Reef Aquarium Tips

Reefing 101

By: Patrick Egan

I’ve always wondered how someone could have so much success with a reef aquarium. Corals growing so tightly to one another they spiral around each other in a dance to the surface. I have had my fair share of success keeping corals, but there’s always that one coral that’s just never happy. In a panic, adjustments are made and the next thing you know another coral is unhappy. You couldn’t just leave well enough alone and now everything is stressed. Sometimes you just have to let the aquarium decide the fate of your corals. If I could teach new hobbyists anything about a reef aquarium it would be that nothing good happens fast… Patience is any aquarists’ best tool. 

Tip #1

One of the biggest mistakes new reefers make is they put the cart before the horse. They become so fixated on testing for calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium that they forget the nitrogen cycle all together. Nowadays, almost all reef aquariums are started with either dry or man-made live rock. This puts the success of the aquarium at a huge disadvantage if it is not cycled properly. Traditional live rock from the ocean comes loaded with hundreds (if not thousands) of different microbes and marine fauna. When using dry rock, bacteria must be added manually to ensure the stability of the aquarium. 

Tip #2

Another mistake aquarists make is once the aquarium completes its initial nitrogen cycle, they think the aquarium is permanently cycled. A new aquarium can go through “mini cycles” every time new live stock is added and even sometimes after a water change. Each mini cycle builds more and more bacteria to accommodate the increasing bio load. This is why I always recommend continuing to dose nitrifying bacteria for the first 6 months of a new aquarium. Stability is the key to successful reefing. Here are a few simple rules to increase your success with your reef aquarium. 


Never underestimate the power of a water change. Small frequent water changes will not only reduce algae causing nutrients but will also introduce depleted trace elements back into the water. Weekly water changes of 10-15 percent can increase your success drastically.


Monitor your salinity. Although there is no definitive level to keep it, we recommend a specific gravity between (1.023-1.025). The important thing is to keep it the same. Aquariums can evaporate water quite rapidly which concentrate the salts in your aquarium. Adding buffered freshwater will keep the specific gravity balanced. The buffered water will lower your salinity and also adds carbonated back into the aquarium and prevents ph swings. There are many auto top off systems on the market that can help keep your salinity stable. 


Not all bacteria are bad. Routinely dosing nitrifying bacteria will keep ammonia and nitrite from reaching toxic levels. These bacteria convert ammonia and nitrites into nitrate which are then utilized by zooxanthelle and coralline algae. Bacteria also creates a healthy bio film on the surfaces that can be utilized by your cleanup crew and also out compete other harmful bacteria.


Know when to sterilize your tank. Ultra violet sterilizers can increase the success of keeping many delicate marine fish. However, sterilizing too soon can prevent your aquarium from properly going through the nitrogen cycle. Turn your U.V. Sterilizer on 3-4 months after the initial setup of your aquarium. It is also recommended to shut the U.V. light off for 12 hours after dosing beneficial bacteria.

Rule #5

Less is more. Wait on dosing supplements and specialty coral foods until your aquarium is 20-30% full of corals. Good lighting and fish bio load will provide enough nutrients to keep your corals nourished. Regular water changes will also help keep calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium balanced. 


Skim your water properly. A protein skimmer will remove dissolved organic carbon which can fuel algae and disease causing bacteria. A good skim rate should cause you to clean/empty your skimmer head every 2-3 days. If your skimmer is collecting a thick mud than substance instead of liquid, chunks of this dissolved organic carbon can break free and recycling itself back into your aquarium. Protein skimmers can be very touchy so it is recommended to check daily to make adjustments.

These are just a few of many tips to increase your success with your reef aquarium. For more technical questions, feel free to email us at or call the store at (973)-365-0200.

We hope to see you soon!

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