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Top Five Beginner Test Kits

There are several different test kits out there, all of which rely on being able to read varying hues and color tones.  Most affordable saltwater test kits will work, even though they are often difficult to read.

At a bare minimum, you will need to know when the nitrogen cycle is complete on your tank.  That means testing for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. If you are wondering what I’m talking about, click HERE for a video on the nitrogen cycle in marine aquariums.

When considering which test kits to buy, you want to at least start out with the ability to measure ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate.  But, if you plan on getting corals or even heavily stock invertebrates, it is also essential that you test for calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium.

If I were a beginner, here is what I would buy to start out:

  • Either the Red Sea Marine Care Test Kit or the API Saltwater Master Test Kit.
  • If buying corals, I would also buy the Red Sea Reef Foundations Pro.
  • And if you have extra money to spend and want super accurate readings, I would buy the Hanna Instruments Calcium Checker and Hanna Instruments Alkalinity Checker.
  • Lastly, if you plan to make your own saltwater using an RO/DI filter, I would purchase the Refractometer and TDS Meter!

Phew, that’s a lot!  Don’t stress about it.  At least just pick up the API Saltwater Master Test Kit and that will be good enough to get you started!

5. Hanna Instruments Checker Colorimeter (Calcium & Alkalinity) ~ $50

red colorimeter alkalinity test kit with digital display
red colorimeter calcium test kit with digital display

These colorimeters are awesome, and also expensive.  But they take the guesswork out of deciphering results.  Basically they operate just like the other test kits. You collect your sample, add some ingredients, shake it up, and then read the color. 

But where these colorimeters are different is that you don’t have to use your eyes and a cheap plastic sheet to determine the results.  You just pop the vial into the checker and viola, it tells you the results.  

While I love these Checkers, they are not at all essential for a beginner.  They are expensive and you have to buy their reagents.  You can get by with some less expensive test kits to get started, but if you are a techie and just have to have the fancy test kits, then look no more.

4. TDS Meter & Refractometer ~ $15-$20

Most beginners start out by purchasing their saltwater from their local fish store. Nothing wrong with that!

But eventually you may want to purchase your own RO/DI filter and mix it yourself.  Why? Two reasons: 1) you will have absolute control over the water quality and 2) it is easier than lugging five gallon buckets back and forth constantly!

If you do plan on making your own saltwater, be sure to pick up the TDS Meter to make sure your RO/DI filters are working, and the Refractometer to measure the salinity of your saltwater.

3. Salifert Test Kits ~ $18 each

Salifert has been in the hobby for years, and many reefers swear by them.  Each test kit is sold separately, so it is a bit more expensive than #2 on my list. But then again, you can purchase just what you need.

Just like all test kits, reading the results relies on your ability to decipher and match colors to a plastic result sheet.  Not the most accurate method, but good enough to give you a ballpark figure.

I personally do not use Salifert, mainly because I really like the Red Sea Test Kits.  But if I ever need just a single test kit, Salifert would be a good option.

2. API Saltwater Master Test Kit ~ $23

front view of api saltwater test kit in original packaging

This is your basic, inexpensive test kit.  Nothing fancy here, this kit allows you to test for:

  • Ammonia
  • Nitrite
  • Nitrate, &
  • pH.

The test results can be challenging to read, so you won’t be able to zero in on exact readings.  But generally speaking, this test kit will suffice to give you a ballpark figure. And honestly, knowing the exact amount of ammonia or nitrate really isn’t that important. As long as you can distinguish between acceptable and unhealthy levels, that’s all you need.

1. Red Sea Marine Care Test Kit ~ $55

I like these test kits.  They were the first ones I owned, and I still use them to this day.

Let’s start off with the Red Sea Marine Care Test Kit.  The Kit comes with the following:

  • Syringes
  • Plastic Instruction Cards
  • Pipette
  • 3x Measuring Spoons
  • 3x Vials

And it can test for the following:

  • Ammonia
  • Nitrite
  • Nitrate
  • pH
  • Alkalinity

It comes with a solid plastic case and works well.  I really don’t have any complaints and will continue to purchase this kit.

Now let’s chat about the Red Sea Reef Foundation Pro Test Kit.  This kit is great if you plan on keeping corals or large amounts of invertebrates.  LPS & SPS corals, as well as invertebrates need calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium to grow their hard calcium carbonate shells.

The more corals/inverts you have in your tank, the faster these elements will be depleted.  So it is important to know whether or not your weekly water changes are enough, or if you need to start dosing.

The Red Sea Reef Foundation Pro Test Kit tests for calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium, and comes with the following:

  • 2x Vials
  • 10 ml Plastic Syringe
  • Titrator
  • Measuring Spoon
  • 1ml Plastic Syringes w/Plastic Tips
  • Plastic Case

I have found this test kit to be easy to use and quite accurate.  The included titrator makes doing precise measurements easy.

I still use this kit today, but have also upgraded to the Hanna Alkalinity Checker.