Set up a saltwater aquarium

Congratulations on taking your first step into the wonderful world of aquatic reefs. Owning and managing a reef aquarium is an incredibly rewarding hobby, full of learning and adventure, and we’d like to help make your journey as fun and successful as possible.

So, do you want to set up your first saltwater reef aquarium?

In this guide, we will provide you with the basics needed to get started and point you to many great resources you can use to learn about all the things necessary for a healthy tank.

But before we get started, let’s go over some basic tips for owning a tank.

Patience, Patience, Patience.Things in the natural reef change very slowly, so if you see something unusual in your tank, you need to determine if it is something that requires immediate action or if you should wait a day or more to see if things improve. This is a very difficult part of the hobby, but the general consensus is that taking things slowly will benefit the aquarium inhabitants.

The solution is dilution.When it comes to aquatic animals, water quality is one of the most important things to monitor. If you make a mistake related to water quality, the easiest solution is to “dilute” the water with a moderate water change. We’ll talk more about water changes later in this guide, but doing a water change is equivalent to opening a window in your house if you accidentally burned some microwave popcorn. Changing the air/water is a temporary fix for a sudden problem.

Flow, Temperature, Chemistry, Light, in that order.If you suddenly lose power or have a major system or equipment failure, the most important thing is to get the water moving to provide oxygen to the tank. Once that issue is resolved, make sure the temperature is within reasonable levels, then make sure the chemistry hasn’t fluctuated out of control. Lastly, focus on turning the lights back on.

What kind of aquarium do you want?

A tank with brightly colored corals, a small school of flashy fish, a bunch of wild invertebrates that constantly amuse you? There are several different types of tanks that are known in the saltwater hobby:

Coral Reef – A coral reef tank includes live corals, fish, live rocks, and live sand.

Bare Bottom (BB) Coral Reef – A coral tank that does not include sand. This is a somewhat cleaner or more minimalist look, but the lack of sand does present some additional challenges for the novice hobbyist.

Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR) – This type of tank uses live rock and sand for biological filtration and pleasing décor, but minimizes or eliminates the use of corals as inhabitants. This is a good tank if you are interested in raising fish that are known to eat corals.

Fish Only (FO) – Fish only in a tank with some decorations. This is not very popular with the advent of live rock aquascaping.

Species/Biotype/Regional Tank – This type of tank is a reef tank that focuses on replicating a specific geographic appearance, for example a Fiji reef biotype, or focuses on a certain species to highlight, such as a reef tank. hammer coral.

Other Tanks – There are a lot of tanks that are outside the scope of this guide, including seahorses, octopuses, eels, aggressive fish, etc.

What size and shape of aquarium do you want?

Aquariums come in all different shapes and sizes, and you can even have someone build a custom shape for you. The most common shape is the rectangle or cube, but there are circulars, bowfronts, edge tanks, and more.

The easiest tank shape to handle is a rectangle, all sides are flat and this makes it a bit easier to clean. You don’t want a tank that is too deep or you will have trouble getting your arm into the tank to accommodate the cattle.

Where will you put the tank?

An aquarium is extremely heavy. Water weighs 4 pounds per gallon, so a small 10-gallon nano tank will weigh at least 50 pounds with the equipment attached. You want to place the tank where it will not be hit by people walking by, with a sturdy floor, enough space around it for you to see the tank and work on equipment, and access to a nearby location. sink.

Once you set up the aquarium, it is incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to move it. Therefore, it is important to think through all the scenarios before taking the final step of adding water to the tank during setup.

You can calculate the total volume of a square/rectangular tank with this calculator. Tank and Sump Volume Calculator

Think about the tank inhabitants you want

Plan ahead. Choose which fish, corals, and invertebrates you want before you buy your tank. Find out which animals are compatible and in what order they should be added to the aquarium.

Find out if a coral species you want may eventually become a pest and compete with more desirable species. Put your fish in order of aggression and difficulty. The most aggressive fish should be added last and the more peaceful fish should be added first.

