This article is meant as a basic article to show different methods, from simple to unique to set up a marine aquarium for fish/reef.
For a more in depth article, with more information, please see; Marine Care Basics Article
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TMC Fluidized Sand Bed Filters
The TMC Premium Fluidized Sand Bed Filter increases Bio Capacity of any Aquarium system, with unsurpassed Nitrifying Bio-Filtration. An excellent compliment to any Canister Filter
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The purpose of this article is to give SEVERAL viable options for setting up a saltwater aquarium that WORK! (Please note that this is a very basic article, and that we cannot give setup suggestions for products we are unfamiliar with.)
Some of the options are well known, others are not as well known but just as workable and often times even better than those set out by the anecdotal standards of many in the hobby that will not think outside the box.
This includes methods such as a drilled canister filter that is set up with Volcanic rock, Crushed coral crumbles, or SeaChem Matrix so as to not become the nitrate factories that is a poor label by those who have not correctly installed these filters in a Marine Aquarium.
Another lesser known option is the cousin to the popular Bio Cube and that is the Internal Wet/Dry Bio filter, again set up PROPERLY, they can be an excellent filter system.
This article is NOT intended to be an exhaustive reference for all effective methods to set up a marine or reef aquarium, rather allow many to think outside the box for methods many are not aware of, yet are proven to work.
This article is not intended to provide complete saltwater/reef set-up and care information, rather equipment options (some familiar, some not).
For for a more complete saltwater basics guide, please read this article: Saltwater Basics, Care, Information Please also read the many excellent links to yet even more in depth articles such as Lighting and Redox.
The simple diagram to the left is intended only as ONE way to set up a saltwater aquarium, as there are other excellent combinations including Refugiums/Mud Filters, which usually also include a protein skimmer, other Fluidized Filter combinations, Wet/Dry, and even HOB with other filter combinations as well.
I strongly recommend using live rock crumbles or products such as SeaChem Matrix which is even more effective, in place of ceramic bio media, plastic bio balls, bio stars, or similar for de-nitrification as these other filter medium only provide aerobic bio filtration, thus creating high nitrates.
When live rock crumbles and/or Matrix (often volcanic rock can be substituted, although not as effective) are used this can avoid the “nitrate factory” aspect that these filters have been labeled with.
The use of Purigen can further help with Nitrate & Phosphate Control.
Sadly many un-informed aquarists have only passed along poor information about marine aquarium set-ups rather than experimenting with the many different set-ups possible. I have set up many high end aquariums in this manner, where the client would not appreciate a low quality set up! Be wary of those who slam these or similar systems, as they have probably found this poor advice on some of the aquatic forums that have not done their homework!
This set up is recommended for a beginner OR advanced aquarist and also allows expansion into a reef set up provided proper lighting is added later such as MH, SHO, T2, T5, or LED (especially for sps corals,, clams, or nudibranchs).
Please click on the pictures above and below to enlarge
Here is simple diagram of another way to set up a marine tank using a sump, micron filer bag, live rock, a skimmer, high performance pump, and UV Sterilizer (please click to enlarge).
This is a variation on the wet dry system, but without the bio balls which, like the common filter media used in canister filters, can cause high amounts of nitrates (often referred to as a nitrate factory). In this method the live rock is both a nitrifying AND de-nitrifying filter. This also employs a micron media bag for added filtration.
The Sump to the left is another very simple sump method that uses premium Hydro Sponge Filters and Pre-Filters.
This set up includes a Hydro Pond #4 (this filter is excellent for high capacity aquarium systems), and the intake consists of a Filter Max #3.
Live Rock, Matrix, and/or volcanic rock can and should be added around the sponge filter pick up for added de-nitrification.
Finally this set up can include a Protein Skimmer in the sump (which can have an added ozonizer for even better efficiency) and a UV Sterilizer such as the TMC Vecton UV to the outflow. Please Click to Enlarge.
