A quarantine tank setup is a crucial part of owning and maintaining a saltwater aquarium. You’ll ensure the safety of every fish and invertebrate you add to a tank. Not to mention you’ll save yourself hefty medication bills down the road. But how do go about making sure your quarantine zone doesn’t turn into an incubation tank for disease? And why is this step so critical? Not to worry – you’re going to get a crash course on everything you ever wanted to know (and possibly things you didn’t!).
Table of Contents: Quarantine Tank Setup
- The Purpose of a Quarantine Tank
- Quarantine Tank Setup Equipment
- Quarantine Tank Setup: Step-By-Step
- Careful Quarantine Observation
- For More Information
When you finish your quarantine tank setup, you accomplish multiple functions. That separate tank is:
- A physical barrier between new saltwater fish and the display tank, preventing contamination from occurring.
- The easiest way for you to closely observe and monitor the behavior of the new saltwater fish out in the open. Most newly introduced saltwater fish hide in live rock or other structures in your aquarium and only come out once they reach a minimum comfort level. And that varies with species and individual.
- A way for you to safely treat and remove any health threats without harming any of your other livestock.
- The “recovery place” for your newly purchased saltwater aquarium fish to eat, gain strength, and recover from the stresses of shipping and display at the local fish store. Not to mention getting them ready to compete for food and shelter with the fish in your reef tank.
Why Quarantine Your Fish?
Saltwater fish in the aquarium hobby are prone to injury, disease, infection, and parasites. The collection and transportation from the aquaculture facility or reef often cause damage and stress. The closed systems the fish are kept in are ideal for harboring and transmitting diseases while lacking the natural counter-measures which keep infestations in check in natural habitats.
Just ONE infected fish can quickly spread disease or parasites throughout a tank. The cascade of events then leads to devastating consequences. Once your display tank gets infested, it can be a nightmare to get clean and free of parasites again.
Have you heard the expression “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” In the saltwater aquarium hobby, an ounce of prevention is worth a KILOGRAM of cure. This is because a kilogram is 2.2 times heavier than a pound. (And that’s how serious you need to take preventing parasites and disease entering your aquarium)
What About Other Tank Life?
Incidentally, fish aren’t the only lifeforms you want to “cycle” through your quarantine tank. ANYTHING carries the potential to bring in parasites or bacteria. So you’ll want to make sure your invertebrates, live rock, and plants spend time inside the quarantine, too. Otherwise, you’ll go through all of your work with your fish only to expose them to possible problems in your display tank from other sources. And live rock? It can bring PLENTY of hitchhikers along! Some you may not mind, but others can wreak havoc on your tank. (Aiptasia, anyone?)
So make sure that any new creature you bring home (or anything that might HOUSE a creature) gets a “time out.” (You’re not going through this quarantine tank setup for nothing, after all!)
You don’t need a lot of fancy gear for a quarantine tank setup. The basic premise of a quarantine tank is a small, no-frills tank, using separate equipment and water from your display tank. So you don’t need a bunch of fancy equipment:
- 10 or 20-gallon (38-76L) tank, complete with a lid and light
- Sponge filter (or other inexpensive, easy to set up filter, including hang-on-back style)
- Air pump and airline
- Aquarium heater
- PVC Pipe
- Surge protector/power strip
- Preferred brand of aquarium salt
I easily tracked down a sponge filter, heater, air pump, and airline for a few bucks on Amazon. You can also watch for sales at your local fish store. Stores in my area periodically run a dollar-per-gallon sale every now and then. That’s a great time to pick up a spare tank for a low, low price.
Once you have your supplies gathered, you’re ready to get started on your quarantine tank setup. We’ll walk through every step, one at a time. Remember, you’re creating a healthy environment for your new aquarium additions. So you want to take as much care with this process as you did with your display tank. Even if you don’t plan to show off your quarantine work, you want your fish to feel safe and comfortable inside. More importantly, you need to e able to pick up potential health problems ASAP.
So roll up your sleeves, and let’s get to work on that quarantine tank setup!
Step 1: Preparing the Quarantine Tank
So I missed one crucial piece of equipment you’ll need for your quarantine tank setup; you’ll also need a sponge. I prefer Scotch-Brite and Magic Eraser brands, but you can use whatever sponge you have available. You just want to make sure it’s brand new, with no soap or chemicals embedded in the sponge.
The first step in quarantine tank setup is to clean it out. You DON’T want to use harsh chemicals – or ANY chemicals unless you absolutely have to. Soak the tank for several minutes in clean freshwater to soften any hard mineral deposits. Then scrub it clean with your sponge. I prefer to clean my tanks outside (weather permitting) so I can splash around a bit and use the hose to fill the tank quickly.
If you have hard mineral deposits on the glass that won’t come out with a simple scrubbing, try using a razor blade (ONLY if the tank walls are made from glass, NOT acrylic). The hard deposits should scrape off.
