Our job at Northern Reef Aquatics is to make the process of starting up your new system as easy as possible. There are so many ways to set up a saltwater system, however, not all are created equal. Some are so complicated that you would almost need a university degree to understand and survive the process!

Aquarium systems come in all shapes, sizes and brands! All of which will affect the final price point.

Our job is to match each individual with a system that will work within their budget, time and vision. It is true that premium products come at premium price points, however, sometimes it is better to invest in the right equipment to save time, money and stress in the long term.



Aquarium. Depending on the system you choose, there are many options available to the consumer. First it is important to choose the size of aquarium that would work best for you. Larger systems require a sump located below the aquarium for optimal filtration and storage. While another option is a Nano Aquarium ranging in sizes up to about 35 gallons. 

Depending on budget, aquariums range in options that include:

  • Curved class (Eliminating the seams) leading to a more streamline look.

  • StarFire Glass - an ultra low iron glass providing optimal clarity.

  • "Open Reefs" which are completely open with no canopy.

Water Management. While some systems come with a sump, overflow, plumbing and auto top-off system offered within a package. Other systems may require components separately purchased.

  • Sump - located below your display tank and is used in order to expand the total water volume,  store filtration media and live rock which will assist in the bio-filtration - leading to the systems stability.

    • A sump is also a convenient place to store equipment like heaters, skimmers, pumps etc. - keeping them out of sight.

  • Skimmer - located within your sump system or in smaller systems located in a compartment at the back side of the tank.

    • A skimmer is used to remove the waste within the aquarium water before having the chance to negatively affect the water parameters.

    • The size of skimmer is imperative to water quality. The bio-load produced from all livestock needs to be put into consideration when choosing the proper skimmer.

    • Protein Skimmers greatly help in keeping Nitrate levels in check, improve water clarity and help prevent algae growth.

  • Return Pump - located in the sump system, the return pump is running 24/7 and its primary job is to keep the water flowing from the sump to the main display system.

    • A main component to the total system, making it important to purchase a reliable return pump. 

  • Heater - heaters can be placed in the display tank, back compartment if available or within the sump system.

    • We always suggest purchasing a fully submersible heater with precise temperature regulation and a safety control - shutting off the heater if the water runs dry.

    • Running a slightly larger heater within the tank is recommended to ensure your heater is not working as hard to keep your water temperature regulated.

  • Wave Maker - located within your main display system and will regulate the flow rate of water. All fish and corals require specific water flow, however it is different for each species.

  • Rock - One of the main components to your saltwater system and is the main nitrification base (biological filter).

    • Rock also enhances the decor of your display tank while providing tank inhabitants with shelter.

    • Reef Rock is available in both dry and cured (fully cycled). Dry reef rock will need time to fully cycle to ensure the beneficial bacteria is established.

      • *IMPORTANT - It is suggested to add 1 pound of rock per gallon of water to ensure a stable environment.

  • Water - There are many undesirable compounds found within tap water that makes it unsuitable for aquarium use.

    • The gold standard in Reef Keeping is to use - RO/DI water. RO/DI systems are made up of a reverse osmosis membrane where water Is forced through the semi-permeable filter followed by a de-ionizing resign that removes any residual charged compounds while expelling the waste water. Resulting in a water with a clean TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) reading.

      • *IMPORTANT - if you are purchasing your RO/DI water from a supplier, make sure to ask what the TDS reading currently is. It is important to have a TDS reading of 0 ppm to prevent algae growth and stable water parameters.

  • Reef Salt - Reef salt is offered with variations of important vitamins and minerals required for reef systems.

    • In fish only systems, it is OK to use a standard reef salt however, when investing in corals it's recommended to use a premium reef salt. Corals pull the nutrition out of the water causing the water perimeters to fluctuate, leading to many hobbyists having to supplement.

  • Substrate - Depending on the type of species you will be housing within your display tank could affect your decision.

    • Sharks require a very soft substrate in order to prevent scratches on their belly which can lead to infection.

    • Sand sifting fish thrive on a slightly more granular sand to feed on the micro-organisms within the substrate.

    • We always recommend to wash the sand before adding to your aquarium.

    • Some brands do offer "live" sand with beneficial bacteria within the sand, however we usual recommend a good quality sea floor substrate that will cycle quickly.

      • *IMPORTANT - It is suggested to add 1 pound of sand per gallon of water to ensure a stable environment.

