Saltwater Aquarium For Beginners: Ultimate Guide

clownfish aquarium
The ultimate guide to saltwater aquariums for beginners that covers how to start and set up the tank the right as well as the key essentials that you need to know.

A saltwater fish tank is a really beautiful thing to have in your home. The corals and marine plants look awesome, the sound is relaxing, and the fish are absolutely stunning to watch for hours on end. That being said, there are many steps that go into setting up a saltwater aquarium, plus it takes a fair amount of time too. There is a lot that goes into setting up a saltwater tank, so hold on to your seats because here we go.

How To Start A Saltwater Fish Tank

This is a topic that we will cover in great detail further below, with our 11 steps of starting your own saltwater aquarium. For the time being, you need to choose the right tank. If you are a beginner you may not want to go too big, but the choice is yours.

Just keep in mind tank size, the inhabitants you want, and maintenance costs. If this is your first time getting a saltwater aquarium, the tank is definitely one of the most important things to look for. If you want to get the right tank, check out the next section below.

If you need some tank suggestions, we recommend this one.

What We Think Is The Best Saltwater Aquarium For Beginners?

If you are unsure of what to buy in terms of the tank and equipment, especially if you are a beginner, then the below is our top pick and what we feel is one of the best options. It is neat little all in one saltwater starter tank that comes with pretty much everything you need to get started.

Coralife Fish Tank LED BioCube Aquarium Starter Kit

This is a nice 32 gallon saltwater aquarium kit (You can see the current price on Amazon here.). It is not too big, but also not too small for a beginner tank. The whole thing is made of durable glass and is sealed to perfection in order to make sure that it does not leak.

Also, this aquarium kit comes with an integrated LED lighting system in the hood. It has a 24 hour timer, automatic daylight and night time functions, and 3 channels of light.

The 3 channels include bright white, sparkling blue, and color enhancing LEDs. The Coralife Fish Tank LED BioCube Aquarium Starter Kit also features a compact built in filtration system to keep the water nice and clean.

It also comes with a submersible pump with dual intakes and an adjustable return nozzle. The only thing which this aquarium kit does not come with is a water heater. Overall we think this is a great beginner saltwater tank to get started with.

You can check the current price at Amazon here

Saltwater Vs Freshwater Aquariums

Saltwater tanks are absolutely beautiful, but they do take a lot of work. So, what are some of the differences between a saltwater and freshwater aquarium?

  • General saltwater aquariums are going to require more maintenance than a freshwater aquarium. However, if you have a heavily planted freshwater aquarium that needs lots of light, fertilizer, and other equipment, a freshwater tank may actually be more expensive than a saltwater one. It really all depends on what is on the inside.
  • Saltwater fish tend to be more expensive than freshwater fish.
  • Saltwater tanks, especially coral reefs, are world-renowned for their extreme beauty and elegance. Moreover, the fish that come from saltwater areas, especially coral reefs, tend to be much more colorful and pleasing to the eye than freshwater fish.
  • Freshwater fish tend to be much hardier, resilient, and tend to be less affected by changes in the water than saltwater fish.
  • Saltwater aquariums tend to be more fragile and usually require more maintenance than a freshwater tank. However, the big tradeoff here is that saltwater tanks are just so darn beautiful.

How To Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium In 11 Steps

Saltwater aquariums tend to be little bit harder to set up than freshwater aquariums. This is not to say that it is impossible to do or even that difficult. However, if you plan on having a thriving saltwater aquarium, such as a reef tank or some other marine aquarium, you are going to need to follow few specific steps.

Moreover, it can take up to several months to set up a great saltwater aquarium, but most people would agree that the effort and the wait is definitely worth it when all is said and done.

Saltwater Tank Setup For Beginners

If you follow the steps outlined below, you should have no problem setting up an awesome new saltwater aquarium in your very own home.

1. Location, Location, Location!

The first step in the lengthy process of setting up your own saltwater aquarium is choosing the right location for it. Now, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you need to set up your saltwater aquarium in a place that does not get direct sunlight.

You should find a place in your home where there is good indirect sunlight, but the aquarium should never be exposed to direct UV rays from the sun.

Lots of sunlight can cause excessive algae growth in saltwater tanks, which can be very detrimental to the overall ecosystem, plus it is a nuisance to deal with as well.

Moreover, your saltwater aquarium should be set up in a cooler room where the temperature does not exceed 25 degrees Celsius on a regular basis.

