Everything You Need to Know Before Setting up a Saltwater Fish Tank

WARNING: This is a REALLY long post, but I hope it contains all the information needed to start a saltwater tank. If you own a saltwater tank, please comment below if there is anything else I need to add. This post took days of research to compile, so please like and share this if you have any aquarist friends!

Much of the information in this post was gathered from thesrucepets.com’s post “How to Set Up a Saltwater Aquarium.”  Be sure to check them out too!

As with any pet, the first thing you should do is research. First of all, determine if you have enough time for the constant maintenance, and keep in mind that if you travel often you cannot leave a saltwater aquarium unattended for more than 5 days. If you decide you have enough time for this, continue reading this article. Choose the kinds of fish that are best suited to novice aquarists before you become more advanced ( I have a list of these later in the article .)

Random tip: You may want to consider purchasing a generator, because your animals may die after a few hours due to lack of oxygen.

Then you need to decide what kind of setup you want. You can decide if you want a fish only tank, fish and live rock, or a reef tank- complete with corals, fish, and invertebrates. Most aquarists start with a fish only or fish and live rock setup, then upgrade it overtime. If you aren’t sure what you want, you can look up pictures for inspiration, and I will post some of my favorites in a separate post.

Now it is time to choose a location. If your tank is successful, then you will have it for quite a while so choose carefully. If you don’t want an overabundance of algae, I suggest you place the tank away from a window.

Next, choose your aquarium, stand, and hood. Since saltwater aquariums require a large amount of light, don’t use pre-manufactured hood lights as your tank’s only light scource. If you want to save a little money, try making your own stand. ( DIY stands will be in a future post ) You can make your own tank but due to the large amount of effort and money going into the project, I would recommend buying one just to be safe. You can purchase an aquarium for much less money at a thrift store, but they are not always available so it may take some patience. At this stage of planning, I recommend making a tank log. If you are young and interested in a career with animals, this log will help you prove your experience. If you aren’t young, it is still helpful and you  will thank yourself later.

Now you move on to the next step: filtration. A biological filter is what keeps your tank healthy, so you need to get this right. I will list a few of the basic kinds of filters below, but you still may want to research other options if you’re picky.

Canister filters:

This is what I’m familiar with, and I would highly recommend it. Canister filters force the water through the filter media, instead of allowing it to flow past it. This feature makes them quintessential for heavy loads. They are powerful filters, so use them with medium or large tanks. Sometimes they are difficult to take apart for cleaning, but many showcase videos on how to deconstruct them, and after a while you learn how the filter works.


Power filters:

These filters are by far most common. They hang over the side of your tank and draw water up using a lift tube. The water is then pushed through the filter media, and flows into a spill- away waterfall. The only maintenance needed is the changing of filter cartridges and the cleaning of the lift tube.

Sponge filters:

Sponge filters use bubbles from and external air pump to draw water through the sponge. As clean water travels through the lift tube, it is replaced by dirty water entering the sponge. Since the sponge is a breeding ground for bacteria, it is great as a biological filter. These filters are extremely cheap and require little maintenance, they must be rinsed every 1-4 weeks according to the tank load, feeding schedule, etc. They must be replaced when the sponge deteriorates, and some sponge filters have carbon cartridges that must be replaced. You may want to consider a second filter in the tank so not all of the bacteria is lost when the filter is replaced.

Under gravel filters:

Under gravel filters are made of a plastic grate underneath the gravel. Water is drawn through the gravel using either power heads or air pumps. Power heads pump water out of the top of the lift tube and into the tank, and air pumps blow bubbles at the bottom of the lift tubes and the bubbles will lift water up the lift tube and into the tank.

Protein skimmers:

Air bubbles inside the skimmer’s body clear the water of undesirable effluent by- products. To learn the specifics of the different kinds of skimmers, click here.

Now it’s time to look at lighting. A fish- only tank will require the least amount of lighting, and the majority of fish and invertebrates require little lighting. For a tank with fish and rocks only, white fluorescent or LED lighting is sufficient. For reef tanks with anemones, corals, fish, etc. you will need the highest level of lighting, because many corals need light for food. LED lighting is recommended, so I personally would start my aquarium off with LED to save money.

Before you set your tank up there are a few more things to buy:

-A heater

-Thermometer (you can buy these cheap on amazon.com)

-Salinity tester

-Water testing kit

-Air pump

-Power strip

Now you will start getting your tank set up. The first thing you will need, of course, is water. But since this is a saltwater tank, it’s time to look for sea salts. There isn’t necessarily a “best brand,” but my advice to you would be to find one that works for you. I have never used any of the brands below, I am simply going off of my research. That said, here are a few good brands:

Instant Ocean Sea Salt

Instant Ocean Reef Crystals

Tropic Marin Pro Reef

Red Sea Salt Mix

Seachem Reef Salt

ESV Seawater System

Next, let’s talk about substrate. Substrate is an important part of your aquarium because it’s not only decorative, it can be the home of smaller creatures, and it is part of your biological filter. Make sure your substrate will not fly around and clog your filter. Here is a post including the best brands of substrate: Click here.

