Nart's Budget Nano Saltwater Guide For Beginners

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Bear with me. Giving ya'll a quick background before we get down and dirty to start your first Saltwater tank.

If you are reading this, you are probably just straddling that line to make a leap into the saltwater world. Just like most of you I've been in the freshwater hobby for a very very long time. Ever since I could remember as a kid, I had fishes. It also helped that my dad kept huge tanks of Asian Arrowanas, Queen Angels, lionfishes, etc... To help fuel my addiction. Fast forward to 2016 I went hard into the freshwater hobby and quickly became interested in Saltwater. I read and researched for a couple of months. I researched so much that it felt like my head was about to explode and the word FOWLR and sumps still made no sense to me. Finally, by November of 2016 I mustered up some strength to start planning out my saltwater build. I wanted to re-use what I had from my freshwater tanks.

I re-used my Aqueon 15 gallon tank, re-used my Aqueon 75W heater, re-used Current Freshwater LED lights, and re-used my AC 70HOB filter. So this 'Budget' Saltwater tank was born on December 2016.


By February 2017 (I switched out the Current Freshwater LED lights, to Current Marine Orbit LED lights):


What does it look like today in January 2018?
Completely different everything. Saltwater is addicting. But I'll cover that in my 'Lavish' Saltwater guide


Are you ready to start your budget Nano Saltwater tank? Let’s go!

This guide will be absolutely geared towards creating the best budget nano saltwater tank that I think would be optimal for you and all the tank inhabitants.

Things we cover in this guide.

Step 1:

1) Tank & FOWLR, FO, Reef
2) Equipment
3) Water
4) Salt
5) Rocks
6) Substrate

Step 2:
7) Scaping
8) Filling the tank
9) Tank Cycle

Step 3:
10) Fish/invert stocking
11) Corals
12) Feeding
13) Quarantine
14) Water Parameter
15) Maintenance

Step 1:

1 - Tank

What size nano tank do you start out with? 5 gallon? 10 gallon? 20 gallon?
My recommendation is, go with an Aqueon 20 gallon Long.

Why? Water volume and foot-print equals more flexibility in stocking and stable parameters for all your inhabitants. With saltwater tanks, as the water evaporates, salt stays in the tank and water leaves. Thus, water evaporation will slowly increase your salinity level within the tank. In smaller tanks, you have a smaller body of water to work with, which means fluctuations are a lot greater. Ever tried adding 1 tbsp. of salt into a shot glass of water versus 1 tbsp of salt into a 2 liter soda bottle and tasted the two? I haven't... but you get the point. Fluctuations and swings happens a lot faster in a smaller volume of water.

Why does stable salinity matter? Although, say, clown fishes are labeled as 'hardy fishes' it's still not great for anything inside the tank to always have to get used to a salinity swing of 1.025 one day and tomorrow it's 1.027. Can you imagine yourself showering in a nice 105F water temperature and all of a sudden it's either too hot or too cold? It's not comfortable! So anyways, it's best to keep the salinity stable as best as you can. Also, corals in general are very temperamental to salinity and parameter swings. The more stable you can hold your water parameter, the better they'll grow and thrive. Remember, surviving and thriving are two very different things.

Okay, but why exactly a 20G Long and not a 20G high? The dimensions of a 20 Long is 2.5 feet in length and only about 13 inches high. These dimensions make for an increase in fish stocking, everyone can claim a side of the tank and also if you do end up getting corals an inexpensive light can light the tank. Whereas an inexpensive light will struggle to light a taller tank. Too much depth will cause the lighting intensity to be less towards the bottom of the tank.

FOWLR? FO? Reef tank? What??

FOWLR simply means Fish with Live Rocks
FO means Fish Only
Reef Tank = Fish, live rocks, and corals

What to choose you say? Almost every saltwater hobbyist who wants 'fish only' eventually dabbles into corals. So, just plan for a Reef Tank. It's really not that much harder depending on the corals you choose. Trust me. If I can keep corals alive, so can you.

Lid - Open top? Closed top? Mesh screen?

Open tops - All fishes has the ability to jump. So I do not recommend open tops.
Closed tops - Works well for FOWLR tanks only, but condensation eventually blocks the light from providing adequate lighting to the corals.
Mesh tops – I recommend this option as it keeps the fishes in, lighting will penetrate, and better gas exchange. These can be DIY’d fairly easy.

2 - Equipment
Here is a list of equipment you'll need to run the tank and, no, you do not need a protein skimmer in a nano. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Why? Nano tanks thrive on weekly water changes to keep excess nutrient levels low and help replace trace elements.

- Heater:
A 75W-100W heater will suffice. Re-use your heaters from your freshwater tanks. That’s fine, as long as, it’s working, good condition, and reliable. I’ve used many heaters, from Aqueon, Eheim, Fluval, etc… The ones that really stands out are Cobalt Neo-therm heaters. Precise, consistent, no guessing game with the dial knobs. Colbalt Neo-therm 100W heater

- Hang on Back Filter:
Although not 100% necessary to run a HOB filter in a Saltwater set-up. I recommend it. Why? You can use this HOB filter to store bio-media, grow macro algae, filter floss and it’ll help suck up some detritus. Some people mod these HOBs to all sorts of stuff, to surface skim, etc… I’ll let you look that up.

