A side view of a swimming yellow tang on a black background

How To Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium For $5,500

Updated 2024

We are jumping price points quite a bit here, but trust me, if you can afford it, the following Red Sea system is worth it.  Not only does it come with tank and sump, but so much, I mean so much more that will make your life easier. Just look at the picture below and everything you see… is included!

High Tech Build Stats:

Red Sea Reefer Max 300 G2+

Size: 65 Gallon Display Tank, 79 Gallon Total Water Including Sump

Aquarium Dimensions: 35.4“L x 22.6“W x 21.7“H

Aquarium

Red Sea is known as the top of the line in the saltwater aquarium industry, and used to just be known for their tanks and salt.  But slowly over the years, they have been building their own pieces of gear, to where now they make almost everything you need.  And they don’t skimp on their product line-up.  They produce only high quality pieces of gear. So in this kit you aren’t just getting a tank and sump… something that comes with their reefer system… You are getting it all… yes, everything.

Lights, mounts, skimmer, wavemakers, controller, ATO system, and roller mat.  If I was to get a new system for myself, it would be this one, or a larger version of the same thing.

Rather than just rephrasing everything, here is a direct plagiarizing from the BRS website.. so much easier this way!

All Reefer G2+ tanks are now available in a MAX configuration with the optimal water management, filtration, circulation, and lighting—all controllable with the Red Sea ReefBeat app. Going with the MAX means no hassle in deciding which equipment to run and no questions about compatibility. Just pick your system size and stand color.

What’s Included?

Reefer MAX 300 G2+ Aquarium
Marine-Spec Cabinet
Sump & Pre-Glued Plumbing
(2x) ReefLED 90 and Mounting Arm
(1x) Reefer DC Skimmer 300
(2x) ReefWave 25 Gyre Powerhead
(1x) ReefRun 5500 Return Pump
(1x) ReefRun Controller
(1x) ReefMat 500 Automatic Filter Roller
(1x) ReefATO+ Auto Top Off System
(1x) Slide-Out Control Panel 25
(1x) Utility Basket

 (2x) ReefWave 25 Gyre Pump (1980 GPH)

ReefWave pumps provide optimal flow for corals in a wide range of aquascapes, regardless of their position in your aquarium. Building on the popular patented Gyre cross-flow technology, ReefWave pumps are a refined pump design offering smart control features, powerful, nearly silent gyre flow, and easy maintenance that fans of gyre pumps will love. Each ReefWave pump can be controlled via the included controller, or you can access your pumps through Red Sea’s ReefBeat app.

ReefMat 500 Filter Roller

The ReefMat is the latest in automatic mechanical filtration from Red Sea. The ReefMat comes fully assembled and is designed to hang on the side of the Red Sea Reef-Spec sump. Being one of the only automatic filter rollers out there with app control, the ReefBeat app can alert you if your ReefMat needs maintenance, you’re running out of fleece, or there is an error.

ReeferDC 300 Protein Skimmer

Each Reefer MAX system comes with a perfectly sized Reefer DC Protein Skimmer. With self-leveling technology, a smart controller to connect your skimmer to the ReefBeat app, and a Sicce PSK pump at the heart of the operation, the ReeferDC skimmer is the perfect pairing for the Reefer Aquariums.

You’ll enjoy the small details that Red Sea has worked into this skimmer, like a manual neck cleaner, precision gear regulator to adjust the foam level, and a foam view window to enable you to see exactly where the foam level is in the neck of the skimmer.

 

 ReefRun 5500 DC Return Pump & Controller

Based on the wildly successful and reliable Sicce platform, the Red Sea ReefRun pumps feature a familiar look and feel, but with some big upgrades. In addition to being able to set the daily flow schedule and activate feed modes, you’ll also get notifications if your pump is running dry, disconnects, or is otherwise malfunctioning, allowing you to quickly fix the problem and get everything back up and running without missing a beat. 

 ReefATO+ Auto Top Off System

Every Reefer Max Series model includes the ReefATO+, an exceptionally reliable and smart auto top-off system. The ReefATO+ is more than just an ATO—it also includes an accurate temperature monitor and external leak detector, coupled with a smart controller that connects to the ReefBeat ecosystem to alert you if anything goes wrong. 

Slide Out Control Panel 25

With Red Sea’s new Slide-Out Control Panels, you can have all your reef monitoring and maintenance devices mounted in a single, easy-to-access location. Affix the panel to the side of your aquarium cabinet and enjoy easy sliding access to your equipment. Constructed from marine-spec laminated plywood and stainless steel.

RO/DI Water Filter

With a tank this size, you will absolutely want to make your own RODI water at home… because you will need a lot of it for both water changes and daily evaporation top off.

The RO/DI filter is a nifty water filtration unit that works wonders with your tap water, making it nearly pure. It stands for Reverse Osmosis Deionization. This filtered water is just what you need for mixing your saltwater using a salt mix (more on that later!).

