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Articles > Marine Articles > A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank - By a Beginner
A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank - By a Beginner
Published by Flameangel on 18/3/2006 (180934 reads)
By K Smart

My husband and I have had a 6 foot fish tank (110 gallons approx) in our living room for many years now. We have always kept tropical fish and can safely say we have mastered the art of keeping tropical fish (mainly community fish). For the last year or so, my husband has been saying "I wish we could change it to a marine tank". For months I used every excuse in the book to put him off the subject, knowing that the cost would be more than we could afford, to do it properly.

This is how the tropical tank looked at one point (before reintroducing fish)

Ok:so I gave in! Just seeing the wide variety of marine fish at our local garden centre became so tempting.

We purchased a few basic books and read many websites to get the feel for the ease/difficulty of setting up a marine tank. In the mean time the tropical fish were re-homed and the tank was stripped out and cleaned.

We took a trip to a reputable Marine supplier, who were extremely helpful and their expertise in the area stood out far beyond others we had spoken to so far.
We explained that we wanted to have everything we needed in one go and we knew we were looking at about £1000 in total. We are very good friends with “Egg“ , I must add. (nb - for our international readers 'Egg' is a Credit Card)

List of items purchased:

Wave machine with 4 power heads
UV sterilizer
Sand filter
Pump to run the sand filter
Prizm ProDeluxe Protein Skimmer
Tetratec air pump
Already had 2 Fluval 403 external filters
4 (x 2 bulbs each) T5 light units
2 heaters (already had these, one runs constantly the other is back up on lower temp)
S pare piping to link filters
Spray bar
1 hydrometer
Ro Man (50gal per day) 5 sediment Reverse Osmosis filter & large plastic water butt!! (to store RO water as it is made)
4 x 25kg bags of sea rock
4 bags of coral sand
1 bag of coral gravel (decorative topping)
10 large pieces of Fuji uncured living rock (approx 40kg)
4 lumps of black lava rock (to add colour variation)
1 large tub of red Sea marine salt
1 Hagen full marine testing kit


1. Sand and coral gravel added to bottom of tank,
2. Stone and power heads put in to place
3. Set up external fluval 403 to run uv and spray bar
4. Set up other fluval 403 to run as a filter on it’s own
5. Heaters put in place
6. Put protein skimmer in place on edge of tank (hangs on!)
7. Sand filter pump and piping set up opposite end of tank
8. Started the RO filter running to make RO water.
9. As water was ready, we mixed the marine salt to correct SG 1.020-1.025
and added it to the tank. Adding the water was the slowest process.
10. Tank allowed to run to check everything was working and temp rising


Five days after the living rock was added we carried out our first tests knowing that the nitrogen cycle would be kicking in, starting with high levels of Ammonia, Nitrite and nitrate (we had already read up on this bit:)

Please refer to the test results accompanying this article.

You will see we continued to test everything SG, pH, Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, Calcium, Phosphate and Non-Chelated Iron, every 3-4 days.

By the third week (counting from day 3 when the living rock was added) test results had stabilised to 'safe' levels. Ammonia was no longer present. Nitrite and Nitrate levels had also dropped to safe levels. Admittedly, just before the end of the second week even though Nitrite was still a little high along with Nitrate (Ammonia was zero) we decided to risk a few things as a tester. (Turbo snails, red polyp/finger anemone and 2 cleaner shrimp)

By the fourth week we had added quite a variety of things, from fish to soft corals, anemones and invertebrates. We had already decided we wanted a mixed tank rather than a reef only or fish only tank.
Please note, we know it isn’t recommended to add too many things to your tank in one go. We took a few risks and by the 3rd week our results were stable (after a part water change to bring the nitrate down once and for all) the inhabitants seemed to be happy.

The test results, also state when and what was added to the tank. I have referred to them as 'intakes'. It also lists any treatments we have had to use. Unfortunately we did have a bout of whitespot between 6 and 8 weeks in to the set up. (We used Exodin a marine safe treatment, which solved all the problems).

