How to Set Up a Saltwater Aquarium

How To Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium

If one wants to take part in the aquarium hobby, there are two options available— opting for a freshwater aquarium or a saltwater aquarium. The choice of aquarium depends on the preference of the individual, the kind of livestock he intends to keep (freshwater or marine), financial capacity, and the aim of engaging in the hobby.

Most people are of the opinion that saltwater aquariums are more expensive and difficult to keep than freshwater aquariums. Price and difficulty are relative, for instance, setting up a 100-gallon reef tank will cost more fund compared to a 30-gallon tank, this is evident when you evaluate the cost of live rock, substrate, lights, aquarium pumps, filter, sump, protein skimmer, and energy requirements needed to keep the larger tank running 24/7 at maximum capacity. The difference between both options is as clear as day!

So it’s crucial to set-up a saltwater tank according to one’s financial capacity. Can you afford to lose a very large tank full of fish and inverts? Remember, this hobby is not cheap, and “cheaping out” can sometimes cost you more money!

If your answer is no, then you should venture towards establishing a smaller tank with fewer equipment and livestock.

Now, let’s have a look at the procedure involved in setting up a saltwater aquarium for those that would like to explore the saltwater part of the hobby.

Types of Saltwater Aquariums

  • Fish Only

With fish being the only inhabitant in this type of setup, this saltwater aquarium is undoubtedly the cheapest to establish.

It eliminates the need for invertebrates like corals, sponges, crabs, anemones, and lobsters. Live rock is not found in this type of saltwater aquarium as well. Hence the need to clean the tank more often and doing frequent water changes to keep the water clean.

  • Fish Only With Live Rock (FOWLR)

As the name implies, this is a tank housing fish with live rock.

Note: In some cases, small invertebrates (like shrimp and snails) can also be a part of this system.

Live rock aids in biological filtration, as it acts as a habitat for beneficial bacteria that help in breaking down nitrogenous compounds— ammonia to nitrites, and nitrites to nitrates that are less toxic to marine life.

This kind of saltwater aquarium costs more to setup since you have to spend a lot to acquire pieces of live rock for your tank.

  • Reef Tank

Here, you can incorporate fish, live rock in addition to invertebrates like corals, anemones, sponges, crabs, and the rest of them.

This saltwater aquarium type is the ultimate, and it involves a higher budget than others because reef tanks and corals are pricey, same goes for the equipment required to fulfill the strong lighting, flow, and filtration needs.

Keeping corals requires a whole lot of time and dedication since you have to put in more effort to maintain excellent water quality and stable water parameters to ensure their longevity.

Thus, beginner or inexperienced hobbyists will find it hard to maintain reef aquariums as it is absolutely more demanding.

Setting Up A Saltwater Aquarium

1. Planning

First, you need to determine the size of the tank you want to own. Consider your budget, quantity, type, and size of fish and invertebrates you intend to keep. Also, evaluate the space and place available in your home to contain the tank as these factors will help you make a proper and informed decision.

Note: Right from the beginning I need to say that a larger water volume is more likely to maintain stable water parameters; fluctuations are far more likely in nano tanks. However, with big tanks comes a big cost. In addition, you will be limited in the quantity and type of fish you can keep. So, choose the one that suits your lifestyle and purse best.

When you are done with this, the next thing to do is to acquire a tank.

For those that want to start off small, there are lots of all-in-one nano kits available in local fish stores and online stores, good examples are Coralife BioCubes and JBJ Nano Cubes (links to check the price on Amazon). These are beautifully-designed units and good as starter tanks, most come with a led lighting module and an internal filter.

The downsides are that these kits are small and less customizable; hence the addition of essential aquarium equipment will be difficult to achieve.

Alternatively, get a glass or acrylic tank (there are different sizes on the market), aquascape it with few ornaments, fit in the needed aquarium equipment, add livestock, and you are good to go.

Don’t forget to purchase a hood and stand/cabinet for your aquarium.

