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Related Articles: Marine Planning, Getting Started with a Marine Tank By Adam Blundell, MS, FOWLR/Fish and Invertebrate Systems, Reef Systems, Coldwater Systems, Small Systems, Large Systems, Plumbing Marine SystemsRefugiumsMoving AquariumsMarine Biotope, Marine LandscapingFishwatcher's Guides

Creating a Marine Fish-Only Aquarium

Bob Fenner
Small Marine Aquariums
Book 1: Invertebrates, Algae
New Print and eBook on Amazon:
by Robert (Bob) Fenner
Small Marine Aquariums
ook 2: Fishes
New Print and eBook on Amazon: by Robert (Bob) Fenner
Small Marine Aquariums Book 3: Systems
New Print and eBook on Amazon:
by Robert (Bob) Fenner

  As there are a few approaches to a/the archetypal FO marine aquarium set-up, tank, gear and such, so there are a few 'standard' methods of actually going about the assembly and initial operation of said systems, ahead of livestock acquisition. Here are my many times 'tried and true' outline of how to proceed. 

About 'Your Plan', Necessary Gear & More: The moment of truth is nigh'¦ Do you have all the tools and materials we chatted re? It is a bother'¦ an inconvenience to impossible go forward if you don't have everything you need'¦ Do check one more time.



            Hopefully you will have given thought to how much space and particularly where your marine system will be situated ahead of this time. Such tanks are better placed on strong flooring (near a wall if upstairs on a wooden floor), but away from possible vacillating environmental influences, like windows that allow too much sunlight to hit the tank, drafty outside doors, or too busy passageways (that will frighten your livestock into hiding).


Stand/Support Placement/Leveling:  

            Put what you intend to in turn put your tank on in place'¦ Now, where's that level? A not-long enough one can be used by placing this in turn on a good level board or such, and laying this on the stand/support. Is it level? Is it so on all horizontal faces? Before going away with that level, take a big step and lean, climb up on the stand yourself'¦ it should support your weight (at least on the corners) even if the intended tank size is quite small. Is the support still level? If not it is imperative that you render it so at this time. If 'only a smidgen' off on one corner, you may be able to shim that one end'¦ if off on an entire side, or if this system is being placed on something other than a concrete foundation, I strongly encourage you to stop! And cut a piece of wood (ply) that will fit under all feet and shim under the leg/supports under this board. But as they say on late night TV, 'Wait, there's more!'; If this tank is 'upstairs', do assure yourself that the floor joists will take all the upcoming weight'¦ possibly with the aid of a hired structural engineer (see your 'Yellow Pages' directories).


Tank Placement/Leveling:  

            Once you've assured yourself that the stand is level, the floor sufficiently sturdy, you're ready to place the tank. Likely it can/will go right on top of the support without any other cushioning in-between'¦ but do take a look at the space all the way around the tank where it rests on the stand'¦ Is there more than a credit cards width gap in evidence? If so, but not much more than this, a pad of some sort may help to spread out the stress/force of the tank once it is filled. If there is much more than a credit card gap twixt the tank and stand/support, particularly if this is a glass tank (not an acrylic), you should not proceed till you have fixed the support. Too much 'tensional' strain on the tank can lead to catastrophic failure.

            Let's see'¦ we'll imagine there are no stand/tank gap problems and proceed to test the tank/stand/support again to make sure it's level AND planar. There are a few ways to do this'¦ a nice long carpenters level is one, but the best is simply to put a minimal amount of freshwater in the tank to see if this 'evenly coats' the bottom'¦ and alternatively does not crowd up in one corner or end. Is this tank/support combination both level and planar? If not, you should trust the 'water level' and re-shim the support to assure it is so.


Testing the Tank & Gear:  

            Next you want to fill all up and fire it over! But not so fast bucko'¦ Do bear with me a bit longer here'¦ Have patience. Take my advice and 'test fill' the tank to near full'¦ all still level? Take out the various 'mechanicals and controllers''¦ all those boxes of filters, heaters, lighting'¦ and after reading the box labels and circulars (I'd save all this for posterity'¦), attach all to the tank'¦ plug it in, and test run it. What about the gravel? When do you put in the salt mix? Not yet'¦ I encourage you to 'just' run the tank and mechanical gear for a day or two to assure it's all there and functional. Trust me.


Adding Gravel, Decor, Seawater:  

            So'¦ everything is working? No tank leaks? Good! Unplug all and drain the water to your garden or waste. It's time for the real fun; washing your gravel. This is best done in small quantities (5-10 pounds) in a dedicated 'pickle bucket' that you use for your aquarium/s only. You want to insure that no soap, detergent or other residue accidentally makes its way into your marine system. Put your grubby clothes on, a short sleeve shirt and rinse the new gravel in the bucket either outdoors with a garden hose, or (carefully) in your sink'¦ rinse and re-fill, stir, dump, rinse'¦ till each batch is 'pretty clear' of particulates. Some folks use a colander-type device instead of the 'pickle bucket' method, but I like the bucket'¦ Whichever ways you clean the gravel make sure you do it rather than just plunking it into the tank.

            Once all the gravel is placed (over the undergravel filter if you're using such, natch), you can mix up and place your synthetic, or just place your pre-made synthetic or natural water. If you're new to saltwater keeping and using salt mix for the first time, do this outside the tank it'¦ as you will find that certain parts of the salt mix do not readily dissolve'¦ Then pour the water (or pump it if you're so set-up) into the tank. You may find that using a chemically inert plastic container placed on the gravel in the tank to pour the water onto works to distribute the incoming water w/o splashing the gravel hither and yon.


