What do I need to start a saltwater aquarium?

Saltwater Aquariums for Beginners - A Brief Guide to Success

In this article, we will show you some great saltwater tank tips for beginners that will ensure your success with your new tank. Aquariums can certainly add a lot of beauty to your home or your place of business. The florescent, bright colors and the sparkling water makes for a stunning look just about anywhere you place it!


There are saltwater aquariums and freshwater aquariums. Both types of aquarium provide their own beauty, but you simply can’t deny that saltwater aquariums have more vibrant, eye-catching fish species and biodiversity. 


Maintaining a saltwater aquarium can be a bit of a challenging process and proper planning is a necessity. It takes some time and patience...did we mention patience. Patience is one if not the most important attributes anyone getting in this hobby must learn right from the beginning.
 
 
Some questions you will want to ask yourself:
 
What is a good beginner saltwater tank size?
What are good beginning, easy to care for fish?
What items are needed for a saltwater tank?
Do I need a saltwater tank setup checklist?
Do I want to get involved with keeping live coral and other exotic invertebrates?
 
When starting out as a saltwater aquarium hobbyist one of your first questions may be – What size saltwater tank should I buy? Many enthusiasts will insist that the bigger your tank is the better, and of course, this is usually the case for your fish, but as a beginner, in the hobby, you have a few things to consider before shelling out on an enormous tank. We would recommend a tank size of 55 gallons for a beginner. A 10-20 gallon size tank can be quite challenging at first, but a 125-200 gallon can be overwhelming for new hobbyists, so a 55 gallon is a great starter size. You are going to want a larger aquarium for larger sized fish and a smaller aquarium for smaller fish.
  
Also, keep in mind the following:
What is your budget?
 
Don’t forget that it’s not all about the tank. You also need to be able to purchase equipment and accessories, not to mention fish and corals, which can get pricey. Don’t forget that the bigger your tank, the more money you will end up spending on fish and contents to fill it up and make it look good.
Make sure that you work out what you actually have left to spend on your tank, and then go for the biggest one that you can afford as this will give your hobby room to develop. When setting a budget and looking at supplies, remember that you get what you pay for in this hobby and the better the equipment you buy, the more successful you will be and the longer they will last. 

Analyze your space
 
Not everyone lives in a generously sized abode where the tank is going to be center stage. You will need to choose a proper location to place your tank. You may have to think about how much space you have in your home or office for a tank and accessibility to the tank for maintenance. Keep in mind that the size of your tank will also determine how long it may take you to maintain it on a daily and weekly basis.
How much space does your choice of fish need to live happily? It is just as important to think of the comfort of your new tank’s inhabitants. Most saltwater fish need a decent amount of space to feel safe and relaxed. You should always be educated on the species you are purchasing or interested in purchasing, and make sure that you tank is not only appropriately sized for the animal at its current size but also for its full potential size.

If you have different species then they may need enough space to establish their own territories within the tank. Schools of fish, for example, need plenty of space to move around together in so that they can practice their natural instincts and schooling behaviors.
This can be addressed by focusing on buying species that dwell mostly in certain areas of the tank, for example, you can choose to mix surface swimmers with mid-depth swimmers, and seabed swimmers, so that all fish have their own spaces in the tank.

As a general guide for deciding how much space your fish need, most saltwater fish prefer to have at least 30g each for themselves. If you work out what fish you hope to keep in your tank, this should help you to calculate how big a tank you should go for, keeping in mind that you will probably want to add to your collection further along the line. You’re going to want to set it in a place where it gets a lot of views, perhaps in the center of a room. But there are a few things you should put into consideration before you choose a spot. Keep in mind that once you place an aquarium, it is extremely difficult to move. That being said, choosing a good spot is pretty important. You don’t want to place your aquarium anywhere that is exposed to direct sunlight and should avoid even ambient sunlight if possible. This can cause issues with your fish and corals alike, while also can cause the growth of algae. Algae will occur naturally in an aquarium, no matter what you do.
But when you expose it to direct sunlight, it can cause the algae to grow in excess and it can cause issue mainly for the corals but depending on the algae growing can cause issue with your fish as well. Not to mention it’s unsightly and can quickly take over your tank. The best and healthiest environment for your aquarium is in a well-ventilated area, preferably in a room with stable temperatures, and in an area that has limited drafts and sunlight exposure. 
 
Establishing a list of beginner species
 
Deciding on which saltwater fish and potentially coral to populate your new tank with can be the most difficult part when first starting out. Your choices will mostly be down to personal preference, budget and space you have now set after determining the aquarium volume. To ensure your success and make life easier in these earlier stages, here is a list of 3 easy saltwater fish to take care of, but there are obviously lots of fish that can be selected outside of these three. Ocellaris Clownfish – Also known as the common clownfish, this cute little marine fish is available in many morphs, usually aquacultured, lower on the aggression, and one of the easiest to care for. It can live in a smaller aquarium as once it has established its territory it is unlikely to stray very far.
 
