Nano Reef Tanks: 10 Steps To Setting Them Up Right

Nano reef tanks are becoming more popular these days. With the advancement of aquarium equipment and tank designs, setting up a nano tank has never been easier.

Nano reef tanks can be as simple as a basic square tank with the addition of filters, heaters, lights, or they can be purchased as an all in one solution with everything built into the tank.

There are many options available to choose from. 

Nano reef tanks can have many advantages over larger tanks. The main one being cost. Although, you can spend a lot of money on fancy gear and technical equipment if you want, for the most part, setting up a nano tank will be more affordable than setting up a large reef tank. 

Nano tanks are the same as any other saltwater tank other than it’s size. Any tank smaller than a 30 gallon is considered to be nano-sized. 

This article will show you 10 steps to setting up a nano reef tank the right way.  


Step 1. Decide on the type of setup – fowlr vs reef 

The first step is to decide on the type of nano tank you want to have. Planning this ahead of time will make your decisions on livestock and equipment easier going forward.

For example, instead of a full reef tank, you may choose to have a fish only or fish only with live rock(fowlr) set up. Fowlr tanks will save you money as there won’t be a need for specific lighting for corals, dosing considerations, specific water movement, etc..

If you are planning to have corals in the tank, your choices of livestock will be different as some saltwater fish are not safe to have with corals.

So make this your first decision, what type of nano tank do you plan to have? Fish only or a reef tank?


Step 2. Choose a tank and stand

The next step is to decide on the actual tank and stand you want to use. There are so many options available these days and there will be a variety of prices depending on the options you choose. 

I recommend using an all in one nano tank. These tanks come complete with an integrated filter system, overflow and return pump, and have a modern-looking style and design to suit any space in your home.

Most all in one tanks will have a stand that is designed for the tank available for separate purchase. Some include them and some don’t.

A bonus of setting up a nano tank, is they don’t require special stands like larger and heavy tanks. You can place them on an end table or dresser if you like.

Of course, that depends on the size and weight of the tank, make sure your stand will support it.

I have mentioned my biocube 32 gallon all in one tank in a few different articles and it is my favorite nano tank on the market. There are so many upgrades available for it, so as your tank matures, you will have the option to add some great equipment to it. 

Other great nano tanks are the Nuvo Fusion 20 and the Fluval 13.5. You can read more about these tanks by clicking the links. 

Things to consider when choosing a nano tank:

  • Location in your home. 

Make sure to choose a location where you plan to set up the tank ahead of time. You want to ensure the tank will fit properly in the space. Check the tank and stand dimensions with the wall space to ensure a proper fit.

Also, make sure it will not be placed directly in front of a window or anywhere it will get direct sunlight.

  • Livestock

Before you choose your tank, it’s important to have a plan for livestock ahead of time. Where nano tanks are smaller in size, some won’t be suitable for certain fish. Choose the tank that will be properly sized for your fish. 


Step 3. Setup in place 



Once you have your tank and stand, it’s time to set it up in place. Ensure that it is level and on a sturdy floor. Make sure that you leave enough room behind the tank and wall for any equipment and for you to reach behind. I made this mistake before and didn’t leave enough room for my filter behind the tank. You will need to drain the tank to move it out from the wall. Then refill it. 

Step 4. Make and Mix RODI water

The next step is to make your saltwater mix. Only use RODI water for your tank. It is very important. Tap water contains contaminants that you don’t want in your tank. Use a RODI filter like the Aquatic life RO Buddie which is suitable for nano-sized tanks.

Don’t forget to make enough water for top-ups as water will evaporate naturally from your tank. Some people choose to use an auto top off system which is very convenient and helps keep your water parameters stable and consistent.

When making your saltwater, use a good quality salt. There are many different brands of salts available and not all are the same. If you are planning to keep corals, you should use a salt mix that has the proper elements.

I use the Red Sea coral pro salt mix. It is affordable, mixes easy and fast, and has all the necessary elements for a reef tank.

There are other brands like Instant Ocean and Aquaforest that are great as well. 


Step 5. Add rock and sand/aquascape

Before adding your saltwater into the tank, you should add your sand and rock first. Plan your aquascape and place the rocks in the tank leaving plenty of swimming space and caves for the fish to swim around.

Nano tanks don’t require as much sand and rock as larger tanks. You may only need 10 or 20 pounds of rock depending on tank size and dimensions. Choose a good quality rock that is porous as it will contain beneficial bacteria and provide filtration.

Sand is available in different sizes and types. If you have a 20-gallon nano tank, you may want to use up to 20 pounds of sand, enough to cover the bottom of your tank with about a 1” thickness.

I recommend the Caribsea base rock and Caribsea sand. Both are available on Amazon. 


Step 6. Choose the right equipment

Choosing your equipment will depend on a few factors. Many all in one nano tanks will already have a canopy with lighting built-in, included return pump, and other accessories. But you will have the option to add additional items like a protein skimmer, nano media reactors, auto top off, heater, wavemaker.

If you plan to keep corals, you will need to add a powerhead or wavemaker as the return pump used in the tank won’t provide enough water flow. Some people choose to not use a protein skimmer on nano tanks, but I suggest you consider using one.

There are many different nano-sized skimmers that are designed to be used with smaller tanks. Many will fit perfectly with all in one tanks. Heaters and upgraded lighting are other additional pieces of equipment to add to your tank. If your tank doesn’t include the lighting and you are not keeping corals, then a basic aquarium LED light will be suitable.

Check out my article here to see the best all in one nano tanks and various equipment available for them.


Step 7. Wait for the cycle

Once your water and equipment are added, it is time to have patience and wait for your tank to complete its cycle. This will take anywhere from 4-8 weeks.

It’s important to not rush this and let the tank run its course. Do not add fish or livestock during this process. Some people will add a hardy fish prior to the tank being cycled to rush the cycle time. This is not a good idea. Let the tank mature naturally.

Using fish to cycle a tank is very stressful to the fish and there is a good chance it will die. There are certain products like Microbacter 7 that will help populate the biological filter media and improve the cycling time. 

Step 8. Test the water

During and after the cycle period, test your water to ensure everything is within limits and safe to add livestock. You will know when your tank is cycled once the ammonia level reaches 0.

Check all parameters using a good quality test kit before adding fish. Here are the important water parameters to test for. 


best saltwater aquarium test kits


Step 9. Add fish and invertebrates

Adding livestock into your nano tank should only be done when the tank is fully cycled. It’s important to add livestock slowly over time. I like to keep a pair of clownfish in my nano tanks. They are hardy and tough fish so I will usually add them first.

If you are planning to use a cleanup crew like snails or shrimp, you can add them first if you like. Adding too much livestock at once can cause a decrease in water quality and move your water parameters out of limits.

Nitrates can increase to unsafe levels and your tank can crash especially when new. Like anything in the saltwater aquarium hobby, slow and steady wins the race. Don’t be in a rush to add livestock into a new tank. 


Step 10. Perform routine maintenance 

Once your tank is set up and running, you will need to perform routine maintenance to ensure everything stays healthy and matures over time. Things like water changes, equipment maintenance, water testing, are all things that will need to be done.

You can create a schedule and keep track of items to complete on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. You will get into a routine that works for you and keeps the tank healthy for the long term. 


Setting up a nano tank is not difficult. It’s important to follow a few steps to ensure that you don’t miss anything and you are on the right track. The best advice that I ever received with keeping saltwater tanks is to be patient and let things happen naturally. Slow and steady is key to your success.

Nano tanks will make a showpiece in your home or office and when set up properly, can be a real conversion piece.