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How to build saltwater aquarium from scratch (55gallon)

Making a saltwater aquarium is not an easy task. But still anyone can learn it and here I will show how you can make your own saltwater tank from very beginning. So without wasting much time let’s start the topic.

To make a basic saltwater tank you need 9 basic materials and these are

  1. A tank
  2. Sandy substrate
  3. Live rocks
  4. Filters and skimmers
  5. Thermometer and heater
  6. Powerhead and lights
  7. Airstones
  8. Saltwater
  9. Marine fishes

Now the question is how you use these materials to build your own saltwater tank. Right? Let’s come to that point and discuss it comprehensively.

How do you build saltwater aquarium from scratch?

Step no 1 – Get a 55 gallon tank

First thing you need is a tank to start your own saltwater aquarium. Now you can get this tank by two ways. First you can make it by your own and another is you can purchase the whole 55 gallon tank. But the better thing is will be the cheaper one. So you have to know the price of these things.

Now I’m providing the chart of the price of fish tanks of various sizes

From here you can get the knowledge of the investment you need to make a 55 gallon tank. If you have $11 then you can easily make your own 55 gallon saltwater tank. But if you want to buy a branded 55 gallon fish tank then you will need $179.

This varies person to person. If anyone doesn’t have money to purchase branded fish tank then they can go to make it.

Why do you need 55 gallon fish tank to start?

55 gallon fish tank is the best size to start a saltwater tank because this amount of space is good for any average saltwater fishes. Bigger tank helps to make a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Small fish tank need more maintenance than a bigger one. At that point the maintenance costs become high. 

At small size saltwater tank fishes can’t grow and this is so unhealthy for a fish. So try to provide sufficient space to swim. Not only that, but larger tank remain stable than a smaller fish tank. In smaller tank ammonia spikes occurs more frequently. This is so much harmful for a saltwater fish. So in all respect the 55 gallon saltwater tank is better to start for a beginner.

Step no 2 – Sandy substrate is the best to start

If you want to start your first saltwater aquarium then you should choose a sandy substrate. Live sand provides an aesthetic look to the fish tank. Under the real seawater there is live sand as base and if you keep live sand as substrate then it will become much healthier than anything else.

If you have high water circulation pump then you have to choose coarse substrate which should be heavier than fine grain sand. The size of grain depends upon the species of the aquarium. If you keep species like sea cucumber, then you should rely on the sandy substrate because sea cucumber takes nutrition from the sandy substrate. So you can’t put coarse gravel as substrate if you are planning to keep sea cucumber or something like that.

If you want to keep textured coarse gravel as substrate then make sure that you don’t have any sand dwelling fishes are present. Substrate should have high calcium content for saltwater fish tank. Try to avoid putting rocks from unknown source. This may leach silicates, unwanted minerals and metal, which are harmful for a fish tank. So make sure to choose a right substrate from saltwater fish tank.  For a 55 gallon saltwater tank you may use 1.5 inches to 2.5 inches thick sand as substrate.

Read more:- Why should you soil as substrate and HOW?

Step no 3 – Start with the live rocks

After putting the substrate in aquarium the next thing you have to do is to choose some live rocks for saltwater aquarium. This is very crucial thing to choose because the looks of the saltwater tank is totally depended on this rocks.

Live rocks are nothing but some rocks which directly comes from ocean. This contains coralline algae and different types of marine organisms. Not only that, this rocks contain with dead corals also.

This live rock has high value in the marine ecosystem. The growing algae and invertebrates help to maintain the water balance. The ammonia spikes, excess phosphates are the harmful for marine tanks. If you have live rocks then growing corals and bacteria help to eliminate these unwanted things. The bacteria inside the rock help to run the nitrogen cycle also. Overall live rock helps to maintain the healthy environment of the total marine set up.

Live rock vs Dry rock

Lots of people want to keep the dry rocks. Let’s know what the basic differences are between these two.

Read more:- How much important the live rock is for marine tank? Know all aspects

Here I can conclude that live rocks are always best than dry rocks and you also choose live rock for your marine set up. This will help to maintain a marine environment easily. You don’t need to look after lots of water parameters. But if you don’t have money to invest on live rocks now then you can go for dry rock definitely but dry rock will take much time to participate into the marine ecosystem. Dry rocks are good which has low risk of contamination but it provides high aesthetic value.

Read more:- Best Saltwater Fish for Aquariums: 10, 20, 40, 55, 75-Gallons & More

Step no 4 – Choose protein skimmer or filter to clean aquarium

Your saltwater aquarium needs filters and there is no doubt on it. But do you need protein skimmer? That’s a question.

