Saltwater Aquarium – A Complete Guide

It can be hard to know if you are doing everything right when it comes to setting up any aquarium. Although there are added steps and hassles when it comes to setting up a perfect Saltwater tank.

The number one thing to keep in mind before setting up a Saltwater tank it’s more expensive to set up and maintain than a freshwater tank. Although there are a brighter more colorful variety of fish that swim in Saltwater tanks.

One feature that draws hobbyist into saltwater tanks are the corals. Their personalities and vibrant colors attract people.

People often have this belief that saltwater tanks are so complicated to set-up it’s not worth it. Although with a little understanding of the order and steps you need to take it can be easy.



The first question you have to ask yourself is what tank set-up is best for me freshwater or saltwater? I can’t say one is better than the other because both draws in hobbyist for different reasons.

A saltwater tank is a tank that has marine life. There are so many choices and varieties possible for a tank of this sort. From the vast amounts of fish and live plants that add color, cleaning features, and personality to your tank.

With the opportunity to add corals you can choose to have your very own reef inside your aquarium. Although be sure to choose fish that correlate with a reef living environment.

Saltwater tanks are often thought of as an experienced hobbyists tank choice due to the cost and difficulty to maintain. Although this isn’t the case. A beginner hobbyist can have an exquisite tank as long as they are willing to put forth the time and effort that is needed.

Before you can be worry free and enjoy your aquarium you must set-up a tank that is suitable for your fish. A knowledge behind setting up a saltwater tank is a must in order to do it right and will run smoothly throughout the leg time of your tank.

Types of Saltwater Tanks

There are a wide variety between the different types of aquariums and fish life that go with them. Understanding the different types of tanks, you may choose.

Fish Only

When people think aquarium their first thought is going to be fish; roughly 9 times out of 10. So, if you want fish why bother with the rest of it?

Adding other elements may take away from the appeal of the fish and bring the focus elsewhere. If you are creating a saltwater tank on a budget this may be your go to tank; simply because it will be the cheapest option. You will only have to worry about the needs of your fish rather than things such as plants and corals.

At that point you would narrow your choices down to a single species tank or a community tank. This basic tank will be the cheapest in the beginning but may be more complicated in the long run.

Tanks with live rocks or plants will add elements such as oxygen and good cleaning bacteria. Which if the tank is lacking may need a better filter or some sort of oxygen system. Along with more frequent cleanings.

Fish Only With Live Rocks

These tanks are along the line of a basic tank. As they are the same tank as above with the added live rocks.

As mentioned before living rocks can do you some good. They add good bacteria that helps clean the tank, which saves you time and filters. The live rock house the bacteria that help break up things such as ammonia and nitrates. These things can be toxic to your fish and cause sickness or even death.

Personally, when measuring out the pros and cons it’s hard to find a con. As they don’t add any extra work to the tank. People may turn them down due to the cost of the live rocks. Although they aren’t expensive, some people prefer to count pennies. Which won’t matter in the long run because those few dollars now can save you many dollars down the road.

The only difference your tank may need is different lighting. Due to the fact that some of these bacteria rely on photosynthesis to live. So, it’s important to find a lighting system that does this.

Reef Tank

Coral Reef are astonishing and at times a sight so beautiful that it’s truly out of this world. So, it isn’t unknown to create this scene within your tank to admire daily. This will add brightness and give anyone a happy start to any day.

This tank isn’t solely about the fish. As the corals have their own needs met in order for there to be a healthy ecosystem. You may prefer an all coral tank, or you may choose to have fish as well; that’s up to you. Reef tanks are one of the hardest tanks to maintain so it’s not the best tank for beginners.

A special water quality and lighting is a matter of life or death for these corals as they are very sensitive. So, it’s important that the hobbyist pays close attention to these parameters.

Along with the extra skills needed to be able to keep up and maintain the tank they are often more expensive. They often require special equipment in order for the corals to thrive. Not only that, but the corals themselves are often not cheap. So, keep in mind the money your willing to spend when choosing a tank.

