Nano In A Nutshell

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Small reef in the home of Matt Wittenrich. Matthew L. Wittenrich

By Mike Maddox

Q: I am itching to start my first saltwater tank, but need to do it on a student budget. Can I start with a 10 gallon desktop tank, or do I really need to wait until I have enough for a 40 or 55-gallon tank that some people say is the minimum starter size for a first marine aquarium? Craig T. Hanover, NH

A: This is an excellent question Craig, and something I happen to have a lot of personal experience with, as I started a keeping small marine systems fourteen years ago. Let me share with you some knowledge I’ve acquired in my experiences with nano (twelve gallons or less)* aquariums. Generally speaking, it’s better to decide what you want to keep in your aquarium, and then proceed from there. However, because of your space and budget limitations, let me give you an overview on maintaining nano aquariums. Consider this a three step guide to a successful nano aquarium!

[edit] 1. Essential Planning

I recommend starting out with one of the commercially available nano aquariums on the market. These systems come complete with the tank, hood, lighting and filtration – all you’ll need to do is add sand, live rock, water, and a heater. I really like the Oceanic Biocube series, although I’ll be posting a review of the Nano Wave 9 here soon.

Next, you’re going to want live rock as the basis of your filtration. In my opinion, no marine aquarium should be without live rock, due to its superb biological filtration abilities and biodiversity.

In a nano aquarium, live rock combined with water movement will be all the filtration you’ll need. A pound of rock per gallon of water is the general rule of thumb, though more can be used if you’d prefer. Water movement is just as important – plan on needing a 10x volume turnover per hour, preferably in a random, turbulent flow. Break up laminar (stream) currents by directing them on rocks or the tank walls.

[edit] 2. Stocking

Stocking options for a nano aquarium are very limited, and you should plan your purchases! Small fish such as some clownfish, damsels, dottybacks, basslets, and gobies will work well, but you won’t be able to keep very many. Pick one or two small fish to enjoy, but resist overstocking. If you want to keep larger fish, a nano aquarium isn’t for you.

Another benefit of an all-in-one tank is the built in lighting, if you’re interested in keeping corals. Many species of corals also make excellent candidates for the nano aquarium, such as zooanthids, ricordia, leather corals, mushrooms, and more. Be sure to research potential tankmates to make certain you can provide a suitable home.

[edit] 3. Water Quality

At one point, I was having a lot of trouble maintaining proper water quality. I was using various additives, which would cause my water chemistry to go out of whack because of the small water volume, which would lead to more water chemistry problems, causing a never ending cycle of problems. I finally realized something so simple it should have occurred to me sooner: stop using additives, and just stick to water changes! Weekly water changes of 50-75% are highly recommended to remove wastes and replace trace elements and calcium, especially if you plan on turning your nano aquarium into a nano reef. Just make sure your mix water is the same pH, temperature, and salinity as your tank water!

This “Nano in a Nutshell” guide should get you on your way to your first successful setup. Further reading is always recommended – be sure to visit the rest of Microcosm for further reading.

EDITOR: * According to Julian Sprung, a nano aquarium is "anything under 30 gallons (114 L)."

This article is also posted on our new blog by Mike Maddox, where comments and questions are invited. See: [Mike Maddox Live - Captive Aquatics].