How to Set Up a Nano Reef Tank

A twenty-four -gallon nano reef tank.
A twenty-four -gallon nano reef tank. (Image: Charles Watson)

Nano tanks are smaller versions of saltwater aquariums. Common sizes for nano tanks are five gallons, twelve gallons, twenty four gallons and thirty gallons. Nano tanks are popular because they are self-contained. Everything needed for filtration is built into the tank, so there is no need for expensive add-on filtration equipment with a nano tank.

Things You'll Need

  • One gallon of distilled water
  • One clean wash cloth or paper towel
  • Tank stand (or flat surface to keep tank on, out of direct sunlight)
  • Premade salt water (from a fish store, amount depends on how big your tank is)
  • Live sand (One large bag should be adequate)
  • Live rock (1 1/5 lbs. per gallon of water)
  • Chemicals to help mature the aquarium and help reduce fish loss
  • Saltwater test kit
  • Hydrometer (used to test specific gravity in your tank)

Determine a location for the tank that is out of direct sunlight and visible. Keeping the tank out of direct sunlight is critical to maintain a constant temperature for the tank. Set the stand up and place the tank flush on the stand. Using a wash cloth or paper towel and the distilled water, rub down the tank to remove any fine dust or cleaning agents that may be on it.

Fill the bottom of the tank about one-fourth with salt water. Add the live sand to the bottom of the tank. Adding the sand in first reduces the amount of particles and debris floating in the tank when you fill it with water. It also gives a nice cushion for adding in live rock. Spread the sand along the bottom to cover the entire bottom of the tank. If you'd like to build a slope with the sand, make it higher in the back and slope forward to the front. Add in more salt water about three-quarters of the way full.

Add in live rock. Use 1 1/2 lbs. of live rock per gallon of water. A twenty-four gallon nano tank requires sixteen pounds of live rock. When adding in the live rock to build the reef, try to mimic natural formations in the wild. Avoid building against the walls of the tank as this hinders the current and water flow in the tank. The most popular nano reef setup is a horseshoe formation. Dig the larger pieces of live rock into the sand so that they are sturdy and suitable to stack smaller rocks on top. Add the remaining saltwater to top off the tank. Plug the tank in and let the tank run. At first the water is cloudy, which is normal. As the sediments settle, the water clears. Run the tank approximately thirty minutes.

Add the chemicals to help cycle or "mature" your tank. Your local fish store can give you the chemicals you need. Follow the directions on the chemicals. Run the aquarium, letting it cycle for a few days (usually two to four days). Then test the water with the test kit and hydrometer. Your tank will be safe to add live stock only once all these levels are met: Specific Gravity 1.023 -1.025
Temperature 72 -78°F
pH 8.1-8.4
Alkalinity 8-12 dKH
Ammonia (NH3) Undetectable
Nitrite (NO2) Undetectable

Add live stock. With so many choices, ensure that everything in your tank is compatible and will live in harmony. For example, if you want soft corals, do not add a fish that eats corals. Ask questions at your local fish stores to be sure.

Tips & Warnings

  • If you are unsure about anything, ask your local fish store. The saltwater aquarium hobby is a time-consuming and expensive one to get into. Don't be in a hurry to set everything up. Give your tank plenty of time to get acclimated and cycled.
  • Rushing into a nano reef system can be disastrous. Do not introduce live animals into your aquarium until all the habitat parameters are met.

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