I’d recommend an AquaClear 70 with an AC50 impeller replacement. You want a nice slow-medium flow. What should you put in the HOB? Get rid of all the sponges and basket that came with it.
In this order, from the bottom up:
Bio-media (I recommend Seachem Matrix), bag of carbon, and filter floss.

You can re-use your bio-media from your Freshwater tanks, and yes you’ll have to start a new cycle, different beneficial bacteria colony.

- Power-head:
You’ll want a power-head on the left or right side of the tank. This will help you provide flow throughout the tank and also this is your main biological filtration. Rock + powerhead equals’ biological filtration for your beneficial bacteria colony to work. I have yet to find the perfect nano and low cost power-head.

Currently I am using the Jebao SW-2. It works okay, but the pulsing mode and etc… stopped working for me. I really enjoyed the pulsing wave action. It swayed my tank back n’ forth like the ocean, now the SW-2 power-head is just always on. Other people have no issues though, so probably a small % in defect. You can certainly re-use any power-heads you have laying around. The whole GPH talk is very confusing because as equipment ages, it doesn’t always give you 100% of its power unless you have the higher quality power-heads like Ecotech’s MP-10. So, with that said you can use fake plants, yarn strings in the tank, whatever, and just watch if the object has a gentle sway and flow to it. If it does, great. If it’s a stronger that’s great too. You just don’t want it to be like a tsunami inside your nano. Assuming you want clown fishes, they aren’t the best swimmers. Most of the popular nano fishes aren’t great swimmers. Medium to low flow is plenty.

If you wanted a rough GPH ball-park.
Your total water volume x 15-20 turn-over rate will give you the approximate flow you'll need. This will be considered low-medium flow.

- Lighting:
So many options to choose from here. T5s tube lighting, LEDs, generic ‘black box’ LEDs, etc… For FOWLR tanks, it doesn’t matter what lights you use. Desk lamp will work too. However, for Reef tanks, you’ll want at least the one called Current USA Marine Orbit LED. I’ve used it and it grew my beginner corals just fine. Even when I upgraded to a 25 gallon tank, it was fine. $100 for a piece of equipment in the saltwater world is considered cheap. I’ve also tested the PAR, basically the intensity the light puts out, and it was no slouch. Adequately provided enough light for beginner corals. If you had the extra $140 to spend, I’d highly recommend you go with Aqua Illumination Prime HD LEDs, it’s what I am using now.

How long should you run your lights on for? I would say 8-9 hours max.
If you keep corals, and you decide on getting the Current Marine Orbit LEDs. Run the blue channel at about 60% and white channel at about 50% for starters. Set it on a timer to run for about 6 hours at intensity listed above and if you want some nice moon lighting towards the end of the night, because many corals glow under blue LEDs. Turn the white channel down to 0% and run just the blues at 60% with a 2 hour ramp down. That will give you a total of 8 hours.

- Refractometer:
This is a tool used to measure the salinity/specific gravity of the water. There are knock-off ones sold on Amazon, in which I’ve used before. I currently use and recommend Marine Depot’s Refractometer. It’s more consistent with the readings and holding the calibration. Along with a refractometer, you should get calibration fluid to dial in the tool. I recommend you pick up calibration fluid as well. The one I use is called Brightwell’s Aquatic Refractometer Calibration fluid.

A tip with using calibration fluid. Put the calibration fluid bottle in a sealed Ziploc baggie and float it in your tank or fresh batch of salt mix for 15-20 minutes before using the solution to calibrate the refractometer. On every bottle of calibration fluid it’ll say something like “1.026/35PPT @ 77 degrees F” this means the solution was dialed in at the temperature to achieve the salinity level. I always triple check my calibrations before I accept the salinity level.

- Turkey Baster:
Whatt?? Yeah. Just get one. I’ll talk about it in maintenance.

- A couple of 5 gallon buckets:
Use it to carry your water around, to mix the saltwater, etc…

3 – Water:

What water should I use? A few routes you can go and I’ll explain each.

Tap water – Everyone’s tap water is different. With that said you’ll hear the acryonym TDS. TDS is total dissolved solids. Basically, it’s crude in your water. What kind of crude? No idea. Unless you can get a full test report from your city, or run water test yourself to figure it out… it’s really hard to say if your tap water is usable. So I do not recommend going this route. High or low concentration of ‘crude’ over time… can give you a head-ache, like high levels of nitrate and phosphate can cause issues with algae. Unless you like your tank looking like a murky swamp, just skip this route. Also, TDS, like copper is very harmful to fish, inverts, and corals.

RO and RO/DI – what’s the diff? I won’t go too in depth, but essentially RO (reverse osmosis) water is filtered water through an RO membrane, which still contains very low amounts of TDS. What you want is ZERO TDS, so, RO/DI, the DI part stands for de-ionization. Which when RO water goes through the DI resin, it completely strips the source water clean of everything, literally leaving you with pure H2O. RO/DI is ideal what you want to use for your saltwater tank.

You can buy RO/DI water from your LFS or grocery store. Just always make sure it is in fact 0 TDS. To check the TDS you can buy a hand-held TDS meter by the company HM. The prices varies, typically 25 cents – 75 cents a gallon of RODI water.

