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How to Set Up a Saltwater Marine Reef Aquarium

James writes about all things water-related, from aquariums to jellyfish to well points.

A Yellow Watchman Goby keeps a watchful eye on things, overlooking a garden composed of various soft corals swaying in the current. Watchman Gobies make an excellent first fish species for a saltwater aquarium because of their peaceful nature.

A Yellow Watchman Goby keeps a watchful eye on things, overlooking a garden composed of various soft corals swaying in the current. Watchman Gobies make an excellent first fish species for a saltwater aquarium because of their peaceful nature.

What's Involved in Setting Up a Marine Reef Tank?

So what's so special about a saltwater aquarium compared to a freshwater one? And is it really that difficult to maintain one? Well, first off, I can tell you that a fully operational saltwater aquarium is a very beautiful thing to behold when completed—especially with the knowledge that you have created a piece of art with your own two hands.

Not only is a saltwater aquarium beautiful, but it will also bring you many, many countless hours of pleasure and may even help you relieve stress a bit. And at first it might cost a few bucks—but this, too, largely depends on the size of your tank setup.

Graduating From Freshwater to Saltwater

Don't get me wrong—freshwater setups can be equally beautiful and rewarding to keep. And if you owned a basic 10-gallon or larger aquarium as a kid that was freshwater, then there's a good chance that the love of this hobby is still ingrained within you and you're now curious about how it would be to own a marine, or saltwater, aquarium.

So maybe now is the opportune time to graduate to bigger and better things. Even though I contemplated first over the idea of transitioning from a freshwater to a saltwater marine aquarium, I did so with some serious thought and a little pre-planning before switching entirely over to a fully functional marine reef aquarium—complete with saltwater fishes and a variety of marine invertebrates and corals.

Transitioning to Saltwater Requires Research and Planning

Many aquarists who are first introduced to the hobby with a freshwater aquarium often do so with the mindset that starting up a saltwater aquarium cannot be all that much more difficult. Let me forewarn you ahead of time: You do not just fill up an empty tank with the saltwater from your local town beach and throw a few shells or fiddler crabs in it.

But, believe it or not, there actually are those select few who do just that! And get knee-deep in water, literally speaking, before they do a little research on what's really involved in setting up a marine aquarium the correct way. When it comes down to saltwater aquaria and freshwater aquaria, chemistry is of utmost importance. And this holds true for any size saltwater tank. Don't let the word "chemistry" frighten you. I'll talk more about chemistry as well as biological filtration in another article.

What Does "Marine" Mean?

You have heard me mention the word "marine" a few times already in this article, and I will most likely use that same word a few more times throughout this article. When I refer to the word marine, I am referring to a saltwater aquarium with saltwater fish only.

An example of a common type of saltwater fish that you most likely have seen a few times at a pet store is called the clownfish. Do you remember watching the animated movie Finding Nemo over the past few years, possibly with your children? Well if you have, that bold-colored orange and white striped fish in the movie was a clownfish. However, in the movie, Nemo of course was an animated clownfish. Enough on that—you get the point!

Saltwater Fish Can't Survive in Freshwater

So remember in this hobby we refer to the marine aquarium as a saltwater aquarium with fish only. Saltwater fish cannot survive very long in freshwater, and freshwater fish—or even those that inhabit brackish water (a mix of fresh and saltwater)—cannot live in saltwater for very long before succumbing to severe shock followed by death. Something you want to avoid at all costs for your fish friends.

But there is a quick remedy called a freshwater dip. That may stress certain saltwater fish out a bit. But is a fairly effective way of ridding a fish of saltwater Ich for example. I will talk about this also in more detail along with water chemistry in that separate article I just mentioned.

What Distinguishes a Marine "Reef" Tank?

There is a term that you may have remembered me also using near the beginning of the article, and that would be marine reef aquarium. I've added "reef" to marine and aquarium to further educate the newbie to the saltwater end of the hobby and to emphasize the fact that a marine reef aquarium not only can contain fish, but also a variety of invertebrates (hermit crabs, Turbo snails, and a variety of shrimp species—coral banded and peppermint shrimps, for example).

Coral Species

In addition, reef tanks may contain a wide assortment of coral species, both SPS, LPS and soft corals. Here is yet another vast topic just too long to talk about in this article. And since the topic of various corals is so vast, this too I will talk a bit about and save some of the best stuff related to corals for last! Just in case you decide to go that route later on down the road, rather than the all salty fish route.

Let's Set Up an Aquarium!

