How to Setup a $1600 Saltwater Aquarium
-High Tech Build Guide
Updated October 2020
By Maxim B.
This $1600 Saltwater Aquarium High Tech Build guide was created to show you how to setup a beautiful, high tech, and easy saltwater aquarium. In comparison to our Budget Build guides, here the focus is on only high quality saltwater aquarium gear and not cutting any corners. However, we made sure to make this guide as close to plug-and-play as possible so that it is easy for you to setup and maintain your High Tech saltwater aquarium!
Table of Contents
(click on a topic to head directly to that section)
We ordered the list in importance and in the order in which we believe it is best to buy gear.
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High Tech Build Stats:
Size: 20 Gallons (75 Liters)
Approximate Price: $1600
(With optional items: $2100)
Aquarium Dimensions: 18 x 18 x 18 inch (45 x 45 x 45 cm)
Stand Dimensions: 18 x 18 x 34 (45 x 45 x 87 cm)
Care Level: Easy
Placement: Office, kitchen, living room, bedroom
The most defining piece of gear in your saltwater aquarium build is the aquarium itself. To keep this High Tech build guide easy, we chose the Red Sea MAX NANO Rimless Aquarium. If you were initially alarmed by the price, this aquarium comes with almost everything you need included!
The bundle includes the saltwater rimless aquarium, high performance LED light, Auto Top Off (ATO), hidden filtration compartment, skimmer, and the stand! As well, you have the option between a sleek black stand or white stand, to better match you furniture. With all this gear included, you can focus on making the inside of you saltwater aquarium exactly how you want it. Watch this video to help you get familiarized with the aquarium
A cube saltwater aquarium will let you create an aquascape (AKA, rock structure) with depth that makes the aquarium look bigger than it is. As an added bonus, this aquarium is made of extremely clear glass, which has better visibility than normal glass. If you want to learn more about aquascaping, check out this article by Reefbum. The rock structure of your saltwater aquarium is very important as it is where you will attach your corals, and it is key to the looks of your aquarium.
Finally, once you buy and receive the tank, make sure to put it somewhere flat and waterproof (outdoors, balcony, flat bathtub, etc.) and fill it up with tap water. During shipping of aquariums, there is always a chance they will be damaged and you might not even see it. Let the aquarium sit somewhere safe for about 24 hours filled with water, and if it is damaged or leaking, get a replacement!
When it comes to important gear within a saltwater aquarium, the lighting system you have is among the most important! Fortunately, the aquarium bundle already come with a high tech LED light. This is an advanced light, with Wi-Fi control through an app on your phone, and the ability to grow any sort of coral or macro algae you could put in your saltwater aquarium! Thus, you do not need to worry about getting another light, the bundle has it covered.
Filtration and Filter Media
After the aquarium and the lighting, the biggest focus for most saltwater aquarium hobbyists is the filtration and what media to use. Again, this bundle comes with a hidden filtration compartment that is integrated into the aquarium! There are even some filtration media included too. However, we have some filter suggestions to make sure you get the highest quality filtration for this high-tech saltwater aquarium.
And so, without getting scientific, there are three types of filtration that work together to complete the total filtration of your saltwater aquarium. These types of filtration are:
- Mechanical filtration
- Biological filtration
- Chemical filtration
I HIGHLY suggest that you watch the following video for an in-depth explanation on how filtration works, as it would require a whole separate article for me to explain it here.
But, there is good news! This saltwater aquarium already comes with a starter kit of filter media, and has a built in filtration compartment that is nicely tucked into the aquarium.
These kinds of aquariums are called AIO (all-in-one) as the filtration compartment is within the aquarium itself, so you do not need to buy any extra filters! As well, if/when you add gear (such as a heater) you can hide it within this compartment so that it does not clutter up the display portion of your saltwater aquarium!
If you decide that you want to get the highest quality filter media instead of the things that come with the aquarium, we have listed what we think are the best options for the three types of filtration! Also, you will need a filter media bag to put it in, you can buy that here.
