First, it’s finally time to buy all that stuff you need making sure you adhere to your plan 100%. If you stick to your plan, then everything goes to plan – this is important to your ongoing success.
If you have a legitimate reason to change your plan then do so making sure you write it down and have explored all the implications and ramifications of this.
It’s important to note at this stage to TAKE IT SLOW! Its not a race, do things slowly and carefully and do not take any shortcuts here.
A well-executed set up is vital to your marine life keeping success.
Grab your aquarium and set up the stand (if you have one) in your decided location, make sure it is level.
The aquarium needs to be thoroughly cleaned with freshwater, now is the time to do any plumbing customization, add a background and add your sump. Ensure the aquarium is placed on the stand level then attach all your equipment where you want it to be.
If you intend to use substrate put that in now and place a clean bowl on the bottom of the tank and pour purified freshwater into the bowl filling up the tank. The idea here is that the flow via the bowl wont disrupt your substrate too much.
After the tank is filled to your desired level you can turn on all the equipment for a “wet run” to make sure everything is functioning correctly for a day or so. Now is also the time to check for any leaks and see how everything works together.
After a day or so of making sure all equipment is functioning correctly turn it all off and remove about half the water because its time for aquascaping. Get your creative cap on!
If you haven’t already done so in your saltwater aquarium plan, it’s a good idea to draw a couple of options on paper and decide on the best one, keeping in mind what marine life you will have and what sort of habitats like caves and grottoes they will like to frequent.
Arrange all your decoration as you have decided, a fantastic way to go is to peg bits of aquarium suitable rock or live rock together by drilling holes and gluing in a piece of dowel in a rock then attaching it to the other rock without glue, this way you can easily disassemble your structure if you need to.
Trial this on a table to see if your reef creation is balanced before it goes in your aquarium. By doing this you can easily make an amazing looking reef formation and provide a variety of hangouts for your marine life.
When your aquascaping is complete, restart the heaters, powerheads/pumps, protein skimmer and filtration devices.
Add your salt mix to the water to make your synthetic seawater all the while mixing and measuring it to ensure the correct specific gravity (ideally 1.023), pH (Ideally 8.3), and temperature (ideally 77-80°F which is 25-27°C).
Now initiate the cycling of your aquarium using live rock. Live rock is quite possibly the most beneficial substance in the world to a marine aquarist (and a smelly fishy rock to everyone else!).
Live rock is porous rock taken from the rubble zones of ocean reefs; it contains many tiny invertebrates and microorganisms essential to biological cycling – converting animal waste ammonium into nitrite, then much less toxic nitrate which is either absorbed by plants or removed by partial water changes or denitrification filters.
The outstanding advantage of live rock is that it harbors anaerobic zones where denitrifying bacteria grow; these awesome little guys convert the nitrate into harmless nitrogen gas thus completing the nitrogen cycle.
To begin with your new saltwater is essentially sterile and we need to encourage beneficial bacterial growth on the surfaces of your aquarium to make it viable for marine life.
Here’s how we do that:
The biological cycling process is kicked off by ammonia, which will be released into the aquarium by decaying life on the live rock if it is unseeded or uncured. If your live rock is cured (seeded) you may need to add a commercial ammonia solution to kick off the reaction. This ammonium source will encourage the growth of specific bacteria which will use it as an energy source and convert it into nitrite which is less toxic to life.
The increasing concentration of this new compound will initiate another sort of bacterial population to multiply which convert nitrite to nitrate. This 3-step process is known as nitrification and is the series of reactions behind biological filtration.
You will use your ammonium, nitrite and nitrate test kits to establish which phase the aquarium is in; it will go from ammonium spike to nitrite spike to undetectable levels of ammonium/nitrite and detectable nitrate.
The entire cycling process will take anywhere from 3-100 days depending on what type of biological filtration you are using: live rock or commercial filter, cured or uncured live rock.
The only way to tell is to detect zero nitrite over time and to observe various parameters such as pH start to stabilize. Do not rush this; putting in livestock now could easily throw the system out of equilibrium.
Throughout the entire process my recommendation is to keep the protein skimmer on to remove all the detritus and dissolved organics from the water.
You water will look pretty dirty throughout this process – you can just siphon out excess settled detritus and let the protein skimmer and bacterial populations do their thing.
You also may see algae start to grow; this indicates nitrate levels are building; you should get rid of the algae before it builds up to crazy levels.
The final phase is to initiate denitrification by using a commercial filter, conducting partial water changes with or without the assistance of live rock.
You will want to bring nitrate levels down to around 20ppm and tweak any temperature or water quality levels and let the water settle and clear before you GRADUALLY add your livestock.
This is the fun part! Add one or two species from your plan into the aquarium; take it very slow to allow the bacteria to adjust to the increased bioload.
After a week or so test the water levels and if you get a zero reading for ammonia and nitrite add one or two more.
You can start gradually building on your correctly set up and cycled dream marine aquarium!