Starting a SW System - Part 3 - Designing, Setting up and Running your system

Discussion in 'Saltwater Beginners' started by ryanr, May 18, 2012.

  1. ryanrModeratorModerator Member

    Welcome to Part 3 of my SW system guide, for this part, I will assume that Parts 1 and 2 have been read.

    Starting a SW System - Part 1 - Where to start (Research)
    Starting a SW System - Part 2 - Bringing Nature Home (Researching Equipment)

    Revision - what we've learnt so far
    Part 1 - Environment Research; The Reefs of the World, Reef Life, Deciding on a Setup
    Part 2 - Equipment Research; SW Chemistry, Testing Equipment, Filtration and Flow, Sumps, Lighting

    So now we know what setup we want, and a bit about the equipment and how it works.

    I didn't know whether the next step should be designing a system, or stocking. I figure since most are limited by space, that designing the system should come first, and based on the setup size etc, worry about stocking later.

    So where to start?
    Size of the Display Tank - the bigger the better in a SW environment. As we've learnt, the ocean is a very large place, and with most specimens hand caught, we want to provide the most natural environment possible, that means size.

    Most marine species are not suited to nano setups (sub 30G), so a setup of at least 30G is definitely recommended. Preferably 55G or more.

    Next, I would decide on a nutrient export method. We've learnt that nitrate and phosphate levels on a reef are very low (below 1ppm in some cases). We also know that, a by-product of the nitrogen cycle is nitrate. We need to choose how we want to control and reduce nitrates in our system. For this, we can choose from:
    *Lots of water changes
    *Nitrate and Phosphate Reactors - chemically removes nitrates and phosphates.
    *Refugium with Deep Sand Bed and Macro Algae - the macro algae feeds on nitrates and phosphates
    *Carbon dosing - a more advanced method whereby nitrates are broken down so that nitrate eating bacteria can feed on them. This method is also referred to as Vodka/Sugar/Vinegar dosing.

    A sump is recommended for Reactors and Refugium methods, and whilst carbon dosing can be accomplished by directly dosing the display, it is recommended to dose into a sump if available. *Note: Carbon dosing requires a very efficient protein skimmer.

    Lighting - is one of the easier aspects, choosing a system is up to the individual, so long as the said system is suitable for the intended setup (i.e. appropriate lighting for corals if keeping a reef)

    What about a water source for Salt Water?
    The marine aquarist has two choices when it comes to SW, and can be dictated by distance.

    Natural Salt Water - this is water taken straight from the ocean. It is usually sold by marine LFS.
    Artificial Salt Water - this is made by mixing marine salt mixes with water, usually RO/DI Water because of it's purity.
    Both options work fine, and it's up to the individual to decide which way to go.
    Last edited: May 18, 2012
  2. ryanrModeratorModerator Member

    Quick Checklist

    OK, so now that we know the size of our aquarium, we can start planning and choosing equipment.

    The Basics
    Display Tank
    Sump (if using)
    Plumbing supplies (to connect DT to Sump if using)
    Heater(s) - aim for around 3-4W per gallon, you want to keep this setup at around 26-27C

    Update Jan 2013:
    Chiller - if you live in a warmer environment, or where summer temps get high, consider a chiller or other method of cooling for a reef environment, I had a scare with temperature nearly taking out my BTA. Maintaining a stable environment is paramount for a reef. (FO/FOWLR, you should still consider temperature management, but may get away without it)

    Read about my scare here: Who thinks SW tanks are easy? A tale of how quickly things can go bad
    Also: How to set temp when running a Chiller and Heaters

    Test Kits
    Refractometer/Hydrometer for measuring Salinity
    High Range pH

    for reefs
    High resolution Nitrate (capable of sub 5ppm)
    High resolution Phosphate (capable of sub 2ppm) I recommend the Hanna digital checker

    *A quick note on test kits, whilst the reagents (liquids) are the same between FW and SW, the colour charts are slightly different, so it pays to get the SW kits.

    Return pump (for sump if using) - aim for around 5x turnover of display tank
    Protein Skimmer - aim for a minimum of 3x turnover, or 5x if using Carbon dosing
    Powerheads - I prefer two to make turbulent water. Based on your setup requirements, make up the difference in required turnover with powerheads
    Reactors and pumps to drive them - if using

    Algae Magnet - you won't regret it
    RO/DI Water filter

    Right, got all that, let's continue, it's not over yet :D
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2015
  3. ryanrModeratorModerator Member

    Live Rock and Live Sand

    OK, so we've got our test kits, and equipment, but we still haven't added our most vital part of the setup... Live Rock and Live Sand

    Well, for me anyway, this took a bit of research to understand, but by now, we should have a base understanding of the concepts.

    Live Rock - there are many recommendations on how much is 'enough'. First we must understand that live rock is not "alive", it is rock. A highly porous material capable of harbouring lots of nitrifying bacteria. The term "Live Rock" often refers to a rock that is capable of supporting bacterial life, but technically it means rock that is already "live" with bacteria.

    The aquarist can start with dry rock, base rock or rock from the ocean. Over time, the rock will become "live" with bacteria.

