They say we learn from experience—good or bad—and that experience is a great teacher.
The only problem with that for the new reef keeper is your bad experience may result in dead fish, dead corals and a lot of heartache. Aquarium keeping is one hobby where you should learn from the experience of others before you dive in on your own.
We put together a list of eight things you should never do when starting a new reef tank. Avoiding these common pratfalls when starting and maintaining your first aquarium will go a long way toward ensuring the health and longevity of your reef and all its interesting inhabitants.
If you are able to avoid these eight mistakes, this hobby will have you hooked in no time!
1) Do not buy your aquarium and livestock at the same time
No matter what size aquarium you are thinking about purchasing, actually setting it up and getting it running properly will take many hours, even days, of work to get going.
You may be able to assemble your tank in short order depending on the complexity of the build, but there is little chance your aquarium water will have enough time to build up the necessary bacteria and establish a stable environment for the animals you plan to keep.
Livestock will need to be taken out of store water and put into a mature, cycled tank (as mentioned in # 4) within 24 hours. If your aquarium water isn't cycled and ready for livestock, the animals are either going to die in the bag you brought them home in or inside the unsuitable conditions of your tank.
The first few days of a running a new aquarium are active and messy. At this stage, you are probably organizing your rocks to create the perfect aquascape which disrupts the sand bed and clouds up your water. I recommend purchasing your aquarium, equipment, rock, sand and water first before you even look at livestock.
2) Do not use tap water—use only RO/DI filtered water
Reef aquariums need exceptional water quality to maintain a successful ecosystem. Poor quality freshwater can quickly create an unsightly mess in a reef tank.
Some people mix a water dechlorinator product with tap water for their water changes and top-offs. This process successfully detoxifies the chlorine in the water making it safe but leaves behind all of the other impurities and minerals that may remain. Tap water can contain many other compounds such as chloramines, phosphates, nitrates, fluoride and various metals. Adding these nutrients to your tank will grow and feed nuisance algae everywhere and may even lead to the death of your coral and fish.
RO/DI stands for reverse osmosis/de-ionization and is a filtration process that pulls out all sediments and compounds from tap water and leaves you with pure H2O. RO/DI filtered water is the only water that should be used during water changes, top-offs and especially when starting your new reef aquarium to ensure these unwanted elements are not introduced into your aquarium.
You can purchase your own RO/DI water filtration system to produce pure water at home. Local fish and pet supply stores that carry saltwater aquarium supplies often sell RO/DI water by the gallon as well.
3) Do not work with dirty hands or equipment
As humans, we naturally carry bacteria and other grimy substances on our skin. Our hands are one of the main ways we transport this bacteria and dirt. Being that our hands are constantly in contact with the water in our aquariums you need to be cautious when working on your tank.
Marine aquariums are very sensitive to any changes in water conditions and environmental parameters. Having dirt, bacteria or chemicals on your hands when you put them in your tank may alter the environmental conditions and put unwanted chemicals in your tank.
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after working on your aquarium. Be sure to rinse and dry your hands to ensure no soap or tap water can contaminate your tank. Some extra cautious hobbyists will even wear long sleeved gloves to protect the aquarium and themselves. Gloves will protect you from being scalped by your large Surgeonfish, bit by an angry Clownfish and even prevent accidental poisoning from one of your corals.
The same goes for aquarium equipment. Be sure to clean with vinegar or one of the specially formulated equipment cleaners available. Then rinse thoroughly with RO/DI water before placing equipment into your tank. Whether you are purchasing used equipment or simply maintaining your powerhead, be sure your equipment is clean so it will run properly.
Be careful when cleaning the outside of your aquarium glass as well. Do not use harsh chemicals (like Windex) where over-spray can easily contaminate your aquarium water.
4) Do not add livestock until your aquarium is cycled
The aquarium nitrogen cycle is a chain reaction process in which water goes through several biological changes to finally be able to sustain life. This process takes time as bacteria needs to grow and establish stable populations in your aquarium. The bacteria also needs a source of energy. This is why many hobbyists add some fish food to a new aquarium or even one or two small hardy fish, like Damsels or Chromis.
When starting a new tank, it will take anywhere from 2-4 weeks, sometimes longer, for the tank to fully establish a stable nitrogen cycle. As you add fish and animals over time, the bacteria will continue to grow in order to keep up with the additional waste in your aquarium and therefore is an on-going process.
If you add livestock before the cycle is established, ammonia and nitrate can quickly kill your new aquatic friends.
