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Thread: Starting a FOWLR Marine System

  1. #1
    Brittle Starfish

    Join Date
    May 2006
    So CA
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    Starting a FOWLR Marine System

    I hope to encourage people new to the hobby to start up their own marine aquarium. However, they should go into it with their eyes open and see what is needed. Thus, I have posted here the way I have started a few hundred FOWLR marine systems.


    So you're ready to set up a fish-only with live rock (FOWLR) aquarium? Then you should be aware of what will probably/likely be your biggest mistake: trying to rush things. GO SLOWLY.

    Why do you think so many quit the hobby? When this is asked of new aquarists, many answer that they were impatient and tried to rush things, so they failed and became discouraged.

    This adventure of yours can be exciting, fulfilling, educational, and very rewarding if you: Read, Learn, PLAN, PLAN, PLAN, can maintain your resolve to be patient, AND avoid overstocking the size aquarium you have chosen. Less IS more.

    The goal of ornamental marine fish husbandry is to provide a place for the captive fish to thrive. If all you're interested in is getting the fish to survive, then I wish you would not get into the hobby. Please read this: Thrive or Survive?.

    A major part of providing for thriving fishes is reducing stress on them. These are some links to read when you have 'extra time.'
    Fish Stress – General
    Fish Stress – A Technical/Physiological Approach

    These are my suggestions and opinions for success. There are dozens of good, current (and not-so-current) beginners books on equipment choices and system choices. There are dozens of Internet sites with such information. Look around and decide what you want or think you need.

    If what you want is truly a fish-only aquarium with live rock, then concerns of alkalinity and calcium are not as great as for reef aquariums. Still the coralline, snails, and calcareous growth in the aquarium will need for you to keep the calcium and alkalinity at levels suitable for their well being, expansion, and growth.

    Although these instructions focus on a fish only with live rock (FOWLR) aquarium, these aquariums have some basic considerations and foundations for the reef aquarium, too.

    People who begin FOWLR system make the mistake of thinking that just because they use live rock (with or without live sand) that they can jump right in and add fish. Some do this and the fish suffer, paying the penalty of illness, stress, or the ultimate penalty of death. What information these people are missing is the 'secret cycle.' Read this before going further: The Secret Cycle


    For someone new to the marine aquarist hobby, I'd recommend no less than:
    Stand or place to put the aquarium
    Hydrometer (or preferably a refractometer)
    Mechanical filter
    Equipment to make up fresh saltwater from mix
    Quarantine tank and appropriate equipment: A Quarantine Procedure
    Test kits: ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, alkalinity, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, pH (or pH meter)

    Inside I'd recommend no less than:
    Source water (water used to mix with the artificial salt)
    Artificial salt (unless natural sea water will be used)
    Live rock
    Clean-up Crew (snails, pods, worms, shrimp)
    FISHES !
    Internal powerhead or circulating pump for aquariums over 50 gallons

    Since your goal is a fish-only system, then you plan on keeping fish! (See, I'm not that dumb! :slap: ). The aquarist of these systems should be prepared to: acclimate new fish; freshwater dip a new fish; put the fish through a quarantine process in a quarantine tank; treat fish, and cure them; and finally, feed them properly. Thus, the aquarist needs additional information as follows, not covered in this post:

    Fish Medicine Cabinet
    Fish Acclimation Procedure
    A Quarantine Procedure
    Fresh Water Fish Dip
    Fish Health Through Proper Nutrition
    How to Make a Successful Water Change

    Terminology you'll come across:

    Aquarium System
    The above equipment list leads to the concept of a marine aquarium system. When we write about the aquarium system, we mean the tank, substrate, all the different kinds of filtration, a sump if used, a refugium if used, all pumps and plumbing and tubing, the skimmer, heater and/or chiller, lighting, UV, ozone unit, etc. This is more than just the aquarium -- an aquarium system includes all the equipment in use on a daily or standby basis. There isn't enough space here to go into the various systems -- there are as many different system layouts and components as there are advanced aquarists! However, this is where time with a good book pays off. You can't make your system decision and complete the plan without some knowledge of what's available to you. You need to do some learning and homework to end up with something you are truly satisfied with.

    One last and very important point about the aquarium system: The water volume in the system can be much larger than just the water that is in the aquarium, so note when 'system' or just 'aquarium' is used when volume is considered.

