- Image from Craig Lovelidge on Unsplash

A beginners guide to starting a successful reef aquarium

Keep killing fish or just setting up your first aquarium? Then this guide is for you.

Marcus Milligan posted in Pets
37w ago

Most of us have probably been to an aquarium before or at least saw one on TV and been amazed by the incredible variety of underwater life, from Anemone to Zebra Eels, there is something to interest everyone. If you've ever been left thinking 'I wish I could have some of these at home' read on and by the end of this guide you'll be well on your way to having your very own underwater world in your living room.

First up you're going to need a tank.

Size does matter

Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash

Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash

A lot of people getting their first aquarium think it will be much easier to start off with a smaller tank, but if you have the space and budget it really helps if you can get something a little bit bigger.

The first benefit is you have a much bigger choice of fish you can keep, but also it's easier to keep the quality of the water just right.

Essential equipment

Once you have your tank there's a few other things you'll need to get started.

Lights - these don't just help you see the fish, they're going to be essential to keeping your corals alive. Which type of lighting you buy will depend on your tank setup and location but I'd recommend going with some sort of LED lighting, just make sure it says it's suitable for a reef tank and you should be fine.

Protein skimmer - this is going to help remove all the things you don't want in the water, and just like with the lights choosing which one is best for you will depend on the size of your tank. Once you know how much water your tank holds just make sure you buy one that says it can deal with that amount of water or ideally slightly more.

Wave maker - you're basically trying to replicate the sea, but on a much smaller scale, so you're going to need some waves. Now don't expect waves big enough to surf, you're just trying to keep the water surface moving and a good flow around the tank.

Refractometer - you'll use this to test the amount of salt in the water, it should be around 35 parts per thousand.

RODI unit - you can't just fill your tank with water from the tap, first you'll need to run it through a RODI or Reverse Osmosis Deionised unit which will remove chlorine and any other impurities that wouldn't harm you but would be deadly to everything in your tank.

And lastly you'll need to keep control of the temperature inside the tank, a reef tank should be around 25 Celsius or 77 Fahrenheit, so depending on where in the world you are you may need a heater, chiller or both.

More than just decoration

David Clode on Unsplash

David Clode on Unsplash

Next you'll want some rocks to decorate the tank and build your reef, there's a couple of options to consider for this. The first option would be live rock which is the same stuff you'll find on real coral reefs, it will look great in your tank but more importantly it also helps keep it clean. The rocks are full of thousands of tiny holes and these will fill with all the beneficial bacteria that you'll need to keep the water clean.

The second option is man made alternatives like caribsea life rock which is what I have in my tank. The benefits of this is you usually have more choice of shapes and there's no chance of getting any nasty surprises like there is with live rock, which often comes directly from the sea or someone else's tank.


No not that kind of cycling, this type of cycling refers to the cycle your tank goes through to build up all the good bacteria you need. The best and fastest way to achieve this is to buy a bottle of live bacteria, ATM colony is a famous one but there's lots of brands to choose from. After you have your tank full of warm RODI water, with the right amount of marine salt mixed in, the rocks in place and the equipment installed, then you can add the bottled bacteria.

Clean up crew

Before fish you should add some small crabs, snails and shrimp to your tank, these will be your clean up crew. They will eat all the nuisance algae and left over food to help keep everything clean and tidy.


David Clode on Unsplash

David Clode on Unsplash

Now that you have a tank, the essential equipment, and rocks you can start thinking about what fish you want to keep. There's a few things to think about, such as how big they get, how aggressive they are and what they eat, including whether or not they will eat your corals. Make sure to do a bit of research and ask in your local store which fish will get along with each other before buying them.

This is just the start

We've covered most of the basics that you'll need to get started but there is a lot more you could do when setting up a new tank, like adding some sand which I forgot to mention earlier, and corals which could be a whole separate article.

If you have any questions put them in the comments and I'll try my best to answer them, and if anyone's interested maybe I'll write a part two or a more in depth version in the future.

Join In

Comments (2)

  • Oh I wish I had the patience & money for this. I had a 10 gallon fresh water when I was a kid & I loved it. I was pretty passionate about it & took pretty good care of my fish. I had them for maybe 3-4 years.

      8 months ago
    • I started of with fresh water years ago and then finally tried salt water, there’s a few more things to learn but once it’s up and running it’s not that much harder to take care of

        8 months ago