Don’t let me scare you as reef tanks may sound terribly complex and maybe even impossible to upkeep, they aren’t. With a little research and a heart to give the love and attention your tank needs it can flourish and be the beauty you have imagined.

Setting Up Your Saltwater Tank

The process of setting up a saltwater tank is very similar to setting up any tank. As long as you know the steps you should be fine. As you just start with one and work to the next.

Get A General Plan For Your Tank

The first thing you must do is get a generalized idea of the tank you wish to create and how you want it to look. This will give you an idea of the supplies you need and the size you need of said supplies.

Choose your fish/corals and do your research. What special items do these fish need? Do they need hiding spots? Or space to swim? Or both? Knowing this will allow you to know the size of the tank plus the amount of decorations/live rocks/plants you need.

Once you have gotten an idea of what you’re going to have in your tank and what you need to keep them happy. It’s time to prepare.

Prepare Your Perfect Tank

Once you have a set plan on the fish and the type of tank you plan on having you may begin buying the necessary equipment. Be sure to clean your tank thoroughly. It may be brand new, but they may have chemicals that may be lethal to your tank.

It’s important that you don’t use soap or other cleaners. As there may be some left over that contaminate your tank. Be sure to just amuse a wet washcloth and wipe away the dust and other germs that may be inside your tank. It’s best if you wash off all equipment before installing.

After purchasing a used tank, you may need a better cleaning than simply with a wet cloth. If this is the case use vinegar. Some tanks scratch easy so it’s best if you use a specific cloth to keep this from happening.

It important to fill your tank with water and check for leaks; even if it’s new. Leak may be fixed with a special sealant called aquarium sealant.

Keep in mind the amount of weight you tank gains once filled with water. Due to this you should place your tank in the disorderly spot before filling it.

Be sure to keep the weight in mind when choosing your stand. You don’t want your stand collapsing at any time. You should also ensure that your tank is on a level surface.

When purchasing a new tank, you often have an opportunity to buy a tank that is designed especially for that tank. This is an easy way for you to ensure it can withhold your tank. Although, this can get rather expensive.

Tank Tip

It’s very important to look into the types of fish you have. You may need to purchase a tank with a tight sturdy lid. As many types of fish will jump out of the tank. Which may result in them hurt or killed.

Majority of jumping fish will jump the most during their time adjusting to the tank and any time they feel threatened.

Add Substrate

Once you have gotten the tank set up it’s now time to start to work on the internals. There are many different types of substrate to choose from. You may wish to have something like sand, small rocks, or corals. Although you should have had a plan for your substrate due on your fish needs or likes.

Majority of hobbyist keep between 1-2 inches of substrate within their tanks. The larger the tank the more substrate you will need to buy; resulting in a more expensive set up. You will need roughly 50 to 100llbs of substrate for a 50-gallon tank.

Although your substrate may be packaged, or covered dust and bacteria may manage to get inside your substrate. For this reason, it’s important to wash your substrate before putting it in the tank.

When placing your substrate inside the tank it’s important that you softly lay down the first thin layer delicately. This will keep your tank from being scratched. After the first layer you may choose to just dump it in. You may choose between to keep your substrate flat or you may choose to add a few hills.

Add Water

The next thing to do is pour the water in, although due to preparation it’s not as easy as it sounds.

It’s important to lay/set something on top of your busy rate to keep from any disturbances when pouring in the water. Disturbed substrate can cause your water to be polluted and may cause a cloudy mixture.

It’s important that your water goes through the process of reverse osmosis. You may choose to buy it already prepared or you may perform it yourself. Then you will need to add your salt into the tank.

Aquarium salt can be found at pet stores or online as a mixture specially made for aquariums. I can’t give you a proper run down for how exactly to add salt to your aquarium because it’s different for every mixture. So, follow the instructions on your packet.

After you have properly added the salt to the water it’s important you dechlorinate the tank. It’s important that you follow the instructions on the label.

Install Equipment

There are a few necessities and some equipment that is placed by choice. Nearly every aquarium will need a heater and water filter. Varying in sizes and strengths.

