Saltwater Fishtank (Part 1)

“The Conscientious Marine Aquarist”by Robert M. Fenner

An amateur’s journey in saltwater aquariums

Around a year ago, I was at a friend’s house admiring their saltwater aquarium. When they noticed I was staring intently at the tank, they mentioned that it was not as hard to start or maintain a saltwater tank as people often think. In fact, simply understanding the biology and chemistry that go into the tank is the fundamental hurdle to being a successful aquarist. Later, the friend would lend me a copy of Robert Fenner’s “The Conscientious Marine Aquarist”. “Conscientious” because, during the time of the books writing, many fish trappers would use cyanide to stun tropical fish in order to capture and sell them. Additionally, the essentially imprisonment of beautiful tropical fishes is a bit amoral if not, in some respects, flatly immoral. However, I believe Fenner was attempting portray the aquarist a caretaker of marine fish and to show that there are some ways in which the hobbyist can take care of a fish’s well-being that does not deprive them of comfort or health while on display in the family fish tank.

Immediately after finishing Fenner’s Aquarist, I bought Martin Moe, Jr’s “Marine Aquarium Handbook: Beginner to Breeder”. This book sealed the deal for me and I embarked on the epic (and slightly expensive journey) of starting a saltwater fishtank.

Actually, let me take a step back. My girlfriend actually surprised me with a 55-gallon fishtank which was on sale at PetCo’s famous $1/gal aquarium fishtank sales. That was, I think, somewhere around mid-January (around the time I was finishing Fenner’s book). However, the tank sat alone in our house for several weeks. During this period we bought an open stand for the tank and a 20-gallon tank to use as a sump. By early February, I received a modest tax return which I dedicated fully to the purchase of equipment for the fishtank.

Understanding the daunting challenge that lay before

55-Gallon + Stand

I am imagine most people who first approach the saltwater aquarium are intimidated. They should be! There’s a whole galaxy of knowledge, of tips and tricks, rumor and hearsay, and witchcraft which aquarists often espouse on the internet. It is hard to judge who is full of it and who is not without spending many hours perusing online forums like and So it is difficult to judge the nonsense from the sage advice. I would recommend, to anyone who may be reading this interesting in getting into the saltwater aquarium hobby, to buy a decent book on the subject for $15 instead of diving headlong into it. I will admit I have spent quite a few dollars as of today on this hobby, but I think I have avoided any major mistakes so far in what equipment or products I have bought.

Now onto my journey. I hope this will be helpful to be at least one person interested in the hobby.

So we had the 55-gallon tank and the stand. Most of what I had read suggested that hang-on-back protein skimmers or filters were inferior in many ways to the full sized protein skimmers. Therefore I knew I would need a “sump” tank. Sump means literally a “low place where water collects”. So a “sump tank” is a tank kept beneath the “display tank” (where all your corals and fish are housed) which houses many of your water filtration systems. So I went out and bought a 20-gallon tank from PetCo during the last day of their $1/gal sale (a good buy!).

Tank + Sump Tank

Next was the question of how I would get the water from the display tank to the sump tank. There are hang-on-the-back siphons which can pull the water down for you without major adjustments to the display tank. These are cheap and effective (for the most part) but, in the case that the siphon breaks, are also prone to disaster. When the siphon breaks, water stops flowing downward to the sump, but the water pump housed in the sump will continue pushing water back up to the display tank and possibly cause an overflow. Therefore I opted to get the tank drilled and bought an internal overflow box from This is a small box that allows water to overflow down to the sump tank and does not require a siphon.

Still, I was a long way off from this point. I purchased a decent protein skimmer for the price range. So what is a “protein skimmer”, you may be asking? Well, essentially it is a cylinder like container that pushes a great deal of bubbly water through a narrow passage. Protein (natural waste and decay) gets caught along the bubbles and is pushed upwards while the more pure water flows through the passage and out of the filter. The “skimmate”, the captured waste and decay from the display tank, is captured in a separate compartment in the protein skimmer and therefore easily disposed of.

Tank + Lots of Equipment

I also bought some powerheads (underwater propellers that help circulate the water), a heater, and a pump (to return water to the display tank from the sump). Water circulation is important because much of the helpful filtration in the system (the display tank and the sump) actually is not just the protein skimmer. In fact, there is a great deal of helpful biological filtration occurring throughout the system (if properly established). The circulation aids in the biological filtration process as well as making sure that there are no stagnant patches of water that sit in one space allowing for decay/waste to saturate the area.

Water quality is obviously one of the single most important factors in keeping a healthy aquarium. Little did I know this when I first attempted a freshwater tank a few years ago. I filled the tank with tap water (*yikes!*) and did not know any better. Tap water contains many dissolved solids (total dissolved solids, or TDS, is something many aquarists monitor in their water quality). In order to start a healthy aquarium, you need clean water. Tap water, according to many sources, can be used, but only with caution and recommendations to do otherwise. The cost to treat tap water and to properly maintain a tank with tap water outweigh the cheapness that tap water comes with. Many local fish stores (“LFS”) will sell purified water. This water is often filtered and deionized through a reverse osmosis and deionization (RO/DI) system. However, long term savings will be found in buying an RO/DI. Also, RO/DI water is a  cheap (per gallon) solution to having fresh, clean water for drinking as well as for household plants.

Trashcan full of RO water in my kitchen.

So, with this in mind, I bought a cheap RO system (not an RO/DI system) which I thought would be sufficient for an amateur like myself. I know that the lack of deionization might present a few issues down the road, but I am hoping to buy an RO/DI system soon to replace the rather inexpensive 2-stage RO system I bought (which I got for $70… which was free after using a gift card I had). The RO system works fairly slowly so filling up a trashcan took roughly a day to do.

After getting a batch of RO water ready, I then poured in some saltwater mix. It is not simply just powered salt but in fact contains some vital elements that promote a healthy aquarium. Using a hydrometer, I tested the water’s salinity (or specific gravity) to make sure my saltwater was in the recommended range (many hobbyists suggest 1.025 to 1.026 is the best range for a reef aquarium system, while the official books on the matter say anywhere between 1.022 and 1.026 is good).

A little note here on using a hydrometer. Many people recommend using a refractometer which is often more accurate. The hydrometer, while cheaper, is prone to error (due to the mechanics of the instrument). My mistake was not reading the directions fully before testing my water. I would rapidly dunk my hydrometer and when I pulled it out I got one measure. Then I would dunk again and get a totally different measure of salinity. I was convinced my water wasn’t fully mixed so I left the batch mixing for nearly a day and a half before I realized what I was doing wrong. The issue, specific to my hydrometer, is to slowly push the hydrometer under the water where the water would fill through a small opening on the side. This small opening helps prevent microbubbles from attaching to the dial that indicates salinity. Depending on how quickly I dunked it and to what depth, I was getting all sorts of different measures. Eventually I got wise to the issue and started being able to appropriately dose my saltwater mix in to get the desired specific gravity.

So that brings me to today. I recently got my display tank drilled (for plumbing purposes) and bought a nice (and cheap) lighting fixture for the tank. Lighting is indeed very important but is often one of the single most expensive components to tanks. I am very happy about the price I paid to for my 324 watt fixture (6 x 54watt HO T5s). These normally run around $300+ but got a relatively new fixture for $150. I am mixing my second, and final, batch of saltwater at the moment which will allow me to get the system going. Once that is done I will start the cycling process where I introduce live rock and allow mother nature to take her course by introducing good bacteria into the system.


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