in the past, but currently I have a nano tank.  It’s only 34 gallons and I think it’s a great way to start out.  Most people will tell you that a nano tank is considered more advanced because it is less water and therefore requires more attention to keeping the tank stable.  However, I find that it is a good balance for me.  I am able to simply pick up 5 gallons of fresh water from the local fish store every other week, instead of having to plumb in a filtration system at home to produce my own fresh water.  It costs me about $2 to get 5 gallons of water, so it’s relatively cheap.

I then use an auto top off system to keep the tank topped off.  In my mind, I would use an auto top off system in any tank that I keep in the future for the convenience, so this automates one of the regular maintenance chores as well as keeping the tank stable in an easy way.

Finally, I think a nano tank is a good way to start out and then once you get a feel for the hobby, you can always upgrade.

Here’s a picture of my 34g solana:

Getting a Tank

Now that you’ve chosen the size of your future reef tank, you’ll want to think about a few things:  Cost, maintenance, livestock, and of course future growth.

First off, the larger your tank, the more it will cost.  However, there are a couple of ways to save on the cost of the tank.  I highly recommend looking on the various forums for used systems.  Take a look at my resources page for my favorite reef keeping forums.  Also, your local craigslist is a great place to find some deals.  There are two downsides to getting a used tank:  faulty equipment and getting stuck with someone else’s choice of equipment.

Make sure if you are getting used to check all your equipment for leaks.  It’s best if you get a chance to see the tank running before you buy, but often it is already empty or broken down.  Generally, if you get it from another reefer who is upgrading, the tank should be solid.  But it’s a good idea to fill it up and run a leak test on it at home.

Most of the time, people sell reef tanks as complete systems, so you are getting not just the tank, but the stand, filtration, lights, etc…  This is generally a good thing, but sometimes you may already have plans on how you want to filter and light the tank, and you may be getting some extra equipment you don’t need.  Overall, this second point isn’t a big deal, but it’s something to think about.

If you don’t want to buy used, then I would recommend waiting for some sales.  Petco has a great $1 per gallon sale on their fish tanks periodically.  It’s a good way to save on the cost of a tank, but you will need to get the stand and other equipment separately.

Whichever route you go, I highly recommend getting a tank that is reef ready.  In a nano tank, this can be an all in one where there is a separate filtration area in the back of the tank separated by a small false backing.  In a larger tank, this means having drilled holes in the back of your tank so that you can attach plumbing down to a separate tank called a sump which will house all your filtration equipment.

Having a reef ready tank is more aesthetically pleasing, but also has practical application for filtration which I will discuss next.

Choosing Your Filtration System

There are some personal philosophical choices when it comes to filtration.  For myself, I have success just by running a good protein skimmer and then using macro algae in a refugium area (now using a macro algae reactor) and forgoing all the other forms of filtration.  The protein skimmer pulls out much of the organic matter and the macro algae grow and use up whatever dissolved organics are left in the water.  I feel like this is the most effective method for me.

Generally this is a cost effective method for me as well.  My main cost is in the purchase of the protein skimmer.  This is a piece of equipment that works just as well used.  Sometimes a protein skimmer is better after being broken in.  Again, I would suggest looking on the reef forums or on the local craigslist.  This is where you can get great savings over purchasing new.  I would recommend getting a protein skimmer that is rated for at least double your tank.  I find that the oversized protein skimmer works really well maintaining tank stability.  This is a tip I picked up from talking to a local fish store owner about the setup in their display tank.

For the macroalgae filtration, I would pick up a macroalgae called chaetomorpha or chaeto for short.  This is popular among the hobbyist because it grows fast and does not go sexual in the water, so it won’t pollute your tank.  Many hobbysists will even give it away for free as they prune their tanks.  Check the reef forums for anyone who is cleaning their tanks, often they will offer free chaeto.  Otherwise, you can often find a baseball sized chunk on sale for less than $10 to get started.

I personally started out by putting it in the back area of my all in one filtration.  I simply removed all the other sponges and filter media in the back and turned the space into a nice little refugium.  Then you simply clip a plant grow light over that area and the chaeto will grow as it filters your water.

I personally skip the canister filters and hang on back filters for this simple system.

Other Equipment

Finally, you have your tank and filtration.  You will want to get a few other things to ensure success with your reef aquarium.  Make sure you look into getting a good heater.  Your reef tank is very temperature sensitive and you will need to keep it warm when the temperature drops at night or in the winter.  I keep my tank at around 79 degrees Fahrenheit.  A reef tank also requires lots of good water movement, so you will want to invest in a few good powerheads or wavemakers.  I have a few in my nano tank to make sure there is good water movement all around.  Finally, you will want to invest in good lighting for your tank.  A reef tank generally will have a number of corals.  Depending on the type of coral, you will need to light your tank appropriately.  This is a topic for a lengthier discussion, so I will go in greater detail in a future post.  But I would put some thought into the type of corals I want to grow in the tank and pick my lights accordingly.

That’s it!  You are now ready to get your tank up and running.  I’ll discuss that next step in a future post.

Do you have any tips or questions?  Leave a comment below!  I look forward to hearing from you.

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