I started Saltwater Aquarium Blog in 2009, and despite the fact that I have written thousands of words on the topic and published a book on the subject, I realized that I never wrote a comprehensive blog post that simplifies the saltwater aquarium setup process. That was the inspiration for this blog post. If you have not set up a saltwater tank yet, I hope this article helps get you excited and helps you feel a little more comfortable. I know when I started out, I felt overwhelmed and a bit unsure of what it would take. Hopefully this article helps you take that first step. If you have already set up your own saltwater tank, leave a comment at the end of the post and let us know what your most important advice to help someone else figure out how to set up a saltwater tank…the post is more than 4,000 words long…but surely I must have missed something…
Saltwater Aquarium Setup Guide: How to Set Up a Reef Tank
Step 1: Decide what style of saltwater aquarium you want to set up
The first step in learning how to set up a saltwater aquarium is to actually take a moment to envision what your saltwater tank is going to look like, once it is set up. Close your eyes and picture the tank in your mind. What does it look like? What types of fish and invertebrates are your saltwater tank? To have the greatest chance of success, you want to have an idea of what animals you hope to keep before you proceed learning how to set up a saltwater tank. Here are a few of the most popular options:
- Fish only (FO)
- Fish only, with live rock (FOWLR)
- Species specific
If you are not sure which type of saltwater aquarium setup you want, or if you want to learn more about each of these aquarium styles, you can find more information here.
All-in-one or Build Your own
Another import decision to make, before you plan your saltwater aquarium setup and get started is to decide whether or not you want to purchase an all-in-one kit or build your own aquarium by purchasing your tank and equipment separately. The first option (buying an all-in-one aquarium kit) is the easiest way to get started, building your own, of course, provides you with the greatest flexibility and lets you create exactly what you want and need. That’s really a personal choice based on your own personality and resources. Popular all-in-one aquarium brands are: JBJ Nano Cubes and Coralife BioCubes. You should be able to find them at your local fish store or online at Amazon.com or any specialty online aquarium store. If you would like to learn more about these options, you can find more information at the manufacturer sites: JBJ Nano Cube Coralife BioCube If you are ready to purchase, check out the prices on Amazon first. If you decide to buy, as a result of clicking the Amazon link (it is called an affiliate link), I will get credit for the referral and can earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. No pressure, just want to be clear that there is the potential of a financial benefit there. What is most important to me is that you do your research and buy from a place you know and trust. Support the companies that you believe in–if that’s your local fish store–buy there. If you choose to use this (or any other affiliate link on my site), THANK YOU! Ok, sorry for the digression there…let’s get back to it.
Acrylic or glass
What material do you want your saltwater aquarium setup made from? The two big choices are acrylic (a type of plastic) or glass (a type of…um…glass). Acrylic is more lightweight than glass. So if you know you are going to move in a year or two…maybe you want to buy an acrylic tank. One thing to watch out for is that acrylic scratches more easily than glass, but if it gets really scuffed up, you can actually buff out the scratches–which is a benefit to acrylic–whereas scratches in glass are more permanent. But if you think about it…in order to buff out the scratches in an acrylic tank, you have to empty the tank and do some hard work–so weigh the pros and cons of each material before you buy. For the record–I would be comfortable recommending either. If you want to save some money, or get a bigger tank than you could afford if you purchased a new tank, try to find a used and scratched up, acrylic tank and repair it. If you’re willing to put the time in, you can get it looking good as new. If interested to see how much work would be involved in repairing an acrylic tank, check out the video below. You would need an acrylic repair kit like this one in order to complete this repair yourself:
Picking the location of your saltwater aquarium setup is an important decision to make along your journey to learn how to set up a saltwater tank. There are a few things to keep in mind when deciding where the best location for your aquarium is. The best spot to set up your saltwater aquarium is somewhere that:
- Able to support the weight
- Won’t be ruined if it gets wet
- Not prone to major hot or cold temperature changes
Your new saltwater aquarium setup is going to be HEAVY. A 20-gallon aquarium (75 liters) will way over 200 pounds. The 92-gallon (378 liter) corner aquarium in my house weighs more than 1050 lbs (476 kilograms). So the most important thing is to make sure your aquarium is in a location that can handle the weight. If you aren’t sure how heavy the tank you want to buy is going to be, you can check out this awesome reference table here.
Able to get wet
The area (mostly the floor, but also the walls) surrounding your saltwater aquarium setup is going to get wet. Water will also evaporate out of your tank and into the air in the room, increasing the humidity of the air in the room. So if you need dry air to sleep…you wouldn’t want to put the aquarium in your bedroom…or if you don’t have a way to ventilate and dehumidify, you might not want to put it in your basement. If you have brand new hardwood floors made from rare Brazilian rain forest wood that warps the first time it gets wet…you probably don’t want to put your fish tank on that wood. I recommend you be careful and think it through to make sure you’re not disappointed later. But water has a habit of splashing and dripping.
