saltwater aquarium tank on cabinet with clownfish and anemones

Ultimate 4-Month Saltwater Aquarium Guide: Stunning Results

Are you considering setting up your first saltwater aquarium but need some specific details and inspiration? Let’s take a tour of my HelloReef tank, which has been up and running for about four months now. Let’s call this blog the “4-Month Saltwater Aquarium Guide”, because this is what your tank can look like too!

Check out this setup guide all about the HelloReef kit here if interested. We talk all about what’s inside.

Tank Overview

The tank is a 15-gallon all-in-one style system with high clarity, low iron glass, a three-compartment rear filter, and a pre-attached foam mat base. The 15 gallons are divided between the large display portion and the smaller rear filtration chamber. The overall tank dimensions are 15 inches wide, 15 inches long, and 15 inches tall, making it a 15-inch cube. The primary display chamber is 15 inches long by 11 inches wide, while the rear filtration chamber is 15 inches long by 3.5 inches wide.

Shop for the HelloReef Kit here

shot of 15 glass tank with purple rock structure sitting on top of a wooden table. Overlay bubble with tank specs.

Rear Filter Chambers

The rear filter consists of three chambers:

  • Chamber 1: 3.5 inches by 3 inches
  • Chamber 2: 6.5 inches by 3.5 inches
  • Chamber 3: 3.5 inches by 4 inches

When fully loaded with sand, rock, and seawater, the tank weighs approximately 165 pounds. While discussing tank measurements might seem dull, you’ll find these specs helpful when you want to add upgraded gear to simplify maintenance.

Equipment and Upgrades

In this ultimate 4-month saltwater aquarium guide, I’m using all the gear that came with the HelloReef kit, with a few added upgrades that make life easier and enhance tank stability.

Display Portion

In the display portion of the tank, you’ll find:

  • Sand: 10 lb bag of CaribSea’s Arag-Alive Coraline Sand
  • Rock: CaribSea Life Rock
  • Wave Maker: AI Nero 3. This is an upgrade from what came in the kit.
  • Thermometer: BRS Thermometer
  • Light: Aqua Illumination 12-inch Blade Grow Light

All of this gear is included in the HelloReef kit, except where noted.  If you want to explore all of our gear recommendations, then check out our Gear Guide page here.

close up product shot of aquaillumination nero wavemaker. It has a black case body, and green propellers. It's on a white background, with swirling water around it to simulate water movement
AI Nero 3 Wavemaker Upgrade
AI Axis 20 Return Pump Upgrade

Rear Chamber

In the rear chamber, we’ve got:

  • Filter Sock: Included
  • Sponge Pack: Included
  • Carbon Bag: Included
  • Ceramic Biomedia: Included
  • Heater: Eheim Jager Heater
  • Return Pump: AI Axis 20 (this is a DC powered upgrade from what came with the kit)

Additional Gear

I’ve added a few extras for redundancy, consistency, and to make my life a bit easier:

  • Temperature Controller: Inkbird with saltwater and corrosion-proof probes
  • Second Heater: Set to 75°F as a backup
  • Auto Top Off Unit (ATO): Tunze Osmolator Nano unit
a product shot of the inkbird temperature controller. It is a rectangular unit with three parts. The first is the controller itself with a grey plastic body and rectangular shape, two lcd display screens and control buttons. Then there is a black rubberized temperature probe. And finally there is a separate portion with two three pronged outlets, both for heaters
Inkbird Temperature Conroller
product shot of tunze osmolator nano in a box on white background
Tunze Osmolator Nano ATO

Temperature Controller

The Inkbird temperature controller has a probe and a power outlet. I placed the probe in the display portion of the tank and set the controller to maintain water temperature between 77 and 78°F. This controller not only keeps the temperature consistent but also has a high and low alarm function to alert me if something goes wrong. While the heater does a good job, a temperature controller does it better and acts as a backup if the heater fails.

I wouldn’t just add a controller for this ultimate 4-month saltwater aquarium guide, I would add a controller to every tank.

Second Heater

Adding a second heater may seem redundant, but it provides an additional safety net. I set the second heater to activate at 75°F, ensuring that if the primary heater fails while I’m away, the tank temperature won’t drop too low.

Auto Top Off Unit (ATO)

The ATO unit automatically replenishes evaporated water, which is crucial when I’m not home to do it manually. I’m using the Tunze Osmolator Nano unit, but other options like the Reef Breeder Prism ATO or the IceCap Gravity ATO would also work well. I keep a 5-gallon bucket of filtered water in the cabinet under my tank as the reservoir, eliminating the need for manual top-offs.

