These three things lead to so many folks getting out of the hobby and then telling others that same old tired misconception that saltwater aquariums are impossible to keep
I’ve been a marine aquarium hobbyist since 1965. From 1968-1975 I worked for a wholesale/retail aquarium store in the Chicagoland area and in the late 1990s I built Pacific East Aquaculture (a state licensed coral aquaculture facility in Maryland) and officially started selling corals at our retail outlet and online in 2000. I have set up and maintained many hundreds of marine and reef aquariums and served thousands of hobbyists and businesses in the aquarium trade, so you might say that over the years I’ve seen, done, or heard it all, and then some!
One of the recurring themes I deal with as I interact with hobbyists every day are the problems some folks encounter that make the hobby much more difficult and complex than it needs to be. These problems fall into three basic categories that doom saltwater aquarium hobbyists from the beginning to fail:
1) Thinking you can have a beautiful aquarium virtually overnight
2) Getting bad advice and being so invested in it that making changes to correct the resulting problems cause anguish thus making the hobby drudgery instead of a source of joy and calm
3) Trying to do this hobby on a too restrictive budget
These three things lead to so many folks getting out of the hobby and then telling others that same old tired misconception that saltwater aquariums are impossible to keep. I’ve heard the same stories since the 1960s and it becomes so frustrating not only for me to hear, but also it is frustrating for the quickly discouraged hobbyist who has stayed in the hobby for only a few months and now has lost hundreds of dollars in animals.
Let me get more in depth about the common pitfalls that can destine a hobbyist to fail so that maybe you or someone else may avoid them.
That first spark that often gets folks excited about starting their own saltwater aquarium may come from watching a movie, seeing a friend’s tank or seeing an inspiring aquarium at a business or the public aquarium. Great, we love to welcome new hobbyists and encourage them along the journey to having a beautiful and healthy mini reef or fish-only aquarium. As hobbyists, we’ve all been there, that initial excitement and thrill, but sometimes this excitement leads to a buying frenzy that causes problems. We have had many hobbyists that call our store asking if we would take in a fish or coral bought from another store that is not appropriate for their tank because it was bought in haste. Or we are called in for a consultation on a problem tank to find an algae mess and learn that the hobbyist had only started the tank a month ago and has now wasted hundreds of dollars. A new hobbyist needs to understand that this hobby requires patience and that a big part of the pleasure of the hobby is in watching your corals grow over time and observing as the system matures. Trying to instantly replicate that tank that initially sparked the interest is a recipe for disaster for an ill-informed new hobbyist. When that instant gratification is met with set backs the new hobbyist soon finds themselves in a repeating cycle of constantly replacing animals that die with a new batch of fresh stock that will also soon die. This is a cycle that is costly and quickly zaps enthusiasm.
"A new hobbyist needs to understand that this hobby requires patience and that a big part of the pleasure of the hobby is in watching your corals grow over time and observing as the system matures. Trying to instantly replicate that tank that initially sparked the interest is a recipe for disaster for an ill-informed new hobbyist"
When that instant gratification is met with set backs the new hobbyist soon finds themselves in a repeating cycle of constantly replacing animals that die with a new batch of fresh stock that will also soon die. This is a cycle that is costly and quickly zaps enthusiasm.
Years ago we used to sell many aquarium related books, but not anymore. With easy access to perceived valuable free info online most folks will do a superficial search and think they have the needed knowledge to keep Nemo and his buddies in their home. Some may go to that local pet shop and an employee that has never kept an aquarium will tell them about what their manager told them to sell that day. It’s not that all pet shops are bad, it’s just that over the years we have experienced and heard the same stories so many hundreds of times that it’s sad that saltwater animals are sold so casually with such misinformation about their basic care especially since it really isn’t that difficult or complex!
If your local all-around pet shop has beautifully kept tanks, minimal algae issues, healthy fish and corals they will most likely be a good source of advice, but sadly this is not usually the norm, most all-around pet shops are usually not the best source for advice. Look around and see how their tanks look and ask yourself if you honestly want to take their advice. We hear the same story so many times from customers who come to our shop with tank problems from poor advice. They typically have been sold a basic tank with a hang-on filter and a bunch of bottles of potions and soon they end up having algae everywhere in the tank and have killed numerous fish and corals because they are lacking in knowledge about basic information such as the nitrogen cycle that is the core to how waste is processed in our aquariums. This critical basic information educates a hobbyist about where their algae problem came from and how to fix it and prevent it from returning. (For a review of the nitrogen cycle and lots of other valuable info please see our free Reef School on our site. The nitrogen cycle is specifically addressed on the Reef Basics page.)
So, what are the Basics a New Hobbyist Needs to Know?