Now it’s time to look at live rock. The general rule of thumb for live rock is 1 lb. of live rock per gallon of water, but since the density of the rock varies with the type, you can eye it. Always clean and prepare live rock before adding it to the tank, because this greatly increases its quality. Simply rinse it in a bucket of new saltwater, shake it to remove any organisms living inside, and remove any organisms that are dead or dying off (anything that is black or has a white film on it). After adding the live rock, continue removing the dead things.

All right! It’s time to start cycling the tank! Begin cycling a reef tank by adding a small amount of seeded or curve base live rock as center stones. Be careful not to stack live rock, as this can leave dead spots. When the rock is established and the tank is cycled, begin adding more advanced types of live rock, and then corals.

Most corals can be categorized into one of these three groups: LPS (Large Polyp Stony), Soft (no calcium-based skeleton), and SPS (Short/Small Polyp Stony)

Each of these groups is different, but they all have to use photosynthesis in order to survive. In the same way plants convert sunlight to produce chlorophyll, marine animals stay alive by converting light energy into “food”. Actually, this energy is consumed by zooxanthellae algae that produce by-products that the corals need to survive; a truly mutually beneficial relationship. If you want to learn about corals in more detail, click here.

You can research the specific lighting requirements of whichever kind you want, but below are a list of the easiest, low light corals for beginners:


  1. Button Polyps.



They will survive in 2-4 watts of light per gallon, and do best when placed near the middle or bottom of the tank.

2. Green Star Polyps.


These beauties are hardy and easy to maintain, and thrive in many varieties of light intensities and water flow intensities. They are fast spreading and great indicators of water quality, because they close their polyps if they are unhappy with the conditions.

3. Toadstool leather corals.

large-Toadstool Leather Coral Brown_Sarcophyton sp..jpg

They are hardy and do well in low to moderate lighting, and grow quickly.

4. Mushroom corals.


They will grow under 3 watts of light with very little water movement, but too much water movement will prohibit growth.

5. Xenia.


They do best in 3-4 watts of light and prefer to be placed halfway up way the tank. They grow very quickly and can transfer from rock to rock, which may disturb other corals.

6. Kenya tree corals.


This coral does well in 3 watts of light per gallon. This coral is very difficult to kill and will close up in poor water conditions.

7. Hammer corals.


They will sting other corals so they must be given enough room to grow.

8. Sun corals.


They do well in most types of light, including low light. They must be fed when their tentacles are extended (usually at night). They are very hardy and beautiful- a popular choice for beginners.

9. Frogspawn corals.


These do well in 4 watts of light per gallon and will sting nearby corals.

10. Blasto corals.


These peaceful corals require low water flow and low light intensity.

Now we get to what is probably the most exciting part- adding fish and invertebrates. Invertebrates are great algae control and clean substrate too, so I highly recommend them. Here is a list of a few easy care invertebrates:

Bumblebee Snail. These small snails only grow to about 1/2 inch long, but are still very helpful! They eat decomposing matter and small pests like sand dwelling worms.


Hermit crabs. When you see this, you may think “I thought they were land animals!” Yes, some kinds are but these guys are fully aquatic. They make a fantastic cleaning crew- eating algae, decaying matter, and detritus.


Star fish (sea stars). These guys will eat detritus and uneaten fish food. Some of the easiest ones to care for are the sand sifting sea star and the serpent sea star. (That’s a mouthful!) Just beware on getting any kind of star fish, because they can get really big!


Shrimp. These guys are usually preferred be beginners because they are cheap and great at cleaning up- just be careful housing them with big fish because they might get eaten! Cherry shrimp and cleaner shrimp are good to start out with.


Before you add fish, you need to know which ones are compatible. COMPATIBILITY CHART HERE

And finally, here are a few beginner-level fish to start out with:

  1. Ocellaris Clownfish. These are probably the most well-known saltwater fish out there! They always stay in the same part of a tank and if you buy a pair they will mate.


2. Coral Beauty Angelfish. These guys have stunning colors and adapt well. Unfortunately, they can get territorial in small aquariums.


3. Lawnmower Blenny. These guys are great for new aquariums because they are fantastic algae control.


4. Auriga Butterflyfish. With plenty of hiding spots, these guys will fit right in a non-aggressive tank. The hard part is getting him to eat regular foods, so make sure you see him eating before you buy him. He should get the idea if he sees what the other fish are eating, though.With frozen mysis shrimp, you should be good to go.


5. Raccoon Butterflyfish. This guy is pretty much the same as the Auriga Butterflyfish, just a different look.


6. Blue Green Damselfish. This guy fits right in with other non-aggressive fish, doesn’t bother corals and readily eats tank food.


7. Yellowtail Damselfish. This peaceful fish gets along well with other non- aggressive fish, and unlike most other damselfish they leave corals and invertebrates alone. These hardy and colorful fish are a favorite among beginners.


8. Orange-Spotted Goby. This sand sifter will keep your substrate clean. Its diet should be supplemented with mysis shrimp, brine shrimp, live black worms, and prepared food for carnivores.


9. Blue Tang. They are not very aggressive but are boisterous fish.  Juveniles should be kept in groups, but adults will fight if not provided with sufficient swimming room. These fish are prone to disease and should be fed finely chopped frozen or fresh mysid shrimp, brine shrimp, and dried seaweed.


10. Yellow tang. In general, these fish will get along with other fish but unless introduced to the tank at the same time they will not get along with other yellow tangs.


Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for the next post about saltwater tank maintenance and water testing!






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