how to setup saltwater aquarium

Whether you’re brand new to fishkeeping or a returning aquarist, starting a new saltwater fish tank can be a little intimidating.

You’ve probably heard – or experienced for yourself – that starting a new one can be challenging and risky for your fish, plants, and invertebrates.

But it doesn’t have to be a scary thing.

This guide is designed specifically to answer your basic questions and hopefully give you all the info you need to properly research, plan, purchase, stock, cycle, and create your saltwater aquarium.

Thoroughly read this step-by-step plan first and you’ll be all ready to go.

Looking for a fun read? Check out these 7 crazy aquarium stories!

Step #1: Plan Your Fish Tank

Yellow-tang - saltwater fish tank

The very first thing you’ve got to do is create a plan for your fish tank.

It might seem like this won’t take much thought or effort – you just buy an aquarium, salt, and fish, right? – but if you plan well, you’ll avoid a lot of the potential issues that unprepared beginner hobbyists face with their first couple of tanks.

So, take these steps, think through these options, and decide with intention and care what kind of marine aquarium you’ll be keeping.

The 5 Types of Saltwater Aquariums

There are five basic types of saltwater aquariums you could decide to keep.

Author Note: So it’s important to look through each type and gain at least a basic understanding of what they are, how they work, what to stock in them, and what kind of maintenance they require.

1. Fish-Only Saltwater Aquariums

The first marine aquarium type you could keep is the fish-only saltwater tank.

This literally means no other species of animals, live rocks, corals, or anything else is in the aquarium, apart from the fish and substrate or decorations. No live rocks. No plants.

2. FOWLR or Fish Only With Live Rock Saltwater Aquarium

The second option is the FOWLR, or fish-only-with-live rock option. This is the same thing as a fish-only except that you stock the tank with live rocks as well.

Live rocks are pieces or coral or stone that are colonized with marine life like sponges, invertebrates, and millions of nitrifying bacteria that help provide excellent, natural filtration for your tank.

3. Coral Reef Aquarium or Reef Tank

The third kind of popular marine tank is that of a coral reef tank. This setup includes all the natural elements required to replicate a small reef-like environment.

This means the aquarium will contain hard corals, soft corals, invertebrates, and various reef-dwelling fish species.

This kind of tank also usually has live rock involved and may have certain kinds of marine plants.

4. Nano Reef Tank or Simply “Nano Tank”

Another popular option that’s particularly loved by reef lovers with very little space is the Nano reef tank or “nano tank.” This is a saltwater fish tank typically 30-gallons or smaller that replicates a reef environment.

This is the most difficult kind of saltwater aquarium to keep and should only be kept by experienced hobbyists who know how to care for the fish and corals without creating stressful environments for them.

However, there are some exceptions that can be done by beginners, such as a 10-20 gallon saltwater nano that contains only a pair of clownfish, for example.

5. Specialty or Species-Specific Tanks

The fifth and final saltwater environment you may wish to consider is that of a species-specific tank. This can be anything such as keeping rays, jellyfish, sharks, seahorses, or other single-species saltwater fish tanks.

These often require very specific equipment and skills, however, so you should study up hard on whatever creatures you plan to keep before committing to this kind of project.

What Else to Consider As You Plan Your Aquarium

Other things to consider as you plan your saltwater aquarium include a few specifics like whether or not you’ll start with an all-in-one kit, or build yours from scratch.

You’ll also need to think about the materials used to create the aquarium tank itself and what your personal skill level, time-involvement, et cetera are.

Skill Level and Time Involvement for a saltwater fish tank

Let’s start by discussing your skill level and what kinds of aquariums might be suited to your personal experience and the time you can commit to caring for your saltwater aquarium setup.

Beginner Skills and Experience for a saltwater fish tank

The most practical saltwater fish tank setups for beginners are the FOWLR and fish-only tanks.

The fish-only is probably the easiest to care for initially and the FOWLR is probably the easiest to care for long-term. And, as you develop skills and experience, of course, you can always upgrade to more intensive ecosystems, as desired.

The fish-only tanks are very easy to care for. You need to check water quality, salt mix, nitrite and nitrate levels, et cetera, feed the fish, and generally do basic care of the aquarium.

This is made slightly easier by using live rock as the organisms living on the rock will help as a biological filtration system as well.

To make this kind of tank extra successful, you should consider purchasing only captivity-bred fish. These fish live longer in captivity, generally speaking since they were born and bred in captivity already. 

