A Beginners Guide to Setting Up a Nano Reef Tank



Setting Up a Nano Reef Tank
Setting Up a Nano Reef Tank

Welcome to the best hobby in the world! Having a saltwater tank can be one of the most rewarding things in life. Hopefully, this article will help you understand a little more about reef keeping and help you get started with setting up a nano reef tank.

What Kind of Saltwater Tank Do You Want?

Before you get started, you should figure out what kind of saltwater tank you want. There are two types of tanks. The first is what we call a FOWLR tank, which stands for Fish Only With Live Rock. Just as the name implies, this is a saltwater tank with fish and live rock only. With this type of tank, you don’t need expensive lighting, and care requirements are minimal. However, if you want a true reef tank with corals, fish, anemones, and all sorts of colorful stuff, you will need to dish out a few extra bucks and spend a little extra time during the week to care for it.

What Style Nano Reef Tank Do You Want?

Now that you have an idea on which type of tank you want, you should now figure out what style set up you want to go with. The three most common types of saltwater tanks are listed below.

Hang on Back Filter Style

This will be the cheapest way to set up a saltwater tank. I am not particularly a fan of this method because the tank looks bulky with a hang on back (HOB) filter, and because the filter can trap a lot of gunk inside it causing high levels of nitrates and phosphates to build up, which will result in algae outbreaks. Another reason why I don’t like this type of setup is because you lack room for carbon and other chemical filtration media that you might want to use later on to help clean the water.

If you plan on running a simple FOWLR tank for a cheap price, this type of setup is fine.

10 Gallon Saltwater Tank with Hang on Back Filter, photo by Ornesto
10 Gallon Saltwater Tank with Hang on Back Filter, photo by Ornesto

All-In-One Style

I will be biased in my next statement as I have owned all in one systems since I have started this hobby. These are the best tank setups you can get for nano reef tanks. Why? Because filtration is inside the system hidden in multiple compartments in the back of the tank. Each compartment can be utilized for different things that you choose. You can run carbon in one section, filter floss in another, bio-balls in another, skimmer in another and so on! The compartments can be utilized in many ways unlike a HOB filter. Looking at the tank, you wouldn’t even notice there was filtration compartments in the rear.

The two most common all-in-one tanks are listed below.

32 Gallon Coralife Biocube
32 Gallon Coralife Biocube

30 Gallon Nuvo Fusion
30 Gallon Nuvo Fusion

Overflow Box Style

A drilled reef tank using an overflow box is another good option. These types of tanks are used on a lot of 40 gallon breeder and larger tanks. The whole point of an overflow box is to allow filtration to go from the display tank to another tank located right underneath it (usually inside the stand). When the water falls to the bottom, the water passes through multiple compartments (skimmer section, carbon section, refugium section, etc…) and then returns back to the display tank. Most people go with these types of tanks because they like the idea of having more room in the display tank, being able to use a bigger skimmer, and the possibility of setting up a refugium with different macro algaes.

SCA 50 Gallon Starfire Glass Aquarium Complete Package

With the use of an overflow box, the tank requires a sump to go underneath. A sump is just another word used to describe a second tank that goes underneath your display tank, which is divided into multiple compartments as I mentioned above. As you can see, there are 4 compartments. Each compartment can be utilized in many different unique ways.

SCA Sump
SCA Sump

If you are wondering what a skimmer is, it’s just a machine that is elecronically powered to remove organics out of the water through the use of tiny microbubbles.

Lighting for Nano Reef Tanks

Once you choose your tank size, you’ll need to choose the right lighting for your nano reef tank. For FOWLR tanks, any T5 or LED fixture will do since you wont be keeping any corals. For reef tanks, you will want to do plenty of research on which type of lighting to go with. You can go with T5s, metal halide, or LED’s. This is not something you want to get wrong, as there are plenty of lights out there for sale that claim they are “reef capable” when they aren’t. Below is a few suggestions for LED lighting.

Lighting For the Hobbyist on a Budget

Chinese black boxes are the way to go if you are on a budget. These lights will grow corals perfectly fine.

