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Fri Jul 24 5:39:19 UTC 2009

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Many tropical fish keepers often think about taking the next step and upgrading to a saltwater tank, indeed many potential keepers may just start out with a saltwater tank with no fish keeping experience. But the question is often asked “How do I start?” Hopefully this article will explain enough to put you on the right track and remove some of the worries that many people have about taking the initial leap.

The main consideration initially has to be which size tank you are going to set up. Most keepers will start off with a 40-50 gallon tank, this holds the water parameters at a fairly stable level and anything added to the tank can be controlled to a certain extent. It is now very popular to set up nano-sized tanks that are relatively small compared to other set ups but the smaller the water volume the harder it is to control what is happening inside the tank as regards water parameters. I always suggest setting one of these up after you have gained some experience with running a saltwater tank and how different additives can affect the water.

Which saltwater system shall I decide to run?


There are basically three main types of saltwater setups which are as follows:-

  • FO (fish only) - this is the basic set up where the fish take priority over anything else in the tank and an external filter or suchlike is required to keep the water parameters correct. This is the cheapest and simplest saltwater setup to start with, it is still a bit more demanding than a tropical set up but money can be saved as some of the equipment required for the other set ups is not necessary with this one.
  • FOWLR (fish only with Live Rock)-as the description states, this is a setup where we just add the fish and a few invertebrates but Live Rock is added to act as the main filtration system and is more natural to run than buy using artificial filtration.
  • Reef Tank - this set up is the ultimate set up for any marine keeper. Fish take second place to the corals that are added and are just added to give some movement to the tank. The corals take priority and a stunning display can be created if the reef is re-created properly in the tank.


Once you have decided which set up you are going to try, is it time to get all that is required, the answer to that question is no. Research has to be done by either purchasing a selection of books on the subject or browsing the internet browsing for information on sites like this one. Before the tank is set up you need to know what to expect and if your budget allows you to create the tank you desire. There is no point starting to set up and then realise that you do not have enough money to buy all the hardware that is required.

You also need to know about the fish compatibility and which corals if you are adding them are compatible with each other, corals do commit chemical warfare against each other as they are trying to colonise the reef. To gain enough information about your future saltwater set up will take at least 8 weeks so that you will then be confident enough to deal with any problems that may arise.

Once the research is done it’s time to start collecting the items you require to run the tank, some of these will be dearer than others so collect your items as your wallet allows and once everything is together you can start setting up your tank.

Setting up your tank


The first step is definitely one of the most important. Whether you are using a new or second hand tank, a good clean is required. If you are using a second hand tank it may be worthwhile checking with the previous owner if any copper based medications were used in it. Any traces of copper can be lethal for saltwater invertebrates and residual traces can be removed by a commercial copper remover. For the general cleaning a good rinse out and wipe down should be all that is required. If you are adding a background or wish to paint the back of the tank, do this before the tank is put into its final position. Once done place the tank in its final resting place and once you are happy that it is level check around it to make sure you have clearance for tank maintenance, also making sure there is clearance at the top of the tank for any lighting units that may need adding. Prepare all of the hardware that is going to be used on the tank and fix it all into place. If you are planning to run a sump make sure that it is in the cabinet and all relevant pipe work is in place before the tank is in place.

Once everything is set up you can now fill the tank with saltwater or mix the fresh water with the required salt inside the tank. Turn on the heater and any filters, switch on the power heads if added and let the tank run over night. There are a couple of reasons for this. You need to ensure that none of the equipment is leaking and you also need to know that the salt has mixed into the tank water thoroughly. The next day check the salinity again and adjust if required. If a protein skimmer is fitted check that it is not sending micro bubbles into the water, if it is turn it down slightly to reduce them. Brand new skimmers tend to take a few days to settle down and run efficiently, if this happens to you don’t panic but adjust the settings slowly over a period of days and it will balance itself out. Remember as well that the skimmer will not pull out any waste until the tank is stocked, don’t go to the collection cup the day after the tank is running expecting it to be full of waste.