Remember, you are setting up a saltwater tank, which is supposed to resemble a natural ocean habitat, or in other words, the water is supposed to be on the cooler side of things.

Finally, the location you choose for your new saltwater aquarium should ideally be in a well-ventilated area. On a side note, you will need to be near some kind of electrical outlets in order to plug in various things such as heaters, pumps, filters, and other accessories.

2. Choosing Your Aquarium – The Tank

Of course, before you get started with adding water, fish, and everything else, you are going to need to choose the fish tank itself (this tank is our top pick). Now, this is a matter of preference to a certain degree, because you may only have so much space for a tank, and may therefore be limited to a smaller option.

However, even though bigger is not always better, in the case of a saltwater aquarium, going bigger does have its advantages. Sure, if you only plan on having a few plants or a little bit of coral and a few small fish, then a smaller tank size will probably do.

On the other hand, if you plan on having a heavily stocked aquarium with lots of fish, especially bigger fish, you are also going to need a bigger fish tank to suit the inhabitants.

Remember, many people buy small fish from the pet store without realizing that they will grow much bigger. So, before you buy the tank you will want to consider what type of fish you want in there and how many of them too.

A mistake that many beginners tend to make is that they go with a smaller aquarium at first, with the intent of moving on to something bigger once they get the hang of things. This is a huge mistake for several reasons.

It takes a while for good bacteria to grow, for the plants to take hold and thrive, for the water cycle to be just right, and for the fish to get acclimatized to the tank.

Getting everything set up in a smaller tank just to move it to a larger one a few months later will disturb this process, disrupt plant and coral growth, and will stress out your fish too. If you plan on moving things to a larger aquarium, you may as well start out with the larger option.

Furthermore, things can go wrong in saltwater tanks just like in freshwater tanks. There are a few different mistakes that beginners can make, like overstocking the tank, not having the right pH levels and water hardness levels, and allowing pollutants like ammonia and nitrites to build up.

These are mistakes that can very quickly be lethal in a small space, but if you have a larger tank the effects will be more spread out. In other words, it is easier to spot errors or something going wrong, as well as to make corrections before it is too late, when you have a larger tank.

3. The Aquarium Stand

The next step in the setup of your saltwater tank involved choosing the right aquarium stand.

Now, if you have a really big home with lots of nice things, you will probably want a stand. Sure, you might have a nice wooden shelf, some kind of armoire, or even a huge bookshelf that would do just fine. However, aquariums can leak, and when you add things or take them out, or just go to clean the aquarium, you might get that nice wooden furniture wet.

Also, you don’t really know how strong those pieces of furniture in your own home are, and you definitely don’t want them collapsing with X gallons of water and a big glass tank on top of them, not to mention all of your precious fish.

The right thing to do is to get a nice aquarium stand. Do keep in mind to look at the size and weight capacity of the stand, as it will have to accommodate the size and final weight of your new saltwater aquarium.

As discussed before, you will need to place the stand in well-ventilated area with no direct sunlight. Of course you might also need extra space if you choose to have extra sumps and refugees, external pumps or filters, or external water heaters. Make sure there is enough space around the stand, as well as that there are enough electrical outlets to accommodate all of the accessories that you will be plugging in.

4. Cleaning The Tank

Before you start putting anything in your new fish tank, you need to clean it out of all debris and dirt (we have covered a cleaning guide here).

When you buy an aquarium in a pet store, or even if it comes boxed after having ordered it online, it will be full of dust and other unwanted guests. These things can end up being in your finished aquarium and can be nearly impossible to remove. In some cases these things can really do some damage to the ecosystem that you are looking to build.

You need to use a cloth with some hot or at least warm water to thoroughly clean out the inside and outside of the new tank that you have purchased. Remember not to use any chemical cleaners of any sort as they can be poisonous, leave residue in the tank, and may actually end up damaging or even killing the fish and plants in your new saltwater aquarium.

5. The Substrate

The next thing to be done is to add the substrate to your saltwater tank. The substrate is the sand or gravel at the bottom of the tank, which in this case will form your seabed. You can use marine sand, but we would recommend using semi-coarse or coarse gravel as your substrate (more on choosing a substrate here). Gravel is easier to maintain than sand, plus it is not as prone to critter and bacteria infestation as sand.

Whatever the case, you are going to want to look for a good saltwater aquarium gravel to go with. Many people go with something colorful like blue gravel to add to aesthetic aspect of the aquarium. When you buy your gravel, make sure that you are buying natural gravel, and if it has been dyed or painted, make sure that it has been done with non-toxic and water fast dyes.

