A Few Things Everyone New to SW Tanks Should Know


Reefing newb
Let me start off by saying, I am NO EXPERT. I am new to Salt-Water. I had a LOT of questions about starting a SW Reef Tank and the kind folks here were Extremely helpful! I condensed many of my questions/answers & other things I have learned so far into this post.

This thread is intended to help people just starting a SW tank or considering starting one. This thread will answer a LOT of your questions and I hope an admin will find this to be a helpful thread and "STICKY" the post in this forum to make it easy for noobs to find and learn from.

I invite more experienced Reefers to add their thoughts and correct any mistakes I might make. There is SO much to learn and no one person can possibly know it all. I know the folks here will chime in and this will become a Great Resource for anyone starting or thinking about a SW Tank whether it is a Reef or FOWLR Tank.

1. This is an Expensive Hobby! Be prepared to spend more on your tank than you do on yourself... To me, my 125 gallon reef tank is going to be a living piece of Artwork. Saltwater tanks are arguably the most beautiful fish tanks you can have, especially when you have corals, anemones, etc. My tank is the centerpiece of my Living Room. I took the TV and all sorts of other distractions out of the Living Room so as not to detract from the showpiece that my tank will become.
2. Nothing Good Happens Fast in a Salt-Water Tank. Bad things happen very fast. Go slow, take your time, read as many threads as you can and more importantly, ask as many questions as you need to, no matter how trivial or stupid you may think it is. You can kill everything in your tank, easily!
3. Buy the Largest Tank you can afford! Even if you have to save up for a while, you will always want a bigger tank. I have a 125 gallon and am already planning on another tank. Not only will you want more tank space, the more water you have, the more stable your water conditions will be. Which leads to point #4.
4. Buy the Largest Sump you can afford! The Sump will add to your water volume, making your water more stable. It will also serve as part of your tank's filtration and provide a safe place for your beneficial bacteria to grow. If you buy a multi-chambered Sump and use one chamber as a refugium (refuge or isolation area) for critters that do not survive with tank-mates or do not play nice with tank-mates) you will make it easier to keep copepods, some shrimp & crabs to thrive & grow.
5. DO NOT TRUST THE STAFF AT YOUR LFS (Local Fish Store). If you have a question about anything, ask it here in this forum. Your LFS will tell you what you want to hear so you will buy from them. They don't care if that $200 fish you just bought will get eaten as soon as you put it in the tank with your other fish or simply die because your water parameters are off or they sold you the wrong food for it. I have heard of an LFS putting aggressive fish in the same bag as passive fish only for the unlucky buyer to get home and find a missing fish in a bloody, scaly, fin filled bag.
They know that you will come back and buy more fish from them as soon as you flush the one you just bought. Most towns only have one or two places to buy Saltwater fish... If your fish dies before you get home, it "MUST" have been too hot or cold in your car or you took too long getting it home. They typically do not care how quickly your fish die, because it just means another sale to them. Personally, I will only buy a fish/coral/snail/crab/etc from an LFS that requires me to bring a water sample from my tank BEFORE they will sell me the critter. If they aren't concerned enough about their stock/my purchase to use a few pennies worth of chemicals to make sure the water is good to go, then why should I spend hundreds of dollars in their store?

The guys at my LFS require water testing before they sell a live animal. They have been helpful and very friendly but I ALWAYS keep in mind that they are there to make a buck, not make sure I know what I am doing.
Glass or Acrylic Tank? Glass tanks are my preference but by no means the only way to go. Glass tanks are heavy but durable and far more scratch resistant than acrylic. A large scratch will take away from the beauty of your marine environment. However, Acrylic tanks can be easily drilled to make your plumbing easier.

What type of water do I use to fill the tank?
Do Not use Well Water or Tap Water. There are impurities in the water that can cause fish death or cause the dreaded algae blooms. The best thing to use is RO/DI water. Reverse Osmosis De-Ionized Water. It is extremely pure! It is so pure that it is unhealthy to drink! You can use tap or well water after it has been processed by a RODI filter.

What type of Salt can I use?
Do NOT use table salt!! Go to your LFS (Local Fish Store) or National chain Pet Store and buy a bucket of salt designed for Reef tanks. I use Instant Ocean brand, but anything that is Reef-Safe will work. They are "generally" the same, containing sea salt and trace minerals that your tank will need.

