There are a few things one should know before setting up a saltwater aquarium. Freshwater fish are easier to maintain than saltwater fish, but there are many saltwater fish that are pretty hardy. There is nothing more attractive than a saltwater tank to add ambiance to any setting. We will review a few things you need to know before setting up your own saltwater fish tank.

Why Set Up a Saltwater Aquarium?

Tropical saltwater fish in a aquarium

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One of the most popular reasons people set up a saltwater fish tank is because the fish are relaxing to look at. Some of the most beautiful fish are saltwater fish, and they require a certain environment to live.

Are Saltwater Aquariums Hard to Set Up?

Setting up your saltwater tank could take up to two months because you need to maintain the correct balance in the water for the fish and plants to thrive. The water needs to be filtered properly to provide the best environment for your saltwater fish. Many species are expensive, so it's best to make sure the tank is healthy enough for them to survive.

How to Set Up a Saltwater Aquarium

Pick a Location

Once you have set up your aquarium, don't plan on moving it, as it will be very heavy. Choose a place that is not in direct sunlight as this will cause algae to develop. Once that occurs, it can be a difficult problem to get under control. This will affect the heath of your fish. A well-ventilated place with cooler temperatures is ideal.

Select an Aquarium

This is a personal choice that should suit your taste and match the amount of fish you intend on having. If you are thinking about getting larger fish, you will need to factor that into your decision. You should also think about how large your fish will grow and the number of fish you want. There is a significant amount of time you will invest in setting up your aquarium so make sure that you get the size you want.

Choose a Stand

Your stand should be sturdy enough to handle the size of your tank. Place the stand and tank in an area that has enough electrical outlets to handle your lighting and filter. If you have a heater, you will also need an outlet for it.

Create a Clean Environment

Wipe your tank out with a clean cloth and fresh warm water. You don't need to use salt water and never use chemicals such as window cleaners as this can leach into your aquarium water. Rinse it thoroughly.

Add Gravel or Substrate

Rinse your substrate or gravel before putting it in the tank. It will be dusty when you buy it, so pour into a strainer and rinse well before using. After you're done, place it in the tank, using about an inch at the bottom. For every gallon of water, use about a pound of gravel to get to an inch in depth.

Tropical yellow fish in aquarium

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Add Water and Salt

Buy premixed saltwater if you don't want to calculate the balance yourself. If you choose to do so on your own, you should get sea salt mix online or from your local specialty store. Never use table salt. Your package will have instructions to help you achieve the perfect balance. Don't use tap water as it can have additives that will be toxic to your saltwater fish. But if you do, allow it to sit overnight which will allow the chlorine to dissipate. Your local specialty store can advise you on the best water treatment.

Fill the tank a third of the way, remembering to leave room for your landscape and equipment such as lighting, heating, and filter. Set up filtration to run 24 hours with the heater to get to the correct temperature. Check salt levels after 24 hours to make sure they're correct.

Aquascape Your Tank

The fun comes in decorating! Decide what you want to use and remember that live rock is a natural filter. Vegetation will serve as a filter and a source of food. Live rock is best to buy "cured." This makes sure that any toxins are removed. If you use live rocks that have not been cured, you run the risk of losing your fish.

Cycle the Water

This step can take between 4 to 6 weeks. It allows your tank to establish itself using biological filtration. Live rocks and plants help to speed this process.

Red fish in coral

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Add Ammonia to Start the Nitrogen Cycle

Ammonia will start the cycling process. This can be accomplished by adding a hardy pair of fish to create the amount of ammonia your tank needs. This could be inhumane, though, if the fish suffer and die in an unbalanced environment. Using a maturation fluid from your specialty store is a safer method to create nitrites that will increase ammonia levels and decrease bacteria.

As ammonia breaks down it produces nitrite. When bacteria increases nitrite turns into nitrate. Monitor the levels and make sure they are correct. The nitrogen cycle can take about two weeks.

