Your Ideal Saltwater Aquarium

Black-back 160 gallon acrylic saltwater aquarium

By Tom Lang

Too many people call or email us when it’s too late – after they have already purchased an aquarium. Then we have to gently break the news that while they may have gotten a really good deal on a tank, stand, light and filter combination, off-the-shelf products are usually simply not ideal for a successful saltwater aquarium experience.

Of course, it’s possible to keep saltwater fish for a short time with less than optimal equipment, but the picture most people have in their minds of their ultimate aquarium – numerous colorful, healthy fish, colorful corals, easy maintenance – cannot be achieved with the equipment they now have sitting in their family room or office.

Understanding the spatial needs fish have in order to live long lives in your care should be the first and foremost consideration when selecting the size and the shape of your aquarium. This is purposeful aquarium shopping. A pair of common clownfish, three green chromises and a shrimp can be very happy in an aquarium in the 20 – 30 gallon range, but fish that grow much larger such as angelfish, tangs, triggers, lionfish, eels, and puffers, will not live for long in such a small space.

Pet stores routinely stock babies of the most popular and colorful saltwater fish, but it’s up to you, the savvy fish shopper, to know the ultimate requirements of each fish as it grows before you buy it. If you want to keep a fish that is genetically programmed to grow to a large size for more than a few weeks or months, you will need an aquarium sized to that fish. The old axiom “fish will only grow to the size of their aquarium” is true only because most larger fish will die before they reach even a fraction of their potential size in an aquarium that is too small.

So, how large of an aquarium should you buy? The short answer is to size the aquarium based on the types of fish you wish to keep. In our experience, the ideal minimum size for a nice group of colorful reef fish is a 160 gallon aquarium measuring 7 foot long, 18 inches deep by 24 inches tall like the one pictured at the top of this article. Taller tanks holding more gallons with the same or smaller footprints usually do not allow more fish to be kept successfully since reef fish are generally more concerned with finding their own place within the reef structure, not up in the water column.

Your ideal saltwater aquarium should have a built-in overflow box to draw water from the surface. Aftermarket overflows that require siphon tubes can be added to existing tanks, however there is a real risk of failure and a soaking wet floor if they do.

The heart of every aquarium is the filter. However, canister or hang-on-the-back filters that are fine for freshwater aquariums come up short for saltwater because of the tendency of enclosed canisters to deplete oxygen in the water and the limited capacities of the hang-on-the-back models.

Your ideal saltwater aquarium utilizes high quality, fully-cured live rock as both its primary biological filtration and as the base for either living or non-living decorative corals. Even if you don’t want the maintenance commitment and expense of a full-blown reef aquarium, our experience time and time again tells us that an adequate amount of live rock is still essential for success in fish-only systems. Add a couple of internal propeller pumps at each end of the tank to keep the rock as free of detritus build-up as possible.

Acrylic sump w/protein skimmer & 7″ filter sock

Your ideal saltwater aquarium has a custom acrylic sump tank under the main tank with a built-in filter sock holder and plenty of capacity to hold a quality return pump, heater or heaters, a large in-sump protein skimmer and various other water treatment, automation and monitoring options. We recommend a 7-inch diameter filter sock for the 160 gallon aquarium since this size has a capacity to efficiently filter thousands of gallons of saltwater even in a heavily-fed aquarium before requiring cleaning.

With the under-tank sump in mind, the aquarium cabinet takes on even more importance. Rather than being merely a stand for the tank, the cabinet needs to have doors that open as wide as possible or a door on one side without restrictions in order to get the sump in and out and also contain all the associated equipment. The cabinet should also be fully open in the back against the wall or outfitted with ventilation fans to minimize moisture build-up. A nice touch is a waterproof pan to contain minor spills and splashes that inevitably will occur.

Your ideal saltwater aquarium has sleek, bright LED lighting. Be sure to select LED lighting that is optimized for saltwater aquariums. Many LED lights offered for sale have mostly white LEDs that make the water appear yellow and wash out the colors of the fish. Choose an LED fixture that has about 50/50 blue and white LEDs, is programmable for on and off times and intensity and has gradual light ramp up and ramp down periods that don’t startle your fish. If you want to grow living corals, you will want to be sure to choose high intensity LED lights that are specially designed for the unique needs of the types of corals you are considering.

Finally, your ideal saltwater aquarium is optimized for the future. As technology advances, the system we have described here allows you to add the latest equipment such as controllers, reactors, dosers and lighting as they become available. There will always be improvements coming down the pike, but if you start out with quality components, you will have many years of enjoyment before you’ll need an upgrade. You’ll have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that caring for your beautiful fish and corals is so much easier since you planned ahead.

Please contact us today and we’ll help you put it all together!