Introduction The purpose of this article is to provide a how-to, step-by-step guide at starting your very own "nano reef." It is quite long, but hopefully this will furnish the beginner with the basics and give her a better understanding of starting a new nano tank. I've written this for people who want to keep corals, but if you're interested in a nano fish-only system, the information is much the same. If you want to get to the nit and gritty of this piece, please scroll down to the section entitled Beginning Your Nano Tank, which will give you a complete walkthrough for starting out. You've no doubt heard saltwater is difficult, expensive, and not easily forgiving. You've probably also heard "bigger is better." While it's true larger tanks have their advantages, they are not necessarily better or worse than smaller systems like ten and twenty gallons. One of the best things about "nano" tanks is they almost entirely focus on the natural method of reef keeping. Your corals live and thrive through natural live rock (the "dead" skeleton pieces of reefs, which we'll talk more about later), strong water movement, and powerful lighting to simulate the natural illumination of the sun. A Brief History of the Reef Tank The reef aquarium as we know it today has come a long way from its infancy in the 1960s. So many things we take for granted today like glass and silicon aquariums without any metal parts, safe, reliable, and functioning heaters, and efficient and quiet hang-on power filters were unheard of in the early days of the marine hobby. As you can imagine, this made life for marine hobbyists a constant uphill battle. Keeping corals and most invertebrate life was usually impossible due to primitive lighting, lack of availability of synthetic ocean salt mix, and largely no understanding of the nitrogen cycle and beneficial bacteria which breaks down ammonia and waste. Hobbyists largely kept damselfish and gobies, small and hardy fish which could withstand the poor water conditions of the era. However, light emerged from these dark ages, ultimately foreshadowing the sucess of reef keeping today and the importance of imitating nature. Writer and long-time reef aquarist Mike Paletta tells us: A hobbyist in Indonesia named Lee Chin Eng was using a rather elegant system that was called the "natural system." Mr. Eng used materials he could find close to his home near the ocean. Once his tanks were filled with fresh ocean water, Eng decorated them with pieces of old coral rock he collected from the lagoon. The rocks were called "living stones" and contained coralline algae, sponges, tunicates, shrimp, crabs, small colonies of coral and so on. A small number of colorful fish also inhabited his tanks. The tanks were placed where they received at least some natural sunlight every day to provide illumination. The only technology he used was a small air pump that bubbled slowly. This provided light aeration, as well as some moderate water movement. For their time, these "natural system" aquariums were spectacular. Despite the lack of technology, these tanks mimicked the reef to a much greater extent than any other type of system that had come before. Unfortunately, whem hobbyists in other locales tried to replicate this system they generally failed [due to not using the crucial "living stones"], so this method was dismissed as being unreliable or unworkable. (Paletta) The 70's largely saw more of the same. Dead coral skeletons, now commonly called "the graveyard look," were popular and this period saw many celebrities and people of affluence tackle saltwater aquariums, often spending tens of thousands of dollars on elaborate systems to flaunt their wealth. The 80's were the age of big hair, big tanks, and big advances in the hobby. High intensity lighting entered the scene, as did superior understanding and execution of filtration. Paletta states: The captive husbandry of marine invertebrates was changed forever by a series of articles is SeaScope in 1985 and FAMA in 1986. In these articles George Smit introduced the wet-dry or trickle filter to North American hobbyists. The articles changed the hobby because for the first time they illustrated, step by step, how one could keep marine invertebrates alive. Smit explained that just like on the reef, the foundation for a successful reef tank was the live rock upon which it was based. He also explained how strong illumination is necessary to keep corals alive, because light is the main source of energy for many of the photosynthetic invertebrates. (Paletta) The 1990s saw an an incredible number of advancements. Saltwater aquariums became much more mainstream and the reef side of the hobby exploded as new technological advancements were discovered and new schools of thought emerged. One such methodology was the "Berlin Method" of reef keeping which focused on live rock, powerful lighting, and strong protein skimming for nutrient removal. Live rock was realized to be the "secret ingredient" of reef keeping, and protein skimming--the removing of dissolved organic compounds by utilizing the charged polarity of protein itself and air bubbles to collect the waste foam at the surface--helped keep water clear while removing excess dissolved organics before they broke down to burden the "living rock" filter. As the hobby progressed through the nineties, smaller and smaller captive reefs were appearing. The smaller the system, the more "natural" they were: they used strong lighting (we'll discuss lighting in detail later), good water movement, and plenty of live rock to provide natural filtration. Eventually the term "nano tank" sprang into existence. A nano tank is any saltwater system under 40-30 gallons. These small micro-systems were thought impossible by many experts and guru hobbyists of the early and mid nineties, and they are even frowned upon today by several respected names, including aquarist Bob Fenner, author of the popular The Conscientious Marine Aquarist. Nanos did not truly take off in the mainstream until the 90's concluded. When I began my ten gallon, I borrowed two books from the public library, one published in 1999 and the other 2003. Both books were amazingly lacking in information--the gap between what I was reading and what I had learned on the Internet was so wide it almost felt like the book had been published in 1979. Even the 2003 publication stated tanks under 40 gallons were near impossible to maintain! I actually began my journey into nano reefs almost immediately following the purchase and setup of my first freshwater tank. My wife Leah was intrigued by saltwater and took most of the research on herself. After a week or two of reading articles from the supposed top minds of the reef hobby, we decided a nano was a bad gamble, because we simply did not have the money, the space, or the free outlets for all the expensive and maintenance-hungry equipment needed to keep a nano up and running. And this was in October of 2004, if that tells you anything about the evolution and advancement of the hobby! To make a long story short, Leah and I were taking for gospel bad information espoused by so-called expert "heads" of the hobby, guys whose names you'll find on big shiny hardback books that cost up to $40. What finally got my feet wet in the reef hobby was my friend Justin Donaldson, who had set up a 29 gallon reef of his own in 2003. Through my friend Flave Hart, I learned exactly what was needed to make a successful mini-reef. A ten gallon nano reef can be a wonderful alternative to spending several thousand dollars on a larger, equipment-heavy, traditional reef system. There are 4 natural elements crucial in starting and maintaining a nano: Biological filtration through live rock. Several jets of current to keep the water relatively turbulent. Strong fluorescent power compact lighting so the corals can photosynthesize. Weekly water changes to add trace elements as well as remove old water and "refresh" the system. No protein skimmers, pre-drilled or "marine" ready tanks, complicated overflows or sumps with networks of PVC, or $400 metal halide lighting needed! Next we will discuss the pros and cons of nano tanks before diving into how you can set one up and be on your way to enjoying a tiny piece of the ocean in your living room. Works Cited Paletta, Mike. The History of Reef Keeping from a Hobbyist Point of View: A Personal Journey through the Hobby. http://www.ecosystemaquarium.com/html/history.html Copyright 2006 by Josh Day. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reprinted or distributed to other websites without the author's written permission.