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If you're just getting started with a saltwater aquarium hobby, know that all the information available out there about coral reef tank setup can be kind of overwhelming. Frankly, saltwater tank setups can be time-consuming, hard to grasp and very expensive. That being said, it's also one of the most rewarding hobbies out there – looking at your little piece of the ocean full of your favorite unique coral and fish is an experience you have to feel to understand.

We, unfortunately, can't dive into every little detail you need to know about new aquarium setups; you'd be here for hours. But we can at least give you a great foundation of basics for how to set up a saltwater aquarium that keeps your sea creatures alive. No two aquarists are the same, so no two tanks will be the same.

After you read up on the basics, you'll have to continue your research to make your coral reef tank unique. Let's take a look at everything essential you need to build the perfect home for these beautiful aquatic creatures. And remember, don't get too overwhelmed – this will be fun (we promise).

What Is a Coral Reef Tank System?

We should probably give the beginners some background into what a coral reef tank system is before we go into our essential checklist. If you’re a veteran, feel free to skip to the next section.

We should probably give the beginners some background into what a coral reef tank system is before we go into our essential checklist. If you're a veteran, feel free to skip to the next section.

Simply put, a coral reef tank is the closest thing to coral reefs you find in the ocean, all contained in a glass box in your home. Pretty cool, right? But due to the size difference, your creatures have to cohabitate peacefully. With a bit of research, you'll be able to achieve a saltwater tank setup where the occupants will not only get along with one another but even form symbiotic relationships that help each other thrive. Think of the relationship between the clownfish and the anemone – we want your entire coral reef tank set up to be similar. But to experience your piece of the ocean, you'll need the right equipment to get you started.

The Essential Checklist to Raise Healthy, Unique Corals

One more important note before we get into all the equipment you'll need for the perfect coral reef tank setup: All corals have different care requirements. We cannot stress this enough – do your research on what types of coral you want for your reef tank before you start buying your equipment. Some will require moderate lighting, some require intense lighting, some barely need any flow at all, others will die without it, etc. Please research your unique coral.

The Tank

Selecting the coral reef tank you want is one of the most important decisions you'll have when deciding your saltwater tank setup. Your new tank size will depend on your budget, available space and unique coral choices. One of the best rules of thumb for coral reef tanks is that bigger is always better.

Coral reef tanks aren't cheap, but there are always affordable ways to save as much as you can from the get-go. We suggest buying the biggest reef tank you can from the start so you won't have to shell out more money when you realize how much you love the hobby. It'll pay off by giving you a higher success rate with your unique corals and more real estate when you start growing your coral collection. Bigger tanks also have the benefit of being more forgiving in the areas of water chemistry, making it less of a challenge to keep your unique corals alive when learning the ins and outs of what they prefer.

Where to Keep Your Tank

Before you purchase your new tank, you'll need to know where you're going to keep it in your home. Of course, you'll want to make sure you have enough room to work around the tank, and it's away from any doors or windows that could bring in cold drafts or direct sunlight.

The Saltwater

Coral and tropical coral reef fish are at home in saltwater, so of course, you'll need to make sure you have a good supply of it for your saltwater tank setup. There are two ways you can get saltwater for a healthy reef tank. You can either buy it directly from a local fish store or make it on your own at home. Both are good options. You just need to decide which method works best for you. For beginning aquarists or those who have small tanks, purchasing your saltwater is the quickest and easiest way.

Most local fish and pet stores will have refillable jugs that can hold 5 gallons of saltwater. Remember, water is heavy – bringing home 50 gallons of water at a time for your new aquarium might not be a feasible option. As a general rule, you'll need to perform a 10 to 20 percent water change in your coral reef tank every one to two months. This should keep the nutrient levels in the water stable and remove any excess waste products from your coral reef fish.

The Lighting

One of the most important (and expensive) pieces of equipment you'll need for your coral reef tank setup is an adequate lighting system. If you want to own a saltwater aquarium complete with fish and unique coral, you'll have to shell out some extra cash on some quality aquarium lights. Why is adequate lighting so crucial for a saltwater tank setup? Odds are, you'll be caring for a few creatures that depend on lighting as a significant source of food. Photosynthetic corals, macroalgae, and clams rely on the sun for food in their native reef environments. When your coral reef tank setup is in your home or office, a lighting system needs to replace the sun – which can be no easy task.

Once you also take your unique corals into account, you'll realize a coral reef tank system is impossible to keep without good lighting. As we have stressed, all corals are different regarding their lighting requirements. Some corals, like soft corals, only require a moderate amount of light to thrive. If you turn up the intensity too high, they'll begin to bleach and could die. LPS corals are also much more at home in low to moderate lighting, making them good tank companions with softies. Contrasting that are SPS corals which require an intense amount of light. Keeping the light too low will result in color shifting.