Beginner tanks also don’t require as much effort and time as intermediate and advanced level tanks.

Author Note: So even if you’ve got some experience but have very little time to prepare, study, and learn, you may wish to consider one of these beginner tanks anyway.

Intermediate Skills and Experience for a saltwater fish tank

saltwater fish tank

Up from beginner is intermediate, which probably means you’ve kept fish already – whether recently or a while ago – and have some knowledge base and skills already built-up.

This means you’ve got experience using test kits, hydrometers, aquarium lighting, and already know the basics on how to setup a saltwater fish tank.

If you’re at this skill level or know that you’re a fast learner and have the time to devote to growing your skills and knowledge quickly, then you are probably going to do well with an intermediate saltwater aquarium setup.

If this is the case, though, it’s still highly recommended that you study up heavily before starting up a new mid-level tank, just to be sure you don’t start off poorly and accidentally kill off your fish, plants, or corals.

At this skill and time level, you can incorporate moderate level fish, beginner soft corals, and even some leather corals, mushroom corals, or certain zoanthids. You may also be capable of caring well for wild-caught fish as well.

Advanced Skills and Experience for a saltwater fish tank

Ultimately, this is probably the level most – or all – of us are shooting for. Being advanced enough to care for very delicate fish and animal species, highly demanding LPS and SPS and other more challenging critters.

Some of the uniquely popular trends – like jar-reefing and picotype aquariums or even some biotope aquariums – definitely fall within this category and should not be attempted by beginners.

The location you place your tank is the important first step to having a successful aquarium.

Placement for Your saltwater fish tank

The wrong location will cause your fish problems down the line, it’s important to find the right mixture of elements to ensure your fish are happy and healthy.

1. The Floor Can Support the Weight

An aquarium and equipment can be very heavy.. A 20 gallon tank is 200 lbs and needs to have stability or it will be a disaster.

2. Nearby “Stuff” Won’t End Up Ruined If Wet or Salty 

Salt water can ruin anything you have around the tank. It is important to make sure all valuables are safely away from possible splash and potential salt creep.

3. Easily Accessible 

Keep in mind you need to make sure you have easy access for cleaning your tank and taking care of maintenance. It’s important to be able to do the “keeping” part of fish keeping.

4. Visible

Part of the joys of this hobby is enjoying your hard work. Make sure you can put your aquarium in a place where you and company can fully appreciate the beauty of your fish tank. T

5. Not Prone to Major Hot or Cold Temperature Changes

Most people have a place in their house that gets super hot or cold depending on the seasons.

Top Tip: The aquarium needs to be in a place away from air vents otherwise it could produce enough heat or cold to lower the water temperature. 

6. Well-Ventilated

Your tank needs to have good ventilation around your tank. This is because tank water will evaporate and can easily produce a lot of humidity around the tank.

If this humidity increases it can damage the environment or even cause health problems.

Types of Marine saltwater fish tank Set Ups

saltwater fish tank

The other thing we mentioned that you should specifically consider before getting started is whether or not you’ll be buying an all-in-one aquarium kit or building your own from scratch.

Both have advantages as disadvantages, so you’ll simply have to decide what works best for you. But, to help with that process of decision:

  • All-in-Ones come with everything you need for a basic aquarium set up, minus quality fish food, the fish themselves, extras, and the proper salt mix.
  • Build-your-own kits, however, allow you to thoroughly customize your setup. You choose everything from the filter to the air stone, as well as everything “extra” like CO2 injectors or other things that not every saltwater aquarium requires.

You also need to decide whether or not you want a glass fish tank or acrylic one. Acrylic are harder to break but scratch more easily. Glass tanks are heavier. Acrylic tanks are clearer but don’t do as well for saltwater as glass tanks usually do.

When it comes to this, you simply need to research the specific aquarium based on the type of setup you plan to use.

Step #2: Choose Stock for your saltwater fish tank

In this particular step, we’re talking about all living things for your aquarium, from fish species to plants, and invertebrates.

But first, you must decide on the fish species.

What Fish Should You Stock?

