In this article, I will show you some great saltwater tank tips for beginners that will ensure your success with your new tank. Aquariums can certainly add a lot of beauty to your home or your place of business. The glowing, bright colors and the sparkling water makes for a stunning look just about anywhere you keep it!
Maintaining a saltwater aquarium can be a bit of a challenging process. It takes some time and patience.
But maintaining one allows for a collection of exotic or rare fish species and can provide a gorgeous centerpiece! You’ll come to find that the efforts of maintaining a saltwater aquarium are well worth the beauty and appreciation.
When you are just starting out in the saltwater aquarium hobby, or even if you have been in the hobby for a long time, it’s crucial to avoid mistakes that can affect the success of your tank. Of course, doing your research will be very helpful and guide you towards making the proper decisions for your tank.
I have put together a list of 19 saltwater aquarium tips for beginners that will help you with these decisions.
1. Avoid adding fish until the tank is fully cycled
I mentioned in the article 13 Best tips for maintaining a saltwater aquarium, that having patience with a new tank is very important. Giving the tank time to cycle before adding livestock is key. You should never use fish to cycle a new tank, and adding fish before that is never recommended. Once the tank has completed it’s cycle and you have started to notice brown diatom algae, you can begin adding your cleanup crew.
2. Feed quality foods
Ensure to research the proper diet for your fish and other livestock. Not all saltwater fish have the same dietary requirements and not all foods are the same. You may have fish like the common Blue/Green Chromis that is more omnivorous, and a Yellow Tang which needs more greens. A good quality flake, pellet, and frozen food will go a long way in helping your fish stay healthy. NLS New Life Spectrum makes great quality foods and is recommended.
3. Have a battery backup
It doesn’t take long for a power outage to create serious problems for your tank. Livestock can start to die in a short amount of time without water movement. Water pumps, wavemakers, heaters can all be run on a battery backup or generator. The most important thing to keep running in the event of a power outage would be a powerhead or wavemaker. Some battery backups can keep a wavemaker running for 24-36 hours. Icecap and Ecotech Marine make great backups for aquarium pumps.
4. Keep spare equipment that is considered essential
Having some essential spare equipment for your tank can save you a lot of stress in the event of failure. Something basic like a spare heater will keep your tank temperature at the proper level if your existing heater fails. Water movement is essential in a saltwater tank, you should consider keeping a spare wavemaker around as well.
5. Maintain a regular maintenance schedule
Consistency is the key to maintaining a successful saltwater tank. The best way to keep your tank water parameters consistent is to maintain a regular maintenance schedule. Whether it’s water changes, filter changes, dosing, etc.. it’s best to stick to a routine that works for you and your tank. Making inconsistent or drastic changes to your tank is not a good idea unless it’s absolutely necessary.
6. Replace T5 bulbs on schedule
This is something that many people forget to do. If you have corals in your tank and are using T5 lighting, you will need to change your bulbs out for new ones on a schedule. As your bulbs are used over time, they will start to lose Par or output. A few things that affect how long your bulbs will last for include photoperiod, heat, and ballast type.
Most T5 bulbs will need to be replaced every 9-12 months. It’s important to not change the bulbs out all at once, as this could affect your corals since the output of the new light will be much brighter. Aim to change out 1 or 2 bulbs every week until replaced.
7. Avoid fish that require a mature tank if new
If your tank is fairly new, you will want to avoid adding fish that require a well-established tank in order to stay healthy. A good example would be the Mandarin Goby. These fish require a healthy supply of copepods to survive which is something a mature tank naturally can provide.
8. Avoid fish jumpers if you don’t have a top or lid
This may sound obvious, but it’s not something that everyone thinks of. There are certain fish that are known to be jumpers, as the Purple Firefish Goby. Make sure if you decide to buy a fish that is a common jumper, that you have a lid or cover on your tank. Somehow fish can find the smallest of a gap in the lid of your tank and jump out. It’s something that is fairly common and happens more often than you might think. There are plenty of DIY options online for tank covers including glass, plastic, mesh, egg crate and more.
9. Not all saltwater fish are reef safe. Do your research.
If your tank currently has corals or you plan to have them down the road, remember that not all saltwater fish are safe to have with corals. Many fish are known to nip at, eat, and destroy corals. Picasso Triggerfish and Emporer Angelfish are good examples of non-reef safe fish. Some fish are classified reef safe with caution, in this case, it’s not guaranteed that they won’t harm certain corals. An example being the Flame Angel. So make sure to research your choice of fish prior to purchase if you plan to have corals.
10. Acclimate new fish
When you bring new fish home from the store, or from anyone else’s tank, it’s important to introduce and acclimate them to your new tank’s conditions. The tank that they were previously in, and the bag or container they arrived in, would have different PH levels, temperature, and salinity than your tank.