RO/DI Water Filter
The RO/DI filter is a water filtration unit that takes your tap water and purifies it to be as close to pure water as possible. It stands for Reverse Osmosis Deionization, and if you would like to understand how it works, read this article. You use this purified water to make your saltwater from a salt mix (we show one later on!)
A RO/DI filter has many benefits for a saltwater aquarium, and is mathematically cheaper in the long run. But, for small and beginner saltwater aquariums, there are other options that can be easier and simpler. You could buy distilled water or already pre-made saltwater from your local fish store. However, for this high-tech system, it will certainly be worth it to get an RO/DI filter!
If you want to go ahead and take the plunge, there is a small and cheap option available, which will work perfectly for this cheap budget build and small saltwater aquarium.
To really get the full benefits of your RO/DI filter, you should also get your own salt-mix. There are a variety of salt-mixes available, and generally they all work well. Some are more basic providing the bare-minimum water parameters for a saltwater aquarium. As well, there are some salt-mixes that are more advanced with elevated levels and even other potential additives!
Since this his a high-tech saltwater aquarium build, we expect you to eventually have a decent load of corals. Thus, we went with a salt-mix that contains elevated water parameters designed for a system with all kind of corals. With this salt, you are getting a head start!
Gravel Vacuum / Siphon
The final aspect of filtration and getting your fresh saltwater into your tank is by literally removing old aquarium water! Water changes are as simple as removing some saltwater and adding fresh saltwater to your aquarium. You can also use the siphon to “vacuum” by sucking up any detritus, which consists of fish waste, leftover food, or other nastiness in your saltwater aquarium. This is amongst the most vital parts of aquarium maintenance.
For this saltwater aquarium, I suggest buying the 5″ medium size. If you get the mini it will drain water too slowly while the large will drain the tank too quickly! This piece of equipment is pretty universal, cheap budget build or expensive build, the only thing that changes is the size.
Heating your saltwater aquarium is a truly simple task. You want a heater that is reliable and heats to the temperature you need. Your saltwater aquarium prefers stability to be happy, so you should not have to mess around with your heaters often.
Most saltwater aquariums house tropical organisms that need a stable temperature between 77-82 degrees Fahrenheit. Unless your house is constantly in that temperature range, you will need a heater to keep you aquarium inhabitants healthy and happy. In the case you do live in a really hot climate, you may need to get a fan to actually cool your aquarium instead!
Based on personal experience, reputation, and cost we recommend the Eheim Jager TruTemp 100 Watt aquarium heater. It is a favorite of many saltwater aquarium hobbyists, and has always remained affordable!
The thing about aquarium heaters is that they all fail eventually, so keep that in mind. It would be a good idea to eventually have two heaters, with the second being a spare for emergencies. All saltwater aquarium hobbyists eventually realize that it is always good to have back up gear!
The thermometers are very important in a saltwater aquarium, because you need to confirm that your heater is keeping your aquarium at the temperature you chose! It is normal for heaters to not be properly calibrated upon delivery, so you need to have a thermometer to re-calibrate, and make sure you have the correct temperature.
We have owned about 10 of these thermometers in the past several years, and they work well for how inexpensive they are. We tested three of these at a time in the same tank, and they were off by no more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit!
This is a 2-pack because again, it is never a bad idea to have an extra thermometer on hand! If you are mixing your own saltwater, you will need an extra thermometer to make sure the temperatures are consistent.
We previously established how important a stable temperature for your saltwater aquarium is. We also know that heating equipment can sometimes fail, no matter how reliable it is, and this type of failure can cause the complete crash of your saltwater aquarium. As well, the smaller the aquarium, the faster the temperature can fluctuate!
For just $35 you can control your aquarium’s temperature to within 0.1° F. This device just monitors your aquarium temperature, and makes sure that your heater does not get stuck in the “on” position, boiling your saltwater.
It actually has the ability to make sure you aquarium gets cooled too! Matt lives in the desert, so in the summer he will run a fan to keep the aquarium cool. Plug the fan into the “cooling” outlet and the heater into the “heating” outlet, and saltwater aquarium stays a constant 78° F all year round.