But for now the main purpose of this article is to help you get started in setting up your first operational saltwater aquarium, less the reef part! So if I have gained your interest so far, then it appears that you would like to learn more about the saltwater aquarium end of the hobby. So please, read on while I immerse you some more in this fun and rewarding hobby.

Capturing the moment: a group photo of several saltwater marine inhabitants and various corals within my 30-gallon Biocube Aquarium.

Capturing the moment: a group photo of several saltwater marine inhabitants and various corals within my 30-gallon Biocube Aquarium.

Fish Are Friends

Your aquarium fish, whether they be freshwater or saltwater, like the yellow watchman Goby in the photo, cannot only be considered pet friends, much like the family canine.They can also act as great watch fish!

Your aquarium fish, whether they be freshwater or saltwater, like the yellow watchman Goby in the photo, cannot only be considered pet friends, much like the family canine.They can also act as great watch fish!

Advice on "Plunging" Into the Saltwater Hobby

Okay, I already gave you a little insight of what to expect and what rewards can be achieved by transitioning from the freshwater to the saltwater end of this hobby. Besides the fear of making mistakes when first getting started, or for better words - concern that setting up a saltwater tank can be too much for your current budget. Or just too much to handle from the start, possibly because of time constraints. First start small! You can graduate to bigger and bigger things later on.

Start Small

Some of us who first get into the saltwater hobby do so by, and as I mentioned in the previous paragraph - starting small. What do I mean by small? When I refer to small I mean starting out with a cost-effective 20 gallon or smaller aquarium. This is usually called a Nano Tank. Technically speaking a a nano tank is an aquarium that is 15 gallons or smaller. Do not let the small size fool you, because I'm sure you've heard the phrase - "Good things come in small packages?" Well same applies here with the smaller Nano tank setup.

Bigger is not always necessarily better in this hobby. Because often bigger, though less preventive maintenance as far as water changes go. Can often results in higher costs for example associated with electricity used to to run pumps, filters and lighting. If you decide to propagate corals down the road. Certain corals require the intense light emitted by metal halide lamps to thrive. Metal Halides can contribute to a higher energy bill.

Plan Your Budget

So before you head out to purchase your first aquarium, do a little research and so - called pre-planning to make sure you stay within your own budget. Also if you're limited on space in your home or apartment than you may not have enough space for a larger aquarium such as a 55 gallon. So will have to make do with a smaller 30 gallon Biocube aquarium type setup or smaller, so things fit just right.


What Equipment Is Needed to Get Started?

Anyone interested in starting a saltwater aquarium of any size should possess or go out and purchase the following items first:

  • A separate 10 or 20 gallon Aquarium. (Even though not necessary. This is highly recommended as a quarantine, or hospital tank). I will explain further in the article.
  • 16 gallon or larger aquarium. ( This is your main, or display tank ). All fish and invertebrates will eventually be placed in your main tank.
  • A good size filter that will move a sufficient amount of water. I highly recommend the fluval canister filter.
  • depending on tank size - at least one power head to aid with water movement - one placed in each back corner of your aquarium for improved circulation. Some corals for example require moderate to high water flow.
  • A good heater to keep aquarium water between 72 to 78 degrees. It's a good idea to have 2 heaters of the similar wattage in case the element goes on one.
  • A reliable easy to read thermometer - preferably a digital thermometer.
  • A good multi spectrum LED light. More important if you plan on adding corals later on - High output VHO's or metal halide lamps affixed over your aquarium.
  • Live cured rock. ( about 2 lbs. per gallon of water ). Live rock is essential in cycling your new aquarium for the first time, prior to adding any livestock, such as fish. Or you can add a few bags of live aragonite sand, that will not only cycle your tank fairly quickly but will also act as your bottom substrate.
  • Substrate for the tank bottom Mentioned in the previous bullet point. This can be aragonite, white sand, crushed coral, or even fine black sand. Enough bags to produce a sand bed of 2 to 4 inches.p or more. Certain fish species like the engineer goby for example require a rubble type substrate in which they usually construct a little burrow within.
  • A couple different size fish nets.
  • A protein skimmer. Well not necessary at first. A skimmer may actually be very beneficial in removing more wastes, resulting in a healthier overall water chemistry - free of nitrates. Saltwater fish can tolerate nitrates up to about 40 PPM - (parts per million). While corals on the other hand thrive much better at a (0 to 5 ppm) nitrate level.

Did I forget anything? Basically this is the bare bones in starting up your first marine reef, or marine aquarium. Additions can be added later on based on your operating budget. Did you notice that my first bullet pointed item on this list was a quarantine tank. I'll explain why this is really a very good idea, though not necessary.

