How To Set Up A 5 Gallon Saltwater Tank

Bruxes and Bubbles

Before I begin, I would like to remind people that this summary will be for a 5 gallon - thus livestock recommendations and everything will be suited to that tank size.
Please keep in mind that this is how I do things or would do things, and small saltwater aquariums are quite controversial.


Cycling -

Please have a good understanding of the nitrogen cycle before you even start to think about a saltwater aquarium (or any aquarium for that matter). Here are the basics:

Inside of a filter and on live rock, bacteria grows. This bacteria consumes ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. Ammonia and nitrites are deadly to fish in even small quantities. Nitrates are not as harmful.

The bacteria must be built up in your tank before you add any living things. To do this, you must cycle your tank with ammonia that has no additives for around two months. There are calculators online to figure out how much ammonia you will need. You will need to test every few days with a test kit to see if the ammonia is being converted to nitrites, then the nitrites to nitrates. Once the designated amount of ammonia converts to nitrates within 24 hours, you are cycled. Live rock helps tremendously with this, as it has bacteria already on it.

Basic recap -
Animal breathes and excretes waste products, or food rots, etc. This creates ammonia. Ammonia is deadly to fish.
Filter pulls water through filter media and blows it over the live rock. Bacteria in the filter media and on the live rock take the ammonia and turn it into nitrites.
Filter pulls water through filter media and blows it over the live rock. Bacteria in the filter media and on the live rock take the nitrites and turn it into nitrates.
Filter pulls water through filter media and blows it over the live rock. Bacteria on the live rock rid the tank of some of the nitrates. The rest is removed with water changes.


Types of saltwater tanks -

There is the fish only.
There is the FOWLR (fish only with live rock).
There is the reef aquarium.

Fish only refers to basically setting up a freshwater aquarium type system. Only fish and maybe a few snails or a hermit crab. There are no big rock displays, no coral, and the only filtration is your filter. Think adding saltwater to a typical freshwater aquarium setup and putting a saltwater fish versus a freshwater fish.

The FOWLR system takes the setup listed above and adds live rock. Live rock not only enhances the look of the saltwater aquarium - it plays a part in biological filtration. When the water flows over the live rock, the bacteria living on it help to rid the tank of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates - thus making the tank safer for fish and invertebrates.

The reef tank is basically a coral reef in a box. There are usually many corals, very good lighting, and maybe a fish or two. The main live things other than corals in a reef tank is usually the CUC (clean up crew), consisting mostly of harmless snails and hermit crabs. Hermit crabs, crabs in general, and shrimp can be controversial to be kept with corals.


Filtration -

Some people just use live rock as filtration. Some use an actual filter. For a 5 gallon, I recommend using a filter with 40 or more times the turnover of the tank per hour so you have good flow. So a 5 gallon tank would have 200+ GPH.


Temperature -

Temperature will depend on the fish, coral(s), and invertebrates you keep. I keep my tank at 77 degrees. Research first.


Salinity -

Salinity will also depend on the fish, coral(s), and invertebrates you keep. I keep my tank at 1.024-1.025 specific gravity. Research first.


Water changes -

Water changes are the toughest part of having a small saltwater tank. With small tanks salt can evaporate - therefor you have to check the salinity and calculate how much salt you'll need to add, if any, to keep the salinity stable. You also have to make sure not too much water evaporates - otherwise your salinity will rise to unsafe levels.


Lighting -
If you want coral, you need special lighting. I will not delve into this, it is a very complicated subject and there are many opinions on lighting (LEDs versus T5 versus halide... etc). I will just state that soft corals are generally easier in terms of lighting and that if you aren't doing any corals you won't need crazy lighting. But if you want the coralline on the live rock to live (the pretty purple/pink color on live rock) you'll need some form of lighting.


Livestock for the 5 gallon saltwater tank -
Be warned, having ANY fish in a 5 gallon saltwater tank is quite controversial. My list is based on research and personal experience. I would either choose to keep a single bigger shrimp or one small fish in a saltwater tank. Not both. This list just shows some of the possible options, not that you can stuff them all into a 5 gallon and call it a day. lol

I chose them based upon their size, activity level, and the consideration that there isn't too much swimming room in a 5 gallon with liverock in it. Fish that skip along the rocks are usually your best bet. Also stick with fish that stay 2 inches or under if it's possible.

Warnings:
! = Uncommon - cannot usually be found at a Petco or LFS.
** = Needs specialized feeding - ex. live food or frozen meaty foods.

