10 Tips When Considering Setting Up A Saltwater Aquarium

There is a bucket load of information available to people when they are considering starting their very own [tag-self]saltwater aquarium[/tag-self].

In the majority of instances there is a little to much information given and people, quite rightly become confused. Lets be fair there is a lot of information to take on board!

What makes it worse in this hobby is that there is not just one way to do things, there are various ways, each of them work and it is the responsibility of the aquarists to implement the one which is best both for themselves and their new aquarium inhabitants.

So I thought I would do a quick list which details the areas you need to investigate. Hopefully this list will allow people to stay on track and not be sidetracked by all the other aspects which are available – but not yet required.

The way I see it is that for the first 6 months to a year or so you will be actively learning and understanding the various aspects of this hobby – from the simple to the sometimes very advanced.

In this time period you need to make sure that you keep inhabitants in your aquarium which are easily cared for. Then as time passes and your knowledge and confidence grows then you may want to purchase some of the other types.

In future posts I am hoping to provide information as to good first fish and corals to keep when starting out.

The list below is not an all encompassing list. It covers the basics as to what you need to look into and why. There is a huge amount of information which can be learnt in this hobby. You do not, however need to learn it all before you start, As long as you understand the basics and understand the reasons behind why something is required then you can learn the alternative and at times more advanced aspects as time progresses. Just to start out though have a look at the list and then go off and learn more about each area.

Just remember to take your time, have patience and ultimately to enjoy it.

My father (John) and I are here to help people wherever we can. We provide content on the blog which is available for you to read whenever you want to. We also monitor the forum and answer any questions and/or problems people may have. That’s why we started this site – to pass on our knowledge to others.

Ok onto the list.

1. What are you hoping to keep?

This is an area which is often overlooked and is actually the most important aspect which needs looking into. The reason for this is that the aquarium, equipment etc selection must be based around this. You need to also attempt to look into the future. For example you may want to start off with a fish only aquarium, however do you want to keep corals in the future?

2. Aquarium size and location

You should know where you want your aquarium to be located. It should not be in direct sunlight and it should not be to near to a source of heat (or cold). Aquariums, once full of water are very very heavy. For this reason you need to ensure that the floor where the aquarium is to be placed is suitable. If not then it may require strengthening. A lot of the equipment utilised within aquariums require a power source. Does the location have enough power sources available. Is the power source protected by a breaker?

When it comes to size it is recommended that the largest possible aquarium be purchased. The reason for this is stability. It is much easier to maintain excellent water conditions in an aquarium of a larger size due to dilution that it is in a smaller aquarium.

One of my sayings is – ‘Provide excellent water conditions and your fish/corals will thank you for it’

3. Is there a requirement for a sump?

A sump is another aquarium (possibly smaller than the display aquarium) which is located externally to the display aquarium, This is normally beneath or alongside the display aquarium.

A sump can be used to house equipment which otherwise may look unsightly in the display aquarium. Good examples of these are heaters, skimmer etc.

A sump can also be used to provide additional filtration and nutrient export to the aquarium system. Examples of this are deep sand bed, mangroves, refugium etc.

If you do decide to utilise a sump then you will need to either have holes drilled in the aquarium or some other type of overflow to get the water to the sump. The water can be returned to the aquarium by an aquarium pump.

4. Filtration method

Filtration – without it your aquarium will fail. I can guarantee you that.

There are various filtration options available to you. All of which work to certain degrees it has to be said, although some are not as efficient as others.

There are two aspects to be looked into in this area – natural filtration and man made filtration.

Natural filtration is based upon filtration via live rock, deep sand beds etc.

Man made filtration is based upon fluidised filters, canister filters etc.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to filtration. For a saltwater aquarium a very effective filtration medium to use is live rock – even more so when used inline with a deep sand bed.

However this might not be right for you – look into all options, look at the pros and cons of each and then make up your mind based upon information, cost and inhabitants.

5. Aquarium lighting

Again this area depends upon what inhabitants you hope to keep.

If you interested in keeping a fish only aquarium then fluorescent tubing will most likely be sufficient.

If, however you hope to keep corals in your aquarium then your selection will depend upon the type of corals you are hoping to keep.

