SALTWATER AQUARIUM CARE BASICS; Fish, Nano, Reef
This article is for basic to advanced information and resources intended for a marine fish aquarium (Basic, FOWLR, Nano Reefs, & some advanced information).
This article is based on my experience of keeping and professionally maintaining marine fish (and reef) aquariums for over 35 years with one of the largest aquarium maintenance companies in Los Angeles, California.
Please note that due to new information and methods being developed/explored, that there is no one best way to set up a marine/reef aquarium, so I would be cautious of anyone who states as such (in my experience these persons are generally closed minded to new research such as in aquarium Redox, which generally makes their opinions less than helpful in keeping a healthy marine aquarium).
My point is to be cautious of anyone that states theirs is the only way to set up a marine aquarium or trashes one of the methods I outline here as these persons generally are not open minded enough or spend any real research, often which requires research outside the aquarium keeping hobby to understand why certain methods work and others do not.
This is also not to say that some methods should not be used such as this example method;
That said, I have also seen many articles or popular YouTube Videos that show elaborate systems that I will not question their viability of these systems, however a viewer/reader of these videos/articles might assume that these elaborate systems are the only way to go, which is simply NOT true!
Please see this article for my suggestions as to marine fish (& reef) tank set up combinations (again all these methods work, but are not the "end all" of methods either):
For beginners, a small aquarium such as a Nano Reef can be difficult, as many problems can accelerate in an aquarium this small. For this reason I recommend a first marine aquarium to be at least 40 gallons (although I know of many aquarists who have started with smaller aquariums and have been successful!)
As a final note to readers, in particular those who are "thinking" of starting a marine aquarium, PLEASE know your budget as more times than I care to count have I seen new marine aquarium keepers fail only because they got into a hobby that was beyond their budget.
If you are considering a full reef tank (corals, clams, etc), the costs are considerably more than a fish only tank.
 FILTRATION, Including Substrate and Live Rock;
Good filtration is a must for a successful marine aquarium. There are many different filters available too.
Suggested COMBINED (filters and circulation devices) Aquarium Turnover Rates
Filtration is also performed by Live Rock, so please read more in the section about the Berlin Method (Live Rock) further down in this article.
*Canister filters are excellent for their capacity, but can these filters can become what are sometimes called "Nitrate factories" if not set p correctly and/or rinsed very regularly (once per week unless de-nitrification or nitrate absorbing media is used such as Matrix or Purigen).
In fact, because of this "Nitrate Factory" tendency; Canister Filters should not be used for delicate Marine Reef tanks as sold "out of the box".
Please read the canister filter section of this article: Aquarium Filtration; Canister Filters for further information.
*Wet/Dry filters are good, but as most are designed, these are usually are poor mechanical filters and can become nitrate factories as with canister filters.
As with canister filters, most wet/dry set ups are not Advanced Reef capable due to high nitrate and phosphate issues. I prefer to use broken cured live rock, volcanic rock pieces, or SeaChem Matrix instead of bio balls.
Product Reference: Hydro Pond 3 & 4 Sump Filter
*Sump systems with live rock, plants, and sponge filters work well.
Common Wet/Dry systems are what are considered open loop systems which employs a sump (as compared to a closed loop that has no open sump).
*Sponge; The benefit with the use of a Sponge filter (such as in a sump, in place of bio balls or simply as a stand alone filter) is the ease of rinsing, which if rinsed regularly, will nullify any possibility of becoming a nitrate factory and will increase your aquariums ability to bounce back quickly from spikes in wastes (resulting in very undesirable spikes in ammonia).
It is also noteworthy that there was no increase whatever in nitrates in these tests when a deep sand bed or de-nitrifying filter media was also present
Product Resource: Aquarium Sponge Filters by AAP, Lustar
*Protein Skimmers employ a chamber with a column of fine bubbles. Surface tension attracts organic waste to the bubbles & carries it through the column (this is called foam fractionation); then it is "skimmed" into a collection cup.
