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Saltwater Aquarium Setup A Saltwater Fish Tank For Beginners

Saltwater Aquariums For Beginners - Setup A Saltwater Fish Tank 

First step I choose a tank in aquariums fish stores near me, more water volume, the more stable to your saltwater aquarium. A 40 gallon tank is a good size for beginners. Your fish will have the extra room and more stable water parameters.

If you have space and your budget can handle it I recommend you starting a saltwater tank with larger water volume. Starting a big saltwater tank will require larger and more expensive equipment but the larger water volume will increase stability 

Starting a small saltwater aquarium (10 gallon saltwater tank) are cheaper to set up but require a lot attention due to their size and will cost you more in the future. Don’t be tempted by those beautiful small saltwater tank.  

A small saltwater tank can turn catastrophic quickly if you overfeed or something dies before you can discover and remove it. 

The reason is the amount of water is so small, excess aquarium. fish waste, uneaten food , and dead matter release toxic ammonia and nitrites into water and quickly make your saltwater tank deadly. Larger saltwater aquariums have more water to dilute that.

Start with as big a tank as you can for your first aquarium, A 40 gallon would be a good first tank for most beginners to choose. 

45 Gallon All-In-One Red Sea MAX E 170

The Best Starter Saltwater Aquarium?

The best way to get into the saltwater aquariums hobby is to start with an  all in one tank makes it as easy as possible. These salt water tanks include almost everything you need. You just need to add sand, live rock, saltwater, and fish.

It takes all of the guesswork out of picking and sizing equipment, contain everything you need to successfully maintain a FOWLR or reef tank easily with saltwater tank all in one

There are many AIO tanks on the market and most are quite good. Red Sea is  the most popular AIO manufacturer and for good reason. They do an excellent job of building rock-solid  plug-and-play all in one  saltwater tank  with quality equipment 

The Red Sea MAX E 170 is only 45 gallons (37 gallons in the main display tank and 8 gallons in the rear sump) and this is large enough to provide a stable volume of water.

This saltwater tank fish  includes a best led aquarium lighting for corals and can be controlled by an app on your phone. It also includes a rear sump that you can add filter media such as biological, carbon, or chemical media to help control. 

Marine Aquarium Lighting  

Obviously, aquarium lighting is not as critical for a fish   but it’s important. Proper lighting is still required for reef coralline algae growth. 

Fluorescents with T5 bulbs are being the good aquarium lighting for corals  .  

LED units are great for the ability to set the color to your personal preference.  LEDs are  favorite option for any type of aquarium lighting. The ability to set intensity and color is amazing. You can program any lightning in an app on your phone.
Saltwater Aquarium Flow

You need to make sure there is a good amount of water flowing in, around, and through your rocks in your new tank when starting out to allow the micro-organisms to process the waste in the tank. The first method of flow in your aquarium is your return pump, assuming you have a sump of some kind – either a traditional sump in your stand or an integrated sump in the back of the main aquarium.

How much flow should a FOWLR tank have? Most people will suggest a good minimum is to have your return pump turn over your main display tank volume 20 times per hour. Reef tanks require closer to 100 times per hour or more but a FOWLR doesn’t have as high demands due to the lack of sensitive corals.

A couple of powerheads are great at giving you any extra flow you’ll need. You don’t want to blow your fish around but a fairly strong current is a good thing. Powerheads are great for directing flow toward low-flow areas you see fish waste and other detritus accumulating on your sand bed.

The downsides of powerheads to increase the water flow through your tank is that they aren’t the most attractive and they are an added expense. Inexpensive powerheads can do a great job but tend to be larger and more difficult to place inconspicuously. Smaller and slimmer powerheads that can get the job done well tend to be a bit more expensive.

Cost To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank?

This isn’t an inexpensive hobby,  but once you’ve made your initial investment the process and expense much more manageable. Ongoing maintenance costs are reasonable but occasionally you may need to replace a piece of equipment that may cost a couple of hundred dollars. Some people even keep backups of critical equipment such as return pumps and heaters in case of failure.

A new AIO aquarium is expensive but piecing together all of the components. A small all in one reef tank with good quality is  over a thousand dollars and bigger ones can easily exceed a few thousand.

Saltwater fish are not expensive either, don't need to  over one hundred dollars for uncommon fish. Most of cheap saltwater fish  have been fifty dollars or less.
The common wisdom is to add 1 to 2 pounds of live rock per gallon but that doesn’t account for how porous your live rock is or how many saltwater fish you plan to keep.  

Additional Saltwater Aquarium filtration

  • Canister Filters

Canisters are useful because they hold a variety of media but require frequent cleaning. Many find canisters more trouble than they’re worth.