Pure Berlin Method;
This diagram displays a method that only uses multiple power heads, ample live rock, a deep sand bed (4+ inches), usually a Protein Skimmer and often an Algae Scrubber, Refugium or Mud filter (which can often be combined). Please Click on the picture of the Algae Scrubber concept Diagram tank combination to enlarge.
This is a new trend/diversion from Refugiums & similar older Berlin Methods that many find excellent results such as nearly non existent nitrate levels. This can also be combined with further filtration, including Sponges and UV/Germacidal Filtration
For more about Algae Scrubber, Refugium or Mud filter, please visit this article about Aquarium Filtration: "Aquarium Filtration"
The Pure Berlin Method is often promoted by Reef purists, however I do not generally recommend this for beginners as this method does not allow for poor feeding habits (as well as many other mistakes common to newbies) and since UV Sterilizers are often not employed; germicidal filtration as well as the very important benefits of improved Redox are missing.
A common statement by the purists that recommend this system over any other method is unfortunately based on some false assumptions:
(1) Any filtration in the end produces nitrates;
Answer NOT if live rock or volcanic rock crumbles are used in filters (in place of the usual media that only attracts aerobic bacteria) as well as proper cleaning (& vacuuming) procedures and regular rinsing of pre filters (sponges are very simple and quick to rinse).
(2) The live rock, live sand and protein skimmer will handle all waste problems;
Answer NOT true as I too have set up MANY of these systems for clients that have then overwhelmed their aquariums with over feeding or other poor maintenance issues often resulting in large amounts of detritus on the bottom of the aquarium and worse (this is not to say this will happen, however I have observed this often especially with clients that provided the majority of their own maintenance).
(3) UV Sterilizers are not necessary and can do harm;
Answer ONLY half right, a UV Sterilizer is not necessary however I have documented better Redox, improved longevity vitality among inhabitants as well less disease outbreaks when UVs are used.
As to UV Sterilizers doing harm, I will refer the readers to these articles:
These are economical wet dry filters that slip inside your aquarium and also contains a space for your heater.
This works well up to a 45-60 gallon aquarium (or larger with multiples), although I recommend replacing some of the filer media with live rock crumbles and/or SeaChem Matrix, and a nylon filter bag filled with Oolite sand for de-nitrification (Purigen would also be a could addition to these filters).
I also still strongly recommend live rock inside the aquarium, additional power head (or internal filter) and would suggest a Protein Skimmer and/or UV Sterilizer (this filter also easily connects to a UV sterilizer without too much fuss, see the picture to the left).
Honestly with the correct media, this can make for an awesome system, even for higher end advanced reef aquariums as with live rock crumbles in them they can easily propagate copepods and act as far more than just a “filter” The ReSun BF200 can be easily used in pairs (or more) for larger tanks such as two for say a 100 gallon with a UV Sterilizer on one (the other without to allow for better copepod propagation). Unfortunately, due to the slow economy, the larger models are not currently in production for the North American market, but hopefully sometime in mid 2013 the larger sizes will be available again!
In fact, the ReSun BF 100 filter combined with a high end Protein Skimmer such as the V2 Skim 400, and a Propeller pump such as the Seio 320 can make for a high end marine/reef set up for an aquarium under 60-75 gallons along with a deep sand bed and live rock and good lighting (see later in the article for more about lighting).
The idea of the Via Aqua Multi Skimmer or similar in place of the Canister Filter for tanks under 60 gallon.
This filter has the UV Sterilizer, Protein Skimmer, and a basic HOB Filter all in one. I would still recommend additional power heads and especially the live rock. Also a Filter Max #3 Pre-filter attached to this would improve bio capacity (especially during filter cartridge changes).
I would also note that the Multi Skimmer does NOT have the capacity of a canister filter such as the SunSun Canister Filter or Rena Filstar, nor is its protein skimmer of the caliber of the Tropic Marine V-2 Skim Protein Skimmers" capacity (especially when coupled with an Ozonizer, nor the UV Sterilizer of the caliber of the TMC Vecton UV Sterilizers (or similar).
