Converting your freshwater tank to saltwater or setting up a new saltwater aquarium can be overwhelming. You can have someone like Aquaria Guru help you, or you can do it yourself. This article will help the do-it-yourself type person.
Option A – Reef Tank: Living corals are beautiful as they move in the current, are fun to watch as they eat food (some can move quick!) and some corals have a symbiotic relationship with fish (like a Clown Fish in an Anemone). Please note – for saltwater reef tanks (with corals), we do not recommend a canister filter since waste builds up faster and they create nitrates (which feeds algae growth).
Pros: Colorful corals fill your aquarium and grow larger over time.
Cons: Reef aquariums are more difficult than “fish-only” systems (most people will start with just fish and add corals when they’re more comfortable (just be careful to ensure you have coral friendly fish and invertebrates). It’s more difficult to treat reef tanks if a disease breaks out. Bright lights for corals can promote algae if not properly maintained (and higher electric bills).
Option B – Fish Only Tank: For a fish-only tank with less-intense lighting, a canister is not recommended, but would be an acceptable choice. Artificial corals can add a splash of colors and hiding spots for your fish.
Pros: Easier to care for. Less susceptible to algae outbreaks. Easier to treat fish diseases. Artificial corals don’t need light.
Cons: Not as “lively” as a coral tank. Artificial corals may occasionally need to be cleaned.
Water Movement, Filtration & The “40x Rule” – Overall, we generally recommend a total of about 40 times the tank size (40x rule) for water movement between the return pump and power heads (ex. a 100 gallon aquarium would need about 4000 GPH for water movement). This is approximate mainly due to obstructions (rocks) that may interrupt water movement. The goal of water movement in a reef tank is to keep the fish waste from settling so the filtration can remove it instead.
Overflow – If you don’t have a drilled tank, you will need a “hang on back” overflow box. An Aquaria Guru team member can also drill your non-tempered glass and install the plumbing (most popular choice because it’s more reliable and saves space).
Sump – Get the largest sump that can fit into the stand to ensure the filtration has time to process the water before it’s sent back to the display tank.
Return pump (in the sump) – We recommend a return pump that can move 3-5 times the tank volume so the filtration in the sump can properly remove the waste from the water (ex. a 100 gallon aquarium would need at least 300-500 GPH coming out the top – see note below). The type of pump (submersible or external) depends on your sump setup. Mag Drive pumps are a popular, dependable and low-cost submersible pump choice (but they get warm and may increase the water temperature higher than you want).
NOTE: Due to back-pressure, you will need a larger output pump. Every tank will have different needs based on the length/diameter of tubing and elbows (back pressure & head pressure). It’s always good to get a larger pump since you can reduce the output with a valve. Be sure to read the “head pressure” specifications on the pump.
Power Heads – We recommend multiple power heads throughout your aquarium (see example below for how much). Hydor Koralia power heads are the most popular, last a long time and aren’t too expensive.
Example: Using the 40x rule from above and our 100 gallon aquarium example, you will need an overall of about 4000 GPH water movement in your aquarium. If your return pump is 500 GPH, then that leaves 3500 GPH in water movement from the power heads. Mix it up – small power heads are good in small spaces (behind rock structures) and larger power are great for open areas.
Skimmer – A skimmer sits in the sump and helps to remove fish waste from the water. The most popular skimmer is the “Reef Octopus” brand. We recommend a skimmer one size larger than the manufacturer recommendation (manufacturers tend to under size skimmers because most people over feed their fish).
Good Water Source – City water has chlorine, fluoride, phosphates, metals, sediment, iron, etc. that can promote algae or kill fish. We recommend using only RO/DI (Reverse Osmosis / Deionization) water from an aquarium store or purchasing a RO/DI water filter to use at home (and avoid carrying heavy buckets).
* Please consult with an Aquaria Guru professional if you want to use an RO/DI system with well water.
Salinity – As water evaporates, the salt is left behind (and the salinity increases). You can use a refractometer to monitor the salinity (keep it between 1.024 to 1.026). We recommend an auto top off to automatically replenish the evaporated water.
* Saltwater aquariums with only fish can have a salinity as low as 1.019
Temperature – Keep your reef tank at about 77 degrees with a quality heater. A low-cost heater can spell disaster for your fish/corals (it’s the one piece of equipment we tend to depend on the most!), so we don’t recommend skimping on this item. We love a good-quality Titanium heater with an external thermostat (titanium heaters aren’t breakable like glass and have an advanced thermostat that lasts a lot longer).
* PRO TIP: Run an additional small heater in your aquarium and set the thermostat a couple degrees lower than your primary heater just in case the primary heater fails.
Supplies & Equipment
Lighting – This will vary depending on if you want corals, fish or both. There are a LOT of different lights to fit every tank and budget.
Salt – The most popular salt brand is Instant Ocean (for fish only) or Reef Crystals (for a reef tank). We use Reef Crystals for all of our customers.
Rocks – We recommend starting with 1 pound per gallon (some people like more or less). There are different styles starting from $2.49 per pound for dry rock and more for “live rock” (dry rock can take 2 to 8+ weeks to cycle and become “live” so you can add fish/corals). The term “live” means there is plentiful beneficial bacteria on the rock/sand surface that helps to decompose organics and break down toxic ammonia in the tank from dead organic material on the rocks and fish waste.
Sand – The most popular choice for live sand is “Fiji Pink” because it’s not too small or big. Live sand is preferred over “dry sand” because every bag contains everything you need to jump start the growth of beneficial bacteria (which decomposes and consumes ammonia from fish waste).
Carbon & GFO Reactor – Carbon and GFO (Granular Ferric Oxide) clarifies water, reduces fishy-smelling odors, removes toxins secreted from corals and reduces phosphate (which feeds algae growth).
Cleaning & Equipment – A siphon & magnetic glass cleaner will help keep your gravel and glass clean. We recommend bi-weekly 20% water changes.
With any new tank, it takes time for everything to cycle, become established and stabilize before you’re able to add fish/corals. While you wait, you can plan your fish list. If you have any questions on any of the above topics, one of our knowledgeable team members would be more than happy to help!