If you have a canister filter already it can be a great addition if you give it weekly cleanings. Also, since it usually can hold different types of filter media it can be a great tool for tackling specific problems. For instance, adding carbon can help clear up the yellowing of your water, or adding Phosban can help reduce phosphate levels thereby reducing algae problems.
  • Media Reactors

Very similar to canisters but much more focused. Reactors are equipment that is not designed to capture particulates but simply run water through a media like Carbon. They don’t require as frequent cleaning, typically just regular media changes.

Unlike canisters, there isn’t a pump within the reactor so an external pump is usually required. They also typically are designed for holding only one type of media at a time.

Many are designed only for one specific media. More generic reactors can hold granulated media of different types while there are many purpose-specific reactors such as macroalgae reactors, calcium reactors, and more.
  • Tank Hang On Filters

Hanging equipment onto your main aquarium detracts from the look of your fish and tank but is a good solution for some due to not being able to use a sump. Hang-on equipment also tends to be smaller and geared more toward smaller aquariums. It can definitely get the job done but often comes at the expense of flexibility and aesthetics.
  • Macroalgae Refugiums

These primarily resolve algae problems in your tank. Phosphates from the process of saltwater fish waste breaking down are what algae feed on. A refugium contains easily manageable macroalgae, such as chaetomorpha, that feeds on the phosphates instead of algae in your tank. Like protein skimmers, they can be had as hang on or sump versions.
  • Protein Skimmers

Probably the most popular filtration solution for a saltwater aquarium. Skimming equipment is designed to add micro-bubbles to the saltwater. Dissolved waste adheres to the bubbles and floats up to a collection cup. The cup of dissolved organics can then be tossed out during regular maintenance.

The appeal of protein skimmers is that they remove fish waste, uneaten food, and other decomposing organics before they have a chance to begin breaking down into harmful byproducts. This helps eliminate the potential problem before it occurs.

You’ll need to adjust the setting of the skimmer to not skim too wet or too dry. You want to adjust the setting to produce a thick goop but thin enough you can pour out. If it is too wet it will fill rapidly and not collect much waste. Too dry and it won’t collect fast enough and leave a lot of waste in your water. Once set correctly you’ll rarely need to adjust it.

Skimmers can be purchased as hang on types or in-sump types. There are even small skimmers designed to be mounted within smaller aquariums.

  • Aquarium saltwater sumps

While not a filter, strictly speaking, it does house filtration devices. A saltwater sump is a separate smaller aquarium that typically sits underneath your main tank hidden in the stand. Water flows down to the sump and typically interacts with several filtration methods before being pumped back up to the main display tank. A common path through a sump would include:
  1. Overflow (which skims detritus from the water surface)
  2. Filter Socks
  3. Protein Skimmer
  4. Refugium
  5. Bio Media
  6. Return Pump

Depending on your circumstances you may not want to attempt a sump. They are highly recommended but not required. If you do think a sump is something you want to include you’ll want to prepare for it before purchasing any items. 

Protein Skimmers are extremely popular methods of removing fish waste and uneaten food before it breaks down into harmful byproducts. It works by injecting bubbles into the water. If dissolved organics are in the water it will create a foam and rise to the collection cup. Simply dump the cup during regular maintenance to help maintain pristine water quality.
How To Make Salt Water For Your New Saltwater Tank

You can purchase pre-mixed saltwater at local marine fish shop. This is certainly a simple approach and a reasonable way to go. Carrying jugs of water once a month can get tedious so many people consider a RO/DI filter to make their own fresh and saltwater. Use fresh water to account for evaporated water and saltwater for changing 10 – 20 percent of your display tank's water volume once per month.

Mix your saltwater to a specific gravity of between 1.021 to 1.026. For measuring the specific gravity (salinity) you’ll need a refractometer or similar device. Refractometers can sometimes but a little difficult to read but tend to be more accurate. There are also digital tools available to do the job like the Milwaukee Digital Salinity Refractometer. They aren’t cheap but a dream to use. 
The easiest to use and still the budget-friendly device is a hydrometer. A hydrometer isn’t the most accurate device but it will do the job and get you within the right range.

  • Reverse Osmosis Filter

Tap water isn’t going to work for your saltwater aquarium. It has high phosphates which will cause algae blooms and also contains harsh chemicals like chlorine that aren’t good for fish or corals. A quality reverse osmosis filtration system can purify your tap water so you can mix your own saltwater at home.

 Saltwater Tank setup for Beginners?

