Starting a Saltwater Aquarium


Starting a Saltwater Tank

The first thing we want to say is “Build for the tank you want.” This means to have a plan in place for what you may want to do with an aquarium in the long-run to save time and money. Research types of corals, clams, inverts, just every aspect of reef aquariums and see what you might want in the future. We have a good deal of pictures on our site as well. Most people usually want a single fish to brighten up a room. It can save a tremendous amount of coin however to do some in-depth research into all the creatures you can keep in your tank. 

There’s a sea of information on the web about starting a saltwater tank, whether it be FO (fish only), FOLR (fish only with live rock), or a full blown reef. We understand that it can become somewhat overwhelming as a lot of places sell saltwater aquarium supplies, but very few are informative when it comes to what those supplies actually do or how they play a role in your tank; especially if you’re new to the hobby. And not to sound presumptuous but there’s also a plethora of bullsh*t out there that can confuse people and steer them away from the basics of what it takes for any saltwater tank to not just survive, but also thrive. There are certain fundamental basics that allow a person to keep any tank they want; almost anything else just makes it simpler to keep a tank by attempting to remove maintenance from the equation and automating almost any system.

There is NO substitute for maintenance and there never will be. We are essentially dealing with free-standing water that’s usually around 100 gallons of water being kept in a tank, so no, nothing substitutes regular maintenance of a tank.

Saltwater tanks are a great gift to be able to keep in captivity, and the equipment used to keep them has come a great distance even over the last decade. If you’re going to start one, please be responsible with it. We get a good deal of calls on a daily basis where people rush into one and then call us due to unnecessary loss that occurs. These are little pieces of reef that we are responsible for keeping the inhabitants safe and healthy for as long as we can. Whether its corals, fish or inverts, to us they are all little family members that deserve the same amount of respect and consideration as anyone or anything else that we care about.

Let’s begin. This will only cover the basics of what is needed to start a saltwater aquarium. For any further or more in-depth reading please refer to other sections of our Reef101 section. The segments in that area will greatly improve on the reading in this section. We just didn’t want to vary too far from the basics of what people need to own their little piece of the reef.

As discussed earlier there is 2 TRILLION pieces of equipment that people can purchase and it seems that one thing always leads to another in this industry, but here’s how to start yours up…

Every tank needs, of course, the tank, heater, some form of natural filtration, a protein skimmer, a light, and water changes.

The Tank

PLEASE consider reef ready tanks. Reef ready tanks have either a single or more overflows built into the tank so that the water overflows from the tank, down to the filtration under the tank, then is returned to the tank after it is cleaned via a return pump. The tanks obviously cost more money. Thing is this hobby is addictive. As we want to do more with our tank, our need for more capable filtration increases. There are “siphon overflows” on the market, which hang on the back of the tank and act as an overflow, but their mechanics are based on a SIPHON which can and sometimes does lose suction and can potentially cause a sump to backup and overflow onto the floor. Look at it as the extra few hundred dollars spent on a reef ready tank can essentially save a few thousand dollars in water damages. Also please make sure your tank is constructed by a reputable source. Hopefully, they don’t mind if we give them a shout out here, but the people at have been in business for a very long time constructing very good quality tanks.

The Heater

There are hundreds of heaters on the market, but the majority of them are made of either glass or titanium. We don’t do glass ones here. Over almost 3 decades we have learned that a lot of stuff in the saltwater industry, such as the live rock, can hit these and even crack them, spreading stray voltage throughout a tank. We HIGHLY recommend titanium, with a guard, and an external thermostat for more accurate control. One reason is to protect the inhabitants of your tank. If a snail crawls on your heater and it turns on you don’t want the little bugger becoming potentially injured. Another reason is that these heaters end up inside of a sump eventually. Most people can kind of do the math on this one. Bare metal + plastic = a melted sump that potentially will leak everywhere. Through our product research over the years, we have always stuck with Finnex.

