7 Things You Need to Know Before Starting a Saltwater Aquarium

7 Things You Need to Know Before Starting a Saltwater Aquarium


And why NOT knowing could make the difference between Success and Failure


     The saltwater aquarium-keeping hobby is a hobby that seems to be ever-growing. New hobbyists are emerging on a day-to-day basis.

     With that also emerge many questions, and some aspects of the hobby can be downright confusing, leading many new hobbyists to either give up, or endure a very hard time trying to get their aquarium going.

     We at Reef Pro have experienced much in our journey for knowledge and experience in this hobby.

     Our experience has lead us to see that there are seven basic things you need to think about before starting a saltwater aquarium, and maximize your chances at being successful and having that beautiful reef you have always wanted.

     You will need to think about what you want in your saltwater aquarium. You will need to consider an approximate size of an aquarium. Then you will need to think about filtration, lighting, corals, fish; it sounds like a lot but it really is nothing to worry yourself over.


     There are many different kinds of tanks out there for you to setup. There are FOWLR (fish only with live rock) tanks, reef tanks, seahorse tanks, coldwater reef tanks, and possibly more than what I have listed.

     A “FOWLR” tank is a basic saltwater aquarium where the fish are the center of attention. Generally speaking most “FOWLR” owners don’t care much for coral.

     They just want beautiful fish with captivating colors, without having to worry about meeting the care requirements, of the corals. To compensate for that, they may install artificial coral reef inserts. Most beginning reef keepers tend to begin caring for soft corals.

     Corals like leathers, zoanthids, and mushrooms are corals that are very hardy and can adapt to many different ranges of conditions. A saltwater aquarium with these kinds of corals is the best way to ease your way into the world of reef keeping.

     You may have also seen other corals such as hammer and frogspawn, which imitate the movements of anemones and bring life to the tank.

     When adding these “LPS”(Large Polyp Stony) corals, stony meaning they contain a calcium carbonate skeleton, need to absorb the elements they need to create that skeleton and grow. A “mixed reef tank”, will take slightly more consideration, as you may need to consider dosing certain elements in the future.

     Sometimes you can get away with buying water mixed with a high quality salt that will reintroduce those elements in the water for you.

     Most beginners are not crazy about “SPS” (small polyp stony corals) dominant tanks, but there is a rare occasion in which a beginner likes the “SPS” look and may consider going for one of these tanks.

     However, these tanks are recommended for more experienced hobbyists, and will require more equipment to keep parameters stable and the water in a pristine state.


    Once, you have decided on the kind of system you would like it is time to decide on the size of aquarium that would better suit your needs.

     Many new aquarists usually tend to start with a nano aquarium. A nano aquarium is cheaper, in most cases, to setup up than a larger aquarium. However, they tend to create more problems than a larger aquarium as well mainly due to the volume of water.

     A 40 to 55 gallon aquarium is perfect for those new to the hobby. The cost of getting one setup and going is not much more than setting up a nano.

     The water volume tends to help new aquarists by giving them more room to correct their mistakes, if any are made, by taking longer for any mistakes made to affect the livestock. Now, in this hobby, bigger is always better. So the bigger tank you can start with, the better.

     An old saying in the hobby is, “The solution, to pollution, is dilution.”


     Now that a tank has been selected, a filtration system must be added to keep the water clear and clean of pollutants, such as fish waste and uneaten foods. 

     This decision will weigh heavily on the type of aquarium chosen. So considering filtration when purchasing an aquarium is a must.

     From the start, the best kind of aquarium is one that is drilled and has an overflow built in. this will allow for water to exit the aquarium via the overflow and descend into the “sump”.

     The sump is another small “aquarium” that is usually placed under the aquarium inside the stand. Here you will have all your filtration components, pumps, heaters, etc.

     Many people tend to start off with a wet/dry sump with bio-balls. It is strongly encouraged that you do not use the bio balls. Bio-balls are said that they harbor bacteria that eat the debris passing through the bio-balls.

     But they seem to create more of a problem than a benefit. Detritus passing through tends to build up and get stuck over time causing nitrate problems.

     To eliminate this, most switch out the bio-balls for rubble rock which can harbor the same beneficial bacteria and other beneficial little critters to process all the food and detritus. 

     There are refugiums, which is like a wet/dry but instead this sump has a section to setup a small ecosystem with sand, rock, and some macro-algae.

     This will allow beneficial critters, such as tisbe pods, to live in this “refuge” away from the fish and do what they do best, which is eat leftover foods, detritus, and other organics flowing through the water.

     Sometimes, new aquarists are not able to acquire a drilled tank. However, this is not a reason to become derailed.

     Traditional style hang on back filters works just fine. The only other piece of equipment that will be necessary is a skimmer. There are plenty skimmers on the market for in tank only applications.

     Some will argue that not even a skimmer is necessary but skimmers can be vital to sustaining a reef aquarium, unless the aquarist is able to completely a series of water changes throughout the week. Hang on Back filters are fine for clearing up the water of debris, but it will not remove the nutrients out of the water.

     Therefore, the water is still coming into contact with rotting food and detritus causing your nitrates and phosphate to rise. This can create problems down the line.

     Canister filters are also an option. However, unless maintained on a religious schedule, they can be just as bad as a wet/dry with bio-balls.


     Based on the size of tank and the kind of tank you have in mind, you will need to consider lighting. For a “FOWLR” tank, you can basically use whatever lighting you would like to light up the tank and make the contents visible.

     Now for reef tanks, there are countless possibilities, and of those possibilities there are different ranges of qualities, and also price. There three basic kinds of lights available in the market.

     You will notice there is metal halide lighting, fluorescent lighting, and the newer L.E.D. technology lighting.