You can add some beneficial bacteria in a bottle to help speed up the cycle time if you are impatient and tired of staring into an empty tank. Just remember the key rule for cycling an aquarium: patience. Even if you use this type of product, you still need to test your tank parameters regularly to determine when the cycle is complete.
Basically once you see a spike in nitrate levels, you cycle is established.
5) Do not stock your tank without proper lighting, filtration and water circulation
Some of the biggest differences between fish only aquariums and reef aquariums are lighting, water flow, and proper water chemistry.
It is essential to set up a good filtration system before running any aquarium, but especially true for reef aquaria. Corals, invertebrates and sensitive reef fish can be very vulnerable to poor water quality. Be sure there is enough room for all of the filter accessories you have or may purchase down the road to ensure you can keep optimum water quality for your reef.
Adequate water circulation is necessary to oxygenate the water, bring food to corals, remove waste from the aquarium and provide a natural environment for the animals in your tank. You can use powerheads, pumps and wavemakers to create ample water flow throughout the tank.
Corals in reef aquariums are similar to plants: they require ample amounts of full spectrum light to photosynthesize which in turn creates energy that the coral uses to grow and/or build a skeleton. You need to choose an aquarium light fixture that provides sufficient output to support photosynthesis within your corals.
As you begin to learn more about corals, you will understand that every coral is different and has preferences for water quality, lighting and water flow. Take the time to research the corals you are interested in keeping before you build your aquarium. Do you want to keep SPS, LPS or soft corals? Most of us want it all, so the placement of the corals in your aquarium is going to play a major role in their success or failure.
6) Do not purchase livestock without researching it first
The number of freshwater species available to aquarium hobbyists pales in comparison to the scores of marine animals found on the market. Having options is a good problem to have. Yet, all these choices increase the likelihood you will fall victim to temptation and bring home an animal that is unsuitable for your aquarium.
Make it a rule that you will never buy an animal for your aquarium without researching it first. Performing a background check on the livestock you are interested in keeping generally eliminates most problems before they start. There are so many dazzling (and in many cases useful) saltwater aquarium animals to consider that you may end up with a big wish list.
Don't make the mistake of spontaneously buying an animal that looks cool in the store and/or relying solely on the shopkeeper's advice on what is suitable for your tank. If you do, you may end up with a fish that needs a minimum tank size of 500 gallons when you only have a nano. Another common blunder is bringing home an animal that eats your other fish, corals or inverts. Avoid these missteps by showing restraint and doing your homework. This helps ensure you have the proper equipment and that your tank's mix of wet pets are reef safe and compatible.
Another factor to consider is that not all fish share the same dietary requirements. Some will not eat flake or pellet food and may need a special diet. Some fish eat more frequently than others in nature, so there is a chance you may overfeed or starve your fish if you have not done your homework. Some corals grow peacefully next to each other and others will fight and sting one another. As mentioned in #5, each coral has different lighting and flow requirements. With a little research, you will be able to determine where to place each coral in your tank so that they all thrive.
Do not go in blindly. Do your research. You don't stumble into a happy tank—you plan for it!
7) Do not add too many animals to your aquarium at the same time
Once your tank is cycled and ready for livestock, you may feel the urge to add as many fish and corals as your tank can contain or your wallet can afford. But don't—adding too many fish or corals at once to a young tank will surely result in a catastrophe because of the increased waste levels in your tank.
As mentioned in #4, it takes time for bacteria to grow and properly process the waste in your aquarium. The slow addition of animals at the tune of 1-2 every other week will increase the chances of survival tenfold. This allows plenty of time for the bacteria to grow and drastically reduce the chances of ammonia or nitrite poisoning.
Placing too many fish in your aquarium is a huge mistake, especially for reef aquariums.
All animals in your tank will produce waste and if you add too many, you will end up with consistently high levels of nitrates. While nitrate may not be extremely toxic to your fish like ammonia and nitrite, it can certainly increase the chances of disease and infection. Not to mention elevated nitrate levels will irritate or even kill your corals and drastically increase nuisance algae growth.
The same result can be achieved via irresponsible feeding habits. Feeding too much or too often will result in elevated waste levels which can lead to all kinds of complications for your fish and corals.
It is difficult for us to give you the exact number of fish your tank can hold because this all depends on your tank size, filtration, water changes and the type of fish you plan on keeping. You must test your waste levels (ammonia, nitrite and nitrate) regularly in order to ensure you are on the right track.