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I want to start a marine aquarium! What now?

“I want to start a marine aquarium, what now?” I hear this on a daily basis. New Marine hobbyists that want to start a marine aquarium and do not know where to start or what’s the best way to go about it is. Hopefully after reading this article, you would have a basic understanding of the what, where, how and when.

Before I begin we need to look a bit into human psychology. We live in a fast and ever expanding world of immediate gratification and expect everything to happen “yesterday”. A marine aquarium, like freshwater, is a micro biological system and setting up a healthy biological system over night is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Immediate gratification is not an option, when you start with a marine aquarium you will have to go through a process to reach that WOW aquarium effect.

Let’s start at the beginning and find out what hardware you need. This is the first step to success, if you buy the wrong products or use incorrect water your aquarium could end up in the “junk mail” and that is unacceptable for me as your advisor and for you, as you must have spent a lot of your hard earned money for nothing.

So what hardware do you need? First you need to decide on the size of your aquarium and here size does matter. Nano aquariums are not as easy to maintain and keep as stable as bigger aquariums, but bigger also cost more. My advice is to look at your budget and buy the biggest you can easily afford. Another interesting fact we found in our retail store is that hobbyists that bought bigger aquariums do not only stay longer in the hobby, but they are 70% more likely to be successful compared to hobbyists that bought nano aquariums. That by itself show me that bigger is better. Other reasons why bigger is better is that on a biological and chemical level bigger volumes are more stable, but most importantly you will have more space to place those 100’s of fish and corals you will see that must go into your aquarium.

Secondly you need filtration. The filter you connect to your marine aquarium will be the bloodline, organs and everything else that would ensure you display aquarium is in tip to condition. Plus it would house your extra hardware you are going to need. Do not take this decision to lightly. My experience with any other filter than a sump filter was not too satisfying. I will go so far as stating that some filter should never be used in a marine aquarium by a beginner hobbyist. Filters that are a no-no in my opinion is Canister filters, while the best in my experience is a sump, filter built and designed for the specific aquarium that is as big as possible.

So what are the recommended filtration options? A sump (filter underneath your display aquarium) is the most obvious and used filter in the marine trade, then as alternative you could think of a remote open filter. The keyword is open so gas exchange can be maximized. Other means of filtration like a side filter (popular with tropical aquariums) are used but with limited success. Then a custom made hang on filter is sometimes used,but filters like a under gravel filter or a canister filter are designed for freshwater aquariums and should be used there only. This is a contentious statement and your local pet shop might differ from me, but I can explain it this way. Canister filters and under gravel filters are designed to use up Ammonia and protein, producing phosphates and nitrates that are not a major problem in a well maintained freshwater aquarium but an absolute no-no in a marine aquarium. While a sump filter could do the same, a well-designed and correctly maintained sump filter produce far less phosphates and nitrates and could even help to reduce it to some extend with the correct setup.

How do I decide on a correct sump filter? Ensure that your sump filter is at least 50% the size / volume of your display as a minimum, if it could be bigger than the display aquarium it is even better. What make a sump better than other filters? For starters the sump could be designed to house all the other hardware, it add more water volume to your total system, a sump filter add oxygen to your water and you have space to add live rock, a DSB (deep sand bed) or any other means of filtration or reactor now, or at a later stage, without impacting too much on your display aquarium. Plus maintaining a sump is easy and doing a task that is not easy might be neglected and neglect is the downfall of some hobbyists.

Now that you have a sump filter you need a good protein skimmer. “A what?” You ask. Well a protein skimmer’s correct name should actually be foam refractor, meaning it uses foam to remove something out of the water. The basic principle is that protein (that end up as phosphate and nitrate) stick to air bubbles in the water and a protein skimmer produce millions of air bubbles that attract lots of protein, the protein is then accumulate in a cup and you throw that away. So a protein skimmer remove protein before it could be broken down to become phosphates and nitrates. The better your protein skimmer does its work the better your prized aquariums water quality will be. How do I decide which skimmer is the best (price vs. quality) for me? 1st you need to decide if you want to keep fish only or fish & corals as corals need top quality water to thrive while most fish need good water quality. There are a variety of skimmers on the market and some are better than others, a good shop would advise you, but do your own research if in any doubt. A good beginning is to see how much air bubbles and what size are produced by the skimmer and how long the water stay in contact with the air bubbles in the skimmer. The amount of air bubbles should be maximised and the smaller the bubbles are, the better the skimmer will work, and the longer the water stay in contact with the air bubble the more time the protein have got to attach itself to the air bubbles.

With a large aquarium on top and a protein skimmer in the sump we are 80% thru the 1st steps to start a marine aquarium. Next you need an over flow from the aquarium to the sump and a return pump to return the filtered water back into the display aquarium. Sound easy, well it can be as easy or as complicated as you want to make it, but boils down to the following. Have some type of gravitational overflow system that will stop, the moment the return pump stop to pump water back into the display aquarium. NEVER use one pump to pump up and another to pump down, it ends 95% of the time in tears and water all over the floor! Now that nature is delivering the water into your sump you need to pump it back up into the display aquarium. The size of this pump would depend heavily on the design of the sump, the volume the sump can hold, the size of the last chamber of the sump and the size of the display aquarium itself.

Your water cycle thru the filter is now done, but you still need lighting. Lighting on a marine aquarium is not only for you to view the fish, inverts and corals but are extremely important to the inhabitants of your display aquarium. Nearly all corals need intense light to photosynthesis and produce their food, so if your lighting is not sufficient or incorrect type or spectrum the corals will die and without the correct lighting that beautiful purple/pink coralline algae that are synonymous with healthy marine aquariums will not grow either.

How do I know what lighting to use? This subject warrants a whole range of articles themselves, but for the purposes of this article you need to understand that light types and the globe’s Kelvin (not a guy’s name) are important. Let’s start with the lighting types. Marine hobbyists use T5, Metal halide and LED’s most of the time. T5 is a THIN florescent light tube that delivers much more light than a normal fluorescent light (T8) but cannot penetrate to the bottom of deep marine aquarium. Metal halide penetrate much deeper than T5’s but use more electricity and generate a lot more heat. LED’s is a new technology and only now started to prove their viability in the marine aquarium trade. What is Kelvin? It is actually called Kelvin temperature and refer to the colour that the light produce. For marines 10 000k is the beginning of the spectrum and refer to a light that visually produce a white light as seen by a coral that grow close to the sea surface. The top end of this is 20 000k that produce a blue light representing lighting as seen by a coral in deeper oceans and in-between these 2 you get a variety of lights. But remember that you need to cater for the needs of your corals and thus use a combination of these light bulbs and others to enhance the health of your aquarium inhabitants.

Lastly you need to look at heating / cooling. Yes cooling your aquarium might be needed during our hot summer weeks and heating will be a must in winter.

That is the most essential hardware you will need to start your marine aquarium. Now you can start to look at the water, live rock and your 1stcritters in your future spectacular marine aquarium.

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