Saltwater Aquarium For Beginners: 10 Easy Steps

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Saltwater Aquarium TankWhen it comes to aquariums there is nothing more beautiful than a large saltwater aquarium. The glowing, bright colors and glistening neon water makes for a stunning look to add to a business or home. However, few people understand the work that goes into setting up and maintaining them.

In this article, we will cover all the basics of how you go about setting up a saltwater aquarium from picking out your aquarium to preparing it for your saltwater fish selection and more.

Why Should You Get A Saltwater Aquarium?

One of the biggest reasons that people choose to place a saltwater aquarium in their home is simply the beauty of the fish species that thrive in a saltwater environment.

While there are certainly a number of beautiful fish that can survive in a freshwater aquarium, there are a great many of much rarer species of fish that require saltwater to survive. Maintaining a saltwater aquarium allows for the collection of rare fish species in addition to providing a beautiful centerpiece for the home.

Are Saltwater Aquariums Difficult To Set Up?

Many people will tell you that saltwater fish tanks are extremely difficult to set up and to maintain and there is a good deal of truth to this statement. Setting up a proper aquarium can take as long as two months and one of the most significant steps in maintaining a healthy aquarium involves the balance of salt in the water and maintaining healthy plant life.

The biggest reason for the lengthy process is that after the aquarium has been set in place, the water must be thoroughly filtered and balanced in order to maintain life. Many saltwater aquarium fish species are rather expensive, so it is best to invest time to create a healthy aquarium environment than to risk losing your expensive fish species.

Saltwater Tank Setup

You’ll want to ensure you follow these 10 detailed steps when first getting started with your tank.

Note: saltwater tanks involve a lot of chemistry and scientific specificity when it comes to the water composition. For that reason, we recommend that you consult with your pet store or additional resources to ensure the water is properly balanced for your fish. Be sure to test the salinity using a refractometer (most tanks should measure between 1.024 to 1.025). It’s also advised that you quarantine your fish for around two to four weeks to avoid spreading unwanted illnesses that may kill your fish.

Again, these are basic guidelines, so please consult with an expert if you are starting a saltwater fish tank.

Step 1: Pick A Location

The first step relies upon picking out an aquarium, stand and deciding where to place your aquarium once it has been set up. Location is an important consideration when setting up a saltwater aquarium because once the aquarium has been set up it is particularly difficult to move.

It is also important to choose a location that is not in direct sunlight. A saltwater aquarium that is placed in natural sunlight can be extremely difficult to manage as natural sunlight can contribute to excessive amounts of algae. Once algae takes hold in a saltwater aquarium it can quickly get out of control and begin to affect the health of fish in the aquarium.

A saltwater aquarium that is to thrive should be set up in a location that is well-ventilated and in a room that has cooler temperatures and limited sun exposure.

Step 2: Select An Aquarium

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Choosing an aquarium and an aquarium stand is something of a personal decision. You should choose an aquarium that is suited to your needs.

For example, if you want to keep particularly large fish you should choose a large aquarium that can accommodate your fish selection. It is also important to take into consideration that the fish you select may grow in length and that the more fish you choose to put in your aquarium the larger aquarium you will need.

Many people decide to go with a smaller aquarium in order to get started with their saltwater aquarium with the intent to move to a larger aquarium in the past, this is a mistake. It takes a long period of time to set up a saltwater aquarium and for plant life to flourish; it also takes a significant period of time for fish to adapt to their aquarium so transferring to a larger aquarium is a bad decision.

Once you have set up your aquarium, assuming you end up with a healthy environment, you will not want to switch to a larger aquarium for a good long while so go with the bigger tank to begin with.

Going with a bigger aquarium is also the best choice for beginners in saltwater fish tanks because many of the mistakes that beginners made can be corrected in larger aquariums before they become too severe. When beginners mistakes take hold in smaller saltwater aquariums it can often be too late to save your fish by the time you realize that you have a problem on your hands.

Step 3: Select An Aquarium Stand

It is crucial that you select a sturdy stand that is strong enough and large enough to support the aquarium that you have selected. Most aquarium stores sell aquariums and stands in pairs to ensure that the tank you select has enough support.

After selecting the right area for your aquarium and stand you should also ensure that you have access to enough electrical outlets to plug-in a filter and lighting system for your tank. Placing a heater or filter on your tank can also require additional space around the tank so ensure that this is taken into consideration when setting up your aquarium.

