Saltwater aquarium set up takes time but it is exciting adventure.

It usually takes 4 to 8 weeks before you can add any saltwater fish safely to your saltwater aquarium.

I know it is disappointing to wait too long before you can start putting fish into your saltwater aquarium, but you wouldn’t want to risk losing them.

Saltwater fish are quite pricey. So I would say that patience is the key! Before we move on to more details of aquarium set up, think about these things first:

With these in mind, you can really start a plan on putting a saltwater aquarium together. Now, follow these simple set up steps and you will be on your way to creating a beautiful saltwater aquarium easily.

STEP 1: Choosing your Location, Aquarium Size and Aquarium Stand

Saltwater Aquarium with Live Corals

Saltwater Aquarium with Live Corals

The first step in saltwater aquarium set up is choosing a location that is nowhere close to natural
lighting sources.

Close to windows, entrance that has a clear door where sun rays can come in and patios are a BIG NO!

Intense sunlight can produce excessive algae which are a beginner aquarist’s usual problem. A cooler room temperature that is well-ventilated would be the best.

Choose a large enough location for your aquarium. Set up a level and well supported area for your aquarium and stand and is highly preferred. Make sure to leave enough space for electrical connections and other equipments as well as around the aquarium for maintenance and cleaning.

More in depth information on properly selecting saltwater aquarium location here.

Properly selected aquarium will help in a successful saltwater aquarium and set up will be a breeze. It’s not as hard as it may seem. The first requirement is a proper glass tank. It’s a mistake to buy a small aquarium “just to get started.”

My suggestion is to get the largest aquarium you can afford. It’s actually better generally for first timers. But make sure it will fit your space and of course your budget! Larger aquariums are more forgiving of beginners? mistakes and provide a much more stable environment. If you buy a small aquarium, I’m pretty sure that you will just upgrade to a bigger one later on.

If you’re really interested on starting a saltwater aquarium system but can’t afford all the equipments right now, I suggest learning about the nano cube technology.

Nano cubes are smaller aquarium in which most of the equipments already comes when you buy the kit.

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Surface area of the aquarium should also be taken into account in aquarium set up.

Oxygen enters the water and, more importantly, noxious gases such as carbon dioxide escape into the air at the water surface. So the larger the surface area, the more efficient the exchange of gases will be.

Another important consideration in aquarium set up is the shape of the aquarium.

There are now too many unusual shapes to choose from in addition to the usual rectangular shape. From hexagonal to octagonal, bow-fronted and even trapezoidal aquariums are available.

But they all have their problems. They can be difficult to light, the saltwater fish may find it hard to establish territories or even swim properly or make viewing distorted and are harder to clean. The surface area could be compromised by an unusual shape.

Next is choosing something to stand it on. Choose a sturdy stand that is capable of supporting the weight of a filled aquarium.

If you’re looking for the lowest priced aquarium stands available, of course, there’s a huge selection on E-bay. Below you’ll see the five lowest priced items being offered right now:

Inability to follow this simple step might likely have you in huge mess or worse, a broken aquarium if it hits your floor. Make sure that the aquarium will fit perfectly on the stand you chose.

STEP 2: Aquarium Set Up: Prepare Your Aquarium

So you chose the perfect location and you bought your perfectly large enough aquarium with matching stand. And you can’t wait to fill it up with saltwater fish, live rocks and other inhabitants you can think of.

But wait! There are few more things lined up in aquarium set up before you can do that.

Next is to make sure you clean your aquarium with freshwater and a soft cloth or sponge.

Remember not to use any kind of chemical cleaners. Rinse it thoroughly and make sure all residues are washed out.

You can now pour the sand or gravel, whichever substrate you’ve chosen to use into the bottom of the aquarium followed by your saltwater.

