Saltwater Tank Setup: How To Build One Based On 5 Factors

saltwater tank setup
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Are you interested in learning how to start a saltwater aquarium?

If the answer is yes…

Do not be deterred by the popular myths that setting up new fish tanks, especially saltwater aquariums is challenging and impossible. If you are like me, you can set up a freshwater aquarium and a saltwater tank in your home.

Saltwater aquariums offer more beauty than freshwater tanks because they have more colorful fish and coral reefs. And who wouldn’t want a colorful marine tank? But what do saltwater fish tanks require?

Read on.

Factors To Consider Before a Saltwater Tank Setup

Before you pick a saltwater aquarium, here are 5 factors to keep in mind.

1. Types of Saltwater Aquariums

Which saltwater tank setup do you dream of having? You must get the saltwater aquarium that you feel suits your needs and environment.

There are three main types of saltwater tanks: fish-only tanks, fish-only with live rock, and reef aquariums.

Fish Only

aquarium with saltwater fish

As the name suggests, fish-only tanks feature only fish. It is easy to set up because once you choose a species of fish for the marine tank and set the necessary tank requirements, you are good to go. You can also choose to keep a community tank where a variety of fish can co-exist.

However, since this fish-only tank does not feature live rock, which introduces beneficial bacteria, it will demand more maintenance and longer cycling periods. You will also need to perform frequent water changes to maintain pristine water conditions.

Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR)

salt water fish tank with live rock

This tank features fish and live rock. The live rock helps keep a healthy aquarium by introducing more beneficial bacteria, which breaks down toxic ammonia and nitrites. It also reduces the time spent cleaning the tank.

The majority of people avoid using live rock because it is expensive. However, its visual appeal and ability to maintain water quality are a welcome bonus to your saltwater aquarium.

Reef Tank

aquarium with coral reef under water

Reef tanks are the most expensive saltwater aquariums. The setup requires you to add corals, which are unique and attractive living organisms with their own needs. Coral reefs will create a beautiful ecosystem in your home but at a price.

Corals are expensive to purchase, and they require extra equipment to maintain and monitor the ideal water and lighting conditions. A reef tank can be challenging for beginners but not impossible for dedicated aquarists.

2. Level of Expertise

salt water aquarium with several fish

As an aquarist, you are either at the beginner, moderate, or expert level. If you are a beginner, we recommend getting a large saltwater aquarium. Although nano aquariums look attractive, they leave no room for errors, unlike large tanks.

For instance, a spike in nitrates, ammonia, and phosphates from overfeeding or a dead aquatic animal can become catastrophic in a small tank. The little water will not dissolve this toxic waste and may kill your fish and corals. With a larger tank, the excess fish food and waste is easily diluted to make room for beginner errors.

When setting up a saltwater fish tank, consider the species of fish that matches your expertise level. We recommend that beginners pick hardy fish because they are easy to care for, are not aggressive, and can tolerate mistakes.

You can also add crabs and snails to a new saltwater aquarium as the cleanup crew. However, make sure they are compatible tank mates. For instance, never house great cerith snails and hermit crabs. Although they seem compatible, hermit crabs may invade the cerith snail’s shell, thus killing the snail.

3. All-In-One Aquarium Vs. Building an Aquarium

empty aquarium on top of a wooden table

Depending on your expertise, you need to choose whether to buy an all-in-one saltwater aquarium or construct one from scratch. Each set-up has its pros and cons, and we will consider both options.

All-In-One Aquarium

This setup aquarium kit comes with everything you need to get started. You will find this aquarium in your local fish store and it features a lighting system, a pump, and a filtration system. Some large tanks have a stand that accommodates a sump plus extra filtration beneath the setup.

With an all-in-one aquarium, you avoid the hassle of research and assembling the setup from scratch. However, the tank is less customizable.

Building an Aquarium

When you build your saltwater aquarium, you have the flexibility to create the tank you want. But you have to be patient and take time to read, research, plan, and buy all the pieces and parts, before manually assembling them.

If you are into saltwater aquarium hobby, you will enjoy adding the latest technologies, design, gear, and living things to your new tank.