The Filtration

Filtration is another big necessity in your saltwater tank setup. Since most corals cannot tolerate the same levels of nitrates, phosphates and toxins your coral reef fish and inverts can take, water quality is critical. Many reef aquarists design their own protein skimmer or nitrogen cycle filtration systems using one or a combination of different filters. Three types of filtration systems are required for a perfect coral reef tank setup:

  • Mechanical filtration removes large particles from the water. You can do this with a simple sponge filter or a protein skimmer which removes free-floating waste before it decays and rests on the sand bed.
  • Biological filtration can begin once you properly cycle your tank. Beneficial bacteria in your coral reef tank will break down dangerous ammonia, converting it to nitrite and then again to less toxic nitrate. This is otherwise known as the nitrogen cycle.
  • You can achieve chemical filtration with activated carbon. Activated carbon filter media can remove organic pollutants, which you cannot clear with the other two methods.

The Flow

Aquarium water flow is an essential part of any healthy coral reef tank setup. You can create flow with powerheads – small water pumps that you'll submerge into the coral reef tank to circulate the water. Depending on the size of your tank, you might need more than one to create adequate flow. Water movement in coral reef tanks helps to keep detritus and other tank matter from settling on your coral. Sometimes, aquarium water circulation is necessary to help push food towards the coral, allowing them to feed. But again, this is different for every unique coral.

The Livestock: Coral Reef Fish, Unique Corals, Inverts & More

Once your coral reef tank has been up and running for at least six weeks you can begin to gradually add your unique corals, invertebrates and coral reef fish. It's essential to start this process slowly – you can't just add everyone in there at once. You'll need to acclimate all your livestock, as saltwater creatures are sensitive to changes in salinity and water chemistry. When you begin to add livestock to your aquarium water, you must do a slow drip acclimation in a quarantine tank, some for longer than others.

We suggest starting with tank-raised clownfish. At Pacific East Aquaculture we have a large selection of captive-bred tank-raised saltwater fish. We also have lots of inverts for sale at Pacific East Aquaculture, like snails, hermit crabs and shrimp. Inverts are amazing creatures that are perfectly at home in saltwater aquariums. Some are good for adding to the aesthetic of your coral reef tank, while others work as a tank cleanup crew. Snails, hermit crabs, feather dusters and starfish help eat harmful algae blooms, detritus and parasites.



(Great for use with leftover food cleanup and 100% reef safe)

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Tropical coral reef fish like Clownfish, Gobies and Blennies are also perfect additions to any coral reef tank. Saltwater fish can add movement and beauty to a sometimes still aquascape and are generally some of the most exciting additions aside from your coral. Coral reef fish can sometimes be highly territorial – live rock gives them ample space to hide, sleep and avoid problems with your other saltwater fish. Live rock forms the foundation of your reef aquarium or saltwater fish-only tanks.

Finally, you can begin to think about adding your coral. You're free to choose whichever unique coral you like the most, but we recommend starting with some of the "simpler" ones like mushrooms, zoanthids, polyps, leathers or other soft corals. These corals are far less demanding, requiring lower light levels and lower water quality, so beginner aquarists have a higher success rate.

Shop Pacific East Aquaculture to Start Your Perfect Coral Reef Tank Setup

Now that you know how to set up a saltwater aquarium, it's time to put your skills into action. Browse the inverts, fish and different types of coral for a reef tank on our website to find the livestock that speaks to you the most. From there, you'll be able to find all the aquarium equipment that will make your coral reef tank setup the perfect home for your new saltwater fish, coral and inverts.

Since 2000, Pacific East Aquaculture has been a state-certified and licensed coral aquaculture facility. Our passion is to grow unique corals and provide reef tank enthusiasts with superior customer service. Each of our unique corals receives a level of care unmatched in the industry, supervised by Dr. Mac, a retired board-certified veterinary pathologist with more than 45 years of experience in the field. If you have any questions, feel free to give us a call at 877-887-5224. Our expert aquarists are always available and happy to help. Or, if you want to learn more about how to set up a saltwater aquarium, check out our reef school at the top of the page with even more tips and tricks for caring for your unique coral.

Interested in something preconfigured to save you the hassle? We also offer complete Reef Retreat Kits. Check out our 13.5 Gallon Complete Reef Kit.


Watch this video to learn more about our State Licensed Coral Aquaculture Facility at Pacific East Aquaculture