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Marine and Reef Nano-Cubes

Are nano-cubes better setups than building one yourself?

By Jeremy Gosnell |

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nano tank cycling

A nano tank cycling with live rock and live sand.

Q. I have read that marine and reef nano-cubes are not only easier to set up than normal saltwater aquariums but much better. I have been told that the filtration built into these small aquariums is of higher quality and functions better than most of the filters on the market. Are these small reef aquariums actually the "best” option for an aquarist starting out?
T. Mitchell
Clarksburg, West Virginia

A. I have owned several "nano-cube” style aquariums through the years. I can’t really say that the filtration built into these units is any better than other filtration options available to reef aquarists. I find the filtration on these units to be overall simplistic and sub-par. As for nano-cube style aquariums being the best option for a beginning aquarist, I would have to say that they are not.

Reef aquariums can be difficult to set up and manage under the best circumstances. The best circumstance would be a large reef aquarium with a properly sized sump, and all the necessary equipment to make the aquarium function and keep water quality high (protein skimmer, live rock, etc). With nano-cubes we are attempting to keep a very complex system under the worst circumstances. We have a small volume of water, large temperature fluctuations, and filtration that is integrated and unchangeable. While integrated filtration is easy to implement, (typically requiring one or two cords for the whole filtration system) it cannot be upgraded or changed. Most nano-cube style reef aquariums use filtration not unlike a simplistic power filter.

The beauty of setting up a reef aquarium piece by piece is the expandable and upgradable options. A sump offers huge opportunities for expansion and different forms of filtration can be selected by the aquarist to meet any application. Oversized protein skimmers, fluidized filter beds, UV sterilizers, ozone reactors, calcium reactors and more can all be implemented if needed. In nano-cubes, where the entire system is integrated, you are often stuck with whatever came built into the reef aquarium. There is very little room for improved heaters or protein skimmers. Much of the unique filtration a full reef aquarium might implement would take up the entire nano-cube. To make matters worse, many of the nano-cubes on the market are high priced and don’t deliver anything spectacular.

That said, I think that technological advances and new reef aquarium keeping methods have made it possible for beginners to be successful with nano-cubes. I always recommend setting up a nano-cube that doesn’t have anything integrated. A 20-gallon or 30-gallon glass aquarium works well. In this case a sump can be added either at the start or later on and a variety of filtration options are open to the aquarist. This way you are not limiting yourself only to what a nano manufacturer has built in. Setting up a small reef aquarium piece-by-piece retains all of the customization options that would be present in setting up a larger reef aquarium.

Just remember that nano-cubes require diligence in order to be successful. Monitoring your density and pH daily, as well as keeping a close eye on nitrates, are all practices that help raise the level of success in a small reef aquarium. If you chose the step-by-step approach, you should be able to implement equipment that can make reef aquarium management easier. Stocking small reef aquariums can be tricky as well. If you are striving for a tiny coral paradise I would make sure that tropical fish take a back seat to invertebrates and corals. Having one to three small tropical fish should be acceptable depending on your aquarium size but going overboard could make the nano-cube tough to manage.

This approach may, in the end, save you some money as well. All-in-all, nano-cubes are far from impossible to keep. When set up properly, and given attentive care, they can make for striking and awe inspiring displays.

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Reader Comments

Karen    Irving, TX

11/17/2012 11:14:48 AM

I bought a 14 gallon Biocube for my daughter 4 years ago this Christmas... it was set up the first part of January 2009 and fish in by the end of January 2009. That Spring we discovered we needed a chiller... got one. Other than a couple of things added to the tank, and one shrimp eaten by one of the fish... we have 0 problems. The only issue is the fan in the hood. It makes a weird noise here and there. But, the same 3 fish we started with are in the tank and doing well. We have had to cull many mushrooms, corals, etc... because they are grow like crazy in there. I am told it is because of the lighting. And that is probably true... I have been thinking about getting a new one for her... A nuvo 30 gallon system...saw one and was really impressed. But, I am afraid to jinx the one we have! My fear is that it will suddenly conk out on us on night!

Dot    Hawk Junction, ON

9/22/2012 6:26:44 AM

Very good article

Matthew    St Petersburg, FL

1/6/2012 4:21:27 PM

Im just starting a salt water marine tank after doing freshwater tanks for 11 years. these articles are very helpful and interesting.

Jim    Albuquerque, NM

12/29/2011 4:39:43 PM

First of all a nano reef, in my opinion is 12 gallons or less. Calling a 20 - 30 gallon tank nano is a misunderstanding of the words micro or nano. A 30 - 40 gallon reef is pretty close to a normal size reef in days gone by, or mini reef at best. In my opinion, a 12 gallon nano is much easier to maintain if one uses common sense than a huge aquarium, from a maintenance standpoint and I have been in the hobby for more than 40 years. Also, some nano cubes such as Oceanic's 8 gal cube does have better components figured in, than a DIYer might install. For instance it has over 3.6 watts of pc lighting, at the right spectrum and par without even thinking about it. The top and bottom flow from the display area into the filtration system sets up a good even flow, which doesn't always happen in larger tanks. Every marine book written will tell you success of marine aquariums is always about water quality. Which is easier, picking up a quart of distilled water once a week and doing a one qt. water change or mixing and changing 2 - 4 gallons a week? The larger the reef, the more of a burden becomes. Which is easier, cleaning 2 sq. ft of glass every other day or 20 sq ft? I stocked my cube for less than $120 which includes cured live rock and several tiny soft coral frags. For the first time in years, I am enjoying the hobby again. Spending 100s of dollars on technology to try to keep the water pure never worked for me. I can do 50 % water changes a month (10%+ a week) and have way better water for minimal cost, and a much better environment for my animals than wasting $thousands$ on skimmers, refugiums, and other unnecessary expenses and still grow and frag corals! Have fun keeping it simple...just make sure your salinity and temp are accurate. If your cube has a sealed top, evaporation is almost non existent also temp loss or gain. I love my 8 gallon Nano!

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