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How To Easily Set Up a Salt Water Fish Tank!

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Last updated on November 30th, 2023


How To Set Up a Salt Water Aquarium With Ease!

How to easily set up a saltwater tank!

The most common question I'm asked is how to set up a salt water aquarium. Often followed by questions like "Isn't saltwater hard?" or "Aren't saltwater fish tanks expensive?". While I understand the "saltwater is for the rich" mentality of the past, it's not true anymore. Don't get me wrong, if you want an expensive aquarium, like any other hobby, you can have the luxury setup. But for the typical reef keeper, saltwater aquariums can be easy, and affordable!

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Quick Note

Most of the conversation points for how to set up a saltwater fish tank are articles of their own. So rather than 1 large, hard to navigate article, some sections will link you to another article. This way I can give you more information about a specific topic. Then you can come back to this article to find the next step. I know a lot of sites do this for weird ways to show you ads and seemingly make things difficult. I'm letting you know ahead of time that it is just to make it a little easier on you to read like chapters, rather than a novel all at once.

How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 1: Planning Your Saltwater Aquarium

The first mistake when setting up a salt water aquarium is not making a plan before you start buying the tank. Most people buy a tank on Facebook Marketplace, or Craigslist (if that's even a thing anymore), and then try to figure out what they need. This usually ends up in a short-lived tank that needs to be replaced. Or a lot of hacked-together equipment to make it work. Trust me, a good deal without a plan is not a good deal at all!

The other mistake is just going to a fish store and letting them tell you what you need. Usually they will point you in the right direction, but it will be either the more expensive option, or be based on the opinion of the person helping you. So if your tank isn't like theirs, you'll end up needing to change things again.

Planning your saltwater aquarium before you set it up will:

  • Save You Money!
  • Look Better, Faster!
  • AND Prevent Fish and Coral Death!

What Do You Want Your Tank To Look Like?

Most of us set up a saltwater aquarium just thinking we can add whatever we want when we want. Sadly, that's just not how it works. Some fish eat coral, and different coral have different needs. Branching hard coral need a lot of flow, typically more light, and a reasonable amount of chemical testing and balancing. The more flowy coral like hammers and torch coral need some chemical balance as well, but also need nitrates and phosphates. The bigger consideration is that they need MUCH less flow and light. Soft coral need the least of all of this.

SPS Reef Tank Reef2Reef - REEF OF THE MONTH - September 2023: Oly's Incredible Acro Reef! Euphyllia Reef Tank Reef2Reef - Show me your Euphyllia gardens!

Some fish, like puffer fish can't have coral in their tank because they will eat the coral! Other fish like lion fish, anglers, and eels can't have fish that are able to fit in their mouths because they will eat them without a thought. So you can see that if you don't plan all of this before setting up a tank, there is a lot that can go wrong!

I strongly advise looking through some Tank of the Month winners or other tanks on Reef2Reef to get a general idea of what you like and want in your home! Most of these even mention what they do in their tank to help you get the same look. Once you have a plan for the type of tank you want, come back here and we can look at step 2!

How To Set Up a Salt Water Aquarium - Setup and Location

Make sure to think through where you want your tank to be in your home. A couple words of caution, direct sunlight can algae to grow in your tank, so avoid direct sunlight. Additionally, do not set up a salt water aquarium in front of a window. Temperature changes from outside will effect the aquarium and cause temperature swings just large enough that it could kill coral and stress fish.

Additionally you will want to set up a salt water aquarium in the lowest floor of your house. You can have certain aquariums in upper floors if the tank is placed across enough floor joists, or the floor is reinforced. Aquariums are VERY heavy (think 15 pounds or more per gallon when you include sand and rock) and not all homes are built to handle this weight. If you are not entirely sure of the support provided by the floor, you may want to contact a structural engineer to get more advice if you're going to set up a large aquarium. Another solution is to keep the salt water aquarium in the basement (or lowest floor) because a concrete foundation can hold pretty much any weight since it is directly on the ground.

How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 2: Choosing a Tank

Now that you have a rough idea of what kind of tank you want, it's time to decide on the tank itself. While simple, there are a few things to think about. A few of these include the best tank size, if you want a sump or an all-in-one aquarium, and even if you should get a glass or acrylic aquarium.

Since there is a bit of detail in deciding on which aquarium to choose, you should read this guide to picking the best aquarium.

How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 2: Temperature Control

What Temperature Should My Reef Tank Be?

Next up in how to set up a salt water aquarium is temperature control. Just like your home, your reef tank needs temperature control. Coral is very sensitive to temperature changes, and so are some fish. Depending on the types of fish or coral, the best temperature for your tank can range anywhere from 75 degrees F up to 85 degrees F, though 78 to 80 is typically the safe numbers.

