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Easy Saltwater Aquarium Setup

By King of DIY on

Joey Mullen:
What's up, Frank? The saltwater aquarium is now set up ready for fish. However, in the meantime, I've completely destroyed the aquarium gallery. It's a complete mess out here. Let me go ahead and fix that first. Easy enough.

What I want to do in today's video is simply show you guys how I got the saltwater aquarium set up in the first place. It all started last week when I showed you guys I was aquascaping the tank. Today, or at least the other day, I started adding in the sand, or at least the coral substrate, and then this happened.

Oh, boy. I changed my mind. Took the rock out. I'm gonna drain the tank back down. This is just freshwater in here. I'm going to rescape it. I'm not happy with it. I just don't think it's suitable for the fish that I have coming. They are my number one priority as always. Let's see what I can come up with. I could work with this. The last scape simply just didn't scream to me predator tank. It was going to be too difficult to maintain. There wasn't enough open swimming space. I also felt like it was just too crammed and I just didn't like the look of it.

This one, on the other hand, I love all of the arches and the open swimming spaces. I do enjoy the fact that it has a more natural look. I think it would've been a little bit better if it came up higher, but again, we got a lion fish coming in here, so we do want to be careful. I also don't want too many dead zones in here. Look what I've done. I've created far more space behind the aquarium, which looks good. The only thing I removed was-- Well, all of these solid pieces, all of these solid rocks. I'm going to keep them handy, because one day, we might go for a reef. We'll add in some more rock

As is though, we've got about what 60 pounds. Still good. I still think it looks great. For a predator tank, watch this. When you come in, I think it looks awesome. This is what you're gonna see. I don't know. It almost looks like a broken-down Coliseum or something. It's far more stable than the last scape, believe it or not. It's also more uniformed, sort of. Maybe too uniformed. I did use some broken rubble to make it look like this was keep coming out. I don't know. I like it. I like it a lot. I'm going to go with it. I can't wait to see it with fish. Let's go. Let's get back to the regular video.

Ever since I scaped this aquarium the way it is now, I haven't touched it. I'm more than happy with it. Happy with it for three reasons. One, this is going to be far more enjoyable to the fish being added. Especially since I ordered large sizes. I want these fish to come in as big as they possibly can. Believe me, they will come in quite large. Which means they're going to be able to move around a lot easier in this, and it's also going to be easier to clean.

Which brings up the next point, which is better flow and creates a healthier aquarium. The final thing is I think it just looks better. Plus, I'm using half the amount of rock I was previously, meaning it's half the price. You see, I only have about $200 worth of this rock in here. In my opinion, if you are considering this rock, at least you've got to see the different shapes and sizes. Seeing what you can do with them so you could make a better choice.

In my opinion, stick to the shapes as opposed to the rocks when it comes to the Caribsea Life Rock. 20 pounds cost about $100. 40 pounds, $200. In comparison to a freshwater aquarium, that's the average budget when you're scaping an aquarium. Kind of, isn't it? Most of these tanks actually cost me more than that considering the manzanita wood that I'm using and a lot of the large pieces of Malaysian wood that I'm using cost much more than that. This is actually one of my cheapest scaped aquariums.

Of course, the substrate that we added in is optional. In a predator tank, it's probably best to go bare bottom, but I wanted a better appearance that was more appealing to more people. However, with using a crushed coral substrate, I'm also buffering my water as the crushed coral is releasing calcium over time, helping stabilize the pH, which I never have a problem with with my water anyways because it's such hard water with a high mineral content. It has a very high buffering capacity, meaning it doesn't fluctuate very often.

The more and more I progressed with this tank though, I must admit that I've realized that I was trying to make this as similar to my freshwater tanks in terms of how they're all running as possible so we can all make the transition into maybe having a saltwater aquarium a little bit easier. You see, I'm using very similar equipment.

I had the same aqua illumination AI lights on top of this, I'm using two of them, just like all of the freshwater aquariums on this rack, but this is the saltwater version. They're only running at about 60% each. As you can see, it brightly lights up this aquarium. Anything brighter, I think will be too intense for a fish only system. I'm not looking to grow any coral but they're certainly going to be capable of it.

