The Salty Side: Saltwater Aquariums for Beginners

Saltwater Aquarium Mistake # 1:


Good research could be the difference between a successful saltwater aquarium and a lack of research, one that becomes a financial sponge and heartache. 

First of all, decide what type of marine environment you would like to keep and maintain.

This could be a FOWLR (Fish with Live Rock Only), and SPS dominant coral tank, a mixed reef tank (SPS, LPS and softies).

Decide on the size of tank you would like to keep.
This could be from 100L to a much larger tank, but know that smaller tanks have their limitations regarding what type of fish you can keep, the size and fish you can keep, and how many fish you can keep.
Similarly, the size of tank will also determine your success with corals. Larger tanks experience far fewer and less dramatic swings in ideal water parameters, therefore are far more suited to SPS. Smaller tanks do well with soft corals and some LPS.

Once you have a good idea about the type of marine environment you would like to keep, you need to research compatibility.

FOWLR systems are easier to research because you don’t need to worry about coral/fish compatibility. However, you need to consider the compatibility between fish.
There are two main types of fish-only systems. The more commonly kept FOWLR includes includes Angelfish, Rabbitfish, Tangs and a multitude of other colourful fish which, given the right environment and food, can flourish.
The second type is known as a Predator Tank. This type of system includes fish which predate on other fish. They include Lionfish, Frogfish and Picasso Triggerfish.

SPS dominant and mixed reef tanks.
Unlike FOWLR tanks, any tank with the inclusion of coral needs to be compatible with fish that are not partial to a bit of coral. You should be looking at fish that, as well as being compatible with each other, are also compatible with coral.
These fish include Tangs, Clowns, wrasse and many others.

Once you have decided on your tank environment, the fish you want, the coral you can imagine growing in your tank, you need to start asking the right questions on online forums and groups to get a better idea from experienced keepers.
Google can be very be helpful but sometimes the right questions are not being asked due to inexperience. This is where an unbiased opinion really helps.
Don’t ever think a question is stupid as we all started somewhere. By asking a beginners question, the more advanced will correct you and put you on the correct path.

A bit of online advice: There is a lot of second hand, uninformed, repeated information out there. Always seek out first-hand information to ensure you are getting the information from someone who knows what they are talking about.

Finally, proper research will inevitably give you some idea of the expense of keeping marine tanks. Ultimately your decision will come down to budget and invariably your available funds will dictate what type of system you can set up and run indefinitely.

FOWLR systems are cheaper to maintain, done so with water changes and media to minimise nitrate in the system.

Mixed Reef Systems are slightly more expensive to maintain, with regular water changes and closer monitoring of both nitrates and phosphates.

SPS dominant tanks are the most expensive, maintained with the dosing of buffer, Calcium and Magnesium (which water changes can’t replace quickly enough), trace elements for additional coral supplements, very close monitoring of nitrates and phosphates and extremely effective means of keeping them at negligible levels.

Saltwater Aquarium Mistake # 2:


By far, the second most devastating mistake made in a reef system is procrastination.
On most occasions the procrastination is not purposeful, but through lack of knowledge.

Hitchhikers are the additional, sometimes amazing lifeforms that can accompany live rock. They are fascinating to watch as your tank matures, and some are very good for your system, however there are others that are equally bad.
If you do not know what the hitchhiker is on your live rock, get it ID’d online as soon as possible to determine it’s future. If you find out that it needs to be removed, do so immediately.

There are a number of hitchhikers which people have differing opinions about, creatures like Bristleworms (good in my book and self regulating).

It is worth adding that in any system, a nuisance hitchhiker is only as prolific as the system allows it to be. For example, were you to unintentionally allow a single Vermetid Snail into your tank, it has the ability to multiply very quickly. This would only be noticed when the freeform of the snail settles down and hundreds of new feeding funnels begin appearing.
However, in their new immobile form they rely solely on their mucus web to trap food that passes by in the water column. If you keep to the principle that all food is eaten within 15 – 20 seconds at each feeding, not overfeeding, there would be no excess food to sustain the Vermetid population. Very quickly you will notice each funnel become less active until all have died.