You will want to clean the gravel before putting it in the saltwater tank. Just like there can be dust, dirt, and contaminants on your newly purchased fish tank, so can there be in the gravel. So, get yourself a sieve and wash off the gravel with warm water.

Do so thoroughly to make sure that you get all of the dust and contaminants out of there. As a general rule of thumb, you are going to want around 1 inch of gravel at the bottom of the tank.

We aren’t too big on math, but trust us when we say that in order to achieve a 1 inch gravel bed for your substrate, you will need to get 1 pound of gravel for every gallon of water in the tank. Keep in mind that the weight of your substrate will come into play here, as different gravels and sands will weigh different amounts compared to the space that they take up.

6. Adding The Saltwater

So, now you need to fill up your tank with some good old saltwater. This can be a tricky process in terms getting the salinity right, but you don’t actually have the fish in the tank yet, so you should not worry too much.

If the water has too much or too little salt, you can always correct it before you add the fish and plants into the mix. Anyway, the best option for you to go with is to buy premixed saltwater from your pet store.

Buying premixed saltwater is the best option because you know that it is going to have the right salinity level, plus it won’t have any contaminants either.

However, you can choose to mix your own saltwater, but you will need to be very careful when doing so. If you are going to make the saltwater yourself, you need to buy a specialty sea salt mix from your pet store. Never use ordinary table salt from your kitchen, as it is not what your fish need or want.

Moreover, don’t use fresh water straight out of your kitchen sink because it is going to contain chlorine as well some trace amount of minerals. You want to let the water sit overnight in order to let the chorine dissipate. Also, you can ask for a water treatment solution from your pet store to get rid of chlorine and other elements in the water. The salt you get from your pet store will have specific mixing instructions to get the right level of salinity per quantity of water.

You are going to want to follow these directions to a tee in order to get it right. Now that you have the saltwater mixed and ready to go, add it to the tank.

To test out the strength of your tank, you should only fill it up one third of the way, after which you can then add more. Just remember to leave room for all of the fish, coral, plants, and whatever else you are going to be adding to the aquarium.

7. The Equipment

Now, we aren’t going to get into all of the different kinds of equipment and accessories that you need to have in your saltwater tank. However, generally speaking, you will need a powerful saltwater filtration system with 3 stage filtration (mechanical, biological, and chemical), you will need an adequate lighting system, a water pump, a protein skimmer (we have reviewed some of the best options on this article), and a water heater.

What type, size, and strength of each of these items you get will depend on the size of the tank as well as the inhabitants. Anyway, get everything set up and running in the new saltwater you have just mixed.

Let everything run overnight and make sure that it is running smoothly (and that the water heater has brought the water to an adequate temperature). At the same time, you need to retest the salinity of the water to make sure that you have gotten the salinity levels on point.

8. Aquascaping

This step is going to involve adding the plants, rocks, and/or coral into the mix. This is one of the parts where you get to have some fun.

It is up to you to decide what corals, live rocks, and plants you add into your saltwater aquarium, but do remember to do some research on what you are adding into the mix, as everything is going to need to live in harmony with one another. (We have covered a detailed post on aquascaping for beginners here).

Whether you add live rock is up to you, but it is beneficial for the aquarium as it will filter the aquarium. Also, you should add enough live vegetation as it can also filter the aquarium and serve as a source of food too (we have covered our top 8 Saltwater foods on this article).

If you are adding live rocks, make sure that you buy them cured, which means that they have been treated in order to remove toxins, pollutants, and chemical compounds which could negatively affect your saltwater aquarium.

9. Cycling The Aquarium

The next thing to be done is to start cycling your aquarium. Cycling is the process of building up a natural biological filtration process in the form of beneficial bacteria. These bacteria will end up breaking down ammonia and nitrites in the water and will help keep unwanted natural compounds to a minimum.

This cycling process can take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks, so you will need to be patient because this step is extremely important.

The way to get the nitrogen cycle started, which is what you want, you will need to add a source of ammonia to the water.

Many people do this by adding a pair of hardy and resilient fish which are good at handling changes water parameters, plus ones that are known to produce a lot of waste and therefore ammonia. Keep in mind, that the fish may be affected by the rises and falls in ammonia and nitrite levels, so they may not survive this process.

For this reason, many people would recommend using maturation fluids which you can buy from your pet store. These will add ammonia into the mix and have the same effect as a pair of fish.

