How to Start a Saltwater Aquarium: The Definitive Guide 2020

how to start a saltwater aquarium

If you have been craving to set up your very own spectacular reef aquarium, you have come to the right place. Although the many steps involved in actualizing a saltwater aquarium idea might present it as a daunting task, the process doesn’t need to be very complicated.

Many people tend to hesitate installing saltwater aquariums because they are relatively expensive compared to setting up their freshwater equivalents. However, the extensive range of colorful fish with unique personalities is compelling and tempting. By mixing several saltwater-livestock, you will enjoy the colorful beauty of a home reef aquarium that brightens up regardless of the room you keep it.

Setting up a saltwater aquarium starts as a simple water tank where you place aquatic life intending to create an ultimate ecosystem. In this definitive guide, you will step-by-step procedure on how to start a saltwater aquarium.

Why saltwater aquariums

A saltwater aquarium simply means a tank with marine creatures and/or plants. Whether saltwater or freshwater aquarium, every setup is captivating in its own ways. Saltwater aquariums stand out with a vast range of aquatic life that is extremely attractive. Besides selecting from the world’s most beautiful fish, you can add corals to make an amazing reef that is as beautiful as the natural ones.

Although the expenses involved in installing and maintaining saltwater aquariums tend to sway off potential aquarists, beginners can set up and maintain a high-quality saltwater aquarium. This is only if they are ready to set up one and committed to investing the required effort and time. With this guide, you will find it quite straightforward to start and manage your incredibly beautiful reef.

Types of saltwater tanks

With a saltwater tank, you can do much more. There are three distinct types of a saltwater aquarium, which are primarily differentiated by what you cultivate – not just fish.

When it comes to saltwater aquariums, there are plenty of possibilities you can make your tank awesome, including fish, live corals, love rocks, and other saltwater invertebrates.

The setup is nearly similar, but some will require additional equipment. With that said, here are the types of saltwater tanks.

Fish-Only Tanks

The primary reason for getting an aquarium is usually to keep fish. So, why bother other things if they are all you wanted? Fish-only tanks are probably the most common and inexpensive type because you don’t need to worry about additional equipment to meet the needs of selective creatures like corals. Depending on your interests, you may want to install a species or community aquarium. 

Although setting up a fish-only tank might be simple and relatively cheaper upfront, it is not necessarily the simplest one to cultivate.

One of the key aspects of keeping a healthy aquarium is maintaining an ideal nitrogen cycle. Because fish-only aquariums don’t feature live rocks, which harbor beneficial bacteria, you might be cleaning your tank more often to maintain an ultimate aquatic environment. 

FOWLR Tank - Fish Only with Live Rock

The only difference between these tanks and the fish-only tanks is the presence of live rocks. Life rocks are fragmented pieces of biologically-active calcium-based rocks, which serve as the home of various organisms and algae.

These organisms are exceptionally beneficial as they help in breaking down ammonia and nitrite into less toxic nitrate; therefore, filtering and keeping a healthy environment. This self-cleaning process enables you to save your valuable time.

Although the additional cost of buying live rocks may sway off some people, it is not too costly in the grand scheme. If you opt to set up a FOWLR tank, you might have to enhance the lighting system to a high-end one.

You need extra lighting to facilitate the growth of photosynthetic organisms and algae living in the live rocks. If you use a high-powered lighting system, use a fan to prevent overheating.

Reef Tank

Coral reefs are arguably the ocean’s most beautiful ecosystem and perhaps the most attractive across the plane. For this reason, you may want to enjoy such unprecedented beauty at your home by making a reef.

In marine aquariums, reef tanks are the most challenging and expensive. Usually, they are reserved for seasoned vets, so if you’re a beginner, you may have to keep off.

The significant difference of these tanks is that you keep corals, which have their own picky requirements. You can either keep corals singly or with little fish plus anemones.

With reef tanks, you need excellent water quality, advanced lighting and filtrations, and regular monitoring of water parameters every day. Corals require intensive lighting to survive because they are photosynthetic.

It is the cost of purchasing a considerably larger tank, extra high-quality equipment, and the corals and anemones themselves that makes reef tanks expensive. Because the reef tank is a substantial investment, it is advisable for you to research well before taking the challenge.