I'm also using the same wave maker, except I upgraded it to a MP60. That's the EcoTech Wave Maker. It pumps about 7,500 gallons per hour plus using very minimal amount of wattage, it's a very economical pump. I got this off of the 2,000 gallon aquarium. If you remember, we used to have four on there. Once I installed the background, I took two out and I'm only running two on that tank now. I took one of those and put it on this aquarium. I'm actually only running that at about 60% in lagoonal, as well as reef crest mode, which is fluctuating the flows throughout the entire day. It's just not a constant jet of water. I think overall, that's going to be a good thing.

The last thing I'm using is the same pump, which is the Vectra M1 by EcoTech again. That just goes into the sump that I already have for these systems as well. Really, I'm using all the same equipment for my freshwater tanks, as I am my saltwater aquariums. In the saltwater hobby, flow is especially important. In substitution for a wave maker though, we could add smaller power heads.

Frank has a bubble maker. That's just aerating the water with water pumping up from the bottom. Those bubbles are not dissolving fast enough in the water to actually add oxygen to the tank, but once they burst up the surface, the agitation it creates creates far more surface agitation, allowing for greater oxygen exchange while sucking water up from the bottom and circulating it throughout the aquarium. Wave makers are simply a lot more efficient at doing, but that's it for the equipment.

When it comes to a saltwater aquarium, we also think reactors and top-offs, then we're looking at skimmers. I've actually shown you guys how to build all of those in the past. Tend to work on much smaller aquariums. I don't think I'll be adding a reactor to this because there's no dosing or anything I want to do. Perhaps I'll add an auto top off in the future. We'll see how the evaporation goes over the course of a week.

On the other tanks, it's very minimal, so I don't think I'm going to need two other than my regular water changes. Then of course, a skimmer. Now I showed you how to build a skimmer before. I think those will work great for up to about 30-gallon aquariums or so. I've used them in the past and it worked fantastic. However, when you're converting to 120-gallon aquarium, 20-gallon sumps, it's a 140-gallon system, we're looking at needing much more expensive materials and other tools that not many of you guys are going to have.

My suggestion, if you do want to buy any luxury equipment that will assist you with making your aquarium easier to take care of, and that's something I do have to keep in mind because I have over 4,000 gallons of aquariums. If that was just one or two tanks, a lot easier to take care of, but we're looking at 13 different systems with different requirements, needs, and fish. It becomes a little more complicated. I need these to be as simple and easy to take care of as possible.

That luxury piece of equipment that I decided to opt for was a saltwater skimmer. I think that that is probably the only necessary piece of equipment you could have that will make this process a lot easier. Problem is that I only have about an 8 x 8 area that it can fit in so I had to pick the biggest smallest one to fit into that section.

Overall though, going to make my life a lot easier. It's going to skim all the protein from the aquarium. In the freshwater hobby, mind you. Ever noticed the oily slick you get on top of your aquarium? That's a protein build up. In saltwater, you can remove that by creating millions of tiny microbubbles that the proteins can actually attach to, and then skim off the surface in that skimmer. In freshwater, we can't break the bubbles down small enough in order to do that. That's just simply due to the differences in surface tension between freshwater and saltwater. I made a video on this before and went in depth.

With the equipment covered, I guess you can say it it's not that complicated. If I didn't have a sump for this sized aquarium, it's probably a good idea in case I do want to expand in the future, turn this into a reef. If it was a smaller aquarium, I could've went for something like a canister filter, hang-on-the-back filter. Of course, those are nitrate factories as the end process of the nitrogen cycle, of course, is nitrate. We need to wait to export that. If you don't have a protein skimmer or any chemical reagents, what we'll be looking to do is simple water changes.

Don't be scared of a saltwater aquarium thinking you must have a sump and you must have a skimmer. You can certainly set up a small aquarium with light stocking, some ample filtration, and just do your weekly water changes and go from there. A lot of the times, you're going to have success.

Equipment out of the way, how was I going to turn all of this into saltwater? That was a hugely popular question I got when I announced I was getting a saltwater tank, was people saying, "Can you walk us through how to create saltwater?" I think a lot of the times, we forget about the very basics of aquarium-keeping and have to remind ourselves that, "Hey, not everybody's been keeping fish for as long as me. Let's address some of the basics as well." I will do that here in there periodically. Bear with me if you already know it. If you do already know these things, I challenge you to go into the comment section and help people, be productive, and give back to the hobby.

When it came to this tank tough, filled this bad boy up with fresh water straight from my well. I'm not using an RODI, I'm not pretreating the water. If you don't know what an RODI is, it stands for reverse osmosis deionized water. Essentially, it means it's stripping water down to its purest form, and then you add your salt and additives to that. That's what you do for a reef aquarium. This is not a reef aquarium.