The biggest thing is that once you pick a temperature, stay stable within 1 degree F of that temperature. I personally try to keep my temperature at 78 degrees F. That way there is a safety margin in case of a heater failing on or off. Since coral is more sensitive to excessive heat, I try to keep on the lower side rather than the high side of the safe numbers.

Do I need a Chiller?

Deciding if you need a chiller is actually fairly simple. If the room where you are keeping your salt water aquarium can get above 80 degrees F, or whatever temperature you chose, then you will need a chiller. Since most rooms in the home will be below this temperature, and aquariums requires more temperature stability, you will always want to have a heater in your reef tank.

Which Aquarium Heater Do I Need?

When picking an aquarium heater, I have a long answer and a short answer. For the long answer, I have an article "What Heater Do I Need for My Aquarium?" that will go over the different heaters, how big of a heater you need, and a bunch of other details.

I am going to assume you're newer to the hobby and all of these details aren't super important to you. So The short answer is you need a temperature controller (Inkbirds are my favorite), and 2 heaters that are about 2 watts per gallon of tank and sump water. If you have a 55 gallon tank and a 20 gallon sump, you'll want 2x 150 watt heaters.

You want 2 heaters instead of 1 big one because aquarium heaters fail, and splitting it across 2 means you should only have 1 fail and your tank will still be able to stay warm while you replace the broken heater. You also don't want a preset heater because the inkbird will do that, but you DO want one with an analog controller built it. That way you have a backup for your inkbird controller. Finally, do not get a digital temperature control on the heater. They usually reset when they lose power, making them pointless.

Okay, that was probably a lot. So... Blah Blah Blah, Built In Controller, 2 Heaters both at 2 Watts per Gallon. I'll toss a couple links below to make it easier. :)

How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 3: Choosing a Light

Though a seemingly simple concept from freshwater aquariums, after the tank itself and heat, lighting is arguably the most important step towards how to set up a salt water aquarium. If you're not keeping coral, then lighting can really be anything you want it to be. But if you plan to keep coral, light is very important and everyone will argue about the best brands.

I won't go too far in depth about lighting here, because I haveA Complete Guide Saltwater Aquarium Lighting that will answer all of your questions on picking a reef tank light. That being said, I can't tell you which brand is "best", you'll need to dig into that yourself. My personal favorites are EcoTech Radions if you have the money for them, and for a lower cost option the Orphek OR3 bars are much stronger than people think, but they will need timers.

How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 4: Flow

Just after lighting, the most important detail for setting up a salt water aquarium is flow. It can be a bit difficult to figure out how much flow you need for a salt water aquarium. It depends on what type of coral you plan to keep.

There isn't an exact amount of flow to guarantee success, but there is a rule of thumb to get you started. Most coral need around 40 times tank turnover worth of flow. When planning how to set up a salt water aquarium, I recommend adding powerheads with flow ratings that add up to the total water volume times 40. But split the flow up across multiple pumps. For example, a 75 gallon aquarium would want roughly 3000 gpH of flow (75x40=3000). Then you split this up across 4 pumps. So you will want roughly 4 pumps at 750gph or more. The more pumps, the better because it allows the flow to mix around the tank and cover more area, rather than just one source of flow.

This is really just a starting point, because there are different types of flow, and some coral want more flow while others want less. Acropora Tenuis for example want a LOT of flow, but torch coral need easily half the amount of flow an acropora would like.

This is a good starting point for flow pumps, though if you want to go in depth with the different types of flow and pumps, I wrote A Complete Guide to Flow for Reef Aquariums that will guide you through this topic.

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How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 5: Plumbing

If you bought an all in one tank, you can pretty much ignore this step. If you're going to have a sump though, this is going to be important.

Plumbing a reef tank requires patience, and far more planning than you would think. A few examples are making sure the drains for your tank are above the top of the sump. As well as making sure your pipe is always angled down, and never back up! This is especially important if you have a sump on the same floor but far away from your tank!

If you are about to start plumbing your reef tank, you should read My Guide on How to Plumb a Reef Tank. This will give you all of the topics you need to plumb your tank the best way possible!

How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 6: Filtration

There are 3 types of filtration when setting up a salt water aquarium. Mechanical, Biological, and Chemical filtration all utilize different methods of handling nitrites and nitrates. At a high level, Mechanical filtration can be thought of as removing waste before it breaks down. Biological filtration is the bacteria that helps remove nitrites and nitrates after the waste breaks down, and chemical filtration is used for water clarity and one-time fixes.

Mechanical Filtration

Mechanical filtration is the use of saltwater aquarium filter media to remove debris from the water before it can break down into nitrate and phosphate. Some common examples are filter socks, filter floss, protein skimmers, or any other aquarium filters and aquarium filter media that remove debris from the water before it can break down.

For detailed information about Mechanical Filtration, you should read Saltwater Aquarium Filtration - Mechanical Filtration.

