Setting Up A Nano Reef Tank

Welcome to the wonderful world of nano reef keeping. The purpose of this article is to share my experiences in successfully setting up & maintaining a nano tank. With a little bit of hard work, you will soon be rewarded with a spectacular visual display.

Before you even begin to setup your tank, there are a few decisions that need to be made. The first thing you must decide is tank size. Typically, a Nano can be as small as 1 gallon (although some may be as small as one quart) to about 20 gallons. When setting up a reef tank, or freshwater tank for that manner, most will agree “bigger is better.” The same holds true when setting up a nano. Anytime you work with a very small body of water, conditions can change VERY fast (i.e. changes is ph, temperature, ect..) This can, and usually is deadly to sensitive marine life. Another advantage to a larger tank is that you’ll have a lot more choices of marine life that can be kept, especially if you plan to keep a few fish in addition to corals & inverts.

The next thing to consider is the type of livestock you plan to keep & the equipment necessary to successfully keep your livestock. In doing so, it’s time to do some homework. If your not sure what you plan on keeping, the best thing to do is to browse through your local fish store. This not only gives you an idea of what appeals to you and what doesn’t, but you’ll also get an idea of how much money you’ll need to spend. Also, ask as many questions as you can about care required, such as diet, lighting, current, aggressiveness/compatibility issues, ect. If you don’t have the time to visit your local fish store, the next best thing is to visit internet sites such as live or These sites are an excellent source of information, even if you don’t plan to purchase livestock from them. Keep in mind, nothing needs to be set in stone at this time, but there are a few guidelines that should be considered.

Along with tank size issues discussed above, lighting is a major factor in determining what corals & invertebrate can be successfully kept . Due to the amount of heat created by very intense lighting, it’s probably best to stick with corals that require moderate lighting (unless you have some kind of cooling system.) Generally, it’s best to keep coral with higher lighting requirements toward the top of the tank and those with lower requirements closer to the bottom.

Another important consideration is current. Providing your coral with current mimics wave activity in the ocean. Most coral prefer a varying amount of current since that’s what their used to in the ocean. To accomplish this, I highly recommend purchasing a powerhead & wave making combination such as the “power sweep” by zoo med (this also creates a great visual effect, especially with corals with long flowing tentacles.) . Regardless of the powerhead you choose, the current strength will vary throughout the tank,. Placing your coral in the part of the tank that best fulfills its needs is extremely important.

As for purchasing a heater, my advise is to buy the highest quality, most expensive heater you can find (No, I’m not kidding, buy the most expensive one.) I like to save money as much as the next guy, but saving a few dollars on a cheap heater is not a good idea, trust me. I’m speaking from experience here. When a cheap heater fails, most often it doesn’t simply stop working. Nine times out of ten, the thermostat gets stuck, causing the heater to continue heating well after the desired temperature is reached. As discussed earlier, things happen quite rapidly when something goes wrong with a nano tank. Depending on your heaters wattage, a stuck thermostat can cause the tank temperature to rise to well above 100 degrees in a very short amount of time. Not a pretty sight, unless you like fish soup.

Filtration is the last issue I’d like to discuss before getting started. In a nano tank, the most important type of filtration is biological (my opinion only). Establishing good biological filtration is actually quite simple. Start with high quality live sand & live rock, which can be purchased at your local fish store or online. In a nut shell, live rock & sand both contain the bacteria necessary to break down waste in the tank (feces, uneaten food, ect..) Along with biological filtration, mechanical filtration is also necessary. As long as you make regular water changes (25% every two - three weeks ), most power filters will work just fine. Some may argue a protein skimmer is also necessary, however, I respectfully disagree (although I highly recommend them for large reef tanks.)

Now that you’ve done all you homework and have purchased all necessary equipment, it’s time to get started. If your setting up a nano tank for the first time, I recommend you purchase enough pre-mixed saltwater to fill your tank from your local fish store if possible. Now, place your empty tank on the permanent spot you have chosen. Before proceeding, make sure your happy with the spot you have chosen & that it‘s strong enough to support the weight of a filled tank. Once filled & stocked, moving your tank to another location is not fun. Next, install your heater, filter & powerhead, but DON’T plug them in just yet. Now, fill your tank about 1/3rd full, then slowly add your live sand. Once the sand has settled, add the live rock & place it in your desired location. Next, slowly add remaining water until your tank is filled. Now it’s time to plug in your filter, heater, powhead & lighting. If after a couple of days everything seems to working properly, it’s safe to begin adding livestock. Start with 1 - 2 hearty fish (depending on tank size,) such as damsels or clown fish. Certain inverts, such as snails & hermit crabs are also appropriate to add at this time. If after another couple of weeks everything still continues to be doing well, it’s probably safe to begin adding add a few easy to keep corals such as Zoanthus (Button Polyps), Plate coral (short tentacle) & many others. My next article (coming soon) will provide more information on nano compatible livestock.

Jeff Yeramian