4. Glass Vs. Acrylic Tank

marine aquarium glass tank

You also need to consider whether your saltwater aquarium will be made of glass or acrylic.

Glass is scratch-resistant compared to acrylic. However, you can buff or sand the scratches from an acrylic tank, but a scratch on a glass aquarium is permanent.

Glass tanks have fewer fabrication flaws, thanks to their rigid glass panels that hold up for longer periods. Acrylic, however, is flexible, and oversight during welding can compromise the tank, leading to air bubbles. Glass aquariums are also non-porous, UV safe, and resist the absorption of chemicals.

But that’s not to mean that acrylic tanks do not have their benefits. They are more lightweight than glass and can be customized to make curved panels.

5. Pick A Suitable Location

To create a healthy saltwater aquarium, you need to choose a suitable location. You should set up the saltwater aquarium away from heat vents, direct sunlight, air conditioners, and windows and doors that expose it to a cold draft. Keep in mind that fluctuating water temperatures cause stress to marine fish and aquatic life.

Next, ensure the surface you plan to place the saltwater aquarium on can hold its weight. So if you plan to use a 20-gallon tank, make sure that the surface can hold 160 pounds. Why? Because every gallon of water weighs 8 pounds. Plus, you may add a few decorations that will add weight to the setup.

In addition, check that the items around the aquarium will not get ruined when salt water splashes on them. No one wants salt creep on their walls or floors. Saltwater tanks should also be accessible for easy maintenance. You should not struggle to wipe the glass clean or make immediate repairs.

The perfect tank location should be well-ventilated too. The saltwater from the aquarium will evaporate and add moisture to the room. If the room is poorly ventilated, it will become stuffy and start to smell like fish.

Plus, the room should have electrical outlets. The marine aquarium will need a minimum of four sockets to run smoothly.

Once you have considered the above factors, you are ready to set up your saltwater tank.

Step-By-Step Guide on How To Set Up a Saltwater Aquarium

This guide will help you learn how to start a saltwater fish tank. We will break down each step to help you create a healthy tank.

Prepare Your Tank

At this point, you have settled on the type of saltwater aquarium you need. This step involves cleaning that new tank and setting it up in the desired location.

Use a wet cloth or a glass cleaner to clean the dust off the tank. A lint-free microfiber cloth and acrylic cleaner are preferable for cleaning acrylic tanks to avoid scratching. Once you’ve finished this process, rinse the tank with warm water.

Avoid cleaning the aquarium with household soap and cleaners as they contain chemical residues that can harm marine life.

Next, check the tanks for leaks. Fill a third of the tank with freshwater, dry any water droplets on the outside, and let it sit for a day. You should observe some evaporation but no leaks. However, if there is a leak, an aquarium sealant will do the trick.

Why wait a day instead of an hour to check for leaks? Because you want to be certain that the silicone or plastic holding your tank together did not get stressed during plumbing or transportation.

After confirming there are no leaks, move the saltwater aquarium to the preferred location. Place the tank on a flat surface to avoid applying unbalanced pressure on the seams. The weight of the water plus its outward pressure should produce even pressure. If not, the seams will leak over time.

When setting up the saltwater aquarium, leave sufficient room between the back of your aquarium and the walls. You can fix the filtration system here or cords. In addition, the space facilitates easy maintenance.

Install the Sump/Aquarium Equipment

The sump is another tank that sits beneath the display tank that you can choose to install or not. If you prefer having one, the sump adds more oxygen to the tank, allows better filtration, and increases the water volume. The sump also has room to install an aquarium heater, protein skimmer, and refugium.

How does a sump work? First, it features an overflow, a pipe that sends water from the display tank to the sump. The water then flows through a filter sock that traps all debris and then through a protein skimmer for additional mechanical filtration.

Next, the water undergoes biological filtration through the refugium. Here, microalgae are cultivated to maintain water quality. Some sump systems feature baffles to filter any detritus. After this stage, the pristine water is pumped back through the return pump and into the main aquarium.

If you do not need a sump, install powerheads instead. Powerheads provide rigorous water flow that transports oxygenated water and food to corals while getting rid of toxic nitrates, chemicals, and carbon dioxide.