Let me add one point about protein skimmers is that although protein skimmers are a useful tool in marine and reef aquariums (a tool I recommend too), they are not essential for all marine aquariums, especially fish only tanks.
Many older Skimmers abilities are often over rated, as I have kept dozens of marine aquariums with and without them and excellent results in the marine/reef aquariums without them (providing other methods of filtration are employed such as deep sand bed).
Often problems I have seen with aquarists using Protein skimmers is that they are not set up and running properly so the cup is collecting foam. Also many aquarists will not empty the cup frequently enough which then makes the skimmer useless.
The addition of an Ozone Generator to a venturi style skimmer (such as the V2 Skim noted above) further increases efficiency and add the benefit of killing many pathogens.
Finally as to Skimmers, since they work via foam refraction on organic proteins in the water, they will not collect much foam in a new marine aquarium, so do not get discouraged if yours does not work well in the first few weeks after initial setup.
For MUCH more information about Protein Skimmers (including types), please see this updated article in Aquarium Answers:
*Fluidized Sand Bed Filters; These filters are an excellent compliment to Protein Skimmers, especially when no other bio filters are utilized.
A major positive of the new generation Fluidized Sand Bed Filters in particular is that for their size these filters are second to none in aerobic bio filtration.
Another positive of the TMC Fluidised Sand Bed Filter is that it has the option of utilizing oolitic sand filter media, which works somewhat similar to a Calcium reactor by maintaining the calcium and alkalinity levels of an aquarium via the constant friction of the oolitic sand containing calcium and some carbonates as well.
In our world of the more fancy equipment the better for our marine/reef aquarium, this filters stands out in its simplicity and effectiveness.
There are many reasonable choices if you choose HOB filter as part of your saltwater filter system.
The Internal Wet-Dry Filters such as the ReSun BF100 is another less known option.
Product Resource: Internal Wet/Dry Marine Bio Filter
*Ecosystem mud filtration is effective for nitrate removal (due to the large colonies of anaerobic bacteria), they can be simpler to use than a protein Skimmer in my opinion (although Ecosystems do work, I believe they are over hyped for fish aquaria).
*Power Heads along with wave makers (for more high tech reef tanks) are an excellent addition (& IMO a necessary addition when live rock is used as a major source of bio filtration) as these can add valuable cross currents and can be directed in ways that make for tidal zone like circulation. Many such as the Rio 1000 Powerhead, Pump are quite versatile and fit many small to medium saltwater tanks well.
For larger aquariums and especially sumps, the Rio 1700 Pump, Rio 26HF or especially larger pumps are also useful especially for sumps, or unique applications such as the one pictured here at this site: “Water Return Manifold” (sometimes referred to as closed loop system, although this is not my definition, a better definition is just that; a water return manifold).
*Wave Makers/Controller can be a good idea if you have sensitive corals that live in tidal zones.
Product Resource: Hydor Smart Wave Controller
If you use one of these devices make sure and use a quality power head that will restart as many of the power heads available (Aqua Clear, Marineland) have a poor track record from my extensive experience.
If you do not have these sensitive coral, simply having a few well placed power heads at different angles will do the trick.
These unique pumps deliver high flow in a wide angle with low heat, and high electrical efficiency.
Propeller pumps install easily onto any aquarium with a glass or acrylic thickness that is 3/4" and below.
Some propeller pumps use magnetic force to transmit energy through the aquarium wall, while others have a similar self contained design to the mag-drive pumps, which results in a better over all flow inside the aquarium compared to the more laminar flow of power heads.
I would caution that while popular, the new models that use magnetic force to transmit energy through the aquarium wall, these also can have issues of debris or misalignment causing a failure of the impeller that is much more rare in traditional "well impeller" designs with power directly to the pump.
These energy efficient pumps have come down much in price from the originals, first with the Hydro Koralia, then with the slightly better designed and better price/value Seio Propeller Pumps (see the picture to the left).
Please see my full Aquarium Filtration article for MUCH more information about filters:
MORE ABOUT LIVE ROCK AND THE BERLIN FILTER METHOD:
The Berlin Filter method as I apply it is the use of cured live rock (A) In the tank, or (B) In sumps or other filters.
