Cameron Coe's (Physh1) 20 Gallon Reef Tank

Awesome 20 Gallon Reef Tank

The "Concept" Behind The Setup

I have worked at local fish stores since I was 14, and now that I am soon to be 23, I have been involved with this hobby for quite a while. Despite having years of keeping tanks under my belt, there came a time when I really didn't care to keep one anymore. The idea of working forty plus hours a week, and then coming home each night to fiddle with my aquarium wasn't an attractive endeavor. However, seeing all the new incredible critters and corals coming into the store on a daily basis isn't the best thing to see when trying to avoid setting up another aquarium. The day soon came when I couldn't take it anymore and I had to set one up. My main concerns were size and cost; I wanted both to be small and not occupy all my spare time.

So, with my gears grinding and my wallet near empty, I began building a small reef system, what I have since learned to call a nano-reef, which was skimmerless and relatively self-supporting except for the occasional dosing of additives. I intended to be able to keep SPS, LPS, softies, and clams. For purely aesthetic purposes, the aquarium also needed to have no visible pumps and equipment. I can say that this system has been a total success, and I would like to share with you the system, setup, and ideas behind the tank.

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The Tank and Stand

The aquarium is a simple TruVu acrylic 20 gallon aquarium, with no options other than a black back. I wanted to keep this clean and simple. The aquarium is sitting on a 30" black stand, made by Island, which has a lip for the aquarium to sit in. I wanted to have an overflow on this aquarium, and definitely didn't care for an unreliable hang-on overflow or a huge corner unit that takes up too much space. I installed a 6" x 4" x 6" black homemade overflow box in the center back wall of the tank. The box was glued to the inside of the tank with silicone and allowed to dry. Then, I drilled a 1 ½ inch hole through the back wall of the tank and the overflow chamber to accept a 1 inch bulkhead fitting.

Sump Plumbing and Tank Circulation

The first stage of the plumbing started with the homemade overflow and bulkhead setup mentioned above. From there a three foot long pool style hose (1" end fittings) connected the overflow to a simple 5 gallon Rubbermaid sump. The only mechanical filtration is a micron bag, which also serves as a bubble trap for the water draining into the sump. It does a good job of containing the air bubbles and also keeps big particulates from clogging the pumps. I replace the micron filter bag approximately every 8 weeks. The sump also contains a Second Nature 100 watt Acura heater and a Rio 2500 return pump. The return pump is unrestricted and flows back to the aquarium through ¾" vinyl hose. A Marineland return fitting (part# pr1401) safely returns the water to the main tank. This supplies the ONLY circulation for the aquarium. I have found no need to add any additional circulation in the tank, as I have taken the time to place the corals in areas where they receive the required flow regime to prosper.

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Lighting Description

I decided that lighting is the one item where spending a goodly amount of money was definitely worth the added expense. I feel pretty strongly about the importance of proper lighting and have found that things like filtration and circulation can vary from a simplistic to an elaborate setup, yet still be successful. With lighting there is only one really good way to come close to duplicating sunlight, and that is with some form of metal halide lighting. Both HQI and mogul base systems are available, and the HQI system was compact enough to work on my tank. I chose to run a 150 watt 10,000K system made by AquaMedic, called the AquaStarLight. I run the halide on a 6 hour photoperiod (4pm to 10pm). This light hood contains just the metal halide with no actinic supplement. The hood hangs from my ceiling, using the hanger hardware supplied with the hood, and is suspended 10" above the aquarium.

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Evaporation Make-up System

One problem small tanks have is evaporation. That was the first problem that I wanted to avoid when I set up this system. So, I made my own float switch, visible on the sump photos, that was hooked to a Rio 800 pump. The Rio sits in a 5 gallon jug that pumps the water into the overflow box in the tank. I did this so the new freshwater would be well mixed, thereby avoiding any un-necessary stress on the inhabitants from the new water being placed into the system. The float switch is sensitive to approximately 1/3 of an inch, so it keeps the salinity from fluctuating too much. This tank goes through about 4 gallons of makeup water in a week's time. Deionized water, available from the local fish store where I work, is used exclusively.

