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A Beginners Guide To Setting Up Your First Saltwater Aquarium

by Brian Dunleavy
A Beginners Guide To Setting Up Your First Saltwater Aquarium


Have you dreamed of setting up a saltwater aquarium, but you are unsure where to start? If so, you have come to the right place!

Setting up a new saltwater aquarium may feel overwhelming at first, but with our step-by-step guide, it will be worth the time and effort once you have some inhabitants to enjoy it with. 

Now, setting up a saltwater aquarium may be slightly more expensive than a freshwater aquarium, but they usually run into fewer errors, plus they offer a much wider range of fish and corals which are unavailable in freshwater tanks. 

But, before we dive into the setup process, it is important to decide which type of aquarium will suit you best.

Types Of Saltwater Aquariums

Selecting the right saltwater aquarium is important, as it can be very challenging and expensive to change your setup once it has been established. 

There are three main saltwater aquarium setups:

  • Fish-only 
  • Fish-only with live rock 
  • Reef tank

  • Fish Only (FO):

    Undoubtedly, fish are the most popular reason people get into the reefing hobby. 

    As the name suggests, a FO aquarium ONLY contains fish without any live corals and rocks, similar to a simple freshwater aquarium. Instead, FO tanks use fake ornaments and a plain substrate to focus attention on the fish. 

    Fish-only aquariums are the most basic and affordable type of aquarium setup you can choose, yet they often require more maintenance than other saltwater aquariums because they contain no live inhabitants that introduce beneficial bacteria that help control waste in the aquarium system. 

    So, if you opt for a FO setup, you may need to perform water changes more often to maintain healthy water quality.

    Fish Only With Live Rock (FOWLR):

    A FOWLR aquarium setup is the most popular for both beginner and expert hobbyists, as they are fairly simple to convert into a reef system later on.

    Adding live rock not only gives your saltwater aquarium a realistic look and a place for your fish to seek refuge, but it also provides your aquarium with beneficial bacteria that make your water chemistry more stable. However, often live rock comes with hitchhikers like unwanted pests and algae, so you must treat the rock before placing it into your aquarium. 

    Reef Tank:

    Reef tanks are the most striking, and what you probably thought of when you were scrolling through Pinterest for some saltwater aquarium inspo!

    The biggest difference with a reef tank is corals. Corals are living organisms and therefore, they require a certain level of care to thrive. Reef tanks are also the most expensive as the equipment required to maintain corals, plus the corals themselves, can often be pricey. 

    Although they can be a challenge for beginner reefers, with the right level of care and dedication, reef tanks can be the most beautiful aquariums, and in our opinion, they certainly look the best!

    Step-By-Step Guide To Setting Up A Saltwater Aquarium

    Now onto the exciting part, how to set up your saltwater aquarium!

    #1 Plan Your Tank

    Planning helps you know your options, making the process less stressful. Firstly, you should plan what type of fish or corals you want to have and which tank will home them best. 

    #2 Prepare The Tank

    To prepare your tank:

    • Thoroughly clean your aquarium.
    • Check for any leaks by running a wet test. A leak detection kit is fantastic for the job!
    • Choose a safe and secure location for your aquarium.
    • Next, add the substrate. Note, that if you are using a sand substrate, the water will become cloudy, but do not worry, as it will soon clear when you turn on the filtration system. 
    • Add the water - this cannot be from the tap. Aquariums require reverse osmosis (RO) water, which can be purchased from your local fish store (LFS) or you can make it yourself by treating water with a dechlorinator. 
    • Install your equipment - this includes setting up electrical connections like a sump, top-off system, and timers.
    • Add decorations like driftwood, rocks, and corals. 
    • Cycle the aquarium.
    • Test the water parameters.

    #3 Add Livestock: Fish & Corals

    We are finally at the best part, adding fish and corals if you are going for a reef tank setup. 

    But, you must not get carried away… 

    You should always add livestock, particularly fish, slowly to avoid running the nitrogen cycle again and allow enough time for the fish to acclimate to their new home.

    We also recommend adding some hermit crabs or reef-safe snails at the beginning of setting up your first saltwater aquarium to control algae and waste.

    A Quick Guide To Acclimating Your Fish

    1. Float the plastic bag in the aquarium for 15 minutes, so the temperature can acclimate inside the bag.
    2. Carefully open the bag without emptying the contents in the aquarium.
    3. Add ½ a cup of aquarium water every 5 minutes into the bag until it is full.
    4. Slowly pour and dispose of half the water out of the bag.
    5.  Again, add ½ a cup of water into the bag every 5 minutes until the bag until it is full.
    6. Using a net, gently transfer your fish into the aquarium. 

    Over the next 24 hours, watch your fish closely and look for any signs of sickness. Also, take this time to see how they fit in with your other tank inhabitants. As long as you select fish that are reef-safe and compatible with your saltwater aquarium, you should run into no issues. 

    Equipment Checklist For Your Aquarium

    Part of the fun in setting up your own saltwater aquarium is buying equipment. 

    You will need:

    • Aquarium tank
    • Lighting
    • Skimmers, filters, and filtration
    • Powerhead
    • Air pump/air stones
    • Live rock
    • Substrate
    • Sea salt mix
    • Hydrometer/salinity testing kit
    • Heater
    • Thermometer
    • Water quality testing kits, like a pH probe
    • Supplements
    • Maintenance tools and supplies (nets, plastic buckets, algae scrapers, spare equipment, etc.)


    Setting up a saltwater aquarium can be overwhelming, but with our step-by-step guide, you will have that mini-ocean aquarium you have always wished for. 

    If you need help with aquarium maintenance, reefing supplies, or your next coral, contact the Reefco team, or visit us in-store. We are always happy to assist you with your next coral purchase or any aspect of your aquarium setup!

    by Brian Dunleavy