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  1. #1
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    Jul 2004
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    Getting Started Article

    Hello all. It's been a VERY long time since I visited the new look! I've been out of the hobby for quite a while but a co-worker mentioned that he is setting up a new reef tank and so, of course, I referred him to MARSH! I suggested he look up an article I had written specifically as a starting place for beginners but it looks like it was removed somewhere along the way or during the transition to the new site.

    There was certainly no groundbreaking information but I think it's still useful enough to re-post. I wrote this for MARSH so feel free to use, or not, as you see fit. One notable change that has occurred since this article / FAQ was written is the now common use of LED lighting. At the time of the original writing, LED lighting was just beginning to be seen at trade shows and not yet on the market. I'm sure there are other trends, like the use of Mangrove trees, that are also absent but this article was only intended as a starting point and hopefully it still accomplishes that much.


    Getting Started in Saltwater – An FAQ brought to you by the
    Marine and Reef Society of Houston

    In the interest of giving beginners a place to start, we are forming this
    FAQ. We will try to answer some of the basic questions that most people
    encounter when setting up their first SW aquarium. This is by no means
    a comprehensive list and there are many ways to set up a tank. This is
    intended to serve only as a starting point – to help get your feet wet. Well
    maybe your hands….ok, ok…clear up to your armpits. Let’s get started!

    What equipment do I need to start a saltwater aquarium?

    1. The tank: Contrary to what you might think, starting with a small
    tank is not the best option. In fact, the bigger, the better. You see, a
    larger volume of water is less apt to be affected by the sudden water
    changes that are common in a beginner’s tank. Think of it this way:
    If you take a cup of water and a gallon of water and add a drop of
    blue food coloring to each, which one is going to have the greatest
    color change? Correct, the cup. Now imagine you have a fish die in
    your tank while you are at work. As the fish decays, it produces toxic
    ammonia. The smaller the volume of water, the more detrimental the
    ammonia will be to the other tank inhabitants. Simply put, a larger
    tank is more forgiving. A good size to start with is 55 gal or larger.

    2. Water: If you’ve ever had the tap water in Alvin, you know that not
    all water is created equal (sorry to any Alvinites out there). Tap water
    can contain a variety of chemicals, minerals, and other impurities
    that are not conducive to reef keeping. Tap water will likely contain
    chlorine and possibly chloramines and even nitrates and phosphate.
    (We’ll learn more about nitrates later.) So, what kind of water do you
    want to use. There are lots of options, the most common of which,
    is water purified by Reverse Osmosis (RO water). In the interest of
    keeping this simple, and not getting over my own head, lets just say
    that reverse osmosis gives you the purist water. You’ll find RO water
    at most any supermarket – just check the label. If you go to Wal-
    Mart, it is the one with the green cap and runs less than sixty cents per
    gallon. There are also home RO units widely available to reef keepers
    if you want to make your own water.

    3. Filtration: This can be a real can of worms. There are many different

    options and many, many different theories regarding the best type of
    filtration. The most common, and accepted method is the use of live
    rock (lr) and a deep sand bed along with a protein skimmer. Live
    rock, is a simple way of saying porous carbonate-based rock that is
    host to both macro and microorganisms. Because of the highly porous
    nature of lr, it is able to support vast amounts of both aerobic and
    anaerobic bacteria. Make sure you use rock that won’t leech minerals
    into the water.

