Introduction

Welcome to my exhaustive saltwater aquarium setup guide, for beginners and veterans alike.  Many of my tips and tricks apply to freshwater aquariums too.  So, stick around even if you only have freshwater tank experience.  Who knows, you may even be lured over to the salty side of fish keeping.

Reefers, reefkeepers, aquarists and everyone in between will find something useful or at least amusing in this guide.  I guarantee it!

I will teach you everything that you really need to know about setting up your aquarium. I’ll be focusing on the steps before adding water and livestock.  This is the most important part of the journey and any mistakes made during this step can really come back and haunt you later.

This knowledge was acquired from countless forums, communities, books and my real-life experiences with the reefing hobby. Many guides read like a boring textbook or the marketing materials of a mega-corporation.  I hope my guide offers a better experience than most.

Please leave a comment below and to share your feedback!

Should I Drill My Tank?

Drilling a glass aquarium is a terrifying proposition for most people.  The idea of cutting through a panel of glass quickly replays memories of every piece of glass that you’ve ever broken in your life.  You aren’t alone. I was afraid to drill my own tanks for many years too.

One day, I decided to try it on a 20 gallon tank from the Petco Dollar per Gallon Sale, and do you know what happened?  It worked! It was way less scary than I had fantasized in my head too.  I wish I would have started drilling my tanks sooner.  There are many videos and articles about drilling tanks, so I will just offer my view on the process.

Supplies you will need:

  • Diamond coated hole saw
  • Standard ABS Bulkheads (Schedule 80 ones if you fancy yourself a badass?)
  • A battery powered drill is best, but a corded drill will work.
  • Scrap wood to create your hole template and for clamping
  • Woodworking clamps with PLASTIC covered jaws
  • Water to cool your bit as you cut
  • Overflow box (Optional, but recommended)

Common Bulkhead and Hole Sizes

*Always confirm the correct hole size with your bulkhead manufacture!
Bulkhead SizeMaximum Hole SizeMinimum Hole Size
1/2" Bulkhead44mm or 1.72in27mm or 1.06in
3/4" Bulkhead52mm or 2.04in34mm or 1.33in
1" Bulkhead68mm or 2.67in42mm or 1.65in
1 1/4" Bulkhead77mm or 3.05in51mm or 2.00in
1 1/2" Bulkhead86mm or 3.38in59mm or 2.32in
2" Bulkhead98mm or 3.85in72mm or 2.83in

Where Do I Start?

Figure out where you want to drill your holes.  There are pros and cons for drilling into the back of the aquarium vs the bottom.  The correct choice will depend on your budget and where you plan to install your aquarium.

Drilling the bottom looks cleaner, will allow you to install your tank closer to a wall and it may give you easier access to the plumbing depending on the size of your sump.  However, you will need a larger and more expensive overflow box that is the height of your tank.  You will also need to silicone this larger overflow to the back glass to keep it in place.  These larger boxes take up a lot of space inside your tank, but also hide all your drain fittings very neatly (pros and cons, remember?).

Drilling on the back panel allows you to use a much smaller overflow box.  Just make sure there is enough space inside the box for any strainer fittings and elbows.  You will also need an extra bulkhead gasket to fit between your overflow box and the back glass.  It’s usually a good idea to have spare gaskets on hand anyway.  If you install that spare gasket and your overflow box isn’t huge, you can usually get away without siliconing it to the back glass (YourMilageMayVary).  This also means that you will have the bulk of your plumbing behind the tank, so aren’t you glad that you painted it?

Many larger aquariums use two overflow boxes on opposite sides, but I would recommend a single large overflow in the middle of the back wall.  You can even get fancy and install your overflow box in the dead center of the aquarium if you plan on drilling from the bottom.

All this talk about overflow boxes and drain plumbing always leads to questions about which style drain is best for your aquarium.  There are many types of drains that have become popular over the years. Durso, Herbie, Stockman and the more advance Bean Animal drain are the main ones you will read about.  Drain noise levels and protection from obstructions vary from design to design. The Durso standpipe is very popular and simple to build, but that is beyond the scope of this guide.  Smaller tanks that do not call for a lot of water turnover can get away with even simpler drain designs.  For example, installing a Bean style drain on a 20-55 gallon tank would be pure madness.

I recommend you research the different designs and leave a comment if you would like me to write more about them.

Now that you have decided the placement of the holes, it’s time to drill them.

This bit of advice that will help you drill any size hole in any thickness of glass.  Plan the diameter of your hole carefully, because you will only get one chance.  I would recommend going larger than smaller whenever possible. You can reduce your plumbing, but you can never enlarge that hole in the glass after drilling it.  Larger diameters bulkheads allow for more flow, are quieter and less prone to clog up.  I installed a 1” bulkheads on my 20 gallon frag tank and I wouldn’t recommend anything smaller for a drain.

Always use the proper safety equipment and common sense when working with power tools or things like glass.  Drilling a tank is not as difficult as it sounds, but I am not responsible for any injuries or damages.  You are making the choice to drill an aquarium at your own risk.  Doesn’t everyone just love a good legal disclaimer? Now that we finish the safety lecture, let’s go over the tips.

Let's Get Drilling!

This bit of advice that will help you drill any size hole in any thickness of glass.  Plan the diameter of your hole carefully, because you will only get one chance.  I would recommend going larger than smaller whenever possible. You can reduce your plumbing, but you can never enlarge that hole in the glass after drilling it.  Larger diameters bulkheads allow for more flow, are quieter and less prone to clog up.  I installed a 1” bulkheads on my 20 gallon frag tank and I wouldn’t recommend anything smaller for a drain.