Species that are finicky or have special feeding requirements, such as mandarin fish, should be added after the aquarium has been stable and established for a long period of time and you have enough experience and research to try. Plan your aquarium layout around the species you want to keep.

Should you buy a new or used tank?

Many new aquariums come with warranties. If they are defective and break or leak, your aquarium can be replaced, but the aquarium manufacturer does not guarantee the stock. Read reviews to find out if a particular brand or style is known to fail.

Used aquariums are almost always sold as is. While most used aquariums don’t fail, it is a risk to consider. Every time an aquarium is filled and drained, the silicone seal is put under pressure and then the pressure is released, sometimes causing leaks or tears in the seam.

Acrylic tanks scratch much more easily than glass, and used acrylic tanks often get scratched and fogged. Very large used glass aquariums can often be found inexpensively due to the great effort involved in moving them.

Acrylic tanks are much lighter and easier to move around, but cover them to make sure they don’t get scratched.

What size aquarium should I buy?

Pick the largest tank you can accommodate and afford. Measure the area where you want to put your tank and make sure you have room to work around the tank. Don’t set the tank flush with the wall – salt splatters are not good for the paint and you’ll want to be able to reach the back of the tank in case a fish or object lands behind it.

Make sure your floor is fairly level and reinforced enough to support the size tank you want.

What does Reef Ready mean?

Reef-ready aquariums are perforated at the bottom and have a built-in overflow box and PVC pipes that carry the water to the sump below. A return pump in the sump returns the water to the main aquarium and the cycle repeats.

Some tanks can be drilled in the back by the consumer if the glass is not tempered, but this usually takes some practice and experience. Almost all reef keepers recommend perforated reef-ready aquariums for saltwater and reefs.

Some aquarists with tanks smaller than 30 gallons choose not to purchase reef-ready tanks because they are easier to maintain with frequent water changes than large systems. All-in-one aquariums like the Bio Cubes have a chamber in the back that acts as a sump.

If your aquarium is not reef ready, you can purchase a hanger on the back overflow box that uses gravity to feed water into the sump. but they are more likely to lose suction and fail than a punctured aquarium.

Use an aqualifter pump with the hook on the rear overflow box to constantly remove trapped air bubbles and ensure your tank never loses power during a power outage with a backup generator.

Required equipment

It’s hard to say exactly what is required, but this list represents a «minimum»:

  • Aquarium – Glass or Acrylic
  • aquarium stand
  • Heater (keeps the water at the right temperature)
  • Thermometer (some heaters have built-in thermometers, but it’s best to have a separate one to check)
  • Powerhead (circulates the water in the main tank)
  • Salt (a good mix of salt)
  • Water (preferably RODI)
  • Test kits (you need some basic test kits like ammonia, nitrate, nitrite)
  • Lights
  • Power strip to plug everything
  • Buckets, towels, hoses, tank glass scraper

Note: Prevent fires

Use only GFCI outlets and power strips made for use in wet conditions to plug in your aquarium equipment. Always create a “drip loop” in power cords so water bypassing the cord does not reach the power strip. If you have a canopy, stay away from lamps that give off a lot of heat, such as metal halides.

Do not place equipment such as coolers that emit a lot of heat inside closed cabinets. If necessary, cut large holes in the sides and install fans. Never allow water to splash or pool on your non-waterproof lights or electrical equipment.

Check equipment daily for faults or breakage and maintain and clean pumps, lights and all equipment frequently. Don’t overload your circuit. Some aquarists with very large aquariums with lots of electrical equipment hire an electrician to install a

aquarium lighting

There is no single type of aquarium lighting that is «best.» You may hear many different opinions, but only you can decide what type of lighting will work for your needs.

Some aquarists even choose to run a combination of metal halide, T5, or LED lighting for optimal coloration and growth. The standard t8 tube lights that come with a tank are not bright enough to grow most corals and will need to be replaced with a reef accessory.

Compact fluorescent fixtures are inexpensive, but may not be bright enough for deep aquariums or corals with high light requirements like SPS corals. T5 fixtures are a bit brighter and more modern than CF fixtures, but still not bright enough for deep aquariums.

