Part 3 (You can read the previous articles here: Part 1 & Part 2)

So we left off in the last discussion having talked about time and money which leaves us with these two questions about your goals and knowledge.

1. Just what do you want from this hobby and is it a realistic goal? Just a tank to look at? To grow and sell corals? To get involved in building or selling equipment? To expand your base of contacts and get involved in helping your local club?

2. How much do you know about the different kinds of marine aquarium environments and which one do you want to try?


What is it you want from this hobby of keeping a glass box full of ocean in your home? There are probably a thousand different answers. A few simple and common ones are:

1. I want the look of a reef in my home.

2. I love fish and find watching them swimming around relaxing.

3. I love the ocean (or fish, or corals, or… whatever) and I want that experience in my home.

4. I snorkel and I wanted a bit of the reef in my house.

5. I’m trying to save the reefs by growing new coral.

6. I love sharks and lion fish and want a predator tank.

7. My neighbor has one so I have to have one too!

8. Having an aquarium is great, every time the tank leaks I get to clean up a leak of X gallons of water!

Okay, so there are a lot of reasons for starting a saltwater aquarium, some of them better than others. And if the cost and consistent time requirements are not issues, then let's talk about what you want and why.

The best way I know to cover this is to explain why I started and why I’m still involved many years later. I love to snorkel and I live just four hours from the Florida Keys and great reefs. Snorkeling over a reef is like being on another planet. It’s a bit hostile, it’s a bit dangerous, it’s certainly adventurous, it’s an environment full of creatures and plants we rarely get to see, it’s fun, and… oh yeah, it’s beautiful!

For inspiration: a spectacular 55-gallon reef tank.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @Marco A. Martins ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

So, I wanted a bit of the reef in our house and my wife was okay with the idea because she loves snorkeling even more than I do! I knew I would enjoy setting it up, although I had no idea how much it would cost! I knew I’d enjoy having tropical fish swimming around, and I had no idea what else I could keep alive in it. I had absolutely no idea I could even keep live coral! So I was hooked.

And the experiences of the first few years were a mix of good and bad. I loved the aquarium but I’d have a problem and wouldn’t know where to turn to find help. I didn’t know anybody with an aquarium, I didn’t think to use the internet (remember, this is back in 2004), books helped some, and I relied on help from the people at the LFS (foolish as that sometimes proved to be).

People that work at the LFS sometimes aren’t the best solution. In fact, I hate to say this, but it’s often a lousy solution. Finally after a year or so I found a local club that was just forming and now, years later, many of my friends have aquariums and it’s easy to get answers and even personal help. So the tank has been as much an influence on my personal life as it has been about the aquarium itself. Now I have fun with friends who share the passion. We even go on weekends together to snorkel in the Keys or do beach walks at local beaches (and we do find live things on the beach that can go in our tanks).

Now I’m hooked for the long run and I’ve found a saltwater aquarium to be about at whole lot more than just keeping fish and coral in the house! Heck we even volunteer now at the Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum as Shell Ambassadors when we do beach walks on Sanibel and I’ve become a member of the Reef Squad here at Reef2Reef!

It took me three years just to get comfortable with a 30g tank and simple corals. It took another two years to understand the chemistry that goes on in a saltwater tank and get some more difficult corals to show some growth in my 75g tank. At that point I knew I wanted bigger and I while I kept my 75g tank running, I started buying for my next system. And almost everything I got was used or discounted at store closings or won at club raffles. I really only bought a big 1hp chiller (yes, that’s the chiller that 6 years later went crazy) at full price. You don’t find many 1hp chillers for sale used. And I’m not sure I would trust one even if I found it.

But by that time I was able to do some acrylic work in my sump and soon after that even to start making glass tanks. I still use my 65g shallow reef tank (2’x4’x14”) and my 25g frag tank (2’s2’s10”). I could also do my own plumbing and build my own stand to hold up 250 gallons of water (over 2100 pounds).

And some of my corals started growing so well I had to start cutting them down (fragging) and selling them on Craigslist and to members of my local club. It’s not really that hard. And it can help pay some of the bills. I even took a part-time job after I retired, answering questions at Reef2Reef and other forums for an aquarium light-fixture company. Some club members bought fixtures from me because I could get them at cost and make a small profit when I sold them.

After many years with four tanks and over 600 gallons of saltwater in the house I decided to seriously downsize. Now I have a crazy beautiful 40g cube full of zoas and Rock Flower Anemones with a 40g sump/refugium.

Your goals can be as simple as just doing a 10g aquarium with a few fish all the way to opening your own LFS! You are only limited by your imagination and your desire.

For inspiration: a beautiful "softie" reef tank.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @KevinCheninChina ©2019, All Rights Reserved.


