The top 10 things you NEED to start a saltwater aquarium

May 4, 2005 (Updated Jul 26, 2005)

The Bottom Line I'm trying to highlight some of the things people don't think about when starting SW. It is a wonderful and rewarding hobby if you have these 10 things!

After reading several different reviews and advice on aquariums, I felt it was time to contribute my thoughts on what is needed to successfully start a saltwater aquarium. A lot of this applies to freshwater as well, but I'm going to focus on saltwater.

The Top 10 Things You Need To Start A Saltwater Aquarium:

Also known as:

So you want to be a mad scientist too? Read on my young apprentice!

So I'll start off by talking about equipment, for example, skimmers. A good skimmer will....HA!! This is not some lame top 10 list of equipment(although that may come later), this is what you NEED to start a SW aquarium. Not equipment, not salt, not even the aquarium, but the top ten things you NEED to successfully start and keep a SW aquarium.

What do I mean? Well I mean traits, resources, time, etc.
If you are lacking several of these items it is VERY likely you will fail and exit the hobby, kill a lot of wonderful creatures and have spent a lot of money in the process. So I'm here to save you time and money, like all good mad scientists try to do :)

So lets start the list:

10. Time: A SW aquarium takes a LOT of time to setup and maintain. In the setup period expect to be spending at least 10 hours a week researching, building, purchasing, etc It can easily be 20-100 hours a week if you get addicted!

This period can last several days to months depending on how big a setup you are going to do. When your tank is first setup with live animals/plants and is cycling(establishing a biological filter and becoming a stable tank), you will spend at least 10-20 hours a week on it, sometimes considerably more if problems develop. Even when everything is running perfectly on an established tank, you will still need to spend 10 minutes a day and 2-4 hours a week on the weekends to maintain the tank.

Don't have the time? Don't start a tank until you do!

9. Patience: Things take time to develop in this hobby. If you find yourself changing hobbies every week or you can't commit to anything long term, you will probably become quickly bored of this hobby and find out the $1000 setup you bought 3 months ago only sells for $100 used.

If you aren't patient, time to choose another hobby.

8. Stable Electricity: Without stable electricity your tank will crash and be very very smelly. Do the lights in your house blink like christmas tree lights? Do you live in the middle of nowhere where a slight breeze downs your electricity for weeks at a time? Then unless you want to invest a lot of money in a backup generator, you should either move or get your electricity company to give you a stable service. So in other words: move.

No stable electricity? Go to the local aquarium to look at SW, your home/apartment is not a good place.

7. Concern for the environment and critters: While some will argue that the SW hobby is bad for the environment(Lots of materials and electricity to keep a few wild animals in your house), I feel it has a beneficial effect on the world, if done properly. You should take the time to research your choices for your SW tank so that there is minimal death to your inhabitants. Putting 10 SW fish in a 10 gallon aquarium is either going to end in the death of all the fish, or one big happy fat predatory fish.

Don't make snap purchases at fish stores/on-line before you know what it takes to take care of an animal/plant in your tank. "Finding Nemo" was a great movie, but it has resulted in a lot of dead clownfish because the people didn't take the time to find out how to care for them.

Want to have 7 tangs in a 20 gallon? Want to keep SPS corals in a deep tank with normal output lights? Do some research and find out these are BAD ideas or just keep a goldfish in a 10 gallon freshwater tank.

6. A supportive husband/wife/partner or be single: Your SW tank will take up more money and time than you can possibly expect, unless you are SUPER good at planning. If you are single, you can skip this requirement, but keep it in the back of your mind when choosing a partner. Your SW fish tank may go away when you move in together. Seriously though, this tank that is a gleam in your eye, will eat up time and money very rapidly.

If your significant other is jealous of this or demands the money and time be spent better elsewhere, you should avoid this hobby. There is nothing like dropping two grand on a hobby and finding out you have to give it up one month later due to the stress it causes in your family/relationships.

5. Space: You need a good space to hold your tank: What is that you say? Quit stating the obvious Mr "I think I'm a knowledgeable mad scientist". I'm not talking about having the physical space to have the tank, that is obvious. I'm talking about having a strong and level floor, plenty of GFCI electrical outlets nearby, a spot away from direct sunlight or ideally a "fish room" where you can keep all the extra equipment you need for your tank. Most apartments have weight limits for their floors and if you exceed that, your tank may come crashing down on your neighbor below.

Do you live on the side of a mountain with a slope to your house? Are you thinking of putting your $1000 tank on your $20,000 antique oriental rug? Think again and buy a vase to match the rug, SW isn't for you.