There are many lists out there, but the best fish for beginner saltwater aquarists include:

  • Yellow Tangs
  • Coral Beauty Angelfish
  • Ocellaris Clownfish – you know him as Nemo
  • Bicolor Blenny
  • Mollies
  • Lawnmower Blenny
  • Kleins Butterflyfish
  • Yellow Watchman Goby
  • Royal Gramma Basslet
  • Banggai Cardinalfish
  • Talbot’s Demoiselle
  • Blue Damselfish
  • Orchid Dottybacks
  • Swissguard Basslet
  • Firefish
  • Longnose Hawkfish
  • Pajama Cardinalfish

What Plants Should You Stock in your saltwater fish tank?

saltwater fish tank

Once you’ve chosen the type of aquarium you’ll be keeping and chosen which fish to stock your fish tank with, you’ll then need to decide the types of plants to choose.

You’ll figure this out by researching your fish and aquarium. Choosing your plants before completing this process could be disastrous for your fish – if the plants are toxic to them – or to the plants.

What Invertebrates Should You Stock?

Similar to the plants, you must base your choice of invertebrates on the fish you plan to stock.

Top Tip: Study the suitable tankmates for your chosen fish species and then study the invertebrates individually to see which ones would most suit your skill set in care.

The time you can devote to their care and how much money you would like to invest in the species will impact your decisions s well.

Step #3: Buy Your Equipment

The next part of this aquarium setup process is finding and buying your equipment.

Every aquarium is a little different – the different types have different requirements, but the different fish you choose to as well – but there are some basic equipment pieces every new saltwater tank owner should expect to need.

This is the basic checklist you can expect to use for the base level equipment needs of your aquarium, whether you’re going with reef or standard marine setups.

1. The Aquarium or Fish Tank

Obviously, the first thing you need is the aquarium or fish tank. Without this, you’re sunk.

As you shop for the aquarium you want to use, consider and compare the benefits not only of glass but of specific tank shapes, gallon sizes and the types of materials used to construct the tank.

Generally speaking, most saltwater aquariums are made of glass, but more acrylic tanks are being designed for use with saltwater anymore.

2. Aquarium Lighting With Modes and Timers

Aquarium lights with native lighting settings, simulated storms, and sunrise settings aren’t absolutely critical.

But for the health of your aquarium, these – and timers – will make for a more closely simulated natural environment for your reef or marine tank.

You should also definitely go with LED instead of other lights, as LEDs provide a fuller light spectrum. This is especially true for corals who need the various lights for the healthiest possible lives.

3. Skimmers, Filters, and Other Filtration Equipment

Saltwater tanks need extra equipment that freshwater tanks don’t. For example, protein skimmers. They aren’t absolutely 100% necessary in all cases, but they do make your aquarium much healthier and easier to maintain.

But then there are items that are absolutely necessary, and that is the full filtration system.

Your saltwater fish not only need the right salt mix, but they need absolutely pure, clear water as well. The right filter, filter media, and skimmer make for the best possible environment for your fish.

4. Powerhead and Pumps

These are useful for keeping water movement and flow going throughout your aquarium.

Depending on the size of the marine tank you keep, you may need only one powerhead or pump or you may need a few. Select one – or several – that are suitable for the type of tank you’re keeping.

Also, make sure that you don’t choose a high-flow system if you have fish that need mostly still or slow-flow water.

5. Live Rocks, Substrate, Plants & Decor

Once you’re ready to get your aquarium going, you’ll need to purchase your live rock, substrate, plants, and other similar landscaping equipment.

These components will help to create the environment for your fish, so make sure you choose ones that are close to their native environment as possible.

And if you use driftwood, be sure to treat it properly to prevent tannins from leaching into the water – unless you’re keeping shrimp or other species that do better with some tannins.

6. Sea Salt Mix & Hydrometer

saltwater fish tank

The right sea salt mix will make all the difference in the quality of life for your fish. Choose carefully based on the reviews of other real-life users.

The Hydrometer is then also important to help you keep the salt levels mixed and measured properly so that your critters neither have too much nor too little salt.

7. Thermometer and Heater

Your saltwater fish are tropical fish. And that means they can’t go swimming around in a shallow of cold water. Keeping a thermometer and heater adjusted to the right temperature will keep your fish pals safe and healthy.

8. Air Pumps and Air Stones

Your fish also need a certain amount of airflow in the aquarium.

This means you’ll either need some air pumps or air stones, depending on your exact setup, the types of fish you stock, and the power of the devices. Study carefully on airflow rates before purchasing.

9. Test Kits, Supplements & Additives

It’s critical that you keep the water parameters in check for your fish.