Always use the proper safety equipment and common sense when working with power tools or things like glass.  Drilling a tank is not as difficult as it sounds, but I am not responsible for any injuries or damages.  You are making the choice to drill an aquarium at your own risk.  Doesn’t everyone just love a good legal disclaimer? Now that we finish the safety lecture, let’s go over the tips.

Tips for Success

  • Confirm that your glass is not tempered. Tempered glass will shatter if you attempt to drill through it.  Some tanks may have a tempered bottom and others may have a tempered back, so check with the manufacturer and confirm.  Bonus Tip – You can use polarized glasses to detect tempered glass.  Tempered glass panels will have a noticeable pattern in them and look completely different than the normal plate glass tank panels or a window in your home.  Where can you find polarized glasses?  High-end sunglasses are usually polarized. You can also use the disposable 3D glasses from the movie theater.  When in doubt, always check with your aquarium manufacturer, better to make a phone call than shatter your tank.
  • ALWAYS USE A TEMPLATE! I cannot stress this enough. Many videos show people that just eyeball things and start drilling.  Your drill bit will skip around the glass and leave terrible scratches, or destroy the tank.  Take the time to cut a hole into some scrap wood and lightly clamp it to your tank. You should be using more scrap wood to protect the glass from your clamp, never clamp directly to the glass if it can be avoided.  A secure template will give you a perfect hole, exactly where you need it.
  • Do not drill too high or near a corner. Be sure that you leave enough space for the bulkhead nut to fit cleanly against the glass. Your aquarium will probably crack if you drill too close to an edge. Bulkheads that are too close to the trim it will be a nightmare to tighten.
  • Put tape under the hole you will be drilling. This tape will stop the glass slug from falling and damaging your aquarium.
  • Go slow and use less pressure than you think you need. You literally need to apply 0 pressure on the drill when you cut your hole, the weight of the drill is all you need. Focus on keeping the drill bit straight, level and wet.  You will feel the urge to push on it towards the end, but you will chip your glass if you do that!  Depending on your glass thickness it should take about 45-120 seconds of drilling if done correctly.
  • Keep the drill bit cool. Use a hose or have a helper constantly pour enough water to keep everything wet and cool.  Some people use a gasket under the template or plumbing putty to keep the water in place.  However, I would drill outdoors where you can be more liberal with the water.  You will also be making finely powered glass from cutting the hole and you really don’t want that in the living area of your home.
  • Clean up your hole. You may have tiny fragments inside the hole if you applied too much pressure or cut too fast.  As long as you didn’t crack the glass, it’s fixable!  You can carefully put the cutting bit back into the hole and use it to smooth out the hole with some grinding action.  Don’t forget to still use water and keep it cool!

That should have you drilling your aquarium with perfect holes. Leave a comment if you still want more information on how to drill your tank and I will try to make a video on it.

To Paint or Not to Paint?

Fast forward to a year after your tank has been up and running, you have spent all that time selecting equipment, livestock, and coral. You sit down to enjoy your hard work, but what do you see? The wires from your equipment, that ugly wall behind your aquarium or maybe a bunch of algae growing on the back glass.

Not covering your back glass correctly will really hurt the visual appeal of your aquarium. You invested all that time and effort to recreate a piece of the ocean. Don’t forget this vital step or you will be kicking yourself later, trust me!

I made this mistake on a tank once and deeply regretted it as time went on.  Trying to paint your aquarium’s back glass after you set it up is a terrible idea.  The fumes from the paint are strong and could endanger your animals and family. It would also be very hard to reach behind a tank that is now against a wall and you would probably drip paint all over too.  Do your painting and early and save yourself a headache later. I personally loathe this step, but you will have a great looking back glass for the life of your tank if you take the time and do it correctly.

If you decided to drill your tank I would keep the paint away from the hole.  I have heard people recommend painting close to the hole. The theory is that the paint will act as glue for the bulkhead after it cures.

Reason to Not Paint Drilled Holes

  • It is REALLY hard to remove the paint from the hole if you mess up and get it inside the tank.  You can scrape the paint away with a razor on flat glass, but not in between a freshly drilled hole.  You will need to either sand or grind it away.  I have had to do this before and it was a huge pain, so avoid it.
  • Do you really want to glue your bulkhead to the glass? It sounds great in theory, but tinkering with the simplicity of a bulkhead is normally what makes them fail. I always recommend correctly installing a bulkhead with the gasket and not over tightening it, that’s it! If it leaks, you just give it another slight turn and test again.  Glues can create channels under the gasket and cause leaks.  Over tightening almost always cracks your bulkhead or worse, your glass.

I won’t reinvent the wheel with a tutorial about how to paint your glass.  BRS Tv has a very good video on the topic that you should watch.

Additional Advice on BRS Paint Video

  • Clean your glass with 90%+ rubbing alcohol and make the first coat very thin. Don’t worry about coverage, your goal is to just lay down a base coat. This will provide better adhesion for the remaining coats of paint.
  • You can go really thick with the second coat. I don’t worry about getting paint on the back trim, because it will probably be hidden against a wall anyway.  The same goes for a drippy finish, no one is going to see it and I won’t tell anyone about the drips if you won’t.
  • Use a flashlight! You can use a flashlight inside the tank to see holes in your paint. Painting on glass isn’t easy and the paint tends to thin out in strange places.  I use a strong flashlight and keep touching up the paint until no light shines through.
  • Stick to black paints! Blue might sound great in your head, but black will always look the best and as a bonus, it repels algae growth.
  • Only paint the bottom of your tank if you plan to go bare bottom.  You will thank me for this tip! Leaving it unpainted will let you look under the stand and see your sand burrowing critters.  This was the only way I found a long lost pistol shrimp once, he has a tunnel system and the bottom of the tank looks like an ant farm.