There are a few ways to acclimate new fish. The method I recommend is the drip method, where over a period of time, the new fish will get adjusted slowly to the new tank’s conditions. Of course, it’s important to quarantine new fish as well to ensure you don’t introduce disease into your main tank. Whether or not you choose to use a quarantine tank, you should still acclimate your new fish properly.
11. Use a refugium/sump
The use of a sump tank or refugium is not something that is required. But it is recommended due to the benefits they can provide. I mentioned in the article Do you need a sump for saltwater aquariums, the importance, and benefits of a sump or refugium. If you have the option of incorporating this on your tank, you should do it. Your tank will love you for it!
12. Overestimate your skimmer size
If you plan to have a protein skimmer on your tank, one thing to remember is that the manufacturer will recommend a tank size capability for the skimmer. This number will be based normally on a light bioload. They will also give you the capability size for medium bioload and heavy bioload.
You may have an 80-gallon tank with just a few fish and corals, and decide that a protein skimmer rated for 80 gallons will be fine. Which it probably will be for a while. But you may decide to add more corals and over time your bio load will increase and your skimmer will no longer be sufficient for the bioload of your tank.
So it’s best to overestimate the size of your skimmer to ensure it will perform the best on your tank.
13. Plan and measure wall space
This has happened to me more times than I like to admit. If you are setting up a new tank and plan to put in flat against a wall, measure the required distance and keep a gap between the wall and the tank. You will most likely need space for hang on the back equipment, hoses, plumbing, etc.
For example, if you are going to use a hang on back protein skimmer, check the width of the skimmer and leave enough space behind the tank to fit it. It’s no fun realizing that you didn’t leave enough space between the tank and wall after your tank is set up.
Another tip is to try and leave just a tiny amount of extra space so that your equipment isn’t tight against the tank and wall. Not only can this lead to problems, but if your skimmer is touching the wall, it can vibrate causing an annoying humming noise that will quickly get on your nerves.
14. Don’t place your tank in direct sunlight
Placing your tank in front of a window or door in direct sunlight is not a good idea. You will most likely have algae issues. Some people will argue that algae is only formed by excess nutrients and not sunlight. While I somewhat agree with that, I can assure you that if you place your tank directly in front of a window, you will have algae problems along with temperature and other concerns.
Algae will occur naturally in an aquarium, no matter what you do.
But when you expose it to direct sunlight, it can cause the algae to grow in excess and it can make your fish and corals sick. Not to mention it’s unsightly and can quickly take over your tank. The best and healthiest environment for your aquarium is in a well-ventilated area, preferably in a room with cooler temperatures, and in an area that has limited sun exposer.
15. Follow a consistent lighting schedule
One important thing you will notice with corals is the fact that they will thrive under consistent lighting conditions. The quality and amount of lighting are important. Not enough light or too much light and your corals will suffer. Not all corals are the same with respect to lighting requirements and demands.
If you have lighting that can be placed on a timer or controller, adjusting them to a daily and consistent schedule will be very helpful for your corals’ growth, color, and overall health.
16. Use the proper substrate
There are many different types of substrate available for you to choose from. Although using a substrate is not 100% required, it does provide a huge base for biological filtration to take place and is very beneficial. Make sure that you choose the right substrate for your tank. If you have sand sifting invertebrates or fish, then you don’t want to use a crushed coral base.
Carib sea Fiji Pink is great reef sand that looks natural and provides a great base for your tank. One thing to consider is that sand can be easily blown around the tank. So if you have corals that require high water flow, you may not want to use sand. So depending on your particular tank setup and livestock, choose the right substrate that will work for you.
17. Avoid overstocking the tank
Having too many fish in your tank can lead to huge problems. The same goes for having a tank that is too small for the size of the fish you plan to have. An overstocked tank can lead to increased bioload and poor water quality. This will force you to upgrade your equipment to keep up with the demand and poor water quality can lead to health issues including diseases and parasites.
Remember your fish will grow, and sometimes we have the idea of stocking a tank when the fish are small. Which is fine but be prepared to upgrade your tank or sell some fish as they grow.
18. Be careful when handling corals (Zoas)
Armor Of God Zoanthids. Image credit la.kien Flickr.com
If you have corals in your tank, you will most likely be handling them from time to time. It’s important to know that not all corals are safe to handle without taking precautions. Zoanthids are one of those corals that need to be handled with care. Many people like to frag zoas. The problem with them is they contain palytoxin which can be very harmful to us.
It’s recommended to wear gloves and wear eye protection when handling these corals.
19. Avoid using hydrometers
There are many reliable ways to test salinity in your tank. Using hydrometers is not one of them. They are cheaply made and not very accurate. It’s important to maintain a constant salinity level in your tank, so you will want to use something like a refractometer or aquarium controller.
Some questions you will want to ask yourself
- What is a good beginner saltwater tank size?
