Saltwater Fish Tank
April 9, 2005 2:48 PM   Subscribe

We are thinking about setting up a saltwater fish tank in our house. Does anyone have some good advice for first time saltwater tank owners? I am interested in what kind of fish are the easiest to start with, also what size tank works best.
posted by mystic cheezewhiz to Pets & Animals (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't done saltwater yet, but I know everyone else is going to want to know: What aquarium experience do you have so far?
posted by mendel at 4:02 PM on April 9, 2005

I have no experience, but I looked into this a while ago and one thing I remember is that the bigger the tank the better for beginners, since changes to the water (in terms of temperature, salinity, etc.) are much more minor with a large volume of water than a small one (i.e. it takes much more effort to mess things up with a large tank than a small one). Since saltwater fish tend to be more sensitive to changes than freshwater fish (I think), this is important.
posted by biscotti at 5:38 PM on April 9, 2005

Response by poster: I have had a few years experience with freshwater tanks. As well as breeding live bearing freshwater fish.
posted by mystic cheezewhiz at 6:30 PM on April 9, 2005

Saltwater is very sensitive to changes.

The bacteria that take care of the fish waste build up a population slowly in the gravel, and act as a sort of biofilter for the water. They also build up in the filter media. Until you have bacteria, it's all pretty touchy.
The old way they used to do this is set up the tank, and put in some freshwater fish that evolved in salt and then moved inland. You start with plain fresh water and fish, and throw in a cup of salt every so often over time. As the tank "conditions", it becomes ready for saltwater fish, which are expensive. They used to use mollies for that. Amazingly, mollies really don't care if it's fresh or salt, as long as the change is done slowly. (Freshwater tanks depend on the whole bacteria thing too, but fresh water fish are tougher.) Any good fish store will be glad to give you a little gravel or sand from an established tank to help start the bacteria faster, like sharing a sourdough starter.

This is a vastly over-simplified explanation of a very complex subject, that I remember only dimly from a long time ago. Read a good book, and talk to a couple of people in the industry before you make a comittment. If you have no experience with aquaria, it's going to be more difficult.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 6:30 PM on April 9, 2005

Sorry, m.c., you know all about bacteria then.
Never mind.
<returns to lurking
posted by unrepentanthippie at 6:33 PM on April 9, 2005

I only have fresh myself, but I know many people with salt tanks. Most of them have said that it isn't as difficult as people seem to think. Start with a big tank and cheap fish, just like you would with a freshwater tank. If you want live rock, look into a good lighting system first and build everything else around it. Good lighting is the biggest cost.
posted by bh at 7:02 PM on April 9, 2005

Best answer: Read up on the Berlin method. It uses a sand bed which colonizes with de-nitrifying bacteria, making it live sand. Along with live rock (same idea as the sand), this can greatly enhance the stability of your tank.

There are a few necessities, in my opinion. A good protein skimmer (Don't skimp on this one piece of equipment. Cheap ones don't work.), and good powerheads to move the water though your live rock. You probably need to turn over the water in the tank around 10 times an hour. This can help in preventing cyanobacteria from blooming. Cyano and a host of other problems can also be caused by phosphates, nitrates and nitrites in the water. I highly recommend a reverse osmosis/deionizing water filter, if you don't already have one. They're the best way to get water that doesn't have phosphate and nitrogen problems from the get-go.

A bigger tank is always going to be more stable, like biscotti said. Over at Reef Central they always say, "Take the biggest tank you think you might want and double it." From my experience that's not a bad rule of thumb. I have about a sixty gallon now, and my next one will be 120 or 180. At least.

Damselfish and black mollys are the best fish to start the tank. Many damsels are very aggressive and no damsel likes to live with a damsel of another type. They have been known to harass each other to death. You also probably won't be able to add more later, due to their territorial nature. Don't get too attached to these guys, they're pioneers in your new tank. They may not make it through the tank's first cycle, but they're the ones most likely to survive.

Many people start out with a fish only tank but then find out that they can't resist gorgeous corals. You can probably get by with flourescents until you want to add corals like these to your tank, then you'll need to add T5's or metal halides. These are fairly expensive, but they can make the tank truly beautiful.

But the best advice I can give is read, read, read. Take a look at the forums at Reef Central, which I linked to above and pay special attention to the New to the Hobby section. The more you read, the more questions you will have, and there are hundreds of people more than ready to answer any question you have there. They've been very helpful through all my crises and they answered all my dumb questions very kindly.

For a great example of a beautiful tank, check out Marc Jacobson's site. That's a crazy amount of work that went into that tank, but he's totally my hero.
posted by Elsbet at 8:48 PM on April 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

previous threads
posted by obloquy at 11:10 PM on April 9, 2005

Check your local Craigslist pets section for free saltwater starter fish. As Elsbet said above, damsels and mollies are great starter fish for getting your tank started, but they're not the most exciting fish and if you're going salt, you probably are looking at more showy and expensive fish. So, once the tank is established, many people get rid of the starter fish so that they can have different, showier, cooler fish (that may be more aggressive) once the tank is stable. Also, once your tank is established and you're moving on to neater fishes, pass along your starter fishies if they're still healthy. It's more humane than the toilet or the ocean, anyhow.
posted by salad spork at 3:29 PM on April 18, 2005

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