When setting up a saltwater aquarium, the most important thing to understand is the nitrogen cycle.
A healthy saltwater tank needs a balanced foundation of nitrates and ammonia.
The Nitrogen Cycle
When you add food to your tank, the fish eat the bulk of it. Any food that’s left over floats to the floor and decomposes, releasing nitrogen.
When fish metabolize the food, they produce excrement which contains ammonia. Over the next 10 days, nitrifying bacteria convert ammonia to nitrites. These are harmful to fish. The nitrites then convert to nitrates over the course of 2 to 6 weeks.
New Tank Syndrome
New tank syndrome is where the ammonia levels and nitrate levels get too high in a new tank and kill your fish. Your tank filter needs to develop the right levels of bacteria to filter the ammonia and nitrates from the water.
Your tank filter contains filtering materials called media. Biological media (natural materials such as small stones) and mechanical media (sponge, cartridges containing sponge filters). If the bacteria haven’t developed enough, the filter won’t be capable of filtering the water causing unhealthy levels of ammonia and nitrates.
Before you start your tank, you’ll need to do some planning. You’ll need to take into account the time it takes for the bacteria to develop in your filter before you start introducing fish.
What Tank Should I Choose?
The tank that suits you best will depend on your personal preference, and how much room you have to fit a tank.
Many people go for a nano tank first, which is a very small tank that holds around 30 liters or less. The problem with nano tanks is that if anything goes wrong in the tank, there is so little room that it can contaminate the rest of the tank quickly.
If you have the space and the budget, go as large as you can, this will make it easier to maintain a healthy saltwater aquarium.
Where Should I Place My Tank?
Avoid placing your tank in direct sunlight as this will encourage growth of algae which will make the glass of your tank look dirty.
Your tank should be situated somewhere that doesn’t have big temperature changes, so keep it away from any radiators, air conditioning units or draughty doorways.
It’s vital that your tank is dead on horizontal, you can use a spirit level to check that it’s bang on straight. Avoid inserting anything directly underneath the tank to level the tank, this can weaken the glass and cause the tank to break.
Filling Your Tank
Once you’ve purchased your tank, you’re ready to start adding rocks. You don’t need live rocks, any type of aquarium rock will do. Types of rock suited to saltwater aquariums are dry live rock, man made rock or quarried rock.
When landscaping your rock, it’s a good idea to plan it before it goes in the tank. You can do this by marking out with masking tape the dimensions of the tank on the floor. Then take your rock and arrange them in a way that looks pleasing. When you’re happy with your design, you can then transfer it to the tank.
You can choose any substrate. Live sand isn’t necessary although many would argue that it is. Other options include crushed coral, pool filter sand, children’s play sand, or black gravel substrate which is striking to look at. When you add the substrate make sure to fill it to a thickness of around 2 inches.
Here’s some basic equipment you’ll need to get started…
A sound filtration system is crucial for a healthily balanced tank. You can opt for a hang-on type filter or an external filter. If you have the space, going for an external filter will always be the better choice. While they might have the same flow rate, an external filter will contain a lot more media, giving it more filtering power.
To set up the filter, remove all parts from their plastic packaging. Then rinse any biological media so there is no excess dust. Then assemble the media baskets and close the lid.
An aquarium powerhead creates water flow around a tank. If you have one at either end, you’ll end up with a nice flow of water.
Once you’ve placed your equipment in the tank it’s time to fill the tank with water.
At some point you’ll need to purchase a protein skimmer, which skims waste from the tank before it has a chance to release nitrates. Protein skimmers are essential for saltwater aquariums as they keep nitrate levels down. When you do purchase a skimmer, opt for one that is slightly bigger for your tank.
Saltwater aquariums should ideally be kept between 75F and 78F. Heat fluctuations in the tank will cause distress to your fish and lead to disease and algae. It’s worth investing a bit more in a heater to ensure that it is reliable.
You’ll need a strip light with a timer incorporated into the hood of your fish tank. Your fish will need 8 hours of darkness every night so choose a light with a timer.
Preparing The Water
The ingredients needed for a saltwater aquarium include:
- A salt mix
- An empty bucket
- A pump or powerhead
- A hydrometer
As you’ll be doing a weekly water change with your tank, it’s crucial you get this step right. You’ll need to do a 10% water change every week.
Start with a bucket of water, and submerge the powerhead in the water. Add the salt mixture to the bucket according to the manufacturer’s instructions. It will be around half a cup per gallon.
Switch the powerhead on and let it mix for at least 6 hours to ensure that the salt is dissolved. When the salt is completely dissolved, use your hydrometer to measure the gravity of the tank.
Hydrometers measure salinity. There are two main types on the market, the floating hydrometer and a type that you dip in and fill with water. The salinity level you’re going for will depend on the type of fish you’re keeping.
When you’ve filled your tank with water turn on the filters, light, heater and powerheads to kickoff the nitrogen process. It will take around 6 weeks for the tank to cycle and achieve the right levels before you add any fish. If you add fish before it will harm them.
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