saltwater aquarium

Ready to get started with a saltwater aquarium? Great! Although setting up your first saltwater tank can be a little challenging, if you follow all the below steps, you and your fish will be happy for years to come!

Step 1: Planning Your Tank

Make a list of your desired species. Will they all get along and how much water will you need to make them happy? What substrate or decor would be preferred for your fish? Does your total volume of water fit into the space you desire? If you are limited in your space or design, you will need to rethink your fish species. Here are some of the best beginner saltwater fish to get you started.

If you can, make your tank a little bigger than you think you'll need. This will give you a buffer for any water chemistry mistakes during the setup process. Do not skip this step and just "wing it." You are planning for living, breathing animals to live a long, happy life and they deserve some limited consideration.

Do you want just fish or fish and corals?

One of the big divides between marine tanks is fish-only and a fish and coral tank. If you are just getting started in saltwater, a fish-only tank is easier and can be expanded to include corals in the future with some minimal modifications. However, some fish just can't help nibbling corals and should never be included in coral tanks. The salt mix you choose will also vary depending if you need certain minerals and supplements for your corals, but not your fish.

Step 2: Buy Your Materials

Your tank should include the following components:

  • Fish tank and appropriate stand
  • Lighting (fish-only or coral?)
  • Filtration components
  • Salt mix (fish-only or coral?) and hydrometer
  • Heater and thermometer
  • Test kit (fish-only or coral?)
  • Maintenance tools

For more information on these individual components, read over our complete list.

Step 3: Assemble Your Aquarium

Once you have all the individual components, it's time to assemble, before you even buy your fish!

Set your tank on its stand on a sturdy surface away from any indoor heating/cooling elements and away from external windows. This will help keep your tank at a consistent temperature and deter rogue algae growth. If you are not using a tank-specific stand, remember that water is heavy. A gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds. If you are unsure of your intended surface, stand on it and wiggle around. If you feel your table/counter/etc wobble at all, rethink your location.

The first time you mix your saltwater, you can do so directly in your tank. Fill your tank with your source water, which may take considerable time if you are starting with RO water, and add in the recommended amount of salt. Before you start to mix, you can add in your filtration components, including sumps, canister filters and powerheads to direct water flow. Also add your heater and get it set to the correct temperature; warm water will dissolve salt faster than cold water. Once these are setup and working, they will slowly start to dissolve the salt crystals.

Give your tank at least 8 hours to mix completely. Then, test your salinity with your hydrometer or refractometer and your temperature with your thermometer. If either parameter is off, make the necessary changes and check an hour later. If both are within the correct range, order your live rock and no more than 20 percent of your fish. Pick easy-going, non-aggressive fish to add first. Live rock will bring in the start of your nitrogen cycle, but your tank has to be 100 percent ready for it before you begin.

Step 4: Adding Your Fish

No matter where you order your fish from, try to buy captive-bred species. In doing so, you reduce the number of fish that are taken from their wild homes. If you are bringing fish in from multiple sources, you will need to quarantine them separately by vendor. This will limit the spread of disease between individuals. Captive-bred fish are known for carrying fewer diseases than wild-caught fish.

When you just start your aquarium, expect your tank to undergo a “new tank syndrome” in which your biological filtration has not been established. By starting with live rock, you will limit this effect on your fish. And starting with a low fish load will protect you against dangerous ammonia spikes.

Step 5: Completing Your Tank

Over the next 4 weeks, pay close attention to your water chemistry parameters, including ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, kH, gH, salinity and temperature. You may need to top off occasionally due to evaporation. Resist the urge to top off with saltwater and instead add heated freshwater. When water evaporates, it does not take any salt with it.

After your initial fish purchases have cleared quarantine, about four weeks for most fish, you can add them all to your main tank. Be sure to acclimate them properly unless the water chemistry parameters match exactly. You can re-purpose your quarantine tank(s) to slowly add your additional desired fish to your tank. Remember that fish need to separate fish by vendor in order to prevent disease spread. To make things easy for you, choose captive-bred fish from only one vendor to decrease the chances of disease spread. If you are adding any aggressive fish to your tank, be sure to add them last so the other fish have time to settle in.

Step 6: Enjoy Your Tank

All fish tanks are enjoyable, but few can argue against the beauty of a vibrant saltwater tank. Write out a manageable maintenance routine and post it on your calendar. If you are unable to maintain your system yourself, you may nee to hire a cleaning company. Watch your fish daily for any physical or behavioral signs of disease. This is easily accomplished during feeding time, when fish are at their most interactive. By providing your fish a healthy system and good diet, you will provide them a long life of happiness.

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