The world of maintaining a saltwater aquarium

How to Maintain a Saltwater Aquarium

A major component of reefing and keeping saltwater aquariums that deters people from the hobby is the maintenance that is required to upkeep them. It may feel like reefing requires too much work, but it may also be that you have an uncertainty on how to maintain a saltwater aquarium. Luckily for you, this article will explain the basics of maintenance and how you can make it easier to do, resulting in a stable and happy reef tank.

Maintenance of Your Saltwater Aquarium can be Challenging

Most hobbyists would agree that water changes are not enjoyable. Although, they are one of the most effective methods of maintenance, as they can take large amounts of nutrients out of the water quickly.

There is a way, though, to reduce the number of water changes you need to do. If your filtration is good enough, you will not have to do as many water changes. You can replace the nutrient export that takes place during a water change by having a few different components in your filtration.

A protein skimmer is a great option for nutrient export. Skimmers are very popular equipment in the reef hobby, as most people have them in there sumps or hanging off the back. They are considered one of the “must have” ways of how to maintain a saltwater aquarium. They simply skim protein from the water and collect it in a container called a collection cup. You will have to empty and clean the cup when it gets full. Protein skimmers can be expensive depending on the size and quality, but they are a standard piece of equipment every reef aquarium needs.

Another way to reduce nutrients is to use certain types of mechanical filtration, such as GFO (granular ferric oxide). GFO can be put in a bag and place anywhere in the sump or it can be put in a media reactor where it is most effective. GFO is especially known for removing phosphate, which is a nutrient that causes algae growth. It is important to note that you can use too much GFO and remove too much phosphate. For best results, you should change out the GFO every so often, which depends on the type you use.

Carbon is another popular mechanical filtration that will keep your water clear. It too has to be replaced every so often, which adds to the maintenance.

Going Natural

There are also natural methods of nutrient export. These methods, such as having excess surface area for bacteria and having a refugium, have proven to be very effective. Possibly the best way of eliminating nutrients is targeting it at its source, which is food and fish waste. When this waste breaks down, it turns into nutrients. These nutrients can then be broken down by beneficial bacteria. Having more of this bacteria will allow for lower nutrient levels. This bacteria needs to have a place to live, such as rocks and sand. You could simply add more rocks to your display tank or you could buy a type of rock media, such as Marine Pure blocks. This will give the bacteria more surface area to live in. These block can be put in any section of the sump, but they do especially well in a refugium. A refugium is a separate section in a sump where you can put sand, media blocks, copepods, and macroalgae. Macroalgae is another way to export nutrients naturally. The macroalgae feeds off the nutrients in the water and grows. You can then take chunks off of the macroalgae to physically take the nutrients out.

The most obvious part of how to maintain a salt water aquarium is the removal of large waste in the tank. Mechanical removal is done using a filter sock, a foam block, or both. You will have to clean these out when they get filthy. Filter floss can also be used, but you will have to clean it and replace it more. There are two different types of filter socks: felt and mesh. Felt socks filter out smaller things, but have to be cleaned much more. Mesh socks only filter out larger things, but do not have to be filtered out as much. It is up to you to decide which is best for your tank and situation.

Dosing and Stability of your Marine Aquarium

Dosing base elements (calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium) may be a major part of your tank’s maintenance depending on what kind of corals you want to grow. If you just have soft corals or none at all, don’t worry about dosing these elements. If you have corals other than soft corals, your tank will probably need some form of base element replenishment. The most common way is dosing. Dosing allows for stability within your tank and increased coral growth. For dosing, you have a few ways of going about doing it.

The least favorable way of dosing would be doing it manually. You would have to remember to dose every day, which adds the possibility of forgetting.

You can also use a dosing pump and a controller. This could be one of the more expensive ways to dose, but it requires little to no maintenance, aside from refilling the dosing containers.

You can also dose using an auto top off. Use something such as kalkwasser in the auto top off reservoir, and as the water in your tank evaporates it will dose the tank. This is the easiest and cheapest automated method but is less precise.

Any of these methods will work, but it depends on which one you want to use and how much work you want to have to do.

Keeping it Clean

Certainly, the most time-consuming part about how you maintain a Saltwater Aquarium is the cleaning, and there is no way around it.

You will have to clean your skimmer collection cup and filter sock or filter block the most. This is the type of cleaning you will have to do weekly. The best way to do it is to set a certain day of the week to be your tank cleaning day. Make sure that your weekly cleaning tasks are the first thing you do.

You will also need to clean the tank itself. The best way to do this is through a water change. Detritus will often build up on the bottom of the tank and on the rocks. By doing a water change you can suck up some of this waste and keep the tank clean. The number of water changes you have to do in a month will be determined by how good your filtration is. Once again, you should set a specific day or multiple days of the month when you do these water changes.

Eventually, all of your tank’s equipment will need to be cleaned. This includes the return pump, powerheads, the rest of the protein skimmer, media reactors, dosing pumps, auto top off, and any other in-tank equipment. This type of cleaning will not need to be done often. It may only be three times a year, but it may be more than that; simply use common sense when deciding if something needs to be cleaned or not.

This may seem like a lot of work, but doing it will ensure that your equipment lasts longer and works more efficiently for the tank. After getting into a strict maintenance schedule, it won’t seem so bad.

