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Saltwater Aquarium Basics - by Carl Strohmeyer

These basics are intended for a marine fish aquarium (and basic Nano Reefs), not an advanced marine reef aquarium. They are based on my experience of keeping and professionally maintaining marine fish (and reef) aquariums for over 27 years with one of the largest aquarium maintenance companies in Los Angeles, California, where most of my marine and freshwater customers had been with other services and had regular losses of their fish until we were referred to them. Also note that there is new studies and products available regularly, I will try and update and expand this article on a regular basis.


Good filtration is a must for a successful marine aquarium. There are many different filters available too.

*Canister filters are good for their capacity, but can become Nitrate factories is not rinsed very regularly. I do not recommend Fluvals due to their poor impeller design. Via Aqua. Eheim, Jebo, and Magnum are the ones I recommend.

*Wet/Dry filters are good, but usually are poor mechanical filters. The bio ball media in them also should be rinsed regularly in de-chlorinated water to prevent a buildup of organic material, increasing nitrates (I prefer to use broken cured live rock pieces instead of bio balls)

*An excellent filter for aquariums 60 gallons or less is the
Via Aqua Multi Filter, this filter is a combination HOB, Protein Skimmer and UV Sterilizer. And an even more simple skimmer with a pre-filter (no UV) for 20 gallon or less is the Rio Nano Skimmer both these filters can be used in the Berlin Method, either directly with a small amount of broken live rock inside the filter or indirectly as one part of the system.
Let me add one point about protein skimmers that often riles up the reef keeping police and that is that although protein skimmers are a useful tool in marine and reef aquariums, they are NOT essential. Their abilities are often over rated, as I have kept dozens of marine aquariums with and without them and excellent results in the marine/reef aquariums without them.

*Sump systems with live rock, plants, and sponge filters work well. The live rock is excellent for aerobic filtration (ammonia and nitrite removal) and anaerobic filtration (nitrate removal). The live plants and green algae are good for nitrogen fixing and phosphate removal. The sponge filter is a simple to clean aerobic bio-filter and mechanical filter (although make sure and rinse the sponge regularly or it can become a nitrate factory).


The Berlin Filter method as I apply it is the use of cured live rock in the tank and in sumps or HOB filters. This method is extremely effective for fish and reef (including Nano Reef), especially when combined with one or more other filters such as a mud filter, protein skimmer, or even a fluidized filter. The advantage here is the colonies of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, as well as the many creatures and coralline algae the are housed in the live rock.
More about live rock: Make sure it is cured, many stores sell live rock right after it comes to them, and this is not cured live rock. Live rock arrives to the stores wrapped in newspaper and mostly dead by this time, it takes up to 6 weeks to fully cure live rock. Fully cured live rock has the benefit of containing aerobic and anaerobic bacteria; the later helps convert nitrates to nitrogen which is released harmlessly into the atmosphere. Cured live rock also contains many “creatures”, many of which are both interesting and beneficial. You may also create your own using rock high in calcium carbonate, or even dead coral skeletons by placing them under healthy cured live rock for a couple of months in a healthy aquarium (reef set ups are best for this). It is important to use very porous rock for the proper benefits of live rock.
A method I prefer is to break the live rock into smaller chunks and place these in back mounted wet/dry filters (such as the Dream Aquarium), or even remove the filter media from an Aqua Clear 500 or similar HOB Filter and instead use these 1-2” live rock pieces, this can make for a simple application of the Berlin Filter Method

*Hang on back filters are very limited, but can be used too, especially if combined with other bio filters. Internal filters are also limited, but once again are good combined with others or used as above

*Ecosystem mud filtration is effective for nitrate removal (due to the large colonies of anaerobic bacteria), they are much simpler to use than a protein Skimmer in my opinion (although they do work, I believe they are over hyped for fish aquaria). The
Rio Nano Skimmer is a very simple Protein Skimmer with a small pre-filter cartridge
Unfortunately there are many stores pushing these systems as the end all of filtration, and they are not. They are a good part of a system, but should not be the only part. Good mechanical, other types of bio filtration, and especially germicidal filtration are also important.

