How To Start A Saltwater Aquarium for Beginners

Start A Saltwater Aquarium

We have all heard the rumors that saltwater aquariums are much more difficult to maintain than their freshwater counterparts. While it is certainly true that saltwater aquariums present their own unique set of challenges, it does not mean that they can’t be a great option for a new aquarist.

Like all great things in life, saltwater aquariums require patience and hard work. However, if you are ready to put in the time, we are ready to help you. The following article outlines everything you need to know about purchasing and setting up your saltwater aquarium system.

Types of Saltwater Tanks

The first thing you have to decide when setting up your saltwater aquarium is what kind of tank you will be creating. In general, there are three main types of saltwater tanks:

Fish Only AquariumAs the name implies, the only living creatures within a Fish Only Aquarium are the fish. Fish Only Aquariums tend to be the simplest and cheapest saltwater tanks to set up. Because you are focusing on only fish, tank decorations are typically less expensive, and it is generally easier to find species that coexist well in the same habitat.

The challenge of the Fish Only Aquarium is water quality. Because you don’t have live rocks or plants in your tank, you have to rely on ammonia additives and cycling to jumpstart the production of beneficial bacteria within the tank, which tends to take longer.

Fish Only Aquariums also tend to require more frequent water changes because there are no natural water filtration species, such as corals and plants, within the tank.

Fish Only with Live Rocks (FOWLR) Aquarium

FOWLR Aquariums are aquariums that consist of fish and live rocks. Live rocks are a beneficial addition to your tank because they bring with them bacteria and microbes that help maintain your water quality.

However, live rocks are expensive; in the United States, live rocks typically cost approximately $5.00 per pound. If you choose to go with a FOWLR Aquarium, it is important to make sure you are budgeting accordingly.

Reef Tank

Reef tanks are the setup that most people think of when they think of saltwater aquariums. Reef tanks balance fish, invertebrates, corals, plants, and other organisms in a carefully maintained ecosystem. While they are arguably the most attractive ecosystem for a saltwater aquarium setup, Reef Tanks are also by far the most challenging and expensive.

Because of the addition of corals and invertebrates, water quality, lighting, and temperature are much more important in Reef Tanks than in other saltwater aquarium setups. If you are a beginner aquarist, setting up a Reef Tank, though not impossible, will be quite challenging.

If you choose to set up a Reef Tank, make sure you research the requirements for each species you want to add to your tank, to ensure that their habitat preferences are possible to achieve within your system.

Equipment for Saltwater Tanks

Equipment for Saltwater Tanks

Saltwater tanks tend to require more equipment than their freshwater counterparts. While the following is not an exhaustive list, it is an overview of the basic equipment you will need to start your saltwater aquarium:

  • Tank stand: Make sure you have a stand that is capable of supporting the weight of your aquarium with all of the rocks and water added. Refer to Step 3 below for tips for choosing your tank stand.
  • Tank: Tanks come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Refer to Step 2 below for tips for choosing your tank.
  • Tank lighting: Your lighting requirements will be determined based on the type of saltwater aquarium and organisms you choose. Having a controlled and consistent lighting schedule in an aquarium is vital for the health of the organisms and the management of algal growth.
  • Water Heater and Thermometer: Depending on the size of your aquarium, you may need multiple heaters to maintain a consistent heat throughout your tank. Thermometers should also be fixed in the tank to easily monitor the water temperature.
  • Water filters and Protein Skimmers: The type of filters you will need will be highly dependent on the type of saltwater tank you set up and the organisms you choose. The ideal filtration system should reduce ammonia within your tank while also circulating and aerating the water.

Protein skimmers remove dissolved organic compounds (DOCs) from the aquarium water before it is processed by the filter. Though protein skimmers are not necessary for most saltwater tanks, they do decrease the load on the filter, thereby allowing for a larger fish and invertebrate population within the tank. If you find you are having a hard time maintaining your water quality, adding a protein skimmer can help.

  • Saltwater Mixture: Saltwater for tanks can be either purchased pre-mixed or mixed at home. If you mix your own saltwater, make sure you use sea salts from a reputable aquarium store and water treated with either reverse osmosis (RO) or a deionization (DI) system.
  • Salinity Tester: The salinity tester, also known as a hydrometer, measures the specific gravity, or salt content, or the water in your tank. The salinity tester is especially important if you plan on mixing your own saltwater.
  • Water Additives: The type of additives required is dependent on the type of saltwater tank you have. For FOWLR and Reef Tanks, you will need to periodically add calcium to your tank.

Certain organisms will also require additional additives. For example, iodine should be added periodically to tanks with crustaceans.