Here are some good examples:

CaribSea Eco-Complete 20-Pound Planted Aquarium, Black
CaribSea Eco-Complete 20-Pound Planted Aquarium, Black
Complete substrate for freshwater planted aquariums; Contains major and minor trace elements to nourish aquarium plants
On Sale
Nature's Ocean No.0 Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Live Sand for Aquarium, 10-Pound, Natural White
Nature's Ocean No.0 Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Live Sand for Aquarium, 10-Pound, Natural White
Immediately removes nitrogenous waste (Ammonia, Nitrite and helps remove Nitrate); Instant Cycling guaranteed; No Waiting Just Add Fish
Nature's Ocean No.10 Taiwan Coral Aquarium Gravel, 20-Pound
Nature's Ocean No.10 Taiwan Coral Aquarium Gravel, 20-Pound
100% From The Ocean Floor; Increases Carbonate Hardness; Provide Marine Trace Elements; Heat Sterilized
On Sale
Carib Sea ACS00940 Ocean Direct Natural Live Sand for Aquarium, 40-Pound
Carib Sea ACS00940 Ocean Direct Natural Live Sand for Aquarium, 40-Pound
This method preserves real live sand with its own original, natural bacteria; Package Weight: 18.37 kilograms

You can either buy a pre-mixed saltwater, ready to use for your saltwater aquarium, or if you plan to use filtered water or the tap water at home make sure you get a sea salt mix. Follow the set up instruction on the manufacturer?s label on how to properly prepare your water using the sea salt mix.

Tap water will have minerals and additives that are not good for your saltwater inhabitants. Your tap water contains substances that are toxic to your fish. When you have your dechlorinated water ready, fill aquarium 1/3 full. Measure the specific gravity of your saltwater. It should measure 1.025.

How to maintain proper specific gravity on your saltwater aquarium.

Install and start all the other equipments such us lighting, heater, and filter and let it run for a day. During this test run time, check for leaks, set and adjust the heater(s) to the required temperature, check and balance out the salinity of the water if needed, and test all the equipment to make sure everything is working properly.

STEP 3: Aquascape

Aquascaping your aquarium means decorating your aquarium. Possibilities are endless. There is no correct or perfect set up of decorating your aquarium. It is up to you on how you will make your saltwater aquarium attractive.

Have fun and be creative. Here are some more information about aquascaping a saltwater aquarium.

Adding live rock as part of your aquascape is a plus. Live rock is important to your saltwater aquarium and inhabitants. One importance of live rock is that fish will adjust better to their new environment because it is similar to their natural habitat.

Live rock also becomes a biological filter of your saltwater aquarium. It provides the beneficial organisms for proper water management and so that you can enjoy your saltwater fish and other inhabitants for a long period of time. Another advantage of live rock is that it acts as a home for corals and other invertebrates and can be used by shy or frightened fish as their hiding place.

You can get a live rock that are already cured and ready to be placed in your saltwater aquarium. If you have an uncured live rock, then it must be properly cured to create a healthy environment.

Fiji Cultured Live Rock (photo by LiveAquaria.com)

Fiji Cultured Live Rock (photo by LiveAquaria.com)

Ammonia, which is a toxic compound and pollutant are released into your saltwater if you don?t properly cure your live rock. This will compromise the health of your aquarium system. Most live rock will be fully cured in 1 – 3 weeks. By then, it will be safe to add to your saltwater aquarium.

Curing your live rock may be done in any type of plastic container that is suitable in size to fit the amount of live rock you have or inside the newly set up aquarium. Getting as large of a water container as you can is recommended, but curing inside the new aquarium is best overall.

STEP 4 : Aquarium Set Up: Cycling

Once you have aquascaped your saltwater aquarium, the next step in saltwater aquarium set up would be allowing the aquarium to cycle. You have to be very patient when your tank is in cycle.

New aquariums don’t have the necessary bacteria for your inhabitants to thrive and survive. This is why your new aquarium must be cycled.

Cycling is the process of establishing and maturing the biological filtration. Typically, new aquariums can be cycled in 3 to 6 weeks. But for fully cycling your saltwater aquarium, it will really depend on factors like:
1 – The amount of ammonia being produced during the cycling period
2 – The efficiency of the biological filtration and
3 – Whether liverocks or live plants are used in the process.

Yellow Tail Blue Damsel

Yellow Tail Blue Damsel

If you don’t know much about this process, it can contribute to livestock loss. So understand what it truly is and learn the proper steps to take for a successful saltwater aquarium.

First, you need to establish a source of ammonia to establish the system. The usual method is adding one or two hardy fish, such as damselfishes. The waste products they produce are the initial source of ammonia. Most of these hardy fish can tolerate ammonia but some don’t.