This, as any, hobby should be enjoyable and not a complex messy ordeal. The basics of how to keep a saltwater or reef aquarium really haven’t changed that much over the years. First, you need to understand the nitrogen cycle, the biological process of how bacteria break down waste in an aquarium. In the presence of oxygen, aerobic bacteria breakdown ammonia waste into nitrite and then nitrate. Ammonia and nitrite are very toxic to the tank inhabitants, measurable levels will kill fish and corals. These aerobic bacteria grow on all surfaces in the tank and are especially plentiful in things such as bioballs, sponges, biowheels, etc. The result of the processing of waste by the aerobic bacteria is nitrate. Nitrate is not directly toxic to the tank inhabitants, but any nitrogen source such as nitrate will lead to algae growth since like any plant they use these nutrients as food. To prevent the build up of nitrate we must eliminate areas where lots of aerobic bacteria grow and produce nitrates. So, this means when if you must use bioballs, biowheels, or sponges they must be rinsed in freshwater weekly. Think of any area where lots of aerobic bacteria can grow and reduce or eliminate it and you will greatly reduce nitrates and lessen algae growth. Nitrate can be eliminated in several ways. Anaerobic bacteria, such as those found in a deeper sand bed, that grow in the absence of oxygen will break down the nitrate into nitrogen gas that is safely emitted from the tank.
Another issue often overlooked by those giving advice is the importance of using ultra purified freshwater. Impure freshwater will lead to messy algae growing in the aquarium. Using tap water will not only lead to algae growth but also chemistry imbalances that will kill corals. It seems that explaining the nitrogen cycle and the importance of using pure freshwater are concepts that few people advising new hobbyists bother to explain and sadly these issues are very critical to their success. Even though bad advice has led the new hobbyist to spend hundreds of dollars on a tank and equipment and possibly the loss of hundreds of dollars of animals, they tend to be very hesitant to negate that original bad advice. Despite having a mess of a tank, folks get stuck on what that guy at the pet shop told them or what they read online. Starting off correctly is so important! Retraining someone’s mindset is very difficult.
OK, so now we understand the basic processing of waste via the nitrogen cycle and the importance of using pure freshwater. Next, we need to get the correct equipment. Can this be done “on the cheap”? Well, yes and no! That’s relative to your concept of cheap. Cheap as in freshwater aquarium terms, no. But, it doesn’t need to be extremely expensive either. I do think it is incumbent upon anyone advising a new saltwater or reef aquarium hobbyist that this is not an inexpensive hobby. Telling someone you can certainly do this cheaply does them a disservice in my opinion. A more experienced hobbyist that has some experience keeping aquariums and the biological and chemical processes involved can certainly set up and maintain a system on a small budget, but not so much a new hobbyist.
A protein skimmer is a critical piece of equipment for a new hobbyist, some seasoned hobbyists can run successful tanks without one, but a skimmer gives a new hobbyist much more latitude to learn as they go along. The skimmer pulls waste out of the system before it even needs to be broken down by bacteria thus preventing the production of nitrate and lessening the likelihood of algae growth. The skimmer also aerates the water and provides valuable gas exchange that helps stabilize water chemistry. If a pet shop has skimmers, they tend to be poorly performing hang-on versions that do such a poor job of removing waste that they need to soon be replaced with a better model. Don’t skimp on spending for a skimmer, generally the more you spend the better the performance. Don’t be confused by all the fancy expensive models, a simple venturi skimmer with a large enough pump that allows maximum contact time between the air and the water will do the trick. If you have a drilled reef-ready tank then your options are many for skimmers, if you must use a hang-on version your options are much more limited. Look for reviews and seek some firsthand personal experiences to decide on what will be best for your situation. We don’t sell skimmers, so we gladly give unbiased opinions.
Lighting and water flow are the next items that are critical. You don’t need to spend crazy money on lighting. The only dry good we use and sell is Ocean Revive LED fixtures. We have been using them for years and love them. You can keep and grow any coral with them. They don’t have the fancy programmability of some fixtures, but they have the basics built in and we sell them for just $179. For flow, you can use simple powerheads as long as you have enough to do the job needed. You almost can’t have too much flow in a saltwater aquarium—just think of the massive flow in the ocean, but you can very easily not have enough flow! You want tons of flow. You can get fancy and expensive powerheads or cheap ones, they will all move water around, some have more programmability than others. Be sure to clean them often, the single most common cause of failure of pumps is allowing them to become clogged with debris or allowing buildup on the impeller. The single cause of pump failure and the need for costly replacement is buildup of dirt and calcium on the impeller. Monthly cleaning of the impeller and shaft with vinegar or muriatic acid will eliminate having to replace them.
Our next consideration is keeping the water chemistry correct. This area often confuses most folks. The critical parameters are salinity, alkalinity, calcium, and magnesium. If you keep these parameters at natural saltwater levels, then the pH will usually be within an acceptable range. It is best not to chase after a perfect pH, but rather to try to maintain the important parameters of salinity, alkalinity, calcium, and magnesium at stable. If you have a tank size of about 55 gallons or less, which is typical for most beginners, you can do small weekly or biweekly water changes and never have to add any supplements to maintain proper water chemistry. Adding chemicals and potions from bottles will only lead to chemistry imbalances and algae growth and are seldom needed. Avoid the pitfall of thinking the solution to the problem is as easy as adding a mixture in a bottle. You seldom need any of that stuff, just do 5-10% weekly water changes and you will replace any elements needed by any animal in your tank!
Let’s review. To have a successful saltwater or reef aquarium you need the following things: