Saltwater: Reef Aquarium Start-up Guide



Setting up your very own saltwater aquarium!

So you have made the decision to explore the saltwater option to your new aquarium. This is great! Saltwater tanks can create a lively and vibrant aquatic environment that brings a piece of the ocean to your home. A great thing about owning a saltwater tank is that it can be operatable and full of life without one single fish. However, saltwater fish make it all the better!

There are things you must understand prior to making your purchase on a new tank. Considering the multiple options of types of saltwater tanks, it is imperative that you do a bit of research to fully understand which type you are planning to maintain. View the link to explore the different saltwater options (Saltwater Aquariums)

To save our valued costumers time, we have done the necessary research on the requirements for owning a fish with a live rock saltwater tank.

No reef is the same, and your tank will be unique to you, so it is important to know that this is not a one size fits all. However, this guide will aid you in beginning to achieve success with your very own saltwater aquarium.


Things you will need to begin (the necessities):

  • Reef Friendly Tank (40 to 50 gallon at the least)
  • Filtration
  • Lighting
  • Heater
  • Wave Pump
  • Live Rock or Dry Rock
  • Sand (optional but recommended)

There are more equipment that are widely used by reefers that help aid them in the overall success of their saltwater tank, but these are the essentials.


What size tank should I look to operate?

While larger tanks can be on the more expensive side; they tend to have higher success even with new owners. The reason for this is because it is much harder to ruin water parameters needed when you have more water and a wider range of error to make that mistake. The more the water amount goes up in the tank, the less likely one is to oversaturate, contaminate, or have abrupt temperature change.

Our recommendation is to go as big as you can financially afford. The reason for this is because more times than not, when a beginner purchases a smaller Nano tank for saltwater tank exploration, there is a consistency of owners looking to upgrade once they have achieved success to expand on the hobby. To avoid spending on the Nano and then the upgrade, this is where buying the largest tank you can safely afford and comfortably house is the most cost efficient option if you're looking to own a saltwater tank.

Look to purchase a tank that is as long as it is wide. This allows for more room when setting up scenery.


What sort of filtration should be used to keep tank clean?

 For saltwater tanks, canister filters or sumps are most recommended. Canister filters work well, however; they must be cleaned frequently to avoid major build-up of bacteria, which can cause high ammonia levels -- of harmful nitrate to the aquarium. With this being said, these type of filters do however do their job of cleaning the physical waste and uneaten food out of the tank. Also, they work as a biological filter with bacterial media that feeds on ammonia in the tank along with nitrite and nitrate. 

As for sump tanks, the job is very similar to a canister filter in regards to passing water through in order to keep the tank filtered daily. However, sumps are much more flexible in terms of the amount of customization options. For example heaters, protein skimmers, reactors etc. can all go in the sump base as opposed to a canister filter. Holes in the tank are most likely needed for the sump option for piping.

Hang-on filters are also a option if you don't believe a sump or canister is right for you. These filters can have some flexibility in terms of what you can add, whether that be floss, pads, media etc. Limitations involve additions like reactors and skimmers not being compatible with most, but not all, of these filters. We advise that you understand which type of canvas you plan on running and the overall power of the filter needed to keep the tank clean. For example, multiple fish, coral & live rock probably needs more filtration than a one or two fish tank.


Which type of lighting should be used in a saltwater tank?

Lighting in a saltwater tank first and foremost is needed to provide corals with nourishing energy in order to sustain their healthy well-being. Also, let's be honest, the calming fluorescent lighting can provide a blissful experience in the home, especially at night. 

LEDs, Metal Halides, and T5s are the three most common types of lighting.  The cons of metal halides is that they can get very hot and use lots of electricity, which could run up a bill. They aren't customizable, programmable, or able to be Bluetooth accessible. The bulbs determine the color. They are indeed still used by more advanced reefers as they do produce a high-quality light.  As for T5s, they are the rod like lighting that are found in most schools and corporates buildings. They can be customized by bulb color to get the exact color you are looking for and can be an option for you. Just remember to have the light on four about 10-12 hours and off for the rest.

LEDs are most common and recommended. Most sold saltwater LEDs are equipped with the modern technology needed to help run saltwater tanks. Features such as on/off timers, brightness and color control, cellphone operation, and preset settings are all helpful additions. When going about choosing which lighting to use for your saltwater tank, it's nearly impossible to not choose the best one for your aquarium.

 Notes: 12K to 20K on the Kelvin Spectrum produces the best lighting for coral health, which is mainly what makes up the blue light on the spectrum. Blue is the light spectrum that matters most to the corals. Less light can work better than more for your corals. Too many times beginners over light corals, which could cause them to lose color or completely cook themselves. A little light can go a long way, so start low and work your way up and try not to change the lighting schedule too much. Corals are adaptive beings, however; they can take up to a month or more to adapt, and too much change and become overwhelming. Set the schedule and allow it to become the tank's time clock in a sense. Most sold LED fixture have features that operate light around these parameters.


Rock in the saltwater aquarium

Rock's main purpose in a saltwater tank is to house much of the beneficial bacteria. Yes, style and design is an additional bonus, and it is important to have spots for fish to swim to be unseen. 

When it comes to a saltwater aquarium with only fish, sand is the best substrate. Not only does it resemble the actual biome of a fish, but it is also aesthetically pleasing. If your tank has aquatic plants and or fish, gravel is the way to go. Gravel will allow for the plants to stay firmly rooted, while still holding the necessary nutrients that both the fish and plants will benefit from. 

Aquatic plants in the saltwater aquarium

Plants are a great addition to any aquarium, as they provide a numerous amount of benefits besides adding to the ambience of the tank. To begin, did you know fish need oxygen to survive? Plants add and circulate oxygen throughout the tank, ensuring your fish have enough oxygen to survive. Most aquatic plants are easy to care for and require little to no maintenance. However, if you notice that a part or leaf of your plant is dead, it needs to be cut off to keep the rest of the plant and fish healthy. Popular saltwater plants include dragon's tongue, red mangrove, and caulerpa prolifera. However, it is important to do your own research before you mix together fish and aquatic plants together. 

Water in the tank

The water that is in your aquarium one of, if not the, most important aspect of your tank. To begin, distilled water should be used over tap water, as tap water has harmful elements, such as nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and chlorine. These elements harm your fish by making it hard for fish to carry oxygen in their bloodstream, as well as causing them stress, so it is important to keep exposure of them to your fish as minimal as possible. Next, the salt you use is important. Marine salt is the best option, and can be found on places like Amazon. You need 8 tablespoons for every 40 gallons for proper salt levels. Lastly, you will need a saltwater water conditioner. This will help eliminate waste and other harmful materials from the water, as well as keep the scales of your fish in pristine condition.

Tank cycling

Now that you have all of your equipment, substrate, and water set-up, you will have to maintain all the hard work you just did! Tank cycling is done for 2 main reasons: 1. To help eliminate ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites from the water and 2. To help build up the natural bacteria needed to mimic a real saltwater environment. While water conditioners and plants will help minimize harmful waste, you will need to change 10-20 percent of the water in your tank every 1-2 weeks to make sure your tank has the best water quality. 

As always, you will need to conduct additional research depending on what specific tank, fish, or plants you may have. We hope this guide bestowed upon you the knowledge to confidently set-up and maintain your very own saltwater tank.