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How to Set Up Your Saltwater Fish Tank Aquarium

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I own a 50-gallon saltwater fish tank, which I enjoyed setting up and decorating. I like sharing my experience as a saltwater tank owner.

Setting Up 50-Gallon Saltwater Fish Tank: Getting Started

So you have picked out your aquarium and are ready to begin setting it up. There are many things you need to consider when starting out. What kinds of fish are you going to add to your tank? What kind of lighting are you going to need?

In this article, we'll go over the following:

  • Live Sand
  • Saltwater
  • Live Rocks
  • Lighting
  • Aquarium Setup

Live Sand for Your Aquarium

The first thing you will need to put in your aquarium is live sand. The live sand contains live bacteria that help with your tank's initial water cycle and provides an environment your fish will be able to survive in.

As a rule of thumb, it is good to have about one inch of live sand in your tank. You can add up to two inches, but keep in mind that it will be easier for bad bacteria to breed and grow if you have more sand and not enough current.

For my 50-gallon fish tank, it took about 60 pounds of sand for a little over an inch of sand. The cost for live sand varies depending on where you purchase it from. I have found that most 40 pound bags of sand cost about $20.


The water, obviously, is a very important component of your tank setup. The salinity of your water is very important for keeping your tank friends happy and healthy. You can buy great, easy gadgets to calculate the salinity of your water so you can check yours occasionally to avoid evaporation or low salt content. Your salinity should be kept at about 1.021 to 1.026 S.G. (specific gravity).

Mixing Your Own Saltwater

You should adjust your salt content accordingly if your tank's salinity falls outside of this range. You can buy aquarium salt and mix it in with your water to start out. Purchasing a large bag of aquarium salt is about $15 or $20 and lasts about three months with the initial setup and water changes. However, you have to keep in mind that the water in your faucet contains things like calcium that can be harmful to your tank.

Buying Premixed Saltwater

The safest and easiest way to get saltwater for your tank is to buy it by the gallon at your local fish store. Most stores have premixed water that is the correct salinity and is mixed with purified water. It costs about $2 per gallon at my local pet store.

Live Rocks

Like the live sand, the rocks you are going to put in your tank are also "live" and contain useful bacteria for your tank's cycling process and help sustain a good living environment for your fish, anemones, and corals. For me, setting up the live rock is the most fun part of setting up an aquarium. This is the point where you get to decorate and design your tank exactly how you want it.

The great thing is that you don't have to depend on nature to give you the exact rock you had in mind. Many fish stores have the means to make and design man-made rocks that they put through a cycling process to make them "live."

Keep in Mind Your Fish's Needs

You do have to keep in mind that different fish require different surroundings. For example, if you get an eel, you will have to have many small areas for it to crawl through and hide in. So make sure you read up on what your fish are going to need before you place your rocks. If you wish to change the layout, you can; you just don't want to shock your fish by changing their surroundings all the time.

The rule of thumb is to have one pound of rock per gallon of water—so 50 pounds of rock for a 50-gallon fish tank. I have found that most live rock costs about $3 to $5 per pound unless you are buying the man-made rock, which can be a little more expensive.


The light you buy for your fish tank is very important. They usually come on a ballast with a set of four different bulbs. Make sure that when you purchase a light set, its height and width match your tank's size. If you can, get a light set that you can hang from your ceiling instead of putting it right on top of the tank. This will make it a lot easier to clean and care for your fish tank.

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You will want to talk to a tank expert to figure out which one you will need. For example, if you are going to put together a reef tank with hard or soft corals or certain fish, you will need special lighting.

The prices vary a lot for lights and replacement bulbs. I would recommend looking for a used light set because new ones can cost you up to $500 or more if you have a really big tank.

Aquarium Setup

To make sure your tank stays clean and healthy and has proper water flow and filtration, here are some of the things you'll need:

  • Filters: They are a must. They filter out waste and provide water flow.
  • Power heads: These help create more water flow, ensuring a good current. I have two in my 50-gallon tank.
  • Heater and thermometer: Your tank needs to be at a constant temperature (75 to 78 degrees or more for some corals) so your fish do not get stressed or unhealthy.
  • Protein skimmer: This skims the rocks and sand and is the best thing you can do for your tank as far as filtration goes. There are a wide variety of skimmers; the one I have found most useful is one that hangs off the side of your tank.
  • Pumps: These create a good water flow and often you won't need one that isn't already hooked up to your filter or skimmer.

For each of these items, you want to get the right product for your tank. Make sure that if you have a 50-gallon tank, you get pumps and filters for 50 gallons and up.

Consult Your Local Aquarium Store

The best thing to do when starting out is to make friends with the employees at your local saltwater aquarium store. These people have the best experience and have asked and answered practically any question you could have about your fish tank.


Grant Handford from Canada on September 04, 2012:

Great info and help for setting up salt tanks. I love my salt aquarium and am currently looking to upsize my tank. It will be my project for this winter.



Jenn from Pennsylvania on June 20, 2012:

Nice hub. I know that it can be much more difficult maintaining saltwater tanks compared to fresh water but the saltwater fish are also often more beautiful and interesting.

Sadie (author) from U.S. on January 18, 2012:

It is a blast to set up and get going. Good luck to you! I plan on posting more helpful hubs for aquarium buffs maybe they will be of use to you!

kerlynb from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^ on January 16, 2012:

Quite useful! We're planning to set up an aquarium for the kids to enjoy.

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