Starting a Saltwater Marine Aquarium
1. Choosing a Tank
The most exciting time in my experience of keeping a marine aquarium is setting up a new tank. Now not to say that the all the other bits that follow aren’t great but setting everything up how you want it and getting to know all the ins and outs of your new tank and equipment is brilliant.
If you are setting up with tank with your partner/other half just be prepared to argue over the rock scape. Size doesn’t always matter and nano marine tanks can be both rewarding and fairly easy maintenance wise but many will agree bigger tanks can be easier to start with as a larger volume of water is much more stable and you are much less likely to suffer swings from any parameters. The first thing when purchasing a new aquarium is measuring what room you have available! Anyone who has successfully kept aquariums will tell you most end up regretting not getting the biggest tank they could in the first place as they usually want another/bigger tank shortly after, comically known within the hobby as MTS (more tank syndrome).
Once tank size has been established its time to decide which tank to go for! Bare bone tanks are a popular choice such as the EA pro range but there are any all-in ones that do a good job. The benefit of all in ones/plug and plays is you know the equipment that comes with the aquarium is made for and should be adequate for it. The downside is sometimes it is just enough and there are usually one or two things that most people end up upgrading! With Bare bone aquariums you can tailor everything to suit what you want and get good equipment to start with.
2. Equipment & Placement
It is worth considering what kind of livestock you want as this may affect what equipment you need and whether it will be adequate. Fish only tanks for example will not need as powerful a light as a complete reef/coral tank so it is something to bear in mind before you have to fork out twice for a piece of equipment. We would suggest a sump or a back box as it makes it easier to hide equipment but if you are only going for soft corals or a FOWLR (fish only with live rock) tank then many use external filters to good effect after replacing the media appropriately. Any good Fish shop should be able to help you with every step of the equipment planning.
Ok once you have decided what tank to go for and got an idea of what you would like to end up with its onto the setting up wooooo! Planning ahead with details such as checking where the aquarium is going to live is weight bearing and level can take a lot of headache out of setting up down the line! Nothing worse than getting your shiny new tank up and running and ending up with the water level off, not only will it affect the appearance but it can cause problems with performance and place unnecessary stress on the glass and seams causing tank breakages in worst case scenarios. Another tip is to wet test the tank before you fill it up with sand and rock just to check for that small chance there is a leak! If you tank does not have a raised/floating base then please make sure adequate padding is placed between the bottom and the cabinet.
Tank now in position and plumbed in? Onto getting some stuff in there, some people place egg crate in first as a base to avoid pressure points on the glass when it comes to introducing rock. Going back to the planning you will have decided whether you are having sand/gravel or not. The principal of not having a substrate is ease of maintenance, old sand and gravel beds if not properly maintained can become a detritus trap and produce high amounts of nitrates but having the right fish and CUC (clean up crew) can mean its relatively hassle free.
Personally we prefer a fine sand around 1-2mm grain to accommodate some fish such as wrasse that like to sleep under it for protection, some gobies sift through it for food and some CUC that also rely on it. As well as that it looks more natural in our opinion and lighter colored sand brightens the whole aquarium up . Larger substrates such as gravel are harder to maintain trapping more detritus and don’t benefit the residents like mentioned above. You can spread some larger pieces of crushed coral around if you wish as some gobies will appreciate using them to build caves rather than using your crabs and snails :-D A common question is whether or not to use live sand, We don’t see it being worth the extra nowadays especially not knowing how long it has been sat on a shelf, after all any sand will become live eventually. If you settle on sand, some varieties are worth washing first to avoid excessive cloudiness when you come to fill it up.
Many people do the rock first to make sure it is resting properly on the base or egg crate. As many varieties of fish and invertebrates like bury, tunnel and sieve sand under rock means that if it not sat securely then you could end up with a mini rock slide which will never have a happy ending. Which rock do I choose I hear you ask, well again its down to preference. At one stage I may have suggested live rock and still think for first time keepers it can be an exciting experience not knowing what’s going to come out or grow on it, but experienced me prefers to know exactly what I am putting in my tank. Many hitchhikers on live rock can be ok but it only takes a rogue crab or invasive algae for you to have big issues down the line The benefit of good quality and cured live rock means your tank could be cycled and ready for stock within a week. A benefit of dry rock is the fact you can take your time setting up your scape without the worry of having to rush because of die off. You can even plan your rock scape outside the tank and drill/secure pieces together outside the confined space of the aquarium. We like Marco rock because it cheap and extremely porous and you can get some lovely shapes and even plating pieces. The downside to it is it does look new/white for a few months whilst the tank matures but it will eventually fit right in. An alternative if cost isn’t an issue is Real reef Rock, which looks exactly like live rock and is completely clean of any nasties and again you can get some very nice bits and plates to make an awesome scape. Putty like Aquastik or aqua forest reef cement is ideal for building up your scape without just balancing and risking having rocks fall somewhere down the line. Once the rock is in then onto the sand which you can jug in around the rocks filling any gaps. Building the scape is great fun so whichever option you choose, enjoy it. The best piece of advice is if you set up your scape and you like the look of it, DON’T MESS!! If you change it around you won’t get it back to how you had it and that’s when it gets frustrating!
4. Adding Water
Time for water! If you didn’t clean the sand originally then you will want to avoid disturbing it as much as possible. Pouring or pumping the water onto the rocks or into a ball should help in not creating a dust storm. Once the water is in turn on all the equipment and let the aquarium run. I would suggest for at least a few days to make sure water is up to temperature and that no equipment is faulty, its much easier to sort when you don’t have live stock to worry about.
5. The Cycle
If you have started with live rock then its important to monitor and test your water frequently before adding livestock until you are confident there is no ammonia or nitrite remaining. As mentioned earlier good quality live rock can cure in a week or so but can take anything up to 4-6 weeks depending on die off. Just wait, you will only have problems if you try adding stuff to quickly. If you decided to start your tank with the dry/clean/cured alternatives then you can add stock straight away using ATM colony. You still do not want to overdo it and you LFS should be able to advise on appropriate initial stocking depending on tank volume. It still requires frequent testing and minimal feeds especially in smaller aquaria while bacteria levels build up.
Patience and very gradual build up is always key to having a smooth stocking, and on the bright side the longer it takes you to fully stock your tank the longer it will be before you want a bigger one :-P Try to think ahead a little bit, if theres a particular fish you really want ensure your purchasing fish and coral that are compatible with the fish and tank that you ultimately want.
There it is, As simple as that…..if you have any queries regarding the article or hobby based queries in general then get in touch by either email or Facebook and we are happy to help.