Biological Filtration

Biological filtration is when bacteria, known as "beneficial bacteria" in the tank converts broken down waste from ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, etc and converts them to less toxic versions. For example, the conversion of ammonia to nitrite, and nitrite to nitrate. Bacteria converts each of these to the next, less toxic version. Some of this bacteria then eats the nitrates and is either eaten by coral or removed by the protein skimmer.

For detailed information about Biological Filtration, you should read Saltwater Aquarium Filtration - Biological Filtration.

Chemical Filtration

Unlike other aquarium filters, chemical filtration is typically very specific to the problem being solved. Typically this is high nitrate or phosphate, but it could also be some kind of metals or other element that is too high. While I really can't stress enough that you should find the reason for the high reading, chemical filtration will help bring everything back in check while you work to fix the problem itself.

For detailed information about Chemical Filtration, you should read Saltwater Aquarium Filtration - Chemical Filtration.

How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 7: Aquascaping

When aquascaping a saltwater aquarium, there are a number of things to consider. The most important is to make sure you have the right amount of space and environment for coral to grow, fish to swim, and avoid blocking water flow. It is best to do this aquascaping before water is added to the aquarium. This lets you move things around a bit easier, as well as allow glue to dry better.

You will want to glue the rockwork together because eventually, either you or a fish will bump into a rock and knock the whole thing over. This is much easier to do without water in the aquarium. Additionally, you will want to put the rock on the bottom of the glass, before adding sand. If you place the rock on top of the sand, if a fish or invertabrate burrows in the sand, the entire structure may fall apart.

As for the best types of rock and how to arrange them when setting up a saltwater aquarium, I will refer you to this article as it covers this all in detail:

Saltwater Aquascaping: Making a beautiful and functional aquascape

How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 8: Setting Up the Equipment

The next step is setting up the equipment itself. You will want to put all of the equipment, including pumps, powerheads, lights, filters, heaters, and anything else in their new homes before you fill the aquarium with water. DO NOT PLUG ANYTHING IN YET!

Make sure there is enough room for all of the filters, powerheads, pumps, plumbing, ect, and that everything can be easily accessed for cleaning and maintenance.

How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 9: Mixing Salt Water and Filling the Tank

Now that the rock is in place, the equipment is all in place, and all the pvc plumbing is glued together, you are ready to start mixing salt water, and filling the tank. When mixing saltwater, you will want to use RODI water. This water contains nearly no contaminates. In fact, it is so pure that you CANNOT drink it! You may be tempted to use tap water with a dechlorinator or other "preparation" chemical. This is not a good idea for saltwater. Though chlorine is one of the chemicals you want to remove from the water, there is MUCH more you will need to remove.

Making RO/DI Water

Tap and well water can contain a lot of minerals that are not good for the aquarium. The water can also contain metals such as lead, copper, iron, etc. Finally, chemicals like floride can be found in the water. Though much of this is okay in certain levels for humans, it can be harsh on a saltwater aquarium. It can lead to coral death, fish stress and illness, and excessive algae growth. The worst part is that you won't even know what's wrong until you've spent a large amount of money and likely send in an ICP test.

The answer is to simply use Reverse Osmosis water. There are two ways to get this pure water. The first is to buy RO water from your local fish store. They will likely sell RO water for somewhere between $0.50 and $1.00 per gallon. This can add up over time, but if you have a small reef tank, or if it is just for a little while, this isn't too bad.

The better answer is to set up an RO/DI filter like this 4-Stage RO/DI System either in your basement, or in another location near a water source and a drain. If you have well water or know your have low quality water, you will want the 6-Stage RO/DI System to ensure that your water is pure. You will want to monitor that you get 0 TDS with an In-Line TDS Monitor, and change the RO filters when the TDS gets above 0.

For more information about RODI Water, check out:

RO Water for Aquariums

Mixing Salt Water

The next step is to mix some saltwater. To do this, you will simply put a small pump in a bucket of RO water, add the aquarium salt mix per the directions on the box or bucket, and then make sure that it is correct with a Refractometer NOT a hydrometer. Though hydrometers are cheaper, they are very inaccurate and not THAT much cheaper.

If the salinity is not what you'd like, you can add more salt mix to raise it, or remove saltwater and add RO water to bring the salinity down.

In terms of picking a salt mix, it will mostly depend on your goals. When first filling your tank, you may want to choose a cheaper salt mix. But there are benefits to starting off on a strong note! For help picking a salt mix, check out the article "Reef Salt Mix - Aquarium Salt Mix Parameters"."

Filling the Tank

The moment we've all been waiting for! Filling the tank with salt water! Now that you've mixed the water, it's time to add it to the tank. Carefully pour the saltwater in to the main tank, or use a pump with a hose. Continue to add water until the water flows down the overflow and fills the sump to the desired MAXIMUM level.

