It is true that saltwater aquarium setup can be a little more difficult to than a tropical freshwater aquarium tank. But don’t let this hold you back. With the correct knowledge, you’ll be able to set up an awesome saltwater aquarium tank.

Before we start

Owning a saltwater fish tank can be a whole lot of fun, but its also a lot of work, and you need to know what you are doing. That is why I am here, to help you along the way, and stop you from making the mistakes that dishearten some to the point of giving up this wonderful hobby. In the article, I will write about the basis of keeping up a saltwater reef or fish-only setup.

The first lessons and the most important ones are these two.

  1. Research: You can try to start up a fish tank without much know how, but in the end, knowledge is the only way to truly be successful with your tank. Since you are here, you are off to a good start, but I Urge you to keep up your studies, even as a seasoned veteran in fish-keeping; you can never know it all.
  2. Patience: As tempting as it is to rush things you are excited about, a saltwater fish tank is a thing that takes time to mature. Many people try and add a whole bunch of livestock when their tank is still very young, or they try and add animals that are too sensitive for a still unstable tank.
 Research and Patience two things together are 90 percent of why many fish tanks don’t work out. 

Types of Saltwater Aquariums

There are three saltwater aquarium tank configurations:

  • Reef Tanks
  • Fish only
  • Fish only with live rock (also known as FOWLR).

Reef Tanks

Reef tanks are made up mostly with invertebrates, corals, and anemones. Of course, fish can also be placed in this type of tank, but they generally are not the main focus for this type of aquarium tank. Coral can be expensive but once you know how to keep it, your money outlay can be delegated to extra coral purchases to enhance the tank.

Fish Only

A fish only tank, contrary to popular belief, can actually be the most challenging one to create. Since there is no ecosystem created with rocks and corals you have to attend to the tank carefully and keep the water changed out as well.

Fish only with Live Rock (FOWLR)

A FOWLR (fish only with live rock) tank generally needs better aquarium lighting. With live rock as well as the fish, there is an ecosystem that will be more self-maintaining. This is a good place to start with saltwater aquariums.

Regardless of which type of tank you choose, do your research. Your saltwater aquarium will become a lifelong hobby. Create your saltwater aquarium correctly from the start and you will get years of enjoyment from it.

In this guide, we will be covering how to set up a reef tank.

Checklist for Starting a Saltwater Aquarium

Once you have determined the type and size of your Saltwater Aquarium, the next step is fixing a budget for your aquarium setup. Before you head out for a purchase or look stuff online, we would recommend making a list of the items according to your budget. Here are the list of things that you might require for your aquarium.

  1. Aquarium
  2. Lighting
  3. Skimmers or Filters depending upon the type of aquarium.
  4. Powerheads
  5. Live Rocks and Substrate
  6. SeaSalt Mix and Refractometer
  7. Heater & Thermometer
  8. Aquarium Fish Net
  9. Aquarium Water Test Kits
  10. Maintenance Tools

The Aquarium

Typically, the aquariums that you will contemplate buying are made of glass or acrylic material, the latter often referred to by one of its trade names: Plexiglas, Lucite, etc.

Whereas acrylic tanks are very popular nowadays, especially on the West Coast, and are gaining popularity in the East, Glass Tanks still constitute the majority of aquariums sold.

Which exact type you decide to buy is not really material you should nevertheless, know the following about each type:

Glass Tank

Glass tanks are heavy, not so easy to drill but do not scratch as easily as acrylic ones do. They are usually less expensive to buy. Glass tanks, contrary to what you may think, can withstand quite a bit of abuse. Drilling may seem like a chore, but it really isn’t. Glass shops in your area, or even some pet shops, will do it for a nominal cost.

Because glass is easy to clean, it is often preferred for tanks where algae growth is expected. You can use razor blades to scrape off the algae from the glass, but if you are not careful, you will soon have scratches. Best is to use one of the many aquarium glass scrapers that are available in pet stores.

Acrylic Tank

Acrylic Tanks are lighter, can very easily be drilled, have complete tops, and scratch more easily than I personally care for. Because they are light, they are easier to move around and work with when setting them up.

I have used both types and have no real personal preference at this point. I used to lean towards glass tank but have lately seen some really high-quality work in the acrylic varieties as well. it is a personal judgment call that you must make. You can talk to others and get their opinion as well.

Acrylic tanks are probably the way future tanks will be built in years to come.

 If you set up a small aquarium, you can go for something like Peninsula 20 Gallon Glass NUVO Aquarium. These are designed for making things easier for new reefers. 


