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Setting up a Self-Sustaining Saltwater Fish Tank Aquarium

Dan set up a self-sustaining saltwater fish tank and enjoys sharing his experiences with that project. He is a licensed electrician.

Possibilities of saltwater.

Possibilities of saltwater.

Considerations for Setting up a Saltwater Fish Tank

A few years ago, I decided to set up a self-sustaining saltwater fish tank; herein is the story of my successes and failures in the project.

Tank Size

Many decisions need to be made before even starting to set up such a tank, with size being perhaps the first. While saltwater tanks can be as small as 10 gallons, they are very difficult to maintain (they cannot be self-sustaining) and do not offer much variety.

I picked a 55-gallon tank as a good size for a beginner—not so small as to make maintaining an ecological balance too difficult, yet small enough that it would not (I hoped) break the bank.

I did not wish to make a project that took a great deal of my time each day; rather, I wanted to build as much as possible a self-sustaining system. I did not want a simple glass cage with some pretty fish; instead, I wanted a coral reef environment in my living room.


Placement is important. A 55-gallon fish tank can weigh as much as 400+ pounds and is fragile; it is not something that you will want to move around every month or so! Natural light is not necessary, but it can be nice. Traffic patterns in the home need to be considered, as do viewing opportunities.

I chose an enclosed stand for the tank as necessary supplies could be stored inside and out of sight. I purchased the tank and stand, used, from Craigslist for far less than I would have spent otherwise and, after a thorough cleaning, assembled the tank and stand in what I hoped would be a good permanent location.


The next step is water. Obviously, saltwater is necessary, and while it is possible to purchase pre-made saltwater, artificial "salt" is readily available. This is not table salt—specialized salt for saltwater aquariums must be used! Water and salt are mixed according to instructions and added.

Many people will comment that de-ionized water is required; I did not find it so. My home is fed by a well and pump; no chemicals such as chlorine or fluorine are added, so I thought it worth a try to use that instead of specially treated water for the purpose. It is possible to treat city water for a saltwater fish tank, and it would probably work, but I have no experience with it.


With the water added, I allowed it to set for several days while my heaters (I used two with the theory that if, or when, one failed, the other would maintain the temperature until I noticed the failed one) stabilized the temperature in the upper 70s.

Adding Life to the Tank

Live Sand and Live Rock

Next is the addition of live sand and live rock. I used about 50 pounds of each for my tank; this is on the short side, but I figured on adding more rock later and neither one (especially rock) is cheap. Both of these are taken from the ocean and kept wet and warm until sold as both contain bacteria and other organisms necessary for a self-sustaining system. Interestingly, the rock often contains small marine life as well, and creatures such as worms, small crabs, and even small fish can be exciting to suddenly find in your saltwater tank that you didn't put there.


At this point, I added two filters (purchased with the tank from Craigslist) without any filter media in them. The purpose was simply to move the water around in a simulation of tidal and wind action. A saltwater fish tank is not a still, stagnant swamp; it is the ocean, always moving. You will need to wait now, perhaps a week or so, while sediment and sand settle.

No, son, that's NOT the sand I want!

No, son, that's NOT the sand I want!


Lighting is next. Large amounts of light are needed to provide for a true coral reef. Many animals utilize bacterial action requiring tropical levels of sunlight for survival. A 55-gallon tank such as I had could easily use 800 watts of lighting, which can lead to overheating of a tank quite easily. One possibility is to add a cooling system, but my solution was to provide 260 watts of HO fluorescent lighting and limit myself to corals and other animals that do not require more. Most soft corals will do fine, but hard corals, clams, and other creatures will not.

The First Fish!

With the lighting installed, it was time to add some fish! But not just any fish—the tank is not truly ready yet. I added a pair of small, cheap fish that would survive nearly anything—necessary as the water purity is about to undergo radical changes.

Testing the Water

A complete test kit for salinity, pH, ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates is necessary and should be used every day. In a fascinating display of ecology in action, I watched as ammonia levels rose dramatically over the next couple of weeks. Nothing to be done about it—it is a natural reaction to the wastes of the fish being added to the aquarium.

Soon enough, the bacteria in the live sand and rock begin to reduce those nearly lethal levels of ammonia, but then nitrite levels began to rise. Again, with time, the bacteria began to eliminate the nitrites in the tank, but they then produced nitrates, with the process repeating itself. All in all, it took several months for the tank to stabilize, or "cycle." Even my two small fish survived, which rather surprised me.

Stocking the Wildlife

The desired wildlife may now be stocked into the tank, but with great care. One inch of fish per five gallons of water is probably safe, but barely. Corals may be added, along with various cleaning animals such as crab, shrimp, and snails. I added only perhaps two fish, or one or two small corals, at a time, giving the tank a month or so to readjust to changing conditions. If too much life is added too fast, the cycling process will repeat, and most of the life will probably die. In any case, saltwater fish can be $50 per fish or even more—I couldn't add more than a little bit at a time.

Minimal Maintenance

I found that there was very little maintenance necessary for my reef. Salt tended to collect on the surfaces and needed to be cleaned off. A cover or lid would have helped, but I had some trouble in the summertime keeping the temperature down. As I never added a cover, the water would evaporate about a gallon a day, providing some cooling effect.

I had to replenish the water (but not the salt) and did so with plain tap water that I let set out for about a day before using it. Feeding was necessary each day, and with the variety of life I maintained, I needed a variety of food. I found that it helped if I fed the brittle starfish small pieces of raw shrimp by hand, for example. With a sea urchin also in the tank, care had to be taken as punctures from it were not only mildly poisonous, they hurt!

