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How to: Basic Marine Aquarium Set Up
May . 23 / 2018

Your First Marine Aquarium - The Basics

Starting a marine aquarium has never been easier! This blog will take you through the basics of the marine aquarium and provide you with information on how to use some of the commonly used starter products.


All tropical marine life has evolved around a similar set of water parameters. The saltwater the ocean provides is a huge mix of various minerals and elements, some of which are in high concentrations. These parameters need to be tested for, to ensure the saltwater in our aquarium is the same as that in the ocean. Unlike most freshwater fish, the marine animals we want to keep have not needed to evolve to deal with changing water parameters and are therefore compatible with the same set of parameters, not really differing between species. Maintaining water quality and good bacteria in the aquarium are the keys to a successful tank. This good bacteria detoxifies waste matter, and, as a result, keeps livestock alive.


Every animal sold by Tropical Marine Centre is suited to life in a tropical aquarium with a water temperature of around 25oC and this is what we recommend you set your aquarium heater at. Stability is key and we recommend that you do not change any more than 1oC per day should you need too.


Tropic Marin® Salts

Simply the best and what we have chosen to use for nearly 50 years.  This salt mix will allow you to create the perfect environment for all marine animals, and all styles of marine aquarium, from beginner to advanced. The salt itself provides all of the salt content found naturally in the oceans and all of the major, minor and trace elements found in tropical seas in an extremely pure form. Consistently reliable and dependable. Just what you need for your aquarium.

The salt level in the aquarium is measured in either of two ways:

  • Salinity (total salt content) measured in ppt
  • Specific gravity (density of the water) measured in s.g.

We recommend you choose one method and stick to it!  When mixed with RO water of 25oC to a specific gravity of 1.027 s.g., the salt mix will provide you with the perfect parameters.

Reverse Osmosis (RO) Water

RO water is 100% pure H20, created by a reverse osmosis system. This is readily available to purchase from local fish shops or you can invest in your own V2Pure RO unit to produce the water at home.

As water evaporates from your aquarium, the salt is left behind leaving the water more and more salty. Therefore it is imperative that you top up the water regularly with RO Water, ideally remineralised with Tropic Marin Re-Mineral Marine so the animals are kept at the correct salinity/specific gravity. You could also automate this by using a V2 or REEF Auto Top Up system.

Testing and Water Changes

As fish, corals, invertebrates and bacteria live and grow in the aquarium, they will begin to affect the water quality and water parameters will move outside of the optimum range. In extreme cases, this can happen within hours. This is why we recommend testing the water weekly to ensure that all is well. If something looks suspicious, test the water.

Changing the water regularly - 10-15% of the total water volume of the aquarium every week - This will help to reset the parameters back to normal. As you add more fish, corals and inverts, you will need to add and use additional products to keep the water parameters in check. This is also the ideal time to check that all of your equipment is working correctly and to clean the glass/equipment.

How much you will need will be based on your test results. To change the water, use a clean length of hose and a bucket dedicated to the job, siphon the water out of the aquarium, sucking up any detritus as you go. Clean any aquarium equipment only in the removed water. Ensure that the water you put back in during the water change is of the same salinity/specific gravity and is within a couple of degrees of the aquarium water or ideally the actual aquarium temperature, so the aquarium temperature is not affected. Having a spare aquarium heater is useful for heating up your water before doing the water change.

Water Parameters

In terms of water parameters, the optimum conditions can be seen below:-

When mixed as per the instructions up to full reef salinity of 35ppt, Tropic Marin REEF-Salt will give you the following conditions:

  • pH 8.0-8.4
  • KH (alkalinity/carbonate hardness): 7-8 °dH
  • Calcium: 420-440 mg/l
  • Magnesium: 1300 – 1400 mg/l
  • K (potassium): 400 – 420 mg/l
  • Nitrate 0ppm
  • Phosphate 0ppm
  • All of 70 of the trace elements found in the sea

Setting Up Your Aquarium

Set up your aquarium and equipment as per the manufacturers instructions.


We recommend you add washed, genuine Tropical Marine Centre coral gravel or sand as a substrate. The sand/gravel size you use is personal preference but fill to a depth of around 3-5cm.


In a marine aquarium, we rely on porous rocks for decor and for attachment of corals. This rock, with the aid of high water flow, will provide an environment for good bacteria to grow. The rock essentially acts like a filter and is a critical part of the ecosystem you will create. A rough guide of 1kg of rock for every 10 litres of water is a good place to start. We recommend that the flow rate of your aquarium should be 10x to 20x that of its volume, e.g based on 20x, a 100 litre tank should have at least 2,000 litres an hour flow, provided by circulation pumps. If you have a sumped aquarium, we recommend that your aquarium volume turns over through the sump 3-4 times per hour.

Dry rock

If using dry rocks, we recommend you choose Walt Smith's REEF Rock 2.0, a man-made purple, coralline algae coloured rock which is highly porous and available in many shapes and sizes. The benefit of using dry rock is that it is easier to make interesting structures for your aquarium 'aquascape' in your aquarium before it is filled with water and it also reduces the risk of potential pests or algaes. The disadvantage is that it will take longer for your aquarium to be ready for fish and this rock will not introduce any of the good bacteria, algaes or potential hitchhikers - a coral or invertebrate that is shipped in with the rock. Once you have made a rock structure that is stable (you can use TMC Reefers Epoxy Putty to stick rocks together), fill the aquarium with pre-mixed salt water, made with Tropic Marin REEF-Salt  and allow the system to run for several days to ensure all equipment is working and the tank is up to temperature and salinity.

