Beginners Steps to setting up your first marine tank.

Table Of Contents
Before you even begin thinking about setting up a saltwater aquarium, have you done the following:

  • Researched and learned all about keeping a saltwater aquarium first?
  • Planned your system?
  • Purchased the equipment and supplies needed to get started

If you answered NO to any of these questions, we advise that you stop here and take the time to learn about any of these important topics that you may have missed, BEFORE you jump in! If you answered YES to all of them, just follow these 10 easy steps to set up your new aquarium and get it running.

  1. Set Up & Test The Equipment
  2. Make Up The Saltwater
  3. Start Up The System
  4. Prepare The Live Rock
  5. Aquascape The Tank
  6. Let The Tank Cycle
  7. Livestock Selection
  8. Make Aquascaping Adjustments & Add The Substrate
  9. Purchase & Add Livestock
  10. Set Up A Maintenance & Care Routine

Step 1 - Set Up & Test The Equipment

  • Prepare the aquarium by cleaning the tank (only with freshwater and a soft cloth or sponge), applying a background (if desired), locating and leveling the stand (leaving clearance for electrical connections), setting the tank in place with an underpad for cushioning, leveling the tank, installing all the equipment (unplugged), and filling the tank and filtration equipment with fresh (tap) water.

  • Perform a wet test by starting all the equipment and allow the tank to run for 24-48 hours. During this time, check for leaks, temperature with and without lights on, adjust the heater(s), as well as make up the saltwater as instructed in Step 2.If using a protein skimmer, at this time no waste will be produced until salt and organic matter are added to the tank, but you can check for bubble production, and if using a counter current skimmer, test the air pump operation.

  • When done with the wet test, before turning off all the equipment and emptying the tank, check the water level to see that it is where you want it to be with all the equipment running. If not, top it off to the desired level and create a fill-to line by using an indelible marker and marking an outside back corner tank panel. This will be your "fill line" for future reference.

Step 2 - Make Up The Saltwater
Sometime over a 24 hour period while running the wet test outlined in Step 1:

  • Make up the sea salt mix.
    • This is best done dissolving it in a separate container of an appropriate size and material, and using a proper freshwater source. Add a heater and small air or water pump for circulation and adjust the specific gravity to the desired salinity, if needed.

    • When it comes time to fill the tank with the saltwater, prior to using it, turn off the heater and air or water pump and allow any undissolved particles in the mix to settle to the bottom.

    • If you do not have a container large enough to meet the demand of saltwater needed to initially fill the aquarium, if necessary, it can be mixed in the tank in the same manner after the next step.

Step 3 - Start Up The System
After performing the wet test as instructed in Step 1:

  • Turn off all the equipment and siphon the freshwater out of the tank.

  • Refill the tank with the made up saltwater you prepared in Step 2.

    • If using made up saltwater from a separate container, fill the tank and filtration equipment with the saltwater, excluding as much of any undissolved matter that settled to the bottom of the container as possible. Turn on all the equipment and let it run for a few days. Remember, if using a protein skimmer, no waste will be generated until after organic matter is introduced, but running it does contribute to oxygenation and gas exchange.

    • If making up the saltwater "in" the tank, follow the same procedure for mixing it in a separate container as above, only turning on the equipment needed for this.When done, then fill the filtration equipment and turn on all other equipment and let it run for a few days.

  • Over the next few days while the tank is running:
    • Check the following water parameters.
      • Temperature
      • Specific gravity. Top off the water level to make up for evaporation and keep the specific gravity at the desired salinity by adding freshwater to the "fill line" when needed.
      • pH

    • Set Up a Quarantine Tank (QT)
      Many aquarists choose to bypass using a quarantine tank to place new fish into before introducing them into the main aquarium. In our opinion this is not wise, the main reason being that this opens your whole system up to a wide range of potential diseases that can be spread by stressed, sick or contaminated fish. Anytime during the aquarium set up process, but at least 2 weeks before it is complete and the tank is ready for fish to be added, it is highly recommended to set up a QT.

Step 4 - Prepare The Live Rock
If you are NOT using live rock to cycle the aquarium, go on to Step 5 now.
If you ARE going to be using live rock to cycle the aquarium:

  • Now is the time to purchase and prepare it.

    • If using "uncured" live rock, place it in a separate vat or curing container and cure it. If curing it directly in the tank, do so only with a bare bottom tank, and make up enough saltwater in another container for a 25-50% water change. Once the live rock curing process has subsided, siphon any detritus off the bottom of the tank, removing 25-50% of the water at the same time, and then begin aquascaping.

