How to Start a Saltwater Tank – Step by Step Guide for Beginners

best saltwater aquariums

Before we get started, let me just say that what will be presented here is not the only way for a beginner to set up a saltwater aquarium.

There are as many ways to setup a saltwater tank as there are people setting up systems. What will be described here is a decent middle-of-the-road saltwater aquarium that should work for both the beginner and the advanced hobbyist alike.

I take no responsibility for the results if you follow this plan. It is a “use it at your own risk” tool. But it works for me, and should for you too, as long as you do your homework first.

First we are going to talk about what starting a saltwater fish tank like this costs, because if you don’t have some disposable income, you need to rethink this. It is not exorbitant, but it is not free either.

After the hardware is identified we will go into how to put it all together, the right way. We will go step-by-step from the day you order the hardware to the day you add the first animal.

Lastly, we will talk about stocking maintenance-animals and putting in a few fish and corals.

At the end of this setup, if you follow along, you will have a nice reef saltwater fish tank that will cause the non-reefkeepers to emit “ooohs” and “aaahs”, and the reefkeepers will give you the knowing nod of approval.

Once you get handy with it, you can add more spectacular species and pump and filtration options that will make your tank one that any reefkeeper would be proud of.

Starting a Saltwater Tank Checklist

Let’s go talk about money…

  1. First begin by reviewing our recommended checklist of items you will need to get started.
  2. Invest in some good reference books and magazines for your aquarium library. Read and learn as much as you can BEFORE starting your aquarium. We highly recommend the following books:
  3. Decide on where and how you are going to set up the aquarium.
    After you determine how much room you have, you can figure out what size and type of tank (glass, acrylic or custom-made) you want, as well as the stand and hood/canopy to go with it.
  4. Decide if you want a fish-only tank or a reef system.
    A fish-only tank is one with no live corals and little or no live rock. Instead you use decorations like rocks, shells, and dried or artificial corals in the aquarium with fish.Your Reef system incorporates live corals and live rock with few, if any, fish in it. After you have determined what kind of system you want, decide on what filtration method you are going to use. There are many filtration choices, such as wet/dry trickle, undergravel and protein skimmer filters, as well as adding a sump or not. Other considerations are whether are not you want to add a uv sterilizer, wavemaker, powerheads or other equipment.
  5. Decide on the appropriate lighting for the type of system you have chosen.
  6. Decide on how you want to heat your system.
  7. Decide what kind of sea salt you going to use. Instant Ocean is one of the most popular brands chosen.
  8. You will need test kits for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and pH, all of which are essential for any aquarist when starting out. We highly recommend AquaTru by Kordon or FastTest by Aquarium Systems. These are popular brands that are sold in most fish stores. If you are going to have a reef system you will need to add calcium (aka kalkwasser, aka limewater) and be aware of other chemical factors in the tank, such as phosphate levels, DO (dissolved oxygen) and the like. Consult with a fish store that is experienced in reef tank systems to find out what additional tests you may need.
  9. Once you have your system all picked out you need to choose the type of inhabitants you will be putting in it. When purchasing the critters for your saltwater aquarium you need to understand marine life compatibility, and what to look for when buying.
  10. Now that it’s all set up and running you need to take care of it. Fish-only and reef system maintenance varies, but the main point for keeping both types of aquariums happy and healthy is a good maintenance schedule. Keeping a log book and taking notes for everything you do with your aquarium is very important as well!

Starting a saltwater aquarium will introduce you to a variety of spectacular fish, the opportunity to see an ecosystem close up and a new appreciation of the beautiful wildlife to be found in our oceans.

However, for a beginner, the best way to get started with this hobby is with a fish-only aquarium until you know a lot more about the subject.

But before you even think about buying an aquarium and livestock, you should ask yourself whether you can you have the time and the will to look after it properly.

