Salt Water Aquarium Setup


This is a general guideline of how to setup a basic saltwater tank. You can skip those steps that do not pertain to your system (no live rock or live sand, etc.,..).

This is very subjective and you will have differing opinions and suggestions from other hobbyists. That’s innovation! Use other recommendations at your discretion.

First we have a few warnings and notices:

NOTE: You should consider installing a TITANIUM “grounding rod” in your sump tank to avoid electrocution (you, or your tank animals) in the case of an electrical equipment failure. Use a Titanium bicycle spoke and attach it to a known ground source (if you’re not an electrician, ask electricians to check your work). Use only Titanium (which is non-toxic to your aquarium animals, unlike other metals).

NOTE: You should have your equipment plugged into a (tested) working, modern GFC electrical outlet rated to handle the equipment load of your system, to avoid electrocution in case of electrical equipment failure.

NOTE: You should now mix your water and salt-mix mixture together thoroughly as per package instructions, and set aside to allow the mixture to completely mix and dissolve into the water for use in step 8 below. Keep the mixed water stored until the tank is ready for the water. Stored water should be kept at aquarium temperature or if not, then at room temperature as close to tank temperature as possible. Use a spare heater if need be. The saltwater quality should be tested and adjusted as needed so that it is ready for the tank.

NOTE: You should have at least a 20% to 40% water change ready and available at all times in case of a leak or other emergency (such as a contaminant introduced into the system somehow – usually occurs during party’s ;-). You can use a Powerhead placed into the storage container to pump the saltwater out of the temporary container and into your aquarium sump tank.
1) Locate aquarium away from direct sunlight for easier maintenance of algae and consistent temperature control. Direct sunlight will make unfavorable algae grow easier, and heat up the tank at various times throughout the day.
2) Make certain the stand the aquarium will be sitting on is level (front-to-back and side-to-side), and stable, prior to placing aquarium onto stand. Leave enough room around the stand for any equipment needs, such as plumbing or hang-on filters or skimmers, chords, power-strips, etc.
3) If you’re using a Sump tank for filtration, and skimming, now is the time to place the sump into the Stand. Then place the Protein skimmer, heater, etc., and any other sump items into the sump (before placing the aquarium onto the stand). If you’re using a hang-on filter, and skimmer, place your aquarium onto the stand first, then add the hang-on equipment.
4) At this point you can add any Powerheads or other items you may have, into the main (viewable) aquarium tank for circulation.

5) Using flexible PVC Pipe (this is the easiest pipe to work with, it resembles a stiff PVC hose more than an inflexible PVC pipe, and does not require precise alignment for professional results) attach the Sump tank inlet to your Aquarium overflow drain, at this point the water will circulate down from aquarium you’re your sump, then through your sump media, skimmers, etc., and from there into your pump (your setup will vary depending upon your choice of equipment, ex. Submersible pump or not, extra Powerheads for skimmers, etc.,).
NOTE: Make sure that the “return” water outlet nozzle does not touch the surface of the water in the viewable aquarium above, if the sump tank in your stand is full.

If you have room for a few more gallons in your sump, you can submerge the tip of the return nozzle up to ½ inch in the viewable aquarium above (for less running water noise). Submerging the “return” water outlet nozzle too far into the viewable aquarium may permit too much water to siphon back into your sump in the case of a reverse water flow due to a power-outage to your pump, or pump failure (yes, even with a check-valve in the return water pipe).

6) Now you’re ready to fill your tank with water (plain water, no salt mix, no chemicals, or solvents) just to rinse off all the equipment, and test for leaks and proper functioning of the circulation equipment. If all is well after a few hours, go ahead and drain and discard the water in the aquarium.
7) Place the substrate into your tank. If you’re using “Live Sand” distribute it throughout the other substrate to minimize costs. Live Sand organisms will spread to the other substrate. If you don’t have enough room to pour or pump water into your sump you can rinse off a dinner plate with clear water to remove any remaining detergent and place onto substrate (this will be a temporary “target” for the water adding phase of the setup to dissipate the force of the poured water).
8) You should have already mixed your water and salt-mix mixture together thoroughly as per package instructions, and set aside to allow the mixture to completely mix/dissolve into the water. You will be using that water now to partially fill up your new aquarium. Start pouring the saltwater onto the “dinner plate” in the bottom of the aquarium, or if you have enough room or a spare Powerhead, you can pump the saltwater into the sump or tank by attaching a hose onto the output of the Powerhead placing the Powerhead into the saltwater container and the hose into the aquarium sump. Fill the aquarium about half full (this will vary depending upon how much Live Rock or decorations you have).

9) Now is the time to add your Live Rock. Leave room around the sides of the aquarium to facilitate cleaning the tank of unwanted algae, and make little nooks, and caves and passages by piling the rocks together. Make sure that the rocks are stable. Gobies have a habit of digging out sand at the base of rocks and they will undermine the substrate so make sure you have built a solid base. You can use non-metal, non-toxic, fasteners, or aquarium glue to fasten the rocks together.

When you’re done adding rocks and decorations, fill the rest of the tank with the pre-mixed saltwater set aside, and start the tank circulating again.
10) Curing your tank. Your tank will first be cloudy, then murky (usually, but not always) depending upon the die-off in the Live Rock. This won’t last too long (typically less than a week), and then the water will become clear. Change/check the particulate filter media frequently during this week. When the water clears you should be ready to check the water quality, make any adjustments to the water quality, wait for the quality to stabilize and then add fish.
11) Add Fish: Your tank should now be ready for the first “starter fish”. There is controversy over when and what type of fish to add at this point. Some hobbyists feel that the Live Rock die-off already conditioned the water and any fish is fine.

I am of the opinion that you should be cautious and use the starter fish anyway.

You can start with either a damsel fish, or a clown fish; either is hardy. If you plan on getting both varieties anyway just put in one fish at a time, keep testing your water, observe the fish (is it eating?, graceful movements?). If all seems good, proceed with the next fish, one at a time, unless otherwise recommended, depending upon species. Corals should be the last thing you add in the tank after assuring stable water quality.

For Fish & Pet Lovers!