Jan 12

Set up your first tropical marine tank

Your first saltwater tank set up

well designed marine aquarium

well designed marine aquarium

If you have already enjoyed the success of keeping your own tropical freshwater aquarium and would like to move onto a more beautiful but complex aquaria, your next step may be to attempt your first tropical marine tank. A saltwater tank setup tends to require a bit more investment on your part, both financially and in terms of setting up the complete marine aquarium , but the fascinating end result is worth it.

While at first glance, it may seem that keeping a saltwater aquarium should be the same as keeping a freshwater one, but with added salt. However, there are some key differences that you will need to pay attention to in order to get your tank set up properly. One of the first that should be taken into account before you start buying any marine tank equipment is the type of set up you would like to keep.

Three types of tropical saltwater tank setups

Fish only marine aquarium

Fish only marine aquarium is quite lively and active

Your first tropical marine tank will fall into one of three broad categories:

• Fish only tank

• Fish only with live rock (FOWLR) tank

• Complete reef tank (as above but with corals and invertebrates)

There are a wide variety of advantages and disadvantages to keeping each type of these saltwater tank setups. For your first tropical marine tank, however, it is important to keep things as simple as possible so that you can get acquainted with the specifics of keeping saltwater fish before moving on to more complicated setups involving corals and invertebrates.

Of the three choices above, the easiest option is the fish only with live rock tank. Intuitively you might think a fish only tank would be simpler to keep. Not so, the truth is that maintaining the correct water quality and filtration without live rock will require more work on your part. Live rock provides vital biological processes that eat up a lot of waste matter from the fish, purifying the water.

marine aquarium with live sand, coral and fish

marine aquarium with live sand, coral and fish

Reef tanks, too require a lot of hard work and monitoring in order to get running smoothly and maintaining, and are often some of the most expensive tanks to keep. They tend to require more equipment and more expensive livestock than tanks that focus solely on fish and live rock.

If you have decided to keep a fish and live rock tank and are ready to begin purchasing equipment and setting up, the list and guide below will help you get everything you need to begin.

What you need for your first tropical marine tank

As mentioned above, the technical requirements of maintaining your marine tank will be a bit more complex than those of a freshwater tank. You will need to collect the following equipment in order to get started:

• Aquarium As always, a larger tank is generally easier to keep and will make sudden changes in water quality less of a danger for your fish. At least 100 litres is recommended for your first tropical marine tank.

live rock is great for biological filtration

live rock is great for biological filtration

• Substrate There are three main options to choose from here: a shallow sand bed, a deep sand bed, or a bare bottom tank. A shallow sand bed is often ideal for first-time saltwater aquarists.

• Live Rock Getting about one 1 kilogram per 7.5 litres of high-quality live rock is important for your tank’s biological filtration.

• Saltwater Mix There are many brands of saltwater mix available both online and at your local aquarium shop.

• Refractometer This measures your water’s salt content, and is often included as part of high quality saltwater testing kits. Hydrometers also work, but tend to be less accurate.

• Protein Skimmer Your marine tank will need a protein skimmer. While it is possible to run a tank without one, you will have to work much more in order to avoid problems with algae and fish waste— you are better off starting with a skimmer that will take care of this for you.

• UV Steriliser This useful device uses high-frequency ultraviolet light to kill free-floating bacteria in your water. This makes it a type of filter, but one that uses light instead of mechanical or biological means to keep your water clean and healthy.

• Multiple Power Heads These devices provide water flow, which is very important in saltwater tanks. Turbulent flow, on the order of 10-20 times the tank volume, will help guarantee a clean, healthy tank by preventing detritus from accumulating.

• Reverse Osmosis Water Filter A water filter of this kind of necessary for preparing tap water. It removes minerals from tap water. So when you add sea salt to this water you will get pure sea water.

• Heater And Thermometer Some saltwater aquarists choose to purchase two smaller heaters instead of one large one, in order to avoid crisis should a heater malfunction.

• Test Kits Be sure to stock up on test kits for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates. These will be very useful during the initial cycling of the tank.

• Lights Thankfully, FOWLR tanks do not have very strict lighting requirements like reef tanks do. A mix of white and blue actinic lights should be sufficient for most fish and live rock setups.