You need to be able to reach into your saltwater aquarium setup to clean the glass or arrange rock-work. If you have any plumbing running behind or below the tank, you also need to be able to get in there. So make sure you place your aquarium somewhere you can access it.
You want to enjoy your aquarium, don’t you? After all, that’s why you are getting into the hobby. Pick a place in your home where your tank will be visible and you will enjoy it. Just remember that it will be giving off light and will make some noise, so the best spot may or may not be in the room where you watch television or record your audio podcast. Other than the light/noise contribution to the room, focus on placing it where it looks awesome and you will enjoy it.
If you have a room in your house that always heats up…or is freezing in the winter…or where the sunlight blazes is and bakes everything with radiation…you may not want to put your tank there. A common myth is that placing your tank next to a window will cause major algae outbreaks. I don’t necessarily agree with that in most cases for a saltwater aquarium setup…but I do think you should determine if the window is going to be a major source of heat loss or heat gain for your tank. If you have drafty windows or the sun heats up a room in your house (above the temperature you would want for your tank ~78 degrees F) you may want to set it up somewhere else. I have my tanks next to a window in my house and have no issues with heat or extra light, but your situation may be different depending on how warm or cold that room gets as a result of the direct sunlight.
Equipment and test kits/equipment
In addition to the tank itself, you are also going to need some equipment to keep the saltwater aquarium setup running and keep the animals or plants in your tank happy and healthy. From an equipment perspective you need the following (at a minimum):
- Water movement
- Temperature control (heater and/or chiller)
- Maintenance gear (gravel vacuum and bucket)
For more information, check out the equipment guide page. From a test kit perspective, there are 9 water parameters that you should pay attention to, to some degree. You can learn all about the 9 most important saltwater aquarium water parameters and which test kits are essential here. If monitoring 9 water parameters sounds intimidating. Don’t worry. Check out the article, it will help you focus on the most important.
How to Set Up a Saltwater Aquarium: Leak test the tank first
I always recommend that you leak test your saltwater aquarium setup in a location that won’t get damaged if it gets all wet–do you have a patio behind your house or a corner of the garage where you can set up shop for a few days? If so, I recommend you put your aquarium on the stand, fill it with water from your garden hose (if you have one…or with buckets if you don’t), dry the outside of the tank and just let it sit there for a couple days. Every now and then, over those couple of days, take a trip out and look for any major or minor leaks. Does the water level stay relatively constant over those two days (there will be some slow evaporation), do you have any beads of water showing up on the outside seams? Any rivulets of water streaming down (hopefully NOT) or dare I say PUDDLES on the ground? I hope, hope, hope that this is a total waste of your time and that you don’t have any leaks in your saltwater aquarium setup somewhere, but if you do, you’ll be glad you found them here…on the concrete floor of the garage…rather than in your living space. Once you feel comfortable that the vessel is sea (water) worthy, siphon out the water with the gravel vacuum/siphon tube you picked up at the store and drain your tank. You don’t want this to happen in your den:
Move the tank to the chosen spot
Once you are sure the tank does not leak, it is safe to move into your living space. Based on the 5 considerations listed above for selecting the best location for your saltwater aquarium, it is now time to set up a saltwater aquarium in your preferred location.
Check to make sure the aquarium is level
By now, I suspect you are really anxious to get started, and I keep giving you extra steps and things to check, but another important thing to be sure of is that your tank is level. If your saltwater aquarium setup is leaning to one side of the other, the saltwater you fill the aquarium with will also lean to that side and will stress that joint/seam. It may eventually leak. So make sure your final location is level–and check it with a tool appropriately called… a level. If you don’t own a level, you can get one at any hardware store in the world (most likely), or you can buy one online. Here is my affiliate link to an inexpensive torpedo level at Amazon.com if you want to add it to your shopping cart.
How to Set Up a Saltwater Tank: add your substrate: sand or crushed coral (or don’t)
Once you have set the empty saltwater aquarium on the stand in the final location, it is now time to add your substrate. Substrate is just a fancy aquarium nerd word for the material (usually sand or crushed coral) you want to place in the bottom of the tank. Your choice of substrate should be based in both aesthetics and functionality.
