Starting a Saltwater Aquarium 101

By: Michael Phife

Saltwater aquariums deter many people away due to how much research, knowledge, and understanding must go into them to be able to maintain one properly. Do not let this discourage you, though. With the right guides, anybody can set up an aquarium as long as you put in the time and effort for it.

Saltwater aquariums cannot be rushed, and take much longer to see positive results and effects happen compared to their counterpart of freshwater aquariums. Another thing worth noting is that you should always expect to spend more than originally planned with saltwater aquariums. If none of these things discourage you from starting one up, then I will be walking you through setting a saltwater tank up step by step.


choosing the aquarium

This is one of the most important decisions you can make when starting your aquarium. You can choose any size aquarium you would like for doing saltwater. However, it must be warned that the smaller tank you do, the more maintenance it requires since subtle changes can have drastic effects on the aquarium.

This is because there is not a lot of biology happening in the tank on a small-scale compared to what a larger aquarium would have. My recommendation is that if you're starting out, try something around 25-40 gallons. Don't worry if you can't choose an aquarium right off the bat that you like. It took me a full year before deciding to set one up, and even then I wanted to upgrade to a larger one. Once you have selected the type of tank you wish to set up, then we can move on to the next step.

The components you select for your aquarium can make or break how well it turns out. It's up to you to choose which brands you go with and how much money you're willing to spend, but I will list things you absolutely should buy when starting up a saltwater aquarium.

These items are what you need to seek out when deciding to set up your tank. A protein skimmer is highly recommended because it saves you the hassle of more frequent water changes. They can run anywhere from $50-400 depending on the type that you get. This seems like a lot of money, but saltwater can get very expensive, especially if you're trying to go without a protein skimmer, which would mean you would be changing about 15% of the water every week.

Think about how much that can add up in salt costs (approx. $18 for a bag of salt). With a skimmer, you also only have to do about a 5-10% water change once a month, if that. I also listed a sump or refugium as optional because this is a debated topic.

They are used to hide all of your equipment such as the skimmer, heater, bio-filtration. But if you're not worried about having a hang on skimmer and heater then don't worry about this. I ran a 75 gallon tank and didn't use one and didn't have a single issue, but many people may tell you that it's necessary. Do you what you feel is best and always research before taking one person's advice such as my own.

What does Live Rock and Sand do?

Think of live rock as a filter for freshwater aquariums. The term "live" means that there is living bacteria and micro-organisms on the rock that help process and expunge waste, ammonia, NO2 and NO3 from your aquarium.

You cannot hope to set up a saltwater tank without this. Sand acts the same way as gravel does for freshwater, except if you get live sand then it adds beneficial bacteria to your tank, which in turn helps start the aquarium up faster.

You will typically need a pound of rock per gallon (it's definitely alright to do more than this), and sand is debated between a pound per gallon or half a pound per gallon. I personally run half a pound per gallon, which I will get to in a little bit as to why I set my tank up in different methods.

Adding Saltwater

Saltwater is not inexpensive, so when adding your water make sure you are careful in what you are doing before throwing a bunch of salt in there and your readings are through the roof. If you are buying pre-made saltwater then you don't have to worry about this next part. If you are not, then follow the directions on the back of the bag of salt, as all amounts differ for the type of salt being used. You want to make sure your readings remain between 1.020 and 1.026 on your hydrometer / refractometer.


cycling your aquarium

Cycling a saltwater aquarium takes time and patience. The nitrogen cycle for saltwater takes longer to establish than freshwater in terms of producing essential amino acids, proteins, and nucleic acids for your tank. Normally, you are looking anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks to have your aquarium cycle, depending on how much bacteria and rock is in your tank to help it cycle.

It is also recommended to add some type of ammonia source to the aquarium to give it a boost. This could either be a small pinch of fish food, a table shrimp thrown into the water, or bottles of quick-start for aquariums.

The best way to check if your tank is ready is to do weekly water tests. You should see a gradual spike in your ammonia, NO2 and NO3 readings when starting, and then it will slowly sink back down on the readings each week. Once the parameters all read zero then your tank is safe to add livestock to.

Clean Up Crew

Something you may want to consider adding to your aquarium after a few weeks through the cycle is something called a clean up crew. This is essentially a variety of snails and small invertebrates that help out in your tank by eating waste, algae, diatoms, etc. They are not always needed, but they help clean everything up without you having to do it yourself. These are not recommended if you are planning to do an aggressive tank (i.e: triggers, puffers, some wrasses, eels).


selecting your livestock

Once your aquarium is finally cycled, and you have all of your mechanisms running, then you are now able to select what type of fish and/or corals you would like to add. This is also one of the most important decisions you can make as a saltwater hobbyist.

Some fish are compatible with others, some are not. This portion takes the most research to ensure that your tank remains peaceful and you don't have any accidental causalities. I have gone through a detailed list of fish compatibility in one of my other articles.


What I do Differently

There are many different ways to set up your saltwater aquarium. There is no true "correct way" in doing it. Always do your own research, play around with ideas, and learn from personal experience before ruling out possibilities.

Now, I do sump-less so my way will be a lot different than most people's. The way I run mine is that I have a hang on skimmer in the back where a filter would normally go. My heater is on the inside of the tank, and I have two circulation pumps on both sides of the tank to ensure there are no dead zones in the water.

I also only used about 45 pounds of sand in my 75-gallon aquarium, and about 75 pounds of live rock. I have no issues with this type of set up since I don't overdo it on the bio-load with fish. Either way, enjoy what you are doing and always read around before deciding how you want to do your aquarium. Good luck and have fun in this hobby!