    • If using "cured and cleaned" live rock, keep it moist or wet, and at a room temperature as close to that of the tank temperature as possible until it is placed into the aquarium for aquascaping.

Step 5 - Aquascape The Tank
If you are NOT using live rock, to begin aquascaping turn off all the equipment, remove the heater(s), and:

  • Siphon out and save about 1/2 of the saltwater in the tank and set it aside. At this point you can add whatever substrate you have chosen to use, making sure to clean and prepare any non-living type media before doing so, as well as arrange or aquascape any non-living decorative corals, rocks, etc. that are to be placed in the aquarium. When done, top off the water level with the saved saltwater to the "fill line", replace the heater(s), and restart all the equipment. Recheck the "fill line" and top it off if needed.
    Go on to Step 6.

If you ARE using live rock you prepared as outlined in Part 4, read the following aquascaping tips first before continuing on!

  • Since the live rock will be aquascaped on a bare bottom tank (no substrate being added at this time), it is suggested to raise the rocks up off the bottom. By doing this it allows for better water circulation around and underneath the live rock during the aquarium cycling period coming up. And, when it comes time to add the substrate, because the rocks are suspended above the sand, this allows sand sifters to easily access the areas under the rocks for cleaning. Here is how you can raise the rocks up.
    • Use cut pieces of 1/2 to 3/4 inch Schedule 80 (gray) PVC to place the rocks on. The height of the PVC supports should be based on how deep you are planning the substrate bed to be. If targeting one inch, then cut the PVC to about one inch, and so on.

    • Build square or rectangular shaped PVC racks or frames to stack and aquascape the rocks on. These can be built to meet the sizes and quantity of rocks you have.

  • You want to position the rock formation(s) away from the outside areas of the tank walls.
  • You want the rocks arranged to accomplish several things.
    • Stacked loosely to allow for good water circulation around the structure, as well as some though it, but not so loose that it is unsafe and rocks easily topple off.
    • To create little nooks and crannies that livestock can go into, and even some holes they can go through.
    • To allow any accumulated detritus that collects under or between the rocks to be easily removed, either by siphoning, or by blowing it out using a water flow source. A turkey baster works well for this.

Now to begin aquascaping with live rock, turn off all the equipment, remove the heater(s), and:

  • If you are using prepared live rock cured in a separate container, siphon out and save about 1/2 of the saltwater in the tank and set it aside. Once you have created the rockscape you desire, stabilize the rock structure by checking for loose or unstable rocks that may easily topple off, and adjust them. When done, top off the water level with the saved saltwater to the "fill line", replace the heater(s), and restart all the equipment. Recheck the "fill line" and top it off if needed.

  • If you prepared and cured live rock directly in the tank, siphon out 25-50% of the water, removing any detritus off the bottom of the tank at the same time. Once you have created the rockscape you desire, stabilize the rock structure by checking for loose or unstable rocks that may easily topple off, and adjust them. When done, top off the aquarium to the "fill line" with the new made up saltwater you previously prepared and set aside for performing the 25-50% water change after the live rock cycle had subsided, as outlined in Part 4. Replace the heater(s), and restart all the equipment. Recheck the "fill line" and top it off if needed.

Step 6 - Let The Tank Cycle
Depending on what type of live rock you chose to use, cured or uncured, or you are NOT using live rock at all, which requires fish or another alternative choice to start the cycling process, it can take anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks for this cycle to reach completion.

  • Follow the normal procedures for cycling an aquarium, testing for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate.

  • Near the end of the cycling process, particularly when using uncured or partially cured live rock, nitrates may begin to rise. If this happens, do a 25 to 50% water change using properly mixed and aged saltwater, and repeat the process if necessary until the nitrates read less than 10 ppm. This will help to keep algae growth problems to a minimum. Other than for this reason, NO water changes should be performed during the cycling process, until it has reached completion.

Step 7 - Livestock Selection
While the tank is cycling, if you did not already make a livestock "species list" while initially planning your system set up, or you are already using fish to cycle the tank and made your first selections, begin researching and making a species list of all the fish, crustaceans and invertebrates you might like to have in your aquarium. You will not be buying any livestock at this point, but once you have made your species list, learn as much about the characteristics and dietary requirements for each of them, so that when it does come time to buy and bring them home, you will know how to take care of them!