Even if the "Live Rock" is only inside your main aquarium, as long as circulation is provided through and around it with a water pump and/or well placed air stones within your live rock "reef", this counts as a bio filter.
The Berlin filter Method is also used in closed loop systems similar to wet/dry filter systems, except without the sump.
Another similar aspect to “Live Rock” is “Live Sand”, although I have to part ways with the fad as to the live part (not the sand part), most of the packaged live sand I have tested is not all that "live", especially as to aerobic nitrifying bacteria as this bacteria goes dormant in a sealed bag to the point of not being able to revive in a useful/practical way; this part is a gimmick IMO.
Back to sand, for a reef marine aquarium I highly recommend a deep sand bed of at least 3 inches, with 4-5 inches preferred. For fish only, 2-4 inches works well in most aquariums.
For more about anaerobic bacteria, please see this article:
On top of the fine sand I recommend a layer of #3 crushed coral for improved nitrification and better waste control, not to mention easier vacuuming.
I generally only vacuum the top crushed coral layer, only occasionally pushing the vacuum bell deeper into the sand so as to not disrupt too much of the anaerobic bacteria in the sand (I often vacuum deeply in the front areas of the tank so as to remove unsightly algae (“mold”) that will grow here.
For more about aquarium cleaning, please see this article: “Aquarium Cleaning”
Here is a very helpful online sand/substrate calculator:
More about live rock:
You may also create your own using rock high in calcium carbonate (coralline rock), or even dead coral skeletons by placing them under healthy cured live rock for a couple of months in a healthy aquarium (reef set ups are best for this). It is important to use very porous rock for the proper benefits of live rock.
The use of ancient calcium carbonate rocks (from a rock quarry) is a great way to preserve the reefs as well since you are not depleting reefs for your aquarium!.
An important point as to live rock, is to soak and “swish” your rock around in a bucket of de-chlorinated freshwater for 5 minutes. This has worked well for me and kills Oodinium pathogens and many (not all) creatures such polychaete worms (AKA Bristleworms) will fall out for your removal. Creatures you want to keep that fall out during this process can be simply placed back into the main aquarium. This has worked well for me over the years at minimizing disease risk and introduction of undesirables.
Reference: Fireworm, Polychaete Worms
A method I prefer is to break the live rock into smaller chunks and place these in back mounted wet/dry filters, canister filters or even remove the filter media from an AAP Tidal, Aqua Clear 500, or similar HOB Filter and instead use these 1-2” live rock pieces, this can make for a simple application of the Berlin Filter Method.
Nitrate & Phosphate Removal Filtration;
Here are just a few Suggestions (not an exhaustive list):
(A) Mud Filters, Deep Sand; As mentioned above, Mud filters can be very useful for Nitrate removal as are deep sand beds or even a DIY deep sand bed “filter” in which you can use a bucket or another small aquarium.
Here is a video displaying a working Refugium that is also utilizing "state of the art" AquaRay LED lighting for phenomenal growth:
For a Mud Filter (and diagram) please see my article:
(B) Live Rock Crumbles, Matrix; Also as mentioned above; a lot of cured live rock is extremely helpful for nitrate removal, this should also be used as live rock crumbles in wet/dry, canister or similar filters in place of bio balls or ceramic media which tend to promote high nitrates. Volcanic Rock can be substituted for live rock crumbles/scrap.
A commercial product that is even more efficient at utilizing de-nitrifying anaerobic bacteria for nitrate removal SeaChem Matrix.
See also this article:
(C) Protein Skimmers; these devices remove protein based organics before entering the nitrogen cycle, thus never allowing nitrates to form.
(D) Use of products such as NPX BioPlastics that promote anaerobic bio activity that in turns greatly lowers nitrates and phosphates.
This product works by promoting Anaerobic zones to develop within the pellets, resulting de-nitrification there-in.
As well, when "churned" in a Fluidized Filter or Reactor, bacteria develop on the pellet surfaces and slough off, then these bacteria can be removed with a protein skimmer or serve as planktonic food for corals, clams, sponges and other filter-feeding invertebrates.
