How to Setup a Saltwater Tank Properly

When choosing an aquarium, bigger is not always better. Yeah its cool to see a 200gallon aquarium but it can be real expensive to set it up. I, myself happen to have two aquariums that I have had set up for several years and I also worked for a tropical fish store for a few years. My tanks are 75gallon and a 29gallon. I listened to everybody read several books, but that does not always work. Theres is no “guaranteed” method of setting up a saltwater tank. This “How To” is a combination of methods I picked up from books and from my own experiance, and it has proven itself time and time again when I’ve numerous people set up tanks in their homes.I could have spent a small fortune on my 75 gallon tank, but like I said previously, I did work at fish store :o). I have around 100lbs of Fiji Live Rock, 70lbs of Florida crushed coral gravel with an undergravel filter with two (2) large powerheads for pulling the water through the undergravel filter, I also have two (2) hang on filters for up to 60 gallons each (120gal. total) and a protein skimmer for keeping the surface water clean and free from contaiminates.

When choosing an aquarium, you have to look at a couple of things.

1.) Budget:How large of tank you can afford.
2.) Tank location:Where are you going to put it?

You can spend a little, or you can spend a lot, a friend of mine has a 5 gallon saltwater tank and does not have any problems. He has three (3) Blue/Green Chromis (Chromis viridis) and about 4lbs of Fiji Live Rock, with a 10 gallon hang on filter. The reason why people say “nothing less then 75gallons” is because when something goes wrong (believe me at some point it will) you have time to catch it, where as in a smaller tank, you might not notice it untill that $30 fish is floating.

When choosing a location for your tank, you want it somewhere where you and your family can see it and appreciate it. You do not want it anywhere where there is direct sunlight unless you like clean brown gooey diatoms off the glass all the time(been there, done that, got pictures to prove it). You may also take into account your flooring, if you are getting a 50 gallon or larger aquarium, you will want to put it on a load bearing wall because that part of the floor is meant to with stand a lot of weight.

You will want to get a glass top, the cheap plastic hoods that come with a lot of tanks are a pain to keep free of salt. Glass tops are a lot easier to keep clean. You will also want it to fit securely on the tank because you do not want to wake up to find your $50 fish that you raised for 2 years lying on the floor (Orange Toadfish that grew to be too aggressive for my 75 gallon tank).

Choosing a stand is important because you want it to support the weight as well as be appealing to the eye. Metal stands are ok for smaller tanks, but I reckomend Oak tanks for larger ones.

Lighting can be critical to your tank. When choosing your lighting, research the different types of lighting and choose which one well work best for what you intend on doing. I reccommend PowerCompact lights over flourescent because you get a better quality of light for the same amount of space and not to mention that if you plain putting corals in there eventually, you will need them.

Filtration is the single most important thing you can do for the tank.There are several types and combinations of types. ALWAYS use some type of undergravel filter with either an airpump or powerhead, depending on the size of your tank. You can use hang on filters or wet/dry filters that you place under your tank. I also reccommend using a protein skimmer for that added extra filtration and water flow. You always use Live Rock, even in “fish only” tanks, because all those beautiful colors on the rocks are living organisms that help filter the water. In use with a powerhead, you will want to direct the flow threw the live rock to insure no decaying matter gets trapped inbetween them.

Substrate is also important in deciding on what kind of inhabitants you will be having in your tank. Some fish have soft bellies that will easily scratch and get infected by crushed coral, some other fish like to burrow in crush coral. Make sure you always research the fish you plan on placing in your tank. If weight is an issuse for you, go with crush coral (1lb of coral to every gallon of water, 2.5lbs of live or dead sand to every gallon of water). Some people dont even use a substrate or or undergravel filter, but they have to syphon out the bottom regularly to keep the decaying matter out of the tank. If you use crushed coral, do not worry about the milky water if it stays for more then a few days, You can still add starter fish after 72 hours.

When choosing your salt, do not use table salt. There are many different brands of synthetic sea salt readily available at your local fish store. Everybody you ask will reccommend a different brand, the two brands I myself use are Coral Life and Instant Ocean (depends on which one is instock in the 5 gallon bucket) It is always better to buy salt in bulk, you can save tons of money that way and also get some nifty free tshirts. To mix the salt, its half a cup of salt per gallon of water.

When choosing a thermometer, there are two main type to choose from, floating and stick on. For saltwater, I reccommend the stick on, it makes it simpliar and they are more accurate. When placing the thermometer, put as far away from the heater as you can and at the top of the tank because that is where the water will be the hottest from the lights.

You will want to use a heater, because the fish you are spending your hard earned money on come from warm tropical waters. The type you use is a submersible heater, place it in the middle, on the bottom of the tank. That is best place for regulating the water temperature.

The second most important thing is patience. It takes time for you aquarium to cycle and even out, there will be ammonia spikes that can kill delicate fish. It usually takes four to six weeks for a tank to cycle. If you buy Live Rock, you can usually cut that time in half. You can start putting in “beginner fish” in at about 72 hours. Beginner fish are your Damsels. They are cheap and readily avaible, not to mention extremely hardy. A little secret a lot of people do not realize is clownfish are in the Damsel family. I would hold off on perculas (nemo) cause they are just to beautiful of fish to risk it but you can use Tomato clowns( I did) I started with 3 Damsels and a Tomato Clown. Keep in mind I also had a lot of live to help boost my cycle.
If you have any questions, feel free to email me at

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