Note: Glass tanks are more durable and cheaper than acrylic tanks, on the other hand, acrylic is lighter and offers better resistance to impact than glass.

Also, those that are more technically inclined and love to create things (DIY) can source for materials and build their own saltwater tanks, although this costs less to construct— it is quite laborious.

2. Preparing the Saltwater Tank

Now, you must have acquired a suitable tank for yourself, the next step is to clean and test it.

2.1. Cleaning:

How to Clean and Disinfect Used Aquariums and AccessoriesFor new tanks, all you need to do is to wipe away dirt with a soft wet cloth. While at it, do the same for the aquarium equipment, and make sure you don’t utilize household cleaning agents like soap and detergent.

A different approach applies to used tanks, you can use Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) or vinegar (links to check the price on Amazon). this cleaning product helps stubborn dirt and limescale to go off easily from the tank walls. Simply apply it to the affected areas, wait for some minutes, scrub it off, and rinse the tank thoroughly.

You can also read “How to Clean and Disinfect Used Aquariums and Accessories”.

2.2. Leaking test:

Next, take the aquarium to your balcony, basement, garage, or backyard. Fill it up with water, mark the water level, wipe off the drips, and observe for any signs of water escaping through the seams.

You wouldn’t want to assemble a leaky tank, so take your time to monitor this closely, and if there are any leaks detected during this period— fix it with an aquarium sealant.

Tip: put some paper underneath the tank, then fill it with water, and leave it for 1 day. If you do not see any wet spots on the paper, the tank is safe.

2.3. Placement:

The next step is mounting the tank on an appropriate surface, you have to consider the following before filling it:

  • A surface that can handle the weight of the aquarium when it’s filled, you should ensure that the surface is level to prevent the aquarium from crashing down eventually. A tool ‘level’ can be used to check this.
  • A spot away from the sleeping areas of the house, this is due to the noise the aquarium equipment generates.
  • A spot where the aquarium display will be visible to you and other viewers.
  • A good spot in a well-ventilated room, devoid of drastic temperature changes.
  • A spot that has electrical outlets for plugging the aquarium equipment.
  • A spot that allows for easy access to the tank, alongside the plumbing and other components.

Once you have ascertained the best location for your saltwater aquarium, position it and continue with the remaining steps.

For more information, read the article “7 Tips for Shrimp and Fish Tank Location”.

3. Add the Aquarium Substrate

How To Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium - live sand and crashed coralsAfter placing the tank on the right spot, proceed to fill the bottom of the aquarium with your preferred substrate.

There are various kinds of substrates available in a wide range of sizes for marine aquarium usage, the most common ones include:

  • sand (coarse or fine)— dry or live sand and
  • crushed coral.

Substrate is not only a decorative piece, it also serves as part of your biological filter as it provides a viable medium for nitrifying bacteria to colonize, and harbors many micro fauna.

Crushed coral and coarse sand often get dirtier than fine sand due to the huge pocket of spaces present, whereas fine sand is more compact and allows for easier cleaning.

Additionally, except you obtain live sand (biologically active), make sure to wash the sand before placing it into the tank. The substrate may be covered in dust particles, hence rinse it thoroughly to prevent too much cloudiness when the aquarium is filled with water.

Important: We can often see that the substrate is marketed as “pre-rinsed” or “pre-cleaned” by manufacturers. Nonetheless, even though the substrate itself can be clean, their bags often contain dust, debris, grit, or other residues from the workshop it was packaged in. We do not want any of that in our tanks.

The rinsing process is really easy.

  • First, you take your sand and sieve it into a bucket.
  • Next, pour water into the bucket.
  • Stir it severely with your hands or stick and drain the dirty water. The water should start out cloudy and gradually become cleaner as you continue to rinse the sand.
  • Do this repeatedly till the water runs clear. Be careful not to lose your sand during the rinsing process.
  • If you think that sand is clean enough – rinse it again! Sand has lots of tiny detritus particles. This is not funny to have sand-storms in the tank.
If you buy sand with bacteria in you DO NOT need to rinse the sand!