When the pumps are running and the pipes are filled with water, there will be a lower water level in the sump. However, you want this extra space so that if there is a power outage, the sump doesn't overflow and flood your home.

Once the tank is full, plug in any pumps to get water flowing and check all pipes for leaks. This doesn't need to be the final electrical layout, just doing a check for any problems at this point. This is the best time to do repairs before there is anything living in the tank. Let this run for about a day before plugging anything else in. Just in case something goes wrong. Once you're convinced that there are no leaks and everything is sound, you can start plugging in other equipment (planned in the next step). You can also add any live sand if you have decided to use it. Just make sure to pull water out of the tank afterward to bring the water back to the level marked earlier.

How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 10: Planning The Electrical Setup

When planning your reef tank's electrical setup, you will want to ensure outlets are both safe and accessible. This means the power strips are not directly above the aquarium where they could fall into the water, nor behind the aquarium where you can't get to them. You do not want them under the aquarium either because a leak could cause an electrical fire! As you can see, we quickly run out of locations...

Ideally you will have the outlets/power strips at mid to top of the tank level, and to the sides of the tank. This way you won't have to worry about it falling in the tank, evaporation, or leaks causing problems. I know this makes it more difficult to hide the outlets, and look good. But it could save your life, and/or your home. If you're worried about the look, you should consider a shelf or cabinet that you could use to help keep the outlets hidden while still accessible.

I think my favorite idea for hiding the electrical is to simply use a shelf, and put fake books in front. Make sure the power strips are attached to the wall or shelf, but then these books just sit right in front.

I want to make sure to look into some other very important safety concerns for planning electrical. First, you should use Ground Fault Interrupt (GFCI) outlets or breakers. If something shorts, water hits an outlet, etc. The GFCI will KEEP YOU ALIVE! This is VERY important! And they're cheap enough that you shouldn't hesitate!

You will also want to add a drip loop with all cords to prevent a potential fire. This means that the electrical cables that go in water (almost all of them) goes below the lowest outlet and back up. Essentially making a 'U' where one side is in the tank (such as a powerhead) and the other side plugged in. The drip loop prevents water that gets on the cord from traveling to the outlet. Instead it will go to the bottom of the drip loop and drip on the floor.

How To Set Up A Saltwater Fish Tank - Step 10: Cycling the Tank

The final step you need to know how to set up a salt water aquarium is to kick off the nitrogen cycle. There are a number of ways to start this process, and if you have live sand, the cycle has likely started already. Just remember that the cycle can take a few months, and sometimes and it is best to be patient. Don't add fish or any other living creatures until the cycle has finished. Don't try to use any miracle solutions to speed up the process. Just wait it out, track the parameters, and let the excitement set in.

To help prevent bad algae from growing during the cycle, you should keep the aquarium lights off. You can turn on the filtration to get an idea of how things will flow, but it will not speed up the process. Just stay the course and wait it out.

Adding beneficial bacteria such as MicroBacter7 or Dr. Tim's One and Only will help the cycle happen faster, just be careful not to get in a habit of quick fixes here.

For more information about Cycling your reef tank, and the different ways to cycle a saltwater aquarium, read the article "How to Cycle a Saltwater Fish Tank

Conclusion - ENJOY

I know learning how to set up a salt water aquarium can be intimidating at first, and there is a lot of extra reading. But after you've done it once, it becomes very simple. The most important parts are to plan well, and wait for the cycling to finish. This gives you time to plan out some fish, maybe set up a quarantine tank, or even start looking at more equipment. While you wait for the cycle to complete, here are some articles you can read about the next steps in reef keeping!

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About the Author

Reef Stable Founder John Krenzer

John is a Software Engineer with a passion for saltwater aquariums, as well as the founder and president of Reef Stable. He started in the aquarium hobby as a child with a 20 gallon freshwater aquarium. His interest in aquarium life grew and in 2008, John set up his first saltwater aquarium.

Today, John maintains an over 300 gallon reef tank system, consisting of a 120g reef and a 210g reef. These large tanks are contained within the same system, sharing a sump as a means to reduce total maintenance and increase total water volume.

John writes articles for the blog as a means to learn about more reef aquarium topics. These articles act as a reference for the readers as well as himself. John updates these articles frequently to provide additional information or make corrections as new information becomes available.

If you would like to request an article, tank tour article, or to collaborate, let me know via the Contact Me Page!

About Reef Stable

Reef Stable was initially founded in 2019 as a reef tank parameter log to fill a need. Reef Stable quickly grew, becoming a location to solve all of your reef tank problems as well as a place to learn.

Reef Stable now provides a Reef Blog, Reef Aquarium Guides, Coral Care Guides, Identification and Solutions for Pests and Algae, and Reef Dosing Calculators, in addition to the original Reef Parameter Log.

Reef Stable continues to grow, striving to provide a single location for all your reef tank needs!

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