When considering setting up a marine fish aquarium, it is important to get a starting list of items that will be needed to properly set up the aquarium.  There are many items that are needed for a tank to be properly set up and some that are not needed, but are nice to have for the tank.  We will start off discussing items that are a must have and then discuss some items that can be used to make the tank function better or create a more stable environment for the fish.

Must have items:

1. Tank, hood and stands:

Obviously a fish tank will be needed, but do not forget about a hood and a stand or very strong/stable base to put the tank on.  When choosing a tank size, it is important to take into account the type of fish you are planning on keeping, the space available to put the tank and your budget.  Generally speaking, go with the largest tank you can fit in the space the tank will be and that fits in the budget.  If you have your heart set on certain fish, such as Tangs or large Angels you will want to get a tank of at least 150 gallons.  If you are just looking at keeping some clownfish, gobies and dwarf angels a tank of around 30 gallons or larger will be fine.

A hood will be needed to help prevent fish from jumping out of the tank and will also generally include a light to illuminate the tank.  There are a variety of hoods available including plastic tops, glass canopies and wood canopies.  You will just want to find the top that works best for your tank.

The stand is a very important part of the tank.  It will be holding all the weight of the tank.  Remember a gallon of freshwater weights approximately 8.33 pounds, and saltwater will weigh slightly more.  So a 100 gallon tank will weight over 800 lbs from just the weight of the water.  An unstable or uneven stand or base can cause a tank to leak or crack.

2. Filtration System:

There are many types of filters that work well for a saltwater aquarium.  One of the best types for a fish only set up is a wet/dry filter.  These filters are very efficient at breaking down the waste product of the fish which is ammonia to nitrite to the final, less harmful nitrate.  Then through water changes on the tank, the nitrate levels can be kept low.  Wet/dry filters are also sometimes referred to as trickle filters due to the way they work.  They use a biological media that is not submerged in water, rather water is “trickled” over the media helping to keep oxygen levels higher in the tank.  The bacteria colonize the media and use oxygen from the air to aid them in breaking down the waste produced by the fish.

If you are using a wet/dry filter that sits below the tank, you will need a return pump to push water back to the main tank.  There are a few considerations when choosing the correct pump.  The first decision to be made is do you want an external or submersible pump?  Both have their advantages and disadvantages to them.

A couple of the disadvantages of the external pumps include that they will require a little extra plumbing from the filter and you will want to make sure all seals are leak-free to avoid any messes.  Also external pumps usually cost more than submersible pumps.  One last disadvantage to the external pumps is that they will require more space next to the filter. If space under the tank is limited, this could pose a big problem. Some of the advantages of the external pumps include they will have a wider range of flow rates available for all sized aquariums.  Also most external pumps transfer very little heat back to the water allowing for a cooler running tank.

Submersible pumps also have some disadvantages such as they will transfer heat to the water as a means of cooling themselves.  Another disadvantage of the submersible pumps is that they are limited in the flow rates available.  Although there are some that have a higher flow rate, many times these pumps are quite large to be placed in a filter.  Some of the advantages of the submersible pumps include ease of plumbing them into the systems and the less likely chance of the pump causing a water leak.  One last advantage to submersible pumps is that they come in a wide variety of flow rates for even the smallest aquariums.

Another consideration when choosing a return pump is the flow rate for the pump.  The first item you will need to find out is what flow rate your overflow will handle.  If your pump is too powerful for your overflow, you will risk the chance of overflowing your tank.  You will need to match up the overflow’s flow rate to the flow rate of your pump.  For example if your overflow can handle 1200 gallons per hour (gph), you will want to get a pump that will be pumping a maximum of 1200 gph to the aquarium.  A generally recommendation for a fish tank is to have a turn over rate of approximately 5-10 times the water volume per hour.  For an average 50 gallon tank, this would equate to a flow rate of 250 to 500 gallons per hour.  If your overflow can only handle a small amount of this flow, you can use powerheads or a closed loop to help increase the flow within the tank.

