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Related Articles: Marine Filtration, Mechanical, Physical & Chemical, Components, Water/SeawaterTanks/Stands/Covers, Electrical, Light, Light Fixtures, Heating, Marine Substrates, Aeration, Circulation. Plumbing

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Step By Step Marine Aquarium Set-Up

See also: Setting Up a Marine Aquarium Overview and Setting up a Marine System 2, Reef Set-Up

by Bob Fenner

Slowly, step by step...

A "cookbook" approach to putting a marine system together is not for everyone, but I've learned over the years that such simple checklists and instruction sets can be of tremendous use for many newcomers (and even seasoned know it alls) to the hobby. You'll especially appreciate having another conscientious aquarists views presented here on what equipment you need in a list form to shop and compare benefits.

Here is my A,B,C of what it takes, equipment, tools, labor and time to put together typical marine aquariums. See something missing from my list, wrong in "how-to" steps? Please feel free to amend delete where you feel it's necessary.

Simple Steps to Marine Aquarium Set-up

1) The Plan: "At first there was the plan and the plan was good." How you going to get to where you're going if you don't know "where" it is? There are many types of saltwater set-ups; big-medium-small-downright tiny, cold to tropical, reef, fish-only, biotopic... In turn they all have different modes of assembly and operation, Yugo to Rolls Royce... you get my drift? And seemingly more opinions on the "what and how" to "do it" than there are aquarists! Therefore, resolve to thoroughly investigate and decide which type, size of system and livestock you're going to have before buying more (matching) gear than you'll need. How to do this? In addition to chatting the subject up with other hobbyists and dealers, read books and magazines on the topic. Authors and editors, out of fear of embarrassment and lost credibility/sales, tend to be factual, consistent and complete in their presentations.

2) List: As you study up, visiting your LFS (local fish stores), clubs, new friends on the internet and worthy printed works (magazines and bound volumes), you'll definitely be narrowing down the "what and how" of your system components. My advice? Make a list, modify or use mine here to detail manufacturers, makes, models, sizes, prices, features. Be bold, make copies and take them to your dealers to get their ideas and opinions of what your options might/should be.

3) Pre-Assemble your gear. Really. Get it all out and check it over thoroughly. Read the boxes and inserts (I'd save all these). Is it all there? There are few things more frustrating than discovering you don't have a part, thermometer, tubing enough... after the stores are all closed. Do a dry run trying out your equipment with the exception of heaters, before actually filling the system to make sure it's all there, and you know how it works.

4) Test Set-Up: Carefully rinse (remember, no soap) your aquarium and dry the outside. Do the same for all filters, outside plumbing, sumps, then place sheets of newspaper beneath all in their respective positions. Trust me on this. What you're going to do is fill up and run the tank and filtration equipment to make sure it all works... and doesn't leak. This is the time to find out if your stand's unlevel or a fitting's not tight; not when the gravel, decor and salt mix are in the way.

Fire over, and let all run for a good day.

5) Set-Up For Real: Everything seem okay? No leaks? Great; now use that dedicated "fish-tank-only" bucket and siphon/gravel vacuum to empty all, remove the newspaper and reset the system components back together.

A) Undergravel Filters: If you're using an U/G type of filter, here's the time to put it in and hook up the airlines or powerheads that will run it.

B) Gravel: Rinse your substrate by placing 5-10 pounds in you fish-tank-only bucket and swirling freshwater through it till it runs clearer (don't worry about it being absolutely clear). Gingerly pour it into your tank.

C) Seawater: If I haven't persuaded you with the virtues of pre-mixing your seawater (or you're using the real thing or a supply from a dealer), this is where you put it in; but not all the way to the top! Leave your water level down a few inches in order to accommodate your arm, other gear and decors displacement. If you must mix the salt in-the-tank (Arghhhhh!), go ahead and try to get it close (but less than you expect). Too salty? Remove some tank water and try again.

D) Decor: "Now, where's that burping clam?" Irrespective of packaging, rinse each piece, and, using your fish bucket to avoid dripping water on the floor, place it carefully in the aquarium.

E) The Heater: Why have we waiter to mount the heater and other breakable items inside the tank? Because they're so breakable! Though you'll hear it elsewhere, "don't plug the heater(s) in immediately". Instead leave it/them soaking in the system for twenty minutes or more for the thermostat(s) to equilibrate with ambient water temperature.

