My first saltwater tank - mixed reef AIO in a 40 Breeder

shorediver

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When I was a little boy I begged my parents for a fish tank. One day we went to the pet store to get one and I instantly fell in love with the blue-lit saltwater display with its little perfect bubble of ocean. Growing up in rural England in the ‘80s with four channels of TV and no money to travel, these tanks were a view into a completely impossible world. Well of course my parents didn’t have that kind of money and definitely not the interest, so I ended up with a little five gallon tank with a photo of some wet plants stuck to the back wall and some neon tetras and that was just fine, until algae choked the tank out and everything died. Water chemistry? Cleaning the tank? A filter? Unknown to me - I was seven years old, and nobody else in the house gave a crap. But I’d go back to the pet store whenever I could to look at those gorgeous reef fish.



Subsequently I’ve got my own little kids into keeping freshwater fish (purposefully not letting them see a reef tank!) and been enjoying that a lot. And yet every time I go to the aquarium or the local fish store… that actinic glow and those coral and those spectacular colorful aliens keep me mesmerized for hours every time. Then I got certified as a diver, logging hours freezing my butt off in 2’ of visibility in Long Island Sound, marveling over little sea horses, huge spider crabs, and prehistoric horseshoes. Then I did my first Carribean dives last summer. I saw a lionfish that I swear was two feet long, moray eels, an octopus - holy crap! But that wasn’t the thing that got me: it was the reef itself. The corals, the indescribable variety of morphologies: stuff that James Cameron would have rejected for Avatar for being too ridiculous to believe was right there in front of me, pulsating and feeding. Something about this environment just resonates in my brain like a drug. It’s incredible.

So I finally realized that now I'm the dad and I am interested and I have a responsible job so, dangit, it's time for me to realize that dream!

And the dream is, a 40 gallon breeder tank in my studio/office at home, set up as an all-in-one, with a mixed reef in it. I’ve given myself a year to get it established, stocked with fish and looking nice, mostly to avoid trying to rush which I know will end badly.

Below is the fruits of my research and some notes on why I made particular decisions. I found other people’s threads like this really helpful so I’m hoping this benefits even one other new member in future. I realize this is all a bit redundant for the experienced reefers here.

Here's the plan in detail:
  • 40 gallon breeder tank (roughly 36l x 18w x 16d). Why? Petco $1/gal sale. Easy sell to my wife (who is very happy that I’m doing this because I am clearly happy), and the right excuse to get started. Tank will be spray-painted black on the back wall. I’d have done that this weekend but it was 23 degrees and snowing up here.
  • No sump, no filter, no skimmer, relying on live rock and sand, water changes, and careful bio load control. (I will add an HOB refugium - a large AquaFuge - later if it becomes necessary.)
  • Starting with mostly dry base rock and dry aragonite sand.
  • But seeding those with a couple of pieces of really nice live rock from Salty Bottom Reef Company and ~20lb of their Ocean Floor live sand.
  • Shallow 1” sand bottom. I don’t have the tank depth for a deep one, although that’s what I’d like to do. In the refugium, if I add it, I’ll do a deep bed.
  • Nothing else going in the tank for some months while that all gets established. It'll be nice to watch the rocks getting colonized.
  • Then I will introduce some fish - a couple of occelaris clownfish to start. Later I’d like to add a couple more from a selection of pajama cardinals, banggai cardinals, azure damsels, or sailfin blennies. Going by a rule of 2” of fish per 10 gallons, I’m not going to be able to have all these. So I’ll figure out what’ll work later. I do really like the banggais though. Maybe I'll start with then... (By the way, captive-bred all the way for me. I'm fairly uncomfortable with the idea of harvesting pets from the wild. All my other animals are rescues and you can't spend any time diving without becoming acutely aware of how perilous the situation for ocean life actually is. There's probably a counter argument which I'd certainly listen to openly.)
  • Once the clowns are happy, start with corals. Soft coral and LPS for now. One day when I know what I’m doing, SPS - and my personal favorite: gorgonians.
I decided all this partly for space reasons - the tank will be going on a very sturdy console which doesn't have room for a sump in it - and partly for complexity. I feel that the learning curve of salt water chemistry, light control, and corals will keep me busy enough without all the tuning and other moving parts (biological and mechanical) that go into a sump system. There's always time for that in the second tank. I'm also a believer in letting natural processes do as much work as possible rather than forcing matters with engineering and chemicals. I'd like to try to follow that philosophy in my tank.

