You, the Aquarist
The first step has nothing to do with your tank and should occur WELL before you ever lay a penny down on that dream. This is such an important aspect and unfortunately one that is quickly rushed over. This is actually the time for you to assess yourself. Are you ready to own this responsibility? Do you have the commitment to do what needs to be done, when it needs to happen? Are you willing to do plenty of research and not buy on impulse? Are you willing to try and determine what went wrong (and something will), instead of just repeating the same error time and time again? Are you willing to look at the inhabitants of your tank as amazing creatures that should be shown the appreciation and respect that they deserve? Most importantly, ARE YOU A PATIENT PERSON? There is no greater asset in this hobby than patience. You do not need to know everything to start, nor do you have to have all the latest and greatest equipment. You just need the patience to grow and learn as your tank does. That said, we can continue.
Size Does Matter
Here is where the fun begins. Figuring out just exactly what it is that you want.
First things first, you need to decide where this tank is going to live. Is it going to be on a stand, on a counter or in the wall? Wherever it may be, this will begin to dictate the size of the tank you can get. But that is not the only deciding factor. If you are planning on putting the tank on an upper floor of a home you MUST consider the weight of the tank. Unless you are prepared to reinforce the floor below, you can forget about having a 150-gallon tank in your upper levels. Consider this, one US gallon weighs 8.83 pounds. So, the water in a 150-gallon tank weighs 1,324 pounds. Add in the weight of the glass and you're at about 1,504 pounds. Now factor in the weight of the stand, lights and filters that brings you to in the neighborhood of 1,600 pounds. Then factor in the substrate. Using 3 inches as the average substrate depth, you can add about 250 more pounds to your total. You're not done yet. Now, factor in the amount of live rock. Of course this can vary from tank to tank, but for arguments sake lets add another 200 lbs. So, before you have even put a fish in your tank you are sitting at 2,050 pounds! To put that in perspective, a Toyota Corolla weighs in at around 2,300 pounds. Would you feel safe with a parked car above your head? If you are not sure about the strength of your floor, either hire someone who can assist you or keep the larger tanks on the lower levels of the home, preferably on a slab. Also, keep in mind that even if your floor will support a huge tank, you must make sure the stand will also. Not simply up and down weight, but also side to side.
But do not let this deter you from owning a large tank. In fact, I would recommend it over a smaller tank for many reasons. There are a lot of people who might say, if you are new to the hobby, start with a small tank and just "see how it goes." Their main reasoning is cost, however if you speak to anyone who has owned a variety of tanks their answer is simple. The larger the tank, the better, and not just because it may look cooler to some, but it is actually more stable. The more water volume you have the less likely you will have a sudden, major unbalance in your water parameters. Small tanks (under 40 gallons) are much more unstable than say a 125 gallon tank. An easy illustration is taking a gallon of water and adding a teaspoon of red dye. You will see a dramatic change in the water. Now add the same teaspoon to a large bathtub full of water (about 50 gallons). Obviously, the impact is much higher in the gallon of water then it is to the bathtub. The same idea applies to the home aquarium. Whether it is the ammonia, nitrates, nitrites, phosphates or pH levels, they will be less affected by a disturbance in a larger aquarium. Larger aquariums offer the ability to develop much stronger ecosystems due to this stability.
The other positives are, you open your selection of tank mates up to a greater degree. Not only can you have more fish, but larger fish. And in the saltwater world, there are obviously some large growing fish available. Also, if you made it through Step #1, then your probably more likely to want to go farther and farther with this hobby the longer you have a tank, so a larger tank will give you some room to grow. The negatives are simply larger water changes, more spent in additives, more spent in filtration and more spent in lighting if you plan on having corals. Obviously, a larger tank equals more stuff. So, it boils down to the area you can place the tank, weighing the pros and cons on the size and checking to see just how deep you are willing to go into your pocket to do this right. Think about it and move on to the next step.
I want everything!
In all of your planning, I'm sure you could not help daydreaming a bit about who and what was going to occupy your new wonderland. Do you envision having a full blown Reef Tank, a Fish Only tank, or a little bit of everything? Why do you need to figure this out now? Why can't you just fill up the tank and figure out the direction as you go? Well, you can but it will help you in the long run to plan on the future. So, what is the difference? Well, a lot actually.
