Ask the WWM Crew
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It is exceedingly simple to become overwhelmed when confronted with the seemingly complex gear choices in putting together a working saltwater aquarium system. Compounding this perplexity is the huge number of seemingly and actually conflicting opinions re which is best, the better route to go. With some time, study, you will be able to sort out what is useful and outright chaff here. Rest assured though that a good deal of this noise is valid that there are many valid approaches to setting up and maintaining a viable captive ocean environment.
Some technology is more appropriate for different size, budgets, and approaches to getting you there and you should be able to define for yourself which you choose and the reasons for your choices. Here well present a brief checklist of the gear types available and the rationale for their utilization.
Investigate before you buy! It cannot be overstated enough that it is up to you to look thoroughly into the many options here, most importantly AFTER giving careful consideration to 1) What youd like this system to do for you, the setting that is, will this be a more or less simple bit of biological kinetic art?, with your wanting to do little leg-work, maintenance or 2) Do you intend to really get into it? Maybe you intend this and want to start with advanced gear, further study, involvement? Will you go Fish Only with your new system, or incorporate live rock, invertebrates possibly go full blown reef? It is important to weigh your intentions, know what you may do in future in terms of investment/choices now, as there are gear choices that make life greatly easier down the road if you know where you are going to want to go.
Along these lines is the imminently important
issue of livestock selection. It may not appear evident now, but a
system must be made to fit the life you will keep in it, not the other
way about. Organisms grow at different rates, attain very different
sizes, and are far from carte-blanche compatible. Look into what you
think you might want to house/keep/husband now, ahead of gear
purchases. Youll be very glad you did, and so will your livestock.
Tanks: Most saltwater aquariums are built of glass, Silastic sealer and a plastic frame, or all acrylic. These two material choices are useful for being chemically inert and strong. Due to the very real possibility/probability of scratching, many people choose glass over acrylic, however, especially in earthquake-prone areas, acrylic tanks are much stronger. Another couple of plusses in favor of acrylic are its greater thermal insulation and clarity For glass however there is a greater ease of getting things in and out of the tank, including your arms for maintenance, and ease of light/canopy manipulation.
Size Matters: The bigger the better definitely applies to marine aquariums. What qualities remind you of the ocean? Likely near the top is consistency seawater environments are relatively constant Temperature, chemistry, physical properties vary little over time, distance. The bigger your system is, the more easily you will be able to mimic this homogeneity. I consider a small marine aquarium as anything under forty gallons Systems less than twenty gallons are almost assured to fail; crash within a year of set-up.
Shape Matters: More flat/squat dimensions are preferable over tall, narrow formats for functional reasons. Gaseous exchange, purposeful aeration and circulation are immensely easier to produce in less-high systems. Getting sufficient light to the bottom of deeper systems can also be problematic, particularly if you intend to keep photosynthetic life there. Likewise, doing maintenance on too-deep tanks can be a real pain, with wet under arms, clothes and an inability to see while youre in the tank compounding the difficulty. For practical purposes, unless youre determined to have a very large, custom tank, Id shoot for something less than 24 tall overall.
Holes May Matter: Before actually ordering your new tank, its best to investigate your filtration and circulation options to determine whether youre going to want to have through-puts holes for plumbing to easily move water to/fro the tank and the outside. Some manufacturers make pre-drilled tanks, and some of these will custom make holes for you. You need to determine how many, how large and where you want these placed. Again, there are many variations, possibilities on how to go about this as youll see.
Stock or Custom; which way to
go? Standard, commercially built tanks are, by their nature,
mass-produced and less money per gallon than custom, but you may have a
certain size, shape in mind or be compelled by existing room to seek
out a built to fit tank. These are available for bid.
Stands/Supports: Obviously metal cannot be practically used around saltwater systems. Not only will it rust/corrode, but it is toxic to your aquarium inhabitants. There are expensive, coated metal stands for very large systems that can be fabricated by commercial establishments, but most everyone is faced with either purchasing a ready-made wood aquarium stand or fashioning one of their own, or alternatively finding/having a structure on hand that will serve.
Three characteristics define an adequate support: Strong, Level and Planar Strong
enough to hold up the ten pounds plus per gallon the system will weigh
(including the floor underneath of course). It must be Level in order
to keep the water and its weight evenly in the system to prevent uneven
stress on the tank, stand. And the system needs to be Planar, as in
flat to evenly support the tank and its contents.