Having an RO/DI filter for your saltwater aquarium comes with loads of benefits and saves you money in the long run. But if you’re starting small or just getting into the hobby, there are simpler options available. You can easily get distilled water or pre-made saltwater from your local fish store. However, if you’re going for a high-tech setup, investing in an RO/DI filter is totally worth it!

Salt Mix

To make the most of your RO/DI filter, it’s crucial to pair it with the right salt mix. There are plenty of options available, and most of them work well for a saltwater aquarium. Some are basic, providing the essential water parameters, while others are more advanced with elevated levels and extra additives.

Since this is a high-tech saltwater aquarium build, and we anticipate you’ll have a diverse range of corals, we’ve selected a salt mix with elevated water parameters specifically designed for a system with various types of corals. With this salt mix, you’ll be giving your aquarium a head start and setting it up for success!

Gravel Vacuum / Siphon

In addition to using filters and filtration media, regular water changes are crucial for proper aquarium maintenance. It’s a simple process of removing a portion of the saltwater from your tank and replacing it with fresh saltwater. During this routine, you can also use a siphon to vacuum and eliminate any detritus, like fish waste and leftover food, from the tank.

For this specific saltwater aquarium, 2″ Large or XL from Python.

Heater

An absolute must-have for your saltwater aquarium is a reliable heater. As we mentioned earlier, maintaining stability is vital for the well-being of your aquarium inhabitants, making a good heater essential.

Since most saltwater organisms thrive in temperatures between 77-78 degrees Fahrenheit, a heater is crucial unless your home naturally stays within that range. Conversely, if you live in a hot climate, a fan might be needed to cool down your aquarium.

Sicce is making a new contactless glass heater with a whopping 5 year warranty.  That’s crazy long for a heater.  Be sure to get two of them, one for backup, and you’ll need the 300W size.

Thermometer

To be honest, my favorite thermometer is actually this one below.  Yep, it’s a waterproof meat thermometer.  It’s so affordable, waterproof, easy to clean, easy to store, and it’s been quite accurate to boot.

Temperature Controller

Maintaining a stable temperature in your saltwater aquarium is vital, as we’ve emphasized before. But don’t worry, you can avoid potential disasters with a simple and affordable solution that costs just $37! This nifty device keeps a close eye on your aquarium temperature, ensuring it stays within a precise 0.1° F range. It also prevents your heater from getting stuck in the “on” position, which could lead to overheating your saltwater.

The best part? This controller can handle cooling too! I live in the desert, so during summers, I use a fan to keep my aquarium cool. I plug the fan into the “cooling” outlet and the heater into the “heating” outlet, maintaining a steady 78° F all year round. The built-in alarm is a fantastic feature, promptly alerting me if there’s any issue with the heater or fan.

Considering all these impressive features, it’s remarkable that this device is so affordable. It’s a perfect addition to your budget-friendly aquarium build, ensuring your aquatic friends enjoy a safe and comfortable environment with stable temperatures.

Refractometer

A refractometer is a handy tool used by saltwater aquarium hobbyists to gauge the salinity of their aquarium water. They are highly accurate as long as you let the water warm up to room temperature before taking a reading!  You can also pick up a bottle of calibration fluid as well… that way you will know it’s reading correctly!

Or just pick up this BRS refractometer below and it comes with Refracto Juice… Just salt water pre-mixed to 1.026 salinity.

Water Test Kit

A basic test kit is a must-have for any saltwater aquarium hobbyist, especially when starting your aquarium journey. It’s handy for testing the nitrogen cycle completion.

Though it may not be the top-of-the-line kit, it’s affordable and gives you a decent ballpark reading, perfect for most hobbyists. It’s a valuable tool to keep an eye on your aquarium’s health and catch any potential issues before they turn into algae or bacteria blooms.

Being proactive with testing can keep your saltwater aquarium healthy and thriving. So, grab that test kit and stay ahead of the game!

front view of api saltwater test kit in original packaging. it's a semi-clear plastic box with a blue plastic lid. A label sticker covers the front, it's blue and yellow, and says API Saltwater Master Test Kit on it

Calcium / Alkalinity Test Kit

If you’re into corals, testing for calcium and alkalinity is a must. I’ve tried various test kits, and my top picks are the Salifert Calcium kit and the unbeatable Hanna Alkalinity checker.

The Salifert Calcium kit is straightforward and budget-friendly, yet it consistently provides reliable results. As for the Hanna Alkalinity checker, it’s simply unmatched in quality and accuracy. Trust me, you won’t regret having these test kits in your arsenal.

Water Additives

After testing your saltwater aquarium parameters, you might discover the need for adjustments. Typically, you’ll need to dose to increase the levels of essential elements that your corals consume as they grow.

While there are many products and methods for dosing, we recommend an all-in-one product that simplifies the process. It’s highly concentrated, so be careful not to overdose, which is a common mistake among new reefers. Follow the directions, start with a low dose, test regularly, and most importantly, be consistent in your dosing routine!

Dosing Pump

Don’t worry about buying this right now.  Eventually if you have coral, you will have to dose your tank, which is why we included powdered All-For-Reef as our additive of choice in this blog.

