Introduction To Salt Water - Tropical Fish Keeping - Aquarium fish care and resources
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post #1 of 9 Old 11-07-2008, 05:10 AM Thread Starter
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Introduction To Salt Water

Aiming to Start a Saltwater Reef Tank

Starting a saltwater tank is not an easy or cheap task. Of course there are “cheaper” ways of doing things but cost for equipment is high. They say if budget is a problem your better off having the ultimate freshwater setup. First I strongly recommend hours upon hours of research to ensure your success from the very beginning of your reef keeping experience.
Second, I encourage you to search for a reefing club that is local to you. Reef clubs are great places to meet new people, learn things, acquire equipment new/used for cheap, and buy/trade corals usually for fractions of the price.
This will be a rough guide on a start up of a salt tank and by no means does research end here. Please feel free to add to this thread any and all corrections or additional facts and information.

Things Necessary for a Saltwater Tank:


There is glass and acrylic tanks, both have positives and negatives. Glass is harder to scratch, but once it is it cannot be removed. Acrylic is easy to scratch but scratches can be buffed out (only when the tank is empty) There are also factors of heat, as one holds in more heat then the other (off the top of my head I cannot think if which one)
Preferably you will want to tape off the tank and spray paint the outside back wall of it either black or blue. If your tank isn’t reef ready (comes will holes drilled and overflow box) you will want to drill holes before filling. Please research how to drill glass, and DO NOT drill tempered glass. Keep in mind the size of tank! The bigger the tank is the more volume of water it will hold which will then become a more overall stable system. This is recommended for people new to salt water as the tanks water parameters are less likely to fluctuate as much in a 75gal as in a 10gal. The down fall to a large tank is the cost to fill it with corals, fish, equipment and everything in between. Smaller tanks do cost less but keep in mind that when water evaporates the levels of salt will change faster then in a larger system. You should also consider the height of the tank. This is commonly overlooked. A standard 75 gallon tank is the same dimensions as a standard 90 gallon tank, however the 90 is taller. The taller tank isn’t always a good thing as lighting becomes an issue.


There are generally 4 different kinds of lighting to use in saltwater systems. All 4 kinds have there positives and negatives. Corals need light to produce the symbiotic algae for which it feeds upon (unless it is a coral you physically have to feed) Lights will also allow corals to “glow” or appear fluorescent under certain light fixtures and bulbs.
-Power Compacts (PCS) Generally the cheapest of all the light fixtures, emits low heat comparatively speaking but its downfall is that you are greatly limited to the types of corals you can keep.
-VHO/T5s (VHO=Very High Output/T5=tubular 5/8inch bulb) You can change the “color output” by simply switching out 1 or 2 bulbs, emits medium heat comparatively speaking can keep a variety of corals but there still are limits.
-Metal Halides (MHS) You can keep pretty much any coral, emits very high heat comparatively speaking downfall is cost to purchase, cost monthly, cost of 1 bulb (when wanted a different color output) and chances are you may need a chiller.
-Light Emitting Diodes (LEDS) I have not experienced these however I’ve heard good things, the downfall is the initial price to buy.
I personally use icecap t5s.


You’ll want bulbs in the 10,000k, 12, 000, 14 or 20k range. If you are using PC or t5s you’ll want daylight and actinic bulbs. The actinic is what produces the “blue” that makes your corals appear to “glow” I personally think too much blue is un-necessary, bulb choice is really a preference. Metal Halides have 1 bulb so changing colors means you need to change bulbs or supplement with PCs/t5s + the MH. This isn’t uncommon as people usually have “lower lighting” come on an hour before the “higher lighting” turns on and an hour after the “higher lighting” turns off. This is to simulate morning and evenings without completely shocking corals. Dim moonlights are also a great thing to have as in the wild fish never really see complete darkness.


A good brand heater (if not 2) is the start to success. You would hate to have a complete set up “crash” because your heater malfunctioned and “cooked” the entire tank. I personally am a fan of shatter proof completely submersible heaters, which can fit in my sump (more about sumps later on)


What good is a heater without a thermometer? They make all kinds of them, suction cup mercury ones to suction cup probes leading to digital displays. I myself use both kinds, the old school with the new technology. Why? Because the digital doesn’t seem to be completely accurate, maybe I’m paranoid; maybe I’m taking the extra security for a few more bucks.