    Fish don't swim up and down (vertically). They swim horizontally. A long, shallow tank is best for fish. A tank of proportional dimensions like a 180 gallon standard tank is fine.

    Since maintaining high calcium and alkalinity isn't needed, there shouldn't be a large coralline growth on the tank sides to keep scraping off. If there will be coralline growth and the aquarist wants to specifically promote it, then glass is the easiest to keep clean of coralline algae. I have found that I prefer an acrylic tank, since it is better insulated (holds its temperature better) and is lighter. But a glass aquarium works fine.

    Lighting isn't needed to make fish grow! But it will be needed to grow the coralline algae. Use bulbs that will grow coralline algae. Light the aquarium when you are home to see it with no less than 6 hours of full light each day (for the coralline). I must admit, the better/best lighting does include halide bulbs of 10K to 12K of low wattage together with Actinics, to bring out the natural colors and fine markings of the marine fishes.

    Although optional, I strongly urge its use. It is much easier to control water quality with one, than without one. Get and use one that is rated for two or three times the volume of the aquarium system you choose. Keeping fish creates a lot of pollution.

    Not as important in a FOWLR aquarium as in a reef aquarium, but if you are using live rock, then you want to make sure there is enough circulation to get the nitrogen wastes to the rock. Usually that means no less than 8 to 10 turnovers of the system water every hour. To determine/calculate the turnovers, add the gph of the internal powerheads (Tunze, etc.) to the gph flow of the system pump. To determine the gph of the system pump, you need to know the rated flow of the pump and then the flow of the pump with the head pressure (the resistance to the flow) put on that pump. Get a total gph and divide that by the volume of water in gallons in the system. If that number is no less than 8, you're okay. If that number is below 8 you then want to add another powerhead inside the aquarium or step up to the correctly sized system pump.

    Source Water
    If you have a a large system in mind, it may be more economical to make your own source water. VERIFY THAT YOUR SOURCE WATER IS OF GOOD QUALITY before choosing it as your source water. Check its quality routinely. Some additional information: Source Water.

    Water Quality
    The novice aquarist sets off thinking that, armed with test kits and test equipment that they will know, beyond a shadow of doubt, exactly their water quality. NOT! Water quality test kits and equipment are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to determining water quality. A lot of water quality beyond the measurements is how things look, what's growing/what's dieing, what survives v. thrives, etc. If the learning aquarist would just understand more about water quality going into the hobby, then he/she will probably understand more of what is going on. I recommend reading this: What is Water Quality.

    Live Rock
    You'd like to aim for about 2 pounds of live rock for every gallon of aquarium water. This varies on the density and quality of the live rock. This number is higher than for a reef system because in a FOWLR system, the nitrogen waste load will be much higher.

    For the first-time hobbyist I recommend a substrate of your personal visual preference layered in at no more than 1 inch. I wouldn't bother with 'living' substrates (those substrates sold at your local fish store (LFS) that claim to be 'alive' with bacteria). Save your money. If the fishes you want to keep need a deeper sand bed, then adjust this depth to what is needed, keeping in mind that some special attention and inhabitants may be needed to maintain the quality of the sand bed. Consider the fishes you will keep. If they swim along the bottom (e.g., sharks), or forage for food in the sand (some gobies) chances are the proper substrate would be a fine sand or one that won't injure them.

    Clean-up Crew:
    No hermit crabs. Crabs, especially hermit crabs, are not conducive to an aquarium life unless that is all you'd like to keep.

    The actual choice of 'crew members' relates to the types of marine life the aquarist wants to keep. Snails get along well with most fishes; worms may suffer from fishes that eat or pick at worms; shrimp will become the meal of some wrasses, triggers, and other 'hunters' of crustaceans.

    Snails that are truly tropical and able to handle the aquarium temperature without 'cooking' will serve well. There are many to choose from. Avoid snails that hurt or eat other snails (e.g., the Bumble Bee snail). An article worth reading: Cleanup Crews

    Worms and pods that come with your live rock are generally good for substrate management. If you don't get enough or want different ones, buy them and stock them into your aquarium after detritus begins to be formed (see 14. below).

    After a while, other clean-up crew members may be added: Cleaner shrimp will 'massage' your fish (sometimes they don't) but they will also catch left over food bits and are worthwhile. Large aquariums (180 gallon and larger) can accommodate one cucumber (the best IMHO is the Red Tail) OR one Chocolate Chip starfish OR one/two Fighting Conch, for additional substrate maintenance. Conchs should have at least 2 square feet of totally open (no rocks or decorations) substrate for every inch of their shell, in aquariums of no less than 180 gallons.

