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Author:  Robert M. Metelsky
Title:  What do I need for a Successful Reef Tank?
Summary:  For anyone considering starting a reef tank, Robert emphasises the importance of planning, and lists recommended equipment and livestock, with their actual cost.

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Date first published: 2000
Reprinted from Aquarticles:
2004: Reproduced on www.AquaticQuotient, Singapore
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Robert M. Metelsky,
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What do I need for a Successful Reef Tank?

By Robert M. Metelsky
Author of the book Simplified Reefkeeping, 3rd ed. available at


Is Planning an important step?

The most important thing to do is to plan. The reason this chapter is so important, in my opinion, is that so many people would like to get into this hobby, but they don’t plan. They walk into a pet store, see some nice live rock and coral and invertebrate, and they want to start a tank with that. After their purchase, they find their light is not strong enough, their water isn’t pure enough, they don’t have test kits or the right size protein skimmer. Their tank has not been properly conditioned, so the livestock they bought dies. At this point, they are shocked at what it will cost to get the proper items, and many just give up. Some others try to go on with half of the items they really need, still with bad results. Do not take this approach!

Summary: Understand what is involved

Can you afford a reef tank?
Write a plan
List actual costs of items in your area
Get an idea of a tank size

1. What size tank?

Its location, preferably near a sink (for water supply and drain). Will the floor carry the weight of the tank? Preferably away from direct sunlight. How much floor space will all the equipment take? Is there enough power supply to run all the equipment? Will there be enough room to service behind the tank?

2. Your budget.

Can you afford it? List and plan (very important). You may not be able to have everything up and running right away. But if you are patient and plan ahead, buying what you need as you can afford it, you will end up with the largest, most pleasing set-up you can have. Put a lot of effort into the functioning of the system first, before adding live creatures to it. Plan for the ease of water changes and waste water drainage, the location of your tap water purification system, a large protein skimmer, and high-power lights with the proper bulbs. Once you have these in place (proceeding to each item as you can afford it), you won’t have to worry about jeopardizing the livestock you will buy. This is definitely the best approach.

3. Your time.

Remember: only bad things happen fast in this hobby, usually due to lack of time spent. Patience is invaluable. Keeping a reef will take a considerable amount of time, especially if you fabricate the components yourself. However, the rewards are exceptional! You will get tremendous satisfaction from knowing that you built components that are practical to maintain, and far exceed factory-built standards. But all this takes time, a lot of time. Are you willing to do water changes every two to three weeks? Are you ready to change your prefilter every week? Make limewater as needed for evaporation? Remove algae as needed? These are all responsibilities you have to take into consideration.

All the items here are needed for a successful reef tank:

ITEM w/APPROX. COST   (Note: these are approx. retail prices, in U.S.$$$, as available in the U.S., - your cost may vary).

1.  Deionizer or reverse osmosis water purifier $ 270
2.  Resin for above, to replace every 6 months: 1 gal. $ 60
3.  Bulbs: 48" actinic blue & actinic white, 4 @ $25 $100
4.  30" protein skimmer (Venturi)* $300
5.  Pressure pump for skimmer, 500 to 600 GPH $90
6.  Carbon pre filters for tap water: 1 @ $60, 1 @ $25 $85
7.  Cartridges for above: 2 @ $12, 1 @ $5 $29
8.  Sump box (for prefilter)* $150
9.  Material, 6 packages floss prefilter $50
10.  Main pump 500 to 600 GPH $90
11.  Tank: 55 gallons* $70
12.  Tank stand* $75
13.  Light canopy to house four 48" bulbs (with VHO ballast)* $300
14.  Salt mix: 1 for set-up for 55 gallon tank $18
15.  Salt mix for water changes $18
16.  Phosphate test kit $20
17.  Test kit for ammonia, pH, nitrite, nitrate $45
18.  Test kit for K.H. $12, calcium $12 $24
19.  Specific gravity meter $12
20.  Misc. (books, power strips, Kalkwasser, trace elements, etc.) $100

TOTAL: $1,906

* These items can easily be made by the hobbyists to save money, my book Simplified Reefkeeping  shows you how! Plus! other items not on the list. . .

What else do I need?

There are a couple of items I left out, such as a wave maker or surge buckets, timers for the lights, electronic pH testers, a generator in the event of a power outage, etc. I omitted these from the start-up figure because they are not absolutely essential at the very beginning. They are important, beneficial components, but they can be added to the system later on if you prefer.

What about the livestock?

I recommend that the largest population of livestock in the reef tank be shrimp, starfish, clams, urchins, snails, and harmless crabs. Next, in a lesser amount, would be the corals; they produce a minimum amount of waste, and in fact some of them will process waste. Finally, fish should be added, in the smallest numbers. They are the largest consumers of food, and therefore produce the most waste. Having only a few fish will mean that you will be putting in less commercial food. This reduces the risk of food going uneaten and accumulating in the prefilter, possibly becoming food for algae and/or leading to diminished water quality.

Your fish should be reef-compatible only; that is, they should eat algae but not coral. Nearly all of the creatures we put into our tank should be able to consume their fair share of naturally-occurring algae. The selection of livestock is important for algae management.

I recommend that nearly all of the livestock in your reef tank be algae consumers—fish especially. To be allowed into your reef, just about every creature should consume its fair share of algae. This way, not only are the tank inhabitants interesting and beautiful, but they will serve an important function! They will manage the unavoidable, naturally-occurring algae that would be a major inconvenience for you (the reef keeper) to remove manually. Let the fish, snails, crabs, and urchins remove it for you, naturally!

Livestock and approximate cost:

1.  Mat for live rock frame (egg crate) $ 15
2.  Sand aragonite: 1 10-lb. bag 10
3.  Live rock: 1.5 lbs. per gallon, x 55 gallons = 83 lbs. @ $10 $830
4.  Turbo snails (herbivores): 10 @ $5 $50
5.  Coral banded shrimp: 1 $15
6.  Cleaner shrimp: 4 @ $15 $60
7.  Serpent starfish (scavengers): 2 @ $12 $24
8.  *** Brittle starfish (scavengers): 2 @ $12 $24
9.  *** Hardy corals: 4 @ $45 $180
10. Tridachna clam: 1 $50
11. Yellow tang, small: 1 $35
12. Hippo tang, small: 1 $35
13. Sailfin tang, small: 1 $35
14. *** Basselette: 1 $35
15. *** Goby: (your choice of type): 1 $35
16. *** Misc. invertebrate (your choice): 1 $35

TOTAL $1,468

***To keep costs down you may use less livestock on the items marked.