Join Date: Jan 2005
Location: Northern Wisconsin
Article: Setting Up a Saltwater Tank
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Setting Up a Saltwater Tank
So you are ready to take the plunge and dive into the salty brine? Are you sure? Creating a successful saltwater tank takes time, money, work, and luck. In this sticky, we at "Fishforums" would like to take the time to break things up for you in your quest to tease out the important stuff out of the mass of information you WILL research BEFORE and WHILE starting up your tank.
This will be a step by step guide for easy access to information on the basics of saltwater care. As in freshwater, saltwater aquaria has a lot of controversy if not more, so more than one opinion and option may be stated in this sticky, with its proís and conís for you to personally decide.
If you have not had a freshwater tank, I would start at step 0. If you have had a freshwater tank, start at step 1. If you have any questions about terminology, the glossary in the FYI section and in the profiles section should help you out.
Step 0: Start and maintain a Freshwater system: There are many reasons why I have this as step 0. For one, most people on this board already have a successful freshwater setup, know the basics of the nitrogen cycle and know that you canít keep a 12 inch oscar in a 10 gallon. Also this creates a basic knowledge and gives you experiences in the chemistry, biology, microbiology, physics, and patients that are needed in this hobby and will be needed even more in this new foray of saltwater aquaria.
Step 0 is a key in your success in saltwater. Although some skip this step, it is NOT recommended. A saltwater aquarium takes a lot from your pocketbook. Better to make mistakes where you are losing $3 and not $30 for a dead fish, coral, or invertebrate. Also maintaining a freshwater system is greatly rewarding in itself, and due to its somewhat more "simplistic" nature it can be a stepping stone to saltwater. A link will be provided to the freshwater beginner forum to get you started here _________.
Step 1: Get a good book: A good book is great to have to refer to when you have a question. Bob Fennerís: The Contentious Marine Aquarist is a great one to start with.
Step 2: Inventory: This hobby is a lot of money and time. Expect to spend around 1 to 2 hours per week on maintenance with the occasional 4+ hours of work on fixing things that go wrong. You need to be sure that you can provide for your fish corals and invertebrates the proper way. This is a great checklist to see how much money you really may need.
Rough Estimate: Take your expected gallons of water that you would like X $30 for a reef system (fish, live rock, invertebratess, corals) X $20 for a FOWLR system (Fish, liverock) and X $15 for a FO system.
What youíll need:
Aquarium, Filtration: Protein Skimmer/Refuigum/Water Changes/Live Rock/Deep Sand Bed/Sump/Hang on back/Canister, Lighting: Metal Halide/Very High Output/High Output/Normal Output Fluorescents. Sub straight: Sand/Crushed Coral/Shells, Stand, Canopy, Top, Salt Mix, Refractometer/Hydrometer, Test Kit, Supplements, Water: DI/RO/Tap, Power heads, and Living Stuff: Fish/Invertebrates/Corals.
Step 3: Filling the Aquarium: First you need to choose a sub-straight.
Pros: Large surface area, many microbes that are beneficial to a tank, helps maintain water quality.
Pros: Large surface area, good nitrogen fixation area, easy on invertebrates
Cons: More expensive, sometimes hard to settle in water.
Pros: Wonít cloud the water as much, is cheaper.
Cons: Low surface area, it is a nitrate trap, not all fish can live with it, unnatural looking.
Step 4: Mixing the water: Seems simple right? Unfortunately beginners get this wrong by adding the salt after adding the water. Premixed water is the only water that should be added in this step. Also the type of water should be considered.
Tap Water Pros: Can be used with FO and FOWLR, Cheap, in a few areas is as good as RO/DI.
Cons: Often has bad substancesí for a reef aquarium, a lot of the time algae is a problem. Needs declorinater added.
Pros: Can be used on all saltwater systems, and provides clean almost pure water by far the best water used out there. Inhibits algae blooms and is the best water for corals.
Cons: Can get expensive.
Mixing water and salt can be done in a 5 gallon bucket or similar container DO NOT POUR IN WATER AND SALT DIRECTLY INTO THE TANK! Mix in some salt, measure the specific gravity or the salinity with a refractometer or hydrometer, the reading should be between 1.022 and 1.025 on a hydrometer and 34 to 37 ppt on a refractometer. Add more salt if the specific gravity is too low, and add more water if the specific gravity is too high. Let the mixture sit for 24 hours, check the specific gravity or salinity again. Adjust if necessary. Add the water slowly to get the least amount of particles in the water that comes from the sand or crushed coral. Once the tank is filled let it settle and check the salinity/specific gravity one last time. Add any power heads, lights, aerators, and/or base rock to the tank now.