• Quarantine tank You may need to setup a small, bare quarantine tank for your fish, as saltwater organisms may have a hard time getting comfortable in captivity, and can easily get sick.

Choosing fish for your tropical marine tank


clown fish is a good marine beginner’s fish

While keeping your marine tank opens the possibility of keeping a wide variety of exotic fish and invertebrates, you will want to start with simple and inexpensive saltwater fish in the beginning. While the accidental loss of a fish is always a tragedy, that tragedy could be more pronounced if you just lost a rare exotic fish that cost more than £100!

The best fish to begin with are simple, hardy species that can help you get used to caring for the saltwater environment, such as:

• Clownfish (though these do prefer to live in coral)

• Blennies

• Damselfish

• Gobies

Putting your first tropical marine tank together

After you have gathered all of the equipment that you need, you can begin preparing your marine tank for activity. The first thing you will want to do is wash out your aquarium— be sure not to use any soap, as the residue will be harmful for your fish.

Painting your aquarium background black or deep blue makes fish colours stand out beautifully. However you might prefer a stick on background. When the tank is suitably prepared, you can begin adding pre-mixed saltwater to it.

Fill a standard 20 litre bucket with filtered water that is free from chlorine and chloramine, add the salt mixture slowly, referring to the instructions on the packet it came in. Stir well and refer to your refractometer frequently. Once you have a specific gravity reading of 1.021 and 1.024, you can add the water to your aquarium, repeating as necessary until the tank is filled.

Once the tank is full, you can activate your equipment and let the tank begin the cycling process. After a day or two of water circulation, you can add your live rock to the tank.

Curing live rock

Fish swimming amongst live rock

Fish swimming amongst live rock

The greatest expense of your marine tank will probably be live rock. High quality specimens can get costly, but offer excellent biological filtration. Before you can enjoy these benefits, however, you will need to cure the live rock for some time; between a week or two months depending on the condition of the rock.

To cure live rock, drain some of the aquarium water and place the live rock inside the tank, preferably in the centre and with your power heads pointed directly at it. Every few days, you will need to turn off the power to the tank and clean the live rock with an old toothbrush to remove debris and dead organisms. After each cleaning, siphon the debris and refill the tank with pre-mixed saltwater.

This process needs to be repeated every few days until the water has no ammonia readings, no nitrite readings, and a smell somewhat like the ocean. When the tank is cycled, you are ready to add sand.

Adding sand to your tank

The best way to properly add your sand substrate to the tank is by draining some of the saltwater into a 20 litre bucket and emptying your sand into the bucket. Stir the resulting mixture until you see dust and dirt rising. Siphon off this dust and dirt before it settles. Repeat this process until there is not dust and dirt.

Once the sand is cleaned, you can ladle it into your aquarium. If any sand gets caught on your live rock, use a power head to blow it off so that your rock maintains uninterrupted contact with the water. In a few days, if all goes well, you should be ready to starting adding fish to your tank.

Finishing your first tropical marine tank

Final complete marine aquarium set up

Complete saltwater tank setup

After letting your tank circulate for a few days, you should begin to see consistent water quality readings such as:

• A temperature of 24-27°C;
• Specific gravity between 1.020 and 1.024;
• pH between 8.0 and 8.4;
• Ammonia and nitrite readings of 0;
• Nitrite readings of less than 20 ppm;
• Carbonate hardness between 7-10 dKH.

Once this happens, you are ready to begin adding fish to your tank. It is highly recommended to use some of your water to make a small quarantine tank for them to get used to first, reducing the risk of disease.

Add your fish slowly, one at a time so that the tank can adjust to the increased biological load. Your fish will be stressed out at first, but should begin acting normally and feeling comfortable after a few days. At that point, you can test the water and, conditions permitting, add your next fish. In a short time, you will have a fully stocked saltwater aquarium. Now you can sit back and enjoy your small piece of the ocean. But remember you still need to keep monitoring your water quality and topping up your aquarium with newly made seawater regularly.

For further information I recommend the following e-book “ultimate secrets to setting up a marine aquarium”

Review of the book


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