Saltwater Aquariums Demystified Part 01: Planning

Table of Contents

I) Getting Started

Marine Depot & My First Fish Tank have begun a collaboration with this 10-part series, “Saltwater Aquariums Demystified.”  If you’ve watched my older 10-part series, you will see a lot of similarities.

For each blog, there is an accompanying video, so just scroll down and you can watch!

This entire series is basically going to be like a 100 level college course, “Marine Husbandry 101”. We are going to discuss every aspect of this hobby.

The goal is not to make you an expert, but to give you just enough information on a wide variety of topics, so you feel informed and comfortable building your first saltwater aquarium.

If you want to jump to any episode, just click on the link below.

II) IM Nuvo Encore Build List

Since this build is actually two separate 10 gallon tanks, we are going to do a saltwater and a freshwater side.  Below is all of the gear we are using, and we will specify if it’s for the salt or fresh side.

1) Tank

IM Nuvo Concept Encore 20 Pro Bundle

This is a really cool build, and perfect for a beginner.  Basically you get two 10-gallon tanks for the price of one.  So you can build two saltwater tanks, make one side a quarantine and the other side a hospital tank, salt & fresh, or two freshwater tanks.  

The filtration is completely separate on each side, so the sky is the limit!  Here are the specs:

  •  20 gallons total (10 each side)
  • 23.6″L x 15″W x 13″H
  • 6mm glass thickness
  • Low iron glass
  • 2x Mesh screen
  • 1x MicroMag magnetic glass cleaner
  • 1x Pre-installed rubber leveling mat
  • 2x Removeable 200 micron filter socks
  • 2x Desktop CustomCaddy media basket
  • 2x DC return pumps
  • 2x Mechanical filter balls, carbon, and GFO packs
  • Flexible hoses, return elbow, and directional flow nozzle.

2) Stand

APS Cabinet Stand by Innovative Marine

Innovative Marine makes an aluminum stand just for this tank.  It’s lightweight, and comes with an optional shelving unit to help store your gear.

3) Lights

Kessil A80 Tuna Blue (Saltwater)
Kessil A80 Tuna Sun (Freshwater)
Kessil Mini A Series Gooseneck

Since one side of our build is freshwater, and the other side is saltwater, we need two different lights.  We are going to use the Kessil A80’s, Tuna Blue for the saltwater side, and the Tuna Sun for the freshwater side.

Just make sure you also purchase the Gooseneck Mount for each so you can attach the lights to your tank.

4) Wavemaker (Saltwater)

Hydor Koralia Nano Circulation Pump 240gph (Saltwater)

Depending on your livestock, you may not need this wavemaker.  But some corals like a bit higher flow rates, so if you find you just aren’t getting enough umph from the included DC return pump, give this wavemaker a try.  It’s super budget friendly and will do the job just fine!

5) Live Rock (Saltwater)

product shot on white background of four purple pieces of dry reef rock.
CaribSea Life Rock

Live rock provides the backbone of biological filtration for any saltwater aquarium, as well as providing beauty, hiding places for fish, and locations to place coral.

I like this live rock because it comes 100% pest free, and with a natural looking coralline color that makes it pop under the blue lights. 20 lbs will be more than enough, and you can even break up some of the bigger pieces to give you more options.

6) Freshwater Rock (Fresh)

Canyon Petrified Stone From Lifegard Aquatics

I’m going to be 100% honest here… I don’t know anything about the freshwater side!  These rocks were recommended to me by Marine Depot, so I’m going to use them, along with some wood, to try my best at a freshwater scape!  Marine Depot has a whole bunch of other freshwater rocks available, so check them out!

7) Wood (Fresh)

Zoo Med Spider Wood
Mopani Wood

I’ve actually used the Mopani wood before in a Betta Fish tank I built a while back, and I think I even made a YouTube video about it!

It’s beautiful, and even left some nice tannins in the water (which I hear you can mitigate with boiling the wood and using activated carbon).

Once again, I don’t know a think about freshwater scaping, but these were recommended to me so I’m going to give them a shot!

8) Live Sand (Salt)

Fiji pink sand in 20 lb bag with close up of grain size
CaribSea Fiji Pink Sand

This is often my go-to sand.  It has a nice color to it, and the grain consistency is quite uniform.  It’s probably a good bet for a lower-flow tank like this IM build.  For higher flow tanks I go with the CaribSea Special Grade,  mainly because the slightly larger grain size prevents it from blowing around your tank.

For this 10 gallon build, the 10 lb bag will do just fine.

9) Freshwater Sand (Fresh)

CaribSea Super Natural Torpedo Beach Sand

Once again, I had to rely on some of my freshwater aquascaping friends for this recommendation.  They told me it looks great and can be used with plants!  The 20lb bag will be more than enough!

