Tip 1. Fail To Prepare, Prepare To Fail

Before you do anything else you need to consider what you want to keep in your aquarium. Perhaps it was something that really caught your eye and actually inspired you to start an aquarium, or you’ve had a long-term vision in mind. Knowing what you want to keep with impact what equipment you will need and also influence what other species you can keep due to species compatibility. 

In general, people want an attractive looking tank with an interesting and colorful mix of fish and corals, which is known as a community reef tank. However, you may want to just keep fish and do without corals. Whatever you decide, ensure you have thoroughly researched the species before purchasing, some species are quite difficult for first time saltwater aquarists, or you may end up buying a tank that is actually too small for the species.

Tank Size

After choosing what you want to keep then you can pick out your tank. The size of the tank you go for is constrained by budget, what you want to keep and the availability of space you have to put it.

Here’s a secret, bigger is (generally) better! Tanks are not cheap but you can find options which make it more affordable. Long-term, a larger tank will give you a higher chance of success and more area to play around with as you grow and mature your tank. It also keeps avenues for species that need larger tanks open to you in the future. We recommend a minimum tank size of 40 gallons. Bigger tanks have greater success rates because it’s generally easier to control the water chemistry. With more water, changes in water chemistry happen slower. Whereas keeping water chemistry stable in smaller tanks can become a challenge. 

Where To Keep Your Aquarium

Having enough space to keep your aquarium is essential. You need enough room to work around it too. You also won’t want it near a door or windows which can create drafts or where it will receive direct sunlight, both of which will impact your water temperature. Measure out the space you have in mind beforehand, including space for the tank stand, and then find a tank that suits the shape. Don’t do it the other way round, make the tank work for you, otherwise it will quickly become something of a hassle. 

Tip 2. Get The Right Kit and Setup

All-In-One or Build Your Own

All-in-one aquariums are a way of quickly and easily getting started in reef keeping. Building your own requires you purchase each piece of equipment separately and then learn to put it all together. Both get you where you’re going, but it depends on your budget and time constraints. 

For beginners, obviously an all-in-one system is a straightforward way to go. All-in-one aquariums come in desktop sizes up to larger (525L) full-blown reef ready systems. The cheaper option is building your own aquarium. This will also be more time-consuming but you will learn more through the process. 

Equipment Checklist

Here is the basic equipment you will need to get started and for maintenance. 

Essentail₹ Kit:

  • Aquarium Tank
  • Aquarium Stand (unless you have a desktop aquarium)
  • Air Pump
  • Powerhead
  • Filtration Equipment
  • Lighting
  • Heater & Thermometer
  • Saltwater or Sea Salt Mix
  • Live Rock & Substrate
  • Sump
  • Bucket or Plastic Container
  • Rubber Hose or Tubing

Maintainenc₹e Kit:

  • Test Kits, Additives & Supplements
  • Aquarium Gloves
  • Aquarium-Safe Cleaners
  • Spatulas/Rakes 
  • Hand Nets 
  • Scissors
  • Underwater Glue
  • Telfon Tape
  • Algae Magnets, Scrapers and Scrubbers 
  • Absorbent Floor Protection
  • Water Changers and Gravel Cleaners

Tip 3. There’s Something In The Water – Tes It!


Your tank will need saltwater and there are two ways you can go about getting it: 1) Buy it from your local store, or 2) Make your own! Both are easy and relatively quick (depending on how close your local fish pet store is). Most local fish stores sell refillable jugs of around 5 gallons of water. Obviously you may need more than this, and if you have to walk far or up stairs with tonnes of water this quickly becomes a chore.

Mixing Your Own Saltwater

Mixing saltwater at home is pretty straight forward. Mix aquarium salt with water. Aquarium salt is widely available. It’s easiest to do this in a large drum. It’ll also make your life easier if you have a dedicated spot for your saltwater. Another top tip is have some extra saltwater to hand in case of emergencies.

