90 Gallon Step by Step Basic Reef Setup


All Gr8KarmaSF's fault....
Original poster
MFK Member
Apr 2, 2007
Staffordshire UK
I thought i would do this reef step-by-step guide for people who are just starting up in the marine world. The sizes of equiptment may differ, but the principles are still the same. A quick run down of the equiptment used for this reef system.
  • 48 x 24 x 18 All Glass Aquarium
  • Aragonite 1.0 - 2.0 grade reef sand
  • 25Kg ( 55lbs ) Ocean rock as base rock
  • 30Kg ( 66lbs ) Mixture of Indo and Fiji live rock
  • 2 x 5000 litres per hour powerheads
  • 2 x 150w heaters
  • 2 x 150w Metal Halide pendant
  • Glass internal thermometer
  • Refractometer
  • API Test kit for Ammonia, pH, Nitrite and Nitrate
  • Salifert kits for Calcium, Alk, Mag and Phosphate
  • Black Background
Notes on equiptment choices

Sand - I have chosen the larger particle sand with this reef as the tank is going to be housing sand burrowing creature like jawfish and pistol shrimp.

Lighting - Decided to go for the 150w lighting this time, as i dont intend to house any real heavy light intensive inhabitants for the forseable future.

Background - Between the usual choices of blue and black, i chose black as i think that black really makes the colour of the inhabitants stand out, and i also feel black aids in giving the tank depth.

Live Rock - I have chosen a mixture of the two common types of live rock to hopefully aid in adding some diversity to the system as a whole.

Observations at this point

I have chosen not have a skimmer on this system and will go on using a 10% per week water change routine. Many times has the debate arisen on whether a skimmer "needs" to used on a reef aquarium. The simple answer to this debate is "no", one does not "need" to be used, however, there are plenty of benefis to using one. It is ultimatly down to each individual to assess the pro's and con's of protein skimming and make their own decision of whether to run one of these.
  • As a word of advice to new aquarists reading this, i would suggest you use a skimmer, at least at the start. This is aid the tank in nutrient export and provide extra stability to the system. Stick to this route untill your happy that you know your tank completley, can quickly recognise when something is wrong by the visual appearance.
I have chosen to use a split on live rock and base rock. I have gone for 25Kg of ocean base rock to form the foundation of the reef, and about 30Kg of Indo and Fiji live rock will be placed on top of this...This seems a good mixture in my opinion, and i would expect the ocean rock to be colonised in around 8 months to the point of it working correctly as filtration.

There is no extra filtration on this system via internal or external cannister filters, simply the live rock. I believe this to be an effective method of filtration.

Putting it all together

Mounted to the wall the shelf mounting brackets which the metal halides will be suspended from. I have purposly put them at a height which is adaptable. The height of the brackets can be adapted for either raising the lighting to allow better access into the tank, and when new bulbs ahve been fitted and the tank needs acclimatizing to the new lighting..

Mounting Brackets...

Mounting Brackets.JPG

Halide bars attached....

Halide Mounting 1.JPG

Halide Mounting 2.JPG

Halide lighting pendant fitted.....


Pendant tested....

Halide Test.JPG

Stand screwed together, was all flat packed up stairs..


Once the stand was screwed together and in place, i added the aquarium...

Tank Added 1.JPG

Tank Added.JPG

Tank Added 2.JPG

Next step is to add the sand and base rock to the tank...80lbs of sand used in total. Most of the base rock is covered up with the sand, and you can just about see some area's of the rock showing through the sand bed. Done it this way to ensure that the rock structure is securely settled on the bottom of the tank, and not resting on any sand. The reason i have done it this way is because when i add sand burrowing inhabitants, i dont want them burrowing under the rock, and then end up with the live rock collapsing due to the sand disturbance.

Sand and Base Rock.JPG

A quick picture to show the depth of the sand, as an average depth..Some area's are about 5 inches in depth which is where i hope the future jawfish and pistol shrimp will base their homes....

Sand Depth.JPG

A quick photograph of the one of the heaters installed. One will be placed at each end of the aquarium.


Next, install the powerhead. These have been fitted at opposite ends of the tank, slighting pointing towards the front of the aquarium. A lower powered device will be added when the live rock arrives to add a gentle flow behind all the rock wall to ensure that detrius etc cannot settle there..

Powerhead 1.JPG

Powerhead 2.JPG

Added the black plastic background to the tank..


Adding the saltwater

The tank was filled 3/4 full with RO water and allowed to aeriate and the temp to get to the required temp, of 79f. An obvious observation can be noted here that i have only filled the tank 3/4 full. Reason behind this is because there will be 30KG (66lbs) of live rock to be added to the tank next, and i have left this ammount of free space in the tank to compensate for space required when the rock gets added.

The salt was then added to the system, directly into the tank and left for 3 days to fully mix and aeriate.

