Want a quick overview of the equipment used in setting up and maintaining a saltwater aquarium? No problem! This handy reference guide will point you in the right direction for the basic parts and pieces you’ll need to gather to get your tank running smoothly.
Table of Contents: Aquarium Equipment Guide
The majority of the equipment you need for a successful saltwater aquarium will fall into one or more basic categories. If you’re looking for helpful advice on one piece, you’ll find these links helpful for navigating this page. But if you’re gathering a checklist together for your first tank, you can read through the whole page and write out a complete shopping list. Either way, we’ll get you started on the right foot!
- Aquarium Lighting
- Heaters and Chillers
- Water Purification
- Water Movement
- Dosing Units and Reactors
- Fish Acclimation Equipment
One of the most important (and expensive) pieces of equipment you’ll end up purchasing for your saltwater aquarium is your lighting system. If you want to have a reef tank complete with fish and corals, you’ll need to splurge on quality lights.
Odds are you’ll end up keeping a few creatures that depend on light energy as a major source of food. Photosynthetic corals, clams, phytoplankton, and macroalgae depend on the sun in their native reef environments. In the confines of an aquarium in your home or office, your lighting system has to replace the sun, which is no easy task. And when you start to tease out the different types of corals, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the options. Don’t worry, though, we’ll walk you through all of those specific lighting equipment choices.
To start, let’s get you through some of the ins and outs of aquarium lighting equipment:
- Aquarium Lighting Overview
- What Does PAR Stand For? (Hint: This is the MOST important aspect of aquarium lighting!)
- When Should I Change My Saltwater Aquarium Lights?
- Will Switching to Reef LED Lights Save Money?
- Color Temperature Experiments
While aquarium lighting draws plenty of interest from aquarists, the lowly heater or chiller drops 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. Without them, your fish and corals will struggle to survive.
Since the temperature in your home can range from 60-80F (18-27C), the job of the heater is to keep the water precisely at the same temperature, even when the air around the tank cools. That stable temperature is crucial for your corals and fish. Of course, the equipment does so tucked away out of sight, generally in the sump (if your aquarium system has a sump) or hidden behind rockwork or other decorations. And the only time you think about your heater is when you do your initial setup, break things down (if you do), or if your heater malfunctions.
Since you probably won’t think about your heater (and shouldn’t have to), it’s best not to cut corners. Look for referrals from fellow hobbyists and choose this piece of equipment from a manufacturer with a reputation for quality. You don’t want a malfunction to boil the slice of ocean in your home.
On the other side of the spectrum, an aquarium chiller can help you keep the water temperature low. This is important if you live in a warmer part of the world. I experienced heat stress in my tank – something I never anticipated being a problem in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an aquarium chiller on my equipment list until it was too late.
So even though you THINK you might not need a chiller (or even a heater), consider keeping both of these on hand. You may NOT need them. But that ONE time they could come in handy.
Nothing’s worse than a saltwater aquarium that turns to sludge. Your corals and fish start to sicken and die. And you’ll avoid the room due to the resulting smell. Luckily, you’ll find plenty of equipment designed precisely to keep your water clean and sparkling. It’s up to you which pieces of that equipment you choose to keep on hand. You can opt for one of the items on this list or even ALL of them. You’re only limited by your desire for cleanliness (and, you know, your bank account):
- Protein skimmer
- UV Sterilizer
Being the nerd I am, I find protein skimmers fascinating pieces of equipment. When I show off my tank, I want the animals in the display area to be the prime focus. But then I talk about my protein skimmer. I’m not into fancy high-end skimmers or anything. I’m just in love with the science behind how they work. (And once you have one in your aquarium, you’ll get the same way)
Protein skimmers are little substitutes for the wave action of the ocean. They create a flow of bubbles from the bottom of the skimmer to the top, pushing a flow of water in the opposite direction. Proteins and other organic wastes get attracted to the bubbles. This strips them out of the water as the bubbles float by. Then all of the wastes get collected into the foam in the top of the protein skimmer. The nasty-looking skimmate (the gunk you dump out of the skimmer cup) is everything you DON’T want in your aquarium. Pretty cool. (Admit it, you think it’s cool, too)
Believe it or not, traditional filters (at least the way I traditionally thought of filters) aren’t that common in the saltwater aquarium hobby. Instead of having a single piece of equipment known as the filter – where biological, chemical and physical filtration occurs – hobbyists generally accomplish adequate water filtration using separate components.
A filter sock is sometimes used as a physical filter to remove larger particulates from the water. And, of course, biological filtration occurs continuously inside the tank courtesy of the bacteria encrusting the live rock and sand. Then you add chemical filtration in the sump with the addition of activated carbon. This de-centralized filtration method is what usually happens in a reef tank, and you don’t typically see someone using a centralized canister, HOB, or another filter.
That said if you prefer to use a filter, go for it. And if you want to use a filter sock, activated carbon, and live rock/live sand as your filter, the choice is yours. Just remember, you have to keep your filter media clean and “fresh” in either scenario to keep it from turning into a nitrate factory.
