saltwater aquarium basics

You’ve seen those beautiful reef and marine tanks at your local store, doctors office, public space or online and you think you want to start up a saltwater or reef tank. But how hard is it…really? Like any other venture, it comes down to acquiring some basic knowledge, investing in quality equipment, and be committed to caring for the creatures you are taking on.

Let’s start with the common mistakes that will get you into trouble right from the start:
  • Not reading up in current literature and books to gain the basics of the hobby before purchasing.
  • Using outmoded, outdated, inadequate, or ineffective equipment and supplies.
  • Starting with a tank that’s too small
  • Choosing the wrong location for the tank (near draft, heater, or window)
  • Using unfiltered tap water
  • Using the wrong substrate
  • Not testing the water
  • Adding inhabitants too quickly and not quarantining new purchases
  • Purchasing on impulse
  • Purchasing inhabitants in poor health or condition
  • Purchasing inhabitants incompatible with your tank size, with its other residents, and that you don’t have the right equipment for meeting their needs
  • Medicating without knowing how it affects allthe inhabitants.
  • Adding uncured live rock to an established tank
  • Not keeping the protein skimmer clean
  • Failing to plan ahead
  • And the big one…. failure to be patient!
Now lets cover the basic equipment needs for your successful reef tank or marine aquarium:
  • Saltwater Aquarium Reference BooksReference Books: Before getting started you have some reading to do. Some recommended start-up books and references include The New Marine Aquarium by Michael Palleta; Aquarium Corals by Eric Boreman, and Reef Invertebrates by Robert Fenner & Anthony Calfo. These will help guide you through equipment types and set up. There are also online resources (like, area clubs, and countless forums were you can research, read up on, and keep up with this hobby. The reefkeeping hobby is always changing and what might have been true a year ago may not be as true today. Staying current with thoughts, trends, and equipment is part of being a successful reefkeeper.
  • Saltwater Aquarium with Stand and HoodA Tank: A tank that is low and long is a better choice than very deep, narrow, and odd shaped (like hexagon) You want a tank with the largest surface area possible. Shorter aquariums let a greater intensity of light penetrate the water compared to tall tanks that can pose a lighting challenge and expense for meeting inhabitants’ needs. The tank alone will be one of your smaller investments. Don’t be afraid to go larger; it is easier to create a more stable environment in a larger aquarium. Small marine aquariums generally require a lot of attention and are more limiting on fish and invertebrate choices and numbers that can be put in them.
  • Tank Stand / Cabinet: Purchase a stand or cabinet that is made for and can support the weight of the filled aquarium – remember you have water + rock + substrate + tank. You can find many sturdy metal or wood stands that can support your tank and fit your room decor. Never put a tank on top of an entertainment center or near electrical equipment (computer, television, stereo systems, and so forth) as water + electricity = lots of problems!
  • Saltwater and Reef Aquarium LightingLighting and Cover: What you purchase will depend on what you intend on putting in your aquarium. Fish and non-photosynthetic invertebrates (like starfish, urchins, shrimp) can survive under a standard fluorescent aquarium light. If you are planning on having a reef type aquarium with photosynthetic dependent inhabitants (like corals, live rock, tridacna clams, anemones) you will need a system with greater intensity and spectrum to support them like power compact, T5’S, and metal halide lighting.
  • Saltwater Aquarium FiltersFiltration: There are two choices here. Biological filtration, that reduces ammonia and nitrite levels, employs beneficial bacteria colonies growing on filters, bio-wheels, bio-balls, and other surfaces in the filter. The bacteria help control water quality. If they have no where to grow or you kill them by over-zealous filter cleaning you will have water quality problems, chemical, impurities, discoloration and odors in your tank water. Chemical filtration uses activated carbon to reduce impurities and organic build-up, and odors in the aquarium water. Choosing a larger filter system will reduce maintenance and keep your water cleaner longer before requiring maintenance.
