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How to Setup a $1600 Saltwater Aquarium
-High Tech Build Guide

Updated 2023

Hey there! Welcome to the $1600 Saltwater Aquarium High Tech Build guide! We’re all about creating a stunning, high-tech, and easy-to-maintain saltwater aquarium. No shortcuts here! We’ve handpicked top-quality gear to ensure your setup is nothing short of amazing. And the best part? We’ve made it super user-friendly, so you can enjoy your high-tech saltwater aquarium without any hassles. Let’s dive into a world of beauty and technology together!

High Tech Build Stats:

Size: 40 Gallons

Aquarium Dimensions: 36″ W x 20″ H x 13

Stand Dimensions: 34.79″ L x 16″ W x 12.99″ H

Care Level: Easy

Style: AIO Standard

Placement: Office, kitchen, living room, bedroom


I love this tank bundle… So much so that of all the tanks I’ve built in the past 5 years, it’s the only one still setup… and in my living room of all places!

This isn’t the cheapest options, but not only do you get the low-iron glass tank with APS stand, but you get all of this too!

Sure! Here’s the list with bullet points:

– 1x 40 Gallon Long Nuvo Fusion PRO 2 Aquarium
– 1x 40 Gallon Long Nuvo Fusion Cabinet Stand (Black)
– 1x MightyJet 538 GPH Return Pump w/ Controller
– 1x Removable 200 Micron Filter Sock
– 1x Desktop CustomCaddy Media Basket w/ PurityPack Filter Media Including:
– 2x Mechanical Fiber Ball
– 2x Premium 0.8 ROX Carbon Pack
– 2x High Capacity Coarse GFO Pack
– 1x Preinstalled Rubber Leveling Mat
– 1x Pre-Assembled SafeScreen Mesh Screen Lid
– 1x MicroMag Glass Cleaner
– 2x Nuvo Return Nozzles
– 2x High Tide Water Risers


There’s a lot of good options for a 40 gallon tank, but I think this AI Hydra 32 will be sufficient for all but SPS dominant tanks, and it looks great too!

Hey there, check out the awesome new Aqua Illumination Hydra 32 HD reef lights! They’ve got more color, more spread, more power, and they’re super refined. The new design is not only more efficient but also looks better in your aquarium. With easy control through the MyAI App, you can adjust everything to your liking. And guess what? They’ve added more LEDs, more PAR, and improved the optic design for better light coverage. Plus, they’ve made it thinner and more water-resistant. You’ll love the multiple mounting options and the dedicated moonlight channel. And the wider spectrum with more channels will make your corals and fish happier than ever! So go ahead and upgrade to the Hydra 32 HD lights for a stunning reef tank experience.

Don’t forget to pickup a mount as well, as the AI line of lights frustratingly don’t come with a mount!  This AI 18″ Flex Arm works great.

Filtration and Filter Media

Filtering a saltwater aquarium can indeed be a complex and perplexing aspect of the hobby, often leaving us unsure of how to proceed. However, experienced hobbyists will assure you that filtration can be simplified and made easy.

In basic terms, there are three types of filtration that work together to ensure the overall health of your saltwater aquarium:

1. Mechanical filtration
2. Biological filtration
3. Chemical filtration

The good news is that this saltwater aquarium comes with a starter kit of filter media, and it features a built-in filtration compartment seamlessly integrated into the aquarium.

These aquariums are known as AIO (all-in-one), with the filtration compartment incorporated within the tank itself, eliminating the need for additional filters. Moreover, if you decide to add any gear, such as a heater, you can discreetly hide it within this compartment, ensuring a clutter-free display in your saltwater aquarium.

If you prefer to opt for the highest quality filter media instead of the supplied items, we’ve listed what we believe to be the best options for the three types of filtration. Additionally, you’ll need a filter media bag, which you can easily find here.

RO/DI Water Filter

The RO/DI filter is a handy water filtration unit that works wonders with your tap water, purifying it to almost pure water. It’s short for Reverse Osmosis Deionization. This filtered water is perfect for making your saltwater using a salt mix (we’ll cover that later!).

Having an RO/DI filter for your saltwater aquarium comes with many benefits and is cost-effective in the long run. But if you’re starting with a small or beginner setup, there are simpler options available. You can easily grab distilled water or pre-made saltwater from your local fish store. However, if you’re planning to go high-tech with your system, investing in an RO/DI filter will be totally worth it!