Steps to set up a saltwater aquarium

Setting up a saltwater aquarium needs a lot of work, but it can be quite simple if you understand what you are doing. Here is a complete step-by-step guide to making the setup process straightforward.

Planning your tank

This is usually the first thing to do – planning on what type of saltwater aquarium you want.

What initially caught your eye and inspired you to start your aquarium? If you can answer this question perfectly, you are good to go. Thorough planning on what exactly you want helps you to go through the process smoothly.

In this step, think about all that is required. This will also guide you through the buying process so that you get the best equipment to create an ultimate aquatic environment.

Prepare your tank

Getting your tank ready comes as the second step in the process, but the first step in the installation. After knowing what you want, it is time to get everything ready. You will need to:

Clean the tank:

Even if your tank is pretty new, you must clean it. Using a wet soft cloth or sponge, wipe the tank clean.

Position the tank:

Usually, you need to bet your tank into position before filling it because it becomes heavier once filled and can be challenging to move. Place your stand appropriately.

Ensure you are in love with where you position it and leave a space for equipment and electrical connection. Place the tank on the stand. When purchasing, you might be interested in buying a unique cabinet made for that particular model.

Add tank backing:

Depending on your interests, you might consider painting the back of the tank with your favorite color or use a captivating piece of a dedicated vinyl aquarium background cover.

Adding your substrate

After positioning your aquarium tank, it is time to start filling it and installing the necessary equipment. There are different types of substrates that you can use to fill your tank, something that you must have considered during the palling in step 1.

As a general rule, start with the finest texture at the bottom and work your way up – soil, and then gravel. When adding substrate, make it 1-2 inches depending on the size of your aquarium tank.

If you bought the premade mixture from the stories, you don’t have to work on layers. All you need is to rinse to remove possible contaminants and pour it gently into the tank so that you don’t scratch.

Install a sump and associated equipment

If you have decided to use a sump, install it with the sump-related equipment. Installing a sump can be somewhat tricky; therefore, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines keenly. This will ease the sump equipment installation process and ensure everything is accurately positioned.

Install Aquarium equipment

It is now time to install equipment that will meet the unique requirements of the marine life you keep in the aquarium. You will need to install a proportionate filter in nearly all saltwater aquariums, while others will require a heater. Other people might want to include protein skimmers, air stones, automatic fish feeders, etc.

All these aquarium equipment are installed in this step. The easiness of installing differs significantly. The must-install equipment is a filter, which can be tricky to install. Different filters have different installation processes; therefore, the only way to win the trick is to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Also, install the heater on one side and the thermometer on the other side. This will help you know if the water temperature is consistent.

Add water

Remember that you are making a saltwater aquarium. You will need to prepare water before pouring it into the tank. The water must have undergone reverse osmosis – you can buy water in this condition from the stores or use the necessary treatments.

Besides, you will need to add sea salt to meet the specific salinity requirement. Several mixes of sea salt are available in stores with specifications on how to use each. After mixing to attain the required salinity, the next thing you need to do is to add some de-chlorinator, and your water is ready. You can now pour into the tank.

When adding water into your tank, pour gently to avoid disturbing the substrate.

Install Fluorescent lighting

The marine life you are about to add into the tank needs UV light to grow. You will need to install fluorescent lighting bulbs to facilitate the growth of your ecosystem.

Lighting requirements of fish-only aquariums are relatively flexible, but ensure you give your critters reasonable darkness hours so that they sleep.

When installing an aquarium lighting system, keep in mind that different types of saltwater aquariums need varying light intensity. If you are planning to bring corals into your tank, you will need a high-end lighting system to support their survival. Remember that corals are naturally photosynthetic.

Never use incandescent lights in aquariums.

Bring decor in your tank

Fortunately, you can use many decoration items to make the image you have in mind a reality. Depending on what you crave or like most, add decoration but make sure to rinse them upfront to remove the dust.

Cycle your aquarium tank

Your tank is ready, but not the safest for your critters – you need to cycle it. The goal of cycling your tank is building up a bacterial culture that serves as a biological filtration or merely a self-sustaining aquarium. One culture converts ammonia to nitrites, and the other transforms the nitrites to nitrates.

This step should never be overlooked because ammonia and nitrites are toxic to fish. Nitrates in large quantities can also harm your ecosystem, but the regular changing of water keeps their level low.