For example if you are going to keep soft corals then T5/T8 tubes would suffice (dependant upon the type of soft coral and the depth of your aquarium). If you are hoping to keep hard corals (sps) then you will need a much more stronger light. Metal halide, for example is a fantastic unit to use over a reef tank with hard corals.

Choose your lighting dependant upon the aquarium inhabitants.

6. Water movement provision

In the ocean the water moves around, in some places a lot.

You need to attempt to emulate this in your aquarium.

Guess what though – this depends upon what your are keeping!

If you keeping fish only then you only need a small amount of water movement – nothing to vigorous. Of course more water movement can be provided and the fish will enjoy ‘playing’ in it but it is not a necessity.

If you a going to keep corals then it is a different picture altogether. If you are hoping to keep soft corals then you will need to provide a higher amount of water movement. A general rule of thumb is to turn over 10 times to amount of water in the aquarium.

If you are planning on keep hard corals then you will want to provide a large amount of water movement. These corals come from very high flow areas in the wild and require a large amount of water flow to thrive. A good general rule is to turn over the water volume about 30 times per hour.

You can provide water flow in numerous ways the most common being via powerheads. The are of course other ways in which you can provide water circulation. Good examples of these are wave boxes, close loop systems etc

7. Water provision

If you are going to keep a saltwater aquarium then these is definitely one thing which you are going to need and that is water!

You can’t just use any water though – tap water for example may be full of impurities which are detrimental to marine life. The best one to use is one called reverse osmosis. Using a reverse osmosis unit you can provide water which is of the best quality.

You will also need to mix salt into the water, mixing it to the correct specific gravity reading.

Water, when mixed with heat and circulation evaporates and needs to be replaced. The salt, however does not evaporate. Therefore you will need to top up the water with water to ensure that there are minimal, if any fluctuation in the specific gravity.

8. Care and maintenance understanding

Setting up the aquarium is the beginning of a truly wonderful adventure, an adventure which you will get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from. You will need to care for it though and provide the required maintenance to both the aquarium and the equipment.

This care and maintenance comes from feeding the inhabitants, cleaning the aquarium, maintaining the equipment, performing water changes, checking the water parameters etc.

This is an area where a lot of aquarists slip. They do not provide the required care and maintenance. Therefore over time the aquarium starts to decline and quite often the aquarists gives up the hobby.

9. Other equipment requirements

Starting a saltwater aquarium is not just purchasing an aquarium, filling it with water and watching everything grow and thrive. There is other equipment which you will or may need to purchase.

  • Water on the reef is warm, therefore you will need a heater. Even better to get two so that one can be a backup to the other.
  • If you live in a warm place then you may need a chiller to keep it cool.
  • If you are implementing a sump then you will need pipework.
  • A protein skimmer will be required to remove pollutants from the water.
  • A stand will be required for your aquarium. This may either come with the aquarium or you could have a custom built one. Maybe you feel comfortable in having a got at some DIY and building your own. As already said an aquarium when full of water is full therefore it needs to be located on a stand which is designed for this purpose.
  • A hood may be required to install the lighting into and also cover the top of the aquarium.

10. Know your inhabitants

This is a very important part and is one which simply cannot be ignored. All the time I see people putting life into their aquariums, under their care without even knowing or understanding the basic requirements of them.

Before any purchase always look into their requirements. If it is a fish will it get on with other tank mates, how big will it grow, what food does it require etc.

If it is a coral what are the lighting requirement, what are the feeding requirements, will it sting/harm other corals etc.

The inhabitants are the reason you start an aquarium (or it should be anyway) and let’s face it they are not cheap but lets go one step further they are animals, they are alive and like anything else on this planet they deserve to be cared for and all of their requirements provided for them.

  1. Thanks ,, this has been very instructive,, Now I know what to do!! … I had a few casualties in my effort to start my saltwater acuarium, but now I know that another think that I may need to enjoy this hobby is patience!! .. so thamks for the tips!!

  2. Your very welcome.

  3. Good info, and I have a question. We are new to this and setting up a 50 gal tank for our son who is so pumped! After setting up the current salt and chemical our tank water is very cloudy. We did use tap water, however we added chemical to help with the impurities. Any thoughts?


