Basic Choices and Equipment for a First Saltwater Aquarium

Basic Choices and Equipment for a First saltwater Aquarium
Setting up a saltwater aquarium is an exciting endeavor—creating an exotic marine world in miniature—and with some basic preparation and planning it should be neither confusing nor intimidating.

Although there are more steps here than in establishing a freshwater tank, many of the techniques and much of the equipment are the same and will be familiar to anyone with previous aquarium experience. (Getting one’s sleeves wet with a freshwater aquarium is a traditional training exercise for most marine aquarists. For the intrepid and the quick learners, it is entirely possible to start right in with a basic saltwater system, but having some prior success in keeping less demanding freshwater fishes is a major asset.)

Beginning freshwater enthusiasts often begin on a whim—bringing home a goldfish bowl or 10-gallon tank with all the trimmings, including plants and fishes, with little or no forethought. With a marine tank, this would be absolute folly and something that no ethical aquarium shop would encourage. I urge you to spend some time thinking about the tank you want to create and to do some informal research before simply diving in.

A well-planned marine system can become a favorite focal point of the home. Above: surveying equipment at a local shop.

Plans & Choices

Making a plan is the logical start to setting up a new marine aquarium, but some people see this as a form of homework to be ignored or neglected. In truth, it ought to be fun, with a chance to look at your choices of livestock, equipment, and local aquarium purveyors without the pressure of making any buying decision

At this stage, you will start to identify the types of fish you really want to keep, then zero in on the equipment that will meet your needs—and budget—and begin to plan the look and layout of the tank.

Thinking now about what will go into the aquarium and the overall design goes a long way toward determining how successful the tank will be in the long run. All too often, setting up a saltwater tank is an impulse decision. On several occasions, I have seen a new hobbyist walking out of a store with a bag of salt, a new tank, and several fish to put in it. This is not only completely irresponsible of the shop that allowed or encouraged this, but it is also cruel to the animals that have little or no chance of surviving. (It is also extremely shortsighted as a business practice, as most hobbyists who see all of their first fishes die soon after starting out are generally quick to find themselves another hobby.)

The Planning Checklist included to assist you in making your choices. Many good aquarists keep a notebook or log, and this is a great time to start, making lists of species you like, equipment that has caught your eye, questions to ask, and prices quoted by different aquarium retailers in your area.

Planning Checklist

Types of Fishes to Be Kept
• Mixed community fishes (docile to moderately aggressive species)
• Smaller, more docile species
• Larger, more aggressive species
• Species tank

Tank & Stand
• Size of tank
• Location of tank

Tank Material
• Glass
• Acrylic

Type of Stand
• Aquarium stand
• Existing desk, counter, or shelf
• Do-it-yourself unit
• Custom/other

• Glass cover
• Full hood
• Other

Tank Background
• Printed sheet
• Paint/other


• Single-strip fluorescent (not recommended)
• Double or twin-bulb fluorescent
• Compact fluorescent
• High-intensity fluorescent
• Other

• Full spectrum: number needed
• Blue actinic: number needed
• Other

Biological Filtration

Live Rock
• Cured
• Uncured
• Base rock: pounds needed
• Reef rock: pounds needed
• Premium reef rock: pounds neede
• Other: pounds needed

Substrate (approximately 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 pound per gallon)
• Dry coral sand: pounds needed
• Live sand (optional): pounds needed

Mechanical & Chemical Filtration

Protein Skimmer
• Hang-on-tank type
• Countercurrent (airstone)
• Venturi
• Other type
• Air or water pump (if required)

Powerhead (total pumping capacity should be 5 to 10 times the volume of the tank per hour)
• Number of powerheads needed
• Model
• Rating

Power Filter
• External canister type
• External hang-on-tank type
• Internal/submersible sponge type

Other Equipment/Electrical
• Heater(s) (2 to 3 watts/gallon recommended)
• Ground-fault interrupter (GFI)
• Power strip
• Lighting timer
• UV sterilizer (optional)

Testing Equipment

• Internal
• External

• Dip-and-read type
• Floating glass type

Saltwater Test Kit(s)
• Ammonia
• Nitrate
• pH
• Alkalinity


Saltwater Source
• Natural seawater
• Aquarium salt mix quantity needed

Water Treatment
• Dechlorinator/deaminator (for municipal tap water)
• Reverse osmosis unit (optional)
• Deionization unit (optional)
• Tap water purifying filter (optional)

Quarantine Setup
• Small aquarium (10 to 20 gallons)
• Submersible sponge filter (with air pump or small powerhead)
• Heater
• Cover (light optional)
• Thermometer
• PVC pipe sections or fittings (as hiding places)

• Saltwater mixing and storage vat(s)
• Utility bucket(s)
• Net
• Specimen box (for moving/acclimating fishes)
• Cleaning pad or wand (for glass or acrylic tank)
• Gravel vacuum with siphon hose
• Activated carbon (and media bag, if needed)
• Fish foods

The Aquarium Shop

The choice of an aquarium retail shop will probably have as much impact on your success as a new marine fishkeeper as virtually any other decision you make. The right shop will not only provide healthy livestock and quality equipment, but the store personnel will also be important ongoing sources of help and information. Pick the wrong store and you may give yourself a triple handicap of borderline fishes, the wrong gear, and questionable or outdated advice.