Tank Inhabitants (as of the end of Feb 2006)

These are photos of the stock we have now, to summarise what we have in our tank 3 months on
I can honestly say that everything we have in the tank appears to be compatible and for each fish listed below, we only have one of each variety except for 2 yellow tail damsels, 2 electric blue damsels and 2 Common Clown fish.
There is a subtle mix of anemones, 1 sponge and a few soft corals, accompanied by various invertebrates.

Unknown Anemone Atlantic Anenome Bubble Tip Anemone
Mushroom soft coral Mushroom soft corals
(with Bi-Colour Angel)
Starfishl Feather Duster Worm Hermit Crab
Blue Cheeked Goby
(or Blue Streak Goby)
Orange Sponge Sun Coral
White Anemone Seahorse Orange Soft Coral
Seahorses aren't actually recommended for a busy fish tank with strong currents, as they find it difficult to compete for food. Our seahorse is ok, but he does keep himself out of the way a lot of the time and is being watched closely.
Bi-Colour Angel Cleaner Wrasse Common Clown Fish
Electric Blue Damsel Cleaner Shrimp Boxer Shrimp
We have a number of cleaner shrimp and one boxer shrimp. The boxer shrimp has posed no threat to the cleaner shrimp, but be careful, this may not always be the case. He can hold his own against any nosey fish with his aggressive stance when threatened. Cleaner shrimp are graceful and the ants of the invert world - always up to something and fun to watch!
Strawberry Fish Yellow Tail Damsel Flame Angel
Blue Spot Goby Sixline Wrasse Copperband Butterfly Fish
The Blue Spot Goby is quite a character and has his own little cave in the corner of the tank. We made the mistake of purchasing a Copperband Butterfly fish quite early on. We did not realise that they forage in the reef and corals for food, with their long snouts, and they can be fussy eaters. We failed to notice that he wasn’t eating regularly and think that may have been the cause of death. We are now on our second attempt at keeping a Copperband. So far so good and he eats very well! (We use marine flake food, frozen marine mix, marine quintet and plankton which keeps everyone happy!)
Pinnate Batfish Powder Blue Surgeon Yellow Tang
The Pinnate Batfish - absolutely stunning and perfectly designed with a deep orange/red line all the way round him. Very slow moving and graceful and not phased by his other tank mates! I believe they can grow quite big and when they are larger, may attempt to eat some soft corals. Currently he is approx 5-6” tall. (see appendix for a warning on these fish). The Powder Blue Surgeon is also our second attempt:the first one became trapped in a rocky corner and was unable to get back out. The reef has now been rearranged so no one gets 'stuck'.  The Yellow Tang - who although related to the Powder Blue Surgeon, gets on fine with him in a tank our size.

Look at this beautiful beast!!!
The Crimson Knobbed Starfish - every tank should have one:or so you would think:

This little beast decided to eat all of our little polyps - hence I cannot show you photos of them. He then started to munch his way through the smallest soft coral, namely the one he is with in the above photo. We drew the line at that and promptly removed him and sold him back to the shop!

Another lesson - make sure whoever serves you in the marine department knows their fish??

Certainly not 'reef safe'...
Here is another lovely pair.- The Birdmouth Wrasse

Very active and the male (on the left) is a beautiful aquamarine colour. After finding that we no longer had any cleaner shrimp or hermit crabs (and actually witnessing the shrimp being torn apart violently), we realised that these were not invert safe!! (This was also an error by a sales person who has grovelled and over compensated for it since), in fact we now have a full stock of cleaner shrimp again, and hermit crabs.The following photographs will show you how we had to strip our tank completely of the rock to catch the pair of Birdmouth Wrasse. Be warned - putting things in to a large tank is far easier than getting them back out again.

Our tank stripped and reassembled..

the devastating experience:..after all that hard work and finally:.the tank reconstructed


I will draw this article to a close now. For those of you considering the marine aquarium as a hobby, take the time to research information you need, and decide what sort of tank you would like to have, fish only, reef or both? We have chosen to have a mixed tank which means we have to be even more careful selecting the inhabitants. We also need to have good lighting for the 'reef' side of it.
Whatever you buy needs to be able to live happily with the other things. Will the fish eat the invertebrates? Will the starfish eat the corals? Will the big fish eat the crabs or anenomes? It may seem like a mine field, but with careful reading before hand and a good marine supplier you should be able to purchase compatible marine life for your aquarium. Read up on the fish you want before you go shopping and use more than one reference book/website as some are more accurate than others.
We are very pleased with our marine tank and it appears to be running smoothly with constant good test results. We have made a few mistakes but it has taught us more, and has made us appreciate that good things come to those who wait, and it doesn’t pay to be spontaneous when 'fish shopping' .

