This page is designed to provide an overview of the equipment used in setting up and maintaining a saltwater aquarium.
The majority of the equipment you will need will fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Aquarium Lighting
- Heaters and Chillers
- Water purification
- Water movement
- Dosing units and reactors
- Fish acclimation
Let’s take a look at each of the categories a little more in depth.
What you will find in this article
One of the most important and expensive pieces of equipment you will purchase for your saltwater aquarium is your lighting system. If you want to have a saltwater reef aquarium complete with fish and corals, you are going to need to spend some serious cash to get good lights.
Odds are that you are going to want to keep some creatures that depend on light energy as a major source of food. Photosynthetic corals, clams, phytoplankton, and macroalgae all depend on light from the sun on natural coral reefs. In the confines of the saltwater aquarium in your home or office, your aquarium lighting system has to replace the sun…which is no easy task.
Here are a few areas to dive deeper into understanding more of the ins and outs of aquarium lighting:
- Aquarium Lighting Overview
- How often should you change your aquarium light bulbs
- Will switching to reef LED lights save you money?
- Learn about PAR, the most important aspect of aquarium lighting
- Aquarium lighting color temperature experiment
Heaters and Chillers
While aquarium lighting tends to draw a lot of interest from aquarists, the lowly heater or chiller tends to fall pretty far down the list of interesting aquarium equipment. But the job of heaters and chillers is vital to supporting life in your saltwater aquarium.
Heaters have the thankless job of keeping the aquarium at a stable temperature while tucked away someplace out of sight–generally in the sump, if your aquarium system has a sump, or hidden behind some rock-work or other decorations. Generally the only time you’ll think about your heater is when you set up your saltwater aquarium, when you break it down (if you do) and if your heater malfunctions.
Since you won’t think about your heater (or shouldn’t have to), it’s best not to cut corners here. Get some referrals from fellow hobbyists and pick a heater from a reputable manufacturer with a reputation for quality. You don’t want a malfunction to boil the little slice of the ocean in your home. Since the temperature in your home may be anywhere from the 60s to the 80s Fahrenheit (roughly 18 to 27 Celcius), the job of the heater is to keep the water precisely at the same temperature, even when the air around it cools.
On the other side of the spectrum, an aquarium chiller can help you keep the water temperature low enough if you live in a warmer part of the world. I had a personal experience with heat stress in my tank that I wrote about here. Unfortunately, I had never thought about owning an aquarium chiller until it was too late.
- Protein skimmer
- Filter (optional)
- Refugium (optional)
- UV Sterilizer (optional)
Being the nerd that I am, I find protein skimmers to be a fascinating piece of equipment. When I show off my tank, I generally show off the animals in the display area and then talk about the protein skimmer. I’m not into fancy high-end skimmers or anything. In actuality, I’m just in love with the science behind how they work.
Protein skimmers basically work like this–they create a flow of bubbles from the bottom of the skimmer to the top and push a flow of water down the opposite direction. Proteins and other organics are attracted to the bubbles and so the organics literally get stripped out of the water as the bubbles float by. The organics are collected as foam in the top of the protein skimmer and the nasty-looking skimmate (the gunk you dump out in the skimmer cup) is all the stuff you don’t want in your aquarium. Pretty cool.
Believe it or not, traditional filters (at least the way I have traditionally thought of filters) are not that common in the saltwater aquarium hobby.
Instead of having a coordinated piece of equipment, known as the filter, where biological, chemical and physical filtration occurs, saltwater aquarium hobbyists generally accomplish adequate water filtration by separate components.
I filter sock is sometimes used as a physical filter to remove larger particulates from the water. Biological filtration often occurs inside the display tank itself by bacteria encrusting the live rock and sand. Chemical filtration takes place in the sump with the addition of activated carbon. It is much more common to see the de-centralized filtration method mentioned above than to see someone using a centralized canister, hang-on-the-back or other filters.
That said, if you prefer to use a filter, go for it—or if you want to use a filter sock, activated carbon and live rock/live sand as your filter, the choice is yours. Just remember that you have to keep your filter media clean and ‘fresh’ in either scenario to keep it from becoming a nitrate factory.
A refugium is essentially a miniature nature preserve that you set up, establish and maintain within the confines of your saltwater aquarium system. It’s like a little slice of nature that you cultivate alongside your display tank where you create an environment where macroalgae, tiny invertebrates and sometimes even corals to flourish.
Here is a post with more information about why you should add a refugium to your saltwater aquarium.
A UV sterilizer is a high energy light that you attach to your saltwater aquarium’s plumbing that zaps the water with ultra-violet light. The radiation from the UV light kills tiny harmful critters (bacteria, parasites, etc.) and effectively sterilizes the water as long as the light is sufficiently powerful to complete the job. What matters most with a UV light is the amount of exposure to the radiation, so you have to move water past the light slower with a smaller bulb and can afford to pump faster (or more water) past a larger bulb. You want to aim for the goldie-locks zone where it’s not too fast, not too slow, but just right.