More on Nitrate Removal Filtration;
(A) As mentioned above, Mud filters can be very useful for Nitrate removal; you can make a remedial one with a HOB filter or sump aquarium. (With the HOB you must place the media in fine mesh or nylon filter bags so as to not cause damage to the impeller, also keep bags out of heavy flow area of filter). [1] First use a 2 cm layer of #3 gravel on top. [2] Then 5 cm of #00 sand. [3] Then you can make your own anaerobic mulm from top soil; rinse fine top soil in a 10/1 bleach solution, then rinse again until clean (you can add a de-chlorinator to remove bleach). This goes on the bottom of the sump in a layer about 2 cm thick.

(B) Also as mentioned above; A lot of cured live rock is extremely helpful for nitrate removal
(C) Plants or green algae (such as caulerpa algae) in aquarium or refugium.
(D) Pre-Filters such as ATIs
"Filter Max"on filter intakes; these are easily rinsed and remove organic matter before it can go thru the nitrogen cycle.
(E) Protein Skimmers
(F) Metal Halide lighting. I know this seems off subject, but I have found that Metal Halide lighting helps with nitrate levels, even when other filters are poor. I do not have scientific proof, but I believe the Redox potential (-350 mV) this light help maintain has a lot to do with this.

Filter redundancy is also important, as filters/pumps can break down. Extra filters also increase bio and mechanical filtration. An economical combination would be a sponge filter, internal filter, and a hang on back (power filter).

For more on filtration, PLEASE see this site:
"AQUARIUM FILTRATION; UGF, HOB, Sponge, Internal, Canister, Wet/Dry, Fluidized Bed, Mud, Germicidal, and Protein Skimmer Filters."


A 10,000 K Daylight bulb is a start, better would be a 50/50 daylight/ 420 nm actinic bulb, or better yet would be one of each. For more lighting info, please see this article:
"AQUARIUM LIGHTING, Kelvin, Nanometers and more."


An ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, ph, Hydrometer, and KH (alkalinity) test kit are all important. For reef aquariums a Calcium and Magnesium Test Kit are also highly recommended.


Start with a good marine salt and mix it to a specific gravity of 1.019- 1.022 for fish. A specific gravity of 1.022- 1.025 is best for invertebrates. Be careful with too high or too low of a specific gravity as this can cause problems with proper osmotic function in fish (I have heard of persons being told to keep their marine fish at a specific gravity of 1.012 to prevent or treat disease, this is too low!)

Use Reverse Osmosis (RO) water to top off with for evaporation to prevent potential buildup of nitrate or other elements from tap water or even well water. If tap water is used (which again I recommend avoiding), use water conditioners such as
Prime to neutralize the chlorine, chloramines and heavy metals.

*Ammonia and nitrites at 0,
*pH at 8.2-8.4,
*kH above 240 ppm,
*Nitrates below 20 ppm.

Be patient with the cycling process. There are several methods, but adding CURED live rock will help jump start this process. You can add small amounts of food every day before fish are added to help stimulate the formation of aerobic bacteria.

Change water regularly especially in areas of waste accumulation, this will help maintain low nitrates.


This is VERY important, as many trace and minor elements are depleted by normal bio processes. Water changes are rarely enough to replenish normal depletion. Buffers such as
Sea Chem Marine Buffer (adds sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, and potassium salts of carbonate, bicarbonate, chloride, sulfate, and borate) is important for maintaining a proper kH and add many trace and minor elements as well.
Many products available do not add both calcium and magnesium (such as Kalkwasser), and they are BOTH necessary together for proper chemistry and fish health. It should be noted, that unlike freshwater fish which absorb the water around them, marine fish drink the water constantly, which affects their internal body chemistry to the surrounding water.
Bio available calcium is important to reef aquariums,
Sea Chem Reef Calcium (adds bio-available polygluconate complexed calcium)

Complete diets will also add some trace and minor elements as well as water changes and aragonite substrates.

If fish and other marine inhabitants do not have proper trace and minor elements, their health will suffer. I have been called to customers with Yellow Tangs with red streaks and sunken abdomens, the only treatment I did was add trace elements, adjust kH, change water, and improve the diet; and the fish recovered.

For my FULL Article with much more information including Nano Reefs, UV Sterilization, Poisonous fish, feeding, pictures, and more links; please follow this link: http://www.americanaquariumproducts.com/Basic_Saltwater.html

Professional aquarium maintenance experience since 1978 as the owner of one of the larger aquarium maintenance companies in LA, CA.

I have been in the hobby since 1969.



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