SALTWATER AQUARIUM SET-UP/ SYSTEMS SUGGESTIONS
For a more in depth article, with more information, please see; Marine Care Basics Article
This article is meant to show different methods, from simple to unique to set up a marine aquarium for fish/reef.
By Carl Strohmeyer
• Unique Marine Filter Suggestions
• Other Entry Level Considerations
• Advanced Options/Points to Consider
The purpose of this article is to give SEVERAL viable options for setting up a saltwater aquarium that WORK!
Please note that this is a very basic article, that is intended to give just a few viable options, that might be different from the many popular options.
So if you are unfamiliar with some of these suggestions, it does not mean that these ideas do not works, as I have tested/used these methods. Just be aware that often in forums, groups, etc. persons will repost the same methods and often those that do not fit nicely into what is "accepted" will be quickly banned from discussion.
Some of the options are well known, others are not as well known but just as workable and often times even better than those set out by the anecdotal standards of many in the hobby that will not think outside the box.
This includes methods such as a drilled canister filter that is set up with Volcanic rock, Crushed coral crumbles, or SeaChem Matrix so as to not become the nitrate factories that is often common with Canister filter installations in marine aquariums.
Again, this article is NOT intended to be an exhaustive reference for all effective methods to set up a marine or reef aquarium, rather allow many to think outside the box for methods many are not aware of, yet are proven to work.
This article is not intended to provide complete saltwater/reef set-up and care information, rather equipment options (some familiar, some not).
For for a more complete saltwater basics guide, please read this article:
Saltwater Basics, Care, Information
Please also read the many excellent links to yet even more in depth articles such as Lighting and Redox.
Unique Marine Filter Suggestions
Canister/FSB Filter Suggestion;
The simple diagram to the left is intended only as ONE way to set up a saltwater aquarium. This setup includes a Protein Skimmer and Fluidized Sand Bed Filter along with a level one UV Sterilizer for disease prevention and improving Redox Balance.
*TMC Premium Fluid Bed Aquarium Filters
*TMC Vecton True Level One UV Sterilizers
I strongly recommend using live rock crumbles, or products such as SeaChem Matrix which is even more effective, in place of ceramic bio media, plastic bio balls, bio stars, or similar for de-nitrification as these other filter medium only provide aerobic bio filtration, thus creating high nitrates.
When live rock crumbles and/or Matrix (often volcanic rock can be substituted, although not as effective) are used this can avoid the “nitrate factory” aspect that these filters have been labeled with.
The use of Purigen can further help with Nitrate & Phosphate Control. This filter can then often take the place of refugiums or similar when run with a Fluidized Sand Bed filter that is also running with nitrate removing NPX Bioplastics (see the next section for more).
*AAP Matrix; Premium Aerobic and Anaerobic Filter Media
*AAP/SeaChem Purigen for Nitrate Control
Unfortunately, many aquarists have only passed along just popular and/or poor information about marine aquarium set-ups rather than experimenting with the many different set-ups possible. I have set up many high end aquariums in this manner, where the client would NOT appreciate a low quality set up! Be wary of those who slam these or similar systems, as they have probably found this poor advice on some of the aquatic forums that have not done their homework!
This set up is recommended for a beginner OR advanced aquarist and also allows expansion into a reef set up provided proper lighting is added later such as MH, SHO, T2, T5, or LED (especially for sps corals,, clams, or nudibranchs).
Please click on the pictures above and below to enlarge
Similar to the first picture, this diagram/picture displays one way I have set upset up a 250 gallon aquarium utilizing bulkheads, canister filters, heavy duty quick disconnect unions, ball valves, a Premium AAP/TMC Vecton UV Sterilizer, and high bio capacity FSB filter.
Generally I would set up one canister filter more "traditionally" out of the box (usually the one "feeding" the FSB filter), while the other would be set up with nothing but Matrix, Crushed Coral Crumbles, Volcanic Rock, or a mix of all three thus providing awesome bio filtration when combined with the FSB filter utilizing AAP Bioplastics for nitrate control,
Video; Proper Use of Aquarium Bulkheads
Fluidized Sand Bed Filter (FSB Filters) Suggestions:
FSB Filters can be used alone or in addition to other filters as shown earlier to increase aerobic (nitrification) and even anearobic filtration.
The advantage of a fluidized bed filter is the self cleaning of the surface area of the sand grains by the constant churning and mixing of sand suspended within the filtration chamber. This type of filter provides high amounts of surface area for unsurpassed nitrifying bio-filtration capacity. As well, when a more tall FSB filter is utilized (such as the TMC model #1000 or larger), often the sand that is passed through last becomes capable of de-nitrification, thus making this a "full spectrum nitrogen cycle filter").