Plus, this controller has a built in alarm which alerts you if your heater or fan ever fail. Quite amazing for a $35 device.
Every saltwater aquarium hobbyist needs a refractometer. Keeping your saltwater salinity at a stable and constant level is important when keeping corals or animals like shrimp and crab. Unlike fish, invertebrates are much more sensitive to drastic changes in water parameters like salinity. As well, a refractometer is way more accurate than a hydrometer.
It is important to know that a refractometer does need to be calibrated. But, rather than buying an entire bottle of calibration fluid, just go to your LFS (Local Fish Store) and ask to use a few drops of theirs!
Water Test Kit
A basic test kit is a must have tool for a saltwater aquarium hobbyist. It is most useful at the start of your aquarium, so you can test for when the nitrogen cycle is complete.
This test kit is affordable and will give a ballpark reading, which will be good enough for most hobbyists. You can also use this to keep track of your aquarium’s health and to find out the cause of some issues before they manifest in the aquarium itself as algae or bacteria blooms. If you want to go a bit further, you can explore the other test kits available, however they usually must be separately.
Calcium / Alkalinity Test Kit
When you start to add corals and other invertebrates (shrimp, crabs, and snails) to your saltwater aquarium, you need to pay attention to your levels of calcium and alkalinity. This is because your water changes alone will not provide all the proper nutrients and parameters that these organisms need, even with the advanced salt-mix.
Especially, SPS (small polyp stony) and LPS (large polyp stony) corals, need enough calcium and alkalinity to build their skeletons. This kit will let you know the values of the Calcium, Alkalinity, and Magnesium parameters in your saltwater. Thus, you know when you might need to dose extra or when you may have been over-dosing. This is very important, as your aquarium will suffer without proper parameters, even if you are doing everything else correctly.
Following the testing of your saltwater aquarium parameters, you might find that you need to adjust them. Most of the time, you will need to dose to increase the levels of the things that your corals consume as they grow.
There are tons of products and methods for dosing. But, to keep things relatively simple, there is an all-in-one product that should cover most of the needs of your saltwater aquarium. It is highly concentrated, and a mistake that is common amongst new reefers is to overdose. Make sure to follow directions, start at a low dose, test often, and BE CONSISTENT!
Rock is very important in any saltwater aquarium as it provides:
- A place for beneficial bacteria to live
- Hiding spots for your aquarium inhabitants
- A place to attach coral.
To understand the importance of rock in a saltwater aquarium, watch this video. There are many types of rock! You can go for a cheap rock, however we decided to offer this slightly fancier rock because you will not need much of it for this high-tech saltwater aquarium.
This rock has flat bottoms and tops so that it is easy to stack and provides optimal surfaces for coral to grow on. We suggest getting about 10lbs (2 packages) of this rock just so that you have enough.
Sand is not essential by any means. There is even a trend in the saltwater aquarium hobby being a bare bottom tank. That being said, sand completes a genuine aesthetic to make your aquarium really feel like its a slice of the Ocean. As well, sand aids in biological filtration while providing a refuge and food source for certain creatures. This video is good to watch if you want to learn more before you make a decision! There are many types of sand to choose from but we would stick with the CaribSea brand.
An algae scraper is a simple and self-explanatory piece of equipment. Even with a perfect maintenance routine for your saltwater aquarium, algae will grow on your aquarium glass. The cheap scraper is the easiest way to remove the algae without getting your arms wet and messy! As well, when you siphon out the algae you scrape off, you are aiding the filtration of your saltwater aquarium.
In this high-tech saltwater aquarium build we suggest getting both the common hand-held Flipper scraper along with the Flipper magnetic algae scraper. In our opinion, both of these options are very useful in various situations!
Every saltwater aquarium hobbyist needs a net, and they cost almost nothing! A net is just one of those tools that you always want to have.
Along with being good for catching and transferring fish, you can also use it when thawing frozen food to help get rid of any fillers or phosphates!
