This article describes the basic components and techniques used to set up a new reef system.
First, it is always recommended to purchase the largest aquarium one can afford or has room for-- the larger the tank, the more stable the system will be. In any aquarium system, sudden changes are the enemy, whether it be temperature, salinity or pH. The larger the volume of water, the slower the impact will be to the system from any environmental changes.
Second is to figure out how much live sand is needed-- usually 1.5-2.0 pounds per gallon of water. A popular brand is Aragalive by CaribSea.
Next, and most importantly, live rock-- about .75-1 pound of CURED live rock for each gallon of water-- is needed. Consider when building and stacking your live rock that, at some point, you may introduce burrowing species that may dislodge the sand at the base of the rocks, potentially causing them to move or topple. To prevent this, you may wish to support the rock with a stable base. One way is to cut pieces of medium diameter PVC pipe the depth of the sand bed, and use them as support pylons. An additional benefit is that there will be better circulation around the base of the rocks as well.
Next is the protein skimmer. Again, it is recommended that one purchase the largest skimmer they can afford. The skimmer is the heart of the system. A tank with an undersized skimmer is like a Cadillac with a four-cylinder engine. Recommended, for 10 - 55 gallons, a SeaClone 150; for 75 - 225 gal, a Turbofloater 1000. Other brands are available that perform similarly.
Next is tank lighting. Compact fluorescents were favored in the past, but LEDs have surpassed them. The recommended amount is 4-6 watts per gallon (for soft and Large Polyp Stony corals). LEDs are good because they are long-lasting, affordable, and have more light output per watt than most other lamps.
Next on the shopping list are powerheads. Mini-powerheads are very good for the circulation needed to eliminate dead spots and increase skimmer effectiveness, while also being small enough to be unobtrusive. Figure on one for every 20 gallons of water.