Saltwater Aquarium Tank Setup Guide

It seems like we have been getting a lot of new posts on the forum about basic saltwater aquarium setup information.

I've written this saltwater aquarium tank guide to hopefully make it easier to understand the start up process for those just getting into marine tanks. I'll make it a step by step article so it is easier to follow. The picture above is my 120 gallon reef tank.

Reef Tank Scene


There are three common types of saltwater aquarium setups. The Fish Only, the Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR) and a reef tank. I really just consider two of those as viable setups. The fish only set up is really kind of difficult in terms of biological control of the filter and (in my opinion) makes it harder to keep a saltwater tank without live rock. Live rock is awesome and will become the primary biological filter in your tank. FOWLR tanks are the way to go for someone new to the saltwater side of the hobby. Reef tanks require a little more precision and can be much more expensive to set up and stock because they require more equipment and more expensive livestock usually.

Size matters. If you want to set up a nano saltwater tank (anything less than 30 gallons usually) then you have your work cut out for you. The upside to a smaller tank is the start up and ongoing maintenance costs. The downside is that smaller tanks are harder to maintain, harder to keep stable and you have less choices in terms of the fish and inverts you can keep.

A saltwater aquarium can definitely be more expensive than a freshwater aquarium. If money is tight, don't set up a marine tank right now. If you start skipping needed equipment like protein skimmers or good quality live rock, you are just going to be cutting yourself short and making the hobby less enjoyable. Come back to it when the finances loosen up and set things up right.

So we've narrowed down your choice to either a FOWLR or a reef tank. Which will you choose? Your choice will determine what you need in the next step.


If you chose a FOWLR tank, here is a list of equipment needed:

Notice in the list above that I didn't mention a mechanical filter... I haven't run a mechanical filter on my saltwater tanks in years. I use a combination of ample amounts of high quality live rock, turbulent water flows provided by power heads and the protein skimmer removes dissolved organics as they break down in the water column. Very easy to set up and maintain and you don't have to worry about nitrate build ups in the mechanical filter which can lead to algae issues.

If you chose a REEF TANK, here is a list of equipment needed:


This is the most important part of the entire process since it dictates the equipment and tank that you need. Take your time here and enjoy the research process. It's what makes the hobby so much fun in my opinion.

For a FOWLR your research required is much less. You basically need to research the compatibility of the fish you are interested in keeping. Make a list of the species that catch your interest and then research each of them. Figure out how well they acclimate to the home aquarium, how they interact with con specifics and other species, how easy they are to feed and what size tank you'll need.

For a reef tank you have your research cut out for you, but it can be quite fun! First figure out the type of corals you want to keep such as SPS, LPS or soft corals. It is best to stick with one type and avoid mixing coral types since the lighting setup you need is based on the corals you want to keep. Research the fish and inverts too. You want "reef safe" type fish and inverts. Fish and inverts labeled reef safe will not usually harm corals, but research thoroughly. Get your plan of tank inhabitants and write it all down on paper then double check it. Ask other reef hobbyists for their opinions before you buy.

Video Inside My Reef Tank!


Ok, so we have the type of tank we want to set up and we have researched the tank inhabitants. Now we can start buying equipment and setting up.

If you want to set up a FOWLR check out the Saltwater Aquarium Setup article.
If you are setting up a Reef Tank read the Reef Tank Setup article for a step by step guide.

Once everything is set up you want to make sure your tank cycles. More info here: Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle.


Once your tank has cycled you can start to slowly introduce livestock. Take your time here and make sure you acclimate your new arrivals correctly. This period of time is crucial and mistakes are made when things are rushed.

Develop a daily, weekly and monthly maintenance schedule and stick to it. There are more details in the saltwater aquarium setup and reef tank setup articles linked above on maintenance routines.


This article may look kind of short but I did that on purpose to keep it simple. Explore the linked articles provided to get more information on a particular topic. I wanted this article to provide a quick overview of what all is involved and at the same time not scare away newbies with a huge article since there are already lots of articles on most topics needed for research. You can spend many hours or days researching and this is the best way to go. Research everything (fish, inverts, corals, equipment, etc.) thoroughly first and you will save yourself some serious cash.

Here are more good articles to get you started:

Setting up a saltwater FOWLR or reef tank used to be way more difficult in the past but these days it really is not difficult at all. It is more expensive than a freshwater but I think that once a saltwater aquarium is set up with the right equipment and stocked wisely it is easier to keep a saltwater tank going than a freshwater tank. Be forewarned, it is extremely addicting.