Another advantage of at least the TMC FSB filter is it can be optionally run with Oolitic sand which in turn works similar to a calcium reactor (although ina more basic but simple way) thus helping maintain calcium and proper alkalinity levels.
Generally I prefer to run the FSB filter either off the main aquarium (using a water pump with a pre-filter) or out of the sump. As well I still recommend the use of Live Rock both in the tank and in the sump (if you have a sump on your set up)
*Aquarium Filtration; Use of Fluidized Bed Filters
*Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle
Another recommended option if you utilize a FSB Filter is the use of NPX Bioplastics inside a premium TMC FSB Filter; nitrate & phosphate problems can be a thing of the past!
Product Resource: NPX Bioplastics
Most users have found NPX Bioplastics superior to Vodka Dosing Methods to reduce Nitrates & Phosphates in Marine Aquariums
IN FACT; these VERY simple filters can be used in a combination for say a 60 gallon Reef/Saltwater aquarium that would be hard pressed to beat in performance with more complicated sump systems, YET would be much less costly and much more simple to maintain for those who enjoy marine reef aquariums, but do not want the system to take over their life:
*FSB Filter such as the V2 #1000 utilizing Oolitic sand & NPX Bioplastics powered by a SunSun HJ-1542 pump with includes a sponge prefilter
*A typical HOB filter such as the Aqua Clear or double outlet SunSun HBL-702, with the bio grids or sponges removed and SeaChem Matrix and/or Purigen in their place
*A good Protein Skimmer such as the V2 Skim 400 (the Rio Nano Skimmer could work too)
*Live Rock inside the aquarium
*TMC FSB Filters & Oolitic Sand
*V2 & Rio Nano Venturi Protein Skimmers
Here is simple diagram of another way to set up a marine tank using a sump, micron filer bag, live rock, a skimmer, high performance pump, and UV Sterilizer (please click to enlarge).
This is a variation on the wet dry system, but without the bio balls which, like the common filter media used in canister filters, can cause high amounts of nitrates (often referred to as a nitrate factory). In this method the live rock is both a nitrifying AND de-nitrifying filter. This also employs a micron media bag for added filtration.
The Sump to the left is another very simple sump method that uses premium Hydro Sponge Filters and Pre-Filters.
This set up includes a Hydro Pond #4 (this filter is excellent for high capacity aquarium systems), and the intake consists of a Filter Max #3 or #2.
Our Aquarium maintenance experience has show this method of mechanical filtration VASTLY superior to the use of "Socks" in the sump (as pictured in the diagram above), in part because the mechanical filtration capacity is much higher, especially when both standard patented Hydro Sponge Filters are combined with PRO reticulated Hydro Sponge Filters, but also for added bio filtration which these unfortunately popular socks to not perform.
Live Rock, Matrix, and/or volcanic rock can and should be added around the sponge filter pick up for added de-nitrification.
Finally this set up can include a Protein Skimmer in the sump (which can have an added ozonizer for even better efficiency) and a UV Sterilizer such as the TMC Vecton UV to the outflow.
Please Click to Enlarge.
*Hydro-Pond; Large Sponge Filters for Ponds or Large Aquarium Bio Systems
*TMC V2 Skim professional Marine Reef Skimmer
*TMC V2 Ozone Generator, Ozonizer
*TMC Vecton High Dwell Time, Performance UV-C Sterilizer
*Filter Max, Sponge Pre Filters
Pure Berlin Method;
This diagram displays a method that only uses multiple power heads, ample live rock, a deep sand bed (4+ inches), usually a Protein Skimmer and often an Algae Scrubber, Refugium or Mud filter (which can often be combined).
Please Click on the picture of the Algae Scrubber concept Diagram tank combination to enlarge.
This is a new trend/diversion from Refugiums & similar older Berlin Methods that many find excellent results such as nearly non existent nitrate levels. This can also be combined with further filtration, including Sponges and UV/Germicidal Filtration
Here is a video displaying a working Refugium & Mud Filter that is also utilizing "state of the art" AquaRay LED lighting for phenomenal growth:
Ecosystems Miracle Mud Refugium with AquaRay
For more about Algae Scrubbers, Refugiums, or Mud filters, please visit this article about Aquarium Filtration:
The Pure Berlin Method is often promoted by Reef purists, however I do not generally recommend this for beginners as this method does not allow for poor feeding habits (as well as many other mistakes common to newbies) and since UV Sterilizers are often not employed; germicidal filtration as well as the very important benefits of improved Redox are missing.
