Reef Tank Set Up Guide: Stocking Ideas and More…

Reef Tank

The reef tank is one of the most beautiful aquatic environments you can make. From brain coral to frogspawn coral, it is hard to match the unique appearance of a reef. However, it is not the easiest tank to set up and requires a lot of attention!

In this article we will cover all the steps that are required in order to recreate a wild reef in your aquarium, including: water parameters, equipment, fish, and most importantly, coral.

What is a Reef Tank?

A reef tank is a saltwater aquarium that recreates a reef habitat from anywhere in the world.

You can also keep popular saltwater fish in this tank too.

However, they are some of the most demanding and hard-to-maintain setups out there. The difficulty surrounding keeping a reef tank has to do with how complicated it is to actually start one.

The good news is because of the marine nature of the environment, once it is set up nature will do its job and you will notice that the system stabilizes itself with almost no additional help. Of course, you will still need to keep an eye on water parameters and deal with any changes should they occur.

You should also know that reef tanks are expensive. Not only is the equipment quite expensive but also the aquarium itself. Prices for medium-sized tanks start at $150-$200 depending on the manufacturer. Also suitable fish are not that cheap and can be quite hard to find.

Also remember that you would need to invest in quality plumbing and any additional equipment. You will need to plan which kind of set up you are going for – will you be keeping fish, or is it coral-only? Knowing that will help you choose the right plumbing and equipment.

On the flip side all this hard work pays off, and you will be able to enjoy a colorful masterpiece for a very long time.

Reef ecosystems are carefully crafted natural wonders with everything working to support each other. Some animals will dedicate their entire life to supporting the cleanliness of the environment!

Stocking Ideas

The two main stocking choices for a reef tank are corals and fish. To understand it a bit more let’s look at the possible stocking ideas.


The cornerstone of any reef ecosystem is corals. Not all corals can form reefs, and not all corals are even colorful! The coloring of the corals comes from tiny organisms that live on their surface. These tiny organisms have a specific pigment that gives the coral its particular color.

So which are the best reef corals for your tank?

  • Soft Corals: Alcyonacea, from the Dendronephthya, Gorgonaria and Clavularia genera.
  • Hard Corals: Zoanthids, from the Palythoa, Favia, Turbinaria (do not confuse it with algae of the same name.) and Acropora genera.
  • Sea Anemones: Beadlet Anemone (Actinia equina), Bubble-tip Anemone (Entacmaea quadricolor) and Haddon’s Sea Anemone (Stichodactyla haddoni).

The best corals depend on whether you are choosing corals from a beauty standpoint or looking at the ease of maintenance. Some of the less demanding corals might not look as good and vice versa, so it is always better to check beforehand.

Just remember that different corals will require a different approach. Corals are living animals and need the same care and attention as your fish, so make sure to study their individual requirements beforehand.


Even though corals are important, no reef tank is complete without stunning fish. This setup allows you to keep the most iconic saltwater fish.

First in line are the all-time favorites like Clownfish and Blue Surgeonfish whose popularity stems from their appearance in cartoons. There are many other hidden gems too:

  • Foureye Butterflyfish
  • Redtail Butterflyfish
  • Raccoon Butterflyfish
  • Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish
  • French Angelfish
  • Royal Angelfish
  • Pearlscale Angelfish
  • Bicolor Angelfish

Other amazing fish include the Bicolor Blenny, Red-eye Wrasse, Banggai Cardinalfish, Saddled Puffer and Mandarinfish, which can be rightly considered some of the most beautiful fish in the world.

Popular Tank Sizes


The nano reef tank is one of the most popular setups. However, it is also the most difficult setup to pull off. It is difficult because of how hard it is to find coral that would be comfortable living within such a small volume. The majority of corals also require a decent flow, which can further complicate things.

Nano tanks are less than 10 gallons and usually 5 gallons. The dimensions of such small tanks can vary quite a bit, but in most cases aquariums will be nearly cubic, with all sides being roughly the same length. In such tanks it is better to consider smaller corals (like Candy cane) that can attach to rocks or live right on the substrate.

20 Gallon

From here things get a bit easier as 20 gallons allows for more flexibility and creativity. This aquarium is capable of hosting more demanding corals. You can play around with a lot more corals, including anemones and the hard corals we mentioned earlier in the article. You can also build more complex formations using different species of corals.

Although the choice of fish is fairly limited, you still can consider small animals like shrimps.

75 Gallon

The next step up from a 20 gallon is either a 50 or 75 gallon. We would recommend the 75 gallon as it is capable of becoming a wonderful live tank. Clownfish, Angelfish, Pufferfish and Surgeonfish can all be kept alongside unbelievably stunning corals. Many larger corals can also be kept in a tank of this size as well.

100 Gallon

The 100 gallon tank is the big daddy of reef aquariums! You can come up with all sorts of combinations in this tank and get as close as possible to recreating a wild reef in a tank this size.