Next, place about 1-2 inches (2.5 – 5 cm) of sand at the bottom of the aquarium, you may want to spread the substrate evenly or leave some areas higher than the rest, the decision is yours to make.

Examples (links top check the price on Amazon)

4. Add Rock and Decorations

How To Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium - rocksYour new saltwater aquarium is gradually coming into shape, you can now move on to incorporate rockwork into the setup.

Live rock is commonly used in saltwater aquariums since it already holds a mass of algae and beneficial bacteria that aids in converting ammonia and nitrites to nitrates. Another alternative is dry rock, it lacks the bacteria present on live rock and is less expensive.

Some marine hobbyists tend to use both in their tanks; more quantities of dry rock mixed with few numbers of live rock to form a nice outlay.

Note: There is also a risk that live rocks will bring unwanted hitchhikers (like Aiptasia, Bristleworms, Mantis shrimp, Vermetid snails, Asterina starfish, etc.) into your tank.  

Place your rocks, plants, and other décor into the tank and arrange them as you deem fit, be creative while at it. Do not put any of the rocks against the glass, it can always scratch it. In addition,  it can be really hard to the glass.

Note: Some aquarists prefer to add the sand after your rockwork so the rock sits nice and stable on the bottom of the tank. It will prevent any sand reef sifters (Conch snails, Nassarius snails, Cerith Snails, Gobies, Pistol shrimp, etc.). However, be very careful! The rocks can tumble or slip out of your hand when placing them in. They are heavy enough to crack the bare bottom of the glass. If you put the sand first you will no have this problem.

Example (link to check the price on Amazon):

Cycling with Cured and Uncured Live Rocks

Keep in mind that there is a lot of confusion when aquarists talk about live rocks. The point is that live rocks can also be cured and uncured.

Uncured live rocks mean that there is some dead and decaying matter on and within these rocks.

Cured live rocks mean that there are no ‘waste products’ within or on the rocks, so, they are relatively safe to add straight into an existing aquarium.

In order to know, there are 2 ways to test it.

  1. Smell it. If it smells like rotten eggs or fish, the live rock is uncured.
  2. Test it. Put the live rocks in a container of saltwater for 12-24 hours then test for ammonia. If ammonia is high, it is a sure sign that the live rock is not cured. 

Can we use uncured live rocks during cycling?

Yes, it is possible to use uncured live rocks for cycling. However, you will not have control over the process. Depending on how much decaying matter in the rock, the cycling processes in your tank could take from weeks to months to occur.

Therefore, it is recommended to cure first to deal with any die-off, whilst dry rock and décor should be rinsed properly in saltwater.

5. Add Water and Sea Salt

Sea salt productsThe next procedure is to add water to the aquarium.

For this, you need to mix RO/DI water with aquarium salt mixes and stir properly, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to avoid mistakes. Sea salt mixes replicate natural seawater chemistry to help support delicate marine life in reef aquariums, and it should be mixed in the right amounts to attain the desired salinity.

Do not forget to stir the water or just put an air stone (wavemaker, etc.) into the bucket and let it work for some time. It will help to dissolve the salt into the water.

 Good sea salt brands include (links to Amazon):

 Some are formulated with additives that neutralize traces of chlorine and chloramine.

Afterward, add an appropriate amount of water conditioner. Allow the saltwater to sit and stabilize overnight or even up to 24 hours before pouring it into the tank.

Place a clean bowl into the aquarium and pour the saltwater onto it to avoid dislodging the substrate. Always test the specific gravity of the tank water with a refractometer (link to check the price on Amazon).

Tips: Make sure to calibrate it for the first time and after using it few times, using a calibrating solution. To ensure a true reading of the salinity of the water, do not forget to wash the refractometer with RO/DI water before and after using it.

As a guideline, keep a specific gravity of 1.023 – 1.025 for saltwater tanks housing fish and inverts. 

Is it possible to use tap water for saltwater tank?

