Imagining and Planning Your First Saltwater Aquarium

A blue tang in a saltwater aquarium
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Have you always dreamed of having a beautiful, colorful fish tank in your home? Why go on vacation when you can bring the beauty of a tropical reef tank under your own roof! Tropical marine habitats require a great deal of planning, upkeep, and responsibility, but if you are up to the challenge, the end result can be stunningly beautiful and fun for the whole family.

If you have already been thinking along these lines, imagining your favorite fish as they dart around, you might be struck with the first obvious question and dilemma: Where will you put this thing? When determining the very best location for your new saltwater aquarium, your available space may dictate just how big your aquarium can be.

Selecting the Best Location for a Tank

Could you put one in the entry or against the wall in the parlor? Might it serve as a room divider, or better yet, be built straight into a wall? Consider whether you would like it to be a large, freestanding self-contained unit in the middle of a room, or maybe even just a micro reef on the corner of your desk. When you start imagining the options, you can build an aquarium just about anywhere!

To test the practicality of your ideas, clear out an area where you think you may want your new tank to go. Clearing the area will allow you walk around and work around the location for a few days. If you want to create a more realistic simulation, stack some empty boxes where the tank will be placed to mimic a tank and stand.

During your imaginative planning, there are some considerations to take into account when deciding about your new tank location.

Structural Support

First and foremost, the thing that most people forget is that water is quite heavy. It weighs a ton! There is only a 3% difference between the weight of fresh water and the weight of saltwater, but the salty water does weigh a little bit more. One gallon of salt water weighs in at about 8.5 lb. Multiply that by the size of the tank you imagine and that will get you in the ballpark.

You then need to consider the added weight of the "substrate," which is the technical name for the tank's ground material: the live rock or the glass or acrylic pebbles/stones. Also add the weight of all equipment, which includes the skimmers, the pumps, the filtration system, and of course, the special over-tank lighting. Do not forget to add the weight of the support stand to your overall project total weight.

Given the total weight of your setup, you must look into and evaluate the supporting structure under the floor. It is best and safest to place your tank next to a load-bearing wall or directly on top of a supporting piling or a cement foundation. This will ensure the safety of not only your tank but the safety of those on the floor below!

Viewing Points

The second thing to consider is where your beautiful tank will get the most visibility, appreciation, and watchful eyes. You will want to be able to see all corners of the tank, not only so that you can see the animals that like to hide, but also so that you will be able to visually inspect every detail of the tank which will need your attention over time. The ability to see what you're doing inside the tank during maintenance is a part of the planning that many people forget to consider ahead of time.

Think about who you would like to be able to see your exquisite habitat. Is it low enough for small children to be mesmerized? Is it accessible by a wheelchair for the senior family members? Is a step stool required? Can you see and reach the back of the servicing equipment?

If the tank is placed in a corner, it might not be viewed often enough. If your tank will be in a place where it is a little too easy to forget about, the health of the tank may suffer. Unfortunately, this is a big reason for tanks that fail. Sometimes, owners forget to check on them regularly.

Windows

There are pros and cons to setting up any tropical tank next to a natural light source like a window or skylight. Placing a tank where it will receive this direct sunlight will assist the tank inhabitants with their normal daylight nighttime foraging routines and also their circadian rhythms, natural hormone states, and breeding patterns. Dimmer switches on timers can simulate these patterns as well.

And yet, particular seasonal sunlight can actually be the hidden cause of unwelcome water temperature spikes. With that comes stress on the fish as well as algae bloom problems. So it is important to get to know the normal seasonal fluctuations around your windows of choice. Consider a data logger to collect that information. Also, consider that algae blooms can also be addressed by including algae eating fish in your group. On balance, natural patterns are always best to support natural creatures in the best of health.

Electrical Outlets

The construction and maintenance of any aquarium tank of any kind require ready and safe access to a surge-protected electric supply. Many of the above listed separate aquarium tank gadgets will require their own grounded, three-prong plugin. The closer the tank is to an outlet, or multiple outlets, the better, as extension cords are never recommended around aquariums.

Don't forget about the behavior of evaporated/condensed, runaway water droplets! Water tends to drip down to the lowest point available on all electrical cables. This is why power strips are a bad idea around the aquarium as they are designed to sit at the lowest point of the tabletop or floor. Always make sure to have a "dropped loop" in your cables, with the electric source sitting higher than the bottom of the loop. That way, water will not drop into your socket, shorting out your breaker box, and turning the whole tank off.

If the desired tank location isn't within a few feet of the existing outlets, consider installing another one or two outlets. For central room units, if the tank is placed well away from a wall, install an outlet in the floor, under or next to the tank.

A/C, Heating Ducts, and the Wall

Plan your tank to be well away from the direct airflow from both your heating system and your air conditioners. Keeping your tank temperatures steady is very important, as tropical reef systems in nature vary only 2 or 3 degrees over the course of the entire year. Any sort of draft over or around your tank will add unwanted temperature fluctuations.

Keep your tank at least 4–6 inches away from any wall. This will allow you to have hand-width access for cleaning the backside glass as well as room to hang various equipment on the back glass of the tank.