Water Testing

Water checking can be one of the most timely aspects of maintenance, but without monitoring, it’s impossible to know what’s going on inside your tank. Each time you test your water, there is a chance to fix any imbalances in water chemistry and increase the overall water quality of your system. Don’t forget to also check that what your test result says matches what you can physically see, sometimes test kits fail, trust your eyes.

You should test your tank water at least once a week. Most local fish shops can help you test your water, but the aquarium test kits are fairly inexpensive and it’s a smart idea to start testing your water at home. Testing your aquarium water should become an important aquarium ritual.

Water Parameters

The key water parameters you want are listed below. But these may change depending on the species you want to keep.

Alkalinity 8-12 dKH

Calcium 350-450 ppm

Magnesium 1250-1350 ppm

Phosphate <0.2ppm

Temperature 75 – 80 °F (23.5 – 26.5 °C)

Salinity 35ppt or 1.0264 specific gravity

Tip 4. Let In The Light (And Don’t Forget Flow and Filtration)


Proper lighting is critical for the performance of your reef tank. Corals are photosynthetic creatures, and they require light to live. That being said, too much light will cause harmful algae to bloom, so it’s important to start slowly.

When buying a light for your saltwater aquarium, it is important to purchase a light that is specifically designed for aquarium tanks.

Lighting Periods

The lights should be turned on for 6 – 8 hours a day when you first set up your aquarium. You can also reduce the light intensity if you have a controllable LED light. After you have cycled your aquarium for six weeks or more you can progressively increase the amount of light your tank receives in a day. If you start to see algae blooms, decrease the amount of daylight time.

Light Zones

You can create light zones in the aquarium with high and low lighting, depending on the scale of your tank and the rockscape. As in nature, various corals require a different amount of light. Different areas or zones of light intensity are formed by the depth of the water and the shadows created by the rocks. Light will be weaker at the edges of the tank and in the shadows of rocks. You can use a PAR meter to test light intensity.


Flow is an essential part of a healthy reef tank. Flow is created by powerheads and depending on the size of your reef tank you might need more than one powerhead creating flow. Water movement facilitates gas exchange and keeps your fish and corals healthy. 


In a saltwater aquarium you need three different types of filtration: 

  • Mechanical filtration 

This removes large particles from the water. Mechanical filtration is done by a sponge filter. This filter removes free-floating waste before it decays.

  • Biological filtration

This will start when your tank is properly cycled. Biological filtration is when good bacteria in the tank breaks down dangerous ammonia, converting them to nitrites, and finally to less toxic nitrates. 

  • Chemical filtration 

You will need activated carbon for chemical filtration. Activated carbon filters remove organic pollutants which cannot be removed by biological or mechanical filtration. 

Step 5. Now Add Your Tank Mates

Adding Livestock

After your aquarium has been running for six weeks or longer (aka when it’s properly cycled) you can gradually add corals, invertebrates and fish. It is important to start slowly when adding livestock and with species that are easy to care for, like hermit crabs and shrimp. When you feel ready to add corals, start with hardy beginner corals like leathers, zoanthids, or mushrooms. These corals are perfect for filling up space in your aquarium and adding gorgeous color.

Remember, not all animals are compatible with each other. If there is one fish, in particular, you want to check their compatibility with other fish and work on that list. Some anemones can eat coral species, other species can be actively aggressive or need to be kept in groups.

When choosing your species, consider these questions:

  • What types of fish, invertebrates or coral do you want? Will they be compatible with each other? How easy are these species to keep?
  • What size/shape of aquarium is needed for the species mix you want?
  • What types of filtration, lighting, decoration and accessories do you need?
  • What feeding and maintenance do these species need?


Behind every beautiful aquarium is a properly selected assembly of aquarium equipment and livestock. They work together to create a healthy, thriving aquatic environment. Bringing an aquarium into your home or office is also a great way to learn more about part of the natural world, often hidden from our everyday lives. The process is challenging and rewarding