Introduction: Setting Up Your First Saltwater Aquarium

Picture of Setting Up Your First Saltwater Aquarium

This is a step-by-step guide of how to set up your first aquarium. This information is based on my experiences setting up my 2 tanks and the problems I faced and how I dealt with them. The all capped words are the ones you need to put on the shopping list. because they will be what you need to get at your local fish store(LFS)

Step 1: Gathering Equipment

Picture of Gathering Equipment

There are two keys to a good salt water aquarium. The first is good equipment and the second is PATIENCE. The first thing you need is of course the aquarium. I started with a 10 gallon because it costs less, but what I save in cost I make up for in daily to every-other-day maintanance. This tutorial is really based on a nano tank (20 gallons or less) because that is what I have experience with and that is all I can afford at the moment. (This tutorial will assume you have chosen a smaller tank) After you have decided the size of the aquarium you will want to buy a POWER FILTER. Always buy it 20-30 gallons bigger than the aquarium you have. (I have a 10 gal. so I bought a 30 gal.) You should also buy a LIGHT HOOD for your aquarium. Coral life/sun is a good bulb that can be bought at any fish store and I suggest a 50/50 bulb. Another important piece of equipment will be your HYDROMETER because this will measure how much salt is in your aquarium. The next step is to buy the SAND live rock for your aquarium. As far as sand, the best by far is the live caribean sea sand sold in bags that have water with the sand. This sand already has good algae and chemicals that is important for you tank. For a tank smaller than a 10 gal. I found that florida crushed coral works well because it is sold in smaller portions, however the live sand cycled the tank faster than the crushed coral. (Don't worry 'cycling' is coming up) LIVE ROCK part of aquarium keeping because it gives the tank the look you want. 1 pound per a gallon of rock is the average, but 1 or 4 pounds over is always a plus. The best pieces are the big light one. This is because it creates better water circulation through the pores. When choosing rock I found one good piece of rock then a few medium size pieces to pu around it creating caves and crevices which fish enjoy. After pooring your sand into the aquarium and arranging the rock the way you want, you can add the SALTWATER. The first saltwater I got was bought from my Local Fish Store(LFS) because I wanted to be sure the salinity was perfect. The ideal salinity is 1.023-1.025. It can range .001 above or below but this is ideal for everything that will go into the tank. When pouring the water in, attempt to pour in the rocks because this will cause less sand disturbance. After this step is where the PATIENCE comes in. Apart from waiting for the water to clear up from adding the water, you now have to wait for the cycle.

Step 2: Cycling

Picture of Cycling

This is the easiest yet hardest step of them all. It is easy because you do not have to do anything, but hard because you have to wait, kind of like waiting for water to boil. At this point you should invest in a good TEST KIT. Every 2-3 days you should test the water to check ammonia and nitrates. Once these both hit zero you are ready to stock the tank. You might want to wait another 2-3 days after you see it hit 0 before you go buy a fish because sometimes it spikes again, so to play it safe I would wait. Again with the PATIENCE. This process can take anywhere from 5 days to 3 weeks depending on the sand and sand you buy.


Picture of INVERTS

All that waiting is finally paying off.
You should now see hair algae growing all over you tank, and the best way to get rid of this ick is invertabraes. I suggest 1 BLUE LEGGED HERMIT CRAB per gallon and one snail per gallon. One of those snails should be a MEXICAN TURBO SNAIL. These things get the job done. In one day this snail had the front of my glass as clear as a window. The other snails can be NASSARIUS or REGULAR TURBOS. Other inverts you can get are star fish, but I have no experience with them to offer any tips. Do not add everything at once because this will shock your system, instead add 2-5 at a time. By the time most of your clean up crew is in the tank it should look pretty good. Now you are ready for fish.

Step 4: Fish

Picture of Fish

Now is the time to add fish.
Some of the best fish for tanks smaller than twenty gallons include clownfish, gobies, damsels, and cardinals.
In a tank less than 5 gallons, do not attempt fish, it will end badly. I started my 10 gallon with a Yellowtail damsel, because it is the easiest fish in the world to take care of and only little sisters are able to kill them (I would know). In my fourteen gallon, I got a false percula clown fish because I enjoy the fish and my 14 gallon is a bit more stable. Another clown which I like is the tomatoe clown because of its bright color. Another fish which I will be purchasing soon is a firefish goby. Their colors are amazing and the have the coolest swimming habit ever due to their long dorsal fin. I talked to my LFS worker many hours and did tons of research before I bought any of my fish. Find one that you like and then see if it is right for you.

