Want to Set Up a Saltwater Aquarium? Get Started Here.

A colorful reef aquarium

A colorful reef aquarium

So, you’ve decided you’d like to set up a saltwater aquarium—a little slice of ocean right in your own living space. We’d like to congratulate you and bid you fond welcome to a very rewarding hobby!

Now, where to begin?

If you’ve already visited some of your local fish stores, you may have noticed that the livestock, tank, and equipment options seem endless. The jargon you hear is muddled and confusing if not downright baffling. Everyone is telling you something different about the “best” way to succeed with a saltwater tank. On top of all that, everything in this hobby seems crazy expensive! You might be feeling so overwhelmed at this point that you’re tempted to throw in the towel before you’ve even begun.

This is what we like to call the “deer-in-the-headlights stage” for the first-time saltwater aquarium keeper. There are simply so many decisions to be made and so many contradictory opinions out there that it’s hard to know which way to turn. But don’t get discouraged! You can do this! We’re here to guide you every step of the way to a successful, sustainably stocked saltwater aquarium.

What do I need to decide first?

We believe that the key to starting off on the right foot in this hobby is to decide—before you purchase a single item—what type of livestock you’d like to keep and then build your system to suit your stocking plan. What are your preferences in species? Do you want a fish-only or reef system? A FOWLR (Fish Only With Live Rock) system? A peaceful community tank bustling with small to medium-sized fish? A species tank housing a single large predator? Perhaps a biotope aquarium featuring species from the same geographic region? The best time to answer these questions is in the planning stage—not after you’ve already shelled out your hard-earned cash for a tank and equipment.

Why does it matter?

What? This Volitans lionfish won’t fit in my brand-new 30-gallon?”
– New aquarist

Remember, knowing the type, size, number, and compatibility of the fish and/or invertebrates you’d like to keep is vital in determining what size tank you’ll need to buy, how much filtration you’ll need to provide, whether high-intensity reef lighting will be necessary, what types of foods you’ll need to keep on hand, whether a deep substrate will be necessary, what type of aquascaping you’ll need to do, whether you’ll need to worry about supplementing calcium and alkalinity, and many other factors.

On the other hand, if you put the cart before the horse by purchasing a tank and other equipment without first creating a stocking plan that you’re happy with, you may find that you’ve painted yourself into the proverbial corner when the system proves to be too small or otherwise poorly suited for a desired specimen.

So, what are you waiting for?

Let’s get started! Get yourself some good reference books, read through our planning content, check out the livestock at your local fish store, peruse the tanks at your local public aquarium, and start creating your livestock wish list!

Photo Credit: Pe Tor


If you enjoyed this post, subscribe to get our new posts in your email.
About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. I’ve been trying to decide what kind of aquarium I should get. I didn’t realize that saltwater aquariums could be so pretty! I’ll be sure to see what kind of fish are available. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Hi, i’m new here. I hve a problm getting saltwater in my area.Can i do it myself, my own saltwater?

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Hi Tius! As long as you’re able to source synthetic sea salt mix, you should be able to mix your own salt water. If you don’t have a brick-and-mortar aquarium store nearby, you can always order salt online and have it delivered.

  3. Sean Taylor says

    hello, a coworker just sold his house and the new owners did not want the 275 gal. custom complete salt water aquarium, about $12000 in my coworker hated to trash it. so i said i would take it. i have had lots of fresh water tanks, and they always did great. i guess my 100 gallon tank with a pacu was the biggest.
    so here i just brought home a custom 275 gallon tank with a 70 gal filter tank. two water pumps. one in the tank stand the other was outside, and the plumbing all came in under the floor.. its got the digital controls you can run with an app on my phone.. skimmers. chillers climate lighting. motors in the cover. and a 55 gal barrel of live coral. he said everything i need is included. i just need new sand. saltwater, and fish i also need knowledge. i’m very exited but don’t know where to start. well cleaning tank would be good. what is the best way to clean tanks. and then what?

Speak Your Mind