How To Plumb A Saltwater Aquarium

Saltwater aquariums are like a magical window to an underwater world full of colorful sea creatures. To make this magical world work well, we need to understand how all the parts fit together, like the pipes in a house. 

In this article, we’ll take a trip through this underwater world and learn how to plumb a saltwater aquarium in a smart and neat way. 

But before we dive into all the technical stuff, let’s begin by talking about the most crucial part of the system: something called the sump.

Different Types Of Sumps

A sump is a special container that sits under your aquarium. It’s like the engine of your aquarium because it plays a big role in keeping the water clean and balanced. There are different types of sumps, and each type is designed for specific purposes.

1. Wet/Dry Sumps: These are very effective for keeping your aquarium water clean. They work well for people who want their aquarium water to be in top shape. 

Wet/dry sumps let water flow over special materials where tiny living things can grow. These tiny things help remove bad stuff like toxins and ammonia from the water.

2. Refugium Sumps: Refugium sumps are a favorite among people who want their aquarium to be as natural as possible. 

In these sumps, you can grow special plants and tiny creatures that are good for the water. They help keep the water clean and create a diverse and healthy environment for your fish.

3. All-in-One Sumps: These sumps are simple and perfect for beginners or those with limited space. All-in-one sumps combine different ways of cleaning the water into one unit. 

So, you don’t have to worry about complicated plumbing. It’s like having an all-in-one solution to keep your aquarium clean and happy.

Each type of sump has its own unique advantages, so you can choose the one that fits your aquarium and your needs the best.

Selecting The Appropriate Sump

It’s important to pick the right sump for your saltwater aquarium to make it work properly. When you’re selecting one, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Tank Size 

If your aquarium is big, you’ll need a sump that can hold a lot of water. Think of it like having a big bucket to collect a lot of rainwater. 

On the other hand, if your tank is small, you can use a smaller sump. But be careful not to choose one that’s too big because it needs to fit nicely in your setup. So, the size of your tank should match the size of your sump.

2. Deciding on Filtration

Consider how you want to clean and purify the water in your aquarium. Do you want it to be super clean and crystal clear? In that case, it’s smart to pick a sump that has lots of room for special filters. 

But if you prefer a more natural environment, you might go for a refugium sump, which helps create a balanced ecosystem.

Make sure the sump you choose can handle the amount of water flow you need to keep your aquarium water healthy. 

Sumps come with various flow rates, so select one that matches what you need for your fish and coral friends to thrive.

3. Checking Available Space

First, measure the area where you want to place your sump to make sure it fits nicely without being too big. Also, think about how easy it is to get to and take care of the sump once it’s in that spot. 

It should be in a convenient place that allows you to reach all the parts for cleaning and upkeep without any trouble.

4. Planning for the Future

It’s important to think about what you want for your aquarium in the long run. Are you planning to make it bigger or add more stuff later on? 

If you are, you should choose a sump that can grow with your plans. Some sumps have extra spaces or the option to add things like protein skimmers or reactors, which can be really helpful as your aquarium changes and gets better.

Determining The Appropriate Size For Your Return Pump Based On The Sump Flow Rate

The return pump acts like the engine that circulates water in your aquarium. It takes water from the sump and sends it back into your main tank. To pick the right pump, you need to do a few calculations:

1. Aquarium Size: Understand Your Tank’s Size. Start by finding out how much water your aquarium can hold. It’s like knowing the size of your fish tank and how much water it can carry.

2. Water Movement Speed: How Quickly Should Water Flow: Think about how many times you want all the water in your tank to pass through the sump in one hour. 

This is known as the “turnover rate.” If you want the water to go through the sump more times, it will become cleaner, but it also means you’ll need a more powerful pump to make it happen.

3. Resistance in the Pipes: Head Pressure Explained: Think of water moving through pipes like a river. Sometimes, the water has to go uphill or take twists and turns. This makes it tougher for the pump to move the water, and we call this “head pressure.”

4. Calculate the Resistance: Figure out all the things that make it hard for the water to move in your pipes, like how high it needs to go and how curvy the pipes are. 

This helps you know how strong your pump needs to be to handle this resistance and keep the water flowing smoothly.

Now, with these three things in mind, you can choose a pump that matches your tank size, and desired turnover rate, and can handle the head pressure. 

