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Getting Started Article (1 Viewer)

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Jul 30, 2004
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Missouri City
Hello all. It's been a VERY long time since I visited MARSH...love the new look! I've been out of the hobby for quite a while but a co-worker mentioned that he is setting up a new reef tank and so, of course, I referred him to MARSH! I suggested he look up an article I had written specifically as a starting place for beginners but it looks like it was removed somewhere along the way or during the transition to the new site.

There was certainly no groundbreaking information but I think it's still useful enough to re-post. I wrote this for MARSH so feel free to use, or not, as you see fit. One notable change that has occurred since this article / FAQ was written is the now common use of LED lighting. At the time of the original writing, LED lighting was just beginning to be seen at trade shows and not yet on the market. I'm sure there are other trends, like the use of Mangrove trees, that are also absent but this article was only intended as a starting point and hopefully it still accomplishes that much.


Getting Started in Saltwater – An FAQ brought to you by the
Marine and Reef Society of Houston

In the interest of giving beginners a place to start, we are forming this
FAQ. We will try to answer some of the basic questions that most people
encounter when setting up their first SW aquarium. This is by no means
a comprehensive list and there are many ways to set up a tank. This is
intended to serve only as a starting point – to help get your feet wet. Well
maybe your hands….ok, ok…clear up to your armpits. Let’s get started!

What equipment do I need to start a saltwater aquarium?

1. The tank: Contrary to what you might think, starting with a small
tank is not the best option. In fact, the bigger, the better. You see, a
larger volume of water is less apt to be affected by the sudden water
changes that are common in a beginner’s tank. Think of it this way:
If you take a cup of water and a gallon of water and add a drop of
blue food coloring to each, which one is going to have the greatest
color change? Correct, the cup. Now imagine you have a fish die in
your tank while you are at work. As the fish decays, it produces toxic
ammonia. The smaller the volume of water, the more detrimental the
ammonia will be to the other tank inhabitants. Simply put, a larger
tank is more forgiving. A good size to start with is 55 gal or larger.

2. Water: If you’ve ever had the tap water in Alvin, you know that not
all water is created equal (sorry to any Alvinites out there). Tap water
can contain a variety of chemicals, minerals, and other impurities
that are not conducive to reef keeping. Tap water will likely contain
chlorine and possibly chloramines and even nitrates and phosphate.
(We’ll learn more about nitrates later.) So, what kind of water do you
want to use. There are lots of options, the most common of which,
is water purified by Reverse Osmosis (RO water). In the interest of
keeping this simple, and not getting over my own head, lets just say
that reverse osmosis gives you the purist water. You’ll find RO water
at most any supermarket – just check the label. If you go to Wal-
Mart, it is the one with the green cap and runs less than sixty cents per
gallon. There are also home RO units widely available to reef keepers
if you want to make your own water.

3. Filtration: This can be a real can of worms. There are many different

options and many, many different theories regarding the best type of
filtration. The most common, and accepted method is the use of live
rock (lr) and a deep sand bed along with a protein skimmer. Live
rock, is a simple way of saying porous carbonate-based rock that is
host to both macro and microorganisms. Because of the highly porous
nature of lr, it is able to support vast amounts of both aerobic and
anaerobic bacteria. Make sure you use rock that won’t leech minerals
into the water.

This is as good a place as any to talk about nitrates. As mentioned
earlier, decaying fish produce ammonia. In fact living fish produce
ammonia as a product of respiration. It is also produced as fish waste
and uneaten food decompose – these decomposed materials are also
known as DOC’s or dissolved organic compounds. If allowed to exist
in any significant amount, ammonia will wreak havoc on your tanks
inhabitants and can cause death. This is where the bacteria enter the
picture. The bacteria, which use ammonia in their own metabolic
process, are called nitrosomonas. Nitrosomonas thrive in a highly
oxygenated environment and consume ammonia in a process called
aerobic nitrification. As these bacteria multiply, they use up the
ammonia and produce nitrites as a by-product. Nitrites are also toxic to
the marine environment. The bacteria, which consume nitrites, thrive in
low oxygen environments and are called nitrobacteria. They consume
nitrites in a process called anaerobic (or anoxic) denitrification. The
nitrobacteria convert the nitrite into nitrates. Nitrates are the end of the
line in this process. The nitrates are LESS harmful to aquatic life than
ammonia or nitrites, but still should not be allowed in any significant
quantity. Nitrate is removed via frequent, small water changes – usually
10-20% per week. Some people choose to make larger, less frequent
water changes. There are some other options for reducing nitrates, but
that is a topic for another day. Now, back to filtration.

As mentioned, lr is host to both aerobic nitrifying bacteria, which live
on the rock surface, and anaerobic denitrifying bacteria, which live, in
the denser pores deeper within the lr. Like lr, sand also provides a good
home to both types of bacteria. In order to provide enough lr to be an
effective biological filter, you want to have between 1.5 to 2 lbs of live
rock per gallon of water. So, in a 55 gal tank, you would want between
about 110 – 150 lbs of live rock.

