Coral & Sky

The Easy Beginner’s Guide to Setting Up an Amazing Nano Reef Aquarium

Ever since Finding Nemo came out, everyone wants a NANO REEF AQUARIUM.

And who can blame them? Look how BEAUTIFUL they are...

nano reef nano reef nano reef nano reef

Picture credit (Photo 2 & 3): Teenyreef, follow the link to see his build.

How do I do it?

Want to build your very own NANO REEF AQUARIUM?

Yeah, of course you do.

Well, you could spend hours on forums. The forums are great but they'll take hours and hours to get through.

Or... you could build one for less than $900 with this EASY GUIDE.

Things to Buy

The Light + Mount ($$$)

By far your single most expensive purchase. This is a very important piece of equipment you don’t want to mess up. Much better to buy a quality light now that actually delivers the UV spectrum to grow healthy corals. Many inexperienced reefers buy a cheap one from Petco, then realize later they have to replace it with a better light. Don’t be that newbie!

I highly recommend the AquaIllumination Prime HD: it’s quiet, reliable, and delivers beautiful UV spectrum. It gives the look of natural sunlight and because it uses LED technology, it doesn’t require much power to operate. It’s the best value for a nano reef light, period.

Unlike other competitors, you don’t need to buy an external controller and it has a fantastic free companion app designed by the same company. You can use the app to mimic weather effects and lunar cycles, which is awesome for showing off to friends!

AquaIllumination Prime LED Light

AquaIllumination Prime LED Light

Buy from Amazon
AI Prime LED 18-inch Flex Mounting Arm

AI Prime LED 18" Flex Mounting Arm

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The Tank ($$)

This is the physical tank where your corals and fish will live. I chose the Innovative Marine Fusion 10 gallon tank for its combination of aesthetics, price, and quality. I did a lot of research and felt this is the best value: it’s plug-and-play and thus requires minimal setup.

An additional benefit of this tank is that the included return pump is good quality and won’t need replacing. The pump is the device that helps cycle clean water from the filters back to the main display area.

The IM Fusion 10 also doesn’t come with a light, which is good to buy on its own as it’s the most important piece of equipment for growing corals.

IM Fusion 10 Tank

Innovative Marine Fusion 10 gallon tank

Buy from Marine Depot

Heater ($$)

The heater does exactly that: heats the tank to the appropriate temperature for your creatures. Pretty straightforward. I recommend setting the temperature to ~76 degrees, which is a good temperature for most marine aquariums.

I love the Cobalt Neo-Therm 50W Heater because it’s a great value and rock-solid dependable. It’s also slim and fits perfectly in the back of our recommended IM10 tank. Its internal thermometer is accurate, which isn’t always true of other heaters.

There are cheaper alternatives which I would not recommend because they shatter easily (made of glass) or are prone to wild temperature fluctuations. The biggest mistake in maintaining nano reefs is to cheap out on the essential devices. In the long run it’s much cheaper to avoid the headache of a dead reef and just spend the extra money!

Cobalt Neo-Therm 50W Heater

Cobalt Neo-Therm 50W Heater

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Powerhead ($$)

The powerhead provides the extra water movement (“flow”) needed to keep your fish and corals happy. Generally, strong water movement is important because it helps oxygenate the water, carries food across the tank, and removes waste. Ocean currents ebb and flow, and you want to mimic natural reef conditions as much as possible.

The Hydor Koralia Nano 425 is my recommendation here. It’s inexpensive, quiet, and just right for a 10 gallon tank. Like most modern powerheads, it stays in place using magnets and you can angle it any direction you like.

You can have too much flow, as certain corals won’t open up if the water is too turbulent and your fish won’t be able to swim in place. Some powerheads may be too strong for your tank. The Koralia will generate just the right amount of flow.

Hydor Koralia Nano 425

Hydor Koralia Nano 425

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Filter Basket ($$)

The Innovative Marine Fusion Media Basket is a 3rd-party, custom made container designed especially for the IM10 tank. It’s a plastic mold with three compartments to house several kinds of filtration productions (aka “filter media”). The IM10 tank comes with a filter sock, which is inadequate for a stable tank.

Strictly speaking, filter media is not necessarily required in a perfectly maintained tank, but it is highly recommended to ensure clean, crystal-clear water. It’s an important, extra layer of defense in between weekly water changes (your main method of removing toxins, which will be covered later).

Innovative Marine Fusion Media Basket

Innovative Marine Fusion Media Basket

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The filter media I recommend are pretty cheap and don’t need to be replaced too often. A good setup runs three: filter floss, Boyd’s Chemipure Elite, and Seachem Purigen, which all fit in the custom basket.

