Healpful Tips

Setting up a Reef Aquarium

This brief article is intended to give you an idea of what is involved in setting up and keeping a reef aquarium. This information is in no way a substitute for reading the many good books and internet references that are available on the topic. Remember education is the key to success in keeping marine livestock.

The practical approach to successful reef aquarium keeping is: maintaining good water Quality and a balanced environment. This of course comes with some homework and by seeking advice from a reputable marine aquarium centre on what is involved in setting up the reef aquarium and the budget needed to purchase the correct and appropriate equipment in the first place, to assure your success.

There are many methods and successful ways to keep a healthy reef aquarium. Here, we describe one of the most popular methods that have been around for quite some time and work very well, called “The Berlin System” it gets its name from being invented in Germany. This system works efficiently and has proven itself over the years. The filter is simple, and will work well for most reef systems if the biological filter capacity is not overloaded.
This system relies on strong water movement, a protein skimmer, a good lighting system and “Live rocks” which gets its name from the numerous living organisms that inhabit these rocks, including but not limited to beneficial bacteria, corals, sponges and worms.

The “Live rocks” will be the actual filtering media in the aquarium that the system will be depending on to provide the stable environment and to support the inhabitants. Therefore we must provide these “Live rocks” with good strong water movement to give the bacteria all the oxygen and nutrition they need to thrive and do their active part efficiently. The water movement will be achieved by using several power heads that are capable of turning the water volume of the tank 8-10 times an hour or more, you should position the power heads returns so that there are no “dead spots” in the aquarium and to provide equal flow over and around the rocks. These power heads or pumps can also be connected to a “wave maker” device with a timer built in. This will give you the option to run them automatically in a sequence to provide more natural water current and movement in the aquarium.

The density of rocks in the aquarium should be approximately 1 kg of rocks per 2 gallons (9 litres) of water volume to work effectively. Arrange the aquascaping in a manner to allow water movement all around it. You can use under water epoxies to hold the rocks together in position. The size of the aquarium is very important; ideally, the larger the aquarium the more stable will be the water condition and this is exactly what the “Berlin System” is all about.

Position the aquarium away from direct sunlight, and be aware that smoke from cigarettes, sandalwoods (or as we say it in Arabic “Oud and Bakhour”) as well as air fresheners can poison the system water if it gets into the water, so can window cleaners (ammonia) and other detergents.

Once the aquarium is set in its position, it can be filled to the three quarter mark with freshly made saltwater mixed with filtered water from the reverse osmosis unit (this water will be of high quality with nil nutrients and will help to prevent algae). When all of the rocks are in place it is time to fill the tank with the remaining freshly made saltwater. We use and recommend Marine Environment® dual Phase Formula™ and Bio Sea Formula™. Measure and maintain the salinity (SG) between 1.022 – 1.026. Maintain the water temperature of 23-27˚C, (the ideal temperature is 25˚C). The key factor here is not to allow more than 2˚C fluctuation in any given 24 hours. During hot summer days you might need a chiller to keep the temperature within range. Now you can start the power heads and pumps and adjust the flow to take care of the water movement and to mix the water thoroughly.

Leave the system running for 7 days, and then test your water.  Ammonia should read 0.0ppm and Nitrite below 10ppm, pH 8.0 – 8.4, KH 8 – 12, calcium above 410, and nil or low level of phosphate. To keep the phosphate low, a phosphate remover unit should be placed in a high flow area of the aquarium (Phosphate is one of the major factors for the undesirable algae growth). These tests should be conducted on a weekly basis to ensure that all water parameters are within limits.

Now that all “Living rocks” are in place it is time to run your protein skimmer, but remember to include the cleaning of the collection cup from the skimmer in your weekly maintenance or as needed. When it is well maintained and cleaned, it will work most efficiently and will help in maintaining a healthy water condition, and must be run continuously along with the power heads.

The only equipment that will not be running continuously will be your light unit. The use of appropriate lighting for your aquarium is most essential and cannot be over emphasised. In a reef aquarium most invertebrates depend on light directly and indirectly as a primary source of energy. Corals, for instance, rely on nutrients produced from the photosynthesis of algae (zooxanthellae) living within their tissue. Using the correct lighting will not only help promote this photosynthesis, but will also help simulate a natural environment, bringing out the true colours of the corals and fish alike. Light intensity is also important and generally speaking, the greater the light output entering the reef aquarium the better it is. We use and recommend Arcadia light units that are available in a full range of sizes to suit your needs. The professional deluxe dual switch models feature a 4 core power cable allowing separate timers to be wired in for the metal halide and compact fluorescent lamps and are easy to maintain. We recommend not starting off with full daylight, but rather build up to full duration in two weeks. Start with 8 hours a day for the first week, then maximum 10 hours a day thereafter.

After the aquarium has been running with the living rock for a minimum of one week is the time to add a layer of approximately 2 inches (5cm) of coral sand to the base of your aquarium. A week later add the “cleaning crew.” This consists of Hermit Crabs and Turbo Snails; they do an excellent job of controlling algae growth. You can start with 1 Hermit Crab or Turbo Snail per gallon of water. After they have been in the aquarium for another week, it is time to introduce a couple of hardy quarantined and conditioned fish, corals and invertebrates. In a reef aquarium we recommend 1inch (2.5cm) of fish body for every 4 gallons (18 litres), so choose your fish carefully because the quantity of the fish will be limited to your aquarium size and aquascaping. Build up the stocking level gradually and carefully over the next 8 - 12 weeks.

Diet and nutrition is also very important and plays a crucial part, you can learn more by reading the feeding topic of this site. Remember this is only a brief guide so please read some good references that are available on keeping marine aquariums and always ask if in doubt. As long as you educate yourself and do some homework, and most importantly be patient, we can assure you that you will enjoy this miniature piece of reef in your home or business.  

The following table is what we recommend for your marine aquarium system type and water quality values.


Recommended Level
Reef System

Temperature 22 - 27°C (72-78°F)
Specific Gravity (S.G) 1.023-1.025
pH 8.1 - 8.4
Alkalinity 8 - 12 dKH
Ammonia (NH3) Undetectable
Nitrite (NO2) Undetectable
Nitrate – Nitrogen (NO3) < 1.0 ppm
Phosphate (PO4) < 0.2 ppm
Calcium (Ca) 350 - 450 ppm
Magnesium (Mg) 1250 - 1350 ppm
Iodine (I) .06 - 0.10 ppm
Strontium (Sr) 8 -14 ppm