  • Protein Skimmers for Marine AquariumsProtein Skimmer: This is used to removed dissolved proteins and organic waste that come from fish waste, feeding, nitrification and other metabolic processes. Protein skimmers use the process of foam fractionation to separate the dissolved waste from the water, and deposit it in a collection cup for easy removal. They can be installed on the back or under the tank depending on your set-up. Aquariums with invertebrates, corals, and live rock are most dependent on protein skimming for their water purification and can be used alone or along with biological filtration systems. Select the proper size skimmer and make sure it is maintained and cleaned regularly to ensure efficient operation.
  • Aquarium Heaters and ThermometersHeater / Thermometer: Look for a submersible style that allows you to dial in the desired temperature and then submerge it completely under water. Since most are made of glass they are very breakable and require care when removing and servicing them. Purchase a dependable thermometer to monitor tank temperature. Tanks in very hot climates may require a refrigeration device, called a chiller, to reduce and control heat buildup.
  • Aquarium Circulation PumpsCirculation Pumps: Circulation serves to carry away waste; carry contaminates to the protein skimmer; bring foods to live rock and corals; aid in the proper gas exchange between water and the air above it; spread oxygen-rich water throughout the tank; and eliminate dead spots where contaminants accumulate and cause algae blooms. Submersible pumps are generally used to achieve the correct amount and type of water flow in your aquarium and the amount needed will depend on tank size and its intended inhabitants.
  •  Marine RefugiumRefugium: Refugiums are used for three main reasons in a reef tank: Nutrient export, source of live food, and controlling pH swings. The refugium is a sheltered area from the main aquarium usually found hanging on the tank or sump. It holds plants placed on a small amount of live sand or refugium mud. A light is placed over the refugium, and tank water is pumped through it very slowly. Growing marine plants (macroalgae) within the refugium reduces algae-promoting nutrients like nitrate and phosphate from the aquarium water. Tiny food source marine crustaceans congregate in the algae and then slowly enter into the main tank becoming a food source for fish, corals, and anemones. Lighting the refugium at night (when the main tank’s lights are off) helps avoid the pH swings that can occur when main tank photosynthesis stops. A refugium works in conjunction with a protein skimmer to reduce the excess nutrients that cause undesirable algae in our aquariums.
  • RO/DI UnitsTap Water Purification: Tap-water often contains contaminants and impurities that can create unfavorable conditions inside reef tanks and marine aquariums: Copper, iron, phosphate, nitrate, chlorine, chloramines, ammonia, bacteria, and silicates. Reverse osmosis units and deionizers are the most common means used to purify tap water and often local stores provide purified water for purchase or even as a customer service. Note that drinking water filters attached to faucets do not provide adequate purification to improve tap water for aquarium use.
  • Saltwater Test KitsTest Kits: allow you to monitor and control the environment within the aquarium. Common test kits include, but are not limited to: Nitrite, Nitrate, Alkalinity, pH, Ammonia, Calcium, and Phosphate. You will need to select the correct kits for your tank needs and inhabitants. Understanding and controlling these variables are key to a healthy marine tank.
  • Saltwater Aquarium SubstratesSubstrate: This is the material on the bottom of the marine aquarium and is usually made of calcium and magnesium carbonates, and for marine aquariums is know collectively as aragonite. Aragonite substrate helps maintain alkalinity and pH levels and creates a habitat for beneficial micro-organisms that are needed to assist in the breakdown and processing of wastes in the aquarium. Live sand is the collective term used for marine aquarium sands that contain live bacteria and micro-organisms. Live sand is generally used in reef aquarium where normal aragonite or crushed coral is suitable for fish aquariums.
  • Marine Aquarium SaltsMarine Salt: You can purchase ocean salt mixes what when mixed with pure fresh water produce a pure, nearly natural seawater. You want to always use a hydrometer when mixing saltwater to ensure the proper concentration and always dissolve the salt in 75-80 degree water using a separate bucket or other clean mixing container; never add or dissolve salt inside an aquarium containing fish or invertebrates. Add newly mixed salt water only when the salts are completely dissolved, the water is aerated, is the correct temperature, and proper concentration.
  • Saltwater HydrometersHydrometer: This device measures the salinity of your tank by measuring the specific gravity of the water. You cannot operate a marine aquarium without a reliable hydrometer to measure the amount of salt dissolved in the aquarium, and for mixing new saltwater for your tank.

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