Beginners Guide

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So, you have decided to keep a marine aquarium. May be you have just dived in, purchased a full set up and are now trying to get your head around how you actually keep such a system. Even better would be that you are looking to set up an aquarium and are now doing the research before you buy anything. Either way, hopefully we can help you out on your journey here, step you through the basics of it all and put more quality information at your finger tips.

Most importantly, don't be intimidated by the wealth and variety of information you find when reading. In the end, it isn't actually that hard to keep a marine aquarium. What is difficult and overwhelming is the volume and conflicting information that is available. Half the battle is realising what is actual important, vast majority isn't. And hopefully this page will help you to do that.

And welcome to a fantastic hobby. Take care though, as you will find it difficult to do things in halves, it can really suck you in :-)

Quick Advice

  • Quick Words of Advice - list of important advice (in no real particular order) for the starting reef keeper.
  • Hints - various hints on all things to do with maintaining a reef aquarium.
  • FAQ - directory of frequently asked questions.
  • Myths - things that people take to be fact, but are actually incorrect in some manner.

Starting a Reef Aquarium

One part that frustrates a lot of people starting out in the marine aquarium hobby is the fact that there is a large number of ways of doing everything. Each method can be very different to the other, each person you talk to will have a different way of doing it and tell you that their way is the right way.

For a good discussion on the basics of the building of a reef tank, see this article written by Eric Borneman, The Cycle and Beyond, What to Expect.

How Much Will it Cost

At the end of the day expense will be related to aquarium size and automation of tasks. What is aimed to keep within the reef aquarium will influence what purchases are required and the overall expense, both in initial purchase price and ongoing running costs.

A successful marine aquarium is about water quality and stability of water parameters and creating an environment in there aquarium that is provided naturally in the ocean - lighting and water flow.

Primarily, salinity, pH, alkalinity and calcium will need to be maintained (which can all be achieved by regular water changes), nitrate and phosphate levels are governed by filtration and husbandry methods, temperature stability can maintained by heaters, fans, chillers and air conditioning.

What Do You Want to Keep?

The best piece of advice for anyone starting a reef aquarium is to know what you want to keep beforehand and research the requirements for them. The type of aquarium you want and the livestock that it will contain, dictates the equipment required to maintain them. Majority of people do it the other way around, get the equipment then try to fit the livestock to that, then have to spend more money getting the actual required equipment.

There are enormous free resources on the internet and RTAW Reefpedia is a great place to start. You could begin with deciding what kind of system you wish to set up. Fish and coral are not always compatible, some types of fish will eat coral polyps and you need to avoid mixing these together. By reading about some of the commonly available fish and what their needs and compatibilities are you can compile a list suitable for your system. You will also need to do some basic research on corals and develop a list of those you would like to keep. Try and give some thought to the environment you would like to recreate based on the requirements of the creatures on your list. This simple first step can save months or years of frustration and disappointment trying to keep inhabitants not suited to the conditions you’ve provided them.

Some pages to check out that will help with information on this:

At this point it would be a good idea to have a look at a number of other systems, to get a much better idea of the system you want to keep. For this, check out the RTAW Feature Tank and RTAW Tank Journal Forum.


Select a space to site the tank, somewhere structurally sound. A popular size tank is four feet (1200mm) long, two feet wide (600mm) and two feet high (600mm). It is most common to describe a tank as length x width x height, total water volume can be added if known but terms such as depth should be avoided as they are ambiguous with the actual water depth and width. Together with a sump, aquascaping and water, this size tank can easily weigh 500kg or more. If in any doubt, arrange for a builder or engineer to look at your chosen position – but first ensure you have an accurate idea of the total volume of your proposed setup!

Another site requirement is power. Lighting, heaters and pumps - most you’ll have in multiples and all need to be safely loaded onto an electrical circuit. Water and electricity are lethal together, safety switches and residual current devices, correctly installed, can save your life and should not be considered optional. An ‘average’ 4X2X2 tank setup can easily draw 1,000 Watts of power at any one time, so consider what other appliances are on the circuit. If a household circuit is designed to handle a 10 amp load and Watts = Volts X Amps, then you’ve got 2400W per circuit – if your tank is using 1,000W then that limits what else can share that circuit. Again, work out what your requirements are, add a margin for future upgrades and if in any doubt, get in a professional for advice.

At this point it should be pointed out that not all reef aquariums are 500lt plus power munching monsters. Many people keep very small marine systems called nano reefs, generaly of 75lt or less which draw very little power and can house a fascinating display, but they have their limitations and are inherently not as stable as their larger counterparts. Most reef inhabitants do not respond well to sudden change, greater water volume means any change happens more slowly.

Now you have decided what to keep, you know the requirements, including the size of the tank, we move onto the life support systems.