In saltwater aquariums, live rocks are commonly used because they hold bacteria culture that has already developed. All you need is to add such rocks to your tank. It is a good idea to add considerably light rocks because they feature more interior gaps to facilitate bacterial growth.

At times the live rocks may seem slow to trigger the process. If this is the case, you can introduce ammonia to start the process and then keep testing the water regularly.

When the nitrite level reaches 0ppm (parts per million), it indicates that the cycle is complete. You might want to change about 50% of the water to keep the nitrates low before introducing fish into your tank.

Add fish

This was your aim from the word go. You can now add a few fish and make your saltwater aquarium complete, but you shouldn’t rush in this process. You will need to add a small number in stages; otherwise, you will run the risk of starting the nitrogen cycle afresh.

The last thing an aquarist would want is making their critters stressed. Because fish are highly sensitive to environmental changes, take time to acclimate them to your tank’s water conditions. This is because there might be a significant pH difference between the tank water you bought and your new aquarium.

The process to acclimate your new fish is relatively simple. Float the bag on your tank’s water surface for 15 minutes so that the bag’s temperature matches that of the tank. While the bag float’s cut it open and roll down the top, then add half a cup of the aquarium water in intervals of 5 minutes until it’s full. Empty the bag to half-full, but not to the aquarium, and start adding water again until full.

Transfer your fish to the aquarium using a net, then throw away the bag with its contents. This way, critters will have adapted to the new water conditions.

Besides acclimating your new fish, it is advisable to quarantine them to prevent the possible introduction of diseases. After introducing your new arrival to the aquarium, watch them over the next 24 hours while monitoring their health and feeding habits.

If your tank has lighting to support corals, you can introduce them during this time. It is good to start with easy to maintain corals.

You can also add hermit crabs or snails to your new aquarium. They are handy in containing any inevitable waste.

Best Saltwater Aquarium Fish for Beginner

Usually, saltwater fish are relatively weaker than their freshwater counterparts, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t hardy saltwater fish. Beginners will find some hardy species that are more forgiving of less-than-perfect water conditions. If you are new to the saltwater hobby, look for small, non-aggressive, hardy fish. Some of the excellent choices when starting are:

Ocellaris Clownfish:

This is perhaps the most popular marine saltwater fish and makes a perfect option for beginners despite being partially aggressive. Clownfish likes hiding in fissures until it is time to eat. Because they tend to nip their similar-sized beautiful fish, avoid keeping them in community tanks.


Coral Beauty Angelfish, Pajama Cardinalfish, Chalk Bass, Royal Gramma, Firefish, Six Line Wrasse, and Klein’s Butterflyfish.

The trick is to avoid fish that are extremely sensitive to changes in water conditions or are aggressive—for instance, Damselfish. Carry through research to ensure you start with more forgiving options. Deciding on what fish to keep upfront helps you set up an aquarium that perfectly fits that specific choice.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you lower nitrates in a saltwater aquarium?

The easiest way to reduce nitrates is by regularly changing about 20% of the water in your aquarium. Change every 1-2 weeks to ensure high-quality water.

How do you raise pH in a saltwater aquarium?

Excess carbon dioxide is the common cause of low pH in aquariums. To increase the pH, change the water, and add a teaspoon of baking soda for every gallon of water replaced.

Note: Do not change a lot of water that can significantly alter the ideal water conditions.


The fact that marine fish are more sensitive than their freshwater counterparts shouldn’t discourage you from starting with saltwater aquariums. It is all about designing the right tank and keep enjoying a beautiful reef in your home.

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Sujit Modak Aquarium Tales Owner
Sujit Modak

Hello, everyone! Welcome to my aquarium blog. Fishkeeping is my passion, and I started this fascinating hobby back in 2006. Besides my engineering profession, I deeply studied many fishkeeping topics since I started building my home aquarium. I researched effective aquarium filtration and lighting of planted aquariums. I am keeping 20+ species of freshwater and saltwater fish as my aquatic pet collection. I successfully experimented with a complex ecosystem inside the aquarium, biotope aquariums, aquaponics, etc. I would love to share some learnings from my hands-on experience of the last 14 years. Hopefully, my sharing will be somewhat helpful to make your aquarium journey awesome! 

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