This article is my attempt to make considering getting into a saltwater marine aquarium as clear as possible, and then to try and explain what you’ll need to know to make it all work.

Make no mistake, the saltwater aquarium hobby can be an expensive, annoying, time-consuming and frustrating addiction. And my best guess is that for every 10 people who start getting into the hobby, after 2 years 50% of them, or more, have given it up. Why? I think it’s because it takes a commitment of time, responsibility, and finances. But it doesn’t have to be a bad experience if you go into it with some helpful knowledge and the right attitude…and maybe some extra cash in the budget.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a ‘pusher’ for this addiction. It’s not my goal to get you hooked on a saltwater aquarium. I’m just one of the addicted who has learned how to live with it, and I want to try and help you make better informed decisions about whether getting into this hobby is something you really want to do. Most people start with their eyes closed and a serious lack of knowledge about what it takes to be successful. I want to try and explain how to survive the onslaught of conflicting and confusing information about how to run a reef tank. And the constant flow of technological improvements over the years has made the hobby better but hasn’t made the hobby any less confusing!

For inspiration, a 55-gallon reef tank.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @Marco A. Martins ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

I’ve been in the marine aquarium hobby since 2005. I knew almost nothing about the hobby when I started. I didn’t even know that I could keep live coral until after I bought my first tank!

I started with a 30-gallon tank with a metal stand and a small fluorescent light that I picked up on a whim at a garage sale in my neighborhood. And from here on in our discussion, tank size will be shortened to how many gallons the tank is and an attached ‘g’, as in 30g rather than 30 gallon.

My wife was a reference librarian, and after buying the tank on a Sunday, I asked her to bring home a couple of books on saltwater aquariums from work on Monday. She brought home two, an older book that talked about keeping a saltwater aquarium and fish and a newer book that talked about keeping a saltwater aquarium, fish and live corals!

My reaction to reading that was, “Really? I can keep live coral in an aquarium? Cool!” I had no idea what I was getting into. And I think far too many people get into this hobby with the same lack of knowledge, struggle, get exasperated and confused and as a result, and then give up or quit. It doesn’t have to be that way if you understand what you are getting into before you start.

As it turns out, keeping live coral in a marine aquarium only became popular during the 1990’s due to advances in the understanding of water chemistry and new equipment that allowed reefers to propagate coral in their tanks and what marine biologists were learning about water chemistry out on the reefs.

There were a few hard-core addicts who lived so close to saltwater bodies of water that they could keep some corals (not many) by doing almost daily water changes with saltwater directly from whatever saltwater they lived near. So I read a couple of books and then I asked questions at my LFS (Local Fish Store). I got a lot of mixed messages and some pretty disastrous advice. I never even thought about learning from the internet. It never occurred to me that back in 2005 there were enough people interested in saltwater aquariums that there would be entire forums on the internet devoted to such narrow interests. Sometimes it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

The first lesson for you to learn from this series of articles is; use the internet! You’ve already found this website, and good job by you for finding us! These days there are a lot of local clubs with websites, quite a few national/international websites and tons of data at other websites.

For inspiration, a 80-gallon reef tank.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @ReefNerd ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

I struggled with the hobby for the first couple of years until I stumbled upon a poster that was advertising a local club holding their first ever coral frag auction. The club also offered a website, monthly membership meetings and a source for finding and meeting other local reefers that share an affinity for saltwater marine aquariums. I can’t over emphasize the importance of these local people as a huge asset. They offer advice, they will share their experiences, they will show you their aquariums and related hardware, they will offer to help you set up yours. They also offer to help move equipment, and they even offer to become friends. Those that are already addicted just love to rope in the newly addicted, so be careful!

Through my local club I found other internet websites like Reef2Reef (R2R) and others. They are huge reference sources and also have great forums for asking questions and learning from the questions of fellow reefers, some new, some confused and some trying new ideas, but all trying to learn, just like you.

Look around at what they have to offer. There are lots of people asking questions. They all have a forum called ‘New to the Hobby’ just for people who are getting started and asking basic questions.

And at the top of most forums there are ‘sticky’ threads. Read them all. And I’m not trying to discourage you from asking ‘newbie’ questions here on our website; in fact, I encourage it. Through your local club you may receive local support that can be such a big advantage that you would be considered foolish to ignore it.

Understand, however, that there is a difference in the audience you reach from these international sites. Your local club may have a few dozen to a few hundred members, a few dozen of which are active on there regularly. R2R on the other hand, is worldwide and can, at times, have well over 4000 people active on the site, live, all at one point in time.

In fact, as I’m writing this I decided to look at R2R and count the people online. At 9am EST on May 16th, 2019 there were over 4860 people viewing R2R! And then thousands more who will see your questions over the course of a single day.

I encourage you to look at the list of local reef or marine aquarium clubs in your area on R2R. And please don’t just look at it. Contact them and get involved. It can make a huge difference in your enjoyment of this hobby. You’re welcome on our website--and we will do what we can to help you, but live, local contacts can be a huge advantage…have I said that already? Yes I have, and I can’t emphasize it enough.