Please note: The views and opinions in this article are purely from our own experience and not set rules for marine keepers.


The Batfish

Sadly the batfish only lived for one week in our tank. He seemed very happy for the first few days, and after swimming around gracefully he would retreat to one corner of the tank. We got up one morning to find him swimming in a very 'drunken' fashion, and displayed symptoms of swim bladder disorder, apparently common in very unusually shaped/very ornate fish. Within 24 hours he was dead.

Other opinions have led us to believe he suffered a great amount of stress relocating to our tank (which was still too small for him) and this did not help either.

If you come across this beautiful specimen at your local marine supplier, please refrain from buying him however tempted you are, unless you have a marine aquarium larger than 200 gallons. That is the recommended 'minimum' size of tank for one of these fish, even when the fish is still small in size. They can grow to 20'' .We thought we were doing it a favour by giving him a home in our tank as it was considerably bigger than the tank he was displayed in:sadly that was not the case. The batfish is best left to the experienced keeper, and one who has the space.


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Poster Thread
Posted: 21/3/2006 17:05  Updated: 21/3/2006 17:05
Tropical Moderator
Joined: 30/8/2004
From: -
Posts: 9604
 Great article!
What a great article Very honest and informative. If I ever set up a marine tank I will be sure to refer to your article again.
Posted: 23/3/2006 12:21  Updated: 23/3/2006 12:21
Forum Manager
Joined: 10/3/2004
From: Cheshire
Posts: 16763
 Re: Great article!
Brilliant and if I do decide to go marine I know who to come to
Posted: 25/3/2006 21:49  Updated: 25/3/2006 21:49
Home away from home
Joined: 21/11/2005
From: Wiltshire
Posts: 1881
Posted: 14/4/2006 17:44  Updated: 14/4/2006 17:44
Coldwater Moderator
Joined: 11/2/2006
From: London
Posts: 11443
your tank looks FANTASTIC, very interesting to have step by step details, and I am absolutely in awe of anyone who can maintain a marine setup. (I have just bought a 3rd small oranda and may have to go and have a lie down, am now so weighed down with responsibilities ...)
Posted: 16/4/2006 21:05  Updated: 16/4/2006 21:05
Home away from home
Joined: 21/11/2005
From: Wiltshire
Posts: 1881
thank you for your comments. It is hard work sometimes but well worth it. We love our marine tank!
Posted: 8/7/2006 14:48  Updated: 8/7/2006 14:48
Home away from home
Joined: 1/6/2006
From: London
Posts: 248
Fantastic Article! I learned a lot, and Def. Will read up a lot more before I even attempt a marine tank, as small as it may be. *Grins* Two thumbs way up.
Posted: 10/7/2006 8:09  Updated: 10/7/2006 8:09
Home away from home
Joined: 30/3/2006
From: Gloucestershire
Posts: 175
 Marine tank
Your tank is a cracking example,be proud.I will be going down the same route as you with marines on a smaller scale,I hope for the same results as you.
Posted: 8/10/2006 16:14  Updated: 8/10/2006 16:14
Just popping in
Joined: 8/10/2006
Posts: 1
 Cracking Article!!

Just started to read up about Marine keeping as I now have a spare tank. Considering I have never done any marine keeping this article is a very good starter.

Do you have any good websites/books I could use to get me on the road??

