Setting up a Marine Saltwater Aquarium


This guide is for setting up a FOWLR (fish only with live rock) aquarium, if you would like to know how to set up a coral or a more advanced saltwater aquarium check out the other guides.

Saltwater Aquarium Equipment Check List

  • Aquarium - the larger the better
  • Background - this completely depends on your preference and placement
  • Saltwater Hydrometer - to measure the correct salinity of the water
  • Thermometer
  • Aquarium Filter - Cannister filters will work very well, so do all in one tanks
  • Heater - With the correct wattage for your tank
  • Substrate - crushed coral is a safe choice. Very fine sands can sometimes pose an issue
  • Fish food - dependant on your choice of fish, tangs and other species can be vegetarian keep that in mind
  • Live Rock - can be bought from you local fish store
  • Protein skimmer - larger the better
  • Aquarium Glass Scrubber
  • 5 Gallon clean buckets


Before You Begin Checklist

  • Is the floor is able to take the filled weight of the tank? Are reinforcements needed?
  • Is the slope of the floor completely level? To prevent leakage this must be flat
  • There are enough power points nearby and multiple power boards on hand. Is an extension lead needed?
  • The tank is not situated within direct sunlight. Algae will otherwise be much harder to control.
  • You enjoy the placement of the tank as moving it after setup is impossible.
  • It is close to a bathroom/outdoor area for cleaning and saltwater changes.

Cost Involved

saltwater aquarium

You must realize the large cost and effort involved with a salt water aquarium. Like any pet you will need to spend both money and time looking after it. If cost is a factor then beware, saltwater aquariums are far more expensive to set up than there freshwater counterparts, not to mention most saltwater fish carry a much higher price tag.

If you feel this is something you would like to do, it is recommended to spend time reading up on anything and everything related to marine aquariums. Research the fish you want, look at basic pointers, look at other people's downfalls. It is easy to make the same mistakes as everyone else but with a little research you can easily avoid these and this guide will walk you through the proper way of setting up your aquarium with hints and tips.

The Aquarium

You will want to purchase the largest one you can afford and care for. This is not only for stability but for aesthetics and changes in the future. If there is a specific type of fish you want in your aquarium, be sure to research how big it gets.

If it grows quite large you will obviously need a very big aquarium to house it, make sure your prepared to take that path. If you purchase a smaller tank have a look at the type of fish available, maybe there not as attractive as what you wanted?

A good rule is to try to purchase anything over 40 gallons, but with todays emerging technologies it makes keeping a smaller or even 'nano' marine tank very easy. Be sure to know what your doing if you choose a smaller tank, as they will be less consistent and you are more likely to run into larger problems.

Sump Filtration

You will need to purchase your basic equipment to start up your aquarium. With filtration, you will need a basic mechanical filter such as a sump or canister filter. The live rock will handle the majority of the biological process.

saltwater aquarium

Sumps are growing rapidly in popularity and for good reason. They increase the tanks volume by a significant margin, something that will increase the stability of the water parameters but also allow you to house more fish and invertebrate.

An appropriate sump should fit neatly in the fish tank cabinet with room left for maitenance and essential equipment to one side. The sump should consist of up to 4 seperate compartments seperated by glass baffles in which the water either flows over or under.

Having the skimmer situated in an early compartment will reduce the chance of micro-bubbles making their way back into the aquarium and keeping high clarity within the display aquarium. The flow pipe into the sump should have an attatched filter sock to collect debris and protect the sump equipment.

The different sump compartments can contain a variety of mechanical and chemical filtration medias of your choice and research. Popular additions include a refugium, sand,

Canister filters are reccomended becuase of there low noise and energy consumption. They are quite easy to maintain and allow a high flow rate in the aquarium which is important in a marine aquarium. Other means of filtration will work but they can be more difficult and less effective.

Protein Skimmers

Protein skimmers are a very important part of the marine setup. Don't be cheap when it comes to buying a skimmer, a poorly made protein skimmer will release bubbles into the aquarium and sacrifice the display quality.

Buy the largest skimmer you can afford for your aquarium as efficiency is linear and the waste cup will need to be changed far less. They are essential to both fish only tanks and coral tanks by removing the excess waste and protein build up excreted by the fish and coral.

Live Rock

You will also need to buy live rock. Make sure you choose pieces that look very nice but also do not have too much living garbage on them. During the cycling process it is possible for the organisms to die on the rocks leaving an awful mess.

Another thing to look out for are mantis shrimp i can tell you i have had many in times past and they are so very annoying. Make sure you check ALL the holes in the rock you buy, if you are unsure or something may be living inside DON'T buy the rock. Mantis shrimp can easily crack the glass of your tank and are extremely hard to eliminate. They have also been known to kill fish.

Steps Involved From Start to End

Initial Setup of Tank and Substrate

Adding Saltwater

Adding Live Rock

Cycling the Aquarium

Adding Fish



Your saltwater FOWLR aquarium is now complete! Once set up properly should provide years of fun and enjoyment for yourself and the family or workplace. You will be suprised at the little effort needed to keep your new tank appealing and beautiful!