What is the best aquarium chiller for a saltwater aquarium? Read on to find out more about how you can beat the heat this summer.
A few years ago, I had a major setback with my display tank.
While working on my tank, I messed up the temperature my heater was set at…unfortunately, at the same time, I was leaving for vacation, which was also during a heatwave. Long story short (you can read that story here), my tank heated up significantly and caused some of my corals to die. I owned an AquaCool fan, but it wasn’t running and I didn’t have a chiller.
Suffice it to say, I was devastated by the loss.
Once that happened, I set out to figure out how to prevent that from happening again. I realized that the best insurance policy against your tank hitting unsafe elevated temperatures is to have an aquarium chiller. Until then, I had never considered one, let alone sort through all the different options to know what my best options were.
So I set out to find the one.
Criteria for selecting the best aquarium chiller
The best aquarium chiller is the one that is the right size for your aquarium, with the best performance and best reviews at the right price. It shouldn’t be too big or too small--it needs to be just right, or it won’t be able to properly cool your tank when needed.
In this article, I will describe:
- how an aquarium chiller works
- how do you know if you need one?
- Why is high temperature bad?
- How much does it cost?
- I will also provide product reviews for some of the best brands.
If you are interested in just jumping ahead to check out the products and prices for yourself, here are a few affiliate links where you can learn more about these products, including their price, on Amazon.com:
An aquarium water chiller is like an air conditioner for your water. A thermostat monitors the temperature and switches the aquarium chiller on when the water temperature gets too high. When the chiller is on, a water pump (you need to buy and install a pump, as well, for your chiller to work). The unit you purchase will come with instructions to help with the proper installation. If you’ve dealt with any plumbing on your tank so far, this will probably be fun and a breeze.
The tank water is then pumped inside the chiller, where it gets cooled off by something called a heat exchanger before it gets returned by the pump to your aquarium. Each model looks a bit different, but this is a good example of what one might look like (clicking on the images and links in this article will take you to Amazon.com).
Following so far? Water gets pumped from your tank (probably through your sump) out to the unit, where it runs through some pipes…heat gets “exchanged” or drawn out of your water as it flows through the system…and it leaves the unit at the cooler temperature, to return to your tank.
How do marine chillers make the aquarium cooler?
The process is called ‘heat exchange,’ as mentioned earlier. A marine chiller essentially works like an ‘air conditioner for your water. The water from your tank stays safely inside the clean pipes in the unit, but those pipes are in contact with much colder stuff, so the heat from your water gets “sucked” out of the water, cooling it down. Then the nice, cool water gets returned to your tank.
I would generally consider an aquarium chiller to NOT be an essential piece of equipment for a saltwater tank--for most of us. How will you know if you need one? You need to answer the following question:
Will the ambient temperature where you keep your tank get higher than ~85 degrees Fahrenheit? Is it possible that the temperature could spike even higher? If the answer is yes, then you probably SHOULD invest in a cooler.
If the answer to that question is no--because your tank is in a temperature-controlled house and you love your AC/Heater, then you may drop into the category of… you may want to consider buying a chiller to protect against spikes in heat.
I’ve been keeping fish for about 30 years now (sigh, I’m old) and never previously had an aquarium chiller. But very recently, I had an issue where my tank water heated up…and caused big problems. If you don’t want to take a risk like that, you will want a chiller to protect against error and protect against loss. This equipment is intended to help you keep your aquarium temperature stable, which is critically important to help you keep your aquarium inhabitants (coral, shrimp, fish, crabs, clams, etc.) happy.
Coral reefs are generally fairly stable, tropical marine environments. The animals we keep in our tanks generally come from those environments and don’t do well with big changes.
- Temperature changes, in general, are bad.
- Warm water holds less oxygen.
- May cause problem algae growth
So, in general, we should strive to keep our tanks clean and stable, preventing major swings in temperatures. A sudden spike in temperature could also cause your fish or corals to suffocate in the lower-oxygen environment, or the temperature spike might just cause problem algae growth, which could be unsightly and create more maintenance issues.
When properly sized (large enough to lower the tank’s temperature sufficiently when just running for a few minutes each hour…not continuously) and installed, an aquarium chiller is a great product that will keep your aquarium temperature from elevating into the danger zone. People who live in hot climates boast about these workhorses doing the job day in and day out without a hiccup. The top brands are quiet and should run without issue.
Most common complaints
The most common complaints about aquarium water chillers are:
- Sometimes they break--there are reviews (in the minority) of products that failed after a short period of time
- Manufacturers are not always as responsive as hoped for in resolving any issues
- It can be loud--may sound like ‘an old refrigerator’ when running
Factors that can impact the performance of a saltwater chiller
To keep your saltwater chiller working properly, keep these things in mind:
- Avoid extreme temperatures--if the temperature in the room is in the mid-to-high 90s, just about any chiller is going to have some trouble keeping up. If this is something you expect to happen in your home--you want to pick a significantly oversized model
- Don’t forget about the heat load contributed by your equipment. If you are running serious metal halide lights close to the water--you’re going to have a lot more heat to dissipate than your neighbor in the same town who is running cool LEDs
- Your chiller needs good ventilation to run properly--be sure to place it in a well-ventilated area.
- Just like an air conditioner, you need to keep the grill clean to avoid over-working the system.
