We more experienced aquarists tend to go on a bit about starting a new marine aquarium. This isn’t because we’re showing off our knowledge though there’s no doubt a bit of that arises occasionally, it’s because we’ve done things in the past that new aquarists often do – that is we’ve done things wrongly when setting up the system.
Having seen a marine aquarium, often a reef system, at the local dealers or wherever many state how beautiful they are and move on. Others state how great it would be to have one meaning the first step has been taken. Following this could be a look on the internet or a visit to the local fish store.
The next move, having looked at the available space and obtained any partner’s agreement, is to go and have a look at marine aquariums more closely. More often than not this means a trip to the local dealers. No problem so far.
The first aquariums to be considered are often ready built systems and this often delivers the first surprise – the cost. Most likely the first ready built system looked at is a big one and well equipped. If it can’t be afforded then downsize or consider the ‘put it together yourself’ variety. If one big or smaller can be afforded then the potential aquarist should go home and make price comparisons using the internet. If the local price is not acceptable then talk to the dealer. There are reasons why buying from a local shop is good, but there is a need to ensure the price is reasonable. If all is acceptable then it is really a good idea to consider a self built system too. Ask the dealer to quote a price for this for a same size system. If the ready built system still appeals, no problem. But wait.
Why wait? Find out what demand the system will have for electricity, then a cost per day, week, month and year can be calculated. Also, how many gallons does the system hold? There will be a cost for sea salt for the initial fill (though not accurate take 10% off the gross gallonage, this is close enough for a very rough net gallonage estimate) and also an ongoing cost for weekly seawater changes, the amount of the new weekly seawater, initially anyway is 10% of the net gallonage.
If everything is still acceptable, then there is a requirement to consider the cost and type of stocking. Under no circumstances should a marine system be overstocked. A decision is required – is it to be a fish only or reef system. Fish only can contain more fish subject to size, a reef less fish to help ensure seawater quality remains high. Take advice, look on the internet, consider, don’t just go ahead. If a reef is chosen, ensure that the lighting supplied with the ready built system is suitable for corals.
At this point another decision is required and again advice and consideration is needed. Biological filtration is required, without it or if it is inadequate there will be disaster! ‘Living rock’ in sufficient quantity and quality is the modern best way of biological filtration and in addition is wonderful for creating a reef (or rock formations if fish only). Unfortunately the rock is expensive. Another method of biological filtration is a correctly sized canister filter containing suitable materials. The big downside of the canister filter is that they do not remove all the ‘baddies’, one is left which is not particularly dangerous in itself but can lead to severe problems if unchecked (nitrate). Overloading the filtration by for example introducing fish too quickly can produce disaster, poisons can accumulate which will kill the livestock (ammonia, nitrite).
What about setting up a system by purchasing seperate components? Nothing wrong with that and cost savings can be achieved. Needed is an aquarium (surprise!), a suitable support for it (an aquarium full of seawater and rocks is very heavy!), biological filtration as above, a heater (or better two at half the wattage each), a thermometer so that the seawater temperature is monitored, a protein skimmer of suitable size for the net gallonage and lights suitable for the type of system being constructed. Also a control device is required for the lights as they will not be on all the time. Powerheads (water pumps) will be required to move the seawater and create flow – usually at least two are needed, it depends on the size of the aquarium if more are required. When the price for all of these is obtained if it is acceptable then fine. If not, downsize the aquarium or don’t proceed at all.
Anyone considering constructing their own system from seperately purchased components, if the cost is acceptable, should proceed as with a ready constructed system above.
There are four other very important bits to obtain and must not be missing on a new system. These are test kits for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate and also an hydrometer (the latter is used to check the ‘saltiness’ of the seawater, called the specific gravity).
There is one piece of equipment that is not usually listed as definitely required. This is the reverse osmosis (RO) filter. This filters tap water very thoroughly removing toxics that are detrimental – a good one will produce 90/95% pure water which is used to mix with the sea salt. It is a worthwhile addition as unwanted substances are not required in a marine aquarium. These filters are not hugely expensive and are recommended particularly as much of tap water destined for safe human use has unwanted content.
If the cost is found to be a little excessive on any aquarium component don’t be tempted to reduce the size of anything which is deemed correctly sized! Wait until the correct equipment can be afforded. It’s worth waiting or the cost further down the line, sooner or later, could be high.
The procedures mentioned are not meant to be the ‘a to z’ of setting up a marine aquarium, far from it, but a path to initially follow during the usually confusing early period. In truth, keeping a marine aquarium is straight forward provided all is well in the first place.
There are three words that cover the requirement for success and these are research, discipline and patience. Success is in the hands of the new aquarist. If the system equipment that is being used is fully adequate, if the stocking has been carried out correctly and if ongoing maintenance is adequate all should be well. There isn’t a cast- iron guarantee of success where Mother Nature’s creatures are involved but the aquarist can move the indicator for success very high up the scale.
So, exercise discipline and patience, wait as long as necessary, use adequate equipment and stock very carefully. Lots of information is available in books and on the internet and a knowlegeable local dealer should also give good advice as it is in his interest to do so. That successful marine aquarium is waiting to come to life.