I'm fairly comfortable with budget for ongoing maintenance although the startup costs are substantial. You’ll see from my equipment list below where the money went. I was aiming for $1k to get everything up and running before adding coral and fish, but actually I’m probably going to break that a little. The little irritating ancillaries like a 30+ gallon brute can and a refractometer all add up really scarily quickly.

Equipment so far:
  • Aqueon 40 tank (Petco sale) - maybe one day it'll become a sump for something bigger.
  • Pair of Jebao RW-4 Wavemaker powerheads
  • Pair of 125w Eheim Jager heaters
  • Barracuda Glacier RO/DI system - an absolute steal at $179 from Big Al’s Pets via Amazon, though when I unpacked it the DI chamber was wet, so I’m guessing a customer return. Whatever, it works fine.
  • Red Sea test kit
  • 30 gallon Brute trash can to hold RO/DI freshwater (I’ll use this for my FW tanks too, better than the tap water they’ve had to date)
  • Couple of 5 gallon buckets and a 2 gallon pail
  • A refractometer $20 from Amazon and some calibration solution
  • I’ve also had to put in about $50 in extension cords and GFCIs
Still to obtain:
  • Lights - I love the Kessil shimmer but budgeting $350 puts me in the used market. Best fit would be 2x 160WEs. For anyone else jumping in, this is the big drawback to the 40 breeder - it’s only a 40 gallon tank, but it’s 3’ wide so you pretty much need two of any LED fixture. So it drives costs up a lot: a 60 gallon cube has 50% more water and can be lit by a single spot.
  • Alternative with the lights is to pick up a Hipargero Knight for $70 or so and live with that for a while. I feel it’s money wasted as I know what I actually want... More on lighting later.
  • Salt - tbd
  • Live rock - will come from Salty Bottom Reef Company
  • Dry rock - tbd
  • Live sand - Salty Bottom
  • Dry sand - Aragonite of some sort, maybe the Arag-Alive stuff from Amazon as it’s reasonably priced
Next steps:
  1. Leak test and clean out the tank
  2. Spray the back pane of the tank black
  3. Get RO/DI set up and making water
  4. Get the dry rock, make a nice aquascape
  5. Put the tank in position, install the powerheads and heater
  6. Fill it, get it up to salinity
  7. Add sand (dry), heater on, wait for the sand to settle out
  8. Get baseline measurements for alkalinity, pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate
  9. Get the live rock and live sand, add them
  10. Let it cycle while figuring out what to do about lights
More to come. If you made it this far, and I don’t blame you if you didn’t, then feel free to chime in with suggestions! I don't have a good idea of the order I should stock the tank in yet (fish first, then coral?), and I'd love to hear whether it's actually a good idea to use live rock. Am I asking for problems down the road - like my friend Nigel, a reefer of some decades who swears he'll never use it again after losing most of his tank to a hitchhiking mantis...
 
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shorediver

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Well, today I my RO/DI arrived. As mentioned above this was a bit of a bargain although I think it was a customer return. Naughty not to advertise it as such but it was nearly $100 off.

So I had some fun plumbing it in, fortunately I have space in my laundry room so I hung it on the wall.

I took the DI filter out, flushed it with the manual flush valve for a few minutes, shut it off off, installed the DI filter, and ran it for an hour.

My TDS after the membrane is around 3ppm; the output water is a crystal clear zero. I drank a glass in celebration and, yep, it was pretty clean. I'm on the same water supply as New York City, which sounds gross but is actually mountain water from the Catskills and is honestly pretty good. I don't filter our drinking water at home, just the stuff that goes in the icemaker. Fortunately no chloramines.

