How hard to start a salt water tank.

In my basement I have two empty 40 gallon breeder* tanks and a ginormous 110 gallon tank from when I used to have lizards. For the past few years I’ve tossed around the idea of making the big 110 gallon tank into a salt water tank (I figure the 110 gallon would be a bit more forgiving at the beginning and more fun once I get it going). So, for someone who’s never had a fish tank in their life, how much work would it be?
I really don’t have much interest in fresh water, I’d rather look at the salt water fish, and frankly, taking measurements, adjusting chemicals, hooking up complex filtering and pumping systems, I enjoy that kinda thing. So, if I start off slow, how much work is it? How much time should I expect to dedicate to it on a daily/weekly basis? I haven’t thought about it in quite a while, but that other thread reminded me of it again.

Another question, does any part of the fitering require gravity? That 110 gallon tank must weigh over 100 pounds empty, with water and gravel I’m guessing it would be well over 800 pounds. I have no idea how much a base that can hold that would cost, but I’d guess it’s quite a bit (how much would it be?). Nah…nevermind, I don’t really think a tank would look that good on the floor anyways.

*Why are they called breeder tanks?

Well, depending on the salinity, salt water weighs between 10 and 11 pounds per gallon, so you’re looking at somewhere between 1100 and 1200 pounds of water alone. That’s about 65 or so pounds per cubic foot, whereas gravel weighs about 100 pounds. I’d add that directly to the water weight, for conservatism (because the water is going to fill the voids in the gravel), so designing with 1500 pounds in mind is a good start. You’ll want a safety factor, of course, because the last thing you want is 110 gallons of salt water on the floor!

Sorry, I don’t know much about fish.

I had a salt water tank years ago, and although the fish are beautiful, it’s MANY orders of magnitude more difficult than a freshwater tank. Things are probably easier now, but salt water tanks are still expensive to maintain, and they are really pretty environmentally unfriendly. My experience was that even with a “stable” tank, the creatures don’t tend to have long, happy lives.

Luckily, if I do set this up, it would be in my basement which has a poured concrete floor. So at least I don’t have to worry about it going through that. Also, it would be set up right next to a sump pump. I was thinking about making some sort of a drip tray to set the whole thing up, so any leaks (short of a catastrophic failure) would just make their way into the sump.

More importantly, make sure the tank does not have any leaks. This site goes over the basic steps. The main things to think about are the costs and the time it will take to maintain the tank. Even though you own the tank, the startup costs will be at least several hundred dollars. Probably over a grand if you are interesting in live substrate and/or corals. This message board will have people that will be able to assist you with your questions. If you have never kept fish before, there’s gonna be a decent learning curve. Either way, I wouldn’t write off fresh water fish. There are enough varieties to satisfy most people, and they tend to be much cheaper and easier to keep alive, plus you still get to break out the chem set. I’ve seen plenty of experienced people lose hundreds of dollars worth of SW fish, so just be sure you can afford to make mistakes.

And for your questions:

  1. It’s gonna be a decent amount of work. Initially, it’s probably a 6+ hours to get things started up, and several hours over the next couple weeks to get things right. Then about 90 minutes per week for water changes, etc, and 15 minutes a day for feeding, maintenance. This could vary a lot depending on how complex your system is.

  2. The set-up will probably weigh about 1200 pounds give or take. I would check Craig’s List for supplies and stands. You can save a lot that way, and meet some people who might be able to give you an idea of where you want to go with the tank. Most pet store don’t sell tanks that large, so you might have to build your own, order it, or buy one used. Main thing you should do is itemize everything you need/want, and plan everything out. Certain fish are incompatible, or need certain things to thrive. Plan out what fish you want to keep before you start this process.

  3. Yes, you will need to measure specific gravity among other things:

Marine aquarists commonly test the water in the aquarium for a variety of chemical indicators of water quality. These include :

  1. AFAIK, breeder tanks are named because you breed fish in them, and the depth is usually 18" or less as opposed to 24" or more. The advantage to breeder tanks is that they have a greater surface area. I’ve read this gives them much better gas exchange at the surface than a deep narrow tank. Surface area is much more important than capacity in gallons when figuring the fish load a tank can handle. This allows for easier breeding.

It does take a lot of work to get it started and a lot of time for a new tank to get where you want it to be. We’ve had our tank (a 125) up and running for about two years now and we’ve certainly had our share of ups and downs (crashes). It’s very frustrating at times, but, IMO, worth it in the end. Our tank is looking fabulous right now, with lots of neat fish and corals. My husband built our stand and canopy himself. The lights are inside the canopy and the stand houses the sump, which he built from a 55-gallon (I think) tank. I don’t dare give you too much advice personally, since our tank is mainly my husband’s project. I just offer moral support and look at the pretty things. He spends probably 20 minutes to half an hour a day doing various things with the tank. He also does regular water changes probably once a month or so on the weekends, which take a few hours. If you’d like, you can pm me and I’ll give you my husband’s e-mail address. One site that he’s gotten a lot of good info from is

Here’s some pics of our tank. They’re kind of old—I need to get some new ones!
Full tank shot
Pajama cardinals

ETA: We also have a hospital tank, a 55-gallon tank where we can put fish if they get sick. Hospital tanks allow you to medicate your fish without damaging your corals. It also is good to get a sick fish away from the other fish so it doesn’t infect the rest.

