How to Set Up Your First Marine Reef Aquarium

Updated on August 12, 2019
TropiCoaqua profile image

A passionate aquarium enthusiast with over 35 years in this hobby, I have gone the entire distance.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
One of the marine reef aquariums recently set up. Dimensions: 48 in x 24 in x 24 in (L x W x H).The aquarium in its cabinet.
One of the marine reef aquariums recently set up. Dimensions: 48 in x 24 in x 24 in (L x W x H).
One of the marine reef aquariums recently set up. Dimensions: 48 in x 24 in x 24 in (L x W x H). | Source
The aquarium in its cabinet.
The aquarium in its cabinet. | Source

The 4 Critical Requirements for Marine Reef Fish

Marine reef fish are the most colorful of all fish, and setting up and maintaining your own marine reef aquarium will give you tremendous satisfaction and years of viewing pleasure. For most of us who have previously kept freshwater fish, keeping marine fish is the next level in terms of challenge—both for the budget and the knowledge that will be required to ensure that we meet the aquarium inhabitants' needs.

The environment in coral reefs is one of the most stable environments, and that only means that these fish have exacting requirements that must be met. Yet, having said that, the good news is that this can be easily replicated in your home aquariums. Let's understand some of the basic requirements of these beautiful creatures:

1. Temperature

The ideal temperature for all tropical marine fish is 24–25 degrees Centigrade.This can be maintained either by use of chillers or thermostats, depending on the climate in your geography. Most marine reef aquariums in tropical areas are in residences where the air-conditioning itself helps. It is, however, important that the aquarium is set up in a place where it will be away from drafts or direct sunlight, which will affect the ambient temperature.

2. pH and Alkanity

Ideal pH is 8.2 and above. This is normally achieved with the synthetic salt mix added to freshwater.

3. Light

Coral reefs develop only under specific conditions—apart from the temperature and pH, light is most important. Light must reach the coral inhabitants, as corals harbour photosynthetic, symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) which are critical for the reef's health. Metal Halide lights and T-5 lights help replicate this.

4. Water

Water has to be clear and sediment-free. This is achieved with the help of a 'sump' tank, which is a specially created filter tank which keeps the live rock and other filter media that harbour the nitro bacter. External filters can also be used in combination with the sump; however, it is not recommended to do so without the sump.

The sump custom-built for this setup was 40 in x 18 in x 15 in (L x W x H).
The sump custom-built for this setup was 40 in x 18 in x 15 in (L x W x H). | Source

Here's a Video of the Reef Tank and the Sump Setup:

How to Ensure Your Aquarium Meets the 4 Requirements

Having understood these four critical requirements, let's understand how we can achieve the same in our aquarium.

Aquarium Size

A minimum size recommended is ideally 3 ft x 2 ft x 1.5 ft ( Length x Width x Height). The bigger the size, the better it is in stabilizing water conditions.However, one can also achieve good success with smaller aquarium sizes (Nano Tanks),however it is important that Live rock is part of the main setup to stabilize the environment. Remember...the bigger the tank...the better!


This is a small aquarium tank which is placed below the main tank for filtering the water. One of the most important components of the marine aquarium,which harbors the nitrobacter and plankton which are essential for controlling the nitrogen cycle in the aquarium. These prevent the build up of ammonia & nitrates.The sump also provides additional water volume and a 'refuge' for the micro organisms & plankton to culture.

Protein Skimmer and Return Pump

A protein skimmer is a device used to remove organic compounds from the water before they break down into nitrogenous waste. Protein skimming is the only form of aquarium filtration that physically removes organic compounds before they begin to decompose, lightening the load on the biological filter and improving the water's quality.The Skimmer is usually kept in the sump itself, but can also be attached separately to the main tank. The skimmer used in this setup is a Reef Octopus skimmer.

Sea Salt Mix

For creating the ideal marine water. Numerous brands are available, my favourite is 'Red Sea'.

Live Sand and Decorations

'Coral Reef' is a good brand, supposedly the sand is from the Red Sea and is supposed to have beneficial bacteria. I usually use this in combination with crushed coral gravel for the background base, with the finer live sand in the front.


One can keep an open tank and an overhanging lighting fixture (strong lighting is essential if one plans to keep live corals and other invertebrates). A combination of Metal Halides (20000K) alongwith T-5 and Blue LED's will be best.There are a lot of options available here,especially in the new generation LED's which give max lighting and minimum water loss due to heat.

Live Fish and Anemones

These are expensive compared to Freshwater and as such one needs to budget for them separately. My advise is to build up the livestock gradually over months as it gives the aquarium time to adjust the Bio Load (apart from being lighter on the pocket as well). Avoid the temptation of adding a lot of livestock immediately in a new tank.The above setup was kept for cycling for a good 2 weeks before we added the first few fish to it (4 Blue Damsels) and then gradually added livestock over 2 months.Do note that some fish are under the endangered species list (ref CITES) and it is the responsibility of the buyer to ascertain this and not encourage the trade in such species.It is advisable that one studies the compatibility of fish and the invertebrates, before going on a buying spree.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A Three Spot Damsel in the new setup.Note that marine reef fish are extremely territorial and will not tolerate any conspecifics. Have only one of each species,unless you have adequate space for them to claim their own.Bubble Tip AnemoneA Green Carpet Anemone in the aquarium
A Three Spot Damsel in the new setup.Note that marine reef fish are extremely territorial and will not tolerate any conspecifics. Have only one of each species,unless you have adequate space for them to claim their own.
A Three Spot Damsel in the new setup.Note that marine reef fish are extremely territorial and will not tolerate any conspecifics. Have only one of each species,unless you have adequate space for them to claim their own. | Source
Bubble Tip Anemone
Bubble Tip Anemone | Source
A Green Carpet Anemone in the aquarium
A Green Carpet Anemone in the aquarium | Source