Animal Stocking

In the display tank, I’ve stocked:

  • Two Ocellaris Clownfish
  • Two Peppermint Shrimp
  • One Skunk Cleaner Shrimp
  • One Tuxedo Sea Urchin
  • Five Astrea Snails
  • Five Cerith Snails
  • Five Hermit Crabs
  • Ten Rose-Colored Captive Raised Bubble Tip Anemones from Worldwide Corals

I’m still waiting for my clownfish to host the anemones. Recently, I saw the smaller clownfish touch its tail to one of the anemones, so I’m hopeful they will eventually take to each other. I’ve tried the old trick of placing a picture of clownfish in anemones on the side of the tank, but no luck yet. However, based on past experience, I know it can take time.

World Wide Corals has great stuff, but you should also check out Top Shelf Aquatics and Seahorse Savvy for other great pet options.

Maintenance and Adjustments

To maintain a healthy environment, I’ve made several adjustments based on testing and observation:

Feeding Schedule

I’ve adjusted my feeding schedule because my nitrate and phosphate levels were creeping up too high, even with consistent weekly 10% water changes.

BRS Pellet Diet
product shot of a blister pack of frozen Hikari mysis shrimp. It has a purple label with a seahorse and coral on it.
Hikari Mysis Shrimp

Water Testing and Adjustments

I test my water three times a week for nitrate, phosphate, and alkalinity. When nitrate and phosphate levels started creeping up, I adjusted the feeding schedule and increased the frequency and volume of water changes from 1 gallon to 5 gallons weekly. Additionally, I became more consistent with changing out the filter socks every two to three days and started a weekly sand bed cleaning using a Python gravel vacuum.

I’ve found that frozen food in the afternoon instead of pellets has helped, but the levels were still rising. I have a pretty wide tolerance for nitrate and phosphate levels, but I get concerned when nitrate reaches 15-20 ppm and phosphate hits 0.2 ppm because quick swings or elevated levels can harm anemones. To stabilize and reduce these levels, I:

    • Changed Feeding Routine: Switched the afternoon feeding to frozen food.
    • Increased Water Changes: Upped the volume to 5 gallons weekly.
    • Frequent Filter Sock Changes: Every 2-3 days.
    • Weekly Sand Bed Cleaning: Using a Python gravel vacuum.

Alkalinity Management

Despite larger water changes, I noticed my alkalinity was decreasing due to the growth of coralline algae and the needs of my invertebrates. To counter this, began dosing kalkwasser.

Coralline algae and invertebrates like my sea urchin, shrimp, hermit crabs, and snails use alkalinity to secrete calcium carbonate shells. To ensure stable alkalinity, I use Kalkwasser (lime water) in addition to my weekly water changes. This has helped maintain a safe range for alkalinity.

Amino Acids & Beneficial Bacteria

I have always struggled with keeping my anemones healthy.  In fact, when I first started this tank, I had shipment anemones that slowly faded away.  Depressing and frustrating.  

It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing.  I’ve consulted personally some of the greatest and most skilled keepers of anemones in the hobby.  I’ve followed everything they’ve told me, still to no avail.

The only thing I could think of, is that I tinker too much, gravel vac too much, and just upset the ecosystem.  I vowed not to do it with this tank.

And on top of that, some advice I was given from an anemone pro, was to dose Brightwell Aquatics Coral Amino and Microbacter7 every week after the water change. So that is what I do!

Observations and Future Plans

I’ve noticed a healthy population of copepods thriving in the tank, feeding on diatoms in the sandbed. While I still see some diatoms, they serve as food for my snails and copepods, which is beneficial as long as I don’t get nuisance algae like green hair algae or bryopsis.

I’m hopeful that my clownfish will eventually host the anemones, and I’ll continue monitoring and adjusting as needed to maintain a stable environment.

Before & After Photos

The tank is looking amazing.  It’s the favorite tank I’ve ever built, and to be honest, it’s all I’ve ever wanted.  A tank with a couple clownfish and covered in clownfish.

It’s actually been about 8 months now since I’ve set up this tank, and I’ll put a few pictures below of the tank throughout the months so you can get a sense of how much it has matured.

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saltwater aquarium tank on cabinet with clownfish and anemones

Ultimate 4-Month Saltwater Aquarium Guide: Stunning Results

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