How to Start a Saltwater Aquarium: Tips, Tricks, and Upkeep

Saltwater aquariums have been around for a while, but they are becoming more popular. This is because a saltwater aquarium offers some advantages over freshwater aquariums. In this post, we will discuss the differences between salt and freshwater tanks, how to start a saltwater tank, and the different equipment you need to get started. We will also go in-depth on how to set up your new tank and what you should do after that!

Saltwater aquarium
Image Source: Tappinen

Types of Saltwater Aquarium

There are three main types of saltwater aquariums.

Fish Only (FO) Aquarium: You have your Fish Only Tank which is just that, a tank with fish in it without any other living creatures such as corals or shrimp.

Reef Tank: Then you have the Mixed Reef Tank where there are many different things to keep alive and thriving inside the tank.

FOWLR tank: And the third FOWLR (Fish only with live rock) is a blend between Fish only and Reef tank with the addition of You will need more than one type of food to feed your FOWLR tank inhabitants because some may eat algae, while others eat brine shrimp or Mysis shrimp.

Saltwater Aquarium vs Freshwater Aquarium

There are many differences between salt and freshwater aquariums, but the main difference is one contains salt while the other doesn’t. Saltwater fish tend to be tougher than their freshwater counterparts because they can survive in more diverse conditions; however, there are some freshwater fish that can survive in saltwater as well. Freshwater tanks tend to have a wider variety of species, but they are also more likely to become diseased because the water is too pristine, and not enough bacteria exists for them to thrive off of naturally.

When trying to decide on a salt or freshwater system for your new pet fish, you will want to consider salt and fresh water’s ability to dissolve the salt. Saltwater fish need salt in order for their bodies to absorb the oxygen that they breathe, but it’s also important not too much salt as this can kill your pet fish. Because of this unique chemical reaction, saltwater tanks must always have a good filtration system because the tank needs clean, filtered water so its occupants stay healthy, just like any other kind of aquarium.

On the flipside, freshwater aquariums do not require added salt – which is beneficial if there are little ones around who may mistake a bowl of salty water for something tasty to drink. saltwater aquariums are easier to care for as saltwater systems are very stable and can handle fluctuations in lighting or temperature much better than freshwater setups so they will not require as much upkeep.

How to Start a Saltwater Aquarium?

Now it’s time to start your saltwater tank! You can buy a pre-setup aquarium, but it is really more fun and rewarding if you start from scratch.


The first thing you need to determine is how much space you have available for your tank and stand. This will be important when determining how large of an aquarium you can get because larger tanks require bigger stands. Also, note that the location where the tank will go may not allow it due to weight.

Saltwater tanks need to be kept in a location that is away from direct sunlight, heaters, or air conditioner vents. The room temperature should not fluctuate more than five degrees Fahrenheit throughout the day as these fluctuations stress saltwater fish.

Aquarium Type

Note how many gallons the tank is. Saltwater tanks are usually measured in gallons, so be sure to get an aquarium that holds enough water for your needs. This will help you determine how much salt mix and other equipment you need to buy before starting up your new tank. If it’s a species-only or low-tech tank, you can probably get away with up to about 75 gallons. If it’s a high-tech reef tank that needs lots of lighting and circulation equipment then you’ll need at least 125 gallons.

For beginners, 30-50 gallons of the saltwater tank is a good size. Keep saltwater aquariums small; they are more stable that way. If you want to start off with a large aquarium, make sure it is at least 100 gallons. This is because saltwater tanks need more water volume than freshwater ones do. Saltwater fish grow much faster fish and corals can grow quite large, so they need a lot of space to live! If you have an average-sized saltwater tank (around 100 gallons), then you should only put about 15 fish in the aquarium. Saltwater aquariums require at least 5 gallons of water for every one inch of adult fish.

Aquarium Screens

Saltwater tanks are usually covered by screens instead of standard glass because they prevent any tiny creatures or debris from getting inside your fish tank. These screens also help keep fish in the tank instead of flying out.

There are two main types of aquarium screens available – plastic screen material or metal frames with fiberglass screen panels. The plastic screen mesh is a good choice for beginners because it’s easier to work with. It comes in various depths and lengths so you can use several pieces together to build your tank stand or enclosure from scratch if desired.

Metal screens are more difficult to assemble but they have the advantage of being stronger than plastic screen material, which makes them better choices when making large tanks or very tall enclosures.

saltwater tank screens
Image Source: bulkreefsupply

How to determin Saltwater Aquarium size?

Besides how many gallons the tank holds, you should also take into consideration how much floor space is available in your home for an aquarium. This will help determine how large of a fish tank you can get without it becoming too crowded with equipment and decorations to function properly as part of your home décor.