The VA Multi Skimmer is a relatively inexpensive (as compared to similar products bought separately) unit that is practical for entry level saltwater aquarists desiring a simple system for low cost. However I will also note that the Multi-Skimmer is not a premium product and does not replace better high end marine aquarium equipment that otherwise would be purchased separately & I would recommend for advanced reef keepers.
I would also strongly suggest an internal power filter, Propeller Pump, or Power Head to compliment this unit and provide better flow through your live rock.
Rio Nano Skimmer This is again an entry level Hang on the back (HOB/ Power Filter) combined with simple and basic Protein Skimmer. Like the VA Multi Skimmer this is not a high end product, however it is useful for beginners or those on a budget with a 40 gallon or smaller marine aquarium. As with the previous two suggestions, I would recommend ample live rock and deep sand (2-3 inches of #00 with ½” of #3 crushed coral on top) as well as a power head (such as the Rio 600) or internal filter for better water movement. Also a UV Sterilizer is another possible addition (connected to a power head). See this article for how a Sterilizer improves your aquarium water quality (including a video): How UV Sterilization Works)
Fluidized Sand Bed Filters (FSB Filters) are an excellent addition to Power Head Pumps or even Canister Filters to increase aerobic filtration (nitrification). The advantage of a fluidized bed filter is the self cleaning of the surface area of the sand grains by the constant churning and mixing of sand suspended within the filtration chamber. This type of filter provides high amounts of surface area for unsurpassed nitrifying bio-filtration capacity.
With the use of NPC Bioplastics inside a premium TMC FSB Filter; nitrate & phosphate problems can be a thing of the past!
Most users have found NPC Bioplastics superior to Vodka Dosing Methods to reduce Nitrates & Phosphates in Marine Aquariums
*Instead of a lot of ceramic filter media and other filter media which only perform nitrification, the canister filter (or wet/dry) should be loaded with live rock fragments/crumbles or volcanic rock this is to keep the canister filter from becoming a nitrate factory by providing anaerobic and aerobic filtration. I recommend the live rock/volcanic rock crumbles be place in the first 50% of the filter that the water passes through. Another alternative to live rock crumbles is SeaChem Matrix this unique product is a high porosity bio media that provides efficient bio filtration for the removal of nitrogenous waste, including nitrates via anaerobic de-nitrification deep inside the pore complex of this product.
SeaChem Purigen is another product that can be used in filters, however this would fall under the category of adsorbents. Purigen is a premium synthetic adsorbent that is not a mixture of ion exchangers or adsorbents, rather a unique macro-porous synthetic polymer that removes soluble and insoluble impurities from water. Purigen controls ammonia, nitrites and often hard to control nitrates by removing nitrogenous organic waste that would otherwise release these harmful compounds, with minimal impact on trace elements.
For further discussion of filter media, please see this article:
Aquarium Answers; Aquarium and Pond Filter Media.
*Live Rock in the Aquarium is also a must for utilization of the Berlin filter method which basics turns this rock into a large nitrifying and de-nitrifying filter provided you have adequate circulation.
A deep sand bed is also VERY important for de-nitrification; I prefer at least 3 inches of fine #00 oolite size sand with a ½ inch layer of #3 crushed coral on top for some aerobic nitrifying bacteria as well as improved ease in cleaning. Please see the full Marine Basics article for more about this subject: AQUARIUM SALTWATER BASICS; information, resources, and more
*Reverse Osmosis Water is also a must for anyone desiring to keep a more advanced marine aquarium (in particular a reef tank). Owning your own Reverse Osmosis System allows the aquarium keeper to make RO water for less than 2 cents per gallon. The use of this water is a must for evaporation to prevent buildup of nitrates (which are found in most tap water sources) and other compounds/minerals that can affect the balance of your aquarium. As well this RO water allows for a better quality saltwater when used to mix with most premium salts such as Tropic Marine.