A refugium is, essentially, a miniature nature preserve that you establish and maintain within the confines of your saltwater aquarium system. And it’s a handy bit of equipment to help you filter and purify your water. It’s a slice of nature you cultivate alongside (or beneath and within your sump) your display tank in which you create an environment where macroalgae, tiny invertebrates, and sometimes even corals flourish.
A UV sterilizer is a high-energy light attached to your saltwater aquarium’s plumbing that “zaps” the water with ultra-violet light. The radiation from the UV light sterilizes microscopic harmful critters (bacteria, parasites, etc.) and purifies the water – as long as the light is sufficiently powerful enough to complete the job. What matters most with UV light is the amount of exposure to the radiation. So you have to move water past the light slower with a smaller bulb. But you can afford to pump the current faster (or more water) past a larger bulb. You want to aim for the Goldilocks zone where it’s not too fast, not too slow, but “just right.”
Water movement is vital to sustaining life in your saltwater aquarium. Almost every living organism you will care for in your tank will be dependent on the flow of high-quality water to bring life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients toward them and flush waste away. And since you won’t have the benefit of the tides and ocean current within your house, you’ll need to provide an artificial source. You have three primary ways of achieving that with your aquarium equipment:
Pumps (also called return pumps) are large water pumps used to move water from the sump area back into the main display tank. Waterdrops into the sump assisted by gravity, but the return trip needs some assistance. So the pump gets the job of moving water against gravity. In the process, it generates a current from the pressure. And depending on the type of pump you choose, you can modify the water movement into your tank.
Pumps come in two different types: Submersible pumps go directly into the sump area and remain submerged underwater. In-line pumps get plumbed outside of the sump area.
When selecting a pump, you want to look for a few important characteristics. The first is reliability. Your pump needs to be a workhorse and operate for years without a problem. So you want to make sure you find a quality brand.
You also want to evaluate a pump based on the flow rate it produces (rated in Gallons Per Hour – GPH) at a given height or head pressure. The higher 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.
For instance, a Mag 9.5 pump is rated at 900GPH 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. The 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, 800GPH). That’s an extreme example, but I think you get the point.
Powerheads are water pumps, too, but they’re lighter-duty pumps placed inside the aquarium itself. This way, you create flow inside the aquarium, similar to the water currents found in the ocean. The linear current is perfect for delivering planktonic foods to your corals and anemones while sweeping unwanted wastes to the drainage outlet of your sump.
If you use more than one powerhead in your aquarium, it’s best to direct the flows so they intersect and create a turbulent flow (rather than a liner or laminar flow). You’ll generate a tidal zone your creatures will appreciate, and you’ll challenge your mobile tank residents with the different current directions.
One of the most powerful, energy-friendly, and all-around cool powerheads to hit the hobby is the MAXSPECT GYRE pump. Unlike traditional powerheads which use nozzle flow technology, the Gyre pumps have propeller technology that creates a massive amount of flow. It’s a bit pricey, but you can find them for between $200-$300 and they don’t sip much energy.
A wavemaker is a small, electrical device that helps you turn the consistent, laminar flow normally generated by a powerhead or pump into a rhythmic flow you’d expect to see with ocean waves. On natural reefs, water doesn’t occur in a straight line. And if you want to recreate that undulating pattern in your saltwater aquarium, your best bet is a wavemaker. It’s a nifty piece of equipment that will keep your fish and invertebrates feeling at home.
Aquarium maintenance is a part of the hobby that everyone dreads. I don’t think anyone LIKES slopping around buckets of dirty saltwater or even replacing the tank with clean saltwater. But you need to get equipment to help with those vital maintenance chores. The most common pieces of equipment to have around for your routine?
- Siphon/Gravel vacuum
No aquarium system (freshwater OR saltwater) is complete without a siphon or gravel vacuum. Ideally, you should perform partial water changes on a routine basis (about 10% of the water volume in your tank each week). If you don’t perform these partial water changes, problems can and WILL pop up. And they can range from cyanobacteria outbreaks to problem algae or even worse.
The siphon or gravel vacuum is your workhorse piece of equipment. You don’t even need a pump to wield one. Siphon works once you get the flow of water started,. Gravity takes care of the rest as long as you maintain the initial vacuum. You can “scrub” leftovers from the substrate, pick up pieces of coral frags (the ones you didn’t cultivate), and hunt down pests infiltrating your tank. All from a non-mechanical piece of equipment you probably already had plans to purchase!
In this hobby, you can never have TOO MANY buckets. My wife might disagree since there are buckets everywhere in the house, but I use them all the time. Buckets work for water changes, cleaning up the tank, acclimating fish and corals, storing old equipment not currently in use – you name it, this piece of equipment works for it.
When starting, I recommend buying your aquarium salt in a bucket the first few times. You won’t regret it.
I tend to steer away from used plastic containers (like kitty litter tubs) 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) works as a bucket. The key part of that concept is ensuring it’s properly cleaned out. I would also avoid anything that involved metals, oils, or harsh chemicals.