Step-by-Step Instructions for Creating Your Aquarium

Assuming that you have got all the 'ingredients' for your marine reef project ready . . . let's start putting them together to create an ideal environment for its inhabitants.

  1. Mix the synthetic salt mix with the recommended amount of water, ideally 1 Kg of salt to 30 Litres of de-chlorinated RO water. The above aquarium setup was close to 500 Litres capacity, not including approximately 100 Litres capacity in the sump and required 20 Kgs of marine salt.
  2. Check the specific gravity of the water. Specific gravity measures the salinity (amount of dissolved salts) in your aquarium water.It is important to periodically measure specific gravity on a regular basis, as this is crucial to maintain the ideal environment for your marine aquarium.You can use a hydrometer to measure specific gravity.The ideal specific gravity level for a Reef aquarium is between 1.023 and 1.025. (Also, keep in mind that when you top up the water to make up for the evaporated water, do so with clean freshwater and not with salt water. When water evaporates from the aquarium, it leaves the salts behind.)
  3. Add the substrate to the aquarium (crushed coral sand/argonite/live sand). Have the crushed coral towards the back of the aquarium to support the weight of the live rocks and other decorations, while the finer sand comes up in the front.
  4. Start placing the live rocks carefully, taking care to ensure that they are stable and suitably anchored.These rocks are heavy and in case they slip and hit against the glass, it may lead to a crack.One does get special epoxy to glue the live rock together and it is recommended that we use it.
  5. Once the live rock has been placed, slowly start adding the prepared salt water. Keep a saucer or a deep dish on the gravel and pour the water on it to avoid disturbing the gravel and clouding the water.
  6. With the water filled in and overflowing in to the sump below, fill up the sump completely before starting the return pump. Add a few live rocks to the refugium in the sump.I usually add a nitro-bacter starter mix to the sump filter media to kick start the ammonia cycle.
  7. Let the water run continuously between the aquarium and the sump continuously for at least two weeks before adding the first livestock.
  8. This also gives you time to set up the lighting and other accessories and also take care of any leakages or surprises that invariably crop up.
  9. Post two weeks, do a water test to check on critical parameters like : Salinity,Ammonia level,Nitrites,Nitrates and the pH. If everything has gone as per plan, this should be your reading - Salinity - between 1.023 - 1.025; Ammonia - 0;Nitrites - 0; Nitrates - 0;pH 8.2 -8-5
  10. Time to add your first livestock. (Note: one may choose to add a fish or two post 1 week to speed up the cycling itself, though avoid the temptation to stock a lot of fish at once.)

Final Tips on Backups and Lighting

  • Since you are investing so much in your dream marine reef project, it is advisable to have the entire system on a power backup (UPS/Invertor) to take care of any outages.
  • It will also help to have the lighting on a timer to replicate the natural day/night cycle, with the metal halides coming on towards afternoon while the T-5 lights come on during the morning and evening.
  • Having the blue LED lights on in the night replicates the moon's light, apart from giving the special effect.

Hope you found this article helpful.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • TropiCoaqua profile imageAUTHOR

      Amar Salvi 

      6 years ago from India

      Used a Hailea pump in this one. Capacity 2500 L/H

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      hi i have same aquarium size has u have i want to know which pump u have used in ur tank

    • TropiCoaqua profile imageAUTHOR

      Amar Salvi 

      6 years ago from India

      I use ADA' NA Water setup for filtering out toxins and other sediments. It does have a separate RO attachment though I haven't used one.

    • TropiCoaqua profile imageAUTHOR

      Amar Salvi 

      6 years ago from India

      The crushed coral bed is about 3 -4 inches thick and the live sand in front about 2 inches. For the refugium, I would recommend live rock.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Sorry, one other question. Do you use a RO/DI (reverse osmosis deionizer) for your water? How important is the DI part? Thanks.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks for the post. I have a couple of questions.

      1) you say that you used crushed coral in the back and live sand in the front - can you please confirm how deep (inches) the crushed coral and live sand should be. I assume it would not be a deep sand bed.

      2) what do you recommend to put in a refugium? Live Sand? Mud? Macro Algae? Live Rock?

      Thank you.


    • TropiCoaqua profile imageAUTHOR

      Amar Salvi 

      7 years ago from India

      Thanks,Mits. Appreciate your feedback.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      great one... thanks for this!

    • TropiCoaqua profile imageAUTHOR

      Amar Salvi 

      7 years ago from India

      Thanks for your feedback,Anna. Definitely encouraging.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this post to us. This will really help people on how to set up first marine reef aquarium. Keep posting!


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)