At this point we need to introduce the good bacteria the aquarium needs, using Tropic Marin NitriBiotic - add per the instructions. At this point you can add some hardy fish - speak to your local retailer about the best hardy species to start with. The tank will now begin the “nitrogen cycle” - the conversion of dead organic matter, such as uneaten foods and fish waste, into ammonia/ammonium which is then converted into nitrite and then relatively non-toxic nitrate. The bacterial species that will grow to carry out this nitrogen cycle are provided by Nitribiotic and live rock.



Ammonia and nitrite are toxic and can kill your aquarium inhabitants. Once the aquarium is established, your test kit should read zero for both of these compounds.

Live rock

Fill your aquarium to the half way point and have salt water ready to entirely fill the aquarium once done. Place certified sustainably sourced live rock, as supplied by Tropical Marine Centre, into the aquarium and create your aquascape. Fill the aquarium immediately and get all equipment working. Start using Tropic Marin NitriBiotic to help the bacterial colony get established. The benefits of using live rock are simply that you will be introducing a plethora of good bacteria, attractive algaes and with any luck some good hitchhikers too! The bacteria from the cured live rock will go some way to help establish the nitrogen cycle quickly and use of NitriBiotic will further enhance this. It is likely that you will not need to use fish to help the nitrogen cycle establish the aquarium as there will be a small amount of 'die off' on the live rock which will produce the organic matter which will feed the good bacteria responsible for the nitrogen cycle.

It is very important to test for ammonia and nitrite daily during the set up stages to see how the nitrogen cycle is progressing. Only once you read zero for both, as tested by the Tropic Marin Compact Lab Multi Test Kit, should you add more animals to the aquarium.

Follow the instructions in the Compact Lab for the ammonia/ammonium, nitrite and nitrate tests. Always test the water and rectify any issues before adding additional livestock. During ongoing maintenance of your aquarium, you need to continue looking after these bacteria as they continually convert the wastes into nitrate. Never wash the aquarium, equipment or rock under the tap or in freshwater as this will kill the good bacteria. Use the old aquarium water you remove from the tank during water changes.

Once the nitrogen cycle is established, we recommend testing weekly before your water change to ensure all is well. If anything looks suspicious in the aquarium, test the water and perform a partial water change.

Stocking your Aquarium

With the nitrogen cycle established, you can start to add livestock to your aquarium. Speak to your local retailer for the most suitable species for your particular size and type of aquarium. Always research your animals before purchase and never buy on a whim. Always buy your livestock in person as you will ensure what you are getting is what you asked for, including ensuring the health of the animal. It is extremely important that your new livestock is acclimated to your aquarium slowly as aquatic animals, and especially marines, are very susceptible to changes in water quality. The water quality will be totally different in each system, even if they are at the same temperature and salinity, so moving fish from your shop’s aquarium to yours can be very stressful for the fish. By using an AquaHabitats acclimation kit and following the included instructions is a tried and tested way of ensuring your new livestock has a smooth transition between the differing water parameters without shocking their delicate systems and causing undue stress. This is the way we do it at Tropical Marine Centre and hope you will find your animals will do just as well afterwards.

Nitrate and Phosphate

Over time, nitrate and phosphate will build up in the aquarium increasing algae growth. As more livestock is introduced, the 10% -15% weekly water changes alone may not be enough to dilute/reduce the levels of these. Therefore, it is important to reduce these to the levels shown in the diagram above to minimise nuisance algae growth, and keep the aquarium clean. We recommend using Tropic Marin Elimi-Phos for phosphate removal and larger water changes to help with nitrate. Phosphate can also inhibit coral growth so we recommend that you use Tropic Marin Bacto Pellets or Elimi NP as these two products will help a new species of bacteria to grow that will naturally consume nitrate and phosphate. You do not want zero nitrate or phosphate levels in your aquarium because the symbiotic algae that lives inside corals' skin (called zooxanthallae) do require a small amount. Please refer to the optimal conditions diagrams for the correct levels recommended.

Mineral supply

As your aquarium becomes more established, there will be a growing demand on the minerals and elements present in the water as corals and other invertebrates consume them, and so they must be replaced. The major minerals of concern are KH, calcium and magnesium. Water changes may be sufficient to top these up initially but over time they will be depleted and must be tested for. Fortunately, Tropic Marin ALL FOR REEF can be used to  top up these elements, as well as trace elements, in the correct ratio that they are consumed, based only on the KH level.  Test the KH level with the test in the Tropic Marin Compact Lab Multi Test Kit and add ALL FOR REEF as per the instructions to increase the KH level back to 7-8 o dH.  By ensuring that the KH level is correct, you will help to ensure that the pH, calcium and magnesium levels also stay within the correct range. Since all marine animals have evolved to live in water of a certain pH, this is why it is important to monitor it. ALL FOR REEF can be used in all but the most demanding aquariums where individual tailoring of the calcium and magnesium levels may be required. It is worth investing in a Tropic Marin Calcium/Magnesium Test Kit at a later date to ensure all is well when your aquarium is well stocked.


We recommend feeding your aquarium inhabitants with high quality feeds such as the Gamma Frozen, Liquid and Dry Foods range,  as well as various products available from Tropic Marin - remember to follow the manufacturers instructions. Speak to your local retailer for more tips and information.

Enjoy your marine aquarium and remember ... only bad things happen quickly in an aquarium! If in doubt, change some of the water.