Filters/Filtration: There are many processes, descriptions of what constitutes filtration in a marine tank the collective means we employ to selectively remove and add materials to a captive system for the benefit of the life there and our enjoyment.
Biological Filtration: encompasses the means to remove, cycle wastes produced as natural matters of foods/feeding, metabolism of our livestock. Unless you live near a source of natural seawater that you can readily pump to/through your tank to dilute the wastes accumulating there, you will need to address bio-filtration. Towards these ends, there are a number of media that one can employ and means to push/pull water (with particulate, chemical/liquid and gaseous wastes for processing) through/by them.
Most ignoble, though tried and true are undergravel (UG) filters humble plates that lie under a bed of gravel substrate that serve to support this material, have water drawn or pushed through, supplying beneficial microbes with oxygen and food/substrate (wastes). Other means of accomplishing the aerobic feat of waste (mainly ammonia) to less noxious compound conversion (nitrite to nitrate) involve motorized pumping mechanisms. Some examples follow.
Sumps and Refugiums: are containers outside the main/display system with pumping mechanisms to move water to or fro that allow the flexibility of adding, removing components, easy maintenance w/o putting ones hands in the principal tank. They have the added benefit of adding volume/dilution to the main tank space, and can be very useful for providing the plusses of an area of reverse daylight photoperiod, culture w/o predation, and possibly an isolation container for bullies or bullied livestock. Refugiums are living sumps that incorporate a space for components such as live macro-algae, live rock, live sand, Deep Sand Beds and the like, as well as gear like skimmers, contact chambers, dosers et al. These boxes are devised to have skimmers, mechanical filter media, heaters and such, as well as the requisite biological filtration were discussing.
Wet-Dry filters are a type of sump filtration that includes specialized plastic media (bio-balls) that provide optimized space for beneficial microbe habitat and metabolism. These can be useful in many settings, though one needs to be on guard for their propensity for nitrate generation.
Canister and Hang-On outside Power Filters: are appropriate for some types of smaller marine systems (a few tens of gallons). They unfortunately require an inordinate amount of maintenance, as the material collecting in their filter media needs to be regularly (generally at least weekly) cleaned of debris, lest the system become overwhelmed with metabolites and their ill-effects (e.g. algae bloom).
Physical Filtration: Involves processes of sieving out particulate matter, and using physical processes like ozonation, ultraviolet sterilization to purify water and kill micro-organisms. Having added physical filtration can be important especially for larger and more densely populated systems with larger animals. In addition to added media per the types of filtration mentioned above, are cartridge and sand filters of various types.
One type of physical filtration gear this is almost universal in its utility/use is the protein skimmer, aka a foam fractionator, a tool that uses air mixed with water in a contact chamber, and a collection cup to skim out polar biological molecules. I would not have a marine system of any size without one of these.
Other purposeful gear for physical filtration is not absolutely necessary; you may find that the tools you use for biological filtration do enough to keep your water clean, clear and biologically viable alone. However, looking into, using these adjuncts, or providing for their addition at a later date may be prudent.
Chemical Filtration: Media
like activated carbon, specialty resins and more that can be placed in
your filter/circulation flow path/s is often desired. These media can
remove unsightly color, metals, contaminants and harmful biological
metabolites. Once again, many folks get by w/o using chemical
filtrants, but they have their place.
& Circulation: These aspects of phenomena and the gear to
provide them may well be implemented by your efforts at filtration in
general. Keep in mind though that practically speaking there can not be
over circulated or aerated systems and those redundancy pays
particularly should another component fail. Powerheads, closed loop
manifolds, even air stones and the pumps, tubing and valving to run
them are well-worth their costs in insuring a viable environment.
Lights/Lighting: Along with aspects of filtration, lighting a marine system is the biggest area of discussion/dissent, options and gear assortment. Basically what ones choice boils down to is a matter of functional and aesthetic considerations (is the light/ing just for your appreciation, or are their animals/algae youll keep that require specific intensity and quality of light?), and importantly, budget. Do be aware of the ongoing costs to operate your lighting (principally electricity, but also lamps, possibly ballasts down the line). These can be considerable.
