Articles > Marine Articles > Nano Setup Part 1 - Setting up the Orca TL-550
Nano Setup Part 1 - Setting up the Orca TL-550
Published by Goldnugget on 03/04/2009 (85148 reads)

A Practical Guide to your First Orca Nano Marine Aquarium

Part 1 – Equipment and Setting up your Tank


Nano marine aquariums are appearing with greater frequency as the quality of equipment and accessibility of the science behind them improves. They are popular primarily for new entrants in to the hobby due to the lower running costs and relative ease of physical maintenance in comparison to large scale setups.

The world of Nano Marine keeping however can still be complex and laden with pitfalls for inexperienced hobbyists.

This article aims to walk you through the setup, science and stocking of a Systemised Orca Nano tank. From purchase of your tank to purchase of your fish in three easy to understand articles. We will primarily look at the Orca range of tanks (sometimes branded as Boyu) though many of the principles discussed apply across range and brand. For the purposes of practical illustration I will use my own Orca Tl-550, but will reference particular differences between the Orca 450 and 550 where appropriate. Parts 2 and 3 of this guide will encompass a variety of principles which can be applied to most Nano Marine setups regardless of brand or model.

We will cover the set up of these tanks using the ‘Berlin’ method of filtration. A brief explanation of the principles of ‘Berlin’ filtration is available - HERE

What Equipment Will You Need?

Below is a handy checklist of the basic equipment you will need to get your tank up and running. Tick them off as you go. (Print the list if needed).

Equipment List

tickbox Aquarium
tickbox Aquarium Cabinet/Stand
tickbox RO unit (or reputable source of RO water)
tickbox TDS Meter
tickbox Salt (reputable brand, quality is important)
tickbox Egg Crating
tickbox Powerheads (to achieve 20x turnover of water volume)
tickbox Protein Skimmer
tickbox Heater
tickbox Return Pump
tickbox Lighting. (Moonlights if desired)
tickbox UV Filter
tickbox Refractometer
tickbox Thermometer
tickbox Test Kits (BASIC: pH, Ammonia, NitrITE, NitrATE. RECOMMENDED: kH/Alkalinity, Magnesium, Calcium, Phosphate. ADVANCED: Iodine, Strontium, Boron, Silicate, Copper)
tickbox Sand
tickbox Nets (Varied sizes)
tickbox Filtration media (CHEMICAL: Carbon, Phosphate remover. MECHANICAL: Filter wool/floss)
tickbox Algae Scrubber
tickbox Strong Rubber Gloves (Some invertebrates can sting, open wounds should be covered and soap or other residues on hands etc should have limited contact with the tank water)
tickbox Food Grade Plastic Buckets/Water Containers
tickbox Gravel Cleaner/Siphon

As you can see, the list of basic equipment is extensive. In here lies the beauty of many of the systemised Nano tanks available on the market. Most of these tanks come with much of the basic equipment (such as Skimmer and Heaters) that you require. So the first thing to do is choose your tank!

The Orca models we will look at are:


  Orca Tl-450
Orca Tl-450
  • 58 Litres/12.8 Gallons
  • L403mm x W484mm x H460mm
  • 2 x 18w T5 Compact lights + Cooling fans + Moonlight LEDs
  • 720lph Return Pump
  • Skimmer
  • Heater
  • UV Steriliser

  Orca Tl-550
Orca Tl-550
  • 128 Litres/28 Gallons
  • L570mm x W510mm x H670mm
  • 2 x 24w T5 Compact lights + Cooling fans + Moonlight LEDs
  • 720lph Return Pump
  • Skimmer
  • Heater
  • UV Steriliser

The above tanks are similar in both aesthetics and type of equipment supplied. As with freshwater aquaria, the bigger the better. A larger tank allows not only for greater water chemistry stability but for a wider range of livestock choices. Obviously however, the cost of upkeep and equipment increases exponentially with the size of the tank.

