Saltwater Aquarium Basics (What Beginners Need To Know)

When you are setting up your first saltwater tank, it’s important that you start with the basics and build a foundation that you can improve on over time.

Saltwater aquariums take time to mature and nothing happens fast with saltwater tanks. If you don’t have patience, you are going to have a difficult time maintaining a saltwater tank.

Not everyone has the option to have a thriving reef tank from the beginning with all the fancy equipment. You will need to build up to that. It can take many months to years for a saltwater tank to “settle in” and become healthy.

Planning for long term success should be your goal. 

In this article, I will review some of the saltwater aquarium basics that all beginners will need to know.

Proper Research

I can’t tell you enough how important proper research is. From the first day that you decide to set up a saltwater tank, make sure you spend time researching important tips and proper methods for setting up a new tank. This will help you prevent mistakes in the beginning and give you the best chance of long term success.

The saltwater aquarium hobby can be expensive and making mistakes due to lack of research can be even more costly. 

You also need to make sure that the fish you are planning to keep will be compatible with each other. Not all fish will get along and make good tankmates.

It can be very difficult to deal with fish aggression, and removing a fish from the tank might require you to remove all your rocks and corals in order to catch a certain fish.

Proper research ahead of time will eliminate this problem.

Use the following chart to see if your fish are compatible.

Fish compatible chart

There are many popular online blogs (like mine!) and videos that are available for you to check out. Plenty of information can be found on online forums and other platforms. 

Biological filtration cycle

Saltwater nitrogen cycle

When setting up any new fish tank, it is important that you understand the biological filtration cycle and when your first fish should be added.

A new saltwater tank will take between 4–8 weeks to properly cycle and during this time you should check your water parameters and not add any new fish.

4–8 weeks to properly cycle a saltwater tank

You will want to make sure your ammonia and nitrate levels are at 0 before adding livestock to the tank.


This is where beneficial bacteria will begin to form naturally throughout your tank. Over the period of 4–8 weeks, these bacteria will begin to break down harmful ammonia into nitrite and then nitrate.

Other water parameters to test for:

water parameters

Using RODI water

From day 1, it’s so important that you start your new tank with RODI water. I mentioned in this article how bad using tap water in a saltwater tank can be.

Tap water can cause so many problems with saltwater tanks. This is a very common mistake that many people make. You need to use RODI water in your aquarium from the first day.

I have started tanks with tap water in the past and then switched over to RODI and regretted it. 

Setup checklist 

Having a checklist to help you set up your tank is something you should consider. Checklists are great for many things and can be used to ensure you have everything you need beforehand. 

Let’s look at some items you will need to set up a new saltwater tank. Write down the following items that will cover the basics. You can add more items over time as you need them.


The tank that you choose will depend on many variables. I recommend that you don’t choose a large tank or a small tank for the first one.

Pick something that is suited for your living space and something that is easy to manage. Under 50 gallons is a common size to start with.

If you are a beginner, small nano tanks should be avoided as they can be more difficult to manage and not as forgiving with water parameters.


A proper aquarium stand can be metal or wood and needs to be sturdy enough to hold the tank’s weight and dimensions. Make sure the tank’s edges are not hanging off the side of the stand. The weight of the tank must be supported by all 4 corners of the stand. 


When your tank is new, you won’t need to worry about specific lighting for saltwater corals. There are many different options for aquarium lighting, including T5 and LED’s.

I recommend that you start with a basic LED that will bring out your fish’s colors. There are many different settings that you can choose from.


Good quality salt is important. Not all salts are the same with respect to elements, mixing times, prices, etc. Some salts are specifically for corals and some are just fine for fish-only tanks.

I recommend the Red Sea salt. It is affordable, great quality, and mixes fast. 


In order to measure the tank water salinity, you will need an accurate refractometer. They are not expensive and are way more accurate than the basic hydrometers. You will need one of these from the start.


Having proper water movement in your tank is very important. A powerhead or wavemaker is needed to replicate the ocean currents and help keep your tank and livestock healthy.

Again you won’t need anything expensive or fancy to start with. Depending on your tank size, you will have many options available for you.

You can read more about choosing a powerhead here.


When starting a new tank, it’s crucial that you use either dry or live rock. Both have pros and cons. Live rock will eventually be the lifeline of your tank and will be the main contributor to its overall health.

The amount of rock you use will vary based on the size of the tank and space available.

You can also use a mix of live and dry rock to help the rock cycling time. You can also seed the other rock with good bacteria.


Sand is something that is a personal choice. There are many different types available, and some people even choose to go with no sand and have a bare bottom tank.

There are pros and cons to both. But in general, you can start with about 1 pound of sand per gallon tank size. 


Your live rock will generally be your main source of filtration for your tank. You can supplement this in many ways.

I recommend you consider using a sump system and incorporate filtration into it. You also have the option of using a hang on the back filter, protein skimmer, if you choose.


The optimum water temperature range for saltwater tanks is between 75-82F. I generally keep my tanks at 79F. You will need an aquarium heater depending on where you live and your house temperature. I highly recommend a good quality heater and temperature controller. Those 2 items alone can save you a lot of money and headaches due to heater failure. 

Test Kits

The next thing you will need is a good quality test kit. It can be difficult to get accurate readings with hobby grade test kits, so I recommend that you avoid the cheaper brands.

If you have inaccurate test results, this can cause you to make water parameter changes that are not necessary and make things worse. I recently wrote an article that explains some of the different testing kits and differences between them. 

All of these items mentioned don’t need to be expensive. Yes, the hobby can be as expensive as you like, but you can set up a new tank and stick to a budget.

Check out this article where I will show you how to set up a new 20-gallon saltwater tank with all the items mentioned here for $200!

Maintenance schedule

Proper husbandry and maintenance on a schedule is something that you must-do if you want to have a successful saltwater tank. Maintaining a saltwater tank is not hard, but it requires you to be organized and set a schedule to perform regular tasks. 

Saltwater tank regularly scheduled maintenance items include:

  • Water changes
  • Checking equipment for proper operation
  • Tank cleaning
  • Preparing top up water
  • Performing water tests
  • Changing filter media

Plan ahead to complete about 15 minutes per day for routine tasks like feeding the fish, checking temperature.

Plan for about 1 hour per week for other tasks like skimmer cup cleaning and glass cleaning. Then plan for about 1 hour every 2 weeks for previous tasks and water changes, and testing. 

I spend about 2 hours each month performing scheduled maintenance duties. Sometimes a lot more depending on what needs to be done.

Plan ahead for tank placement

This is something that many people forget about. Before you set anything up with your tank, make sure it is in the proper location in the room. Things to consider are:

  • Is the floor level and strong?
  • Will the tank be away from the window and direct sunlight?
  • Are there wall plug outlets available? 
  • Will it be easy to access for cleaning and maintenance?
  • Is there enough room between the back of the tank and the wall to place equipment?

Common mistakes made by new saltwater tank owners

  • Overstocking your tank
  • Not having a quarantine tank
  • Impulsive buying
  • Not having a cleanup crew
  • Not having a backup for essential equipment
  • Not planning for water evaporation
  • Using a poor quality test kit

These are just some of the common mistakes that you want to avoid. Sign up here for a free copy of my top 50 common mistakes made by new hobbyists.


Starting a new saltwater tank requires that you have some basic information and equipment to help with the setup. It doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive.

It just requires that you do some research and plan ahead of time to ensure you have the necessary items to start.

Also, make sure you dedicate time throughout the month to perform routine maintenance tasks, and you will be all set.

Hopefully, you found this information helpful, and good luck with your new tank!