While there are some areas of maintenance that are impossible to avoid, you can get rid of some of the hassle through automation. With technology constantly evolving there are always new ways to make how you maintain a Saltwater Aquarium easier. The downside is that easier often times means more expensive. For example, it is much cheaper to manually add fresh water to your tank to keep the salinity stable, but it is much easier to use an auto top off. Although these automatic devices may be more expensive, they create more stability and result in a better reef tank.

When it comes down to it, it is completely up to you and your goals to determine how to maintain a salt water aquarium. More ambitious goals will require better maintenance. It is important to keep this in mind when comparing your tank to others and your maintenance to others.

That’s how to maintain a saltwater aquarium. Now go and clean your filter sock, change the carbon, and make your tank beautiful.

299 thoughts on “How to Maintain a Saltwater Aquarium”

    1. Nothing on testing your water?

      Don’t necessarily chase numbers as each tank will find its stability as it matures but I do think it’s important to know especially with dosing.

  1. Constant parameters checking (not chasing) and constant maintenance schedule. These will aid in a successful reef tank.

  2. Maintenance can be as simple, or as difficult as you want it to be. I prefer the simple method, some might call “old school”.

  3. The best way to maintain a saltwater aquarium is to do as much research as you possibly can before setting your tank up. A lot of processes can be autonomous, making your job much easier.

  4. Testing parameters is a huge part of maintenance. Recently I had to adjust for alkalinity consumption that outpace my water changes. Not knowing could have been catastrophic. As it is I have one already stressed coral showing worse symptoms.

  5. I will be going skimmer and refugium to eliminate excess nutrients and starting off with manual dosing but not for long

  6. I want a ATO or a automatic doser. Ive heard horror stories of both malfunctioning. Which worries me if i spend that much money. I have SPS and soft corals. 😩

  7. I try to keep it simple. I dont test everything and chase numbers. I have a fuge with chaeto, pods, a decent size CUC. And just watch my tank. Do 10% weekly water changes. The more I meddle, the more goes wrong. For every action, there is an equal reaction.

  8. Algae Barn, why don’t you look into captive raised bristle worms, mini stars…? They would fit well with your other offerings and really reduce detritus.

  9. Can’t beat some of those natural methods. I’m always scared I’ll add too much of something and I’ll screw up the tank, but some good old Chaeto will always get the job done

  10. Casey Whittington

    Good post, I learned a few things reading this even after being in the hobby for over 10 yrs. Keep up the GOOD work

  11. I think keeping things stable and being patient and allowing the tank to mature are key. I’ve been in the hobby for 20+ yrs and you still learn things as you go. Automation has come a long way in helping keep things stable as well.

  12. Fish with live rock is way easier than with corals… I’ve always thought tanks were easiest after a good
    Population of pods have been established and some coralline has shown up (around 4-6 months).

  13. I love copepods and I use GFO in a reactor. Not enough room for a skimmer, too, but I do weekly water changes. I don’t need to dose that way, either. I imagine my maintenance will change if I get a bigger tank.

  14. Alejandro Rodriguez

    With all the research I have done I have learned once a saltwater aquarium is cycled and up & running there is actually less maintenance involved than freshwater.

  15. A great addition to your nutrient removal is a filter roller it replaces the sock and saves you from changing the sock every 3 days. The roll of filter material will last anywhere from 1 to 3 months and it doesn’t give off any smell either. These are a great buy.

  16. Great article. Wish I had read it before starting a reef tank as it would have made setup and preparation much better for long run stability. Oh well. Live and learn, as they say.

  17. Great it of info there. Seems like there’s always differ t methods and approaches that work great for some but not always others.

  18. Thanks for the details, we spend a lot of time working on developing /maintaining natural habitats.
    Have learned so much

  19. I have a 20 g nano with just an HOB and live rock/sand, I dose microbacter 7 every other day and do a 10% water change biweekly, I have found that adding that beneficial bacteria greatly helps to maintain the water clean, always keeps the nutrients in check and everything is thriving, there should be more information on this out there, you don’t really always need any fancy equipment.

  20. Thanks for such thoughtful articles. I am reading them all as I am setting up my new tank now and this is very helpful.

  21. Would you agree that adding gfo to my sump with marine pure, and a protein skimmer, and a refugium is to many nitrate exports?

  22. Someday I may have the multiple thousand dollars needed to purchase an apex and all the related probes, pumps and other stuff.

  23. I love the idea of going natural method. Having cyano bloom issues after beating back dinos and I think these problems are do to not having a healthy enough microbiome before I started adding livestock.

  24. It’s always nice having new information and just re-educating myself on tank maintenance and more efficient ways to maintain it. Only having an on the back filter can be a little challenging at times but it’s worth it in the end until I can finally upgrade, not sure when but it’s always nice to dream!

  25. We haven’t had a salt water tank yet, but we are really interested in one. Right now we have 150 gallon for the red-eared slider we rescued, however she eats almost anything put in the tank, so we’d like to get one strictly for fish. Thanks for all the tips!

  26. I am trying to tay as natural ad possible with my reef tank, (refuge, pods, skimmer, etc) thanks for the info

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