A common statement by the purists that recommend this system over any other method is unfortunately based on some false assumptions:
- Any filtration in the end produces nitrates;
Answer NOT if live rock or volcanic rock crumbles are used in filters (in place of the usual media that only attracts aerobic bacteria) as well as proper cleaning (& vacuuming) procedures and regular rinsing of pre filters (sponges are very simple and quick to rinse).
- The live rock, live sand and protein skimmer will handle all waste problems;
Answer NOT true as I too have set up MANY of these systems for clients that have then overwhelmed their aquariums with over feeding or other poor maintenance issues often resulting in large amounts of detritus on the bottom of the aquarium and worse (this is not to say this will happen, however I have observed this often especially with clients that provided the majority of their own maintenance).
- UV Sterilizers are not necessary and can do harm;
Answer ONLY half right, a UV Sterilizer is not necessary however I have documented better Redox, improved longevity vitality among inhabitants as well less disease outbreaks when UVs are used.
As to UV Sterilizers doing harm, I will refer the readers to these articles:
“UV Sterilization; How it Works
UV Sterilizers, posts dealing with what UVC can and cannot do for your Aquarium or Pond
Other Entry Level Considerations:
The idea of the a HOB Aquarium Power Filter such as the Rena Super Clean, Aqua Clear or similar for tanks under 75 gallons is another viable option if done correctly. These are best combined with other methods including the use of live rock and/or a protein skimmer, and possibly a level one capable internal/submersible UV Sterilizer.
Instead of the traditional set up, I would utilize these filter types by removing the standard grid, ceramic, sponge, etc. bio filter media and replacing with Matrix or Live Rock crumbles, often in a nylon filter bag to prevent damage to the filters's impeller.
Often I have removed even the filter cartridges and all filter components (this includes the carbon and foam insert with Aqua Clear Filters) and ONLY utilize ther before mentioned Matrix and/or live rock crumbles.
The addition of a Filter Max #3 Pre-filter attached to this would improve bio capacity (especially during filter cartridge changes if the cartridges are still utilized).
I should note that this HOB marine filter idea, even with the largest of HOB filters does not have the capacity of a large canister filter when they too are filled with similar filter media (such as the Rena Filstar), or especially a FSB Filter.
As well, the use a of a good marine protein skimmer such as the TMC Skim PRO Skimmers is suggested as a compliment. I would also strongly suggest a Propeller/Circulation water pump to increase circulation within the aquarium and around any live rock that might be present.
*API Rena Super Clean High Efficiency HOB Filters with Surface Skimmer
*Tropic Marine V-2 Skim Protein Skimmers
*Filter Max; Aquarium Pre Filters
*AAP CUP Series Submersible/Internal Level 1 Capable UV Filters
*Rio, Seio Propeller Pumps, Superior Design Glass Mount Water Circulation Pumps
Rio Nano Skimmer This is again an entry level Hang on the back (HOB/ Power Filter) combined with simple and basic Protein Skimmer. This is not a high end product, however it is useful for beginners or those on a budget with a 40 gallon or smaller marine aquarium. As with the previous two suggestions, I would recommend ample live rock and deep sand (2-3 inches of #00 with ½” of #3 crushed coral on top) as well as a power head (such as the Rio 600) or internal filter for better water movement.
Also a UV Sterilizer is another possible addition (connected to a power head).
See this article for how a Sterilizer improves your aquarium water quality (including a video): How UV Sterilization Works)
Product Resource: Rio 600 Pump from AAP
ReSun BF100, 200, SunSun HN-104 Internal Wet/Dry Filters These filters are the under rated cousins of the popular Bio Cube Aquariums and shares many of the exact same parts (it is also made in the same factory!)
These are economical wet dry filters that slip inside your aquarium and also contains a space for your heater.
This works well up to a 45-60 gallon aquarium (or larger with multiples), although I recommend replacing some of the filer media with live rock crumbles and/or SeaChem Matrix, and a nylon filter bag filled with Oolite sand for de-nitrification (Purigen would also be a could addition to these filters).
I also still strongly recommend live rock inside the aquarium, additional power head (or internal filter) and would suggest a Protein Skimmer and UV Sterilizer (this filter also easily connects to a UV sterilizer without too much fuss, see the picture to the left).
Honestly with the correct media, this can make for an awesome system for smaller aquariums under 40-60 gallons, even for higher end advanced reef aquariums.
These internal bio filters can be easily used in pairs (or more) for larger tanks such as two for say a 60 gallon with a UV Sterilizer on one (the other without to allow for better copepod propagation).
