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How to Set Up a Saltwater Aquarium: 8 Easy Steps & Checklist

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By Lindsey Stanton

Saltwater coral reef aquarium

Saltwater aquariums are becoming increasingly popular in the aquarium industry. The salty waters can host a variety of interesting species of fish and plants alike.

Saltwater aquariums are easy to set up yet take more effort and experience to successfully run. Most saltwater fish species are suitable for beginners, with very few making the intermediate and expert level. There is an exceptionally large range of colorful and fascinating saltwater fish species, with some in abnormal shapes unseen with freshwater species.

Setting up your saltwater aquarium is made easy by providing all the essentials first, then later slowly adding decorations and fish. This article will provide you with guidance to ensure you have the best experience setting up your saltwater aquarium.

Buyers Guide (Checklist & Price)

Image Credit: Vojce, Shutterstock


To set up a successful saltwater aquarium, the following items are required:
  • A large tank (>40 gallons)
  • Aquarium salt
  • Dechlorinater
  • A strong filter (capable of filtering 5 times the amount of water volume in the tank)
  • Lighting
  • Hydrometer
  • Heater
  • Thermometer
  • Rocks
  • Live plants
  • Air-pump
  • Liquid testing kit
  • Sump
  • Skimmer


A novice setting up their very own saltwater aquarium for the first time can expect to spend approximately $400 to $1,500 for brand new items, tanks, equipment, and a suitable stand.

The overall price will vary depending on factors such as:
  • Discounts
  • Type of tank set-up
  • Access to free items
  • Size and quality of the tank and items
  • Decorations

Although aquarium equipment is expensive, purchasing quality items will save you money in the long run as cheaper makes and brands typically do not last long and will require you to keep replacing them.

Image By: Vojce, Shutterstock


Place the tank on a straight and stable surface. The tank should be leveled with no dips. Place the aquarium close to an outlet source. You will need to plug in electrical equipment safely. Make sure a qualified electrician checks the electrical connection before you turn off the equipment. Rinse out the tank with a diluted mix of pure apple cider vinegar and warm water. Rinse thoroughly and dry with a paper-based material.

A Step-by-Step Tutorial on Setting Up a Saltwater Aquarium
  • Step 1: Choose an ideal location to place the aquarium. Make sure the aquarium is not near a window that has the constant sun shining directly through. Place on a flat surface. We recommend a large cabinet where you can hide any unattractive wiring and electrical equipment inside the cupboard compartment. You can place the cabinet in front of an electrical outlet. A sump can be placed inside the cabinet where you can add in flow systems.
  • Step 2: Once the aquarium is on a leveled surface that can support the overall water weight, begin to fill the tank with dechlorinated water. Add in the right ratio of salt to the water as recommended on the back of the aquarium salt packaging.
  • Step 3: Add in the substrate. You can choose between aquarium sand, pebbles, or gravel. Proceed to place the aquarium decorations into the aquarium. Ensure you leave enough space for the electrical equipment. Place all of the decorations in an ideal way. It will be difficult to change the setup once the aquarium is filled with water.
  • Step 4: Place the filter, powerhead, sump, skimmer, heater, thermometer, and hydrometer into the tank. Do not plug in the equipment until the tank has been filled with water. Most aquarium equipment will burn out if it is run dry.
  • Step 5: It is now time to add the water. You can choose the slow trickle option or fast option on a water system plugged onto a tap or connected to a water-storing source. Using a large air-pumped siphon also works instead of heaving in heavy buckets of water. Add in a quality dechlorinate and the aquarium salt.
  • Step 6: Add the lighting system to the hood of the aquarium. If you feel you will forget to turn the light on and off at the correct times, investing in a light timer is a good idea.
  • Step 7: Turn on all the necessary equipment and let the sump run for some time. This ensures denitrifying bacteria and algae can establish inside of the tank. This may take a few days to some weeks. You must then use a liquid testing kit to monitor the water parameters (ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates).
  • Step 8: Ensure the pH, GH, and salt levels are correct before you add your desired breed of saltwater fish.


  • Sump: Adding in a sump is an excellent idea for beginners. A sump goes underground to produce wet or dry biological filtration. If you do not fancy a sump, HOB, submergible, and under-gravel filters are the next best idea. Every saltwater aquarium requires a filter to maintain a healthy and established system that is essential for the inhabitants of the aquariums.
  • Protein skimmers: These are essential for saltwater aquariums. Protein skimmers remove biological waste within the saltwater aquarium. They use a foaming function to keep the aquarium clean.
  • Lighting: This will give you a clear view of the inside of your aquarium while mimicking daylight for the inhabitants. There are a variety of aquarium lighting styles. Mainly lighting bars, lighting bulbs, and lights that attach to the hood. Do not leave the light on for more than 12 hours as this will increase rapid algae growth and your inhabitants will not be able to rest.
  • Aeration: Adding an air-stone or spray bar into the aquarium is essential for creating an aerated system within the aquarium.


Each electrical piece of equipment must be thoroughly checked to ensure it is working properly. Test your tank’s water weekly and refill up the water. Do not add more salt as the salt is left behind when water is evaporated.

Ensure to do necessary water changes when required. Slowly add fish into the tank to ensure the tank does not experience an ammonia spike due to the aquarium not being able to handle the surge in bio-load.

aquarium plant divider


Setting up your saltwater aquarium can be made easy by purchasing a saltwater tank starter kit which is available at local fish stores. Although they do not provide every necessary item for saltwater tanks, they provide a good start.

Setting up a saltwater tank is more complicated than a freshwater tank, but once you get the basics of the setup, you will find it easier to establish your very own saltwater aquarium.

See Also:

Featured Image Credit: Vojce, Shutterstock

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