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How to Start a Saltwater Aquarium with a Coral Reef

Liven Up Your Saltwater Aquarium with a Coral Reef

A saltwater aquarium a stunning piece of living artwork. A coral reef makes it even better, capturing the beauty of one of nature’s most intricate and diverse biomes. Reef aquariums require a lot of care and aren’t for beginners, but if you’ve got some experience, the process is as rewarding as the result. Here’s a rundown of how to get your saltwater reef aquarium started.

For a more comprehensive guide to starting your own custom tank, click here.

Choosing the Right Tank

As with all aquariums, one of the most important parts of beginning a saltwater reef is Image of a saltwater-aquarium by Living Art Aquaticspicking out the tank. There are two types of aquariums, acrylic and glass. Acrylic tanks are stronger, lighter, and more resilient to fluctuations in room temperature. Glass tanks are heavier and can crack and leak, but are resistant to scratches and therefore maintain a clearer view of the underwater world over time. The choice ultimately comes down to personal preference. Either acrylic or glass will suit a saltwater reef just fine.

Keep in mind that saltwater weighs about 9lbs a gallon, so if you have a 55lb tank, that is nearly 500lbs of additional weight when full! This is not including any of the substrate, live rock, equipment, or inhabitants that all add extra weight to the tank system. Make sure the location you have chosen will be able to support the size and weight of the aquarium.

Getting the Right Equipment

For a saltwater aquarium, it’s very important to have a few essential pieces of equipment. If you’ve recently been working with freshwater aquariums, keep in mind that there are several key components that differ from freshwater tanks.

  • A protein skimmer is essential in every saltwater tank, as they serve to not only remove excess nutrients and waste from the water, but also keep the oxygen levels higher in the water.
  • Power heads are necessary in a saltwater aquarium because you want to have plenty of turbulent, flowing water. This helps to keep waste and detritus from building up on the bottom of the tank or behind rocks. It also assists in breaking down material to be skimmed out of the system.
  • Reverse osmosis water filters are very important for filling your tank at the start up and during monthly water changes. Many issues with water quality can be avoided by using pure water that has been filtered through an R.O. filter.
  • Heaters and thermometers are critical for maintaining the health of an aquatic system. You will want an ideal temperature of 77°F. This slightly cooler temperature is better for the coral in a reef aquarium.
  • The types of corals you have chosen will determine which kind of lighting you will require. In general, you will want between 5 and 10 watts per aquarium gallon. Metal halide and high output fluorescent lamps are generally used for saltwater reef aquariums. Keep in mind that the amount of heat these lights can produce might require you to install an aquarium chiller to keep water temperatures at optimum levels.
  • Testing kits are important to gauge the health and livelihood of your aquarium. Monitoring nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, magnesium, alkalinity, calcium, and phosphorus levels is key to understanding the health of your reef.
  • You might also consider including a sump, especially for larger tanks. A sump is a separate tank stored beneath your primary tank or in a different part of the house. It contains essential parts of your filtration systems such as the skimmer, heaters, and pumps, allowing you to hide them out of sight.

Substrate and Live Rock

There are many types of substrates available for saltwater aquariums, including crushed coral and live sand. However, for a reef aquarium you want to stick with live sand. Crushed coral is too dry and holds too much waste and detritus. Live sand is sand that is harvested directly from the ocean floor, and contains helpful bacteria that provide biological benefits for your reef. You’ll need at least 1lb per gallon.

Live rock may be one of the biggest investments of your saltwater reef aquarium, but it is absolutely worth it. Like live sand, live rock contains good bacteria and is the best way to improve your aquarium’s biological filtration naturally. It also provides lots of surface area for corals to attach themselves to and begin colonization. The industry standard is 2lb per gallon. You may need more or less depending on the structure you want your aquarium to have.

Selecting the Right Coral

When selecting the right coral for the reef in your saltwater aquarium, there are two mainCoral for Saltwater Aquarium factors you should consider: hardy vs. delicate and soft vs. hard.

Hardiness depends on your level of expertise. If this is your first saltwater aquarium with a coral reef, you should start with hardier corals. If you’ve taken care of coral before, you may want to experiment with more delicate corals for a bigger challenge.

The other distinction is soft and hard coral. Soft corals attach themselves to rocks. Hard corals have their own skeletons and a stony base. Which one you choose largely depends on preference, but there are differences in care. For example, hard corals need extra calcium to grow their skeletons, meaning you’ll have to add supplements to the water. Hard corals are typically harder to take care of than soft corals, but many exceptions exist.

Introducing Your Tank’s Inhabitants

Once you’ve set up your tank to this point, you will begin introducing the reef’s first inhabitants. Here’s the order you’ll want to add them in:

  • Snails and other small organisms—Algae will soon start to build up in your tank, so it’s best to get these in there early so they can begin regulating it.
  • Hardier fish—It’s good to introduce a couple of fish early on to help your bacteria cycling get going. Choose hardier specimens who will have an easier time getting used to an environment that isn’t fully set up yet.
  • Hardier corals—Same as the fish, you’ll want to introduce the hardier ones first, as they’ll have better chances than more delicate species at this early stage.
  • More delicate fish and corals—Finally, once the ecosystem has stabilized, you can begin adding those fancy delicate species that you’ve been waiting for.

Maintaining Your Saltwater Aquarium and its Ecosystem

All aquariums require regular maintenance, but corals are some of the hardest species of marine life to care for. That’s why a saltwater aquarium with a coral reef needs special attention.

In addition to cycling the aquarium and tracking all the parameters you’re already used to watching like pH and mineral content, you’ll also have to track the salinity (the amount of salt in the water). The salinity in a saltwater aquarium with a coral reef should be between 1.023ppm (parts per million) and 1.025ppm. If you have hard coral, you’ll also need to track the calcium content and supplement as needed.

There are other maintenance tasks that’ll need to perform as well, and they can add up. If this all makes you feel like a fish out of water, one option you can try is artificial coral. Another is to get professional help. Living Art Aquatics has been designing and maintaining custom artistic seascapes for years. We’re your go-to professionals for help maintaining a freshwater or saltwater aquarium in Crystal Lake, IL and the Chicago area. If you want expert advice or you’re looking for livestock and supplies, give us a call at (847) 737-5151. We’ll help you make a saltwater aquarium that’s truly a piece of living art.

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