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How to Setup & Maintain a Saltwater Aquarium




With the Animal House Warilla


Marine Aquarium Guide

The main thing to remember is that your marine tank will be a living reef. So with that in mind there are some very important things that we need to talk about.

1. Your Fish & Corals need perfect water conditions. As they have on the reef. Think about your Saltwater Marine Aquarium this way – “you are setting up your own slice of the Great Barrier Reef in a glass box (your Aquarium).”

2. With this in mind, let’s talk about the water.
Your water has to be exactly the same as ocean water, so where at all possible use ocean water.. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you need to use packet mix salt, because you have to start with tap water then mix in the salt. I don’t even like drinking tap water. Sure you will have an end product very similar to ocean water, but with all the chemicals of tap water.
You could spend more money on reverse osmosis purifier unit to remove the junk in the tap water, but I believe that it still is not as good as Mother Nature’s ocean water. There are even goodsuppliers of ocean water that will come around and fill your tank with clean collected ocean water.

3. Water chemistry. The first and most important thing is CARBONATE HARDNESS. Carbonate Hardness (KH) is the number one thing you have to get right before you start your aquarium. KH controls 2 very important things.

a. Stability of pH.
In the ocean the KH level is approx. 130ppm. If you start with ocean water in your aquarium and put live rock into it, within a few days the KH level will drop to about 90ppm. This happens because live rock uses KH every day and so do corals. So if your KH is under the level of 130ppm, then at night time (2-3am) the pH of your water will drop to about 7.9 (very acid water). The ocean sits at 8.4 pH 24/7. Then in the morning when you turn the lights
back on the pH will rise back up to the reef tank 8.4. So I recommend that the level always be kept above 130ppm (see the chart). Acid pH will burn and irritate the fish gills and they will find it very hard to get oxygen. (Dead fish in the morning when you turn on the lights).

b. Availability of elements.
Allowing all the elements of your water, (Example – Calcium) to be available for your corals & live rock. If your KH level is under the 130ppm, then it is like there is a glass barrier between the corals and the elements in your water, they can see it but can’t grab it. Raising your KH to above 130ppm allows the elements to be available (the glass barrier has been
removed). Very Important – if the KH is not kept at 130ppm or above, then your marine tank will struggle to stay alive. Some people say to me that their tank has been running for about 6 months, and they never check KH and their fish are ok. Well this is because the fish where put in the tank very early on in the setup and have gotten used to the decline in water quality and the low pH at night. But when they buy a new fish to put in their tank it will swim about all day, but when the lights go out the new fish is not used to the very low acid burning pH at night and dies.

c. The next very important thing to talk about is CALCIUM.
Calcium is very important for corals and live rock. It is used by corals, as we need calcium for strong bones, corals need calcium for growth. Corals use photosynthetic energy from light and this produces a sugar based food inside them for food. They grow by using this food and they lay down inside them a skeleton structure that is made up using the calcium in water. So keeping the calcium high is a must. In ocean water the calcium level is approx. 350ppm and in a tank we need to keep it at this or above. If we let the levels drop in both calcium & KH it is like the oxygen level we breath, if the levels are increased we are ok, but if the levels of oxygen decrease lower than what we are used to then we have problems.

4. My recommendations for Levels of KH & Calcium



KH: 130ppm KH: 180ppm
CAL: 350ppm CAL: 500ppm

a. The Method
The above shows the levels in the ocean & what you need to achieve in your tank as a goal. It is not as easy as just raising both levels in your tank. You need to raise KH to 130 – 140ppm first, and then raise calcium to 500ppm, then raise KH up to 180ppm. NEVER raise both KH & Calcium on the same day. Some people have done this by mistake and see their tank water go milky white colour, and then they do an emergency water change to clear up the water and shock the fish. If they just left it alone the water would clear by itself and not harm anything. All that happens is the two (KH & Cal) cancel each other out and cause cloudy water, (a wasted day of dosing). On average, you will end up dosing both KH & Calcium once or twice a week depending on the stock load of your tank. If you set the same days each week for dosing it makes life easier.

Example: M T W T F S S
Cal KH Cal KH

Other elements are also needed for a happy reef tank, stay tuned for the next instalment of “Animal House Warilla – Marine Aquarium Guide”



Part 2

Marine Guide Part 2


Now that we have talked about KH & Calcium, we need to talk about one more very important element “Magnesium”.


Magnesium helps balance KH & Calcium levels, if your magnesium is low then this will result in fairly rapid changes to your KH & Calcium levels.

If your magnesium is low you can increase levels using many products you will find in many stores. Magnesium levels should be kept between 1300ppm – 1450ppm (about 3x the level you keep Calcium). Sometime you may find that your KH & Calcium levels drop very fast after buffing them up, this is because of low levels of magnesium.


These two elements are for corals, Iodine is mostly for soft corals e.g. Anemones, Corallimorphs etc. Strontium is needed by hard corals e.g. Goniapora, SPS etc. Both of these need to be added to the aquarium mostly weekly. When these levels are depleted you will find that soft corals will be smaller in size & that if damage happens to hard or soft corals they won’t heal. So iodine and strontium are needed in the water at all times as it is in the ocean. Iodine is important as we need iodine in the medicine cabinet, if we hurt ourselves we use it to stop infection, as do corals. Strontium is important for the calcifying organisms in your system, and is an important element for the natural development of their calcium skeletons.