29 Gallon Cube Tanks and Smaller

Galaxyhydro LED 165 Watt
Galaxyhydro LED 165 Watt

MarsAqua 165 Watt LED Light


For 30 Inch Long Tanks and Bigger

MarsAqua 300w LED Light
MarsAqua 300w LED Light

For larger tanks, please ask for suggestions below.

Lighting For the Hobbyist Not on a Budget

If you have the extra cash to spend on lighting, these lighting systems are going to be worth it.

AI Prime HD+
AI Prime HD+

Kessil A160WE Controllable LED
Kessil A160WE Controllable LED

AI Hydra 26 HD+
AI Hydra 26 HD+

AI Hydra 52 HD+
AI Hydra 52 HD+

Powerheads for Nano Reef Tanks

Powerheads are used to help circulate the water. I would not set up a reef tank without using one or two, depending on the size of your tank. The rule of thumb to follow is to get a powerhead that will turn your tank over at least 10x. So if you have a 30 gallon tank, you’ll want to get something like a 300+ gph powerhead. Below are a few suggestions.

Hydor Koralia 425 GPH

Jebao PP4
Jebao PP4

Adding Rocks, Sand, Water, and Fish

Now that you have the tank and equipment, it’s time to fill the tank. Before we begin, let me first start off by saying you can not fill the tank with rocks, sand, water, corals and fish on the first day. Your tank needs to cycle completely before any livestock goes into the tank. If you fail to follow this rule, I can not guarantee that your fish and corals will survive.

The idea is to put your rocks, sand, and water into the tank, wait for your tank to cycle (which is approximately 4-6 weeks) and then start adding livestock slowly. You can read how to cycle a saltwater aquarium below.


Rocks play a very important role in filtering your water through biological filtration. It’s important to know this because you don’t want to only buy 1-2 lbs for your 30 gallon tank. The rule is to buy 1 lb of rock for every gallon of water. There is no maximum limit on how much rock you can add.

Live Rock

Live rock is just rock that has been in an established system for a certain period of time to allow beneficial bacteria, organisms, and other live stuff to grow on.

If you can afford 30 lbs of liverock for your 30 gallon tank, great! If not, then no worries, you don’t really need to buy that much. You can actually buy 5 lbs of live rock and 25 lbs of dry rock. The 5 lbs of live rock will help seed your dry rock to turn it live.

Make sure you buy your live rock or have it delivered the same day you are going to be setting your tank up. Live rock out of water for a long period of time will go bad.

Dry Rock

Dry rock is rock that has no beneficial bacteria living on or in it. It is very important that you buy your dry rock from an online or fish store that specializes in selling dry rock for reef tanks. There are plenty of dry rocks out there that are not made for reef tanks. Bad dry rock can ruin your tank, so make sure you buy your dry rock from a reputable place that specializes in the reef tank hobby. Dry rock should be about 1/2 to 1/4 the price of live rock.

40 Lbs Dry Rock
40 Lbs Dry Rock


Sand is not needed in a reef tank. It is added purely for aesthetic reasons. However, if you do decide to add sand to your saltwater tank, make sure you don’t get anything too coarse that your sand sifting fish cant sift through, and not too fine that your powerheads will blow around everywhere. A good sand to get which is what I use and recommend is fiji pink.

Live sand is just like live rock in the idea of it having live organisms living in it. If you are using only dry rock, you can add live sand to help seed your rock with live organisms.


Since this is a saltwater tank, you will be needing to use premixed saltwater. You can either buy this water at your local fish store or mix it at home yourself if you have the proper equipment. If you decide to do it yourself, you’ll be needing an RO/DI unit and a good salt mix like instant ocean or reef crystals.

Along with mixed saltwater, you’ll be needing plain RO water for topping your tank off daily, so make sure to always have some on hand. As water evaporates from your tank daily, the salt stays inside the tank making your tank more salty. This is why you need to have RO water available to add back into the tank as water evaporates.

To make life easier, many people use an auto top off unit to add RO water into the tank daily so that it can be automated.

Tunze Auto Top Off Unit
Tunze Auto Top Off Unit

To keep your water at a stable salinity, you should use a refractometer to measure the amount of salt in your water. The salinity you want to keep your water at is 1.025. If you see that the salinity is lower than 1.025, add a little more saltwater. If you see that the salinity is too high, take some saltwater out, and add plain RO water back in.