Other aquarium equipment to include are protein skimmers and a filtration system. This is also the time to mount a top-off system, light timer, and power strip. While at it, take time to run a wet test to ensure all connections are working.

Add Your Substrate

This step involves using the substrate that appeals to your visual sense and preference. You may have the bottom of the tank layered in white sand, deep sand, colored sand, soft corals, hard corals, or crushed corals.

Once you have established your preferred substrate, its surfaces will aid the growth of beneficial bacteria. The bacteria act as a biological filter to convert toxic ammonia into nitrites and nitrates. In addition, the substrate becomes home to tiny marine creatures, including bristle worms and amphipods.

To maintain clear water, wash your substrate before introducing it into the main tank. How? First, add the substrate into a bucket, run water through it and use your hand to turn everything. Then, remove the substrate when the water becomes clear. The substrate can easily scratch a tank, but you can avoid this by adding a thin layer first and then pouring in the rest.

What if you choose live sand for your fish tank? Well, it is a great alternative because it comes with colonies of bacteria, thus reducing the time needed to cycle the aquarium. However, do not introduce it into the tank unless you have added sea salt. Early introduction can kill the live bacteria.

Live sand is expensive compared to dry sand. If your budget is limited, invest in dry sand, then wait for 4 to 6 weeks for the bacteria to complete biological filtration or the nitrogen cycle.

Arrange the Rocks

Dry and live rocks are the most common setups in saltwater aquariums. Dry rock is a piece of calcium without a colony of bacteria or invertebrates. It is readily available in pet stores because it is less expensive. We recommend that you pre-clean the dry rock before adding it to the saltwater aquarium.

On the other hand, live rock is biologically active since it contains algae, bacteria, and invertebrates. Its interior gaps, holes, and crevices provide a larger surface area for the growth of bacterial cultures.

You can cure the live rock for a few days before putting it in the tank. The curing process removes decaying and dead matter and can be conducted in a separate or the main tank.

Add Water

As simple as this step seems, it does not involve adding fresh water from your faucet like you would a freshwater aquarium. Instead, the water should have undergone reverse osmosis or been treated with a dechlorinating agent. This is the stage where you mix in the salt.

If you are new to this, follow these easy steps.

Step 1: Get your bucket of water and the right measure of marine salt at hand.

Step 2: Stir the water continuously with a powerhead.

Step 3: Heat the water to match your aquarium’s water temperature.

Step 4: Add the marine salt gradually until you pour the premeasured scoop into the water.

Step 5: Let it dissolve as the powerhead mixes the saltwater solution.

Step 6: The water will change from cloudy to clear.

Step 7: Let the mixture stabilize overnight.

If you add the salt mixture directly into the tank after mixing it, you risk shocking and killing the algae, bacteria, and invertebrates in the live rock. Also, you want a salinity of between 1.020 and 1.025 for fish only but if you intend to add invertebrates, aim for a 1.023 to 1.025 reading on your refractometer.

When you add saltwater, your tank may seem cloudy, which is normal. The disturbed substrate will settle in a few minutes, and your water will appear pristine again.

Here is a video that shows how to mix your saltwater.

Fun Fact: Saltwater aquariums are not as popular as freshwater aquariums for many reasons like easier maintenance and a variety of fish species that could thrive in them. If you want to know if bettas or any freshwater fish could survive in a salty environment, then read our article, Using Aquarium Salt For Betta: Can It Heal Or Kill for a better understanding!

Install Lighting System

Aquarium lights are crucial in maintaining a healthy reef tank. LED aquarium lights are the most popular option since they are energy-efficient. But for the lights to be more effective, they should feature a timer.

A timer ensures the marine aquarium gets adequate lighting as per the set timing. For instance, it will provide the 10 to 12 hours of lighting the coral reefs need for maximum growth and 10 hours of darkness for critters.

You can also opt for a light with white and blue light. White light mimics daylight, while the blue light resembles the wee hours of daybreak and dusk. You can set the blue lights an hour before dawn or after dusk.

Did you know bright aquarium lights can stress your corals? If you are setting up a saltwater reef aquarium, dim the lights when introducing coral reefs because too much light can lead to algae blooms. When you observe that the corals are adjusting to the new saltwater aquarium, gradually increase the intensity.