For inspiration, a 187-gallon reef tank.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @ReefBum ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

Getting other marine aquarium keepers (aka. Reefers) will help make your addiction seem somewhat more normal. That is until you try to explain to your spouse, family and friends what it is you are getting involved in. They’ll almost all say things like, “Whaaaat?” or “You do realize that’s really difficult, right?” or even simply “Are you crazy? Why would you want to do that?” Anyway, here is the link to R2R’s list of local clubs.

Your local club and the national websites can, and probably should be, your best resources for all kinds of help. Answering questions, explaining how things work, buying and selling used equipment and livestock (including corals) and even physical help if you need it to move big equipment…180g glass aquariums are rather heavy!

I’ll offer this important piece of information: be wary of the people who work at or own a store that sells aquariums, fish and coral. I’m not saying they are bad; I’m saying be very wary. Too many are sales people and store owners first and foremost. As a source of information about anything in the hobby, they need to be taken very carefully and maybe even with more than a grain of salt (pun intended). These folks run the gambit from mature, educated, informed and helpful, advice givers all the way to young, completely uninformed, low-paid, sales people who are just there to say, “Sure, there’s no reason you can’t have 20 clownfish and a lionfish in a 10g tank.”

Has any salesperson ever said to you, “Oh you don’t want to buy that here, you be far better off getting XYZ from the store down the street.” No, I haven’t either. That’s not to say they are all bad. Some are genuinely knowledgeable and do want to get to know you and honestly help you. But those are few and far between. Keep this advice in mind; take whatever information an LFS (Local Fish Store) person tells you, and then leave without buying anything. Then go online and ask people if the advice you got was good, bad or indifferent. Once you know better, then you can figure out what you need/want and then go buy it.

For inspiration, a 425-gallon reef system.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @Reef Homer ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

So where should you start? The very first issues you need to consider are these:

1. Is this just a whim, or have you seen other people’s tanks and you know in your heart and head you want a tank? It’s a serious commitment. And you should consider it a long term commitment, long term as in a many-year commitment. Having an aquarium consumes more time and money than a cat or a dog. And no, the fish won’t cuddle with you or lick your face or even chase a stick. If you’re lucky, they’ll look at you when you feed them…maybe!

2. How much money are you willing to spend up front to buy what is needed to start a new saltwater aquarium? And it’s more than just the glass box and water. My first 30g tank cost about $1500 by the time it was ready for livestock. And the tank itself only cost $35! It is possible to do it more cheaply, but it takes time and dedication.

3. After you have a system set up, you’ll want fish, corals, clean up crew (snails and more), water test kits, an RO/DI (Reverse Osmosis/De-Ionize) water purification system, bulk salt and more. So, you’ll need to budget money for these as well.

4. How much of your time are you willing to commit to keeping a marine aquarium? How many hours per week and per month are you prepared to spend on the hobby? I spend 3-4 hours a week at a minimum and probably average 5 to 10 hours a week over a year's time. And there are weeks when maintenance gets serious and I’ll spend more hours, or some piece of equipment breaks or fails and I may spent 20 hours if I have to pull something serious out of the tank, try to clean it and rebuild it, or buy a new one, and then reinstall it in the tank. That only happens once or twice a year, well, sometimes once a quarter!

5. Just what do you want from this hobby and is it a realistic goal? Do you just want a tank to look at? Do you just want tropical fish or do you want coral as well? And there are a few different kinds of coral that have different levels of needs (both hardware and your time). Do you want to grow and sell corals? Do you want to get involved in building or selling equipment? Are you looking to expand your base of contacts and get involved in helping your local club? Is it the Do-It-Yourself building and maintaining the tank that has your interest even more than the fish and corals? Are you a tech freak and like the idea of a computerized and heavily automated aquarium?

6. How much do you know about the different kinds of marine aquarium environments and which one do you want to try?

The more you know in advance, the less expensive it will be and the less mistakes you’ll make. This is one of those places where knowing somebody, at the very least one somebody, who can help explain the basics and the commitment both in your time and money can be a big advantage.

In future articles, I’ll start with the most basic explanations and descriptions I can for some basic ‘normal’ tanks. And as we move along we’ll get more involved and more complicated. This isn’t a simple journey. You don’t buy a glass tank, fill it with water and add fish and coral. It just doesn’t work that way. And you’ll soon discover that there can be a variety of solutions to some specific issue or problem you encounter. And the solution you pick can have some serious consequences on other things you may want to do further downstream in the hobby. It’s almost never a linear path. In fact it’s near impossible to try and do a flow chart with all the options and decision boxes!

If you have questions, feel free to ask me here on the website or send me a private message.


Note From the Editor:

This article and several future ones by the same author were originally part of several presentations made to a local aquarium club. The article is reprinted with permission from the author.


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Author Profile: @Ron Reefman

@Ron Reefman has been keeping saltwater aquariums for almost 20 years. Some time ago, there was a profile of him. He lives in Florida and is happy to share his ocean and aquarium adventures with us all.
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