This is a piece of gear that you potentially already own, but if you have not realized it already, you will need a power strip to accommodate all the gear of your saltwater aquarium. This is not somewhere you want to be cheap, as the dangers of electrical accidents or fires should not be taken lightly. At best, your gear will turn off and your animals may get harmed. At worst, your gear will be destroyed and a fire might start!
We suggest getting this surge protector/power strip because it also has the ability to turn off individual pieces of gear without having to unplug them. This is very useful for saltwater changes, when it is recommended to turn off the heater so it does not get exposed to air while on and damaged.
A powerhead, sometimes also referred to as a wavemaker, (although the two are different pieces of gear) is something you may get away with not having in an aquarium of this size. Simply put, powerheads and wavemakers are used to provide water movement (flow) beyond that of the filtration’s return. Good flow provides many benefits to your saltwater aquarium, check out this video to learn more!
In a saltwater aquarium this size, we suggest a pump between 200-500 gallons-per-hour, and this is a cheap option perfect for you.
Our saltwater aquariums actually have a ton of residents, even when they look empty. This is because there are tons of microscopic organisms living in the sand, rocks, and water itself. Despite their small size, the composition of the microbial community in your saltwater aquarium will decide whether or not you have a healthy and beautiful tank. The most notable example of this is biological filtration!
Thus, we won’t be diving into the multitude of other uses and benefits of bacteria supplementation. Instead, we will focus here on buying bacteria specifically to help cycle your saltwater aquarium and maintain that balance in the future. Here is also a quick video that helps explain this further! In short, these products will make your aquarium ready and healthy faster, and ensure its long term success.
External ATO (Auto Top Off)
While this saltwater aquarium bundle contains a small, built in Auto Top Off (ATO), some people may want to get an external ATO system with an external ATO water container. The main reason for this is that it will allow you to leave your tank fully unattended for much longer.
If you wanted to go on a vacation for a week or two, all you would need to do is have a larger external ATO and a automatic feeder. This way, your aquarium will stay running and your fish will stay fed. As well, most saltwater aquarium hobbyists only do water changes once every one or two weeks, so with this setup you could massively reduce the amount of maintenance you need to do.
Following the automation of your water top offs and feeding, some saltwater aquarium hobbyists will automate their dosing as well by using a dosing pump. This requires a bit more thought, however, because you will need to calculate the amount of elements being used up by corals daily, and set your dosing pump up accordingly. On top of that, you will want to test your water more often because the amount you dose will change as your system grows.
There are other benefits beyond the automation! Stability in a saltwater aquarium is key, and by dosing smaller amount daily, you are more likely to achieve that compared to more infrequent dosing by hand. Also, you are less likely to overdose with these small amounts, and you can catch negative trends in your water parameters before they become a huge issue.
Still, be vigilant as dosing pump failures can happen and you want to make sure you catch when your dosing pump stops working, or has massively been overdosing. We provided a simple and small dosing pump, but if you change up the water additives you use, you can always get larger and more advanced pumps!
Coral Dips and Foods
If you did not know yet, corals are actually animals with photosynthetic organisms that live within them and give them their colors! Thus, they need food to grow really healthy and display for you their best coloration. At the same time, they also have the risk of coming in with parasites or other unwanted hitchhikers that may harm you saltwater aquarium and its inhabitants.
It is a good idea to look into getting a coral dip, which helps remove these pests before you add the coral into your aquarium. As well, consider getting some coral food to occasionally feed your corals. There are even some corals that are “non-photosynthetic” meaning they do not need any light to survive, but live off a good amount of feeding!
Perhaps a bit more obvious is that your fish will need food. There are also many varieties of saltwater aquarium fish foods, so it is better for you to choose your food based off what fish you will have. We have provided the link to the fish food page below!
This is the end of how to build a $1600 saltwater aquarium budget build guide! We provided you all the necessary items in order of importance, and even some optional items that would improve your saltwater hobby experience. We hope that you found this article helpful and informative, and if you decide to buy anything, please use our provided links! This costs you nothing extra, but helps us keep working, supporting you, and making great content. Feel free to look around the website or YouTube channel if you have any questions about the hobby!