A thriving reef tank is a living work of art, but so many people fail with their reef aquariums wasting a lot of time and money.


There is a very fine line between happy tank and marine life support system breakdown with a living reef in your home.

This is especially true for smaller tanks, which are all the rage these days but have seriously little room for error compared to bigger tanks.

Reef keeping failures are usually caused by environmental problems. Corals, especially hard corals need a very stable chemical and physical environment to thrive – with basically zero fluctuations!

reef tank problems

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Reef keeping can be a complete minefield for the novice (and so called “expert”) and these are the most common reasons why:


1. Invertebrate compatibility can be tricky to figure out, for example; which corals are compatible with which fish, also which sessile (non-moving) invertebrate and motile (moving) invertebrates are going to get along?

Many marine organisms feed on corals and corals may react to each other with chemical warfare, many corals cannot be placed with other species because they release toxins into the water or deploy nasty stinging tentacles.

Often it can be more straight forward to re-create a particular reef biotope (for example using all Indonesian reef crest inhabitants) because in these situations you know all the organisms will already be compatible because they have evolved together in nature.


mistakes with corals

An SPS dominated reef tank is the most demanding of all! (photo credit: Nomi Gold)

2. Invertebrate care requirements especially lighting, diet and water movement can be challenging to meet.

Research your ideal animal thoroughly, find out whether it’s feasible for you.

– Make sure you can easily meet all the requirements they need and that your group of reef tank mates have similar requirements. Or if they are not similar, then you can ensure ideal microcosms in the tank to cater for those requirements.

The main areas for consideration will be always be lighting requirements, which vary according to whether or not the coral is photosynthetic and the depth at which the corals live in the wild.

Water movement requirements are also important, some species require turbulent water movement to feed them plankton and others to shed their slime mucous layer. Research is the only way to find out for sure how your invertebrate needs to be treated, if you don’t get it right it wont be happy.


3. Constant need for pristine water quality; reef building organisms are notoriously more difficult to keep happy than marine fish; they come from very stable, nutrient poor ocean environments and this is what you will need to recreate to keep them thriving.

Nitrates and Phosphates must be kept to an absolute minimum (undetectable levels are ideal) and water movement needs to be moderate to strong. Not only this, but calcium needs to be added to the water (for hard corals), the alkalinity needs to be kept high as do various other trace elements such as iodine, strontium, iron.

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4. Too many reefers believe that it is possible to have a reef aquarium using second rate, bargain bin equipment. This will ultimately lead to massive problems in the long run as this stuff just isn’t up to the job and needs upgrading, fails or needs to be replaced putting your expensive marine life at unnecessary risk.

For example I know of a number of serious “reefers” who wiped out their entire tanks from disease just because they didn’t want to spend money on a small basic quarantine tank :(

If you want an awesome reef aquarium you should be prepared to spend some money on decent equipment that actually works well, it will pay itself back in the long run.

Reef tank mistakes

A thriving reef is not a no-brainer…(pic credit: Amy the nurse)

5. Not enough free time available; a reef aquarium is a delicate piece of art that requires a certain amount of upkeep from its owner.

The water quality needs to be consistently good, you will get very good at partial water changes, dosing your tank and testing water parameters and making adjustments if needs be.

Reef building organisms can swiftly deteriorate if they are neglected for too long, all this upkeep takes a bit of time and if you don’t have the time to learn about the organisms within and carry out the maintenance required, a reef aquarium is not for you.


6. A lack of knowledge is a recipe for disaster with a reef aquarium, period.

Other than the compatibility and the care requirements there is still a fair amount to learn in regards to keeping a thriving reef especially in regards to providing pristine water quality and addition of elements necessary for good coral reef growth.

Many people still go to the fish store and buy something because it was just “so pretty” then realise they have no idea what it is and how to care for it correctly but by then its too late and it has died.

Do not rely on your fish store/pet shop for vital information, you need to get reading or get on the Internet seeking reputable sources of reef aquarium information.

Reef tank mistakes

Compatibility in a reef tank requires a lot of thought

7. A mini-reef aquarium system crash; with the increasing popularity of the mini aquarium (less than 40 gallons) there has been a huge interest in setting up mini reefs.

The problem with using an aquarium this small to house corals and other invertebrates is the tiny water volume.

A smaller volume has much less buffering capacity than a large tank to protect its inhabitants from fluctuations in temperature, pH, and nitrate, which are the common culprits to wipe out a reef.

In my opinion get the biggest aquarium you can afford and unless you completely know what you are doing stay away from the mini reefs.

So now you know the most common reasons people fail with their reefs… Don’t make these same mistakes.

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