Any money saved on these less expensive fixtures will be spent replacing bulbs every 9 to 12 months. Metal halide lamps are some of the brightest lamps on the market, but they are also the hottest and consume the most electricity.

They have come down in price since LED lighting technology has advanced, and many aquarists are loyal to metal halides for what they say is better growth and coloration for their corals. 10 years ago, LED lighting still wasn’t bright enough to grow most corals, but today that’s far from true. LED lights can now produce light that rivals metal halide in PAR (brightness).

Some other benefits of LED lighting are low running cost, low heat output, and small size. Newer LED fixtures come with bells and whistles like complex timers, the ability to change color and intensity, control them from your computer, and even simulate sunrise/sunset and thunderstorms.


There are a large number of filtration methods for saltwater aquariums. The most common methods for beginner tanks are as follows:

Live rock and sand

The most common method of filtration, live rock and sand contain microscopic bacteria that convert ammonia and other compounds into slightly less bothersome chemicals. Live rock is a stabilizing element in the aquarium, which means it will slow down some major problems.

For example, if a fish dies, the bacteria will consume most of the ammonia in the water and convert it to nitrate/nitrite; however, nitrates still need to be removed by a separate method. Live rock also contains tiny zooplankton animals that will actively eat waste compounds like fish droppings and break them down into smaller pieces.

Live rock can also frequently introduce animal pests into the aquarium, so it is important that the rock is sourced correctly.

protein skimmer

This is a plastic tube or cone that has a powerful pump at the bottom. When the pump is activated, the water swirls around inside the device, causing a large amount of oxygen to mix with the water.

This mixture produces bubbles that collect at the top of the chamber and then overflow into a collection cup. The bubbles contain various proteins that are a common form of waste.

You empty the collection cup every few days and effectively remove these compounds from the water. A skimmer usually requires a “sink”, which is a small tank that sits below the main aquarium, although there are skimmers that are designed to connect to the back of the aquarium (Hang On Back HOB Skimmers).

canister filters

This is a closed chamber that contains various filters that include sponges, activated carbon, nitrate-reducing rocks, and other components. Every two weeks, remove the chamber from the tank, remove the media, clean the chamber, replace the media, and reinstall it.

Because this system is usually closed, the filter can become dirty or clogged, which will have a negative effect on the quality of the water and the health of your animals.

media cameras

These are plastic tubes filled with filter media that the tank water passes through. An example would be activated carbon. The salt water runs through the coal and certain waste products accumulate in the coal. Carbon must be removed frequently and replaced.

water changes

This is the simplest filtration method, but it is rarely used alone. An aquarium can remove waste products simply by removing the water and replacing it with freshly made salt water. Water changes are an important and necessary part of reef aquarium maintenance.

By changing the water, you can lower the level of waste products in the water and add compounds that can be depleted by the natural biological processes of the animals in the tank. More than any other filtration method, water changes are the best way to solve your aquarium problems.

  • How to do water changes

Items needed for water changes

  • Large bucket to mix the water with the salt
  • Powerhead/pump to help mix the salt when you add it to the water
  • Pipe/pump to add the water back to the tank
  • Bucket to contain the wastewater that drains from the tank
  • Pipe for draining water from the tank
  • Heater to heat the new water before adding it to the tank
  • Refractometer/hydrometer to test specific gravity before adding new water to the tank
  • Towels because accidents happen

Algae/Chaeto reactors

These reactors contain live seaweed that can help lower nitrate/nitrite levels in the water. As the algae grow they consume these waste products, the aquarist can easily remove the cultivated algae. These reactors require lighting for algae to grow. Never dispose of algae or any living things down the toilet or in normal waste management.

If you need to get rid of algae or cattle, place it inside a ziploc bag and leave it in your freezer overnight. You can then place the bag in your regular trash. DO NOT FLUSH IT DOWN THE TOILET.


If your tank is not reef ready but small, you can sometimes get away with a rear filter or canister filter. Maintaining them is often absolutely necessary to prevent organic buildup and algae blooms. If you have a reef-ready aquarium, choose a large sump with enough chambers.