You want a pump that’s strong enough to move water through your plumbing system at the rate you want, without struggling too much against the resistance in the pipes.

Selecting the right pump size ensures that your aquarium water flows properly, keeping your fish and other aquatic life happy and healthy.

Calculating Head Pressure For An Aquarium Return Pump

Your return pump is like a water-pushing machine. It’s responsible for moving water from your sump back into your main tank. But, as it does this job, it encounters something called “head pressure.

What’s Head Pressure?

Head pressure is like an obstacle course for your pump as it moves water through the pipes in your aquarium system. This obstacle course happens because of a few things

  • Going Up: When water needs to move uphill, like climbing a hill, it makes the pump work harder because it’s fighting gravity.
  • Pipe Length and Size: Longer and narrower pipes create more resistance for the water. It’s like trying to drink through a thin straw instead of a wide one – it’s harder to get the water through.
  • Elbows and Bends: Every twist and turn in your plumbing system adds to this resistance, like trying to find your way through a maze. It’s not a straight path, which makes it trickier for the water to flow smoothly.

So, when we talk about calculating head pressure, we’re figuring out how much of this resistance the pump has to overcome to move the water where we want it to go.

Why Does It Matter?

Well, it’s important because we want to make sure the pump we choose is strong enough to handle all these obstacles. If the pump is too weak, it won’t push the water effectively, and that can cause problems in our aquarium.

In simple terms, calculating head pressure helps us pick a pump that can handle these challenges, ensuring that our aquarium water flows well and keeps our fish and other underwater buddies happy and healthy.

Instructions On How To Plumb A Saltwater Aquarium

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1. Connecting The Plumbing Components

Setting up the plumbing system for your saltwater aquarium is like solving a fascinating puzzle. It’s a bit like building a water highway for your underwater world. 

You collect important parts, and each of them has a specific job in making sure everything in your aquarium works smoothly.

First, there are the pipes, which are similar to the tubes you might have under your sink. They’re responsible for moving water from one place to another in a graceful way. 

Then, there are the valves, which act like gatekeepers. They allow you to control how fast or slow the water flows and where it goes.

Lastly, there are the fittings, which are like connectors. They’re like the links in a chain, making sure the pipes and valves fit together perfectly.

This plumbing system is like the heartbeat of your fish tank. It’s essential for taking care of your aquatic friends, keeping the water clean, and making sure everyone in your underwater community stays healthy.

2. Creating A Closed-Loop System

Your plumbing system is like a big circle or loop. Here’s how it works. It all commences in your main tank, where your graceful fish glide through crystal waters. 

From there, the water gracefully cascades downwards into the sump, a hidden aquatic sanctuary beneath the surface. Then, with the fluidity of a ballet, it ascends once more, returning to the main tank.

This continuous waltz maintains the water’s vitality, ensuring its perpetual flow and purity, akin to the gentle, unending meandering of a river. 

This aquatic choreography serves as a guardian of your aquarium, safeguarding a perpetually fresh and secure environment for your beloved fish to thrive in.

3. Being Precise And Careful

As you assemble your plumbing system, it’s essential to be precise and handle things with care. 

Check that all the connections are tight and won’t come loose. It’s crucial to prevent water leaks. Leaks can lead to issues and mess up your aquarium system. So, make sure everything is secure and watertight.

Being precise and careful during this process ensures that your plumbing system works smoothly, and you won’t have to worry about any water problems in your aquarium.

4. Regular Maintenance

Once you’ve set up your plumbing, it’s not a one-time job. You should check it regularly to ensure everything is running smoothly. 

Look for any signs of trouble, like water leaks or unusual sounds. Regular checks help you catch and fix problems early, so your aquarium stays in good shape.

Think of it like taking care of your car. You don’t just drive it and forget about it; you regularly check the oil and tires to make sure everything’s okay. The same goes for your aquarium plumbing – it needs regular attention to keep your fish happy and healthy.

5. Keeping An Eye On It

Keeping a vigilant eye on your plumbing system is paramount. Be on the lookout for potential red flags, such as leaks, where water appears in unexpected places, or any unusual sounds emanating from your plumbing, as these may signal underlying issues.

Should you come across any concerns, it’s imperative not to procrastinate but rather address them promptly to ensure the well-being of your aquarium. 

Think of it akin to tending to your home; just as you wouldn’t disregard a leaky faucet to prevent larger complications, maintaining your plumbing is vital for the overall health of your fish tank.