For more about Vodka Dosing and other means of Nitrate removal, please reference this article:
(E)Use of Synthetic Adsorption such as products like API Phos-Zorb or SeaChem Purigen.
Carbon can also be used as it too is an adsorbent, although there are some issues when used in combination with Protein Skimmers as well as release of contaminants, so please refer to this article for more:
(F) Plants or green algae such as Caulerpa algae (although Caulerpa Algae is now regulated in many areas) or Green Gracillaria directly in the aquarium or in a DIY Refugium/Mud Filter or Algae Scrubber.
(G) Pre-Filters such as ATIs "Filter Max" on filter intakes; these are easily rinsed and remove organic matter before it can go thru the nitrogen cycle.
Product Resource: ATI Filter Max Sponge Pre-Filters
(H) Improved cleaning methods such as where by as much decomposing organics are removed. The use of battery powered sludge removing vacuums such as the Eheim Sludge Remover Gravel Vacuum is very useful, especially in tanks without deep sand beds.
Product Resource: Eheim Sludge Extractor Battery Gravel Vacuum
Please Reference this article for more about Nitrate Control from Aquarium Answers:
A 6,400K to 20,000 K Daylight bulb is a start for most basic marine aquarium applications.
Reference: Aquarium Lighting, PUR
For more advanced reef keeping you will need to consider the power compacts, the T-5, HO T5, the Metal Halide, the even newer LED, SHO bulbs, or for small tanks, the T2 lights (T2s are not suggested for advanced reef tanks).
LED light fixtures in particular are making major advances on a yearly basis (if not even quicker) in both performance and price (when compared apples to apples such as in terms of focused lumens, lumens per watt, PAR, much less wasted light energy in the yellow/green spectrum & more).
So before you write these off as too expensive (which is NOT true when you consider the 50,000 hour life span and vastly less electricity used over the life of the system when compared to often over rated HO T5 light systems or similar) or simply that LEDs are not that good based on anecdotal advice.
My latest study with Red Slime Algae really showed me how much these LED lights can do for an aquarium.
For Fish only or FOWLR, the T2 lights, SHO, or Marine White LED are excellent choices for good lighting that can be upgraded (especially the T2 and LED are easily added to).
Lighting is a VERY complex subject, deserving a full article, so I STRONGLY RECOMMEND reading this extremely in depth article for vastly more aquarium lighting information from basics to complex:
Also please note that for fish only or fish with some invertebrates such as Arrow Crabs, lighting is not as important a factor, however if you plan to have anemones, soft coral and especially hard corals, good lighting is a MAJOR factor in their success! Also note that although the 3-5 watt per gallon rule is a reasonable starting point for older technology lights, this is an archaic rule of thumb as there are so many other factors that are also important such as lumens per watt, useful energy, tank depth, and more. Again PLEASE read the above article for more about lighting!
If you are keeping reef tank with Photosynthetically sensitive corals, another important point that is often missed is specimen placement. I would move corals as high up in the water column as possible, this especially important with SPS corals (short polyp stony corals) where placement on the rocks directly under your lights is even more essential.
Sometimes in conversations with reef enthusiasts that are questioning different lighting systems/ideas is that it is often missed that the most high light requiring corals (such as SPS) do not grow 100 feet (30 meters) below the surface in the reefs and that these corals will be just below the surface, so regardless of the lights you choose, placement is extremely important. Even less light demanding tropical reef building corals species are restricted to the euphotic zone, the region in the ocean where light penetrates to a depth of approximately 230 feet or 70 meters.
I should also note that with SPS corals in my own experience, placement low or even in substrate that I have observed the corals getting “eaten away” by bacteria from the bottom up; while this is an anecdotal observation of mine (as other factors were not tested in a controlled scientific study), it is still consideration in coral specimen placement.
Finally do not inadvertently block your light by having dirty salt covered bulbs, or even by placing a glass top between your lights and aquarium water. A glass top is OK for most fish but often can block essential light energy necessary for corals.