Tangs, Clownfish, Surgeonfish, Mandarinfish – there are so many choices. The one huge downside, however, is how demanding this tank is in terms of space, maintenance and cost. If you are invested in both your time and money then a tank of this size will not disappoint you.

Tank Equipment

No tank is complete without high quality equipment. Reef tanks are rightfully considered one of the most demanding setups when it comes to additional equipment. In the ocean nature takes care of regulating all the water parameters and deals with any unexpected problems quickly and efficiently. It will be your job to replicate this using certain equipment. Refer to our table below to see which key equipment you will need.

Reef Tank Equipment
UV Sterilizer You can consider a UV Sterilizer as the ultimate, multifunctional shield for your aquarium. With the power of ultraviolet light it removes all unwanted organic and inorganic bodies from the tank, including bacteria, algae, and harmful microbes. Expect to pay around $150-$200 for a mid-tier sterilizer.
Sump The sump helps you to organize the space in the aquarium as well as achieve the desired parameter balance. They work by dividing the tank into multiple sections. You would basically have water constantly leaving your main display tank and entering the compartment or container. The water is pushed around the tank and helps to keep all the filters and other bulky equipment out of sight. It also helps you enhance circulation, support temperature regime and have more control over the water quality. Expect to pay as much as $600 for a sump and all of its components.
Plumbing Plumbing in a reef tank is an inseparable part of everyday maintenance. It is required for any filter, sump or anything else you may have. The good news is that it is one of the cheapest parts of the tank. Smaller parts can start from $2 to $3 and prices for larger pipes or similar components can go up to $45-$50. Make sure that you have a solid plan for the setup before you start plumbing!
Lighting Lighting is an extremely important part of any tank as it dictates biological rhythms in your aquarium. Before you buy anything you should consider the requirements of your fish and corals. Prices for reef aquarium lighting can vary quite a lot. Prices can start from $65 and can reach up to hundreds of dollars. If you are keeping a tank just for yourself there is no need to heavily invest in something like this. A normal $120 lamp will do just fine.

How to Set Up a Saltwater Reef Tank

Before setting up a reef tank you must always make sure that the species you are planning to keep together are compatible.

First you will need to find a place for your tank away from direct sunlight and where it is convenient for you. If you have an aquarium stand then install the tank on it, and you will be able to store all the necessary equipment in the compartments below.

Next you should set up the equipment and substrate. Before placing the substrate into the reef tank make sure to clean it and filter out all the broken or sharp pieces. Also do the same with rocks and make sure that they are smooth and will not hurt your pets.

When filling the tank with water double check it meets the parameter requirements which we will discuss below. Now you can turn on your equipment and cycle the tank for around 6 to 8 weeks. You can place live rock in the aquarium to speed this process up.

Watching water parameters is very important. Place your corals in the tank before the fish and let them sit for a week to two before adding any fish.


As we have already mentioned multiple times throughout the article, water parameters are what ultimately set the tone of the entire aquarium. Overlooking this can have very dire consequences.


One of the most important parameters is the temperature. What is different about the temperature regime in reef tanks as opposed to normal ones? You have to base the temperature around the corals. They are at the base of the ecosystem and are vitally important for sustainable functioning.

Generally reef aquariums would be between 76°F and 83°F. Anything outside this range already starts to affect the small organisms (zooxanthellae) living on top of the corals.


Salt is inevitably going to be involved when we discuss marine environments – it is what makes them different from freshwater tanks.

The salinity of the water can affect the stability of the relationship between the corals and their microscopic neighbors. The surface salinity of the oceans varies both geographically and seasonally, so it does not stay constant. This does not mean you need to keep the salinity dynamic in the tank though. It is better to avoid any extremes and stick to the value of 1.026 SG or 35 PPT.


The water alkalinity is the third parameter that sets the conditions in the tank. Just like the salt content or temperature, alkalinity is important to every living thing in the tank, starting from fish and invertebrates and ending with corals and different bacteria. On average the alkalinity should be in the range of 7-11 dKH.

You should not worry about that too much and just make sure that it falls in the acceptable range and monitor it often.


A bright and colorful reef tank is almost unrivalled. Not only are they beautiful but they allow you to keep plenty of fascinating saltwater fish as well as unique decorations.

Seeing how the barren landscape becomes filled with pulsating color, breathing life into the sand and cold glass is by far the most satisfying thing when it comes to setting up this tank.

There are only a few guidelines that should be kept in mind at all times. The most important one is: Do not overdo it. We understand the temptation to fill the aquarium with every sort of fish, coral, plant, rock and any other animal you can find but that will create overstocking problems.

Reef tanks are difficult to set up and require a great deal of patience. If you decide to go for it as a beginner, you will get an enormous amount of experience in no time. And for more advanced hobbyists it will still present a great challenge. Whatever your previous experience as long as you are willing to invest enough time and effort, it will pay off regardless!

Do you have a reef tank? Which coral do you keep? Let us know in the comments section below…