Unfortunately, due to the slow economy, the larger models are not currently in production for the North American market, but hopefully sometime soon, the larger sizes will be available again!
*SeaChem Matrix from AAP
*SeaChem Purigen for Nitrate Control, from AAP
Advanced Options/Points to Consider:
*Live Rock in the Aquarium is also a must for utilization of the Berlin filter method which basics turns this rock into a large nitrifying and de-nitrifying filter provided you have adequate circulation.
A deep sand bed is also VERY important for de-nitrification; I prefer at least 3 inches of fine #00 oolite size sand with a ½ inch layer of #3 crushed coral on top for some aerobic nitrifying bacteria as well as improved ease in cleaning. Please see the full Marine Basics article for more about this subject:
AQUARIUM SALTWATER BASICS; information, resources, and more
*Instead of a lot of ceramic filter media and other filter media which only perform nitrification, the canister filter (or wet/dry) should be loaded with live rock fragments/crumbles or volcanic rock this is to keep the canister filter from becoming a nitrate factory by providing anaerobic and aerobic filtration.
I recommend the live rock/volcanic rock crumbles be place in the first 50% of the filter that the water passes through. Another alternative to live rock crumbles is SeaChem Matrix this unique product is a high porosity bio media that provides efficient bio filtration for the removal of nitrogenous waste, including nitrates via anaerobic de-nitrification deep inside the pore complex of this product.
SeaChem Purigen is another product that can be used in filters, however this would fall under the category of adsorbents. Purigen is a premium synthetic adsorbent that is not a mixture of ion exchangers or adsorbents, rather a unique macro-porous synthetic polymer that removes soluble and insoluble impurities from water. Purigen controls ammonia, nitrites and often hard to control nitrates by removing nitrogenous organic waste that would otherwise release these harmful compounds, with minimal impact on trace elements.
*Upgraded SunSun Canister Filters; only available at AAP
*AAP Volcanic Rock Bio Media
*AAP Matrix Nitrate and Ammonia removing Filter Material
*AAP Purigen; Premium Synthetic Adsorbent, Removes Nitrates, Ammonia
For further discussion of filter media, please see this article:
Aquarium Answers; Aquarium and Pond Filter Media.
*Reverse Osmosis Water is also a must for anyone desiring to keep a more advanced marine aquarium (in particular a reef tank).
Owning your own Reverse Osmosis System allows the aquarium keeper to make RO water for less than 2 cents per gallon. The use of this water is a must for evaporation to prevent buildup of nitrates (which are found in most tap water sources) and other compounds/minerals that can affect the balance of your aquarium. As well this RO water allows for a better quality saltwater when used to mix with most premium salts such as Tropic Marine.
Be wary of the "sharks" in the industry that will try & up-sell you to an RO/DI unit (they come off as knowledgeable, but when question, they really show their used car salesperson side), besides adding to operating costs, these do little for a marine fish keeper other than removing ions the RO system misses. Since removing these ions might make for a neutral pH, this is not a concern for a marine fish/reef keeper since we desire higher pH anyway.
A selling tactic used for these units is that a RO system does not adequately remove nitrates and phosphates. This may be true for some lower end RO systems that are often part of these RO/DI systems, but not the better ones such as I recommend below.
Product Resource: AAP/Tropic Marine Center V2 Pure RO System
For further reading on this subject that as unfortunately been made way too confusing by certain industry sharks and forums:
Use of RO, DI, Softwater in Aquariums
*Additional power heads (such as a Seio Propeller Circulation Pump) and/or internal filters add necessarily circulation (and more filter redundancy in the case of an internal filter or Sponge Filter attached to a power head).
*Seio & SunSun Propeller Aquarium Circulation Water Pumps
*The UV Sterilizer, although not essential is a device that will aid in your Redox Potential as well as disease prevention and I personally strongly recommend them. I generally turn them on after the first week.
*Protein Skimmers are another useful suggestion that can be added after the first few weeks (they do little in the first few weeks due to lack of organics in the water column). Although not 100% required a top notch Protein Skimmer such as the TMC V2 Skim or ASM Skimmer makes reef keeping much easier and thus I would suggest one of these higher end Protein Skimmers for advanced reef marine aquariums.
As well a venture style protein skimmer can have an Ozone Generator added for improved effectiveness of organic waste removal, as well this device also lowers pathogens in the water column (similar to a UV Sterilizer).
*TMC Premium Venturi Reef Protein Skimmer
*V2 O3 Premium Ozonizer for Marine Reef Aquariums
I strongly recommend reading this article:
Aquarium Protein Skimmer Review
*Lighting can be improved as you step up to more advanced inhabitants such as anemones and especially corals.