For me though, since I'm on a well, I don't have to treat anything. I filled the water and I started dumping the salt in. This could be potentially dangerous if this was live rock, or if I had fish in it, or anything like that. You never want to dump big cups of salt in because you could burn your fish, burn your coral, ruin something within your aquarium. It could get into your pumps, et cetera. For me, since I wasn't worrying about any of that, I don't have anything to kill, filled the tank up and started dumping this salt in.

How much salt? It's always displayed on the manufacturer's packaging. You need X amount of salt to create X amount of saltwater. What I do is I come within about 80% of what's recommended, and then I slowly start to add in the rest until I get the salinity that I'm looking for. Salinity is the saltwater content or how salty the water might be.

How do you measure saltwater? This is a good question and one that I struggled with because I wanted to know what is the most efficient means of measuring the salinity. Because we can't have that fluctuating and going up and down all the time, you want that to be pretty consistent. Of course, it is a saltwater aquarium. There's two main methods used in the hobby. There's hydrometer, as well as a refractometer.

A hydrometer measures the specific gravity of water. Basically, if you had pure water, it would measure one. Once you add salt into it, the specific gravity begins to change and you can get different readings. Now, a lot of the times you'll see the hydrometer with a swing iron, but that's a moving component. Over time, all moving components lose their accuracy if they're not well-maintained. You just want to look for other ways to measure your salinity. Hydrometers do tend to be one of the cheapest but they are one of the least efficient.

The best way to measure salinity, in my opinion, and as well as many others, is using a refractometer. This will cost you more to measure your salinity, but you'll thank yourself in the long run. You're looking at $20, $30 or so, you can get yourself one of these bad boys. This is a refractometer. What we're going to do is measure the refraction of light. Everything refracts light. We've talked about this in the past as well, comparing acrylic aquariums to glass aquariums.

What we're going to to here is essentially make sure that your lenses are clean, we're going to drop on some saltwater, close to the screen and press it down and there's no bubbles. We're going to look through the dial right here. This is going to give us a reading of the refraction of light. Basically, the angle of which the water is refracting in the water. When it comes to a fish-only system, you're looking to have a specific gravity of about 1.021 or 1.022 for something like a reef tank. I believe you're looking closer to 1.025 or 1.026, something like that.

Again, there's going to be so many saltwater aquariums that have been waiting for these videos to come out. Just read the comments, they will correct me and give me you further information in the comments section below. Make sure that you always check out the comments section, because I've said time and time again, that's the second half of the video

That, my friends, is how we create and measure saltwater. In the future, when I need to do my water changes though, I'm going to be mixing the water in a large barrel. I'll be changing maybe 20 to 40 gallons once a week. I'll be filling the barrel with temperature-appropriate water, which will be about 25°C, maybe 26°C. Then I'm going to add in the proper amount of salt based on the manufacturer's instructions, and then I'll continuously measure with my refractometer.

Eventually I'll have exact measurement in the bucket versus the exact measurement of salt that I need to add and I probably won't have to measure at all. At this point, I can do my water changes, siphon the gravel like you would on a freshwater aquarium, and then pump in or dump in the new saltwater. This will dilute dissolved organics and waste within the aquarium.

Now we know the equipment I'm using, we know the layout, we know the fish, we also know how we make the actual saltwater. What about any other forms of filtration that you could add that will make your time in the saltwater hobby, at least at the beginning, a little easier? There's a few chemical media you can add. Since my saltwater came with carbon, I decided I'd add carbon to the sump. Essentially, if you guys know what activated carbon is, one the most poplar chemical medias within the freshwater hobby, it removes impurities, discoloration, tannins, smells from your aquarium, like a polisher, for example.

There's other things in the saltwater hobby that is not as popular in the freshwater hobby, but they're becoming more and more popular. Chemi-Pure, for one, kind of looks like activated carbon. It does the same thing but it also aids in removing dissolved organics. Almost the same thing as activated carbon. That is actually a really popular chemical media in the saltwater hobby.

Then, probably the most popular, or at least up there, is Purigen. Purigen is going to help control ammonia nitrite and nitrate, it's going to remove dissolved organic from the aquarium, it's going to remove essentially all insoluble and soluble impurities that might be in your water column. Basically, it's like a cheat code for your saltwater aquarium when you are starting up. Eventually, we might not need to spring for those chemical medias because some of them are not renewable. Purigen is, you can use it over and over again. However, at first, I like to add in as many protection points as I possibly can just to give me more success down the road.