What's Next? Cycling Plus: 

            After letting your new system run a few days to further assure it is stable, all salt mix is thoroughly mixed, the specific gravity about right, the temperature is where you want it to be'¦ You can act on how you intend to biologically cycle your system. This important 'break-in' period is crucial to the life in your system'¦ Your system must be 'cycled' ahead of livestock introduction. There are a few ways to go about this, including the purchase of live/stored beneficial bacteria cultures like Bio-Spira, the addition of going cultures of these microbes on 'used' media such as old filter material, gravel from another 'clean' tank that's been going for a while, the addition of some live rock and/or live sand. In the 'old days' folks used to advise the use of some 'tough' livestock, like Damselfishes, Lions, even brackish turtles (!) to 'pop' a new system. I discourage this practice, as too often such introductions bring with them disease problems.

            How will you know when your system is cycled'¦ that you can proceed with purchasing and placing your livestock? Testing! And close observation. The Ammonia, Nitrite and Nitrate test kits discussed previously will grant you this view into your water quality. Initially there will be no ammonia'¦ you can add this exogenously by chemical means, but adding a bit of protein/food will do a better/safer job here. Do record your test results'¦ After a few days to weeks you should detect some ammonia presence'¦ and weeks after this the production/increasing concentration of nitrite. Lastly, you will find a steady accumulation of nitrate, with likely the beginning of some algae growth (probably light brown at first, becoming green'¦ on the substrate, viewing panels'¦). Voila (!), your system is cycled'¦ and you are ready to add some livestock. Why not all? For a few reasons, but for our purpose here, to allow the beneficial microbe populations that have become situated in your system, converting ammonia to nitrite to nitrate to adjust to the new source of chemical food from your first livestock additions.


About Feeding: 

            Though you may be tempted, do hold off on trying to feed just-new livestock. It's best to wait a day for them to become situated (and even better in established systems to quarantine most types of life ahead of introduction) before attempting to feed them. Such novel material often goes unnoticed and such pollution is to be avoided.

            You need to investigate the foods, feeding, nutritional needs of each type/species of livestock you intend to keep, and meet those needs. Information on most all can be found in books, the Net, fish stores and fellow hobbyists. Be aware that most types of life will go on 'feeding strikes', but that perpetual dis-interest in feeding is a very bad sign.


Observing Your Livestock: 

            As previously stated, your careful watching, learning the 'normal' and not behavior of your livestock is the single-best tool/method you have for assuring your success. Do make a quick scan to assure all are present and accounted for each time you spend 'real time' at the tank. Is the filter working, temperature about right? Are your animals out and about, curious, interacting with each other, aware of your presence? Good.

            Do you think there is something awry with the livestock? Do become philosophical here'¦ Don't over-react and simply dump a remedy in the tank'¦ Take the time, care to review your set-up, water quality'¦ when/where in doubt, change some water out. Be careful re jumping to conclusions whether there is a pathogenic (disease-causing organism) at work or not, and even if so, how you could best address this. Many more organisms are killed off by hobbyist 'knee jerk' reactions than outright pathogenic disease.


About Maintenance:  

Water Changes/Gravel Vacuuming: After your tank has been up and going with livestock in it a month or more, it is time to initiate your regular and periodic service. Using your dedicated bucket and gravel vacuum, or an attachment to this last that will allow you to vent the 'old' water to waste, you want to begin doing weekly, perhaps bi-monthly partial water changes'¦ along with vacuuming part of the gravel. Remember this: 'Cleanliness is not sterility', and therefore you don't want to strive to remove every last bit of algae, detritus from your system. Especially when the tank is new/er, I would just gravel vacuum one side, then the other next service interval.

You have been strongly encouraged to pre-mix/store new seawater for replacing the old'¦ to assure its specific gravity, rid it of sanitizer, and perhaps to modify its chemical, physical properties. This is a very good practice.

Oh, and the rationale for these change-outs? Your water/system is constantly changing'¦ drifting in its make-up if you will. By switching out part of the old for the new you provide for 're-centering' water quality back toward the newer/better quality.

Other Activity: During this regular/weekly tank maintenance sessions, you should take the time to check your protein skimmer, dump and clean the collection cup and possibly the contact chamber'¦ Check the filter media (should you have such) in your mechanical filters and change out this for new, perhaps along with the stated interval/useful life span of chemical filtrants.


About Record Keeping; Do It: 

            It is a very good habit to keep tabs on what tests you've done, when new livestock and gear was purchased, and all noteworthy observations concerning same, warrantees, receipts... A permanent notebook, written into with an indelible pen will pay you dividends in enjoyment and being able to locate important data.


Re: The Nature of the Truth, Experiential Phenomena:  

            The more you know the more commensurate will be your enjoyment of this hobby. Do take the time to read up re the 'broad stroke' of what marine aquarium keeping is 'all' about. Aspects of chemistry, physics, biology'¦ Art/design, aesthetic appreciation'¦. Plumbing, carpentry, electrical engineering'¦ and much more go into making one a successful aquarist and human. Read on the Net, complete and specialty books, consider joining/attending a marine aquarium hobbyist group in your area, even attending some of the national hobbyist conferences that go on every year.  You will find that your involvement in this hobby is ever-opening you to new adventures, possibilities'¦  

Small Marine Aquariums
Book 1:
Invertebrates, Algae
New Print and eBook on Amazon: by Robert (Bob) Fenner
Small Marine Aquariums
ook 2: Fishes

New Print and eBook on Amazon: by Robert (Bob) Fenner
Small Marine Aquariums Book 3: Systems
New Print and eBook on Amazon: by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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