Setting up an aquarium can seem like an overwhelming process, but aquarium-keepers know it is worth it once the tank is set up and the fish have been added. Although saltwater aquariums have a slightly higher cost than a freshwater aquarium, it provides a living ecosystem with a wide variety of colorful fish and corals, which cannot be found in freshwater systems.

Types of Saltwater Tanks

Before you get started, it is important to note that there are different types of saltwater tanks, allowing for different types of marine setups.

The most basic and inexpensive saltwater system is a fish-only tank. You can select a species-only or community tank that contains various compatible fish species. Although a fish-only aquarium is basic to set up, it might require longer-term maintenance, as the presence of live rocks assists with introducing beneficial bacteria, controlling waste and water cycling.

Another type of saltwater setup is combining fish with live rocks. Live rocks introduce bacteria to the system, which break down ammonia and nitrites into less toxic nitrate. Although adding live rocks to the tank increases the cost of the setup, the added bonus of maintaining the water quality makes the initial expense worth it.

A reef tank is the most striking, and is the image that comes to mind when people think of “saltwater aquariums”. These systems contain corals, which are living organisms with their own set of needs. Corals are quite expensive and require additional equipment for their care. Although a reef tank poses a challenge for beginners, with the right care and dedication it will result in the most beautiful aquarium.

Setting up a Saltwater Aquarium

There are eight critical steps that must be taken to successfully start a saltwater aquarium.

1. Plan your Tank

As mentioned above, there are different types of saltwater tanks, and planning ahead by looking at options, pricing and sizes will allow for a smoother process. The initial planning stages will involve deciding which fish will be included in the tank, as this will influence the rest of the aquarium. Three essential elements that must be considered during the planning stage is the inhabitants, the enclosure (tank) and the support system (e.g. filtration, heating and lighting).

2. Prepare the Tank

Once the research on the type of tank and fish species is completed, shopping for the tank setup can commence. Even if a tank is purchased new, it will still have to be cleaned with a wet cloth or a natural glass and acrylic cleaner. Household soaps and cleaners should not be used inside an empty tank, as the residues may be harmful to the fish that will be added.

Once the tank is clean, it must be checked for leaks. To do this, a couple of inches of water can be added to the tank and left to stand for a few hours. If any leaks are discovered, these can be fixed with a basic aquarium sealant.

The position of the aquarium must be carefully considered before filling the tank, as tanks filled with water are cumbersome to move. The surface the aquarium is placed on must be strong enough to carry the weight of the tank and equipment, and must be level to prevent the tank from accidentally tipping over.

3. Add the Substrate

Many different types of substrate exist, and the type used will depend on the type of saltwater aquarium that is being set up. Prior to placing the substrate in the tank, it should be cleaned by thoroughly rinsing it in water.

4. Add the Water

Once the tank is cleaned, not leaking, and the substrate has been added, it can be filled with water. The water placed in the saltwater aquarium cannot come straight from the tap, and must have been through reverse osmosis, or treated and de-chlorinated. A salt mix, which can be purchased in most pet stores that sell fish supplies, must be added according to package instructions, and a hydrometer should be kept on hand to measure the salinity. While the water is being added, it might appear cloudy due to the substrate being disturbed, however over time the substrate will settle and the water will become clear.

5. Installing Equipment

The type of equipment required will depend on the type of saltwater aquarium, however nearly all saltwater tanks will require a filter, and some might require a heater as well. Additional equipment, such as UV sterilizers, lights, protein skimmers and aerators, can also be installed to maximize the water quality and health of the fish.

Most equipment is easy to install and will come with clear instructions, so the manual should always be consulted. It must be noted that when installing a heater and thermometer, the thermometer should be on the opposite side of the tank as the heater, to ensure accurate temperature readings.

6. Aquascaping

Decorations should be added prior to cycling the tank, as decorations may affect the water quality. During this phase, an aquarium keeper can get creative by keeping to a natural theme of rocks and driftwood, or selecting a theme such as shipwreck, or bright colors. All decorations should be rinsed thoroughly before being added to the tank.

7. Cycle the Tank

Once the tank has been fully set up, it must be cycled to make it safe for the fish. The purpose of cycling an aquarium is to establish bacterial cultures that act as a biological filter – one that converts ammonia to nitrites and then to less harmful nitrates.

Live rocks are commonly used in aquariums to start the cycle, as they already contain beneficial bacteria. If live rocks are not working, ammonia can be added to kickstart the cycle. The process of cycling should take 6-8 weeks, and will be complete once ammonia and nitrite levels reach 0 parts per million (ppm).

8. Adding Fish

It is important to conduct thorough research before adding fish, as the fish species will affect what is needed for the aquarium. It is best to add fish slowly over time, as adding many at once might start the nitrogen cycle again.

Fish are sensitive to changes in water conditions, and need to acclimatize to water in the aquarium before being added. This can be done through the following process:

·        Float the bag on the water surface for 15 mins to match the temperatures.

·        Open the bag.

·        Add ½ cup of aquarium water to the bag every 4-5 minutes until the bag is full.

·        Empty out half the water in the bag (not into the aquarium).

·        Add ½ cup of aquarium water again every 4-5 minutes until the bag is full.

·        Use a net to transfer the fish from the bag into the aquarium. Discard the bag.

Once a fish has been added to the aquarium, it must be monitored closely for 24 hours for any sign of disease or poor health, and to make sure they are eating at feeding times. Fish can also be added to a quarantine tank before being added to the aquarium, to prevent accidentally introducing diseased fish.