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Tank Size

The first tank was 180 gallon. A larger tank is often easier to take care of because the large water capacity provides a buffer for changes in temperature, pH, Nitrates, Nitrites, etc. However, I found this tank to be too big. I had to use a step stool to reach into the tank, and my wife couldn't reach the bottom at all. If a coral fell to the bottom, I was the only one in the family that could reach to pick it up. A standard 100 gallon is a much more manageable size.

Placing Live Rock

Some of the books I had read (along with some of the early reef tanks I'd seen) suggested using some form of Plexiglas structure to place the live rock on. I had some Plexiglas forms with rods for holding the rock in place made up at Tap Plastic (a local company that does plastic fabrication). This worked OK, but the resulting rock face turned out to be too steep to keep the coral from falling down easily. In my subsequent tanks, I just bought more large pieces of live rock which allowed me to set it up with cave-like openings which worked very well.

Sump Design

In my first tank, I used a commercial wet/dry filter. This is not ideal for a reef tank. First of all, the wet dry filter uses almost all its space for the biological filter material. There was no space available to put a protein skimmer inside (which I think is essential for a reef tank), so I had to use external plumbing for this. There was also no place to put a mechanical filter that was in the least bit easy to change. Also, the protein skimmer output dumped back into the sump at virtually the same place it was pumped back into the tank. All the bubbles from the protein skimmer were then pumped right back into the tank, resulting in water that was always a bit hazy.

I replaced the commercial wet/dry filter even on this first tank with a custom fabricated Plexiglas sump design. The first one I made was overly complicated with baffles to trap detritus. On subsequent tanks, I've made the sump design simpler. The key points in the sump design are 1) be able to hold all plumbing including the protein skimmer inside the sump, 2) have a large water reservoir so that you don't have to top off the tank every other day and so that it will hold all the water that will drain in if the power goes out, 3) have an easy to replace mechanical filter, and 4) make sure the outlet of the protein skimmer feeds into the mechanical filter to remove the microbubbles before the water is pumped back into the tank.


I had a hard time keeping the temperature of my first tank below 80 degrees F. This was   because I had too many powerheads, the light hood was not well ventilated, the tank was completely covered so I had little evaporative cooling, and I had no air conditioning in the house. I decided to invest in a chiller. I won't do this again.

The plumbing for the chiller is complicated. It also puts out a lot of heat and is inside the house so you end up making the house even hotter. In my case, the chiller was in the aquarium cabinet and I was forced to keep the doors of the cabinet open much of the time to prevent the cabinet from getting too hot inside. The chiller is also quite noisy (although it did drown out the vibrating pump sound I had on this tank :-)).

The chiller for my 180 gallon tank ended up costing about $900. You can buy a pretty nice room air conditioner for less than this and enjoy the benefits yourself. Skip the chiller unless it just can't be avoided. If you need a chiller, try to figure out a way to have it in the garage or laudry room and plumb it to the tank.

Creatures to Avoid

There are numerous compatibility issues with corals, fish, and other marine organisms, and there are many texts that discuss these issues. However, there are many creatures that are considered compatible that I would not put in my tank again based on my previous experience. These are: sea urchins, sea stars (other than brittle stars which are great), and large crabs. The problem with these creatures are that they knock things over as they forage for food. I've also had problems with the crabs biting off the legs of brittle stars.

Creatures I'd Recommend

Brittle stars

Cleaner shrimp

Hermit crabs

Bubble tip anemone

Clown fish

Cardinal fish

Lawnmower Blenny

Orange Spotted Goby