There is no doubt that the oceans of the world are home to some of the most stunningly beautiful creatures on earth.  From time immemorial people have harboured a desire to bring this beauty into their homes, and recent advances in the saltwater aquarium hobby have made it a great deal easier to enjoy the splendour of the ocean from your living room couch.

Even so, keeping saltwater fish is a great deal more difficult than keeping their less colourful freshwater relatives.  While setting up that first saltwater aquarium is much easier than it was a few decades ago it is still a time consuming and complicated undertaking.  It is important for any would-be fish keeper to be prepared with the right equipment and the right attitude.

While much of the equipment used to keep saltwater fish will be familiar to anyone who has ever set up an aquarium, there are a number of specialized pieces of equipment saltwater enthusiasts call their own.  Understanding how these pieces of equipment work and why they are so important is the best way to ensure success right from the start.

The Tank

The aquarium itself is of course the most basic, and most important, part of the saltwater tank adventure.  Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind here is that bigger really is better.  One of the biggest mistakes newcomers to the hobby make is skimping on the size of the tank.  While any size tank is capable of holding saltwater, setting up a saltwater tank less than 30 gallons in size is asking for trouble.

That is because the smaller the tank the smaller the margin for error, and the more dire the consequences of failure.  While a large tank may be able to withstand the inadvertent introduction of a contaminant, or an outbreak of disease, or a sudden spike in ammonia and nitrate levels, the residents of a smaller aquarium are less likely to survive.

Compared to the other costs of setting up a saltwater tank the cost of the aquarium itself is quite small.  So do yourself a favor and invest in the biggest tank you can afford.  While 30 gallons is the absolute minimum, it is a good idea to look at tanks of at least 55 gallons, and larger if you have room.  Also keep in mind that a rectangular tank will provide the greatest surface area – an important consideration for any type of fish keeping.  Tanks that are high but narrow will restrict the surface area available, and this will restrict the number and kinds of fish you can successfully keep.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Lighting the tank is an important consideration whether you plan to keep freshwater or saltwater fish.  The good news is that unless you plan to set up a reef tank the lighting that works with a freshwater tank will work just as well for a saltwater setup.  Reef tanks are not recommended for beginners anyway, so a good quality hood with a strong fluorescent light source should work just fine for that first saltwater tank.

Filtration Choices

Filtration is also a constant between freshwater and saltwater aquariums.  No matter what type of fish you plan to keep you will need to provide good quality filtration to keep them happy and healthy.  It is vital to choose a filtration system that is appropriate to the size of the tank – if you are unsure which type of filter to buy it is best to err on the side of caution.

The filtration system you choose should provide both biological and mechanical filtration, both filtering particles from the tank and providing a means for good bacteria to thrive.  Biological filtration is an essential part of any successful aquarium, and it is important to consider the choice of filters carefully. Many modern filters, including both in-tank and outside filters, combine biological and mechanical filtration into a single unit, making it easier for hobbyists to keep their charges healthy.

Protein Skimmers

Saltwater aquariums do have one extra requirement when it comes to filtration, and that piece of equipment is known as a protein skimmer.  The purpose of the protein skimmer is to remove organic compounds and other waste products from the tank.  This removal is over and above what would normally take place with traditional filtration methods.

The protein skimmer uses a water-filled chamber to produce bubbles that rise up through that chamber.  The molecules of waste are attracted to these bubbles, and as a result, they can be carried up over the top of the skimmer where they are collected in a special cup.  This collection cup can then be emptied by the hobbyist to keep the tank clean and well filtered.

Lay Down a Good Foundation

Your saltwater aquarium will need a good quality substrate to cover the bottom of the tank, and the gravel typically used for freshwater tanks will not be appropriate here.  Instead, saltwater hobbyists should use sand or crushed coral for their tanks.  It is important to use only sand that is specifically marketed for use in saltwater aquariums.

Heat Things Up

The heating requirements for a saltwater tank are much the same as those for freshwater fish.  The key is to keep the tank at a temperature that is appropriate for the fish you choose.  When setting up a community tank it is important to know the temperature requirements of each species and adjust the heater appropriately.

It is a good idea to choose a heater that will be easy to adjust from outside the tank.  There are many such heaters on the market these days, so look for one that will be easy to adjust as the need arises.  You will also need a good quality thermometer to monitor the temperature and make adjustments from time to time.

Sea Salt

The sea salt mixture is what will make that new saltwater tank a saltwater tank.  There are many brands of sea salt on the market, so be sure to choose a quality brand.  The cheaper brands of sea salt can end up costing you big time in terms of lost fish and wasted efforts.  Be sure to purchase extra sea salt since you will need to add additional salt during the regular water changes.  You will also need a quality hydrometer to keep track of the salinity of the water.  As with the temperature it is important to know the salinity requirements of each species of fish you plan to keep.  Some fish will need very little salt to maintain good health, while other species will need water that is extremely high in salt.  Knowing the needs of each fish will help you avoid costly mistakes.

Water Purification Measures

If you get your water from the city or town where you live it likely has high levels of chlorine and/or chloramines, both of which are highly toxic to both freshwater and saltwater fish.  You will need to purchase special chemicals to remove these contaminants to make the water safe.  

Even if your tap water comes straight from a wall it may still contain lots of heavy metals and other compounds that are potentially harmful to the fish you plan to keep.  Many saltwater fish are quite sensitive to heavy metals like lead and copper, so it is a good idea to invest in a reverse osmosis water purifier before setting up a saltwater tank.  This type of system can provide the important side benefit of better tasting and healthier tap water for the humans in the family.

Live Rock

The concept of live rock can be a difficult one for those not familiar with the aquarium hobby.  Live rock is simply a rock that has been colonized with beneficial bacteria.  These friendly bacteria provide excellent biological filtration as they feed on waste products that would otherwise build up to toxic levels in the closed space of the aquarium. . Live rock is typically sold by the pound, and newcomers to the hobby should consult with the staff at their local aquarium store to determine the optimum quantity for their new tanks.

Let it Sit

After all that hard work and expense it is tempting to run out and buy a bunch of beautiful saltwater fish, but it is important to avoid that temptation.  All aquariums, whether they are freshwater or saltwater, need time to establish the colonies of beneficial bacteria that do all the heavy lifting in the aquarium world.  Without these beneficial bacteria the tank will quickly be overwhelmed by harmful gases and other materials, and all those beautiful (and expensive) fish will be lost.  

New saltwater tanks should be left running and empty until they have had time to cycle properly.  Be sure to turn on all filtration, heating, lighting etc. and make sure that the live rock is in place.  Having some test kits on hand will make it easier to determine when it is safe to add saltwater fish and invertebrates.  It is a good idea to invest in test kits to measure things like ammonia levels, nitrate levels, water hardness, etc.

For those who just can’t wait to get started it is possible to cut some time off the normal cycling process.  One way to do this is to simply place a small amount of fish food in the tank each day.  The bacteria that feed off this waste food will help to establish the colonies that will provide biological filtration.  The more expensive option is to purchase a small amount of these beneficial bacteria to establish a colony more quickly.  Even with these options, however, it is important not to rush the process.  It is much better to take your time and get off to a good start than to have to tear the whole thing down and start over.

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