Beginners guide to building your first saltwater aquarium setup

Are you completely overwhelmed with how to start your very own saltwater aquarium setup ? Never fear, we are here to help ūüôā

We hope this page will provide you with the knowledge and confidence to start your saltwater aquarium. Below is a step by step guide for you to follow to get started. Please click on the links (highlighted in blue) to read more about each step.


Aquariums come in all shapes and sizes, new or old. No matter which tank you decide to go for you must first give them a through wash. This can be done with a strong salt water solution. Salt is a great cleaning product plus, any residue left in the tank won’t cause problems with your fish or coral. One very important thing to remember,¬†Never use detergent or soap to clean your fish tank¬†as the chemical may eventually contaminate your water and harm your fish or coral.


 As excited as you may be to get started with your aquarium setup, this is a crucial step, so try not to rush. Begin by placing the soft matting supplied with the tank on top of the cabinet. In instances where a matt was not supplied then you can use polystyrene. Gently place the tank on top of the matt. Check to make sure your tank is level by using a spirit level. You should check the tank left to right and front to back. If your tank is slightly uneven, you will need to make small adjustments. You can do this by adding wooden fillers under the cabinet. It is important to get this part right because not only does an uneven tank look terrible but it could cause your tank to fall over! Make sure you leave room at the back of your display for any wires or pipes. Always leave a gap anyway Рjust in case you decide to upgrade your filtration system at a later date. 

We have provided a few great examples of stands and cabinets but most people buy the tank and stand together as a package. However if you are looking for more information then click here.


Prepare the saltwater in a new and clean mixing container so that the specific gravity measures between 1.022-1.026. If you plan on having corals, the specific gravity should be on the higher end of 1.026, as corals like it salty. These are easy to use and pretty accurate, in most cases  the blue/white interface indicates the reading of your water (super easy!!).  Reverse Osmosis (RO) rather than ordinary tap water is best when mixing your saltwater.

Are you looking for more information on refractometers? if you are click here 


Saltwater aquarium setup - refractometer
Salinity using a refractometer. Measuring 1.026 Saltwater aquarium setup


Place the sand in a bucket and run warm water constantly through it as you mix the sand with your hands. As soon as the water runs clear (while mixing with your hands), it will be safe to add to your aquarium. Place the coral sand into the bottom of the tank, and spread it out so you have a nice slope. Ideally you want the sand about three inches thick at the back sloping to two inches thick at the front. This will encourage any uneaten food to roll down to the front, so you can easily syphon it out at a later date. You can use an old clean plate on the sand, so that when you pour the saltwater mix in, it will not destroy your sand landscaping. Fill the tank with your prepared aquarium saltwater mix, which should be at room temperature. This must be prepared in a brand new bucket to avoid contamination. The specific gravity should be 1.026 if you have corals or between 1.022-1.026 for a fish only set up (see image above).


Place your internal filter into the tank or set up your external filter according to the instructions with which the filter came. External filters always have the inlet at one side and the outlet on the opposite to encourage water movement. Don’t switch the filters on yet. Fill them with filter materials or filter cartridges.  Make sure they become primed (full) with salt-water. If you decide on a sump filtration system, then you might want to consider purchasing our e-book for a more detailed explanation. If you don’t use any live rock, you will need to add a filter start (live bacteria to kickstart the good bacteria in your filter). This will help kick start the water cycle.

There are many different filters available however this can be a bit of a minefield and it can get a little confusing. Not to worry we do talk more about filters in our e-book and we have provided a little more information here .



A protein skimmer can be attached in three different ways in your aquarium setup, inside the tank (inboard), hang onto the side of your tank or externally inside the sump.

If you are unsure what a protein skimmer does or why you may need it then click here.



This bit of kit is a great way to kill bad bacteria in your water. Make sure you position this near the clean return water (return flow). This will help to keep bad bacteria from re-entering your tank.

Click here to learn more about UV sterilization.


Set the temperature to around 75-82 degrees Fahrenheit depending on what you want to eventually stock. For example, the ideal temperature for a reef (coral) aquarium is 75-78 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the heater near the return flow. Place the thermometer as far away from the heater as possible.

TIP: You should make sure that ALL electrical cables have a drip loop. This will stop any water from dripping down the cable into the plug.

Click here to learn more about aquarium heaters.


Aquascaping is the fun part. This is the point at which you get to really customise your aquarium setup and make it aesthetically pleasing. Gently wash your live rock in made up salt water, but do not scrub the rocks, as you could kill anything growing on it. Examine the live rock carefully for any unwanted hitchhikers. Arrange the live rock in your aquarium as desired. Ideally, you want to arrange them, so they hide equipment, like heaters and cables. If you are using live rock, make sure you use warm water and place the rocks directly onto the glass bottom. You need to do this in case you purchase any burrowing critters later on – you wouldn’t want the rock to sink and squish them. Remember live rock must be kept moist until they can be submersed in saltwater‚ÄĒwet newspaper works well.

Click here for aquascaping inspiration. 


We suggest that you add critters first, these will be your clean up crew and include things like shrimp and crabs. The amazing thing about saltwater aquarium set ups is that the older the aquarium, the more mature it gets. A mature aquarium has more stable water parameters and tank harmony which is what we are all aiming for.

CONGRATULATIONS, you are now the proud owner of a lovely, fully-working saltwater aquarium.