5 Tips on How to Start a Saltwater Reef Aquarium
100 Comments


So you want to start a reef tank? Well you
are in luck! Youtube exists, and there are about 50 million videos on how to get started.
This video isn’t so much a step-by-step how to, but rather some practical tips to
think about before you get started. I’ve been in this hobby a really really long time,
and this is the top5 things I wish I knew as a beginner. The first tip has to start with tank selection.
Seemingly nothing could be simpler than picking out a glass box, but there really is a lot
to consider. Obviously there are considerations such as “will it fit in the space I’ve
selected?” You don’t need to watch a video on that type of stuff. Those things are pretty
obvious. I want to talk to you about some of the technical details of tank selection
and how selecting a particular tank affects everything else. So I will start at the end and work my way
back. The best tank for a beginner is a 48” 120-gallon tank. How did I come up with that?
In short, it is the best combination of volume to surface area. Larger volumes of water actually
make the hobby easier because chemical fluctuations in large tanks happen more slowly compared
to smaller tanks. The surface area part might need a practical
example. First consider that one of the most popular tank sizes is a 48” 55-gallon tank.
When you walk into a local pet store it’s probably the first tank you see for sale.
They are very very very popular. Ubiquitous. They measure something like 48x13x21. It’s
not a very good size because of that narrowness in that width. It limits what one can do with
rock work, but worse of all, a tank like this 55 will cost almost as much as that 120-gallon
I recommended. How does that work, because the sticker on
that 120 is definitely going to be higher than the 55. A lot higher even. What people
just starting out in the hobby don’t realize is the cost of an aquarium, the glass box
itself is… basically free in the grand scheme of things. Reef keeping can be done on a budget,
but chances are, someone that’s new to it won’t be able to easily figure what corners
can be cut. If you don’t believe me, for you experienced reefers out there, how much
of your original equipment do you still have? Did you spend your money efficiently the first
few years? I for one could fill warehouses full of aquarium-related junk I bought over
the years that I know now I didn’t need. So going back to my main point, the cost of
an aquarium is basically free given the cost of everything else. The cost difference between
that 55-gallon tank and 120-gallon tank is not something you will ever remember. Besides
livestock, the two most expensive pieces of equipment in the hobby will be your lights
and filtration. There is a good chance that the lighting and filtration you would use
on a 55 would be more than adequate for that 120. So for that tiny bit extra cash spent on a
tank early on, you end up getting nearly twice the water volume which comes with more chemical
stability, more aquascaping options, and more space for fish and corals that would otherwise
crowd a 55. Now I understand not everyone has room for
a 120. For space restricted would-be hobbyists, consider tanks in 2’ x 2’ sections. The
reason that a 120 is so efficient is most modular lighting these days lights a 2’
square. So, in the previous example, two light fixtures required to light a 55-gallon tank
which is 4’ long would easily light a 120-gallon that is also 4’ long. If you can’t fit
a 4’ tank, consider getting a 60-gallon cube that measures 24” on each side. Again,
you are maximizing the space that your lighting and filtration can handle while giving you
a decent amount of volume to work with. I’ve glossed over the filtration equipment
to a large extent so far, but I’ll touch on it a bit later. What you need to remember
for right now is that equipment scales well to larger tanks. For example, medium sized
protein skimmers of any decent quality can handle most tanks from 55 to 250 gallons.
Reactors scale even better. A typical calcium reactor can handle at least 250 gallons. If
you decide to use dosing pumps to dispense additives, those scale to just about any size
aquarium you can dream of. Right now there is a lot of technology floating
around that wasn’t here 10 years ago. Things like biopellet reactors, granular ferric oxide,
zeovit, heck, even LED is a relatively new technology. Someone who was in the hobby 15
years ago that is just now getting back into it now would have a lot of catching up to
do. Because there is so much stuff out there, it is hard for people to figure out what is
really needed. The best way I can simplify this for people
just starting out is to keep things very simple. There are really only three things you have
to provide for a successful aquarium. Those three things are good light, good water movement,
and good water quality. There are plenty of debates to be had on how to achieve all three
of those ideals, but as long as you have those three working, you will be successful with