     In my opinion, from my experience, metal halide lighting works wonders on all kinds of corals.

     However, most reefers tend to stay away because metal halide lighting can be costly, and most find a slight rise on their electric bill. Metal halides also will raise temperature in the aquarium and you will most likely need to provide a chiller to keep aquarium temperature stable.

    Fluorescent lighting, more specifically t-5 lighting, is another option that grows great, and covers more shadows in the tank providing greater light coverage and growing corals very well. The downside to t-5 lighting is that for more effectiveness, the bulbs must be changed every 8 months.

     Depending on placement and distance to the water, t-5s can also generate heat and may cause need to provide a chiller. Last but not least, recently many companies have begun developing L.E.D. fixtures for growing corals.

     These L.E.D. fixtures are a great alternative for growing corals. Benefits of L.E.D. lighting are, no replacing bulbs, no heating up water, and they create a beautiful shimmer like metal halide lighting. Not to mention, most L.E.D. systems have royal blue bulbs, which make the coral fluoresce more and make the corals more attractive.

     One downside to L.E.D. lighting is that they are very directional sometimes creating shadows in certain areas, which to some is good, but others are not pleased since this causes certain parts in corals to die. This is where combinations come in.

     Right now a very popular combination is T-5’s with L.E.D. for accent lighting. The T-5’s are a great light source and can produce some of the most beautiful colors in Acropora especially.

     The L.E.D. fixtures add more lighting, (PAR), to the mix and pull out beautiful colors and the fluorescence out of most corals.

     As I mentioned before, L.E.D. fixtures can create shadowing and kill off certain parts of some corals that don’t get light, so with the T-5 fixture, the shadows can be eliminated and it creates a more widespread range of lighting throughout the tank, even from the bottom up.


     There are many corals available to us in this hobby, even more now that technology for diving to deeper waters is being developed. However, the number of corals available in the market is still quite overwhelming.

     There are numerous kinds, all with different care requirements, that were collected at a wide range of depths, and a wide range of lighting spectrums.

     These are things one must consider when purchasing a coral and when setting up a tank, so the environment can be created to house a certain type of corals.

     Soft corals, can adapt to a variety of lights. They are very easy to care for and can adapt to a wide range of parameters. Soft corals are corals such as, Leather Corals, Xenia, Anthelia, Zoanthids, and Mushrooms.

    LPS (Large Polyp Stony Corals) need slightly more moderate lighting.

     This can be achieved with a standard 165-watt L.E.D. fixture or a simple T-5 unit. These corals depend a little more on stable parameters.

     Their skeletons depend on calcium and alkalinity being stable and benefit from feedings now and again. In fact, there are records showing that LPS such as Acans and Favias seem to grow twice as fast when fed on a regular schedule.

     Then, there is SPS (Small Polyp Stony corals). These corals include the popular acroporas, montipora, leptoseris, birdsnests (stylophora, pocillopora, seriatopora) stylocoinellas, and more.

     These corals need higher par numbers, and therefore, need better lights. One great example is the ATI sunpower T-5 fixture or an L.E.D such as the new Hydra 52 HD. They depend on a stable system. In most cases, 99%, dosing is a must.

     They prefer lower nutrient waters, meaning low phosphates and nitrates, and benefit from the dosing of amino acids as well. When setting up a tank to house SPS, it is best to let the system become established, and lots of planning needs to be done ahead of setting up the tank to meet as many requirements as possible for this type of corals.

     In most cases, SPS, are and expert level coral to keep. Most new hobbyists will start with soft corals and work their way up.


     As well, as corals, it is good to think on the fish that will be housed. Many fish have special requirements such as the corals do. It is important to replicate the environment of the organisms that will be housed so they feel right at home and are more comfortable with one watching them.

     Studies have shown that fish are more likely to peer out and even interact with someone when they feel they are right at home.

     One example is gobies. One very popular goby is the Diamond Goby. They can be great for cleaning up the sand as they sift through the whole tank in search for small organism in the sand.

     These gobies can be very shy but if enough rocks are placed evenly throughout the tank it will give the goby a sense of security encouraging the goby to come out more knowing it can zoom off to a rock if anything were to happen. 

     Another issue you might face is compatibility between fish.

     One obvious example would be to not put a lionfish with a clownfish. You may come back to notice one of those fish has disappeared.

     There are also fish that are better compatible if added to the aquarium in a specific order. For example, if one wants to have a variety of tangs, you may want to add a yellow, scopas, powder blue, or powder brown tang last.

     These fish can be very aggressive towards new additions. That is why it is a good idea to add them when you know you will not be adding any more tangs.

     At the end of the day, fish have personalities of their own and some are more passive than others, so as hard as you try there will be a moment in which one fish decides to become territorial and harass tank mates.


     When it comes to starting a saltwater aquarium, I believe it is great to know as much as possible when it comes to setting up and preparing yourself for the tank you want to avoid as many complications as possible.

     However, the single most important part of starting a saltwater aquarium is to just jump right in.

     When you go to a store, or when you go to, say somebody’s house who has a big setup, you may be overwhelmed by the amount of equipment and all the accessories and pumps and wires coming out of the stand, but don’t let that deter you. In fact, most systems don’t really need all that depending on how you are with your husbandry.

     The most simple and efficient setup usually consists of a tank with a basic sump skimmer and return pump, or even a tank with a hang-on-back filter and an in-tank skimmer. 

     Now even the skimmer is optional, but it really does help with exporting wastes out of the water. So don’t be afraid. Set up that little 20 gallon with your “Marineland Filter” let that thing cycle, and enjoy the your very own reef in the comfort of your home!

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