 TEST KITS;
An ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, ph, Hydrometer, and KH (Alkalinity) test kit are all important. For reef aquariums a Calcium and Magnesium Test Kit are also highly recommended.
For a more in depth article about Aquarium Test Kits, please follow this link:
 WATER CHEMISTRY;
Start with a good marine salt and mix it to a specific gravity of 1.019- 1.024 for fish (although there is some controversy as to whether fish should be kept in a slightly hyposalinity environment, my admittedly less than scientific records on this subject seem to indicate a slightly lower incidence of some parasitic diseases).
Use Reverse Osmosis (RO) water to top off with for evaporation to prevent potential buildup of nitrate or other elements from tap water or even well water. If tap water is used (which again I recommend avoiding), use water conditioners such as “Prime” to neutralize the chlorine, chloramines and heavy metals. For much more about tap water please see this article:
What Salt Mix to Use?:
What I can tell readers is both from experience (but this is subjective) and some of the science behind synthetic sea salts for aquarium use.
General Marine Aquarium Water Parameters to maintain:
Please note that there are differences for actual ocean parameters such as alkalinity (KH), this is due to the fact that the marine aquarium is a closed system and this can be depleted quickly, so a higher alkalinity “reserve” is necessary.
A few more water chemistry tips;
*Be patient with the cycling process. There are several methods, but adding CURED live rock will help jump start this process. You can add small amounts of food every day before fish are added to help stimulate the formation of aerobic bacteria.
*Change water regularly especially in areas of waste accumulation, this will help maintain low nitrates.
*Please note that with Reef tanks in particular, keeping exacting water parameters is more essential than with fish.
Another product that is useful, especially for reef keepers is Sea Chem Reef Builder (which is similar to Marine Buffer except Reef Builder does NOT raise pH, and is aimed more for the needs of a reef aquarium). Generally I would recommend this product for alkalinity and other important minor elements when pH is not a problem.
Kalkwasser is a popular method for pH stabilization and alkalinity however I personally do not recommend it for beginners. If Kalkwasser is added to your aquarium too fast it will be converted to carbonate ions which ties up Calcium your inhabitants need. With proper drip or vinegar methods it will convert to Bi-carbonates allowing for the necessary Calcium.
A better method in my opinion, also originating in Germany is the "Balling Method" developed by Hans-Werner Balling.
Most of the coralline algae, which secrete calcium carbonate need not only bio available calcium but other trace elements in the proper balance which is why a complete buffer such as Sea Chem Marine Buffer should be used to adjust alkalinity.
*Complete diets will also add some trace and minor elements as well as water changes and aragonite substrates.
Amino Acids for Corals
Calcium Reactor/ Advanced Methods
For more advanced reefs you may want or need to add separate elements such as Strontium, Iodine (Iodide), Magnesium and Calcium.
This article gives the desired levels of these elements: “Aquarium Test Kits, Information” .
Product Resource: SeaChem Stabilized Potassium Iodide for Reef Aquaria
I have never found a need to add additional Calcium other than the methods outlined above.
Another more simple alternative to a calcium reactor (albeit not as effective) is the use of a Fluidized Filter employing Oolitic sand media.
Product Reference: TMC Fluid Sand Filter, Calcium Reactor
*If fish and other marine inhabitants do not have proper trace and minor elements, their health will suffer.
 UV STERILIZATION;
UV Sterilizers are in my opinion, not essential, but based on 35 years of research and hands on tests, they are VERY important, and in fact is a tool I was rarely without in with my contracted marine aquarium customers.
Even with smaller aquariums (Nano Reefs, etc.) a UV sterilizer is still a good idea.
Heating is a rather simple subject that I will not go into any detail other than refer to this "Aquarium Answers" article that discusses "Types" and provides a few reviews as well:
For cooling in summer, as with the Freshwater Basic article (cooling/heating), these same principles apply:
 NEW FISH AND INVERTEBRATE INTRODUCTION:
The best way to acclimate your new fish, corals or other delicate marine inhabitants is to place your bag in a bucket, then open a VERY small area so as to insert an air line tube.