Well, technically, it is possible to use tap water for ‘fish only with live rock’ (FOWLR) tank. There are some YouTubers that did it successfully. However, it is not recommended!

You need to understand that tap water can cause thousands of little problems for your saltwater tank.

Tap water contains impurities (phosphates, nitrates, silicates, iron, copper, etc.) that are harmful to saltwater tanks and often lead to outbreaks of nuisance algae and dead animals.

So, if you are serious about your tanks, tap water is not a good choice.

Obviously, it will be a huge mistake for reef tanks! Do not even use tap water in reef tanks. There is a very high chance that they will all die.

6. Install the Aquarium Equipment

It is time to bring in your aquarium equipment, this involves the addition of an efficient:

  • filtration,
  • lighting system,
  • heater,
  • powerhead.

6.1 Lighting System

Lighting is a major requirement for a reef tank, and you need to invest in a good quality lighting system to provide the required light output.

However, if you are not planning to keep coral in the tank, lighting is not that important for the FOWLR system. Therefore, any of the mainstream brands will be absolutely fine.

There are many light sources available for saltwater tanks — metal halides, VHO, power-compact fixture, LED aquarium lights and they come in diverse sizes, ratings, and wattages to cater for specific lighting needs of the tank inhabitants.

LED lighting is energy-efficient, long-lasting, and offers better functionality, and some of them come with a timer to allow for proper control of the light and dark periods. If your aquarium light fixture lacks this accessory, make sure to purchase one.

Stony corals need light fixtures of higher wattage to supply between 10 – 12 hours of strong lighting for best growth, whereas fish and other inverts will make do with light periods of 8 – 10 hours.

6.2 Filter and Protein Skimmers

How To Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium filtration with skimmerFor those who are new to this hobby, it can be very confusing to see the difference between the two, as they are very similar specific products. They both do a similar job but in very different ways.

Filter and Protein Skimmer are forms of filtration, the difference is that skimmer removes waste before it even breaks down into harmful toxins (ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, phosphate, etc.). It makes your water parameters very stable.

Do you need Protein Skimmer for saltwater tank?

How To Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium skimmerActually, this is a pretty popular question on reef forums. According to one poll, most aquarists believe that can keep a reef tank without a skimmer. At the same time, the results of another poll showed that most people still prefer to use one.

It really depends on the bioload in the tank. For a small tank with a few fish, a Protein Skimmer may not be necessary for beginners. However, for larger tanks or if you are planning to get any corals – it can be one of the best pieces of equipment you can buy for your tank.

Anyway, even though many people still have success with ordinary canister and HOB (hang on the back) filters – this technology becomes outdated for saltwater tanks.  

So, if your budget allows – a simple sump will be better and safer. Another option is to find a filter with a protein skimmer.

Example (link to Amazon):

6.3 Air Stones and Powerheads

How To Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium PowerheadsInstall your powerhead to provide sufficient flow and water movement in the tank.

Remember – the main goal of a saltwater tank is to replicate the ocean. Ocean water is always moving in all kinds of ways (not just in one direction). Therefore, you need powerheads and your tank will not succeed without flow.

There are manufacturer instructions on how to install these types of equipment.

Example (link to Amazon):

6.4 Heater

How To Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium heaterAs for the heater, mount it on one end of the aquarium below the water level and place a thermometer on the other end, that way, the readings obtained at any given time will serve as a true representation of the aquarium’s temperature condition.

A temperature range of 22 – 26 °C (72 – 78 °F) is considered optimal for most saltwater aquariums, in addition, maintain an alkalinity level of 8 – 12 dKH and pH level 8.1 to 8.4.

Example (link to Amazon):

The Aquarium Sump

Think of the sump as an extended component that is usually placed below the display tank.

It houses other essential equipment like a protein skimmer, additional mechanical filtration, heater, and refugium.

This component makes the setup tidy as it holds equipment that assists with the filtration process and growth of small critters and marine macroalgae, yet some aquarists do not include this in their aquarium setups.

Seek the help of a professional for the installation if you won’t be able to do it yourself.