Aquascaping is the best part of setting up a reef tank. With the right rocks and creative mind, you can really build something beautiful. We wrote a nice little aquascaping article which you can find in this link: nano reef tank aquascaping. If you don’t feel like reading a whole article, just remember these three things.

  1. Be careful not to scratch the glass when placing your rocks into the aquarium.
  2. Leave space between the glass and your rocks so that you can scrape algae off the glass if you need to.
  3. Place rocks into the aquarium, pile them up the way you want, then add sand. This will avoid your rocks from falling if one of your snails or fish try to dig underneath them.

Cycling a Nano Reef Tank

Once you fill your tank with rock, sand, and water, it’s time to wait for the cycle to occur. The purpose of cycling a tank is to establish a good population of different types of bacteria growth in your aquarium. Without this bacteria growth, ammonia (waste from fish) will end up hurting or killing the livestock in your tank. As you cycle your tank, your tank with go through a nitrogen cycle which involves three phases (ammonia, nitrite, nitrate). You will need a saltwater cycing test kit to monitor the levels while your tank is cycling. This will help you see when the cycling starts, at what stage the cycle is at, and when it’s over. Normally, this cycle will last anywhere from 4 – 6 weeks. If you are impatient, you can speed up the cycle by introducing live bacteria and ammonia yourself.

Saltwater Master Test Kit
Saltwater Master Test Kit

First Stage (Ammonia)

Ammonia is the first stage in the nitrogen cycle. If you are using liverock, ammonia will come naturally from dying organisms in your rock. If you are using dry rock, you will need to add ammonia yourself to the tank, along with a live bacteria solution which can be bought. Whenever I start a new tank, I always add live bacteria to help the cycling process no matter how much liverock I have. Adding the live bacteria and ammonia can also help speed up the cycle of your tank by a few weeks.

Dr. Tim's Ammonium Chloride
Dr. Tim’s Ammonium Chloride

Second Stage (Nitrite)

During the nitrite stage, ammonia eating bacteria will start to produce and grow, converting ammonia into nitrite. Your ammonia level should start to decline at this stage, as your nitrite level increases.

Third Stage (Nitrate)

During the nitrite stage, different types of nitrite eating bacteria start to grow, converting nitrites into nitrate. Similar to the ammonia and nitrite relationship, the nitrate level will start to increase as your nitrite level decreases.

Once you read that your ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels are at 0, you will know that your tank is fully cycled. Another way to tell that your cycle is almost over or has ended is if you start to see brown algae forming. This is called diatom algae. With an addition of a clean up crew (hermit crab, snails, and othr algae eaters), it should go away in a few days.

It is very important that you do not add multiple fish at the same time. You should introduce your clean up crew the first week, then one fish at a time weekly so your tank can get use to the bio load that your fish will be producing.

Adding Corals

After your tank cycles, your tank may go through some algae outbreaks for the first few months, so start with easy to care for corals first, like zoas, mushrooms, and lps corals. Then once your tank is stable, you can start adding SPS corals and other corals that are harder to care for.


Trace Elements

As you start adding corals, trace elements in the water will start to deplete slowly like calcium, magnesium, and alkalinity. It is very important to test these elements frequently to keep the levels maintained at proper numbers.

Every tank is different and may work better with higher or lower levels, but for a recommendation, try to keep Calcium at 420ppm, Alkalinity between 7-10dKh , and magnesium at 1280ppm. There are many test kits available to test these elements. Salifert is a good brand that tends to be widely used.

Salifert Test Kit
Salifert Test Kit

Water Changes

Water changes will help keep phosphates and nitrates down (reasons for algae), and will help replenish the calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium elements that deplete from the tank. When you first start out, I would do 10% water changes weekly. Then as you get the hang of things, you can do water changes bi-weekly.

If you dose calcium and alkalinity daily, you can do less water changes. But to dose calcium and alkalinity, you’ll need to get a two-part. Similiar to the auto top of unit, you can make dosing automated with the use of a dosing system.

Jebao Dosing System
Jebao Dosing System

Have any Questions on Setting up a Nano Reef Tank?

Hopefully you found this article helpful, and you now have a better idea on how to setup a nano reef tank. If you have any questions, feel free to comment or ask on the forums.

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