Once the sump is in place, make sure you have room to work inside the bracket and reach bulkheads and pipes in case you need to repair them. Some sinks have a hole drilled in the side where you can add an external return pump. If not, you can use a submersible return pump.

The first chamber in a sump usually houses filter socks: long bags of white polyester material with a hard plastic ring attached to hold them in place.

All water flowing into the sump must flow through these bags first to trap debris, sand, and even animals to prevent them from being sucked into the pumps. Filter socks can be washed by hand or alone in the washing machine in hot water with only bleach and no soap. Dry them completely before replacing them, and don’t wear a sock that still smells like bleach.

Continue rinsing until the smell of bleach is gone; you can use a dechlorinator if you used too much bleach and it won’t rinse. Have enough socks on hand so you can replace them before they get clogged and overflow. For some tanks this needs to be done daily or a few times a week.

You may want to add a protein skimmer that removes organic debris or protein before it enters the nitrogen cycle and turns into nitrates. Choose a skimmer that will fit inside your sump and make sure you have room to easily remove the cup for cleaning.

Nano skimmers are available for smaller tanks. They are not a necessity in tanks under 30 gallons, but they do help keep organic nutrients down.

Another chamber in the sump may house Chaetomorpha algae with a small light hanging above it; this is called a shelter. Algae export organic nutrients and prevent algae pests from growing in your aquarium while providing a safe home for beneficial microfauna such as copepods and worms. Some aquarists use an «algal lawn scrubber» – a screen with water gently flowing over it to grow special algae under a light to export nutrients.

Flow: Powerhead and Pumps

Your return pump should pump at least 10 times the tank volume per hour, but shouldn’t be too strong for your sump and overflow box to handle (check your owner’s manual for this information).

A return pump’s flow is reduced for every foot it takes to push water vertically into a tank (this is called «head height») and with every turn in the pipe. If the return pump is submerged, the head height is measured in feet from the surface of the water in the sump to the top of the aquarium. If it is an external return pump, measure the head height from the pump outlet to the top of the tank.

Most return pumps include a chart that tells you how many gallons per hour that pump will pump at most per foot of head to help you choose the right size pump.

Powerheads can be used inside the aquarium to increase flow and target areas of the tank that need more flow. Reassess flow needs every 6 months or so, as larger corals impede flow.

Adjustable motorized heads like the EcoTech vortech and Maxspect Gyre are perfect for reef tanks that need variable flow. Wavemakers and SCWD are excellent for SPS dominated reefs that need turbulent flow. Maintain and clean powerheads and pumps frequently, as buildup or broken impellers can stall the pump’s flow output.

live rock

Live rock has many functions in a reef aquarium. It is the physical structure, the substrate for growing live corals, and the primary filtration. Provides surface area for nitrifying bacteria that consume toxic ammonia.

A reef tank without live rock would be considered experimental and unusual. Plan to add approximately two pounds of live rock per gallon of water, depending on the density of the rock and the desired aquascaping result.

What is the difference between cured and uncured live rock? When live rock is mined, it sometimes sits on the beach for a period of time and then has a long journey before it reaches the retailer. Bacteria, sponges, algae and other rock life die and must be removed or exported through water changes before being added to the display tank or they can cause a deadly ammonia spike.

Uncured live rock can be cured in a separate aquarium, bucket, or other food-safe container with a heater and motorized head for movement. Change the water frequently to export the nutrients. Once ammonia and nitrite levels consistently measure zero parts per million, the live rock is cured and ready to move into the display tank. If the aquarium is very large, some reefers may choose to cure the rock directly in the display tank.

Live rock from a local fishmonger is often already cured. Ask the store clerk if the rock is cured. If they’re not sure, ask them how long it’s been in the tanks and check the ammonia. When in doubt, always quarantine and test your live rock before putting it on display. Every time Live Rock is sent to you, even if it is advertised as healed, you must heal it again. It’s also a good idea to submerge the live rock in a super salt solution to try and kill off any unwanted pests like mantis shrimp or coral-eating crabs.