This is a good place to go water quality. Two things I will not go over extensively but are important are pH and alkalinity. pH in a marine aquarium should be around 8.0-8.4. This range will allow you to keep corals, invertebrates, and fish. Alkalinity prevents pH swings and is naturally in the sub-straight, salt, and liverock. 2.4-3.5 meq/l is recommended.
Step 5a: Cycling:
Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate are large factors in the overall health and survivability of your fish invertebrates and corals. Ammonia and Nitrite are highly toxic in both marine and freshwater aquariums; nitrate is more of a factor with reef and invertebrate systems. This step is where a test kit gets very useful. Once your tank is filled and settled, you have several options on how to cycle your new tank through the nitrogen cycle. The best method by far is fishless, the second is cycling through liverock, and the third is going through a cycle with fish (the last is not recommended).
Doing a fishless cycle: With a fishless cycle you can use several things for an ammonia source, a piece of raw shrimp, fish, pure ammonia, or similar item. You can get any of these items at your local grocery store. Check your water parameters, readings should be 0 ammonia, 0 nitrites, and 0 nitrates (if these readings are not what you find, please ask why this might be on the forum). Add the ammonia source directly to the tank water, this should start your cycle (if it is pure ammonia, add until readings are at .2-.5 ammonia and you probably will need to add more ammonia ever day).
It takes around 3 days to a week for ammonia levels increase in the tank (unless you add pure ammonia). After that it recedes and nitrite spikes. These two compounds are deadly to fish and inverts which is why fishless cycling is possibly the best way to cycle a tank.
Liverock has one advantage, it has some of that beneficial bacterium on it to turn ammonia to nitrites to nitrates, AND it has some stuff that will die off creating your ammonia source. The disadvantage to this is you still get the ammonia spike/nitrite spike and things that hitch hike on your liverock can die.
Cycling with fish is by far the worst choice unless you add a bacterial ďsupplyĒ from a product called bio-spira, or stability. Those are the only products that have success with jumpstarting the nitrogen cycle and moderating the spikes of ammonia and nitrite. If you were to do a cycle with fish, it is key to get one of these two products.
STEP 5b*: Equipment
Equipment is one of the most important things in a marine aquarium. New advances in technology have helped hobbyists keep some of the most challenging species of corals, invertebrates, and fish.
Filtration is by far one of the most diverse groups of equipment. I will quickly go over some of the methods of filtration. However, several modes of filtration is always better than one and a lot of these modes of filtration incorporate one another.
Foam fractioners or protein skimmers imitate the surf in the ocean. They usually create bubbles which will attract dirt (detritus) in the water column and then the bubbles overflow into a collection cup. This allows detritus to decompose outside of the tank and not in the water creating fewer nitrates in the tank.
Refugiums are usually a supplementary filtration system. It incorporates nutrient export via macro algae. Basically you are creating a safe haven for macro algae and detritus eating organisms such as ďpods.Ē Usually refugiums have somewhat intense lighting and quite a bit of liverock in them, as well as a possible deep sand bed for more filtration. You can buy pre-made refugiums online or make your own.
Sumps are used a lot in freshwater as well as saltwater. Although some sumps have media in them that produce nitrates, they still are a great way to get nitrification done. Baserock and deep sand beds can be used in a sump as well. Most can be bought online or once again you can make your own.
Liverock and deep sand beds are also a mode of filtration that can be directly in the tank. Although current trends suggests against a deep sand bed, liverock is one of the best methods of filtration out there. They both have lots of detritus eating, and nitrifying bacteria in and on them.
Hang on the back filters, canister filters, and the like are detritus traps and are not usually recommended for marine aquariums. Hang on the back filters can be useful however when running carbon in a tank as well as clearing water up a bit.
Water changes are also a good way to keep your system in check. Although almost always used on smaller systems (smaller systems usually not recommended for beginners), water changes keep essential minerals and clean water circulating in the tank. They do benefit every system as supplementary filtration. RO/DI water always is recommended.
Lighting is another important broad issue Iím going to brush over. One important component is light spectrum. With different light spectrums, you get a different hue of color coming out of your fish invertebrates and corals. The spectrums are usually described as 1000ís of K. The higher the K the light is more yellow, 10,000K is usually pretty white, and the lower the K the light is bluer. Antinic lighting is also said to bring out coral colors (very blue light).
Wattage is also important when considering lighting. Normal reef tanks need 4-7 watts per gallon. Lower light corals need at least 3 watts per gallon, and liverock (because it may have corals growing on it) may actually need just as much light as reef tanks. Fish only tanks only need lighting that would come with the tank, or normal output florescent lighting.
