Starting a Saltwater Aquarium


Starting a Saltwater Tank

If you're thinking of joining the hobby of reef or saltwater aquarium owners we have an extensive information section here at We make every effort to ensure each and every person just entering the industry is set-up to succeed. If you should have any questions we can be reached almost around the clock. Imagine that. A place that cares about more than just making money. 

Please, for the safety of the new family members you will be adding to your home, plan ahead when it comes to the type of tank you would like to start. There are FO tanks (fish only tanks), FOWLR (fish only with live rock tanks) and full-blown reef tanks. We understand it can become somewhat overwhelming with the number of sites out there with tens of thousands of products because a good deal of them have very little information to assist you when it comes to what those products actually do, how important they are, or what role they play for your tank. There are less than 5 basic things that can help any reefer succeed as long as they are implemented properly.

Start slow, with the fundamentals, and don't get discouraged. We will be here should you have any questions. We want to help each and every person succeed because we want to make sure your tank remains happy and healthy. 

Also when it comes to starting your tank search the internet for SPS Corals (Acropora), LPS Coral (Acanthastrea), Zoanthids, Soft Corals, Tridacna Clams (Maxima), and familiarize yourself with fish and invertebrates and their behaviors. This can save you a headache in the long run by planning ahead. We do have a good amount of pictures on this site as well. We run into a surprising amount of customers new to the hobby who we try to educate as much as possible when it comes to tank member compatibility. For example, you don't want to add a sand sifting sea star with a maxima clam because the starfish will attempt to eat the clam. 

One thing we want to dive right into if there is NO SUBSTITUTE for tank maintenance and water changes and there never will be. Please don't buy into bullshit products that say they can help eliminate water changes. You have a large pool of water in a box that you're taking care of. In that box, there is the fish waste, food particles, decaying organic compounds, etc that continually decompose almost around the clock. Without proper water changes, it's the same water getting more polluted AND NOTHING can stop that. 

Saltwater tanks are a piece of nature, and it's a gift that we now have ways to successfully keep them in captivity. The equipment and advancements made to the hobby have made it much easier to keep a tank. For instance, at we run calcium reactors on almost every system in the store. Properly put together we believe these are a must have for any aquarium owner. Whether you have a reef or not they can still help maintain a proper pH level in your tank by maintaining calcium and magnesium which helps maintain proper alkalinity which is still extremely important for fish.

What we are trying to prevent with these section of information is the unnecessary loss that can occur because some people rush into getting a tank and don't put an emphasis on educating themselves before they do. These are little sections of the reef that we can keep in our homes and it's a responsibility and a good amount of effort, but very much worth it. 

This section will only cover the basics of the absolute necessities needed for properly starting and maintaining a thriving saltwater aquarium. To get more in-depth with any other subjects please refer to our Reef Education section. The segments in those sections will greatly expand on the more advanced ways to really make sure your tank is in pristine condition. 

There are several things that are needed just to simply help a tank survive. Tank, heater, filtration, protein skimmer, lights, and water changes, First we're going to start with one of the most important things...

RO/DI Unit

This is a piece of equipment that we can not stress enough might even be more important than the tank. You really shouldn't even start a tank unless you are going to purchase one of these. In the ocean, on reefs, there's pure H2O and salt. Fish and corals, over time, WILL parish if you use just regular tap water. In every area of the country, they add elements such as chlorine, copper, lead, etc. Now although some of these chemicals are present in almost all water on earth, the amount is not as great as in what comes out of our taps. PLEASE make sure you filter your tap water for the health of your fish.

The Tank

We urge people to consider reef ready tanks. These tanks have built-in overflows that draw the water from the tank, down to the filtration underneath the tank where it is cleaned, then pumps it back up to the display tank via a return pump. These tanks will cost more money but are more than worth it in the long run. In the event you already purchased your tank without built-in overflows, you can always use hang on overflows or drill your tank (please don't drill your tank unless you know how). Siphon overflows aren't particularly our favorite and we do not especially recommend them because if the siphon breaks they can cause plenty of problems. Looks at spending the few extra hundred dollars for a tank with built in overflows as insurance. We build tanks here that are extremely well known for their durability and performance. Call us for a quote if you are looking for an acrylic tank.

The Heater

Titanium heaters with a guard. These are the ONLY types of heaters that we recommend for the type of aquarium. If you have an acrylic aquarium the guard can prevent your tank or sump from melting should the heating element come in contact it. Also, a good deal of fish seem to generate to the heater because of the excess warmth it gives off. In several tanks, we have gobies that try to sit on the heater and the guard prevents them from doing so. 

Natural Filtration

We can't express how much we hate canister filters here. These filters have your tank water flow into them where all the fish waste, uneaten food, and other decaying organic matter floats into and gets filtered out of the water. The trash can in your kitchen basically acts the same. So could probably save some money by just running your tank water through that lol (don't actually do that).