Coral Beauty Angelfish – This is a popular low-priced dwarf angelfish, which is brilliantly colored and very hardy once established in the aquarium. They are very easy to find and are not normally aggressive as many other angelfish can be. They can be territorial in smaller aquariums though especially with other dwarf angelfish and in smaller tanks only one dwarf angelfish should be added. Also, they fish are considered reef safe with caution and should be carefully considered if you plan to keep corals.
 
Lawnmower Blenny – Every tank, especially a newly set up one, should have a great algae eater. This is because as nitrate levels rise in new tanks algae tends to grow more. This fish is a beneficial addition to any beginner or established saltwater aquarium for its utility in eating algae.
 
Saltwater Aquarium setup checklist:
 
To make sure that you have everything you need for starting out your new saltwater tank, here is a checklist of all of the essentials along with my recommendations.

  • Aquarium / Tank – Choose from an acrylic or a glass tank, and a size that fits your space and fish requirements, allowing room for your hobby to grow and evolve.
  • Lighting – You may have to do some extra research before you invest in lighting for your tank as the type of lighting you choose will depend on your set up and the species of fish you want to keep. A great LED light for beginner saltwater tanks are brands such as Ecotech, Aquaillumination, and Viparsectra. These lights are very bright with many options and will look great on your tank. They really make the fish and coral colors pop. If you are doing a reef tank, and your budget allows a T5/LED hybrid is likely the best setup and lighting is not an area to cut corners or cheap out on if considering a coral reef setup.
  • Skimmers, Filters and Filtration Equipment – As stated above your choices will depend on your setup and the number and species of fish you are considering. We usually recommend installing an over sized skimmer if you budget and space allows. We like Reef Octopus and Nyos skimmers, both having proven track records in the hobby. 
  • Powerheads / Wavemakers – Essential for good water circulation. When starting out, you don’t need anything expensive or fancy. A great wavemakers include products from Aquaillumination, Ecotech, MaxSpect, and Hydor. These will last a long time and have variable speed controls and modes to personalize and accommodate your fish and corals needs.
  • Live Rock & Substrate – These play an important role in the health and happiness of your tank’s inhabitants as fish like to feel safe and secure within their own separate territories. So take some time to decide whether you want to provide artificial or natural decor and rocks for your fish to live amongst. My favorite substrate is the Caribsea Fiji Pink and their eco-friendly rock options like the Caribsea Shapes. 
  • Sea Salt Mix/Saltwater&Refractometer – It is important to measure the salt content of your water to make sure that your fish and corals are kept well and happy. There are many salt mixes available. We currently use and sell Quantum USA salts out of Australia and have had amazing results. A mistake most people make in the beginning is buying a cheap hydrometer to measure salinity and trust me, spend the extra money for a refractometer and the appropriate calibration fluid. 
  • Heater & Thermometer/ Temp monitor – if you have a larger tank you may need more than one heater to ensure that the water temperature is maintained at the right levels. Always check the wattage recommendations for your tank size. A great and reliable heater is the Cobalt Neo-Therm series, which is ceramic, not glass which lasts longer, is more efficient and saver for your and your animals. It’s also recommended to have some kind of a temperature monitor or controller. we have had a faulty heater go out of control and bake an entire tank. A simple temperature monitor would have saved thousands of dollars in lost livestock. It will only take one experience with a faulty heater to learn this lesson and digital and analog thermometers can be cheap and save you thousands. You can decide to buy an expensive controller, but when starting out you can go with the Inkbird temperature controller. They are cheap and work great.
  • Test Kits, Additives & Supplements – Calcium and other additives might be needed to maintain tanks with corals and reef systems. Depending on what you decide to keep in your tank, you may need a supplement kit. The Red Sea supplement kit will provide the necessary supplements for your tank. Test kits provide you with the information you need to make sure that all your levels are maintained.
  • Maintenance tools & Supplies – Equipment needed to maintain your tank varies according to preference, but in general, you may need buckets and containers, tank cleaning tools like an algae scraper, siphon tube or hose, nets, and replacement media. Just make sure you have the basics when starting out.

Further Saltwater Aquarium Planning:
 
Before you set up your tank, fill it with water, start or cycling,  there are a few more things that you will need to know and prepare for. Here is a shortlist of prompts to point you in the right direction for your further research.

  • Aquarium Stands – Tanks are extremely heavy once filled with water and so it is very important to ensure that your tank is sturdy, secure, and very importantly LEVEL. Plan on the water weight alone to be around 8.5 lbs/gallon! So a 50-gallon aquarium can weigh over 400 lbs just in water weight alone! Often, people will underestimate the weight of a full aquarium and it can be disastrous if left on an unstable or flimsy surface. Most aquarium stores will sell the aquariums and the stands for them, in pairs. But in case they do not sold as a kit, we always help our customers pick out the appropriate stand for the aquarium they have or plan on purchasing. 
  • Aquascaping – The design of your tank should be carefully thought out and planned before adding fish and/or coral in order to minimize disturbances once the fish and/or have been added.
  • Cycling – Your tank needs to be cycled properly before adding fish to make sure that the environment is safe for them. This can take between 2-6 weeks sometimes longer, but this is a conversation for another time in itself. We have a great beginner article on the nitrogen cycle in our education section.