Let us focus on the ten steps above in more detail:

Beginner Saltwater Tank Setup

Here’s a checklist of things you’ll need for a successful saltwater tank setup”

  • Tank
  • Stand
  • Plumbing
  • Filters
  • Pumps
  • Power-heads and heater.
  • Sump
  • Protein skimmer
  • Chiller
  • Dosing pump
  • UV Filter
  • Top off tank.

Choosing A Good Saltwater Fish Tank

There are quite a few things to consider before you start a saltwater aquarium.

  • Do you go with glass or acrylic? This will really depend on the size tank you are going to put together. If you are staying under 250 gallons I would suggest going with a glass tank. Anything over 300 gallons should be acrylic due to the pressure of the water.
  • When choosing a saltwater tank make sure that it is big enough for you as over stocking the tank will cause stress on your fish.
  • Also make sure you have the funds to support your new-found hobby  as it can tend to be costly and a 75 gallon fish tank will run you about $1500.00 to set up correctly. Short cuts only waste your money and kill your fish.

Lets start with the tank setup basics

Fish tanks come in two forms. One is just your basic tank and has no built in over-flow and the other does. Most people, including myself, would recommend getting a tank with the over-flows. These come in tanks 55 gallons or larger, and are available in 3 styles:

  1. Single over-flow
  2. Center over-flow, and
  3. Dual over-flow

They also come in different shapes. You have your standard Rectangle, Hex, Bow, and Custom (Of course this is any shape you want it).

Choosing an Appropriate Stand for Your Fish Tank

Now that the tank is out of the way, the next step is to figure out the stand.

Unless you are really able to make a sturdy fish tank stand you should go ahead and get the stand. They will already be ready for the tank you are getting. Well that was simple.

Choosing a Filtration System for the Saltwater Fish Tank

The next in starting a saltwater aquarium is to decide on the filtration system.

good aquarium filtration system is of the utmost importance to keep the water clean and healthy.

Invertebrates and marine fish are far more sensitive to the quality of the water than freshwater fish. Filtration is, therefore, a very big part of your saltwater tank. Having a good filtration system will help to maintain a stable environment.

Adding Live Rock and Sand to Your Saltwater Aquarium

Having live rock and sand will also help in the filtration. Adding live rock to your saltwater aquarium and having a mechanical filtration system will do wonders to help keep your water clean. This is an extra filtration system that has helped in our reef tanks.

Pro Tip

Most stores have large waterfiltration systems which help cleaning the water. You see them as large drip tanks filled with bio-balls or huge tanks filled with live rock.

If you are used to cleaning your filter pads every so often, you will understand that it can be a dirty mess, but did you know that you are throwing away tons of living items when you do this? Filter pads are usually home to very useful life. Bacteria and pods live in your pads and are a very wanted life in your tank.

By adding live rock to your sump it will help keep these critters alive. This added filtration can help keep your pod population going. Fill your sump up with small live rock pieces to just below your water line. You may or may not see the pods for sometime as they need to populate. After awhile you will see them and this will be a constant source of pods to your tank.

Carbon Filtration in a Saltwater Aquarium

Using carbon every now again for short periods of time will help to remove other hard minerals out of the water should you need too.

NOTE: Don’t leave the carbon in for to long. No more then a week at a time. Carbon will break down over time and this in return will poison your tank. If this happens you can kiss most everything good-bye. (Seen this — Not a pretty sight).

Also try to remember to use pumps that are made for the size tank you have. Don’t use a fish tank pump that is made for a 30 gallon tank in a 75 gallon tank. Water movement can help put oxygen into tank.

As well as a filtration system, you need a heater and thermometer, to maintain the recommended temperature of 78-80 degrees for tropical fish. You will also need a hydrometer which is a device that measures the salt content of the water in the aquarium.

I also recommend a sump. Sumps will cost a few bucks, but they are worth it in the long run. What a sump is is a plumbing system which will allow you to put your protein skimmer (must have if you’re going reef) and filter pads to help keep your tank clean.

Basic design of a sump is a three part box. The first compartment is the drop zone where the water from your tank falls into. In here you would put a protein skimmer. Then it goes into the over flow portion of the sump where a cleaner pad is located and then falls into the return zone portion which is where your return pump is which will return the water back to your tank.