Philosophically, I struggled with the notion of whether or not to create an aquarium equipment category labeled as water movement. The reason for my hesitation is that water movement is clearly vital to sustaining life in your saltwater aquarium. Almost all of the living organisms you will care for in your tank will be dependent on the flow of high-quality water to bring life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients and pull waste away. The three primary types of water movement equipment are:
- Wave makers
Pumps, also called return pumps, are generally larger water pumps used to move water from the sump area back up into the main display tank. Water generally falls back into the sump assisted by gravity, and the return pump has the job of moving the water against gravity back into the aquarium.
When selecting a return pump, you want to look at a few important characteristics. The first is reliability. Your pump needs to be a workhorse for you and to operate for years without a problem, so you want to make sure to buy a reliable brand. Submersible pumps are generally placed directly in the sump area submerged underwater. In-line pumps are plumbed outside of the sump
You also want to evaluate a pump based on the flow rate it produces (often rated in Gallons Per Hour –GPH) at a given height or head pressure. The higher up the pump has to move the water vertically, the lower the flow rate will be, so you want to match the pump with your desired flow rate at the given height.
A Mag 9.5 pump is rated at 900 GPH at a 2 foot pumping height, but if I want to keep my pump in the basement, 12 feet lower, the pump will shut off due to a head pressure (from the column of water 12 feet high) will be too much for it to operate. Instead, you would need a Mag 24 to generate a similar flow rate—in this case 800 GPH. That’s an extreme example, but I think you get the point.
Check out this post to learn more about the costs of running an aquarium return pump
One of the most powerful, energy-friendly and all around cool pumps to hit the hobby is the MAXSPECT GYRE pump.
Unlike the traditional powerheads listed below, which use a nozzle flow technology, the Gyre pumps utilize a propeller technology that creates a massive amount of flow. A little bit pricey, but you can pick these up on Amazon for between $200-$300 and they very gingerly sip energy.
Powerheads are clearly water pumps too, but they are generally lighter duty pumps that are placed inside the aquarium itself (as opposed to being in the sump like the return pump). The main purpose of a powerhead is to create good water flow inside the aquarium itself. It is best to direct the flow of the water from the powerheads so that the water flows intersect and create a turbulent flow (rather than a liner or laminar flow).
Learn more about the costs of running powerheads in your saltwater aquarium
A wave maker is a small, electrical device that helps you turn the consistent, laminar flow that would normally be generated by a powerhead or pump and turns it into a rhythmic flow more like the flow from natural waves. On natural reefs, water flow doesn’t generally occur in a straight line, and if you want to recreate that flow pattern in your saltwater aquarium, your best bet is a wave maker.
Aquarium maintenance is the part of the hobby that everyone dreads. I don’t think anyone likes slopping around buckets of dirty saltwater and replacing it with clean saltwater, but you will need to get some equipment to help with the maintenance chores. The most common equipment you will have for maintenance is:
- Siphon/gravel vacuum
No aquarium system (freshwater or saltwater) would be complete without a siphon/gravel vacuum. Ideally, you should be performing regular partial water changes (about 10% of the water volume in your tank each week). If you don’t perform regular partial water changes, problems can and will pop up–like cyanobacterial outbreaks, problem algae or worse.
The siphon/gravel vacuum is your workhorse piece of equipment then. Siphon/gravel vaccums don’t require a pump. The way a siphon works is that once you get the flow of water started, gravity will take care of the rest–as long as you maintain the vacuum.
In this hobby, you can probably never have too many buckets. My wife would probably disagree, since there are buckets everywhere in the house, but I use them all the time—for water changes, cleaning up the tank, acclimating fish and corals, storing old equipment not currently in use—you name it.
When starting out, I recommend you buy your aquarium salt in a bucket the first few times to start your collection. You won’t regret it later. I have tended to steer away from used plastic containers (like kitty litter containers) because I’m afraid of contamination—but in theory, any food-grade plastic container used for kid-safe, pet-safe tasks that is properly cleaned out would probably be ok. The key part of that concept there is ensuring it has been properly cleaned out—and I would avoid anything that involved metals, oils or harsh chemicals of any kind.
If you don’t already know this, you should be aware that keeping a saltwater aquarium requires a lot of testing. That bears repeating:
Keeping a saltwater aquarium requires a lot of testing
The goal with testing is to confirm that you have pristine, stable water parameters, and to detect problems just as they happen, rather than after it’s too late or the problem becomes too costly. As such, you are going to need some equipment to aid you with the testing.