Once you have all equipment to setup saltwater aquarium, first fill  your tank with water, add  a sand substrate and live rock aquarium, you need to allow your tank to go through the natural nitrogen cycle. Don’t try to stock your tank with marine aquarium fish or corals until this step is complete. This bit of information is a critical part of the process.

Setting up a new saltwater tank correctly means  the equipment running while filled with sand, live rock, and salt water for a couple of weeks. Schedule the lights on and off regularly.  Make sure pumps, skimmers, heaters, etc. are all working perfectly 
How often to feed fish in reef tank - Feeding Saltwater Aquarium Fish 
Need to add a small amount of fish food to the aquarium daily during this period. The food will decompose in the aquarium and release ammonia. Bacteria will begin to grow in the live rock and eventually convert all of the ammonia and nitrite. Later bacteria will grow to process the nitrite into nitrate. After more time even the nitrate will be very low after bacteria has grown to digest it.

Once nitrate is down to less than 30ppm (parts per million) you can safely add marine fish. If you intend to add coral reef to your tank, the nitrate levels between 0.5ppm and 3ppm. These are goal numbers but should be what you strive to maintain.

Saltwater aquarium fish for beginners

Give the tank a couple of weeks to stabilize and then choose fish for tanks, you don’t want to wake up one morning to see  Nemo and Dory  swimming upside down in your fish tank

Once your fish tank has finished the nitrogen cycle and is testing at zero for both ammonia and nitrite, it should be safe to begin adding fish, assuming your nitrate levels are below 10ppm. coral reef aquarium should have 0.5 to 3ppm of nitrate detectable but higher levels are acceptable for FOWLR aquariums.

Only buy a couple of saltwater fish to start. Researching fish species compatibility before making any purchase decision though.  

Check out  Top Reef Safe Fish in Saltwater Aquarium and Reef Safe Invertebrates in Saltwater Aquarium   It’s about reef safe fish and Invertebrates in Saltwater Aquarium  

Marine Aquarium Clean-Up Crew

After your tank is established, purchase a good clean up crew. A good clean up crew breaks down detritus and helps keep the tank clean. Snails are the best option. Hermit crabs do a great job too. You can also purchase some shrimp which will liven up the aquarium as well.

There are several species of snails, crabs, shrimp, and more to choose from. Research the pros and cons of each species. Eventually, you’ll begin to notice problems in your tank that specific clean-up crew members can help with. You can tune your clean-up crew over time to help the unique issues in your tank by carefully choosing the best critters to help fix those problems.

Personally, I love clean-up crews almost as much as the fish. I have an emerald crab that has loads of personality. Shrimp are also a joy to watch. There are many aspects of owning a saltwater aquarium that are rewarding.
Read our The BEST Clean Up Crew Critters for a good overview and detailed information

Saltwater aquarium maintenance

Freshwater aquariums are much more forgiving than saltwater aquariums . Freshwater fish can withstand more polluted water conditions than marine tank inhabitants. If you have experience with freshwater tanks and fish you should expect to increase your saltwater aquariums maintenance schedule.

Basic maintenance should be performed at a minimum weekly. In addition to testing nitrate and phosphate levels, weekly maintenance includes 20% water change, dumping the protein skimmer cup, cleaning or replacing filter socks, cleaning aquarium lights and any algae on the glass, ,  removing macroalgae if your refugium is becoming overgrown

Also know that you’ll need  add small amounts of freshwater regularly to keep the water level and salinity consistent. You’ll just need to check your top-off reservoir to ensure it still has freshwater in it occasionally.

  • Alkalinity Tester

  • Phosphate Tester

  • Nitrate Tester

  • Salinity Tester

Saltwater Aquarium Temperature  

Next step, you will need to source a good heater for your tank. 3 to 5 watts per gallon is a good rule of thumb to shop for here. Heaters are notorious for failing. Like with all equipment in the saltwater aquarium hobby, having a backup is a good practice. One method for redundant heaters is to have 2 different heaters set to different temps. One as a primary duty heater and the other to kick in as a backup. This only helps in a situation when a heater fails in the “off” position though. To protect from failures in the “on” position you really need a reef controller or similar device. This way you can use its digital thermostat to control your heaters. Also, good reef controllers can monitor power consumption too so you can monitor both aspects of your heater incase the thermometer for the controller fails.

A cheap solution to choose for controlling heaters is the INKBIRD ITC 306A. I like this inexpensive heater controller and it’s a brilliant little gadget. It monitors temps and controls 2 separate heaters.

Also, get a couple of thermometers. At a minimum, I’d suggest an easily readable glass in-tank and a good digital thermometer. Don’t rely on your heater settings to be accurate.

  • Hygrometer & Thermometer

  • Temperature Controller

  • Analog Heater

  • Digital Heater


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