And we have nice pressure too as you can see. So here is a gripping action shot of the thing my wife described as looking like "the bomb from a Die Hard movie."

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New&no clue

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Great thread following along. I’m interest to see how it all works out without all the fancy stuff and going all natural.

I’ve used all live rock in both my tanks 75 and 30 gallons. The only hitchhiked I’ve seen from the rock is bristle worms. I think live rock is a gamble though and you have to be confident in where you are getting it from.

I like to do fish first, get them established, and the tank settled before I add corals. But I’ve seen plenty of people added them at the same time.
 
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shorediver

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Quick update as I have made some progress. My salt has arrived - I got 200 gallons worth of Instant Ocean Sea Salt. That was after quite a bit of research (there's a theme here), though price won the day in the end. I've also leak tested and cleaned the tank.

Sunday was 40 and sunny so a good enough days to spray paint the back of my tank. Of course by the time I got done with all all the family duties it was cloudy, windy, and much colder. Anyway I went ahead. I shouldn't have. Spray painting sucks in those conditions. I got drips, blowback, it took ages to dry... yuck. Anyway, got it done, and it looks good. Well, it looks good from the side of the tank that counts. It looks terrible from the back! I hate working with paint, grout, tile cement, plaster - goo is not my department. Look at those awful drips! Being the idiot I am, I forgot about gravity and put the first coat on while the tank was sitting upright. Once I realized how badly that was going I flipped the tank onto its front and it went much better. Next time I'll use sticky vinyl.

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At least I was careful to seal the tank and protect the other surfaces before starting to spray.

Once it stopped smelling of paint I moved the tank to its permanent home and placed the in-tank stuff (two powerheads and the heater). You can see the black background looks decent.
IMG_6122.jpg

I'd earlier shimmed the stand to get it level. It's two different pieces of furniture, very strong, but leveling it was fiddly. Floor is carpet over concrete, it's a poorly insulated room next to my garage that I use as an office and music studio. (I keep a number of guitars in there so I'm hoping that one side benefit of the tank is an increase in humidity which will help them in winter.) And that large picture will move to another wall too as the lights will get in the way.

Of course now there's no reason not to get it wet, so I ran a 25' hose from my RO/DI unit, flushed the membrane, and let it go:
IMG_6123.jpg


I'm beginning to see why patience is such an important part of reefing. It'll take nine hours to fill by my reckoning (assuming the cats don't eat the hose) - stupidly I started this at 5pm so I'll either have to wake up at 2am to shut it off or finish the fill tomorrow.

Once it's filled I'll turn on the heater and try out the powerheads and then start mixing in salt. I still haven't ordered any rock or sand yet.

And so I listen to it tinkling away - an exciting sound, but also an annoying one because I am still working in here and now I have to go to the bathroom.
 
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shorediver

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Alright, more progress:

- Tank is full, and water is salinificated saltified seasoned at 1.023. I'm not that worried about the exact number now as there's nothing in the tank yet (which'll change soon), more trying to see how easy it is to keep steady with evaporation.
- Heater in
- One of the Jebao RW4s failed within an hour, so that's gone back to Amazon. I won't get another one, but now looking at used Gyres (IceCap or Maxpect) or maybe an MP10.

The heater is a problem. I have one 125W Eheim in there, and it's on constantly. I've set it to 78 degrees and the water won't get above 75.9. The room it's in isn't warm, getting down to 60 at night and only really being human comfortable on the days I work in here and turn a portable oil radiator on. So I will be ordering another heater and running them both from something like this: https://www.bulkreefsupply.com/aquarium-heater-controller-bulk-reef-supply.html

So it's been good to go slowly and catch these little teething problems while there's nothing to keep alive. At the same time I'm figuring out water making and how to store and handle that side of things.

Made a quick trip to my LFS at the weekend. Pretty tanks but a very heavy markup on equipment - they wanted $300 for a Kessil A160WE which is crazy. It was good to see different kinds of lights and get some in-person advice on stocking and timing. I took my kids and they got to help feeding brine shrimp to the fish. I was really taken with a tank of inverts, watching a shrimp do its burrow-making while a goby kept undoing its work was fun. I am now really looking forward to having my CUC - something I hadn't really thought of as interesting before.