Don’t worry, if you’re looking for a budget-friendly solution, there are small and affordable options out there that will work perfectly for your setup. So, take the plunge and get the right filtration system to keep your saltwater aquarium in top-notch condition!

Salt Mix

To fully maximize the benefits of your RO/DI filter, it’s essential to pair it with the right salt mix. There’s a variety of salt mixes available, and most of them work well for a saltwater aquarium. Some are more basic, providing the minimum water parameters needed, while others are more advanced with elevated levels and additional additives.

Since this is a high-tech saltwater aquarium build, and we expect you to eventually have a diverse range of corals, we’ve chosen a salt mix that contains 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

Apart from using filters and filtration media, another essential part of aquarium maintenance is water changes. It’s a straightforward process of removing some saltwater from your tank and replacing it with fresh saltwater. During this procedure, you can also use a siphon to “vacuum” and remove any detritus, such as fish waste and leftover food, from the tank.

To obtain saltwater, you can visit your local fish store and purchase it directly from them. Alternatively, you may find distilled water available at the fish store or your nearby grocery store. Distilled water is useful for topping off the aquarium because it helps maintain the salinity when water naturally evaporates. If you’re interested in making your own saltwater, we’ll cover that later on!

For this specific saltwater aquarium, I recommend getting the 9″ medium size siphon. The mini size drains water too slowly, while the large size drains the tank too quickly, making the medium size the ideal choice.

An essential piece of equipment for your saltwater aquarium is the heater. As mentioned earlier, stability is key to keeping your aquarium inhabitants happy, so a reliable heater is crucial.

Most saltwater aquariums house tropical organisms that thrive in a stable temperature range between 77-78 degrees Fahrenheit. Unless your house maintains that temperature consistently, you’ll need a heater to ensure the well-being of your aquatic friends. On the other hand, if you live in a very hot climate, you might require a fan to cool your aquarium instead.

Based on personal experience, reputation, and cost, we highly recommend the Eheim Jager TruTemp 100 Watt aquarium heater. It’s a favorite among many saltwater aquarium hobbyists and remains budget-friendly.

Keep in mind that all aquarium heaters will eventually fail, so it’s wise to have a backup plan. Consider getting a second heater as a spare for emergencies. One thing experienced saltwater aquarium hobbyists know is the value of having backup gear!


Thermometers play a vital role in a saltwater aquarium, as they help you ensure that your heater is maintaining the desired temperature. Often, heaters are not perfectly calibrated upon delivery, so having a thermometer allows you to re-calibrate and achieve the correct temperature.

Over the years, we’ve used about 10 of these thermometers, and they have proven to be effective despite their low cost. Even in the most budget-friendly builds, they are crucial equipment. In our tests, when using three of these thermometers simultaneously in the same tank, their readings differed by no more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

This product comes in a 2-pack because we’ve found it’s always a good idea to have an extra thermometer on hand. If you’re mixing your own saltwater, having an additional thermometer ensures consistent temperatures during the process.

two small waterproof digital aquarium thermometers on white background

Temperature Controller

Maintaining a stable temperature in your saltwater aquarium is crucial, as we previously discussed. Even the most reliable heating equipment can fail, leading to a complete aquarium crash. However, you can avoid such disasters with a simple and affordable solution priced at just $35. This device monitors your aquarium temperature, ensuring it stays within a precise 0.1° F range and prevents your heater from getting stuck in the “on” position, which could boil your saltwater.

The best part is that this controller can also handle cooling tasks! In my case, living in the desert, I use a fan during summers to keep my aquarium cool. I plug the fan into the “cooling” outlet and the heater into the “heating” outlet, maintaining a constant 78° F throughout the year. This impressive device also includes a built-in alarm, alerting me promptly if there’s a failure in the heater or fan. Remarkably, all these features come at an affordable price, making it an ideal addition to your budget-friendly aquarium build. With this controller, you can rest assured that your aquarium’s temperature remains stable, providing a safe and comfortable environment for your aquatic companions.


A refractometer is an essential tool for every saltwater aquarium hobbyist. It offers superior accuracy compared to a hydrometer, making it a worthwhile investment even for those on a budget.

Maintaining stable and constant salinity levels is crucial for the well-being of corals and invertebrates like shrimp and crab. Unlike fish, these creatures are highly sensitive to sudden changes in water parameters, particularly salinity.