Saltwater tanks require different equipment than freshwater ones do because some materials will corrode or become damaged in saltwater. Saltwater aquariums require specialized equipment for maintaining proper water quality. Some saltwater tanks even include a sump, which is an external container that holds all of your equipment (filter, heater, etc.) as well as a pump that moves water from the tank into the sump and then back to the aquarium.

In addition to all of these pieces of equipment, you will also need salt for your aquarium! It is important to purchase high-quality salt since some salt mix contains impurities like nitrates which can kill fish.

FOWLR tank
Image Source: reefbuilders

Here is a list of the equipment you need:


You will need two types of filters in your aquarium; one for biological filtration and another for chemical filtration. It is important to make sure you have both of these types because everyone should know that saltwater tanks need more filtration than freshwater ones.

However, there are many different types of filters that you can purchase for your new saltwater aquarium. The best type of filter also depends on the size and shape of your aquarium as well as how large your fish are or if you have corals in the tank.

There are four basic types of filtration systems for your fish tank

  1. hang-on
  2. canister
  3. sump
  4. trickle filter.
Image Source: Amazon
Which filter is best for a saltwater aquarium?

Hang-on power filters or small cartridge power filters are the easiest to use because it can easily sit on top of the aquarium and fits nicely inside most tanks but they’re not nearly as effective for maintaining water quality as canister or sump filters. Internal filters, which are placed directly into the tank provide very good filtration but can be difficult to maintain. Meanwhile, Sponge filters are great because they sit on top of the tank and break down harmful toxins into harmless by-products.

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If you don’t want to go with an external power filter then a good hang-on cartridge type of system is okay because it will do the job and they’re relatively inexpensive. But if you have more than about 30 gallons of water in your tank then you need to consider an external canister filter as your primary filtration device.

A canister filter will pull water through its sponges or other media and push it back into the tank with more oxygenated water that has been properly filtered. If there’s room in your budget then two or more canister filters will improve how effective they are and the increased volume of water passing through them each hour.

Protein Skimmers:

Protein skimmers for saltwater aquariums are a must-have filtration option. They keep the water clean and remove organic waste, so you can see all of your fish and corals in great shape.

To choose which type is right for you, it’s important to think about how much space your aquarium has inside. Will you be using refugium? How big are your fish? Will you keep corals, how many and how big are they?

Here is a list of the different types available:

  • Hang on the back (HOB)
  • Canister filter with sump
  • Inline protein skimmer: This can be an external or internal model. It takes up extra space, but you can attach it to your sump or inside of the aquarium.
  • Skimmer with a separated chamber
  • Air injection protein skimmers: these work by injecting bubbles into the water so they can remove organic waste from your aquarium. This type of system is great for reef tanks and large fish only tanks as it doesn’t rely on a powerhead to push water through the unit
  • Reef Ready protein skimmers: these are specifically designed for saltwater tanks and reef setups. They have higher performance than standard models and they will also last longer since they were made especially for this type of tank.


The second most important part of any complete filtration system is an external pump. You need one that’s rated for how many gallons you have in your tank. The pump should have a flow rating of at least how many gallons per hour? Saltwater aquariums do not need a lot of pumps because saltwater does not circulate as quickly and easily. There are two types of pumps: one for moving large amounts of water and another that takes smaller quantities. Make sure you get the second type (online or local fish store) so your tank will stay stable!

pumps for saltwater aquarium
Image Source: reefbuilders

It’s important to remember that the higher you set your pumps’ flow rate, the more powerful they’re going to be So if you purchase an external power filter with adjustable output then don’t put it on the highest setting or you could end up with too much current that can be dangerous for your saltwater fish.


Saltwater aquariums require aquatic plants for your saltwater tank because they help control nitrate levels in the water which are harmful to marine life! You can pick from many kinds of live or fake salt-resistant plants to add a touch of color and life to your saltwater fish tank. As live plants can be very difficult to keep alive and thriving in a saltwater tank because they need the perfect balance of nutrients and light like their freshwater counterparts. Saltwater fish also tear live plants apart so start out by getting enough yet compatible with inhabitants.

Gravel and Substrate

Aquarium gravel is usually made from good-sized rocks so it will last a long time. It is important to have an even substrate because saltwater fish tend to dig and can uproot live plants you place in the tank. The substrate or gravel in your tank is what gives it that natural appearance so it needs to be properly planned for how many fish you’re going to keep and how big they are. Fish-only tanks usually look best with an inch of medium size gravel on the bottom.