As the ammonia levels in the tank increase, while the bacteria multiply at the same time, the bacteria will break down ammonia into nitrite, and then eventually break down the nitrate into nitrate. There are two stages of bacteria that should be present now, those which break down ammonia into nitrite, and those which breakdown nitrite into nitrate.

Nitrite is less harmful than ammonia, and nitrate is less harmful than nitrate, but you will need to make sure to keep nitrate levels in check because too much of this stuff will cause excessive algae growth.

The point is that you need this cycle to be well established before adding fish into the mix because things like ammonia and nitrite can be lethal to your fish, even in small quantities.

10. Choosing The Fish

Now it is time for you to add healthy fish into your aquarium. Of course you need to add fish that are suited to saltwater as well as the size of your tank, but they need to be healthy.

Fish can carry disease and bacteria into your saltwater aquarium, which can end up ruining everything. Your best bet is to consult a specialist at the pet store to make sure that all of the fish you are looking to add into the mix are healthy.

A good salesperson can tell if a fish is in prime condition or not, plus they can help you choose fish that are suited to your skill level.

Some things to remember, never buy a fish from a tank that has other dead fish in it, never buy a fish which you don’t know anything about, make sure they are swimming normally at the time of purchase. Other than that, the type and amount of fish you get is completely up to you.

11. Adding The Fish & Acclimatization

Fish can get stressed out, go into shock, and die, so you need to properly acclimatize them first. Never just pour the fish right into the tank once you get it home! When you get the fish home, let about half the water out, then secure the bag to the side of the aquarium with the bag in the water (while making sure that the water in the bag and the tank do not mix).

You may want to put an air stone in the bag to make sure your fish gets enough oxygen while all of this is going on. After about 15 minutes, add a ¼ cup of aquarium water into the bag.

Let it sit for 10 minutes and then repeat this process several more times. After you have done this several times, check to see if the salinity, pH level, and temperature of the water in the bag match that of the tank. Once this is done, use a net to add the fish into the tank, but never pour the water from the bag into the aquarium. Throw the bag of water out.

Commonly Asked Questions

What Do You Need To Set up A Saltwater Tank?

There are several things which you will need for a basic starter saltwater tank, so here they are.

  • An aquarium of a decent size
  • Water that has been dechlorinated
  • Aquarium salt
  • A protein skimmer
  • Aquarium lights
  • An aquarium filter
  • An air stone
  • Substrate – usually sand
  • Rocks and coral
  • Saltwater plants
  • Saltwater fish
  • Tools to measure pH, temperature, and salinity

What Size Saltwater Tank Should A Beginner Get?

When it comes to saltwater aquariums for beginners, although it may seem reasonable that the smaller the tank is, the easier it is to maintain, this is not actually true, at least not for the most part.

A good size of aquarium, saltwater, for beginners, is going to be between 20 and 55 gallons, with somewhere around 50 gallons being the ideal size for beginners. Fish need room, you want to be able to decorate, and waste tends to build up quickly in very small tanks.

What Is The Easiest Saltwater Fish To Take Care of?

There are various saltwater fish which are fairly simple and easy to care for, and these include the following.

  • Chromis
  • Clownfish
  • Cardinalfish
  • Blennies
  • Gobies
  • Hawkfish
  • Firefish
  • Basslets
  • Grammas
  • Dottybacks
  • Pseudochromis

How Long Does It Take To Cycle A Saltwater Tank?

Cycling an aquarium is not only needed for freshwater tanks, but for saltwater tanks too, and it is necessary in order to build up enough beneficial bacteria so that those bacteria can break down waste, ammonia, and other by-products of natural decomposition.

It can take anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks to fully cycle a saltwater tank.

Do You Need Live Rock For A Saltwater Tank?

If you have a really high quality and comprehensive filtration system, then no, you do not need live rock in your saltwater tank.

Live rock and sand is often used to speed up the tank cycling process, and the bacteria which live on and within them act as great biological filters, but it is unnecessary if you have a good filter with lots of biomedia.


The bottom line is that a saltwater aquarium is about the most beautiful thing you could have in your home, but it does take a lot of work and a fair amount of cash too.

You can go for a smaller saltwater aquarium that won’t cost you too much, or you can go really big too. The choice is yours (this one is our top pick). Whatever the case maybe, if you follow the above steps, you will have no problem setting up an awesome saltwater aquarium.

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