  • Lighting - Lighting comes in all shapes, sizes and output. To successfully run a reef system it is important to have a light that will efficiently penetrate to the aquarium floor of your tank, which provides a wide placement for corals. When running a fish only tank, lighting is not as imperative and will give you more lighting options that could be more budget friendly.



Good Things Come To Those Who Wait.

We know how hard it can be to watch an empty tank, however you must understand that this is an integral part of the process that leads to a successful start!

LOCATION                                                                                                                                         After you have all your equipment, now you need to decide the placement of your aquarium. It is always important to take into consideration a few key elements:

  • Where are you going to enjoy the aquarium the most? If you hardly lounge in the basement then this would not be a great place - try to keep it in an area that you, your family and guests will enjoy.

  • Sun - It is important to not place your aquarium in direct prolonged sunlight, as this will promote algae growth.

  • Power - Aquarium systems do require power! So placement around proper outlets is important.

  • Level Ground - Placement of your aquarium is important to either set on level cement flooring or if on another level of your house, you will need to identify the direction of the joists. Place the aquarium across as many joists as possible to evenly distribute the weight - remember 1 gallon weighs 8 pounds! If in doubt, hire a contractor to come out for a consultation to ease your mind.            


A tank usually takes between 4 - 8 weeks to completely cycle. Cycling means that enough beneficial bacteria has become established throughout your system to handle the bio-load from the livestock within your tank. Ammonia is required to kick- start the tank cycling process and is called the nitrification cycle.

*There is a process within the saltwater hobby where tanks are cycled with live fish. We strongly advise not to go this route as any fish that are living within a un cycled tank will go through unnecessary stress that usually leads to death due to extremely toxic levels of ammonia and nitrites. It is recommended to use clear 100% household Ammonia.

Ammonia Only Cycle (with dry rock / sand)

Adding pure household ammonia to your tank should take about 3 to 6 weeks to fully cycle, add in your rock / sand and maintain a temperature of 80 °F with the lights off. Add about 1 ml of clear household ammonia to 10 gallons of aquarium water. Wait at least 10 minutes and check the ammonia level with a test kit, If you have a reading of 1 ppm great! If not add more ammonia until the test kit reads 1 ppm. You want to maintain 1 ppm of ammonia until you get a Nitrite reading.

After Nitrites are confirmed, maintain the ammonia level at 0.25 ppm and wait for the nitrite level to read 0 ppm, you ammonia level should also be at 0 ppm at this time. Once both your readings are zero add in 0.5 ml of Ammonia per 10 gallons and re-test the water in 24 hours. If your readings are zero your tank is cycled, we now recommend adjusting your temperature to around 77 - 78°F.

Established Bacteria Cycle

To reduce the cycling time, you can add bacteria from an established tank through using floss/foam and inserting it into your aquarium. Taking substrate from an established tank is another way to add the beneficial bacteria.

*Please Note - any diseases within the established tank will be transferred to your set up. 

Live Rock

The easiest way to cycle your new aquarium is to add cured rock that has already been cycled into your new set up. We suggest to our clients to add 3/4 dry rock and 1/4 cured to speed up your process while keeping costs down. If costs are not a factor, you could add up to the full amount in live rock.

*Please Note - it is imperative to know where your live rock is coming from. Yes you can purchase from the classifieds however you cannot be sure of what contaminants are within this rock and could lead to devastating effects. 

Commercial Products intended to cycle tanks

Numerous products are available on the market to accelerate the tank cycling process, some claim to have your tank up and running within 24 hours. We believe that it is best to naturally cycle your tank in order to make sure your tank has established the beneficial bacteria leading to a healthy thriving tank.


Biological Filtration & water quality

Biological Filtration is a necessary component to your aquariums filtration which would include live rock and substrate/sand. These components are designed to grow the essential bacterial which will convert toxic bi-products produced by all livestock within the tank into non-toxic forms.

All fish excrete ammonia, when accumulated becomes toxic. As ammonia is produced, a certain species of bacteria within the biological filtration feeds on the ammonia, converting it to nitrite. Also very toxic to fish when accumulated, however, another specific bacteria within the biological filtration will convert nitrite into nitrate.

Much less toxic to marine fish, nitrate can be removed with the help of a protein skimmer and frequent water changes (replenishing the system with fresh saltwater).

