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How to Set Up a Saltwater Aquarium

This blog provides all the information that you will need to get your saltwater aquarium or reef tank setup. There are many different ways that you could set up a marine reef aquarium. This is but one way and it works for us. Some of the equipment listed below is optional, such as the sump…

This blog provides all the information that you will need to get your saltwater aquarium or reef tank setup. There are many different ways that you could set up a marine reef aquarium. This is but one way and it works for us.

Some of the equipment listed below is optional, such as the sump and refugium. These are optional pieces of equipment but very useful enhancements to your aquarium.

  • Aquarium
  • Lights
  • Light Timer (If not builtin to your light)
  • Salt Mix ( We recommend Tropic Marin Salt)
  • Sand
  • Live Rock
  • Protein Skimmer
  • Algae Scraper
  • Sump and/or Refugium (optional pieces of aquarium equipment)
  • Wavemaker Powerheads (multiple)
  • Food (depends on what you plan on keeping in your reef aquarium)
  • Thermometer
  • Heater
  • Test Kits ( pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, phosphate, calcium, alkalinity, iodine)
  • Reverse Osmosis filter for making up water or even better an RO/DI (deionization) filter.
  • Hydrometer or refractometer
  • 2 Five Gallon Buckets (clean and for fish tank only use)
  • Fish, Corals and other Invertebrates
  • Macro Algae such as chaetomorpha or gracilaria, for use in the refugium

How to set up a marine tank 

Prepare the Aquarium

  • Get the aquarium into position: Prosition the stand into place and make sure it is level. Be sure to leave space for electrical connections and equipment.

  • Clean the tank: Use fresh water and a soft cloth or sponge.

  • Add tank backing: You can paint the tank back a color 

  • Install the sump

  • Install the auto top off to add fresh water after water has avaperated.

  • Place the tank on the stand

Aquarium Filtration

External filters are highly recommended for marine fish tanks, as they are able to filter larger volumes of water. 

  • Mechanical filtration removed large particles from the water. Mechanical filtration is done by a sponge filter. This filter removes free-floating waste before it decays.
  • Biological filtration begins once your tank is properly cycled. Biological filtration is when bacteria in the tank breaks down dangerous ammonia, converting them to nitrites, and then the nitrites to less toxic nitrates. Biological filtration is also known as the nitrogen cycle.
  • Chemical filtration can be achieves using activated carbon. Activated carbon filter removes organic pollutants which cannot be removed by biological or mechanical filtration. 

Saltwater

There are two ways you can get saltwater. Either you buy it from a local fish shop or make your own. You will have to decide which method is best for you. For new marine keepers or people with small tanks, purchasing water is a quick and easy way.

Mixing Your Own Saltwater

Mixing saltwater at home is pretty straight forward. You make saltwater by mixing reverse osmosis de-ionized water (RODI), and aquarium salt, which you can purchase at a local fish store or online. Most people keep large plastic drums in their homes for mixing saltwater.

There is no one size fits all solution here and any large plastic barrel or similar storage container will do. Make sure you have a dedicated spot for your saltwater, and if you can make double the amount of saltwater you need for a water change. It is also good to have extra saltwater on hand in case of emergencies.

Marine Fish Tank Lighting

To enhance the colour of your marine fish and to ensure that your coral survives, actinic (blue) marine lights are essential. You should not use freshwater lights as they will not provide the necessary kelvin for the survival of your tank. Fluorescent lights are cheaper and provide a clean colour in your water, but they also produce heat so you will need to closely monitor the temperature in your water if you choose to have these. LEDs are made up from assorted diodes and cover all the bases from ultraviolet to infrared.

Pumps / Powerheads

Flow is an essential part of a healthy reef tank. Flow is created why powerheads and depending on the size of your reef tank you can one more than one powerhead creating flow. 

The surge of water created by a pump or wavemaker is important when keeping marine fish as it produces waves in your water.  They enjoy the movement in the water as it replicates their natural environment and helps to keep the water moving for filtration purposes. 

Auto top-ups

All aquariums evaporate, but marine aquariums need evaporation addressed. When evaporation occurs in saltwater, the only freshwater evaporates, and the salt remains. This means that if topped up with more saltwater, the water in the aquariums salinty to rise and this can cause problems.

You should only ever top-up with reverse osmosis water because it’s pure.

A lot of new marine keepers are surprised by the amount their aquarium evaporates, 25 litres of evaporation a week is normal. That also means that if left unchecked, systems will lose water and return pumps will run dry and stop pumping water around your aquarium.