There are a few types of lighting that I would like you to be aware of. The first would be normal output fluorescents. These are the lights that usually come in those ďcompleteĒ setup deals at your chain stores and local pet stores. These are by far the least powerful and the least bright of all types of lighting. Most corals cannot survive under N.O. lighting, but some non-photosynthetic corals can.
Power compact lighting is one of the better lighting for smaller/shallower tanks. It is good enough lighting for most corals, but some need higher intensity lighting than power compact along with anemones, and clams would not survive long term under power compact lighting,
VHO and HO lighting is an even higher lighting source most of the time. Usually these lights can keep pretty much anything under them except for some anemones and clams.
Metal Halide lighting is one of the highest intensity lighting you can buy. Athough there isnít ďoneĒ best lighting source for corals, metal halide goes above and beyond most other lighting measures. Anemones, clams, and all corals can flourish under these lights. Wattage is usually highly dependent on depth of the tank and metal halides are usually used in deeper tanks as well as full blown reef tanks. 400 watts of MH will penetrate 4í deep.
T-5 lighting has grown more and more popular lately. Some claim it to be a fad, others claim it to be the same or better than metal halide lighting. Itís a large debate that I will not go into, but it is an option as most creatures do well under T-5 lighting.
Flow is also a big issue with any marine tank. Some corals need very high flow, others like low flow. However, even in a tank that has low flow corals in it, you still want to have some flow in a tank. Powerheads are a good way to create flow, as well as water pumps. In some reef tanks, a turnover rate of as much as 20+ times an hour is not uncommon. Flow does two things, first it kicks up detritus and gets it into your several filtration devices, and secondly it controls algae growth by not letting algae colonize on glass surfaces. These two things make flow an important part of a reef aquarium.
STEP 5c*: Quarantine
Now that youíve gone through all the trouble and money for a good setup, good filtration, lighting, and flow. You can start thinking about a stocking list (if you already havenít). Research each fish; make sure they are compatible and fairly easy to get eating in captivity. Also research how large the fish will get and minimum tank size (All these questions you can ask here on the forums). You want about 1 adult inch of fish per 3-10 gallons (depending on species).
Once your stocking list is complete or you have somewhat of an idea of what you want. Go out and get one or two fish. But before you put them into the main tank, you will need to quarantine for 4-6 weeks! Some aquarists also treat sick fish for disease in quarantine. Some prefer prevention as the best treatment, which means treating the fish for things like ich before they become an issue in the main tank. Hypo salinity works well for pre-treating a fish for ich. Slowly lower the specific gravity in the quarantine tank over a period of a few days to 1.011-1.009, over a period of four weeks this should be maintained, until then fish canít be deemed parasite free. Bring the specific gravity slowly back up after this four week period and then observe the fish for a week or two, then they can go into the main tank. Invertebrates and liverock should be quarantined for six weeks as well if you want an ich free environment in the tank, but hypo salinity is not needed and may kill your invertebrates and liverock (ich does not host on liverock or invertebrates and after six weeks, will starve to death).
To prevent cycling in quarantine water should be changed 50% every couple days to ensure that things do not go wrong or a cycle should be carried out in much the same way as the main to ensure no unnecessary fish death occurs.
A short list of things for a quarantine tank
Filter (hang on the back filter will do)
PVC pipe (for fish as a hiding spot)
*these steps should be done at the same time
Step 6: Introduction of fish invertebrates and corals
Finally you are done with the setup process. Now its time to add something to that tank! But remember patients is everything. Donít rush or you will quickly find out the hard way about how much money you can lose in this hobby (a frequent reason why people start then quit). Most hobbyists recommend drip acclimation for every fish, invertebrate, and coral. This prevents a creature going into pH or salinity shock and dying. You can easily drip acclimate by taking a piece of tubing for an aerator and dying a loose knot in it, and then create a siphon from the tank to the bag by sucking on the end that is going into the bag.
After the fish are in the main tank, monitor them for disease daily as well as monitor the pH, and nitrates weekly.
These six steps should put you down for a successful start in your marine aquarium hobby. Again this is only a START and not all the information is here. Feel free to ask any questions on our forums, as Iím sure that we will be able to answer them.
In the mean time, good luck and happy fish keeping!
210 Gal Reef w/ 55 Gallon Sump/Fuge, 125 Gal Fish Only, 65 Gal Seahorse-29 Gallon Sump, 55 Gal FOWLR, 54 Gal Corner FW Community, 20 Gal Nano FOWLR, 55 Gal Piranha, 29 gallon QT
"All the yellow tangs and clownfish in the world can't save you now! hahahah" Peter from Family Guy
Last edited by Fishfirst; 09-15-2005 at 08:08 AM.