Saltwater Aquarium Tank Setup Guide
Updated August 12, 2019
Author: Mike - FishLore Admin
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.
STEP 1: DETERMINE THE TYPE OF SALTWATER AQUARIUM YOU WANTThere 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.
STEP 2: SALTWATER AQUARIUM EQUIPMENTIf you chose a FOWLR tank, here is a list of equipment needed:
- Aquarium - go with at least a 30 gallon or preferably much bigger. Your chances of success are better and you will get hooked and wish you had a bigger tank.
- Substrate - if you want to have a sand bed there are commonly three options. You can go with a shallow sand bed, a deep sand bed (helps with nitrification) or a bare bottom. Shallow sand beds or bare bottom tanks are the easiest to setup and maintain. Research the benefits of deep sand beds to see if that is something you want to pursue. More info on choosing a substrate: Substrates 101.
- Live Rock - get about one pound per gallon or more of the good, high quality porous rock. Base rock is cheaper but really does nothing other than take up space and allows you to build up your rock structure. I only use the good rock in my tanks. More info on Live Rock.
- Saltwater Mix - the brand doesn't really matter these days.
- Refractometer - to measure the salt content. A hydrometer would work too but they are less accurate.
- Protein Skimmer - you need a skimmer. We get this question all the time. You can run a tank without a skimmer but it means you will have to do way more frequent partial water changes to avoid algae issues. Save yourself the headaches and get a skimmer. More info: Protein Skimmer.
- Powerheads - provides water movement which is very important in saltwater tanks. You want to have turbulent flows. The amount of flow you need is around 10 to 20x the tank volume for a FOWLR in my opinion. This will help keep detritus from accumulating on the bottom or behind the rocks and improve the chances that it will be broken down and skimmed out of the system.
- Reverse Osmosis Water Filter - you need this for the initial filling and top offs of your tank. Starting with pure water is very important and will help you avoid many water quality and algae issues.
- Heater - two smaller rated heaters are better than one heater in case of malfunctions. You also need a thermometer to monitor the tank temperature. Digital thermometers are inexpensive and do a fine job.
- Test Kits - get test kits for ammonia, nitrite and nitrates. You will use these during the initial break in of the tank and until the aquarium cycles.
- Lights - the type and size doesn't really matter in a FOWLR. Standard lights that come with aquarium kits are usually fine. A mix of bulbs in the white and blue actinic range provide some nice colors.
- Sump and/or Refugium - is a separate tank under your main display tank that allows you to hide equipment and provides more water volume since it is plumbed into the main system. These are optional upgrades but worth it.
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:
- Substrate - sand or bare bottom
- Salt Mix - there are reef type salt mixes which are usually higher in alk/calc.
- Live Rock
- Protein Skimmer - you need a skimmer. Period.
- Powerheads - how many needed is based on the fish, invertebrates and corals you want to keep
- Reverse Osmosis Water Filter - you definitely need one. More info here: Reverse Osmosis Filter for Aquariums.
- Test Kits - get test kits for ammonia, nitrite, nitrates, magnesium, alkalinity, calcium and phosphates. There are reef testing kits which have all of them included. Get the liquid test kits. Salifert makes some good test kits that are easy to read. More info on Aquarium Test Kits.
- Lights - the corals you want to keep will dictate the type of lighting you need. More info on Aquarium Lighting.
- Calcium Reactor - if you plan on having a tank full of hard corals a calcium reactor is the way to go. Otherwise you can supplement with the two-part solutions and replenish needed elements via water changes. More info on the Calcium Reactor.
- Sump and/or Refugium - the sump allows you to hide equipment and provides more water volume since it is plumbed into the main system. A refugium allows you to grow macro algae and pods for the benefit of the display tank. These are very good additions but optional.
- Various Reactors - you can set up more reactors in your sump for Biopellets, Phosphate reducers, Activated Carbon, etc. These are optional but can bring some good benefits.
STEP 3: RESEARCH THE FISH, INVERTS AND CORALSThis 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!
STEP 4: SET UP THE SALTWATER AQUARIUMOk, 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.
Once everything is set up you want to make sure your tank cycles. More info here: Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle.
STEP 5: SLOWLY INTRODUCE LIVESTOCK AND KEEP UP WITH TANK MAINTENANCEOnce 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.
CONCLUSIONThis 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:
- Starting a Saltwater System - Part 1
- Starting a Saltwater System - Part 2
- Starting a Saltwater System - Part 3
- Top 10 For Newbies
- Tips For Starting A Saltwater Tank
- Saltwater Acronyms
- Nana Cube Setup
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.