Many freshwater (FW) aquarists are intrigued at the notion of having a saltwater (SW) aquarium but feel intimidated at both the perceived cost and complexity. Truth be told, SW doesn’t have to be very expensive or complex at all, but it can easily become so. The key is having a good knowledge base from which you can make an informed choice on both your budget and where you want your SW experience to lead you.
Decide on the Type of Saltwater Aquarium
Today, there are basically two types of SW aquariums: fish only with live rock (FOWLR) and reefs. The only difference between the two is that FOWLRs don’t contain the diversity of invertebrate life forms that a reef does. This makes FOWLRs both much simpler and much cheaper than reef aquariums and, therefore, a great place for beginners to start.
The common link in almost all modern SW aquariums is live rock (LR). LR is what forms the basis of natural coral reefs in the wild and is basically calcified dead coral skeletons. Live rock is special and has no FW equivalent because it serves as a filtration medium that processes the entire nitrogen cycle including nitrates (NO3). Put very simply, LR contains millions of miniscule pores that allow for anaerobic de-nitrification. It is this process that is the key to LR’s ability to sustain aquarium life and why no additional outside filtration is required when LR is used.
This isn’t to say that you can’t run a SW aquarium using, say, a canister filter. The fact is that you can do so very successfully. LR, however, is able to do so much more and adds much more variety and interest to an aquarium.
I Don’t Want to Spend a Whole Lot So Can I Just Start Out with a Little 10 Gallon?
As with FW, the larger the volume of water you have the more stability with result. Many a SW novice has started out too small which often results in frustration. Something like a 33 gallon is probably a good size to start out with.
What Equipment Do I Need and How Much Does It Cost?
As mentioned, SW can get very expensive. But at its most basic, a FW aquarist already has most of what is needed for a basic FOWLR. Costs can further be offset by purchasing used equipment. People often let full-blown reef systems go for pennies on the dollar.
In addition to the obvious such as a tank and stand, you’ll need the following:
• Heater and thermometer
• Aquarium salt ($40/160 gallon bucket)
• Hydrometer ($10) or far more preferably, a refractometer ($45)
• A powerhead or two like Hydor Koralias or modified Maxijets ($30-$50)
• Live rock
A Word on LR
LR can be very expensive. It can range anywhere from $7 to more than $10/pound at an LFS. A very rough rule of thumb is about one pound of LR/gallon. Do the math on a 33-gallon tank and you’ve got about a $300 cost up front.
However, you can save money on LR in several ways. Firstly, LR usually goes for around $4 to $5/pound “used” from another aquarist. Regardless if purchasing “used” or from an LFS you should carefully inspect the LR for any fuzzy nuisance algae that could be the cause of endless headaches for you later. Remember: the reason why the seller wants the LR gone may be because he’s given up on dealing with the algae! When purchasing LR, select very porous rock with interesting shapes that is relatively light for its size. Avoid heavy monolithic rock which have less surface area.
Secondly, you can purchase dry base rock which is usually dead LR for $2 to $4/lb. An example would be Eco-Rox from www.bulkreefsupply.com. The problem with dead base rock is that it will take a lot of time to become colonized with bacteria to become “live”. As well, base rock doesn’t have the so-called hitchhikers – the many invertebrates that come with LR and make it so interesting like a box of chocolates.
The third way of saving money on LR is making it yourself. Just Google “DIY live rock” and you’ll get a lot of different recipes involving portland cement. It has the same drawbacks as base rock and will take even more time to activate since you need to leave it in FW for several weeks for its pH to settle, but you can create any shape you want.
Lastly, you can give the illusion of having more LR in the aquarium by creating racks out of PVC piping and zip tying the LR onto them.
I usually suggest cherry-picking good LR from various other aquarists (for diversity) and then filling up the rest with base rock and using PVC racks for the most bang for your buck.
Cycling with LR
Another difference that LR makes is how your tank gets cycled. LR comes brimming with nitrifying bacteria. Therefore, if you have enough LR in your tank from the beginning you will NOT even have to cycle the tank.
