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Starting a Saltwater Tank at Home

As experienced aquarium marine enthusiasts know, a saltwater tank is different from a freshwater tank in many ways. Saltwater offers a whole range of options that can offer popping color unlike that which is possible with freshwater. If you are a budding aquarist interested in learning more about the initial costs, maintenance and types of fish possible when creating a saltwater environment, we’ve got the answers for you.

Similar to setting up a freshwater tank, there are numerous steps to crafting a healthy underwater marine environment. Keep in mind that saltwater may require a few extra steps (and dollars) but if you are willing to put in the effort, a vibrant and healthy aquarium is completely possible.

First, you’ll need to decide what type of marine environment you’d like to create. Are you thinking of fish only setup? Or would you prefer a community aquarium with live rock, coral, plants and so on? Both are attractive options but the main difference is that coral creates unique challenges related to water quality, lighting, additives and equipment. Don’t get scared off from these minor hurdles but be sure to consider them upfront.

Next, our expert team at Hikari® recommends spending time planning your ideal setup. Select the type of fish and/or corals you desire, making sure they are compatible, as these decisions will greatly impact other choices for your tank. It’s best to familiarize yourself with the live inhabitants of your future tank by investigating their needs; for example, what are their preferred water conditions? Do they require any special equipment? How big will they grow and what size tank is needed?

Now it’s time to prepare and develop your purchase plans. Regardless of the size of tank you opt for, it will need to be cleaned to remove debris and dust particles. Once cleaned, figure out where in your home you’d like to position the tank. A kind reminder that once it’s filled with water, it will be difficult to move so consider things like drafts, windows, sunlight, availability of electrical supply, access to the equipment, ability to add supplements and additives, what your cleaning routine will be and what type of tank cabinetry you prefer.

Substrate is the next item to tackle. Depending on your fish selection, you might opt for soft sand or crushed coral. A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least one but preferable two inches of substrate to cover the entire bottom. Be sure to rinse the substrate before using to avoid clouding water and the accompanying dust that will remain on surfaces after it settles.

Water and equipment installation are the next steps. Remember to use RO water (has gone through a reverse osmosis system) and a quality salt mix. Using lower quality salt mixes will only create unwanted issues maintaining good water quality over time and increase the number of additives you will need to also buy. Premixed saltwater from your local fish store is also an option here. For equipment, nearly all saltwater tanks require a powered mechanical filter and a heater. Depending on your choices for livestock, you may also need a UV sterilizer, special lighting, a fish feeder, a protein skimmer and some way to increase water flow within the tank. You should also be thinking about decorations at this stage if they will be a part of your new marine environment.  Again, this is dependent on your particular set up and should correspond to research you conducted when deciding on your tank’s inhabitants or based on input from the experts at your local fish store.

Be sure your saltwater tank is completely set up for a few weeks before you add fish. You’ll want to be sure your tank has cycled allowing good bacterial cultures to flourish to handle the transition of nitrites to nitrates. Test the water daily and watch for the ammonia levels to spike followed by a nitrite level spike. Then you can do a 50% water change and you should be ready to go. Ongoing, regular water changes are a must to maintain ideal water quality. Marine tanks are less forgiving if regular maintenance is not done. Also, remember that evaporation will occur causing your salt level to rise. For this reason adding non-saltwater (RO only) may be required in between your regular water changes to keep the salinity in a comfortable range for your fish and/or corals.

Congrats! You’ve made it to the most exciting part – adding live fish! You want to add fish slowly, over the course of several weeks and one at a time to gradually acclimatize them to their new home. If it’s your first time, we definitely recommend opting for hardier fish including Firefish, Royal Gramma, Chalk Bass and others. Also consider quarantining any new fish for up to 30 days to be sure they are not bringing any unwanted hitch hikers in with them.