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

Top Five Beginner Test Kits

Updated 2024

There are various test kits available, all relying on reading different hues and color tones. While many affordable saltwater test kits may be challenging to read, they should generally work. To begin with, it is crucial to know when the nitrogen cycle is complete in your tank, which involves testing for ammonia and nitrite.

When selecting test kits to purchase, it is recommended to start with ones that can measure ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. However, if you plan to keep corals or heavily stocked invertebrates, testing for calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium becomes essential.

Although the options may seem overwhelming, do not stress about it. At the very least, getting the API Saltwater Master Test Kit will be sufficient to get you started on the right track!

Rather than walk you through all of the options, below you will find the test kits that I use.  I like them, you’ll like them, so why not just get these! 

1. Refractometer

The exterior grey plastic case for a saltwater aquarium refractometer and a small bottle of calibration fluid sitting next to it.

This is the exact refractometer I use.  Super affordable, this BRS version comes with a bottle of calibration fluid, so you know you are measuring correctly.  The only trick with these is you want to make sure that, if you are testing cold seawater, that you wait until it warms to room temperature.  Refractometers are sensitive to temperature.

2. Hanna Alkalinity Checker

This is the easiest, most accurate, and best way to test for alkalinity.  For those true beginners out there, there is a direct link between alkalinity and calcium levels. And while alkalinity is super easy and fast to test for, testing for calcium is tedious and annoying.  So, most seasoned hobbyists probably don’t test for calcium all the time.  Rather they test for alkalinity and infer what their calcium level is.

Despite the high(ish) upfront cost, the reagent packs are affordable and this is just so easy.  It’s a pleasure to use.

3. Hanna High Range Nitrate Checker

Product shot of oval shaped purple Hanna Nitrate HR Checker on white background. LED screen in the center reads 15.0

So Hanna did something really strange here.  Several years ago they at long last released a Nitrate Checker.  I got my hands on one, and released a video on it.  It was the worst thing I have ever used.  It was so complicated and at best took 15 minutes.  Turns out, it was their low range checker.  Several months later they released this one, the high range checker, and it was amazing.  Why did they release the low range checker first? I have no idea, but I think it was a mistake.

Now this is the high range checker, which is still way more accurate than most hobbyists need.  One reagent is all you need.  I love this thing, and it’s all I ever use to test nitrate.

4. Salifert Calcium Test Kit

Just in case you were starting to think I’m just a Hanna fanboy, that’s not entirely true.  When it comes to testing calcium, I really don’t like the Hanna Checker.  It just seems to struggle with accuracy and is too complicated.  This Salifert test kit is simple and works well.  And it’s a great price.  To be honest I don’t test for calcium very much, but every month or so I’ll crank this out just to make sure things are okay.

5. AutoAqua Smart Stir Magnetic Stirrer

I own two of these, and I feel like an idiot that I didn’t get them sooner.  There I was shaking vials for two minutes straight every time I needed to test something.  Now this does it for me.  It fits all of the test kits on this list, including the Hanna Checkers and Salifert kits.  A small rechargeable battery charges quickly and last for many, many tests.  

6. API Saltwater Master Test Kit

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

I own other ammonia test kits, including the Hanna Checker, but I often still use this.  I don’t use all of the test kits available here, but I do use the ammonia and nitrite.  They are not the most accurate, but plenty accurate for determining the end of the cycle in your aquarium.

You get a lot of tests here for the price.  This kit also tests for nitrate and pH, so it’s a great all around kit.  Sometimes the vials leak a bit when you are shaking them, but it’s not deal breaker.  You could buy the API ammonia and nitrite test kits separately, but I think they cost as much if not more combined than this kit.

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