Setting up a Protein Skimmer for You Fish Tank

OK, now for the protein skimmer. Something else to have in helping remove extra nutrients is a protein skimmer.

Protein skimmers are simple machines that will help take extras out of your saltwater tank.

They work in a very simple way. They will suck water up into the tub and spit back down onto the bio-balls, which in return bubble the water causing the proteins to float up and into a collection cup. The water is then pushed back into your sump and returned to your tank. The more bubbles the skimmer creates the more it removes.

Most will tell you that a protein skimmer is not really needed for a FO (Fish Only) saltwater aquarium but they will help with the control of algae. (Not rid it, only help control it).

Protein skimmers come in different sizes and shapes and will depend on your fish tank size.

Setting up Proper Lighting for Your Saltwater Aquarium

Ok next thing is the lighting system for your saltwater tank

What is the best lighting for my saltwater fish tank?

The best lighting guide to follow is no less then 4watts per gallon. Unless you are doing a reef, which, in this case you may want to get metal halides with fluorescents.

  • Most lighting systems that are sold with tanks are made for fresh water aquariums. A higher output light is a better bet for saltwater.
  • Most lighting systems sold with tanks can be fitted with a HO (High Out-put) or VHO (Very High Out-put) conversion kit to produce the lighting you need for a saltwater tank.

A very common practice is this. Use 4 watts per Gallon of water. So if you have a 55 gallon tank you will want to have 220 watts of light going into the tank.

Unless you are going reef then you will want to add MH (Metal Halide) lights.

Now it is good practice to have two types of lights. Ok here is a basic design for a FO tank. You will need 4 sets of lights to make sure things grow and the tank is happy.

4 55 watt dual bulbs (2 10K white and 2 med. blue).

The whites will go on one ballist and the blues on another. This will give you 220 watts (White) This is really on the boarder. (I have 96 in mine)

After setting them up you need to put the bulbs on timers to help simulate the sun and moon. Blues should come on ½ to an hour before the whites and go off ½ hour to an hour after the whites. This will also not make the fish blind when the lights come on. Think of someone coming in your room and opening all the blinds at once and ripping your sheets off you. Not a good feeling.

Adding Water into Your Tank

Ok now you have the basics down. Well you are now getting ready to get the water into your tank.

WAIT not yet.

Here is something people have different ways of doing. I learned from other people and a good friend on how to go about this.

Get your water or make your water and have it ready to go in.

The first step is to get some live rock. If you have a 55 gal tank you will need about 75Ibs of live rock. This will also depend on how dense the rock is also. Some rocks are heavy and some are more light. If a rock is very porous then it will be larger then a rock that is not. So a one pound rock that is very porous may be twice the size of a rock that is non porous.

There are many places to get live rock; from local to on the net and everyone claims to have the best. In this case we recommend that perhaps you do a little board hopping and see what everyone thinks.

Once you have the rock and have done a little rinsing off start to put the rock into your tank (no water or sand in the tank) and get it the way you like it. Try not to keep it out of the water for to long of a period.

Once you have it the way you want it, start to put the water in. The water is going to be cloudy with all the die off and dirt coming off of it.

Now that the rock and water are in your tank, start your pumps and get the water moving.

Over the next few days you will need a turkey baster to use on blowing off the dirt on the rocks and get it into the filters.

Cycling will also start during this time.

After a few days of dusting the rocks with the baster you are ready to add your sand.

The sand you have bought will determine how cloudy the water gets and how long it will stay this way. I used Carbi-sea sand which is live sand (Live sand is the best to use).

Using a measuring cup you can pick up the sand and slowly bring it into the tank with a very small amount of cloudy-ness. Most will recommend about a 2½ to 3½ sand bed. So to get a 3 inch sand bed you would need about 60Ibs of sand.