Aesthetics of the aquarium substrate
Take a moment now to close your eyes and imagine your saltwater aquarium one year from now. What does it look like? Is it filled with hard corals? Soft corals? Swirling with fish? What is at the bottom of the tank? Do you want a layer of white sand or maybe even an exotic colored sand? Or perhaps you prefer the look of crushed corals and shells? Maybe you even want a bare bottomed tank. The choice is yours. First and foremost, it is a choice of personal preference and aesthetics. This is going to be your masterpiece, so go with the substrate that gives you the look you want.
Functionality of the aquarium substrate
There are some practical, functional considerations associated with the substrate you choose. Whether you pick coarse or fine sand, the fact of the matter is that each grain of sand or crushed coral has surfaces that bacteria will grow on. Those bacteria form the base of your biological filter and actually help make your saltwater aquarium an appropriate habitat for the creatures in your tank. The bacteria that live at the top of your sand bed (as well as on every other wet surface in your aquarium) convert the toxic chemical ammonia into nitrite and then eventually nitrate. Pretty cool, eh? Now, it is noteworthy to point out that coarse sand or crushed coral substrates can be a little dirtier than fine sands. That is because food and waste particles can fit into the nooks and crannies (does that make you hungry for an English Muffin?) . If you don’t vacuum that waste out, it will slowly pollute your tank over time and could cause your nitrates to rise. But, it is not the end of the world and is also not something to worry excessively about. That cleanliness factor, however, is one of the major reasons many people decide on a bare bottom tank. Any extra food or waste is easily identified and removed. You will also notice that tiny little creatures (copepods, amphipods, bristleworms and other fun critters) will take up residence in your substrate. Really cool stuff.
Deep Sand Bed
If you have a tall tank, you may want to consider creating a deep sand bed (sometimes abbreviated DSB in online saltwater aquarium forums like Reef Central). In addition to creating a great place for bacteria and copepods and other critters to grow, a deep sand bed also creates a great place for anaerobic bacteria to grow.
These are bacteria that live without oxygen. Deep in the sand bed (see where the name comes from?), these bacteria actually remove nitrate from the water column, effectively removing the waste from the tank. DSBs are not all roses…and in fact…they smell more like rotten eggs if you stir them up…but they can be a fun and functional option for your substrate.
Wash, wash, wash
Believe it or not…sand is dirty. Unless you purchased some ultra-premium brand of mega-washed sand (how is that for a marketing claim…not too shabby), you will want to take the time to wash your sand before placing it in your aquarium. If you don’t (and maybe even if you do…) your tank is going to be very cloudy for the first several days while the small dust-sized particles in the sand (stirred up by the water) settle-out. If you can get some of those particles out in advance by washing the sand thoroughly, you will be a much happier saltwater aquarium owner.
More information about picking the sand
For more information bout picking the right sand for your reef tank, check out this article here.
Arrange your rock-work
Once you have poured your sand or crushed coral substrate into the aquarium, you can move on to the rock-work. Two of the most common types of rock mentioned in the saltwater aquarium hobby are dry rock and live rock. For some saltwater aquarium aquascape inspiration, check out the images in this Reef Central thread. You can also read more in this article here.
This is the kind of rock you would by ‘off-the-shelf’ in your local fish store. Typically, dry rock is sold by the pound, but it generally much less expensive than live rock. Because of the potential cost savings associated with dry rock, a lot of saltwater aquarium hobbyists buy dry rock to use as the foundation of their rock-work. The term, “dry rock,” refers to two elements–the first, and most obvious, is that this type of rock is generally sold dry…the second, perhaps less obvious implication of the fact that it is sold dry is that this type of rock is not colonized with helpful bacteria or interesting invertebrates…it is just a dry chunk of the earth.
Live rock, by comparison, is a lightweight rock that has bacteria, algae and invertebrates living on and in it. Live rock is also generally sold by-the-pound and is several times more expensive than dry rock. As such, many people choose to use “Live Rock” more sparingly than dry rock, opting to use the live rock in the most visible areas to cover up the less desirable dry rock. Over time, you could achieve a degree of reef alchemy, because any rock (including dry rock) submerged in a saltwater aquarium would become live rock, once the rock is colonized with the bacteria, algae and invertebrates associated with the term live rock.
Mix up your saltwater
Now it is time to mix up your saltwater and place it in the tank. Ideally, it is best to mix your saltwater up at least a day before you plan to use it, but since this is the first time you are setting up your saltwater aquarium…I’ll give you a pass…because you probably don’t even own enough salt buckets yet to make that work. For now, just mix up a bucket, lug it over to your aquarium and fill ‘er up. Don’t worry too much about what salt mix brand to purchase. If you want to read my review of aquarium salt mixes, you can find that here.