There is, however, a caveat to this and it relates to “cured” and “uncured” LR. Many creatures resident on LR die soon after being taken out of SW. Once they die, they rot. This rot produces ammonia. Such uncured LR must then be cured by having the ammonia cycled through by the nitrifying bacteria. LR that is shipped to your LFS is uncured because of all of the die off during transport. Over time, as the LR cycles through it will become cured again. Some LFS choose to price cured LR higher than uncured LR. IMO, it is not worth paying a premium for “cured” LR since it only takes a bit of patience for uncured LR to cure. Further, your cured LR will quickly become uncured during the transportation process home since some creatures like certain sponges die the moment they leave SW.
How do you tell the difference between cured and uncured LR? The best way is to give it a good hard sniff. If it stinks, it’s uncured. Cured LR smells like the seashore.
So when you do get your LR home and into heated and circulating SW at a specific gravity of 1.025-1.026, do a full battery of ammonia and nitrite tests. If both read zero, then you’ve got an instant cycle. More like, you’ll have a very low levels of both in which case you simply wait for the cycle to complete and then do a water change. After that you’re set to go!
One last thing about LR – it’s remarkably tough and resilient. Many people have decided that LR left out for an extended period or overrun with algae is beyond recovery. For some reason they decide to completely dry the LR out (or even worse, baking/boiling it) killing everything. The fact is that simply putting the LR into a darkened Rubbermaid bin with heated and circulated SW can bring seemingly dead LR back to life over the course of several weeks/months. If you do regular water changes (a process known as “cooking” LR) you can even rid the LR of most nuisance algae.
I’ve Heard About Live Sand. What’s That? And How Much Do I Need?
There is no need to purchase pricey the live-sand-in-a-bag products. All the life you need comes from LR. Many people practically give away buckets of sand for free when they take down their tanks. If you do get such a bucket-o-sand, be sure to thoroughly rinse it because old sand is infamous for developing anoxic pockets of sulfur and other nastiness that is poisonous.
Stick to smaller grained aragonite substrate. Larger substrate such as crushed coral trap detritus and do a great imitation of a poorly maintained canister filter.
The second part of the question is how much sand so you need. There is great debate amongst SW aquarists regarding ideal substrate depth but they can be boiled down to three basic types: deep sand beds (DSB), bare bottom (BB) and shallow sand beds (SSB).
DSBs of a depth greater than around 4” were in vogue earlier in the decade as a virtually maintenance free substrate method but has fallen out favour recently because of reports of unexplained tank crashes perhaps caused by accumulating detritus. DSBs should not be attempted by novices without a thorough understanding of how they work. Google “Dr. Ron Shimek” for more information.
BBs, as the name implies, use no substrate whatsoever. BBs rely on massive flow within the aquarium to suspend detritus within to water column to be removed by an oversized efficient skimmer. Many high-end SPS reefs are BB since SPS corals thrive in high flow, low nutrient environments.
Most novices end up with SSBs more often because SSBs just seem to look like how a SW aquarium should appear in most people’s eyes. SSBs are mainly cosmetic and do require maintenance through a combination of proper flow and an appropriate clean-up crew.
Speaking of Flow, How Much Do I Need?
If you’ve ever gone swimming in the ocean you know that its currents are massive. SW tanks generally require far more flow than FW tanks. For a beginner FOWLR, most people aim for 20 to 30 times turnover within the tank. So for a 33-gallon, a couple of Koralia 2s would be sufficient.
What is as important as GPH is the type of flow. The gentle trickling of an HOB filter is far different than the flow generated from a propeller-driven powerhead. As a result, you cannot simply add up the GPH from your HOB filter, canister filter and an old Hagen powerhead you used on a UGF.
As you progress, different types of reef environments require different amounts of flow. For example, some large SPS tanks have over 60 times volume turnover whereas zoanthids and soft corals require far less flow.
Why Can’t I Use My Canister Filter?
You can, just not in the same way that you are used to. Unless they are scrupulously maintained, canisters will quickly build up nitrate. This is of great concern in a reef tank. FOWLRs aren’t as sensitive to nitrate but it’s always good to get into the habit of maintaining very low nitrates in a SW aquarium.