If you don’t already know, 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 you have pristine, stable water parameters, and to detect problems as they happen. You don’t want to wait until after it’s too late or when problem becomes too costly. And to stay on top of your testing schedule, you’re going to need some equipment:
- Test kit (pH, nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, calcium, and alkalinity at a minimum)
A hydrometer is an inexpensive piece of equipment used to compare the density of fluids compared with pure freshwater. Pure freshwater has a specific gravity of 1.000. Ocean water, by comparison, has a specific gravity of 1.025.
By using a hydrometer to measure the relative density of the water in your aquarium, you can determine the right concentration of salt. While hydrometers don’t measure salinity specifically, hydrometers designed for the saltwater hobby are calibrated to make a good estimate. Simply fill your hydrometer with aquarium water, watch the arm or dial as it points to the density, and boom! You have the salinity of your aquarium water.
Refractometers are a great (and somewhat upgraded) option for measuring the salinity of your aquarium. You still need freshwater (rather, distilled water) to calibrate the instrument, but you’ll get an actual measurement of salinity with this piece of equipment. You’ll just need to decide whether or not it’s worth the investment as they DO cost much more than hydrometers. And they’re on the delicate side, so you need to make sure you’re careful when you handle them.
I was reluctant to upgrade from a hydrometer to a refractometer at first, but I was glad when I did.
Your thermometer helps you measure the temperature of your aquarium water (in case you weren’t clear on that). Plain and simple, your goal is to get your aquarium to the proper temperature and keep it there, day in and day out. A stable temperature will prevent your fish and invertebrates from experiencing stress. After all, the ocean doesn’t experience dramatic swings in temp from one day to the next. So while it sounds simple, it’s a piece of equipment you need to purchase and check each day.
If you have a saltwater aquarium, it’s up to you to stay on top of your water parameters. You can’t do that with a quick glance at the water, so you need to invest in test kits as part of your equipment list. At a minimum, you should test for pH, ammonia, nitrates, nitrites, and calcium. If you’re feeling up to it, you may also want to test for phosphates and copper.
Most test kits have test tubes and reagents that react with the chemical being tested to generate a color change. You then compare the color in your test tube to a color swatch to determine the concentration in your saltwater aquarium.
Another option is to purchase test strips. Test strips also work by color indicator, but they involve less work. Simply dip the strip, wait the proper amount of time, and take the reading. If you want to save a little on your testing equipment, strips come out cheaper in the long run.
The last category of saltwater aquarium equipment is used for nutrient loading and supplementation. These items help boost the quality of the water by helping to stimulate growth and replenishing the nutrients your animals remove from the water through their normal activities. For instance, your corals feed constantly, actively absorbing various elements (such as calcium) from the water. If you don’t work to stabilize the balance, your corals will break down when there isn’t a fresh boost of calcium added.
Two examples of nutrient loading and supplementation equipment are:
- Dosing units
A dosing unit is a pump engineered to add small, accurate quantities of fluid over a given time. Dosing units range in complexity from very basic to high-end, computer-controlled options. They’re used to drip phytoplankton, calcium, and other supplements or nutrients in tiny, measured amounts.
A very popular, advanced technique is something called vodka dosing (also known as carbon dosing). This is a practice where vodka (or another source of organic carbon, like sugar) is dosed into the aquarium to boost beneficial algal growth. This in turn helps purify the water, driving nitrates to undetectably low levels.
There are two common groups of reactors. The first group works by adding something to the aquarium water (such as calcium reactors and kalkwasser reactors). The second group works by removing substances 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 (typically crushed coral) and releases free calcium. This is then plumbed into the display tank. A kalkwasser reactor, by comparison, is a reservoir for kalkwasser so it can be dripped into the display area.
On the flip side, GFO reactors have a media that reacts with and removes phosphate from the water. (Phosphate is a nuisance contaminate that can fuel problem algae growth) Carbon reactors are chambers filled with activated carbon, a time-tested material great for removing all kinds of ugly stuff from water.
Making the trip home from the local fish is often a stressful journey for a fish. During the ride, the temperature of the water can change. And the natural water chemistry in your tank may be different from the water at the store. So it’s important to gradually ease your fish into life inside your home. That process is called acclimation. And the specific method I recommend is called drip acclimation.
In the old days, when I was only dealing with relatively inexpensive freshwater fish (haha, I feel old typing that), I used to float the bag in the tank (to adjust the temperature), pouring small amounts of tank water into the bag every few minutes. If you want to research this technique, it’s called the floating bag method.
Once I switched to saltwater, I mastered drip acclimation. But there wasn’t any equipment I was aware of to help. I made a cheesy video on YouTube and published a short article about it in Aquarium Fish International magazine. Time’s moved on since then, luckily, and now there are a few products available to help make this easy chore even simpler.
You can purchase this gizmo online for about $10. And it makes adjusting your drip a cinch. It looks like a hospital-grade device you would see used with an intravenous (IV) drip. Once the drip is started, you use a thumbwheel to create the exact flow you want. It is amazingly simple.
There’s no shortage of saltwater aquarium equipment to choose from. It can be a daunting task at times to figure out what you need and what you don’t. I hope this page got you started in the right direction. It should hopefully serve as a jumping-off point for you to begin your journey.
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Written by Albert B Ulrich III