Not to dissuade you from saltwater, but have you considered planted freshwater?

Some planted tanks are (IMO) beautiful.

Plus, in my limited experience, they can be considerably less expensive to set-up, and can be maintained with somewhat less maintenance. And in Milwaukee, you’ve got great water for growing weeds!

Breeders are very well-liked for planted tanks because the extra depth makes for more interesting planting schemes.

About 10 years ago, we ran a 55 gallon and a 37 gallon salt tanks. We’d had lots of experience with freshwater tanks, but not with sale. The salt, while more complex then a fresh water tank, wasn’t as hard as we feared it would be. Yes, you have to mix salt into the water, instead of just doing a water change. Chemical balance is more important then with fresh. Cleaning is harder and the fish are more expensive when they die (fish always die.)

I’d actually take a look at using one of your smaller tanks. We had great luck with a[ URL=]Cyclone Bak Pak. For the 55 gallon tank, it was all the filtration we needed, until we started playing with more exotic livestock and plants.

Start with just fish, and inexpensive ones at that. We used damsel fish. They were cheap and fairly hardy.

Look at crushed coral as your substrate. It provides some pH buffering for the chemicals in your water.

Most important, find a good store. One where the employees/owners are knowledgable and willing to talk. Find a slow time and go ask questions. Don’t expect to get a lot of answers on Saturday afternoon during their big sale.

This is key! My husband and I are setting up our first freshwater tank, and we haven’t had a single problem yet. But all credit goes to our fish guy at our local shop. He’s taken the time with us to go over the nitrate cycle, the kinds of fish that go well together…everything. As long as you’ve got someone with some experience, you can keep from making the common first-timer mistakes.

What store (if you don’t mind my asking)?

Wow, he built that himself? Is he a woodworker by trade, or is it just a hobby? It looks like it wasn’t his first project, by any means; it’s gorgeous!

Santo Rugger—He attended school for carpentry. He doesn’t work in the field at the moment, but his skills sure come in handy for something like this. There’s no way we would have been able to afford to buy a stand and canopy of this quality at a store. I do have to take some of the credit for it being so pretty, though. I was mad at him because he went to buy a 75-gallon tank and instead came home with a 125, then proceeded to move our gorgeous antique buffet out of the dining room to make room for it. So when it came time to make the stand, I told him that it had better be pretty! I suggested doing the rosettes and trim to match our woodwork and putting the design on the canopy.

Two things I consider important:

  1. Don’t trust the advice you get from local pet stores until you’ve verified it through other experienced hobbyists. While there are some exceptional pet stores where the employees actually know what they’re talking about, it is far more common that the employees are clueless and/or just want to make a sale. In my experience, you can get much more reliable advice by going to forums that specialize in fishkeeping like AquariaCentral to talk to other hobbyists, who generally have learned from experience what works and don’t have any reason to want to talk you into buying stuff you don’t need or getting the wrong fish.
  2. Look for a captive bred (tank bred) fish for your first fish. There are a number of species now being bred in captivity like most kinds of clownfish (the “Nemo” fish) and cardinalfish (like the Pajama cardinal that yellowval linked to above). The advantage of getting a captive bred fish is that it will be adapted to the conditions of a tank already, unlike the many saltwater fish that are taken from the wild and therefore very stressed out or diseased by the time they get to a pet store. Plus, buying a captive bred fish is much better for the environment since the process of catching fish from the wild frequently causes many deaths along the way and depletes the wild populations.
    Always research the fish you’re interested in before you buy them, because a lot of saltwater fish offered for sale are not really suitable for life in tanks (since many marine animals have very specialized diets or other needs) and die shortly after purchase.

To add to what lavenderviolet said about researching fish before buying: Something else you need to be careful of is buying fish that are compatible with corals if you are interested in keeping corals as well as fish (I personally think the corals are just as much fun as the fish). Some fish will eat your corals. I am very good at finding which kinds of fish will do this. Take me into a fish store and have me choose which fish I want. This is the fish that we can’t have because it isn’t reef safe. Never fails. I even had a fish store employee tease me about it one time. After pointing out about three different fish that I thought were cool and being told by my husband we couldn’t have that one, she said, “You’re good at this. Do it again!”

Chicago Aquarium, at 5040 N Clark Street. They are pretty new to the neighborhood, but the manager has been doing aquaria since he was a kid. I guess there was another aquarium in the area that recently closed down, and the new place asked the other guys if they could use the name, and they were more than happy about it. So if you knew of the old place, this is its new life!