Can’t I just buy pre-made saltwater? Yes you can. I actually did this for a few months when I first started. You can certainly go this route, just always check with your refractometer that 1) it is indeed saltwater and 2) the salinity level is near the level you are keeping your tank at. The only pro to buying pre-made saltwater at the LFS is that you don’t need to waste time making it yourself. The cons though, you are at the mercy of what they mix their batch at, risk of them accidentally giving you just RO/DI water, lugging 5 gallon jugs around slowly became a chore I didn’t like, and gas money.

I recommend getting your own RO/DI unit eventually to make water as you need. You save money over time and it’s convenient. The RO/DI unit I would recommend, Marine Depot’s KleanWater 4 stage. It seems expensive right off the bat, but it comes with a built in TDS meter, pressure meter, and the replacement cartridges are not too expensive. I’ve had mine for 8 months now, and I still have not had to change out the filters. Your mileage on your filters will vary depending on how dirty your source water is. Oh yeah, I purchased this for $140 during their sale, so just do some shopping.

4 – Salt:


Just like LED lights, it’s easy to get lost in the world of salt. Which salt is the best? That’s like asking, which fast food chain is the best. Everyone has their own preference. Let’s just go over some of the popular salts and salts that I’ve used and recommend.

Instant Ocean (IO) – You’ll see this brand readily available at every chain pet store and LFS. I know successful reefers who uses this brand exclusively, heck even aquariums use this salt. The only draw-back that I see with this salt are the low parameter it yields. Thus, the reason why it’s a lot cheaper, since the trace elements are low, reefers with ‘Reef tanks’ often dose certain trace elements back in to bring the levels back up. Though, this salt is great for folks running FOWLR tanks and don’t care much about trace elements. This salt often takes a little longer to mix before it clears up as well.

Instant Ocean Reef Crystals (IORC) – From the same company as above, but they’ve geared this salt towards tanks with corals. This salt has a slightly elevated trace element, great for reefers who don’t want to figure out dosing extra elements in their fresh batch of salt mix. This one will cost a little more than the one above. I would recommend this product for a beginner to start out with.

Red Sea Coral (non-pro, blue bucket) (RSC) – This salt is quality stuff in my opinion. This salt mixes clear in 5-10 minutes flat, considering if your water temperature is in the 70’s. It is a bit more expensive for this salt when compared to Instant Ocean’s brand, but the trace elements that it yields are perfect for a beginner. I would recommend this product for a beginner to start out with.

Red Sea Coral Pro (black/purple bucket) (RSCP) – This is Red Sea’s “Pro” version of salt. What does that “Pro” mean? It has elevated levels of trace elements. It’s mainly geared towards reefers who run high lighting, high flow, high nutrients, and high parameters to promote accelerated growth for corals. This is usually a bit more expensive than RSC, because of the higher trace elements it yields. Can you use it as a beginner in your tank? You sure can. I used it when I first started out as well and didn’t know any better. In my opinion though, if you are thinking about getting this salt, save yourself a few bucks and go with RSC instead. Unless you are matching the criteria of an accelerate growth program, it won’t do you much good, meaning you won’t see crazy growth in corals like other reefers do.

How to mix salt?
1) Put 5 gallons of RODI water into a 5 gallon bucket. (make sure it's 5 gallons of water in the bucket. 5 gallon buckets can vary, so double check)
2) Turn on heater and pump.
3) Add about ½ cup of salt per 1 gallon of water, so 2.5 cups of salt to 5 gallon of water.
4) Wait till the saltwater warms up to 78 degrees F.
5) Visually inspect the bucket to ensure salt has dissolved.
6) Calibrate refractometer (always double and triple calibrate your refractometer JIC!)
7) Take measurement of salinity. I recommend, keeping salinity at 1.025
8) Congrats. You just made your first bucket of fresh saltwater.

A tip with salt. If the price makes sense, always buy the bigger bucket or box. You save a lot more and you can never have enough salt as a reefer. Always close back up the salt after you are done and store it in a nice cool, non-humid place.

5 – Rocks:
Time for rocks? Rock on!

Before we start, you need to know the term ‘curing’ and you need to know that not all rocks require curing. So what is curing? It’s a process where you soak the rocks in a bucket of saltwater with a heater and power-head, so that the rocks release all the dead organics (Dead organics such as: clams, sea sponges, shrimps, etc... things that'll release nitrates and phosphates) that was once on the rock, into the bucket before it goes in your tank. If you don’t cure the rocks and try to start your tank with it, you’ll run into major issues with algae plaguing your tank. Curing rocks can take anywhere from 2 to 6 months to cure the rocks.

Now that we got that out of the way. Let’s go over the different types of rocks and the pros and cons of it. I’ll go over the popular ones and give you my recommendations.

Live rocks – What is the meaning of live rock? It’s literally what it means. The rocks are live. Full of life, beneficial bacteria is crawling all over it. Usually, it’s from the ocean. So with live rocks, also comes the possibility of pest hitchhikers that could be of nuisance to your tank. It’s a gamble you’ll have to take if you go this route and address the issue with hitchhikers as you progress. The pros of live rock? It’ll cycle your tank really quick (either instant cycle or within the week) and usually does not need to cure if you purchased it locally. Live rocks can be purchased a few ways. Online, local listings, or the LFS. Ordering live rocks online can get expensive because of the shipping, especially depending how much you need. They even have ‘aqua-cultured live rocks’ where they drop dried rocks into the ocean and let them become live again. Live rocks are generally expensive, around $5-10 per pound. I recommend you stopping by your LFS and seeing the live rock yourself if you decide to go this route. This way you can pick and choose what pieces you like. Would I recommend live rocks to a beginner? No. Way too many unknowns and variables that you don’t want to start out with.

