Become a Sponsor

Information Pages:
Marine Aquarium
Articles/ FAQs/Index
Freshwater Aquarium
Articles/ FAQs/Index
Planted Aquarium
Articles/ FAQs/Index
Brackish Systems
Articles/ FAQs/Index
Daily FAQs
FW Daily FAQs
SW Pix of the Day
FW Pix of the Day
Conscientious Aquarist Magazine
New On WWM
Helpful Links
Hobbyist Forum WetWebMedia Forum
Ask the WWM Crew a Question
Search Feature
Admin Index
Cover Images

Knowing How to Set Up
A Marine Aquarium

Adam Blundell M.S.

Are you thinking about setting up a salt water aquarium?  If so, I hope these pointers will help guide you along the journey. 

Step 1- Why do you want a salt water aquarium?

It is important for all hobbyists to answer this question.  Is it a love of marine life?  Are you attracted to the hobby by those often colorful and elaborately-colored fishes?  Is the motion of soft-bodied corals appealing to you?  Or is growing stony reef-building corals your goal?  Maybe you simply enjoy watching an  Anemonefish wiggle around among the tentacles of its host anemone. Whatever the reason, it is important to know why you are getting into this hobby, as that will pave the way in terms of what equipment you will need to provide that habitat.

Choose your passion!  Is it (clockwise from bottom left) beautiful fish, a piece of architecture, the "nuts and bolts" of a set up, or corals?  Knowing what you want and planning well for it is the foundation of success.

Step 2- Look at other aquariums.

All too often new aquarists jump right into this wonderful hobby.  They buy a filtration system and lighting set up before they even know what they plan to keep.  Just as frequently, many aquarists will purchase and install their lighting systems, only later to discover they do not like the color or intensity.  This can be avoided by simply looking at several tanks a head of time.  See what looks good to you!  When you see a tank that you envy, ask the owner what types of lights they use, do they have a skimmer, what additives are they using, etc. Only by seeing different set ups can you identify what you hope to keep.

Step 3- Know what your animals need.

From step two you should now know what you want to keep.  Now is the time to make a list of what you want to keep, and what those animals need to not only survive but to thrive.  For example, if you really like clams and stony reef building corals, then a high-power lighting system (like metal halides) is going to be needed. Also, if you like large carnivorous fish, your filtration system must be able to keep up with the waste produced from those fish.

Clams (left) are beautiful, but require intense light.  The tank on the right not only uses a combination of metal halide and fluorescent lighting.  Making good equipment choices at the time of set up is expensive, but saves money that might be spent on costly upgrades.


 Step 4- Make a plan.

Don’t let a lack of foresight be the demise of your aquarium, as it often is for many hobbyists.  For this reason, I highly suggest you consider the following: how much you can afford to spend on this aquarium, how much room  you have for it, how much time you are willing to invest into maintaining it, and what animals you are going to keep.  Be realistic here and you will be thankful later. The bigger the tank the more room for error, and the more animals you can keep.  Not just more in terms of the total number of animals, but also more in terms of the number of animals to chose from.  Lots of fishes are suitable for 200 gallon aquariums, but only a few would be well suited for a 10 gallon aquarium.  However, larger aquariums are often more time consuming, and are certainly more expensive.  Gather all the information you can ahead of time.

Step 5- Start slow and get help.

There is no use in getting lost in the woods when you have a tour guide.  Local pet stores, aquarium clubs and societies, online discussion forums, magazines, and books are a plenty in this hobby.  Be sure to get help in setting up your system and learning how it works.  Remember, it takes time to grow a reef tank; it doesn’t happen quickly.  When you have questions, look around and ask.  Know that it will take time to establish live rock, algae cycles, and most of the time corals are easier to keep than fishes.

A beautiful, fully stocked reef tank takes time!  It may take months to make a work of art out of a canvas of glass, rock and sand.

Step 6- Learn to live with it.

As surprising as it may seem your tank will look ugly at first.  This happens to all new marine aquariums as they cycle through their initial filtration phase.  Your tank may go brown, and then green, and then red, and then just look junky.  It happens.  Consequently the one coral you really want to keep may not live.  You may struggle to raise the prize fish you originally intended to acquire.  It's okay; just learn to love whatever is working for you.  Remember, not only is this a hobby, but we are keeping living ecosystems.  Special efforts should be put forth to enjoy and appreciate what we are keeping, whatever it may be.  It takes time and patience to turn a glass box full of rock into a beautiful, thriving reef tank.

Author Information

Adam Blundell M.S. works in Marine Ecology, and in Pathology for the University of Utah. He is also Director of The Aquatic & Terrestrial Research Team, a group which utilizes research projects to bring together hobbyists and scientists. His vision is to see this type of collaboration lead to further advancements in aquarium husbandry. While not in the lab he is the president of one of the Nation's largest hobbyist clubs, the Wasatch Marine Aquarium Society ( Adam has earned a BS in Marine Biology and an MS in the Natural Resource and Health fields. Adam can be found at


About Marine System Set-Up & Components on WWM

Related FAQs: Best Marine Set-Up FAQs 1, Best FAQs 2, Marine Set-Up 1, FAQs 2, FAQs 3, FAQs 4FAQs 5, FAQs 6, FAQs 7FAQs 8, FAQs 9, FAQs 10FAQs 11, FAQs 12FAQs 13FAQs 14FAQs 15, FAQs 16FAQs 17FAQs 18FAQs 19FAQs 20FAQs 21, FAQs 22, FAQs 23, FOWLR Set-Ups, Reef Tank Setups, Small Tank Setups, Moving Aquarium Systems

Related Articles: Technology: Putting on the Brakes:  How much is too much? By Tommy Dornhoffer Marine Set-Up, Reef Set-UpFish Only Systems, Fish and Invertebrate Systems, Small Marine Set-Ups, Large Marine Systems, Cold/Cool Water Marine SystemsMoving Aquariums


Featured Sponsors: