The Marine Aquarium For newbies

  • Get the NEW AquariaCentral iOS app --> // Android version will be out soon!
Not open for further replies.


AC Members
Jul 25, 2005
The Marine Aquarium for Newbie’s​

Every so often I will hear a question on the forums such as “How do I set up a saltwater aquarium” or something similar, and the replies (including mine) are usually something like “you need to do a lot of research” or something similar. Well, although I have to agree that that is the best advice, try doing a google search for “saltwater aquarium”. You’ll find that you’ll have to look through pages and pages before finding anything valuable or anything that summarizes it. So, I thought I’d take the work out of it and a summarization of over a year of my own research.

Fish, fish, and more fish​

Some of you may disagree with me, but you should always start with the fish when your planning a new aquarium. The fish dictate almost everything, such as:
  • How big a tank you will need.
  • How much substrate you will need. Messy eaters like lionfish or puffers should do better in a bare bottom tank, where it is easier for you to clean up there waste, while fishes like clowns, damsels, tangs and other smaller fish/omnivores/herbivores should do better with a deep sand bed, for the denitrification benefits.
  • Your rock scape. Generally, you will have rocks before fish, so you need to know if your planned fish will like an open rock scape with large caves, or a tight rock scape with lots of smaller caves. Some fish will do better with very few rocks, because they prefer open swimming room.
  • Whether or not you can have corals, crabs, snails, shrimp, clams or other inverts in the future.
  • Fishy tank mates. This ones a given. You cannot just throw together a random community of fish and expect them to get along.


In most cases, tap water is not enough, and will cause algae problems, so you need to use either bottled Reverse Osmosis, DeIonized, or distilled water, or get your own RO, DI or RO/DI unit to purify water, in order to get pure enough water to use for toping off, and to mix new salt water for filling the tank, and for performing water changes. If you feel that your tap water is good enough, make sure you wither aerate your water to remove chlorine, or use a water conditioner such as prime that doesn’t over activate protein skimmers. I warn you against this as I used tetra’s aquasafe for a water change once, and ended up with a ¼ gallon of skimate within aprox. 6 hours. All of that was coming out of a seaclone skimmer; I’d hate to see all the skimmate that comes out of a skimmer that actually works well.

As far as making salt goes, use a marine salt mix such as instant ocean (best salt mix, according to garf, because they rarely if ever change there mix) or Red Sea. Follow the instructions on the bag, and all will be well.

Types of marine aquariums​

There are three types of marine aquariums, Fish Only, Fish Only With Live Rock and Reef. You need to decide which type of marine aquarium you want before furthering your research.

FO is a tank without any live rock, and usually with dead hard coral skeletons or fake corals for decoration, as well as crushed coral or sand for substrate. Personally, I don’t recommend this type of aquarium to anyone, because not only does it look unnatural (well, at least in my opinion), but I the benefits of live rock is too great to go without it. This style of tank is usually filtered by a decent biological filter, such as a wet dry, but a power filter is adequate.

FOWLR is a tank that is usually without any corals, and has mostly live rock for decoration/filtration. Usually sand is used for a substrate, and other filtration is usually provided via a protein skimmer, although, like above, a power filter is adequate for supporting most fish and invert life (no corals, except hardy ones like mushrooms). This style of tank is a great starting tank for a beginner, and can easily be converted to a reef if you desire.

Reef is a tank that is designed to support corals. Only live rock is used almost always for decoration. Filtration methods are very different between tanks, but a protein skimmer is usually the recommended method filtration. Other types of filtration methods include refugiums, deep sand beds, and sometimes power filters and wet dry tricle filters. Good lighting is almost always nessisary, with lighting systems ranging anywhere from $100 to well over a thousand dollars being necessary for different types of reef aquariums. Lots and lots of water motion is also nessisary, with up to 40x turnover rates being recommended by some websites, although 10x turnover seems to be adequate for soft corals, and 20x turnover should be adequate for hard corals.


A quarantine tank is your only safe defense of disease. Without making the tank unsafe for inverts for ever by using a copper based medication, or by killing off most inverts via lowered salinity, you cannot treat disease in the average display tank. I will not go into detail about quarantine here, as harlock already did with The Who, What When, Why and How of quarantine.

Maintenance and water parameters​

I already wrote up a quick summary on the basic maintenance of different types of marine aquariums, called it an “article” and posted it Here.

Some things I would add to that article, that I have learned since the posting of that article:
  • water changes can/should be done weekly in certain marine tanks, although it isn’t essential in most set ups above 10-20g in order to keep a healthy tank.
  • You should siphon detritus off the rocks when you do a water change, much like doing gravel vac’s in freshwater tanks
  • It doesn’t matter if you change water more frequently than monthly. As long as at least 25%of the water gets changed over the time period of a month, all will.
  • Some tanks don’t need even monthly water changes. But, these are tanks which are at least 2-3 years old, have low bioloads (fish population) and have lots of natural filtration methods being applied, as ell as an efficient protein skimmer). For a newbie, or anyone else with less than several years of experience with marine aquariums, I do not recommend doing this, nor do I think water changes are a bad thing and shouldn’t be done if your tank is old enough.

Water parameters should be approximately:
  • Ph: 8-8.3
  • Ammonia and nitrite: 0 is there’s anything not introduced with live rock in the tank (fish, inverts, corals)
  • Nitrate: preferably under 20, but there really isn’t anything harmful about it, it’s just an indicator of Dissolved Organic Compounds.
  • Calcium: 400-450
  • Alkalinity: 2.5-4
Personally, I use seachem’s reef carbonate (for alkalinity) and reef complete(for calcium) to keep calcium and alkalinity in shape, and have been satisfied with how they work and am not going to switch additives any time soon.

A basic marine aquarium, and a step by step guide of the transition from FOWLR to Hard coral reef​

basic set up

This setup was previously recommended by me to BlackwolfXKAV, as a starter soft coral reef set up. Please note that this is not the only way to do it, it is only an example.

For FOWLR, only enough lighting for the fish to tell night from day is needed, and for a Large Polyped Stony coral reef, double the lighting I recommended above.

step by step guide

Please note: this is not the only way to do it, it is only an example.

  1. getting ready for fish (first 1-2 months)
  2. purchase everything in the above list, minus the live rock, plus an aquclear 20 (will be removed after all fish are introduced). It can be bought all at once or over the period of 6 months, it does not matter, as long as you have it all.
  3. Put everything together, without plugging anything in. Put the sand in as well. Do some aqua-scaping with the base rock if you bought any.
  4. start mixing saltwater in buckets, and adding it to the tank. Be carefull to not disturb your base rock aquascape if there is one.
  5. Once the tank is filled, go purchase approximately 15-30ilbs(depending on how much base rock you bought) of uncured live rock from your Local Fish Store. Add it to your tank, being sure to create an rock-scape with a mix of large open caves and smaller caves. Work from front to back when aqua-scaping any tank. But, above all, make sure your rock-scape not only looks good, but is sturdy enough to not easily be knocked down. If you have to, purchase some Under water epoxy to glue the rocks together.
  6. Purchase everything you need for a 10g quarantine tank. Keep an aquaclear 20 on the main tank to transfer to the quarantine when quarantining a new fish (in order to have a “cycled” quarantine).
  7. Monitor ammonia and nitrite levels. Both should spike and return to zero. After that happens, your ready for your first fish.

Your first fish and coral(2-3 months after setting the tank up)
  1. After seeing the ammonia and nitrite spikes, introduce a pair of percula or occeleris clowns to the quarantine. Also, add 10 hermit blue leg or scarlet hermit crabs (and lots of shells per crab) and 20 astrea sp. snails
  2. After the clownfish have gone through the quarantine period, introduce them to the main tank. If you had to use any medications on the fish during the quarantine period, do not let any quarantine water get into the main tank. Change the filter media in the aquaclear 20 and return it back to the amin tank as well.
  3. As soon as your tank has been up for 3 months add some mushrooms.
More fish, inverts and corals(4-12months)
  1. Add 2 purple firefish to the quarantine tank.
  2. Add 3 cleaner shrimp to the main tank
  3. Assuming that the mushrooms have been doing well, you may now add some button polyps, zoanthids and/or a colt or leather coral. If the mushrooms haven’t been doing well, do some research into why they haven’t been doing well and take corrective measures. Once the mushrooms start doing well after you took corrective measures, you may add any of the corals I mentioned previously.
  4. after the quarantine period for the firefish is up, you may add them to the main tank. You are now done stocking fish. Since you are now done stocking with fish, you do not need to add the aquaclear 20 back to the main tank.
  5. You can now add a blood shrimp, if you desire.
  6. After the tank has been up for about 6 months, you can add almost any species of soft coral that you want, making sure to space the additions out by atleast 2 weeks.

The transition into large polyped stony corals (12+ months)
  1. Get a second 55 watt power compact fixture, with a 50/50 bulb.
  2. You may now start adding hardy/ lower light LPS corals, such as open brain, hammer, whit trumpet coral, candy coral, frogspawn, jasmine fox coral and bubble coral. If you want to get into LPS, be sure to leave room while your adding the soft corals (start with small corals) or find somebody who will take/buy soft coral frags from you.
Not open for further replies.