Before Starting Your First Saltwater Tank

It’s surprising how many people I overhear at the local fish store getting into the hobby by jumping in and buying a lot of equipment.  Often times the salesperson encourages people with a short sales talk and they end up walking out of the store with a small all in one tank, a heater and a hang on back filter or canister and a bag of salt.  Once in a while, I’ll even see a clownfish in bag as they go out with their new tank!

While this approach may work with moderate success for starting a freshwater tank, it will simply lead to a lot of heartache in saltwater.  When I first got into this hobby, I made the mistake of thinking that a saltwater aquarium would be the same a running a freshwater tank.  I couldn’t be more wrong.  I quickly found out that there was a lot to learn about keeping a saltwater aquarium.

A freshwater tank is very forgiving.  In the past, I’ve gotten a brand new tank, put in treated tap water and had a fish swimming around within a couple of hours.  I ignored all advice about cycling the tank.  I ran tanks without heaters, let the filters run for months un-maintained, skipped water changes.  Those tanks will survive and many times thrive on very little maintenance.

A saltwater tank was a different animal completely.  It is a much more sensitive system and things can and go wrong quickly.

The main reason is boils down to the difference between fresh water and saltwater in the wild.  The freshwater ecosystem in the wild consists of mostly ponds and lakes.  While these may seem like huge ecosystems to us, in nature they pale in comparison to the vastness of the ocean.  The great volume of water in the ocean ensures that it is far cleaner than any of the water that you find in a pond or lake.  By the same token, the changes in water chemistry brought on by nature have a large greater effect on a pond or lake than it ever will on the ocean.  So the ecosystems have adapted.  Organisms in ponds and lakes are much more tolerant of changes in water chemistry, temperature, and pollution than anything in the ocean.  The aquariums in our homes are simply miniature duplicates of what nature provides.  And so keeping a saltwater aquarium is an endeavor to bring the stability and beauty of the ocean into our homes.

Keys to Starting a Saltwater Tank

There are a few things that I found in my experience to be key in getting a good start to a Saltwater tank.  These are lessons that I picked up over time through my own trial and errors.


Researching everything before moving ahead will save you a lot of heartache.  I’ve been that guy who’s seen the pretty fish at the local fish store and bought it only to find that it has some feeding requirements that I couldn’t meet.  I’ve since learned to research before I buy.  Everything from lights and filtration to livestock has unique pros and cons.  There are ways to save money, but there are also ways to make a wrong turn and find yourself throwing good money after bad.  You may think that you’ve learned about the nitrogen cycle when you had a freshwater aquarium.  Read up on it again for saltwater!

Patience is key

I never gave much thought to cycling a tank until I got into saltwater.  Freshwater fish often survive fine until the tank fully cycles.  At most, one just needs to add the fish slowly.  In saltwater, it takes time for all the bacteria in the tank to grow and cycle.  Most people will recommend cycling a tank for 4 to six weeks in saltwater.  I found letting the tank run about 4 weeks lets everything stabilize.  This is also true of making any major changes to the tank such as adding livestock.  New fish will add to the bioload of the tank.  It will need to adjust to the heavier bioload.  If you add things too quickly, you will find your tank will become a victim to disease or aggression really quickly.  I often will see a brief algae bloom when I add a new fish to my tank.  Then the water will clear up over time.  These days, I have learned to wait and see how things go for a few weeks whenever I make a change to the livestock in my tank.

Natural Filtration works Best

Everyone finds their own path to success.  I have found that natural filtration works best for my saltwater tanks.  I include in this category my protein skimmer, which is just finely dispersed air that pulls protein out of the water.  I find that mechanical filtration (Canister filters, sponges, filter floss, socks, etc…) all just become detritus traps.  They work well in the beginning, but eventually they become clogged up with detritus, which then breaks down and releases nutrients into the water.  In freshwater, you just simply take out the media and wash it out under tap water.  That won’t work in saltwater and so you end up having to constantly throw away and replace the media if you go that route.  Philosophically, I feel like it is simply a cycle of racing towards a tank crash and then hoping that you pull the dirty media before it goes wrong.  Kind of like driving towards a wall and swerving at the last minute.  Chemical filtration such as activated carbon will remove the good along with the bad.

However, natural filtration which I consider as growing plants that use up the bad nutrients in the water works really well.  Macro Algae (Saltwater plants) adjust to your tanks bioload and provide food and sometimes shelter to your tank inhabitants.  There are a number of ways that you can create natural filtration for your tanks:  Algae scrubbers, refugium with chaeto, algae reactors, or even plants in your display.

My old 10 gallon tank with an upflow algae scrubber. The algae scrubber is on the right side of the tank with the red light.

I believe that taking out all mechanical filtration and using natural forms of biological filtration is one of the key components to success in my reef tank.

Saltwater Fish have a lot of Personality!

The key point I want to make here is that you better believe it when a fish is described as aggressive.  Remember, in the ocean a fish can have miles of territory.  Now compress that into a small fish tank and they will go at it.  So plan your livestock accordingly.  For nano tanks, I really recommend finding peaceful fish.  Even clownfish can get aggressive.  When that happens, you will find your inhabitants disappearing.  They can get eaten or even chased out of the tank.  Carpet diving is not an unknown phenomenon!

Automate what you Can

Stability is key.  So you really want your temperature, salinity and lighting to be as stable as possible.  This is not only good for your tank, but keeps things simple for yourself.  One thing you will find in the saltwater hobby is that you need to keep the salinity of your tank stable.  Water evaporates, but salt does not.  That means that over time, your tank will become denser with salt as the water evaporates off.  This occurs all the time, and you will find yourself topping off daily.  First of all, this changing salinity level every day is not good for the more sensitive tank inhabitants, such as corals.  But almost more importantly, it can quickly become a chore lifting up a bucket of fresh water everyday to top off the tank.  When I got an auto top off for my tank, this task became so much easier!  I highly recommend investing in one.  If you don’t know what an auto top off is, I will discuss it more in detail in future posts.  Trust me, it’s a life saver!

Next, you should find ways to automate your light schedule and temperature.  Most heaters are automated already, but you will need to find a good way to cool off your tank as well.  I always had a hard time dealing with the temperature in the summer time.  Eventually, I’ve come up with some ideas that worked for me.

Lighting can be automated with timers, but when you get into raising corals, you will want to fine tune your lights.  I’ve tried a couple of things that have worked well for me.  Smart switches are fantastic.  Also LED lights with built in wifi programming are just awesome!

Final thoughts for Starting Out!

I can go on and on….  But I think these few tips are a good starting point.  If I had 5 minutes to talk to someone just starting out, I would start with these couple of topics.  Once you lay a good foundation, the rest will come much easier.  These days, I only need to spend a few minutes a week on tank maintenance.  The rest of the time I spend enjoying my tank.  Most of all, enjoy the journey and have fun!

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