Best saltwater aquarium for beginners

best saltwater tanks for beginners and how to set them up

In this post I’m going to discuss the best saltwater aquarium for beginners.

If you’re a beginner in the saltwater aquarium hobby, it get get overwhelming really fast.

We will provide all info needed to setup a saltwater aquarium for beginners.

An all-in-one aquarium is great for those starting out in the saltwater aquarium hobby.

Saltwater aquariums for beginners should be manageable and easy to setup

You probably guessed that an all-in-one aquarium includes mostly everything you need to get started, and you would be correct!

Starting a saltwater aquarium is overwhelming for beginners. This is why it is best to start out with an all-in-one saltwater aquarium.

I will focus on 2 all-in-one aquariums, which can be used for both the freshwater aquarium and the saltwater aquarium.

An all-in one saltwater aquarium is great for beginners entering the saltwater tank hobby. All-in-one aquariums include most everything you need to get started. Some of these items include the aquarium, hood (cover), pump for water flow and stand.

JBJ aquariums are great for those entering the saltwater aquarium hobby

More than likely, you will find yourself wanting a larger saltwater aquarium within a year.

When it comes time to upgrade your saltwater tank to a larger one, the good news is you can keep your smaller all-in-one saltwater tank. Your original all-in-one saltwater tank can be used as a quarantine tank when buying new fish, or for taking care of sick saltwater fish.

The first thing you have to decide when setting up your saltwater aquarium is what kind of saltwater aquarium you will be setting up.

It’s always best to start with a fish-only saltwater aquarium. Once your tank is established (cycled) and you’ve had it running for about 6 months, you can think about introducing corals to your saltwater tank.

2 main types of saltwater tanks

  • Fish Only Saltwater aquariums. As the name implies, the only living creatures within a Fish Only Aquarium are the saltwater fish. Fish Only Aquariums tend to be the simplest and cheapest saltwater tanks because you are focusing only on your saltwater fish.
  • Reef saltwater tank. Reef tanks are the setup that most people think of when they think of saltwater aquariums. Reef tanks house saltwater fish, invertebrates, corals, plants, and other organisms in a carefully maintained ecosystem. While they are arguably the most attractive ecosystem for a saltwater aquarium setup, Reef Tanks are also by far the most challenging and expensive.

When adding corals and invertebrates to your saltwater aquarium, water quality, lighting and temperature are much more important in Reef Tanks than in saltwater aquariums that have only saltwater fish.

Corals are living creatures in a saltwater aquarium. Corals not only add beauty, eye-popping color and movement to a saltwater tank, but they are also difficult to maintain.

corals added to a saltwater aquarium make it a reef tank. corals add color and movement to a saltwater aquarium.
Corals in a saltwater tank make it a Reef Tank

If you are a beginner to the saltwater tank hobby, setting up a Reef Tank, though not impossible, will be more challenging in the beginning.

Extra items you will need for your new saltwater aquarium will be a heater, sand and rocks. I always recommend dry rock over live rock. Live rock is rock that has been sitting in saltwater at your local reef store, that already has the beneficial bacteria colonized on it (which is needed for a saltwater tank to survive.)

You have seen rocks and sand in a saltwater aquarium. These two items are essential for the health of your saltwater tank and its inhabitants!

Biggest Mistake saltwater aquarium beginners make

You MUST have beneficial bacteria in your saltwater aquarium before adding any saltwater fish. This takes about a month and is known as cycling your saltwater aquarium.

Beneficial bacteria is needed in a saltwater aquarium for all inhabitants to live and thrive. Beneficial bacteria will grow and breed on the rocks (this is why it’s called live rock) and in the sand bed of your saltwater aquarium.

The beneficial bacteria that colonizes in and on your rocks and sand bed is necessary; this is your biological filter. A biological filter is needed to break down uneaten food and animal waste.

You can always buy dry rock off the shelf, which is cheaper, and let the bacteria colonize over time. This is called cycling your saltwater tank, which is a very important step when setting up a saltwater aquarium.

All-in-one saltwater aquariums have a chamber in the back, which is where filtration and the heater is placed.

Video from my YouTube channel, Rotter Tube Reef, on how to setup a saltwater aquarium for beginners.

My brother setting up his first all-in-one saltwater aquarium. The JBJ 28

Live rocks are expensive (already having beneficial bacteria in them); in the United States, live rocks typically cost approximately $5.00 per pound. This is one reason I recommend getting dry rock off the shelf at the reef store and letting the bacteria colonize on its own over time in your saltwater tank.

Saltwater tanks tend to require more equipment than freshwater tanks. Saltwater tanks require more care and are more delicate in nature, literally.