Man-made rocks – these rocks are man-made with either cement or with their ‘proprietary mix’ aka, fancier cement. Often times these are painted purple to mimic that nice coralline algae. These are often sold dry or as ‘live’ man-made rocks and are very clean, sterile, meaning zero pest hitchhikers, and no curing needed. If you are ordering these ‘live’ man-made rocks online, chances are you’ll still have to cycle the tank, it will not be an instant cycle, for some reason the beneficial bacteria colony seems to die off when shipped. Man-made rocks are usually around $7 a pound. Would I recommend man-made rocks to a beginner? Yes and no. It’s actually aesthetically pleasing to the eye as it adds color to your brand new tank. What I don’t like about man-made rocks though, is that they are very dense and not very porous. It’ll house the beneficial bacteria colony just fine and it’ll handle the bio-load of your tank fine. But I personally prefer the more porous rocks so that the little critters like shrimps, and copepods have more holes and space to crawl around in.

Dry rocks – what are dry rocks? In a nutshell, it was once live and is now dry. Depending on where the dry rocks were collected from, some dry rocks will need to cure and some dry rocks are ready to go into your tank and start cycling. Typically it’ll tell you if it needs to cure. Pros of dry rocks, you can take your time rock-scaping without having to worry about the beneficial bacteria colony dying off, zero hitchhikers, and it’s cheaper when compared to the rocks above. The cons, it takes time to cycle and some you’ll have to cure it before you can use.

With that said… Do I recommend dry rocks? Yes to dry rocks that requires no curing time. It’s cheap and you can treat it like a blank canvas. The dry rocks with no curing time that I would recommend to a beginner are Reef Saver Rocks from Bulk Reef Supply (BRS).
*Update - Reef Saver Rocks are now listed as "Requires Curing" from BRS. Why? I am guessing because they received complaints about the rocks causing brown diatom issues in tanks. To simply put it, all dry rocks will leach silica to a certain degree. Almost all new tanks will go through a brown diatom bloom. It's almost unavoidable. With that said, BRS now recommends that you put Reef Saver Rocks in a bucket to cure it. However, I will say that, it will probably not leach any dead organics into the water. But, to be safe, just toss the Reef Saver Rocks into a bucket and cure it, check back in a few days and see if it's leaching any ammonia, or phosphates. If it's registering zero, the rocks are ready to go in your tank and start the cycle.

My personal favorite dry rocks for a nano tank are PukanI Rocks from BRS. However, with PukanI Rocks you’ll have to cure it, and the typical curing time takes 2 to 3 months from my experience. Though, after its done curing, usually the PukanI rocks are cycled as well, because of the die-off spiking the ammonia and starting the nitrogen cycle during the curing process.

The million dollar question. How much rocks do I need?
Typically for most of these rocks, without over-stuffing your tank with rocks, go with 0.7 to 0.75 lbs of rocks to 1 gallon of water. However, with PukanI rocks, since they are so light and porous you can go about 0.4 to 0.5 lbs to 1 gallon of water.

6 – Substrate:
What substrate should you choose? Bare bottom?

For a low maintenance and low cost set-up, it makes sense to go with a bare bottom. Easier to clean, no detritus getting trapped, and you don’t have to spend the extra money. Unless you are planning on housing sand dwellers and sand diggers, you don’t really need sand. So, do I recommend going bare bottom for a beginner? No. Why? Because you want your tank to look like a closed eco-system. You know, get that “ocean” feel when you look at it.

Then what sand should I get?
I’ve only used CaribSea Arag-Alive Special Grade Reef Sand and would recommend it. The reason why I chose this sand is because it is a larger grain size, along with mixed pieces of shells and inert coral skeleton fragments in it. It’s great for inverts like pistol shrimps to build their tunnel and also it does not easily blow around when compared to sand like Oolite from CaribSea. It does claim to come with ‘live bacteria’ but I’m not sure how much of that live bacteria helped with my tank cycle. I do recommend this sand as I’ve had no issues with it and looks great.

Can I use pool filter sand?
Ehh…. I would be a bit hesitant. A major concern I would have with pool filter sand is “Will it leach silica overtime?” No one is 100% sure, but if you want to experiment with it. Let me know how it goes for you, I’d be curious too. You are probably wondering, “wait, what’s silica?” I won’t go too in-depth, but basically silica is a chemical that usually exists in small amounts in new tanks. It can come from sand, rocks, etc… As your tank cycles and matures the sand and rock will leach out some silica that’ll fuel the dreaded brown diatom bloom in new tanks. Typically, the brown diatom bloom will last for about 2-6 months. Eventually, sand or rock in a new tank will run empty of silica to leach and the brown diatom will die off. With that said, it is believed that pool filter sand contains large amounts of silica, which will fuel the brown diatom to grow all over your tank. So, it’ll be your own discretion to use it or not, I wouldn’t recommend it.

The next million dollar question. How much sand do I need?
Usually about 0.75 to 1.0 lbs of sand to 1 gallon of water is enough. You don’t need a deep sand bed. A thinner sand bed makes for easier cleaning and less likely for detritus to get trapped.

