$1,500 High Budget Build

Updated 2024

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: 35.4″ L x 19.7″ W x 13″ H

Stand Dimensions: 35.43″ x 19.7″ x 35.75″

Aquarium

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

Light

New lights released in 2023, the AquaIllumination Blades have taken off.  They come in a lot of different sizes and in four color configurations.  The best general all around is the Blade Grow.  A mix of blues and whites, specifically designed for coral growth

What’s really handy about the Blade light, is it doesn’t need a mount because it comes with detachable feet that it directly on the rim of your tank.

For this IM 40 gallon tank, the 30″ Blade is the right size, and one will work just fine.  I’ve been using one on my 15 gallon HelloReef tank and it has been so good for my anemones!

Filtration and Filter Media

Now that we’ve moved up into a larger 40 gallon tank, there are naturally going to be more options since the rear filtration chamber is larger.  Not only that, but you will have the option of using the included acrylic caddy to add various forms of media.

If I was getting this tank, I would get a few things.  First, I would pick up this six pack of extra filter socks.  You should be changing out your socks every 3-4 days, and nobody wants to wash them all the time!

Now that you have plenty of the extra midsize IM filter socks, I would pick up a media bag and some activated carbon.  I’ve gotten in the habit of running a small amount of carbon in my tank at all times, primarily to keep the water crystal clear and to absorb any chemicals created with biological warfare between corals or anemones. Don’t overdo it of course, maybe do 1/2 to 3/4 dose and change it out once a week.  I love the 0.8 ROX carbon, but you don’t need to splurge here!

For the media bag, the small 4″ x 8″ will likely work fine, but there is no harm in getting the medium 4″ x 14″ as well.

RO/DI Water Filter

The RO/DI filter is a water filtration unit that transforms tap water into nearly pure water through the process of Reverse Osmosis Deionization. 

While some online hobbyists might emphasize the necessity of an RO/DI filter for any saltwater aquarium, this claim isn’t entirely accurate. Although it offers long-term cost benefits and advantages, there are other simpler options for small and beginner saltwater aquariums.

One option is purchasing pre-made saltwater and purified water from your local fish store. Alternatively, you can use filtered water from a grocery store.

Over the course of a year, a $300 RODI filter will save you hundreds of dollars, so while it may seem a bit steep of a price to pay up front, it pays for itself rather quickly.

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.

I personall love Tropic Marin Pro Reef Salt.  I use it in all of my tanks at home actually.  It mixes clean and stores long term really well.  And I actually like that it has a lower alkalinity because that means I can dose kalkwasser with no problems thus keeping my pH much higher in the hot desert summers!

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.

For this specific aquarium, I’d recommend the 2″ medium size.  The 1″ clogs too quickly for my liking. 

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!

Eheim Jager 100W Heater

Thermometer

We don’t need anything fancy here, just something that is easy to look at everyday and that keeps an accurate temperature.  The BRS Stick-On Thermometer just does that, and is about as inexpensive as they come.  I like to place my stick on thermometers near the rear side of the tank so I can easily check it everyday, but don’t have to stare at it!

A small stick on aquarium heater in cardboard packaging.

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.

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

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

CaribSea offers a distinctive selection of Life Rock Shapes, boasting intricate forms that are sustainably crafted and not harvested from real reefs. What’s more, their surfaces are adorned with a coralline algae-like hue, instantly providing your tank with the appearance of a thriving reef ecosystem.

Live Rock holds significance for various reasons: it creates a habitat for beneficial bacteria to thrive, serves as hiding spots for your aquatic inhabitants, provides ideal surfaces for coral placement, and effectively prevents your tank from appearing barren.

Considering the scale of this build, the 40 lb box might suffice, but it wouldn’t be surprising if you end up adding an extra 20 pounds for an even more stunning setup!

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 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

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

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.

Powerhead/Wavemaker

Once you get to the 40 gallon size tank, you will likely need a wavemaker if you want to keep coral.  This AI Nero 3 is a great DC pump, controllable, and quiet.  Probably just the right size for this 40 gallon long build.  Plus the low profile means it will blend into the background so you aren’t staring at a pump!

close up product shot of aquaillumination nero wavemaker. It has a black case body, and green propellers. It's on a white background, with swirling water around it to simulate water movement

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, aka auto top off system.  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.  I currently use this Tunze Osmolator Nano on one of my tanks and love it.  I just have a five gallon bucket underneath the tank as the reservoir.

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.

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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