The best choice with all the advances and when one considers lights in an apples to apples comparison are the Aquarium LED Lights (the vastly out dated watts per gallon so-called rule cannot be applied to modern marine aquarium lights, especially 5 year guaranteed AquaRay LEDs which only require as little as .6 watt per gallon for a fish only or FOWLR tank!!).
Product Resource: Premium LED Aquarium Lighting
The latest LED lights will outperform ALL fluorescent lights including HO T5 and VHO CFL.
When you consider that the BEST LED aquarium lights last 50,000 hours, the price is less over the life of the fixture when compared to HO T5 such as the Current 39 watt that might be ½ the cost, but lasts only 1/6 the time and consumes 3-4 times the energy for the same "useful light energy" output.
The Aqua Ray Aquarium LED lights are the BEST OF THE BEST as these are the only one with a warranty to actually last 5 years, most others are only a 1 year warranty, including the over rated EcoTech LEDs which also utilize outdated "current reduction" technology which is why these require a cooling fan due to the excess heat generated (that also is wasted energy). It is these fans that often over heat and break down that necessitate only a one year warranty!!
Product Resource: TMC AquaRay; Complete USA AUTHORIZED line only available at AAP
Another excellent choice to step up to are the newer SHO lights shown to the left (click to enlarge). These are powerful lights with high lumens per watt, require only basic incandescent fixtures (rather than some of the expensive ballast required by many high end lights) and just as important have the necessary PAR required for stony corals, clams, and other sessile species that depend on photosynthesis of zooanthellic algae (despite some of the anecdotal information that although more than 20 years old and outdated still passed around in the hobby).
Product Resource: Super High Output CFL for Marine Reef and Freshwater Planted Aquariums
The SHO lights can also be used in combination with high end Metal Halide such as the EcoSystems Sun HQI MH or the even newer high end LED lights such as the TMC Aqua Ray Marine Lights, Fixtures (Pictured to the left in a “Marine Blue” combination).
These newer, and less expensive than earlier LED lights can also be used by themselves (especially for tanks under 50 gallons) or in combination with T2, T5, Metal Halide or simple and inexpensive CFL lamps. For tanks over 100 gallons, these compact TMC Aqua Ray Marine Lights can be used in the previously mention before mentioned combination with SHO for greater economy.
Product Resource: Helios Compact G11 Aquarium CFL
Other good lighting choices include New Generation T2 (for Nano Tanks), T5 (slightly less then T2 technology though), & VHO lights. In fact the T2 lights can be linked together and have high usable light output making it not only excellent light for small to medium Basic Reef and Nano Reef tanks, but excellent lights for Fish only or FOWLR tanks. For example; two 13 Watt T2 fixtures can easily illuminate one 60 gallon Fish Only/FOWLR tank for very little cost in energy.
Product Resource: High PAR, lumens per watt T2 fixtures
Please see this article for MUCH more in depth and updated information about aquarium lighting:
“How Aquarium Lighting Works”
*Calcium Reactor; this is a useful device for maintaining bio available calcium in reef tanks with large amounts of stony corals. As well these Calcium Reactors can maintain positive calcium ions that are essential for fish health/Redox balance as well.
However my preference is the use of Oolitc Sand in a good FSB Filter, as while this is not quite as effective as a calcium reactor, it is much more simple and easily kept up with via dosing of products such as SeaChem Reef Advantage Calcium, ASSUMING additional supplementation is even necessary.
For a better understanding on reef chemistry, in particular calcium and alkalinity maintenance, I strongly suggest reading this article:
Use of RO, DI, Softwater in Aquariums
*SeaChem Reef Advantage Calcium from AAP
*Oolitic Sand for FSB Filters
See this article for more:
Calcium, Kalkwasser, Reactors, Magnesium in Marine Aquariums
Finally, if nitrates are a problem (with or without a Protein Skimmer);
You might consider several other options such as a Deep Sand filter with can be a simple DIY project using either a 10 gallon aquarium or even a bucket. Please click on the picture to see the article to the left.
Refugiums and Mud filters (or combinations of all three in one unit) are also considerations. Above all, if nitrates are a problem with your system, make sure you watch your feeding AND use live rock crumbles or similar porous rock (such as volcanic rock or “Bio Home”) instead of bio balls, or other filter media that only attracts nitrifying aerobic bacteria.
For my FULL Marine Basics article, please visit this site: “AQUARIUM SALTWATER BASICS; information, resources, and more.
For more aquarium information and articles (pond too), please visit this site: