I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say: Saltwater aquariums are beautiful, so setting them up has got to be hard.
Or does it?
As it turns out, it doesn’t have to be hard to get a saltwater tank started. In fact, if you just follow a few simple steps, you can have your own tank up and running faster than you ever thought possible!
This page will show you the basics of how to start a saltwater tank quickly and easily. I’m going to show you, step by step what is needed so you can stop stressing over the setup and start enjoying your tank in no time at all.
The best place to start is at the beginning.
So let’s get started.
Step 1: Choosing Your Aquarium Type
You’ve already made the decision to go with a saltwater tank so now its time to decide which type of saltwater tank you want. You have 3 basic choices
1. Fish Only – I had to include this because it is a type of saltwater tank but it isn’t one I recommend. Maintaining a saltwater tank without live coral is difficult. You are also missing out on all of the coolness of live coral.
2. Fish Only with Live Rocks (FOWLR) – This is the most popular option for starting a saltwater tank. It includes the best of both worlds and has many more options for saltwater fish.
An interesting feature of the FOWLR tank are the types of live rocks it includes. There can be a variety of corals but they are not the type that can be eaten by the fish in the tank.
The corals included in the FOWLR tank make it much easier to maintain. They filter the water naturally and help to keep the tank clean.
3. Reef Tank – This is a type of marine aquarium that primarily focuses on live corrals. It may also include various marine invertebrates and perhaps fish that help to support the reef.
There is no denying that a reef tank is beautiful. It is similar the the FOWLR system mentioned above but the corrals are typically much more diverse and they require special care, including lighting and water quality.
The fish and invertebrates included in the reef tank do not cause damage to the corrals; they support them.
Step 2: Choose Your Saltwater Aquarium Size
The general idea for setting up a saltwater aquarium is that bigger is better.
When you have a larger tank, it produces an environment that is easier to care for and has much fewer problems. The environment inside of the tank tends to be much more stable and there are fewer maintenance issues.
So, you should always get the largest tank possible, right?
Larger tanks are more expensive than smaller tanks. They also take up more room at home.
The real key is the get the size that is going to work best for you and your circumstances. If you are happy and comfortable with the aquarium you have at your home then you are going to love the hobby. You can always upgrade as your circumstances allow.
Here are a few of the more popular saltwater tank sizes.
Nano Tank – This is perhaps the best choice for beginners and for those who want the fastest, easiest setup. Nano tanks are under 20 gallons and they typically come as part of a kit.
Smaller tanks are a great way to introduce you and your family to the wonders of a saltwater tank because they don’t require as much time and effort to get started.
You can read our page on Nano tanks to see if this is the right choice for you.
20 – 55 Gallon Tank – This is a popular choice for beginners. It tends to fall in the price range for those who are looking for more than a nano tank. It is also large enough to include plenty of corals and fish, but might be too small if you want to expand it further.
55 – 120 Gallon Tank – When you get into this range, you are starting to have enough room to do some serious experimenting. The size is a good range for both low maintenance and lots of options
120+ Gallon Tank – Believe it or not, most professionals will recommend that a beginner start out with a minimum of a 120 gallon tank. When you have a larger tank size, little problems have less of a chance of becoming bigger problems.
Step 3: Gather the Equipment
Starting a saltwater tank and keeping it maintained requires more than elbow grease, it requires the right equipment.
Just think about it.
All jobs require the proper tools but when it comes to a hobby, most of us want the best tools available. Starting a saltwater tank is not a job; it is a pleasure.
Here is a list of equipment you will need to get started properly.
Aquarium – One of the most important pieces of equipment you will need is the aquarium itself. They range in size from a Nano aquarium (under 20 gallons) all the way up to hundreds of gallons.
Choose the aquarium that is best for you and your circumstances. Many people start with a smaller aquarium and transition into a larger aquarium when their circumstances allow.
A word of warning: saltwater aquariums are addictive. You will feel the urge to upgrade to a larger tank once you get set up.
Substrate – It is important to have a layer of substrate at the bottom of the tank. It is a working part of the tank and acts as a filter.
There are many available options for the substrate, including colors, material sizes and densities and types of substrate.
Keep in mind that a heavier substrate is best if you plan on having a strong current in the tank.
Live Rock – The live rock will make up much of the beauty of the tank and there are many options available.
There is also base rock available but it is only typically used to build up the area for the live rock.
The live rock will make up the bulk of your tank. High-quality rock is always preferred.
Saltwater Mix – There are many options available. As long as it is a quality saltwater mix, it will do the job.
Refractometer – This does the same job as a hydrometer by measuring the salt content in water but it is much more accurate at doing so.
Protein Skimmer – Unless you want to swap out water in the tank frequently, you will need a protein skimmer.
You can run a tank without a protein skimmer but it will result in fast algae buildup. Do yourself a favor and opt for the skimmer.
Power Heads – In order for a saltwater reef tank to thrive, it needs current. The power heads cause the movement in the water, mimicking what would be experienced below the waters of the ocean.
The power heads will keep the loose material from settling on the bottom or accumulating behind the corals. It will be filtered out of the system rather than sticking around and causing problems.
Water Filter – The quality of the water that goes into the tank is very important for the health of everything under the water.
A reverse osmosis water filter will clean and purify the water before it goes into the tank. In doing so, it will keep the algae from entering the tank with the water exchange.
Heater – One or more heaters will be needed for all saltwater aquariums. Keeping the water at a consistent temperature will help to keep everything alive.
If possible, always opt for 2 heaters because one will always keep running if the other one fails.
One of the more common questions is if a heater is necessary when the tank will be located in a warm weather area.
Yes, it will. It may be warm outside but most tanks are kept in an air-conditioned home.
Test Kits – Test kits come in many shapes and sizes. At a bare minimum, you should be testing the pH level and for nitrates and ammonia.
Additional tests should be run for reef tanks, including magnesium, phosphates, nitrates, ammonia, nitrite and pH levels.
Lights – Some aquariums come fitted with lights but it is also worth considering upgrading the lighting system.
Lights provide a nice looking environment and allow you and your family to enjoy all that the tank has to offer. When you upgrade, consider lights in multiple colors.
If you have a reef tank, you will need specific lights, depending on which type of coral you have.
Sump – A sump is not required but it is beneficial for a number of reasons.
Calcium Reactor (Reef Tank) – A calcium reactor is another piece of optional equipment but it can save you time and effort with maintaining your reef tank.
Step 4: Research Corrals, Fish and Invertebrates
aggressive fish vs community fish