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SW Tank Startup - Thinking things through


AC Moderators
While there are thousands articles available online and numerous of threads (and stickies) right here in this forum where newbies can gather much of the information they need to get started, I thought it might be helpful to start a series of threads that will hopefully help AC members looking to move into the addictive world of saltwater/reef keeping. My hope is to keep the lingo and the concepts simple and leave the more technical aspects of the hobby to the wide range of references that already exist out there. I do tend to ramble myself so hopefully I can stay on topic! I hope that everyone finds these threads useful and that others will chime in with their own thoughts and experiences.

First off, I just want to say that owning a saltwater tank can be one of the most rewarding experiences an animal lover or natural science geeks (like myself) can have. The fact that we can contain and observe marine life and the many symbiotic relationships that exist in nature is truly a privilege and one that should not be taken for granted.

Keeping a marine tank can sometimes be a challenge. Those challenges might occur right up front while the tank is cycling or they may present themselves off and on down the road. Additionally, these challenges can sometimes come with a financial cost. Even a 75% emergency water change can run you upwards of $30 in salt mix depending on the overall volume of your system. If you are not the type of person that is willing to take on those challenges in order to provide a proper environment, a marine tank may not be right for you. Obsessive compulsive people are perfect for this hobby!

The above kind of ties into the overall cost of to start a marine tank. Next to “what is this thing on my new live rock?” one of the most common questions I see all over the internet is “so how much is this all gonna cost me?”. Unfortunately, the most common response to that question is “it depends”. Saltwater tanks can be incredibly simple or fairly complex when it comes to the equipment one uses to support their tank. Besides obvious things like getting a steal off craigslist versus buying a brand new system from your LFS, the cost of the system really boils down to the animals that a hobbyist wishes to keep. There are so many animals we can choose from, all with varying requirements, and it is often quite difficult to provide an environment that will ensure every animal’s long-term survival. While you don’t have to lock in a stock list, it is highly beneficial to decide a rough direction you want your tank to go before you start to compile your equipment. Having a general idea of what livestock interests you should also help to save you some money by preventing quick upgrades to things like pumps, powerheads, filtration and lighting. Maybe you know you want a fish only tank with live rock (FOWLR)? Maybe a reef? Or possibly a species tank like a clownfish/anemone display? Either way, knowing this going into the purchase phase will payout huge down the road.

Once you decide the tanks direction, the next thing to do is to research what those animals need to not just survive but also thrive in captivity. I find it very helpful to not only look for this information on forums like AC but also to see what I can find on the animal’s behavior in the wild. For example, knowing that you have selected corals that are naturally found in shallow water gives you a pretty good idea that those corals like high light and probably get a fair amount of water flow. Just google it, it’s out there somewhere I promise you!


AC Moderators

So you know what you want and now it’s time to pull everything together. This is where you can make some costly mistakes. Unfortunately, the big box stores simply don’t cater to us on the salty side. Of course they have the basics like tanks, cabinets, heaters and power/canister filters (more on these later) but they rarely carry quality equipment like pumps, powerheads and lighting or supplies we need like quality salt mixes, media and supplements (if needed). This means we often need to look to local specialty shops or online retailers to get the good stuff and unfortunately (like any other niche industry) that typically results in a higher price tag. To even things out, hobbyists can often find deals on used equipment or sometimes even entire systems through sources like craigslist, classified ads or local reef clubs. If you happen to come across an entire system for sale that includes livestock, you should not purchase it unless you are comfortable with the previous tank husbandry and as previously mentioned, a thorough understanding of how care for the animals you will inherit in the process. Everything from the quality of live rock to the age of the bulbs in the light fixture should be considered. If you know that water changes were done using tap water and the rock is already covered in hair algae, chances are you’re going to spend a lot of time and money correcting that. Every attempt should be made to buy equipment once and not realize 2 months down the road that the $20 you saved at the big box store really ended up costing you a lot more after having to buy replacement equipment that actually benefits your system.

Another thing to keep mind when considering the upfront cost is that you don’t have to have a laboratory grade system from the get go. Setting a tank up to cycle can be as simple as the tank, stand, good quality saltwater (made with RO/DI), quality live rock and/or dry rock, water circulation and a maybe a heater. With few exceptions, items like lighting, skimmers, reactors, and controllers will not be needed until the tank is ready for livestock (cycled) and even then some of those things can wait.

So what equipment is critical and what is simply a convenience? I think it’s pretty safe to say that most experienced hobbyists would agree that a quality water source, maximum water volume, sufficient flow and quality lighting (if you are going with a reef) are the keys to a healthy system and that initial equipment purchases should center around those areas to provide a solid foundation for your marine tank.

Water – Invest in a multiple stage Reverse Osmosis / Deionized water purification system or locate a source of quality RO/DI water. LFSs often sell fresh RO/DI and premixed saltwater made with RO/DI. It is always best to make your own RO/DI water and mix your own salt because you have control over what is being put in your tank. If you buy water, get a cheap TDS (total dissolved solids) meter and check the source of your fresh RO/DI water routinely. If it reads more that 3ppm, consider a new source. Tap water should be avoided for any saltwater tank including a FOWLR. If you have issues with excessive/persistent algae or the health of your animals is in question, there are already so many variable to consider that you don’t want to wonder if your source water is the cause. In addition, we don’t have test kits for everything that could be in tap water so you may never know if your tap water is/was the problem. If you’re committed to using tap understand that you are putting your animals at risk and may end up spending quite a bit of money only to find yourself starting over, or worse quitting the hobby.