Posted: 16/10/2006 21:33  Updated: 16/10/2006 21:33
Home away from home
Joined: 21/11/2005
From: Wiltshire
Posts: 1881
 Re: Cracking Article!!
Hi Merlin, as a suggestion use our marine forum to ask anything you want to know we all try to help new starters set things up. There are quite a few books around on starting up. If you go to a good fish supplier they will probably have books. Get a species book for different fish, corals and inverts too. Hope we talk to you soon
Posted: 31/10/2006 21:51  Updated: 31/10/2006 22:09
Home away from home
Joined: 21/11/2005
From: Wiltshire
Posts: 1881
 Re: Cracking Article!!
We have just hit our first anniversary with our tank! The first year has seen a lot of trial and error, successes and losses.
As we have tried to keep a reef as well as fish we have been unsuccessful with some corals,polyps and sponges as the fish like to nibble away at them. This can prove to be expensive!
We do successfully keep leather soft corals and a variety of mushrooms.
The anenomes did not last the year and one got sucked in to the powerhead and was shredded in to little bits!
We have had bad luck with various types of Surgeonfish(Tangs) as they are prone to whitespot(ich),although we have 2 now, who are fine.
The yellow Tang is certainly more hardy and the Regal Tang was introduced as a very small specimen which I feel made a difference to his disease tolerance.

The actual fish/invertebrate stock in our tank as of October 2006:

8 Green Chromis
2 Common Clowns (Percula)
2 Three stripe Humbugs (Dascyllus)
1 Blue Cheek Goby
1 Blue Spot Goby
1 Koran Angel
1 Yellow Tang
1 Flameangel
1 Strawberryfish (Dottyback)
2 Electric Blue Damsels
2 Yellow Tail Damsels
1 Regal Tang
1 Sixline Wrasse
1 Cleaner Wrasse
2 Scooter Blennies
2 Sand sifting Starfish
1 Serpent Starfish
1 Boxer Shrimp
3 Cleaner Shrimp
several hermit crabs
several turbo snails
Feather Duster worms

I wouldn't say our fish are purely peaceful community fish. The Koran Angel in particular and the mature Humbugs are active and bossy fish. They all live happily with the above listed fish probably due to the size of the aquarium. The Koran is the main reason we are unanble to keep polyps and delicate corals - he eats them all!

I carry out the main chemical tests once a week and do a 20% water change once a month. Sometimes I will do a smaller water change once a fortnight. I feed the fish New Era Marine Flake along with frozen marine preparations including, meaty mixes, mysis shrimp, plankton, invertebrate frozen food, herbivore frozen mixes and so on. They are fed 2-3 times a day. I always thaw out the frozen food first.

Test results are very stable generally. Calcium levels always stay above 420ppm and this is due to the "Coral Pro Salt" we use, which is especially rich in Calcium.

Every 2-3 weeks we have to buffer the pH level which drops just below 8.0 sometimes. We buffer it to 8.2 most of the time.

Once a week a liquid suppliment is added "All-in-One Reef" which helps to replace essential minerals that are removed by the skimmer etc.

We have recently changed our UV bulb and replaced our T5 bulbs which should be done every year.

We are happy with our aquarium and one year on we have learnt so much more about marine life. I would highly recommend it! The time and patience is worth every penny...
Posted: 6/12/2006 21:51  Updated: 6/12/2006 21:51
Quite a regular
Joined: 6/12/2006
From: Hampshire
Posts: 68
 Re: Cracking Article!!
Read your article with great interest. I want to set up a marine tank after keeping Malawis for years,but just trying to get my head round where everything goes and whats needed, especially when space is a premium. Where is your water butt and RO unit ?? How do you get the water from the butt to the tank ??
Posted: 18/1/2007 21:33  Updated: 18/1/2007 21:33
Home away from home
Joined: 28/12/2006
From: Tyne & Wear
Posts: 871
 First step
Really enjoyed your article,I've just added the water to my tank today (40l)so on the bottom rung so to speak .Found your article great reading and although I'm goin fish only I printed it off along with your results to give me some kind of reference (now I'm not working totally blind).As a new starter to all this I think your piece is gonna prove really useful.
Posted: 27/1/2007 16:43  Updated: 27/1/2007 16:43
Just popping in
Joined: 27/1/2007
From: East Sussex
Posts: 2
 great story!!
Hi there, its good to read of other peoples ups and downs I shall refer to your story for any thing in not sure of! I have marine a4ft tank and i brought a purple sponge and they didnt tell me that if you expose them to the air they die, so i was very upset as these things dont come cheap!! perhaps the staff could do with some trainig on informing customers on what they are buying, thanks sue
Posted: 3/3/2007 2:11  Updated: 3/3/2007 2:11
Just can't stay away
Joined: 31/8/2006
From: Midlothian
Posts: 135
 Re: great story!!
hi flame angel n superb tank ( i thought u had marine already ( given some of the great advice uv'e given me).........