Once the sand is in, you’re ready to let your tank settle and cycle. You will also want to add a power-head to help with circulation. Good water circulation is vital to help keep the current in the tank moving so that there is no still water which most algae love. This will take about 2 weeks and you should get yourself a complete test kit for testing the waters for ammoniaNitriteNitratepH and ALK.

Cycling Your Saltwater Aquarium

The cycling will start with a spike in your ammonia and then Nitrite and finish off with Nitrate. You can also speed this up by throwing a cooked cocktail shrimp in the water. I never did that, but I know of people who have.

This process can take anywhere from 3 to 7 days to complete. After this has completed you really should wait another week to make sure the water has become stable enough to support fish.

Adding Your First Fish Into The Tank

After the about 2 weeks you will be ready to add your first fish.

Make sure that the fish you pick will be hardy enough to handle the new tank. Some people also put damsels in the tank to help cycle it because they are very hardy fish and can take a lot. Remember this; if you put one in the tank he may be there a very long time as they are pain to try and catch and remove.

The next step is to figure out if you want to dose the tank yourself or buy the equipment to dose your tank for you. This is a simple process and most of the time it is just remembering to do it. Most things can be added weekly.

Somethings have to be checked daily and a big one is your water level. Evaporation is big and before you know it, it will be below the water level of your sump.

Here is a big thing.

Do not add saltwater as your top off.

Evaporation only takes the water out of your fish tank, not the salt. This is where you need to add RO water. A good RO/DI unit can run you about $180 and is found on the internet rather easily.

RO water can also be bought at most local fish stores along with saltwater.

Setting up The Fishtank Heater

Here is another important saltwater aquarium instrument you should have; a fish tank heater/chiller. That is, unless you have a stable environment that does not change. It is always a good idea. If you live up north a fish tank heater is highly recommended and if you’re in the south a chiller.

Do I need a heater or chiller or both?

Well, this depends on how stable the environment is around the tank. If you live where it is cold then a heater is a good idea. In most cases a heater is a good idea since the heater can be unplugged when not in use and plugged back in when needed.

As far as living south a chiller may be needed. Since chillers are not cheap and unless you can’t keep the tank at a stable recommended tempature then a chiller would be recommended. Most reef tanks tend to get hot due to the metal halide lights used for keeping corals. If you need the environment gets hot and cold very rapidly you may need both.

But both have exceptions.

I do not have a chiller but since I keep my place fairly cool the fish tank tank stays at a steady 80 degrees and cools about 3 to 4 degrees during the night when the lights are out. I only use the fish tank heater when there is a cold front coming through that it might bring the tank down.

Setting Up UV Light Sterilizers for Your Aquarium

Ultraviolet light sterilizers are used in series with fish tank filters to kill water borne parasites (such as ich) and/or bacteria. Although not strictly a filter, it does ultimately remove harmful organisms. When used in reef tanks or breeder tanks where the occupants depend on microscopic organisms in the water for food, these should not be turned on during feeding time.

Start with a tank size that you have the room for and feel you be comfortable in maintaining.  Although it is possible to house marine fish in a tank smaller than 20 gallons, it is not recommended.

Think about how many fish you would like to have in the aquarium when considering the size of the tank.

Generally you should allow 3 to 5 gallons for each inch of fish capacity.  The general rule is that a ten gallon tank can hold two one inch fish.

Best Fish For a Saltwater Aquarium

Now that your tank is up and ready it’s time to put some fish in it.


There are beautiful and exotic species of saltwater fish available to display and observe in aquariums.  Before you automatically choose the most colorful or unique fish you see, however, you should be aware that all fish are not easy to care for, especially for the beginning aquarium enthusiast.

Saltwater fish species are much more difficult to care for than basic freshwater goldfish.  Goldfish are very adaptable to larger changes in their environments.  Saltwater species need frequent monitoring of their environment and behavior.  The slightest changes in your aquarium can be deadly to more fragile saltwater species. Testing of your water is crucial.