There are alternatives to paint, but 99% of them will fail over time and look horrible with bubbles.  I have heard of people using a high-quality vinyl wrap that is applied like a window tint.  If you own a vinyl shop, this might work for you? I would still highly recommend sticking with basic black oil paint from Rust-Oleum, it’s much cheaper and easier to manage

The Best Reef Light for You

Surprise, surprise! Reef tanking lighting is yet another fierce battleground of debate.  Countless forum threads and other blogs will lead you down a very confusing rabbit hole of choices.  This is my attempt to set the record straight.

The Current Popular Choices

LED Reef Lights

What began as an unproven and ridiculously priced novelty, has turned into the go-to choice of lighting for almost any aquarium setup situation.  LEDs range from barebones Chinese Black Box lights to the high-end Radion series from Ecotech Marine.  These lights are energy efficient and some models provide an insane amount of configuration options.

The wireless control and vast amount of configuration settings on high-end reef LED lights can be a blessing and a curse. The ability to simulate sunrise and sunset along with clouds, storms and even the phases of the moon on a Radion XR30W G4 PRO is awe inspiring.  This all comes at a price, about $799 per unit in the case of the Radion XR30W G4 PRO.  Larger tanks will require 2, or more LED lights depending on the coral you plan to keep.  This can quickly add up to the price of a decent used car or even the down payment on a small home.  High-end LEDs are not for the faint of heart or wallet.

Thankfully, there are alternatives to the bank account busting Radion LED light.  The most economical alternative being the Chinese Black Box LED.  Black Box, CBB and a few other slang terms are tossed around the reefing community, but all refer to the generic LED fixtures coming from China.  These LED reef lights are built into, well… a black metal box.  Black Box LED lights come from numerous manufacturers, with odd sounding names.  The most famous being MarsAqua, but the weirder names are Lightimetunnel, VIPARSPECTRA, Wattshine, Philzon and you get the point…

These Chinese Black Boxes, or CBBs range from $60 to $200 and up.  The less expensive options use knobs and switches to control the color spectrum and the higher priced units have wireless options.  While the average CBB will not have a fraction of the features of a Radion LED, Black Boxes have been proven to grow coral.  I personally use them on most of my aquariums.

T5 Reef Lights

T5 might sound really high-tech, but they are similar to the normal fluorescent tube lights found in workshops or office buildings. The number 5 in the name refers to the diameter of the tube.  Fluorescent tubes are measured in eighths of an inch, so a T5 has a diameter of 5/8. That means a T8 tube would measure 8/8ths or 1 inch.

T5 bulbs are great for lighting our reef aquariums.  The smaller tube diameter allows more bulbs to be installed in a single compact fixture.  Larger bulbs, such as the T12 and T5 are more common in the freshwater side of our hobby. These larger bulbs are also fine for saltwater aquariums that do not hold any coral.  If you were wondering… Yes, a T12 tube is 12/8ths or 1.5 inches, aren’t standards great?

T-5 reef bulbs also come in a dizzying array of colors. Aquablue Special, Blue Plus, Cora Plus, Purple Plus, Actinic and many more!  Most T5 fixtures hold 4 to 6 tubes. This allows you to mix and match bulbs.  LED lights allow you to configure the color of your reef lighting with knobs or an app on your phone.  However, T5s require you to select the perfect combination of bulbs to change your lighting spectrum.

T5 fixtures were the default lighting choice when I began in the hobby.  They still provide a reliable and smooth light across your entire reef tank.  Fluorescent bulbs, like the T5 are also available in different lengths, 24”, 36”, 48” and 60” being the most common.  This is very appealing to hobbyists with longer aquariums. For example, a standard 100 gallon tank measures 48” long and would require 2-4 LED independent fixtures or a single T5 light with 4FT bulbs.

While there isn’t definitive proof, many reefers will debate that T5 bulbs provide the best coloration and health to coral.  But, it is not all rainbows and sunshine in the land of T5 fluorescent tubes.  The ability to tightly pack a large number of bulbs into a fixture is a double-edged sword.

T5 fixtures can cost substantially more to operate than their LED counterparts.  An average 48” T5 bulb will draw about 54watts of electricity per tube, while a 60″ tube draws ~80watts.  These wattage numbers can quickly add up on a larger fixture and put a real hurting on your electric bill (or hydro bill, hi Canada!).

T5 bulbs get dimmer with age.  This means, bulbs use exactly the same amount of electricity but produce less and less light over time.  Brand new T5 bulbs quickly lose intensity as they penetrate water, so lower tier coral will especially suffer as bulbs dim.   They will need to be replaced every 1 to 3 years, depending on the brand, who you ask and your level of sanity.

Metal Halide Reef Lights

These lights are quickly becoming relics of the past.  Metal Halides are similar to the bulbs found in street lights or a garage security light. Metal Halide Reef Lights can output a huge amount of light that easily penetrates into the depths of any hobbyist sized aquarium.  In the day when T5 lighting ruled the world, Metal Halides were the only real solution for lighting deep aquariums.

