How to Start a Salt Water Fish Tank

A saltwater fish tank full of marine fish can be beautiful.
A saltwater fish tank full of marine fish can be beautiful. (Image: Photo taken by Amy Jorgensen)

Do you want to capture your own piece of the ocean? Setting up a saltwater fish tank in your home or office can help you do just that. The bright-colored tropical fish, the gentle swaying of the marine plant life and the soothing buzz of the filter are entertaining and known to reduce stress. However, getting started with saltwater fish is more challenging than working with freshwater aquariums. If you have no experience setting up an aquarium or raising fish, you may want to gain a bit more experience before attempting to enter the beautiful, but challenging, world of saltwater aquariums.

Things You'll Need

  • Tank (36 by 15 by 12 inches, at minimum)
  • Tank cover and stand
  • Lighting
  • Filtration system
  • Heater
  • Thermometer
  • Gravel vacuum/siphon
  • Saltwater mix
  • Large container
  • Mixing spoon
  • Hydrometer
  • Substrate
  • Aquascape
  • Shelter for fish
  • Marine fish

Choose a tank. Because tropical fish are meant to live in a huge ocean environment, pick the largest tank you have room for, can afford and are prepared to care for. You can find saltwater aquarium tanks at most pet stores and aquatic supply shops. Not all tanks automatically come with covers or stands so ask the salesperson and be sure to purchase a cover and stand for your marine aquarium before you leave the store.

Place your saltwater aquarium near electrical outlets because the equipment will need electricity. Make sure the stand is level and balanced before adding the tank.

Add your lighting, filter, heater and thermometer following the directions on each piece of equipment. Because tanks and equipment vary, read the instructions carefully and follow them. Do not plug any of them in yet.

Do a wet test. Fill the tank with freshwater and plug in all of the equipment. Spend the next 48 hours monitoring the tank. Look for leaks in the tank or around the equipment. Make sure the filter is working. Use the thermometer to ensure the tank is maintaining a temperature of 78 to 82 degrees F.

Check water level. While the equipment is running, make a mark on the outside of the aquarium to remind you of the appropriate water level for the tank. This mark may come in handy if you need to add water to the salt water aquarium at a later date.

Empty the tank. You can purchase a gravel vacuum or a siphon to help you empty the tank. Make sure the tank is emptied of the freshwater before moving on.

Mix saltwater. Saltwater mixes can be purchased from marine aquarium supply stores. A very large bucket can usually be used unless you have a very large tank. In that case, you may need to mix the saltwater directly in the tank. Make sure to turn off all the equipment before you do, however. The mix is combined with tap water. Follow the instructions on the mix to determine how much water you need. Stir the mixture until the particles are completely dissolved, then add it to your tank while the equipment is turned off.

Test the salt content of the water. Use the hydrometer to make sure the water is perfectly salted for your future fish. A reading of between 1.020 and 1.023 is good news.

Add your substrate. The substrate is the material spread along the bottom of the aquarium. You can use rocks, sand or peat, for example. Choose a substrate appropriate for the type of tropical fish who will call your marine aquarium home. For instance, coral sand or crushed limestone are good choices for saltwater fish.

Add your aquascape. Aquascape refers to the plants and other decorative elements you can add to your salt water aquarium to make it more beautiful and more natural for the fish. Be sure to anchor plants in the substrate. This includes adding shelter for the fish.

Test your saltwater aquarium. Run the aquarium without fish for 2 to 3 days. Keep track of the water temperature and continue measuring its salt content.

Add tropical fish. If all goes well during Step 11, you can begin adding fish to your aquarium. Start with only a few fish at first and continue watching the marine aquarium to ensure everything is running properly. Gradually add more fish until you have the salt water aquarium you desire.

Tips & Warnings

  • Consider using live rock or live sand for the substrate in your saltwater fish tank. Both contain bacteria and other microscopic life forms that will help keep your saltwater aquarium free of nitrogen-based waste, ammonia, nitrates and phosphates.
  • Consider purchasing a powerhead for your marine aquarium. Powerheads keep the water flowing in your tank, which is important for marine fish.
  • Consider purchasing your saltwater aquarium tank as part of a set. Many shops sell the tanks and necessary equipment as a set. You will get everything you need and save money. Plus, you can upgrade your equipment once you have more experience setting up a salt water aquarium.
  • Avoid adding new saltwater fish to your tank without quarantining them first. Marine fish can pass on infectious diseases to other fish sharing the same saltwater aquarium. Using a separate, quarantine tank can prevent this from happening.

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