4. GFCI: Mixing electricity and water is NOT a good idea. Especially saltwater, it is a WONDERFUL conductor of electricity. If you are going to have a SW tank you NEED Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt technology on ALL plugs that go anywhere near your tank. Why? Because if you don't, it could KILL you. Or at least shock you very badly. Make sure stuff above your aquarium, such as lights, are also on GFCI protected plugs, you will eventually knock something electrical into the tank if you stay in the hobby long enough.

Want to "skip" this expense? Don't want to pay an electrician to do this? Do you have small kids or pets that don't know to NOT stick their hands in a SW tank? Don't start this hobby then, it is not worth pain or even death.

3. Money: Your Saltwater tank will become a black hole for any money in the house or in your wallet. OK, maybe not that bad, but sometimes it will feel like you are taking 20 bucks, shredding it and feeding it to your $3 damsel. That is not recommended by the way!

This is probably the most expensive hobby I have ever tried, although I hear traveling around the world on cruise ships is SLIGHTLY more expensive. Sometimes local fish stores will try to tell you it is a very affordable hobby and attempt to sell you a 55 gallon or 75 gallon "kit" for well under $1000, sometimes under $500. You'll find yourself drawn back into the store to replace the "basic" equipment they sold you that doesn't do a good job. I have spent almost $2000 on my 75 gallon tank and that is considered moderate to cheap by most SW aquarium keepers.

Think you can do the hobby cheap? WRONG! Sure there are ways to reduce costs and cut corners, but if you think you can setup a 75 gallon tank for $75 bucks, it just isn't going to happen.

2. Disposable Income: Hey wait, we've already talked about money right? Yes and no. Maybe you have a huge tax return to finally start that 200 gallon tank you've always wanted, but what about maintaining it? Pennies right? Nope! If you consider the cost of salt, test kits, electricity, replacement parts, etc, you should plan to spend at least $50-$100 a month on your tank maintaining it. Do you want to actually ADD corals and fish to your tank on a regular basis? Figure at least $100-$300 a month then.

Have your credit card maxed out? Are 50 with no retirement savings? Is your disposable income $10 a month? Now is not a good time to be a mad scientist. Come back when you've got better disposable income.

1. Time: You need time to research, especially if you try advanced ideas. The amount of time it takes to learn about this hobby is incredible. I've been in the hobby for 3 years and researching it for another 2. So I'm an expert right? Nope, but I do know that research is needed to be successful in this hobby. And it takes TIME, so just be prepared to do it.

Don't want to do the research? You'll be much better off hiring an aquarium maintenance company to take care of your tank, although make sure you get a good one.

Boy that sounds awful negative doesn't it? Well my little apprentices, if you want to be a mad scientist you have to be a knowledgeable mad scientist! I am just trying to save you time and money and I'm also trying to save a lot of innocent, cute, adorable animals from entering the grave early.

I LOVE the SW hobby and encourage people to join it when they can. So you have all 10 of these things, thats great, start it up and send me pictures and frags! You only have 7 or 8 of these things? Hum...maybe it will be a good hobby for you. Only have 1 of the 10? Please, do yourself a favor and look for another hobby.

Still want to learn more? Read my advice on Going saltwater vs freshwater and common pitfalls to avoid.

Personal Note:
This is my first attempt at advice on epinions, I would GREATLY appreciate any comments on what you think of this so I can improve my advice in the future.

My Other Aquarium Related Reviews:

Testing Equipment:
Salifert pH test kit

Aquarium Pharmaceuticals FasTesT pH Test Kit

Aquarium Pharmaceuticals FasTesT Ammonia-Nitrogen Test Kit

Aquarium Pharmaceuticals FasTesT Nitrite-Nitrogen Test Kit

Aquarium Pharmaceuticals FasTesT Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate and pH Test Kit also called the Multi-Master Test Kit now.

Aquarium Pharmaceuticals FasTesT Nitrate-Nitrogen Test Kit

Aquarium Systems SeaTesT Hydrometer

Hagen AquaClear Power Head 201
Rena Air Aquarium Air Pumps

CPR Aquatic Cyclone Bak-Pak 2R
Aquarium Systems SeaClone Protein Skimmer SCPS-100

Aquarium Supply Stores:
Marine Depot Aquarium Supplies

Read all comments (15)

About the Author ID:
Member: Brian
Location: Houston, TX
Reviews written: 127
Trusted by: 15 members
About Me: Instructional Technology Educator