A Deep Sand Bed (DSB) typically is two to four inches deep and
provides lots of surface area for beneficial bacteria. The surface portion
is host to the nitrosomonas and the deeper, less oxygenated layer, is home
to the nitrobacters.

Now that we’ve talked about live rock, deep sand beds, nitrifying and
denitrifying bacteria and DOC’s, you may be saying to yourself, surely
there’s a way to remove the fish waste before it becomes a problem. Guess
what, you’re right!

The protein skimmer is the means by which the fish waste, excess food,
and other proteins are removed from the water. There are several types
of protein skimmers and each has their pros and cons, but they all have
one thing in common – using foaming bubbles to remove protein from the
water. The skimmers vary in the way the bubbles are produced but he basic
operation is this: bubbles are produced in the skimmer, the smaller the
better, and the DOC’s stick to the bubbles and are carried into a collection
cup which can be periodically emptied. The waste in the collection cup is
called skimate. A protein skimmer's efficiency is judged by its ability to
produce skimate. But no matter how effective a skimmer is you will still
need biological filtration.

This covers just the basics of filtration. Please read as much information
as you can find on this topic. The better you understand how this process
works, the more success you will have.

4. Lights: The type of lighting you provide will depend directly on what
you choose to keep in your tank. If you want to keep a Fish Only
(FO) tank, then you can get by with just standard fluorescent lighting.
If you want to keep corals or anemones, you will need stronger
lighting. The rule of thumb is 3-5 watts per gallon. Many factors such
as depth of tank, and placement of corals will be important as well.

You have lots of options to choose from but most are a combination of
three technologies: Power Compact Fluorescents (PC), Very High Output
(VHO), or Metal Halide (MH.).

Power compacts will allow you to keep a variety of corals, including all soft
corals, and a limited selection of hard corals – mostly large polyp stonies


VHO, while not as intense as PC lights, are offered in higher wattages and
by themselves allow a similar selection of corals to be kept. However, VHO
are often used in conjunction with Metal Halides.

Metal Halides offer the greatest range of options allowing reef keepers to
meet the lighting requirements of even the most demanding corals, including
small polyp stonies (SPS). The drawback to MH lighting is the relatively
high cost, and the intense heat that they put off. Special cooling precautions
have to be taken to maintain water temperature when using MH lighting. At
a minimum, you will need to have one or more fans cooling the lights and
surface of the water. Another, more costly option is the use of a chiller.

As stated, these are generalizations. Many reef keepers have had success
keeping all manner of marine life using each of these types of lighting.

5. Circulation: The goal of every reef keeper should be to replicate the
natural ocean conditions as much as possible. By doing so, you have
the greatest chance of creating a hospitable environment for your fish,
corals, and invertebrates. Circulation is typically provided by power
heads, which are small pumps placed in the water, which draw water
in and then pump it out at higher pressure. The rule of thumb here is
ten times the water volume per hour. If we use our hypothetical 55
gal tank, this would mean we would want at least 550 gph of water
flow. The power heads should be placed in a manner as to simulate
ocean currents while creating flow in all portions of the tank.

How do I set my tank up?

Even after having the basic information about equipment and biological
processes, you may still run into little questions along the way – stuff like,
how do I mix the water, and how do I cycle my tank. We are going to try to
address a few of these more common questions.
Important: Before adding water to your tank, make sure that the tank
and stand are level. Having a tank that is not level can lead to your tank
The next decision you need to make is if you want to use sand or crushed
coral as your substrate (base layer). For biological filtration, a deep sand

bed is the most recommended substrate. The sand should be clean argonite
sand. Silica based sand can be harmful to some sand sifting creatures that
you may decide to keep. Another option still chosen by many people is
crushed coral. Crushed coral will not be as effective at hosting anoxic
bacteria as will a DSB, but it is readily available and many prefer its
appearance to sand. After laying your substrate, you are ready for water.

As discussed earlier, you’ll want to begin with water purified through
reverse osmosis. When filling the tank for the first time, it is OK to mix the
water and salt in the tank. Once you have livestock in your tank, you’ll want
to mix the saltwater in a bucket or barrel and then add it to the tank. There
are several salt mixes out there, all of which have their fans, and detractors.
Regardless of which one you choose you will want to mix it to salinity
between 1.022-1.025. For most salt mixes, you will get close to the desired
salinity by adding salt mix at the rate of ½ cup per gallon of water. For your
initial setup, don’t fill the tank all the way. Remember you are going to
displace water with a large amount of rock. Also, you want to leave enough
room in the tank to adjust your salinity. If your salinity is too high, you will
add more RO water, if it is too low, you will add more slightly concentrated
saltwater. Most reef keepers use a simple swing arm hydrometer to measure
salinity, but you may eventually want to consider a more accurate device
such as a refractometer. Once you have water in your tank, you will want to
place and plug in your power heads.