    Fish Livestock Capacity:
    There are about as many recommendations on fish limitations to gallons of aquarium as there are experienced aquarists. It's hard to say "so many inches of fish per gallon" because it isn't the length that matters. What it is that matters is the bio-load the fish puts on the system. Keeping a FOWLR system creates a lot of pollution. With sophisticated equipment and frequent maintenance, the fish-to-gallon ratio can be increased. Want to do 25% water changes per week? Change filters weekly? then stock a lot of fish. Want a reasonable bio-load to the size of the tank, then stock conservatively at about 1" of fish per 5 gallons of water in the aquarium. If the fish are large (over 4") or 'thick' (over 3/8" thick) then the ratio goes 1" of fish for every 10 gallons. How to measure the length of a fish? From the tip of its nose to the base of the tail (not the end of the tail, but where the tail connects to the body -- the caudal peduncle). But this isn't measured on the fish you're buying -- this is the adult length of the fish when it grows up. Want a mated pair of Anemonefish? Then you need twice the space. A pair of Maroon Anemonefishes would fit a 45 gallon aquarium nicely (with no other fishes). If enough space isn't provided, your fish will suffer from space stress and you won't even know it unless they get ill frequently or die sooner then they should. Choose healthy fish according to: Should I buy that fish?.

    Bio-load Consumption and Capacity:
    Simplistically a rule is given that there can only be so many inches of fish per every 10 gallons. This 'rule' has quite a range. I give one in the section immediately above this one. What determines the system's ability to support the bio-load is its ability to handle nitrogen and other waste materials. The system features that increase the system's ability to increase the bio-load it can handle include: a sump (extra water in the system); a skimmer; a refugium; chemical filtration (carbon and others); the amount of live rock and its 'quality;' and the type and depth of substrate.

    There's plenty out there. Avoid taking the advice from someone who wants to sell things to you or has things for you to buy, without checking other hobbyists first. Seek the opinion of experienced hobbyists whenever possible. Think of your local fish store (LFS) person as a counselor and not as someone you must comply with. Ask around and talk to other hobbyists either in your geographic area or on the Internet (Reef Frontiers)!

    When you use the Internet for advice, ask the experience and knowledge of the people who are posting. You have the right to know: How long they've been in the hobby; how much success they've had; their education, training, and experience regarding the question or advice you seek; and whether or not they are a moderator or a visitor. Favor the advice of old and very experienced hobbyists, moderators, and those with education and much experience.

    So the reader has insight into who wrote this post, my bio can be found here: Lee’s Bio



    A. Decide on your choice of fishes (don't overstock)
    B. Decide on your choice of substrate and the type of system you want
    C. Buy equipment according to A. & B.
    D. Decide on your choices for clean-up crew
    E. Decide on the live rock you want and the display's landscaping
    F. Decide on the water quality test kits you will need
    G. Decide on your choice for source water
    H. Decide on your choice of artificial salt mix or salt water source
    I. Decide on equipment needed to make up salt water for changes
    J. Decide on quarantine, dipping, and treatment equipment and meds
    K. Decide on the way you will supply proper nutrition to your fishes: Fish Health Through Proper Nutrition
    L. Acquire all the incidental dry goods, buckets, mixers, pumps, siphons, substrate cleaning equipment, filters/filter socks, carbon filters, tubing, etc.