No matter which species of saltwater fish you choose, you will need test kits and maintenance tools to be sure your tank remains stable.  You will need to pay special attention to water temperature, salinity (how salty the water is), pH levels, and nitrate levels.

To test water temperature, a submersible thermometer is the most durable and accurate thermometer available. You will also a hydrometer to measure specific gravity (this often means the same thing as salinity to aquarium hobbyists), and test kits to measure pH levels (very important – even a small change can be fatal for a lot of fish).  You will probably quickly become an expert with ammonia and nitrate levels.

When you’re a beginner at saltwater tanks, you have a lot to learn.  You can’t just experiment on fish species.  You should, instead, stick to good beginner fish and avoid species that are more difficult to maintain.

  1. Damsel fish are excellent fish to start with when you’re new to saltwater tanks.  Damsels (look for Yellowtail Damselfish – they are bright blue with yellow tails) are more likely to live if your water levels aren’t perfect yet.  In fact, they can actually help to balance your ammonia levels.  They are pretty, not really expensive, and will give you necessary experience.  It’s important not to have more than two in the same tank, however.  They might end up fighting and nipping at each other’s fins.
  2. Ocellaris Clownfish (remember Nemo and his dad from “Finding Nemo?”) are also good beginner fish. They can be very aggressive to other clownfish, however, so you should only have one in your tank.
  3. Cardinal fish species are also pretty easy to keep alive.  They are available in a large variety with some really interesting colors, and they get along with other fish.
  4. Triggerfish are fairly easy to maintain, but if you plan on having many species of fish for a larger variety in your tank, you should probably avoid Triggerfish.  They can be very aggressive and end up killing your other fish!

Although beautiful and interesting, saltwater tank beginners should avoid anemones, seahorses and Angelfish

  • Anemones are too difficult to maintain for someone not used to making sure lighting and water conditions are perfect. 
  • Seahorses will often starve to death if they have to compete with other fish for food! 
  • Angelfish are also very fragile. 
  • Butterfly fish and discus fish are also difficult for most beginners to keep alive.

Don’t look at it as a challenge to keep fragile fish.  Just know that eventually, as you become more experienced, you can have these more difficult species.  They are too expensive to take chances, and you will feel guilty if you kill a fish just because you weren’t careful enough with your tank

This is where you need to control the urge to go out and buy a bunch of fish at once and run them home to fill up your tank. You do not want to put to many fish in at once as this will cause a new cycle in your tank and this can be deadly to fish. 1 to 2 fish every three weeks is pushing it so it is best to do 1 fish every 2 to 3 weeks. This will make sure your ammonia levels do not spike.

Also remember not to overstock your saltwater tank as this will cause the water to become unstable and cause the fish to stress causing disease. A good rule of thumb when stocking a saltwater aquarium is to remember 1″ of fish for every 4 gallons of water.

Remember that fish grow so this can go to 1″ of fish for every 2 gallons. Keep this in mind when you choose your fish to know how large they will get. Some fish such as Tangs require a lot of space for swimming and should be in larger tanks.

Don’t put a fish that needs space into a 20 gallon tank. They will become unhappy and stress and will die!

What’s the Best Way to Add a New Fish to my Saltwater Tank?

The best way to add a fish to a saltwater aquarium is to first put it into a quarantine tank for 2 weeks to make sure the fish does not have any disease. If you do not have a quarantine tank, then do a drip for no less then a 2 hour accumulation from the old water to the new water.

Remember to take a little water out of the bag as to make it easier for the fish to adjust to the new water (pH and Temp can be killers).

Where’s the best place to buy saltwater tank fish?

There are a lot of places to buy saltwater tank fish. There are a lot of internet stores that have hard to find fish so it is a good place to look if your local LFS (Local Fish Store) can not get them.

They are also cheaper on the internet, but with shipping they work out to be the same or more then a LFS.

When possible try and buy local as this is less stress on your fish. Try remembering that if you were put into a bag with no lights and stuffed in a box and handled by who knows how many people and then back out again, you would be stressed to.