Observations / Notes
  • A lot of people will use tap water to do the inital fill of the aquarium. I would suggest you dont do this unless you have excellent tap water ( a local water authorities report will confirm your water quality ), and use just RO water. By doing this, it will start the system off in the right direction.
  • It will be noticed that i have added the salt directly to the aquarium. This is the only time you should "ever" add salt directly to the tank, when its devoid of livestock. I.E "only" when you first start the tank on the initial fill. The reason salt should never be added directly to a system is because the salt will be directly taken in by the fish or land on the surface of corals and be absorbed. This will cause potentially devastating effects on the stock with death being a very viable likelyhood.
Add the live rock

Now is the time to add all the live rock. It does not matter if the live rock is cured or uncured as the curing process will occur in the tank through cycling. If at all possible, it best to start off with all the correct ammount of live rock to start off with as you will oly be able to add a couple of lb's at a time after the cycle has completed as the tank will go through a mini-cycle if a lot of rock is added afterwards.


Water System / Testing

I thought it would be good to show the difference between the tap water here, where i live, and the RO water produced. In all the following test photographs, the tap water is in the left hand vial, or in the case of the Salifert tests, there will be two photo's, the first always the lap water test, the second being the produced RO water.


The test vial on the left contains my tap water, the right one hold RO Water..Test carried out using API Saltwater Test Kit


As you can see from the pictures, the ammonia content of my tap water is the same as the RO water.


The test vial on the left contains my tap water, the right one hold RO Water..Test carried out using API Saltwater Test Kit


As you can see from the pictures, the Nitrate contents of my tap water are in stark contrast to the water produced by the RO Unit. The tap water contains 20ppm Nitrate's, where as the RO water contans o (Zero).


The first photo shows the phosphate contents on the tap water..Test carried out using Salifert Test Kit


This second photo shows the phosphate contents of my RO unit..


As you can see from the pictures, the Phosphate contents of my tap water are in stark contrast to the water produced by the RO Unit. The tap water contains 3 mg/L Nitrate's, where as the RO water contans 0 mg/L (Zero).

Still think an RO Unit is not worth spending the money on???

Setting the SG

When i first added the salt and water, i used a normal hydrometer to set the Specific Gravity (SG). I set the SG to 1.023.

Then, my refractometer arrived. I now check my SG again to get a specific reading. The reading on my refractometer was 1.030. This is great example of how innacurate a hydrometer actually is. My advice is always to buy a refractometer if the budget allows.



Here is a quick couple of photo's of the water system. 50 Gallon per day RO unit and the water storage container..

RO Unit Fitted.JPG

Water STorage.JPG

Moving forward

The next process the tank will go through is the Nitrogen cycle. In short, the nitrogen cycle prepares the tank for us to add corals, fish and inverts.

Through-out this cycle, its best to be testing for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate as this will provide the indication of what stage the cycle is at, and more importantly, when the cycle has finnished. I recomend to wait at least a week after the cycle has finished and the large water change done before you start to add the first hardy fish or coral. The cleanup crew can be added as soon as the large water change is done...

While the tank is cycling, it will go through many un-seen phases of bacteria build up etc etc, but one visable change that occurs is the diatom algae bloom. Diatoms are just single celled diatom which form together and cause the aquarium to have brown dusting effect all over the rock and sand..See the photos below..



This is a natural process and one which occurs in all new aquariums. Its horrible, detracts beauty from the live rock and turns the gleaming white sandbed in to a brown covered mess. What should we do about it? Well, nothing really. Just let it run its course and provide adequate flow in the tank, and if the cycle has completed, let the cleanup crew of snails / crabs etc do their work of consuming it.

Hope this basic step by step proves to be of use by someone....

Any questions, just post up...


Feeder Fish
MFK Member
Mar 10, 2007
very nice reefscape. kinda wish i could see the pics that go with it though. any way you can fix that?? jw, if not no big deal.


Feeder Fish
MFK Member
Apr 3, 2007
Brisbane, Australia
i think this is sticky maerial ut please post some pcs of it stocked. also one question one ufill a container with ro like u do does the ro water start to have nitrates nitrites or ammonia?


All Gr8KarmaSF's fault....
Original poster
MFK Member
Apr 2, 2007
Staffordshire UK
princess;1700968; said:
first is of my tank water....is this ok?

second is of water from the tap....is this good also?


Absolutly fine :D

amehel0;1701073; said:
i think this is sticky maerial ut please post some pcs of it stocked. also one question one ufill a container with ro like u do does the ro water start to have nitrates nitrites or ammonia?

No, the RO water has zero Ammonia, Nitrites and Nitrates...I think that is what you were asking...

Pics will be added to this sticky as examples as it goes......i want to keep it generic as its a step by step setup, and not my reef log..



Feeder Fish
MFK Member
May 29, 2008
great post Reefscape. i will be starting up a reef tank today. hope you can help me out in the future.


is it better to test for ammonia, nitrates, etc.. before or after you put the salt water mix in? and why is it that you can only put a couple pounds of live rock in at a time?