Live rock is classified based on size, shape, density, location of collection, and the amount of coralline algae and other benthic life forms that grow on it. Premium live rock is more porous, more colorful, and harbors a greater variety of species. Live «base» rock is less expensive, less colorful, and is designed to be used in the lower section of the aquarium to support the more attractive rock pieces. Some aquarists use dry base rock. It has no life at all (including pests, which is a plus) and it can take longer to grow the necessary nitrifying bacteria. It tends to be the least expensive type of rock.

Another interesting type of live rock is sustainable and eco-friendly artificial rock. Mariculture-grown live rock is made from chunks of aragonite and cement and then placed in the ocean for a long time to embed bacteria and life forms.

Another type of man-made live rock is made from aragonite and cement mixed with purple dye to simulate coralline algae, then cured in large indoor vats and stocked only with beneficial copepods and other animals from the cleanup crew. Man-made rock tends to be a bit denser and heavier than natural live rock, but the benefits speak for themselves.

Aquascaping with Live Rock

Arranging corals and live rocks in a reef tank is an art, but you must also design the structure to meet the needs of your fish. Create plenty of caves and hiding places for your fish to have their own territories while keeping enough open water to swim in.

Some fish need deep sand to burrow, and some fish like eels may appreciate some PVC pipes hidden under rocks. Try to imagine where you plan to place your corals and give them enough room to grow and expand for years to come.

Larger bare rocks are a good base for more colorful rocks and rocks that have flat areas or indentations that can support corals. Branches can be accents or bridges, and some corals can even stick to and embed themselves in branch rocks.

If you have a small tank and some rock pieces, you can just stack them. Large aquariums with complex and unstable rocks may need to be secured with epoxy and acrylic rods inserted into holes drilled in the rocks.

Some reefs choose not to use sand or substrate in their reef tanks; these are called «bare bottom» reefs. These fridges say it’s easier to keep the bottom of the tank clean and organic nutrients lower.

Others choose to use a deep sand bed that is so deep that the lower layers lack oxygen and favor the growth of anaerobic bacteria that feed on nitrates. Most choose a shallow sand bed for aesthetics and for animals and fish that sleep or burrow in the shallow sand like pistol shrimp and some wrasses.


Prepare the water ahead of time in a large container like a Rubbermaid trash can or other food-safe container. Some people who have very large reef tanks choose to mix saltwater directly into the tank before placing the live rock. The vast majority of reefs use reverse osmosis or RO + deionized water.

You can buy this at your LFS or grocery store, or you can buy an RO or RODI machine and make it yourself at home. Some fridges choose to use tap water, but there are many drawbacks. Even if you have requested a test from your water authority and your tap water tends to be very low in phosphate, nitrate, chemicals, and total dissolved solids, your tap water is hit or miss.

The composition of tap water varies by season, storms, rain, agricultural runoff, dams, etc. Sometimes the water company uses stronger chemicals to clean the pipes that won’t harm humans, but can destroy corals. Tap water can become contaminated during pipe work or roadworks. It could work for you for years, but one unpredictable event can crash your tank.

Fill the tank halfway and gently pour in the sand. Use a razor blade to cut a slit across the top of the bag. Submerge the bag and carefully scoop out the sand without creating too much dust. Wait until your tank has all the rock and sand before filling it completely. Pour or pump the water slowly so as not to disturb the sand. Pouring the water over a large plastic salad bowl submerged in the tank can help keep the sand from moving around.

mix salt water

Start by filling a food-safe container or bucket with RO or RODI water. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the particular brand of salt you are using. Generally, one-half cup of salt per gallon of water is needed to make water with a salinity of 1,020. Use a motor or pump to mix the salt with the water.