Bioballs and ceramic rings are another option, but we only view them as slightly better than canister filters. They do a slightly better job because more oxygen is used so they do have the ability to harvest a larger amount of beneficial bacteria to assist in breaking down waste. The problem with these two things though is they tend to accumulate a good deal of waste and not a lot of critters that can consume that waste (copepods) will hang out on them.

The only type of filtration that we recommend is natural filtration. It's extremely easy to keep in captivity and outperforms nearly any other form of filtration. Natural filtrations are when you utilize such things as deep sand beds, macroalgae, and live rock to filter your tank water. Since we don't want people running off and buying any sort of macroalgae we'll touch briefly on it during this section. Either Chaetomorpha (Chaeto) or Ulva (sea lettuce) are both great choices. Avoid Caulerpa at all costs, as it can be extremely detrimental to your tank. When utilizing macroalgae keep in mind it's just like any other plant and requires the best light to perform it's best. Under our Refugium Lighting section, you will find the Kessil H80, Aqua Illumination Fugee, or Kessil H160. These are all phenomenal choices to help your macroalgae keep your tank nitrate and phosphate free.

Deep sandbeds, along with macroalgae, make the perfect combination of water polishing. Deep sandbeds allow for the ability to harvest much more beneficial bacteria to help break down waste. Here we make sure to put critters in our sumps and tank to make sure they stir the sand bed to keep any dead spots from forming (we'll discuss this more in the upcoming sections). Tongan Fighting Conchs make for amazing additions because they clean unwanted detritus off of the sandbed surface and then bury themselves in the sandbed aerating the sand. We also use sand sifting sea stars to make sure the sand stays mixed up as well.

Protein Skimmers

There are a large number of people that are determined to prove that a tank can survive without a protein skimmer. One of the most important things that a protein skimmer does is remove pheromones from the aquarium water. Pheromones are chemicals that are excreted by every living creature in your tank, and when they're released every member of your tank can pick up on them. Without a protein skimmer to efficiently remove these chemicals, it causes unnecessary stress to your tank inhabitants. Protein Skimmers also play two other extremely important roles. They remove dissolved organic compounds (DOC) to keep your aquarium safe. These are compounds that are too small to be removed by mechanical or natural filtration. If you were to add a protein skimmer to a tank currently not using one, within a few weeks it would begin producing a dark brown sludge similar to coffee. Skimmers also add vital dissolved oxygen to your tank which assists in maintaining a consistent pH level.

At we only carry what we consider the four best brands on the market when it comes to protein skimmers - those two brands are Bubble Magus and Nyos. If you would like to see a larger selection you visit our sister site,, and check out our Protein Skimmer Power Rankings section.  


This is a section where we can not stress enough that you need to figure out what type of tank you will want in the future so that you are not continually upgrading your lights. Sometimes you just have to suck it up when it comes to this hobby and realize you might end up spending a little more than you want. If you are planning on having a fish only tank than light does not matter that much, unless you really want the color of your fish to pop. Anything above fish only and you will need a much more powerful light with better control. Again, we can not stress enough that if you are successful at keeping a saltwater tank you likely will end up purchasing corals and clams as your tastes advance. After extensive testing, the only two lights that we recommend for reef tanks are Ecotech Marine Radions and Aqua Illumination lights. The PAR levels were much higher than every other light brand we tested. 

In the end, almost all lights end up costing the same (we say this a lot). LEDs are more expensive than metal halides, but over the course of a year you'll end up paying for bulb replacement and higher utility costs. If you spend half the price on a less expensive "bargain brand LED" you might end up buying 2 within the course of two years which means even those cost the same. For more information on aquarium lighting head over to our Lighting 101 section. To view the top 5 brands we carry, you can visit our Kessil, Aqua Illumination, Ecotech Marine, ATI or Hamilton Technology pages.

Water Changes

There is a large portion of the industry that is trying to find a way to prolong the time between water changes or even eliminate them. This is impossible. Keeping up with a saltwater aquarium can sometimes be rather costly, especially when it comes to maintenance, but in the end, it's very much worth it. Water changes dilute harmful nutrients such as phosphates and nitrates, assuming you are using an RO/DI unit. They also add oxygen and replenish vital trace elements that are depleted the members of your tank. Water changes are especially important if you're keeping critters such as clams, shrimp, corals, or anything else that requires these elements to grow and stay healthy. We have been using Tropica Marin forever and a day here. Lately, though we've taken a real liking to Aquaforest salt. It's extremely stable and mixes extremely easy. If you want to keep the cost slightly lower there's also the always famous Instant Ocean Reef Crystals.

Next: Cycling a Saltwater Aquarium

Hope you enjoyed our How to Start a Saltwater Aquarium section and it was of some use. For any further questions contact us a

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