Starting a Nano Reef Tank

First off, it would be good for you to have already kept a freshwater tank or marine tank, so that you have all the basics down, before attempting to start a reef tank. So we are going to assume that you have all the basic knowledge of fish keeping under your belt already. If you haven't got that knowledge, it would be a good idea to read the other basic aquarium articles on the educational pages of our site, before you tackle this one.

Okay let's get started. Fish give off waste products just as humans do, mostly toxic ammonia. This must be removed from the aquarium as it will kill the reef fish and burn the coral polyps. The new tank syndrome starts with waste, to ammonia, to nitrite, to nitrate, to nitrogen, which is a gas and thus releases itself from the aquarium. This process is accomplished with the use of a mechanical biological filter and Live Rock is needed. This is where the biological filtration takes place. What is live rock? It is basically dead coral rock that is no longer the home of polyps but to bacteria, algae and photosynthetic invertebrates. These continually take up or utilize the dissolved ammonia which comes from the waste products of the corals, fishes and other inhabitants of the tank and thus rendering it non-toxic. The mechanical part of the system removes larger particles of waste and provides water movement for the corals. Water must be moved throughout the tank to keep the corals clean.

The beauty of this system is that the anaerobic areas (or areas that exist without oxygen) within the live rock are close enough to nitrogenous waste produced to be immediately denitrified. To the health of live corals, even the relatively harmless nitrogenous waste nitrate (NO3) is detrimental. When it builds up in the aquarium, the normal use of it by the bacteria, algae and zooxanthellae is not as efficient.

Good protein skimmers are a must if you intend to load your tank. Protein skimmers produce fine air bubbled vigorously through a tower to collect the amino acids, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, phosphate, fatty acids, phenols, iodine, some metals and detritus into a brown scum which rises to the top of the protein skimmer and is then eliminated from the system. Have you seen the foam on the beach after a forceful wave has crashed? That is the same thing - protein scum!

Good lighting. The coral derive much of their nutrients from the symbiotic dinoflagellates found within their tissues called zoothanzellae. These dinoflagellates are photosynthetic which means they use light for energy to form carbohydrates like plants do. Natural lighting is excellent but usually in aquariums, power compact lighting with the proper Kelvin temperature is needed to supplement the low light derived from ambient light in your room. It’s not just the brightness of the light but rather the spectrum of light (Kelvin temperature) that is important. Usually a 10,000k and a Actinic bulb is sufficient.

Other parameters that need to be considered are the photo-period and the intensity of the light. Days are usually between ten and twelve hours in the tropics where the corals naturally occur. It is best to keep to this as animals need dark periods for some of their biological reactions. Low wattage blue lights can be used during the dark period to simulate the moonlight and can even stimulate reproduction in some corals. Some fixtures come with lunar lights, but you can always add a small lunar type light to your Nano aquarium.

The intensity of sun on a tropical reef is very high. Intensity of that magnitude is not needed in the aquarium. Depending on the corals that are in the display, one should pay close attention to the amount of light that they receive. As bulbs burn, they loose their intensity and color temperature so they should be changed at least annually. This is true of any aquarium you have.

Wave and currents in the ocean keep the corals clean. Water movement in the aquarium is equally important. Oscillating pumps, power heads or the dumping action of hang on filters accomplish this.

Excellent Water Chemistry. This refers to the amount of ammonias, nitrites and nitrates as we discussed before but there are other parameters that must be measured and kept within range.

Temperature limits where corals are found. There are no reef building corals in water colder than 70°. If the temperature rises above 85°, the zooxanthellae will die and the corals slowly die, too. Ideally, the temperature should stay within the range of 74-78°.

pH of saltwater is usually between 8.0 and 8.4. The calcium carbonates from the coral rock is an effective buffer to keep the pH within range. Closed systems are not so lucky. The accumulating organic acids and phosphates tend to deplete the buffering capability of the system.

Alkalinity (or the buffering ability), specific gravity or how dense the saltwater is compared fresh water, phosphates, and oxygen are all important aspects that must be monitored and adjusted. Water salinity for coral only tanks should be 10.26-10.28 (at lower salinity corals loose color and tend not to grow) with mixed tanks at about 10.26. Fish only tanks could be as low as 10.19 depending upon the species kept, (oxygen is more readily available to fish at lower salinity) an average for fish would be 10.21-23.

As the primary building block of corals, clams and calcareous algae, calcium is very important. In the ideal aquarium, it should be maintained near 2000 mg/gal. You can simply follow the instructions on liquid additives. You should purchase a reef testing kit. One of the tests is Calcium. One effective means to raise the calcium levels is to use kalkwasser (limewater). This needs vigorous stirring as it tends settle out and then set aside for an hour. The clear, saturated liquid is the kalkwasser and is added whenever water changes are done. Considerable care must be taken when adding this as the pH is 12 and if too much is added at once will shock the corals and inhabitants of the display. Aquadosers are available for this purpose or you can hook up your own drip method.

Strontium is only a minor element in the make-up of water but it is incorporated in many organisms’ skeletons. It is one of the key ingredients needed for the growth and survival of corals in the aquarium. Strontium is a hazardous chemical and should be handled with care. Solutions of strontium can be made and added to the aquarium little at a time. Kent Nano A and B formulas will accomplish most of your needs.

Trace elements can be added using Kent's Essential Elements or other commercially available solutions, and should not be neglected.

Okay so let's summarize what you need to have.

1. A self contained Nano tank, like the Oceanic Bio Cube, these systems are for the most part complete, so all you have to do is add substrate, Marine Mix and Live rock and your ready to go. Instant Ocean Reef Salts is our recommendation, as it has the least Nitrates that will be added to your tank.*

2. A 10 gallon or larger aquarium, PC lighting, bio filtration, mini heater, and the items mentioned above.

If you intend to keep stocking the tank until it's full, you will need a Protein Skimmer.

You need a master test kit that will test at least Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, PH and Calcium.

A good book on Reef keeping, would of course, be helpful. Whenever purchasing equipment or livestock for your Nano tank, always take advantage of our knowledge in helping you with your selections.

The perfect Nano tank will have live rock, a few carefully placed soft corals and mushrooms, a few shrimp, maybe a crab, a few snails. For fish we suggest Gobies, Blennies, and maybe a clownfish. The larger the tank, the more you can expand upon these.

Most importantly, remember this: Less is more! Under stock, know the limitations of the size of your Nano Aquarium. Nothing will lead to failure more than over stocking and over feeding. Once you are set up and going, you will want to read our article on feeding your corals. As your fascination with these marvelous creatures grows, you will probably want to graduate to a larger reef system. Happy reef keeping and we hope you have great success.

*test conducted by the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.