  • Your selection should be based on the type of aquarium you are setting up, fish-only or reef tank, and species compatibility.

  • Your wish list will undoubtedly have quite a few animals on it when done, including ones that may not be suitable for a beginner. You will only be choosing 2 or 3 of them to introduce into your new aquarium at first, so pick the best beginner species from the list to start with. The others can be added slowly (1 or 2 at a time) as you and your tank mature, leaving the more delicate species for after you have at least 6 months experience under your belt.

Step 8 - Make Aquascaping Adjustments and Add The Substrate
Once the tank has finished cycling:

  • If you chose to use a non-living substrate material over live sand, clean and prepare it before adding it to the tank.

    • The easiest way to do this is to place a small portion of the substrate material into a plastic container, such as a clean and sterilized 5 gallon bucket, and using a garden hose, fill it with freshwater. Allow the freshwater to overflow in the bucket while stirring the substrate at the same time, and do so until the water runs clean. Set it aside and repeat this process until all the material has been rinsed. This helps removes any excess sedimentary particles that can cloud the water when adding the media to the tank, as well as flush out any other possible contaminants as well.

    • Keep in mind that when using fresh tap water from a garden hose, chlorine or chloramine compounds are usually present in the water. To eliminate any residual chlorine you can:
      • Spread the rinsed material out on a plastic tarp, trays, or whatever, and allow it to air dry for about an hour.
      • Put all the material back in the bucket, fill it with freshwater and add some AmQuel or other ammonia destroyer, stir well, let it set for about 5 minutes, then drain off the water.

  • Turn off all equipment, siphon out and save about 1/2 of the saltwater in the tank, and make any final live rock aquascaping changes or adjustments desired.

  • Add the substrate to the tank.
    • Targeting a 1/2 to 1 inch deep layer is suggested, but up to 2 inches may be added if desired.
    • You can also use the 1/4 to 1/2 pound of substrate media per gallon of tank water volume equation to calculate a sufficient amount.
    • Use a plastic cup or small container to scoop up the substrate, then gently pour it out onto the bottom of the tank, spreading it out by hand to fill in the empty spots around the live rock, and under it if using PVC racks or frame supports.
    • If the substrate medium gets on top of the rocks, it can easily be removed by using a turkey baster to blow it off.

  • Once the substrate has been added, fill the tank to the "fill line" with the saved saltwater you removed earlier, restart all equipment, recheck the "fill line" and top off if needed.

  • After substrate has been added, the tank will appear cloudy, which is normal. Usually within 24 hours the fine sediment particles suspended in the water will clear as they settle and/or are filtered out.

  • Let the tank run for at least a week to allow it to settled out and stabilize before adding fish to the system. Test for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate, particularly when using live sand, because it is not unusual for "some" additional cycling to take place, and this will tell you when the tank has settled out.

Step 9 - Purchase & Add Livestock
Here are some considerations to make BEFORE introducing livestock into a new aquarium cycled with live rock:

  • If using a QT, make sure it has cycled and is ready for livestock to be added.

  • Before going out and actually buying anything, learn what to look for when purchasing livestock first.

  • Purchase 2 or 3 fish/animals from the livestock "species list" you created earlier in Step 7, remembering to only choose the animals on your list that are suitable for a beginner to start with.

  • Acclimate and place them in the QT for 2 to 3 weeks. After the quarantine period is over and the fish are eating well, move and acclimate them into the main aquarium, but only if the cycling process is complete.

  • DO NOT ADD ANYTHING ELSE NEW TO THE MAIN AQUARIUM FOR SEVERAL WEEKS, or until the tank has adjusted to the newly added bio-load and all water parameters are normal. Otherwise, new tank syndrome may occur.

  • If the main aquarium is still in the the final stages of cycling, there is no harm in leaving the fish in the QT until the main aquarium is ready for fish to be added.

  • If not using a QT, which is not advised, make sure the main aquarium has cycled and is ready for livestock to be added.

Step 10 - Set Up A Tank Maintenance and Care Routine
Now that you have put much time, energy and money into getting your new aquarium set up and running, it is of the utmost importance to:

  • Begin and set up a regular aquarium maintenance routine.
  • Continue to read and learn more, as you can never know too much about saltwater aquarium keeping. It's an ever expanding experience!
  • Take pride in what you have accomplished!
  • Take good care of your aquarium and new wet pet friends!
  • Relax and enjoy your aquarium as much as possible!


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