Filter floss ($)

Generic padding that removes larger pieces of uneaten food, waste, and debris. Helps make the the water look cleaner but doesn’t remove harmful chemicals.

Chemipure Elite ($)

All-in-one filter media which removes unwanted chemicals such as chlorine, phosphates, and dissolved organic proteins. Removes weird “fishy smells” and controls algae growth.

Purigen ($)

Specifically helps control ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels. Once established and with weekly water changes, your tank will naturally take care of all three, but Purigen is an extra line of defense. I’ve personally found that it helps make the water look extra-clean, and best of all it is reusable so you only need to buy it once!

Live Sand ($)

Live Sand is basically normal sand but with good bacteria (thus “live”) in it to promote a healthy reef ecosystem.

In my opinion, all the live sand from different manufacturers function the same. Many people like to customize their tank with different colors, so feel free to choose, just make sure it’s labeled “live” and check the expiration date. A nice, white beachy sand is the one I use.

You’ll need all 10 pounds of it for your tank.

Ocean Bio Activ Aragonite

Ocean Bio Activ Aragonite, Natural White

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Salt Mix (Optional)

Depending on your needs, you might not need to buy salt mix to make your own saltwater. I’m lazy and my local fish store sells it for cheap, so I just buy my saltwater there. I highly recommend just buying pre-mixed saltwater if you can for a variety of reasons (for more details, see the “Visit your local fish store” section), but if you must mix your own, then I recommend Red Sea’s Coral Salt Pro formula.

Red Sea is a premium brand in the saltwater aquarium industry, and their salt mix is no exception. Many people I know have experienced enhanced coral growth using the Coral Pro Salt mix. It’s also convenient because as you advance to more sensitive coral species, the mix is so nutrient-rich that you likely won’t need to use any extra chemicals as you might with other brands.

Red Sea Coral Pro Salt

Red Sea Coral Pro Salt

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Test Kits

Test kits help you maintain proper levels of salinity and limit toxins to near 0.


A hydrometer is used to test salinity. Generally, you’ll want your salinity to be in the 1.024-1.026 range for raising corals and fish. The Coralife Energy Savers ACLAF877 Hydrometer is the one I use.

Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, pH

API sells a cheap test kit which is fine for our purposes. The API Saltwater Master Test Kit is not the most accurate, but still gives you an idea of where your levels are for the main toxins. You generally want ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate to be 0 at all times, but new tanks undergo a “cycling” process where you may observe fluctuations across all three. I’ll cover this and the nitrogen cycle later.

pH should be around 8.0-8.4 for coral reefs. Some corals prefer lower / higher pH, but anything in that range should be ok as long as it stays somewhat stable.

Coralife Energy Savers ACLAF877 Hydrometer

Coralife ACLAF877 Hydrometer

Buy from Amazon
API Saltwater Master Kit

API Saltwater Master Kit

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How to Set Up Your Tank

Step 1: Order it

Order your tank / equipment. Wait for everything to arrive before starting your tank.

Step 2: Find a place for it

Figure out where to place your tank. Generally you’ll want to keep any aquarium away from doors and windows because temperatures near those areas will fluctuate more. You’ll also want to place it upon stable furniture -- fully filled, the tank will weigh about 115 pounds. So use cheap IKEA furniture at your own risk 😉

Ideal places include: kitchen tabletop, living room, office table

You can also buy a dedicated stand if you don’t have a great place to put your tank. The one I use, the Coralife BioCube Aquarium Stand, matches the black aesthetic.

Step 3: Initial tank setup

Open the tank box and remove all the stickers and packaging material. Place it securely on the furniture you designated. Attach the included return pump to the nozzle on the top right of the tank. Don’t plug in the return pump just yet; wait for water to go in the tank first.

Take out the inTank media basket and insert it into the left side of the tank's back chamber. It should fit snugly. Don’t place any filter media in just yet.

Store or discard the included sock filter, which you won’t be using.

Step 4: Visit your local fish store

Look up your local fish store (“LFS”). Not only will it be a primary location to buy fish and corals, but many aquarium stores sell pre-mixed saltwater and filtered water (aka “Reverse Osmosis / De-Ionized” or “RO/DI” water). They will also sell something called “live rock,” which you’ll want to buy as well (see below).

Buy Water

You’ll need both saltwater and RO/DI water for your tank. RO/DI water is mainly used for maintenance only -- when your water evaporates, salt remains in the tank, so you can’t just keep adding saltwater because it’ll increase the salinity to toxic levels. At your LFS, you can usually buy each for around $1.00-$1.50 per gallon. You can start out by buying about 15 gallons of saltwater and 4 gallons of RO/DI.