most things. Here is a practical tip for getting started.
Find a tank you like and copy it. Better yet, find ten tanks that inspire your creative
juices and see what they all have in common and set that as your baseline. Your journey
through this hobby will be something that is uniquely your own as you figure out over
time with what works for you, but to get started, copy someone’s setup that you like. Let’s assume that you’ve listened to me
up to this point and you want to do some shopping. Hold off! Hold off as long as you possibly
can and absorb information. I’m going to make up some numbers here, but for every day
that you spend researching this hobby, you will save $1000. It is that important. Rushing
into things is a guaranteed way for stuff to go horribly wrong fast. But Than… there is so much conflicting information
out there! Where do I go for good information? That’s true. You are going to hear a lot
of conflicting viewpoints. What makes it even more confusing is that both people might actually
be right because there are a lot of ways to be successful in this hobby. Ummm… not helping
is it? The internet is still a sea of noise? Here is a tip that can help you source better
information. There are plenty of eloquent contributors to online communities that will
claim some sort of expertise. Want to know if they are actually legit? Look at their
tank. It’s as simple as that. If their tank is garbage, it does not matter what credentials
they have as far as I am concerned. A glorious tank speaks for itself and the person that
designed and executed it will have a wealth of information on all the challenges it took
to get it to that point. This stuff is not taught in schools. It’s not theoretical.
It has to be experienced. One way to conceptualize it is this: a great
reef tank is an iceberg. It is the thing that sticks up out of the water that you will actually
see. What you don’t see is the 90% still under the water. That 90% is the hard learned
lessons like tank crashes, regrettable equipment purchases, incompatible livestock choices,
janky plumbing projects, horrible electrical, the list goes on. That’s why I suggest learning
as much as you can from build threads of tanks you really like and take from them as many
ideas as possible. Ok… you’ve done all your homework and
finally it’s time to shop. The first thing I want you to do is go look outside. Is it
snowing out? For those in warm areas without snow, is it basketball season? If so, it’s
not the best time to buy. People don’t realize this, but this hobby is seasonal. Very seasonal.
Once summer hits, this whole industry almost grinds to a halt. People spend less time in
the house when the weather gets nice, and it’s common for there to be a little neglect
of the home aquarium. Often times, people bounce out of the hobby altogether. If you
are looking to save a bit of money on startup costs and don’t mind buying equipment second
hand, the summer time is the time to do it. If you haven’t already, consider joining
a local aquarium club. There is a proliferation of online communities especially with Facebook
Groups, but there are still some benefits to joining a local club. Chief among those
are the ability to see people’s aquariums in person if that club does a tank tour of
local members, and purchasing equipment from fellow club members without having to deal
with shipping. I’ve saved the best tip for last… show
Tidal Gardens some love! Subscribe to this channel if you haven’t already! Share it
with your friends. Follow us on Twitter Instagram and Facebook and if you want to become a patron
of Tidal Gardens hop over to Patreon and check out some of the perks for becoming a donor.
Seriously though, stick around this channel for long enough and I guarantee you it will
make your time in the hobby a lot easier, but you probably wanted a real tip so I’ll
give you a quick one about water chemistry. Chemistry can be a really overwhelming topic
and it is important that you learn as much as you can about it, but to get started consider
two things: Number one… water changes fix just about
every problem imaginable. Got high nitrates because you fed too much? Water change. Corals
looking stressed? Water change. Calcium, Alkalinity, and Magnesium all out of whack? Water change.
Hair algae? Water change. Basically when in doubt, do a water change. Water changes are
like exercise and flossing. People think they do them a lot more than they actually do,
so when people ask me about a problem they are having and tell me they do water changes
every week, it’s a little improbable. Why don’t you go ahead and do another one right
now and see if you still have issues. Number two… don’t dose any chemical you
aren’t actively testing for. I get this question all the time. Should I be dosing
blank chemical? I don’t know? Did you test your water and was it low? Blindly adding
chemicals to a tank is unwise. If you are not testing for it, don’t add it. Just do
a water change. water change. Ok, I hope these tips were helpful to you
guys. Until next time, happy reefing.