Basic equipment to start your saltwater aquarium:

  • Tank stand: Make sure you have a stand that is capable of supporting the weight of your aquarium with all the rocks and water added. Refer to Step 3 below for tips for choosing your tank stand.
  • Tank: Tanks come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Refer to Step 2 below for tips for choosing your tank.
  • Tank lighting: Your lighting requirements will be determined based on the type of saltwater aquarium and organisms you choose. Having a controlled and consistent lighting schedule in an aquarium is vital for the health of the organisms and the management of algae growth. Fish-only saltwater aquariums can use any lighting. I always recommend LED lighting since it’s cheaper and very cost-effective on the electric bill.
  • Water Heater and Thermometer: Depending on the size of your aquarium, you may need multiple heaters to maintain consistent heat throughout your tank. Thermometers should also be fixed in the tank to easily monitor the water temperature.
  • Water filters and Protein Skimmers: The type of filters you need will be dependent on the type of saltwater tank you set up and the organisms you choose.
  • Power Heads: Power heads are very important in a saltwater aquarium. Power heads not only circulate the water to help remove fish waste and uneaten food, but provide a natural current for your saltwater fish to swim in.
  • Saltwater Mixture: Saltwater for tanks can be either purchased pre-mixed or mixed at home. NEVER use crushed coral for your sand! Crushed coral has crevices that rotting food and fish waste will get trapped in. This matter will rot and cause problems in your saltwater tank!
  • Salinity Tester: The salinity tester, also known as a hydrometer, measures the specific gravity, or salt content, or the water in your tank. The salinity tester is especially important if you plan on mixing your own saltwater.

Certain organisms will also require additional additives. For example, iodine should be added periodically to tanks with crustaceans.

  • Substrate / Sand: You typically want 2-3 inches of sand at the bottom of your tank. As a general guideline, you will need roughly 2-3 pounds of substrate / sand for every gallon of tank water.
  • Rocks and Plants: Rocks and plants, in either a living or non-living medium, are essential for a marine tank. They provide shelter and line-of-sight breaks for the organisms within the tank, which can help decrease aggression and stress.
  • General Maintenance Equipment: In addition to the above items, it is beneficial to have general maintenance tools, such as nets, buckets, algae scrubbers, towels, and siphons.

Part 1: Setting Up the Saltwater Tank

Step 1: Choose a Location

Once you fill your saltwater aquarium with rocks, sand and saltwater, it is very heavy. Make sure you are certain about the location of your saltwater tank before you fill it up.

Choosing a location for your saltwater aquarium

  • Controlled Temperature: Make sure your tank is not in an area with a lot of sun. The sun will raise the temperature of your saltwater tank and also cause green algae to grow.
  • Controlled Lighting: Try to position your tank away from areas that are exposed to direct sunlight. Not only does sunlight alter the temperature of your tank, but it also propagates the growth of algae species.
  • Nearby Electricity Source: Your tank system will require multiple electrical outlets. Make sure you have easy access to at least 4 outlets for your filters, protein skimmers, lights, and heaters.
  • Proper Foundational Support: Saltwater tanks weigh approximately 8 pounds per gallon. While this amount of weight is not necessarily an issue with smaller tanks, if you are getting a large tank, it is important to make sure the floor of your rooms can support the weight, especially if you are not on the ground floor.
  • Easily Accessible: Depending on your tank setup, you will likely have a filtration system, a sump, chords, and other supplies behind your saltwater tank. Make sure to leave plenty of room for your saltwater tank system components, as well as room for you to access them. There is nothing worse than trying to perform maintenance on a component that you cannot reach or see. I made this mistake by not leaving enough room between the wall and the aquarium when I upgraded to my 125 gallon, 6′ long saltwater aquarium.

Step 2: Choose a Saltwater Tank

There are an endless amount of tank variations to choose from. When choosing the tank that is right for you, consider the following:

  • Preferred Difficult Level: One of the most common misconceptions about aquariums is that smaller tanks are easier to care for. In fact, the opposite is true. The smaller your tank is, the more water quality changes will impact your inhabitants. Therefore, if you are just starting out, it’s usually best to start with a tank that is at least 30-50 gallons to give yourself some error forgiveness. Water changes are your best friend! It’s much easier to do a water change of 50% on a 30 gallon aquarium than it is a 125 gallon aquarium!
  • Inhabitants: It is important to consider the tank requirements of the fish and/or invertebrates you plan on adding to your aquarium. Different species require different amounts of space and have different bioloads fish waste. Therefore, it is important to ensure that you are getting a tank big enough for the species you hope to maintain. Don’t cram your saltwater tank with too many fish! Many saltwater tank hobbyists are guilty of this!
  • How many fish? The rule of thumb is roughly 5 gallons of saltwater tank per 1″ of fish. If you have a 40 gallon saltwater aquarium, it’s best to keep 2 clown fish only. Clown fish will grow to 3″ in length, so that is 6″ total between 2 fish. That means you need a 30 gallon saltwater aquarium minimum just for those 2 small fish!
  • Aquarium starter kits: These kits are a great option for new aquarists or aquarists looking for a stress-free setup. Starter kits usually include the tank, as well as most of the items you will need for your tank. Because they are packaged together, they also typically end up being cheaper than buying each piece individually. However, if you are looking to design a very unique or specific tank, starter kits do limit your options.