Select Healthy Fish

The final and most exciting part of all of this is when you get your saltwater fish. Make sure they are healthy. Ask your specialty store to help you decide which fish are the best for your aquarium. Saltwater fish can be costly, so it's important to find a good dealer. Keep these things in mind as you select your saltwater fish:

  • Watch how the fish are swimming and acting to ensure they aren't sick
  • Do your research before you buy a particular type of saltwater fish
  • Never buy a saltwater fish you have not researched
  • Make sure that there are no dead or dying fish in the tank with the fish you are buying

Acclimatize Fish to Aquarium

Get your new fish used to your tank so they don't go into shock. Open the bag they came in and pour about half of the water out. Trim the bag down and place it in the tank, securing it to the side to ensure no tank water gets into the bag. Put an air stone in the bag to provide oxygen for the fish. Ten minutes later add a quarter cup of tank water to the bag and let it mix for about ten minutes. Then add another quarter cup of water. After a few times test the salinity and pH of the bag water to make sure it matches that of your tank. When they match, transfer the fish to your aquarium. Throw out the bag and the water in it.

Photo of a Longhorn cowfish

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Necessary Equipment

Aquarium Filters

Filters are used to maintain the environment of your saltwater fish. There are three types to consider:

  • Chemical - This is often done with the use of activated carbon in the filter and helps reduce odors
  • Biological - Growing good bacteria is important in the conversion of ammonia to nitrite and then into nitrates
  • Mechanical - Removes particles from the water and hangs on the back of the tank

Aquarium Lighting

The type of lighting you use will depend on what you have in your tank. Lighting types include:

  • Saltwater Reef Light - For saltwater reef tanks
  • Regular Fluorescent Light - Comes with most tanks and are affordable
  • Compact Fluorescent Light - Offers bright light and require special hoods

Other items you may consider:

  • Protein Skimmer
  • Biopellets
  • Live Rock

10 Most Popular Saltwater Fish

clownfish underwater

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Ocellaris Clownfish

This is the most popular type of clownfish, bred in 1972. They are small, non-aggressive, mild-mannered, and stay below 4 inches.

Maroon Clownfish

These are a bigger version of up to 7 inches and can be aggressive and territorial.

Yellow Assessor

These saltwater fish grow to about 3 inches and are hardy. They are docile, but it's best to have only one.

Banggai Cardinalfish

Endangered, but a beautiful species. Easy to keep and can live in small areas.

Orchid Dottyback

Lively fish that like to have hiding places.

Fang Blennies

Docile and defensive. They have venomous canine teeth they will use to defend themselves.

Marine Betta

This saltwater fish reaches a size of 8 inches and will eat smaller fish. They are shy and like to hide, but resistant to disease.

Neon Goby

Docile, less than 2 inches, and live about 1 to two years.

Mandarin Dragonet

This 3-inch saltwater fish is a beauty! They are docile and are great in pairs or solo.

Common Seahorse

Docile by nature, they need structures to attach their tails for stability. They like bright lighting and a moving current.

Aquarium Coral

Photo of an Anemone coral

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There are many different sizes, types, and shapes of aquarium coral. You should determine the type of tank you will be getting before you decide on the type of coral you want. Doing a coral dip before placing them in the tank is advised. Quarantining them is an even better option in case there are eggs in the coral that made it past the dip. Some type of coral include:

  • Acanthastrea Coral
  • Acropora Coral
  • Birdsnest Coral
  • Blastomussa Coral
  • Brain Coral
  • Candy Cane Coral
  • Chalice Coral
  • Frogspan Coral
  • Green Star Polyps Coral
  • Montipora Capricornis Coral
  • Montipora Digitata
  • Montipora Spongodes
  • Pavona Coral
  • Pulsing Xenis
  • Ricordea Florida
  • Zoanthids


Having your own saltwater tank can be a rewarding experience. However, it's important to do your research and select the right fish and tank for your location. Setting up the tank properly will give your new saltwater fish a great home!

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