100 thoughts on “5 Tips on How to Start a Saltwater Reef Aquarium

  1. Thank you! Your video was very helpful! I'm getting a saltwater tank soon and I'm super nervous because people say it's really hard to care for. I almost bought a 55 gallon with everything with it with corals and fish for pretty cheap but I'm definitely going to get a bigger one!

  2. I am a really experienced aquarist, I never considered the 24" x 24" lighting consideration. GREAT video.

  3. Don't understand the bad remarks and thumbs down. This is honest and absolutely good information.

  4. Getting back into the hobby and just been jumping around redoing my homework before diving back in head first. Thanks for the advice.

  5. Hardly for Beginners, you're recommending about 2k-5k start up. You can start way cheaper, and that's called a Beginner.

  6. Are saltwater aquariums in need of water changes? If so, if we have a filter and aerator, can the same water always remain?

  7. For all the people nagging about Than's advice about the 120g. Ok yes the tank isn't free initially, Duh!!!
    But you must think about long term in this hobby. Years in the hobby in fact, you buy Rocks, Corals, Fish and long term they will grow out your 30g, 55g, 60g, 75g, 90, ect. Then you say, "shit I need a bigger tank" or "I wish I could keep them nice looking Tangs". Now you need to save money again to buy a bigger tank, move your stock and equipment all over again, that you should've bought in the first place. Chemistry is definitely more stable in larger volumes and yes he's right about equipment. They have a big range of water volume capacity unless you invest in a all-in-one system that will keep smaller equipment and makes you very limited to other things. So there you go again, "I wish I would have bought a bigger tank". For the money you spend early on multiple tanks that one may buy upgrading, that 120g initial expense does become free. This is what Than is trying to say and explain. I agree 100%.

  8. The largest cost however, is the upkeep of your tank, and it costs much more to upkeep a 120 than it does a 55. It actually cost more than twice as much to upkeep for your water changes alone.

  9. This video was so helpful for me. Thanks Than. I am new to the SaltWater Hobby and Im thinking about doing a 40g setup but gonna wait until some more good deals come up. Again Thanks very informative video.

  10. Hi there great video I know what you mean with water change lol but I’m in the freshwater hobby looking to do a reef tank and I am a researcher that’s how I found your video iv subscribed aswel very good video I think I can handle a reef tank i have a beautiful high tech planted tank but can’t wait for a reef but like you said hold off I get it and I will thanks for very good info 👍🏻

  11. I know many people that started with a nano reef and upgraded every couple years. I would say you can start with any size tank and just eventually go up the chain of tanks

  12. No. I have a 55 Gallon, with just one Marineland penguin filter $30 and one LED bar $40 and a wavemaker $10. No sump, No skimmer, No reactors also just a 5G water change once a year because water changes ruin your water levels and you have to fix it right again. 2x Clownfish, 1x Yellow Tang, 1x Flame Angel, 1x Blue Damsel and lots of inverts

  13. great video, alot of useful information.

    Also has anyone ever told you you sound like you should be narrating conspiracy videos

  14. Great video! 7:35 – 9:00.. I couldn't have said it better myself. There is too much BS out there. Careful who you are taking advice from!

  15. Very good video. I'm an experienced freshwater guy who is contemplating going into saltwater. However, the cost seems steep.

  16. Hey man I like your channel and have been watching it for last 4 to 5years.

    I have tried to keep reef tanks before. Tried twice and everytime i ended up breaking my tanks.

    Here are the reasons.. i am looking for solutions.

    1. I travel a lot.. sometimes for over 2 to 3 weeks. My family members dont know anything about corals or fishes. Its even worse cause sometimes i travel with my whole family. Reason why dont get a pet dog or cat.
    I know there are some auto feeders and dozing machine available for reef tanks but the thing is I dont have much space or room for bigger tank so i can invest that much money for a tank that is not over 20 to 30gals.

    2. I am from asia, Bangladesh. Here in the summer temperature reaches over 35 to 38 if not 40. Chiller alone cost too much for such small tank and cooling fan vaporates water so fast that ato cant handle it if i get busy doing my job.

    3. Here aquarium products are crazy expensive. I gotta pay almost double for apex control systems or for radeon or kesil. Worse case scenario i dont get warranty or guarantee with it. And skimmer is a no no as it make break while shipping.

    4. Most of the corals we get here are not acclimated or disinfected. It carries pests. No frags available. Which sky rocket the prices. Luckily some lfs now sell frags but most of the time they do it wrong and cant properly give us an idea about the care.

    5. Trace elements and supplements are super expensive as well and rare to find. They dont even import all supplements and trace elements which makes the hobby harder. That's why i wanted to keep soft corals only but again. Species are unamed which isn't a good thing for me.

  17. Downvote for mediocre advice and annoying delivery. “Is it snooooooowing outside”, that’s how I talk to my dog. Water changes do not resolve everything. If you don’t find the source of the issue you’ll be changing water daily.

  18. You say water change so many times, would it be suitable to water change ever few days due to algae isssues?

  19. My wife and I are wanting to start reef aquarium with fish. We have a new 125 gallon tank. We have watched multiple videos related to starting an aquarium but are unsure which is the appropriate pump to get. Will a skimmer pump work for both or will we need a biological and a skimmer?

  20. …Did he refer to these hobbyists as "reefers"…that's hilarious…and possibly accurate for both meanings of the word.

  21. Purchasing aquatics such as tanks, equipment remain a better time to purchase in December! Especially in Florida. When Christmas time is nearing many folks will look to sell & cash out as well as purchase to begin new. Second hand equipment is a great start up source for beginners.