If your tank is going to have live plants then you’ll need more than an inch so each plant has enough space for its root system. Saltwater aquarium gravel is different from freshwater because it does not contain any harmful chemicals that are bad for the fish! It also works as good bacteria which helps regular waste break down into less toxic forms through filtration! Make sure you do not use substrate in saltwater tanks because saltwater will only harm the bacteria.

Saltwater aquariums require sand or gravel that does not contain harmful chemicals! Some types of calcium, potassium, and magnesium may be dissolved into the tank if you choose to include this type of substrate during setup. Gravel is best for saltwater tanks because it is easier to clean and remove waste.

gravel and substrate for saltwater aquarium
Image Source: thesprucepets


Now it’s time for the rocks. You can’t have too many! They’re one of the most important parts of how to start a saltwater aquarium because they look great and provide cover for your fish which makes them feel more secure.


Saltwater fish and corals need certain types of lighting depending on what species they are. If your saltwater fish is a light-sensitive species then it will require more languishing than other species because some sodium lights emit UV rays that can damage the eyes of certain fish.

Saltwater fish require light that can mimic their natural environment in order to live properly and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Some types of saltwater lights come with timers so you do not have to worry about switching them off and on every day.

Sea Salt Mix and Hydrometer for saltwater aquarium

To know how much saltwater mix do you need? You will have to pay attention to how dense your water is. The salinity of the ocean ranges from 33% – 37%, but some fish can adapt to a lower range, so it’s important to know how much salt/salinity goes into your aquarium and how many gallons are in it.

Aquarium hydrometer

These are used to measure how much salt is in the water, so you can determine how often you should be adding more or how many gallons of the new saltwater mix are needed for your aquarium. It’s important to keep checking this because if too much evaporates, then there will not be enough salt in the water and your tank will become unstable.

Reef Salt Mix

This is for reef tanks and it works to maintain the most stable environment possible, so you don’t have to worry about how much salt needs to be added over time or how often water changes need to happen because of evaporated water! It has all of the things that are needed in order to keep a healthy tank, such as calcium, magnesium, and other elements that corals need to thrive.

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Reef crystals or aquarium salt mix

This is for aquariums with fish only and it has all of the things needed to make your tank healthy. It contains trace elements found in natural seawater (like strontium) and will not evaporate like regular salt. It’s great for smaller tanks and helps to keep water parameters balanced.


Saltwater aquariums need heaters because saltwater is colder than freshwater. You will have to make sure you put enough heaters in your tank, otherwise, it will get too cold and harm your fish! If needed, use a thermostat so the heater only turns on when necessary (to save electricity).

Water Chemistry

Saltwater tanks need more maintenance than freshwater ones do; therefore, you will need to test your water regularly. Saltwater tanks require at least three times as much flow per gallon in order to provide plenty of oxygenation. Make sure you have a powerhead that pushes more oxygen into the water and helps your saltwater fish breathe.

Make sure that the pH, salinity (specific gravity), and temperature are all within an appropriate range for your saltwater fish. It is very difficult to visually determine the accuracy of water chemistry needed for your saltwater aquarium so to maintain healthy water chemistry levels you need multiple testing kits to test the water. Download our free guide for test kits for different fish tanks.

free guide test kits for testing saltwater aquarium water

Fish Selection

Make sure you research what types of saltwater fish can live together; some species cannot because they eat or kill other types of fish that share their living space. The top 7 best saltwater fish that make great aquarium pets for beginners would be

  1. Clownfish
  2. Damselfish
  3. Dottyback
  4. Firefish
  5. Tangs
  6. Coral Beauties
  7. Mollies


Clownfish are beautiful with their bright colors and stripes. They do well in an aquarium of at least 20 gallons, but 30-gallon tanks will give them even more room to swim around comfortably. Another good thing about clownfish is the fact that they’re hardy so you won’t have to worry too much if you’ve never had saltwater fish before.

top 7 best saltwater fish
Image Source: Nick Hobgood


Damselfish are more of the cute, small type of saltwater fishes which makes them perfect for beginners. They’re easy to care for and their colors really stand out in an aquarium so if you want something eye-catching then this is probably your best option. Most species won’t even grow larger than two inches so they’re easier to keep compared to other saltwater fish.


Dottyback is a beautiful and exotic saltwater fish that thrives well in 30-gallon tanks. Dottyback would be best for intermediate or experienced hobbyists because of their aggressive nature towards smaller tank mates, so it’s best to keep them in a fish-only tank.


Firefish are hardy and easy to care for so they’re perfect if you’ve never had saltwater fish before or have limited experience with caring for fish. They won’t grow larger than four inches, which makes them great choices as pets since they won’t take up much space in an aquarium.