Other types of filters that can be used for saltwater aquariums include Hang on the Back style (HOB) or canister filters.  Most HOB filters are not suitable for saltwater aquariums due to the lack of surface area for bacteria to attach to.  Many have just a single cartridge that needs to be changed monthly.  But there are a few that will use a separate media or cartridge that does not get changed monthly for the bacteria to colonize.  Many canister filters work well for saltwater aquariums, especially ones that have separate chambers for media to be placed in.  This will allow the media for biological filtration to be left uninterrupted when changing the other parts of the filter. The manufacturer Eheim even has a wet/dry canister filter that is ideal for saltwater tanks.

One other type of filter that can and should be used in addition to wet/dry, HOB or canister filters is a protein skimmer.  A protein skimmer is one of the most important components of a saltwater aquarium. It removes organic pollutants before they break down which, in turn, helps to keep a higher water quality for your fish and thus reduces the frequency of water changes required.  There are many types of skimmer available in all different sizes.

Lastly, although this will also fall under decorations, the use of liverock can be very beneficial to a saltwater tank.  Liverock is rock that has been harvested from the ocean in areas such as Fiji and the Marshall Islands.  The rock will provide a number of different uses, but most importantly it will act as a biological filter in the tank.  The rock is very porous and within the pores bacteria will dwell aiding in the breakdown of fish wastes.

3. Heater and Thermometer

Most saltwater fish that are kept by hobbyist are from tropical regions, therefore need warm water to survive in our aquariums.  Most saltwater fish kept require a stable temperature between 76 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit.  The use of a heater or multiple heaters will be able to help keep the temperature from getting to low.

There many different types of heaters available by different manufactures.  The first two types of heaters include submersible heaters and non-submersible heaters.  Submersible heaters, like the name implies, are able to be completely submerged underwater including the cord going into the unit and the temperature dial.  The other style of heater, the non-submersible heaters, will hang on the back of the aquarium with part of the heater (the glass tube) submerged in the water and the temperature dial and cord completely on the outside.  Generally speaking the submersible heaters are the preferred choice for marine aquariums.  They tend to be more accurate and dependable than the hang on the tank heaters.

Within the submersible heaters you will find two different styles available, glass and titanium.  The glass heaters use a heating element inside a sealed glass tube to warm the water.  The titanium heaters use a titanium rod that is submerged in the water for heating.  Both styles are very efficient at heating the water.

4. Salt, hydrometer and/or refractometer

Obviously to make saltwater, you need salt.  There are many different manufacturers of synthetic sea salt that one can purchase.  This synthetic salt is mixed with conditioned tap water or better yet purified (such as reverse osmosis or reverse osmosis/de-ionized) water to make up saltwater for your aquarium.  Although the manufacturers will let you know how much salt to put in per gallon of water, you will still want a way to measure the actual salt content in the water.  By using a hydrometer or a refractometer you are able to find out how much salt is in the water.  Ideally most saltwater tank will run best with a specific gravity of 1.020 to 1.025 or a specific gravity of 26-33 ppt.

Although the hydrometer will be less expensive than a refractometer, it also tends to be a little bit less accurate especially as it gets older.  Salts and residue will eventually start to build up on the hydrometer that could alter its readings.  A refractometer will be one of the best ways to measure the salt levels in your tank.

5. Sand/gravel and decorations

A majority of marine aquariums keepers are using an aragonite based sand or fine gravel for their tanks.  Generally these are the best choice when setting the tank.  The aragonite is a calcium based substrate that will slowly dissolve over time helping to raise the pH in the aquarium.  Since saltwater aquariums need a high pH (in the range of 8.0-8.4) the slow dissolution of the substrate can be very beneficial for the tank.

There are a wide variety of decorations that are available for use in a saltwater aquarium.  One choice is the use of liverock to decorate, or aquascape as it is referred to, your tank.  Liverock is rock that has been harvested from the ocean in places like Fiji and the Marshall Islands as mentioned earlier.  The rock will have very unique shapes and come in a variety of sizes.  The liverock can be stacked in the tank to create caves, tunnels and over hangs for the fish to swim through.  The combinations are endless to how you want to aquascape the rock in your aquarium.  Although the rock is harvested in a way to minimize any environmental impact, there are some people who do not want to use this rock as they feel even the minimal impact is too much.  There is now an alternative for these people.  There are a few companies that are now making artificial, or man made, liverock.  The rock is made on dry land, then put in the ocean for a set amount of time.  During this time the rock will become overgrown with micro and macro organisms, making it “live”.  Then the rock is harvested back out of the ocean and is ready for use in aquariums.