To create a Fish Only tank, you do not have to concentrate too much on lighting by bearing the large expense of trying to recreate the sun in your living room. A "Fish Only" tank is a loosely used term to describe a tank that contains basically only fish, but typically fish and live rock. Also, referred to as a "FOWLR" tank or "Fish Only With Live Rock." These set ups are usually used for more aggressive fish or basically any that are not "Reef Safe". Reef Safe? How do I know? Research, Research, and more Research. You can save a bundle of money and heartache by knowing who will get along in your tank and what is a threat to what.
That is why FishDB.com enables users to create their own "Virtual Tank". You don't have to own a tank to use this tool. Just make one up and see what happens. You can enter in your specifications for your tank, and add different inhabitants to it one by one. Whether it's a fish, some coral or an invertebrate, your "Virtual Tank" will tell you if it can coexist with your previous selections. For example, a VERY popular fish for the beginning saltwater aquarist is a Porcupine Puffer. They are terrifically entertaining and simply downright adorable. However, what you will soon learn is you can't have anything with them except fish. No corals, no starfish, no shrimp. They will consume most things in the Invertebrate and Coral database. So, if your heart is set on having one of these, then you need to focus more on filtration and less on lighting. If you wish to have large flowing soft corals, branching hard corals and that big Maxima Clam in the window, then you need to plan on purchasing a powerful lighting system and understand that your types of tank mates will drop down considerably.
So, it is best to understand these types of relationships that you will be putting together, and that will steer you in the right direction. You are probably saying, "I don't even have a tank at this point. Why am I already trying to figure out what I'm putting in there?" The answer is simple. This hobby is enormous. Not only is it fun to research, but also it will help you along the way. You, by no means, have to stick to this plan. It is more of a launching pad. The more knowledge one can have the better. Once you have an idea of the direction you want to go, move on to the next step.
Tanks A lot!
So, you're ready to go drop down your hard earned money and begin building the tank of your dreams. What do you get first? Well, the tank of course. This is entirely up to personal taste and limitations derived at from Step #2. However there are MANY configurations from which to choose.
First of all, you can choose from Glass or Acrylic. The typical choice is glass. Glass tanks are much more readily available and cheaper. Acrylic can cost up to two times as much, and it can be easily scratched. So, why even choose Acrylic? Well, the positives are it is lighter than glass, stronger and some will argue it is clearer. So, the choice is yours.
So, next is the shape. Typically, you will find rectangular shaped tanks, but there are also, square, hexagon, corner and bow front. Not to mention tall and short, wide and narrow. Again, you are really the only one that can decide. The only possible considerations are how much room and expandability will this tank offer for other equipment? Smaller square tanks and hexagon tanks really limit the amount of room in the stand below the tank. Why is this important? Well, there are many ways you can configure your filtration. Whether it be sumps, canisters, refugiums or a custom designed PVC monster, you really want to be sure you have room to grow. One way people have been able to counter the lack of space below the tank is to run the plumbing elsewhere. If it is possible to run the plumbing through the wall into a closet or down into a basement, then this can really help a lot of issues. If you redirect the plumbing to another location, you cut down on the noise of flowing water, pumps and skimmers tremendously and make maintenance easier. This is obviously not an option for everyone, but it is a good consideration if possible.
The next aspect to consider when purchasing a tank is will it have built-in overflows or not? What's an overflow? In simplest terms, it is a section of the tank that has been separated from the main area via a box. Depending on the size of the tank, it is typically located in one or both of the back corners of the tank. This chamber is as tall as the rest of the tank, but it has open slits along the top. This allows the water to "overflow" into this chamber, and down through a hole cut into the bottom of the tank. This configuration is reserved for people utilizing the sump or wet/dry method of filtration. There will be more on filtration options in the next step. However, you do not have to have overflows built into you tank. If you plan on using canister filtration or a hang on wet/dry, then it is not necessary. The good news is you can always add hang-on overflows to your tank in the future if you desire.