Tangs are one of the most popular saltwater fish that you can find at your local pet store because they’re such beautiful and unique species to keep in a home aquarium. Most Tangs will reach about three inches when fully grown, but there are some types out there that can grow as big as four inches.

Coral Beauties

If you want something exotic and colorful, then corals are definitely a must-have for your saltwater aquarium. There’s literally hundreds of species out there that come in all sorts of shapes and colors so the only problem with having them is deciding which ones to pick.


Mollies are beautiful and come in a variety of colors which makes them great for beginners who want to keep saltwater fish but don’t know where to start with caring for these species. They’re also one of the hardier types of saltwater fishes so you won’t have to worry too much about caring for them.

Ideal Feed Schedule for Saltwater Aquarium

Saltwater fish require lots of protein in order to stay healthy and happy! Make sure you buy food that is high in protein, salt-rich marine life can eat dry flake foods but they will need some frozen or live feed as well. You can also give them shrimp pellets if you want to feed them without having to buy live shrimp.

You should only feed your saltwater fish a few times a day because their stomachs are smaller than freshwater ones. Do not overfeed them because the extra food can harm or kill them, and make sure to give them vegetables too (like lettuce).

It is important to develop a doable sense of how much and how often your saltwater inhabitants need to be fed. It is better to create a chart accordingly. You can start off with as much food that can be consumed within five minutes while considering bottom dwellers, you must provide them with tablets, sinking feed, and pellets.

In the beginning, you must observe the leftover feed to know if you are overfeeding the fish or not while feeding your fish in small portions. Once you have the amount and frequency of feeding, you only have to repeat the process if you add any more fish.

Water Changes

Make sure you change out about ten percent of your saltwater tank’s water weekly so it stays clean and healthy for your fish. You will need a gravel cleaner to remove the leftover waste from the substrate, as well as chemicals like de-chlorinator.

Water Parameters

Saltwater tanks will not work if they do not have certain chemical parameters that keep them stable. Make sure you test your water regularly so you know how much of each chemical is in the tank. If there are harmful chemicals, then change them out with a de-chlorinator or similar chemicals!


Breeding saltwater fish is not as common as freshwater tanks, but it can be done and many people enjoy breeding saltwater fish but it will require a separate tank. The breeding tank should be large (at least 30 gallons) with lots of live rock for the fry to hide in until they are big enough to go into the display aquarium.

The Importance of Locking the Top of the Saltwater Aquarium

Make sure you lock your saltwater tank’s top securely so children and pets cannot get into it because they can easily fall in! All sorts of bad things can happen if your fish escape, especially saltwater ones who are used to their environment.

How to Set up a Saltwater aquarium?

Step One: Plan your aquarium

The first step is to plan your aquarium. There are a few things that need to be considered when planning how you will set up your saltwater tank. You can have several different choices for an aquarium such as:

A fish only (FO) or fish only with live rock (FOWLR) system – An invertebrate, reef aquarium with a sump

A fish only system without a sump

A saltwater tank can be set up in an apartment, spare room, or even on the kitchen counter. The size of your tank will depend on how much space you have and what kind of livestock you wish to add. For example, if you are setting up a reef tank you will need a larger aquarium to support the live rock.

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Step Two: Prepare your Aquarium

Prepare your aquarium by washing it out before putting in any saltwater or sand. You want to make sure that there are no residues left over from manufacturing, paint, protective coating, etc… Rinse everything multiple times with clean tap water. If you are using tap water to fill your tank make sure it is dechlorinated (de-chlorinating solution will remove chlorine, chloramines, and heavy metals.) Fill the aquarium up with saltwater at a temperature close to what the salt water was mixed at in order for the heater or chiller not to have drastic fluctuations when heating or cooling.

Step Three: Install the sump equipment

The next step is to install your tank’s filtration system, which should include a protein skimmer and a refugium section. The main role of these systems is to remove organic material from aquarium water (waste materials such as fish feces and uneaten food) before it breaks down, which can lead to high nitrate levels.

Step Four: Add rest of aquarium equipment

Add any other necessary aquarium equipment such as heaters, protein skimmer pumps, and water return pump(s). Have all the tools you will need ready before doing anything else including a saltwater mixture calculator (for mixing saltwater), buckets for saltwater mixing, ph test kit, etc…

Step Five: Run a wet test

Now that the aquarium is set up you are ready to run a “wet” or saltwater tank test. You want to make sure you have all your equipment in working order before introducing any livestock into the system. This will help prevent ammonia spikes and the need to do frequent water changes. This is not a step you want to skip because it could cause serious problems in your saltwater aquarium!