    This is as good a place as any to talk about nitrates. As mentioned
    earlier, decaying fish produce ammonia. In fact living fish produce
    ammonia as a product of respiration. It is also produced as fish waste
    and uneaten food decompose – these decomposed materials are also
    known as DOC’s or dissolved organic compounds. If allowed to exist
    in any significant amount, ammonia will wreak havoc on your tanks
    inhabitants and can cause death. This is where the bacteria enter the
    picture. The bacteria, which use ammonia in their own metabolic
    process, are called nitrosomonas. Nitrosomonas thrive in a highly
    oxygenated environment and consume ammonia in a process called
    aerobic nitrification. As these bacteria multiply, they use up the
    ammonia and produce nitrites as a by-product. Nitrites are also toxic to
    the marine environment. The bacteria, which consume nitrites, thrive in
    low oxygen environments and are called nitrobacteria. They consume
    nitrites in a process called anaerobic (or anoxic) denitrification. The
    nitrobacteria convert the nitrite into nitrates. Nitrates are the end of the
    line in this process. The nitrates are LESS harmful to aquatic life than
    ammonia or nitrites, but still should not be allowed in any significant
    quantity. Nitrate is removed via frequent, small water changes – usually
    10-20% per week. Some people choose to make larger, less frequent
    water changes. There are some other options for reducing nitrates, but
    that is a topic for another day. Now, back to filtration.

    As mentioned, lr is host to both aerobic nitrifying bacteria, which live
    on the rock surface, and anaerobic denitrifying bacteria, which live, in
    the denser pores deeper within the lr. Like lr, sand also provides a good
    home to both types of bacteria. In order to provide enough lr to be an
    effective biological filter, you want to have between 1.5 to 2 lbs of live
    rock per gallon of water. So, in a 55 gal tank, you would want between
    about 110 – 150 lbs of live rock.

    A Deep Sand Bed (DSB) typically is two to four inches deep and
    provides lots of surface area for beneficial bacteria. The surface portion
    is host to the nitrosomonas and the deeper, less oxygenated layer, is home
    to the nitrobacters.

    Now that we’ve talked about live rock, deep sand beds, nitrifying and
    denitrifying bacteria and DOC’s, you may be saying to yourself, surely
    there’s a way to remove the fish waste before it becomes a problem. Guess
    what, you’re right!

    The protein skimmer is the means by which the fish waste, excess food,
    and other proteins are removed from the water. There are several types
    of protein skimmers and each has their pros and cons, but they all have
    one thing in common – using foaming bubbles to remove protein from the
    water. The skimmers vary in the way the bubbles are produced but he basic
    operation is this: bubbles are produced in the skimmer, the smaller the
    better, and the DOC’s stick to the bubbles and are carried into a collection
    cup which can be periodically emptied. The waste in the collection cup is
    called skimate. A protein skimmer's efficiency is judged by its ability to
    produce skimate. But no matter how effective a skimmer is you will still
    need biological filtration.

    This covers just the basics of filtration. Please read as much information
    as you can find on this topic. The better you understand how this process
    works, the more success you will have.

    4. Lights: The type of lighting you provide will depend directly on what
    you choose to keep in your tank. If you want to keep a Fish Only
    (FO) tank, then you can get by with just standard fluorescent lighting.
    If you want to keep corals or anemones, you will need stronger
    lighting. The rule of thumb is 3-5 watts per gallon. Many factors such
    as depth of tank, and placement of corals will be important as well.

    You have lots of options to choose from but most are a combination of
    three technologies: Power Compact Fluorescents (PC), Very High Output
    (VHO), or Metal Halide (MH.).

    Power compacts will allow you to keep a variety of corals, including all soft
    corals, and a limited selection of hard corals – mostly large polyp stonies


    VHO, while not as intense as PC lights, are offered in higher wattages and
    by themselves allow a similar selection of corals to be kept. However, VHO
    are often used in conjunction with Metal Halides.

    Metal Halides offer the greatest range of options allowing reef keepers to
    meet the lighting requirements of even the most demanding corals, including
    small polyp stonies (SPS). The drawback to MH lighting is the relatively
    high cost, and the intense heat that they put off. Special cooling precautions
    have to be taken to maintain water temperature when using MH lighting. At
    a minimum, you will need to have one or more fans cooling the lights and
    surface of the water. Another, more costly option is the use of a chiller.

    As stated, these are generalizations. Many reef keepers have had success
    keeping all manner of marine life using each of these types of lighting.