Rock ordered on Thursday from Salty Bottom Reef Co, so hoping to be able to start cycle this coming weekend. (I ordered dry rock from them because of their offer to put in a little seed piece of live rock.) Got my sand already (CaribSea Ocean Direct Live Carribean Sand which is a lovely white color and quite coarse) but I can't do anything with that until rock arrives.

Still not much closer on having lighting sorted out. My trip to the LFS convinced me Kessils are the way to go, so I know what I want at least, but setback on the heater and powerhead mean I'll have to spend more money on those things.
 
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shorediver

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Thank you! Following your build too now - curious how you're running a skimmer on your AIO, since that's something I think I'll need (will be trying something like Berlin method here too). But I'll ask that on your thread :)
 
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shorediver

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Alright! Big day. Rocks arrived from Salty Bottom Reef Company. I got 40lbs of dry rock, posing here in the kitchen sink for a rinse-off:

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Here's a pro tip - don't do this ten minutes before your significant other is due through the door, especially if the cleaning ladies have just left...

And here's the exciting part, a little bit of live rock that they threw in to help me get it started. Despite ground shipping from FL to NY, this didn't smell bad at all on opening and it was crawling with worms and things I can't begin to identify. That went straight in the tank. Maybe someone can tell me what that cool yellow worm on the lower right under the green spongey thing is?

IMG_6164.jpg


So now I'll dry off the rock and play with the scape a bit later tonight. I wanted to make two islands, one with an arch or a cave, but I've only got for big pieces so I'll either be breaking one apart or doing something different. There's like 3 or 4 bits of tiny rubble but that's not going to help a lot. I'll think on it, but right now, time to get a mop and bucket and wash the dust off the kitchen floor before I hear her car in the driveway...
 
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shorediver

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This weekend has me up and running and the cycle starting!

First up, aquascaping. I washed and dried the dry rock, fortunately without major damage to the kitchen or my marriage. Then I set about making a scape I like. The final result is below, but I ended up using the four big bits that I got and drilling two of them together. That was fun drilling if a bit messy. I used a section cut from a heavy duty plastic coat hanger as a rod to join the pieces, see it a bit below the center here. This creates a nice floating mushroom shape, which I'll show in a bit:
IMG_6198.jpg


On the other side, I always enjoy a nice swim-through on a dive so I thought I'd make one for my fish:
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So that went in the tank on Saturday. Then came rinsing the sand:
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This was a horrible job and it took hours in 40 degree weather. It never really stopped running milky white so I eventually gave up, filled another bucket with RO/DI and transferred the sand by hand. Dumped that water, rinsed out again with RO/DI, then bought it to the tank.

Despite my thinking the rinsing had gone badly, I was able to put the sand in the full tank without any storms or white-out. I used this appropriately themed cup:
IMG_6204.jpg


And see the little silver thing next to it? A piece of my hose nozzle fell off in the sand. I spotted it while I was putting the sand in the tank. Good job I found it as that'd have leached metals for ages. The sand had lots of little shells in it, was nice.

Now the tank is hardly crystal clear, but not nearly as bad as I was expecting. I put the powerhead on and flow seems decent without the sand blowing up everywhere. I'm going to get, maybe, an MP10 to replace the broken RW4 but for now I don't need to worry. The jebao is doing just fine for cycling.

The live rock piece I got is looking pretty sad and monochrome now. There's some coraline, but I haven't seen any worm buddies for a while and all that nice color from my photo in the last post has gone, replaced with nasty looking fur. So I guess it didn't like the transfer. Well, more stuff will grow.

I ordered and received a pair of Kessil A160WE lights, without the controller. These went on and they make a lovely pattern on my walls and ceiling. Yeah I know I don't need them for cycling but it's nice to be able to see what I'm doing in the tank. And yes, I know that should be nothing for the time being! Even so. Now it looks like a reef tank and then fun is only just beginning.