can i add tho

the bat fish imo ( and many others) is not even suitable for the MOST experienced it is simply 'one of those feeshes!' they just cannot seem to survive my lfs doesnt ever stock em for this reason

but again ur tank looks great n well done
Posted: 6/4/2007 20:54  Updated: 6/4/2007 20:54
Home away from home
Joined: 21/11/2005
From: Wiltshire
Posts: 1881
 Re: great story!!
Yep the batfish shouldn't be stocked anywhere in my opinion. They get so huge..it isn't fair at all. Best left in the ocean.My inexperience made me think he had a chance in our tank.
Posted: 1/7/2007 13:57  Updated: 1/7/2007 13:57
Just popping in
Joined: 1/7/2007
Posts: 1
 Doing my research!
What an excellent article. I have had a 3ft tropical fish tank set up for the last 10 years. Those years have all been educational, enjoyable and satisfying, only like you I have recently been tempted towards possibly setting up a marine tank instead. Currently doing homework and your article has been most enlightening; thank you.
Posted: 29/7/2007 16:07  Updated: 29/7/2007 16:10
Just popping in
Joined: 29/7/2007
From: Shropshire
Posts: 5
 A beginner myself........
Well that's a hit.......After a spell of keeping tropicals and having a break,I found myself in Hollybush Aquatics looking at buying another tank. Whilst looking around I was drawn to the diversity of life and colours of marine life and cooled my jets to find out more.
Well I've joined this site to sound you all out before actually buying anything and this thread was just what the fishy doctor ordered.
I would be great to see regular updates of how it's going if you have the time as I'm sure others are interested too.

Posted: 2/11/2007 22:07  Updated: 2/11/2007 22:09
Home away from home
Joined: 21/11/2005
From: Wiltshire
Posts: 1881
 more recent photos of tank

These were taken November 2007
Click on each photo to see a larger version
Posted: 2/11/2007 23:19  Updated: 2/11/2007 23:19
Home away from home
Joined: 27/10/2007
From: Lincolnshire
Posts: 575
 Re: more recent photos of tank
well im very impressed and find the article very useful!
Posted: 29/8/2008 8:57  Updated: 29/8/2008 8:57
Just popping in
Joined: 29/8/2008
From: Cornwall
Posts: 1
 Re: more recent photos of tank
excellent write up and very helpful for me. I'm just getting back into keeping fish after a several year gap. I've only ever kept tropical and used to breed lots of different types of Cichlids.
I'm waiting on my tank to arrive and trying to decide what fish to go for this time. My heart wants Marine because they look so much better. Plus, I recently got my PADI open water in the Maldives and its spuring me on to get marine as well, after seeing it all in the real setting.
Your article has been a big push for me to say to myself, what the hell, go for it....
I've just ordered myself some books on Marine setups and I'm doing a fair bit of looking around on the net.
Couple of questions I have initially though are. Will T5 lights be OK and what tubes should I use? I want a mixed tank but mainly a living reef, that will grow over time.
Also, do you need a skimmer? I've read somewhere else that if you use enough living rock and sand you don't need to bother?