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This tank receives very little maintenance. The tank stays amazingly clear of any algae and may receive a wipe of the glass once every 2-3 months. A 5 gallon water change is done on a monthly basis. I use de-ionized water with Coralife salt for the water changes. The micron bag in the sump used for a bubble trap is changed or cleaned every 2 months. The Rio 2500 return pump is pulled out and cleaned every 3-4 months.


Calcium addition is weekly.
Alkalinity addition is done twice weekly.
Magnesium addition is done once every 2 weeks.
Lugols Iodine addition is one drop weekly.
DT's Phytoplankton is added 2-3 times weekly (one full cap per dose).
Reef Solution addition is done weekly (one full cap per dose).
The fish are fed twice weekly.

Additives, Dosing, and Feedings

It is hard to find a good mix of chemicals that is both simple to add and effective at the same time. For the necessary calcium and alkalinity dosing, I use Seachem Reef Advantage Calcium and Reef Builder. Seachems' Reef Advantage Magnesium is used to keep my calcium and alkalinity levels stable. I use Kent Lugols' Solution for an Iodine supplement and Ecosystem Aquarium Reef Solution for the other minor and major elements. DT's Phytoplankton is added to the aquarium for the corals and clams to feed on; I have noticed a greater ability to keep SPS and clams with its frequent addition. The mushrooms and soft corals also have gotten so much larger, that I have begun to fragment many of them.

The fish are fed OSI marine flake food and an occasional feeding of live brine shrimp (cleaned first).

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Tank Chemistry

Salinity = 1.025
Temperature = 76º F - 78º F
Ammonia (Tetra test) = undetectable
Nitrite (Tetra test) = undetectable
Nitrate (Tetra test and Salifert) = 10ppm
Alkalinity (Tetra test and Salifert) = 12dkh
Calcium (Salifert) = 425-450
Magnesium (Salifert) = 1500ppm



Sunrise Dottyback
Yellow Belly Damsel
Blue Spot Jawfish


Black Band Serpent Star
3 Emerald Crabs
15 Astrea Snails
2 Tiger Tail Cucumbers
2 Porcelain Crabs
1 Orange/Red Striped Hermit Crab

SPS Corals:

1 Green Slimer
1 Blue Staghorn
2 Encrusting Green Montipora

LPS Corals:

2 Green Frogspawn
1 Pink Fungia
2 Blastomussa Wellsi (1 red w/ teal and 1 green w/ red center)
1 Green Brain (Trachyphyllia Geoffroyi)
1 Red Blastomussa Merleti
1 White Caulastrea


2 Devil's Hands
2 Finger Leathers (currently fragmenting)
1 Colt Coral (currently fragmenting)


1 White Clove Rock
1 Green Star Polyp Rock
1 Green Button Polyp Rock


3 Green Tonga Mushroom Rocks
1 Red Mushroom Rock
1 Rusty Ricordea
1 Purple Mushroom Rock


5 Tridacna Maximas in the following colors:
2 Blue and Gold
1 Gold
1 Black
1 Solid Blue

Assorted Invertebrates:

3 Coco Worms (2 red and 1 white)
3 Feather Dusters

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I hope I have helped show that tanks may be small and very successful without much work. As of right now I cannot see myself adding anything else, as there is no room. Actually, as far as I am concerned the tank is perfect for me, and I will let it grow. This tank is only 16 months old. I can only wish my luck continues. I have found that with the proper selection of inhabitants a tank can live off itself, to a point, without lots of outside "interference." Clams are a great natural water filter, and I believe that they have made my filterless system a success, especially when it comes to nitrate reduction and control. I hope you have enjoyed my tank and feel free to stop by the Tank of the Month forum for any further explanations or discussions.

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If there are questions, I will do my best to answer them in the forum for the online magazine.


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