If you found your way here, you probably have or are interested in keeping a saltwater aquarium. Let us be the first to say WELCOME to the aquarium community and we couldn't be happier to help you become a successful tank owner!  

As with most new hobbyists, there is a good chance you've confronted the stigma that saltwater aquariums are inherently difficult and expensive. While there are good reasons aquarium owners of days past have arrived at these conclusions, the reality is keeping a modern saltwater aquarium doesn't have to be difficult or expensive.  All it takes is good advice and the willingness to learn and you can be just as successful as even the most advanced aquarists, regardless of your experience and budget. 

Reef Aquarium
Fish only saltwater aquarium

1. Saltwater Aquarium vs. Reef Tank

There are two basic types of saltwater aquariums:

  • Saltwater Aquarium: Contains only marine fish; sometimes called a fish only with live rock aquarium (FOWLR)
  • Reef Aquarium: Contains marine fish, invertebrates, and corals

A fish-only saltwater aquarium is like any other pet you might have, a dog, cat, or goldfish. Care revolves around the health of the individual animal(s) and keeping fish healthy is pretty straightforward.

A reef aquarium, on the other hand, is quite different in that the care is focused on the entire ecology or microcosm in the tank. The environment as a whole and the roles that all of the various organisms play in that environment are very important in a reef tank. It's more like a science project that involves passion for the reef ecosystem and the willingness to learn and overcome failures. 

2. A "fish-only" saltwater aquarium is easier to maintain than you might think

Keeping a basic saltwater aquarium with fish is quite easy. In some ways, it's even easier than a freshwater tank because, with the right approach, the required maintenance is actually less demanding than most freshwater setups. The use of live rock eliminates the need for messy biological filters and helps maintain sufficient water quality. Simply do your water changes and feed your fish! Additionally, many of the popular saltwater aquarium fish are quite hardy once acclimated to life inside 4 glass walls.

3. A reef tank requires more commitment

A reef tank is more complex because it involves a whole community of animals that need to safely coexist. It will demand more of your time and requires the continual gathering of knowledge and information to be successful.  

Researching a reef tank

4. Reef tanks are not all that difficult if you have the right mentor

The most challenging aspect of keeping a reef is the acquisition of knowledge and understanding how to apply it. The actual maintenance and upkeep of a reef tank are not all that difficult as long as you are armed with the knowledge of what to do and why you're doing it. 

5. Single source of information 

When educating yourself about maintaining a successful aquarium, limit yourself to a single or very uniform source of information. There are many ways to keep a successful aquarium but find someone who has achieved the level of success you desire and follow only their advice. If you attempt to assemble the puzzle with pieces from different boxes, you're never going to finish the puzzle. 

6. Smaller tanks are easier, but larger tanks are more successful

Smaller tanks are easier in terms of the investment and time it takes to set up but, there is a pretty big caveat. Smaller volumes of water change much faster than larger volumes of water, meaning smaller tanks are less forgiving in the way of water quality and maintenance. Skipping a weekly water change in a 10-gallon tank could be the difference between failure and success whereas a 100-gallon tank will show no worse for wear in most scenarios.

In the long run, larger tanks are going to present the largest opportunity for success. Yes, larger tanks are a bigger investment and take more of your time but nothing changes conceptually and you get the benefit of choosing from a wider selection of aquatic pets. Smaller tanks can be quite limiting in terms of the animals suitable for such conditions.

7. The most ideal tank size for new saltwater aquarists is a 40 breeder

There is most certainly a middle ground when it comes to ideal tank sizes. Too small and the tank is super touchy, too big, and you're quickly in over your head ...pun intended. 

A 40-gallon breeder (36" x 18"x 16") is one of the best tank sizes for new tank owners because it's a great dimension for creating an aesthetically appealing aquascape, is large enough for a satisfying selection of fish, and is not incredibly sensitive to lapses in maintenance.  If you prefer an all-in-one aquarium, the Red Sea E170, Fiji Cube 38 Peninsula, and Innovative Marine Mini 40 or 50 Lagoon are very similar water volumes and will offer similar benefits. 

8. Sumps are expensive but can be worth it in the long run

Using a remote sump can really drive up the cost of a new tank build but there are some great benefits over using hang-on equipment or an all-in-one style aquarium. A sump increases the overall water volume which ultimately helps keep the aquarium more stable. You also have plenty of room to discreetly tuck the filtration and life support equipment out of view for a cleaner appearance.  With this extra room, you can use larger, more advanced life support equipment which means the tank will be less dependent upon manual water changes and maintenance. 

Red Sea Aquarium with sump

9. No sump is simple which means successful

In contrast to the previous point, keeping your aquarium simple by design has some great benefits too. While sumps are helpful, they also add complexity which may be intimidating for some new aquarists. A glass box with heater, rock, and pumps is refreshingly simple, very affordable, and can be super successful so long as you maintain a strict maintenance routine. There is a certain level of beauty in these simplistic aquariums and they can be quite attractive for those who simply cannot invest the time required for a larger, more complex aquarium setup.  

10. Tank placement is important

Do not place your aquarium in an area of your home or office where it will not be appreciated on a regular (daily) basis. The out-of-sight, out-of-mind adage almost always rules in this scenario because it is easy to neglect maintenance when your not looking at your tank every day. A tank that is located in a common area with heavy foot traffic is far less likely to be neglected in terms of maintenance. 

11. The end game is creating your own slice of a natural ecosystem

A reef tank is defined as creating a diverse ecosystem complete with living corals, fish, invertebrates, microfauna, algae, and even microbes that are all living in harmony. A saltwater aquarium is much simpler with only fish and microbes; it's less about the community and more about the fish themselves. In either case, you can achieve a stunning display but think about what interests you most before building your new aquarium. Those who appreciate the entire ecology of a reef and are fascinated by the complexity and various niches in the ecosystem will appreciate a reef aquarium for a long time to come. 

While we understand the pursuit of knowledge of any hobby can be intimidating, the best piece of advice we can supply is don't be afraid to learn by doing. The only way you're going to become a confident aquarist is to get out there and do it. Your going to make mistakes, we all do, just take the time to learn and soak up those lessons along the way.