Healthy fish are active and alert-looking. Look closely for white or yellow spots, irregular patches, redness, missing scales, and wounds or open sores.

When purchasing a fish always remember to take with you a water sample for the store to test.  A bacteria culture is essential for cycling the aquarium.

Bacteria can be added once the aquarium has been prepared meaning it has been dechlorinated, heated to the right temperature, and salted to the proper level. This process can take between a few days and a week or more.  When the water quality is good enough, the starter fish can then be introduced.

Choosing Saltwater Tank Fish Species That are Compatible With Each Other

Some saltwater species of fish are very territorial. Oddly, they can be aggressive toward other fish of their own species, yet peaceful toward other species.

Because of their general hardiness and their ability to survive the conditioning period of the tank, a great starter fish is the damselfish.  They are classified into many genera and species including the domino damselfish, the blue chromis, and the anemonefishes also known as clownfishes.

They live a long time, they are not very particular about their food, they are active, colorful and inexpensive.

But, like anything else, they have their disadvantages too.  They are highly territorial and aggressive towards unrelated species and their own kind regardless if the fish is much larger then themselves.

The most important thing about selecting fish for your tank is to be aware of where the fish you are buying comes from.  This may not be a concern when you are filling your saltwater aquarium with the common species of fish but, most reef fish and coral are wild caught.

It has been estimated that natural coral structures contain about 25 percent the planet’s marine life.  The world’s coral reefs are being destroyed by bad weather and the impact of humans.

Setting up Coral Reefs in a Beginner Saltwater Aquarium

Mini Reefs

Until you have gained more a lot more knowledge about saltwater tanks and fish, stay away from mini-reefs.   But, if you ever decide you want to keep any corals, do plenty of research.

Corals have different light requirements for different species and they are not as hardy as they seem.  But, if you are willing to make the effort they can be a wonderful addition to any marine tank.

Artificial Coral Reef For A Saltwater Aquarium

There’s something appalling that is occurring every minute of the day in the world’s oceans – damage to natural coral reef systems.

Human leisure activity, pollution and natural disasters have been the reason for so much of the destruction.

Unhappily, natural reefs can’t reconstruct themselves fast enough to avert damage to beaches and fish populations.  Harvesting of live coral is also having a major affect in the rebuilding of these coral reefs.

One solution to rebuilding the natural reefs in the oceans is to make artificial coral reefs  that simulate natural coral reefs.

Concrete coral reefs

Using concrete coral reefs has a number of advantages. 

  • It is heavy enough to keep stable on the ocean floor and is able to withstand severe storms without moving.
  • It also affords numerous caves and hideouts for shelter.
  • Concrete contains no toxins and is porous and rough enough to stimulate the growth of bacteria and marine organisms.

These are the same reasons that concrete is now being used to make realistic artificial reef  in domestic saltwater aquariums.

Some saltwater aquarium keepers have started to make their own artificial fake coral reefs from concrete to place in their saltwater tanks.  Some of the ingredients they use for the rock include crushed shells, crushed coral, sand and cement.  Sand is also used to make the mould.

Use just enough water to wet the sand to mould it into the shape you want your rock to be.  You can also sprinkle crushed coral, Puka shells, dry oyster or other shells into the inside of the mould before you put the rock mixture in it to add decoration to the exterior of the rock.

You can add the mix to the mould in small amounts at a time as this will help it to form into more realistic shapes.  More decorative shells can be sprinkled over the mix then the whole thing can be covered in dry sand. The mould has to dry for at least 24 hours before it can be removed and then the loose sand can be washed off.

It is exceptionally important that live rock is completely cured before putting it into the saltwater aquarium. If it’s not fully cured, it can cause serious problems and even death to the livestock in the fish tank.

The cement that is in your new live rock can raise the PH in the aquarium to dangerous levels. The rock will need to be cured for at least 6 to 8 weeks or until the PH level has stabilized.  Normally, curing natural live rock takes place in seawater.