If you don’t have a local fish store near you, you can sometimes buy RO/DI water from your local WalMart or a purified water station, and then use salt mix to make our own saltwater. If you’re mixing your own saltwater, aim for 1.025-1.026 specific gravity. You can measure this with the hydrometer you bought.

You can also use tap water but that’s my least recommended option. Tap water quality can vary greatly and often contains elements that may be toxic to marine life or promote algae growth. It also contains chlorine, which is bad for your tank because it kills beneficial bacteria. Ultimately, all these things can be removed with chemical additives, but it’s a hassle and not worth the cost.

Buy Live Rock

Live rock is basically a normal piece of rock that has bacteria and beneficial coralline algae living on it. Rocks and sand provide surface area for good bacteria to propagate.

You’ll want about 8-10 pounds of live rock in your tank. At most fish stores this will range anywhere between $1.50-$8.00 per pound.

Also, this is where the fun begins: pick out pieces that you think look great together. Don’t stress out too much because you can always replace or alter the rock aesthetics later!

Don’t Buy Anything Else

Sometimes less scrupulous LFS owners will push you to buy your first fish and other random things. Don’t do it! While a fish may survive a new tank’s first day, most won’t and it’s simply cruel.

Additionally, besides livestock, most everything will be cheaper online. Save your money and ensure the best selection by shopping online.

Step 5: Put stuff in the tank

OK! Now that you’ve bought your water and live rock, it’s time to start putting things in the tank!

Placing Live Sand

First comes the sand. Open up the live sand bag you bought and pour in at least half of it into the tank. There should be some water in the bag as well. This is totally normal. Water is needed for the good bacteria to survive / is what makes it “live”!

If you like the look of less sand, that’s ok; using up all of the sand is fine too. Be careful about scratching the glass with the sand. I’d aim for about 2-3” of sand bed thickness.

Placing Live Rock

Place your live rock securely into the sand. It’s easier to fine-tune the foundational look of the aquarium (“aquascape”) when there’s no water in the beginning. Get creative with placement and make it look as cool as possible!

Step 6: Put water in the tank

Grab your saltwater and start pouring it into the tank. It helps to aim the stream onto a stable piece of live rock or onto a piece of plastic so that you don’t kick up too much sand.

Fill it up until the water level is about an inch below the rim (just below the plastic clips). Make sure the three chambers in the back of the tank are filled up as well.

Step 7: Set up the heater

Open the heater from the packaging and place it in the back chamber. Plug it in and set the temperature to 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

While you’re at it, make sure the return pump is connected to the nozzle and plug it into the power strip as well. You should hear a faint whirring and see / feel water being pushed out from the back chamber into the display tank.

Step 8: Cycling

At this point, you’re pretty much done with the initial setup... not so bad right? Now comes the hardest part -- waiting / having the patience to let the tank naturally cycle!

What is cycling, you ask? The nitrogen cycle is the marine ecosystem’s natural way of converting fish waste and detritus into benign nitrate. It’s “nature’s waste management system.” Here’s an illustrative graph:

Nitrogen cycle illustration

Basically the bacteria in your live rock and sand will naturally convert your fish’s poop from ammonia into less toxic nitrate, which you ultimately replace with regular water changes.

Since we don’t have any fish yet, we recommend dropping a small piece of raw shrimp or fish pellets into the tank. This will kickstart the nitrogen cycle and prepare your tank for inhabitants.

Fish Food ($)

This New Life Spectrum formula is a great, all-purpose fish food that can be used to kickstart the nitrogen cycle in your tank. You’ll also be able to use this later to feed your fish or any bottom dwellers in your tank. I generally don’t like flakes because they can easily get circulated back to the tank filters.

New Life Spectrum formula

New Life Spectrum formula

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I recommend a wait period of about 2 weeks for the nitrogen cycle to establish itself in your new aquarium.

Note: if it wasn’t clear from before, make sure not to introduce any of the filter media you bought into the tank while the tank is cycling. The purpose of the cycle is to make sure the ecosystem is sustainable on its own first, and external filter media will slow the process. In a mature marine reef aquarium, the filter media serves as a backup to your primary biological filtration.

Step 9: Check your water parameters

Since you’re a beginner, it’s a good idea to periodically use your test kit to see where you are in the cycle. About every few days is a good routine in the first weeks.

FYI, the API ammonia test tends to show up as a light sea-green (slightly darker than what’s printed) at 0 ammonia levels. So don’t freak out if that’s the hue you see.

During this time, you’ll also need to add RO/DI water to maintain salinity and general volume levels as your tank water evaporates. I personally add every other day, but it’s up to you depending on how humid it is where you live. Make sure to periodically check salinity levels are constant around 1.025 as well.

Step 10: Add livestock

Your tank is ready! Now, it’s time to add fish and coral (aka livestock). See the next guide here: Sea Creatures Guide