Unfortunately, the negatives associated with these light fixtures are numerous.  While they output lots of great quality light that your coral will love, they also out tons of heat.  These bulbs throw off so much heat that most systems running them require a chiller or extra cooling equipment.  Most MH fixtures are also very high wattage and will cost a bundle to operate. Oh yeah! Did I mention that the bulbs should be replaced every 6-12 months?

There aren’t many reasons to run Metal Halides on your reef tank.  LEDs have solved the deep tank issues with a fraction of the electricity usage.  Some purists swear by these lights and preach about the amazing coral growth rates they offer.  I have run them myself and they do grow coral VERY well, but the trade-offs are rarely worth it.

Pros & Cons of Each Light

Each reef lighting system each comes with its own set of pros and cons.  The problem with LED reef light technology is also one of its main strengths.  LEDs project an extremely tight and directional beam of light.  This is great news for anyone that has struggled to provide enough light to coral on the lower levels of a deep aquarium.  However, That also means that you will need multiple LED fixtures to fully cover larger aquariums.  Running 4 or even 6 LED reef lights is not uncommon for reefs that have advance coral.

T5 bulbs are great for blanking a reef tank with an even and dependable light that coral will love.  But, T5 reef lights have poor light penetration on deep aquariums.  The intensity of most T5 fixtures will quickly drop to unacceptable levels after 15 inches of tank depth. This can be slightly corrected with a well-engineered reflector built into a high-performance T5 fixture.  These high-end T5 reef lights may cost as much as LED lights with bells and whistles, so it is usually better to just start with LED lights.

I would forget about Metal Halides completely.  Even if someone gives you a nice looking MH fixture for free, I would say to still avoid it.  Go and read my section of the guide about running a chiller  if you have any doubt

Heating Your Aquarium

Common sense rules apply when you decide on your aquarium location.  Direct sunlight is harmful for many reasons, but it can cause overheating issues in the summer.  Likewise, installing your tank directly over a heating or cooling vent should be avoided.  Keeping your aquarium in an unheated location, like a basement or garage will drastically increase your electric bill while heating your tank.

External Temperature Controllers

You really need to invest in an external heater controller. It’s like hiring a bodyguard for the critters in your aquarium.  Some are better at their job than others, but having one is always safer than having no protection at all.

Inkbird makes a few different models of affordable controllers.  I run the Inkbird Itc-308 on a few of my own tanks with good results.  I like the Inkbird Itc-308 because it controls your heater and has an additional socket to control a cooling fan.  The Finnex HC-0810M is a slightly higher quality controller for bit more money, but it will only control your heater.  There are many other options, but either of those controllers will be a great starting point when setting up a new aquarium.

Important: It doesn’t matter if buy the Inkbird, Finnex or a multi-thousand dollar Apex reef controller.  The accuracy of your temperature probe will drift with age!  The Inkbird Itc-308 and most controllers have a setting in their menu for a temperature offset value to correct this issue.  How will you know if your probe is drifting? Use a backup thermometer to test your water temp as part of your maintenance routine or when you feed your fish.

You can use something simple like these classic glass floating ones or maybe a Thomas Certified Traceable Digital Thermometer  if you want to be fancy. Thermometers that are NIST approved or otherwise certified for accuracy are great for anyone looking to take the guessing out of their aquarium temperature.

Just make sure you avoid those horrible black plastic clone digital thermometers, like these here .  Those worthless hunks of plastic are sold under 101 different brands and are all terrible.  I once put 5 of them into the same tank and not a single one read even close to the true water temp.  I don’t trust the thermometers that stick on the outside of the tank either.  Stick with the classic glass and mercury or certified digital units.

Aquarium Heaters

Depending on how cold the room is, you want a heater between 3 watts to 5 watts per gallon of water.  Oversizing your aquarium heater is rarely a good idea because it might heat the water too quickly and shock your livestock from temperature fluctuations.

I don’t care which brand heater you purchased or how much it cost. ALL AQUARIUM HEATERS WILL FAIL WITH TIME! Read that last sentence again, it will save you a lot of money in dead coral and fish when your heater fails and cooks your water.

Aquarium heaters are one of the most destructive and failure prone pieces of equipment in your system. The most obvious heater failure is when it turns on and gets stuck. This will turn your livestock into a very expensive stew.  But, what about if the watertight seal on the heater fails?  Water can seep inside the heater and cause harmful metals from the internal electronics to leach into your water.  Copper is deadly to coral, crabs snails, shrimp, and other invertebrates.  Worst of all, you may never even notice your heater has a damaged seal until your tank begins to suffer or you send away for an I.C.P water quality test.

I recommend the Finnex HMA Titanium series heaters.  These Finnex heaters are literally a bar of pure titanium that generates heat when electricity is applied and nothing more.  This means there are no toxic metals from internal electronics that can pollute your water over time.  Many Finnex fish tank heaters come with a very limited external controller.  I would still advise using a dedicated temperature controller, even if your heater comes with a basic one for free.  If you set an Inkbird Itc-308 controller slightly higher than the included Finnex HMA controller, it will act as a secondary safety device to protect your tank from cooking.

 

If you are still interested in a traditional glass heater, Eheim has a solid reputation.  The Eheim Jager 250W TruTemp Submersible Heater is a great starting point for medium sized aquariums. You are more than welcome to try your luck with other bargain basement brands of glass heaters.

