Setting up a reef tank
The following article is how we set up our reef tanks, there are many different ways to set up a reef tank so please do your research and find what works for you. Remember that these processes are biological and may take longer or less time than the time frame we are using as an example. Testing and patience pays off when cycling your aquarium. We are basing the following information on a dry rock cycle as this is usually the most common rock used in modern reef keeping.
Step 1: scaping with dry rock
Place your dry rock to your liking using reef putty or reef cement to secure it properly, its a good idea to have a varied range of heights to place corals in the aquarium landscape if you intend on having a mixed reef. Make sure to leave enough space for flow to reach most sections of the aquarium. You can get as creative as you like, dry rock comes in many forms and shapes, we use DD artificial ocean rock as this is easy to work with and looks natural.
set 2: water
you can mix the water in the aquarium at this point as there are no inhabitants or even bacteria to kill with swinging salt levels or you can buy pre-mixed salt water to speed up the process. If your mixing salt in the aquarium you will be wanting to leave it at least 24hours for the salt to mix and water to heat up if you intend on using live sand or live bacteria. If your using dry sand this can be added at any time during the scaping process and is sometimes easier when the system is still dry (be sure to thoroughly rinse off all new dry sand to help reduce sediment in the aquarium). You want your salt water to be at 0.025-0.026 specific gravity, this can be measured using a refractometer and should be around 75-79 degrees. Once the salt water is fully mixed and temperature is stable it is time to add live sand and or live bacteria to help start your aquariums water cycle.
step 3: cycling the aquarium:
There are many ways to start an aquariums cycle to establish filtration and get a healthy colony of bacteria to breakdown fish waste and keep the water from becoming dangerous to marine life. The cycle will go as: Amonia-No2-NO3 as each bacterial colony establishes it produces a waste product that is consumed by the next bacteria until N03 is your final by product which is usually removed mainly by water changes. NO3 is the least toxic of the three and is safe for fish in levels up to around 30-40 depending on species but for a healthy reef system we recommend aiming for anywhere between 5-10 as this will help keep your tank stable and will be much better for corals and inverts that are more sensitive.
The cycle will require a waste product to get started, there are a few ways this can be achieved. Using a liquid ammonia product this is a method of applying measured amounts of raw ammonia to the aquarium to jump start the cycle. Personally this is one of our least favourite method as people often over do the dosage and can cause the cycle to stall or take a very long time to complete. One advantage though is its completely fish safe and with regular testing and accurate dosing its very effective.
We like to use a ghost feed method, its simple and effective. Firstly add your live bacteria culture making sure its a good quality marine grade bacteria is key. Then add a tiny amount of either meaty frozen food or dry fish food and ghost feed the system for a couple of weeks feeding lightly around once a week. There is no key amount or frequency, but we usually do a very light feed every week to every few days. This uneaten food breaks down into ammonia and helps fuel the bacterial cycle.
The key to any good aquarium cycle is to test, test, test. Buy a good quality test kit and check the ammonia, NO2 and NO3 every other day. You should see a rise in ammonia, then a rise in NO2 leading to a drop in ammonia as the ammonia eating bacteria form and colonise then eventually you will see a sudden drop in both ammonia and NO2 at this stage you should be left with a fair amount of NO3, the by product of these bacteria. As long as the dangerous Ammonia and NO2 have disappeared and NO3 remains its usually assumed your tank is partly cycled.
This reaction typically takes two to three weeks for the worst of the ammonia and NO2 to disaster. Usually after two-three weeks or so providing the ammonia and NO2 have peaked and are now zero we will add some hardy clean up crews such as blue legged hermit crabs and feed them a very small amount of food, this will cause very small rises in waste which your now semi established bacteria should be able to easily consume and not cause a dramatic rise in ammonia or NO2 you may notice a very small dip in the levels but it shouldn't be enough to endanger your clean up crew due to their very low bio load providing you don't over feed, you probably wont even see any difference. Continue to monitor the water quality for about another week into week three and if by week four the parameters are still stable its safe to perform a 25% water change if your NO3 levels are high and then add your first fish.
Step 3: adding the first fish or tank inhabitants.
Start small, your tank will still be developing bacteria levels and adding too much too fast may overload your tank before the bacteria can reproduce enough to remove the waste. Something like small clownfish are a good choice as they are relatively small and should not produce large amounts of waste. once your fish are introduced be sure to regularly check the water every other day for a week or so to make sure the tank is running properly and the bacteria have stabilised. After a couple of weeks you can add a few more fish depending on the size of the tank and increase your clean up crews if needed. You can also start adding some hardy corals such as soft coral. After a few weeks of the tank running smoothly you can now start to add anything such as star fish or more sensitive inverts like shrimp etc. This way you allow enough time for the bacteria colonies to properly form and this will result in a healthy and stable aquarium.
remember that aquarium cycles are a biological process and can take anywhere from as little as three weeks to over six in some cases as every tank is different. Below is a summary of typical time frames of how your cycle can work but this may vary:
week 1-2 add bacteria and ghost feed regularly checking the water to watch for the peaks.
week 2-3 if levels are stable enough add your first clean up crew continue to feed them lightly and monitor water closely.
week 4-5 as long as ammonia and NO2 are zero perform your first water change to lower NO3 levels and your ready for your first fish.
we don't advise the older method of using a hardy fish to start the cycle as this can damage the fish by exposing it to high levels of ammonia and NO2 and with all the advances in bacterial solutions and testing it is not the best method and will often lead to stressed and sick fish.
Other things to consider in your new aquarium:
keep lighting off until you get your first fish.
make sure there is adequate flow with a good return pump and wave makers.
Add copepods once the cycle is complete these tiny creatures help balance the reef system and provide food for certain fish spcies as well as consuming certain nuisance algae's and bacteria.
Make sure to do a full parameter check before adding any corals or more delicate invertebrates new tanks often have higher phosphate levels so this is often an area to check first.