Step 5: Corals

Picture of Corals

As I do not yet own corals, I am still learning about these creatures. However, through research I have learned that poly corals such as zooanthoids are perfect for low lit nano aquariums. Types of mushroom corals such as ricordias are also good for this setup. Corals such as frog spawn or colt corals are not advised due to their sweeping tentacles which can kill other corals and even fish. Anemones are likewise ill advised but with research, there are types that are safe for your tank. Your best bet however is soft corals because of they are the easiest to care for and require the least amount of lighting.

Another cool creature that can reside in your tank is a feather duster. These creatures are actually worms that live in a 'tube' and have feather looking things coming from the top that resemble a feather duster. The 'feathers' are used to collect food floating in the water. These are simple creatures that are fairly inexpensive as far as saltwater goes.

Step 6: RECAP

So what you need on day one is:

What you need during cycle:

What you need by the end of cycle:

After tank is completly cycled:

After tank clean up:

And that is it. This is a simple process that needs to be done with great care in order to achieve a great salt water aquarium.


NaomiW12 (author)2017-01-09

Great info,thanks.I am a
natural aquarium hobbyist and one can see this at, Tell
me what you think about it,I will appreciate a lot.

BrendanC29 (author)2016-06-11

Please correct me if I'm wrong, so one of those big fancy external filters is not required really for a 10 gallon saltwater tank?

ChrisA246 (author)BrendanC292016-07-29

Yes- this is my understanding. Healthy live rock contributes much more to filtration and biological cycling than a mechanical filter and a protein skimmer- so healthy live rock is an absolute essential. If you have corals or any other animals that are sensitive to nitrates that's when you need a skimmer. Filters can't hurt but its hard to say when they are essential.

KamirynP (author)2016-04-24

I am making my first saltwater fish tank i have 3 fresh and wanna try something new so i am doing a salt and it is a 28 gal and how long do i wait to put fish in?

DomF1 (author)KamirynP2016-05-02

There is no set time, as each tank cycles differently. You need to wait until the tank cycles before adding fish. Some people do cycle their tank with a fish in, but it's stressful on the fish so I wouldn't do it.

nanosaltwatertank (author)2015-10-11

Here is another list of instructions, including links to amazon for every single item needed to build a successful 5 gallon nano reef aquarium.

cbullies (author)2013-07-20

I'm trying to start my 1st saltwater aquarium, it's a 40 gal. Do I really need the protein skimmer and power heads?

stellamerteuil (author)2012-02-23

I'm not sure that snails and crabs are going to be eating hair algae. They'll eat diotomic algae, and some of the other stuff, but hair algae is problematic and a nuisance for most people to get rid of. The best thing to do is to remove as much as you can manually, and scrub down your rocks.

jzapata1 (author)2011-05-24

So if I have 29 gallons, I would need 29 crabs?

dravenx (author)2010-09-03

You can buy Bio Spira which is the same essential bacteria that develops after cycling. After adding Bio Spira to a new tank, you can start adding fish after 24 hrs. Just check all chem levels prior to doing so.

gregod43 (author)2009-06-02

so exactly where can i buy PATIENCE? haha

jokerlz (author)2009-05-31

As a fishkeeper myself I have always wondered why the call them nano tanks. Nano means times ten to the power minus nine. Assuming ten gallons is your average sized nano, that would make a regular "tank" 10,000,000,000 gallons. This also raises questions about the size of the original ipod.

Alex UA (author)2009-05-21

Is that a Metal Halide light? For a tank of this size you'd be better off with a VHO or Compact Florescent hood, unless you also plan on purchasing a tank cooler. MH lights are HOT, and regular florescent and incandescent bulbs won't work for coral tanks.

Alex UA (author)2009-05-21

If you can afford it, you'd be much better off with a refugium than a regular filter. It's not necessarily an either-or proposition, but a refugium will help your tank far more than any filter- it will help with the nitrogen cycle, it can be turned on at night so that you get 24 hours of oxygen production in the tank, it serves as a food supplement for your tank by giving a safe breeding area for copopods and worms, and it helps control algae and nutrients in your main tank.

bassmonkey (author)2009-05-01

sorry if you already answered this, but what should the temperature be?

dustintinsley80 (author)2008-09-20

Ok so I could sit here and rip your whole Instructable apart, but I'm not going to be mean. If anyone is serious about setting up a reef tank nano or other wise there is very little good info in this instructable.
I highly recommend you check out they will tell you how to set up a tank that has almost no impact on wild reefs. Which is where most fish, inverts, and corals at your LFS come from. Just you you know I worked in the pet industry for about 10 years. My main areas were marine and freshwater aquariums and reptiles. 3 out of the 10yrs I was in charge of the aquatics departments. not to mention all the mantience I did on customers tanks.

