Setting up a saltwater aquarium can be a confusing task when you are new to the hobby.  There is an overwhelming list of supplies such as pumps, overflows, protein skimmers, lighting, UV sterilizers, heaters, chillers, ozone generators and this list just keeps growing.  Ok, stop for a second.  If you have already read about these things, or already are tracking their arrival at your front door, you may want to take a step back for a second.

1. Selecting fish for your tank

This in itself can provide you with a lot to think about so first I would recommend getting a book like Marine Fishes by Scott W. Michael.  Get familiar with the different types of fish first and see what you like.  If you are already excited about corals I would still suggest holding off for a bit until you have had time to learn about salinity, temperature, lighting and all of the other things we will eventually cover in this blog.  It is much less costly to start with a fish only tank and then upgrade if you decide to go with corals. A reef tank requires a higher investment especially in lighting which can lead to other costs such as chillers and fans for cooling depending on your lighting choice.

As  you are reading through the different types of fish take note of their behavior, how easy are they to keep? Are they reef safe? Which types of fish do they get along with?  For this you can refer to a compatibility chart, but remember that is only a guide. Every fish is unique and there are many factors that can alter their personalities such as: the order they are introduced to the tank, water conditions, availability of food, number of fish per gallon, temperature…you get the idea. So don’t get too frustrated if you have to bring a fish back to your local fish store, it happens to all of us. Keep a close eye on new fish once they are introduced. In my experience if a brawl is going to break out it often happens almost immediately. The pecking order that is established in your tank is thrown off balance with each new fish. So expect some disarray, but you will know if you need to intervene. The attack will be relentless and one fish will likely not be fighting back, just trying to get away.

2. Selecting the right tank size

Once you have an idea of some of the fish you would really like to have look at how big they get.  This will give you an idea about what tank size you should invest in. I am sure you have heard by now that the bigger the tank the better.  Bigger is better in that your water quality and levels don’t fluctuate as quickly.  So if you forget to add fresh water to top off your tank in a 15 gallon your salinity can rise very rapidly.  Where if you have a 250 gallon your salinity may only change slightly. However, bigger is also much more expensive both initially and to maintain. The additional sand, live rock, and lighting especially if you are looking at making it a reef tank can add up quickly. Another thing to consider is the larger the tank the more purchasing you will be doing to stock it. You don’t want to spend $2,800 on the setup only to have one damsel swimming back and forth.

If you are thinking of going the reef tank route down the road I recommend a 50 gallon Oceanic.  You won’t have to light a 6 foot long tank yet you can still get some medium sized fish without any problems.  For fish only tanks I recommend starting with a 75 gallon (which allows for a couple larger fish).  The reason I prefer the 75 to a 55 is that it is deeper from front to back which makes it much easier to stack live rock.  A 55 will leave you trying to build a wall straight up the back of the tank or you risk taking up all of the swimming space for your fish.

3. Should you use an overflow?

If you are looking to save a little you can get a hang on overflow, however if you can find a tank that is already drilled for an overflow that is ideal.  There are many advantages that make an overflow a must in my book.  First, they allow you to place all of your noisy equipment such as pumps and protein skimmers underneath your cabinet (make sure there is enough space in your stand). There are some protein skimmers that hang on the back of your tank, but they are bulky and in my experience don’t offer the same cleaning power as the in sump and stand alone versions.

Second you can place your heaters in your sump which keeps your tank looking nice and also places the heater in an area of high flow (Watch your temperature to make sure it isn’t fluctuating too much, if you have a smaller return pump on your tank you may need to leave the heater in the main tank). If you need to place your heater in the main tank, get one that is fully submersible and lay it along the back wall hidden behind some of your rockwork, but make sure there is still good water flow around it.  You will still have to place a couple of powerheads in your tank, but by removing the heater and protein skimmer it is easier to keep the tank looking as natural as possible.  You don’t want it looking like a science experiment. I once had a protein skimmer balanced on a stool on top of an overturned bucket because my sump wasn’t setup.  Trust me, it can get ugly in a hurry, especially when you knock it over.

The third advantage of an overflow is you have the ability to run a reverse daylight system with the sump. Reverse daylight means that when your main tank lights go out a light over your sump turns on.   What this does is allow you to grow beneficial algae and even propagate corals within your sump.  That algae helps to reduce nitrates and phosphates as well as helping to stabilize your PH.  By removing the algae as it outgrows your sump or now what is called a refugium you can export nutrients that your protein skimmer and water changes have left behind.  I have even found some local fish stores that would buy my algae from me for a few bucks and shared it with friends.

Fourth, your sump with algae and light has now become a refugium or a refuge for “other” creatures.  Copepods, amphipods, mysis shrimp, feather dusters, sponges and other animals will begin to grow in your sump as they are not threatened by the predators above.  Some of those creatures will end up being pumped up into your main tank where they become very healthy snacks for your fish.  You just can’t beat live food!

Finally, protein and other gunk has a habit of forming on the surface of your tank.  This surface scum reduces beneficial oxygen exchange as well as becoming a filter that blocks light from your fish and corals.  The overflow is constantly skimming the surface to make sure that layer of buildup doesn’t occur.

So while an overflow and sump can add a few hundred dollars to your expenses, in the long run it is by far the best option. Always remember to drill holes in the return line from your sump as a power outage or unplugging the pumps will start a siphon which will overflow your sump and turn your carpet into a sponge.  I usually drill holes in multiple locations as I have had a snail blocking a siphon hole when the power went out which caused a small flood (Always, always have a shop vac within reach because you will inevitably forget you are siphoning water for a water change or think you can grab the phone quick resulting in a necessary cleanup).

Much more to come…