The Top 5 Tips for Beginner Reefkeepers

Folks getting started in the saltwater aquarium hobby today are met with an overwhelming amount of available information

Folks getting started in the saltwater aquarium hobby today are met with an overwhelming amount of available information

I started the hobby before the internet became widely used, and information was sourced mainly through local fish stores. I was lucky enough to have some decent ones, but it was limited, no doubt. Today, beginning hobbyists have to deal with a cacophony of perspectives online, and it is difficult to sift out good information from bad. Over the years, I learned a great many lessons from trial and error. This is a list of the top 5 things I wish I knew as a beginner:

Tip #1: Start with the right tank

The first tip has to do with tank selection. I will start at the end and work my way back. The best tank for a beginner is a 48”, 120-gallon tank. How did I come up with that? In short, it is the best combination of volume to surface area. Larger volumes of water actually make the hobby easier because chemical fluctuations in large tanks happen more slowly compared to smaller tanks.

The surface area part is very important because of how it relates to equipment. First, consider that one of the most popular tank sizes is a 48”, 55-gallon tank. When you walk into a local pet store, it’s probably the first tank you see for sale. They measure something like 48” x 13” x 21″, which is not a good size because of the front-to-back narrowness. It limits what one can do with rockwork, but worst of all, a 55-gallon tank will cost almost as much as that 120-gallon I recommended.

What people just starting out in the hobby don’t realize is the cost of an aquarium, the glass box itself, is basically free in the grand scheme of things. The cost difference between a 55-gallon tank and a 120-gallon tank is not something you will ever remember. Besides livestock, the two most expensive pieces of equipment in the hobby will be your lights and filtration, and there is a good chance that the lighting and filtration you would use on a 55 would be more than adequate for that 120. So for that tiny bit of extra cash spent on a tank early on, you end up getting nearly twice the water volume, which comes with more chemical stability, more aquascaping options, and more space for fish and corals that would otherwise crowd a 55.

Of course, not everyone has room for a 120-gallon tank. Space-restricted hobbyists should consider tanks in 24″ x 24″ sections. The reason a 120-gallon tank is so efficient is because most modular lighting these days lights a 24” x 24″ square. So, in the previous example, two light fixtures required to light a 55-gallon tank, which is 48″ long, would easily light a 120-gallon that is also 48″ long. If you can’t accommodate a 48″ tank, consider getting a 60-gallon cube that measures 24” on each side. Again, you are maximizing the space that your lighting and filtration can handle while giving yourself a decent amount of volume to work with.

Equipment other than lighting scales well to larger tanks. For example, medium-sized protein skimmers of any decent quality can handle most tanks from 55 to 250 gallons. Reactors scale even better. A typical calcium reactor can handle at least 250 gallons. A large calcium reactor easily handles our systems that are slightly larger than 1,000 gallons. If you decide to use dosing pumps to dispense additives, those scale to just about any size aquarium you can dream of. These major pieces of equipment will operate a 120-gallon tank just as well as they would a 55-gallon tank, so for the same initial cost and upkeep cost, the beginner can gain all the benefits of a substantially larger aquarium.

Tips for starting a reef aquarium

Tip #2: Stick with equipment you really need

Right now, there is a lot of technology floating around that wasn’t here 10 years ago. Things like biopellet reactors, granular ferric oxide, and zeovit are all new on the aquarium scene. Heck, even LED lighting is a relatively new technology. Someone who was in the hobby 15 years ago and is just now getting back into it would have a lot of catching up to do. Because there is so much stuff out there, it is hard for people to figure out what is really needed.

The best thing I can tell people who are just starting out in the hobby is to keep things very simple. There are really only three things you have to provide for a successful aquarium. They include:

  1. Good light
  2. Good water movement
  3. Good water quality

There are plenty of debates to be had on how to achieve those three ideals, but as long as you have all three working, you will be successful with most things.

Here is a practical tip for getting started: Find a tank you like and copy it. Better yet, find 10 tanks that you like and figure out what they all have in common. Set that as your baseline. Your journey through this hobby will be uniquely your own as you figure out over time what works for you. But to get started, copy someone’s setup that you would like to emulate.