Preparing and Setting Up Your Saltwater Fish Tank

Step 4: Creating A Clean Environment

The very first step in preparing your aquarium is to clean it with a clean cloth and warm freshwater. Note: you do not have to wash out the aquarium with saltwater. Never use chemical cleaners like Windex to clean your aquarium before placing fish inside it because the chemicals in these cleaners can leach into your aquarium water.

It is important not to skip this step when setting up your aquarium because when your tank is sitting on display or even when it is being boxed at the manufacturer it can attract dust and dirt residue that can remain in the tank when you fill it. These residues can be harmful to your fish, so ensure that you rinse your tank out thoroughly.

Step 5: Add Substrate Or Gravel

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Another important step in ensuring that you have a clean aquarium is to rinse out the gravel or substrate that you have decided upon for your tank. Tank gravel commonly comes with a lot of gravel dust; washing out gravel is as easy as pouring it into a sieve and running it underwater to wash out the dust. While dust that remains in the gravel will eventually settle in the aquarium, you want to ensure that you have the cleanest gravel possible.

Now that you have removed the gravel dust you can place the gravel (or clean substrate) in the bottom of your aquarium. Most people like to have at least a 1 inch bed of gravel or substrate at the bottom of their aquarium; this means that for every gallon of your aquarium you want 1 lb of gravel in order to attain a 1 inch gravel bed. This guideline is only a rough one since the size of substrates differs greatly depending upon which one you decide to use.

Step 6: Just Add Water (And Salt)

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Adding saltwater to your saltwater aquarium seems like a particularly tricky process, but since you are not placing fish in your aquarium immediately try not to put too much pressure on yourself. The easiest way to fill a saltwater aquarium is to purchase pre-mixed saltwater.

Purchasing a pre-mixed solution ensures that you get the right balance of sea salt in the water of your tank; however, it can be reasonably expensive when it comes to setting up a larger saltwater aquarium so some people do choose to create their own saltwater.

If you choose to set up your aquarium using your own saltwater it is imperative that you purchase sea salt mix from your local fish specialty store or online. NEVER use traditional table salt from your kitchen to mix up salt water for your aquarium. When you purchase a sea salt mix, the package will have instructions on it that will help you to determine how to get the perfect mix of salt in the water.

It is also important to realize that when you mix your own saltwater you should avoid using tap water straight out of the tap because often tap water contains trace minerals, additives and even medications that can prove toxic to your fish. If you use tap water you should allow the determined amount of water to sit overnight to allow any chlorine to dissipate. You can also talk to your local fish store about a water treatment solution for your saltwater fish tank.

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When it comes to filling your aquarium you only want to fill it one-third full and then test the gravity of the water before completing the fill. The gravity should be between 1.020 to 1.025 for fish–only aquariums and 1.023 to 1.025 for aquariums that house fish and invertebrates. It is also important to keep room in your aquarium in order to allow you space to create your “landscape” and to provide room within the aquarium for setting up your filter, heating and lighting equipment.

Once you have set up all of this equipment you want to set your filtration system to run for at least 24 hours to test your tank. Allowing your tank heater to run overnight will also allow your water to heat to an adequate temperature. The ideal temperature should be between 72 to 78°F. After allowing your tank to run for 24 hours you will once again want to check the salt levels in your water to ensure that they are where they should be before carrying on with your set up.

Step 7: Aquascape Your Saltwater Tank

Aquascaping is the most fun part of creating a saltwater aquarium for many people. This process involves decorating your aquarium with whatever decor you choose. While it is up to you to decide how you want to decorate your aquarium it is important to recognize the value of adding live rock which serves to naturally filter the aquarium and vegetation that is suited to your aquarium which serves as a food source and filter.

When you choose to add a live rock into your aquarium it is generally best to purchase one that has already been “cured.” Curing is a process by which any toxic compounds that are present in your live rock are removed so they are not released into the tank when the rock is introduced. If a rock is not properly cured before you place it in your aquarium you can risk killing your fish.

Cycling Your Aquarium

The next step in setting up your tank is called “cycling.” Cycling can take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks and allows the biological filtration of the tank to mature and establish itself. The presence of live rocks and live plants in your saltwater aquarium will help to speed up the cycling process.

Step 8: Add Ammonia To Start The Nitrogen Cycle

Adding a source of ammonia to your saltwater tank is the first step in cycling your aquarium, a common source of adding ammonia is the addition of a pair of fish that are particularly hardy and produce adequate levels of ammonia.