Now that you have picked out your aquarium it is time for you to get going on The Reef Aquarium Setup! This will be your most important part of designing how you want your tank to look like before you add water to your tank, by arranging your live rock to look like a beautiful coral reef setting.

Picking up the right Substrates

First of all, it is a very important decision to pick the right substrates for your reef aquarium. But then again you will not need a lot of it. It is recommended that a very thin layer of a substrate is to be used.

Caution: If you put too much substrate directly on the bottom of the tank, it can quickly lead to low oxygen levels in that particular substrate, which will lead to anaerobic areas and the appearance of hydrogen sulfide. The latter is a very noxious gas that quickly mixes with the water, which lowers the dissolved oxygen level, which in turn stresses out the fish and other lifeforms, especially ones that live in the bottom parts of your tank.

When under gravel filters were used, Hobbyist would use thick layers of the substrate. I do not advocate this type of set up for a reef tank, but using underground filters and thicker substrates in a saltwater marine type tanks with ‘fish only’ is the way to go, but just not for reef setups. You must adjust the substrates downward considerably. I suggest that you do not place more than 1/4 inch layer on the bottom of your tank, but only in areas where you need to cover the bottom of your tank.

The best choice to use is crushed coral, then you should place your live rock in by building a live coral reef display for your live coral and live plants you will be adding later on, then you will need to spread your live sand around  your freshly placed live rock just enough to cover it, not underneath the rocks.

Strong Currents Required

In my experience it is very important when selecting your substrate and other rocks for your tank, you must keep in mind that you will need to keep strong currents throughout the entire tank at all times. Such is important for the water quality, for the invertebrates, and also for the fish. That way detritus is moved around and picked up by your mechanical filters; on the real reefs the invertebrates are accustomed to very strong currents: also the fish need strong currents to keep their body’s clean and healthy; also strong water movement inside your tank adds to the beauty and realism of your aquarium.

Live Rock and Live Sand

In my own experience, I have always believed in regular water changes and addition to ‘trace elements’ on a routine basis, that way no deficiencies will occur, even at very high carbonate hardness levels. Because corals do better at higher levels of carbonate hardness, I recommend the use of live sand and rock in the saltwater tank, with the addition of a KH generator and addition of lime water, either by a dosing pump or manually.

Mixing Salt Water for Saltwater Aquarium


Things that you’re going to need to make salt water for your aquarium are:

  1. Salt Mix – Instant Ocean
  2. Empty bucket or Container preferably food grade.
  3. A powerhead or pump.
  4. Water Heater.
  5. Something to measure the specific gravity a Refractometer

One of the main things about mixing saltwater as a beginner is you need to do a weekly water change. I know that’s a big commitment to make for a lot of freshwater aquariums obvious looking to get into the saltwater aquarium hobby but you need to do a 10% volume water change weekly for your tanks and if you can commit to that your tank is going to do awesome.

Steps to Mix Salt Water Mix for Saltwater Aquarium

  1. Once you have your water in your container go ahead and place your pump in the water don’t turn it on just yet.
  2. Mix half cup per gallon of Instant Ocean, but make sure you check the specific gravity. Here’s an article explaining more in detail about specific gravity. You can refer to the chart below for more a quick calculation on the amount of Instant Ocean to gallons of water.
  3. Plug the power head in let it mixes for at least six hours. The reason that you might want to wait this long is to ensure that all the salt is dissolved. Else you might end up damaging your livestock by putting salt mix directly into the tank. Always want to put a lid on top your bucket so nothing is falling into your salt mixture 
  4. Insert the water heater and set it to the appropriate temperature.  If you are doing a water change, then the temperature must be the same as the water temperature in your tank.
  5. Double check with your refractometer to make sure that you have the correct specific gravity that you’re trying to achieve for your tank. Sometimes it takes about a day for the salt mix to mix completely.
Using refractometer:  Add a few drops of water to the window, close, wait 20 seconds or so and look through the eyepiece. It should read 35ppt or 1.026. More about specific gravity here.
  • Once you have the correct salinity use the included dechlorinator to make the water safe for the tank.
  • Note: When you’re done mixing your salt and your using you have a bucket for the salt mix, reseal it tightly. And I recommend a bucket of salt because you can reseal it.Salt has a tendency to draw moisture right out of the air and become rock solid on you and it’s no good after that

    Steps for Reef Aquarium set up

    Step 1: Finding a Location for your tank:

    You need to first find an appropriate spot for your tank which is level and can hold a couple hundred pounds.  A countertop, sturdy cabinet or a table would be a good selection. And since once your aquarium is set up, it would be very difficult to move it. So, if you find it had to find a good permanent option you may choose to go for an aquarium stand. Here’s a list of some of the best seller aquarium stand.