Many are extremely sensitive to alkalinity, nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, et cetera. And the best way to keep track of these levels is through a proper testing kit.

And when you need to correct the levels, things like supplements and additives will help.

10. Maintenance Tools and Supplies

Finally, you’ll need some basic supplies for maintenance and repairs along the way. A fish net, for example, will be critical.

You’ll also need some buckets, separate tanks that can be used for isolation or hospital tanks, a gravel vacuum, and algae scrapers.

Author Notes: You may also want to keep some spare parts – and replacements like extra filter media – on hand so that you never go without everything your fish need.

Step #4: Cleaning and Preparing Your Aquarium

All right. Now that you’ve made all of your purchases, found your fish, decided on plants, and gotten everything ready for your aquarium, you’ll need to do some cleaning and preparing of the tank itself before installing your new friends into their home.

1. Position Your Aquarium

It may seem like a silly thing to include, but this can be an overlooked critical first step.

Place your aquarium where you want to keep it.

Test light levels. Will there be direct sunlight where you’ve chosen? If you’re using equipment that relies on a built-in water pump, sink, electrical outlets, et cetera, is it in such a location that these things will reach?

Also, check to see if you’re going to need any kind of cushioning for the aquarium on the surface. Purchase and place, if needed.

Once you’ve positioned the tank and tested all of this, you’re ready to clean.

2. Clean the Aquarium

Use freshwater and a soft sponge or cloth to clean the aquarium itself. You can use soap and water, but be sure they are non-toxic and will be completely “gone” through the drying process.

Use a clean cloth to completely dry the tank before proceeding.

3. Install the Backing for the Tank (Optional)

If you’re planning to add a 3D background, painted background, sticker background, or any other form of back covering for the aquarium, now is the time to position it.

4. Install the Top-Off System, Sump, Et Cetera

Next, you’ll be installing the various equipment needed to run the aquarium. The top-off system should come first – if you’re using such a thing – and then the sump.

This is also the stage during which you should install protein skimmers and anything else that goes in sump. If you’re using HOB devices, install those immediately after the filtration system.

5. Install the Lighting System

Home Coral reef aquarium

Next, you’ll position the lighting system into your aquarium. If its built into the lid, you’re already good to go, assuming the outlets are positioned as they should be for safe operation of the system.

Test the lights to make sure the timers work, along with any modes the system has.

6. Prepare the Filtration System

Next, you’ll prepare the filter and filtration media. Follow the instructions included with your filter to cleanse and prepare this item properly.

7. Install the Heater & Thermometer

Now, you’ll install the heater, thermometer, and any other devices you have remaining.

8. Run a System Wet Test for your saltwater fish tank

You’ll need to run a system wet test – i.e. running water through all water equipment – as well, to verify everything is working properly.

9. Add in Live Rocks, Substrate, and Decor

Next, you’ll place the live rocks, substrate, decor, and any other non-fish/coral/animal items remaining for your fish tank. Only place these into the tank after they have been thoroughly treated and cleaned, as recommended.

You should also now add in your salt mix.

10. Position Your Plants Into the saltwater fish tank

The final step in the setup is positioning your plants into the aquarium.

Some will need to planted while others will be affixed to objects so that they can float. Simply follow the instructions you can find for each process for the plants you have.

Step #5: Cycling Your saltwater fish tank

This next step is absolutely critical to the well-being of your saltwater aquarium. If you don’t properly cycle the aquarium water, you will kill your fish, plants, and other aquatic life.

What Is Cycling?

Let’s quickly look at what cycling actually is so that you understand why it’s necessary.

Cycling is something designed to deal with New Tank Syndrome, which is deadly for your fish plants, et cetera.

And cycling the tank simply means that you’re establishing a healthy bed of bacteria in your biological filtration system that helps keep your plants and fish healthy. This cycling also helps to remove toxins from the water.

There are definitely both right and wrong ways of doing this cycling process. Below, we’ll look at several of the right ways to do it to help you avoid any issues.

How to Cycle saltwater fish tank

There are multiple ways to cycle your tank, using various methods, equipment, and products. We’ll look at the two simplest options to help you find the one that works for you.

Since the primary focus of this article is how to set up a saltwater aquarium in the first place, we’ll look at how to cycle an aquarium without fish.

Now, you’ve probably heard that ammonia is bad for fish – and it is. But it is a requirement for cycling a saltwater aquarium.

