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Building a saltwater aquarium today is easier than it has ever been before. With the right equipment and easy access to good information, you can have your tank set up in a matter of hours.

Keeping a couple of saltwater fish will be no more difficult than any freshwater tank or backyard pond. should you wish to step things up and keep live corals in the tank, that's within reach too, even for a first-timer. Corals simply require a bit more dedication and a few more pieces of equipment. 

New Saltwater Tank Shopping List

Your initial shopping list is quite short, especially if you are just planning to keep a few fish. A 20-gallon tank is a very common starter tank and is all you need for that iconic pair of clownfish.

1) Choose A Location

Pick a practical location in your home where the tank will be enjoyed by your entire family. You don't want to hide the tank away in a basement or somewhere where it can be forgotten.

  • Choose a place with regular foot traffic, hiding the tank away only increases the chances of neglect
  • Do not place the aquarium in direct sunlight to avoid excessive algae growth
  • Avoid the second floor or somewhere it might be more difficult to maintain
  • Be sure you have a power socket within reach to plug in your gear

2) Build And Level The Tank & Stand

The tank and supporting stand need to be perfectly level, front to back and side to side. This is important because trying to level it after the tank has water can be difficult because of the weight. It is best to level the tank immediately before you are ready to install the equipment and fill it up. 

  1. Place tank and stand in its final location.
  2. Use a level to check front to back, side to side, and across corners
  3. Use wooden or plastic shims as necessary

Smaller tanks can safely be placed on countertops, bookshelves, and sturdy cabinets/furniture. Larger tanks need to be on a purpose-built aquarium stand to support the weight. Saltwater weighs roughly 8.6 lbs per gallon of water so the final weight of your tank can stack up quickly.

3) Install Equipment

Be sure to use a surge protector and securely mount it up off of the ground onto the tank stand or on the wall; somewhere it won't get splashed with water.  Your tank will require at least one or two dedicated wall sockets. Do not plug in your equipment until the tank is full of water and ready to go. 

It's ok to take your time arranging the rocks, experiment with different formations or stacks to see what looks best. Adding some faux corals or decorations is a great way to add some flair to the tank and help create a more comfortable environment for your fish.

  1. Install rocks and sand
  2. Install pumps, filters, heaters, and lighting
  3. Organize and secure power cords so they are not dangerous or exposed

4) Mix Saltwater

It's best to mix saltwater in a separate container. A 5-gallon bucket works just fine and is manageable in terms of picking it up and carrying it. You can just as easily buy premixed saltwater from a local fish store too using 5-gallon plastic carboy style jugs. Be sure to keep the threaded caps for mess-free transport!  

  • Always use filtered RO/DI water to mix with the dry salt mix. You can buy RO/DI water if you do not have an RO/DI filter at home.
  • A small powerhead/pump in the bucket helps to thoroughly dissolve the salt mix and oxygenate the water.
  • A heater can be used in the bucket to bring the water up to the appropriate temperature of 76-78° F but is not mandatory.
  • Follow the mixing instructions for the salt mix you have; usually somewhere around 1/2 cup of salt mix per gallon of freshwater.
  • Check the salinity level using a refractometer or glass hydrometer. 
  • If you need to raise the salinity level, add a little more salt. If you need to lower the salinity, add a little more fresh filtered RO/DI water.

Learn More: Mixing Saltwater For An Aquarium - FAQs

5) Fill The Tank

When the time comes to fill the tank, go slowly. You want to avoid just dumping the water directly on the sand as that will just cause a mess. Pouring the water directly on the rocks can help diffuse the flow. You can also lay a plate down on the top of the sand then just pour the water onto the plate until you get enough water in the tank to safely fill it without stirring up the sand.

The next step is to begin your cycle which is the process of growing beneficial bacteria and making the aquarium safe for fish. Adding a bacteria additive will help jump-start this process and it will take some time (up to 4 weeks) for the cycle to complete. Check out the article below for more details about the cycle process and step-by-step instructions. 

Learn More: How to Cycle a Saltwater Tank: Tips To Help You Succeed with Your New Aquarium

Learn More: How Much Does It Cost To Build A Saltwater Aquarium?