Beginners guide to saltwater

“I couldn’t possibly keep a saltwater tank, it’s too much work!”

I hear that phrase all the time when I tell people I have a saltwater aquarium. The truth is that keeping only saltwater fish is no more difficult than freshwater aquariums. It only has one added step – add salt to your water. Trust me, if you can keep a freshwater tank you can keep saltwater tanks too!
A little note here – there are different types of saltwater tanks. This article will talk about a fish only system; not a full reef tank with corals.

The biggest difference between saltwater and freshwater is the cost of things. Saltwater fish tend to cost more because many are wild caught fish. While some have been successful at breeding certain saltwater fish in captivity, many still come from wild sources. When you factor everything in, like paying someone to collect a fish and then shipping around the world, it’s no surprise they cost more. I think the bright and vibrant colors that come are worth the price tag!

A blue tang is a popular choice

Equipment needed

If you have ever owned a freshwater tank you likely have enough equipment to start a saltwater. You need a tank, a heater, and something to move the water. I started with a 29 gallon tank I had on hand. I used a hang on back filter that was used for my freshwater tank. There is something called a powerhead which pushes water around with the use of a fan. They come in all sizes and strength but a cheap one on Amazon is less than $10. This is a great, and affordable, way to move the water in your tank. Water movement is important for two reasons. The first because it keeps temps stable in the whole tank. The second being it can help keep the water oxygenated. If you point the powerhead towards the top of the water it creates little ripples along the surface. This prevent a film from coating the water and allows oxygen to enter.

For a heater on smaller tanks I am a fan of these preset heaters. They automatically heat the water up to a preset 78 degrees and turn off. If you already had a heater that works it should be good here too.

These come in different watts all the way up to 300w! Photo from


Sand is another thing many people like to add to a tank. It’s not completely needed as there are very successful tanks run bare bottom – that is a tank with no sand at all. The look of your sand will greatly impact the look of your tank. A white sand will reflect light back up and make the tank brighter. A black sand will absorb the light, making the tank appear darker but allowing the bright colors of fish to really stand out. Whatever sand you choose just make sure to rinse it before adding it to your tank.


This part seems intimidating for many newcomers. It’s really simple. Start with a cheap brand of salt like Instant Ocean for example. Many pet stores carry this salt as well as being sold on Amazon. The bag will tell you how much to add per gallon. Typically it is around 1/2 cup of salt per gallon in my experience. A 5 gallon bucket comes in handy when first making salt. Simply fill the bucket with 3 or 4 gallons of water and scoop in the salt needed. If you have a powerhead, drop it in, turn it on and leave for a bit. If you don’t, grab something to stir the bucket with every now and then. I used a small pvc pipe when I first started. After a little bit of time your saltwater is fully dissolved and ready to go!

Different sizes of salt makes it easy for anyone to afford. Photo from Instant Ocean’s website.

Repeat this cycle until your tank is full. That’s it! Pretty simple really. In our next post we will discuss the nitrogen cycle and what that means for you.


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