Basically protein skimmer does the same thing which filter does. Both of this helps to clean inside of the marine tank. The man difference between these two is protein skimmer does filtration without breaking the particles which have harmful effects. But filter can’t do it. It removes things after breaking into harmful particles. So basically protein skimmer does the better job than a normal filter.

Can you use protein skimmer and filter both?

Protein skimmer and filter can be used at a same time when you have lots of fish load in your aquarium. General calculation says if marine tank has 3 inches fishes per square foot then it needs both to clean water. At that time fish waste and food waste become huge. To remove the pressure from filter protein skimmer should add with it.

Step no 5 – Heater with thermometer is must

Lots of new aquarists think that they don’t need heater because fishes can adjust themselves with the change of the temperature.

This is partially true. There are lots of hardy saltwater fishes which can adjust themselves with the temperature changes but you might not know about fishes more while you are just starting out. Right?

So it’s better to start with a heater when you are starting a new saltwater aquarium.

Before choosing a heater for you saltwater aquarium you should know about heater. There are lots of heaters which can be bad for aquarium because these can’t serve for a longer period of time. Saltwater aquarium needs the temperature in between 24°C to 27°C. So heater must hold this temperature most of the time. Choose all the criteria before choosing a heater for saltwater tank.

Types of heaters

Heaters are commonly two types. One is submersible and another is partly submersible. There are more types of heaters also but as new aquarists you don’t need to know all of these.

Submersible heater

This is the heater which stays under water and this heater is better than partly submersible heater. As this stays under the water of aquarium, so you don’t need to turn off the heater, before water change of aquarium. But when you want to do water change more than 50% then it’s better to turn off heater so safety.

Partly submersible heater

This is traditional type heater and most of the common heaters are this type. This control of the heater stays outside of the water surface. But this must be turn off before water change because the glass tube will come up to the water surface and this can explode by over-heating. So this should remember if you want to keep traditional water heater.

Thermometer is needed to measure the temperature of aquarium. Everyone must have thermometer because this helps to give the clear idea about what heater is doing. If you see any frequent fluctuation of temperature then you can tank quick action. Otherwise this will be a horrible experience if aquarium gets over heat from faulty heater.

Step no 6 – Fix some suitable LED lights

Lights play an important role in saltwater aquarium. As the saltwater aquariums are generally three types so you need to know which types of lights are needed for which aquarium. Let’s discuss one by one

Fish only saltwater tank

Fish only saltwater tank is a basic saltwater tank. This is beginner level saltwater tank. This saltwater tank contains only fish and invertebrates. You should know that this type of saltwater tank does not need much light. Fishes and invertebrates don’t bother about lights. So you can fix minimum lights to see the aquarium.

Read more:- Are red algae harmful for saltwater fishes?

Fish only with live rock saltwater tank

This is advance level saltwater tank. This saltwater tank is created with live rock which contains coralline algae and lots of marine organisms. So this type of algae and micro-organisms needs lights to do photosynthesis. So you have to have LED lights which allow doing photosynthesis.  The price is little bit higher than normal lights but low electricity consumption can save your ultimate cost.

Reef tank

Reef tank needs highest light consumption than other types of saltwater tank. In reef tank fishes are not the center of attraction. Corals and invertebrates are the main things in this saltwater aquarium. Corals need higher light intensity to grow. If you keep soft corals then it don’t need much light but hard coral will need high lighting according to the source.

Read more:- Saltwater VS reef tank. know the basic differences

Now this is totally up to you that what type of tank you want to make. But if you are new then the fish only saltwater tank is most recommended. You can convert it into the other two types of saltwater tank easily after a while.

Generally for saltwater tank per gallon needs 4 watt of light. If you have 55 gallon tank then you have to provide 55×4=220 watt light. This is simple formula to fix lights in saltwater tank.

Step no 7 – Put some air stones to circulate water

Air stones are important for saltwater aquarium. This helps to circulate water all over in the aquarium.  Some experts don’t want to add air stones. But air stone has lots of advantages to add in aquarium. Let’s discuss about that

  • Air stone helps to circulate water
  • Air stone helps to oxygenate water
  • This helps to increase the surface area of the water in aquarium
  • Bubbles helps to keep fishes healthy
  • Water movement happens vertically
  • It helps to bring out small waste particles from substrate

So these are the advantages you will get if you add air stone in your saltwater aquarium. This is not a mandatory thing to use but if you use this with protein skimmer then your tank will remain clean, clear and healthy all the time.