Algae is the most varied of all lifeforms, and there are some expected run-of-the-mill types that will appear with most new setups, including the potential for hair algae.

Do not expect algae to go away by itself. Unfortunately, the fight against algae is a reactive process, but you can be proactive.

Prepare for it by Ensuring from the outset that you have the systems in place to export (remove) both phosphate and nitrate from your system efficiently, thereby not allowing algae the opportunity to establish itself.
The addition of a refugium for nutrient control, a reactor to remove phosphate, media to remove nitrates, and no over feeding will all help in keeping it at bay.

Introduce ‘helpers’ in the form of invertebrates and fish to eat the existing algae, and keep potential algae at bay. Snails such as Turbo snails and Mexican snails make short work of green hair algae, with the help of a Blue Tuxedo Urchin and possibly an Algae Blenny.

Manual removal is another option depending on the algae.

Water parameters are by far one of the most important, if not THE most important aspect of reef keeping.
It is often said that the hobby is actually about keeping water, and by looking after the water you are able to provide a suitable environment for your inhabitants.
Keeping a close eye on water salinity, temperature, nutrients (phosphates and nitrates) and depending on coral requirements, your KH, Calcium and Magnesium, is the bedrock of a successfully kept marine tank.

More experienced reefers begin to notice any changes in their tanks just by looking at their coral or the behaviour of fish. However, as a beginner you will need to become accustomed to methods of maintaining constant levels.
Ensure you have the right equipment to carry out tests with accuracy and have a plan in place should you need to act.

Example: Should your refractometer give you a reading of 34ppt, when you aim to keep salinity at 35ppt, you have two options:

First is to recalibrate the refractometer with RO/DI water and test another sample.

Second would be to increase the regular salt amount in your mix, and use the new mix in water changes over the next few water changes to gradually increase to salinity again.

Third, and the better alternative to the Second, is to allow the excess water to evaporate naturally until it gets back to the desired salinity.

Prevention is naturally the next step. Consider what could be diluting the salt concentrate.

The cause could be ‘wet’ skimming, which over time will remove salt from your system.
Alternatively, it might be a good idea to go back to the mixing instructions and double check dilution rates.
You may have inadvertently added more top up water than needed just before the test.
Think about installing an automatic top up unit. This will keep the salinity constant at all times provided you set it up properly and check RO/DI water levels regularly.

What is important to remember is that should you need to make a change to the water parameters, it should be done gradually. Changing the water conditions immediately can cause more stress to your inhabitants.

This leads us nicely onto the next topic…

Saltwater Aquarium Mistake # 3:


If nothing else, this hobby will teach you that patience is the name of the game.

Year on year marine keeping gets easier with advancement in the equipment which is available to us, and increased understanding of the marine environment as a whole. However there is and always will be basic guidelines that need to be followed to maximise the successfulness of your tank.

These guidelines start the moment you set up a tank and begin a cycle.

Cycling your tank: whether you’ve chosen the traditional way of up to 6 weeks, allowing nitrifying bacteria to multiply over that time, or have decided to use a product like ATM Colony which introduces the nitrifying bacteria immediately, you will still be likely to experience diatom on your sand bed, and green hair algae on your live rock.
Do not rush out and spend more money on quick cures, but trust in tried and tested control methods as already covered above. This does take a while, and your tank may look unsightly for a month or so, but it is far better than introducing algaecides into the mix.

The addition of fish: this should be a slow process too.
This allows the increase of nitrifying bacteria to deal with the bioload each fish represents. The word bioload refers to fish waste.
Ideally you should add no more than one fish a week in the beginning, allowing your microscopic tenants to deal with the increased bioload, and multiplying in the process, preparing for the next addition.

Panic is a familiar feeling among new marine keepers, and it can lead to rushed, panic buys.
Before panic buying, get as informed as you can about the situation causing the panic, and you may find that it’s something quite easy to deal with without spending any more money. You may also find that you have a number of alternatives open to you (that you may not already have known) affording you the opportunity to make an informed decision.