  22. When I started out I would listen to hobbyists and would hear all kinds of advice. The things that everyone agreed on I believed to be good info. Other things not so much, specially info that did not makes sense. How does that work in the ocean. EXP. PROTEIN skimmers and foam washing up on beach. You can see the common ground. That's how I approach the hobby. Thx for your vids.

  23. "do a water change" here i am, 2 years without a water change. I think its something from the past. You can keep a healty tank without changing your water.

  24. Good video as having to start over as my cheap filtration system went down on me and lost almost everything in the tank gonna rebuild the tank the right way this time. Hope to be buying some corals from you in the near future. Keep up the awesome work

  25. its easier in a big tank. except if you're like me and are too lazy to maintain a larger tank. we are talking more water to mix…

  26. oestophorecis is common in humans build coral reefs. Hags have it all time high and birth defect kids. Mostly because of industrial exudes.

  27. Great tips ive kept tropical fish for years im now considering salt water reef tank i no nothing doing lots reserch not rushing into it glad found this channel thankyou

  28. if i was given a 55ga and a stand and 2 kessil 130 and a 20ga tall sump already configured is it worth starting a reef tank realistically

  29. Great video! I hope to get a coral/topical fishtank in the future! I dont know anything about fish, but I expect the people in the petstore to know alot about it 🙂 And im shure there is alot of tips and how to on the net 😀 Luckely I can use all the time I need to learn about it before starting! First I need to own my own place so I can do as I please, then I need to have money for the hobby XD Its going to take a while :`D I live in Norway, so we dont have coral reefs or tropical fish in the sea here ( sadly) 🙂 I have always loved tropical reefs and fish, the life and colours ae amazing! What are that wonderful creature on 5:40 in the video? it looks like small grabby hands <3 😀 This is a dumb question, but how do you feed corals? they are a type of animal that looks like plants right? 😀

  30. Summer time deals.. I'm buying a tank on Monday from someone that is already established and set up, with canister filter and some power heads. They're even bringing it over to my house and helping me set it up and giving me a bunch of information on how they've been maintaining it. Pretty cheap as well, cheaper than the tank would have costed by itself. I'm building a sump for it though.

  31. Yes your are exactly right if I had the money from all the original things I've bought I could buy 2 tanks that big, let's just say one for sump, one for display lol

  32. Wow this channel is very informative and helpful..and my wife told me in a good way that she like your voice and she actually uses your video to fall sleep

  33. I was knee deep in reefing 25 years ago and I agree 110% with your video.
    Hardware sure made a giant leap. Falling back into reefing in 3..2..1…

  34. Thanks again for some more great information. I’m happy to say that I’m in the less than 1% of people that took your advice long ago and exercised patience before jumping in with both feet. Quitting smoking was much easier than exercising patience with reefing.

  35. "Someone who was in this hobby 15 years ago, who is just now getting into it, would have a lot of catching up to do." Haha that's me! Gees, the options and equipment just blew up!

  36. waiting and researching +1 I can't even begin to count the number of videos I watched and how many forums I joined and poured through months and months in advance. It helped IMMENSELY when I finally got a tank. Learned a ton in the year its been up too though.

  37. Hey man loved the video. I am currently working on a program that is going to predict which coral reefs are going to die first. I was able to regress an equation that predicts the surface temp of any sea location at any future time. I need to set a threshold for my program to detect when the coral reefs are dying. Around what temperature do you believe is a kill zone for coral reefs? Thank you and have a great day.

  38. I’m doing my first marine set ups now, a 48x20x20 acrylic and a 2ft cube, and although they’re my first I’ve kept big cichlids since a kid and have tons and tons of excess equipment, 13 big tanks…I thought I’d get things exactly how I want them from the start, giant deltec skimmers and a.i lighting (the only thing I ever want to change will be to upsize the tanks, hopefully that’s all I have to change, I know a 1455 deltec is overkill for a 2ft cube but plan on getting a 6x2x2 , I learned early on in the hobby that buy cheap, buy twice

  39. I think it depends if your good at what you do and confident that you can have everything in line when you setup your tank go for the biggest tank you can handle because if you’re like me you’re gonna want the bigger reef fish like tangs but if your ok with small reef fish then I’d say use a 30 or forty gallon breeder and or a 75 gallon reef ready tank

  40. And folks, this is heresy, but remember, not everyone needs a reef tank; if you are growing a family, and you have a few kiddoes to put through college, there's noting that says that you can't start out with a fish only tank…period.

  41. Number 1 tip? Buy the tank, fill it with 5 dollar bills, add gas and a match. There. I just saved you thousands of dollars. You think that's a joke?