The first thing that distinguishes a good store is how well informed the store’s employees are and how well they can field questions from marine aquarists. Anyone thinking about investing in a new saltwater system ought to command some personal attention, and I would generally start at the top and try to talk to the owner or manager. (In a large store, you may want the manager or the senior salesperson of the marine department.)

The best stores generally have someone who was and hopefully still is an active aquarist. I like to ask the person waiting on me how long he or she has kept fishes and what types. Knowing that the person waiting on you is actively involved in the hobby is very reassuring. He or she may be interested in Rift Lake African freshwater fishes, but still ought to have a working knowledge of how to set up and maintain a saltwater tank. You definitely want and need someone who is up to date on the latest breakthroughs in the hobby in terms of equipment, techniques, and livestock.

You have to be wary of shops where things are strictly business, and where anytime a problem or question arises the owner or staff immediately have some quick fix—usually a “just buy this” solution—to make it better. No matter what your problem, in the course of your hurried, one-minute discussion, these stores will immediately have an instant opinion and remedy for the situation. What the new aquarist really needs is someone who will listen, discuss the problem, and after assessing various options, come up with several solutions that may or may not require the purchase of something.

In many aquarium stores, the staff includes a number of young hobbyists who are eager to discuss their favorite aspects of aquarium keeping. These hobbyists can often provide tips, especially to the beginner, that are invaluable in saving time and money. On the other hand, some stores are staffed exclusively with minimum-wage teenagers or students with absolutely no experience or inclination toward keeping fishes. This type of shop is unlikely to be able to provide you with the service and information you will require when a problem arises. If at all possible, find a place that inspires confidence and where you can turn for honest advice.

Along with knowledgeable personnel, an aquarium shop ought to be clean, neat, and a pleasure to visit. This may seem superficial, but in my opinion, when a store is nicely kept and well organized, it generally indicates good overall management. It usually follows that the tanks are clean, the merchandise up to date, and the livestock properly handled and healthy.

Check the displays of marine fishes and invertebrates: the tank glass should be clean inside and out with no salt buildup or algae obstructing the view of the inhabitants. There should be no dead or sick fishes in a tank where the animals are for sale. (When a tank contains sick fishes, some notice should be present stating that the inhabitants of that tank are not for sale or that they are being quarantined.) The tanks should be appealing to look at with no mulm (sunken debris) or excess food lying on the bottom.

The choice of fishes and invertebrates will also tell a great deal about a shop. Ideally, you will find the most-popular marine fishes, as well as some harder-to-find species of interest to more advanced aquarists. In smaller shops, especially outside major urban areas, the selection may be limited, but the fishes should always be well-cared for. (Any serious aquarium shop will be happy to special-order a species you want but don’t find in stock.) A surefire icebreaker is to ask what fish species they recommend for new marine systems and to inquire about the types of live rock they offer.

As with livestock, better shops also contain a wide assortment of merchandise for all levels of hobbyists, with more than one brand of any type of product. (The trend at certain chains seems to be toward zero choice: “Acme” tanks, “Acme” lights, “Acme” filters, and “Acme” foods. How is one to compare price and quality if there is nothing with which to compare?) When asked about the tanks or protein skimmers, a good store should be able to show several brands and models and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each. The merchandise should also be up to date and include some of the latest improvements in technology. (Determine if the shop caters to local reef keepers and regularly stocks soft and stony corals and cured live rock. If so, it is more likely to keep abreast of the latest innovations and information in the marine hobby.)

A good dealer should also be able to explain how various equipment works as well as how to repair it should the need arise. In this regard, better shops often maintain a workshop for repairing equipment as well as doing custom work like drilling tanks or building custom cabinets. These stores can help make an aquarium an integral part of a home or office by offering the resources to obtain customized tanks and stands and to assist you in modifying equipment to fit your space and needs. Finally, I would check the store’s display of current aquarium books and magazines. This hobby is fueled by written information, and a forward-looking store will have the classic and current reference works to keep their customers well informed and motivated.

This dry-run tour of your local aquarium shops is an excellent way to survey the choice of fishes, the relative sizes and styles of aquariums and cabinetry, and the myriad choices of equipment. If possible, resist buying on this first investigative round of visits. Take the time to look, gather information, and plot your course of action.

The Budget

Marine specimens and systems are generally more expensive to buy, set up, and maintain than their typical freshwater counterparts. Synthetic salt mix is an ongoing cost that the marine aquarist must accept (unless a clean source of seawater is available nearby). However, much of the long-term expense commonly associated with saltwater aquariums has come, in the past, from the frequent need to replace fishes that have succumbed to poor water quality. In other words, the hobbyist who unknowingly starts with a cheap, inadequate filter system will be paying the price of lost fishes within months.