Read more:- Pros and cons of air stone in aquarium

Step no 8 – Add saltwater in your fish tank

Adding saltwater in fish tank is not a tough job. Like freshwater fish tank, this should be done for saltwater tank also. But before pouring water you have to choose the right source of water.

Generally, RO/DI water is the best for saltwater tank. This water is 100% pure and clean. This water doesn’t allow unwater harmful particles in it. As saltwater tank contains different types of minerals and organisms that’s why this water is the most recommended for saltwater tank. The full form of RO/DI water is Reverse Osmosis De-ionized water. The main bad material is ammonia and phosphate in water. RO/DI water doesn’t have these minerals.

But for this you need to purchase RO/DI system. For the long run the investment on RO/DI system is good. But if you are just starting out then just start with normal filtered water. There would not be any major issues. Make sure that water should not be chlorinated.

After collecting the water you have to purchase sea salt to make the saltwater. You can get the sea salt from any local store or you can purchase from online. Generally, per gallon RO/DI water need 4 big spoon of salt to make proper marine water.

After pouring the salt you have to mix it properly and this will take time up to 1 day. Now you have to check the specific gravity of that solution. This should be in between 1.020 to 1.028. Most of the saltwater fishes need specific gravity in between this range.  You can measure specific gravity by hydrometer (The specific gravity of normal water is 1).

Step no 9 – Add fishes in your saltwater fish tank

This is the last step to complete your own saltwater fish tank. Fishes should add to the aquarium after completing the full set up. At this point you have set up your aquarium fully. Now you have to give time to build marine environment in it. That is why minimum one moth is needed to add fishes in it.

But you can choose fishes at this period of time. So let’s tank a look which fish will be better for your 55 gallon saltwater tank.

There are thousands of saltwater fishes available. But for your first saltwater tank you should go for hardy saltwater fishes. Let’s know about 5 saltwater fishes

  • Yellow clown goby

This is the primary level saltwater fish and this is very peaceful community fish. This can be a good choice if you are just starting out. The minimum tank size is needed 10 gallon so you can keep at least 4-5 yellow clown goby in your 55 gallon saltwater tank. The size if this fish is 1.5 to 2 inches and the water temperature should be from 22°C to 25°C. The specific gravity of saltwater should be 1.020 to 1.025

  • Green chromis

Green chromis is another good option as beginner saltwater fish. The full size of green chromis is up to 3 inches long. This is peaceful community type fish. The minimum tank size of green chromis is 30 gallon. But for a group of green chromis 55 gallon or 60 gallon tank is required. The temperature should be in between 22°C to 27°C and the specific gravity of saltwater should be 1.023 to 1.025

Read more:- 5 most active aquarium fish. Highly recommended for beginners

  • Orchid dottyback

Orchid dottyback is saltwater fish which you can choose to keep at your first saltwater tank. The color of this fish is mixture of violet and purple. The size of full grown orchid dottyback is generally up to 3 inches. The minimum tank size is required to keep is 30 gallon. Specific gravity of the saltwater should have 1.020 to 1.025. The temperature should be in between 22°C to 27°C

  • Clownfish

Clownfish is the most common type of saltwater fish. This is found in Indian Ocean mainly. The minimum tank size of this fish is needed 20 gallon. But if anemones are kept with it then 55 gallon tank is enough. The temperature is needed to keep this fish is 23°C to 26°C. The specific gravity should be in between 1.021 to 1.026. Generally, the size of clownfish varies in between 4 inches to 4.5 inches.

  • Tailspot blenny

Tailspot blenny is great fish to keep just because of it color. The orange colored tail is very much eye-soothing.  So if you want to keep this fish in your saltwater tank then it will be better. The full grown size of tailspot blenny is 2.5 inches. The specific gravity should be in between 1.024 to 1.026 and the temperature of the tank should be in between 24°C to 28°C. This is very peaceful community fish and that’s why this will be a good addition to your saltwater tank.

Read more:- How to set up community fish tank with full cost analysis (freshwater)

Final thoughts

Making a saltwater tank is not so easy but if you have previous experience then it won’t be a major problem for you. You should know that it will be good if you have any freshwater tank first.

Specific gravity and the pH are the main things to build a successful saltwater tank. So you have to have a hydrometer to get the reading of the specific gravity of saltwater. Last thing you should know that saltwater tank needs more money than a freshwater tank so you have to invest more money in it.

Lastly best of luck & happy fishkeeping 🐟

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