Saltwater Aquarium Blog

Saltwater tank for beginners – Saltwater Aquarium Blog

This article is written to provide answers to the most common questions for beginners about setting up a new saltwater tank.

How do you start a saltwater fish tank for beginners?

You can start a saltwater fish tank for beginners in 9 easy steps:

  1. Ensure the tank is level before you fill it- an uneven aquarium is eventually a leaking aquarium
  2. Mix and mature your saltwater for a few days before getting started – don’t add it to the tank just yet.
  3. Add your rocks before adding sand – if you have any burrowing fish, you could have a rock slide if they dig under and unsettle a rock
  4. Add the previously mixed saltwater to the tank
  5. Set up the powerheads and heater
  6. Set up the mesh or glass canopy
  7. Set up the lights
  8. Cycle the tank or add a bacterial supplement to kick start the biological filter
  9. Carefully acclimate your first fish
Saltwater tank for beginners--coral decorations are easy to care for
Note the aquarium coral decorations in this saltwater tank–much easier than caring for live corals

Check out this article for more in-depth information about how to set up a new saltwater tank.

Are saltwater tanks good for beginners?

A saltwater tank can be good for beginners if you are the type of person who likes to research, has patience, and is willing to learn from their mistakes. The first few months of caring for the animals in almost every new saltwater tank can be a bit tricky. Many people learn about aquarium care by starting with a less expensive and easier-to-maintain freshwater tank first.

What size saltwater tank should a beginner get?

The ideal size saltwater tank for a beginner is 20-30 gallons (76-114 liters). Saltwater tanks in this size range are commonly available, inexpensive, and require less maintenance than larger-size tanks. You can always upgrade to a larger tank, once you get the hang of it.

For more information about which fish and how many fish you should consider for a tank that size, check out the stocking and compatibility guides for a 20-gallon saltwater tank and a 30-gallon saltwater tank.

Beginner saltwater tank
A nice-sized beginner saltwater tank

How much does it cost to start a saltwater tank?

The cost to start a saltwater tank will vary depending on the size and brand of the tank, equipment selections, and animals you wish to keep. In a 2022 survey, the most common initial cost to start a saltwater tank was $500-$750. 40% of people spent $750 or less. The median cost was $2,000- $3,000.

59 Saltwater Aquarium Blog Newsletter Subscribers shared how much money they initially spent on their current saltwater tank setup, including the tank, stand, lights, pumps, protein skimmers, and other equipment. 5 respondents were excluded from the table below because they did not remember.

Initial saltwater tank setup cost % People who spent this
$250 or less 9.3%
$251 to $500 13.0%
$501 to $750 18.5%
$751 to $1,000 9.3%
$1,001 to $1,500 7.4%
$1,501 to $2,000 7.4%
$2,001 to $3,000 11.1%
$3,0001 to $5,000 16.7%
$5,001 to $10,000 3.7%
More than $10,000 3.7%
Respondents were asked: Thinking back to when you first set up this tank, how much did you initially spend on your tank, stand, lights, pumps, protein skimmers, and other equipment? The answer ranges were given as options.

Below is a pie chart listing the same information in graphical form.

Initial saltwater tank cost from a 2022 Saltwater Aquarium Blog survey

As you can see from the data, there is a lot of variability in how much individuals pay for their initial saltwater tank setup cost. My conclusion is that this suggests that the budget expended can ultimately be expanded or contracted to meet your own individual needs.

Are saltwater tanks hard to maintain?

A healthy, mature, stable saltwater tank is not hard to maintain, but it is important to be consistent with maintenance tasks like replacing water lost to evaporation, partial water changes to remove waste, cleaning aquarium glass to remove algae, and cleaning the protein skimmer. Certain tasks can be automated to make maintenance even easier.

A saltwater tank is harder to maintain when it is first set up. Water parameters are less stable and fluctuate when a new tank is set up. Problem algae colonize the tank in waves throughout the first 6-12 months, requiring specific, hands-on interventions to maintain the tank.

In a survey of 55 Saltwater Aquarium Blog Newsletter Subscribers who opted in to take a survey, 5.9 hours was the weighted average amount of time spent each month on maintenance tasks, with equal numbers of people spending either more or less time than that. The most common response (n=12) was 12 hours each month.

n=55 people shared how many hours each month they spend on maintenance tasks for their Saltwater Tank

Is a saltwater aquarium harder than freshwater?

The average saltwater aquarium is harder than freshwater to have success as a beginner. For starters, a saltwater aquarium requires owners to make saltwater by mixing dechlorinated freshwater with a commercial ocean salt mix. A saltwater aquarium also uses specialized lights and equipment. Because many of the saltwater aquarium fish are wild-caught, those fish also require special acclimation to the aquarium setting, unlike freshwater fish which are mostly farmed in captivity.

