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Living Out Loud
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This is just my guide I use. I hope it helps some people out there considering setting up a reef tank.

Prologue - The best words I have to describe a coral reef is a "lush wasteland." By this I mean many extremely different types of life inhabit a coral reef, yet it is incredibly nutrient poor. Reefs rely on powerful sunlight as an energy source and lifeforms concentrate in a very complex web. All the nutrients in a coral reef are tied up in the living biomass of the inhabitants. Since a reef aquarium is an enclosed system it has only the capability to mimic the biofilter of a reef, and is by definition a micro-habitat. We are unable to mimic the flow of millions of gallons of water flushing and refilling a coral reef. We can only create "reef soup". However, this should not allow you to become discouraged. Through knowledge of what you are trying to mimic we can do an amazing job of allowing a captive reef to thrive and flourish. I hope my tiny guide helps anyone get interested in this fantastic hobby and allows you to be at ease with a little knowledge about how to prepare. With that let's get our hands wet. I have written this set-up guide with the understanding the reader understands the nitrogen cycle (cycling) and other such beginning concepts.

I am in the process of setting up my 8th tank and I will simply copy here exactly how I am going to do it. This is by NO means the "end all, be all" way to set up a reef tank. This is merely how I set mine up and has worked for me successfully and efficiently (not quickly). As with any advice use what works for you and discard the rest. Everyone is looking for a set up which appeals to them aesthetcally and foremost financially. Here are the steps I use to set up a reef tank:

1. Decide on the exact type of tank you wish. SPS (Acropora Millepora, Seriatopora), LPS (Favia, Blastomussa, Euphylliya) Soft corals (Sacryphyton, Nepthea, Alcyonium) Macroalgae/slow moving seahorse tank, etc. The more you can decide EXACTLY what you want to do, the more you will read, study, learn, and most importantly be able to recreate for your inhabitants, which will go a long way in the success of your tank. Take your time and use the internet to your advantage. Read, read, and then after you have bled from eyes from reading read a bit more. Don't forget, the more you research the types of tanks you may want, the more you have learned about how to keep every type of coral, invert, fish etc properly, and that knowledge is NEVER wasted.

2. Great, now you have decided what you want. Maybe you want a fore-reef, lagoon, fringing reef, spur and grove, whatever you like. Learn about all the corals, fish, inverts, and water needs of your tank. DON'T RUSH. If you want to do a fore-reef slope then you need to learn about the amount of water movement needed, lighting, and most of all species which inhabit this area. Insure the aquarium you have is appropriate dimensions as well. A 30 gallon hex tank is NOT going to house the Powder Blue Tang you really want, and it wont create a nice spur and grove will however make a great seahorse/macroalgae tank.

3. Now that you know what you are going to keep, the first and most important step in a reef environment is lighting. Whether you decide on Metal Halide, VHO, Power compacts, or a mixture learn what your corals will need. This is most easily broken into Watts per gallon. You can get away with 3-4 for soft corals 5-8 for LPS and SPS corals. Decide on a Kelvin temperature of the bulb as well. I favor 10k Metal Halides with supplemental actinics. I have used 20K MH before and I loved their deep blue light. 6500K should be the lowest you should go on the Kelvin chart. If you see 5500K it is a bit yellow and I don't care for it. To get an idea of what Kelvin temperature is a candle flame is about 1800-2000K. The higher you go the more blue you see. 6500k or 10K is the standard and anything above that is ok. When deciding how high off the surface to place a hanging metal halide it is more important to consider the distance from the bottom of the tank to the light, than from the surface of the tank to the light. The only consideration for distance between surface to bulb is because metal halides run hot and raise the temperature of the tank. The MH should be at least 12" off the surface unless you have a chiller or it will heat up your water. Tanks deeper than 30" should be using 250W minimum especially if you are going to keep some LPS sand dwellers on the bottom (Trachyphyllia, Fungia, Heliofungia). Once again, decide on the type of tank and custom the lighting to it. There is nothing wrong with knowing you can't afford 5-8 watts per gallon. Soft corals can survive on less and are incredibly gorgeous. Don't get caught up in the SPS acropora craze. Stay within budget.

4. The next most important step is water parameters. Most synthetic sea salts will provde a pristine environment for your corals. I will not go into detail on the levels of each element in parts per million. Read and learn it for yourself so it will become second nature to you. The most important test kits to have immediately in hand are - Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, Phosphate, DKH, and Calcium. Nearly all reef problems can be traced back to either too much or too little of those. Once you get more advanced pick up Strontium, Iodine, Magnesium, and Iron kits...however you are a bit away from that now.

5. Using blank sheet after blank sheet, draw your aquascape. When you are actually ready to do the aquscaping you will be dealing with live rock and don't want to make a mess stacking and restacking. Purchase the supplies you need for the aquascape such as PVC, Glue Sticks, Cable ties, etc. I mean the DRY live rock yet....just be patient. I always attach all my live rock to PVC pipe. This keeps it in a suspended state a bit and allows water flow. I am not a big fan of the "pile o' rubble" look. This is a fun time to go to the LFS and see what types of live rock they have and see if they will haggle a bit on a bulk purchase price. If it is 5.99 per lbs. there is nothing wrong with asking questions like "If I buy 50 pounds do you drop the per pound price?" They should, or I guarantee you, someone else will. (At the time of this writing I am about 1 month away from setting up my tank. I will post my stacking method with pictures and try to demonstrate how to form a nice aquascape. If I start setting up the tank now before I am done unpacking all the dishes, furniture, etc from my recent wife will probably kill me in my sleep. You guys have seen "The Burning Bed" right?)

more coming in Part 2
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