- Test kit (pH, nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, calcium, alkalinity at a minimum)
A hydrometer is an inexpensive piece of equipment used to compare how dense a fluid is compared with pure freshwater. Pure freshwater has a specific gravity of 1.0. Ocean water, by comparison, has a specific gravity of 1.025 (from Wikipedia).
By using a hydrometer to measure the relative density of the water in your saltwater aquarium, you can determine whether you have too much, too little, or just the right concentration of salt. While hydrometers don’t measure salinity specifically, hydrometers designed for use in the saltwater aquarium hobby generally are calibrated to help you make a good estimate. Simply fill your hydrometer with aquarium water, watch the arm/dial as it points to the density and salinity of your aquarium water.
A great (and somewhat upgraded) option for measuring the salinity of your aquarium is the easy-to-use refractometer.
I was reluctant to upgrade from a hydrometer to a refractometer at first–but I was glad, once I did. Read more about how to use a refractometer here.
Your thermometer helps you measure the temperature of your aquarium water. Plain and simple, your goal is to get your aquarium to the proper temperature and keep there, day-in and day-out.
At a minimum, you should test for pH, ammonia, nitrates, nitrites and calcium. You may also want to test for phosphates and copper. Most of the test kits have test tubes and reagents that react with the chemical being tested for to generate a color change. You then compare the color in your test tube to a color swatch to determine what the concentration is in your saltwater aquarium.
Another option is to purchase test strips. Test strips also generally work by color indicator, but they involve less actual work. Simply dip the strip, wait the proper amount of time and take the reading.
Dosing units and reactors
The last category of saltwater aquarium equipment is used for nutrient loading/supplementation equipment. These items are used to help boost the quality of the water to help stimulate growth and replenish the nutrients that your animals are taking out of the water. Two examples of nutrient loading/supplementation equipment are:
- Dosing units
A dosing unit is basically a pump that is engineered to pump small, accurate quantities of fluid over a given time. A metered dose of the fluid is delivered every increment of time. Dosing units range in complexity from the very basic to high end, computer-controlled. Dosing units are used to drip phytoplankton, calcium, and other supplements/nutrients in small amounts regularly over time. A very popular, advanced technique is something called vodka dosing (also known as carbon dosing), a practice where vodka (or another source of organic carbon, like sugar) is dosed into the aquarium to boost beneficial algal growth, which in turn helps purify the water further, driving nitrates to undetectably low levels.
There are two common groups of reactors. The first group works by adding something to the aquarium water (as is the case with calcium reactors and kalkwasser reactors), and the second group works by removing stuff from the water.
Calcium reactors and kalkwasser reactors are equipment used to add calcium to the display tank. Calcium reactors work by injecting CO2 into the reactor chamber to lower the pH inside the chamber. The lower pH dissolves the reactor media (generally crushed coral) and releases free calcium, which is then plumbed into the display tank. A kalkwasser reactor, by comparison, is pretty much just a resevoir for holding the kalkwasser so that it can be slowly dripped into the display area.
GFO reactors have a media that reacts with and removes phosphate from the water. Phosphate is a nuissance contaminate that can fuel problem algae growth.
Carbon reactors are chambers filled with activated carbon, a time-tested material that is great for removing all kinds of ugly stuff from water.
Saltwater fish acclimation equipment
Making the trip from the local fish store can be a stressful journey for a fish. During the trip home, the temperature of the water may have changed and the natural water chemistry in your tank may be different from the water at your local fish store, so it is important to gradually ease your fish into life inside your home. That process is called acclimation—the specific method recommended here is called drip acclimation.
In the old days when I was just dealing with relatively inexpensive freshwater fish (haha, I feel old just typing that), I used to float the bag in the tank (to help adjust the temperature), and then pour small amounts of tank water into the bag every few minutes. If you want to research this technique online, it is called the floating bag method.
Once I switched to saltwater, many years ago, I mastered the drip acclimation, but there wasn’t any equipment I was aware of to help with this. I made a cheesy video you can still see on youtube, acclimating fish the easy way, and published a short article about it in Aquarium Fish International magazine.
Now there are a few products available that can help make this easy chore even simpler.
AccuDrip Acclimation Kit
This is a gizmo you can purchase online for about $10 that makes it really easy to adjust the drip. It looks like a hospital grade device you would see used with an intravenous (IV) drip and it makes drip acclimation a breeze. Once the drip is started, you can use a thumbwheel to create the exact flow you want. It is amazingly simple. The AccuDrip Acclimation Kit is my preferred acclimation equipment to use.
Saltwater Aquarium Equipment: Conclusion
I am sure you have noticed that there is no shortage of saltwater aquarium equipment to choose from. It can be a daunting task at times to figure out what equipment you need and what equipment you don’t. I hope that this page was at least a start in the right direction–a jumping off point for you to begin your journey.
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