How to Setup and Build a Self Contained Saltwater Aquarium With Built in Refuge




Introduction: How to Setup and Build a Self Contained Saltwater Aquarium With Built in Refuge

So since I currently go to college and live in a dorm, I decided I would have a little desktop aquarium since I couldnt put a big 70gal aquarium. I decided to go with a 10 gallon self contained unit just theres no mess with having an extra sump and it fits well on my desk. I mainly wanted to keep a  clownfish and some coral and maybe an anenome. In this tutorial I will show you how to setup an easy to maintain and construct saltwater aquarium suitable for a dorm room.

First and foremost I want to add: Saltwater fish do not require the same filtration as a regular freshwater aquarium. It is advised that you use RODI water when changing water out. Please do not use straight tap water as it contains may chemicals not suitable for fish from the filtration process. Because of the size of the tank, water parameters tend to fluctuate a lot so keeping a close eye on it is advised.

Because I have already setup the tank, I will be going off of the steps I originally took. (some steps may seem vague but I will try to convey them as best as possible)

Step 1: Supplies

First things first, Supplies:
-10 gal aquarium (can be had at any petshop for about $15.) TANK ONLY NO FILTER OR EXTRA CRAP
-1/4 inch thick sheet of plexiglass (Lowes will pre cut your sheet for you, see next page for measurements)
-Aquarium safe silicon (GE type 1 silicon or DAP 100% silicon) DO NOT USE SILICON FOR KITCHEN AND BATH!!
-black spray paint
-Light fixture (bulb type will vary based on light fixture chosen. (I used a coralife 50/50 and a blue coral light)
-2 small powerheads
-aquarium heater
-tank top/cover (I made one out of plexiglass for now)

Get the following after setting up the tank (Will go into details later, do not buy these right off the bat)
-Saltwater Test Kit
-Live Sand
-Live Rock
-RODI water and salt mix or premixed saltwater

Step 2: Prepping the Tank and Plexiglass

Ok now that you have gathered your supplies, yes its pretty pricey but hey its the only pet you can have in a dorm room pretty much and it'll be cool.

Step 1: So to start get your tank and remove all of the stickers and labels off of it.Clean the inside of the tank thoroughly and let dry. In the meantime prep your plexiglass so that you can glue it in. 

Step 2: You will want to cut your plexiglass into the following measurements (or in my case I got lowes to cut it for me)
-10x11 inches
-8x4 inches

Step 3: Drill a hole in the plexiglass like shown in picture. It needs to be big enough for the powerhead to fit through. Also cut 3 to 4 largish slits in the plexiglass to allow the water to flow through it. (keep in mind that the lower the slits you cut the lower the overall water level will be, so do not cut it too low.)

Step 3: Glueing the Plexiglass to the Aquarium.

This is where it can get tricky. You will now need to glue the plexiglass to the inside of the aquarium to create a sump/refuge area. Its hard to explain this step so please look at the following diagrams I have posted up of the side view as well as the 3d drawing. You want to make sure the 8x4 piece has plenty of room on the bottom for water to flow. Make sure the tank is completely dry before applying the silicon or it will not bond well. Allow the silicon to dry completely. (24hours)

Step 4: Painting the Sump Side

You can omit this step if you want to see the sump/refuge area, but I chose not to since it was just more esthetically pleasing.

Step 1: Get some masking tape and mask off the sump area from the OUTSIDE of the tank. DO NOT PAINT THE INSIDE OF THE TANK. I cannot stress how important it is to not paint the inside of the tank. Make sure you cover the top and do not allow ANY paint to get inside the tank. Also if you are like me you might want to paint the back of the tank to give it a better look. It really makes the coral and whatnot pop with a black background.

Step 2: Break out the paint and put on several light coats to cover the sump area.

Step 3: paint the back of the tank if you wish.

Allow the paint to dry for a few hours and remove the tape.

You should end up with a tank that looks like the diagram below.

Step 5: Setting Up the Tank

At this point the tank is almost done (well the building part)

Step 1: Install the powerhead in the sump refuge area so that the water is being pumped put of sump into the main display area.

Step 2: Add your live sand and Salt water (Details on next page)

Step 3: Install 2nd Powerhead in opposite corner of the tank.

Step 4: Add base rock and liver rock into the tank (about 12 lbs of rock)

Step 5: Add cheato into the sump/refuge area.

Step 6: Insert heater into the sump area.

Allow tank to sit and cycle for a few weeks. At this point monitor all water parameters using the test kit and watch your nitrate levels.