Setting up a saltwater aquarium can be a little tricky and time-consuming. Don’t let this stop you though. With a little hard work, you could have a breath-taking display of underwater life that will be sure to awe all those who lay their eyes on it. Setting up a healthy aquarium environment can take a long time for it to mature and stabilize. Sometimes 6 months to a year. One of the most significant steps in maintaining a healthy saltwater aquarium is finding a good balance between the best products for you animals and those that fit into your budget. Remember that stability and consistency are very important when being successful in keeping a beautiful healthy tank.
 
Additional Items to Keep in Mind:
 
Never rush your saltwater aquarium setup, again patience! Trust me from experience, the more patience you have and the slower you take things, the better off your tank will be. Saltwater tanks rarely do well if they are rushed and forced to mature. Creating a proper aquarium environment takes time and it also takes a lot of time for your fish to adjust to their aquarium.
It might sound like a lengthy process but if you want your fish to thrive, you have to create that healthy environment for them. Many saltwater fish are rather expensive to obtain. As previously mentioned, many saltwater fish are exotic or extremely rare. So, you want to make sure that your fish have a healthy environment to live in beforehand.

Use proper electrical outlets- and drip loops!
 
You need to make sure that you have the room and all the electrical outlets necessary for maintaining your tank. Most equipment will require it to be plugged in to operate. Keep in mind that you may want to get a filter for your tank. Filters can help keep your aquarium clean and your fish healthy.
You are going to need to plug this in. Heaters, lights, wavemakers, etc..all need to be plugged in. I recommend you use a power outlet bar with surge protection and mount it where there is no chance of water getting to it. Drip loops are a must. This will prevent water from running downhill on your power cables and into the electrical socket.
I also use a power bar that has individual switches on it making it easy to turn off individual items. So, make sure that you have all of the necessary outlets and plugs that you might need to keep your aquarium running well.
 
If you have the room in your budget it is always a good idea to exchange your outlets for one that has GFI capabilities as well as adding a new circuit to you breaker box also with GFI to accommodate all these new electrical additions to your home, and ensuring not to overload a circuit causing a power outage, potentially jeopardizing the aquarium and the life inside it.  

We will be diving into each one of items, and must haves in future posts and articles. 

  • Aquarium / Tank
    You need to decide where you want to put your aquarium, determine what size you want or may only have room for, whether you want an acrylic or glass tank, and choose a style that will best fit into the spot you have picked out to display it.
  • Lighting
    The type of lighting you choose will be based on the type of system you have planned to set up, as well as what kind of livestock you will be keeping in it.
  • Skimmers, Filters & Filtration Equipment
    Once again, what type of system you are going to set up will help you determine which kind of filters and filtration system to choose.
  • Powerhead
    Depending on the size of your aquarium, the use of one or several powerheads is an excellent way to provide good water circulation throughout the system.
  • Live Rock & Substrate
    Here you need to decide on what type of material you want on the bottom of the tank, as well as whether you want to start with a live or non-living medium.Live Rock plays an important role in a marine tank. Many marine animals, fish in particular, can be quite territorial. It is important to provide ample shelter or places where the animals can hide, sleep, and avoid potential problems with aggression from other tankmates in the confined space of an aquarium.
  • Sea Salt Mix/Saltwater & Hydrometer
    Sea salts are what make an aquarium a saltwater or marine aquarium. Also referred to as a salinity tester, this item measures the specific gravity or salt content of the water.
  • Heater & Thermometer
    For smaller aquariums one heater works well, but for larger systems the use of multiple units is advised. With stick-on, floating, multi-function remote digital sensor, and many other types of units to pick from, the material a thermometer is made of is an important factor when choosing one as well.
  • Air Pump & Air Stones
    Only needed if you are going to run a piece of equipment that requires these items, such as a counter-current protein skimmer. Also, it is nice to have them on hand for acclimating fish, and corals and while administering medications which would cause low oxygen levels in the tank. 
  • Test Kits, Additives & Supplements
    For live rock and reef tank systems, calcium (a.k.a. limewater/kalkwasser) needs to be added. Other supplemental vitamins or additives that are beneficial to the health of certain marine inhabitants you may be keeping, such a iodine for crustaceans, are important as well.
  • Maintenance Tools & Supplies
    This category includes having items on hand such as a various sized plastic buckets or containers, tank cleaning tools such as a siphon tube/hose, an algae scaper or magnet, as well as nets of different sizes, spare equipment replacements parts, and so on. A good way to keep track of what maintenance tasks you have preformed and when is to keep a log book or record of everything you do.

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