Step 3: Choose a Tank Stand

As mentioned above, aquariums are heavy. Therefore, you can’t use just any surface to support your tank. Typically, the best option is to purchase an aquarium stand. Aquarium stands are built to support the aquarium’s weight and typically have built-in storage for aquarium supplies. However, aquarium stands also tend to be more expensive than your typical shelving unit.

Part 2: Setting Up the Tank

Step 1: Clean Your Tank

Do not assume your tank is clean when you purchase it. Between the storage and transport of your tank, it has likely accumulated dust particles that will be harmful to fish.

Rinse the interior of your tank with a new, clean cloth and plain, fresh water to clean it. Either wipe clean with a new, clean cloth, or let air dry in a clean environment. Don’t use soap or chemical cleaners to clean your tank. Residue from these cleaning products can remain on the tank surface and harm your future fish.

While you clean your tank, fill it 1/3rd of the way with water and let it sit. Look for cracks, scratches, bubbles, or other imperfections in the bottom and sides of your tank that may lead to leaks. The last thing you want is an entire aquarium of water leaking in your home!

Step 2: Set Up Your Stand and Tank

Set your newly-cleaned tank on the stand in its chosen location. Once situated, confirm that both your stand and your tank are sitting evenly. Uneven stands and tanks can be unstable and potentially hazardous.

Step 3: Add Your Rocks and Substrate

If you add larger rocks to your aquarium, you should place them before adding your sand. This way, you can ensure they are sitting flat and stable for your future tank inhabitants.

Your new saltwater aquarium water will be cloudy after adding sand for the first time. This is normal and takes a day for the sand to settle down.
Adding sand to your saltwater tank will make it cloudy. This is normal

If you have chosen to create a Fish Only Tank, make sure you rinse all rocks in clean, aquarium conditioned water.

NEVER RINSE THE SAND from the bag! Just pour the sand in the tank before adding saltwater. Saltwater aquarium sand comes with beneficial bacteria and microscopic creatures that are needed to maintain and start a saltwater aquarium. Rinsing the sand removes the organisms necessary to start a saltwater aquarium!

After your sand and saltwater is added to your new saltwater aquarium, the tank will be very cloudy. This is normal. Once the sandbed settles overnight, the water in your aquarium will be crystal clear.

Step 4: Add Your Saltwater

Saltwater can be mixed at home or purchased pre-mixed from a store or online. If you are creating your own saltwater mixture, you should mix it before adding it to your tank.

NEVER USE TAP WATER for your saltwater aquarium! This is another huge mistake beginners in the saltwater aquarium hobby make.

While the chemicals in tap water are harmless to us, they are harmful and deadly for your saltwater fish. You can purchase saltwater from your local reef store or you can make your own at home using an RODI unit.

Ideally, you should use an RODI unit to make pure water at home. When adding water to your tank. An RO system is a water purification technology that uses an RO membrane to remove dissolved solids from the water such as chlorine and fluoride.

A DI system removes the positive and negative ions from the water, leaving H+ and OH-, which combine to form H2O (water). When used in combination, RO and DI systems are able to remove nearly all contaminants from the water.

Once you have a clean water source, you can mix in your sea salts. Make sure you are using sea salt mixtures from a reputable aquarium store or online provider. Never use standard table salt or sea salts purchased from a grocery store.

As you add your sea salt, monitor the specific gravity of the water with your salinity tester. You want a specific gravity (amount of salt) of 1.018-1.022 for Fish Only Aquariums and a specific gravity of 1.023-1.025 for aquariums with invertebrates or corals. Use a refractometer to measure the salt levels in your saltwater.

Specific gravity takes 24 hours to stabilize, so make sure to test your tank water the day after you mix it to make any necessary alterations.

Step 5: Set Up Your Filter and Skimmer

Set up your filter and skimmer in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Wait to plug them in until your tank setup is complete.

Step 6: Add Your Heater and Thermometer

Heater and Thermometer in Saltwater Aquarium

Set up your heater and thermometer in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Wait to plug in the heater until your tank setup is complete.

The best location for your heater and thermometer will depend on the type of heater you have chosen:

  • Clip-on non-submersible heaters: Hang vertically as close to the outflow of the filter as possible.
  • Submersible heaters: Place as close to the inflow as possible. There is a compartment in the back of your all-in-one saltwater aquarium to fit a heater. This is nice because the heater will not be seen.

If you find that your temperature is not consistent, your tank may require more than one heater. Refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines for the best way to set up your tank heater(s) for temperature stabilization.


Though this process for setting up a saltwater tank for beginners may seem long and confusing, it is essential for the long term health of your saltwater tank inhabitants. Skipping or shortening the saltwater tank cycling can lead to illness or death for your fish and invertebrates.

Beginners to the saltwater aquarium hobby have made mistakes. We’ve all experienced saltwater fish death and coral death.

You can learn what it takes to have a healthy saltwater tank if you research and put in the time: it’s worth it!

I hope this post on saltwater aquarium for beginners was helpful. If you have any questions on setting up a saltwater aquarium, let me know.

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