Natural Filtration

We can never say it enough that we hate enclosed canister filters and bio balls here, hate em. We cannot stand bio ball sumps or ceramic rings. A lot of people immediately jump into canister filters. Canister filters, in our opinion, are basically dumpsters. Think about how they work for a second. All the fish waste, decaying food, and organic matter gets sucked into these things then it stays there decaying while the rest of the tank water flows over it. The environment on the inside of a canister filter is far less than hospitable for maintaining any sort of beneficial bacteria to break down this waste. They’re closed off from almost all air and any light. Next, we’ll touch on bio balls and ceramic rings. The same rule applies to these only they’re basically open arena areas of a canister filter. Again, they are stationary areas made to collect waste. They have minimal water flow over them, but at least usually more oxygen is employed when it comes to these forms of filtration, so they are slightly more efficient at breaking down harmful nutrients than canister filters.

The only type of filtration that should be used in our opinion is natural filtration. This includes over a dozen types of macroalgae, such as Maidens Hair (chlorodesmis), Halimeda, and Chaetomorpha, etc. AND a sand bed. The only kind that we have had any real success with is Chaeto – this is a pretty common type of macro to find almost anywhere. You will need either a sump or hang-on refugium to benefit from these forms of algae. Most of the other macros have such a low absorption rate that they are almost meaningless to a tank altogether. Keep in mind that if you’re going to be running any sort of planted natural filtration that they work like most other plants. They require adequate light and the better lighting they get the more efficiently they perform. This means if you have an actual plant light over them, such as the Kessil H80, they do a much better job at removing harmful nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates from your aquarium.

Sandbeds, along with macro, increase the ability of your sump to perform at its peak. The two of them combined can usually keep your tank water almost glimmering for your tank inhabitants. Please consider beginning the right way when it comes to starting your aquarium. This will go a long way in preventing unnecessary loss and even tank crashes. Everyone switches to this form of filtration at some point eventually anyway.

Protein Skimmers

This piece of filtration is ridiculous to us, as in it is such a necessity yet so many people seem determined to prove that a tank can be without one - GTFOH. One of the biggest things that protein skimmers do, which doesn’t seem very widely known, is they are the ONLY way to remove pheromones from a tank – sex chemicals. These are the chemicals that everything in your tank produces because they are living breathing creatures that want to reproduce like every other organism on this planet. Without a way to remove these chemicals from a tank, it stresses everything out and can cause loss that shouldn’t occur. The two other things that protein skimmers are a necessity for is the also add crucial dissolved oxygen to a tank preventing significant pH decreases at night, and they removed DOC from tanks. DOC is Dissolved Organic Compounds. These compounds are usually way too small for any other form of filtration to remove. When it comes to selecting a skimmer you can refer to our Protein Skimmer Power Rankings section.  


This is a toughy for us. A lot of people get into the hobby and want to buy the most basic light they can to just illuminate their tank because by this point they’ve already spent a million dollars, mortgages their house, sold all their other pets, and want to start cutting costs a little. If you’re PLANNING on having a fish only tank then the lighting does not matter that much. You just want to make sure you at least buy a light that has a good reputation for lasting. Please keep in mind that almost everyone in this industry walks into a store and goes “Oh look, a coral”. This is why we strongly urge people to do their research and make sure they buy for the tank they may want and don’t currently have; it saves money in the long run. So, basic light fine with fish only.

If however you’re going to branch into corals and clams, and please take a visit to your LFS (local fish store) or get online and research pictures of reef tanks, you’re going to need much more intensive specialized lighting. These are lights from companies such as Kessil, Aqua Illumination, Hamilton, Ecotech, etc. Please refer to our Lighting 101 section or our Aquarium Lighting Power Rankings section for more in-depth information.  If you’re going to get into corals and clams, you are going to need much stronger LED lights or Metal Halides, which always come at an increased cost.

Water Changes

Okay, there are a lot of people trying to find a way around these lately – there isn’t one. Water changes are a necessity and there is absolutely nothing that can replace them. They dilute any sort of harmful nutrients that may be accumulating in the tank, add oxygen, and also replenish elements that almost every tank member needs including calcium and magnesium. Which salt you pick is really personal preference. Instant Ocean Reef Crystals has been around since the beginning and is one that we really enjoy here at the shop. It’s been a staple in this industry for almost as long as the hobby has been here. Really another one we prefer is Tropic Marin. We also recently got a couple of buckets of AquaForest in that we will be testing here soon.

Next: Cycling a Saltwater Aquarium

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