This method is cruel in the extreme! It will be easier and less cruel to use on the commercially available maturation fluids. Just follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Red Sea Fish Pharm ARE22210 Reef Mature Pro Test Kit for Aquarium
Red Sea Fish Pharm ARE22210 Reef Mature Pro Test Kit for Aquarium
Establishing full nitrification plus nitrate and phosphate reduction in a few weeks; Reef Mature Pro kit includes Bacto Start, Nitro Back, NO3: PO4-X and KH Coralline Grow

Add the maturation compound to start nitrification. Ammonia level will rise and reach its peak then declines, while bacteria continue to multiply until they are undetectable during testing.

The by-product of ammonia is nitrite. Nitrite levels will rise until the number of bacteria has increased to the point at which they break down the nitrites faster than it is being produced. Measure the nitrite levels with a nitrite test kit after a period of time. The end product of this process is nitrate.

You can check out some of the nitrite test kit over at Salty Supply here. They have a couple of selection that are currently on sale.

API NITRITE TEST KIT 180-Test Freshwater and Saltwater Aquarium Test Kit
API NITRITE TEST KIT 180-Test Freshwater and Saltwater Aquarium Test Kit
Helps monitor nitrite and prevent invisible water problems that can be harmful to fish; Accurately detects high nitrate levels from 0-5 ppm
Red Sea Marine Test Kit Nitrate/Nitrite, 50/50 tests
Red Sea Marine Test Kit Nitrate/Nitrite, 50/50 tests
Marine care program nitrate/nitrite combi-test kit; Provides 50 nitrate plus 50 nitrite advanced colorimetric tests for marine aquariums
On Sale
Salifert Nitrate (No3) Test Kit
Salifert Nitrate (No3) Test Kit
Premium liquid test kit for precise nitrate measurement in aquariums; Accurately detects Aquarium nitrate levels as low as 0.2 ppm

Nitrate is not toxic to the fish but high levels of it can produce problem to your aquarium. You can recognize the increase of nitrate when there is an algae outbreak to your saltwater aquarium. You can then control algae reproduction by constant water changes and chemical filtration. It will also help you in managing your cycle without losing any of your fish.

Testing your water parameters regularly during this time will prevent problems in your saltwater aquarium.

STEP 5: Make Adjustments

Do the water change and tidy up the tank to get it ready for the first few new or additional pieces of livestock.

It’s a good time to make any aquascaping changes you desire during this step of the set up.

When you’re done and the system is restarted, let the tank run for a day or two to allow it to settle out.

During this run time check and make adjustments to parameters of the aquarium water that may be needed, such as the temperature and salinity.

STEP 6: Add some new Livestocks

Once the tank has been cleaned up, it is ready for some new saltwater fish.

Puffer

Puffer

The biggest and most often made mistakes at this stage of a newly cycled aquarium is that one tries to cram too much into the tank too quickly or all at once.

It is important for you to be patient and go slowly on this set up to prevent causing problems from overloading the saltwater aquarium.

Whether it is fish, corals, or invertebrates, you should only choose and add 1 or 2 into the aquarium at a time.

After your selection has been placed into the tank, you need to allow the aquarium’s nitrifying bacteria base to adjust to the additional bio-load.

This means you DO NOT add anything else at this point of the set up.

And over a week’s time you should test the aquarium water daily for any appearance of ammonia and possibly nitrite.

Zero readings will show you when it is safe to add the next 1 or 2 pieces of livestock. Better yet, even when the test results are showing zero, wait another week or two before continuing on.

STEP 7: Saltwater Aquarium Set Up: Maintenance

Now that you have put much time, energy, and money into getting your new saltwater aquarium set up and running, it is of the utmost importance for you to establish a regular aquarium care maintenance routine.

Good aquarium maintenance practices will lead to a healthy aquarium, which is what we all wanted in the first place.

Aquarium maintenance is easier than you think.

Here is a suggestion or recommendation on how often your saltwater aquarium should be checked and what should be checked and/or be monitored.