Cheers and keep up the great work
Posted: 19/12/2008 21:31  Updated: 19/12/2008 21:31
Home away from home
Joined: 21/11/2005
From: Wiltshire
Posts: 1881
 Re: more recent photos of tank
My word you asked me a question in August and I haven't been on the site since then!
We changed our lighting to an overhead Arcadia halide unit in the end which I must admit is much better for the corals. I would still have a skimmer personally but go for V2 skimmers not a Red Sae one. They were right you can have a lot of live rock to do the filtering for you but I swear by skimmers as well as rock.
in oz
Posted: 22/1/2009 2:04  Updated: 22/1/2009 2:04
Just popping in
Joined: 22/1/2009
From: Australia
Posts: 1
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
Can i ask how the seahorse did in your community tank?
Amazing article by the way!!
Posted: 28/4/2009 21:31  Updated: 28/4/2009 21:31
Home away from home
Joined: 21/11/2005
From: Wiltshire
Posts: 1881
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
Posted: 21/7/2009 18:58  Updated: 21/7/2009 18:58
Just popping in
Joined: 21/7/2009
From: London
Posts: 1
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
Excellent article. Good reference guide to check my tank equipment as I attempt to start my marine tank. Great step guide. Thanks for taking the time to write this article.
Posted: 27/8/2009 12:22  Updated: 27/8/2009 12:22
Home away from home
Joined: 21/11/2005
From: Wiltshire
Posts: 1881
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
Thank you for that comment. I really should update it now!!
Posted: 24/9/2009 21:21  Updated: 24/9/2009 21:21
Just popping in
Joined: 25/5/2009
From: Bedfordshire
Posts: 3
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
wow only jus read ur article, it is amazin seein as its quite old an still gettin such a positive response. Im only lookin at marine for curiosity at the moment but when funds an room allow it looks like a very large part of my front room shall be dedicated to it. Appreciate the detail of ur experience an if and when i put it to use ill be sure to thank you again
Posted: 12/12/2009 22:49  Updated: 12/12/2009 22:49
Not too shy to talk
Joined: 12/12/2009
From: West Yorkshire
Posts: 37
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
Thank you for a very informative article. I have just set up my first marine aquarium and let it do a fishless cycle. Your article has been a good reference point as to time scales etc between stages and been a good guide to follow. Thanks again.

Posted: 16/12/2009 11:23  Updated: 16/12/2009 11:23
Just popping in
Joined: 11/12/2009
From: Lancashire
Posts: 1
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
Great article! Helped me along a bit in my quest to start up my own marine tank in the near future. Good luck with your stunning example.
Posted: 24/3/2010 8:54  Updated: 24/3/2010 8:54
Just popping in
Joined: 24/3/2010
From: Cheshire
Posts: 1
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
I love your article and would appreciate a list of beginners fish to put in a 190 litre trigon fish tank. It is as yet not set up in as much as no water gone in yet it has coral and crushed coral on the bed no protien skimmer i am trying it without. i have no live rock as yet is this abso. necessary. Did your sea horse make it by the way i could not see him on the list.
regards Val
Posted: 24/3/2010 17:08  Updated: 24/3/2010 17:08
Coldwater Moderator
Joined: 21/2/2006
From: London
Posts: 10141
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
Hi Val - welcome to FK Glad you like Flame's article Best thing to do is post any questions on the marine section of the forum, you are much more likely to get a better response that way as more people will see your post. HTH
Posted: 27/3/2010 10:06  Updated: 27/3/2010 10:06
Home away from home
Joined: 21/11/2005
From: Wiltshire
Posts: 1881
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
The seahorse did not like it at all and he did not survive for long.I would not recommend getting one unless you have a very peaceful tank, and almost solitary. That was down to our naiveity as beginners and we should have left well alone. I would not put one back in our big tank now.
Posted: 10/5/2010 11:36  Updated: 10/5/2010 11:36
Just popping in
Joined: 10/5/2010
From: London
Posts: 1
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
im thinking of creating a tank. i have no experiance really but its a habby i think will be furfilling.
this was really helpfull in suggesting the equipment i would need, i also need a tank thats bout 400 litres or more. as i want a large mixed aqarium, i think 110 gallons is about 410 litres so your tank is perfect. could you tell me its dimensions so i can go to the stockests and order.
Posted: 30/9/2010 8:24  Updated: 30/9/2010 8:24
Home away from home
Joined: 21/11/2005
From: Wiltshire
Posts: 1881
 Re: A Beginners Guide To Setting Up A Large Marine Tank -...
sorry I haven't been on the site for a long time! No doubt by now you have your answers but for those who wish to know, the aquarium is 6 feet long, 2 feet tall and 18 inches deep. It is approx 450 litres/110 gallons.Best to send me a PM via th forum as I would be notified by private email of your question to prompt me to answer. regards
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