The methods and setup for a saltwater fish tank described here will initially be somewhat more expensive than equipping an old-style undergravel system, but in the long run should be much less financially—and emotionally—draining. Using the accompanying advice on required equipment and supplies, you should be able to construct an approximate budget for the size and type of tank you plan to acquire using current prices from local retailers.

Obviously, the total price will be subject to a combination of a great many variables. In the end, you can make this as lavish or as frugal as your own tastes dictate and your pocketbook allows. A resourceful hobbyist can always find ways to cut costs, find good deals, or otherwise get good results by investing time rather than money. The new hobbyist with an expansive budget will be delighted at the high-tech options and rare fishes available. However, keep in mind that success in keeping fishes alive and designing a healthy, beautiful tankscape has more to do with your methods than with the amount of money you spend.

All the basic nonliving purchases required for a first marine aquarium: many shops offer “starter package” savings to new hobbyists.

Tank Size

Selecting the actual aquarium and its supporting equipment is one of the most engaging aspects of setting up a new system, but also one of the most confusing. The reason for this is that there are now so many different brands, pieces of equipment, and options from which to choose. But before you get into the smaller components and stickier choices, you need to decide on the main component: the tank.

The standard rule for setting up a saltwater tank is to get as big a tank as possible, both in terms of affordability and space. The tank itself is not the most expensive component of a saltwater setup, with a bigger tank generally not costing significantly more than the next size below it. Also, when you choose a bigger tank, the cost of the ancillary equipment does not increase in relation to the increase in the size of the tank. That is, if you go from a 20-gallon tank to a 40-gallon tank, you don’t need two heaters and two protein skimmers, you only need to increase the wattage of the one heater and the size of the one protein skimmer—neither of which will dramatically affect their cost.

There are several reasons why bigger tanks are better. First, a larger aquarium is more stable, in a number of ways, than a smaller tank. Temperature swings are moderated in larger tanks; if a heater malfunctions, a power failure occurs, or a heat wave strikes, it will take more time for the larger tank’s temperature to shift to dangerous levels. Equally important, a larger tank is more biologically stable. If a fish or invertebrate dies unseen, it is much less likely to pollute the rest of the tank if there is a larger body of water to dilute the spike of toxic ammonia that can appear. A bigger tank is also more forgiving of typical beginner’s problems such as overfeeding and overstocking and will reach a critical stage more slowly than a smaller tank. The tank itself cannot prevent ongoing mismanagement, but the extra margin of error provided by a larger tank allows more time for developing problems to be realized and corrected.

The other factor that often argues in favor of larger aquariums is the hobbyist’s own desire to keep certain fishes. While many of the exceptionally colorful, smaller reef fishes can be comfortably housed in modest-sized tanks, others will quickly outgrow a beginner’s tank. If your heart is absolutely set on having a 2-foot-long moray eel, a big lionfish, or one of the larger angelfishes or wrasses, a small aquarium simply won’t do for long.

From personal experience, I would suggest that 40 gallons is a reasonable minimum size for a typical first marine tank. Provided that it is stocked intelligently, it can house a varied and interesting collection of livestock and is large enough to provide a reasonable level of thermal and chemical stability. A 40-gallon “breeder/low” tank is 36 inches in length, a common size for many necessary components, such as stands, hoods, and lights.

Moving up to the next standard length—48 inches, we find the 40-gallon “long” as well as the standard 55-gallon tank, which is mass-produced for the North American market and often available at an attractive price, with easily matched stand, lights, and other fixtures. Within the same family of 48-inch tanks, the choices of readily available volumes include 75 , 90, 110, 120, and 150 gallons, with a progressive increase in width and/or height. The usual, and in many ways most prudent, course is to start with something in the 40-to-50-gallon range, with a plan to move upward once your skills and confidence have grown.

I would counsel against any of the micro-sized plastic shelf tanks, or even small aquariums in the 10-to-20-gallon range, for marine fishes. Although small and cheap, they demand expert care and have a slim margin for error when it comes to stocking, feeding, and day-to-day maintenance.

Tank Shape

In addition to choosing a tank of adequate volume, it is important to select one with the right shape—specifically, with as much surface area as possible. Simply put, it is prudent not to choose a tank that is significantly taller than it is wide. A lower, wider aquarium has several advantages over a taller, narrower tank with the same gallonage, especially for new aquarists.

First, a higher ratio of surface area to volume allows for greater gas exchange at the air/water interface. All other things being equal, a deep, narrow tank has a much greater chance of suffering poor oxygenation than a shallower, broader model. Taller tanks call for greater mechanical assistance (water- or air-pumping capacity) to keep the water well circulated and oxygenated. I am not placing a blanket condemnation on tall tanks, but they do demand properly sized powerheads and protein skimmers to compensate for the reduced surface area.

A wider tank also allows for a greater sense of front-to-back depth in the tank and this provides more room for a natural-looking aquascape as well as more potential hiding places for your fishes. The enhanced bottom area and places to seek cover can translate into increased security for the fishes and may help to reduce the stress of being in a captive environment. Tall “show-type” tanks have their place, especially in public or office settings where they will be viewed primarily from a standing position.

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