Step 6: Additional Information for Setup

-Cycling Process-
The cycling process is when the tank is first set up. All the microbs and small organism need to basically get used tot he tank (lame terms) and make it suitable for life (fish and livestock). To do this the tank must be up and running WITHOUT fish for a few weeks. This lets the tank become establish before adding fish. If you add fish before cycling you risk killing it with large nitrate levels that tend to fluctuate during the cycling process. Cycling is different for each tank and can take from a few weeks to a couple months. A diatom bloom (algae) will occur during the cycling process which will signal nearing the end of the cycling process. It is suggested tha you add the cheato into the tank during the cycling process to speed it up and rid the tank of nitrates.

-Water Quality and Salinity Level.-
For the sake of keeping things consistent I suggest using RODI water or premixed saltwater available at most major petstores. Also I would suggest using one brand of salt mix and keeping with it to avoid any unseen water parameter changes. The specific gravity of natural saltwater from the ocean is approximately 1.026. I suggest running a salinity level of about 1.024-1.025 in a smaller tank because of the water evaporation. In a small closed system like this you NEED to monitor the water level and salinity as closely as possible. Any drop in water level means salinity level will go up. Water changes need to be done on a weekly basis. I do about a 10% minimum every week for water changes.

-Test Kits-
Please do not buy test strips. They are not very exact and on a small closed system such as this I would not suggest it. I would get the chemical test kits.

It is a naturally occuring plant. It is technically a kind of algae/moss. It is used in salt water aquariums to lower nitrate levels and prolong water quality.

Step 7: Adding Livestock

After the tank has cycled, SUCCESS! You can now add livestock to your saltwater tank. There is quite a discrepancy as to what kind of fish is suitable for a tank like this. Because of the size of the tank it needs to be a small fish that does not require a lot of maintenance. I suggest a clownfish, goby, or some shrimp. There are certain gobies that will pair with a pistol shrimp called a watchman goby. You may also be able to keep a pair of clownfish but I wouldnt really suggest doing that or you will be changing water more often.  I choose to get a single clownfish and a couple hermit crabs. i will be adding a sea anenome and some corals later on. I also suggest introducing each of your livestock one at a time and not all at once. Adding all the fish at once will overload the system and will cause it to go back into cycling again.

note: I may have missed some small things, I will go back and edit if I recall anything.

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    8 years ago on Introduction

    What do you do about breaks or going home for the weekend, ect.? Next year ill be going to college and I want to set up a tank now, but I wasn't sure how to transport them, or if they would need transported at all. Thanksgiving break is something like two weeks and christmas break is over a month so I figured I'd have to bring them home with me. I only live about an hour away. Any suggestions?


    10 years ago on Step 7

    this is AWESOME !! I want to do a reef tank soon, and i like the idea of not having a separate tank for the refugium/sump. Just one question though: Don't you need a protein skimmer?


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Normally in a larger tank I would suggest a protein skimmer. but because of the often water changes in this tank and size I opted to not get a skimmer. With a skimmer, I would suspect water changes would be less frequent. Just as a little update, my tank is still up and going strong as of today.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    I made the exct same thig an people say its very difficult but mines fine putting in corals soon.


    11 years ago on Step 7

    I am considering doing this in a 75 gallon aquarium I just got. what kind of adjustments in size would i need to make for the sump area. Any hints or a good website for this kinf of information would be myuch appreciated. Nice Incstructable though


    11 years ago on Step 7

    PERFECT!!! Amazing job Buddy! I am so glade to see someone on here doing Salt Water Aquarium ideas, instead of Fresh Water always. Us Reef keepers are always looking for new and better ways to learn new things from either the more experienced Hobbyist, or someone such as yourself! Again Great idea!


    Reply 11 years ago on Step 7

    Thanks, my tank has been setup for over 6 months in my dorm room now and its dong great. My clownfish and crabs are doing perfect and water has been stable. It makes a great conversation piece when others come and see it and its nice to have a lil pet I can watch in my dorm without getting in trouble.


    11 years ago on Step 6

    Very cool Nano Aquarium idea!! I also keep SW Reef/Fowlr Aquariums (4 right now), and I don't think there is anything in the world that will give someone such a calming and peaceful/relaxing view in there Home/Dorm!...........This is just to possibly help others looking to create this great type of Aquarium in which you have...* When your Salt Water does start to evaporate, you DO NOT want to add Salt Water to your Tank to top it off ( in other words' unless doing a water change, than add your salt water mix w/ your ro/di water), you will want to use RO/DI water to keep your salinity as stable as possible. Thanks again for a great Build, and will be voting for you!.........p.s, Also great idea with adding the Cheato, as many don't know the great effects it can have on a Reef Tank!!!!


    11 years ago on Introduction