10) Heater (x2)

Eheim Jager 50 Watt Aquarium Heater

The Eheim Jagers have been my go-to heaters for many, many years now. You’ll see they come in #1 on my Heaters Gear Guide.  They are affordable, last a long time, and I just have a proven track record with them.

The 50W size will be perfect for this build, and make sure you get 2 of them, one for each side.

11) Algae Scraper

Kent Marine Pro-Scraper II

I’ve used various versions of this handheld scraper for years, but with this size tank, I think the 12″ is perfect.  Yes, this build does come with a magnetic algae scraper, but sometimes there are places it just won’t reach.  

Just be sure to rinse this Kent Marine Pro Scraper out with freshwater after each use, and you should get many years of use out of it!

12) Protein Skimmer (Salt)

AquaMaxx NF-1 Nano Protein Skimmer

While certainly not essential for a lightly stocked tank, if you really cram in fish and corals, I would consider picking this skimmer up.

It’s rated for a 20-gallon tank with a heavy bioload, so it’s hyper powered for this build.

It does fit in the second filtration chamber, just barely, and you have to remove these little rubber pieces at the bottom, all of which takes about 5 seconds!

13) Gravel Vacuum

Gravel Vacuum
Aqueon Siphon Vacuum Gravel Cleaner

Just another one of those water change essentials, I think the 5′ Mini will work just fine!

14) Drip Acclimator

Innovative Marine Accudrip Acclimator For Drip Acclimation
IM AccuDrip Drip Acclimator

You don’t need this for the acclimation process, but it’s just so handy that I’ve used mine for probably five years by this point.  There is a plastic U-shape at the end which fits nicely inside your tank, and a rolling clamp to adjust the flow.

15) Net

Marina Fine Nylon Net

Nothing fancy, just a simple and inexpensive net to catch your fish!

16) Test Kit (Saltwater)

front view of api saltwater test kit in original packaging. it's a semi-clear plastic box with a blue plastic lid. A label sticker covers the front, it's blue and yellow, and says API Saltwater Master Test Kit on it
API Marine Saltwater Master Test Kit

This is an inexpensive saltwater test kit that will monitor your ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates, basically letting you know when the cycle is done.

If you start adding corals, you will probably want to pick up another test kit that checks for calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium.

17) Tap Water Conditioner (Fresh)

API Tap Water Conditioner

On the freshwater side, you can go one of two ways.  The easiest is to use this dechlorinator for your tap water.  It neutralizes the chlorine and chloramines that might be in your water, as well as the heavy metals.

I’ve used it successfully with my Betta Fish, and it’s worked great.

You could also use RO/DI water, and add back in the minerals using Remineraliz Mineral Balance from Brightwell Aquatics.

18) Refractometer (Salt)

AquaMaxx Refractometer

I still think a refractometer is the most reliable way to test the salinity of your saltwater.  Sure, it costs a bit more up front, but it’s so much easier than playing around with a hydrometer. I’ve had my refractometer for over five years, and it’s still like new.  Just make sure to rinse it with freshwater after each use.

19) TDS Meter w/Thermometer

AquaMaxx Refractometer

I actually wish I would have bought this TDS meter sooner, mainly because it also has a thermometer.  Here I was, using a TDS meter and a thermometer separately for years!

Always handy to have on hand, a TDS meter measures the total dissolved solids in your RO/DI water, and let’s you know when it’s time to change your RO/DI filters!

III) Two Places To Begin

I think it’s important to get a sense of what’s available before deciding on your saltwater aquarium.  Here are two great places to start.

To get a sense of the different types, shapes, and sizes of saltwater aquariums, head to Marine Depot, click on “Aquariums” and you can browse their entire selection.

Another great spot is to browse the Build Lists on this website.  We’ve organized all sorts of curated lists based on budget, size, shape, and even by store.

IV) Four Categories Of Tanks

This is my own breakdown, but I think it will help you understand the complexity of different types of tanks. They increase by level of difficulty, starting with the easiest.


© My First Fish Tank

FOWLR is just hobbyist lingo for “fish only with live rock.” Basically this tank just has fish and certain invertebrates such as snails, but no corals or anything that is really light dependent.  

There is plenty you can do with a fowlr tank, and it is especially useful if you want to keep certain species of fish that tend to eat or nip at corals.  And trust me, a lot of fish love coral!

The live rock acts as the primary biological filter for your tank, but also provides grazing ground for snails and hiding places for fish.

Don’t think that a fowlr tank is just for beginners.  There are plenty of experts with fowlr tanks, because they want to keep fish that are not reef safe.

2) Softy/LPS Coral

© My First Fish Tank

With the addition of corals, the difficulty level increases quite a bit.  Not because all corals are super demanding or difficult to keep, but because with each new addition it requires a different knowledge base.