Nitrate is algae's best friend as it is an excellent nutrient for plants and will encourage algae growth throughout the system.

Adequate amounts of food is necessary to make sure all livestock is properly fed, however overfeeding is dangerous due to:

1. Encouraging the growth of unsafe bacteria

2. The water perimeters may suddenly raise to dangerous levels of Ammonia, Nitrite and Nitrate.

Any uneaten food should be properly cleaned up to avoid raises in dangerous levels within the water.

It is recommended to frequently test the water parameters to make sure the water is safe for all livestock within the system.

Ideal levels are:

Total Ammonia at Zero mg/L
Nitrite at Zero mg/L
Nitrate at or below 100 mg/L

Water Quality

When first setting up your aquarium and after your cycling process has been completed, it is wise to check the following water parameters regularly:


At Northern Reef Aquatics, we encourage our clients to sign up for an easy to use monitoring program to input your water parameters and maintenance schedule. This way if an issue arises, we can quickly pull up their profile and look at the whole system including the history of parameters and maintenance. Making it easier for us to help our clients solve any problems.


Salinity tolerance is likely to vary between species and it is important to take into consideration if your system is going to be a fish only or reef system. A fish only system run at a lower specific gravity (salinity level) of 1.017, while a reef system should be run at a specific gravity of between 1.022 to 1.026. Our recommendation is to run fish only at a specific gravity of 1.019 and a reef system at 1.025.

When salinity levels are lower, it does make it easier for the fish to breathe so it is imperative to know what salinity levels potential new additions are currently housed in as this can greatly increase the amount of time the acclimation period should be. Acclimation time is imperative to your new additions success within your system. Slowly acclimating will give the livestock a chance to acclimate to your current water parameters.

For example, our fish only systems that house the livestock for sale is run at a specific gravity of 1.019. We always make sure our clients know this as it will increase acclimation time into their home reef system.

For Northern Reefs Acclimation Process click here. 

Measuring the salinity is completed by specific testing equipment of either an inexpensive hydrometer or a refractometer for extremely accurate results. We suggest to many of our clients to use the inexpensive version of the hydrometer and to make it a practice to bring in their aquarium water a few times per year for testing.

Preparation of Artificial Seawater

Artificial seawater is a popular way of keeping marine fish with many commercial brands on the market. Depending on if your system is a fish only or reef system will greatly affect the decision on which salt to use. When running a fish only system, you can get away with using a more standard reef salt. When running a reef system which would include corals and various invertebrates, you will need to consider a salt that is prepared with your specific vitamins and minerals which are added for your corals and invertebrates.

Invertebrates need excellent levels of calcium other essential nutrients for shell growth, color and molting. Corals need a variety of important vitamins and minerals that they pull from the aquarium water for growth, color and staying alive. By completing weekly water changes, as the livestock within the tank pulls the nutrients from the water, essential nutrients are being replenished.

To prepare your saltwater, it is important to follow the directions carefully. It is important to use Reverse Osmosis water for your aquarium where the TDS (Total Desloved Solids) reading is 0 ppm. If the TDS reading reads higher, than it is very likely you will struggle with different types of algae growth within your system.

It is always in best practice to have your saltwater prepared beforehand in order to confirm your salt has completely dissolved and the temperature is accurate to eliminate temperature fluctuation which can shock the livestock.

The following procedure is recommended:

1. Store R/O water in storage bucket (purchasing a barrel that is food grade from a local maple syrup shop is a great for water storage)
2. Wait at least 1 hour - for salt to dissolve and correct temperature.
3. Complete your weekly water change of at least 10% of total system water volume.
4. Replace waste water with fresh prepared saltwater into the system.

With water comes evaporation. Over the days, the water will evaporate from the system. Leaving the salinity levels no choice to increase as salt will not evaporate. It is in good practice to either closely monitor water levels and add fresh Reverse Osmosis water to ensure the salinity levels are within the proper range or to install an Auto Top Off System.


The temperature for most reef systems is between 78 and 80 degrees. Before deciding what species you would like into your system, take the time to check their temperature requirements and if you are capable of maintaining that temperature. A proper thermometer is essential in monitoring the temperature.