Now I can't just add fish in as is, regardless of everything that I have. Just like the freshwater hobby, we need to cycle our saltwater aquariums, but you guys already know how to cycle aquariums. I've shown you many different methods. We've gone over it several different times. Would you believe that it's the exact same thing in the saltwater hobby? It's just different species of bacteria. They still go through the nitrogen cycle. There is still ammonia nitrite and nitrate. You guys have an understanding of that, so we need to apply what we know there to here.

When I usually cycle my aquarium, there's a multitude of methods that I've used in the past, but one of my most popular is to use established media from other aquariums that are disease and pest-free. I don't have any other saltwater aquariums I could do that with, and I don't really want to introduce anybody else's media or anything that to the aquarium, I want to start off fresh. I might have to rely on that, but what I did is, you'll remember that the life rock is coated with a dormant bacteria, which supposedly springs to life and establishes your biological filter over time.

Plus, the substrate. If you guys remember, when I was dumping that in, it was already wet. That's because that claims to have live bacteria within it as well, both in the millions counts of bacteria. Am I going to rely on that? No. It's a nice thought, and maybe at some point we could do a test where we can put these things to the test and test them with pure ammonium and whatnot, but I need to add fish to this eventually. I decided I'm going to go ahead and drop some bacteria in a bottle. I've never depended on these before. I've always thought it's more of a snake oil type of deal, but so many people are recommending it and having success with it. I thought I'm going to give it a try.

I've started out with dumping a couple of bottles of Dr. Tim's bacteria in this tank. None of these names and brands that I'm saying sponsored anything here, I just bought them, by the way. I had enough to to jump-start a 120 gallon aquarium with Dr. Tim's, then I took some ATM colony. About 200 gallons worth of that and dumped that into the tank. Hopefully, that's going to be enough to at least jump-start this tank, but I don't trust it enough to just add fish like these brands recommend.

What are these things supposed to do? Well, they're supposed to convert ammonia into nitrite, and then into nitrate. I'm not going to use fish as test subjects when I could just go ahead and buy some actual ammonia. This is watered-down ammonia, of course. If you are looking to jump-start an aquarium with ammonia, you can use this. I'm just doing some microdosing, taking a milliliter at a time and squirting it into the aquarium, waiting until I get a reading on it.

A lot of the times, depending on the size of your aquarium, I'll do probably three milliliters of ammonia per 100 gallons. I'll tend to get a nice reading on that. I keep testing over time. If it works, it works. It will be undisputable for me, at least, at that point, and I can say, "Yes, this works." Then I can't say this works because I don't know which one worked. Was it the sand? Was it the rock? Was it Dr. Tim's? Or was it the colony? I suppose that's another video we could potentially do in the future is put these things to test.

Now, I'm ready to add the fish to this aquarium. As a warning, the stocking that I had planned is slightly changed. Not everything I want is going to be available whenever I want it at that exact moment, so some substitutions had to be made. Just one substitution. Remember, I ordered a black volitain, or volitoin-- I'm going to have to learn to pronounce that. A black lionfish. Volitan? Voliton. It doesn't matter. A black lionfish. I also wanted a porcupine puffer because they're cute, as well as a snowflake eel. Which one of the three do you guys think I had to substitute and what do you think I substituted it for? Keeping in mind, this is a predator tank. Let me know in the comments section below.

I'm not going to have this tank fully stocked right away unless it is completely cycled. If you don't want to miss that video, check out the fish that I did get, and adding them to the aquarium, if you are not subscribed to this channel yet, make sure you do so you do not miss it.

About King of DIY

Joey is THE King of DIY, and when he built his gallery of aquariums he chose the Custom Aquariums rack system with 120-gallon tanks...a lot of them!

Joey Mullen is also known as the king of DIY, uarujoey or the DIY fishkeeper on social media. Providing education and inspiration for aquarium enthusiasts on YouTube, he is also the author of The Ultimate DIY Handbook; for the DIY Aquarist. His channel is about educating all levels of fish tank hobbyists who are passionate about caring for fish and keeping an aquarium of their own. Joey's aquarium rack systems were custom made by our professional fish tank engineers, here at Custom Aquariums.

Please watch the King of DIY's videos for some helpful information and great tips on diy aquarium keeping.

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