1. What are you hoping to keep?
This is an area which is often overlooked and is actually the most important aspect which needs looking into. The reason for this is that the aquarium, equipment etc selection must be based around this. You need to also attempt to look into the future. For example you may want to start off with a fish only aquarium, however do you want to keep corals in the future?
2. Aquarium size and location
You should know where you want your aquarium to be located. It should not be in direct sunlight and it should not be to near to a source of heat (or cold). Aquariums, once full of water are very very heavy. For this reason you need to ensure that the floor where the aquarium is to be placed is suitable. If not then it may require strengthening. A lot of the equipment utilised within aquariums require a power source. Does the location have enough power sources available. Is the power source protected by a breaker?
When it comes to size it is recommended that the largest possible aquarium be purchased. The reason for this is stability. It is much easier to maintain excellent water conditions in an aquarium of a larger size due to dilution that it is in a smaller aquarium.
3. Is there a requirement for a sump?
A sump is another aquarium (possibly smaller than the display aquarium) which is located externally to the display aquarium. This is normally beneath or alongside the display aquarium.
A sump can be used to house equipment which otherwise may look unsightly in the display aquarium. Good examples of these are heaters, skimmer etc.
A sump can also be used to provide additional filtration and nutrient export to the aquarium system. Examples of this are deep sand bed, mangroves, refugium etc.
If you do decide to utilise a sump then you will need to either have holes drilled in the aquarium or some other type of overflow to get the water to the sump. The water can be returned to the aquarium by an aquarium pump.
4. Filtration method
Filtration - without it your aquarium will fail. we can guarantee you that.
There are various filtration options available to you. All of which work to certain degrees it has to be said, although some are not as efficient as others.
There are two aspects to be looked into in this area - natural filtration and man made filtration.
Natural filtration is based upon filtration via live rock, deep sand beds etc.
Man made filtration is based upon fluidised filters, canister filters etc.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to filtration. For a saltwater aquarium a very effective filtration medium to use is live rock - even more so when used inline with a deep sand bed.
However this might not be right for you - look into all options, look at the pros and cons of each and then make up your mind based upon information, cost and inhabitants.
5. Aquarium lighting
Again this area depends upon what inhabitants you hope to keep.
If you're interested in keeping a fish only aquarium then fluorescent tubing will most likely be sufficient.
If, however you hope to keep corals in your aquarium then your selection will depend upon the type of corals you are hoping to keep.
For example if you are going to keep soft corals then T5/T8 tubes would suffice (dependant upon the type of soft coral and the depth of your aquarium). If you are hoping to keep hard corals (sps) then you will need a much more stronger light. Metal halide, for example is a fantastic unit to use over a reef tank with hard corals.
Choose your lighting dependant upon the aquarium inhabitants.
6. Water movement provision
In the ocean the water moves around, in some places a lot.
You need to attempt to emulate this in your aquarium.
Guess what though - this depends upon what your are keeping!
If you keeping fish only then you only need a small amount of water movement - nothing to vigorous. Of course more water movement can be provided and the fish will enjoy ‘playing’ in it but it is not a necessity.
If you a going to keep corals then it is a different picture altogether. If you are hoping to keep soft corals then you will need to provide a higher amount of water movement. A general rule of thumb is to turn over 10 times to amount of water in the aquarium.
If you are planning on keep hard corals then you will want to provide a large amount of water movement. These corals come from very high flow areas in the wild and require a large amount of water flow to thrive. A good general rule is to turn over the water volume about 30 times per hour.
You can provide water flow in numerous ways the most common being via powerheads. The are of course other ways in which you can provide water circulation. Good examples of these are wave boxes, close loop systems etc
7. Water provision
If you are going to keep a saltwater aquarium then these is definitely one thing which you are going to need and that is water!
You can’t just use any water though - tap water for example may be full of impurities which are detrimental to marine life. The best one to use is one called reverse osmosis. Using a reverse osmosis unit you can provide water which is of the best quality.
You will also need to mix salt into the water, mixing it to the correct specific gravity reading.
Water, when mixed with heat and circulation evaporates and needs to be replaced. The salt, however does not evaporate. Therefore you will need to top up the water with water to ensure that there are minimal, if any fluctuation in the specific gravity.
8. Care and maintenance understanding
Setting up the aquarium is the beginning of a truly wonderful adventure, an adventure which you will get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from. You will need to care for it though and provide the required maintenance to both the aquarium and the equipment.
This care and maintenance comes from feeding the inhabitants, cleaning the aquarium, maintaining the equipment, performing water changes, checking the water parameters etc.
This is an area where a lot of aquarists slip. They do not provide the required care and maintenance. Therefore over time the aquarium starts to decline and quite often the aquarists gives up the hobby.
9. Other equipment requirements
Starting a saltwater aquarium is not just purchasing an aquarium, filling it with water and watching everything grow and thrive. There is other equipment which you will or may need to purchase.
Water on the reef is warm, therefore you will need a heater. Even better to get two so that one can be a backup to the other.
If you live in a warm place then you may need a chiller to keep it cool.
If you are implementing a sump then you will need pipework.
A protein skimmer will be required to remove pollutants from the water.
A stand will be required for your aquarium. This may either come with the aquarium or you could have a custom built one. Maybe you feel comfortable in having a got at some DIY and building your own. As already said an aquarium when full of water is full therefore it needs to be located on a stand which is designed for this purpose.
A hood may be required to install the lighting into and also cover the top of the aquarium.
10. Know your inhabitants
This is a very important part and is one which simply cannot be ignored. All the time I see people putting life into their aquariums, under their care without even knowing or understanding the basic requirements of them.
Before any purchase always look into their requirements. If it is a fish will it get on with other tank mates, how big will it grow, what food does it require etc.
If it is a coral what are the lighting requirement, what are the feeding requirements, will it sting/harm other corals etc.
The inhabitants are the reason you start an aquarium (or it should be anyway) and let’s face it they are not cheap but lets go one step further they are animals, they are alive and like anything else on this planet they deserve to be cared for and all of their requirements provided for them.