*The UV Sterilizer, although not essential is a device that will aid in your Redox Potential as well as disease prevention and I personally strongly recommend them. I generally turn them on after the first week.
*Protein Skimmers are another useful suggestion that can be added after the first few weeks (they do little in the first few weeks due to lack of organics in the water column). Although not 100% required a top notch Protein Skimmer such as the TMC V2 Skim or ASM Skimmer makes reef keeping much easier and thus I would suggest one of these higher end Protein Skimmers for advanced reef marine aquariums.
As well a venture style protein skimmer can have an Ozone Generator added for improved effectiveness of organic waste removal, as well this device also lowers pathogens in the water column (similar to a UV Sterilizer).
*Lighting can be improved as you step up to more advanced inhabitants such as anemones and especially corals.
The best choice with all the advances and when one considers lights in an apples to apples comparison are the Aquarium LED Lights (the vastly out dated watts per gallon so-called rule cannot be applied to modern marine aquarium lights, especially AquaRay LEDs which only require as little as .16 watts per gallon!!).
The latest LED lights will outperform ALL fluorescent lights including HO T5 and VHO CFL. When you consider that the newer LED aquarium lights last 50,000 hours, the price is less over the life of the fixture when compared to HO T5 such as the Current 39 watt that might be ½ the cost, but lasts only 1/6 the time and consumes 3-4 times the energy for the same outputs; The Aqua Ray Aquarium LED lights are the better value for your aquarium and the environment when compared apples to apples in terms of focused lumens, lumens per watt, PAR, much less wasted light energy in the yellow/green spectrum & more.
Another excellent choice to step up to are the newer SHO lights shown to the left (click to enlarge). These are powerful lights with high lumens per watt, require only basic incandescent fixtures (rather than some of the expensive ballast required by many high end lights) and just as important have the necessary PAR required for stony corals, clams, and other sessile species that depend on photosynthesis of zooanthellic algae (despite some of the anecdotal information that although more than 20 years old and outdated still passed around in the hobby).
The SHO lights can also be used in combination with high end Metal Halide such as the EcoSystems Sun HQI MH or the even newer high end LED lights such as the TMC Aqua Ray Marine Lights, Fixtures (Pictured to the left in a “Marine Blue” combination).
These newer, and less expensive than earlier LED lights can also be used by themselves (especially for tanks under 50 gallons) or in combination with T2, T5, Metal Halide or simple and inexpensive CFL lamps. For tanks over 100 gallons, these compact TMC Aqua Ray Marine Lights can be used in the previously mention before mentioned combination with SHO for greater economy.
Other good lighting choices include New Generation T2, T5 (slightly less then T2 technology though), & VHO lights. In fact the T2 lights can be linked together and have high usable light output making it not only excellent light for small to medium Basic Reef and Nano Reef tanks, but excellent lights for Fish only or FOWLR tanks. For example; two 13 Watt T2 fixtures can easily illuminate one 60 gallon Fish Only/FOWLR tank for very little cost in energy.
Please see this article for MUCH more in depth and updated information about aquarium lighting:
“How Aquarium Lighting Works” *Calcium Reactor; this is a useful device for maintaining bio available calcium in reef tanks with large amounts of stony corals. As well these Calcium Reactors can maintain positive calcium ions that are essential for fish health/Redox balance as well.
See this article for more: Aquarium Calcium, Marine, Freshwater
Finally, if nitrates are a problem (with or without a Protein Skimmer);
You might consider several other options such as a Deep Sand filter with can be a simple DIY project using either a 10 gallon aquarium or even a bucket. Please click on the picture to see the article to the left.
Refugiums and Mud filters (or combinations of all three in one unit) are also considerations. Above all, if nitrates are a problem with your system, make sure you watch your feeding AND use live rock crumbles or similar porous rock (such as volcanic rock or “Bio Home”) instead of bio balls, or other filter media that only attracts nitrifying aerobic bacteria.