Step 2:
Whew… long read, but you’ve finally made it to Step 2.
Have your tank and equipment ready? Let’s scape and fill the tank!

7 - Scaping:
Be creative here. Look up various reef rock-scapes online and see what you like. For beginners, I recommend you to stay away from piling up rocks at the back of the tank. This makes it difficult to clean the tank and becomes a detritus trapper. Ideally, you want open rock-scapes with about 2” on all sides between the glass and rock-work. Think about good flow, high and low rock-scapes to place certain corals that requires high/low lighting, ease of getting around and cleaning the glass and sand.

To keep the rocks together, you can use a two part epoxy called Aquastik by Two Little Fishies and Super Glue Gel by Gorilla Glue. Follow the directions to use the two part epoxy, add some super glue gel on one side of the epoxy, adhere it to the rock, add some more super glue gel on the other side, and connect the other piece of rock. Give it about 5 minutes to try and move on with the rock-scape.

You do not need to epoxy and glue your rock-scape together, so as long as your rock-scape is pretty stable and will not topple over.

8 - Filling the tank:
Here’s the order I choose to fill the tank in.
1) Rocks 2) sand 3) saltwater

The thought behind, ‘rock before sand’ is, if you had a sand digger… and it starts to dig… your rocks are resting on the foundation of the bottom of the glass and will not topple over. If you had it sand before rock, you have a greater chance of your rocks toppling over, since your rocks are resting on the sand and not on the glass.

Should you use an egg crate to support the rock between the rock and glass? You can, although, I’ve never had an issue with any of my rocks toppling over doing the ‘rock before sand’ method.

Lastly, as you add the saltwater to your tank, you can use like a plate or Tupperware to defuse the waterfall in hopes of not kicking up too much sand to cloud the tank. It helps a bit, but either way, using new sand, it’ll always cloud and will eventually clear up.

9 - Tank Cycle:
How do you cycle a saltwater tank? Same way you would with your freshwater tanks. Same nitrogen cycle.

Can you re-use existing bio-media from freshwater tanks? Yes. I’ve done it, but it will not instant cycle the saltwater tank. Different beneficial bacteria colony I am guessing, so I still had to go through the motions of cycling a new saltwater tank.

I typically do not recommend the dead shrimp in tank route, because it’s hard to control the amount of ammonia being released into the water. I personally use and recommend Ammonium Chloride from Fritz Pro Aquatics. About 2 small pinches of this stuff into the tank will yield you about 2PPM Ammonia to start the Nitrogen cycle.

Fish in or fishless cycle? Your personal preference. I personally would not subject any of my fishes to that environment, so I would recommend a fishless cycle. Less stressful to you and the fish.

Bottle bacteria? You can. It’s never worked for me. Though I have been hearing good things about Turbo Start from AlgaeBarn.

How long will it take to cycle a saltwater tank? No idea. Every tank is different. It’s done when the nitrogen cycle is done.

Step 3:

10- Fish and Invert Stocking:
So you’ve made it through your tank cycle. Congrats! Time to stock the tank.

A rule of thumb here, decide on your stocking first and always add in the least aggressive fish first to the tank and let it get acclimated to the environment for at least 2-3 weeks before adding the more aggressive fishes.

What fishes can you get for a nano, around the 10-20 gallon range?
This is a highly debatable topic that I will not get into. But to give you an idea, you can put a 1-2 ocellaris or percula clowns in a 10 gallon and it’ll be okay. Ideally, though, in a 20 gallon, they’ll be much better off in the long run and you can have up to 3-4 fishes in a 20 gallon long tank. Absolutely no tangs aka Dory in a nano.

If I were to stock my 20 gallon long, it would be in this order: 1 x firefish, 1 starry blenny, and 2 ocellaris clown fishes over the course of a 1-2 months.

CUC? What?!!
CUC stands for cleanup crew. Are they absolutely needed? No, but they are fun to keep.

What are good beginner CUCs?
My personal favorites are banded trochus snails, cerith snails, and nessarius snails. Always understock your cleanup crew, because once they clean you up dry of algae and left over food they can starve to death. So initially, to help you tidy up your brand new tank that’s looking funky with the brown diatom bloom. Your CUC can look something like this for a 20 gallon: 2 x banded trochus, 1 x cerith, 2 x nessarius snails. Keep in mind, while trochus and cerith snails will eat algae of sorts (they’ll get an endless supply as your tank ages, which is why you understock these so you never have to feed them). Nessarius snails generally will not eat algae. Nessarius snails help you clean up left over food and dead carcasses. They usually bury themselves in the sand, till they sense food. I like to feed my nessarius snails 1-2 times a week of Mysis shrimp or pellets. They don’t need a whole lot of food, about 1 mysis shrimp per 1 small nessarius snail is plenty.

11 - Corals:
What’s a coral? A coral is an animal made up of thousands of tiny animals called polyps. Yes they are living animals. Some are photosynthetic and some are non-photosynthetic. Most corals can be fed either small powered up coral food and/or meaty food like Mysis shrimp.

What’s a softy, LPS, and SPS coral?
These are non-technical terms given by hobbyists to classify certain categories of corals. There’s 3 classifications we give corals.