How to mix the saltwater
If you have never mixed your own saltwater before and you want to know what is involved with the process, you can check out this short video from YouTube. Trust me, they even make this look more difficult than it has to be. Yes, you should stir up the water until the water clears. Yes, you should heat it and leave it to settle over night. All of that is best practice. All of that is what you should do on an ongoing basis. But to get started, you just measure out the right size scoop…drop in in the bucket, fill with water up to the line…and stir.
A quick note of caution. If you ARE mixing up your water and placing it directly in your saltwater aquarium setup, there is a little risk that you will shock the living stuff on your live rock. So if you have some expensive, killer live rock with awesome stuff growing on it (and you are worried about losing it), you may want to spend a little more time to let your water rest (and stabilize) over-night before adding it to your aquarium. I’m making an assumption here, however, that the extra caution is unwarranted in most cases. Use your judgement when you set up you saltwater aquarium.
Place your powerheads
Having insufficient water flow is one of the top 5 most common saltwater aquarium mistakes. I will send you a free copy of my e-Book: Avoid the 5 MOST COMMON Saltwater Aquarium Mistakes for signing up for my email newsletter, where you can read more about it. But the short version is this: water flow helps your tank in a lot of ways and you want to be sure not to have too little flow. Powerheads are a great, inexpensive way to generate a lot of water flow in your tank.
Place your heater gently and out of site
For the purposes of this best saltwater aquarium setup guide tutorial, I am assuming that you do not have a sump–because there are a few additional steps if you have one. If you own an aquarium with a sump, you could really place the heater in that sump area just about any time you wanted. But if you don’t have a sump, I would recommend you install the aquarium heater inside your aquarium after you have placed your sand, rocks and water inside the tank. That way, you can gently place your heater in an out-of-sight location without fear of banging it around or damaging it.
Set up any remaining equipment
If you have any other remaining equipment (a hang-on-the-back protein skimmer or refugium, wave maker, dosing pump, UV sterilizer, etc.) set it up now. To keep this blog post under control, I’m not going to go into detail for each of those steps. All of that equipment I listed above is optional for the beginner. They make for a better, more sophisticated aquarium system, but they are not required, by any means. For that reason, and the reasons of brevity, I will leave those topics to other blog posts. To read more about how to set up a protein skimmer for your saltwater aquarium , you can find that here. Read more about how to set up a refugium for your saltwater aquarium. Learn about why you want to set up a refugium.
Plug it in and turn it on
Plug everything in and turn it on. Depending on the size of your saltwater aquarium, your electric company should send out a rep to thank you, personally. Make sure you use a drip loop with your electrical wires.
Add a pinch of food…let it sit…for a few weeks
That might sound weird, but the next thing you have to do is cycle your aquarium. That’s another one of the most common mistakes people make when setting up their saltwater aquarium. Use your ammonia, nitrite and nitrate test kits to determine when your tank has fully cycled (you should see a spike in ammonia concentration before it goes to zero, followed by a spike of nitrite concentration before it goes to zero and finally a gradual increase (for the rest of your fishy days) in nitrate. Once you witness that spike of ammonia and nitrite, followed by an increase in nitrate, your aquarium is cycled. Congratulations, you have set up a saltwater aquarium.
Add your first saltwater fish
You are now ready to add your first fish. Here is a recommendation on good saltwater aquarium starter fish for beginners Here are 5 fish you should avoid How to acclimate fish
With some hard work, dedication and a bit of good luck, your saltwater aquarium setup could look like this before you know it:
Don’t just take my word for it…here is what others are saying
Saltwater Aquarium Blog Newsletter Community Member Chris H. sent me a note with a few suggestions I think are really awesome when planning out a new saltwater aquarium setup like this. He suggests that before you get started with your saltwater aquarium setup, you should decide how much time you have available and want to devote to the tank (and I agree with him). Once you get things set up, the tank requires some ongoing tender loving care. It is probably best to enter into this hobby with eyes wide open and be sure you’re willing to commit to that before you get started.
Chris also advises you to try the tank out in the location you want for a few days to get a feel for how it fits in and can be viewed from all angles to make sure you picked the perfect spot…before you fill it up. It’s really worthwhile to think location through before you set everything up (great points, Chris).
One last (extremely helpful) piece of advice from Chris is to consider how much room ‘all your stuff’ is going to take up. It’s best to plan ahead so you don’t end up piling things up on the floor next to the tank…especially if you co-habitate with other humans in a community
Conclusion: Saltwater Aquarium Setup Guide: How to Set Up a Reef Tank
Thanks for reading all the way through this how to set up a best saltwater aquarium setup guide tutorial post. I think this may have been the longest post I have ever written. I hope you found it helpful. If you would like to receive links to helpful articles like this sent to your email inbox, sign up for the Saltwater Aquarium Blog Newsletter.