When living in warm climates there are options available to help maintain a stable temperature in your system:

  1. Keeping your system in an air-conditioned or cool area of the house away from windows.

  2. Choosing a larger sizes system for maximum water volume.

  3. Insulate unseen sides of tanks (eg. add polystyrene to sides of tank hidden in cabinets or walls)

  4. Turn off aquarium light in hot weather.

  5. Install a chiller specifically designed for saltwater systems to accurately regulate water temperatures.


Nutrition is paramount for all livestock. When searching for potential new additions, it is imperative that they are eating prepared foods before you bring them home. Easiest way to know, is to ask. Ask your local fish store to provide a small feeding to ensure your new addition is eating. Each species is different and has specific requirements that are necessary to thrive. It is always in good practice to know exactly what your new addition is currently eating and the feeding schedule for a successful transition.

Depending on the species certain requirements will determine the amount of times per day food should be offered. Feeding a variety of high quality foods will give your livestock a choice and make sure all requirements are being fulfilled. We always suggest to supplement most species with frozen Mysis shrimp as this option provides a high level of nutrients including protein and fats. Frozen brine shrimp is not a long-term recommendation, as this option lacks the fundamental nutrients which your livestock require resulting in loosing condition over a period of time.

As mentioned above, uneaten food can cause water parameter spikes and should be cleaned up if not consumed.

Disease Management

Tank management, Water Quality and Nutrition are the foundation to disease management.

Before adding any new species into your display tank, it is imperative to check the fish over at the local fish store for any signs of distress or disease. Asking management the following questions is a great place to start:

  • How long has this fish been available at your establishment?

  • Is it currently eating?

    • If so, what is eating and what is the schedule?

  • Are you treating the fish with any medication orally and is anything run within the system? eg. copper

    • If so, what medications and for how long?

At Northern Reef Aquatics, our livestock is regularly checked for any signs of disease, distress and/or health issues. No livestock is available for sale until they have been quarantined, medicated, eating all foods offered to them and are at the proper weight. We do not recommend the indiscriminate use of antibiotics since resistant strains of bacteria and parasites may rapidly appear. 

We strongly advise all our clients to have a quarantine system set up to closely monitor your new additions for 3 weeks prior to introducing them to your display tank. For more information on the importance of a quarantine system please click here.


We always suggest to our clients to take the time to research potential new additions before making an decisions. Take the time to envision the colors you would love to see in your display tank. It is very important to research the requirements of tank size, activity, temperament, feeding requirements. If you are planning to add invertebrates and corals to your system, is the new addition reef safe? If not, it could lead to consumption of your prized corals and invertebrates.

For example, many clients who have been in the hobby for a while have regretted certain additions due to lack of knowledge of the species. It is the responsibility for your local store to ask the right questions and make the proper recommendations to guide you in the right direction. However, at the end of the day it is the tank owners responsibility to care for the new addition and so education is key for success.


It's not a race to get your tank fully stocked! It is strongly recommended to add your new livestock slowly in order for your system to get used to the additional bio-load, limiting your chance for a spike in your water parameters. Starting with fish that are easily settled with strong appetites are a great place to start. Many start with the addition of a pair of clown fish. A hardier fish with a great appetite, they easily settle into their new home and are always hungry which keeps their immune system strong and limits any weight loss from stress.


Slowly stocking your system with fish and inverts is the first step. Depending on the size of your tank, it is important to take into consideration on how much "clean up crew" to add. You have to keep into consideration that in a new set up you will have little waste. Inverts will starve if they do not have enough food to consume, leading to death. Decomposition of the tissue will feed your systems algae growth and could cause a spike in water parameters. The best for everyone is to start slowly and add as required.

After you have added certain fish and invertebrates, you may start thinking about corals. Corals require a good flow rate, premium salt, excellent filtration and great lighting! Expenses can add up with your initial start up, so adding corals later on gives many time to budget while still enjoying their system. Picking easier to care for corals to start is recommended to ease into learning about the care and requirements. 

Education is key. Corals have their certain requirements and some are more aggressive than others. Placement is key with corals, requirements of lighting (full spectrum vs medium vs low), nutritional (filter feeders/nutrient requirements/spot feeding), flow (high, medium, light), aggression (stinging other corals close by/length of stingers) and water parameters (LPS vs Soft vs SPS).

Taking the time to research is essential to a successful start up. There are many myths within the hobby of how expensive and difficult a reef system is to care for. With the proper guidance, education and patience a saltwater aquarium provides an excellent addition to any space while offering many the peace and serenity needed at the end of a long day.