9 Simple Steps to Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium (For Beginners)

Saltwater aquarium setup

Saltwater aquariums are very challenging to set up, but they can also be the most rewarding and fun!

You must diligently follow certain steps for your saltwater tank to thrive.

This guide will help you set up a successful saltwater aquarium.

Saltwater Water Tank Set Up

Given below are the steps to set up a saltwater aquarium:

  1. Plan your tank setup,
  2. Clean the tank,
  3. Find a suitable place for the tank,
  4. Add substrate to the tank,
  5. Add water and salt to the tank,
  6. Install the essential equipment in the tank,
  7. Add decorative items to the tank,
  8. Cycle the tank, and
  9. Slowly introduce the fish and corals to the tank.

Let’s take a detailed look at each of these steps, but first…

3 Types of Saltwater Aquariums

Saltwater aquariums can be set up in different ways.

Fish, corals, and live rocks are the three main components of a saltwater aquarium.

You can build your marine aquariums with either one or all of them.

Let’s briefly explore all these three setups of a marine aquarium.

1. Fish-Only Aquariums

The most basic and inexpensive marine tank setup is an aquarium with only saltwater fish.

You can either go with a single fish species or choose a community aquarium setup in which various compatible fish varieties co-exist in the same tank.

The good thing about fish-only aquariums is that you just need to consider the needs of your fish.

However, it’s not the easiest tank to maintain. Live rocks are crucial in introducing beneficial bacteria into the tank.

In the absence of live rocks, cycling the tank takes longer.

You will also need to clean the tank regularly and perform water changes more frequently to maintain the water quality.

2. Fish-Only With Live Rock Aquariums

As the name implies, these aquariums consist of fish with live rocks.

Live rocks are a great addition to marine aquariums as they not only enhance the tank’s beauty but also help to maintain the water quality by introducing beneficial bacteria.

In a way, adding live rocks helps to save the time and effort required for frequent tank cleaning.

You need to cure the live rocks before they’re placed in aquariums that contain fish, corals, or other marine animals.

The only downside of adding live rocks is the additional cost.

But if you look at the larger picture, live rocks aren’t expensive compared to other maintenance costs like filter replacement, power consumption, etc.

3. Reef Tanks

Reef tanks are arguably the most attractive marine ecosystem.

They contain corals that can be kept on their own or with some fish species.

Reef tanks are expensive as corals themselves are high-priced.

You will also need extra equipment while setting up a reef tank, which adds to the overall cost of setting up these saltwater aquarium.

These tanks also require vigilant maintenance as water quality, lighting, and other factors need to be monitored constantly for the growth of corals.

9 Steps to Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium

Setting up a new saltwater aquarium can be a daunting task.

However, you can easily set up a saltwater tank with proper planning and research.

Here we have listed 9 steps to help you build a saltwater aquarium.

Follow these steps carefully, and you will be able to set up a saltwater aquarium in no time.

1. Plan Your Tank Setup

The first step in building a saltwater aquarium is planning your ideal setup so that the whole process runs smoothly.

You need to select the fish species or corals you wish to house in the tank.

Their needs will determine the tank size, preferred water conditions, diet, specialized equipment, and other things.

Here’s a great guide to learn more about saltwater aquariums.

You also need to consider pricing so that your budget doesn’t overstretch.

2. Clean the Tank Thoroughly

After the initial research, you can purchase the tank and other essential equipment.

You need to clean the aquarium, even if it’s newly purchased.

Avoid using soap or other household cleaners as they can leave behind chemicals or residues that can be fatal to the fish and corals.

Instead, you can clean the tank with a wet cloth.

If you have an acrylic tank, it’s best to use a lint-free microfiber cloth for cleaning to avoid scratches on the tank.

After cleaning the tank, check for possible leakage.

You can add a couple of inches of water to the tank and leave it for an hour.

If you find any leaks, fix them immediately with an aquarium sealant.

3. Find a Suitable Place for The Tank

The next step is to find a suitable place to keep your tank.

You need pre-select the location because once the tank is filled with water and other equipment, it will become much heavier to move around.

The surface that you choose to place the tank on should be stable to avoid the risk of falling.

The surface also needs to be strong enough to hold the weight of your tank.

If you’re purchasing a new tank, you can get a cabinet designed specifically for the tank model you have selected.

This can be expensive, but it’s an easy way to ensure you get a suitable surface to keep your tank on.

4. Add Substrate to The Tank

Choosing a suitable aquarium substrate as per the needs of your fish is essential before installing the tank.

It can be difficult to remove the substrate once it’s set up.

Numerous types of substrates like soft sand or crushed corals are readily available.

You can select the one as per your tank inhabitants’ requirements.

Like the tank, the substrate must be thoroughly cleaned before adding to the aquarium.

A simple rinse is sufficient to ensure that it’s clean.

You can gently place a thin substrate layer at the tank’s bottom to prevent scratching.

Then, you can pour the remaining substrate into the tank.

You can arrange the substrate in the tank in whatever way you like, either flat or with some raised areas.

5. Add Water and Salt to The Tank

Newly setup saltwater aquarium

Once the substrate is added, you can start pouring the water into the tank.

However, you can’t simply fill the tank with faucet water.