So that you can cure your new artificial live rock, it has to be fully submerged in a container of tap water and left to soak.  You’ll need to change the water in your container a minimum of twice a week. Use a PH test kit to confirm that the rocks are completely cured before adding them to the aquarium.

This procedure takes a lot longer then curing natural live rock.  After approximately 5 weeks of curing your rock, completely drain off the water in the container, measure the PH of your tap water and make a note of it. Next, fill the container back up and allow the the rocks to sit in still stagnant water for arounda week.  At the end of the week, measure the PH of the water again.  If the PH has risen at all, repeat this process each week until the PH readings are the same.

Using artificial coral reef in your saltwater aquarium not only reduces the need for natural live coral, it is a stunning addition to your saltwater aquarium. As a final note, it also reduces the need for the special lighting and feeding that natural coral requires.

Common Beginner Problems When Starting a Aaltwater Aquarium

In the main, marine fishkeeping is not difficult. But common beginner problems do occur from time to time and although these tend to be of an elementary nature, a significant number of aquarists find difficulty in resolving them unless they have definite and reliable guidelines to refer to.

What follows is an outline of the ten most common problems I have encountered during my years in the saltwater fishkeeping hobby and a guide as to how to resolve them.

1) The Tank Is Too Small

Unlike freshwater, saltwater tends to be unstable in small quantities. The pH may drop suddenly, even overnight, to dangerously low levels; ammonia and nitrite surges are more likely, and nitrate build-ups can be rapid.

All this generally leads to a disastrous beginning to the hobby. Most experienced hobbyists agree that a tank of over 20 imperial gallons is a good starting point for newcomers. That means a tank no smaller than 36″ x 15″ x 12″. Remember the old maxim “large is good but bigger is better!”.

2) The Aquarium Is Insufficiently Matured To Support Livestock

Before livestock can be introduced, the biological filter(s) have to contain sufficient ‘friendly’ bacteria to convert ammonia to nitrites and nitrites to nitrates.

To confirm this properly, it is wise to be able to measure the maturation process as it happens. By using a proprietary liquid maturation fluid, together with an ammonia and nitrite test kit it is possible to graph how both substances peak and then drop to zero as bacteria arrive and multiply.

The procedure can take up to 28 days of nail-biting patience but it is generally the most satisfactory and successful method of maturation.

Live bacterial cultures can also be purchased, being usually stored in a refrigerator to maintain the high quantities of bacteria. This method can also prove effective. However, maturation with the use of Damsels or ‘seeded’ gravel presents many problems and is not to be relied upon.

3) Stocking Too Fast

Once a tank is matured, the temptation is to rush out and buy a whole selection of fish in a short period of time.

The result?

Usually the loss of all fish within 24 hours due to ammonia/nitrite poisoning, or, at the very least, an outbreak of a potentially fatal fish disease.

To avoid this grim scenario, stock very slowly. One fish every three weeks is a sensible rate and gives the filter bacteria a chance to adjust to each extra load without stressing the new or existing livestock.

4) Overstocking

A close cousin of the preceding problem, overstocking is a killer, make no mistake. Again, it is related to the amount of bacteria present within the fish tank filtration system.

It should be borne in mind that any filter has a maximum capacity, which, once reached, cannot be exceeded. Once it is exceeded, the tank is overstocked and this can lead to unexplained deaths and recurrent diseases.

Luckily, there is a traditional stocking ratio that works well in nearly all instances. They are, for the fish-only tank, 1″ of fish for every 4 gallons (nett) during the first six months in the life of a new aquarium, increasing to 1″ to every 2 gallons (nett) over the next six months.

If the aquarium contains invertebrates, then fish stocking levels are drastically reduced to 1″ of fish for every 6 gallons (nett) maximum over a period of one year. Most invertebrates produce very little in the way of waste and maximum stocking levels are usually governed by space restrictions only.

5) No Viable Stocking Plan

The value of a good stocking plan is often understated with many aquarists buying on impulse as the occasion arises.