Softies – softy corals generally do not have a skeletal structure to them. They generally have a soft and squishable body. Corals like zoanthids and pulsing xenias are considered soft corals.
LPS – LPS stands for large polyp stony corals. These corals have a skeletal structure to them along with larger polyps. Corals like frogspawns and duncans are considered LPS corals.
SPS – SPS stands for small polyp stony corals. These corals also have a skeletal structure to them, but with very small polyps. Corals like acropora and montipora capricornis are considered SPS corals.

As a beginner, what corals can you keep?
Assuming you have proper lighting and proper water parameters, you can try your hand in softies like Green Star Polyps (GSP) and Pulsing Xenias. I would also recommend a Duncan coral to a beginner. These are all photosynthetic corals and do not need fed. You can feed Duncans food like Mysis shrimp once or twice a week, which is quite fun and interesting to see. These corals prefer low-medium flow and low-medium light. Also, these corals for the most part, are very forgiving with your water parameters, which makes it easy to keep.

My advice to a new reefers wanting to keep corals. Do your due diligence and research the corals specific needs, like flow, lighting, and parameter requirements. Take it slow and when getting new corals, try not to move it 50 times a day. As long as you get it around the ball-park of the flow and lighting needs, the coral will need time to get used to the environment and eventually open it and thrive. Always practice safe handling with corals, wear gloves and glasses. Though most corals are safe to handle, you never know.

Also, just like fish, corals can bring in parasites/diseases and also pest hitchhikers. It is recommended that you learn to dip your corals in coral dips to kill off most hitchhikers and also quarantine corals before they go into your display tank. Corals dips that I recommend are Coral Rx and Bayer pesticide. Please do your research before using those dips to learn the proper techniques to do so.

12 - Feeding:
As far as feeding goes, try to feed less preservative foods like flakes and pellets. Try to feed fishes like clown fishes 80% frozen Mysis shrimp and 20% flakes and pellets. The reason behind this is because flakes and pellets are generally packed loaded with a lot of nutrients. What goes in your tank, stays in your tank, till it is exported out. A lot of beginners seem to have issues with algae. When you look closely at their routine, often times they’ll toss in flakes and pellets once or twice a day. A few months later they are battling with green hair algae, cyano algae, etc…

Most fishes, like clown fishes, only needs to be fed once a day. About 3 pieces of Mysis shrimp is plenty. You can tell if your fishes are getting enough food by looking at their body. If they are plumpy, then they are probably getting enough food.

13 - Quarantine:
It is always recommended that you quarantine fishes and corals. Same like freshwater tanks, ich, fungus, parasites, etc… do exist in saltwater as well.

A note here, I found Ruby’s Kick Ich to be extremely effective for me in treating my clowns with ich. My clowns got ich really bad, by the 3rd day of treatment with Ruby’s Kick Ich, it was almost all gone. By day 7 my clowns were cured and so was the whole tank. Do keep in mind that there are different strands of ich out there… so what worked for one person, might not work for someone else.

14 - Water Parameter:
So if you came from the freshwater hobby, some of your knowledge in water parameters will transfer on with saltwater as well. Keep in mind, a magic number does not exist. I’ve seen amazing reef tanks kept at a variety of different numbers.

For starters, here’s what I recommend you keep your parameters around for a Reef tank.
Temperature = 78 degrees F
Salinity = 1.025
pH = 8.0
Alkalinity = 9.0
Calcium = 425
Magnesium = 1300
Nitrates = less than 5 PPM
Phosphates = less than 0.025

Can I re-use my freshwater API test kits? You sure can, just make sure it’s not expired. API test kits will give you a rough ball-park. Once you start getting more serious into coral keeping, you’ll want to hone in on your water parameters more and keep it as stable as possible. The test kits I use and recommend are Salifert test kits. Remember, the key here is to try and keep your parameters as stable as possible.

15 - Maintenance:
For nano saltwater tanks, I recommend a weekly 20-25% water change along with substrate vacuuming of 1/3 to ½ the sand bed each week. Utilize the turkey baster, blast the rock-work, sand, and dead spots each week to keep detritus from settling. This has been key for me in keeping my tanks so clean and algae free.

Here is the process of what my weekly water changes look like.
1) Start making the fresh batch of saltwater
2) Test parameters
3) Scrape the glass
4) Turkey baster the tank
5) Check on fresh batch of saltwater, temp and salinity
6) Substrate vacuum and start the water change
7) Fill tank back up with fresh batch of saltwater mix
8) Change filter floss
9) Wipe outside glass with vinegar/water solution
10) Sit back and enjoy the clean tank

Remember, your tank will evaporate water throughout the day and the salt stays in the tank, thus driving up the salinity level. Before I got an automatic top off system I manually topped off the tank with fresh RO/DI water several times a day. A way to know if your tank requires topping off to keep the salinity level steady, is mark off where the water line is. When you wake up in the morning, come home from work, before bed, just check if the water line has dropped. If so, pour in fresh RODI water till it fills back up to the line (room temperature RODI water is fine).

A quote that always stuck with me when I started the hobby and I like to leave with you all, “Nothing good ever happens fast in a saltwater tank.” Always go slow and make slow adjustments.

Anyways, I think that’s all I have for you beginner reefers.
I hope this helps you along your new journey. Always feel free to ask me questions.

Best of luck.