7. Cycle the Tank

After adding all the essential items and aquascaping the aquarium, you now have to cycle it to make the environment safe for fish and corals.

This is the most important step if you skip this step your animals will simply die. 

Cycling is the process of establishing bacterial colonies (biological filters) in the aquarium. Naturally, this process can last up to 6 weeks, after which you can add fish, inverts, and corals.

Why do we need beneficial bacteria? Why do we have to cycle the tank?

To put things simply, all living beings create ammonia when they poop or pee. Ammonia is very toxic and ammonia levels can build up over time.

However, during the cycling process, the beneficial bacteria will break down ammonia to nitrite and nitrite to nitrate.

There are 2 main ways to cycle the tank:

  1. The saltwater tank can be cycled with live rock and live sand as these things already have a population of bacteria enough to start the cycle.
    Note: In case, you do not use live rocks or live sand – add a piece of frozen shrimp or add a couple of tablespoons of fish food. After some time you will see your ammonia spike first, followed by nitrite, and finally nitrate.

How To Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium - saltwater test kitEndeavor to test the water regularly to monitor the progress, a good indication that the tank has undergone cycling is when the levels of ammonia and nitrites drop to 0 ppm and nitrates level rises significantly.

It’s important to perform regular water changes (weekly or bi-weekly) to lower nitrates in the aquarium.

Once your ammonia and nitrite levels have returned to near zero, the cycle is complete.

Aquarium test kits (check the price on Amazon).

  1. We can add special supplements with nitrifying bacteria to boost the cycling process. In this case, the process can take several weeks or even days. Add a hardy fish (such as Clownfish or Damselfish).
    In many cases, manufacturers recommend adding the bacteria and fish into the tank at the exact same. That is because bacteria also need food (fish waste) to boost the growth of nitrifying bacteria.

Do not change your filter during this time and if you have a protein skimmer, make sure it is off.

You can also turn your lights off during cycling. Otherwise, it will just encourage algae growth.

Test for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate every few days and record the results in a log. Patience is the single most important here.

Examples of nitrifying bacteria (link to Amazon):

8. Add Livestock

Once your saltwater aquarium has fully cycled, fish, corals, and other invertebrates can be introduced.

Choose hardy, beginner saltwater fish and coral species that can be easily maintained. Consider fish species such as: Yellowtail Damselfish, Ocellaris Clownfish, Blue Green Reef Chromis, True Percula Clownfish, and Coral Beauty Angelfish.

Note: Be careful with Damselfish. Although they are super hardy fish, they are also known to be very mean.

Good beginner coral species are soft corals like Star polyps and Mushroom corals that are capable of thriving in low light. Stony corals like Zoanthids, Acan, and Euphyllia corals are also beginner-friendly although they require intense lighting.

Make sure to acquire livestock from reputable breeders/vendors, and ask of the shipping method to ensure that your critters arrive safely. Acclimatize the critters to the conditions in your tank and add them gradually, do not overstock— adhere to the one inch of fish per gallon of water rule.

Checklist for Starting a Saltwater Aquarium at Home

Let’s summarize, these are 10 fundamental pieces of equipment and components you will need to setup a saltwater tank.

  1. Aquarium.
  2. Lighting System.
  3. Filtration Equipment. Skimmers.
  4. Heater. Thermometer.
  5. Powerhead.
  6. Substrate.
  7. Live Rock.
  8. Sea Salt Mix. Saltwater.
  9. Refractometer.
  10. Test kit.

In Conclusion

With the right planning and execution, you will be rewarded with a delightful saltwater aquarium that you so yearn for.

Setting up a saltwater aquarium is not where the work ends, you need to preserve the aquarium’s health and also maintain good water quality by performing regular water changes, cleaning the protein skimmer/ filter media, and replacing it when due. The marine aquarium hobby is truly exciting and enjoyable if you put your mind to it.

Beginner aquarists should always stick to hardy, beginner fish and coral species, since they have a way of making the hobby a whole lot easier for newbies.

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