The next step is to add your live rock. Live rock comes two ways, cured or
uncured. When live rock is removed from the ocean it is full of marine life.
During the subsequent transportation, some of this marine life will begin
to die-off. The process of curing live rock means allowing the decaying
process to complete before adding it to your tank. Adding uncured lr
to your tank may cause an ammonia spike. Normally such a spike is
undesirable, but when starting a new tank, it can aid in cycling the tank –
More on “cycling” in a moment.

You can either use all live rock or, if you want to save money, you can use
20% live rock and 80% base rock. Base rock is porous carbonate based
rock that has either not been in an ocean or reef tank or was but has since
been removed. If you go this route, just remember that it will take time for
your base rock to become home to the macro and microorganisms typically
found in live rock. After a period of time, the base rock and live rock will be


As you add the rock, be mindful of how it is placed. You want to make sure
that it is stable and will not topple over once you add livestock. You’d hate
to see your favorite fish crushed to death in a rockslide – not to mention that
many of the larger pieces of rock are quite heavy and could easily break
your glass. Can you say, Noah’s Ark? Let’s hope you never have a flood!
If you are especially concerned about falling rock, or want to try some
interesting aquascaping, consider options such as using PVC to brace your
rockwork. After adding the sand and rock, your tank will likely be very
cloudy. At this time, start any filtration devices that you will be using and
within a couple of days, the water should be clear.

Once your live rock is in place, your tank will begin to cycle. Cycling is the
process by which the bacteria are established in your tank. If you add a
sufficient amount of live rock, your tank is essentially already cycled, but if
you don’t add live rock or only add a small amount, you will need to help
the process. Either way, you need to provide a food source for the bacteria –
namely ammonia. If you are using lr rock to cycle your tank, you can add a
couple of hardy fish to provide an ammonia source. People often use
damsels for this task, but please bear in mind that damsels can be very
aggressive to other fish and are also extremely difficult to remove from a
tank with lots of rockwork. If you are not using lr to cycle, you will want to
provide an alternate source of ammonia – there’s no good reason to risk
killing a fish in a tank that is not yet ready to support life. In this case, you
can either add a pinch of fish food to your tank each day, or drop in a raw
shrimp. As the food or shrimp begin to decompose, ammonia will increase
in your tank. After a few days, start checking ammonia levels. After about
a week, you will see a peek in ammonia and then levels will begin to
decrease. The decrease in ammonia means that the levels of nitrosomonas
are increasing. Once you see the decrease in ammonia, start checking nitrite
levels. Like ammonia, the nitrite levels will rise for about a week until they
peek and begin to decline. At this point the nitrobacters population is
increasing. Once you see this decrease, you should start checking nitrate
levels. Nitrate levels will increase and peak at about the same time nitrite
levels reach zero. Once this has occurred, you should be at about the three-
week point. In order to lower the high level of nitrates, you will need to do
a massive water change – draining 50% of you water and replacing it with
new saltwater. At this point you should begin to slowly add livestock while
daily checking your nitrate levels. Nitrate should not exceed 40 ppm in a

fish only tank, or 10 ppm in a reef tank. If you have proper filtration,
stocking, and maintenance your nitrate levels should remain very close to
zero. In order to keep a bacterial balance, it is wise to wait a week or more
between livestock additions to your tank.

What do I do now?

Before you add ANY fish, coral, or invertebrate to your tank, be sure to
thoroughly research your potential purchase BEFORE bringing it home.
You will find that many creatures are not compatible with one another or
you may find a beautiful fish only to discover that it is a voracious coral
eater. Many reef keepers find it useful to compile a list of compatible
fish and corals – ones that will live in harmony with one another, are well
suited to your tank size, and lighting. Make sure to take the list with you
whenever you go to the local fish store (lfs) so you won’t be tempted to
make an inappropriate spur of the moment purchase. And be mindful that
just because someone works in a fish store, does not mean they know what
they are talking about. This seems to be especially true of the large chain
stores. Unfortunately there are also those out there who will allow you to
make an unwise purchase just so they can make a sale. To help avoid this
dilemma, check out the list of MARSH sponsor stores. Any of our sponsors
will be happy to take time to help you make selections that will thrive in
your tank. Although the topic is not covered here, I strongly encourage you
to do some research on setting up a quarantine tank. A quarantine tank is
used to monitor your new livestock for several weeks to make sure they are
free of disease before adding to your main tank. It is much easier to treat for
disease in a quarantine tank than it is one full of corals and other sensitive

Hopefully you have found this information useful and have a better grasp
on just what is involved in this wonderful hobby. No doubt you have many
other questions so please take the time to search through our various forums
and topics and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Part of the fun of
reef keeping is sharing what you have learned. For more information and
personal interaction be sure to attend one of our local monthly meetings.
We regularly have guest speakers who share information on a variety of
topics, as well as DIY workshops and frag (coral) swaps. We look forward
to seeing you there!