Step Six: Add substrate and sea salts

Use sand for the bottom of your tank (preferably live sand). You can purchase different types of substrates like crushed coral, aragonite, and other additives. The sand and sea salt mixture ratio is usually around one pound of salt per gallon of water (or two-and-a-half kilograms).

Step Seven: Add Aquascaping and Rocks

After adding substrate you can then add live rock or man-made rocks to your tank. Make sure the rocks are cured before putting them in your saltwater tank. Aquascape the rocks or coral in a way that will make it aesthetically pleasing to you when looking at it from all angles.

Step Eight: install lighting

Make sure there is enough light for any coral you add and also provide adequate space between corals so they don’t touch each other when growing out.

Step Nine: add saltwater fish and livestock

Before adding any livestock you need to cycle your tank. Cycling involves letting the nitrogen cycle (nitrogen cycle) happen in your aquarium, which can take anywhere from two weeks up to six months or longer depending on how big of a system it is, what type of equipment you have and how many animals you plan on keeping.

The final step in setting up your saltwater aquarium is cycling the tank (how to cycle a saltwater aquarium), but before we get into that I want to cover another important topic which is salinity.

Step Ten: Measure Salinity

Saltwater aquarium’s salinity is measured in PPT (parts per thousand) or Specific Gravity which can be found on a hydrometer. The specific gravity should be around SG-25 to SG-30 for most saltwater fish, but if you are keeping corals then it needs to stay between SG-35 to SG-40.

Step 11: Cycle the tank

The nitrogen cycle basically is a process where beneficial bacteria grow and colonize your filter media (filter sponge, bio-balls, etc…) this will help to break down ammonia and nitrite so it becomes less toxic for your saltwater fish and corals. Ammonia and nitrite are very toxic to saltwater fish so you need a good strong colony of beneficial bacteria in your filter media before adding fish.

How To Cycle A Saltwater Aquarium?

Cycling a saltwater aquarium is when you let beneficial bacteria grow in your filter media (filter sponge, bio balls, etc.) so it can break down harmful toxins like ammonia and nitrite which are very toxic for marine animals. It takes at least six weeks or more to cycle a saltwater aquarium depending on how big of a system it is and what kind of equipment you have.

Step 12: introduce coral and more fish

After cycling the tank, add any corals, invertebrates, or other saltwater livestock that was not added during the wet test. Add small amounts of saltwater at a time until you fully stock the tank with fish and corals. This will help to keep your nitrate levels down due to regular water changes.

Maintain Your Saltwater Aquarium

Regular maintenance on your saltwater aquarium should include checking all equipment daily, cleaning glass weekly, testing salinity monthly (salinity should be checked more often if you have a reef tank), water changes as needed, and adding saltwater mix when it evaporates. The maintenance schedule also depends on the nature of tasks you are supposed to do as some tasks should be done daily without fail while others can be done with some time intervals.

Do note that a thorough examination must be done every quarter to maintain the quality and life of aquarium systems. You can download our free Saltwater maintenance schedule guide to learn more.

Free Guide on maintenance schedule for your saltwater aquarium

Tips for Lowering Nitrates

Using live rock in your aquarium is the best way to cut down on nitrate levels, but there are other ways too. You can also use deep sand beds which are the bottom layers of sand in your saltwater aquarium which are usually about three inches deep. The deeper the better!

Raising Ph Level

If you have a low ph level, here is how to raise it. You can purchase additives or use baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and crushed coral for this purpose. Add

no more than a quarter of a cup at a time, let it dissolve, and check your ph level often.

How Much Does It Cost to Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium?

Typically saltwater aquariums cost anywhere from $300 up into the thousands depending on how big or fancy you want yours to be! You can purchase a basic saltwater aquarium setup for around $300 and then add corals, more fish, etc. as you go along!

When setting up a saltwater aquarium, it is crucial to research the initial cost of purchasing all of your equipment. The costs can easily add up quickly and may include:

  • Saltwater tank
  • Stand for the tank
  • Light fixtures with bulbs that emit blue or purple light which simulates sunlight in a marine environment
  • Protein skimmer for aquariums
  • Filter and filtration system (can be very expensive)
  • Salt mix
Image Source: pxhere


Every type of saltwater aquarium requires its own unique setup and maintenance. If you are new to the hobby, we hope this guide will help you start your first saltwater tank. It’s one thing to be passionate about sea creatures but another entirely to take care of them in an effective manner. Let our team of experts lead your way with confidence through all aspects of owning a saltwater fish tank at home.

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