  42. tbh, i surely would buy a 30 gallon tank. a 120 gallon tank needs more lights, a way bigger skimmer and chiller, a lot of expensive live rock and sand. Also, to my eyes atleast, a heavily stocked 30 gallon looks better than a sparsely stocked 120 gallon. my suggestion would be to buy a 30 gallon tank for a beginner.

  43. Hands down the best video I have ever come across on the subject. I can't tell you how many times I have watched this video. It's a good way to stay grounded and remember the basics. Thanks so much for making this Than 👍🤙

  44. you should always get the biggest tank you can afford otherwise you will be upgrading your tank a year after.

  45. This video is a self narration of ignorance. This guy has the most condescending voice I've ever heard on YouTube. And on top of that I learned nothing from this video. He starts speaking Aqua lingo that a person that needs 5 tips wouldn't understand. So we have to search for the 5 tips through his condescending storytelling. There's videos that are 15 minutes that taught me Far More Than This video ever did. What a waste of time

  46. It's a discipline not a television.
    A way of life some might say …
    Been doing it since 92.

    Passion is greatly rewarded with this hobby.
    Attention to details has never been so important!
    Satisfaction, when you're on top of it.
    Kinda like Everest…
    Discovery,
    always something to learn.
    Still have my old Tunze powerheads. lol

  47. Hello, I have received almost all my equipment and here are all the items I have ordered and wanted to know if there is anything I need other then these items. I am asking you as I have followed a lot of your videos now and feel as if I have some additional knowledge now then what I had a month ago. Please let me know if I will be successful in keeping and maintaining my Clowns, Maybe a Hippo Tang and Yellow Tang down the road, along with gobies, snails and shrimps. Once I know the tank is completely cycled I will start to introduce live stock one at a time by taking my time to make sure I dont hurt any of these creatures as I love them too much.
    1. SeaClear 46 Gallon Bowfront Aquarium Combo, Clear
    2. Aquatic Fundamentals Black Bowfront Aquarium Stand – for 46 Gallon Bowfront Aquariums
    3. Marineland Magniflow 220 gph Canister Filter
    4. MarineLand Precision Heater for Saltwater or Freshwater Aquariums
    5. 2 of Current USA 6004 660 GPH eFlux Accessory Wave Pump
    6. Orbit Marine IC PRO Dual LED with Bluetooth Control 36″
    7. Innovative Marine Hydro Fill Ti ATO Pump System
    8. Salinity Refractometer for Seawater and Marine Fishkeeping Aquarium 0-100 PPT with Automatic Temperature Compensation
    9. Dry Reef Rock (50 lbs)
    10. 3 bags of CaribSea Arag-Alive Hawaiian Black Aquarium Gravel, 20 lbs.
    11. SunGrow Digital pH and TDS Meter Set Highly Accurate Readings – Lightweight, Portable & Easy to Read LCD Screen – Monitor hydroponics, Aquarium, Fruit, tap Water, Pool Water – Batteries Include
    12. Marine Color 2.5 Gallon Auto Top Off Container for Aquarium Reef Tank Reservoir

    Sold by: myaquastore
    13. Seachem Ammonia Alert
    14. API (3 Pack) Crystal Bio-Chem Zorb Internal Filter Cartridges, Size 10, 2 Filters Each

    Sold by: Monster Pets
    15. Poly-Bio-Marine, Poly Filter, Fish Aquarium Filter Media Pad, 3-pack, 4" x 8"
    16. Coral Feeder SPS HPS Feeder, Long Acrylic Marine Fish and Reef Coral Aquarium Syringe Liquid Fertilizer Feeder Accurate Dispensing Spot for Coral/Anem
    17.
    Salifert Calcium (Ca) Test Kit – 50 to 100 Tests, Salifert AMPT Ammonia Test Kit, Salifert Magnesium (MG) Test Kit,
    18. Zoo Med MagClip Magnetic Suction Cups
    19. Polyp Lab Polyp-Booster 100mL and Polyplab – Professional Reef-Roids – Coral Food for Faster Growth – 120g
    20. Capetsma 9 in 1 Aquarium Test Strips, Best Kit for Water Quality Testing for Freshwater Saltwater Pool and Pond – Test pH, Nitrate, Nitrite, Carbonate

    I hope this will help me to just at least start the aquarium and then gradually change. I plan to have Zoanthids, Candy Can, ACAN, RockFlower Anemone, Green StarPolyps (I know how much you dont like these but as you suggested in one of the videos I will keep them isolated on its own rock) some mushrooms etc.. I will continue to do my research and see what and how I can improvise and grow with this hobby. I would appreciate any and all help witht this.

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