If you are using Live Rock, check that the rock you have bought is fully cured, if not it will need curing in a separate tank. If the rock is fully cured it can go into the tank for the aquascaping after it has been cleaned of any detritus. This is simply a matter of swilling the rock around in a separate saltwater solution to remove any debris and then inspecting the rock to remove any bristle worms etc. that may be lurking. Wear gloves at this stage else you may get stung by hidden life in the rock!

When you are adding the rock, siphon out some of the water to allow for displacement and save this somewhere for topping the tank level up after all the rock is in place. The normal ratio is 1kg of Live Rock per 2 gallons of water, a very easy equation to remember but if the rock is going to act as the natural filter never skimp on it. When placing the rock leave a gap around the tank glass so that dead spots are avoided and tank maintenance can be carried out. Stack the rock so that nooks and crannies are formed to act as hiding places for the fish or invertebrates but make sure your stacking is secure. The idea is to get as much of the surface area of the rock in contact with the water flow.

The water flow is created by adding power heads to the tank; they are best placed at the back corners and pointed towards the front glass so that turbulence is created in the water rather than a whirlpool effect around the tank. Most reef tanks will have the equivalent of 20-30 times the water volume per hour flowing around the tank. If more than one power head is being used then you will require the total ratings for them to equal the water volume of your tank.

For example if the water volume is 50 gallons and you are using 4 power heads each one will need to be rated at 50x20=1000 gallons/4 which equates to 250 gallons per hour for each power head.

Do not turn these on until the substrate has been added. Once the rock is securely in place and only then should the substrate be added to the tank. Never sit the rock on top of the substrate.

Which substrate should I use?


There are a few choices of substrate available but I have always had the greatest success with aragonite sand. It helps to buffer the water as it will slowly dissolve over a period of months; this in turn will keep the pH stable. There are other options, many suppliers can sell you Live sand by the bag but I have found the best way is to buy the aragonite sand and just add a small amount of live sand to seed it with. The secret when adding the substrate is to place it in a bag (just like an icing bag) with the corner cut off, this way you can place the bag on the bottom of the tank and slowly pour out the substrate without it making your water go too cloudy. If the substrate does cloud the water, it will clear itself after a couple of days. Don’t worry too much about getting it all level, the water flow will soon spread it about after a while and when the livestock is in, they will certainly spread it when they start sifting through it.

Now is the time to cycle the tank, during the cycling do not perform any water changes as this will slow the process down. Invest in a good saltwater test kit as the water will need testing on a regular basis. At this stage I normally drop a frozen prawn into the tank to kick start the cycle which should take about 4 weeks to complete. Once the cycle is complete, remove any debris from the substrate by siphoning but do not siphon out the substrate and clear any algae that may have formed on the glass. This is a good time to change anything to the tank set up before any live stock is added. Check the rock work and re-arrange if required, any loose rock can be steadied by using aquatic milliput, this will set in-between the rock and hold it fast, check the water temperature and salinity to make sure everything is spot on with the required parameters. Perform a 20% water change to remove some of the nitrates that have accumulated through the cycle and leave the tank running for a few more days to make sure that the water parameters remain constant. This will be the largest water change that you should need to perform, once the tank is all set up 10% per week is ample. Keep testing the water for any sudden changes and once you are happy with the tank you can now start to think about your stocking list.

Plan out your clean up crew first, this includes snails, crabs, and shrimps etc. these will keep your tank clean by working away in the background cleaning up any debris. They are an invaluable asset to your tank and should not be omitted.

In future articles I will describe the options as regards stock that are available and the order that the live stock should be added. It is important that once you have decided on your stocking list that you stick to it, there should be no impulse buying, and this will definitely create problems at a later date. Patience is the key to any marine tank even more so than with a tropical or cold water tank, the water parameters must settle after you introduce your stock before you add any more. Be patient and do things at the correct time, never take shortcuts.
Document created on Fri Jul 24 5:39:19 UTC 2009
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