Saltwater aquariums aren’t just a home project; they’re living, breathing ecosystems that require more care than simply filling a tank with some water, adding a few plastic trees, and letting your salt water fish inhabit this new, alien landscape. Saltwater aquariums require strategic planning, maintenance, and a passion for life, a natural oceanic wonder, and the love of a caregiver.
Aquariums, although they sit somewhere in our own homes, serve as a window into a world unknown to us. And in fact, that’s exactly what makes them such an appealing endeavor. They give us the ability to observe the unobservable, to see into a world that is unique, lively, vibrant, and prosperous. Our oceans hold the true secret to life itself; the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, the magnificent coral reefs, and the rich waters of the north Atlantic can all exist in your own little ecosystem. However, it’s most certainly up to you to maintain your aquarium, keep it clean, healthy, and safe for your sea creatures, and ensure that your window into the world unknown reveals a habitable ecosystem that allows your sea creatures to flourish as if they were in their natural habitats.
Now, before we get into the right tips and tricks to keep your aquarium clean and ensure that your ecosystem is healthy, let’s take a look at some of the most common mistakes that aquarium builders make when first attempting to create a window into the unknown.
Don’t Overplay Your Hand
The most important piece of advice we can give you when building your own aquarium is not to overplay your hand – in other words, don’t move too fast. As we mentioned earlier, saltwater aquariums aren’t just a home project that you can simply throw together in a matter of a few hours. It takes time to learn the basics about saltwater tanks, how they function, how to maintain them, and how to provide a habitable space for your sea creatures.
Like any new endeavor, taking the time to learn about what you’re about to do is just as important as doing it! In fact, and in this particular case, it’s even more important because you now have the lives of fish, coral, and sea urchins in your hands. It’s up to you to ensure that they get to live their lives safely in their new spaces.
In addition to simply learning about how to build a habitable saltwater environment, ensuring that you don’t overload your system is a critical first step. First-time aquarium builders like to see those bright and vibrant saltwater colors that they’re so familiar with right out of the gate, but by cramming too many fish, creatures, seaweed, and coral into your new aquarium all at once, you could find yourself with a big problem.
New Tank Syndrome
New Tank Syndrome is a situation that occurs in saltwater aquariums where ammonia is naturally produced from the biological load placed on your system. Saltwater aquariums essentially clean themselves through a nitrogen-based bacteria population that consumes ammonia, but when too much ammonia begins to appear, nitrite will also appear in your aquarium and could threaten your entire ecosystem.
Being sure to avoid adding fish, plants, and coral too quickly, overfeeding your inhabitants, cleaning up and removing uneaten food from the tank, and general monitoring and maintenance would be the best precautions you could possibly take to avoid New Tank Syndrome.
To start, we’d recommend adding only one to two new livestock at any given time, but only when there is a zero percent measurement of ammonia and nitrite present in your aquarium. From there, it would be best to wait at least 2 weeks before adding any new livestock to your ecosystem, including additional fish, plants, or coral.
In addition, monitor the food intake of your fish throughout that two week period. Be sure to notice any leftover or uneaten food that seems to accumulate at the bottom of the tank, clean it up and remove uneaten foods when necessary, and even consider reducing the amount of food provided during each feeding, or limiting the frequency of feedings to ensure that your fish are healthy and are living with satisfied appetites, but are not overeating or leaving decaying food in their home.
Water circulation could be a complicated process for new aquarium builders. However, it is a critical process that will ensure the success of your new ecosystem. While there are a number of different filtration and circulation methods to choose from, you need to understand the biological load of your tank prior to choosing the right solution for your specific aquarium.
Strong and effective waterflow throughout your aquarium will help to increase dissolved oxygen, prevent the buildup of slime and other types of algae, and so much more. In addition, it is always best to ensure that your water circulation system is protected by a surge device and powered adequately, so that even in the event of a power failure, your ecosystem will remain safe and sound.
For example, you could invest in a powerhead, which is an electrical unit that features a sealed motor for full submersion capabilities. Powerheads offer a world of benefits that include water circulation, oxygenation, increasing water quality, enabling the transportation of food to stationary animals, and even stimulating the activities of the animals in your ecosystem.
As a relatively inexpensive water circulation solution, the biggest mistake that many first-time aquarium builders make is avoiding the use of a powerhead. In our opinion, the minor investment is well worth it – especially if you want to see a vibrant and flourishing ecosystem.