If you still want to use your canister filter, remove all media from the baskets and replace it with LR rubble.
What About Skimmers? I Thought All SW Tanks Had Them?
Skimmers work through a process called foam fractioning. Skimmers mix billions of tiny air bubbles with SW which caused dissolved organic compounds (DOC a.k.a. fish poo) to separate from the water. The sea foam you see on the beach is natural skimming in action.
A skimmer can definitely make life easier for the SW aquarist but, strictly speaking, is not required on a FOWLR as long as you keep up good husbandry habits (i.e. regular water changes, reasonable feeding and stocking levels). The fact is that most novice SW aquarists end up buying a cheapo POS skimmer like a Seaclone or a Prizm. Cheap skimmers are junk and will cause endless frustration while doing next to squat. Unless you are willing to pay a couple hundred dollars (retail) right off the bat for an acceptable skimmer or purchase a good used one, it’s probably better to go without one for the time being and get into good habits and learn more before jumping in.
Lastly, certain dechlorinators and other additives have been known to affect skimmers since they alter the surface tension of the water.
Don’t I Need a Sump?
Like skimmers, sumps can definitely make life a lot easier but are not required. There are many very successful sumpless reef tanks out there. Nevertheless, if you can find it in your budget and circumstances to add a sump, then do it. There are several reasons including giving you an place to hide all of your equipment, like heaters and the skimmer, and providing valuable added water volume (remember: “The solution to pollution is dilution”).
Sumps need not be the fancy ones made by Oceanic, for example. A sump is simply a separate container of water. Anything from Rubbermaid bins to 5-gallon buckets have been used as sumps, although the most common type is an old aquarium. Baffles made from either glass or acrylic can easily be siliconed in.
The most important thing to remember with sumps is to ensure that in the event of a power outage there is enough empty space in the sump to contain any back siphoning from the display tank. You minimize the amount of back siphoning by having the return outlet right at the surface of the display so any siphon is broken almost immediately upon loss of power.
Here’s a good site to learn about sumps: http://www.melevsreef.com/allmysumps.html (note: I’m not a big fan of anti-siphon holes as he suggests since they have a tendency to clog over time).
Another important consideration is the overflow – how you’re going to get the water down from the display to the sump. Ideally you’ll have a drilled tank or one with built-in overflows like an AGA reef-ready tank. If not, HOB overflows are available. IMO, the commonly available CPR-style HOB overflows requiring an air pump to operate are very poorly designed. You will have a flood on your hands should the air pump fail or there is any type of a blockage. I am personally aware of several disasters caused by CPRs. A superior HOB overflow design utilizes a u-tube and does not require an air pump. Lifereef makes the best such HOB overflow on the market. There are cheaper clones made by a number of companies including Hurricane and Eshopps.
At the other end, most people start out by using Mag Drive return pumps, which are, IMO, extremely noisy and inefficient. Return pumps made by Tunze, Eheim and Aqua Medic cost more, but are far superior. As far as how powerful a return pump to get, bigger is NOT better because too much flow in the sump will cause excess splashing, bubbles and lower skimmer efficiency. Aim for three to five times total system turnover.
One last thing: avoid using bio-balls if you have a reef tank for the same reason why canister filters are passé.
What About Big Fancy Lights?
For a FOWLR, all you need lights for is to see your fish. Wait until you decide how high you want to go on the photosynthetic food chain before buying.
I am a big advocate of using ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) with all aquariums, but especially SW ones. SW and electricity don’t mix and reef tanks in particular use a lot of electricity. A firefighter friend of mine once told me that nearly all aquarium-related fires are from SW tanks. GFCIs are required by building codes in all wet areas for a reason and they’ve saved my own bacon more than once.
Similarly, consider spreading your electrical load across several separate circuits to prevent overloading one. It’s the old putting all your eggs in one basket scenario.
Lastly, be very careful when handling LR. Some nasty things like fireworms live in LR and certain creatures are also poisonous. If you really want to scare yourself, look up “palytoxin”. Use something like Coralife Aquagloves when moving LR around and should-length veterinary gloves for finer work.
Coming Up – Part II: Reef Basics