Set Up Additional Equipment

At this point, install any other aquarium equipment you need to improve water quality and purity. If you do not have a sump, this is the stage where you install the filters. Filters remove visible debris and break down toxic nitrites into less toxic nitrate to maintain water purity.

Add a heater to maintain water temperature and a thermometer to monitor temperature readings. Place the thermometer and heater on opposite sides of the tank for an accurate reading.

You can also add an aerator to provide oxygen in the water, remove odors, reduce algae, and improve the quality of water. UV sterilizers are also welcome to eliminate bacteria, algae, and parasites.

Cycle the Saltwater Tank

The cycling process, also called the nitrogen cycle, facilitates the growth of bacteria in your new aquarium.

The bacteria functions as a biological filter to make the tank safe and healthy for marine fish. You want to have colonies of useful bacteria in your aquarium before you introduce marine life.

The cycling process should last between 2 to 6 weeks. During this time, test the water to ensure healthy water conditions. The ammonia and nitrate levels should spike for the first few days and then fall back to 0 ppm once the cycle is complete. In addition, perform a 50% water change to reduce toxic nitrate buildup.

If you cannot wait for 2 to 6 weeks, you can speed up the process by raising the tank’s temperature and oxygen levels. Alternatively, add filter media from a healthy, established tank, live sand, or live rock.

Add Saltwater Fish

Your new aquarium is now ready for you to add fish. However, we recommend that you start with aqua-cultured, hardy fish that are compatible with other tank mates. Introduce a few fish at a time and acclimate them before adding them to the new aquarium.

If you own a quarantine tank, place the new fish here for at least two weeks. A quarantine tank is a safe tank where you observe whether the fish are sick before introducing them to the main tank.

But how are new fish acclimated? Here’s how.

Step 1: Switch off aquarium lights. Bright lights can shock your fish.

Step 2: Float the fish bag on the water surface, so the bag’s temperature matches that of the aquarium water. Do this for 15 minutes.

Step 3: Open the bag while it floats on the surface.

Step 4: Roll the bag five times so it traps air in the rolls of the bag to it floats by itself.

Step 5: Every 5 minutes, add a half cup of aquarium water into the bag. This slow process will help your fish adapt to water parameters in your tank.

Step 6: Once the bag is full, pour out half the water away from the aquarium.

Step 7: Repeat Step 5 until the bag is full again.

Step 8: With a fishnet, transfer the fish into the aquarium.

Step 9: Throw away the bag and water.

Acclimation will improve the chances of your fish surviving in the brand new tank. However, keep a close eye to ensure the saltwater aquarium fish are feeding, and they look healthy. If you notice cloudy eyes, frayed fins, and decreased appetite, these are signs that your fish are stressed.

Apart from fish, you can add a clean-up crew to your tank. Snails, hermit crabs, and shrimp are ideal options to look into. These species break down detritus to prevent issues.

Here is a video of some of the best fish species to add to marine aquariums.

Add Corals

You should also add your colorful corals after you have completed nitrogen cycling. Make sure the tank has stable water parameters because corals are quite sensitive.

If you are a beginner, start with soft corals. These can tolerate slightly unstable tanks. However, if you are not careful, the consistent change in the parameters may kill them,

Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Saltwater Aquarium

Congratulations on setting up your new saltwater aquarium. Nevertheless, you have to maintain daily, weekly, and monthly care for the tank to stay healthy.

Daily Maintenance

Check the water temperature, salinity, and quality.

Weekly Maintenance

Conduct a water change, maintain filtration, test nitrate levels, remove macroalgae, and scrub algae.

Monthly Maintenance

Change filter media, change the water, and check water quality.

You will also need to add little amounts of fresh water to top up the evaporated water. When water evaporates from the fish tank, the salt does not evaporate hence the need for additional freshwater to maintain consistency in salinity.

Final Thoughts

We believe we have covered every detail about how to make a saltwater aquarium setup work. You can be successful if you take the time to consider factors like tank type, size, material, and equipment.

Remember, setting up the saltwater aquarium may take a few weeks but is worth the wait.

Last Updated: July 11, 2022

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