There are so many different species of corals, but for the sake of this blog we will break it down into 4 categories:

  • Soft Coral– any coral without a calcium carbonate skeleton.
  • LPS Coral– large polyp stony corals. Most are beginner friendly.
  • SPS Coral– small polyp stony corals. Often have demanding lighting and flow requirements.
  • Non Photosynthetic Corals- Expert only.

Personally, I am most drawn to LPS corals.  I love their long polyps that reach out toward the light and sway in the current.  For a full list of corals I think are perfect for beginners, check out The Beginner’s Guide To Coral.

3) Mixed Reef

large saltwater aquarium with corals
© My First Fish Tank

A mixed reef is basically the same as #2 above, with the addition of SPS coral.  

In general small polyp stony corals are more difficult to keep than their LPS counterparts.  They usually need strong lighting, adequate flow, and stable water parameters.

A beginner can certainly achieve all of these things, but when starting out there are often mistakes that are made that will rapidly affect the water chemistry.  

Until you get the hang of water testing and all of your equipment, I’d recommend starting out with easier to keep corals, and then slowly adding in SPS and anemones.

A mixed reef is the level I have personally maxed out at.  Not because I couldn’t learn category four, but because I’m satisfied with where I’m at in this hobby.

4) Specialized Tank

© My First Fish Tank

The last category is any sort of tank that requires a special skill set or specialized equipment.  Here are a few examples:

  • Shark tank
  • Breeding tank
  • Octopus tank
  • Non photosynthetic coral tank
  • Predator tank
  • Super finicky fish and/or corals

You usually have to plan way ahead for these builds, do tons of research, and build the tank completely around the key piece of livestock.

V) Four Key Considerations

Before venturing out to buy that first saltwater fish tank, consider these four things.

1) Budget

If you start out with my Budget Build List, you could spend under $300 setting up your first saltwater fish tank.  But with even a medium size tank, depending on the gear, you could easily spend over $5,000!

The question is: What is your goal, and where does that align with your budget? You have a couple options.

  • Option 01: This would be my recommendation.  Start out with something small, a bit more budget friendly.  This will give you a chance to learn the ropes and make mistakes, and really give you a sense of where you want to go next.  You may surprise yourself and be content with a budget tank.  Or you will be like most of us, crave something bigger, better, and inevitably more expensive.
  • Option 02: This is what I did for my first tank, the Red Sea Reefer 170.  I couldn’t afford it, so I saved up a little bit of money with each paycheck.  But knowing myself, I didn’t just put it in a savings account.  To keep the excitement alive, I bought a new piece of equipment whenever I could afford it.  It kept me motivated.  Yes, I had an empty tank sitting in my living room for six months, but everyday when I walked by it, I was more and more excited to get it going!

2) Location

Where are you going to put the tank in your home? It is an important decision because once its full of water, trust me on this one, it is a huge pain in the butt to move!  Here’s a few things to consider:

  • Windows– A little bit of direct sunlight isn’t a bad thing, but too much can lead to unwanted algae growth and temperature swings which can stress your fish out. Also, if you have an older, more drafty home, too close to the windows could cause wild temperature swings which can be harmful to your livestock.
  • Hidden or Plain Sight?– If this is just going to be an ugly quarantine tank, you’ll probably want to hide it away so guests don’t have to look at it.  But if it’s going to take pride of place in your home, the you will need to clean it regularly and will likely want to consider aesthetically pleasing options.  Nothing detracts more from the beauty of fish and corals than an ugly tank.
  • Noise– Even the most quiet of tanks will have gurgling and vibration noise.  So if you are sensitive to that, I’d recommend not putting the aquarium in your bedroom.  I used to have three tanks in my room, and the constant water noise was too much, so my wife and I had to always sleep with a fan on!

3) Size

1 gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds.  That means that a 50 gallon tank weighs over 400 lbs in water alone!  That’s a lot.

And for the rest of the world that is not on the Imperial System, 1 liter of water weights 1kg.

Why does this matter?  A couple reasons:

  • Does your condo/apartment have rules that limit the size of aquariums?
  • Is the floor going to be strong enough to hold the weight of the aquarium?

If you have any doubts as to the strength of your floor, consult a contractor.  Especially with larger tanks, tanks that are not on the ground level, or in old homes, the floor may need to be reinforced to make it safe.

4) Livestock

If you have your heart set on a certain kind of fish or coral, do some research ahead of time.  There are many species of fish that need a larger tank.  It would be awful to get your tank all set up, and then realize it was too small!

For example, in a 20 gallon system, you could probably only keep a couple clownfish, a goby, and maybe one more small fish.  

So if you know that you want a puffer fish, or maybe a school of anthias, do your research and be sure to get a tank big enough for them to thrive.

VI) Episode 02: Tanks & Stands

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