So you’re thinking about making the jump to saltwater?  Great!  The amount of diversity, relationships between species, personalities of fishes, and the COLORS are what this hobby is all about!  A reef aquarium is something you’re not likely to become bored with…there’s always something new to see.

Let’s start with dispelling some myths and answering some frequently asked questions:

Aren’t saltwater aquariums a lot of work?

Nope!  A typical reef aquarium requires less than an hour per week.  A reef aquarium is about creating a complete ecosystem, including organisms that eat algae and recycle wastes.  This means no gravel cleaning, and no scrubbing of rocks or ornaments.  Most people find that they enjoy working on their reef tank!

Aren’t saltwater aquariums expensive?

Clarki Clownfish with Rose Bubble-Tip Anemone. This pair could be the centerpiece in a relatively inexpensive nano-reef.

They don’t need to be.  Cost is directly related to size.  Some literature on the hobby suggests buying the biggest aquarium you can afford…this would be a mistake.  Many times we see people following this advice, and then not being able to afford the proper equipment and supplies to keep everything healthy.  If cost is a concern, start small.  It is possible to create a healthy nano reef with a few colorful fish and corals in the 20-30 gallon range for less than $500.

The Basics of Reef Aquaria

One of the cool things about the hobby is that there is always something new to learn, but you don’t need to know a lot to be successful!  Jump in and get your feet wet with the basics.

Live Rock

The term may sound strange, but live rock is the most important part or a reef aquarium.  Live rock is essentially old coral skeletons that have been colonized by many new organisms that help recycle wastes.  Live rock is your biological filter.  There is no need for bio-balls, bio-wheels, ceramic media or any other forms of biological filtration.  In addition to its essential function as a filter, you will notice many invertebrates grow from live rock over time.  Feather-duster worms, crabs, and corals are very common “hitchhikers”.

Water Movement

Water needs to circulate very well in a reef tank.  It is essential for oxygenation or gas exchange, filtration, delivering foods to corals and invertebrates, and so much more.  One of the best ways to provide water movement is with a propeller pump.  These are similar to traditional powerheads, but they move greater volumes of water at slower speeds; similar to ocean currents.


Most corals available for the home aquarium are photosynthetic.  This means that they are dependent on the light you provide them with for the majority of their energy, and ultimately their survival.  Different species have certain lighting requirements, so your lighting will determine what corals you will be able to grow.  For the most cost-effective lighting options, look at T5 high-output fixtures.

Water Changes

Over time, toxic compounds build up in your aquarium water, and desirable compounds are depleted.  By changing a portion of your water on a regular basis (about 20% every 2-4 weeks), you can keep the toxic compounds diluted to safe levels, and the desirable compounds available to your reef animals.

Recommended Livestock

Just a small sample of fish and inverts we recommend for beginners.  These animals are durable, comfortable in small aquariums, and generally peaceful with other species.

Ocellaris clownfish. Active and friendly. Grows to 3.5", approx price $25

Green Chromis. Peacefull, schooling fish. Grows to 3", approx price $7.

Colorful and hardy, but may be aggressive towards other fish. Grows to 2.5", approx price $7.

Yellow Clown Goby. Very peaceful and appropriate for very small tanks. Grows to 1.5", approx price $13.

Flame Angelfish. Requires 30 gallons or larger. Grows to 4", approx price $90.

Royal Gramma. Loves to spend time in caves and under overhangs. Grows to 3", approx price $30.

Bubble Coral. An large-polyp stony coral that needs to feed on large food items.

Open-Brain Coral. Impressive feeding response as feeding tentacles emerge and draw meaty food items into a central mouth.

Fast-growing and extremely durable soft coral. Easily one of the best beginner corals.

Torch Coral. Closely resembles an anemone, but has a hard skeletal base.

Zoas/Palys. Coral polyps that live together in mats. Huge number of color variations.

Another brain coral known as "lobo" for short. Hardy and available in many color combinations.

This article is a primer for our free Beginner’s Reef Workshop on Wednesday, May 25th.  Please register here. The workshop will include  step-by-step demonstrations,  informational handouts, and more.  Snacks and beverages will be provided.  As always, we are here for all your questions!  It’s really not that hard though…so join the fun and JUMP IN!

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