I am always asked what the ideal temperature for a reef tank is. Because we want to keep a happy reef tank we need to keep the temperature at a level that all residents will like. Corals will be happy at 22-26.5c, but fish will not like temps as low but will tolerate temps above 27c. So the level I recommend is 25c. At this temperature corals will be happy & fish too. Make sure that the temperature does not fluctuate up & down too much, slight variants are ok but not 24.5 in the morning & 28 during the day then back to 24.5 at night. It is very important that the temperature does not bounce under 24.5c then up again all the time because some fish will have a high chance of breaking out with white spot (e.g. Blue tangs). So set your heater to 25c and that should hold your temp at a minimum of 25c if you have the right size heater and heater placement for your tank.


Well there are so many types of lighting on the market. T8, T5, Metal halide, LED, and it goes on and on. You will find where ever you go everyone will sell you different types of lighting. Before you make a decision look at some very important points.

  1. Your tank size.

  2. Look at the type of corals you have or want.

  3. Look at your budget.

Understand the different needs of the corals, each coral will require different levels of light, so with that in mind use lighting that will best meet the needs of your system.



“For New Setups”

I believe that the more natural we make your setup the better it will run for you. To start: First build your live rock structure onto the glass base (nothing under live rock only glass base). The amount of live rock will be at the ratio of 1-1.5kg of cured live rock per 10litres of water. Once full of water turn on your filter or refugium and let it run for 10 days, after the 10 days running time, bacteria from the surface of the live rock will transfer into your filter. Then check your water with ammonia and nitrite test kits, you should get clear ok results. If your levels are at nil then you will raise the KH level up to at least 130ppm, only then will you be safe to introduce corals or fish. After about 2-3 weeks do a small water change to siphon off the detritus dust you will see on the empty glass base. (The dust has come off & out of your live rock). We siphon this out so we can put in the coral sand. Add the coral sand only to the area of empty glass that you see about 5-10mm thick. You will notice as the weeks and months go on, that the live rock will change its appearance. Don’t worry about this it is a natural part of the new aquarium establishing itself. When you buy live rock don’t look at what growth is on it, but more the shape of the rock. Because what is on it will change & all new growth will happen over time but the shape will never change.


Every tank is different but if you are using a filter e.g. Canister, Minireef etc. You will benefit from more frequent water changes. (More frequent NOT more quantity). E.g. About 1/3 out every 2 weeks in warmer months and ¼ out in the cooler months. Always make 100% sure that the new water is at the same temperature as that of your tank, because fish shock will happen and they will possibly break out with white spot. If you are using a refugium system then less water changes you will occur, and not as often.

Weekly Maintenance.

Every week you should check tests and dose the weekly elements, top up sumps and clean lids.

Daily Maintenance.

You should check the appearance of your corals & your fish, feed the fish, dose KH or Calcium if needed.



With a filter on your system the tank will run fine but your levels of Nitrate & Phosphate will be a lot higher than that of a refugium on your system. High levels of Nitrate & Phosphate are the main cause of algae. When you feed your fish the bacteria in your filter (We will call them Bacteria A) will break down the excreted waste & uneaten foods called (Ammonia). In this process bacteria A produce a waste called (Nitrite). Then the next bacteria (we will call it bacteria B) break this down and the waste they produce is called Nitrate. With this in mind, we then need to do a partial water change to remove Nitrate water & replace with Nitrate free water thus keeping the Nitrate levels low so algae is under control. PHOSPHATE: The easiest way to explain phosphate is – it is a product from most chemicals added to water, even some fish foods release phosphate. So over time the levels build up & so does your algae. So in turn we do more water changes.


With a refugium on your system we don’t have any filters just live rock, lots of water movement in your tank (like in the ocean) around the live rock. Also another tank under the main aquarium where we have seaweed called (Calurpa). The idea behind this is…(NOW FOR THE TECHNICAL PART). When fish put waste in the water & any uneaten food (Ammonia) this is normally broken down by the A bacteria in your filter, but because we don’t have a filter the Ammonia is broken down the A bacteria on the surface of your live rock. The bacteria on the live rock does the same job as the bacteria that live in a filter, then the Nitrite is broken down by the B bacteria that live on the surface of your live rock producing Nitrate. So the whole process is just like the process done by your filter, but with one main difference. Normally the Nitrate produced will stay in the water & algae feed on it so you need to do water changes. But with live rock as your only NATURAL filter it has a trick up its sleeve, inside live rock there is another bacteria (C) which breaks down the Nitrate produced by the A&B bacteria on the outside of the same live rock. Then it biologically breaks this down and turns it into a non-toxic gas which is expelled out of the water. No or very little nitrate is left which means very little algae & very little water changes. Algae will still feed on the Phosphate in the water. So that’s where the refugium tank below with the seaweed (Calurpa) comes in. Seaweed being in the same family as algae eats the same food as algae (Nitrate & Phosphate). It has to survive or it dies, so it survives with eating any Nitrate if there is any left & the Phosphate, all this equals no Nitrate & no Phosphate. (Very little maintenance). MAKE YOU’RE TANK WORK FOR YOU NOT YOU WORKING FOR YOUR TANK!!!


Happy Reefing…

Jason Hassan


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