Liverock is not for everyone though.  For those people who do not like the look of liverock, there are some nice alternatives to choose from.  For starters there are synthetic corals available for use in the aquarium.  These will come in a variety of colors and will look very similar to live corals found in the ocean.  Also available are plastic and silk plants that mimic the look of different types of alga and seaweeds found in nature.  One of the only disadvantages of the artificial corals and the plastic and silk plants is that they will require monthly cleanings to help rid them of algae that will grow on them.

A final and the worst choice for decorating a saltwater tank is the use of dead, bleach or painted skeletons of corals.  Although there are some companies that will only collect already dead coral skeletons that have washed up on shore, others will kill live corals just for their use as a decoration.  Beside the fact that these do not look natural in a tank, there are too many better alternatives for decorating an aquarium to keep using these.

6. Test Kits

It is essential to know the water parameters of your tank at all times.  By doing weekly testing, you can avoid purchasing a new fish for your aquarium when the water is not properly cycled for the fish.  The four most important test kits that should be used are ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and pH.  Both ammonia and nitrite are harmful to fish, especially at the high pH needed in a saltwater aquarium.  When a tank is first set up it needs to go through a cycle.  The cycling of a tank is the process of beneficially bacteria forming in the biological media to break down the fish waste, ammonia and nitrite, into the less harmful nitrate.  This is called the nitrogen cycle.  This cycle normally takes 3-6 weeks to complete itself.  It is very important to test weekly for ammonia, nitrite, nitrates and pH in a new tank.  Once the tank has fully cycled, testing for the ammonia and nitrite can be reduced to every other week or once a month.  But nitrate and the pH should still be tested weekly.  If the tests for the nitrates or the pH are off, you will know this is a good time to perform a water change.  For a fish only system, nitrates should be maintained below 25 ppm and the pH should be kept between 8.0-8.5.  Ammonia and nitrites should be undetectable.

7. Food

There are a wide variety of foods available for your fish including flake, pellets, freeze dried and frozen foods.  Different fish will have different dietary needs, so you will want to research (hopefully before you purchase the animal) what type of food your fish will require.  From there you will be able to choose the appropriate food for them.  Variety is the best option for your fish also, so keep different types of food on hand and mix up their diets daily.

8. Powerheads/Water Movement

Saltwater fish come from areas where the water is in constant motion.  It is a good idea to try to simulate this within the aquarium.  One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is through the use of powerheads.  A powerhead is simply a water pump that can be placed in the aquarium to create water movement.  The use of multiple powerheads positioned in different areas of the aquarium can also create random and chaotic flow.  Another benefit to the increased water flow is it will cause debris to stay in suspension in the water column allowing the filter to trap the debris.  One last benefit is that the extra water movement will allow for better gas exchange between the aquarium and the atmosphere.  By aiming one of the outputs of a powerhead towards the surface of the water, it will allow carbon dioxide to be released from the water into the atmosphere and oxygen to enter the water from the atmosphere.

Optional Items:

1. Books

These should probably go under the necessary items needed, but with all the information that can be found on the internet, it will be listed under optional supplies.  With that being said, I still feel everyone should own at least one book.  Some good topics for books to own include ones on the general care of a marine tank, such as The Conscientious Marine Aquarist by Robert Fenner or The New Marine Aquarium by Michael S. Paletta, and ones about the fish themselves, such as PocketExpert Guide: Marine Fishes by Scott W. Michael or World Atlas of Marine Fishes by Rudie Kuiter and Helmut Debelius.  Many hobbyist will bring along a fish book, such as Scott Michaels book when they shop for their fish.  That way if they aren’t sure if a fish is a good choice for their tank, they can double check if it is suitable.