Normal Output (NO) Fluorescent: lighting will allow fish only folks to get by, enjoying their fishes, with a minimum of costs to procure and use. Higher output formats, like High Output (HO), Very High Output (VHO), Compact Fluorescents, T-5s and higher, are subsequently more bright, produce more of the wavelengths of light useful to photosynthetic life These should be considered and sought out in given wattages per the depth of your intended system. For tanks of great depth (more than 20 inches of water depth lets say) the use of Metal Halides (MH) comes into play. These physically hot fixtures and lamps can punch through the light filtering and scattering powers of deeper water to boost photosynthetic metabolism, and produce a gorgeous shimmering effect as well. An important consideration in the use of more intense lighting is waste-heat generation and its avoidance. Hoods that involve venting, fans can only do so much, and you may be faced with using a chiller or chilling options to keep your water just tropical.
Actinic lighting is an area of mostly ornamental/aesthetic concern,
with some proponents pushing for this blue light use Though mostly for
looks, actinics can be useful for grading in light/dark periods.
Substrates: Serve a medley of functions in marine aquariums as filter media, substrate/habitat for purposeful and not livestock, as a source of biomineral and alkaline reserve Though there are folks who successfully maintain saltwater tanks w/o gravel, the vast majority of systems are best run with this material.
There are several options that you can take, but the very best involve
crushed corals of various sorts that have been collected, cleaned, and
screened from various places on the worlds beaches. There are
sub-options of color, size, shape but suffice it to state that youll
want to settle on what looks best to you, and possibly functions best
for your intended livestock, at either a minimal depth (lets say one
inch or so) or a few inches (4-5 or more) in a given system. Your
dealer can help you decide about how much it will take for a given
size/shape tank, as this varies by the given surface area and density
of the available materials.
Heat/Heating: Recall what we
stated re consistency of the worlds oceans? You will want a heating
mechanism and at least one good thermometer to assure your system is
and stays about right in its thermal content. For most systems this can
be a single unit of about 5 watts per gallon, though in larger tanks
(more than sixty gallons) having two or more heaters of smaller wattage
is safer, steadier.
for Function & Looks: Live rock, base rock, coral skeletons
real or faux, plastic algae/plants and live and much more should be
considered a necessity. They provide habitat, greatly reducing
agonistic behavior amongst your livestock, needed substrate for food
algae and more, biological filter base and they look good! Peruse what
is available for ideas here, and set your mind on a lay-out scheme
possibly a thematic look (biotope) mimicking a particular marine
Salt/Water Issues: Mmm, saltwater takes salt! Youll want to either stock up on synthetic salt mix (cheaper to buy in larger sizes) or secure a way of getting clean natural seawater for use. The artificial salt mix route is decidedly superior with less lugging, lower actual cost due to its longevity, service compared to the natural and furthermore it has less chance of biological or chemical contamination.
tool for measuring salinity indirectly, the hydrometer is a necessary
tool for making sure your mixed and new water specific gravity is about
right. There are a few formats and even other gear that can be used
here, but a simple floating or box-type works for most everyone.
Quality Test Kits: There are a few parameters that one needs to be
aware of to ensure that ones water is safe for biological use. Most
notably three are aspects of nitrogenous waste concentration (ammonia,
nitrite and nitrate), as well as pH and possibly the related matter of
alkalinity/alkaline reserve. Additionally, folks who intend to have
invertebrates, reef keepers may want to keep tabs on calcium, phosphate
and other measures; particularly if they intend to supplement with
Concerns: Water and electricity dont mix! This is true particularly
seawater due to it high conductivity. Do make sure that all your
electrical items heaters, pumps, lighting are wired to or through a
GFCI protected circuit. There are commercially made power outlets and
strips that incorporate this technology, some with spiffy timers for
setting your lights on a regular schedule.
and Not Other Gear: Will you need water conditioners, foods, a
means of gravel-vacuuming, wiping down your system inside and out
Possibly you'll want a net, other replacement filter gear and
tools? Likely so, and its a good idea to jot these down on your wanted
gear checklist and have them on hand.
There are Many roads to Rome and similarly several ways/means/methods of setting up and maintaining a working marine aquarium. What you settle on for a tank and gear will be dictated by your space, budget, and livestock desires and how much time you are willing to put into keeping your system going. Do investigate here before you buy anything. Consulting a good, complete book on marine aquarium keeping is strongly advised. Along with reading on the Net, chatting with other hobbyists, this is the best way of winnowing out what your possibilities/choices are and making the best gear choices.