Steps to Starting a New Saltwater Aquarium

Planning is everything when starting a new aquarium. There are an unlimited number of choices when you start from zero so we will begin from the start to help you run through each option.

1. Saltwater or Freshwater?

Let’s start here as this will determine the direction for a LOT of your decisions. Here are some observations on the differences between a saltwater and freshwater tank:

- Saltwater fish and creatures are more expensive than freshwater.
- There is a greater variety of fish or creatures that you can get with a saltwater aquarium.
- If you are interested in more than just fish or animals you can go with a planted tank in freshwater or a coral tank (called a reef tank) when you have a saltwater tank.
- Saltwater tanks (especially a reef tank) are tricky to get and maintain a “stable” tank so there are more filtration options available and people who keep saltwater tanks really recommend a larger “system” to help maintain stability.
Once you decide what direction you are going feel free to continue reading if you have chosen a saltwater fish tank or stay tuned if you have chosen a freshwater aquarium and that article will be coming soon!

2. How big of a tank?

A lot of newcomers to the fishkeeping hobby (or newbies as we like to call them) make the mistake of starting with too small of an aquarium. The upfront costs are certainly less but the benefits of having a bigger tank are that the system will be more stable than a smaller tank. The biggest drivers for this decision will come down to how much space you have in your place for the aquarium and how much upfront costs you can afford. The size of your fish tank will affect the size of your filtration, heater, and pumps so there is a certain “domino” effect when it comes to choosing the size of your tank and you will have to keep that under consideration as well. The most common starting tank chosen is a ten (10) gallon fish tank. Please see below for how many fish are recommended to be kept in a 10 gallon tank.

3. What will I be keeping in the aquarium?

Your planned aquarium inhabitants will really drive the systems for your aquarium (lighting, filtration, pumps) so the next decision for you to make is what will you be planning on keeping in your aquarium. The three main options for a saltwater aquarium are:

Fish Only (FO)

Fish-only aquariums include only fish and sometimes some invertebrates. When you choose a fish only aquarium it will send you down the path of less lighting, different filtration, and less maintenance than one of the other options.

Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR)

A Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR) aquarium is a step toward a full reef tank from a fish only tank. The biggest addition is live rock, which is typically old coral that contains beneficial bacteria that helps to supplement filtration of the water – and this helps to display a more “natural” aquarium as it begins to mirror what is actually in the ocean. A step up to a FOWLR aquarium typically means a higher grade of lighting as well as the avoidance of some chemical treatments and the use of different filters to maintain stable chemical parameters that are required to sustain the bacteria within the live rock. Usually when you introduce live rock to your aquarium you can also add live sand as well. Starting a FOWLR aquarium takes longer than a fish only aquarium because the aquarium with have to “cycle” before you can add fish to it. This typically takes some weeks and requires chemical testing of a few parameters before you can be confident in purchasing saltwater fish for the tank.

Fish and Corals (Reef Aquarium)

A reef aquarium is truly the match of the natural ocean reef environment. In a reef aquarium live rock, corals, invertebrates, and fish are all put in your fish tank to match what happens naturally in the world’s shallow seas. As you know from the many stories on the health of the world’s reefs – the parameters needed for a successful reef are EXACT and require all of the right kind of equipment and attention to maintain the parameters at the best of your ability. The major parameters that need to be monitored include but are not limited to: salt levels, temperature, water flow, chemicals (alkalinity, nitrite, nitrate, phosphate, calcium, magnesium, iodine, and strontium), and compatibility of your tanks inhabitants with each other.

Feel free to continue doing your research and reading up on forums such as or your local fish club to consider which saltwater aquarium you would like to keep. Stay tuned for our next article where we will discuss the purchase of equipment for the fist tank aquarium that you have decided to keep.