     Keep in mind wherever you set up your saltwater reef aquarium is likely to get wet occasionally. 


    • Keep your aquarium near the electrical outlets.
    • Keep your aquarium where water changes are easily possible.


    • Keep your aquarium away from the places having sudden temperature changes.
    • Keep your aquarium away from places receiving direct sunlight as it promotes algae growth.

    Step 2: Decorations / Adding Substrate

    Before setting up the tank, use a soft sponge and warm water to wash the inner and outer surface of the tank.  Check for any leaks, if it not a new tank and DO NOT use Soap and Detergents for this activity.  Soap residue left behind may cause harm to your fishes later.

    Next, add your rock. Try and stack it in a way that keeps the rock a few inches from the sides and top as well as stable. Pour in the sand and spread it around the base of the rock.

    Step 3: Setting up the equipment:

    Setup the required equipment like the filter, heater. Finally, install the lights and the tank is set up.

    Step 4: Cycling the Reef Tank

    Now that the setup is complete, we need to wait for a few weeks for the beneficial bacteria to build up. These bacteria would then help us filtering the tank and keeping it from the harmful compounds like Ammonia, Nitrites, and Nitrates. This filtration process is primarily done where the colony of these beneficial bacteria resides i.e. on the surface of the rock and sand.  These bacteria feed on the excess food and fish waste breaking it down, in turn, keeping the tank clean. With the absence of these beneficial bacteria, ammonia and nitrites will spike up to dangerous levels for the fish. Which, will lead to loss of color/appetite and algae blooms and eventually lead to life loss.  The bacteria would populate on its own over time, all you need to do is be patient. 

    If you are a new tank owner and impatient to get started, here’s what you could do:

    1. First, we used live sand which contains live dormant bacteria which will help cycle the tank.
    2. Using a product called Bio Spira. Bio Spira helps cycle tank quickly by adding live nitrifying (beneficial) bacteria to the tank.

    Both Bio Spira and Live sand would provide filtration to your tank and protect your livestock. Now we are good to go for adding four first inhabitant.

    Step 5: Introducing Fishes to your Reef Tank

    Now, it’s time for you to go out and buy your fishes.  Initially, I would recommend you go for the hardy one like a clownfish as your first addition.

     Tip: It is recommended to test the presence of Ammonia, Nitrites, and Nitrates using a test kit before proceeding with livestock addition. 

    After your first addition five your tank a month’s time to stabilize. Turn off the lights and do not add anything new.  Turning off the lights will reduce algae growth, common with new tanks. Some of the new reefer fish selections for a tank like this are:

    • Standard Clownfish
    • Purple or Red Fire Fish
    • Shrimp and Goby Pairs
    • Lawn Mower or Midas Blennies
    • Orchid Dotty Back

    Step 6: Introducing Corals to your Reef Tank

    Now that the tank has been stabilized, Ammonia reduced to 0, Nitrates barely traceable and fishes thriving its time to add corals to your Reef Tank.  To start with, I would recommend starting with corals that require less maintenance. Soft corals or LPS corals like :

    • Zoanthids, mushrooms,
    • Ricordea
    • Polyps
    • Caulastraea (candy canes)
    • Duncanopsammia axifuga(Duncans)
    • Torch
    • Euphyllia divisa (frogspawn).
    Saltwater Reef Aquarium Setup


    Having a Saltwater Reef Aquarium can be very exciting and watching your Saltwater Reef Aquarium grow and flourish will give you many hours of pleasure. Especially if you decide to go with a 75-gallon aquarium!

    Maintaining an aquarium reef tank over 75-gallon and taking the time to service both the aquarium and the equipment is, however, a task that cannot, and never should be taken lightly as it is both complex and necessary.

    Schedule Tank Clean-up

    No matter how many substrates you use, and which exact type you pick, you must make a habit of cleaning it at least once a week. Accumulating dirt, uneaten food, dead algae, and other particulates, will contribute to your water quality. As decay starts and will cause undesirable and intermediate breakdown compounds added to your water continuously, oxygen is consumed, lowering dissolved oxygen levels which will in turn cause stress on your animal life.

    Many areas can become causes for concern if the aquarium is not properly maintained or taken care of. Many imponderables may enter the picture, and many things can happen to your tank and its inhabitants that you will need to find an explanation or cure for. Indeed, the seawater environment in your aquarium is an extremely complex system. Many chemical and biological reactions occur at the same time, and continuously that can affect the well-being of all of your specimens in your tank. You may not have control over all of these reactions, but there is a great number over which you need to control.