When Should One Use In-Line Pumps Versus Sump Pumps?

In the world of aquarium plumbing, in-line pumps, and sump pumps play different roles. Here’s when to use each one.

1. In-Line Pumps

  • External Filtration: In-line pumps are commonly used when you have external filtration systems. These systems include equipment like canister filters, UV sterilizers, or reactors that are placed outside the main tank.
  • Versatility: They offer flexibility because you can position them at various points along the plumbing line. This versatility allows you to customize your filtration setup to meet specific needs, such as improving water clarity or removing excess nutrients.
  • Ease of Access: In-line pumps are generally easier to access and maintain since they are usually placed outside the aquarium, making servicing and repairs more straightforward.

2. Sump Pumps

  • Sump Installation: Sump pumps are installed within a sump, which is a separate compartment or tank typically located below the main aquarium. The sump serves as a centralized location for various aquarium equipment.
  • Water Level Control: Sump pumps are excellent for maintaining consistent water levels in your main tank. They help with water top-offs, ensuring a stable environment for your aquatic life.
  • Noise Reduction: Since sump pumps are submerged in the sump, they tend to be quieter compared to in-line pumps, which can be a benefit if you’re looking for a quieter aquarium setup.

Choosing between these pumps depends on your aquarium setup and your goals. If you have an external filtration system and want flexibility, in-line pumps are a good choice. 

If you have a sump or plan to install one and want better water level control and quieter operation, sump pumps are the way to go.

Ultimately, the decision comes down to the specific needs and preferences of your aquarium setup. Each type of pump has its advantages, so consider your setup carefully before making a choice.

Considerations For Plumbing In General

When you’re working on the plumbing for your saltwater aquarium, there are some important things to keep in mind

1. Use Quality Materials

It’s crucial to use good-quality materials for your plumbing. Saltwater can be tough on things, so using materials that resist corrosion is essential. This ensures your plumbing lasts a long time without getting all rusty.

2. Regular Cleaning and Maintenance

Just like you clean your house, you also need to clean and look after your plumbing. This helps prevent things from getting clogged or blocked. Regular maintenance keeps your water flowing smoothly.

3. Be Patient

Setting up your plumbing takes time, and it’s okay to take it slow. Rushing can lead to mistakes. So, be patient and don’t hurry through it.

4. Seek Advice When Unsure

If you’re ever unsure about something or have questions, it’s perfectly fine to ask for help. Experienced aquarists, people who know a lot about aquariums, can give you valuable advice and guidance.

In a nutshell, use good materials, keep your plumbing clean, take your time with the setup, and don’t hesitate to seek advice from experienced folks if you have any questions. 

These considerations will help ensure that your saltwater aquarium plumbing works smoothly and keeps your aquatic buddies happy and healthy.


To sum it up, setting up the plumbing for a saltwater aquarium is like creating a detailed masterpiece. You need to know how all the parts work and think carefully about what you want.

When you pick the right sump, pump, and plumbing, you’re making sure your aquarium not only looks amazing with marine life but also keeps them healthy and happy. So, go ahead, get started, and let your saltwater aquarium thrive.


1. Is 1.020 salinity too low?

If your saltwater in the tank measures 1.020, it’s a bit on the lower side but still okay for some types of marine animals. However, it’s important to check the specific needs of your fish and corals because some may require a slightly higher or lower salinity.

2. How long can a saltwater tank go without a pump?

A saltwater tank can go without a pump for a little while, but it’s not ideal. Pumps help keep the water moving and oxygenated, which is important for the health of your fish and other creatures.

If the pump stops, it’s best to get it working again as soon as possible, usually within a few hours.

3. Is a saltwater tank harder to maintain than a freshwater tank?

Yes, generally, saltwater tanks can be a bit more challenging to take care of than freshwater tanks.

Saltwater tanks need more attention to maintain the right salt levels, water quality, and temperature. But with the right knowledge and equipment, they can be just as enjoyable.

4. What is the first thing to put in a saltwater tank?

The first thing to add to a saltwater tank is clean, treated water. You need to mix special marine salt with freshwater to create the right saltwater environment for your tank.

This is the foundation for a healthy saltwater aquarium, and everything else comes after you have the proper saltwater mix.

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  4. How To Trim Aquarium Plants
  5. How To Clean An Aquarium Filter