I’m guilty of using dirt cheap heaters in a pinch.  I have used the ViaAqua 300-Watt before and it cost a whopping $15 shipped to my door via Amazon prime.  It never took in any water during the few months that it was in service, but the internal thermometer did fail in the on position after 5 weeks of use.  Thankfully, it was hooked up to one of my Inkbird Itc-308 controllers, so no critters were boiled alive because I was being a cheapskate.

Cooling Your Aquarium

So I covered heaters, heater controllers and the perils of cheap equipment to death, but what about cooling?  I live in New England, so heating is a much bigger concern than cooling when it comes to my many aquariums. However, I sometimes need to cool my tanks when summer tosses a heatwave in my direction.

Do You Need Occasional Cooling?

If you live in a climate similar to mine, you probably only need to worry about cooling your aquarium 1-4 weeks each year.  That is great news! Your two main options for temperature control are going to be either frozen bottles of ice or a fan.  You read that right, I just said a cooling fan… for fish!

Frozen bottles of water can work for smaller tanks, but you have no control over how slowly or quickly they will cool your water. They also have a terrible habit or thawing completely and needing to be replaced the second you fall asleep or leave the house.  Wild temperature swings from the frozen bottle method will probably stress out your animals more than the slightly warmer water.  Most importantly, never add straight ice to your aquarium. Ice will throw your water chemistry off as well as destroy equipment.  No! That fancy powerhead does not have a crushed ice setting for margaritas on its control box.

Keep a fan around for your cooling needs.  There are specific fans made for aquariums, like the IPETTIE Aquarium Cooling Fan System.  These fans will screw onto the rim of your display tank, or sump and blow air across the water.  Fans work extremely well and can easily cool my 200ish gallon system enough to survive the summer with using any ice.

If you are on a tight budget or did not think to order a purpose made Aquarium fan in time, there is still hope.  I have used a standard house fan to cool a tank with great success and you can too! You can blow the air from the fan across the top of your tank, but it works best if you blow the air directly into the water.  If you attempt to blow the air straight into the tank, do not let it fall into the water!  That has definitely never happened to me before, and I am surely not speaking from personal experience… GFCI outlets can save lives if a DIY attempt does not turn out as planned, so be safe out there.

Running a fan on your aquarium is a form of evaporative cooling.  It is highly effective, but as the name implies, it will cause your water to evaporate faster.  You must top off the freshwater more frequently to avoid salinity spikes. It is also a good idea to monitor the humidity in the room to prevent unlikely, but possible issues with mold.

Now you have this super effective cooling fan for the next heatwave, but how do you stop it from being too effective? Your fan will probably cool the water to the point that your heater will turn on and who wants that?  It’s like making your air conditioner fight your space heater in a 12 round, bare-knuckle brawl.

This why I love a 2 stage controller, like the Inkbird Itc-308.  Plug your fan into the cooling side of the controller and you are good for the whole year.  The Itc-308 even has two separate alarms for high and low water temperatures.

If you do not have a 2 stage controller or a spare heater controller (keeping spares is always a good idea!) you can use a lighting timer.  Turning your fan on for X hours and off for Y hours is a very crude method of control, but is better than nothing.

No matter what fan solution you go with, watch out for salt creep.  Your fan will be close to the water and will get the occasional spray of saltwater. The salt will build up and as saltwater is a great conductor of electricity, it can be a shock hazard.  Getting electrocuted is never fun.  Assuming your fan has a ground prong on the plug, a GFCI outlet is always a good idea.  Make sure to inspect and clean your fan as needed, this heat should only last for a few days at a time anyway.

Do You Need Constant Cooling?

Living in a hot climate means you will be lowering your electricity usage and equipment cost for heating your tank, but cooling becomes must harder.  Frozen water bottles are out of the question unless you need a tiny boost to your existing cooling system during a terrible heat wave.

My Combo Method (The Easy way)

Your best and most cost-effective option will almost always be to air condition the entire room to a more manageable temperature.  Keep in mind that glass is a pretty good insulator, so it will take hours for your air conditioner cooled room to lower the temperature inside your aquarium.  This is where the cooling fan comes back into the game!

Your goal is to keep the air temperature at least in the low 80’s or below ~27C for my friends that live outside of the USA.  By keeping the air temperature in a useable range and using your fan to by-pass the insulating properties of the glass, you will keep your tank nice and cool.  Be sure to use a Temperature controller with your fan, because you don’t want your tank to cool off too much.  Your critters are cold blooded and need stable water temperatures to regulate their metabolism. I am fairly positive they do not make a winter coat that fits a clownfish or shrimp, so cool with care.

The Aquarium Chiller Saga

Abandon hope all ye who enter here

Most people will recommend purchasing a chiller to cool your aquarium.  In my experience, this is the wrong choice almost every time.  A chiller is like an air conditioner, but for water. That means it outputs massive amounts of heat from the compressor.  The chiller is cooling the water and then dumping waste heat directly into the room. This is always going to happen unless your chiller is far away from your tank or outdoors. Installing a chiller far away from your tank will create its own set of problems and isn’t a common scenario. Why would you pay for the electricity to cool your water while the exhaust heats it right back up again?

If everything that I just told you did not sway you from the path of purchasing a chiller, there is one more thing to know.  Don’t run your tank water through the chiller! Yes, a chiller is made to cool water that passes through it, but cleaning the chiller’s internals is a nightmare. Algae, brown nutrient sludge and worse will grow inside the chiller’s cooling block. You will need to purchase a stainless steel immersion coil.  These coils are commonly used in brewing beer and referred to as a wort chiller in that hobby.  You must take great care to purchase a coil that is 100% stainless steel, because any copper or brass fitting may contaminate your water.  Here is an example of a coil that should be safe for aquarium use.

