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.
- Set Up & Test
- Make Up The Saltwater
- Start Up The System
- Prepare The Live Rock
- Aquascape The Tank
- Let The Tank Cycle
- Livestock Selection
- Make Aquascaping Adjustments
& Add The Substrate
- Purchase & Add
- Set Up A Maintenance
& Care Routine
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.
- 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.
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
Step 9 - Purchase & Add
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
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
- Begin and set up a regular aquarium maintenance
- 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!