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Nano-reef Setup Guide


Whether it is due to the wild success of Finding Nemo, or just the better understanding of how to keep successful, stable aquariums, "Nano" tanks are one of the most popular types of aquariums being set up right now. While many experienced aquarists will deter people from starting in the hobby with a small tank, it is the opinion of this writer that they are an excellent way for people to enjoy their first saltwater tank. All that is required is the same dedication to research as discussed in the "BASIC SETUP ARTICLE" here at Reefnut.com.

An excellent place to start would be with a brief background of what Nano tanks actually are. As mentioned on my 10g page, Nano is derived from the Greek word "nanos," meaning "dwarf". This is exactly what they are, simply dwarf versions of the larger tanks we keep in the hobby and normally restricted to tanks 20g and under. The principles are all pretty much the same, just scaled down obviously for the reduced amount of space and water available. It is still just as successful to use natural methods of filtration, and this really allows for a fairly inexpensive way to start off keeping saltwater livestock (Note--I will explain the simplicity of my setups at the end of this article).

Before starting the tank, it is equally, if not more, important to research various principles of saltwater for a small tank. I, personally, recommend Robert Fenner's The Conscientious Marine Aquarist. After reading different sections of the book, you should be familiar with basic saltwater chemistry and terms such as "the nitrogen cycle", "live rock", "live sand", "salinity or specific gravity", "proper temperatures", etc., as well as more specific areas such as the different kinds of systems you can have, namely a "Fish Only", "Fish and Invertebrate", or full blown "Reef" system. In my opinion, this is a complete book for beginners, but certainly not the only resource availabe. With the wide availability of background information, I will again leave it to you, the new hobbyist, to research from the mentioned book and other resources, as giving the full background information here would take forever!


The material list for a Nano tank is pretty much the same as for larger tanks, it still requires the main principles of filtration, water movement, lighting, salinity/specific gravity, and temperature. The essential equipment is as follows and will be for a typical 10g setup, I'll guesstimate the total to be under $200.00 depending on if you buy salt in bulk, etc.:
  • Tank
  • Canopy
  • Light (Will vary depending on desired system)
  • Powerhead/Power filter (There are many variations, these will be discussed later)
  • Heater
  • Test Kits (A master saltwater kit is advised)
  • Substrate
  • Salt! (I have had great success with Instant Ocean)
  • Hydrometer
  • Good Water Source
  • Thermometer (Stick on type is fine)


With the materials aside, it is time to get your tank started! There are many ways to do this, I am only going to present the method I follow each time, feel free to modify it with other reputable information.

Place the tank where it is going to be viewed, and double check to make sure it is where you want it. Although it is only 10g in this case, it will weigh close to 100lbs when it is all filled! Place about 1" of the chosen substrate on the bottom. There are several choices you should have encountered by now, I use and only promote the use of sugar grain sized sand. This can be playsand (aragonite or silicate, both are much cheaper) or the various forms of aragonite sand available at your local fish store. Sand as incredible surface area available for the colonization of bacteria to become a very efficient bio-filter, and is also a good size for your detrivores or "cleanup crew" to keep clean. Crushed Coral and other large substrates are know to trap detritus and other matter away from where it can be consumed.

You are then ready to fill the tank. This can be done two ways; either premix the saltwater, or fill the tank with freshwater and then add the salt. I do the latter. First I lay down a sheet or two of wax paper. This keep most of the sand from being disturbed as you fill the tank, and reduces or eliminates the "milky" tank effect that you have to wait out (this is only for aesthetics, disturbed sand is not an actual problem). I leave the water level a little bit low for the addition of components such as the heater or base rock.

When the tank is filled, place your different equipment in the appropriate places. They now sell small heaters in the 50-75w range that are excellent for Nano tanks and can be hidden in different places. Place your powerheads or power filter preferably in a corner. How you approach water movement is up to you. Some people just use one large powerhead aimed from the corner out towards the center of the tank. I currently use a Maxi-Jet 400 in the left corner that is directed towards the front center of the tank, and then a Penguin Mini power filter in the right corner. The power filter gives me a place to run carbon if I so choose to on the tank. Any base rock should also now be placed wherever you might want it.