- What is the easiest saltwater fish to take care of for beginners?
- What items are needed for a saltwater tank?
- Do I need a saltwater tank setup checklist?
What is a good beginner saltwater tank size?
When starting out as a saltwater aquarium hobbyist one of your first questions may be – What size saltwater tank should I buy? Many enthusiasts will insist that the bigger your tank is the better, and of course, this is usually the case for your fish, but as a beginner, in the hobby, you have a few things to consider before shelling out on an enormous tank.
I would recommend a tank size of 55 gallons for a beginner. A 10-20 gallon size tank can be quite challenging at first, but a 125-200 gallon can be overwhelming for new hobbyists, so a 55 gallon is a great starter size. You are going to want a larger aquarium for larger sized fish and a smaller aquarium for smaller fish.
What is your budget?
Don’t forget that it’s not all about the tank. You also need to be able to purchase equipment and accessories, not to mention fish and corals, which can get pricey. Don’t forget that the bigger your tank, the more money you will end up spending on fish and contents to fill it up and make it look good.
Make sure that you work out what you actually have left to spend on your tank, and then go for the biggest one that you can afford as this will give your hobby room to develop.
Analyze your space
Not everyone lives in a generously sized abode where the tank is going to be center stage. You will need to choose a proper location to place your tank. You may have to think about how much space you have in your home or office for a tank and accessibility.
Keep in mind that the size of your tank will also determine how long it may take you to maintain it on a daily and weekly basis.
How much space does your choice of fish need to live happily? It is just as important to think of the comfort of your new tank’s inhabitants. Most saltwater fish need a decent amount of space to feel safe and relaxed.
If you have different species then they may need enough space to establish their own territories within the tank. Schools of fish, for example, need plenty of space to move around together in so that they can practice their natural instincts and schooling behaviors.
This can be addressed by focusing on buying species that dwell mostly in certain areas of the tank, for example, you can choose to mix surface swimmers with mid-depth swimmers, and seabed swimmers, so that all fish have their own spaces in the tank.
As a general guide for deciding how much space your fish need, most saltwater fish prefer to have at least 30g each for themselves. If you work out what fish you hope to keep in your tank, this should help you to calculate how big a tank you should go for, keeping in mind that you will probably want to add to your collection further along the line.
You’re going to want to set it in a place where it gets a lot of views, perhaps in the center of a room. But there are a few things you should put into consideration before you choose a spot. Keep in mind that once you place an aquarium, it is extremely difficult to move. That being said, choosing a good spot is pretty important.
Easy saltwater fish to take care of
Deciding on which saltwater fish to populate your new tank with can be the most difficult part when first starting out, and your choices will mostly be down to personal preference. I mention in my article 8 Best saltwater fish for beginners, a few of these fish that are great when starting a new tank. To ensure your success and make life easier in these earlier stages, here is a list of 3 easy saltwater fish to take care of.
Ocellaris Clownfish – Also known as the common clownfish, this cute little marine fish is bright and cheerful, and one of the easiest to care for. It can live in a smaller aquarium as once it has established its territory it is unlikely to stray very far.
Coral Beauty Angelfish – This is a popular low-priced dwarf angelfish, which is brilliantly colored and very hardy. They are very easy to find and are not normally aggressive as many other angelfish can be. They can be territorial in smaller aquariums though. Read more on the Coral Beauty Angelfish here.
Lawnmower Blenny – Every tank, especially a newly set up one, should have a great algae eater. This is because as nitrate levels rise in new tanks algae tends to grow more. This fish is a beneficial addition to any beginner or established saltwater aquarium.
Saltwater tank setup checklist
To make sure that you have everything you need for starting out your new saltwater tank, here is a checklist of all of the essentials along with my recommendations.
Aquarium – Choose from an acrylic or a glass tank, and a size that fits your space and fish requirements, allowing room for your hobby to grow and evolve.
Lighting – You may have to do some extra research before you invest in lighting for your tank as the type of lighting you choose will depend on your set up and the species of fish you want to keep. A great LED light for beginner saltwater tanks is the Current Marine Orbit series. These lights are very bright with many options and will look great on your tank. They really make the fish and coral colors pop.
Skimmers, Filters and Filtration Equipment – As stated above your choices will depend on your setup and fish. Read our Best protein skimmers for saltwater tanks guide here.
Powerheads/wavemakers – Essential for good water circulation. When starting out, you don’t need anything expensive or fancy. A great wavemaker is the Hydor Korallia or if you’re looking for something that has controllable speeds, check out the Jebao OW 10.
Live Rock & Substrate – These play an important role in the health and happiness of your tank’s inhabitants as fish like to feel safe and secure within their own separate territories. So take some time to decide whether you want to provide artificial or natural plants and rocks for your fish to live amongst. My favorite substrate is the Caribsea Fiji Pink.