Power heads

Power heads create the flow for your tank. There are all different types and kinds, brands and prices. I personally am a fan of Hydor Koralia’s pumps as they are cheap and easy to mount and aim in desired directions. Power heads will each have their own GPH (gallon per HOUR) rate. I’ve heard people say the “general rule” for flow in a tank is anywhere from 10-50x the tank size. I think that’s a pretty broad general rule. Really it depends about not having dead spots (minimal to no water movement) in the tank and what type of corals you’re keeping. You will also want to consider how not to have any sand storms, not too much flow where your fish have trouble (they can take a lot of flow) and consider some corals that like “low flow” areas


Test kits that are needed are Ammonia, nitrITE, nitrATE, pH, calcium, alkalinity, magnesium at the minimum. There are also iodine, copper, phosphate and a few others that ultimately are necessary but wouldn’t hurt to have. You are also going to need the required dosing chemicals such as alk, cal, and mg. I hear good things about the 2 part dosing of B-ionic (alk/cal) Please do not dose what you do not test for! When testing for salt content (salinity) I feel should be done with a refractometer (can be found on eBay for $20-30) rather then a hydrometer. Hydrometers seem to fluctuate in readings and are not as accurate. I recommend spending the extra $10-20 for a refractometer from the beginning instead of buying a hydrometer then deciding you want to upgrade.


Your either going to want no sand, about 1 inch deep sand or 4-6 inches deep sand, avoid 2 or 3 inch deep sand beds. Some put down egg crate (white grid-ing called “light de-fuser” at Home depot or Lowes) first to help distribute out the weight of live rock and help “cushion” the rock if there ever was an avalanche.

Live Rock

There are a few different types of live rock; the names usually indicate where it was harvested from. The “general rule” for live rock is to have 1-2 pounds per gallon. I think this is a good general rule but you don’t want too much and you for sure don’t want too little. Live rock with good flow is one of the natural filtrations in a saltwater tank. “Base Rock” which is usually all white and dried out is cheaper, but is completely dead. You will hear cured live rock and uncured live rock, really all that means is if there is die off of organisms or not. Aqua-scaping your tank is really a preference however the rocks shouldn’t be packed/pile too close where flow cannot get in and around them.
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post #2 of 9 Old 11-07-2008, 05:12 AM Thread Starter
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This is the “basic” list of what is needed for a salt water tank, you may also consider:

A sump is basically a place to put equipment and increase water volume of the tank. I personally feel there is no size limit to a sump only the space that you’re limited to. A refugium is a place for a deep sand bed, extra live rock, cheato algae and breeding grounds for copepods and amphipods. Without elaborating here, there is an excellent article here:
Protein Skimmers
I feel protein skimming is important as it removes wastes from the water colum. You can set up a tank with out one but I recommend skimming. There are skimmers that are better then others without a doubt so I also recommend saving up for one worth your money instead of buying one that will be replaced in a month. Keep the protein skimmer off while cycling your tank. Also skimmers take a while to “break in” where they basically build up a slime coat that allows them to do a better job skimming.
Auto Top Off Units (ATO)
Your tank is going to evaporate water daily. This water has to be replaced with more fresh water. If you use salt water it will raise your salinity. Basically an ATO is a pump, with float switches that indicate when to add more new water. Its good to have but can be done manually.

If you are mixing your own Salt Water you’re going to want:
RO/DI Unit
Do NOT use tap water. Tap water is usually high in phosphates which will cause unwanted algae out break, not to mention chlorines, chloramines, possibly copper, and other trace elements not good for salt water. RO which stands for reverse osmosis is the way to go when it comes for water. You can purchase these filters and they will hook into a tap water source pumping out in GPD (gallons per DAY) 35 or 50 GPD should be good enough, unless you have a huge set up.
Salt Mix
You’re going to need salt, to have a salt water tank. A REEF salt will be your best bet as it has higher calcium, alk, mg levels. I personally would buy a bucket, as your going to use it all. A trick that I’ve heard is when you get your bucket to throw it on its side and roll it back and forth for 10 or so minutes before opening it. This mixes up everything that has settled at the bottom of the bucket, once its mixed put it somewhere and try not to move it as it will re-settle again. Of course after you use it, re-seal it well so it doesn’t take in moisture.