If you previously had an infected fish in the tank, consider disinfecting the tank using hyposalinity. Hyposalinity is a fancy term for a solution with a low concentration of salt. The best low salt solution is (you guessed it) freshwater. Saltwater parasites generally don’t survive in freshwater, so run your tank for a few days with fresh water (after scrubbing it out – a good cleaning is needed to battle any kind of infection or infestation).
Step 2: Quarantine Tank Setup
The quarantine tank setup is fairly straightforward. It is best to find an out-of-the-way location where your fish can gradually get used to living in your home.
- Place the tank on its stand.
- Fill it with saltwater.
- Place the heater in the tank, and set the temperature (if needed) to 78F/25.5C. Plug the heater into the power strip.
- Connect the sponge filter to the airline and submerge the filter in the water.
- Squeeze the sponge to remove any bubbles and prevent it from floating up.
- Connect the airline to the air pump and plug it into the power strip.
- Place a few short lengths of PVC pipe in the tank to give the fish somewhere to hide.
- Put the lid on top.
- Plug lights into a timer and then connect the timer to your power strip.
- Go grab a snack and congratulate yourself on a job well done with your quarantine tank setup.
Step 3: Cycling Your Quarantine Tank
Just because you filled your quarantine tank with salt water doesn’t mean it’s ready for fish. When fish are kept in an aquarium, they release waste products containing ammonia into the water. Ammonia is toxic and can burn or kill fish when they reach high enough levels. Sometimes, this mysterious death is called new tank syndrome. To avoid new tank syndrome, you must cycle the aquarium before you can add those first fish. Be sure to cycle your tank and confirm the biological filtration is working properly before adding your first fish.
Step 4: Adding Fish to the Quarantine Tank
Once your quarantine tank finishes cycling and you pick out the perfect fish for your aquarium, it’s best to acclimate the fish to your aquarium water before dropping them into the tank. Place the new fish in a bucket or small plastic container and use a drip acclimator to drip water from the quarantine tank into the bucket. Once you drip enough water (double or triple the original volume of water) gently scoop your new fish out of the bucket and transfer them quarantine using a specimen container (or similar plastic container).
Try not to add too many fish to the quarantine tank at the same time! This can compromise all of your careful quarantine tank setup work – not to mention leading to stress for the new additions. You don’t want to cope with either problem if you can help it.
Step 5: Monitoring Fish in Quarantine
You want to monitor the fish in your quarantine tank for at least 30 days. Thirty days is the BARE minimum and even then it’s a bit risky. Since parasites like saltwater ich have a lifecycle of about 28 days (depending on the temperature and a few other variables), you have a reasonable assurance that the coast is clear if you monitor your fish in quarantine for those 30 days and observe no parasites or suspicious behaviors such as shimmering, scratching, etc.
But if you have patience, you can (and should) wait even longer.
While monitoring your fish in quarantine, you also want to test the water for ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. If your tank is properly cycled and the biological filter is working as it should, you should detect NO ammonia or nitrites. If you test and discover ammonia, take immediate action and do a partial water change to lower the toxic concentration.
You should also pay close attention to the behavior and condition of your fish to make sure they aren’t exhibiting stress from the higher levels. If you know you have species that are delicate (and need pristine water conditions), single them out for particular observation.
Periodically check the pH, temperature, and specific gravity to make sure the important reef aquarium water parameters are stable and normal in your tank.
Feed your fish small meals a few times each day. And take the time to watch the feeding closely to ensure your fish are active, healthy, and eating properly. Immediately clean up any uneaten food.
Visually inspect and observe the fish for parasites, cuts, scrapes, and any signs of injury or infection. If you see any damage or parasites, do further research to investigate the recommended treatment options (you’ll find everything from hyposalinity to antibiotics). Take the appropriate action.
Please note that if you DO detect a parasitic infestation (like saltwater ich) you have to start the calendar count-down of your quarantine period over AFTER you rid your tank of the pest.
If you are going to properly use a quarantine tank setup, you have to be sure you maintain your livestock in quarantine for the full amount of time. And that means you need to be absolutely positive the fish showed no symptoms during that time. The best method to help with this is to write down your observations daily in a journal.
If you don’t record your observations, you run the risk of missing a day, forgetting what you saw, or even convincing yourself that you don’t have to wait for the full period. (After all, 30 days is a long time, and you can convince yourself you don’t need to wait that long) Any number of things can end up invalidating the quarantine you did and put your entire display tank at risk.
Keep your recorded quarantine tank journal entries so you can learn and keep track of your progress.
A quarantine tank setup can feel overwhelming when you first start out. Luckily, this handy YouTube video is available to walk you through the process (and make you laugh at the same time):
Say you forgot the quarantine step, or you noticed a problem during those 30 days. If it’s already too late and your fish are actively infected with a parasite (like saltwater ich – notice a theme?) you need to focus on treating saltwater ich.
Or maybe you want to know what to do when you are finished with quarantine.
Finally, you may be getting started with everything and want to learn more about setting up a saltwater aquarium.