An example of the above is dealing with Aiptasia anemones.
These are known to spread very quickly, but to an uninformed beginner ‘quickly’ sounds like a matter of days. Rest assured that they are not that quick.
You will have the option of treating them with a product like Aiptasia X, and many other home remedies, as well as the introduction of a Peppermint Shrimp.
Each system is different. You may be successful with a Peppermint Shrimp, many are. You could be equally successful with boiling water in a syringe directed at the Aiptasia.
The point is don’t panic, you’ve got time, be patient with the results.

Consistency makes for a happy tank. If all your levels are consistent, your corals will be happy as will your fish and other inhabitants.
By making sudden changes, and upsetting the consistent levels in your tank, could prove detrimental to your inhabitants. Some examples are below:

If your salinity has risen without you noticing, bear in mind that it has taken time to do so. In order to bring the salinity back down you will need to carry out a few water changes (or alternatively buffered RO/DI water can be used to replace tank water) over a number of days to prevent shock to fish and corals in your system.
Lighting schedule changes can have an effect on the corals you keep. The more you experiment with lighting, the less consistency your corals are experiencing. The sooner you settle on a schedule you are happy with, the sooner your corals will become accustomed to it and begin to grow and flourish.
If you feel you need to make any changes thereafter, ensure they are small changes.

Changing your rock scape entirely can be quite a tempting prospect at times. The results of doing so can impact on the behaviour of your fish and set your coral growing back.

By changing the scape, you will effectively change the environment in which your fish have established their territories. This has the potential to cause stress among your fish, which in turn lowers their immunity, and often allows White Spot to rear its ugly head.

Regarding corals, they have established themselves on the rock and in the flow, and lighting you have placed them. By re-scaping, you are potentially moving them away from the flow and possibly the lighting they have become accustomed to.

There have been instances in extreme cases, when completely changing the rock scape, that it disturbs the sand bed. In doing so excess levels of ammonia escape into the system and have wiped out all inhabitants.

If you are insistent on carrying out a re-scape, do it slowly, patiently, with your inhabitant’s wellbeing in the forefront of your mind.

Water changes form an integral part of marine keeping. The purpose of water changes is to replace lost elements (used primarily by your corals, and also your coralline algae and invertebrates), and remove nutrients (phosphate and nitrate). Decide on a water changing schedule and stick to it.

It is important to replace these lost elements (KH, Ca and Mg) regularly enough to maintain the demand within your tank, testing the water regularly to determine the uptake.
It is just as important to maintain low levels of phosphate and nitrate for coral health and control of unwanted algae.

Don’t be tempted to buy any number of coral foods or water additives to increase coral growth, until you fully understand the basics. Be patient and watch your corals grow with your consistency and fish waste.

There may be occasions when you need to lower your nutrient levels. Follow the guidance on the product and don’t be tempted to overdose. Once again, any immediate change can be detrimental. Take it slowly.

Listen to experience. There are certain inhabitants that should be not introduced to a tank until the tank is mature. A mature tank is considered to be over one year old. This advice is based on experience of losses, and in trying to avoid further losses it is advisable to listen.

Anemones have a very low level of success when introduced to a new system. They are very sensitive creatures that can react negatively to any fluctuations in your water quality. The death of an anemone does have the potential to kill everything else in the tank too as it ejects it’s insides.

Fish dependant on a mature tank for their food source should not be introduced to soon either. The Mandarin Dragonet fall into this category because they rely solely in the wild on live food known as copepods. Mature tanks are more capable of maintaining the populations to sustain these fish.
It is possible to ‘train’ them into eating frozen food, but success seems to be luck of the draw and many are still lost due to lack of their natural food.

A year may seem like a long way away, but in this hobby you begin to think in terms of years, not weeks. You’ll soon be saying to yourself, ‘I can’t wait to see what my tank looks like in a year!’

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