Keep in mind that a refractometer requires calibration for accurate readings. However, there’s no need to purchase an entire bottle of calibration fluid. Your Local Fish Store (LFS) will often be willing to lend you a few drops of theirs, making it a cost-effective and practical solution. Ensure the best environment for your saltwater inhabitants with the help of a reliable refractometer.

Water Test Kit

Having a basic test kit is essential for any saltwater aquarium hobbyist. It proves most useful at the beginning of your aquarium journey, allowing you to test for the completion of the nitrogen cycle.

While this test kit may not be the absolute best on the market, it remains affordable and provides a ballpark reading that is suitable for most hobbyists. It serves as a valuable tool for monitoring your aquarium’s health and identifying any potential issues before they manifest as algae or bacteria blooms within the aquarium. Being proactive with testing can help you maintain a healthy and thriving saltwater aquarium.

Calcium / Alkalinity Test Kit

If you want to have corals, you will need to frequently test for calcium and alkalinity.  At this point I’ve used almost all of the test kits available on the market, and these are my two favorite.  The Salifert Calcium test kit is simple and inexpensive, but gives consistent results.  And the Hanna Alkalinity checker… well… it just can’t be beat.

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!

Reef Rock

Rock plays a crucial role in every saltwater aquarium as it serves multiple purposes:

1. It provides a habitat for beneficial bacteria to thrive, aiding in the aquarium’s overall health.
2. The rock creates hiding spots for the aquarium inhabitants, giving them a sense of security.
3. It also acts as a surface for attaching coral, enhancing the beauty and diversity of your tank.

While there are various types of rock available, this particular option is both affordable and visually appealing, making it an excellent choice for a budget-friendly saltwater aquarium build. Embracing the importance of rock in your setup will contribute to the overall success and enjoyment of your aquatic world.

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. A 20lb bag will be perfect for this build. Happy decorating!

wet live sand for saltwater aquariums
Fiji pink sand in 20 lb bag with close up of grain size

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.

For this high-tech saltwater aquarium build, we recommend having both the common hand-held Flipper scraper and the Flipper magnetic algae scraper. In our experience, both options prove to be very useful in different situations!

Fish Net

Having a net is a must 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.

Optional Items

Power Strips

One crucial piece of gear you might already have, or need to consider getting, is a power strip to accommodate all the equipment in your saltwater aquarium. While it may be tempting to cut corners here, it’s essential not to skimp on safety. Electrical accidents or fires are serious risks that should not be taken lightly.

Investing in a reliable surge protector/power strip is highly recommended. This particular option not only provides protection but also offers the convenience of turning off individual pieces of gear without having to unplug them. This feature is especially useful during saltwater changes, where it’s advisable to turn off the heater to prevent damage caused by exposure to air while still powered on. By choosing 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.


Once you get to the 40 gallon size tank, you will likely need a wavemaker if you want to keep coral.  This AI Nero is a great DC pump, controllable, and quiet.  Probably a bit oversized for this 40 gallon build, but if you turn it down it will work great.  Plus the low profile means it will blend into the background so you aren’t staring at a pump!

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.

External ATO (Auto Top Off)

You don’t need fancy auto top off units.  You can just refill your tank each day with RODI water.  But it gets tiring fast, and if you ever want to leave your house for more than a day, you will need something or somebody to do it for you.

Enter the ATO, or auto top off system for long.  This can be as simple as a 1 liter can of coke flipped upside down in your rear filtration chamber, or as fancy as digital sensors and acrylic reservoirs.

Make your own choice here, but I’ve put a couple higher end options below.  Kamoer is a well known pump company, and a rectangular acrylic reservoir just looks nice. But you could also just use a 5-gallon bucket and save well over $100!

Dosing Pump

After automating water top-offs and feeding, some saltwater aquarium hobbyists opt to automate their dosing as well using a dosing pump. However, this requires careful consideration as you need to calculate the daily usage of elements by corals and set up the dosing pump accordingly. Regular water testing becomes essential as the dosing amounts will change as your system grows.

Beyond automation, dosing pumps offer other benefits too. They promote stability in the aquarium by providing smaller, consistent daily doses, reducing the likelihood of overdosing. Additionally, this approach allows you to detect any negative trends in water parameters early on before they become significant issues.

Keep an eye on your dosing pump’s performance to catch any failures or overdosing incidents promptly. The provided simple and small dosing pump can be upgraded to larger and more advanced models based on your specific needs and water additive choices.

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!