How to Set up a Saltwater Aquarium
Place the aquarium where it will be appreciated on a daily basis and is easy to access for maintenance. Small aquariums like the Eshopps 3.8 gallon DeskMate can be placed atop a desk, counter, bookshelf, end table, or dresser and don't require a dedicated aquarium stand. Just be sure the furniture is sturdy enough to hold about 50 pounds.
All-in-one aquariums, in general, are very easy to assemble. The pump is placed in the rear pump chamber and is attached to flexible tubing through which water travels back into the front display aquarium via a nozzle. Place the heater in the middle chamber and set it to 78° F but don't plug it in yet! This goes for the pump too, you need water in the tank before you can apply power to any of the equipment. The final step is to place any filter media into the rear filtration and add the filter sock or filter pads.
Live sand is unique to saltwater aquariums and contains live nitrifying bacteria to help promote beneficial bacteria growth in your new aquarium. Add 3-5 lbs or just enough to cover the bottom of the aquarium in a 1-2" layer of live sand. Live sand should not be rinsed and can be added directly from the bag into your aquarium. Be sure that you are ready to add rock and saltwater immediately after adding the sand.
The rock provides a habitat for fish and other critters but also serves as a biological filter. The dry rock will turn into "live rock" as beneficial bacteria grow upon its surfaces through the aquarium cycle process. Do not allow the rock to touch the walls of your aquarium and do your best to create an interesting structure. Super glue gel is a suitable adhesive and larger rocks can be broken using a chisel and hammer.
Get filtered RO water from the grocery store water dispenser or RO/DI water from your local fish store to mix up some saltwater. Use a pitcher to slowly pour saltwater onto the rocks which will help diffuse turbulence and ultimately reduce the initial cloudiness caused by the sand. Fill the tank completely and be sure the back chambers are full. The water level in the rear pump chamber should be about 2-3" from the top rim of the tank and the pump should be completely submerged. Take note of this water level as this will be important to maintain at all times.
Live nitrifying bacteria will help jump-start the nitrogen cycle in your new aquarium and make it safe to add fish. Fish waste contains toxic ammonia and this nitrifying bacteria eats that ammonia so the fish will not succumb to poisoning from their own waste. Over time, this beneficial bacteria will naturally grow and cover all of the surfaces inside your tank including the sand, rock, and bio-media.
Once you fill the tank, it is safe to turn on the pump and aquarium heater. Live sand will typically include a small package of water clarifier solution which is safe to add directly into the aquarium water. After 24 hours, the cloudy water should clear up considerably and it is a good idea to verify the water temperature is within the ideal range of 78° F using an aquarium thermometer.
Corals can be added to the aquarium right away and they are not susceptible to ammonia poisoning like fish. You can adhere fragments of coral directly to the aquascape using a combination of epoxy and superglue gel. Remember, corals are photosynthetic animals and you will need to supply sufficient lighting. Using a timer to keep the lights on for 8-10 hours per day will suffice for most soft corals and LPS in this small aquarium.
It is never a good idea to overstock your aquarium and fish should always be added slowly. In this case, one small fish like a clownfish will be just right in this small tank and can safely be added to the aquarium. The live nitrifying bacteria you added should keep the fish safe from ammonia poisoning. You can also consider some small invertebrates like a hermit crab, cleaner shrimp, and/or Astrea snail to help scavenge the tank for leftover food and eat any algae that begin to grow.
In a small tank like this, maintenance will only take a few minutes each day. Feed your fish just enough fish food to consume in under 1 minute's time and any leftover food will be scavenged by the hermit crab. You will also need to top off the aquarium with fresh water on a daily basis to replenish the water that is lost due to evaporation. Just keep an eye on the water level in the rear pump chamber and fill the tank daily USING FRESHWATER to maintain that constant water level. Algae that begins to grow on the walls should be wiped clean daily as well.
Removing 10% of the saltwater on a weekly basis is important for maintaining stability in the aquarium. In small tanks, it's easy to just use a pitcher to remove 1 gallon of water at a time and then replace it with clean SALTWATER. Perform this water exchange every day or at a similar frequency to avoid running into poor water quality. Clean and replace the filter sock on a weekly basis to maintain water clarity and the efficient removal of excess waste.