Before considering a tank, estimate the upkeep, taking into account;

  • Energy usage (powerful lighting up to 12 hours per day, pumps/powerheads/skimmer/UV 24 hours a day 7 days a week)
  • Salt and additives. Expect to pay around £50 for a 20kg+ tub of salt (March’09), weekly water changes go through salt quickly in a large tank.
  • RO water, whether you use your own filter (recommended) or buy RO from your local fish shop. Expect to use ~10-15% of your tank’s volume in water, weekly (this should help you calculate salt requirement and associated cost). Expect to pay around £1.50-£2.50 per 25 litres of RO from a shop. Main cost of producing RO yourself is outlay of equipment and waster water produced.
  • Foods (A wide range of frozen/live and dried foods, as is required, can be expensive)
  • Livestock (You should add livestock slowly so it is worth calculating this into regular expenses for the first year of your setup)
  • Equipment failures + spares (depending on equipment this could be a simple fuse change to a replacement skimmer or lighting rig!)
  • Disposables/consumables such as gloves, filter media, test kits etc.

NB. Model Differences – It is worth bearing in mind here that most owners of the 450 tend to replace the stock skimmer. The skimmer provided is known to have a number of design/function issues with resultant loss of efficiency and micro bubble problems. Account for this in your outlay costs. The recommended upgrade skimmer is the Boyu JAD308/310 though a variety of Nano skimmers will do the same. Just be sure to measure the rear chambers and find a skimmer which will fit.

Marine fish keeping, no matter what size the tank, is expensive. Expect to run at anywhere between 10 to 20 times the cost of a freshwater tank and to have significantly higher original outlay costs. Fish Only tanks (FO) are the cheapest to run, Fish Only With Live Rock (FOWLR) tanks run at a moderate expense due to initial outlay and power costs for pumps/lighting, and Reef tanks are the most expensive due to their high power lighting, circulation pumps and livestock costs.

Don’t enter into the hobby without first looking at whether you can afford it. The tank is a life support system for the animals you choose to keep in it, the equipment and disposables mentioned above are essential. Ask an experienced marine aquarist to walk through the costs with you if you are in doubt.

With all that in mind you’re ready to choose your tank!

How Do I Set My New Orca Up?

So you’ve chosen between the Tl-450 and the Tl-550, your tank has arrived and you’re ready to start putting things together. Where do you start?

You should already have a location in mind before you buy your tank. The site should be:

  • Near a power point with adequate sockets for pumps, lights, filters, UV, heaters etc.
  • Flat and structurally safe (Concrete floor for larger tanks, structurally sound etc)
  • Away from radiators or sources of intense heat
  • Away from doors, cupboards or anything that is likely to bang the tank if moved.
  • Away from high traffic areas like doorways and halls, constant disruption will stress your fish. (Likewise, a site next to a large speaker or TV would be unsuitable)
  • Away from direct sunlight (this will encourage nuisance algae)
  • Adequate space around the tank for weekly maintenance without serious disruption

Build up your stand and check that the top of the stand is level. Wash the tank with RO water and clean thoroughly to remove dust and detritus. Place the tank on top and again check that the weight of the tank hasn’t offset the balance of the stand.

As you’ll see, the layout of the Orca 450 and 550 (as well as many other brands/models of Nano) consists of a large front display section, and a four chambered section behind a false wall. Familiarise yourself with the layout of these chambers. From hereon in we will number these chambers 1 to 4 from right to left as shown below. 1 is the point of entry for tank water to the filtration system, 4 is the point of exit.

Orca Chambers and Flow Direction

NB. Model Differences – In the 450 the primary pump is in chamber 1, in the 550 the return pump is in chamber 4. It is recommended that in the 450 an additional powerhead/pump be placed in chamber 4 to increase spray-bar output. Flow is right to left in both tanks 1-4.

There are additional differences with regards to skimmer, and UV location. UV filtration in the 450 is situated in chamber 1. In the 550 it is found in chamber 4.