How to make saltwater?

Saltwater for an aquarium is made by adding a measured amount of a specialized salt blend to dechlorinated fresh water to create water that is similar to the water found naturally on the world’s tropical reefs. Instant Ocean salt mix and Reef salt mix are made by mixing 1.5 cups of the salt blend in 4 gallons of dechlorinated fresh water.

It is generally best to add the salt blend to the water because adding water to the dry mix could cause some of the components to become lost as a precipitate. It is also strongly recommended to aerate your newly mixed saltwater overnight and to heat it up to aquarium temperature before adding it to the tank to minimize stress to the aquarium inhabitants.

Learn more about how to make saltwater for an aquarium here.

Can I use salt water from the ocean in my aquarium?

You can use salt water from the ocean in an aquarium. In fact, many of the largest public aquariums do the same thing. You want to avoid using ocean water that would be contaminated by human activities (like sunscreen, motor oil or fuel, etc.). The logistics involved, however, in using natural ocean water are often prohibitive compared with the relative ease with which you can make salt water from a high-quality salt mix.

Learn about the best salt mix here.

What type of filter is needed for a saltwater tank?

The primary type of filter you need for a basic saltwater tank is biological filtration. Most saltwater tank owners add live rock to their tanks to serve as home to billions and billions of naturally occurring, beneficial microscopic bacteria that will perform the necessary biological filtration to keep the tank water clean.

Three additional types of filtration that are sometimes used in addition to biological filtration are mechanical filtration, in the form of a filter sock in a sump area, chemical filtration, in the form of activated carbon or another substrate that removes unwanted chemicals from the water, and foam fractionation, a type of water purification done by equipment called a protein skimmer.

Saltwater tank

Do saltwater tanks need a sump?

Saltwater tanks do not need a sump, which is a reservoir underneath the main tank where equipment and pumps can be housed. A sump should be considered an optional piece of equipment that adds to the overall water volume of the aquarium system and enables space for filters and equipment so that the main display area can be as aesthetically pleasing and equipment-free as possible.

Learn more about aquarium sumps here.

How long before you can put fish in a new saltwater tank?

You may need to wait anywhere from a few days after initial set up or even a few weeks to put your first fish in a new saltwater tank. The amount of time to wait before putting the first fish in depends on whether the tank water has clear, stable water and an established biological filter. Depending on how you set up your saltwater tank, those steps could be completed in a few days or in a few weeks.

There are products you can buy that will speed up the nitrogen cycle and help you establish your biological filter faster so that you can add your first fish within days instead of weeks.

How to cycle a saltwater tank.

What is the easiest saltwater fish to take care of?

The easiest saltwater fish to take care of is any one of the common types of damselfish available in aquarium stores. Damselfish are small, beautiful, inexpensive, and hardy fish that acclimate quite well to life in a saltwater aquarium.

The main disadvantage of damselfish is that they are aggressive and will torment other community fish, especially clownfish.

Learn more about the 21 easiest saltwater fish here.

Are clown fish good for beginners?

Certain clownfish types, including Ocellaris, Percula & Tomato, are great saltwater fish for beginners because they are commonly available, hardy, and inexpensive. Other large and aggressive clownfish types, like Maroon clownfish, are not good for beginners because they tend to cause problems later in life due to their aggressive nature.

Learn more about how to care for the Ocellaris clownfish and Tomato clownfish here.

How much does a clownfish cost?

Most of the common aquaculture clownfish types cost between $20-$30; however, more rare species or designer variants (generally common species with uncommon and unique patterns or coloration) can cost hundreds of dollars.

A few other recommendations. While the 9 steps below are certainly the easy way to start a saltwater tank, I do actually recommend everyone should quarantine their fish in a separate tank before adding them to the display tank to minimize problems.

A protein skimmer is an optional piece of equipment that you can set up at any time to help improve the quality of the water even more.

Where to learn more about starting a saltwater tank for beginners

I put everything you need to know about how to set up a saltwater tank for beginners into a fast-paced and engaging 2-hour course called:

Saltwater Aquarium 101: How to set up a saltwater aquarium

Saltwater Aquarium 101

Check out the course page and see if it’s right for you.


Setting up a saltwater tank doesn’t have to be a complicated task if you are a beginner. Remember, we all start out as beginners at some point. The key to success as a beginner in this hobby is to be naturally inquisitive about how to meet the care needs of the animals under your care and to take the time to learn and adjust.

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