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How to start a saltwater aquarium in 12 easy steps

By January 18, 2017May 8th, 2019Getting Started

So, you’ve decided to start your own nano reef? As keeping a nano reef tends to be a bit more difficult compared to a larger reef tank, let’s see first how to start a saltwater aquarium in general.

This article is a part of The Nano Reef Blueprint, if you’re interested to know more? Check it out, by clicking here.

The basic steps to start a saltwater aquarium

1. I cannot stress this enough, but find as much information as you can on keeping a reef/saltwater aquarium before you start. It will save you a lot of troubles later. So I’m glad you’re reading this to begin with! These steps will get you a long way, but if you need more guidance an a very detailed description, feel free to check out The (Nano) Reef Blueprint.

2. Decide where you will put your tank so you can determine the size and what specific tank you want to buy. Things to take into account: Will it be a saltwater tank with fish and corals? Fish only? What saltwater fish are you planning to keep?

3. Once you’ve decided and hooked up all the equipment, do a test run with freshwater at the right water level to be sure everything works as it should work and to check if there are no leaks.

Freshwater testrun

4.Make your saltwater with a good quality salt and RO (Reversed Osmose) or DI (Deionized) water. You can also purchase your water from your LFS (Local Fish Store) or use water straight from the ocean. (Make sure if this is allowed in the region where you live first.) Check the salinity level with a seawater refractometer so you’re sure it’s 35ppt.

5. Decide if you will work with live rock or an alternative like Real Reef rock and purchase according to the 10% rule. This means if your tank’s volume is 100 liters, 10kg of live rock is a good amount. If you don’t know how to convert from liter to gallon, try this. 🙂

6. Add the saltwater (Make sure the water temperature is around 25-26°C or 77-78°F first) to the tank. If you use Real Reef rock or another dry alternative, you can switch step 6 and 7.

7. Add the live rock and start aquascaping. Make sure everything is nice and stable. Provide enough hiding spaces, enough room for corals and make sure the flow of water can reach all places as you do not want detritus and dirt to pile up in places where the flow isn’t flushing it away.


8. Let nature work its magic with the cycling process for the next 6 to 8 weeks. This is also known as “the startup cycle” or “the nitrogen cycle” which basically means you sit back and allow bacteria to populate the tank so they can act as a natural filter (together with any protein skimmers) later on. As it is not the most healthy place for coral or fish to live in, do not add anything yet. You can also speed up this process by adding Start Up bacterial strains.

9. Now and then during the startup cycle, you could put some extra flow on the rocks to get extra dirt out coming from the rocks. The skimmer will take care of the job to suck this dirt out. When most of the dirt is out, you could add the sand. Live sand or “dead” sand are 2 different options here.

10. Build up the lighting slowly , do not put the lights on 100% yet, but start for example at 20% and every week you add 10%. In this way, you can avoid excessive algae growth. If you are working with Real Reef rock, it is not even necessary to put on any lights until after the startup cycle. The reason why you do it with live rock, is to keep alive any light needing hitchhikers that may or not come with the live rock.

11. 6 to 8 weeks after the startup cycle, it is time to put in a cleanup crew. This mostly consists of hermit crabs, snails or other algae eating critters that, as the name suggest, will clean up your tank and get rid of most of the algae that has grown during the startup cycle.

12. A couple of weeks later it is time to put in your first beginner corals and fish and slowly find the right balance. Remember, build up slowly! Now, you have created life! Muhahahahahahaaaa! Enjoy!

beginner coral

Of course there is a lot more to setting up a reef aquarium, but these basic steps will give you an overview of what to expect.

Any questions? Drop a note below or get in touch!

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Brianna says:

    Great, quick guide! I think it would be pretty cool to have a saltwater aquarium. Is there a specific tank that you would recommend? Something not too big but also not tiny either. Thanks for the info!

    • Mister Nano Reef says:

      Hey Brianna, thanks! It requires some work, but if everything comes together nicely it IS idd pretty cool to have a saltwater aquarium, I got hooked from the very first day 🙂

      The tank from my Instagram account (the Aqua Medic Blenny Advanced) is a great all-in-one tank to get started. It provides almost everything (just need to buy an additional heater element) to get you going. It’s around 80 liter (21 gallons) and for me the perfect size for a nano reef. Hope that helps!

  • Ronnie Jordan says:

    Wow, incredible stuff. I have had aquariums with guppies a long time ago but this is truly interesting. I never thought about the soft water world. IO know the fish would be a lot more interesting to look at. The only thing is you said it would take a lot more work but does that mean in a way of difficulty? I had no idea you could buy the salt water that came from an ocean. You enlightened me a great deal thanks.

    • Mister Nano Reef says:

      Hi Ronnie, I was originally planning to get a freshwater aquarium with a couple of goldfish… but once I saw the beauty of a saltwater aquarium, it was very difficult to stop there. It is like a little piece of ocean in your home. It is a fact that maintaining a saltwater aquarium is much more difficult compared to a freshwater aquarium as you need to take a lot more things into account and if you want to make it a thriving reef aquarium, then of course your coral will need some extra special care (keep Ca, Mg, KH, salinity,… levels balanced).

      But don’t let that scare you, my goal here is to gradually provide more and more useful information that should get you on the way so be sure to check back regularly!
      In the meantime there’s always my Instagram account @misternanoreef if you like to enjoy daily posts and updates about my own nano reef tank.

  • SKI says:

    Dear Mister Nano Reef ,
    i have tank dimension 3ft X 2ft X 1.5ft , iwant to made that in salt water .. but no idea what the things i have to install can you let me know the essentials of it.. like protien skimmer,sump or etc.. kindly let me know all the stuff i need to get and install..

    thank you so much sir.

    • Mister Nano Reef says:

      Hey Kashif (hope that’s your name 🙂 ),
      when you’re just starting out, it can be easy to buy an all in one system so you have all the equipment required.
      But as you already have your tank, this is a short list of things you will need:
      1. The tank, which you already have 😉
      2. a skimmer or other filtration system to keep the tank clean and healthy
      3. powerheads for water circulation (make sure you have flow everywhere so maybe you need more than one)
      4. a heater and thermometer (you can also connect it to a temperature controller)
      5. if you will use a seperate sump (which is basically a seperate smaller tank for your filtration etc), then you also need an overflow pump to get the water back to the tank
      6. good lighting, depending on the corals you want to keep. My preferance is LED but there’s a lot more options out there

      That is the basic equipment you will need, there’s a lot more extras to be added but this will get you started. The complete list can get very long when we start to talk about maintenance and other stuff 🙂 I hope to finish my reef blueprint guide in a month, so if you are interested to know every detail of it, feel free to subscribe to the list, I will let you know when it comes out then.
      It can also be a good idea to go to your local fish store and let them advise you on your needs.

      Hope that helps!

      • SKI says:

        Yes my name is Kashif, and thank you so much sir for your reply and i ll email you for the specific name of power head or skimmer ( brand ) and where to buy . and sure i ll subscribe it.

  • bob adams says:

    Does your book have the size of tank and the filter you use.or you could tell me all of the stuff.Years ago I hand salt water with the trickle filters below. How the tank have come a long way.

    • Mister Nano Reef says:

      The tank I have is a AquaMedic Blenny, it includes the skimmer, it’s an all in one solution. They still sell the new version although with different lights, too bad as I liked the previous design more.

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