Fish -

! ** Panamic barnacle blenny

! ** Red Striped Goby (Trimma cana)

! ** Two Spot Bimaculatus Blenny

** Neon blue goby

! ** Clown Goby

** Scooter blenny (Please be warned that these are very controversial. They are not an actual blenny but a dragonet, related to the mandarin fish. They usually max out at around 2 1/2 inches but can get a good bit bigger. I am lucky enough to have a LFS to bring him to if he is one of the bigger ones. Also to consider, he will not eat flake food or frozen food, and will only eat mosquito larvae and other live foods. if you do not have a large scud colony or mosquito larvae always on hand, avoid these guys unless you can be sure you buy one that was raised on frozen food and will eat it. I can target feed him in my tank setup, which makes him a whole lot easier to care for.)


Snails:

Cerith snails

Netrite snails (one that has grown up in saltwater!)

Mexican turbo snail (Again, controversial. They get around the size of a mystery snail and tend to do best in the cooler range of saltwater tanks. Really cool though. Wouldn't get more than one for a 5 gallon.)


Crabs -
Warnings:
Crabs may pick at corals if they are hungry enough.
* = Needs extra shells for molting or it may kill snails for them.

* Blue legged hermit crab

* Most other dwarf hemit crabs

Pom pom crab

Emerald crab

Porcelain crab


Shrimp (in replacement of fish; you may be able to have a few depending on the shrimp. Do research.) -

Peppermint shrimp (Not always reef safe!)

Scarlet skunk cleaner shrimp

Stenopus cyanoscelis

Sexy shrimp


Other invertebrates -

Featherduster worms are very neat. They will need to be fed phytoplankton (you can buy it online), however. Otherwise they'll starve in a few months.



You should look to spend around $230 for a basic 5 gallon setup (no livestock included).
If you want a tank exactly like mine (down to the livestock and everything), here's the breakdown for how much my tank cost in all.


5.5 gallon tank: $12
Wavepoint lighting system (9" 18w Super Blue & 10000k Daylight Blade HO LED with Dual on/off switch): $70 from our LFS
Aquaclear 50: $40
Rock: $8 per pound for live rock where I live. $3 per pound for dry rock. *Around $50 if you did 5lbs of live rock and 3lbs of dry rock*
Live Sand: $15
Hydrometer: $10
Heater for 5 gallon tank, set to designated temperature: $15
Salt: $10
Prime water conditioner: $5
Corals: $25 for both
Scooter Blenny: $10
Emerald Crab: $6
Mexican Turbo Snail: $2.50
Blue Legged Hermit Crab: $2
Hawaiian Featherduster Worm: $15
Two Cerith Snails: $4

= $291.50


I hope that this made it simpler to understand. I know saltwater seems like a big leap, but if you are willing to work at it, be patient, and have a good understanding of freshwater, you should do fine.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask.
 

MrCoryCats

I love how saltwater tanks look but freshwater is a cheaper option for me.
 

Bruxes and Bubbles

I love how saltwater tanks look but freshwater is a cheaper option for me.

Freshwater is certainly usually cheaper for the initial setup - but if you just want a FOWLR then it's not too expensive, to be honest. Especially if you start with only dry rock. And if you can use your tap water, the only cost that you have continuously is the salt which usually lasts quite a while.
 

Micro Reef Tank

My 4,5 net water gallon Reef tank and no sump
One year old
a5aa2e0e4879658921363894d184a6b0.jpg
 

Cori Elizabeth

You should make this an article
 

Floundering_Around

How do you feel about damselfish in 5 gallon or less? Do you use a wavemaker/powerhead,etc. or just a strong filter?
 

Bruxes and Bubbles

How do you feel about damselfish in 5 gallon or less? Do you use a wavemaker/powerhead,etc. or just a strong filter?

What type of damsel?

I just got a very strong filter.
 

Floundering_Around

What type of damsel?

I just got a very strong filter.
A yellowtail, most likely, since they're the cheapest
 

Bruxes and Bubbles

A yellowtail, most likely, since they're the cheapest

Probably wouldn't do smaller than a 10 for a yellowtail if it was the only thing in the tank. My dad had one - it was pretty active and super hardy.
A 20 would be ideal.

An easy one for a 10 if you're willing would be a firefish. They're very common and easy to care for. Around $10 at Petco I believe.

If you can swing a 20 gallon, an Ocellaris clownfish would make a wonderful pick.

Make sure you have a lid for whichever you pick.



For 5 gallons, your best options are invert only or a small goby/true blenny of some sort - but most of them only will eat live food.
 

Floundering_Around

Okay, thank you. My dorm limits the size of tanks unfortunately, but maybe one day I can get a bigger sw system
 

Bruxes and Bubbles

Okay, thank you. My dorm limits the size of tanks unfortunately, but maybe one day I can get a bigger sw system

Hopefully you will someday! If 5.5 is all you can get now you could do a lovely (and rather easy) invert/coral tank though.
 

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