How To Set Up A Saltwater Tank For Beginners?

In a fishbowl: Tips for beginners setting up a saltwater aquarium

By John O’Connell
Copley News Service

Many people who saw the hit film “Finding Nemo” left the movie wanting to find a little clownfish of their own. But buying Nemo – and his buddies – means buying a home, too. And Nemo’s home is in saltwater.

“Personally, I think saltwater tanks are more colorful than freshwater ones,” Bunn said. “My husband and I own two saltwater aquariums. Saltwater fish are really fascinating to watch. They have their own personalities. And it’s so relaxing to watch them.”

Some studies claim that looking at an aquarium can lessen anxiety and reduce blood pressure. But beginners may encounter a rise in blood pressure after purchasing a saltwater tank. Having maintained saltwater aquariums for 2 1/2 years, Bunn cautions novices that they may want to start with a freshwater tank. Saltwater fish are far more temperamental in comparison to the freshwater variety. Slight fluctuation in water temperature and chemical bacteria levels can cause Nemo’s death.

“A beginner should not walk into a store and buy a saltwater aquarium without knowing something about it,” Bunn said. “I recommend people do a lot of reading before buying a saltwater tank.” She recommends “Saltwater for Dummies” (Hungry Minds, $29.99) and “Simple Guide to Saltwater Aquariums” (TFH Publications Inc., $19.95).


Keep in mind that saltwater aquariums are more expensive than freshwater kind. As a rule of thumb, expect to pay about $10 per gallon for a saltwater tank and related equipment. Buying a kit, however, is less expensive than buying all the equipment separately.

When it comes to saltwater aquariums, size does matter. For one thing, there’s more room for error. If something goes wrong in a large tank, there is more time to correct the problem before it contaminates the entire system.
“I wouldn’t recommend a saltwater tank smaller than 29 gallons,” Bunn said. “A 55-gallon tank is preferable.”

And, most saltwater fish generally require more room than freshwater species. For instance, tangs need their space. A 55-gallon tank may be the minimum size for a small tang.

A basic fish tank will need a hood and lighting system, filter, and heater. Also, a substrate of an inch of crushed coral or sea sand is good for the bottom of the tank. There are a variety of different filters. A wet/dry filter is a good choice for first-time enthusiasts.

Where to place the tank is another consideration. A 55-gallon tank filled with water can weigh 700 pounds or more. So it should be where there is good floor support. Tanks should be out of direct sunlight and away from windows, outside doors, heat vents, and air conditioners. Rapid changes in water temperature can stress the fish.


“For beginners, I would suggest a fish-only tank and no ‘live rock’ or coral until they get more experience,” Bunn said.

The biggest mistake a novice hobbyist can make, she says, is setting up the saltwater tank and immediately dumping fish into it. Unlike a freshwater tank, it takes time for a saltwater tank to “cycle.”

“You are trying to simulate a natural environment,” said Ursala Link, general manager of Charlie’s Aquarium in Pekin, Ill. “You need to establish a good bacteria to keep things chemically stable in order to keep waste products in check.”

It may be weeks before the tank is ready for the more delicate saltwater fish.

“The key with saltwater aquariums is to be patient,” Link said. “After setting up the tank, and the water temperature and the salinity are at correct levels, the aquarium may be ready for damselfish after a day or two. Damsels are relatively hardy fish that are cheap and durable. They are good starter fish. But it may be six or 10 weeks before the aquarium’s biology is stable enough for other fish.”

Maintaining an aquarium doesn’t require a degree in chemistry, but you may feel like a chemist doing it. At least weekly, the hobbyist should check water quality using various kits and equipment such as a hydrometer. This involves keeping the water’s salinity around 1.022 specific gravity, according to the experts. Hobbyists don’t use common table salt but a special marine salt – readily available at most pet supply centers – to create an ocean-like environment.

Other things to check are ammonia levels (less than .01 parts per million); nitrates (less than five parts per million); and calcium (levels of 400 to 450 parts per million). The tank’s pH balance should be kept around 8.2 for good results. Another consideration is water temperature, which varies according to the type of fish swimming in the tank. Most marine creatures in home aquariums do best in 75- to 80-degree water, experts say.


Hardier species like damsels, basslets, blennies, gobies, cardinalfish, and certain clowns are best for beginning enthusiasts.

“Beginners should avoid angels, butterflies, tangs, pipefish, filefish and sea horses,” according to Internet site “Any type of larger fish species or carnivorous type might well be put on the ‘later’ list as well until you have a bit more experience with the smaller guys. Also, keep in mind that certain species simply don’t get along with others (or even themselves on occasion). A little research will inform you as to how many fish and which type will work together.”

Salt tanks are a slice of the ocean. With experience, knowledge, and time, your fish will be swimming in a colorful marine world that resembles a coral reef.

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