This can take about an hour depending on the salt mix you use. Many fridges like to let the salt water mix overnight or for a day before using it. Put a heater in the container to match the temperature of your aquarium, usually 78 degrees for a reef. Check the temperature and salinity before using the water. Use a calibrated refractometer (preferably not a hydrometer) to test the level of salt (salinity).

desired water quality

Saltwater aquariums typically have water that falls within the following tested ranges. This is achieved by adding liquid or powdered salt to purified water (RODI). Once the saltwater has been made and added to the tank, the aquarium owner is responsible for testing the water to make sure it still falls within these ranges:

Salinity: 35 ppt or 1.026 Specific Gravity (SG)
Alkalinity: 8 to 12 dKH
Calcium: 350 to 450 ppm
Magnesium: 1200 to 1400 ppm
Phosphate: <0.2 ppm
Temperature: 75 to 80°F (23.5 to 26, 5°C)

Test equipment

Test kits are necessary equipment to care for a saltwater aquarium. You can purchase regular disposable test kits, electronic test probes, and complete automated test systems depending on your needs. The test kits are used to measure the parameters listed above, as well as to track the buildup of waste compounds such as nitrite, nitrate, and ammonia. These three elements are part of the nitrogen cycle.

Cycling at the Marine Aquarium

“Cycling” an aquarium basically refers to growing enough good nitrifying bacteria to process all the ammonia and nitrite that a fully stocked aquarium will produce. Fish produce ammonia through normal respiration and metabolic waste. Decaying food and organic material and waste from inverts will also produce ammonia.

Nitrifying bacteria consume ammonia and form nitrite as a byproduct. Other types of bacteria then convert the nitrite to nitrate, which is exported through water changes, as food for algae, or through anaerobic bacteria and carbon dosing. The bacteria that consume ammonia and nitrite are benthic, which means they form a biofilm on the surface of rocks, the filter, and everything else in your aquarium. You may notice that the aquarium water becomes cloudy during the cycle. This is normal. What you are seeing is a «bloom» of nitrifying bacteria.

Riding a bike in a reef aquarium is actually a bit easier than riding a bike in a freshwater aquarium. If you are using cured live rock, which already harbors nitrifying bacteria, it will not take long for your aquarium to process ammonia and nitrite.

If you are using dry rock, it will take a bit longer and you will need to dose bottled pure ammonia (check ingredients for dangerous surfactants) or organic material.

Test ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels frequently. When you see that the ammonia and nitrite are at zero ppm, you can add (preferably previously quarantined) peaceful and hardy fish in small quantities. Do not attempt to fully stock your tank at this early stage, as the amount of ammonia produced by the fish will outstrip the growth of the bacteria needed to process it. Go slow and only add a small number of fish at a time.

If you find ammonia in your aquarium after adding fish, you may notice a drop in pH. It is very important that you never attempt to manipulate the pH while ammonia is present. Ammonia will naturally cause the pH to be lower. The lower the pH, the more ammonia is converted to ammonium in a toxic form without a chamber.

If you try to raise the pH, it will convert to toxic ammonia and kill your livestock quickly. If you have a low level of ammonia in your aquarium of.25 ppm or less, simply use an ammonia detoxifier such as Amquel or Prime and feed the fish less food.

If the ammonia is higher than 0.5 ppm, you may have overstocked or filled the tank too quickly. Do small water changes daily in conjunction with the use of ammonia detoxifier and feed the fish sparingly. If the ammonia is very high, it may be necessary to remove the fish and place them back in quarantine while you work out the cycle. Ammonia can reach such toxic levels that even the nitrifying bacteria that depend on it will die.

Once your aquarium is cycled and you’ve added some fish, you may start to notice some dusty brown «algae» called diatoms growing on the bare rocks and substrate. This is normal when an aquarium is new. The hardy and opportunistic diatoms are consuming nutrients and occupying land before more desirable benthic life forms move in and take up residence.

If you keep your organic waste under control, it should be gone in a few weeks. If it doesn’t go away, you may need to add another stage or two to your water purification system. Diatoms feed on silicate, so if your tap water is high in silicate, you can purchase a reverse osmosis system that will help filter out the silicate.

fish selection

fish acclimatization

When you have purchased new fish to add to your aquarium, you are ready to acclimate them. Acclimatization is the process of slowly preparing a fish for introduction to the aquarium. This serves several different purposes:

  • Slowly make fish adjust to the water conditions in your tank
  • Make the fish and other animals in your existing tank fit in with their new neighbor
  • Keeping your aquarium free of pests (Quarantine)

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