  • #2
Great writeup! Only question is whether you kept coral under the Current FW LED lights. Those are very low wattage, and I didn't think that would work. Because it does not say when you switched to the proper LEDs, it may be confusing to someone who is just starting,.

  • #3
What would we do without you, Nart
  • #4
Fabulous Nart! You da man!!!
  • #5
schwew! I made it.

One question about the rock. you suggest the reef saver rock from bulk reef supply because it's dry but doesn't need to be cured. The website says it does need to be cured?

Very nice write up! I think the only thing it's missing is an estimate of the cost for each suggested item for a beginner in a 10, 15, 20 gallon etc set up.
  • #6
Wow! As someone that has dreamed of doing salt water in the distant (getting not so distant) future and is at that hard and heavy into freshwater stage, this is awesome! I am not there yet, but definitely subbing so I can get back to this when I decide to take the plunge into the salty world.

Great write-up! Thanks so much for taking the time to do this!!


  • #7
I would like to admit my previous ignorance... I thought I would never wrap my head around some of the terms in the salty world. But, I went for it anyway! Less than a year later, and the experience has taught me so much. Everything was abstract before. For instance, I never thought I'd understand a skimmer or refugium, but both are simply for removing excess nutrients, (nitrates and phosphates). It's as simple as that, and if anyone wants help in modifying an Aquaclear HOB.... talk to me and Culprit We're both running Aquaclears with biomedia and macroalgae, as well as space for a sponge or floss. This makes these HOB's good for biological filtration, mechanical filtration, and nutrient export. It's a filter AND a refugium.
jamie carmichael
  • #8
Can't believe you took time out of your day to write up such a huge helpful forum. This helped me quite a lot about a few things I wasn't too sure about like live rock and I'm sure it helped a lot of other people.
  • #9
Mods, can we possibly have this stickied? Coradee , Lucy ?
  • #10
Great write up, Nart.

Without you and stella1979 I would have had a head explosion months ago.
My input as a beginner to beginners is take it slow, and listen to what everyone in the forum says...then you can use a little of everyone's advice to come up with so.ething that works best for you...yet is still tried and true with the more experienced salties......

Also, I used reef saver rock because it was pest free, and easy to scape (as easy as scaping can be, anyway)
I didn't have to do any "curing"....But then again, I've seen people call cycling rock "curing" it.....
But it comes ready to go, other than a thorough rise....especially after smashing it with a hammer and chisel to get it the way you want it...

Overall, as long as you do your due's not much different than FW.....other than everything is that makes sense..


  • #11
I love it Nart!! You covered everything! I will also highly recommend both the Salifert kits (for those of you who use the API master nitrate test kit... you know all the banging and shaking? With this its syring up a bit of water, this many drops out of this bottle, a scoop of this, and gently swirl for 30 seconds. And that's it!), and the Cobalt Aquatics Neotherm heater. I use the eheim jager in my FW, and I got this and was amazed. I mean, I put it in, set it to 78 (Set it by pushing a button!) and plugged it in. a few hours later reading 78 on the nose. No calibration nothing.

As stella1979 mentioned, we also both run Aquaclear refugiums/chaeto reactors/filtration. I love mine! You get nutrient export, benefits of a refugium, and filtration. Win win!

All in all, great write up Nart. My advice to you beginners? Take it slow. You don't have to break your wallet. Its just fine to wait, and slowly stock up on the equipment you need. Its what I did!
  • Thread Starter
  • #12
Hugeeee thanks to stella1979 for corrections and recommendations throughout the guide!
I've been wanting to write this beginners guide for soooo long, because after I started getting the hang of saltwater, I realized that it was extremely hard and difficult to research up all the information. It was especially hard to find all the recent/relevant information all in one place as well. Also, seeing all the newcomers recently in the Saltwater section made me want to write this up as quick as I can to help answer the first wave of questions.

HarryPotter Good point. I've updated the February 2017 photo description to say that I changed out the lights to Current Marine Orbit LED lights.

tyguy7760 Good catch. I have updated the BRS Reef Saver Rock section to include a bit of more information on it. Essentially I think they got in trouble with some customers listing the rocks as 100% free of dead organics. Maybe 98% free of dead organics lol... so which is why they recommend you cure it now. I will say, if you do have to cure the rocks, it should not take long at all.... maybe 1 week max? If you sift through reviews of reef saver rocks, lots of reefers will say that the rocks are ready to cycle, no curing needed. I actually started to price the items up and total it, but then it got too complicated especially with where you'll buy it from, and what equipment piece you decide on. I do not recommend a 5 gallon to a beginner, so I didn't mention it at all. Even 10 gallon is pushing it, but a 10 gallon and 20 gallon would cost roughly about the same, since they can share equipment.

You are very welcome all. I really hope it helps you to take the dive into saltwater.
Trust me. If I can do it. You can do it. I am the least patient person and I'm not doing too bad in the saltwater hobby.
  • #13
Awesome write up!!! Kudos. It's much less intimidating when everything is so well laid out. Thanks again for the write up!
  • #14
Way to go!!!


  • #15
Thank you for this, as a beginner I have been devouring article after article for weeks. I just filled my first Saltwater tank with water yesterday; truly a newb. This post answered some questions for me I thought I was going to have to post to get answered. I have no doubt I'll be re-reading it in the future, thanks again!
  • #16
This is great, thank you for writing it all up. I’d feel really confident setting up a sw tank now following the advice here
  • Thread Starter
  • #17
Melyssa @Haley1986
I'm glad it helped ya'll!
  • #18
Very helpful write up! Contemplating jumping into the Saltwater side of the hobby for the first time and this info is great.