2.  Reverse Osmosis (RO) or Reverse Osmosis/Deionizing (RO/DI) tap water filter

Although there are a few lucky people with water that is very pure straight from the tap, the majority have moderate to high levels of dissolved solids (measured as Total Dissolved Solids) in their water.  The use of a TDS meter can let you know how good or bad your water is.  Ideally the TDS readings should be as close to zero as possible.  The use of an RO filtering system can remove 98-99% of all pollutants and using an RO/DI filter can remove 99.9% of impurities from your water.  This can be very important to the overall health and success in your aquarium.

Two of the main nutrients that can be found in tap water that can cause some concern are nitrates and phosphates.  Both nitrates and phosphates can cause excessive algae growth with in the aquarium.  By eliminating these nutrients before they can reach your tank, you are able to reduce the chance of excessive algae growth.

3. Chiller

During the summer months overheating of the tank can become a concern.  Even though fish can tolerate warmer temperatures, constant high temperatures can stress the fish leading to diseases and/or death.  Also the warmer the water the less oxygen it is able to hold.  If your tank temperature gets above 82-84 degrees Fahrenheit, a chiller might be a good investment for your tank.

4. UV Sterilizer

The use of an ultraviolet (UV) sterilizer can also be very beneficial to the overall health of your fish.  When properly set up a UV sterilizer can help reduce the risk of parasites, such as ich, outbreaks in the aquarium.  Also the sterilizer can help prevent the outbreak of free floating alga in the tank.  Free floating alga is more commonly seen in freshwater tanks, but can also happen in saltwater environments also.

5. Ozonizer

Sometime people will have a difficult time keeping the water in their aquarium as clear as they would like it to be.  Despite doing water changes and using carbon they still find the water has a slight tint to it.  This is where the use of an ozonizer can help out.  An ozonizer will help clear up the water to almost look like the fish are floating in air while swimming through the aquarium.  Basically ozone will help to raise the Oxidation-Reduction Potential (ORP).  With higher ORP levels, dissolved organics in the water that cause the discoloring are able to get broken down more efficiently.

The best way to introduce ozone into the aquarium is pumping it into a protein skimmer that is made of ozone safe materials.  Ozone can actually deteriorate some plastics and acrylic, so caution must be used when introducing ozone to the aquarium.  It is also suggested to use a controller to monitor the ORP in your aquarium.  The controller will turn off the ozonizer if the ORP levels get too high.  Lastly ozone can be harmful to humans and animals if levels get too high.  The use of carbon to absorb any ozone that escapes the system is a good precaution to take.

6. Wavemakers

As mentioned before, marine fish enjoy lots of water movement.  One way to increase the random and chaotic patterns of the powerheads in the aquarium is to use a wavemaker.  A wavemaker will turn on and off the powerheads allowing for different flow patterns depending on which powerhead is running.  Once caution about using a wavemaker with powerheads is to make the powerheads you are using are suitable for use with a wavemaker.  Certain powerheads, such as the Aquarium System’s Maxi-Jet powerheads work well with wavemakers.  While other brands “freeze up” due to the constant turning on and off by the wavemaker.

The Good and the Bad of Equipment

Using high quality equipment will go much farther in your success in keeping a marine aquarium.  Saving a couple of bucks here and there might look good on paper, but when the potential for that equipment to fail is higher are you truly saving in the long run?  While there are exceptions, generally speaking you get what you pay for in this hobby.

Research is your friend in this hobby.  With all the tools available to hobbyist now, there is no reason anyone can not find out everything they want to know about the quality of a particular piece of equipment.  Using all the resources available to you from the internet, to the customer service reps at Marine Depot, to your local fish club you will be able to find out everything you want to know.

It is very important to remember to have patience in this hobby.  Go slow, research your purchases and have patience.  In this hobby it seems bad things happen fast, but good things happen slow.  You are likely to hit some bumps in the road in this hobby despite all the research you have done.  With time, these bumps will disappear and the tank will get to where you want it.  Patience truly is a virtue in this hobby.  Now go enjoy your new tank!