How to Start a Saltwater Aquarium – The Beginner’s Guide

Our last article talked about starting an aquarium in general. There was also the mention of two types of aquariums: freshwater aquarium and saltwater aquarium. Today, we are diving deeper into the topic and focusing on how to start a saltwater aquarium.

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Saltwater aquariums are live replicas of the marine ecosystem. These require higher resource investment and maintenance when compared with freshwater systems.

Let’s dive right in to understand what goes into starting a saltwater aquarium.


There are mainly three types of saltwater aquariums – fish only, fish with live rock, and reef system.

Fish-only aquariums

Fish-only aquariums are the simplest ones to start. They typically are free from much of the other marine elements like reefs and corals along with rocks and invertebrates. A fish-only setup can be complete with just the fish, the substrate (tank bed setting), filtration, and heating systems. Due to the lack of additional elements, they are very easy to set up and affordable. There's a lack of visual in this configuration with only the fishes being the main center of attraction.

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Fish with live rocks

Fish with live rocks setup promises a bit of the panache that the fish-only system lack. Incorporating live rocks serves dual purposes:

  • Enhancing the visual appeal
  • Help in the filtration of water (biological filtration)

With the live rocks, you get pronounced aquatic greenery. This setup is suitable if you want a compromise between the fish-only system and the reef system.

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Reef systems

Reef systems are the best form of marine life presentation. The mixture of fishes moving around within the confined artificial marine environment comprising of various rocks, reefs, corals, and invertebrates is a pleasure to the eye. A reef system shines the best in your drawing room while being displayed.

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Whatever the budget, if you want real oceanic life view, go for reef aquarium systems.

Briefing of Aquarium Elements

Mainly, there are three essential elements to a saltwater aquarium setup, namely:

  • The inhabitants (fish)
  • The enclosure (aquarium tank), and
  • The support system (elements like filtration, heating, and lighting)

These three elements are vital for any marine aquarium to come alive.

The inhabitants (fish)

You can rarely go wrong with your choice of fish unless you are thinking of hosting multiple species. If that's the case, then you need to check their compatibility to avoid injury or even dead fish.

The enclosure (aquarium tank)

Before going shopping for your aquarium tank, first, assess the space where you intend to have the aquarium. Remember, saltwater aquariums are quite massive; not something you would be able to or should be moving around. Measure the space to get a rough idea of the shape and size of the aquarium you are going to need. Also, make plans for the aquarium stand. The stand needs to be strong to withstand the heavy load of the saltwater aquarium.

The support system

This entire system is responsible for sustaining a suitable environment for your fishes to live in. The support system comprises of the following subsystems:


It is the heart of the aquarium, being primarily responsible for removing the harmful elements from the water. A good filtration system ensures the well-being of your aqua buddies. You do get some options, each having their pros and cons. Learn about the filtration systems and then make an informed decision.

Heating system and thermometer

Your marine buddies need adequate warmth for maintaining good health. An aquarium heating system along with thermometer helps you to do that. The heating system raises the water temperature to the required level, and the thermometer helps keep track of the temperature.


The illumination systems provide light for aquarium setup thereby helping two causes:

  • Acting as a light source for the marine system
  • Help enhance the visual appeal of the aquarium

There are numerous illumination options, but LED setups are the most efficient.


A powerhead is solely responsible for circulating water around your saltwater aquarium. Aquariums lack the natural oceanic water movement. A powerhead helps to achieve this water movement which is necessary for sustaining the natural ambiance of your artificial marine ecosystem.

Protein skimmer

Protein skimmers complement the filtration system and make their work much more relaxed. It acts on the dissolved ‘protein' and separates it from the water thus cleaning the water in the aquarium. Protein skimmers for dummies is an excellent place to acquaint yourself with these cleaning agents.