  • Thread Starter
  • #19
Very helpful write up! Contemplating jumping into the Saltwater side of the hobby for the first time and this info is great.
I am glad that it's useful for you!

I've been seeing a lot of new reef tanks recently. Figured I would give this a bump to help any beginners.
  • #20
Keep bumping it please! Some of us will not be going salty for a while yet and this will be a big help!
  • #21
I do my best to keep an eye out for new reef tanks around here. What do you think of the new signature guys? Too much?
  • #22
I do my best to keep an eye out for new reef tanks around here. What do you think of the new signature guys? Too much?

I cannot see signatures on the ap.


  • Thread Starter
  • #24
Great idea on the signature Stella! I'll have to do that too. a lot easier to link people.
  • #25
I've been seeing a lot of new reef tanks recently. Figured I would give this a bump to help any beginners.

This should be a sticky.
  • #26
Nart maybe you can just copy+paste this into an article and submit? Creating a resource earns you trophy points anyhow


  • Thread Starter
  • #27
Nart maybe you can just copy+paste this into an article and submit? Creating a resource earns you trophy points anyhow

I didn’t even know you could do that lol
  • #28
Did you see?!?!?? It's stickied!
Jay Chen
  • #29
Very helpful
  • #30
I know it's not easy to start with saltwater venture but thanks to guidelines that we can follow to make things easy. I'm planning to try saltwater soon and I hope I can get through with it just like the way I handle aquarium.


  • #31
I know it's not easy to start with saltwater venture but thanks to guidelines that we can follow to make things easy. I'm planning to try saltwater soon and I hope I can get through with it just like the way I handle aquarium.
This is an excellent guide, and you can do it! I'll say that it seemed very difficult before I got started, but understanding comes and things get easier as you put ideas into practice. Best advice? Take it slow.
  • #32
As someone for whom saltwater is (possibly) in the far-distant future, may I say “thank you” for this excellent and concise write-up? I do have one question. If you want coralline algae to grow in your tank, would you have to start with live rock, or can you buy algae cultures, or what? Everything I’ve read seems to place great importance on coralline algae, but it’s not clear to me if that’s just aesthetic or if it’s serving an important role in the tank.
  • #33
As someone for whom saltwater is (possibly) in the far-distant future, may I say “thank you” for this excellent and concise write-up? I do have one question. If you want coralline algae to grow in your tank, would you have to start with live rock, or can you buy algae cultures, or what? Everything I’ve read seems to place great importance on coralline algae, but it’s not clear to me if that’s just aesthetic or if it’s serving an important role in the tank.
I’m not Nart and I’m relatively new to this myself (my tank is only 7 months old) but I think coralline algae is a sign of good tank health and a maturing tank. There are bottled cultures out but I can’t speak to its effectiveness because I grew mine naturally. Some sw critters do use it as a food source.
  • #34
As a student of Nart 's, I hope it's okay that I chime in here too.

Yep, coralline is a sign of good health, is pretty, and some critters use it as a food source. I also grew mine naturally, if a bit slower than most. This is because I did not use any live rock... at all. Biodiversity, including coralline, was introduced mostly via coral frags. Even though most of the frags were dipped first, stuff finds it's way. It's a slower but safer way to a mature tank.

I couldn't speak to the effectiveness of bottled products either. I subscribe to the rule of not dosing anything to the tank that I can't test for.

To some, coralline is the bane of their existence. Yep, people have a real hard time keeping it off glass and equipment, and the stuff sucks up plenty of the calcium and alkalinity we're dosing in our reef tanks.

With all this in mind, I did nothing but hope for coralline. Months went by without any, and fish, corals and the tank itself were happy and healthy. So, I wouldn't say coralline is a necessity, but it's nice that the rocks are turning purple.


  • Thread Starter
  • #35
Fishcat You are very welcome. LchI and Stella did a great job answering to your question.
Almost all tanks will usually end up with coralline growth at some point just because the introduction of coral frags into your tank (unless your tank is completely sterile).
The easiest way to introduce coralline algae into your tank is, go into your LFS, find a piece of small live rock covered in that purple/pink coralline. Go home, take a dull knife or just something to scrape it. Turn off your return pumps, and just leave your displays power-head on. Go to town scraping off that coralline algae on the small rock. This will create flakes of coralline and will get in between your rocks, a few months later. BOOM! your rocks will be nice and purple/pink too. Just remember to keep up with Alk, Calcium, and Mag and ensure that those big 3 trace elements are relatively stable. Coralline algae requires those trace elements to grow.
  • #36
Thanks to everyone for the explanations. I am far from actually venturing into saltwater, but I like to have as much as possible straight in my mind before starting something new.
  • Thread Starter
  • #37
Culprit LOL. no need to bump anymore. it's been stickied.
  • #38
Well, it'll make it show up on the new posts for a bit lol


  • #39
Well, it'll make it show up on the new posts for a bit lol
And that's a good thing.
  • #40
Thanks to stella1979 I am here reading this and thank you! Was a huge help trying to get a better understanding on where to begin.

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