Volume – Gonna keep this one short. Add a sump to your system. It isn’t a requirement but the simple fact is that the more water you have, the more stable your tank will be. Dilution is the solution. If you don’t use a sump, cut your initial (fish) stock list in half. Hang-on filters and canister filters are great for running media in lieu of a sump but that is about it.

Flow/Circulation – To me this is the most important aspect of a healthy system. Whether you go with a reef or a FOWLR, thorough and variable flow throughout your tank will help to ensure a healthier and cleaner system. Flow provides 4 main functions; gas exchange, facilitation of biological filtration, detritus/waste suspension, and in the case of a reef flow facilitates nutrient transport to corals and other sessile (immobile) invertebrates. You’re not looking to just move water around the tank and ripple the water line. Your goal should be to achieve a flow that maximizes the movement of water over and through your liverock so that detritus and waste suspension is maximized and also provide a means for the water to be exposed to the beneficial bacteria that colonizes in and on the rock. Typically, multiple wide flow powerheads are used to accomplish this. The use of controllable powerheads that can randomize flow output automatically are often found in successful system. Powerheads that produce narrow streams of flow should be avoided unless livestock that more than likely could become entangled (seahorses, etc) in a propeller style powerhead will be in the display. There are of course other ways to provide flow but powerheads are by far the most common and simple way to add flow to your tank.

Lighting – If you are planning a reef tank that will include photosynthetic corals and inverts, don’t skimp on lighting. Chances are you will regret the purchase soon after if you settle for less. Not only will your coral’s growth improve with good lighting, they will in turn display the best possible color and polyp/tissue extension for you (nothing better than a fat, colorful coral!) Again, buy used if you can save some money but buy quality. Lighting options are constantly changing. LEDs are everywhere now. New fixtures and DIY kits are being released constantly and prices are starting coming down. There is a big difference out there between LED fixtures and some are not “reef capable” despite manufacturer advertisements. T5HO and halide are still popular choices and are proven lighting system. The quality of the reflectors, ballasts and bulbs are what set quality T5 and halide fixtures apart from lesser models. A 4 or 6 bulb T5 fixture with a single, flat reflector isn’t going to cut it for many reef applications.

While not “equipment” the quality of the live rock you use also plays a significant role the health of your system. Whether you go with live rock, dry rock or a mixture of the two, the rock you choose should be light and porous in order to provide as much surface are for bacteria to colonize. Rock such as Texas holey rock, lace rock and lava rock are not good choices for a marine tank. Depending on the origin of the rock, you may introduce metals and other contaminants that could lead to big problems down the road. If the rock available locally to you is not up to par, there are a number of online retailers that provide excellent live and dry rock (often with free shipping). A small amount of research should point you to reputable sources.

Lastly, if you are fortunate enough to have a quality local fish store and/or a local reef club nearby, I highly recommend that you develop a relationship with fellow enthusiasts in your area. Doing so can provide you opportunities to save on equipment, supplies and livestock and possibly provide you a source of support if you ever get into a jam.
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the wizard

Is it really Niko's fault?
I cannot express enough how important this thread is.

Thank you Greech for taking the time to do this. I get so frustrated when I see some of the posts and hear some of the tales I have. We all make mistakes, but not researching or getting some info in advance should not be one of them.


AC Members
Wow! Excellent post! I wish I had read it 2 weeks ago when I started down this path. I would have waited until I got my RO/Di system. Now I might be playing catch-up with that. I am tempted to put my live rock in my live rock nursery and dump the tank and start over with good water. Better now then after I get fish!


Sea Bunny
Wow! Excellent post! I wish I had read it 2 weeks ago when I started down this path. I would have waited until I got my RO/Di system. Now I might be playing catch-up with that. I am tempted to put my live rock in my live rock nursery and dump the tank and start over with good water. Better now then after I get fish!
If you used tap water it depends a lot on location. For instance, the tap water around here can be used for fish only but rules out corals and I think possibly hermits (it's the last variable remaining for why I can't keep hermits, will try them again when I finish changing over the tank to clean water).

If you are going to change the water do it now. If you do it by normal water changes (even in the 20% range) it'll take a lot more water/salt mix then if you do it all at once.

BTW; Greech, did you forget to sticky this? Seems like the type of thread that was meant for that. :thm:


AC Moderators
Thanks guys. Hope we can get a few of these going and build off them. I don't want to simply repeat everything that's already out there so hopefully we can get some different views and unique experiences together for folks to read and make their own informed decisions about their tanks.

As for the stickey, I'm a little embarrassed to say I haven't figured that one out yet. Still new to this Mod role :)! I've just been meaning to get some threads going and wanted to get this first one up.

slipgate - While not ideal using tap water for a couple weeks should be able to be corrected pretty quick. If the tank isn't stocked just do a series of large water changes with the RO/DI mix to start flushing out the tap and whatever it may have brought in. Sooner the better though.


AC Members

An essential post Greech. Would like to emphasize that never rush when you buy equipment. Research and don't get taken in by that charming person at the LFS! I bought a 300 dollar wavemaker recently and although its powerful its a lemon. It doesn't have a magnetic attachment system - attaches by suction with a lever. Its so huge and heavy it kept slipping down and caused massive sand storms! Not pretty. Please dont buy a wavemaker which doesn't come with a magnetic attachment system. I got taken in and had to learn the hard way!


AC Moderators
Excellent advice! Welcome to Aquaria Central!