Five Ways to Upgrade Your Saltwater Tank and Save Time

One of the most common questions I hear from people who are on the fence about setting up a saltwater tank is: “Isn’t it a lot of work to maintain a saltwater tank?” Let’s face it, there is a certain amount of work that you WILL have to do to maintain a healthy saltwater tank–anybody who has spent any time in the hobby can vouch for that. But the key to enjoying the hobby over the long-term is to find the right balance between enjoyment and maintenance and stretching yourself (or upgrading your saltwater tank) over time. Here are five ways to upgrade your saltwater tank and save you some time.

Five Ways to Upgrade Your Saltwater Tank and Save Time

Add an Electrical Timer

First way to upgrade your saltwater tank and save time

An electrical timer is probably the easiest way to upgrade your saltwater tank. Because of that, it’s also probably the very first automation step you will see people make. While the daily chore of turning on and off the aquarium lights may not seem like a big deal–the fact that you can automate this task for less than $15 ensures that this is one of the first steps many of us make to automate our saltwater tanks. When I started out in the hobby, I used to turn the lights on and off by hand. On weekends I would stay up late and sleep late, and my tank lights would stay on for longer periods some days and not be turned on until late-in-the-day on other days. The truth of the matter is that your aquarium will actually be a more stable, productive environment if you put your lights on a timer. And if you’ve ever left your lights on overnight, burning electricity…you’ll thank me in the morning.

Add A Protein Skimmer

A protein skimmer is one of the most important ways you can upgrade your saltwater tank–and is my next recommendation after setting up the electrical timer. Protein skimmers work by a process called foam fractionation. I like to think of it this way:

Ooey, gooey biological goo in your aquarium has some strange obsession with bubbles. The protein skimmer generates lots of bubbles. The biological goo gets attracted to the bubbles, and  and the skimmer traps the goo and removes it from your saltwater tank like Chris Hansen on the TV Show To Catch a Predator.

While you sleep, your skimmer is cleaning up your aquarium water for you. Adding a protein skimmer to your saltwater tank does involve some level of manual cleaning (to dump the collection cup, for example), but the

Second way to upgrade your saltwater tank and save time protein skimmer really helps you leverage your time–because it cleans the water 24 hours a day and only requires 5 minutes of cleaning 1-2 times a week. And you would have to get those excess nutrients out of the tank anyway–which would cause you to perform more partial water changes anyway. There are protein skimmers (like the one pictured below) that have a drain spout that will optionally let you hook the skimmer up to a bucket–allowing you to increase the volume of your collection cup dramatically, thus reducing the burden of cleaning, further automating that system.

Install an Automatic Top Off

Another mindless chore that lends itself to automation is the process of ‘topping off’ your saltwater tank. If you’ve had a saltwater aquarium for any appreciable time, you likely already know what this means–but if you’re new, or considering a saltwater tank, let me explain.

Water evaporates from an aquarium constantly. The amount of evaporation that takes place varies based on the temperature and humidity of the air, as well as the amount of water exposed to the air. When water evaporates from a saltwater tank, the water left behind in the aquarium becomes more concentrated–fresh water evaporates and leaves the salt and anything else behind. So you have to top off your aquarium with fresh water to keep your water parameters steady and compensate for the water lost due to evaporation.

add an auto top off unit to upgrade your saltwater tank and save time

An automatic top off  (often abbreviated ATO ) system that you can set up that will automatically replace the water lost from evaporation, ensuring that your aquarium chemistry remains stable over time. As the name suggests, an Automatic Top Off (ATO) can save you time by performing the necessary, mundane chore in real-time, and improve the consistency of your water quality in the process.

Set up a Refugium

Set up a refugium as the fifth way to upgrade your saltwater tank and save timeWhile not technically just a piece of equipment, per se, a refugium is a nice little saltwater tank add-on that will help you reduce the time you spend managing excess nutrients (waste) in your tank and help you improve water quality in the process.

A refugium is a protected area of your aquarium system (usually in the sump or hanging on the back of your aquarium) where macroalgae and invertebrates are allowed to grow without being hassled (or eaten) by the animals in the display tank. The macroalgae in the refugium remove excess nutrients from the water (purifying the water) and provide food and shelter for copepods, amphipods and other tiny invertebrates, which in turn become a food source for the corals and fish in your aquarium, improving the water quality and creating a healthy, sustainable food source.

Set up an Automatic Dosing Unit

Keeping aquarium water parameters stable is one of the most important things to strive for in this hobby. In many ways, once your fish and corals are acclimated to life in your tank–it’s as important to keep the water quality stable as it is to ensure the parameters are kept at the right level. One of the most sophisticated tools you can employ to automate and help yourself in this task is the Automatic Dosing Unit. With a multi-unit pump, you can automate the delivery of almost anything that you add to your tank on a regular basis.


The inspiration to this article was the question I often hear asked by novices to the hobby about how much work is involved in keeping a saltwater tank. There is no doubt in my mind that it does take some work to have a good looking tank. But the amount of work involved is affected by the size of the tank, the amount of livestock and the complexity of the livestock. As you become more advanced, and as money becomes available, there are a few ways to upgrade your saltwater tank that can help you automate certain aspects of the chores you don’t enjoy doing. If you are thinking about jumping into the hobby and setting up your saltwater tank, I hope this article has inspired you to consider that there are options (at a cost) that can help take some of that work off your plate if you have the money to commit. If you already have a saltwater tank, perhaps this will give you food for thought on some things to look forward to as you expand your interests.

Do you know of any time-saving upgrades or tips you could share? I’d love to hear from you. Post a comment below.

Written by Albert B Ulrich III

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  1. I’m in the process of setting up a sump. I bought a used reef ready tank, but the sump was homemade and I’m trying to figure out how to do it. Any articles you can guide me to?

  2. So do you have an article or link explaining more about setting up and using a “refugium”?

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