Sea Salt Mix/Saltwater & Refractometer – It is important to measure the salt content of your water to make sure that your fish and corals are kept well and happy. There are many salt mixes available. I have been using Instant Ocean salt for a long time with great results.
Heater & Thermometer/ Temp monitor – if you have a larger tank you may need more than one heater to ensure that the water temperature is maintained at the right levels. Always check the wattage recommendations for your tank size.
A great and reliable heater is the Eheim Jager series. It’s also recommended to have some kind of a temperature monitor or controller. I have had a faulty heater go out of control and bake my entire tank. A simple temperature monitor would have saved thousands of dollars in lost livestock. I learned my lesson.
You can decide to buy an expensive controller, but when starting out you can go with the Inkbird temperature controller. They are cheap and work great.
Test Kits, Additives & Supplements – Calcium and other additives might be needed to maintain tanks with corals and reef systems. Depending on what you decide to keep in your tank, you may need a supplement kit. The Red Sea supplement kit will provide the necessary supplements for your tank. Test kits provide you with the information you need to make sure that all your levels are maintained.
Maintenance tools & Supplies – Equipment needed to maintain your tank varies according to preference, but in general, you may need buckets and containers, tank cleaning tools like an algae scraper, siphon tube or hose, nets. Just make sure you have the basics when starting out.
You can also check out thesprucepets.com blog post showing more checklist items for starting a saltwater tank.
Further Saltwater tank Information
Before you set up your tank, fill it with water, and put your fish in, there are a few more things that you will need to know and prepare for. Here is a shortlist of prompts to point you in the right direction for your further research.
Aquarium Stands – Tanks are extremely heavy once filled with water and so it is very important to ensure that your tank is sturdy and secure. Your aquarium will require a good, sturdy stand to sit on. Plan on the water weight alone to be 6lbs/gallon! So a 50-gallon aquarium can weigh 300 lbs just in water weight alone!
Often, people will underestimate the weight of a full aquarium and it can be disastrous if left on an unstable or flimsy surface. Most aquarium stores will sell the aquariums and the stands for them, in pairs. They are becoming more readily available online as well. This makes it easier for the shopper.
But in case they do not, make sure to read the sizes of the tank and the weight limit of the stands. Know which kind you should get for your aquarium. You want it to be sturdy and safe.
Aquascaping – The design of your tank should be carefully thought out and planned before adding fish in order to minimize disturbances once the fish have been added.
Cycling – Your tank needs to be cycled properly before adding fish to make sure that the environment is safe for them. This can take between 4-6 weeks.
Acclimating new fish – Adding new fish to a tank isn’t as straightforward as dropping them into the water. You need to make sure that you acclimate them properly. Read my article How to acclimate saltwater fish here.
Setting up a saltwater aquarium can be a little tricky and time-consuming. Don’t let this stop you though. With a little hard work, you could have a breath-taking display of underwater life that will be sure to awe all those who lay their eyes on it.
Setting up a healthy aquarium environment can take a long time for it to mature and stabilize. Sometimes 6 months to a year. One of the most significant steps in maintaining a healthy saltwater aquarium is finding a good balance between the salt and the water, and learning how to maintain a healthy environment for your livestock.
Some other great tips
Never rush your saltwater aquarium setup! Trust me from experience, the more patience you have and the slower you take things, the better off your tank will be. Saltwater tanks rarely do well if they are rushed and forced to mature. Creating a proper aquarium environment takes time and it also takes a lot of time for your fish to adjust to their aquarium.
It might sound like a lengthy process but if you want your fish to thrive, you have to create that healthy environment for them. Many saltwater fish are rather expensive to obtain. As previously mentioned, many saltwater fish are exotic or extremely rare. So, you want to make sure that your fish have a healthy environment to live in beforehand.
Use proper electrical outlets- and drip loops!
You need to make sure that you have the room and all the electrical outlets necessary for maintaining your tank. Most equipment will require it to be plugged in to operate. Keep in mind that you may want to get a filter for your tank. Filters can help keep your aquarium clean and your fish healthy.
You are going to need to plug this in. Heaters, lights, wavemakers, etc..all need to be plugged in. I recommend you use a power outlet bar with surge protection and mount it where there is no chance of water getting to it. Drip loops are a must. This will prevent water from running downhill on your power cables and into the electrical socket.
I also use a power bar that has individual switches on it making it easy to turn off individual items. So, make sure that you have all of the necessary outlets and plugs that you might need to keep your aquarium running well.
There are many other things to consider when starting a saltwater tank. Check out our other articles for more info. Hopefully, this will get you started and motivated to set up a new saltwater masterpiece!
As you can see, there are many great tips to help you with your saltwater tank. These are just a few. Following some great advice will really help in avoiding crucial mistakes. If you would like to see more tips for helping you maintain a saltwater aquarium, check out my article here.
Thanks for reading!