While some hobbyists add things such as UV sterilizers, lights, protein skimmers, air stones, and automatic fish feeders.

All of these are added during this time of the process. While a majority are fairly easy to install the filter may give you a hard time. While there are many different types of filters all of them can be tricky in their own way. Some filter types are canister filters, gravel filters, and sponge filters.

When placing your heater in the tank it’s important that you place your thermostat parallel to the heater. This is important in getting a fairly reliable and correct temperature rather than some right next to the source of heat.

Add Any Plants And Decorations

During this step is when you get to place a theme or set a scene for your fish to complement. This step is where you get to put your own twist into it. Although it’s very important to keep your fish in mind.

You may need more or less plants and decorations based on the types of fish you have and what they need in order to be happy and healthy.

Do you have fish that prefer to stay hidden and like to have many hiding places throughout the tank? Do you have fish that are from a heavily planted area? Do you have a fish that needs a lot of open space to swim?

Cycle The Tank

Congratulations you have officially set up your tank. Although it isn’t quite time for your fish to go in the tank. You must cycle your tank to ensure it is safe for your fish.

Cycling the tank means that you build up a mass of good bacteria to create a biological filtration system. That will help naturally filter the tank. Often times one bacteria will change ammonia into nitrites; while the other changes nitrates into nitrates.

This is an important process in order to maintain healthy fish as both nitrites and ammonia are both very toxic to fish. While nitrates are only dangerous in large quantities. Hints why we do partial water changes often; this keeps the levels low.

Many experiences hobbyists use live rocks to kick start the cycle. As these rocks already have a mass of good bacteria on them. When choosing the rocks go for the one with the most interior gaps. The bigger the gaps the more good bacteria can reside.

If live rocks don’t seem to be working inside your tank, you may try using some sort of ammonia kick off to kickstart to process. By doing regular water tests you will be able to see if it is working.

  1. Ammonia levels will spike
  2. Nitrites levels Will spike
  3. You will reach 0ppm

Once you reach 0ppm your cycle has finished. Although now you will need to do a 50% water change. This will reduce your tanks level of nitrates.

The full process will take roughly 6-8 weeks. Although you may speed up the process some by raising the temperature levels and oxygen levels. If you have a tank that’s already established, you may use some of its filter media. This will allow you to piggyback off of their good bacteria.

Add Fish

You have officially made it to the point of adding fish. Although it’s not that easy. You cannot start throwing fish in your tank or they will most likely react poorly and die. There are steps you must follow in order for a successful transfer.

  1. Although this step isn’t necessarily a must-do but quarantine your fish. By doing this you allow yourself time to find any fish that have diseases or sickness. Allowing you to treat them before adding them in with other fish. Failure to do this step may cause you to have a whole infected tank right after setting it up.
  2. Be sure to turn off all aquarium lights.
  3. Give the fish at least 15 minutes to float inside their bag to adjust to the temperature inside the tank. Being very temperature sensitive they can die due to shock. Allowing their water to slowly warm/cool them to your tank’s temperature will cut out the possibility of shock.
  4. Now cut open the bag and roll the edges to ensure it is still floating.
  5. Begin adding a cup of water to the bag every 5 minutes until the bag is full.
  6. Steadily pour out half the bags water (not in the aquarium).
  7. Then repeat step number five.
  8. Now that the fish has been fully accumulated to the water inside the tank transfer the fish into the tank using a net.
  9. Watch your fish for 24 hours to ensure its eating and not acting out.


The most important thing to do after deciding you want to do a saltwater aquarium is to sit down and have a detailed plan. This will allow you to fully understand your needs.

It’s important to do your research on your fish/coral. This will give you a strict understanding of everything you need inside your tank in order to have a healthy happy fish.

There are steps that need to be followed when setting up a tank that are very similar to that of a freshwater tank.

While it’s very common for people to assume that beginners cannot have a saltwater tank that is not the case. Anyone with the time and money can have a successful and beautiful saltwater tank.

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