The Residents of My Tank

I had a wide variety of life in my tank, which kept up interest considerably:

  • A small cleaner shrimp that would climb over my hand, "cleaning" it.
  • The urchin and brittle starfish noted above, along with a more normal orange starfish.
  • A sand-sifting fish that continually sucked up sand and spit it back out all over the rock.
  • Sand sifting snails that buried under the sand only to suddenly re-appear when food was added to the tank.
  • Of course, a pair of percula clownfish (Nemo fish).
  • Giant regular snails.
  • Several soft corals, including a large leather coral; I cut off the limbs and "replanted" it and both pieces survived.
  • An anemone.
  • I tried two clams and several hard corals—eventually, all those died, probably from insufficient light.
  • Various fish were around, some quite beautiful, some not so much. One, in particular, we named "Ugly."
  • Several feather dusters. (I actually enjoyed the non-fish life more than I did the fish.)

Failures of the Project

I failed a couple of times by not doing my research on the fish I wanted. One ate my feather dusters, while another ate the slowly growing coral that was covering the rocks. One ate other fish. Great care must be taken, and considerable research completed, before purchasing fish as they have different nutrition needs and require different "societies" to live in. Some are quite aggressive and some are quite passive. I found the pet/fish stores often don't really know, and while I always asked, I also learned to do my homework online before going to the store.

Too Many Fish

My greatest failure was having too much life at one time. I added too many fish and as a result, the ecological balance was disrupted too far and most of the tank died. Very sad and really expensive; I probably had $400 worth of fish and creatures that died almost overnight. Eventually, the tank recovered and I re-stocked it, but it was an expensive lesson.

Saltwater Tanks Are Worth the Cost and Effort

As my family and household time requirements increased I finally had to part with my oceanic art but got a great deal of enjoyment out of it in the five years I had it. I would encourage anyone interested in aquariums to give it a go.

It is a rather expensive hobby (I probably spent $1000 in five years), but I found it well worth the effort. Setting up and maintaining a saltwater fish tank is far more interesting than a freshwater one, and your work can produce an amazing display in your home and one that can compete with more traditional artwork such as paintings.

Questions & Answers

Question: Is your saltwater tank self-sustaining?

Answer: It isn't. Food has to be added, light must be given and water lost from evaporation must be replenished. Dried salt from the edges must be removed.

But on the other hand that's about it. There is none of the periodic cleaning of waste that other tanks need, and that is a major plus.

Question: Between fresh water and salt water fish tanks, which is easier to take care of?

Answer: In general, freshwater tanks are much easier. If, however, a self-sustaining saltwater tank is created, it requires little food and almost no cleaning.

© 2010 Dan Harmon


Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on July 10, 2017:

Although I had 2 filters in the tank, there was no filter in them and they were used only to move water around in a simulation of wave action. Same for any other pump - their only function was to keep the water in the tank moving.

no telling on February 27, 2017:

ths helped my project a lot thank you

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on March 07, 2015:

While that might be true for species living near a river outlet, I doubt it would actually work for salt water animals. Most are pretty sensitive to their environment and cannot tolerate very much change. Cutting the salt concentrations they evolved to live in by 75% would kill the majority of them.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on March 07, 2015:

my mom used to say that when put 1/3 sea water and 3/4 fresh water, the fishes will last longer

Janis Goad on November 30, 2012:

I love watching fish. Aquaria make a room so peaceful. When I lived in Hong Kong, usually large restaurants would have a huge aquarium, and we would watch fish while waiting for our food.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on April 18, 2012:

While saltwater aquariums ARE rather expensive, if done correctly they are not much hassle.

Fish need fed of course, but beyond that I put only an hour or two per week into the tank. Clean the glass, mostly, although I did change some of the water once in a while.

Natasha from Hawaii on April 18, 2012:

I love the beauty of salt water tanks, but ll you ever hear about is the expense and hassle. It's nice to see you write that it is all worth it! I would love to have a salt water tank some day.

Judi Brown from UK on April 18, 2012:

My husband has a freshwater aquarium, but I would like to persuade him to set up a salt water one for coral so I shall be telling him all about your hub. Having said that, it takes so much of his time to look after the water in the present tank, I don't know if we have the time for another one.

Voted up etc.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on July 13, 2011:

Shelly, this is a new idea to me. Will LED lights give the proper spectrum of light to maintain corals? I don't know that I have ever seen any information at all on this.

If it does, it would sure be preferable to flourescent or even halide lighting. The initial cost would be higher, of course, but operating costs would be lower and it should eliminate any need to refrigerate the water.

Shelly C. on July 11, 2011:

LED aquarium lighting works really well for saltwater fish tanks. I find them safer to use and they solve the problem of too much heat.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on March 07, 2011:

And it actually works if done properly. Some water to replace that lost from evaporation and some food is about all that's necessary. Perhaps some minerals as the corals use it up.

finatics on March 07, 2011:

Very interesting idea, to make a self-sustaining habitat for our pets with little maintenance on our part. Great hub!

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on June 06, 2010:

They are expensive and indeed people who live near the ocean have a decided advantage! On the other hand $200 per year isn't too bad for a hobby and an attractive addition to the home. Thank you for the comment.

nifty@50 on June 06, 2010:

Nice info & pictures I always wanted a salt water aquarium but wouldn't attempt it unless I lived close to the ocean! Too cost prohibitive!

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on June 06, 2010:

Thank you for the comments. Sorry to hear of your illness.

thevoice from carthage ill on June 06, 2010:

amazing amazing beautiful hub I enjoyed reading thanks sorry have been sick