    1. Place cleaned aquarium in its spot
    2. Put in substrate (that has been cleaned)
    3. Put in some water; don't fill tank more than half-full with marine water (onto a dish so as to not disturb substrate)
    4. Arrange live rock
    5. Fill tank with marine/salt water (An alternative approach is to fill the tank with source water and mix the first batch of saltwater in the bare tank. This will work too. After the water is mixed, aged, and adjusted, then arrange the live rock in it (removing excess water if necessary and storing it for water changes))
    6. Start operation of equipment (light, pumps, filter, heater, skimmer, etc.)
    7. Check water chemistries (ammonia, nitrite, nitrate) and water parameters (specific gravity, temperature, and pH). Make minor changes to specific gravity, temperature, and pH at this time. Practice holding these three as steady as you can on a day-to-day basis. Do these tests at various times of the day to see how they fluctuate (if the do) throughout the day.
    8. LET THE TANK RUN LIKE THIS FOR AT LEAST TWO WEEKS. Check twice or three times a day all equipment for leaks and malfunction. Make any equipment adjustments.
    9. Life should be coming out of the live rock by this point, and hopefully pods and worms will be spreading around the aquarium. (Check at night, too). Start feeding that life. Add frozen fish foods to the aquarium (NOT pellets or flake) at a rate of about 0.5 gram every day or other day per 25 gallons of water. After no less than two weeks OR when readings indicate ammonia level is zero and nitrite levels are below 0.10 ppm and pH is being held steady go on to 10. Add additional pods and worms if you like, at this point.
    10. Begin your water change pattern (10+% weekly, 25% every 2 weeks, or 40+% monthly are good choices). Put one or more sponge filters into the display tank (sump) for the quarantine process.
    11. When all chemistries and parameters are stable and where they should be, now check alkalinity, calcium, and magnesium. Additions may be needed, but for the most part your water changes will probably keep these controlled unless the artificial salt or source water is a problem.
    12. After any adjustments from 11, repeat the tests to make sure the concentrations are where they should be. WAIT 4 more weeks! Now start checking the phosphate concentration.
    13. Slowly add your clean-up crew from quarantine. Add all snails, including some carnivorous ones. Feed them according to what they need to eat. (Feed herbivore snails with sheets of marine algae; feed carnivore snails with shrimp flesh, scallop, squid, clam, etc. but no pellets yet). Do not add starfish or cucumber at this point. Don't add any obligate detritus eaters.
    14. Run aquarium with the clean-up crew being fed and kept healthy for a few weeks. Then, if all water chemistries and water parameters are still good, add shrimp, additional worms and pods you'd like to keep. Feed all your livestock every two days. At this time, you can include the feeding of pellets that sink.
    15. Drop a clean, opened, previously frozen and thawed living clam into the aquarium once every 10 days. You should see worms, carnivorous snails, and the shrimp eating it. Remove any uneaten clam 20 hours after putting it in.
    16. After no less than two months of running the aquarium with the clean-up crew in place with proper, steady water quality the appearance of the aquarium should be coming around. There should be less noticeable 'brown algae' and nuisance algae. The clean-up crew can be expanded along the way as needed. Snails may be laying eggs (a good sign), pod population should be very high, and worms are perhaps more noticeable (they are getting brave since there are no worm predators around -- yet!).
    17. Determine the foods needed for the fishes you want to keep. Obtain proper nutritional supplements and foods and get things ready for handling fishes.
    18. Acquire your first (hardy) fish to put through the quarantine process.
    19. Start adding hardy fish to the display aquarium at a rate no faster than one fish every 6 weeks. Monitor all chemistries and if anything goes out of sorts, stop adding fish, determine any causes, fix causes, make additional water changes, etc. before continuing. CHOOSE YOUR FISH WISELY. This is good advice on choosing a healthy fish: Should I buy that fish?
    20. After the first fish is added, you may quarantine a Chocolate Chip Star separately to be added to the display. Same with a cucumber. The QT for the cucumber can have a thick substrate laden with food particles during quarantine. Choose one or the other for aquariums over 165 gallons. Now is the time to add any obligate detritus eaters.
    21. After several (6-8) months of operation after the clean-up crew was put in, the tank should be mature and ready for more sensitive fishes (the large Angelfishes, Butterflyfish, etc.). If the goal is to keep these kinds of fishes, then let the tank run with the clean up crew, shrimp, etc. and regular feedings for these critters, for no less than a total of 6 months. NOTE: Large Angelfishes should be kept in 300 gallon or larger aquariums, preferably a 500 gallon when they are a longer than 12 inches.
    22. Don't overstock. Stick to your plan.
    23. Add fish one at a time with no less than 6 weeks in between so the system can adjust to each addition. The system needs time to gear up to additional bio-loads and demands put on it.

    The thoroughness of this post is not meant to overwhelm the beginner. It is meant to be more or less complete in order to show the beginner how to go about starting a FOWLR system. Still, it is left up to the beginner to decide on the type of system and how complex of a system to setup.

    You can find additional guidance, recommendations, and information in this Forum. First check out the Table of Contents/Links Thread to get a feel of some of the topics covered here.
    Table of Contents and Link List

    If the patience can be found to follow this recommendation, then success WILL be yours. Good luck!
    Last edited by leebca; 07-29-2007 at 09:01 AM.

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