Once you have your reef safe stainless steel immersion coil and your chiller, you will need a water reservoir full of RO or distilled water. You want something that holds a minimum of 5 gallons, but anything that will fit a small pump and your return hoses should work.  Make sure you keep it topped off and cleaned because you will be blowing up a lot of expensive equipment if ever you let your cooling reservoir run dry.

Avoid using tap water, because it will quickly go bad and smell terrible. Tap water will also leave a nasty crust of mineral deposit on your chiller rig, and lord help you if you try to use untreated water from a well. Don’t get any bright ideas about adding chlorine or other additives in an attempt to stop your chiller’s reservoir water from going sour.  One small leak and you will have nuked your entire aquarium… Just remember how I warned you about the nightmare of chillers while you are changing your chiller water as needed to keep it fresh.

I will not even begin to cover the subject of calibrating the temperature setting for your chiller.  You need to remember that whatever the chiller is set at will be the temperature of your chiller reservoir, but not your aquarium.  This means you will have to find the magic number that allows the coil to be cold enough to cool your aquarium’s water correctly.  Chillers do not enjoy being flipped on and off quickly with a standard temperature controller, so be sure the one you use has a compressor delay setting.  Share your chiller horror stories in the comment section and good luck!

For anyone reading this and wondering, I am not just spouting off blind hatred against chillers. I own a Hydrofarm Active Aqua Chiller, 1/10 HP and have personally dealt with every issue I just shared with you and more.  If you have a rare situation where a chillier makes sense, I would recommend that Hydrofarm chiller unit for aquariums under 200 gallons that don’t have a large amount of hot lighting. But, I hope I have talked enough sense into you and you will choose a better way to cool your tank.

Powerheads, Wave Makers and Flow

The amount of flow needed for a successful reef tank is a highly debated topic.  There is no magic GPH (Gallons Per Hour) number when it comes to flow because it depends on your aquarium size and the needs of your livestock or coral.  Flow is mainly generated by your powerheads and your return pump if you are running a sump for your filtration and equipment.

Your return pump is the heart of your system if it includes a sump.  The return pump is responsible for transporting water that has been heated and processed by the filtration in your sump.  If this pump fails, the water quality of your display tank will quickly falter.  This is why selecting a high quality and correctly sized return pump is vital.

What is the optimal turnover rate?  The old school rule was always 10X. That means if you have a 100 gallon aquarium you want a 1000GPH return pump.  This is a very outdated way of thinking and became popular long before all the advancements in powerhead technology came into our hobby.

A much better strategy is to purchase a return pump that turns your water over enough to keep the temperature in your display tank and sump equalized.  Stop following an ancient rule that will have you spending 100’s of extra dollars on an oversized return pump to increase your flow rate.  Instead, focus on using powerheads to give you more control over your flow rate and flow patterns.  Your return pump’s GPH rating should be somewhere between 3x-6x the size of your total water volume.  Don’t forget to account for your plumbing and how that affects the GPH rating of a pump. Remember, the rating of a pump is usually measured at 0ft head height.  This means that the true GPH will always be lower after it is connected to your plumbing. Always read the manufacturer’s specification.

So powerheads should make up most of your flow, but how many do you need? The most common configuration is two powerheads on opposite ends of your aquarium that point in the general direction of each other.

Things to Consider While Planning the Flow of Your Tank

  • Will you have sand or go bare bottom? High flow will probably create sandstorms or leave holes all around your sand bed. It is awesome that you have the biggest and best powerhead money can buy, but you will be bummed out if you can only run them at 5% speed before blowing sand everywhere.
  • Will you be keeping coral? If so, which kind of coral? If you plan to only keep fish then you can make do with much slower flow.  However, you will need to plan your flow much better if you want to keep coral.  Most beginner coral will not require or tolerate extreme flow, but more advanced coral like SPS is a different story.  Basically, the name of any coral that ends in “Pora” will require lots of flow to stay happy.
  • How much rock will you use for your aquascape? The flow patterns and the number of powerheads required will drastically change based on the rockwork. Huge piles of rock will create dead spots that require extra powerheads to overcome.  Sparse aquascapes can get away with less flow because they have fewer obstructions to trap detritus and waste.

There is one last decision to make after answering those questions and figuring your return pump GPH.

AC or DC pump and powerheads?

For simplicity, I will be using the term pump to refer to return pumps and powerheads from this point forward.

AC pumps and powerheads plug directly into your 110volts or 220volt wall socket, depending on where you live.  These are older style pumps that usually cost less than their DC powered alternatives.  However, there are many reasons to avoid using AC equipment in your aquarium whenever possible. The most obvious issue is the potential danger of plugging household electricity into a glass box full of saltwater! Anyone that has ever been shocked by a faulty Hydor powerhead knows exactly what I mean…  The Hydor Koralia series powerheads were famous for shocking reefkeepers.

Things to consider with AC pumps

  • AC pumps are less energy efficient.
  • Controlling the flow or speed of AC pumps is either very difficult or impossible.
  • Can be dangerous and shock you.

DC pumps jumped in the spotlight and have been taking over the scene ever since.  These pumps are very similar to the older AC pumps, but they have an external DC power supply.  DC pumps normally use a much lower 12volt or 24volts.  These pumps were expensive when they first arrived on the market, but the prices have been steadily dropping.  I highly recommend buying DC pumps to anyone looking for new equipment.