For tanks that aren’t packed too heavily with coral, dosing something like kalkwasser in your ato reservoir will work absolutely perfect.  But if you do eventually want to dose something like 2-part, I really like these BRS dosers.  I prefer the slower 1.1 ml/minute just so I can dose really slowly if I want.  

But if you end up going with one of these dosers, they don’t come with any sort of timer so you will need to use something like a digital timer or a wifi power strip to turn them on and off.

Reef Rock

Rock is a vital component of any saltwater aquarium, serving multiple purposes:

1. It provides a thriving habitat for beneficial bacteria, supporting the overall health of the aquarium.
2. The rock creates cozy hiding spots, giving your aquatic inhabitants a sense of security.
3. It also acts as a canvas for attaching coral, adding to the tank’s beauty and diversity.

You’re going to need quite a bit for this tank, and I’d definitely recommend getting more than you think you need, that way you can play around with the pieces and build something really cool. CaribSea makes some really nice human-made rock, in all sorts of sizes.  I would recommend getting a mix of their base rock as well as some of their shapes and arches.  Shoot for somewhere around 80 lbs or rock.

Sand might not be a must-have, and some hobbyists are opting for bare bottom tanks these days. But, adding sand can really transform your aquarium into an authentic slice of the ocean. It not only enhances the aesthetic but also plays a vital role in biological filtration. Plus, it becomes a cozy hideaway and a source of food for certain creatures.

When it comes to sand, we recommend sticking with the CaribSea brand for the best options. You’re going to need at least 40 lbs, but maybe up to 80 lbs depending on how deep you want your sandbed.

wet live sand for saltwater aquariums close up shot of 10 pound bag
Caribsea-Arag-Alive-Special-Grade-Reef-Sand-10-lb-99
Fiji pink sand in 20 lb bag with close up of grain size
CaribSea-Arag-Alive-Fiji-Pink-Sand-10-lbs-99
clear bag of aquarium sand with CaribSea label and close up of grain size.
CaribSea Original Grade Ocean Direct

Bacterial Additives

In our saltwater aquariums, there’s a bustling community of residents, even though they may not be visible to the naked eye. Microscopic organisms thrive in the sand, rocks, and water, playing a crucial role in the health and beauty of your tank. One prominent example is biological filtration, which is vital for maintaining a balanced ecosystem.

Though there are numerous other uses and benefits of bacteria supplementation, our focus here is on buying bacteria to aid in cycling your saltwater aquarium and maintaining its balance in the future. Check out this quick video that explains it further! Using these products will speed up the process of making your aquarium healthy and ready while ensuring its long-term success.

Algae Scraper

An algae scraper is a straightforward and practical tool for any saltwater aquarium owner. Despite maintaining your aquarium diligently, algae will inevitably grow on the glass. The affordable scraper is a quick and easy way to get rid of algae without the need to get your hands wet and messy! Moreover, when you siphon out the scraped algae, you’re also aiding the filtration of your saltwater aquarium.

Nothing beats the Flipper Float.  Just be sure to pick up the exact size below.  The nano will be too small!

Fish Net

A net is an absolute must-have for every saltwater aquarium hobbyist, and the best part is that they are incredibly affordable! It’s one of those tools that you’ll find indispensable.

Not only is it handy for catching and transferring fish, but you can also use it while thawing frozen food to remove any fillers or phosphates. The net’s versatility makes it a valuable and practical tool to have on hand for various tasks in your aquarium. So, be sure to grab one for your saltwater setup!

Optional Items

Power Strips

A crucial piece of gear you might already have or need to consider getting for your saltwater aquarium is a power strip. While it may be tempting to cut corners, safety should never be compromised when dealing with electrical equipment.

Investing in a reliable surge protector/power strip is highly recommended. This option not only provides protection but also allows you to turn off individual pieces of gear without having to unplug them. This feature comes in handy during saltwater changes, where it’s best to turn off the heater to avoid damage caused by exposure to air while still powered on. By opting for a quality power strip, you can safeguard your equipment, ensure the well-being of your aquatic animals, and create a secure and efficient setup for your saltwater aquarium. Safety first!

7 outlet controllable surge protector and power strip

Coral Dips and Foods

Did you know that corals are actually animals with photosynthetic organisms living within them, giving them their vibrant colors? To keep them healthy and displaying their best hues, they need proper nourishment. However, there’s also a risk of them carrying parasites or unwanted hitchhikers that could harm your saltwater aquarium and its inhabitants.

To ensure the well-being of your corals, it’s a good idea to use a coral dip. This helps remove any potential pests before adding the coral to your aquarium. Additionally, consider providing some coral food for occasional feeding. Surprisingly, there are “non-photosynthetic” corals that don’t require light to survive but instead thrive on a good amount of feeding!

Fish Foods

Of course, one of the obvious necessities for your saltwater aquarium is fish food. There’s a wide variety of options available, so it’s essential to choose the right food based on the types of fish you have. I’ve made a lot of videos on fish food, but this is my best.  Click HERE to learn a ton more about fish and coral food!

And the link below is one of my top three favorite fish foods!

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