The skimmer is found in chamber 2 of the 450 and chamber 1 of the 550. Familiarise yourself with the layout and responsibility of each chamber. Examples used here-after will relate to the 550 but will detail differences between models where applicable.

Now that the tank is in position you can begin to arrange the equipment into positions which allow for maximum efficiency and minimum disruption during maintenance. For example place your powerheads inside the tank allowing for enough cable to reach the socket and a suitable place in the tank to encourage thorough water circulation.

NB. Model Differences – For the 450 one to two Koralia ‘Nano’ powerheads (or alternative brand/model of similar output) would be suitable to supply adequate flow and without being overly invasive. For the 550 two Koralia ‘1’s’ would be required. Remember you need to achieve a minimum turnover of 20 times the volume of the tank. Angle spray-bars in both the 450 and 550 so that the outlet holes point upwards at a 45 degree angle, this ensures maximum disturbance of the water’s surface.

NB. Handy Tip! – When positioning your powerheads and other equipment you can use tie wraps and aquarium sealant to attach cables to the back panel of the tank, if you run cables horizontally from the powerheads along the glass and then seal them to back panel running vertically up to the hood you can minimise messy loose cables and keep your tank looking tidy!

Also whilst the tank is empty you may wish to use sealant to cover the holes in the back wall of the tank (where the heater is hooked on to the other side), these small holes can often let micro bubbles in to the display section.

Remember to leave the sealant to dry for at least 48 hours before filling the tank!

Powerheads should be situated in places which will encourage thorough circulation and in a manner which averts the creation of flow dead spots. (Once the live rock goes in you may need to adjust angle/direction of flow depending on your décor placement.) Placing one powerhead at the top back and the other at the front bottom on the opposite side should encourage a cyclical flow throughout the tank.

Remove all supplied sponge and bio-ball filtration media from the rear chambers, this can be found most commonly in chambers 1, 2 and 4 of both tanks. This media can be discarded, as it is seen as counterproductive with regards to Nitrate control in a ‘Berlin’ system. Instead we’ll be replacing this with chemical filtration, live rock rubble and a disposable (weekly) filter wool mechanical filtration element.

Tidy all cables and ensure you create drip loops on the wires (leave a length of cable running down below the mains socket so that should condensation run down the cable it does not come into contact with the socket, see fig 1.). Mark plugs up with labels detailing what they are for and ensure cables are kept well maintained and tidy. Do not plug heaters, pumps etc in with no water in the tank, pumps can overheat and heaters can smash whilst not submerged. Water is conducive to the safe running of this equipment.


Drip Loop FIG 1

You are now ready to add egg crating to the base of the tank. Egg crating is an important and often overlooked setup material. It is added to the base of the tank to protect the glass from sharp live rock edges and to give the rock a good foundation to avoid slide and movement. A display of 15kg of live rock is capable of smashing your tank should it collapse. Egg crating is available from most good marine stockists, or can be bought online marketed as ‘Koi grid’, ‘Reef Racking’ or ‘Egg Crating’ for approximately £20 for 120cmx60cm (Mar’09)(See Fig 2).


Egg Crating FIG 2

Now that you have your equipment in the right locations, cables are tidied, egg crating is down, tank is washed and cleaned and any sealant used has been allowed to dry, you are ready to start adding water!

Adding Water

By now you should have a source of RO water (whether produced yourself or bought from a reputable supplier), test kits, a Refractometer, thermometers and some marine salt.

Production of your own RO water is favourable, both for quality control (many retailers mix tap and RO, only part filter the water or have problems with Phosphates and Nitrates), long term cost (you can often recoup initial outlay costs in the first few years of your setup) and convenience (RO water has limited shelf life, and if not stored appropriately will diminish in quality quickly, making weekly trips to your local fish shop for heavy buckets/tanks of water both laborious and expensive).