F) Lights & Other Gear: Hook up your lighting, timers, service switches other electrical items and then check them all before mounting over or on your tank. Do you have any regard for your health? Consider grounding probes, GFCIs; wear rubber shoes at least when working around water and electricity.

G) Let A Good Day Go By: This allows "the dust to settle", and your system to stabilize chemically and physically. Some folks extend their daylight during initial setting-up to up to twenty four hours, rather than 10-12 h/day, to speed up establishment of cycling and beneficial algae growth. Don't do this with any livestock in place.

Please refer to the appropriate installments on different marine aquarium set-ups for more details of the particulars and rationale of proceeding from here. Briefly:

For Fish-Only Set-ups: 

Introduce the beneficial microbes in a culture, established gravel, or "used" filter media, plus a source of nutrient (appropriate damsels, blennies, food, nitrogenous compounds). Monitor and record the nitrogen cycle for whatever time it takes (generally no more than 6-8 weeks) until there is no detectable ammonia or nitrite. Fire over your skimmer and begin adding other livestock.

For Invertebrate and Reef SystemsFor Invertebrate and Reef Systems: Wait a week after set-up and either go through the bacterial introduction and monitoring the water for cycling as above or initiate same with live-rock and/or live-sand.

Refer to the maintenance sections/articles/bibliography for my spiffy notes on periodic upkeep to preserve system health and clarity.


Setting up and maintaining a marine system is not hard at all when approached in a systematic way. Figure out which type of system you want, determined by the livestock or biotopic presentation you're interested in; make a working checklist of all the tools and materials it's going to take to make the system and clean it; pre-test it all in a practice run, then "go for it" following the "cook book recipe" offered here to finish.

Sounds easy taken step by step, doesn't it? That's because it is.

My Marine System Equipment & Tool Checklist

(Note to Editors: Perhaps run category headers along left vertical edge as title and colored strip.)

1) Reference Materials; Books, mag.s, notes. _________


2) Tank; Size and dimensions. __________ _________

3) Stand; or very sturdy, level other. __________ _________

4) Top/Reflector; no metal-water contact. _________

5) Lighting Fixture(s) and Lamp(s)/Bulb(s); _________

Filter System

6) Filter(s)/Aeration/Circulation ; pump(s), possibly plumbing, fittings valves; maybe additional, auxiliary circulation-aeration from power-heads, air-pump, check-valve, airline tubing, diffuser(s); filter media (sponge, pre-made pads, floss, carbon, resins... _________________________________________________

7) Ancillary Filtration Equipment; at least a functional protein skimmer; possibly an ozonizer to go with it; maybe a dryer to assist the ozonizer, and lastly consideration of whether or not to include an ultraviolet sterilizer. _______________________

Water Concerns

8) Water; either natural or synthetic salt mix. ______________

9) Water Conditioner; to treat tap source. ___&127;_____

10) Hydrometer; to measure specific gravity. _________

Temperature Control

11) Heater(s); and/or possibly a chiller. ______________

12) Thermometer(s); to check temperature. ______________

13) Gravel; 1-1 1/2 pound per gallon. ______________

Water Quality Testing & Maintenance

14) Test Kits; pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate. ______________

15) Dedicated Use Bucket; many functions. ______________

16) Siphon/Gravel Vacuum; periodic cleaning. ______________

17) Aquarium-Only Scrubby; and related tools. ______________

18) Towels; tank use only again. ______________

Miscellaneous Necessities

19) Decor; coral, rock, plants... ______________

20) Electrical Extension Cords & Outlets, Timer(s). _____________

21) Time and Patience; absolutely essential ingredients.

22) Ongoing Items: Salt mix, livestock, foods, nets....


Tank Leaking: Glass; check the upper seam where the tank edge and plastic frame come together. You may well have to run a bead of silicone to prevent water and salt "creep". For all types of tanks; be aware of condensation and spray effects. Be especially suspicious of where gear (tops, filter boxes, etc.) come in contact with the tank top. If need be, call your dealer and ask for them to come by and look, or replace/exchange the aquarium.

