Saltwater Aquarium Setup in 10 Easy Steps

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    Saltwater Aquarium Setup in 10 Easy Steps

    Once you have planned what kind of saltwater aquarium you want and purchased everything needed to put it together, by following these 10 easy steps you can have your new marine aquarium set up and running in no time at all. Starting with Step 1, here's how to get the aquarium ready. One step at a time and your tank will be up and running in no time.

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  • 02 of 10

    Step 1: Prepare the Aquarium

    Aquarium Cabinet w/sump Installed Image
    Photo by Stan & Debbie Hauter

    Now that you have completed your new aquarium plan, checked off everything on your checklist of items for starting an aquarium and purchased the equipment, it's time to put it all together. To get the aquarium ready:

    • Put the stand into place and level it, being sure to leave clearance for electrical connections and equipment.
    • Clean the tank with freshwater and a soft cloth or sponge.
    • If you plan to cover the back of the tank, paint it a color you like, or apply a piece of manufactured vinyl aquarium background covering, do it now.
    • If you have elected to use a sump, install it in the cabinet/stand at this time. Quite often it is easier to insert the sump into the stand through the top than it is through the cabinet doors. If you haven't found a sump yet, a cheap, easy DIY sumps might work for you.
    • If your are going to install a DIY automatic top off system, do it before you install your sump (it is much easier than waiting until the sump is in the cabinet).
    • If your system includes a sump, much of the sump related equipment is easier to install the sump before the tank is placed on the stand.
    • Place the tank on the stand, using an under-pad for cushioning underneath if needed, and check to see that the tank is level.
    • Install power strip/light timer.

    Next, we are going to either install the sump equipment or
    install the tank equipment.

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  • 03 of 10

    Installing the Sump and Equipment

    92g Bow Front tank sump Image
    Photo by Stan & Debbie Hauter

    In this step, you will install the sump and its associated equipment and plumbing under the aquarium. If you follow the steps, one by one, the sump equipment installation will go together quite quickly.

    If your system has a sump:

    In the photo above, you can see where a valve was installed in the return pump hose. This allows you to adjust the water flow to and from the sump.

    Next we are going to Install Aquarium Equipment.

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  • 04 of 10

    Install Aquarium Equipment

    15g Reef Tank Image
    Photo by Aiden

    If your system does not have a sump you can move right to installing all of the tank related equipment. At this point, you can delay installing your aquarium lighting system as it will just be in the way when you are installing the sea salts, substrate and tank decorations.

    • Install tank mounted (Hang On Tank Power or Canister) filtration system.
    • If using a hang on filter, remove the filter pads, rinse them in freshwater, then put them back in the filter before installing it on the back wall of the aquarium. This is a good time to check the clearance between the back of the tank and the wall. You will, no doubt, be removing he entire filter in the future for cleaning, so make sure that there is an extra inch or two of clearance.
    • Install Tank Mounted Protein Skimmer.
    • Install your powerheads.
    • Hang your powerheads in the approximate position the you will have them at completion of assembly. The positions will no doubt change once your live rock and decorations are installed in the tank.
    • Install the aquarium heater.

    Next we are going to Run a Wet Test of The System

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  • 05 of 10

    Run Wet Test of The System

    Run the Wet Test Image
    Photo by Stan & Debbie Hauter

    At this point it's best to run a system wet test. Taking the time to do this allows you to make sure that everything is in proper working order before putting any salt or livestock in the aquarium. You probably don't want to install your sea salts, substrate or live rock in the tank now because:

    1. If you have to drain the tank for some reason, the water with the sea salts will either have to be siphoned off and saved, or be wasted.
    2. If you are using "live sand", the freshwater used in the test will kill the inhabitants in the sand.
    3. If you have any growth or critters in your live rock, the freshwater will damage it/them.
    4. Installing live rock and substrate can be a pain, so why do it more than once?

    How to Test the System

    1. Check and tighten all hose connections.
    2. Fill the aquarium (and sump, if you are using one) with freshwater.
    3. Wipe the exterior of the tank and the entire area dry.
    4. One at a time, plug each pump into the power strip.
    5. Check each plumbing  connection for leaks.
    6. If you are going to be using a protein skimmer, there will be no waste produced, but you can check for bubble production and test out the pump that will be used to run it.

    Once everything has been checked, simulate a power outage by turning off the entire system at the power strip/timer.

    If you are using a sump, make sure that it does not overflow as the sump pump stops pumping and tank water is siphoned back into the sump. If the sump starts to overflow, turn the pump back on and remove some of the water from the sump. Restart the system and retest it.

    One method to prevent siphoning tank water back into the sump is to drill a small hole in the sump pump return pipe above the tank water line in the tank. In the event of a power outage (and whenever the return pump is turned off) the small hole will allow the siphon to be broken.

    Next we are going to Install Substrate & Sea Salts

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  • 06 of 10

    Install Substrate & Sea Salts in the Aquarium

    Install Substrate & Sea Salts Image
    Photo by Stan & Debbie Hauter

    Next we are going to install your Substrate, Sea Salts and Live Rock. Choosing the right substrate for your tank before installing it is important, if for no other reason than it is difficult to remove once the tank is up and running.

    Hopefully, you have done the research ahead of time and determined the best Sea Salt for your particular aquarium.

    Once the system has been checked for leaks, shut the system down and remove a few gallons of water from the tank and sump.

    Next, add your sea salts. If you are using a sump, pour the sea salts into the sump and turn on the sump return pump. This will circulate water over the sea salts and help them to dissolve more quickly. If you don't have a sump, turn on any powerheads in the tank, along with your filter. As the sea salts dissolve, keep adding more and test the salinity frequently until the desired level is reached.

