My New Aquarium
Details about how I'm putting together my first salt water aquarium.
FeedbackBy Preston Hunt, 10 December 2003


I've been pontificating for quite some time about whether I want to build and own an aquarium. For me, salt water is the only option -- the fish are just too beautiful to even consider going fresh water. It is more work, but I think salt water tank maintenance is a task well suited for an engineering-mind. After much internal debate, I've finally decided to go for it. I am spending a lot of time at home this winter and am looking forward to the challenge and reward of constructing a complex ecosystem in my living room.

Here are some motivational tanks: Joseph Weatherson's Reef Aquarium and Archie Luz's Reef Aquarium

David Hoenig and I are partners in crime in building up tanks, since he has a very small salt water tank right now that he desperately needs to expand. We are perfect together as shoppers, as we are both overly analytical, want the best solution for our criteria, and waffle back and forth painfully between various options until finally making our tormented selection.

Here is our story:

1. Aquarium

You aren't going anywhere without something to put everything in. I briefly considered a glass tank ("old dependable"), but the advantages of the acyrilic tanks are too numerous. We both decided to purchase these all-in-one acryilic tanks from SeaClear that have a hidden partition inside the main tank that contains the filter, pump, heater, protein skimmer, basically everything you need to run a healthy salt water tank. This is a bit of a compromise, since discrete components would perform better, but the cost and aesthetic benefits of the all-in-one approach were too palpable to ignore. We found a 20% coupon for these at and ordered them for $333/each including shipping. I picked up a 40 gallon tank with a black background, while David ordered the 30 gallon "show" tank with a cobalt blue background. Both tanks were the same price. Not a bad price, we think, for a tank, complete with main pump, wet filter, and light. (Incidentally, prices at local Petsmart stores appear to be a lot higher than their online prices. Prices are actually a lot cheaper at the mom and pop aquariums than at a bricks-and-mortar Petsmart.)

Total amount spent this section: $333
Total amount spent so far: $333

2. Distilled water

Turns out the fishes and other animals need super-purified water. For fresh water fish, you can take tapwater, add chlorine remover, and call it done. For salties, you need to purchase a reverse osmosis filter or buy distilled water at the grocery store. Buying water all the time seems like a big pain in the butt. RO filters are going for around $125 on ebay, and I can use it to purify drinking water as well, so I'm going that route.

Total amount spent this section: $125
Total amount spent so far: $458

3. Protein Skimmer, Pump, Heater, Thermometer, Salt, Hydrometer, Test Kit, Net.

The SeaClear tank has an area set aside for a fully submersible heater. The general rule of thumb is 5 watts per gallon of water, so I need a 200W heater (and a floating thermometer to make sure the heater is working properly).

The instruction manual also recommends a protein skimmer for marine (salt water) tanks as well, so I need one of those, as well as a small air pump to power that, and a water test kit to test the water quality levels.

Plus a bag of salt to make the salt water and a hydrometer to check the salt level.

And, of course, a net.

Total amount spent this section: $86
Total amount spent so far: $544

4. Stand

Finding a nice-looking stand that is strong enough to hold a 300-400 pound aquarium has turned out to be the most difficult part of this entire project. The stands that pet stores sell as "aquarium stands" are just plain ugly. Tables at furniture stores (like Dania) are mostly made out of compressed particle board and are not really up to the task. In the end, my parents found some plans for a do-it-yourself stand and my dad built one from scratch for me.

5. Sand

Picked up 50 pounds of A0 argonite sand at A-to-Z Pets for $40. It took about 3 days for me to purify enough water using my RO filter to fill the tank. I then dumped in the sand over a period of a couple of days. In retrospect, I wish I had simply dumped all of the sand in at once, but I was worried that my tank's built-in powerheads would blow the sand all over the place. As it turned out, the jets do move the sand around a bit, but it's not too bad. It took about 2 days of running the filter to get the water clear from all of the super fine sand particles that were thrown up in the water when I poured the sand in.

6. Live Rock

Picked up 12 pounds of live rock at Upscale Fish for $60 ($5/pounds). This is treated live rock, meaning that it is usually supposed to go into an established aquarium. The rock had all kinds of cool little molds growing on it; they may die as the tank cycles.

7. Starter Fish

Picked up three Damsels to cycle my tank ($12 total). Supposedly they are very tough fish and are good for cycling a tank.

8. Lights

Two Helios T5 bulbs (one atinic, one full spectrum) for $29 each and one regular bulb for $30.

Shopping list

Fish I have

Fish to get

Fish for my Fish-only tank

Fish I don't want or can't have

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