Turn the pumps and heater on, and allow the tank to reach a temperature of about 78-82º. Then, add the salt slowly, which allows it to mix really well. You can gauge where your salinity/specific gravity may be at as most commercial salt mixes will yield a specific gravity of 1.019 for each 1/2 cup added to each gallon of water (Note:--"specific gravity" is the term most commonly used in the hobby, and thus will be referred to instead of salinity readings). Allow the salt to mix well, it can take a short while for it all to dissolve and give you a true reading, shoot for between 1.023-1.025 sg.

With everything stable, it is now time to cycle the tank. Fish stores will most likely recommend cycling a tank with damselfish, but this is unnecessary and much more humane to just cycle the tank with a cocktail shrimp. Adding one to a small tank will be more than enough decay to provide the ammonia needed to promote the colonization of nitrifying bacteria. It can take up to a full 6 weeks for the tank to finally have ammonia and nitrite levels safely back at 0ppm. Some people will cycle with liverock and scoops of live sand. This is perfectly acceptable and will most likely shorten the amount of time it takes the tank to cycle. Use whatever cycling time to put together any final preparations for the tank.


With the tank cycling, this would be an opportune time to discuss lighting. There are tons of different choices, each has their own advantages and disadvantages. The proper and most sensible lighting will largely depend on what you want to keep in the tank.

For a Fish Only tank, the typical normal output flourescent lightstrip that comes with the canopy will work just fine. It is even enough power to keep some low-light corals such as Discosoma mushrooms and assorted polyps. The aesthetics of the tank can be improved by adding a marine specific bulb, this will normally brighten the tank up with a higher kelvin rating than what comes standard with the fixture.

When moving up to higher systems that contain corals or other light loving invertebrates, the lighting will have to be upgraded. This can most often be done with power compact lighting. Power compacts have the advantage of provide intense lighting without the heat of say metal halides. They can either be purchased in fixtures (Coralife and Custom SeaLife make excellent ones) or as "retro" kits that are basically the "guts" which can be added to lightstrips or custom canopies. (Note:--Metal halides have their place in Nano-reefkeeping, most often for very intense lighting required by SPS corals and clams. However, I would not consider such a tank appropriate for beginners, and thus will not be addressing them here).

Final Steps

The next and pretty much final steps can be done when ammonia and nitrites have peaked and returned back to 0ppm. It is at this point that I add the bulk of the liverock. Many people will use it to cycle the tank which is perfectly fine, I add it after the tank has cycled to preserve as much life and diversity as possible. Allow a few days to pass to monitor water parameters for any mini cycles.

With everything stable, you can begin to add your "cleanup crew", ensuring that you acclimate them properly. This can consist of a wide variety of snails, reef safe hermits, or other scavengers. Once again after adding them, it is best to wait a few days to make sure things are stable before progressing to any major introduction of a fish or corals. On that note, I suggest waiting a few months before adding corals to allow the tank to mature a bit.


There are several things you should expect when starting a new tank, and a Nano is no different. For the first several months, you will have and should expect several different algae blooms. Different forms of nuisance algae are the most efficient at utilizing excess nutrients in a system, thus it takes a few months until the more desirable algaes are able to outcompete them. Don't panic, and rest assured that the nuisance blooms will reduce in both frequency and severity.

Another issue that should concern Nano keepers is evaporation. As with larger tanks, freshwater evaporates out of the tank. In large tanks, this does not have that much of an impact, but in smaller tanks this can cause a dangerous rise in the salinity of the tank as the salt stays behind. It will be important to keep good clean water available to replenish the lost water as needed.

Routine maintenance will still be required. Expect to have to clean the glass of algae perhaps once a week or more. This can be easily done with one of the scrapers or magnetic cleaners designed for this purpose. You should also prepare to do a small 10-15% water change once a week or every two weeks. This will go a long way towards keeping your tank stable and fresh with trace elements, and reduce the potential need for the hassle of dosing. Furthermore, to borrow a line from Anthony Calfo, "dilution is the solution to pollution!"

Best of luck joining the miniature side of the saltwater hobby, stock wisely and your new Nano tank should bring you tons of enjoyment and pride. This will be followed soon by a Nano tank stocking guide, be sure to check back in at the Articles section!

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