Things to consider with DC pumps

  • DC pumps are very energy efficient.
  • DC pumps use an external power supply that will need to be kept safe and dry.
  • Controlling everything from flow rates to wave patterns is as simple as using your TV remote.
  • Lower DC voltage is much safer in most situations. Many pumps can even detect faults and automatically turn down for your safety.

After comparing the pros and cons of AC vs DC it is obvious that DC equipment is the future of the aquarium hobby.  There is still a place for AC equipment, such as heaters or utility pumps for your water mixing and changing, but for how long?  Are you on team AC or Team DC? Let me know in the comment section of the article.

Live rock vs Dry Rock

How Much Live Rock Do I Need?

The standard answer to this question is usually between 0.5LB and 1.5LB of live rock per gallon of water in your aquarium.  However, the true number is vastly more complicated than that old guideline. Let’s take a moment to learn about what exactly live rock is before I just start throwing out numbers and suggestions.

Live Reef Rock Serves a Few Purposes in a Reef Tank.

  • Reef rocks in your aquascape are primarily used as a home for the inhabitants of your aquarium. Your fish will hide in them at night or when stressed. Coral and algae will adhere to the rock’s surface to grow and reproduce.  There are also millions of tiny and even microscopic animals that live deep within the pores and tunnel structures inside an average chuck of rock.
  • The Algae that grows on your rockwork is a food source for fish, snails and other animals. Fish with herbivore tendencies enjoy grazing as they would in the ocean.
  • Carnivorous fish and animals enjoy hunting the small copepods, amphipods and other members of the zooplankton family that dwell in the tiniest cracks of your rocks.
  • Reef rock also acts as a biological filtration system to keep your aquarium water clean. The beneficial bacteria and other creatures inside the live reef rock eat fish waste and uneaten food before it has a chance to turn into toxic levels of ammonia and harm your pets.

Live reef rock sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Case closed. Just add as much as you can fit in the tank, add a shot glass full of saltwater and call it a day!

Your heart is in the right place, but remember when I said it wasn’t as cut and dry as 0.5LB and 1.5LB of live rock per gallon?

Different types of rock have different densities and this will really make your head hurt!

Brief Introduction to Different Types of Reef Rock

  • Fiji Live Rock is known for being very porous and lightweight. These rocks have a lot of internal surface area and are great for filtration. This also makes them fairly expensive.
  • Punkani Live Rock is a subset of rock from Fiji. It is extremely porous and lightweight, like standard Fiji rock, but with a more complex shape. It’s formed from many small branching structures inside the rock, and this gives it a unique appearance.  Punkani has always been a favorite for most reefers, but export restrictions have stopped the sale of any new supplies.
  • Tonga Branch Live Rock is a very dense and hails from the Kingdom of Tonga, in the South Pacific islands. Tonga Branch rock has a look that could almost be mistaken for driftwood or a small fossilized tree with its pronounced and large branch structure.  This rock has always been prized by reefkeepers because it allowed for creative aquascape designs.
  • Man-made Reef rocks are usually the densest type of rocks by far. These rocks are created by mixing up a recipe of concrete and arrogate sand. Recipes and density will vary greatly between different manufacturers because everyone adds their own “secret sauce” to the mix. Some companies will even paint their rocks with faux coralline algae.

There are a few other prominent types of rock that come from the Caribbean, Indonesia and even the waters of Florida.  Sadly, few of these rocks are currently for sale as of 2019. This is due to the current export restrictions and overharvesting.  I worry that going much deeper into this topic would be more of a history lesson than a useful guide.  Reef Rocks are not easily destroyed and they tend to change hands from time to time as reefers leave the hobby, so you are likely to come across some of these types of rocks in your travels.

Where were we again? Ah, yes! How much rock should you REALLY put in your new tank?  Well, now that I have explained how the density of the rock can be all over the place, I assume you are thoroughly confused.  A piece of man-made rock the size of your fist could weigh the exactly the same as a piece of Punkani that is the size of your head.  Are you starting to see how the weight per gallon rule is a little silly?

I recommend adding enough rock to make the tank visually appealing to you is the best rule to follow.  After all, you are going to be looking at it the most, right?  It is vital to provide enough rockwork for your animals to hide and feel safe.  Beyond those simple requirements for the happiness of your critters, just go nuts.

If you want to have a huge pile of rock that forms a giant wall, do that! If you want to build a series of independent island structures, that’s fine too.  I only recommend that you try to add a mix of rocks whenever possible for the best results.  If your ideal aquascape uses a ridiculously small amount of rock you can even cheat and pack some extra rock in your sump.

The Glory Days of Live Reef Rock

Selecting rock for your saltwater aquarium is another highly debated topic.  When I began in the hobby all of those years ago, live rock was king.  Live rock can quickly increase the bio-diversity of your tank and is often covered with the much sought after coralline algae.  Rock from different parts of the ocean even has different colored coralline algae. The colors can range from a deep purple to a bright red.  It was to the point where people even looked down on you for purchasing dry rock, like a peasant.

Those days are long gone! As time passed hobbyists realized that endlessly exploiting the oceans to add colorful rocks to their glass boxes of water was a terrible idea.  Aside from the conservation and moral reasons to not use live rock, there are hitchhikers too.  Increasing your aquarium’s bio-diversity with live rock has always been a gamble.  You may end up with some helpful critters, like copepods, feather dusters or sponges. However, there is also the risk that you may find something nasty that came in on your rocks, like a Gorilla Crab or the dreaded Mantis Shrimp.

