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Frequently Asked Questions

Choosing an Aquarium

Any size tank can be used for a saltwater aquarium, Smaller tanks require smaller filtration systems, but larger tanks will provide much more stable water and allow for more fish and invertebrates. It is generally recommended not to use anything smaller than 30 gallons. The best advice is to get the largest tank you can afford and have room for. Be sure to purchase a tank that is made for a saltwater aquarium. The tank should be all glass on the sides with no metal parts anywhere. The salt water will cause the metal to corrode and can poison the water. Aquariums are also available in acrylic, but acrylic aquariums are expensive and can be easily scratched.

Most people typically start with small all in one aquarium for their first. For many reasons such as budget, space, and to figure out if they even enjoy the hobby. Those are great reasons to start small but the vast majority of people end up upgrading to a much larger aquarium within the first year of being in the hobby. This is why we typically advise starting with a 60-120-gallon aquarium. This will end up saving you money in the future because you will not be spending the money to upgrade. The second reason it is a better idea to have more water volume to start with is with saltwater aquariums things can change quickly as far as water parameters go. With more water volume you have a more stable aquarium that will be more resilient to beginner mistakes.

When considering a location for your saltwater aquarium, you will want to locate it on a stable, flat surface away from doors and windows. It should also be located away from air conditioning vents and radiators; you want to choose a location that has a fairly stable temperature. Sunlight entering through doors and windows can interfere with the aquarium and cause unwanted algae problems. Water is very heavy, so make sure you find a stable location where the aquarium can rest on a level surface.

Sumps are generally considered to be the best option for filtering a saltwater aquarium. They add a considerable amount of water volume to the system, increasing overall stability. They also offer the widest degree of customization, with plenty of room for things like: filter socks or filter rollers, protein skimmers, refugiums, and media reactors. 

Some smaller aquariums will come equipped with a built-in sump right behind the display. These are called all-in-one aquariums. 

It is also possible to use other filtration methods, such as power (hang-on-back) filters, or canister filters. But these options are less customizable, and require more maintenance to keep running optimally. 

The best water to use for a saltwater aquarium is RODI (Reverse Osmosis De-Ionized) mixed with your favorite brand of salt to your ideal salinity.


Your local fish store probably also sells freshly prepared saltwater, and fresh RO/DI water for topping off your aquarium. This can be a great alternative, so long as they stay on top of keeping their water prestine.

If you have the proper equipment to begin with then maintenance is relatively easy, and can be as little as 30 minutes a week on average of care.

If you purchase all of the equipment upfront it can be costly. Most people tend to buy their equipment in stages based on necessity. 

Cycling the Aquarium

In nature, the nitrogen cycle is a process by which nitrogen is converted through various chemical forms. In an aquarium, the nitrogen cycle begins with ammonia which is given off by fish and other animals through waste and the respiration process. The toxic ammonia is converted to nitrite by special nitrifying bacteria. A second type of nitrifying bacteria converts the toxic nitrite into nitrate. Nitrate is much less harmful to fish than ammonia and nitrite, and is usually removed from the aquarium by making regular water changes.

In the fish keeping hobby, we say that your aquarium is "cycled" once your tank has built up a healthy supply of these beneficial bacteria, and when the levels of ammonia and nitrite are undetectable in your tank's water. 

There are many ways you can get your tank through the cycling process. We here at ARD recommend a fish cycle, in which you add fish and beneficial bacteria shortly after setting up your aquarium.

Once the tank is setup up, the filtration system has started, and the tank has reached the appropriate temperature, you'll add one or more small, hardy fish and a trusted bacterial product as directed. Keep and eye on the ammonia and nitrite levels daily. Once both have had a small spike and returned down to 0ppm, your tank is cycled! 

Yes! The most common way to speed up the cycling process is to start the aquarium with live rock and/or sand. Live rock and live sand already contain established colonies of nitrifying bacteria and can significantly reduce the cycling time.


Be warned though! Buying live rock and sand from the ocean or your local fish store can introduce certain pests into your aquarium. You'll want to visually inspect live rock and sand for things like aptasiahair algae and bryopsisdinoflagellatesasterina starfish, and  bristle worms before adding them to your aquarium. None of these pests spell game-over for your aquarium, but it's better to avoid them if possible.

Once the aquarium has cycled, it is important to add livestock to the tank slowly and gradually. Start with only one or two fish and wait a few weeks. Test the water regularly and watch the ammonia and nitrite levels. They will go up temporarily as the filtration system adjusts to the new bio load. Once the ammonia and nitrite levels return to zero, you can add one or two more fish to the tank. Continue to test the water regularly and if you notice a spike in ammonia levels, wait until those levels fall again before you add any more fish.

Choosing Fish for the Aquarium

Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule here. The number of fish you can have in an aquarium depends on the size of the aquarium and how good your filtration system. The size of the fish also play a large role in how many total fish you can have. It will require less tank size and filtration to have a few smaller fish instead of one larger one, because larger fish eat more and excrete more waste. 

With proper care and a good environment, most species of saltwater reef fish can live for ten years or more. There have been reports of clownfish living up to 28 years in a reef aquarium. There may be some exceptions, but if your fish are well taken care of, they should reward you with many years of enjoyment.

The easiest fish to keep for beginners are clownfish, damselfish, blennies, gobies, and wrasses. These species are usually easy to acclimate and are a bit more tolerant of water quality issues than many other species.

When selecting animals at the aquarium store, examine them closely to make sure they look healthy. Make sure they do not have any marks or white spots on them. Make sure their eyes are clear and not white. Ask someone at the store to offer them some food so you can make sure they will eat. Do not purchase an animal that refuses to eat at the store. When purchasing coral, select a specimen with fully open polyps. Do not purchase any coral with dead spots on it.

This is another question that has many different answers depending on who you ask. We have done a lot of research and our own experiments when it comes to acclimating fish, and what we have found is that the best way to acclimate a new fish is simply to float the bag  that it comes in in your aquarium for just long enough to get the temperature of the water in the bag to the same as that in your aquarium, usually about 10-20 minutes. 

If you are concerned with aggression in regards to your new fish, we would recommend placing the new fish in an acclimation box in your aquarium for at least a few days. 

There are different compatibility charts (such as this one) that you can use to get a general idea of which different species of fish will get along with one another. However, it's important to remember that each fish is unique, with a unique personality, and that not all fish follow the rules.

Have Any Other Questions?

We want to make reefing fun and easy. That’s why we provide expert reefing knowledge and quality saltwater aquarium products. From saltwater tanks with clownfish and anemones to full-blown reef tanks, Aquatic Reef Design has your reefing needs covered.