Too Much SaltToo Much Salt; as in high specific gravity. All the salt doesn't dissolve instantly, so the density may rise as the day wears on. Depending on what setting you're up for (fish-only typically 1.020 or so; reef-invert. systems 1.025), reduce this quickly (through dilution with more freshwater) or slowly (if livestock is present), about a thousandth (0.001) per day.

Too little specific gravity? Blend in some more dense pre-mix; same stipulation as last sentence above.

Temperature Too HighTemperature Too High: Unless you live in a really hot place without air-conditioning, and have to have a chiller; you're up for a thermostat adjustment. Don't add ice or coldwater; just turn your heater(s) down a smidgen (science talk for a little) and check back tomorrow. Still too hot (for tropicals, more than mid 80's F.)? Turn those heaters down again; check next day...

Tank Cloudy: Tank Cloudy: Unless it's "the blizzard of 88" opaque, don't sweat it. If you have adequate filtration, "this too will clear". Don't get involved with clarifiers; just have patience.

Fish Breathing Hard & FastFish Breathing Hard & Fast; Time to break out those test kits, check temperature. If you have too much ammonia or nitrite, number one, stop feeding. You may be best using the "dilution solution"; i.e. making a massive water change (half the water new equals half the toxicity). When in doubt as to "pollution" cause(s), water changing can be a real lifesaver.

Leaky Fitting or PartLeaky Fitting or Part: Here's a "killer technology" piece of advice; instead of using nothing, teflon tape, pipe dope or other compound, smear a little silicone rubber made for aquariums (any 100% Silastic will do) between thread to thread or slip parts and place back together. They will can be taken apart (on purpose) later if need be.

Electrical "Tingling Feeling": Electrical "Tingling Feeling": Turn off the circuit breaker, unplug all system electrics. One by one check them for voltage leaks (with a fuse/diode protected tester). Look carefully for water at all connectors and fill them with silicone. Wire all 110 volt circuits through a Ground Fault Interruptor protected Circuit (GFI or GFCI).

Algae Growing: Congratulations! This is a good sign; that your tank is cycling, and suitable for other forms of life? Don't like the brown scum or green stuff on your decor? Wipe it down on the front/viewing panels, stir it on the gravel, get some livestock that will help you

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Bolin, B. And R.B. Cook. 1983. The Major Biogeochemical Cycles and Their Interactions; SCOPE 21. Wiley. 552 pp.

Borsom, Michael E. Marine aquaria. FAMA 3/78.

Boyd, Dick. 1980. My private ocean; A 3000 gallon aquarium. FAMA 5/80.

Campbell, Douglas G. 1979. Marine aquariums made simple. FAMA 12/79.

Cohen, Joe. 1971. Now is the time... Marine Aquarist Sept. 71.

Dakin, Nick. 1992. The Book of the Marine Aquarium. Tetra Press, NJ. 400pp.

Debelius, Helmut & Hans A. Baensch. 1994. Marine Atlas, v.1. MERGUS, Germany. 1216 pp.

Emmens, C.W. 1984. A new aquarium design in action. FAMA 7/84.

Fenner, Bob. 1996. Notes for the new saltwater hobbyist. Part one: Setting up a marine aquarium. FAMA 5/96.

Fenner, Robert M. 1998. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist; A Commonsense Handbook for Successful Saltwater Hobbyists. Microcosm, VT. 432pp.

Greco, Frank M. 1985. A practical method of setting up a marine aquarium. FAMA 7/85.

Greco, Frank M. 1986. Aquascaping: an introduction to the Dupla system. FAMA 3/86.

Holznecht, Susan. Starting a marine tank; Contrary to popular belief, a saltwater tank can be easier to set up and maintain than a freshwater system. FAMA 2/78.

Hunziker, Raymond E. 1986. The marine aquarium made easy; part 1: setting up. TFH 7/86.

Leitz, H. Undated. Starting a tropical marine aquarium. Aquarium Digest International #42.

Kipper, Horst E. 1994. The optimum marine aquarium, part I: ten golden rules for keeping fishes and invertebrates. FAMA 11/94.

O'Malley, John. 1988. Setting up your first saltwater aquarium. AFM 10/88.

Phillips, Todd A. Zen and the art of marine fishkeeping; A beginner's point of view. FAMA 9/88.

Schiff, Steven J. 1992. The aquarium. FAMA 12/92.

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