An auto top-up device should be fitted to all marine aquariums, especially open-topped ones with sumps, and reefkeepers should always have a ready supply of top up water to hand, to manually top-up the top-up tank.

Heater

Almost all aquarium heaters are compatible with saltwater. You will need a heater that you attach inside your aquarium to achieve a temperature of 24 – 26°C.

Marine Aquarium Sump

 A sump is not a requirement for a marine fish tank, but it will house your equipment making your set up look tidy and attractive. They are a separate tank that is plumbed into the setup of your aquarium. 

Protein Skimmer

A protein skimmer is essential for a marine aquarium, as it reduces the organic waste that is built up over time in a marine aquarium and sits in the sump of your aquarium. 

Not to be confused with a surface skimmer, protein (from fish waste, coral waste, and food,) sticks to the bubbles and rise up a tube, where they overflow into a collection cup. 

Dissolved organic waste is removed from the water, making it cleaner, and more like that of a natural reef again. All those fine bubbles also increase oxygen and pH levels, and a skimmed reef tends to have fewer nuisance algae, phosphate, ammonia and subsequent nitrate than one without a skimmer because it’s pre-filtered off in liquid form.

Protein skimmers are available in many shapes and sizes and powered either by AC or DC pumps. Always buy the biggest and best skimmer your budget will allow for, and sump-based skimmers are better than hang-on skimmers because they have larger reaction chambers, and can accommodate larger pumps, meaning more bubbles, and better protein removal.

Reef Light

Proper lighting is important to the success of your reef tank. Corals are photosynthetic animals and need light to survive. That being said too much light too soon can cause unwanted algae blooms, and it’s always best to start out slow. When purchasing a light for your saltwater aquarium it is important to buy a light which is built specifically for this purpose. 

Saltwater Tank Gravel / Substrate

The preferred substrate in marine tanks is sand or crushed coral. This is what most saltwater livestock prefer and will benefit from. Live sand will assist with the filtration process and also helps keep the alkaline levels settled. 

Live Rock

Live rock is one of the huge perks of owning a marine aquarium, as they have the versatility to produce a beautiful creation. However, they are more than just pretty decorations; they become the main biological filter of a marine tank. Live rock produces plenty of algae and bacteria that contribute to a healthy aquarium. However, you need to set up your aquarium with live rock and water and then allow it to cycle, the live rock should be part of this cycling process so that the benefits of having it can be fully appreciated.

Water Conditions

Purified water should be used for marine aquariums, and the salinity should be kept between 28-36 ppt and nitrates should be kept below 40ppm for fish or 10ppm for corals. Weekly water changes are key to maintaining nitrate levels as it means that they won’t be affected drastically. Before adding purified water, apply marine salt up to 1 hour before you put the water in your tank to allow it to dissolve so that the equilibrium of your aquarium isn’t affected. When it comes to adding salt to your water, you will need to add 35 grams per 4.9 ounces (0.14 litres). You should only need to add salt to the new water that you are putting into your tank, however, it is important to do regular checks using a hydrometer.

Water Parameters
  • Alkalinity- 8-12 dKH
  • Calcium- 350-450 ppm
  • Magnesium- 1250-1350 ppm
  • Phosphate- <0.2ppm
  • Temperature- 23.5 – 26.5°C
  • Salinity- 35ppt or 1.0264 specific gravity

Hydrometers

Hydrometers will measure the salinity and gravity of your aquarium to ensure that your water is suitable for your fish and corals.

Cycling your tank             

You will need to take all of the above steps and have your entire tank set up and ready to go, and then leave it cycling for at least six weeks before you are able to add any fish. This allows bacteria to grow so that your fish can live happily in the environment you have created for them. Not cycling your tank will cause issues when it comes to the health of your fish.

When you are ready to add corals, start with hardy beginner corals like leathers, zoanthids, or mushrooms. These corals are perfect for filling up space in your aquarium and adding colour.

When making your choice, you should remember that not all animals are compatible with each other. If there is one fish, in particular, you want to check their compatibility with other fish and work on that list.

Testing Your Water 

It is paramount that the water conditions are checked regularly in a marine fish tank, including the nitrate and salinity levels. We have a selection of marine treatments and test kits that are great for tanks with fish as well as coral. After at least 6 weeks of cycling your tank, you are ready to add your fish! Be sure to do plenty of research so that you know which fish will safely live together so that you are not causing distress to your livestock and to ensure the success of your tank.

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