How to Set Up a Saltwater Aquarium- Things You Need to Know

Setting up a saltwater aquarium can be fun and exciting, but you must do your research and also have patience to ensure a healthy, happy saltwater tank . Nothing happens overnight in this hobby, and if you rush things, it will most likely turn into a disaster. With that said, there are some things that you need to take into consideration before starting your tank:

My 110 gal. Saltwater Reef Build


Location-  First thing you need to do is chose the proper location for your aquarium. It is recommended that you put your aquarium in a dark area away from any natural sunlight. If your tank is exposed to natural sunlight it will most likely cause algae problems, something you want to avoid.

Aquarium- Once you have chosen the location for your new tank, you will need to consider the style/size aquarium you would like. Also, take into consideration the larger the tank, the more expensive supplies and equipment are going to be.


Filtration-  For a reef tank, it is recommended that you use a sump. If you are wondering how to set up a saltwater aquarium, I am sure you are wondering, what is a sump? A sump is a separate tank that’s purpose is to dilute the bio load of your aquarium. They say, “dilution is the solution”, which is very true. A sump also allows you to hide your equipment such as heaters, protein skimmers, reactors, and filter media. I suggest that your sump is at least 1/3 of the size of your display tank. Of course this is a minimum, and when it comes to the sump, bigger is better.

In order to deliver water to and from the sump you will need an overflow box and a pump. For the sump to work properly, you will need to buy an overflow box that is rated at a higher gallon per hour (GPH) than the pump. Of course the size overflow box and pump will vary depending on your aquarium size.

Overflow Box


Return Pump

Protein Skimmer- The protein skimmer is the heart of filtration for the saltwater aquarium. This is a piece of equipment that pulls out unwanted waste and excess nutrients from the tank. When it comes to purchasing a protein skimmer, it is important to buy one of good quality. If you skimp out on the protein skimmer, I can promise you that you’ll regret it later on ;) .  A few quality, affordable protein skimmer brands are Octopus, Eshopps, and Coralife. Of course there are many different types of protein skimmers, but these are a few popular brands that have good reviews and aren’t too expensive.  

For more effectiveness, and a happier saltwater tank, I recommend buying a protein skimmer that is rated for a larger tank. For instance, in my reef tank I run an Eshopps psk-150 in-sump protein skimmer; this particular skimmer is rated for a 150-200 gallon aquarium (mine is 130 gallons total volume). I’ve owned this protein skimmer for about 5 months and have had no complaints. It is very efficient with a simple design.


Eshopps Protein Skimmer

Substrate- Using a sand substrate is the most beneficial in a reef aquarium. The most commonly used sand is argonite. DO NOT use a regular play sand for your aquarium!

Depending on your preference, you can either chose to do a shallow sand bed of 1-3 inches, or a deep sand bed (DSB)  which can be anywhere from 4-6 inches. Both of them have their advantages and disadvantages. I will discuss the difference in a separate article.

Salt-  Of course since this is a saltwater aquarium, you will need to chose the type of salt you want. It is difficult to say which salt is the best, but you will want a salt that includes the proper nutrients and elements according to the type of tank you are keeping, either fish or corals, or both. I recommend using either Reef Crystals by Instant Ocean or Coral Pro Salt by Red Sea.

Water- If you are new to saltwater keeping, you are probably planning on filling up your aquarium with tap water from your spicket/hose, but you should strongly reconsider. Most saltwater aquarists these days use RO/DI (reverse osmosis/deionization) water in their saltwater tanks. This is because most tap water contains hard metals/minerals that are detrimental to the saltwater aquarium. Tap water is the root cause for many nuissance algaes such as hair algae and red slime. Using RO/DI water will ensure that your water is pure and your inhabitants are happy.

A typical RO/DI unit can cost you anywhere from $150-$500. It really depends on how much water you plan on needing on a regular basis (how big your tank is). I own a basic 3 stage RO/DI unit that makes 60 gallons per day. This is one of your low end units, but I have patients and don’t mind waiting for my water. Plus, I saved a lot of money by purchasing a smaller unit.

Your typical 3 stage RO/DI unit


Live Rock- Every reef tank should have Live Rock. Live rock is used as a nitrification base or a biological filter for a saltwater aquarium. It is suggested that you have about 1 lb of live rock per gallon. For example, if you have a 110 gallon aquarium, you should have around 110 lbs of rock.

Circulation- It is mandatory to have the proper circulation in a saltwater aquarium, especially a reef tank. Circulation in the aquarium provides oxygen keeping your corals and fish healthy. It is recommended that you have anywhere between 30-50 times the volume of your tank moving per hour. I have a 110 gallon reef tank circulating 3600 GPH. Some people prefer more, depending on what they are stocking in the tank.



Heating- Keeping your reef aquarium at a temperature between 78-82 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for most species.The rule of thumb for heating your aquarium is 3-5 watts per gallon. Two heaters will work more efficiently than one, and also serves as a backup in case one were to fail. I use two 300 watt eheim jager heaters for my 110 gallon aquarium which is more than enough, but it keeps my water at a constant 80 degrees and never fluctuates more than .05 degrees. Keeping a steady temperature is important so that you do not stress any of your fish or corals.

Thermometer- You will need a thermometer to keep track of your temperature. I suggest using a digital one for better accuracy.

Lighting- there are several options when it comes to lighting your saltwater aquarium. If you plan on keeping difficult corals such as LPS and SPS, you will need a powerful light such as a T5 HO (high output) fixture or Metal Halides. You can find light fixtures that are a combination of both.

Test Kits- To ensure that all of the parameters in your aquarium are where they need to be, you will need test kits. The most common tests needed for a fish only salwater aquarium are PH, salinity, ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, and phosphates.If you are doing a reef tank you will also need to test for calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium. I highly suggest purchasing the Salifert test kits as they are known to be the most accurate. They are bit more expensive, but trust me it is worth the few extra dollars to ensure you are getting proper readings.

To check the salinity (measure of salt) in your aquarium you can use either a hydrometer or a refractometer. Although the refractometer is a bit more expensive, it is much more accurate than a hydrometer.


I hope that this article was useful and answered all of the questions you may have when asking how to set up a saltwater aquarium. Take things slow, and enjoy this addicting hobby :)

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One Response to How to Set Up a Saltwater Aquarium- Things You Need to Know

  1. Wonderful line up. We are going to be linking to this fantastic report on our website. Sustain the great producing.

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