    5. Circulation: The goal of every reef keeper should be to replicate the
    natural ocean conditions as much as possible. By doing so, you have
    the greatest chance of creating a hospitable environment for your fish,
    corals, and invertebrates. Circulation is typically provided by power
    heads, which are small pumps placed in the water, which draw water
    in and then pump it out at higher pressure. The rule of thumb here is
    ten times the water volume per hour. If we use our hypothetical 55
    gal tank, this would mean we would want at least 550 gph of water
    flow. The power heads should be placed in a manner as to simulate
    ocean currents while creating flow in all portions of the tank.

    How do I set my tank up?

    Even after having the basic information about equipment and biological
    processes, you may still run into little questions along the way – stuff like,
    how do I mix the water, and how do I cycle my tank. We are going to try to
    address a few of these more common questions.
    Important: Before adding water to your tank, make sure that the tank
    and stand are level. Having a tank that is not level can lead to your tank
    The next decision you need to make is if you want to use sand or crushed
    coral as your substrate (base layer). For biological filtration, a deep sand

    bed is the most recommended substrate. The sand should be clean argonite
    sand. Silica based sand can be harmful to some sand sifting creatures that
    you may decide to keep. Another option still chosen by many people is
    crushed coral. Crushed coral will not be as effective at hosting anoxic
    bacteria as will a DSB, but it is readily available and many prefer its
    appearance to sand. After laying your substrate, you are ready for water.

    As discussed earlier, you’ll want to begin with water purified through
    reverse osmosis. When filling the tank for the first time, it is OK to mix the
    water and salt in the tank. Once you have livestock in your tank, you’ll want
    to mix the saltwater in a bucket or barrel and then add it to the tank. There
    are several salt mixes out there, all of which have their fans, and detractors.
    Regardless of which one you choose you will want to mix it to salinity
    between 1.022-1.025. For most salt mixes, you will get close to the desired
    salinity by adding salt mix at the rate of ½ cup per gallon of water. For your
    initial setup, don’t fill the tank all the way. Remember you are going to
    displace water with a large amount of rock. Also, you want to leave enough
    room in the tank to adjust your salinity. If your salinity is too high, you will
    add more RO water, if it is too low, you will add more slightly concentrated
    saltwater. Most reef keepers use a simple swing arm hydrometer to measure
    salinity, but you may eventually want to consider a more accurate device
    such as a refractometer. Once you have water in your tank, you will want to
    place and plug in your power heads.

    The next step is to add your live rock. Live rock comes two ways, cured or
    uncured. When live rock is removed from the ocean it is full of marine life.
    During the subsequent transportation, some of this marine life will begin
    to die-off. The process of curing live rock means allowing the decaying
    process to complete before adding it to your tank. Adding uncured lr
    to your tank may cause an ammonia spike. Normally such a spike is
    undesirable, but when starting a new tank, it can aid in cycling the tank –
    More on “cycling” in a moment.

    You can either use all live rock or, if you want to save money, you can use
    20% live rock and 80% base rock. Base rock is porous carbonate based
    rock that has either not been in an ocean or reef tank or was but has since
    been removed. If you go this route, just remember that it will take time for
    your base rock to become home to the macro and microorganisms typically
    found in live rock. After a period of time, the base rock and live rock will be


    As you add the rock, be mindful of how it is placed. You want to make sure
    that it is stable and will not topple over once you add livestock. You’d hate
    to see your favorite fish crushed to death in a rockslide – not to mention that
    many of the larger pieces of rock are quite heavy and could easily break
    your glass. Can you say, Noah’s Ark? Let’s hope you never have a flood!
    If you are especially concerned about falling rock, or want to try some
    interesting aquascaping, consider options such as using PVC to brace your
    rockwork. After adding the sand and rock, your tank will likely be very
    cloudy. At this time, start any filtration devices that you will be using and
    within a couple of days, the water should be clear.