    When it comes to purchasing live rock, most are referring to rock that has been harvested from the ocean, and is thus already 'live'.
    Pros/Cons - if it's fresh, Live Rock from the ocean allows you to benefit from the hitch hikers particularly worms, coralline algae, feather dusters etc and the odd coral.. The con is you inherit the less desirable hitch-hikers such as aiptasia, crabs, mantis shrimp

    A word of caution, purchase fresh live rock, not rock that has been in the LFS' tub for a while. It tends to harbour and leach phosphates.

    Live Sand - Is technically sand that has been harvested from the ocean. It should be full of critters, but there is also speculation that many of the critters don't survive transport, and as such, you end up with wet sand.

    What did I do? I purchased fresh live rock. My rock was picked from the reef at 7:30/8am, put on a plane and I put it directly into my tank at about 8pm..... I got: bristle worms, coralline algae (good), feather dusters, other worms, a leather coral, macro algae and other filter feeders

    I also got, mantis shrimp (annoying with the clicking, but not harmful), aiptasia which is controlled with shrimp.

    With sand, I chose to use CaribSea Arognite sand.

    So who's scared yet? :giggle:

    It's getting easier........
  4. ryanrModeratorModerator Member


    Ok, so for those that have followed the journey, the biggest question is still un-answered..... and guess what.... I can't answer it for you. (sorry)

    What can I keep in this tank?
    Like I said at the top of this guide, I wasn't sure whether stocking should precede tank, or the other way around.... :;dk

    Put it this way, I knew I had room for a 55G tank, the difference was I was increasing the height to give me 66G. But fundamentally, I have designed a 3 foot tank, so swim space is important to me and the inhabitants of my tank.

    The biggest things I have learnt are:
    * Many SW fish do not play nice with their own kind - that means only one of each species
    * The marine environment is a 'dog-eat-dog' world, meaning certain fish are not suitable for a captive reef environment
    * Clean-up crews, and their importance in a reef environment - natuare will keep your system clean

    Choose your stocking carefully, never impulse buy, and understand what you're putting into your system and the requirements of each species.
  5. ryanrModeratorModerator Member

    Running your System

    So now that we know what we're keeping, the last consideration is the ongoing running of the tank/setup.

    General Maintenance
    Water Changes - it's a must do in a SW setup, but unlike a FW setup where 20%+ is recommended, around 10% a week should put you in good stead.

    Feeding - SW fish can be picky. Be sure to allow a varied and frequent feeding. Understand the species you are keeping and their requirements. I currently feed once a day, with a staple of frozen mysis shrimp, coupled with mussels, prawns, whole fish (silversides) and pellets.

    Corals need food too - Many corals are filter feeders, meaning a different diet - Reef Roids are a favourite of mine, as well as phyto planktons etc. I feed a mix of Reef Roids and Marine Snow.

    Supplements - be prepared to dose a Reef tank with supplements, particularly Alkalinity, Calcium and Magnesium. It may also be necessary to dose trace elements. There are a number of great products on the market, I personally use the Red Sea range of supplements.

    Top-off water/evaporation - be prepared. I currently top off about 2 litres (1%) a day. When water evaporates, you need to replace it as the salt doesn't evaporate, meaning an increase in salinity.
    Last edited: May 18, 2012
  6. ryanrModeratorModerator Member


    So if you've followed the three parts, you'll quickly see that a Saltwater Reef Setup is not "that hard" after all - I mean, we've researched the environment, we've researched the equipment, the live stock, and actively designed an effective system..... RIGHT ?

    When you do your research, you learn what to expect, how to handle it, and more importantly, you've started a system on the right foot.

    I firmly believe that the SW is not difficult, but it can be if you don't take the time to learn about your little piece of the reef, what it requires, and which species will do well in your captive environment.

    There's a reason SW fish are referred to as specimens. They are living examples of the natural reef.

    I thank everyone that has followed my series (apologies for the delays in producing them). I don't profess to hold all the answers to reef aquaria, but I'm willing to learn.

    For full details of my Reef setup, see my Member Spotlight article:

    Till the next time..........
    Last edited: May 18, 2012
  7. octonautValued MemberMember

    I live 300yards from the sea.....can I just get a bucket??
  8. ryanrModeratorModerator Member

    Depends on two things.

    1) Is it legal in your area? Many counties/municipalities/councils etc have laws about taking sea water.

    2) What else is in the water? Does anything drain into the sea where you are?

    If it's legal, your local marine society should know the better places to get your own sea water.
  9. cameronpalteValued MemberMember

    Thanks for the post ryan. After reading through all three, correct me if I just skipped over it, but I didn't see anything about ro/di water which is very important. (unless your like me whose parents have already installed an ro/di system for all tap water in the house!
  10. ryanrModeratorModerator Member

    Hi Cameron,
    Thanks for the feedback, and thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it.

    The series of guides are by no means meant to be an instruction set, but more, somewhere for the beginner to start their research, and to prompt further research.