Here are some handy products you should always have for your aquarium maintenance:

Floating magnetic aquarium cleaner

On Sale
Gulfstream Tropical AGU125MED Mag-Float Glass Aquarium Cleaner, Medium
  • Mag float medium glass
  • This is a revolutionary magnetic aquarium cleaner, unique because it float
  • Its buoyancy makes it easy to operate and is easily guided around corners without sinking

This is the easiest way to remove algae for simple aquarium maintenance.It keeps your hands dry while you scrub those algae away from the glass of your aquarium. Just drag the no-scratch, felt-lined handle.While inside your aquarium, the scrubber follows and cleans as it goes. If the magnets get separated, the scrubber part of the magnet floats right back to the surface of your aquarium.

Gloves

Here is another way to keep your hands dry during aquarium maintenance. It also helps you on protecting your aquarium from contamination, and preventing allergic reactions from chemicals.

Under water glue

Get the one that works both in and out of the water in case of leaks and any other emergencies.

Siphons

This is the most important piece of equipment for convenient water changes. Siphon product relies on gravity to draw water from the aquarium and into a bucket or sink, making it so much easier to get that unwanted debris and uneaten food that can later cause to fish stress or even fish loss.

Genuine TERA PUMP Aquarium Cleaner Aquarium Fish Tank Gravel Sand Cleaner with Long Nozzle N Water Flow Controller - BPA Free (model: TRFTCLN)
  • Designed for One-Hand Operation - Suction Tube attaches to Aquarium Glass ( Sure to prevent siphon from moving all over aquarium and preventing splash back ), Discharge Hose Clip, easily attaches to most filling containers for a easy Water Changing
  • Empties a 10 Gallon Aquarium Tank in about 7 Minutes and is made from BPA-Free plastic sure to be safe for all Aquarium life - Great for 10 to 20 Gallon Aquariums / Fish Tanks
  • TRFTCLN Aquarium Siphon is great for filtering dirt, debris, food waster, fish dropping and more. Cleans gravel and sand without any damage to Aquarium life
  • Includes Two (2) Types of Nozzles: Shorter Nozzle is for Water Changing / Drainage | Longer Nozzle is for Cleaning Fish Leftover Food, Droppings and Fine Gravel
  • Our siphon was made to last and is improved year to year with customer feedback and backed by a 1 Year Manufacturer Warranty sure to make you and your Aquarium life Happy

Zacro Fish Tank Gravel Cleaner - Aquarium Cleaning Pump Kit for Fish Tank, with Large Airbag and Adjustable Water Flow Controller for Water Changing and Gravel Cleaning-BPA Free
Zacro Fish Tank Gravel Cleaner - Aquarium Cleaning Pump Kit for Fish Tank, with Large Airbag and Adjustable Water Flow Controller for Water Changing and Gravel Cleaning-BPA Free
High quality faucet design: good for control the flow of water and clean the aquarium.; New version: It is a upgraded version with improved airbag and adjustable water faucet.

I’ve written a helpful article Here about how to siphon water in your aquarium. Please feel free to visit the page.

Cleaner and Wipes

Wardley Klean Up Wipes 16 Pack 8x10
Wardley Klean Up Wipes 16 Pack 8x10
Removes Lime and Salt; 16 each 8 x10" pre moistened clothes; Fresh or Salt Aquariums; Non Toxic to all aquarium life

Use aquarium wipes to prevent watermarks on your aquarium. Use cleaners that are designed for aquariums. Always remember that aquarium glass cleaners are only designed for use on the external surface of your aquarium, NOT inside.

Log

A log or a journal can keep you on top of your maintenance. Note the dates on when you did your water changes and other important information. You can also use this to note your water parameters each cleaning time and test results.

Clownfish in anemone

Clownfish in anemone

Once the tank has been cleaned up, it is ready for some new saltwater fish.

The biggest and most often made mistakes at this stage of a newly cycled aquarium is that one tries to cram too much into the tank too quickly or all at once.

It is important for you to be patient and go slowly on this set up to prevent causing problems from overloading the saltwater aquarium.

Whether it is fish, corals, or invertebrates, you should only choose and add 1 or 2 into the aquarium at a time.

After your selection has been placed into the tank, you need to allow the aquarium’s nitrifying bacteria base to adjust to the additional bio-load.

This means you DO NOT add anything else at this point of the set up.

And over a week’s time you should test the aquarium water daily for any appearance of ammonia and possibly nitrite.

Zero readings will show you when it is safe to add the next 1 or 2 pieces of livestock. Better yet, even when the test results are showing zero, wait another week or two before continuing on.

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