    Once your live rock is in place, your tank will begin to cycle. Cycling is the
    process by which the bacteria are established in your tank. If you add a
    sufficient amount of live rock, your tank is essentially already cycled, but if
    you don’t add live rock or only add a small amount, you will need to help
    the process. Either way, you need to provide a food source for the bacteria –
    namely ammonia. If you are using lr rock to cycle your tank, you can add a
    couple of hardy fish to provide an ammonia source. People often use
    damsels for this task, but please bear in mind that damsels can be very
    aggressive to other fish and are also extremely difficult to remove from a
    tank with lots of rockwork. If you are not using lr to cycle, you will want to
    provide an alternate source of ammonia – there’s no good reason to risk
    killing a fish in a tank that is not yet ready to support life. In this case, you
    can either add a pinch of fish food to your tank each day, or drop in a raw
    shrimp. As the food or shrimp begin to decompose, ammonia will increase
    in your tank. After a few days, start checking ammonia levels. After about
    a week, you will see a peek in ammonia and then levels will begin to
    decrease. The decrease in ammonia means that the levels of nitrosomonas
    are increasing. Once you see the decrease in ammonia, start checking nitrite
    levels. Like ammonia, the nitrite levels will rise for about a week until they
    peek and begin to decline. At this point the nitrobacters population is
    increasing. Once you see this decrease, you should start checking nitrate
    levels. Nitrate levels will increase and peak at about the same time nitrite
    levels reach zero. Once this has occurred, you should be at about the three-
    week point. In order to lower the high level of nitrates, you will need to do
    a massive water change – draining 50% of you water and replacing it with
    new saltwater. At this point you should begin to slowly add livestock while
    daily checking your nitrate levels. Nitrate should not exceed 40 ppm in a

    fish only tank, or 10 ppm in a reef tank. If you have proper filtration,
    stocking, and maintenance your nitrate levels should remain very close to
    zero. In order to keep a bacterial balance, it is wise to wait a week or more
    between livestock additions to your tank.

    What do I do now?

    Before you add ANY fish, coral, or invertebrate to your tank, be sure to
    thoroughly research your potential purchase BEFORE bringing it home.
    You will find that many creatures are not compatible with one another or
    you may find a beautiful fish only to discover that it is a voracious coral
    eater. Many reef keepers find it useful to compile a list of compatible
    fish and corals – ones that will live in harmony with one another, are well
    suited to your tank size, and lighting. Make sure to take the list with you
    whenever you go to the local fish store (lfs) so you won’t be tempted to
    make an inappropriate spur of the moment purchase. And be mindful that
    just because someone works in a fish store, does not mean they know what
    they are talking about. This seems to be especially true of the large chain
    stores. Unfortunately there are also those out there who will allow you to
    make an unwise purchase just so they can make a sale. To help avoid this
    dilemma, check out the list of MARSH sponsor stores. Any of our sponsors
    will be happy to take time to help you make selections that will thrive in
    your tank. Although the topic is not covered here, I strongly encourage you
    to do some research on setting up a quarantine tank. A quarantine tank is
    used to monitor your new livestock for several weeks to make sure they are
    free of disease before adding to your main tank. It is much easier to treat for
    disease in a quarantine tank than it is one full of corals and other sensitive

    Hopefully you have found this information useful and have a better grasp
    on just what is involved in this wonderful hobby. No doubt you have many
    other questions so please take the time to search through our various forums
    and topics and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Part of the fun of
    reef keeping is sharing what you have learned. For more information and
    personal interaction be sure to attend one of our local monthly meetings.
    We regularly have guest speakers who share information on a variety of
    topics, as well as DIY workshops and frag (coral) swaps. We look forward
    to seeing you there!

  2. Likes Jcan214, Melfic liked this post
  3. #2
    Join Date
    Sep 2011
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    Great Tips!!
    When I die, I want to go peacefully like my Grandfather did, in his sleep -- not screaming, like the passengers in his car.

  4. #3
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    Jul 2006
    Porter, TX
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    I am going to Sticky this thread in this forum for future reference.

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