    If you are using "Live Sand", open the bag(s) and pour it into the tank. The water will become cloudy, but it should clear up once you have turned on your filtration system.

    If you are using non-live sand, rinse it in freshwater to remove the smaller particles, then pour it into the tank.

    Next we are going to Install the Live Rock & Run the System

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  • 07 of 10

    Install the Live Rock & Run the System

    Install the Live Rock & Run the System. Photo by Stan & Debbie Hauter
    • If you have live rock cured and ready for use, or you are not going to use live rock at all, go on to Step 5 and Aquascape the Tank.
    • If you have not yet purchased live rock you are going to put in your aquarium, now is the time to buy and prepare it for use, which can be done in several ways:
    • Option 1 ) The standard method is to fully cure live rock is in a separate curing setup.
    • Option 2 ) If you intend to cycle the aquarium with live rock, are adding it to an established system, or just don't want to wait, of course you can opt to bypass the rock curing process altogether and put the live rock directly into the aquarium and start aquascaping. However, if you do so it is recommended to "at least" take the time to do any one of the following things first!
    • Preclean the rocks before placing them into the aquarium.
    • Preclean the rocks, and allow a few days curing time in a separate curing setup.

    Turn on all of your pumps, filters and the protein skimmer, if you are using one. The water should start to clear as the filters remove the particulate matter in the tank water. Quite often, you may see a fine, almost dust-like layer on top of the live rocks and substrate. This is the fine particles of the substrate which have settled to the bottom before they could be filtered out. You can stir them up with a turkey baster, a net handle or your hand to put them back into suspension where the filters should be able to take them out.

    The water should be clear by the next day, at which point you can begin to introduce your critters to the tank.

    Next we are going to Install the System Lighting

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  • 08 of 10

    Install Aquarium Lighting System

    Install the Tank Lights. Photo by Stan & Debbie Hauter

    While your tank water water is clearing, it's a good time to install your saltwater aquarium lighting system.

    The lighting requirements for a Fish Only (FO) tank are fairly flexible. The day/night periods can be adjusted to suit your lifestyle but still giving your tank critters at least 8 hours of darkness so they can sleep. Light timers are a good investment as they will turn the lights on and off at a predetermined time every day.

    If you plan to add corals to your tank at some point, you will probably want to invest in Reef Tank Lighting when you set up your tank. Reef Tank lighting requirements are much higher than Fish Only tanks as the corals need a specific photo period as well as specific a light spectrum.

    Mount your lighting fixture either on top of the tank or inside hood and plug it into the appropriate outlet in your light timer. Set the electronic or mechanical trippers in the timer for the appropriate times. Turn the lights on and you can sit back and enjoy your tank.

    Next we are going to Add Livestock & Cycle the Tank

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  • 09 of 10

    Adding Livestock & Cycling the Tank

    Add a Few Fish & Cycle the Tank. Photo by Stan & Debbie Hauter

    Once the tank water has cleared, it's time to start adding your livestock. It is highly recommended that you don't rush this process. It takes time for a good biological filter base to populate with beneficial bacteria. Have you ever heard a aquarist say "Gee, I wish I had put a lot more fish in my tank to begin with?" Probably not.

    So, how many fish to begin with? It depends a lot on a few factors: How big is your tank and how healthy is your biological filter? The "One Inch of Fish per 5 Gallons of Water" Rule of Thumb generally applies to seasoned tanks with healthy filter.

    Depending on the size of the tank, start with one or two small fish in a 55 gallon tank to start with. This will supply the food (ammonia) needed to start the bacteria multiplying and populating your filter. Consider one or two of the Terrific Beginner Fish to help you get started. Look at the Saltwater Aquarium Fish Compatibility Chart to see how your fish choices are going to get along in your tank.

    If you are going to use a good Nitrifying Bacteria Tank Starter (highly recommended) to help with the cycling process, one or two small fish should present no problems in your new tank. Follow the directions on the package as to how much to use and when to use it when adding nitrifying bacteria. It is recommended that, if you are using a protein skimmer, you turn it off during the initial cycling period. This will help the bacteria spread in your biological filter.

    Adding a few Hermit Crabs or Snails is a good idea when you start your new tank. They will help to keep the inevitable waste and algae under control.

    When you add each new fish or invertebrate, make sure that you take your time acclimating the new arrival. Chances are that the pH of the tank water where you are buying your livestock is a lot different than that of your newly set up tank.

    If you have tank lighting which will support corals, you can also add a coral or two to your tank at this time. The corals listed in 15 easy corals for your reef tank is a good place to start for corals which are fairly easy to maintain and are more forgiving of less than perfect water quality and somewhat lower lighting.

    Next we are going to Add More Fish & Corals

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  • 10 of 10

    Adding More Fish & Corals

    Adding More Fish & Corals
    Photo by Stan & Debbie Hauter

    As time goes on, you can slowly add more fish, corals and other invertebrates. Generally speaking, corals and most invertebrates (Hermit Crabs and Snails) do not add much of a bio-load to an aquarium, however fish, even small ones can add dramatically to the amount of ammonia that a new biological filter will be called upon to process.

    • Top off the tank with freshwater as needed.
    • Monitor the water quality, especially the ammonia levels.
    • Look for signs of stress (frayed fins, cloudy eyes, lack of appetite).
    • Add new fish only after the tank recovers from the last addition.
    • Due to stress, new arrivals are more prone to parasitic outbreaks, especially Marine Ich so keep an eye out for them and treat promptly.
    • Corals will be the most sensitive things in your tank, so add them very slowly.
    • Clean your mechanical filter weekly, but do not disturb the biological filter during the 1st month.
    • After the 1st month, begin a scheduled tank maintenance program.

    Take the time to enjoy your new tank.