‘A happy tank is a healthy tank’ is certainly a true saying in this instance, for if little regard is given to the compatibility of fish or fish/invertebrates a tank can quickly become a stressful environment full of disease and injuries.

For the newcomer, the period in which the aquarium is maturing need not be wasted and can relieve the itch to get something moving into the aquarium – make a stocking plan. This involves deciding which fish are desirable and compatible, and in which order they are to be introduced.

The slightly more delicate species need to be established first, with the more robust ones being left until last.

Maximum stocking levels can be worked out accurately with a good margin for growth being left. In this way, all the problems associated with stocking and incompatibility can be avoided from the outset.

6) Overfeeding

Every time fish are fed, two things happen.

  • a) The fish are sustained and
  • b) the filter bacteria are fed by the waste products (in fact, there are waste products that bacteria will not deal with, but more of that later).

Fish from the coral reefs will thrive on surprisingly little food as long as it is regular and varied. If possible, feed twice a day, once with a frozen food and once with a good quality marine flake.

All the food should be eaten within the space of a few minutes with any uneaten particles being removed as these will pollute the water and overload the filtration system. In a very short space of time, the newcomer will be able to accurately assess the amount of food required. If in doubt, reduce amounts; the fish will not suffer.

7) Insufficient Filtration

Marine fish cannot hope to be kept properly and reliably without an effective filtration system. This may take the form of undergravels, trickle filters or biological canister; or a combination.

Other essential forms of filtration should not, however, be neglected.

Protein skimmers and carbon must form the basis of any effective system as they remove waste substances that the biological filter cannot.

8) The Aquarium Is Wrongly Positioned

By placing the tank in bright, natural light unwanted algae may form and the sun may send temperatures soaring to unsafe levels.

Equally, tanks positioned in dark inhospitable spots will most likely be neglected and unappreciated.

Banging doors or loud music will stress aquarium inhabitants greatly, leading to disease or even death. Bear these simple, but important factors in mind before any final decision is made.

9) Wrong Lighting

Obviously the lighting should suit the type of livestock kept.

Light-loving corals require high intensity lighting of the correct spectrum, whereas some fish like groupers, cardinals and squirrelfish appreciate subdued illumination. There are many tubes and spotlights available to the aquarist and it is important to investigate the properties of several before an informed decision can be made.

10) Wrong Equipment

Most aquarium equipment on the market has been thoroughly researched to suit a particular application, and manufacturer’s instructions should be followed as closely as possible. Therefore, do not expect a filter designed for a 30 gallon tank to be as effective in a 50 gallon aquarium without proper back-up.

11) Nitrates Too High

Nitrates are the least toxic of the ammonia, nitrite, nitrate triangle. However, they can cause fish to become more susceptible to disease, lose their appetite and generally put extra stress upon them.

Invertebrates are particularly sensitive and levels should be kept in single figures if at all possible.

Nitrates can be kept low by a number of methods:- nitrate-free water changes of the correct quantity and frequency, keeping the amount of fish stocks low, not overfeeding, supplying anaerobic areas where the nitrates can be converted into harmless free nitrogen gas.

12) Too Much Nuisance Algae

Nuisance algae usually comes in the form of smothering hair or slime algae. It can not only make the tank look awful but it can harm sessile invertebrates by overwhelming them. The causes can be many and varied but mostly traceable to poor water conditions.

How Can I Obtain Reliable Information And How Much Should I Know?

  • a) Through knowledgeable dealers, books, magazines and Internet resources. Do not expect to have a successful saltwater tank by the ‘one bridge at a time’ approach.
  • b) Find out all you can before any purchases are made. It’s easy to change your mind on paper but not so easy once things are set up.

Are Major Problems Easy To Rectify?

In the main, no. Good planning is the secret of success, do not rely on being able to easily cure mistakes after the event.

If I Have A Specific Problem, Who Can I Turn To For Advice?

Many magazines have a problem page facility as do many web sites, discussion groups and newsgroups.
A knowledgeable dealer is worth their weight in gold and should be seen as a great ally.

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