The Basic Quarantine Tank

The basic quarantine tank like the one in the photo that I set up.  Is a 20 gallon rectangular aquarium.  I have a light, thermostat, thermometer. A sponge filter in the corner powered by a basic air pump. And a external filter on rear of tank.

The basic quarantine tank like the one in the photo that I set up. Is a 20 gallon rectangular aquarium. I have a light, thermostat, thermometer. A sponge filter in the corner powered by a basic air pump. And a external filter on rear of tank.

What Is a Quarantine Tank?

I mentioned quarantine tank first rather than a main display tank on the above equipment list for very good reason. Mainly because this basic piece of equipment which need not be too fancy, is a good idea. A good idea in not only introducing new saltwater fish to your marine display tank after they have become acclimated. ( acclimation is the process by which you get a particular fish species or coral used to the water conditions in both your quarantine, as well as your display tank).

This I will also talk about in the next article as a sequel to this one. Because after your new tank has cycled for a good month or more. It will be ready for its first fish or corals, or both. Acclimation would be the next step you will have to learn to introduce your livestock to their new watery environment.

But also and probably more important to temporarily housing in the way of a quarantine tank. It will definitely be the fish or corals in your main display tank. And all this talk of two tanks may sound like a lot of extra work, but believe me, it will save you a lot of grief anguish and even money, if any of your livestock develop saltwater ich, or marine velvet. Both common parasitic diseases that can affect all saltwater fish and even wipe out a whole tank, if any of your prized fish specimens develop these diseases.

So what better reason could you want especially when it comes down to protecting prized, and often expensive specimens. After all your marine fish should be considered pets and treated as such. Just like you would treat your pet dog or feline.

Learn From Past Mistakes: Set Up a Quarantine Tank First

Even though I am a little wet behind the ears so to speak. At least as far as being an accomplished saltwater aquarist. I am by far not an expert on the topic but am learning very quickly. Not just by reading multiple articles on the topic, but also by simply learning as I go along. And more importantly learning from others in the hobby and learning from past mistakes that those others had made.

And one mistake according to other experienced hobbyists was not setting up a quarantine tank up before their main display tank. I consider myself to be a fairly patient individual, but when it comes to the saltwater end of this hobby - there is no such thing as too much patience! And like a lot of hobbies it is an ongoing learning experience. And this hobby is no different in terms of....You can't learn anymore, because you learned it all already!

So now you know why setting up a quarantine tank is so very important to the success of your first marine saltwater display tank. I do not want you to make the same mistake that I made and many others made, starting out in the hobby - losing 6 to 8 livestock or more to a parasitic infection that one of those 6 to 8 fish were carrying while being introduced into a display tank first, rather than a quarantine, or observation type tank. And as a result afflicted their tank mates resulting in death.

Enough about quarantine tanks for now - I'm sure I made this point crystal clear! So what's next on the list given I have purchased all or some of the equipment mentioned above? Well first and since I have been talking a great deal about quarantine tank, for the past few paragraphs. It may not be such a bad idea to set this tank up first basically to monitor newly purchased fish, or fish that may have picked up a parasite like saltwater marine Ich.

Three's a crowd. Fish species of similar temperament in a newly established saltwater aquarium, is often the key to a well established and peaceful environment.

Three's a crowd. Fish species of similar temperament in a newly established saltwater aquarium, is often the key to a well established and peaceful environment.

Setting Up Your Main Tank

Hopefully you set up your quarantine tank, before your main sixteen gallon or larger main display tank, that I emphasized in the prior paragraph. If you've read the article up to this point than it's obvious that you are a serious novice aquarist and are hooked on the topic that I am trying to convey to you. Thank you for reading on up to this point.

Sand and Live Rock

My so-called basic 20 gallon quarantine tank may look a bit more basic to some readers. But it is exactly that - basic. However I had added a couple bags of live aragonite sand and a square live rock block at center of aquarium. This is not necessary in a quarantine tank. And you should not add any substrate to the tank bottom, including aragonite. Also the live rock is not necessary either.

The only reason that I added the sand and live rock, is because this tank will eventually become an all coral tank, or frag type tank. As mentioned I'll touch upon corals and frags in a separate article as well. Frags or fragging is the art of separating and propagating corals from the mother colony. Again a totally different subject to be discussed in the future. And I am using as a light source a multi spectrum led light fixture set at a red colored spectrum. That's why you are seeing a pink tint to the aquarium water. A quarantine tank need only have a basic light fixture and nothing else.