 COMMON ALGAE:
Here are couple of commonly encountered algae in marine aquariums, especially with live rock. Both are forms of Macro Algae, the top being grape Caulerpa while the bottom is the fast growing (and illegal in some states) taxifolia. However the taxifolia is an excellent source for food for many fish from Dwarf angels to tangs as well a great Nitrate Sponge that is useful in Refugiums.
Although not the problem or scourge that red slime (Cyanobacteria), Filamentous Hair Algae can over take an aquarium in short order and is an indicator of high nitrates and phosphates. Although I consider green algae growth generally an indicator of a healthy marine aquarium, normally I recommend less problematic algae such as the Macro-Algae.
 PROPER FISH FEEDING, including species specific diet;
Do not over crowd a marine aquarium.
Of coarse a basic fish food is but a starting place for proper feeding, especially among the diversity of marine fish commonly kept.
It is also noteworthy that many invertebrates kept, such as anemones and corals have specific dietary needs. So it is important to find these our BEFORE purchasing any individual new specimen.
Many Fish need specific foods in their diet for long term health, here are just a few:
*Angels from the Genus “Centropyge” such as Flame Angels and Coral Beautys need marine algae in their diet.
*Butterfly Fish from the Genus “Chemon” such as Copperband Butterflies need small foods such as mysis shrimp, FD or frozen shrimp, and fresh or frozen clam. However, even though many will eat these foods in captivity, many butterflys only truly thrive with live coral to pick at and be at least a part of their diet.
*Trigger Fish from the Genus “Balistoides” such as Clown Triggerfish require Urchin in their diet.
*Mandarin Dragonets (also called Mandarin Gobies)
Feeding is the problem with Mandarins. Amphipods and copepods (small crustaceans that inhabit the sea floor) are the best diet for these fish if they can be cultured in small broken live rock piles. Some will take foods such as frozen brine shrimp and bloodworms.
• Try feeding roe, or fish eggs. These can be obtained at Asian markets under the name of flying fish eggs. They look like the orange little balls on sushi rolls.• Create a "pod pile" of small chunks of live rock in a corner. Pile the rubble up so fish cannot enter and spray the area with minute bits of food to herd the pods into the safety area to feed and reproduce.
For more about copepods and other pods:
* “Pods, Delicious and Nutritious”
Also from the author of this previous article, cultured ocean pods:
* Aquacultured Copepods for the Hobbyist
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 STARTER FISH TO ADVANCED FISH & INHABITANTS:
Here are a few livestock suggestions:
For a basic article that has more about different beginner fish/inhabitants (also advanced fish/invertebrates), along with pictures, please see this article:
 Poisonous Marine Pets;
Foxface and Lionfish produce a neurotoxin that attacks the nervous system, so does the Stone Fish and the Blue Ring Octopus (as well as the Black Widow Spider).
Here are marine animals of note:
Box Fish, Trunk fish, & Cowfish:
 MARINE ICH (Cryptocaryon irritans) TREATMENT;
Your medication options starting with the strongest are:
 MARINE OODINIUM (Amyloodinium Ocellatum);
This disease (or infestation) is also called Coral Fish Disease and saltwater Velvet.
This article is aimed at giving out good, reliable and tested information to help the reader make informed choices (not just popular/anecdotal) as I have used many different methods in my maintenance business over the years and have tested the differences.
Saltwater Aquarium Poll
This is a basic article, if you are interested in SW, please read/ask/learn as much as possible. Also find a good LFS with good advice.
Avoid internet sites, LFS, and books that say their way is the only way; this usually is a bad indicator of closed mindedness that results in new research being ignored.
Aquarium Information; The Internets Premier aquatic resource -My expanded article site; A great source for current aquarium information that is updated regularly as new research becomes available.
AQUARIUM AND POND ANSWERS -Questions answered from aquatic forums; from Tap Water, Fish Baths, Dips, Swabs, Do Fish Drink?, to use of Carbon in Aquariums, Fish Parasites and MUCH more.
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