Set up your first tropical marine tank

Final complete marine aquarium set up

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.

See also beginners saltwater tank step by step
and live rock and live sand
and beginners saltwater fish

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.


Alternative coldwater aquarium fish

round tailed paradise fish

Choosing alternative cold water aquarium fish

round tailed paradise fish
round tailed paradise fish a true coldwater fish from China

Making a coldwater aquarium beautiful used to be a problem because there weren’t enough coldwater aquarium fish to choose from. However, with the better availability of temperate fish and exotic species this is no longer an issue. Here you can choose from the best cold water aquarium fish species listed below. With the wide range of coldwater aquarium fish available these days, you can make your coldwater tank look just as enticing and beautiful as a tropical aquarium. There is no need to immediately associate coldwater tanks with dull, uninteresting fish—even if you have to do some searching for them, there are a number of excellent species available for these tanks.

With the right choices, you can have a coldwater tank that looks just as good as a tropical one. The truth is that a home aquarium is not actually a coldwater tank but rather a temperate water tank with temperatures the equal of most warm temperate waters.

Some alternative cold water aquarium fish species and how to choose

rainbow shiner group
The beautiful and very active rainbow shiner is a coldwater aquarium fish

Your choice of fish should show the same bright assortment of colours that makes tropical fish keeping such an attractive hobby. One of the best ways to approach your coldwater tank is by holding it to the same standards as you would a tropical one, but without buying into cliché fish choices such as goldfish.
If you spend some time looking for the right combination of coldwater fish in terms of colour, size, temperemant and water conditions, you can create a very impressive tank. Keeping various species from different parts of the world such as Chinese gobies and American red shiners together can help create a varied and lively atmosphere in your tank.

Coldwater Aquarium fish species worth considering include:

• White Cloud Mountain Minnows
• Golden Barbs,
• Whip Tail Catfish,
• Empire Gobies,
• Argentinean Pearl,
• Japanese Medaka – Rice Fish,
• One Sided Livebearer,

white cloud mountain minnow pair
white cloud mountain minnow male and female

• Rainbow Shiners,
• Emerald Shiners,
• Macropodus Ocellatus, (Round tailed paradise fish)
• Black Bullhead Catfish,
• Bloodfins,
• Banded Charcidium,
• Common Loaches,
• Two-Spot Barbs,
• Bengal Danios,
• Red-Tailed Goodeids,
• Sunset Platies,
• Pygmy Sunfish,
• Mudminnows,
• Chinese gobies – rhinogobius (eg rhinogobius zhoui or r. rubromaculatus)
• rosy barbs

rosy barb males
rosy barb males

• odessa barbs
There are quite a few different elements to take into consideration with these alternatives. Any one of them is more interesting and exotic than keeping a stereotypical goldfish tank, but the right combination can really shine. Some of these, such as the White Cloud Mountain Minnow, are very popular as alternative coldwater aquarium fish, while others are more unusual choices.
Barbs are a great choice because of their colour assortments and generally good community behaviour and activity levels. The two-spot and golden barbs can grow very colourful when properly taken care of and offer a uniquely exotic appeal to any tank they are a part of. Sunset platies are a great choice as well—people rarely expect to see any species of platy in a coldwater tank.
The two species of catfish presented above make fine additions to larger tanks: the whip tail does best in a small group of similar individuals, and the black bullhead is large; with a dominating presence in any tank.

Argentinian pearlfish male
Argentinian pearlfish male

Argentinean Pearls, especially the males, tend to feature bright, ornate spotted colouring that looks fantastic in a variety of environments. If you want to give your tank a tropical look with coldwater fish, these are a great choice, especially when combined with other coldwater fish with bright colouration and ornate markings like theirs.
As always, fish compatibility needs to be taken into consideration when making your choices: Barbs and gobies tend to do well in a variety of community tanks, and catfish will spend most of their time in the lower depths of the water avoiding other fish. Sunset platies, as an additional example, should be kept at a ratio of two females to each male in order to minimize harassment.

Coldwater fish in a coldwater tank: is a chiller necessary?

Naturally, one of the advantages to the coldwater tank setup is the fact that you do not need to keep a heater. However, some aquarists from hotter climates who keep coldwater tanks insist on the use of a chiller to prevent their tanks overheating.

Advantages of the coldwater aquarium

Round tailed paradise fish
Round tailed paradise fish

The fish mentioned above will do well in an unheated tank, temperate water temperature, eliminating the need to buy a heater, for the most part. For most aquarists, the primary appeal of these species and of this tank type is the fact that there is no need to keep an expensive temperature control tool on twenty four hours a day, and all of these species will thrive in temperate waters kept anywhere within the normal range of room temperature.
As an added benefit, these fish tend to be very tolerant of temperature changes, so if you live in an area with cold winters and hot summers, you may still find that your fish are capable of thriving without your intervention. This saves time, money, and electricity while providing you with all the benefits you would otherwise have with a heated tropical tank. This actually better mimics the fishes natural environment with warm days and cool nights and seasonal temperature changes.
Not having to heat your aquariums saves you having to buy a heater and pay for higher electricity bills and not worrying about a broken heater or power outs. Another advantage is that you can expand quite easily. A breeding tank set up is no problem. Any water tight container and a filter and your away. Also growing-on, breeder tanks can be set up as they are needed in the same way.

Rhinogobius Zhoui male
Rhinogobius Zhoui male

Also not having a heated tank means that you can have an open topped aquarium(no hood) because there is less evaporation. However care still has to be taken with jumpers. Perhaps a glass cover should be employed to prevent fish committing suicide. With an open top and temperate temperatures, the aquarist can then consider mini water lilies and floating plants.
One thing you have to consider is the aquarium plants. Most plants do okay at lower temperatures however some will not. A little bit of care in the selection of your plants will let you avoid plants that don’t thrive. On the other hand you can obtain plants from the coldwater and pond section of your local aquarist.

Where to buy coldwater fish

Often, the best way to purchase coldwater fish is online. Local aquarium stores and fish shops will often provide several species of coldwater fish alongside their more popular tropical ones, but the selection is often limited. In order to get your coldwater aquarium looking colourful and bright, you will need to do some searching to find the right fish.
Local classifieds in which you can find nearby fish breeders can also be of great help. Often, you can find rare or exotic species being raised only a short distance from your home. This gives you an easy opportunity to get your hands on some good alternative species that can give your tank the special, unique appeal that you are looking for.

One note of caution : Many fish stores keep these temperate fish at tropical temperatures. It might be a mistake to put these fish into a cooler aquarium overnight. Acclimatise them to the cooler temperatures slowly over time.