So anyways where is your heater, your pic of your light is the wrong kind (those are the cheap incandescent bulbs) where is your fluorescent, or CFL lighting.

I'm sorry I'm being mean about your instructable. I highly recommend you check out that site. as well as anyone else who is interested.

Thanks d3v1lducky, you saved me a trip all the way down these comments. GARF is the best!!

Guppy8 (author)2009-03-14

Colt corals are soft corals. They don't have sweeping tentacles. In fact I was fragging one today. They just slime ya.

adamjenkins (author)2009-01-27

If you are starting a saltwater aquarium research is a must.Garf as mentioned is great as well as Modern ReefKeeping and Wet Web Media

Duranis (author)2008-12-19

If your thinking of setting up a marine tank the only thing I can suggest is do a LOT of research first and dont rush into it. Not a bad instructable but unfortunately there is a whole lot missing (such as where is the ammonia come from when its cycling, what is liverock and how does it, how much flow should there be in the tank (by the way there wont be enough flow from that HOB filter to make use of the LR as a filtration method), how do I check the salinity of the water, etc, etc). I'm not being nasty but just warning people that there is a lot more to it then just this and if you dont know what you are doing you are going to end up spending a lot of money just to kill a lot of creatures.

Guppy8 (author)2008-04-15

Good job, you were smart enough to tell us to cycle it...I am starting a 29 sw tank, what fish/inverts do you recommend?

eyeballer103 (author)Guppy82008-05-17

wow a 29 gallon that sounds cool. I would probably say something like a cardinal of clown. Firefish are a favorite of mine. The mandarin is a bottom dweller with lots of color, but I do not know enough about him to recomend him to you. Do your research. check for some good ideas.

artguy1 (author)eyeballer1032008-11-10

Do not add a Mandarin Goby to anything but a large Reef Tank. The odds are it/they will die. While these fish are quite beautiful, the food source is not plentiful in anything but the best of reef tanks. These fish eat almost exclusively copepods which grow and breed in and amongst the live rock in a reef tank or sump of some sort. Most reef tanks employ a refugium which is a predator free aquarium/filter connected to a Marine System to specifically grow copepods and perhaps filter the water with macro algaes such as Chetomorpha. The macro algae reduces the nitrates and phosphates by using these compounds as food. Once the algae is harvested the nitrates and other contaminants are removed, thus filtering the water. This is a great way to reduce hair algae. Also use RO/DI water, not tap water as a general rule. Save the Mandarin Gobies unless you can feed them properly and good luck with all your Marine tank adventures...artguy1

Guppy8 (author)artguy12008-11-15

yeah, it is possible to keep them, but they a 29 would be hard to keep a lot of copepods in. I know of someone with a 75 that has had one for 2 years, but he obviously knows what he's doing and has been doing it for a while.

artguy1 (author)Guppy82008-11-15

If you are intending on keeping a Mandarin in a 29 you need to supplement with live copepods from companies such as Reef Nutrition:

The tigger pods would probably be one of the good products that this particular company has to offer. ArctiPods would be another possibility.

Without providing copepods of some sort the Mandarin Goby will die due to lack of food. Check with members of the online reef community such as or I think you would find that most everybody will agree who has experience in this matter.

All the best, Marine tanks are cool huh

CameronSS (author)2008-04-01

Somehow a "Turbo" snail seems self-contradictory... Well presented, though.

lakshwadeep (author)CameronSS2008-09-28

"Turbo" comes from the scientific name of the genus Turbo, or the "turban snails". Most of the common names for many fish and inverts are taken from the scientific names, even if that may be inaccurate or too specific.

eyeballer103 (author)CameronSS2008-04-02

I always found this name to be contradictory but they do justice to the name by getting the clean-up job done

A Really Cool Name (author)2008-09-16

if you are going to invest in any type of saltwater pet, chances are that the fish tank will be one of the less expensive items on your list. you wouldnt be able to enjoy the fish at all if you can only see their backs.

celticht32 (author)2008-04-01

There are a few fish while small are not meant to be in nano tanks due to their specialized dietary needs. These include any of the dragonette species (better known by names such as a mandarine goby, psychodelic goby, etc... ) These fish require a minimum tank of atleast 55 gallons or more with plenty of live rock for copeopods which the dragonettes feed on. Please PLEASE do not buy these fish if you do not have a large (55 or more) established tank as all that will happen is you will kill a wonderfully funny little fish. Second fish not to consider in a small tank is a leopard groper. While most LG's sold in LFS are small these guys dont stay small for long. Best advice for starting a good tank is to look into a good fish compatibility and requirements book before getting any fish for a tank. Chris

deth2all (author)2008-04-01


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