This really is the bare bone basics of equipment. There always seems to be an upgrade or something bigger and better. I recommend starting out with something worth while instead of buying something cheap that’s useless that you will want to upgrade from in a month or to. This doesn’t mean you need the baddest, best stuff on the market but do your research, and read reviews, you will save money.
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post #3 of 9 Old 11-07-2008, 05:12 AM Thread Starter
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A Very General Guide To Starting Off:
Mix your salt water separately unless it is the first time and there is NOTHING else in the tank. Do this at least a day in advance to insure a complete mixture. Test salinity. Add water to tank, but leave a few inches from the surface as the rocks and sand will displace some water.
If you need to “boil” your live rock, do so in a separate container with power heads. If your adding egg crate to the bottom of the tank, do so now. Place heater and thermometer in tank and set temperature. Add live rock and aqua-scape it to your liking. You may want to leave it how it is scaped over night and look at it again the following morning for two reasons. 1, the water may get cloudy and 2 you may decide you do not like it. When you come to find a rock setup you like make sure it wont topple over easy. Now add your sand in and around your live rock. You will observe some cloudiness which is normal and do not worry about sand getting on the rocks, you can blast it off later with a turkey baster. It will take a day or two for the cloudiness to settle, then add and position power heads.

Allowing your tank to cycle:
Your tank is going to cycle, meaning there will be ammonia, nitrites then nitrates. I am not going to go into detail on how the cycle works, if you do not know I highly recommend google-ing it.
Generally your live rock will have some die off which will “feed” a cycle and produce an ammonia reading. If it is necessary to feed your tank, using a raw shrimp from a supermarket will suffice.
Your aim is to have your ammonia hit 0, nitrite hit 0 then nitrate ideally hit 0. You will probably have to perform a water change when there is a good nitrate reading. Having a protein skimmer, deep sand bed, enough live rock, enough flow, and cheato in a sump and doing weekly or bi-weekly water changes should allow you to reach 0 nitrates without a problem.

You should then see an “algae bloom” which will come fast and look ugly. This usually is an indication to add a Clean Up Crew (CUC)
I personally like a variety of snails, all to do a different job. There are snails, crabs, hermit crabs, shrimp, urchins, starfish and cucumbers. Invertebrate are easily killed by ammonia, nitrite and high nitrate levels so make sure your tank is completely cycled before adding your first livestock.
To name a few of the CUC,
-Cerith (mainly algae eater)
-Nerite (mainly algae eater)
-Mexican turbo (mainly algae eater)
-Astrea turbo (mainly algae eater)
-Nasarrius (meat eater, sand stirrer)
-Bumble bee (I’ve heard they are predatory)
-Stomotalla (soft shelled slug looking snails, mainly algae)
-Blue/red legged, scarlet hermit crabs (most avoid due to the fact they will not hesitate to eat a snail out of its shell, for its shell. I’ve heard the scarlets are the better of the cleaners when it comes to hermits)
-Peppermint Shrimp (theres a lot of information about how peppermint shrimp will eat aptasia, a pest anemone however it seems that only the “wild caught” species do, regardless it’s a hit or miss)
-Skunk and Fire/Red Cleaner Shrimp (I’ve heard the fire or red cleaner shrimp is a deep water species so it prefers to hide in the tank atleast until it gets used to its environment, I personally am a big fan on skunk cleaner shrimp)
-Emerald Crabs (crabs are a hit or miss, and will or will not touch corals regardless if they say they are “reef safe” I recently gave my emerald crabs away as I am not a fan of them in aquariums)
Tuxedo Urchin (pretty cool, as they gather debris, shells and rocks on them to act as camouflage, said to be good at eating hair algae however I do not recommend for small tanks as it will eventually starve)
Sand shifting star fish (good at stirring sand, but in no time will rid the sand of food and eventually starve unless the tank is large enough)
-Cucumbers (great at cleaning the upper part of the sand; however they get huge and need a larger tank)