What type of Sand can I use?
Buy ONLY Reef-Tank safe sand, like CaribSea's Aragonite Sand. DO NOT use the sand you would use for a child's sandbox, what you get for mixing concrete, leveling above ground pools, etc. Reef Sand will cost about $1 per pound +/-. Reef Sand comes in two categories, Live Sand & Dry Sand. I will recommend Dry Sand vs. Live Sand. By the time the Live Sand has been processed, bagged, shipped, sat in a warehouse & on store shelves, it is about 95% dead.

What is Live Sand?
Live Sand has bacteria and micro-organisms that are beneficial to your tank. However, you sometimes get "hitch-hikers" in the sand that are detrimental to your tank. As stated above, Live Sand is pretty much dead by the time you get it, so save a little money and buy the "Dry Sand".

What kind of Rocks can I use?
You need a certain kind of rocks for your tank. DO NOT use rocks from your yard, rock quarry, a gravel pit, etc. There are two major categories of rocks you can use, Live Rock & Dry Rock. In both categories there are countless types of rocks. Just like Live Sand, Live Rock has beneficial micro-organisms living inside it and your rocks will be the main source of filtration for your tank, more on that later... Dry Rock will become Live Rock as your new tank "cycles" and matures. Dry Rock is about 30-60% CHEAPER than Live Rock. If not transported properly, Live Rock WILL DIE before you get it home and into your tank!

Can I use the decorations you see in most FreshWater Tanks?
No! Absolutely Not! Most decorations made for freshwater tanks are made of cheap plastics that will leech out chemicals into your Saltwater tank and kill your tank. Do not use those Sunken Treasure Ships, Divers with the Bell Helmets or Fake Plants! You will end up killing hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of fish, corals, anemones and the good bacteria that is Vital to the health of your tank!

Do I need an air pump & airstone like Freshwater tanks use?
No. You do not need an air pump or stone. As your powerhead generates a current in your tank, it will mix oxygen into the water as it ripples at the surface. Your water will also pick up oxygen as it flows from your tank into the sump. It will not hurt your tank to have an air pump & stone AS FAR AS I KNOW, others with more experience will chime in on this...

Do I need a Canister filter or a Hang Over Back (HOB) filter like a FreshWater tank uses?
NO, Absolutely Not! Those filter pads will trap particles that will generate Nitrates which can be deadly to your tank! Your Rock, crabs, snails, chaeto, etc will do most of the filtration in your tank! Bacteria will grow in the pourous surfaces of your rock and break down ammonia, Nitrates & Nitrates. Doing partial water changes will pretty much do the rest for you. Do not use Canister or HOB filters with pads in them. You COULD use one that has activated carbon but you would need to change the carbon pack frequently, much more often than in Freshwater.

How do I make the arches & caves out of the rocks I see in so many Saltwater tanks?
When you purchase your Dry Rock, it will have holes all over it or you can use a Masonry Bit in a power drill to make more holes (Don't forget to wear safety glasses & gloves when drilling). Place the rock GENTLY on the bottom of your tank. NEVER put your rock on top of sand, ALWAYS put it directly on the glass!
When you have the desired shape you want, use Heavy Duty Zip Ties to attach the rocks to each other! Do not use gorilla glue or other adhesives. There are some glues & putties that you can use to attach your rocks together. However, using these is rather permanent.
You may later decide to change the look of your tank but will not be able to do so without a hammer & chisel. If you have a large tank, you will not be able to remove the rock to hammer away at it. You will be stuck with that design. Use Zip-Ties. A knife or razor blade will allow you to redecorate your tank. Some people rearrange a small portion of their rocks quite often. I don't recommend it, though, many fish are territorial and if you change their habitat, they may start battling other fish for their cave or hidey-hole.

When running the plumbing for the tank, sump, etc, can I use copper tubing?
No, Absolutely Not! Copper should never touch your tanks water. It is deadly to corals and your invertebrates that clean your tank! Use PVC or clear plastic tubing made for plumbing reef tanks.

What equipment do I REALLY need to set up a tank?
Sump w/ or w/o Refugium
Sump Pump
Protein Skimmer
Some people will disagree and say you need this gizmo or another... However the general consensus I have found in my research is that this is the Bare Minimum you will need. Some Nano-tanks or "All-In-One" tanks will not need the sump, heater & skimmer. However you are far better off having them than not having them. Considering the cost of stocking a tank, don't skimp on gear. Some fish may be as cheap as $30-40 but many will be well over $100 depending on their size, how exotic they are, etc. Buy quality equipment now and save money in the long run. This is an expensive hobby, especially in getting set-up. Don't skimp now. It will cost you a lot more down the road as you will eventually have to have these things AND restock your tank.

