Once considered taboo and even impossible, nano reefs have gained popularity in recent years.

The simplicity and ease of setting up a nano tank allows even the novice aquarist the opportunity to have a slice of the reef in their home or office.

Reef aquarists generally define the nano as an aquarium of 20 gallons or less. Nowadays, nano reef setups are as common in local fish stores as dog food in your big-box pet supply store. Most nano tanks are ready to setup right out of the box and include all your necessary components. A few modifications, however, may be required to better equip your reef for the journey ahead. Despite the limited space, there are no longer boundaries to the types of corals you can keep in your nano once it is properly set up.

Constructing a nano reef is easy. In fact, it’s no different from setting up a normal sized tank. A natural filtration method is usually preferred for nano reefs. If space is available and you have a larger tank equipped with a sump, the Berlin method can be a very effective filtration technique. Quality live rock and sand are also key to the success of your reef. You’ll need one pound of live rock per gallon, and about one-half pound of live sand per gallon (this is true for both large and small tanks).

An efficient and appropriately sized protein skimmer is also important for success in the nano reef. While this may not be the case for all nanos, aquarists striving for optimum conditions will likely need a protein skimmer to produce and control water quality in order to care for more delicate species.

There are many hang-on protein skimmers available for nano reefs. The AquaC Nano Remora is a popular choice because it is very affordable and work well in smaller tanks.

The new ASM mini G series works best in a sump below the aquarium and can help rid your nano of excessive nutrients and waste that invite unwelcome algae growth.

CPR’s Bak Pak skimmer has been around for quite a long time and has built a reputation of reliability and efficiency.

Considered by many as the best skimmer around, the Tunze Nano DOC Protein Skimmer 9002 is a great addition for your nano, especially when space is limited and water quality is important. Although taller than a standard 10-gallon tank, placing it within the rock work or in the back chamber of the tank may allow you to conceal this very effective, high-quality skimmer.

This brings us to the point of size selection.

Generally speaking, 10- and 20-gallon tanks are considered standard sizes, meaning they’re readily available and can be found at most pet stores. These are also good sizes to start with since there are so many lighting options available for standard size tanks.

Most hobbyists opt for power compact fluorescents or T5 lights for lighting their nano tanks. Power compact lighting solutions produce sufficient light but emit more heat than T5 lighting. T5, on the other hand, offers more light with less heat and energy consumption.

Most soft and LPS corals can be kept in a nano reef with these standard light setups. With a little modification, like adding additional lighting and power heads, you’ll be able to sustain SPS corals as well. Coral placement now becomes the decisive factor in nurturing the health and growth of your corals.

Many reefers report success using metal halide lighting. This higher output lighting can create heat issues; counterbalancing this is a task all aquarium hobbyists must deal with.

Fortunately, the many clip-on, hang-on and suspension lights now available help hobbyists combat the heat by means of ventilation. Suspension kits are another alternative that allow you to safely mount your fixture in a sleek and stylish way.

Water movement is vital in all reef aquariums, regardless of size, to keep tank inhabitants happy and healthy. Small powerheads, such as the Tunze Nano Streams 6025’s and 6045’sHydor Koralia Nano, and Maxi-Jets work exceptionally well.

Nano hobbyists must be extremely mindful of wattage when choosing a pump and/or powerhead because they can directly affect the overall heat in your mini-biotope. The types of corals in your tank dictate how much flow you need and you must choose your powerhead(s) accordingly. You may need one or two powerheads in the tank, depending on what type of reef you are attempting to recreate, particularly when it comes to creating turbulent and oscillating flow rates.

There are many books on species of coral and how to setup an aquarium that will further guide and educate you on how to care for your corals.

Selecting the right mix of livestock is vital to the long term success of your nano reef. Choosing fish proportionate to your tank size, such as a pair of Percula Clownfish or Gobies, enables you to have movement in the tank while maintaining a low bio-load.

Many invertebrates thrive in a nano aquarium and will also help keep your tank clean. A well-rounded cleaning crew of snails and detrivors aid in the breakdown of unwanted food and help maintain algae in your system.

Since you’re dealing with limited space in a nano aquarium, coral selection becomes very important. You’ll probably want to avoid aggressive corals like Galaxea or Euphylia since they have long sweeper tentacles that can harm nearby corals. Some excellent choices for a nano tank are leather corals, brain corals, plate corals, Alveopora, xenia, Montipora, Duncanopsammia, Zoanthids and Acanthastrea. It’s helpful to have a guidebook handy, such as Julian Sprung’s A Quick Reference Guide, to address compatibility questions and so you’ll be prepared to properly care for each coral.

There are many similarities in keeping a nano reef and a larger tank. One notable difference you should be mindful of if you’re interested in starting a nano is the attention that must be paid to the tank’s parameters. The volume of water—or lack thereof—in a small aquarium is more susceptible to fluctuations in water chemistry. Parameters should be closely monitored and dialed in using a high-quality marine aquarium test kit.

Salifert and LaMotte offer lab-grade testing equipment, but there is a bit more work involved to get the results. However, the accuracy and reliability these brands offer are well worth the extra five minutes you’ll need to perform the tests. Of course, there are many other quality test kits on the market that are more affordable and easier to use.

Correct water conditions and stable parameters are crucial to the success of your biotope.

There is a correlation between the water quality in your tank and the source of the water itself. That’s why you should use RO/DI water and RO/DI water only; using any other water—other than natural sea water (NSW)—basically guarantees you complications down the road. An RO/DI system ensures your nano has the purest water possible to mix salt and/or top off evaporated H20. Many articles substantiate the benefits of using RO/DI water; Reef Central’s RO/DI FAQ is particularly informative.

The use of trace elements and supplements are also crucial to the upkeep and maintenance of your nano reef.

Using a calcium reactor may not be your best bet; most nano hobbyists choose to manually dose their tanks due to the lower rate of consumption. Using equal volumes of a high-grade two-part solution (Alkalinity and Calcium) should adequately duplicate the composition of natural seawater and help maintain the ionic balance of your aquarium water.

Additional trace elements, such as Magnesium and Amino Acids, help your corals achieve the greatest polyp extension and coloration possible.

Now that you have the foundation to set-up a nano aquarium, it’s time to decide what type of reef you’re interested in keeping. After you decide which environment and biotope to recreate, set a budget and soon your dream of having a slice of reef in your home or office will become reality.