  • Water Conditioners: When you first start cycling your tank, you will need to add ammonia to the water to start the nitrogen cycle. De-chlorinators are also beneficial to add when cycling your tank to remove any trace chlorine from the water.
  • Substrate: You typically want 1-2 inches of gravel, sand, or crushed shell at the bottom of your tank. As a general guideline, you will need roughly 1-2 pounds of substrate for every gallon of tank.
  • Rocks and Plants: Rocks and plants, in either a living or non-living medium, are essential for a marine tank. They provide shelter and line-of-sight breaks for the organisms within the tank, which can help decrease aggression and stress.
  • General Maintenance Equipment: In addition to the above items, it is beneficial to have general maintenance tools, such as nets, buckets, algae scrubbers, towels, and siphons.

Setting Up Your Saltwater Aquarium

Set Up Saltwater Aquarium

Part 1: Setting Up the Tank Location

Step 1: Choose a Location

It should be no surprise that once you fill your aquarium, it is heavy… very heavy. Therefore, you want to make sure that you are certain about the location of your tank before you fill it up.

When choosing the location for your tank, you should choose a location with the following:

  • Controlled Temperature: Make sure your tank is not in an area with a draft, or by windows or doors to the outside. Any changes in temperature outside of the aquarium will make it difficult to maintain a consistent temperature within the aquarium.
  • Controlled Lighting: Try to position your tank away from areas that are exposed to direct sunlight. Not only does sunlight alter the temperature of your tank, but it also propagates the growth of algal species.
  • Nearby Electricity Source: Your tank system will require multiple electrical outlets. Make sure you have easy access to at least 4 outlets for your filters, protein skimmers, lights, and heaters.
  • Proper Foundational Support: In general, saltwater tanks weigh approximately 8 pounds per gallon. While this amount of weight is not necessarily an issue with smaller tanks, if you are getting a large tank, it is important to make sure the floor of your rooms can support the weight, especially if you are not on the ground floor.
  • Easily Accessible: Depending on your tank setup, you will likely have a filtration system, a sump, chords, and/or other supplies behind your tank. Make sure that you leave plenty of room for your tank system components, as well as room for you to access them. There is nothing worse than trying to perform maintenance on a component that you cannot reach or see.

Step 2: Choose a Tank

There are an endless amount of tank variations to choose from. When choosing the tank that is right for you, consider the following:

  • Preferred Difficult Level: One of the most common misconceptions about aquariums is that smaller tanks are easier to care for. In fact, the opposite is true. The smaller your tank is, the more water quality changes will impact your inhabitants. Therefore, if you are just starting out, it’s usually best to start with a tank that is at least 30-50 gallons to give yourself some error forgiveness.
  • Inhabitants: It is important to consider the tank requirements of the fish and/or invertebrates you plan on adding to your aquarium. Different species require different amounts of space and have different bioloads. Therefore, it is important to ensure that you are getting a tank big enough for the species you hope to maintain.
  • Aquarium starter kits: These kits are a great option for new aquarists or aquarists looking for a stress-free setup. Starter kits usually include the tank, as well as most of the items you will need for your tank. Because they are packaged together, they also typically end up being cheaper than buying each piece individually. However, if you are looking to design a very unique or specific tank, starter kits do limit your options.

Step 3: Choose a Tank Stand

As mentioned above, aquariums are heavy. Therefore, you can’t use just any surface to support your tank. Typically, the best option is to purchase an aquarium stand. Aquarium stands are built to support the aquarium’s weight and typically have built-in storage for aquarium supplies. However, aquarium stands also tend to be more expensive than your typical shelving unit.

Part 2: Setting Up the Tank

Step 1: Clean Your Tank

Do not assume your tank is clean when you purchase it. Between the storage and transport of your tank, it has likely accumulated dust particles that will be harmful to fish.

Rinse the interior of your tank with a new, clean cloth and plain, fresh water to clean it. Either wipe clean with a new, clean cloth, or let air dry in a clean environment. Don’t use soap or chemical cleaners to clean your tank. Residue from these cleaning products can remain on the tank surface and harm your future fish.

While you clean your tank, fill it 1/3rd of the way with water and let it sit. Look for cracks, scratches, bubbles, or other imperfections in the bottom and sides of your tank that may lead to leaks. The last thing you want is an entire aquarium of water leaking in your home!

Step 2: Set Up Your Stand and Tank

Set your newly-cleaned tank on the stand in its chosen location. Once situated, confirm that both your stand and your tank are sitting evenly. Uneven stands and tanks can be unstable and potentially hazardous.

Step 3: Add Your Rocks and Substrate

Rocks and Substrate in Saltwater Aquarium

If you add larger rocks to your aquarium, you should place them before adding your substrate. This way, you can ensure they are sitting flat and stable for your future tank inhabitants.

If you have chosen to create a Fish Only Tank, make sure you rinse all rocks in clean, aquarium conditioned water. If you have chosen to create a FOWLR or Reef Tank, you will need to purchase pre-cured live rocks or perform extra steps to ensure that your live rocks are cured.