- Ensure you are equipping your aquarium chiller with a properly sized pump to enable the appropriate water flow for your particular model. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure you have the right-sized pump.
An aquarium water chiller will cost anywhere from about $260 to over $1,200 for the biggest and best models. One of the most commonly available sizes that should be large enough to handle an aquarium in the 125-150 gallon range or smaller is the 1/4 HP model, which benchmarks at about $600 for all but one manufacturer.
If even the least expensive models are out of your price range, you may want to consider an aquarium fan, like the Aquacool, which can help keep your tank water a bit cooler by facilitating evaporation.
How do I decide which model is the best for me?
Picking the right fish tank chiller model for you is about weighing a few considerations:
- How big is your tank?
- How much money are you willing to spend?
- How hot does it really get where you are?
- How good are the average product reviews?
The JBJ product website has a calculator that will help you figure out the right size for your particular aquarium. To pick the right size, you need to look at all the things warming up your tank…and while not the most intuitive tool, that is what the JBJ calculator helps you to do.
Best Aquarium Chiller--what are the options?
Here are a few of the most popular brands for you to choose from:
I will explore each of the brands in more detail below to help you make the best choice.
JBJ Arctica Aquarium Chiller
The brand is relatively easy to set up, runs efficiently, and runs quietly. It is the exclusive brand offered by at least one popular online store. A JBJ Arctica aquarium chiller will cost you around $400-$800, depending on the model you pick. Check out the current prices here.
JBJ offers 5 models in the JBJ Arctica Titanium Chiller line:
- 1/15 HP for tanks up to 40 gallons
- 1/10 HP for tanks up to 80 gallons
- 1/5 HP for tanks up to 180 gallons
- 1/4 HP for tanks up to 260 gallons
- 1/3 HP for tanks up to 340 gallons
This chiller has a 4.4 out of 5-star rating on Amazon, with 55 total reviews, 42 of which are 5-star.
Hamilton Technology Aqua Euro Max
The Hamilton Technology Aqua Euro Max also boasts a 4-star average review on Amazon.com, with less than 50 reviews at the time of this article. They range in price from about $399 for the smallest model upwards to $1,300 for the largest models if you have a large tank. The 1/4 HP represents a reasonable value for the money at just under $600. Check out the current prices here.
If you are looking for the best aquarium chiller that is the perfect fit for your reef tank, the Aqua Euro Max should be your chiller of choice, with 5 models to choose from:
- 1/13 HP for a 30-50 gallon aquarium
- 1/10 HP for a 60-80 gallon aquarium
- 1/4 HP for a 100-170 gallon aquarium
- 1/2 HP for a 200-300 gallon aquarium
- 1 HP for a 300-700 gallon aquarium
The Coralife product line offers 5 sizes to help you find the right model for your tank. The smallest model runs at 1/10 HP and is suited for tanks up to 55 gallons in size, whereas the 1HP model (quite large) will work for tanks up to 500 gallons in size. Expect to pay about $400 for the smallest model and over $1,000 for the largest model. Check out the links below for the current prices.
- 1/10 HP for tanks up to 55 gallons
- 1/6 HP for tanks up to 90 gallons
- 1/4 HP for tanks up to 125 gallons
- 1/2 HP for tanks up to 250 gallons
- 1 HP for tanks up to 500 gallons
Active Aqua Chiller
With over 175 reviews on Amazon at the time of this article and a 4-star review average (164 are verified purchases!), the Active Aqua is the most popular chiller model available. It is available in 3 sizes: small 1/10 HP, medium 1/4 HP, and large 1/2 HP. The price ranges from about $260- $630. The 1/4 HP model (workhorse model for most tanks) is only $378, making it the best value for the money.
- The 1/10 HP model can cool 40 gallons by 15 degrees Fahrenheit in about 20 hours.
- The 1/4 HP model can cool 80 gallons by 15 degrees Fahrenheit in about 20 hours.
- The 1/2 HP model can cool 132 gallons by 15 degrees F in 20 hours
It is no doubt that the low prices here are part of what’s driving the popularity of this brand on Amazon.com. Check out the reviews for yourself and decide.
What is the most relied upon aquarium chiller brand?
The JBJ Arctica Aquarium Chiller brand is the most consistently available and positively reviewed aquarium chiller available.
Which aquarium chiller is the best value for the money?
In terms of the best value for the money--the obvious choice, in my estimation, is the Active Aqua line.
They are significantly less expensive than some of the other brands and boast a similar product review profile. I like it because it is inexpensive (relative to the other models) and has many strong reviews, which means a lot of people have used it and are happy with their purchases, and you get free shipping from Amazon.
Best options for smaller tanks
Trying to figure out which model is best can be a daunting task. Many of the models listed above are for larger systems, but which one should you choose if you have a smaller system in the 90 liter or 20 gallon range?
What is the best 20-gallon aquarium chiller?
The best 20-gallon aquarium chiller is the Active Aqua 10 HP, which is large enough to cool 20-gallons with ease, without being too much horsepower.
Once you’ve selected the right model, the next step is learning how to install your device. Check out this video from Marine Depot to get some in-depth info about how to set these up easily.
Do you already have a favorite? If so, please leave a comment below and let us know what your experience has been.
Written by Albert B. Ulrich III
Which model do you think is the best aquarium chiller in 2021? Please leave a comment below.