Picking your fish:
Add fish slowly, by this I mean one a week or every two weeks minimum to not overload the bio load of your tank. It is highly recommended that you quarantine your fish for a few weeks in a separate tank. Choosing fish very carefully is very important as you want to add less aggressive fish first, leading up to the more aggressive. Also keep in mind that some fish just are NOT reef safe, even some that ARE will pick at and bother corals. Every animal has their own personality. Please keep in mind the maximum size the fish will eventually grow. If you can’t house it, please don’t. If you can buy tank raised, please do (as they tend to be hardier as well as we are not depriving the sea of its inhabitants) the “general rule” for freshwater, that is 1 inch of fish per gallon of water DOES NOT apply for saltwater. Keep in mind, rock takes up space, fish have territories, and the oxygen content isn’t the same and so on.
A pair of clownfish or a goby make a great first addition.

Adding your first corals:
There are softie corals, LPS corals and SPS corals. Softies seem to be the least requiring and SPS seem to be the most demanding, with LPS in the middle. First make sure your calcium, mg, and alk levels are appropriate. Do NOT add ANY coral before researching its care and needs. Make sure you have proper lighting and flow.
I recommend going with mushrooms, palythoas or zoanthids and even green star polyp (GSP) and pulsing xenia as first coral choices.

I highly recommend avoid buying anemones, seahorses, SPS coral, and green mandarin fish. The list is HUGE of what not to buy for beginners but those seem to be the more common ones. I shall warn you that these things will more then likely die, if not kill your whole tank. Save your money and hold off on these purchases.

I am sure there is more I can add to this, but I am posting as I’m getting ready to leave work now. (yes I typed this during work, lol) Please do not hesitate to correct/add to what I have started as I am continuously learning myself.

If you go slow, take your time and do things right, you will find success in this hobby and more then likely truly enjoy a great experience.

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post #4 of 9 Old 11-07-2008, 07:28 AM
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Absolutely great post, helped me out alot...
No doubt I still need to study up some more, but this helped out so much.
Should make this a sticky

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post #5 of 9 Old 11-14-2010, 10:49 AM
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enjoyed the post.
I need to learn more and fast.
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post #6 of 9 Old 12-16-2010, 09:45 PM
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Very informative, thank you!

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post #7 of 9 Old 12-18-2010, 12:33 AM
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When you say quarantine the the fish for a few weeks before adding the fish into the DT. Does one add ich medication or some type of medication before putting the fish into the DT?

Did a search but way too many uncommon threads came up... sorry for the noob question.
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post #8 of 9 Old 05-08-2011, 02:02 PM Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by iamtommy714 View Post
When you say quarantine the the fish for a few weeks before adding the fish into the DT. Does one add ich medication or some type of medication before putting the fish into the DT?

Did a search but way too many uncommon threads came up... sorry for the noob question.
sorry i missed this but to quickly answer your question, no i would not medicate for something that wasnt present.

to answer further, i would use my QT as a means to observe my fish. watch how it eats, what it eats, how much it eats, how it swims, is its color right? or faded? how does it interact with another fish in QT (if that applies) and so on. idealy i watch my fish in the stores tank even before a purchase. selecting a healthy fish from the start is increasing your chance of having a fish with no future issues. if no signs of illness are present i would NOT use medication or "dose" my QT with anything normally not used. just like i wouldnt eat cough drops if i wasnt coughing. even if an issue is present in a fish i prefer to use a medicine as last resort. a small water change with pre-mixed saltwater (say from your display tank, but NEVER water from a QT back to display) would be of more value in a QT with a fish showing no signs. i would personally offer as best quality food you can, mixed with a drop of some liquid garlic, and/or selcon, its good stuff too. boosting their immune system and having them eating healthy is important to keeping fish for years. however, never over feed. overfeeding will only polute your water. if to much food appears in the tank, try to perform a small water change and siphon or net out any left over food particles.
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post #9 of 9 Old 03-17-2013, 11:30 PM
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Great post! I am in the process as we speak, and you answered all of my questions.

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