    And you are correct, I haven't made a big deal of using RO water. There are many views on what water to use, and whilst most (including myself) recommend and use RO/DI, each aquarist should do their own research, and determine their own capabilities. That said, I do mention it in post 1 above...

    There is so much to learn about marine aquaria, and covering every aspect in a few threads is near on impossible.

    You are correct. One should always consider all the options regarding choice of water.
  11. cameronpalteValued MemberMember

    Ok. Thank you for your post, and I appreciate it:).
  12. lostgaijinNew MemberMember

    These post have been very helpful to me. It presented information that I already knew about the sea, but didn`t think about it when trying to put together a tank. Off to do more research :;hi1
  13. maccaWell Known MemberMember

    I'm glad we got that out of the way..... the last half an hour of reading about "live rock" gave me the assumption it was something similar to Robomaid :)

    Probably should have read all parts of the article before asking questions lol.

    A couple more questions.... would a newly set up reef tank still need to cycle even with a good amount of live rock and sand and I would obviously feed these bacteria as I would in a planted tank?

    With quarantine... can I just run a canister filter or just add live rock from the display tank/refugium/sump to the quarantine tank?

    I think my main concern would be the balance of nutrients and minerals to keep water and parameters in pristine quality plus equipments and plumbing to work accordingly. I have seen saltwater tanks absolutely covered in algae and to think of all the $ spent just to have it looking like that, is a scary thought.

    Cheers for the read. Appreciate it. Great info for newbies wanting to start up a salt tank.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 4, 2013
  14. ryanrModeratorModerator Member

    ALL SW need to cycle; but, the fresher the rock, the quicker the cycle generally. For feeding bacteria, you don't need to do anything, the die-off from the LR produces enough ammonia to cycle the tank. My rock (which came from Cairns), was really fresh, and my tank cycled in about a week, but I let it go 2 weeks to be sure.

    QT - IMO, you should never use LR in a QT - if you have to treat the tank, medicines will get absorbed into the rock, and then leech back into the main tank. You can run a canister if you want for QT - but really, just like a FW QT, it doesn't need to be fancy - I do suggest having some PVC pipe to put in so fish can hide.

    Don't go chasing numbers in SW - the ranges given are fine. My NO3 and PO4 run a little higher than I'd like, but the system is stable. Algae and SW go hand in hand - but regular maintenance and water changes will reduce and manage the algae.
  15. maccaWell Known MemberMember

    Thanks heaps ryanr. That was really helpful. A little bit more research and I think i'm ready to take on a salt water reef tank.
  16. owestyoValued MemberMember

    You should write a book mate. You have answered all my Initial questions in one here.

    I have a FW tank and found that a little tricky at the start due to its small size. I'm looking at a 100 ltr SW (in a few months after much more research) with FOWLR but fear that the LR won't be as fresh as you had.
    I wish it could be bigger but my house is just not big enough.

    How long would it take for dry rock to come to life and cycle?

    Thanks again you have taken the rocket science element out of this? While it will be no walk in the park I'm a lot less intimidated by it now.
  17. ryanrModeratorModerator Member

    Thanks, glad you got the answers you needed :)

    You still need to provide an ammonia source to cycle dry rock. Cycling a SW tank (like a FW) can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. But hey, the longer the cycle, the more research you can do into stocking :)

    Certainly not rocket science..... Look forward to seeing your progress
  18. emmynkWell Known MemberMember are extremely knowledgeable. I'm too scared to start a saltwater, nor do I have the space I guess. For the future I'll keep this in mind"
  19. lgdavNew MemberMember

    Hi... I am about to start MY VERY FIRST AQUARIUM. For my birthday this year (August 3), I voiced that I have always wanted to have a fish tank. My awesome hubby :) bought me a 36- gallon bow- front starter tank with a stand. We have put the hardware together and it's sitting in my living room. Three days ago, I bought a vase as its first deco. I was thinking of a tank with silk plants, a sorority of bettas, and some cory catfish. Then I went to a really cool store today and EVERYTHING CHANGED!

    There is a store here in Kissimmee, FL called Aqua- Holics. I thought they dealt with both freshwater and saltwater items but I was mistaken. It is a saltwater- only store. As soon as I walked in and the owner told me this, my heart sank. My hubby went to see the tanks and fishes while I spoke to Sandy a bit more. She said, "I am going to try my best to convince you to start a saltwater tank instead." When we walked out of there, we were thoroughly convinced that SW is the way to go! I am going to purchase my live sand and live rock this week. I can also purchase salt water right there at $1/ gallon and she will test my water for free. She said that a lot of her customers bring in a sample weekly and they help to determine if it needs something or not. She will also tell me when it will be appropriate to add fish after the cycling. She also said that I can set up the system with live rock and sand and, in a year, I can upgrade the lighting and start getting into corals.

    I just read through the three parts of Starting a SW system. WOW.... What a plethora of useful information! THANK YOU!!! I am now even more convinced that SW is the way to go! ;)

  20. Rmoore80Valued MemberMember

    Any chance you could tell us how you got the live rock? Is there a website or did you just know a guy who knew a guy. Nice article tho thanks!