So, now that we talked at length about some of the biggest mistakes that first-time aquarium builders make when designing their tanks, let’s take a look at some of the tips and tricks of the trade that we think you’ll find most valuable – especially if you want to establish a clean, healthy, and habitable ecosystem – which we’re certain that you do!
Tip #1: The Aquarium Cycling Process
Arguably the very most important aspect of setting up a new aquarium is fully understanding the cycling process, why it’s needed, what it does, and how to move on after you’ve completed the process. Now, luckily for us, the cycling process is almost entirely automated and requires little work on the behalf of the aquarium builder other than a steadfast dedication to waiting, remaining patient, and t rusting the process to do its job.
Throughout this article, we talked a bit about the damage that can be dealt by attempting to work with an aquarium that has not completed the cycling process, as well as the potential implications of adding too many livestock at a given time, overfeeding, and the like, in addition to the onset of New Tank Syndrome.
With that said, let’s take a deeper look at the cycling process.
Nitrogen cycling is a process in which the water in your tank goes through a number of biological changes prior to having any living creatures or entities inhabiting it. The main goal of this process is to ensure that the water in your tank is chemically balanced and prepared to sustain life prior to introducing it. And while we know you’re more than likely super excited to watch your ecosystem develop right before your eyes, we’ll quickly bring up one of those big mistakes that we mentioned earlier – patience!
This process is quite slow and can take up to a few weeks to complete. However, it is a critical process that is 100% necessary to ensure a happy and healthy ecosystem. There are a number of different ways to go about cycling a saltwater aquarium, but we don’t go into too much detail about those today. Instead, we’ll let you conduct your due diligence as you should, because remember – learning about the endeavor of building a sustainable salt water aquarium is just as important as actually building it!
Tip #2: After Cycling – Your Next Moves
And here it is again – we really can’t overstate how patient you need to be throughout and after the cycling process. Moving slowly is the key towards ensuring a successful startup of your saltwater aquarium. So, once your cycling process is finally complete, it’s time to prepare the newly established biological filter base by increasing the bio-load carefully to ensure that the new bacteria have enough oxygen and food to survive.
As soon as your cycling process is complete, you need to perform a water change, but before you do that, there are a few small, light, and easy housekeeping processes that you should do first. For instance, cleaning off the interior tank walls, removing organic waste that has settled near the bottom of the tank, and being sure that all rock formations are free from organic matter.
Once you’ve completed these tasks, it’s time to change the water.
Now, we do not necessarily mean that you have to dump out all of the water in your tank and fill it with tap water – quite the contrary! Instead, you’ll be performing a light siphon to remove some old water and make way for new, clean saltwater.
You should perform a 20%-25% water change to ensure that you receive a number of benefits like the replacement of essential sea water trace elements, pH corrections, alkalinity restoration, and the like, and a general overall improvement of the water quality.
Once your tank is refilled and you’ve performed a water change, it’s time to bring patience back into the picture. After you’ve removed all mechanical water filtering materials, cleaning tools, and related components, it’s time to let your system do its job yet again. Now, similar to the cycling process, you would want to wait a few days to allow your system’s filters to clean the water naturally.
But remember, all of this should be done after the cycling process is complete!
Tip #3: Treading Slowly With New Additions
We talked earlier about the damage that can be inflicted on your system when you rush to add livestock without allowing for some ample stabilization time. So, now, let’s talk a bit about the process of adding new additions to your tank – and once again, patience is going to play another major role!
So, after your system has been run for a few days without any livestock, you’ve given it ample time to stabilize itself, and you’ve performed a 20%-25% water change, it’s time to add some livestock to your tank and begin creating a sustainable saltwater ecosystem.
Before adding any special fish or creatures, it’s best to add some of the primary diatom and macroalgae eating fish first. Consider Tangs, Angelfishes, or a handful of snails, hermit crabs, or other cleaning fish to help build up your ecosystem right from the start. From there, it’s best to let your system re-stabilize itself with these new living and breathing additions!
After you’ve let your system run for several weeks, and you’ve been sure to carefully monitor wastes, pH, alkalinity, and ammonia and nitrite levels, you can continue making new additions to your ecosystem. And with each new addition, be sure that you test the water daily for any traces of ammonia after each new addition is made.