Gorilla Crab: Gnarly looking little bugger. Photo by grzy

Mantis Shrimp: Cute… Until it murders everything!

There are more than a few forum threads about people watching all their fish mysteriously disappear one by one.  I recall one such thread that ended with the person breaking apart their tank in a moment of utter defeat and frustration.  They were shocked to find a single fat and happy Mantis Shrimp hiding in the rockwork!  That evil shrimp dined on over a 1,000 bucks worth of prime sushi, so I would assume it was VERY happy.

There are still some limited options for buying live rock.  I would not recommend building a reef with 100% live rock these days, mostly due to the high cost.  But, getting a fews piece from a trusted source could spice things up for a thrill seeking hobbyist.

The Rise of Dry Reef Rock

 You have decided against mortgaging your house or selling a kidney to stock your tank with live reef rock, so what now?  Dry rock to the rescue!  Dry rock is in fashion these days and widely available for a fair price too.

What exactly is dry rock?  Obviously, as the name implies, it is not wet or full of living creatures.  Most of the Dry rock available today is excavated from quarries that were once part of the ocean and home to ancient reefs.  Sometimes the dry rock you find in your LFS (Local Fish Store) comes from a retiring hobbyist that allowed their rock to die off while breaking down a tank.  It may have also started out as more valuable live rock, but did not survive the shipping process.   This was a common issue with Fiji rock because it was transported by boat and would normally spend more than a month in transit.

Dry rock does not have as many perils as live rock, but it does require some care before use.  Some new reefers will get excited and put the rock straight into their tank and add water.  This is often a terrible mistake. The dry rock contains the remains of all those microscopic creatures that once lived inside it.  All of that organic waste will start to break down once water is added to the rock and be released into your aquarium water.  The result of breaking down all this waste is most likely going to be a very nasty outbreak of algae.

This mistake is avoidable by a process called curing.  Curing rocks is a lot easier than it sounds.  Your goal is to let the organics break down in a plastic tub or spare aquarium with some heated water that you change as needed.  This allows you to remove most of the pollution that would fuel an algae outbreak before moving the rock to your aquarium.  If you do your cure process correctly you may even end up with your very own batch of freshly minted live rock!

There are many guides about curing dry rocks, so I will leave you to do some research.  Just do not boil your rock! Boiling your rocks is NEVER the right thing to do under any circumstances and can release harmful gases or even explode.  You were warned…

I have been using rocks that I ordered from Amazon, it’s sold by Nature’s Ocean and come in a 40LB box for about $45.  They have been great so far and you can see pictures of them on the Hackers’ Reef Instagram account.  I even filmed a video about cutting these rocks apart for advanced aquascape designs.  Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to finish that video, but leave me some feedback below if you are interested in me completing and publishing it.

What if I Don’t Want Much Rock and My Sump is Tiny?

 The minimalist aquascape has become really popular over the last handful of years.  Assuming that the small amounts of rock provide enough habitat for your fish, the next issue is going to stability and filtration.  Remember how the pores and internal structure of your rock provides a place for the beneficial bacteria to grow?  If you have a very limited amount of space for that bacteria to live, you might run into problems with keeping the water in your aquarium stable and clean.

You don’t have a giant sump to pile a truckload of extra rock into? No problem!

There have been many advancements in reef keeping over the years and products like the Ceramic Biomedia Plate from Marinepure.  These products act as a replacement for the huge piles of rock that were common in many reef tanks.  By using a special manufacturing process, companies have been able to create super effective structures for beneficial bacteria to grow on.  These blocks are insanely light in your hands and the 8″x8″x1″ Marinepure Block boasts a total 5,750 sq ft of internal structure that cannot be matched by any type of natural rock.

Brightwell Aquatics offers their Xport BIO products line and is another big player in the high-efficiency bio-filtration market.  Their Xport BIO Dimpled Brick is comparable to the Marinepure Plate.  Brightwell also offers their Xport media in 1/2″ Cubes. These are great and I have been using them in the overflow box and inside HOB (Hang on Back) filters to boost filtration on temporary tanks.

There is one bit of warning with these products.  All the types of substitution live rock products that I’m aware of appear to leach aluminum into the water.  Randy Holmes-Farley, the highly respected and resident Reef Chemist of the Reef2Reef forums has confirmed it.  Randy also explained that while it is confirmed that these products do leach aluminum, the jury is still out if the levels are harmful or not.

I don’t have an obscene amount of this filtration media in any of my systems and I have never noticed an issue that was traced back to elevated aluminum, but others have reported issues.  Thankfully there is a product from Two Little Fishes called MetaSorb.  MetaSorb will bind and remove dangerous heavy metals that may have leached into your water.  It binds aluminum, cadmium, copper, and too many more to list here.  If you’re worried about elevated aluminum levels or if that cheap heater failed and leached copper along with who knows what else into your water, MetaSorb will help remove it.

In conclusion, the 40LB box of Nature’s Ocean dry rock from Amazon is a great starting point.  You can then finish your aquascape with a few higher grade and more visually appealing rock if you like.  If that still is not enough rock to support your filtration needs, you should get some ultra-effective ceramic media. Lastly, keep a bag of MetaSorb from Two Little Fishes with your fish supplies if you ever run into issues with aluminum.

Buying Guide

I am in the process of building a fresh buyers guide for the new year.  Sign up for the newsletter and be the first to hear when it gets published.

Leave a Reply