Quarantining Your First Fish

So now you're all set and ready to go quarantine your first saltwater fish after your tank has completed the nitrogen cycle phase which is basically a good month. If you try to add any fish before this period you will undoubtedly shock, stress or worse yet - kill your precious livestock. Main reason is because during the beginning of the cycling process ammonia is being given off in the aquarium water. Ammonia and nitrites - nitrites being the second phase of the nitrogen cycle are highly toxic to fish as well as corals. And the ammonia in the water will burn your fish.

So please be patient while your quarantine tank completes the cycle. You can speed up this process by placing a small bit if fish food into the aquarium. Or better yet a small piece of dead shrimp. This in turn will rot in the tank and help speed up the cycling process. During the same period as you are cycling your quarantine tank. You can begin to set up your main or display aquarium. This is eventually where your newly introduced livestock from your quarantine tank will end up.

Try to Be Patient and Enjoy the Rewards

Again after about a month - six weeks to be in the safe side. Remember what I said earlier in the article? PATIENCE!! You can never have enough of it, especially when dealing with the saltwater end if this hobby. But in the end when you have completed the initial set up of both your quarantine tank and main display tank. You can sit back, relax, and reap all the rewards as a result from all of your hard work and pre-planning.

A variety of SPS Corals, including Kenya Tree, Blastomussa, Mushrooms and Duncan grace the author's displayaquarium.

Now it's time to sit back - relax and enjoy the show!

Saltwater Fish, Or Corals? Decisions, Decisions


James Bowden (author) from Long Island, New York on February 16, 2016:


Thanks again for adding some additional comments in reference to this article. And I'm glad you found that one fish of mine cute. He's definitely inquisitive I can tell you that. If it is the yellow one your referring to, then that is the yellow watchman goby you are referring to.

Definitely like a real pet. Very interesting to watch the goby family of saltwater fish. They have a unique personality all of their own, And I may also take you up on writing a few personal experience articles. I can tell you one thing I have plenty to write about right now. And thanks again for the suggestion.


Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on February 16, 2016:

Hi Jim. In reference to your reply above, I do recall you mentioning your mom and her health issues. There sure is a lot to do while taking care of an elderly parent. I went through a similar process with my Aunt, who made it to 98. There was so much that I experienced with that, that it lead the way to writing three hubs about it.

Maybe you might want to do that too. Hubs written from personal experience do very well. Especially when you write it in a way to teach others how to handle similar situations.

Oh, you also mentioned the YouTube video. I forgot to mention that in my last comment. Your tank is very colorful, and the cleanliness of it shows though in the video. Cute fish!

James Bowden (author) from Long Island, New York on February 16, 2016:

Hi Glenn and thank you for reading my article on the saltwater aquarium set-up. And you already know from not only reading my 3000 word article on this topic that there is a great deal involved in this end of the hobby. Hence the need to educate other readers with sequels to this topic. And it's definitely good to be able to sit down and pen a few more articles.

It's a plus for me now particularly since I have been going through a lot with my ill mom, as I believe I previously reiterated to you about who is currently undergoing dialysis and a lot of other trying medical issues.

The writing as well as the saltwater aquarium hobby at this point in my life, definitely keeps my mind occupied and off of the negative issues, that I am currently undergoing with her.

Again I really appreciate your very encouraging comments and look forward to writing more on this topic and others. As well as taking some time out to read your latest articles and other works, here within our online writing community.


Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on February 16, 2016:

You sure covered a lot of important details for setting up and maintaining a salt water tank. I used to breed fresh water fish, but it looks like maintaining a salt water tank is definitely a lot more work.

When I read the part about having a quarantine tank, it brought back a lot of memories. I had several tanks back in those days when this was my hobby, and one was mainly used to separate fish that became ill, or were injured in fights. My piranhas used to fight a lot.

I'll be looking forward to your continuation article where you said you'll discuss biological water chemistry. Good to see you're writing again. I think this is your first since those days when we had our local HubMeets.

James Bowden (author) from Long Island, New York on February 15, 2016:

Hi Bill and thanks for taking the time out to read my article. As you can see by the content. The saltwater aquarium side of the hobby is diverse and there is a great deal to talk about in this end of the hobby.

In addition to educating others about techniques, tips etc... That may assist them in first starting out with a saltwater aquarium. And it's great to get back into something else that I also enjoy - writing! So hopefully I can keep it up for awhile after a brief absence.

And I hear you with all of your outdoor critters. I'm sure they keep you quite busy just as my saltwater reef tank keeps my mind off of negative things. So again thanks for stopping by and greatly appreciate the encouragement.


Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 15, 2016:

Maybe some day, Jim. I'm too busy right now with all my outdoor critters. Good to see a new article from you.