Just like your tank, you cannot assume that your substrate is clean when you purchase it. Before adding it to your tank, rinse the substrate in clean, running water to remove any dust or debris. With larger substrates, it is typically easiest to use a new colander to efficiently clean a portion of the substrate at a time.

Once your substrate has been rinsed with clean water, place it in the bottom of your tank. When placing the substrate in your tank, make sure you pour it gentle to avoid scratching or damaging your tank.

Step 4: Add Your Saltwater

Saltwater can be mixed at home or purchased pre-mixed from a store or online. If you are creating your own saltwater mixture, you should mix it before adding it to your tank.

Do not add tap water directly to your tank. While the chemicals in tap water are harmless to us, they can be harmful or, in certain cases, deadly for your fish. If you can’t avoid using tap water, let your tap water settle in a clean bucket for 1-3 days before adding it to your tank to allow the chemical additives to disperse.

Ideally, you should use reverse osmosis (RO) water or deionized (DI) water when adding water to your tank. An RO system is a water purification technology that uses an RO membrane to remove dissolved solids from the water. A DI system removes the positive and negative ions from the water, leaving H+ and OH-, which combine to form H2O (water). When used in combination, RO and DI systems are able to remove nearly all contaminants from the water.

Once you have a clean water source, you can mix in your sea salts. Make sure you are using sea salt mixtures from a reputable aquarium store or online provider. Never use standard table salt or sea salts purchased from a grocery store.

As you add your sea salt, monitor the specific gravity of the water with your salinity tester. You want a specific gravity of 1.020-1.025 for Fish Only Aquariums and a specific gravity of 1.023-1.025 for aquariums with invertebrates. Specific gravity takes 24 hours to stabilize, so make sure to test your tank water the day after you mix it to make any necessary alterations.

As you add water to your tank, make sure you leave several inches of clearance at the top of your tank to account for the space that your remaining decorations, heaters, filters, and plants will still take up.

Step 5: Set Up Your Filter and Skimmer

Set up your filter and skimmer in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Wait to plug them in until your tank setup is complete.

Step 6: Add Your Heater and Thermometer

Heater and Thermometer in Saltwater Aquarium

Set up your heater and thermometer in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Wait to plug in the heater until your tank setup is complete.

The best location for your heater and thermometer will depend on the type of heater you have chosen:

  • Clip-on non-submersible heaters: Hang vertically as close to the outflow of the filter as possible.
  • Submersible heaters: Place as close to the inflow as possible.

Based on the location of your heaters, place your thermometer at the opposite end of your tank. The thermometer should be in a location that is easy to read so that you can monitor the temperature in your tank daily.

If you find that your temperature is not consistent, your tank may require more than one heater. Refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines for the best way to set up your tank heater(s) for temperature stabilization.

Step 7: Aquaculture and Personalize Your Tank

This step will vary based on the type of aquarium you are setting up. If you are using fake plants and decorations, make sure that all plants and decorations are rinsed with clean water and a new, clean cloth.

If you are using live plants, soak all live plants in potassium permanganate (can be purchased as any aquarium store or online) for 10 minutes, then rinse them with aquarium water. This will remove anything that could be dangerous for your fish before you add the plant to your tank.

Once you are happy with your ecosystem, fill your tank the rest of the way with your RO or DI water.

Part 3: Preparing the Ecosystem

Step 1: Turn on Your Tank System

Before you plug in any part of your tank system, you need to set up your chords. Any chords running from the tank should touch the ground before looping back up to the outlet. This setup is called a “drip loop”, and it prevents water from running down the chord into your electrical socket.

Once your drip loops are set, you can plug in your filter, heater, protein skimmer, and light. Place the hood and light on your tank and admire your handiwork!

Step 2: Add Water Conditioners and Additives

Now that your tank is up and running, you want to add the water conditioners and additives that will help jump-start your water chemistry. Ammonia will help start the nitrogen cycle in your tank by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria. De-chlorinators will remove any remaining trace chlorines from your tank.

Step 3: Cycle Your Aquarium for 4-6 Weeks

aquarium nitrogen cycle diagram

Aquariums require good bacteria that convert the harmful ammonia your tank inhabitants produce into harmless nitrates. However, these bacteria do not appear overnight. Cycling your tank for 4-6 weeks without inhabitants allows these bacteria to establish themselves, and ensures that other harmful chemicals have time to disperse.

Though this process may seem long, it is essential for the long term health of your tank inhabitants. Skipping or shortening the tank cycling can lead to illness or death for your fish and invertebrates.

For information about the best fish to add to your now-ready saltwater aquarium, see the 10 Best Saltwater Aquarium Fish for Beginners.

Final Thoughts

As you prepare your saltwater aquarium for your future fish and invertebrates, always remember the most important rule: patience pays off.

Setting up an aquarium is a slow and sometimes tedious process. However, the more research and work you put in upfront, the happier you and your tank inhabitants will be in the long run. Take your time, do your research, and then sit back and enjoy the stunning ecosystem you’ve created!

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