Sea salt mix/saltwater and hydrometer

Salt is the only thing that transforms freshwater into saltwater/marine water, and there's a specific amount to it. The artificially maintained water in the marine aquarium needs an appropriate amount of salt content. The salt content of water is examined by measuring the specific gravity of the water. A hydrometer helps to measure the specific gravity of the water.


The substrate forms the ‘ocean bed' in your saltwater aquarium setup. Here too you get a lot of options, but you need to consider some factors, especially weight and size.

Know more about what substrates are and what to look for when buying substrates.

Live rocks

Live rocks aren't actually alive. They aren't even rocks. Live rocks are the calcium carbonate skeletons of dead corals and other calcareous organisms. They host numerous forms of microscopic and macroscopic organisms which are responsible for performing biological filtration of the saltwater in the aquarium.

Preparing the saltwater

  1. The saltwater in your aquarium needs to have a particular specific gravity and temperature concerning the marine life you intend to host.
  2. Take the required amount of water in a container. Use water from a clean source.
  3. Place the powerhead and heater as close to the bottom as possible, inside the tank.
  4. Turn on the powerhead and the heater. If set correctly, you should see small turbulences on the water surface, else adjust the position of the powerhead.
  5. Add salt to the water. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for the exact amount of sea salt required for the amount of water you have in the tank. Mix the salt in multiple batches (minimum three batches).
  6. Test the specific gravity of water using a hydrometer. Then add more salt or water as per the requirement. The specific gravity of the aquarium water should be in between 1020 and 1024. If it's below 1020, add more salt and if it's above 1024, add more water.
  7. Let the saltwater sit for 24 hours with the powerhead switched on.
  8. After 24 hours, again check the salinity and temperature of the saltwater. If required, add salt or water to achieve suitable salinity and temperature.
  9. If everything’s good, pour the water into the aquarium.

How to start saltwater aquarium – the process

  1. Clean the tank, substrate, and rocks with warm water. Avoid using soap or any other cleaning agents.
  2. Arrange the substrate and rocks inside the tank.
  3. Set the filtration system in place. In some cases, like under the bed filtration system, you might have to initially lay the pipe structure before setting up the substrate and rock layer.
  4. Set the powerhead inside the tank. Place it at close to the bottom of the tank as possible to allow proper water circulation inside the tank.
  5. Install the heating system. Set up the system in a way that the heating element lies near to the water flow, helping in faster and uniform heating of the water. Set the thermometer as far as possible from the heating element.
  6. Set the protein skimmer in place.
  7. Add saltwater to the tank. Make sure there is no strong water flow, else it will disturb the substrate bed.
  8. Prime the filtration pump.
  9. Switch on the filtration system and powerhead.
  10. Let the water ‘cycle’ around the tank for some time.
  11. Examine the water condition once again after cycling.
  12. If the water quality is good, introduce the fishes. Else, start over again until you make the aquarium water suitable for the fishes.


  • Do not use any cleaning agent for cleaning the aquarium equipment. Only use warm water.
  • Use water for the aquarium from a clean source.
  • Do not buy fish without having proper knowledge about them.
  • In case of hosting multiple species, ensure that they are compatible with each other before buying them.
  • Do not overfeed the fishes.
  • Perform regular water changes.
  • Clean a section of the substrate at a time, do not go for entire substrate layer cleaning.
  • Monitor the temperature and salinity of water regularly.
  • Get the water tested in intervals to prevent the risk of parasites and diseases.

Saltwater aquariums are a bit demanding which can be sometimes overwhelming for a beginner. Aquarium kits provide a simpler option for enthusiasts who want a saltwater aquarium with the least amount of time investment. That said, you would be very much rewarded for your efforts by starting an attractive saltwater aquarium that keeps turning heads around. Also, through the process, you will get to learn new things and add experience to your fishkeeping journey.

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As a beginner, keep things simple. Remember, an aquarium consists of three basic elements – inhabitant (fish), enclosure (tank) and the support system. Once you have all the things in place, it is just a matter of sustaining the setup through regular cleaning and maintenance.

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