  4. Hello John.

    We always advise that dry salt should be mixed with RO (reverse osmosis) water. This way you avoid pollutants and get the most from the salt. There are articles on it on this site – click on’ Articles’ at the top of the screen.

    When salt first mixes in it can sometimes cause cloudiness. This should not last for long however. Run the sytem for a while to allow the salt to thoroughly mix and heat up.

    Make sure the aquarium bio-filtration is properly cycled (again see the articles) and use ammonia and nitrite test kits. When stocking commences it should be done very slowly and the seawater checks continued, with the addition of nitrate and pH.

  5. Hey Im setting up a saltwater fish tank and need to know if its benefical to have a power filteration? If not, what kind of filter should I use?

  6. It really depends on the size of the aquarium, but also consider a Protein Skimmer, as it will be a higher level of filtration.

    IMO: Tanks > 40 gallons need a protein skimmer or refugium, tanks < 40 gallons can get away with a HOB Power Filter.

  7. Thanks so much for info, I’m going to be setting up my first salt water tank, 150 gals. I have lots of experience with freshwater tanks but I got a little discouraged when I was told I would have to have a sump and gravel filtration system. I’ll be using living sand and I thought maybe a canister filter, whatever’s best for my set up. But can I manage without a sump?

  8. For an aquarium of this size I really would recommend using live rock as filtration. Even better if you can combine the live rock with a deep sand bed.

    You do not need to use a sump. This is entirely up to you. As with all things there are pro’s and con’s of using one.

    The pros are that a lot of the equipment can be hidden from view (skimmer, reactors, heaters etc) plus if you wanted to you could create a refugium/cryptic zone to assit with nutrient removal.

    The cons are that you need to get water down to the sump and back again. This means that you need to either drill the aquarium or use an overflow. This will mean more expense in pipework, pumps and drilling.overflows. Plus you will need to design your stand so that a sump can be fitted.

    For me the pro’s outweigh the cons. If you do not decide to use one then I would consider setting up the aquarium so that one can be added at a later date if required.

  9. Thanks for your advise, as I do research I refere back to your tips frequently.
    I’m now trying to deside between two sumps and one says it does not need the protein skimmer, I think because they include “miracle mud” as the alternative. It’s the Refugium by EcoSystem.
    What’s your opinion of these systems verses the sump refugium that does use the protein skimmer.

  10. Hi Beth,

    Both of these systems have their merits but they also have their downfalls. You will also find that both of these systems have their ‘loyal followers’.

    Basically a protein skimmer based system removes dissolved organic compounds from the water before they have had time to break down and be processed by the aquarium filtration. The upside of this type of system is that as long as the device is correctly maintained it is very efficient. The downside is that the protein skimmer is not selective as to what is removed. Therefore good stuff may be removed from the water as well as the bad stuff. Note that I did say may as this has never been scientifically proven.

    The ‘miracle mud’ system is actually a very simple concept. The mud in use in the sump is loaded with minerals. The mud is placed into the sump and macro algae is also planted into it. A lot of water movement through the mud chamber is employed as this encouraged rapid algae growth. When the algae grown various nutrients are removed from the water simply by the uptake of the algae. Very slowly over time the minerals are released from the mud which allows for algae growth as well as adding various elements into the water. The downside to this is that this type of system cannot remove everything from the water therefore some bad stuff will be left behind. Another downside is that eventually the mud will need to be replaced as will the lighting as there is a requirement for the algae to be lit 24/7/365.

    Personally I have tried both methods and for me both worked. I did not good polyp extension in the miracle mud based system and I also noticed a lot floating around in the water. But then I have also had very good results from a protein skimmer driven system.

    The only worrying thing I have is that I have seen the foul brown skimmate that the skimmer pulls out and I always have the thought – would I want to leave that in my aquarium!

  11. Wow, what a lot of useful information – in the process of setting up marine aquarium around sea horses, so this is all good reading for me…thanks 🙂
    .-= Oliver Gibson´s last blog ..iQ – The Ultimate Wall Aquarium =-.

  12. Our pleasure!

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