Expect to pay around £100 (Mar’09) for a 100 gallon per day RO unit and slightly elevated water bills as a result of the waste produced by the filter. Replacement filter media every 6 months or so will cost approximately £15 (Mar’09) depending on make/model of RO filter.

Whether you produce your own water or buy from a local retailer you should have a TDS meter. TDS stands for total dissolved solids and relates to the level of charged ions including salts and/or metals dissolved in the water. Pure RO should have a TDS reading of 0ppm, acceptable levels for marine use should be as close to this as possible, it is widely accepted that anything over 5ppm should be rejected. Tap water supplies will often have anything up to 500ppm and over. RO water purchased from a shop should be tested on site with your own TDS meter, this is common practice, if you are un-happy with the quality go elsewhere or produce your own. Getting the water right is one of the most important considerations in running a healthy and sustainable marine tank. High TDS can be indicative of inappropriately stored RO, RO mixed with un-filtered water, or old RO filters/DI resin which need replenishing/replacing.

You now have pure RO water (or the means to produce it), and an empty tank. Fill your food-grade plastic buckets (food grade limits the possibility of toxins leaching from the plastic and building up in the tank over the course of subsequent water changes) and measure the correct amount of salt for each bucket. Mix thoroughly till all the salt has been dissolved (some brands have a small amount of un-soluble precipitate matter which may appear in the bottom of the bucket, siphon/scoop this out). Once mixed use your correctly calibrated refractometer to ascertain the specific gravity of the water (if your refractometer does not have Automatic Temperature Compensation you will need to bring the water up to temp before testing, as you would do with future water changes), optimum range for a reef tank tends to be around the 1.025 mark. Mixing and testing each bucket as you go will help improve your proficiency with the refractometer and give you a feel for future water changes. Add each bucket to the tank till the waterline is covered by the plastic trim at the top of the tank but below the tops of the partition walls at the back of the tank (you don’t want these to overflow).

NB. – For future water changes, you will need to produce your salt water at least 24 hours before you need it (preferably 48). In this time the bucket of newly mixed salt water should have a heater (to bring it up to the same temp as your tank) and an airstone to aerate the water. Frequently testing the quality of your produced water before adding to the tank is best practice, especially when your RO water is sourced from a shop or the source of water varies frequently.

For now (as we have no livestock) we can allow the water to circulate in the tank, using the tanks pumps/spray bar to aerate and the heater to bring up to temp.

Now you can plug in and turn on your pumps, heater and powerheads (Keep the skimmer off for now). Monitor the flow and make sure that the flow dynamic is adequate to keep the whole water volume moving. Allow the tank to stand for 48 hours with all pumps on, after the 48 hours are up make one last measure of Sg and run tests for pH. Make sure that the temperature is around 25.5°C. Readings should have stabilised at a pH of 8 - 8.4 (dependant on your salt brand/quality) and SG around 1.025, you can use RO water or salted water to move these parameters up and down as needed. More on this later!

In part 2 we’ll discuss adding chemical filtration and the 4 rear chambers in more detail, the cycle/adding live rock, the science behind the water readings you’ve just taken and we’ll take a more detailed look at the skimmer’s role in the ‘Berlin’ method… In the meantime get to grips with how your tank works with water in, do some background research on the principles of protein skimming and talk to other marine keepers about their experiences!

Article Part 2: Filtration, Live Rock, Basic Marine Water Chemistry and Skimmers
Orca Nano FAQs: Click here

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  • Plants  Adviser

 Re: Setting up the Orca TL-550

Great article!

  • Just popping in

 Re: Setting up the Orca TL-550

Hi, We are setting a second hand orca 450. we now have all the parts but no bubbles from the skimmer are collecting in the cup.

Should I raise the water level.

Also our NO3 levels are high on our Tetra 5 in 1 tester. all the others are ok. is it safe to put a couple of hermit crabs in. My son and I would love to see some action.

Thanks Grovey & son

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