Okay, How do I set up my tank and get ir ready for fish.
That is a loaded question that will draw a different answer from every person that replies. Here is how I filled my 125 gallon reef tank.
A. I cleaned the tank with water & white vinegar mixed 50/50. I used a gallon of this mix at a time and a scrubby sponge. I rinsed it thouroughly & repeatedly. (If you have an Acrylic tank ONLY use the soft side of the sponge or you will scratch your tank!)
B. I placed my Dry Rock in the tank directly on the glass, Zip-Tying them together.
C. I set up my RODI filter and let it fill the tank to 85% full. This gave my rocks a long soak in pure RODI water, killing pretty much anything that may have been on them.
D. I added my powerhead & slowly added the salt, allowing around 2 days for it to mix thouroughly. NEVER MIX SALT IN YOUR TANK IF THERE IS ANYTHING LIVING IN THE TANK!! I did this because I ONLY had DRY ROCK in the tank and I did not want to mix 5 gallons at a time, then have to pour it in. Filling your tank by the bucket full will leave rings of salt at every 5 gallon water line. Since it was the first filling of my tank I was able to mix it in the tank.
E. I added my sand to the tank, which made my water cloudy.
I waited for the water to clear up. I used a Freshwater filter pump to speed the process but removed it when the water cleared up.
F. I put two peeled & veined cocktail shrimp in the tank and left them there.
G. I checked my water daily for Salinity, pH, Ammonia, Nitrates & Nitrites. There are more water parameters that need to be monitored/controlled in a tank that is stocked. However, at this point, these are the important readings to keep an eye on.
After 2 days, I finally saw a rise in my Ammonia levels. You will go from 0ppm Ammonia to some random reading... It is different for every tank. Mine got to 0.25ppm and is holding there. I am now waiting for my Nitrate & Nitrite levels to go up from 0ppm to some random level then drop back to 0ppm. Once that happens, my tank should be ready to add my first fish & Clean Up Crew.
H. Next will involve adding my first critters then saying goodbye to any disposable income that I may come across as I add corals, anemones, etc to the tank and upgrade my lighting, buy an automatic top-off setup to keep my water level steady, automated testing system w/alarms, etc...
I hope that you find the information here helpful and that many of the great people who have helped me so much in getting started will add their thoughts & ideas to this thread so it becomes a great resource for many new members for a long time to come.

Click the Thanks Button if this helped you, answered a question or more you had or you just enjoyed the read.

I will edit & update this over time but I am sure the other users here will add more information in their replies than I could hope to add myself.
For a beginner like me this is great info. Thanks for posting

No Problem! Welcome aboard! That is why I started this thread. I wanted to help out other people that are new to the SW world. I had SO many questions that I was hesitant to ask because I thought they were kind of stupid questions.

However, the VERY kind folks here on this board answered every single question I had and have helped me immensely. I am just trying to give back to the community. You have found an extremely friendly and helpful sit. While some folks may disagree, the discussions remain polite & friendly. No Flame Wars! This is one of the friendliest & most helpful sites that I have found on ANY topic. Folks here love the hobby and are more than happy to help you!

I am sure that many of them will chime in soon to point out things that I forgot to add and maybe even correct a mistake or two I may have made in my post.

I welcome any constructive criticisms, additions, notes & addendums from the more experienced Reefers that frequent these boards. I am counting on their input, honestly. The info I have posted is just kind of a primer for beginners. I hope that it gives people a good starting point in their research and will save them time, money and prevent some of the frustration in trying to figure out the Basics, as many people won't ask questions because they are afraid of "getting flamed" or sounding silly. Well, good news! I'm not afraid to ask "stupid questions" and I compiled them all into this thread and will continue editing updating it.

I hope that this will become a useful thread to many people.
Where are my fellow Reefers? lol

I was hoping for input from some of the more experienced reef/fowlr tank folks to help noobs get setup & running. I know there are things I missed in my original post.

I had so many questions about getting started I really didn't know where to begin. I would like to make it easier for people that are new to SW find the information they need to get started in setting up a tank.Input from the more experienced people here could be a great resource for noobs, so they don't have to ask as many questions as I did.

Thank you to all of you who helped me get started, answered all of my questions and gave me so much great advice. I incorporated as much of your help/advice into this thread as I could. To those of you considering getting into the hobby, I hope you find the information in this thread useful!
The best way for people to learn is ask their own question and get their own feedback.

We don't have a problem answering the same questions over and over again. Everyone's situation and setup are different. :D