When starting a reef aquarium, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the equipment and components in the marketplace today. By doing it right the first time you will be much more successful in your reefing endeavors. I’m going to outline some of the basic equipment to be successful in starting your very own ocean behind glass.

Basic Equipment for Starting a Reef Aquarium:



RO/DI Filter


Protein Skimmer

Test Kits

Powerheads/Wave makers


To start you’ll need something to put your water in. The majority of aquariums are made from either glass or acrylic. Glass is difficult to scratch while acrylic tanks can be scratched fairly easily. Acrylic tanks are also usually lighter than their glass counterparts but acrylic tanks will need more support than glass tanks. While we all know what it takes to break a piece of glass, the amount of force to break or crack acrylic is greater than glass. The deciding factor when choosing a reef tank usually comes down to shape. Most glass tanks are rectangular in shape because of the brittleness of glass. Acrylic is easily molded and formed into almost any shape that can be described. Acrylic also has less of a tendency to distort things that are behind a curve. Because of these two factors, acrylic aquariums are available in a very large number of shapes – not just rectangular.

If you plan on running a sump (please see below) you will need to either need an overflow box, purchase a Reef Ready tank, or drill your tank. Acrylic is much easier to drill than glass, if if your tank is tempered do not attempt to drill it.


Many new to the hobby often start without a sump, but as you get more into reef keeping you’ll wish you had a sump. There are many advantages to having a sump:

Added water volume – dilutes water quality problems with the increased volume.

Hide all your equipment – This is the ideal place to put your heaters, skimmers, reactors or anything else you don’t want to see in your display tank.

Consistent water levels – The water level in your tank will always remain the same and the loss due to evaporation will be seen in the sump.

Better gas exchange – By increasing your surface area you will increase gas exchange.

It might not sound like much, but you’ll find that most people that have been in this hobby for any length of time have a sump. While you can purchase a pre maid sump it is fairly easy to make your own with another tank.


If you plan on keeping coral good lighting is essential. Most coral use photosynthesis to survive, and come from tropical reefs, so we are trying to recreate the sun in our own homes. Standard aquarium lights that often come with smaller aquariums are usually not sufficient for coral.

Compact Fluorescent Lights – Usually they don’t put out enough enough light for many coral other than softies.

Fluorescent T12 – These are standard size bulbs you often see. Again this lighting is usually insufficient for coral health.

T5 HO Lights – These are high output fluorescent lights that are great for reefers. Pick a quality fixture that has good reflectors and buy good bulbs. Stock bulbs that often come with new fixtures are usually cheap. In addition purchase a fixture with 4 or more bulbs. The more bulbs you have the more light your coral will receive. I’m a fan of 6-8 bulb fixtures for 24 inch or less deep tanks and 8 bulbs or more for deeper tanks.

Metal Halide – Reefers have used these for many years with great success. It will give you a beautiful natural shimmer in your aquarium, much like sunlight shinning into the ocean. Halides will run hotter than other lights and usually use more electricity than other tanks but if you’re planning on light loving corals this is a great option.

LED lights – This is the new baby on the market and is showing great potential. The use much less electricity that other lights and run much cooler as well. This is likely the future to reef lighting but we are still in the infancy of LED lighting and many fixtures in the market today are not satisfactory for reef keeping but many people are having great success with LED lights.

Protein Skimmers

A protein skimmer is a way to clean your water of organic waste. There are a lot of skimmers on the market but don’t skimp on quality here. Cheap ones usually don’t skim well and usually don’t last long either. Cheap pumps break quickly and you don’t want to be without a skimmer if yours breaks. In addition many manufactures of skimmers have a tendency to over rate their skimmers so I suggest getting one that is rated for at least twice the size of the tank you will be setting up. Again don’t skimp and buy a cheap skimmer, because if you do you’ll likely be upgrading to a better skimmer down the road.

Test Kits

You’ll need test kits to test your water. First off you’ll need a refractometer to test the salinity of your water (avoid hydrometers as many are inaccurate) and you’ll also need a thermometer to test your water temperature. In addition you’ll want to test your water quality and I would suggest test kits that cover: Ammonia, Nitrates, Nitrites, Phosphate, Calcium, Alkalinity, and Magnesium to start will. Down the road you may want other test kits as well.

RO/DI Filter

Reverse Osmosis Deionizing filters are essential if you are going to be making your own water for you reef. Tap water is generally not clean enough for reef keeping and needs to be properly filtered before being used in our systems. It will remove harmful metals, chlorine, and other solids from the water. Once filtered it can be used for top off water and for mixing with salt for makeup water.


Powerheads are water pumps inside your tank that create water movement. Just like the waves in an ocean you want the water to move in your tank and powerheads do just that. For most reef tanks you want to circulate 10 times or more of your water volume per hour. I’m a proponent of heavy flow and run my tanks in the neighborhood of 30-40 times of water volume per hour.

In Summary

It’s best not to try to go cheap on setting up a reef tank because you are much more likely to be successful with quality equipment. Often times if you skimp on equipment you’ll have to upgrade down the road.

by Jared Burbank owner of http://www.MyReefToYours.com

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