However, we always suggest that you remain cautious when adding new animals to your tank because at the end of the day, the longer you let your system run and do its job, the better it’ll be in the long run. Allowing your system to run for a longer period of time in between additions allows bacteria to mature and multiply, which will ultimately make your bio-filter stronger.
Tip #4: Maintenance, Maintenance, & More Maintenance!
While we can go into in-depth tips, tricks, and best practices on how to ensure that your saltwater aquarium is clean and that your new ecosystem is healthy, it really all comes down to outlining a clear and simple strategy for maintaining it! Like anything else that you put work into, anything else that undergoes biological and chemical changes, or anything else that deals with living animals, constant maintenance and monitoring is always going to be required to ensure that everything is operating at peak performance, that your living animals are healthy, and that you’re getting the absolute most out of your investment.
To help you begin, think of a schedule that works best for you. Unfortunately, we can’t necessarily recommend a set strategy for maintenance because every aquarium is different. However, we can certainly suggest that you perform routine maintenance and monitoring at least once a week, every two weeks, monthly, or longer – but this is entirely dependent on the task!
Things like monitoring the pH levels, ammonia and nitrite levels, routine cleaning, and so on should all be performed more regularly and more frequently than tasks like water changes, new livestock additions, mechanical component maintenance, and so on. At the end of the day, you’ll know best which procedures should be performed more frequently than others.
It All Comes With Time
We like to believe that time is the best way to learn how to manage, monitor, and maintain your saltwater aquarium. As time progresses, your tank will mature, the bio-filter will mature, and you’ll be in a better position to determine an appropriate maintenance schedule for your unique system because you’ll begin to gain a deeper understanding and an extensive expertise of the intricacies of your aquarium.
From there, it’s up to you to develop the proper routine, determine the best monitoring and maintenance methods, and ensure that your aquarium is clean, your ecosystem is healthy and flourishing, and that your system is sustainable for years to come!
Expanding Your System
For a bonus, let’s try to envision the future here for just a minute. Suppose you spend a year building your system. You paid close attention to each of the beginner’s mistakes that we pointed out earlier in the article, and you were sure to follow each and every tip that we outlined for you above. So far, your system is clean, healthy, and certainly habitable, and you’re looking into expanding your system.
Now, when we use the word “expand,” we aren’t necessarily referring to new livestock additions. Instead, we’re talking about moving onto a bigger tank, a more intricate seascape with living coral reefs, plant life, and even advanced lighting. The tips and tricks that we discussed all throughout this article can still be of tremendous benefit for you!
Essentially, the basic fundamental processes never change; they just simply increase in scope and scale. And while there will be new considerations that you’ll have to be well-aware of with a larger tank and a larger ecosystem, the best thing we can recommend is that you do your research again, remain just as patient (if not more) than your first aquarium, and be prepared to watch a real ecosystem unfold right before your eyes.
A Brief Recap
Before we wrap it up and send you on your way towards building your new saltwater aquarium, let’s take a quick look at everything we discussed today. First, here are the mistakes that you most certainly aren’t going to make when building you aquarium:
- Don’t Overplay Your Hand – Keep it simple, do your research, and learn before doing.
- New Tank Syndrome – Know what causes it, how you can avoid it, and how to fix it.
- Water Circulation – Determine the right water circulation/filtration solution that works for your system.
Now, let’s take a look at the tips that we provided to help ensure that your build is successful:
- The Aquarium Cycling Process – Remain patient, complete the process, and don’t add any livestock until it’s complete, you’ve checked all necessary levels, and you’re certain that you can move on.
- After Cycling/Next Moves – Perform a water change and allow new saltwater to stabilize in your system prior to adding livestock.
- Treading Slowly With New Additions – Take time before each new addition to allow your system to stabilize itself and constantly monitor all levels.
- Maintenance, Maintenance, & More Maintenance! – Determine the proper routine maintenance schedule unique to your individual system.
So, do you feel prepared to build your own saltwater aquarium? While these tips and tricks are certainly a great start, be sure to conduct tons of research! Remember, every aquarium is different, each builder has their own preferences, and no two fish will respond the same to a new system. Ensuring that you know the facts before you act is the simplest piece of advice that we could ever provide.
So, if you’re ready to give it a shot – go for it and tackle this endeavor head on. Let us know how it turns out, and be sure to ask us any questions that come to mind. We’re always ready to help our fellow aquarium builders ensure that their ecosystems are safe.