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So… you want to get into saltwater aquariums?

by Jason Hillery

I just set up my dream aquarium… a 150 gallon saltwater aquarium that a friend and I managed to build into a wall in my house. Since I got into aquariums, and specifically, saltwater, the 150 build was my goal.

Since it’s been up and running, several friends have said: “I want one!” Can I blame them? Absolutely not. It’s a living piece of artwork and adds a LOT of character to the house.

I will say this… saltwater isn’t for everyone. Before you start, get an education on what it takes to get it going, and what it takes to maintain it.

So… you want to get into saltwater aquariums? Here are some things to keep in mind:

The aquarium

Size matters: The bigger the tank, the more you’re going to spend up front, and moving forward, but bigger tanks are also, in my opinion, easier to maintain because of the water volume.

Shape: some folks like to think aquariums are all about ‘gallons’, but shape plays a very important part in saltwater tanks, especially if you want to get rockstar fish. Most of the fish you’ll find yourself wanting will need room to swim ACROSS your tank. If you decide to get a hexagon tank, for example, you’re going to be limited on the fish species you can introduce because its volume comes from height not width. Not giving your fish adequate room will lead to poor health.

Consider where you’re going to put it: Floors in older homes may not be able to support thousands of pounds of water weight. I’d avoid putting it in front of a window where sunlight will beat down on it all day. You could get some wicked algae growth, or you could be heating your water to high levels.

Fish: what kind of fish do you want? Again, if you want rockstar fish, like Triggers, Tangs, Puffers, etc., you’re going to want to plan for that. The general rule of thumb is one-inch of fish per 5 gallons of water. Obviously, bigger tanks with bigger filtration systems are more forgiving, but do your homework. If you just want some clownfish and a few corals, you can get away with a smaller tank.

Stand: most tanks can be purchased with a stand, but I find it easier to buy some 2x4’s and make a nice custom stand that I know can accommodate my under-the-tank filtration. There are hundreds of outlines online for building your own.


The filtration

Size matters here, too: you have to get the proper filtration system to manage your aquarium. You can’t put a ‘hang on the back’ filter that’s rated for 40 gallons on a 150 gallon aquarium and expect to keep your water parameters up to speed.

Sump: a lot of saltwater hobbyists use a sump. I have them on all of my tanks. It’s basically a tank that sits below your tank and acts a giant filter. Water flows from the display tank via an overflow box or internal overflows and drops into the sump below. The water flows through a series of chambers and is eventually pumped back into the display tank. It could go through bio balls (which collect millions of beneficial bacteria to clean ammonia and nitrite out of your water), filter pads (which collect larger pieces of junk that may be floating in your water), a protein skimmer (most important piece of equipment), or a refugium (which is a topic for a whole separate article).

Protein Skimmer: for a long time I ran my 55 gallon reef tank on nothing but a protein skimmer. It’s a piece of equipment that takes in water and mixes it with air to create microbubbles. Those microbubbles move up into a chamber at the top of the skimmer and create a foam of nastiness that spills over into a collection cup. The skimmer basically takes all of the junk that’s been liquefied in your tank and turns it back into a solid so it can be removed. It’s probably the most important piece of equipment you’ll need.

Alternatives: I’ve used hang on the back filters and canister filters on smaller tanks and they can work well. Canister filters need to be cleaned often, though, otherwise it can become a nitrate factory and you’ll be doing crazy amounts of water changes every week to keep it under control.


The roster:

Decide what you like: The best thing to do is go to liveaquaria.com and browse through the fish and start a list of the ones you want (just check the stats and make sure your system can handle them). When you have your dream team picked out, go to the liveaquaria.com compatibility chart and start eliminating the fish that aren’t ok to keep together.

Keep in mind: you won’t be adding fish right away, but you should still pick your roster before you set up your tank. You’re going to want an idea of what kind of fish you’ll be keeping so you can set your rockwork and tank up to keep your fish healthy and happy.

The checklist of things you’ll need to get started: 

  • Tank (you’ll want to go bigger in 6 months, trust me)
  • In the tank:
    • Live rock (I like to go with a pound per gallon)
    • Live sand (again, a pound per gallon is the norm)
  • Stand
  • Heater
  • Protein Skimmer (get the proper size for your tank)
  • Hang-on-the-back filter, canister filter, or sump.
  • If you go with a sump, you’ll need:
    • Bio balls (if you go with a wet/dry trickle approach)
    • Overflow box
    • Return pump
    • Plumbing supplies like flex PVC, check valves, and flexible tubing
    • Refugium: again, this will need a separate article because there are many ways to do it. Live rock, miracle mud, cheeto, etc.
  • Powerhead or circulation pump to create a current in your tank and to break the surface of the water.
  • Lighting
    • I prefer LED’s. They are a bit more expensive but last a LONG time and don’t degrade after 6 months like regular bulbs.
    • If you don’t want to drop the cash on LED’s, High Output Compact Fluorescent lights are great to keep things healthy and growing in your tank.
    • For saltwater, I recommend running 10k daylight bulbs and Blue Actinic bulbs simultaneously.
  • Salt (buy good stuff, like Instant Ocean)
  • Hydrometer (it shows you the salinity level of your water)
  • PH, Alkalinity, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate testing kits (you’ll want to check these levels frequently to make sure you’re water parameters are solid)
  • One of those magnetic glass cleaners will be a must. Trust me. Get one.

Next time, we'll go in depth about getting your system ready for fish. Please don’t go out and get all of this stuff and then put fish in right away. Saltwater is a process and it requires some time and patience, ESPECIALLY in the beginning, or you’ll find your self with dead fish and loads of frustration.