Over time, you will figure out what technologies fit your own maintenance schedule. It is easy to add more devices to your aquarium, but it’s much more difficult to figure out what you can remove. That is what more advanced hobbyists play with. It’s not so much about getting the newest toy all the time, but figuring out how to simplify their systems.

Tip #3: Establish good online sources

Now that you have a tank design in mind, is it time to go shopping? No! Hold off! Hold off as long as you possibly can and absorb information. I’m going to make up some numbers here, but for every day that you spend researching this hobby, you will save $1,000. It is that important. Rushing into things is a guaranteed way for stuff to go horribly wrong fast.

The problem now becomes how to distinguish good information from bad. You are going to hear a lot of conflicting viewpoints. What makes it even more confusing is that both sides of the argument might actually be right. There are a lot of ways to be successful in this hobby.

Here is a tip that can help you source better information: Look at the individual’s tank. It’s as simple as that. If their tank is garbage, it does not matter what credentials they have. A glorious tank speaks for itself, and the person that designed and executed it will have a wealth of information on all the challenges it took to get it to that point.

One way to conceptualize this is to imagine that a reef tank is an iceberg. You only see the part that actually sticks up out of the water. What you don’t see is the 90% of the iceberg that’s under the water. That 90% is the hard-learned lessons like tank crashes, regrettable equipment purchases, incompatible livestock choices, janky plumbing projects, horrible electrical, the list goes on. That’s why I suggest learning as much as you can from build threads of tanks you really like and take from them as many ideas as possible.

Getting started in the saltwater aquarium hobby

Tip #4: Purchase in the summer

It’s time to shop. The first thing to do is go look outside. Is it snowing out? If so, it’s not the best time to buy. People don’t realize this, but reefkeeping is seasonal. Once summer arrives, this whole industry almost grinds to a halt. People spend less time in the house when the weather gets nice, and it’s common for there to be a little neglect of the home aquarium. Oftentimes, people leave the hobby altogether. If you are looking to save a bit of money on startup costs and don’t mind buying equipment secondhand, summer is the time to do it.

If you haven’t already, consider joining a local aquarium club. There is a proliferation of online communities, especially with discussion boards and Facebook groups, but there are still some benefits to joining a local club. Chief among these are the ability to see people’s aquariums in person (if that club does a tank tour of local members) and purchasing equipment from fellow club members without having to deal with shipping.

Tip #5: Keep the chemistry simple

Chemistry can be a really overwhelming topic, and it is important that you learn as much as you can about it, but to get started consider two things:

    1. Water changes fix just about every problem imaginable. Got high nitrates because you fed too much? Water change. Corals looking stressed? Water change. Calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium all out of whack? Water change. Hair algae? Water change. Basically, when in doubt, do a water change. Water changes are like exercise and flossing. People think they do them a lot more than they actually do, so when people ask me about a problem they are having and tell me they do water changes every week, it’s a little improbable. Why don’t you go ahead and do another one right now and see if you still have issues.
    2. Don’t dose any chemical you aren’t actively testing for. I’m asked all the time, “Should I be dosing [insert name of chemical]?” My answer: “I don’t know. Did you test your water, and was it low? Blindly adding chemicals to a tank is unwise. If you are not testing for it, don’t add it.

Hopefully these five tips provide some insight into starting a reef aquarium.


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About Than Thein

Than Thein is the owner of Tidal Gardens and Advanced Reef Aquarium. Than's love for all things underwater began early on when dogs and cats were strictly off limits, but a fish tank? Sure! What started with a 10-gallon goldfish tank eventually turned into a 5,000-gallon greenhouse coral propagation system. In addition to coral aquaculture, Than's other hobbies include scuba diving and underwater photography and videography.


  1. I read this article thinking I was going to find all sorts of things I could comment on. But I was wrong. I agree with everything Than said. I really hate when I agree with anything because I have nothing to add.

  2. Daan Hijmans says

    This is the information everybody should give their friends who start in the hobby.
    A lot of people are spending 80% of their time and money for 10- or maybe 20% of the desired results. I like the “keep it stupid simple” mentality. Good lighting, good alternating flow and a high-end mixing salt will get you a long way. All other things just replace, or provide a less frequent need for, certain maintenance tasks. But you can’t expect the building to be a reliable structure without a solid base.

    Thanks Than!

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