What Do I Need for a Saltwater Fish Tank?

Whether scouting for your first aquarium, or “graduating” from a freshwater aquarium, there is something about a saltwater aquarium that is mesmerizing. For many lifelong aquarists, that feeling of captivating awe never goes away. Thankfully, the intimidating task of learning how to actually build and maintain a saltwater aquarium system does go away. In fact, as you soon may learn from hanging out in online forums and social media pages, some hobbyists can become downright cocky.

Truth be told, you’re going to hear some very strong opinions about what you will, and won’t, need for your aquarium. And some pieces of advice will likely be contradictory. That’s okay because many aquarists have tried many different approaches and nevertheless enjoyed great results. 

That all being said, we’re confident that you’ll find some great (and totally free) consultation here on the AlgaeBarn blog. Lots, in fact (it’s a BIG blog). Being as you’re here right now, you’re perhaps already interested in using natural methods to keep your tank clean and healthy. We’re here to assure you that natural methods are not only the easiest ways to maintain a tank, but are also the most interesting and rewarding. And you don’t have to be a marine biologist to understand them!

Only natural

Natural aquarium keeping methods rely primarily on natural ecological processes. Therefore, most of the things you’ll “need” are actually living flora and fauna. But before we get into that, we’ll discuss the essential equipment.

The most basic saltwater aquarium requires water pumps. The water currents generated by pumps helps to (1) bring food/oxygen to corals, clams, etc. and (2) carry wastes/CO2 away from these creatures. Pumps vary greatly in terms of capability (and, therefore, price). Controllability and mountability are the two big factors here. Pumps are an extremely important part of the system (the heart, for a good analogy) and therefore should be of top quality. And, if you plan on getting corals (especially SPS corals), be sure that it is very, very strong. 

Likewise, if you plan on getting corals (especially SPS corals), be sure to get a powerful, high-quality lighting system. Do not buy corals until you are willing and able to purchase an adequate lighting system. If you skimp in this area, you’ll fail miserably at your effort to build a reef aquarium. Some types of lights may be ideal for certain types of corals, so consult with a reputable professional before making the purchase.

Traditionally, aquarists have relied on three tiers of filtration: Mechanical (physical removal of solid wastes), chemical (chemical removal of dissolved wastes) and biological (biological uptake of both solid and dissolved wastes). As you shall see, filtration in a natural system can be much simpler than you may have imagined. 

We at AlgaeBarn don’t really promote heavy mechanical filtration (especially with filter socks) because they trap too many beneficial planktonic organisms. Similarly, while we recognize the potentially huge advantages of protein skimmers, we advise cautious use as they too remove many desirable plankton. 

Chemical filtration can be useful (activated carbon for removing dissolved organic matter, for example); however, we believe they are unnecessary where good husbandry is combined with a healthy population of beneficial algae and bacteria.

Biological filtration? Now here’s where we get really excited. In a truly natural aquarium system, algae and bacteria eliminate organic wastes as well as excess nutrients such as ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and phosphate. This is accomplished through assimilation (biological uptake) or by converting toxic wastes into less harmful substances. The most commonly discussed form of biological filtration is nitrification, whereby certain types of aerobic chemoautotrophic bacteria work together to convert ammonia to nitrate. In another commonly used process, nitrates (along with phosphates) are removed by macroalgae in a refugium to help prevent growth of undesirable microalgae. Yet another application uses heterotrophic bacteria to consume organic wastes and control nutrient levels. Don’t worry; none of this is as complicated in practice as it may seem at first!

A work in progress

Again, if you ask 50 aquarists what you’ll really need to set up your first marine aquarium, you’ll get 50 different answers. But we offer some pretty specific answers, if the form of packages that you can use to build and grow your little ecosystem in stages. For example, we offer the Aquarium Cycle Kit to initiate the establishment of multiple nitrifying bacteria species; this allows for fast, reliable, clean, fishless nitrogen cycling. To further boost/expand the nutrient cycles in your new system, we offer the Ultimate Refugium Starter Pack; this establishes additional nitrifying capacity (extra bacteria plus a biomedium for the bacteria to live on), introduces copepods with phytoplankton to help kickstart copepod productivity as well as macroalgae to help maintain good quality and inhibit bad algae growth. As you acquire corals and other filter-feeding invertebrates, you’ll love the Ultimate Ecopack; this is a live and prepared food system that further helps to maintain good water quality and animal nutrition, as it includes anaerobic heterotrophic bacteria, phytoplankton, copepods and naturally-made marine snow. As you start to acquire harder-to-feed zooplanktivorous fish such as mandarins, you’ll be glad to have the Mandarin Feeder Kit; this includes a seed culture of copepods to boost your pod population, live baby brine shrimp for a good quick feast and also some freeze-dried pods for supplemental fare down the road. And once you are more advanced and wish to enjoy keeping tridacnid clams, you’ll really appreciate our Clam Keeper Kits

With strong water flow and lighting, you have virtually everything you’ll need for a healthy aquarium system, provided that you don’t overstock the tank with fish, feed sparingly, use only quality foods, add a large clean-up crew and perform frequent water changes. Well, that, and cultivate abundant beneficial bacteria, algae and pods! Yes, a lot of people have a lot of opinions with regards to setting up a saltwater aquarium; we’re confident that you’ll find natural methods to be the simplest and most cost-effective of them all, in both the short and long term!

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