The water must be treated in a reverse osmosis (RO) filter, which can be purchased separately.

Or else, you can treat the water with a de-chlorinator before adding it to the tank.

The water can become cloudy after adding it to the tank as the substrate will get disturbed.

But don’t worry, it will eventually settle and become clear again.

Since it’s a saltwater aquarium, an appropriate quantity of sea salt or aquarium salt should be added to the tank water.

You can use a hydrometer to measure the salinity of the water.

6. Install the Essential Equipment in The Tank

The next step is to install the essential equipment needed for keeping the tank alive.

The equipment required may vary as per the type of saltwater aquarium.

An efficient filter and heater are two common pieces of equipment needed in all saltwater aquariums.

Other additional equipments required in a saltwater aquarium are:

  • UV Sterilizers,
  • Air Pump and Air Stones,
  • Protein skimmers,
  • Aquarium Lights for a fish-only tank,
  • Reef tank lighting if corals are added to the tank,
  • Automatic fish feeders,
  • Powerhead,
  • Maintenance Tools and Supplies, and
  • Test Kits, Additives, and Supplements.

While some equipment like air pumps, air stones, and lights must be installed for the fish and corals, others are required for maintenance.

7. Add the Decorative Items to The Tank

Once the equipment is installed, you can start decorating the tank. You can get as creative as you want.

Plants, rocks, shells, driftwood, and even live rock can give a natural look to your aquarium.

Depending on your preference, you can even theme your tank like a shipwreck or a beautiful castle.

Lighting the tank is another way to add beauty to the tank.

If you plan to keep reef tanks, you can consider using a coral light. It provides an excellent environment for corals.

Just remember to rinse every item before placing it in the aquarium.

8. Cycle the Tank

Cycling the tank is crucial to ensure that the water remains healthy and safe for the tank inhabitants.

It helps to build the beneficial bacteria inside the tank, which act as a natural biological filter.

One culture converts ammonia to nitrites while the other converts nitrites to nitrates.

The tank’s cycling is essential as ammonia and nitrites are toxic to fish.

Live rocks are commonly used in saltwater tanks to start the cycle as they already have the developed bacteria cultures that need to be added to the tank.

Light rocks are more effective as they have many interior gaps and holes, resulting in a greater surface area for bacterial growth.

If rocks aren’t working, ammonia can be added to kick start the cycle.

While cycling the tank, you need to test the water constantly. The ammonia levels should spike, followed by a spike in nitrite level.

The cycle will be complete once this level reaches 0 ppm.

Further, you need to conduct a partial water change of around 50% to reduce any buildup of nitrates.

The entire process of cycling takes around 6 to 8 weeks to complete.

If you want to speed up the process, you can try to raise the temperature and oxygen level or add filter media from an already established tank.

9. Slowly Introduce Fish and Corals to The Tank

You are finally at the point where you can add fish and corals to your saltwater aquarium.

However, don’t add all the fish at once because you might risk starting the nitrogen cycle again.

Instead, add them slowly over time.

Since fish are sensitive to water conditions, you need to acclimate them to the water in your tank before adding them.

Corals will be the most sensitive livestock in your tank. So you need to be extra cautious while adding them to the tank.

After the first month, you must have a regularly scheduled tank maintenance regimen.

Also, you must add new fish only after the tank has recovered from the last addition.

Due to stress, new fish can be more susceptible to parasitic outbreaks, especially marine ich.

So it’s vital to constantly keep a close eye on the health of your tank inhabitants.

How to Acclimatize Saltwater Fish in The Aquarium?

Saltwater fish are sensitive to their surrounding. Hence, it’s vital that you acclimatize them to their new surrounding to avoid stress.

Acclimation is the process of getting your saltwater fish to adapt to the tank water conditions.

Aquarists often purchase the fish from pet stores or online. Either way, you get the new fish in a water bag.

After receiving the bag, you can’t simply transfer the fish to your tank. You must first acclimatize the fish to the new environment.

Given below are the steps that you can follow to acclimatize your saltwater fish to the aquarium:

  1. Lower or turn off the lights of the aquarium. It helps in preventing any undue stress on your fish.
  2. Float the bag containing the new fish on the water’s surface for around 15 minutes. It helps match the bag’s temperature with the aquarium water.
  3. After 15 minutes, open the bag and roll down the top. Ensure that the bag still floats on the surface of the aquarium’s water.
  4. Then, add half a cup of aquarium water to the bag. Repeat this process every 5 minutes until the bag is full.
  5. Once the bag is full, take out the bag from the aquarium water and remove about half the water from the bag. The water removed from the bag should be disposed of and not transferred back into the aquarium water.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 for about half an hour.
  7. You need to continue this process until you are sure that you have changed the water enough times.
  8. Now, you need to test the bag’s water against the water in the aquarium. If the water in the bag matches the tank water, you can transfer the fish from the bag to the aquarium.
  9. Use a net to transfer the fish to the aquarium carefully.

The process is not complete after transferring the fish to the tank.

You need to monitor them for the next 24 hours to ensure they’re healthy.

You can look out for any signs of illness or keep an eye while feeding them.

Also, it’s best to quarantine your fish before adding them to the aquarium because it helps to avoid introducing new diseases to the aquarium.