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And there's the scape. Swimthrough on the left, that bit of seed rock in the center looking sad, and my floating mushroom thing on the right. Another shot of that:

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There's not much mid-tank horizontal surface on the right hand side. Some deeper stuff that's slightly shadowed by the top boulder, and the rest is pretty vertical. So I may have some coral placement problems on the right hand side later on, but we'll see what happens.

Lastly I made up a batch of salt water to top off the tank. That went great until I poured it in. I'd used a scraper to mix in the bucket and accidentally scratched the plastic. Some little shavings went into the tank - I realized I've managed, like an idiot, to pollute my own mini ocean with microplastics! I got most of them out with a fish net fortunately.

There's already a bit of ammonia (0.4) probably from dead stuff on that live rock, salinity is 1.024, and pH is 8.0.

Now for some patience.
 

JumboShrimp

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I know those dinner-plate size horseshoe crabs well, @shorediver! This was my back yard for 22 years on Long Island— our property ran to the high tide line as determined by a once-every-ten-years survey. I slept many nights on that flat rock as a kid— mostly with a friend, but sometimes alone and my parents never worried— no people in sight for ten miles in either direction. And you are right... the water was cold even after the summer’s sun clear into July and August. Good memories.
 
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shorediver

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What a great back yard and a fabulous camp-out bed - how did you flatten the top?!

And in my tank, good news today. All that murk has gone, the water is crystal clear, and there are dozens of little feather duster worms popping out of the bit of live rock. Not much for them to eat. Still only a little bit of ammonia, but it's climbing.
 
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shorediver

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Cycle continues:
Sal 1.024
pH 8.2
dKH 7.5
Ammonia 0.6
Nitrite 0.2

Turns out there's a round and purple shell that opens and closes when you shine light at it in there, and those worms are doing fine too. It doesn't look very clam-like. I put about 3ml of phyto in there just so the little guys wouldn't starve completely during the cycle. Mistake? Probably. It won't be fatal.

Right now on the tank we have:

1x Jebao RW4 - on full, constant power it's created a nice gyre around the tank with a bit of surface agitation. Won't have to replace this so quickly, which I'm happy about.
2x Kessil A160we lights - hard to keep these switched off. It looks so good in the room with the waves reflecting!
1x Eheim 125W heater - wasn't thrilled with this as the thermostat seems to have no effect on what it does. It comes on whenever it wants to without any relation to the temperature in the tank, far as I can tell. I'll probably pull it and use it for saltwater storage or put it on a controller as a backup
1x Hygger 200W titanium heater on a controller

And I'll be adding a Tunze 9004 skimmer (the surface is filthy already) and an Osmolator ATO.

Meanwhile I'm helping a friend out with his Steely Dan tribute show next week, so have been hard at work learning a bunch of complicated songs. The tank I am sure has benefited from the lack of attention (beyond keeping the level topped up.)

FTS:
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You can see the surface crud easily. It's (I think) a combination of dust from the rock when I topped off recently and oily organic gunk from my hands when I was working with the rock.

There's some grassy-looking algae growing on my live rock chunk. We'll see what's up with that - might need to toothbrush it if it gets bad. Don't want to hurt my captive worms though.

And that shadow on the structure on the right is annoying me. I think I might flip that entire thing upside down, then I'd have a nice table for corals and still have my cool overhang.
 

William Robinson

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Too early to say (unstocked, cycling still) but based on what I'm seeing so far I'm almost certainly going to add an internal skimmer.
It was definitely worth a shot! I did a budget build of a 40 breeder myself except full system and including building my cabinet. I came in at $780 but it's my favorite out of my tanks.

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What is your most favorite type of reef tank?

  • SPS dominated

    Votes: 181 22.1%
  • LPS dominated

    Votes: 59 7.2%
  • Soft Coral dominated

    Votes: 29 3.5%
  • Zoa dominated

    Votes: 17 2.1%
  • Mixed Reef

    Votes: 502 61.3%
  • Fish focused

    Votes: 14 1.7%
  • Other (please explain)

    Votes: 17 2.1%

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