It can be produced in a few different ways, though usually it most naturally comes from dead composing matter or fish waste.

During the process, bacterium converts the ammonia into nitrite. This means then that these two chemicals reach toxic levels – which sounds scary. And if you don’t do it properly, can be very dangerous.

This is why we’re starting with this idea of cycling without fish in your aquarium.

To do this cycling, you can either insert ammonia into the aquarium or use fish food. You’ll need to increase the water temperature for both methods, to up between 86 and 95-degrees Fahrenheit.

You will need to stabilize the water temperatures back down gradually to between 74 and 80-degrees Fahrenheit. Do this slowly, though, to avoid accidentally killing off the good bacteria you’ve been growing.

To cycle with fish food, you’ll basically add food to the tank on a daily basis as if you were feeding the fish – you know, the ones that aren’t in there yet. This will create a decomposition process that produces ammonia more naturally.

It does take quite a while to do this way, though (about 6 weeks), so it may not be the best choice for your situation.

You can, instead, use ammonia to cycle the tank.

This will take between 3 and 6 weeks. You’ll literally be adding ammonia to the water – purchase unscented ammonia only that doesn’t contain any additives – with a dropper of 3 to 5 drops per 10 gallons.

You’ll do this every day until you’re able to maintain a level of 5 ppm. Once this is reached, you’ll drop to 2 to 3 drops per 10 gallons per day.

And continue this until the rates for both nitrites and ammonia are at 0 ppm. Then, you’ll reduce the temperature at this point and perform a major water change.

Step #6: Adding Your Stock to your saltwater fish tank

You should have long ago decided on your fish, but if you’ve been deciding between a few that have the same requirements, now is the time to finalize that species choice.

And you’re ready to take that final salt water fish tanks set up step: Stocking your aquarium.

Buying the Fish for your saltwater fish tank

saltwater fish tank

Now that you know the species you want, you can either find your fish at a local store – recommended, if possible – or online.

Be sure to use any hints and clues you’ve found in your research on how to identify healthy animals of the species you’ve chosen.

Then, simply bring them home in the proper container provided (or order them from the online market).

Verify the saltwater fish tank is Ready

Once you’ve got the fish at home, double-check the pH levels, ammonia, chlorine, and other levels to make sure they are still safe for introduction for your new fish.

You will also need to know the pH levels for acclimating the fish into the new environment.

Turn Off the Lights

Next, turn down the lights on the aquarium – as close to total darkness as you can do and still safely and clearly see everything yourself. This will help to reduce the stress levels of your fish.

Put the Bag Into the saltwater fish tank

Now, put the bag or container holding the fish into the tank water so that it floats. Let the bag float there for 15-20 minutes to allow the water inside the container equalize to that of the aquarium water temperature.

Open the Bag

Now, open the container or bag, but don’t let the water out or the new water into the container. If the fish is in a bag, fold open the end of the bag to create a sort of hem with an air pocket it in to keep it afloat.

If necessary, fold again until it floats enough to stabilize without your help.

Compare the Water pH Levels in your saltwater fish tank

Now, test the pH levels in the bag and in the aquarium. Note the differences.

Add Aquarium Water to the Bag

Dip a 1/2 cup measuring cup into the fish tank and pour the water into the open container holding the fish. Wait 15 minutes before repeating the process until the pH in the bag matches that of the aquarium.

Put the Fish Into the Tank

Now, use a small fish net to lift the fish from the bag and quickly transfer it into the aquarium, without dumping the water into the fish tank.

Adding the water from the bag will throw off the balances of the aquarium, so dispose of this water into the sink instead.

It’s also best to use a small net if you have it, but a larger one will do, just do the transfer of the fish to the net over a bucket.

Leave the Lights Off And Distract Other Fish with Food

Keep the lights off for several hours to allow the fish to adjust to their new home.

And if there are other fish already in the aquarium, you can add a little food at the same time that you add the new fish together to help distract them from the newcomer.

Now You’re Ready for Your New saltwater fish tank

Now, you’re all ready to begin with that new reef tank setup. Go make some decisions about the kind of aquarium you’re ready to keep and the kinds of fish and critters you want to stock.

Re-read this tutorial a few times before starting, and be sure to have everything ready before you make that first purchase.

In a few weeks, you’ll have a lovely new aquarium with some gorgeous saltwater fish ready to entertain and delight.

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