Sample of the arrangement of a tank, sump, protein skimmer and calcium reactor

Many people new to the marine aquarium hobby with freshwater experience feel the need to have some ability to remove solids from the system. Canister filters with layers of filtration media are often employed for this purpose. In a reef system this is not necessary, nor even recommended.

Natural filtration, or a simple system, is the recommended method in a reef system. Nature provides for the majority of your necessary filtration with live rock. Live rock and water changes are really the minimum things you need to do to keep a system happy, however many employ additional methods of filtration, some examples are:

Please note that a single aquarium may not use all of those systems but combinations of such. It's important to understand what each system does and any pros and cons before adding it to your system. See the filtration section for more.


Lighting for reef aquariums can be one of the most confusing aspects within the hobby. Even with the copious amounts of information, deciding on the right lighting for your tank can be quite hard as there is no valid answer to the "Whats the right amount of light for my system" question as there is no "right amount of light".

Symbiotic organisms like corals and some clams, as well as photosynthetic organisms such as algae, are able to acclimate and acclimatise to a wide range of light levels. This occurs naturally as light levels for a stationary coral will vary from Winter to Summer and on different areas of the same colony. Different colonies of the same species can be found at different depths and so will receive different amounts of light. In some cases one colony of a species could receive 100 times more light than another colony of the same species and both colonies survive and grow.

When planning a tank, you need to consider the corals and other organisms you want to keep and determine the amount of light that will be able to meet all their needs. Within reason, going for more light allows more flexibility than going for less light. That doesn't mean that less light doesn't work, but simply most corals can tolerate higher light and you will get faster growth rates with more light.


In tank circulation is a vital component of a balanced reef system when using live rock as the primary filtration. Fish and coral come from a dynamic environment, sometimes with great force behind the water movement. We cannot replicate that which nature creates with such abandon but we still need to provide ample movement within the captive environment. This can be achieved with a variety of pumps and needs to be factored into your initial setup. Like most things in this hobby it has its tricks, like how do you stop 20x tank circulation creating a sand storm?

Setup and Cycling

A new tank needs to go through a cycling process before adding inhabitants. Often any sand/substrate is added and the tank filled. At this point adding a prawn or something to encourage the population of bacteria into the tank is advisable. A couple of weeks later, adding some live rock to the tank is the next step. When ammonia and nitrite are undetectable, add some more live rock if required. Before adding further inhabitants a water change is recommended. Additionally, make sure all your water parameters are correct.

Some smaller species of hermit crabs make good scavengers

Evaporation Topoff

Topoff for tanks is vital, water evaporates and needs to be replaced with fresh water. Maintaining a constant water level will assist greatly in maintaining a constant level of salinity. This in turn has a major impact on the stability of the aquarium system in total.

Since evaporation only removes pure water vapour, salt and other dissolved components are left in the tank. It is therefore important to only top up evaporative losses with pure water. Replacing evaporation with salt water will result in significant increases in salinity level which will be detrimental to marine organisms. This will happen from day 1 so it needs to be planned for from the beginning.


It is best to stock a tank slowly, so the biological filtration has a chance to build up slowly, without inducing an ammonia spike. You should know what inhabitants you want at this time, and know their requirements and general compatibility. Sometimes this can require a certain stocking order, so ensure this is followed. Patience is the key.


Leaving an aquarium can be a stressful experience, even when you are supposed to be looking forward to a holiday. There are several tips and tricks discovered over the years, to make sure you come home to your aquarium in one piece. Holiday Maintenance


The recommended values for water parameters in a marine aquarium are as follows:

Power Failure

What will happen in the event of a Power Failure?


As with most hobbies, when first creating a reef aquarium, many hobbyists will encounter erroneous information and advice. Aquarium stores are not an independent source of information, and whilst some are outstanding and trustworthy, others may stand to gain financially by offering advice which encourages the unnecessary purchase of goods. The following are examples from established reefers, and are considered wasteful purchases and unnecessary to succesfully maintain an aquarium.

- Cannister Filter: In large reeftanks, where liverock and deep sand beds provide a large surface area for anaerobic denitrification, canisetr filters are deemed unnecessary. In tanks of smaller volume, which do not harbour enough live rock or sand to develop anaerobic habitat, cannister filters can serve a purpose.

- Wet-Dry Sump: Should only be considered for use with freshwater aquaria. Liverock and a natural "berlin" method of filtration is considered best practice in marine aquaria.

- UV Sterilisation: Very little benefit is gained from the use of a UV filter. Often sold to "clean" water, they provide no added benefit when compared with a well designed sump/refugium. Very little benefit is gained from the removal of water-born pathogens.

Frequently Asked Questions

There is a directory of frequently asked questions for a number of different areas that you can find here, FAQ.