This step is not recommended to fish lovers because often fish can suffer from the unbalanced water levels in the tank, it is much more widely recommended that you utilize maturation fluids that are sold in most specialty fish stores. These compounds are created to begin nitrification in which ammonia levels increase and then decrease while bacteria multiply. After this process is complete ammonia is no longer detectable in the water but nitrite levels are.

As ammonia breaks down nitrite is produced; however, as the levels of bacteria in the tank increase they begin to break down the nitrites and eventually nitrate will be created. It is important to monitor levels of nitrates in order to keep them in check, too many nitrates can result in too much algae. A nitrogen cycle generally takes two weeks or a little longer to complete.

Now that bacteria is present in your tank once ammonia is produced in the tank (this can come from “starter fish” that are hardy such as damsel fish or this can come from a live rock which is much more humane) it is converted into nitrate. At this stage, you should also have second stage bacteria present in your tank that can take the nitrite and rapidly turn it into nitrate in order to reduce toxicity in the water.

Best Saltwater Aquarium Kits

There are kits available that have everything you need to get started. We recommend the kits from Carolina Biological Supply Company.

Adding Fish To Your Saltwater Aquarium

Step 9: Choose A Healthy Fish

The final and perhaps most exciting step in setting up your saltwater aquarium is adding your fish to the aquarium! It is important when you select fish for your aquarium that you not only select fish that are suited to saltwater living, but also that you select fish that are healthy. Adding a fish to your saltwater tank that is carrying a bacteria or some type of illness will throw off the balance in your tank and can also infect other fish that you add later on.

While your aquarium is in the process of cycling it is helpful to visit local fish specialty stores and get to know specialists there who will be able to help ensure that you get healthy fish for your aquarium. Salespeople can also help you to select fish that are suited to your skill level.

Saltwater fish can be expensive, but you should keep in mind that the cost of these fish often include the cost of catching them in the wild and bringing them back to shore where they are sold to dealers. Finding a good dealer can be a difficult process so if you have a friend who already has an established saltwater aquarium it may be worthwhile to ask them to put you in contact with their saltwater fish dealer.

Whether you choose to purchase your saltwater fish from a dealer or from a specialty fish store you should always keep a few things in mind when selecting saltwater fish:

  • Never buy a fish from a tank that has a dead or dying fish in it already
  • Never buy a fish that you know nothing about
  • Always do your research on a particular fish breed before purchasing
  • Always make sure that the fish in the aquarium you purchase from are acting and swimming normally – differences in swimming or behavior can indicate illness

These things may seem to be a matter of common sense. However, they can be a matter of a living or dead fish and a clean or infected aquarium.

Step 10: Acclimatize Your Fish To The Aquarium

Once you have selected the fish that you want to add to your aquarium it is important to put them through the appropriate acclimatization process in order to avoid them going in to shock and dying. Getting your new fish used to the aquarium set up that you have at home can be a tedious process but if you have already come through cycling your tank you will not mind the time it takes to acclimatize your fish.

To begin to acclimatize your fish open the bag in which your fish came and pour approximately half of the water out. Now cut the excess bag and place the bag inside the saltwater aquarium by securing it safely to the side of the aquarium ensuring that there is no mixing of the two water sources. Placing an air stone inside the bag can help to ensure that your new fish is receiving enough oxygen during the adjustment process.

After ten minutes you want to add ¼ of a cup of the aquarium water into the bag of your new fish. Allow this new water mixture to sit for 10 minutes in the bag with your new fish before repeating the process and adding another ¼ cup of aquarium water. After a couple of times of this process you want to test the temperature, pH and salinity of the water in the bag to ensure that it matches that of your aquarium, once they match you can remove your fish from the bag using a small net and place it into your aquarium.

DO NOT pour the water from the bag into your saltwater aquarium, dispose of it.

Learn more about saltwater fish in our in-depth article.

Video: Setting Up A Marine Aquarium

Here’s a video from Petco on how to properly set up your saltwater tank (or “marine aquarium”) . Along with more detailed instructions below.

Congratulations, you have just set up your new saltwater aquarium and added your first fish! Hopefully, this is the beginning of a life-long hobby for you and a long life for your saltwater fish! If saltwater fish sounds a little too overwhelming for you, you might try starting with freshwater fish or Betta fish first which are less maintenance.

What has been your experience with setting up a saltwater tank?

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