OK, so what kind of aquarium do you want to have? You mean there’s more than one kind? Sure. You can have a fish only tank or a FOWLR (Fish Only With Live Rock). Or one with easy, soft corals like zoas, palys, mushrooms and leathers. Or a more difficult one with hard corals, some of which are hard to the touch and hard to grow… or even keep alive! Or you could do a tank with just one type of animal like gorgonian corals or just anemones or a planted tank.

Then how do you want to aquascape (or rockscape) your tank? A few small rocks, a rock island or two, a rock wall, a rock arch, if you can think of it, you can probably do it. Some reefers even do tanks with no sand but with rocks. It’s called a bare-bottom tank.

Here is where making friends in a local club comes in really handy. You can ask some of the members if they would be willing to let you see their aquariums. I promise you that nine out of 10 will be more than happy to show you what they have accomplished. You don’t think they do all that work and spend all that money just so they can look at it, do you? They are more than happy to show them off to relatives, neighbors, friends and even complete strangers. Just ask me! The few that don’t want to show off their tanks are either busy, or are having some kind of issue with their tank that they don’t want a novice like you to see!

So, while you are looking at other people’s tanks, make mental notes about which ones you like, which ones you don’t and why. Then while you’re at it, make notes about just what was it you liked or didn’t like. It can be helpful if you know before you start your own tank, what it is you want at the end. I know, I know, it’s kind of like knowing what you want to do for a living when you grow up while you’re starting your first day at middle school! Almost nobody knows! But the more you know the easier it will be.

And this plan can potentially save you a lot of money by not buying stuff you don’t need. You know the stores are full of stuff the manufacturers and retailers want you to buy, but do you need it… do you really need it? As often as not, the answer is, no you don’t. There’s a lot of ‘stuff’ you’ll need, but there’s a lot more, a whole lot more that you don’t need.

For inspiration, a beautiful mature reef tank.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @ReefNerd ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

Things to be looking at and making notes about:

How big is that tank?

Too big, too small, too long, too tall, too thick, too deep…?

What about the stand?

Fancy woodwork, simple, metal frame, specialty surface (tile, Formica, etc.), how high is the tank off the floor? How hard is it to reach over the top to work in the tank? Can you even reach the sand without getting shoulder deep in the water?

How is the LR set up?

Underwater islands of rock, a big rock wall, an arch, pillars how about a volcano? Almost anything is possible.

What’s above the tank?

A light sitting on the tank, an enclosed canopy, a light hung from the ceiling, a light on a gooseneck from behind the tank?

What’s inside the stand?

Another tank called a sump, just food and chemicals, other unidentifiable equipment? Maybe even a refugium (whatever that is)?

What fish do you like?

Tangs, angelfish, clowns, butterflyfish, wrasses…?

What corals do you like?

Zoas, softies, LPS (Large Polyp Stony), SPS (Small Polyp Stony)?

What inverts do you like?

Sea stars, feather dusters, anemones, crabs, sea cucumbers…?

What is that thing?

Skimmer, filter sock, dosing pumps, auto top off, calcium reactor, chillers, UV filter, carbon reactor, computer controllers…?

For inspiration, a mature 187-gallon reef tank.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @ReefBum ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

You get the idea, look, ask questions and learn what you can. And when you ask questions you’ll probably hear that there are a lot of things you can’t do, or don’t have to do until later in the process. That’s because most everybody wants you to start out simple, spend less money, be successful and have fun.

If you don’t know what you are doing, and you try to do too much, you will fail 9 times out of 10. Even Experienced reefers who have been doing marine tanks for many years run into occasional issues and sometimes struggle to find answers. It’s not always easy. In fact, sometimes it’s downright complicated. So don’t reach too high and I can’t stress this point strongly enough: be prepared to take your time. Really take your time. Have I started to sound like a broken record? Take your time. Keep it simple. Read more. Ask more questions, both online at forums and with members of your local club. I can’t stress strongly enough how much better things can go if you get involved with your local club and get to know at least a few of the members. How bad can they be, after all they like fish and corals, right? Oh and TAKE YOUR TIME!

There is an old saying about reef aquariums that goes like this.:

Nothing good ever happens quickly in a marine aquarium. Words to live by.

If you have questions, feel free to ask me here in the accompanying thread or send me a private message.


Note From the Editor:

This article and several future ones by the same author were originally part of several presentations made to a local aquarium club. The article is reprinted with permission from the author. Reef2Reef is grateful to the author for sharing these articles with us.


We encourage all our readers to join the Reef2Reef forum. It’s easy to register, free, and reefkeeping is much easier and more fun in a community of fellow aquarists. We pride ourselves on a warm and family-friendly forum where everyone is welcome. You will also find lots of contests and giveaways with our sponsors.


Author Profile: @Ron Reefman

@Ron Reefman has been keeping saltwater aquariums for almost 20 years. Some time ago, there was a profile of him. He lives in Florida and is happy to share his ocean and aquarium adventures with us all.

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